Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dinosaurs Will Die.

I had a phone call yesterday with a young man who is in a band. He called to ask me for some advice. I was very flattered that he cared what my opinion was and wasn't surprised the question he asked was the same question that I asked when I was 19 and in a band:

"We work really hard, we're good to our fans, we play well live and I feel like we're so close (to getting signed) but all these bands we know are getting signed. What are we doing wrong?"

My answer? Nothing.

No, I didn't just hang up the phone. My answer was that they are doing nothing wrong. It's just the way it is. Like all the arts, music is judged on a person to person basis. I sure don't like every band out there right now. I actually think that many of the bands are cookie cutter versions of other bands that look, acts, dress and sound just like them. It's like making a copy of a copy. Eventually the image becomes distorted and unrecognizable. Over the last decade popular music has become so watered down that the old "three note, three chord, three word hook" formula has been reduced to "one note, one chord, three words." Don't believe me? Listen to "Let It Rock" by Kevin Rudolf. Catchy? Sure. Boring? You bet.

Now, some of you cynics like myself will say "The Beatles did the same thing, ya jerk! "Love Me Do" "She Loves You". What about those??"

I have to admit you have a point. It's not just in the last decade where this trend happened. How about all the grunge bands in the early 90's? If any of you are old enough to remember the 80's "hair metal" era, Faster Pussycat and Winger were just as shitty as any shitty band today...probably shittier. There was shitty music in every decade and every era. True story!! If there was no "bad" how could there be anything "good"? I think if Mozart didn't have composers like Moriarty to be compared to his genius may never have been fully realized (and if you haven't seen the movie AMADEUS yet, you owe it to yourself to watch it).

But back on topic. The one thing I have realized about the music industry is that I thought it was bad when I signed to a indie label in 1996. I had no clue how bad it would become a decade and a half later. This scenario sound familiar to anyone?:

A bunch of hacks (the label) tell a bunch of lies to a group of kids with stars in their eyes (the band). They'll ask the band to co-write (because YOU can't POSSIBLY write a hit song! You have to learn HOW to write a shitty song from other people who have written many, many shitty songs), ask to sell minimum 1/3 of your merchandise rights, sell minimum 50% of your publishing (both of which are in perpetuity, which is just a big word for FOREVER). Your "people" (managers who take 15% to 20% of YOUR money, sit in an office all day, go home every night, sleep in their beds and, in many cases, have never been on the road more than a few days) tell you to do it while you are sleeping 7 guys to one hotel room, broke as fuck, playing in front of 15 kids a night hoping that you might get just that one opportunity.

Remember kids - music is opinion based. Ever wonder how many people at the label tell you you're music is great and actually can't stand it? More than you think. Do your managers and agents really care about you and your career? Sure they do...until you stop making them money. Then they don't seem to care as much. I've even heard of management companies that won't work with an artist unless they sign all their merch and publishing over to the company. That is just fucking gross. Thieves.

"SUBMIT AND ASSIMILATE so the label has MORE of an interest and, there for, will work HARDER because they have more invested in the artist."

In a perfect world, the above statement would be true. But shouldn't they work hard regardless? Don't they have a vested interest just by signing you? At a 90% failure rate on albums released (this is overall; it varies label to label) you may wonder how ridiculously in debt are these labels? I had a guy that worked for a reputable label of a band I managed ask me to ask the band's PARENTS for a loan to pay for CD's!! CD's, mind you, that are not only a dead format, cost no more than $2.00 each to manufacture and that they sell to you at the bargain basement price of $7.25 per CD. Sound like a ridiculous request? I thought so too.

The question is after reading all that how bad do you really want to get signed now? REMEMBER - ARTISTS DON'T NEED LABELS TO SUCCEED, BUT LABELS NEED ARTISTS TO SURVIVE.

I have been part of the problem, for sure. I won't sit here and deny that I have done things that I am not proud of in order to try to achieve success. I don't think anyone who is in the music industry can honestly sit there and say that they did everything honorably and righteously. If they do, they are the biggest liars on the planet and are most likely A&R guys.

I am, however, a firm believer in the progression of music and when something is done with heart and with good intentions, it will rise to the top and stand out. That's how it has always been. Even if it doesn't sell multi million copies, these kind of records and the artists that create them will most likely influence others to create and follow their own path. The fact that my band mates and I have influenced even one person is humbling to me. I started writing and playing music as therapy. My therapy has become my profession and I am grateful for it.

To all artists out there some words of advice, if I may. You can't fix the world in a day. You can't control what others think. HOWEVER, you CAN control what you sing and say and THAT is the most important thing. Because no marketing plan or t-shirt design in the world will make a shitty record sound good. SAY SOMETHING. There are other things to write about beside girls. And if you're following a trend remember - they ALL end. There used to be hundreds of active, touring ska bands back in the 90's. The trend ended. Then they became swing bands. Then emo bands. Now most of them work at Arby's. Sad, but true.

Is the passion truly gone? I hope not. Stand up and be heard. But hey...what do I know? I'm just a saxophone player. Real musicians play guitar, right?


  1. Great insight and truly inspiring. Thanks JR. :)

  2. As an A&R guy and artist manager, I do agree with many of your points. However, I do not believe all managers and A&R guys are there to rip off an artist and take away all credibility. I'm a former 'artist' and I have been managing a band that actually owes me money, not the other way around. They've signed, yes.. and they do well in merch. I do not believe in the old school rules in which I'm supposed to take 15% or even 20% of their touring/merch/publishing. I flex my percentages and will negotiate until the band is happy.

    I've slept in vans, hotels, but never a bus. I never had the luxury to tour in a bus and get a large per diem. Touring for years in those conditions gives you a taste of failure and that is something I will never experience again.

    Much of the industry give guys like me a bad name. I will gladly stand up and say there is hope and some good people do exist.

    Good blog, very well written.

  3. thank you anonymous. and you very are correct. not all managers, agents, A&R, etc. are bad people. there are some who do it for the love of music. but why not publish your name? or are you scared you might get called out? just wondering...

  4. Yeah man i couldn t have said it myself, i remember 5 years ago when you told me the same thing

    fact of a matter is that ''we'll keep doing what we do wheter or not a single record is sold ...'' - Tomas k.

    hey artist keep on playing , take the mic and say something smart and play something real, you probably won't get anything else out of it than doing what you love and, regardless the number of people, will affect people around you


    Thx jr for your opinion


  5. I love this article! Thanx jr, I feel like this is just what I needed to read. Even though Iam no where near as far as other kids may have gone, this is deff inspirational for someone like me...wondering how my art will have an effect on others and where that may or may not go. Just one person being inspired, is enough for me also. ;) -becca

  6. JR - I've been at RCA for a short 1.5 years. I was "Anonymous". I agree that a lot of bands do nothing wrong. I was in a band that worked very hard, but in reality our songs weren't all that good. I look back on it and realize I could have done many things different. It's enlightening to be at a label. However, I AM surprised at some bands that DO get signed. I know many of them are doomed.

    A&R don't control product managers, radio, etc.. BUT, it is their job to have solid relationships with all of them and get them excited about a project. Signing something YOU love and everyone else dislikes is destined for failure. No one will work for something they don't believe in. It's a shame but reality.

    - Dave

  7. Dave Carlson, thanks for being honest. And I spent 7 years in a van eating shit before i got on a bus, so I know your pain. Keep signing stuff you love.

  8. This is probably on of the most insightful blogs I've read in a long time. I wish I had the opportunity to pick your brain more on the subject.