How it works….getting to the top………

I spent last night with a new band that I will be producing. A bottle of good whiskey a couple of marginal vintage acoustic guitars and a good meal naturally evolved into a people taking turns showcasing new songs or playing masterworks of America’s rock history.  The band had just fired their most recent drummer for being an asshole. The new drummer, an old friend, of course, fit in perfectly. This band is playing Alt Country. The drummer rose to the occasion and shaved the middle part of his beard to create truly impressive mutton-chop sideburns.  He fit right in with the bands look and attitude. To take the gig he dumped a girl, walked away from a job he hated, put down the guitar and picked up the drumsticks. Those are the actions of a real musician.

It's a brawl motherfucker! First you better pay at the door!

Later in the night, as the band got remarkably drunk, before they reached the stage of sending me nonsensical text messages, the conversation turned to how to get ahead, how to get to the top, how to put on a better show etc. I of course, being an arrogant ass, gave them plenty of advice. If you are reading this blog some of the points that came up may be news to you.

The band are amped up. They’re flat-out excited. A producer had come to see them play, loved the show and agreed to produce some music for them. This is an exciting moment in any band. We hashed out the basic plan before the Johnny Walker ran out. Was this their big break? Perhaps. Time will tell. It also could be the wrong move. No one will know until years from now. One thing I have seen repeated with every band that succeeds is the series of small breaks that lets the band climb to the top.  This is the true system to becoming a star and a working musician.

Let’s use this band as an example. They have a manager/producer, a completed album that is released locally and a full gig schedule. All of this happened before I ever heard their name. How did they get that far? Hmm… it’s easy to guess. They all spent countless hours learning to play and listening to music. They fell in love with certain bands, particular songs and the stories they heard about other bands they admired. They all played in shitty bands. This taught them the difference between good and bad from the inside looking out.

Sure, this is how everyone dresses...right?

They all played in bands that were better. This is the winnowing process that every musician lives through. Some of them switched instruments as they realized where their true talents lay. They all played some local shows. Some of these shows sucked, bad. They learned how to get the audience engaged and how to make the girls shake their asses.  They all came to the realization that their heroes didn’t dress like the audience so they cautiously start to acquire stage clothes. 

As their set became a winner they started to branch out to new towns. Soon they won fans in these towns too. Then they heard of a studio owner/producer that seemed to have something good happening. They booked time and soon he was a fan too. They talked him into being their manager. This caused the local press to start to mention them.  He produced a brilliant but spotty first record. He dropped by my house for dinner with two of the band members in tow. By the end of the dinner I could see they had talent. I hadn’t even heard the recordings but I was interested. All I had to do was talk to them and I could see that they understood how it worked. I could see their passion and their ambition. So now they have a new producer.

The point to this little history is that you get ahead with mountains of little breaks. You create these breaks by working hard to make music, by getting yourself talked about, by not fitting in, by being a little bigger than the stage you step up on.  If you work hard enough and have lots of luck you make it to the top. At that point looking back down the mountain you will see that there is never a big break. There is never one thing that gives the band the attention of the world. You hear stories of big breaks because this myth is manufactured by the big labels that need people to believe that they create stars.  They never mention how many great musicians they bury.

Summing it all up – work hard for lots of small triumphs. Pile these up and you have a story of how a band succeeded at rock………

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011


6 thoughts on “How it works….getting to the top………

  1. I just finished my second read through of your blog and it seems at some point you forgot to do the second song critique (might have mentioned oliver). Are there still plans of doing this? DO you plan on continuing the blog?

    Thanks for everything you’ve already written. I’ve learned a lot. Now I need to start applying it.

    • Hi Dave,
      Wow, you read the whole damn thing?! Not once but twice?! Perhaps you should submit the next demo critique. I just went back a reread the sections you are referring to – sorry oliver I got off track… I am currently not writing new entries – just answering comments. I am toying with the idea of converting this chaotic blog into a book. Would that be a help?

      • I my first read through started back in 2010, so it’s not that big of an accomplishment. Part of the reason for the second read through is that I see the content being like a book of guitar drills and études in that it’s meant to develop certain skills. My skills for running a band aren’t where they need to be, so I read the blog again, and now it’s time to start doing drills to get them where they need to be.

        I’m 4 to 6 months out from having something worth critiquing. If you’re fine with that, I’m willing, but I’m sure someone reading has something ready now.

        I think the book is a good idea, but I’m not sure how big of a market there would be. An e-book would cut down cost drastically, but I’m the kind of guy who wants something tangible in front of him. As far as organizing, maybe treat it like a time-line of firsts in a band’s first few years.

  2. I’d like to know why The Figgs never took off in the 90s, or at least what your opinion on that is. You managed and produced those guys during those years. I know they’ve made it as musicians for the most part now, but back then they seemed destined for notoriety. They had great songwriting, performed excellent shows (seriously, one of a handful of bands that I’ve truly been blow away by with their live performances), were tight as hell, and could easily captivate any rock fan. They had breaks left and right, toured with popular bands, performed all over the place for years. Just curious why you believe that band wasn’t a household name by the time the end of the 90s.


    • This is a very interesting question. In case you do not know, I managed The Figgs from 1989 ’til 1996. Sam, your review of the band’s potential is accurate. The Figgs are a great band. They had all the ingredients to become huge. They did, however, travel very far from their kick off as a high school band from Saratoga Springs, NY. To sum up what the band has achieved:
      2 major label contracts
      Theater tour with The Cranberries
      Van’s warped Tour
      European Tour
      They have backed up both Graham Parker and Tommy Stinson
      Endless US touring with legions of fans

      So, how come they never became huge? Perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job getting them breaks. In many ways, towards the end of my term as their manager I had a sinking feeling that they were on their way to being the next Replacements. The Tommy Stinson tour has deep irony as a result. (at least for me) Oh, one correction, I didn’t produce their major label efforts. It was offered and I passed. I now view that as a mistake, for me.

      There was a moment when they stood on the edge of nationwide fame. They had just released, low fi at society high. They were touring and Imago records had gotten “favorite shirt” on the radio. The wire service (that’s the network that feeds most of the nation’s papers with stories) had taken the bait and written a huge story about two bands, Green Day and The Figgs. The label president called and asked me if he should “push the button”. Pushing the button would result in large sums being channeled to DJs and radio pluggers. It would also result in PR firms being hired and favors being called in. The band and I had a meeting. I wanted to go for broke. They insisted that they wanted to wait for their second album. I knew, at the time, that their might not be a second album. I lost that battle and the label didn’t spend big on the first record. Stupid, stupid, stupid. If we had followed through the band had a real shot.

      Needless to say, there was no second record with Imago. 18 months later I got them signed to Capitol Records and a new record was released. Capitol, in standard major label fashion, acted like complete idiots and assholes. They changed the album cover to something that made no sense. They fought over remixes. They came up with stupid plans that they failed to execute. The A & R guy was a complete MORON. On top of all this the band started to fight with the label over little shit like what color the label on the vinyl version would be. They pissed off the label president and got dropped. It wasn’t long before I was fighting with them and I quit. They have soldiered on and made a series of great indy records. I expect that they will end up being influential and may find renewed success in their twilight years…like The Replacements…….

  3. Its like you read my mind! You see to know so much about this,
    like you wrote the book in iit or something.
    I think that you can do with a few pics to drige tthe message home a bit, but othsr than that, this is fantastic blog.
    An excellent read. I will cerfainly be back.

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