A SUCCESSFUL MUSIC INDUSTRY PANEL DISCUSSION – SERIOUSLY!

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the music industry has been subjected to (or participated in) an inordinate number of pointless panel discussions. A lot of my jaundiced view stems from the experience that the people who populate panels are doing so more for the prestige and notoriety of proselytizing to the converted than actually saying anything meaningful. Let’s get real: anyone who knows anything about how to get ahead in this business is not about to reveal it to a room full of competitors. Actually, while the panels are going on, the real business is being carried out in the adjacent hallways, or at lunch, or in the hotel lobby bar. Enough said about that.

But after all these years of spending time on both sides of the dais, I recently witnessed a panel situation that actually worked! In reality, I was more than a witness; I was one of the panelists, although that certainly wasn’t the reason it worked. Never in my experience have I been involved in anything so well planned, so well produced, so well done. It was put together by the organizers of the House of Blues Music Forward Foundation’s Bringing Down The House program. It was held earlier last month, not just here in LA at the Live Nation studios in Hollywood, but also Skyped to House of Blues clubs in seven other US cities where similar events were being held. Bringing Down The House is a national program sponsored by the HOB Foundation where local high school-aged artists and bands compete for the chance to perform on stage at their local House of Blues in a special evening performance. This year, they decided to take it one giant step further and incorporate a series of Saturday morning educational panel discussions covering virtually every aspect of pursuing music as a career.

My panel’s subject matter covered everything from songwriting to home studios to label A&R to performing rights organizations, for which real experts had been invited. Then there were the “kitchen sink” topics, which had apparently been left for me to address. The questions came fast and furious from a panel moderator, but the best stuff came from the high schoolers themselves, not only in the LA studio but also from kids in each of the participating cities in a kind of Face Time, real-time, large-screen situation. How refreshing to find a crowd of young, talented musicians and performers who seemed to be soaking up everything we had to say. A rare audience indeed. Read on!

HOB post panel shot

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A BELATED TRIBUTE TO THE RADIO PROMOTION PERSON – SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT!

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

You may not be familiar with a rather obscure Rolling Stones’ song “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”. It was the American B-side of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in mid-1965 and also appeared on the Out Of Our Heads LP. Before you read on, if you haven’t heard it, take three minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IImmRrFBz4   (Ignore the vain attempt by the YouTube poster at synching other footage to the song.)***

The target of the song was the promotion rep for London Records on the West Coast in the mid-60s – one George Sherlock. In addition to getting the band’s records played on the radio, Sherlock traveled with the band to set up tour promotions. Apparently Sherlock was from a different time and culture than the Stones (shocker), and so the band was put off by his demeanor. They subsequently wrote and recorded this song about the experience. From all reports, though, the Stones eventually warmed to Sherlock and didn’t mind having him around.

Although the song is an indictment of the quintessential radio promo guy of the era, there is a line of truth in the song: “I’m a necessary talent behind every rock and roll band.”  Exactly. Records don’t just get played on the radio out of the blue. Someone has to bring it in the door and get it heard. Someone has to have, to quote Artie Fufkin from Polymer Records, a “relationship” with the programmer. (Ed. note: Spinal Tap is funny because it’s all true.) You can’t just walk in to a station and expect to get an audience with a radio programmer. Not going to happen. It takes a seasoned, experienced, professional radio promotion person to get a record played on the radio. There is no other way. None. Period.

Radio promotion is a sales job except that you’re not selling a tangible item – like shoes or cars or real estate – you’re selling an emotion, a feeling, a song and a sound – trying to convince a radio programmer that the song will make an audience feel so good that they’ll keep listening to the station just to see if whatever comes on next makes them feel that way again, over and over, day and night, 24/7/365.

But you have to remember that radio programmers are not really in the music businessthey’re in the music using business; that is, they utilize music to sell airtime to advertisers who want to sell something to a certain segment of the population, not unlike how TV and film use music to enhance a certain scene. So even though radio promotion people are trying to sell the relative value of one record over another to a radio programmer, it’s really the radio audience that needs to be sold to, thereby making the job even harder – convincing a programmer that despite his or her taste, it’s all about what the audience wants to hear.

So who are these radio promotion people and why do they do whatever it is that they do? I’m not sure. On the surface, it would seem like a real cool gig. Working as an important cog in the music business wheel, taking people out to lunch and dinner on an expense account, going to shows, hanging with the bands, and, from the Stones’ description, driving Corvettes and wearing seersucker suits. But much like the tour manager job described in last month’s blog, there is also a downside. Continue reading…

A TRIBUTE TO THE ROAD MANAGER – PRAISE AND A PRAYER

“I have no use for bodyguards; I use two highly trained certified public accountants instead.” – Elvis Presley

When Elvis Presley’s fiancée Ginger Alden found him unconscious in the Graceland upstairs bathroom at 2:00 pm on August 16, 1977, she called to Joe Esposito, Elvis’s longtime road manager. Joe immediately ran upstairs, surveyed the situation, and went right to work. He called for an ambulance from the bathroom phone and he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, but to no avail. However, by the time the paramedics arrived, the bathroom and the adjacent sitting room had been cleaned up, as well as the vomit from the shag carpet in the bathroom. Anyone who has ever done the road manager gig for any length of time knows exactly what to do in these kinds of circumstances.

This month’s dictum is a shout out, a testimonial, some observations, a couple of pratfalls and a warning to the unsung hero of the touring business – the road manager. These men and women are also known as tour managers, the distinction being that on larger tours, the tour manager oversees everything and the road manager takes care of the artist(s). On mid-level to small tours, the road manager does everything. Everything.

At first glance, this road manager gig would seem to be the best job in the music business. It’s a total power trip for a control freak. Everything must be done the way you want it to be done. If you say the show is off, it’s off. If you say everyone must be in the van by 8am, that’s what everyone does. One does not question the road manager. He or she rules. Except that’s not always how it works. There’s also a downside.

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WHAT STEPS ARTISTS NEED TO TAKE BEFORE THEY GO TO RADIO

“Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox!” – James Taylor

 OK, so, you’ve raised enough money from your friends, family and (let’s hope) fans to record that set of songs in the way you’ve always wanted them to sound and now it’s time to share your creative output with the world. And what better way to do that than through the time-tested path of radio. And, indeed, there is no better way for your music to become one with the masses than through the repeated plays of radio. And it’s free!

No, actually radio is not free. But even if it were, there are numerous steps that you first need to take along the yellow brick road to reach the radio stations of Oz. You’d better sit down.

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RADIO STATION LOUNGES & THE ART OF LIVE AND ACOUSTIC

“If you can’t deliver your song with just an acoustic guitar and one mic under one white light bulb dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, then you’re not a performer and it’s not a song.” – David Lee Roth

As an erstwhile bar band musician and singer in my younger days, I am always impressed when artists strip away the electronics and superfluous support system and perform their songs in the simplest form, in much the same way as Diamond Dave describes above. It lays bare the basics of the composition and the artist’s talents. I believe that it is only under these circumstances that songs and performers can be evaluated for craftsmanship and aesthetics. This is where it all comes down to the song (melody, lyrics and chords) and the performance (talent, craft, experience, artistry, style, dynamics and emotion).

Taking it down even further to its granular form, it all depends on the delivery. Two very able but different artists can deliver the same song under the same performance restrictions and the outcome will usually be decidedly different – not necessarily one good or one bad – but different. Lots of times it’s something that you can’t quite put your finger on; however, I find that the difference is usually in the emotion of the delivery. I’m not talking about histrionics or screaming or any outward visible signs of emotion (although such things can add to the effect); I’m referring to the indescribable but undeniable emotional timbre from within that connects the performer and the song to the audience and makes it all work.

That emotional something can’t be dissected or made into a list of checkpoints, and so, as a result, it can’t be taught. Playing an instrument, singing on key and various effective vocal inflections can be learned in school and mastered by anyone who has the patience and determination to practice, practice, practice. But there is no guidebook to emotional delivery and/or subsequent connection to an audience. The only thing I’ve found among those who have it and those who don’t, is that the former has spent quite a deal of time performing live in front of an audience and the latter hasn’t. Only experience can teach how to perform live and acoustic effectively and successfully.

These days, other than in small singer/songwriter clubs and coffeehouses, it’s difficult to experience those basics-only performances. Those who do play these venues are generally at the beginning point of their careers and haven’t yet mastered the qualities it takes to bring it all home. In fact, the only place I’m finding to weed out the wheat from the chaff is by listening to (and observing, if possible) live, in-studio radio station broadcasts, more popularly called “Lounges”. The beauty of the in-studio radio station broadcasts, or lounges, is that their logistics generally demand a low-tech performance. Small rooms, limited mics and inputs, and the difficulty in obtaining or hauling in massive amounts of gear all lend themselves to the kind of revealing standard that I prefer. Continue reading…

ART VS. COMMERCE: WHEN ROCK STARS MEET RADIO PROGRAMMERS

“The industry is both the enemy and the best friend of the artist. Trouble is, they need each other.” – Chrissie Hynde

 

Is there anything more uncomfortable or awkward than an artist meeting a radio programmer (as exemplified by the photo above with Bono and The Edge at KTIM-FM in San Rafael CA in 1981)? In the world of music marketing and promotion, it’s an essential piece of the puzzle that is intended to lead to airplay. It’s the artist bearing his or her wares to the marketplace by way of a pitch, a smile, a kind word, a thank you – some sort of person-to-person exchange of pleasantries. It gives meaning to the music and the musician, way beyond anything that a cold, faceless, piece of plastic (or WAV file) can summon up.

No matter how many fans, FB friends, record sales or website hits they have, musical artists (and the industry behind them) still need radio, one station at a time, to make it into the ears and the minds of the general public. Nothing has changed in that respect.

The Internet has not replaced the valuable face time between artist and radio programmer.

This strange bedfellow thing is not a recent development. Sinatra reportedly hung out in radio station studios with all-night deejays hawking his latest releases.  Murray The K deemed himself the “Fifth Beatle” when he befriended the quartet upon their first visit to New York and played their records non-stop and back to back on Top 40 powerhouse WINS. I myself spent 20+ years at Warner/Reprise hauling singers and bands into radio stations and backstage meet and greets – almost 5,000 such events by my count – so I know a thing or two about the execution, dynamics and purpose of this ancient rite. Continue reading…

A BOOMER’S TEN CONCERT RULES FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM

“People today are still living off the table scraps of the sixties.” – Bob Dylan

 

Ah, once again, a toast to the good old days of Baby Boomer music – back in the previous millennium when artists only had to churn out two great and ten good rock or pop songs and then their record company would handily foist those songs, 12 at a time, onto the waiting general public sponge through an all-too-willing radio station arrangement and a voluminous 9am-midnight record store.

That was the machinery that then allowed the artist to tour, virtually at will, to play all sorts of dumps and dives (and later the lawn seating general admission heat fests) at any time of the year that they so chose. Everyone had to put up with the long lines, the late sets, the uncomfortable (if available) seating, the bad food, watered down drinks, dark and scary distant parking – because we loved the music and we were all in it together. We needed to see and hear our favorite artists, live and in person, and we would go to any lengths to get there. It was a red badge of courage to detail to friends, family and co-workers the ordeal one had to go through to get tickets, fight the crowds, and stand for hours on end to catch the show. After all, the artist wouldn’t be back in town for at least another year or so, depending on how long it took to write and record the next album, which we were already craving. Continue reading…

HOW TO GET ALL THE CRED OF SXSW WITHOUT THE TIME AND EXPENSE

“Music is spiritual. The music business is not. – Van Morrison

It’s almost that time again – that time of year when every band and singer worth their salt makes that annual pilgrimage to Mecca (Austin) for the week-long SXSW festival. A week of no sleep, watered-down drinks, bad food, unrewarding performances and the heartbreak of the ultimate realization that it wasn’t really worth it. Never have so many spent so much time and money for so little notoriety and reward. 

So, here you are, another year goes by and, once again, you still can’t afford to go and you can’t afford to not go. What the hell are you going to do? Simple: Don’t go….and just say you did.

“WHAT?” you’re probably asking yourself right now. “What kind of fool would give out this sort of advice and what kind of fool would take it?” Hear me out.

Now I’m sure that you think that you might be missing out on something and that you were at least hoping to network and snare some sort of deal. After all, this could be the year! This could be your big break! This could be your time! Or not.

But you CAN still get the promised SXSW payoff even if you don’t actually go! It’s really quite simple. Just follow these six steps:
Step 1)   Two weeks before SXSW: Announce to all your friends and post to all your fans that you’ll be playing multiple cool, hip private parties every night at SXSW. Let them know that most of the parties haven’t been announced yet and you can only get in by special invitation but that you’re going to work on getting a guest list for your friends and fans. Whenever anyone calls or texts or emails, don’t respond right away. Then later apologize, but remind them how busy you are setting up your shows at SXSW.

Step 2)   One week before SXSW: Remind everyone of your trip but that you don’t know where you’ll be staying yet because everything is booked up, but that you’ll try to keep in touch with them on FB or Twitter but to not expect you to be able to answer calls, emails or texts, because everybody knows that since all 20,000 people (maybe it’s 200,000, I don’t know) will be sucking up all the bandwidth in town, it’s going to be hard to get messages back and forth. So tell them to just keep checking the SXSW website, or some such silliness.

Step 3)   Three days before SXSW: Announce that you’re leaving for Austin and that you’re hoping to take advantage of some pickup gigs along the way, hard to say where or when.

Step 4)   Then: You pack up your gear and head out of town to some place where no one knows you. Check into a cheap motel and shut off your phone and your laptop/tablet. Relax. Read. Write a new song or two. Catch up on your sleep. Occasionally you should send out a tweet or FB post about what a wonderful time you’re having and how great you sound, blah, blah, blah. Tip: shut off your GPS location tracking, just in case.

Step 5)   The day after SXSW is over: Turn on your phone again and let everyone know you’re heading home after a very successful trip to Austin. You played to full houses, got drunk with all your idols and made a lot of contacts with some very important people. You even wrote some songs in someone’s van.

Step 6)   Once you get home: Send emails or texts or call every important person that you know was at SXSW and tell them it was so cool to meet them and how much you appreciated the nice things they said about your music and you’re following up on their offer to get together for some lunch to discuss how you guys might work together in the future and that this time, you’ll buy!

Whoever gets your message will have little to no memory of SXSW anyway, since it’s really just an excuse for the industry dweebs to get away from their miserable existences and drink and get high for a week. And since there are over 2,000 performances (I really don’t know how many; maybe it’s 20,000), there’s no way in hell that they can say that they never met you there. They may be a little embarrassed and apologize but you assure them that you meant everything you said and that you’re a person of your word and your word is your bond, etc. – whatever it is you need to say to make sure that they meet with you anyway.

Unless they, too, have read this post and never went at all. But then, they couldn’t admit that, could they?

BTW: This same routine works well for CMJ but not so much for the more limited single-venue events such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza – too easy to get caught and, besides, those are way more fun. You should actually go. Have fun.

(Editors note: You may be thinking that this plan is not foolproof (and I agree) and that only a fool would try this stunt. Foolish? Or just foolhardy?  The former implies not noticing risk; the latter, continuing despite it.  Admittedly, it would take someone with a lot of swagger and confidence, plus the ability and desire to pull one over on unsuspecting industry-types. Not only pushing the envelope, but breaking out of it altogether. Do it.)

BTW – I’ve seen it done and it can work.

“I think that the rock ‘n’ roll myth of living on the edge is just a pile of crap.” – Robert Smith