MISGUIDED BUT INTERESTING ADVENTURES ON THE MUSIC SIDE
MISGUIDED BUT INTERESTING ADVENTURES ON THE MUSIC SIDE
XM Adds Nearly 1.7 Million New Subscribers in 2006 for Total of More Than 7.6 Million Subscribers, Achieves Positive Cash Flow From Operations During Fourth Quarter 2006. That is good news. Having been here 9 years, it’s clearly a milestone!
…and now to a completely different subject
It’s easy to complain about the Music business, just as it’s easy to complain about the state of radio, but back in the 70’s and 80’s I had a fling with music and quickly discovered that even in those heady days, it is an absurdly complicated business fueled by politics, greed, muscle and the sexiness of stardom as well as vegetarian passion and purity. By the late 70’s I was getting a little restless with radio, or at least the repetition of what I was involved with. It was still home, but facilitated by the hundreds of stations we worked with, it was relatively easy to get in the musical door and dabble.
That was the problem: Dabbling. You can’t dabble in a business that complicated. I learned that to do it right, or at least have a shot at it, you needed to go balls to the wall into the arena. I couldn’t do that. I already had a day job. As a result it was more of a hobby than a career change and it never really flourished. But the learning experience and at times fun of it was shockingly memorable. An education that was eye opening and personally gave me some depth into the realities of an allied business to radio, one that is in many ways similar (music driven, trend driven and has way too many lawyers--who often become stars in the own right).
But the over-riding thing was that the dabbling, as mis-guided as some of it was, was an education that anyone involved in music programming would massively benefit from. I saw first hand how it worked...REALLY worked. Certainly in the business side, but more importantly the artist side. The creation side. Stuff you have to experience or else you'll never really get it. Most guys in radio see the dinners, the promotion and the meet and greet. Man that is NOT the reality. I was blessed (?) with the opportunity to live IN the trenches with artists of all calibers from emerging to eccentric to stadium filler and beyond--but not as a radio guy as much as in the inner circle. In the club. The tales are a book. The characters, the insanity, the in fighting, the evil, the magic--all came alive. An education and experience that added a new level of understanding that I felt has given me an edge as well as an understanding and in many cases a profound respect for the ones who consisantly succeed beyond luck in music. I suppose it's the same for a music person who experiences the inner workings of mass media...probably helps their depth. We have some people here at XM who've been in the music trenches...the REAL music trenches. Like Eddie Kilroy on Willies Place. He probably wouldn't be as good as he is without that edge he acquired from being in the trenches. Powerful stuff. It's one of the reasons I'm a crusader against celebrity without substance. I "get" the vacant side of popular culture, the five minute success stories and understand how it needs to be served, but I also know what's WORTH fighting for. The bottom line is that I have the luxury of understanding both sides which I Think is a clear competitive advantage in 2007.
A few of my ventures come to mind—here are some mini stories---the full length versions would be a very large book and unbloggable:
GENTLE GIANT: I really admired these guys, but by 1979 they were on thin ice. Their label had dropped them and they were painfully uncool inside industry circles as their avant garde eclecticism was out of sync with the Punky New Wave that was occurring at the time and with the Industry fueled by fashionability, it was tough for guys like this to get traction. Ray Tusken was a guy at Capitol Records who reached out to me to se if I had any ideas to “save” them, meaning how they can expand their reach to where they could justify the label’s commitment to them. We met at this West Hollywood watering hole called The Palm, before it became a national steak brand, in LA and I suggested a meeting with them to talk through things. Band founders Derek and Ray Shulman and I met up ion Derek’s flat in London and talked about the future. We hit it off well as we had similar tastes and agreed that I’d kind of oversee the next record. Then Capitol dropped them. So we proceeded ahead and came up with a “concept”. Pitched it to all the labels. Not getting too far. The then head of A&R at Warner Brothers actually fell asleep during our pitch….complete with loud snoring. But then Arma Andon at Columbia bought into the idea and they were signed. Next, the guys came to Atlanta and camped out in the music room of my house and we worked through the music and the general direction. Then, Geoff Emerick—Beatles engineer was recruited to record their session at Wessex Studio in London. Next door there was a new American Band recording called the Pretenders. They were polar opposites of what Gentle Giant was about and incredible dickheads with that whole “I’m a punk and you’re not” bullshit. Very annoying but they had great timing a plan and a sound and of course went on to big things, despite being dickheads. The result of Gentle Giant was really an interesting record. Some tracks like "Inside Ou"t still are really powerful. The fans of the band generally hated it because it was such a departure from their early sound. But we had NO choice, had to make an album that reached out a bit more or there simply wouldn’t be an album. I think the guys felt comfortable with the end result but the record got caught in the middle, not classic Gentle Giant enough for the core and not Kansas enough for the mainstream. In reality—it WAS, but their image was so eclectic that it was tough to convince a programmer in Wichita that it might be right for their station. I think it was assumed that because I was involved it would instantly get added on all my client stations. In fact, it was 180 degrees from that as to avoid a conflict of interest, I needed to stay FAR away from promoting a record I had an interest with---So while my career helped me get in the door, and it also shut the door when it came to my radio relationships. That “door” was an interesting thing. You find out who your friends are as some label guys smiled and talked about how great it is to be together on the project—then bury the project internally because we were the enemy. I still think this was a solid album with moments of brilliance, but it never really worked commercially and it was the end of the line for this adventurous group. Possibly a good thing for Derek as he went on to discover Bon Jovi and run Atco Records.
CRITICAL MASS: Lee Arnold was PD of our client WAAF in Worcester/Boston. He kinda discovered the Cars. One day he came to me with this band from Miami called Critical Mass. Kind of a U.S version of the Buzzcocks thing. Real engaging. The guys were like the Three Stooges on Acid. I figured that Lee had a good handle on music trends and that maybe an Americanized Punk thing could fly. So we talked, played around and decided to give it a shot. They wre great guys not yet warped by the business and hilarious to be around as they played The Green acres theme as effortlessly as their own songs. Figured we might want to record it in the UK to soak up the vibe since things were happening there, so I rented Chris Squire’s studio in suburban Surrey outside of London. These guys COULD have been Green Day. Energetic pop, great melodies. Playful but decent musicians, but the sessions were a disaster. Fueled by the evil circa 70’s Cocaine Cognac and Hash cycle. Though the guys were pretty straight, preferring English Pub food to drugs. It was an incredible learning experience about the perils of Drugs and Rock n Roll. Adding to the problem is that the engineer was too UK centric---going for the rough JAM sound than a smoother Van Halen sound. In ’79, there was literally no FM in the UK so the engineer’s reference was how a Jam record sounded on AM rather than how Van Halen sounded on FM, additionally the band had a manager who was a Broadway producer and had little knowledge of how to break these guys. The whole experience was depressing as we were all holed up in this dive hotel amusing each other with comedy routines and lots of booze and drugs among the production crew….all highlighted with a dark lonely Thanksgiving in a cold hotel café eating bad turkey sandwiches slathered in butter and limp cucumbers served by an apathetic waitress with Pink hair.. We were all going crazy but too stoned to see the light of why.
The resulting sound was miserable, however Trevor Horn was a good friend and let us remix it at his SARM Studio and the final final was surprisingly pretty decent and the session was somewhat saved. We shopped it and MCA bought it, but it never really happened. Part of the problem was that US radio wouldn’t accept that sound. Kinda funny ‘cause I was viewed as the guy who was responsible for the US radio sound back then. If we could do it over, we’d record in Miami their hometown, outlaw all substances from the premises, get a US engineer and bore into doing what the band was capable of—which was Green Day in 1979.
CINEMA RECORDS: We had one huge hit. Ah Via Musicom by Eric Johnson that paid for the three others that didn’t fare so well. This was a concept label. I pitched it to Don Greirson who headed up A&R at Capitol and they bought into the idea of our creating a Progressive Rock/Experimental Music label called Cinema. It was to be an electronic inspired version of the then ground breaking Windham Hill. This is a classic example of a concept that would have been enormously successful in a niche way IF we treated it as a full time thing and not a hobby. The concept was at the time so unique that it required working Capitol records hard as well as putting a LOT of focus into the marketing concept...camping out at Barnes & Noble and Stabucks type places to work out shelf space (of course those were not yet national brands yet--but you get the idea)—something that we didn’t have the ability to do time-wise. This was where I really learned that you don’t just put out music and expect the system to fall into place. We were not helped by the fact that Don Greirson and half the company including the President left Capitol mid way during the project. Nonetheless Eric Johnson was a big success, partly due to a champion inside the building in Tom Whalley, who now runs Warner Brothers. The other records we put out included Pete Bardens—now this record WAS strong and almost broke through. Patrick Moraz did a wonderful piece called Light Elements, German synth whiz Michael Hoenig did a Tangerine Dreamy thing and the real sleeper was Amin Bhatia doing an epic called Interstellar Suite which is a deserved cult classic amongst the electro-musos. This was a good experience though looking back if we JUST had the time to do it RIGHT—the time to EXECUTE the marketing plan we envisioned. Musically, we worked very hard with the artists—no complaints there—the stuff was GOOD…very “cinematic” and wide screen. Not for everyone, but something that Pink Floyd fans would generally appreciate. Cerebral music that was more about the head than the spa. That was our goal….but no-one got to really hear it.
VOYAGER RECORDS: Irving Azoff and I go back quite a ways—both from the Midwest and of course he makes more money from one Eagles tour than a typical major label makes in a year. So one day, pitched him on the idea of a “Classic Rock” label. He liked the idea and we were off to the races with Voyager Records. The idea was to take classic artists who still have the goods and create new music. It’s literally the SAME story as Cinema. No time to work the project, Irving and his key people laving the company midway and no champions within the building. Signed Dave Mason and Johnny Winter. Dave’s record was especially disappointing as I think it had a ton of potential—some really cool songs that captured his essence without compromise, but just couldn’t get the machinery cranked up to bring it home…and it, like our other artist Johnny Winter, got lost. I still talk to Dave Mason (Mike Marrones favorite artist); he’s as good as ever. Great guy. The key behind Voyager was to actually work with the artists to help them understand themselves—something not always easy as they have often been poisoned with input suggesting that they bend their style for what was happening at the moment. Occasionally that can work as with Yes’ Owner of a Lonely Heart, but ore often it becomes a confusing mess as it’s unnatural for the artist to “try to make a hit single”. They need to stick true to their roots and if they evolve it should be because they want to rather than someone telling them they have to…and they not really buying into it. But like with Cinema, had the plan and the music, but not the ability or buy in from the machinery to execute on the plan.
On one hand these four projects were simply handled wrong…by me. In the Cinema and Voyager projects, there were two others involved—Larry Mazer was a high strung manager who got bored with the labels once his band Cinderella broke big and Denny Somach an entrapanuer and friend I had known for years going back to the early WTSP in Philly. Musically I think the records were really good, but really good is about 10% of making something happen. My batting average for success really sucked, BUT—I learned WHY weather it was drugs, time shortages, inexperience, lack of support from the machinery or simply miserable execution, and that made the experiences unbelievably positive for me personally in the long run. It really gave me a depth of understanding and experience that helps me in the programming World. It was painful, disappointing and at times rather dark…but I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. It also gave me new respect for those in the music business who know what they’re doing, do it consistently and are successful because of their abilities rather than their bullshit or law degrees. Also learned about timing---most of these projects were ill timed. Ahead of the times I like to think, and that is probably right, but ahead of the time is as fruitless as behind the times in a business driven by the importance of being in sync with the times.
These four projects only skimmed the surface---in future blogs I’ll get into some really wacky times with Yes, Iron Miaden,The Pointer Sisters, Moody Blues, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Robert Palmer, Bob Geldof, Alan Parsons, Al DiMeola, Chris Blackwell and Island Records, and a ton more that I think merge interesting with sick, fun, vastly educational and memorable.