Why songwriting is the key


I just listened to “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner. This 60’s pop gem was written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich was Phil Spector’s attempt to put Ike and Tina Turner at the top of the charts.  It’s a masterpiece. How do I know this? Phil Spector said so. So did George Harrison and shit load of other people.  When it was released it rose to #88 in the US charts and then dropped out of sight. Phil Spector was so bummed he quit the music business for two years and slowly, thereafter, became a homicidal recluse. The fact that it went straight to #3 in England didn’t impress him. He still felt that he had failed.  I am now going to argue that he was right.

The damn record is a beautiful roar of overproduction.  He, of course, is known for creating the wall of sound style of production and this single is the ultimate example of that over-the- top style.  Unfortunately this buried the perfect song that should have carried the song into the whistling repertoire of every kid in america.  It’s interesting to note that the song later became a standard live hit for Tina Turner. This just proves my point. It’s a fuckin’ great song. It sums up obsessive love in a few verses and says it in a way that can punch holes in your heart.  Great song, overproduced = notable success without mega success.  Phil knew what he was writing about. He’s an obsessive guy. He once gave his wife twin five-year old boys as a christmas present. He didn’t ask he just got them and gave them to her.  Sure… that’s normal…. everyone gives other humans as Christmas presents.  So he’s nuts. We’ve established that fact without even exploring his recent homicide conviction.  Even so he knew how to write hits.  That talent is priceless and the true key to making it to the top. Let’s look for some examples that prove the point.

Bob Dylan -ugly fucker, can’t play, arrogant asshole that’s subject to maniacal obsessions, brilliant writer = superstar writer

Tom Petty – ugly bastard with weird voice, great writer =superstar writer

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – pleasant people, hipsters, undeniably brilliant writers = changed the world for a generation.

I can come up with hipper and weirder examples but it all points to the same thing. Songwriting is the core of what makes bands breakout into the rarefied air of superstardom. If you want to succeed learn to write a great song. One will do. Tons of undeniably brilliant songs would be better but that may be too much to shoot for.

Writing great songs is a combo of vision, some talent and lots and lots of craft. It is a process that can be improved and honed, polished and practiced. It rarely appears wholly developed in useable form.  All the great writers learn from those that come before them. They listen to other great writers and absorb their themes.  If you listen to a great songwriter, say Bob Marley, for instance you can see that he writes about universal truths…..”No Woman, No Cry”…Gee that’s simple and boy is it true.  Great writers also steal with no shame. They don’t steal songs..well Zeppelin stole all their songs but they weren’t great writers…they steal phrases from the world around them. A friend says something true that’s clever or sad or funny and a song is born. They see an old movie and hear a perfect phrase and boom a song is born.  Great writing is the process of seeing things clearly, seeing the truth, or hearing the ring of truth in the hubbub around you.

The inspiration for a song is a morsel of magic. There is no denying that. But the heavy lifting of writing is to work and rework until the whole song is condensed into a perfectly balanced slice of life. It doesn’t matter if the meaning of the song is lost on others, they will inject their own meaning, it still must ring true to the writer and this will come through to the listener.

So this week’s blog is short. It’s also of paramount importance. If you are the writer for your band learn your craft. Learn it from the great writers. Think about their themes and their tricks to reach your soul. That’s why they are great writers and that, if you want to succeed at rock, is what you must do….

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

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Working out a deal with your band………..


Reader Oliver was kind enough to post a comment with a question that covers a topic I have intended to cover for a few weeks now. That topic is how do you cut up money within a band? What’s the whole royalty payment thing mean for individual band members over the long haul?
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Read through Oliver’s question and I’ll be back at the end……By the way Oliver is well-informed, and has put some thought into how his actions will affect other’s lives and their desire to be in the band. This proves Oliver is not a sociopath. Good for you Oliver. This may prove a handicap when dealing with all the bona fide sociopaths in the music business but it’s likely he’ll be a more satisfied rock star……………..
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Oliver writes:

Sorry if I’ve missed this somewhere but in keeping with the non-democratic approach you described, whats the best way to go about song rights/royalties? How do I avoid this situation:

i) Write every note and syllable and take all the royalties but gradually lose my band (but buy one eventually) (Dylan-esque)

ii) Write every note and syllable, split the money with band members to keep the band, drive myself crazy giving away money to the non-writing band, potentially lose the band anyway (Dandy Warhols-esque?)

iii) Agree to play/record anything good that any member writes and allow the rights/royalties go to the contributing member, run the risk of losing direction/ internal power struggles/ control over band. (Stones-esque)

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

None of these options seem good to me, and although I’m not greedy I’d hate to see a disgruntled band member in 30 years cruising on a yacht he bought with my songs (fanciful I know). I assume there’s no right answer, but you’ve been there and there must be a slightly better option of the three. I feel I’ve got to get this right early.

Regards and many thanks for publishing knowledge you can’t buy.
Oliver.

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You’re welcome Oliver. I appreciate my readers and I know that getting an informed opinion is valuable. That’s why I write this blog.

Oliver’s predicament is classic. He is the primary creative force in his band. This is common. Most musicians are not also great songwriters.  A typical band is made up of :

A drummer – a rock steady rhythm monster with a flair for knowing exactly when to step in and a flash. He is the backbone and holds the rest of the band in the pocket and is the timekeeper.

A Bassist – He builds the groove and either adds the drive or defines the song as a dance tune. He can add darkness or light, thunder or soul.

Guitarist – Endless, colors and flavors, rhythms, melodies, flashy solos and roar.

A Lead singer – this is the ego and the magnet and turns the writing into an experience.

Any and all of these people make up a band and make the magic that the world recognizes as rock. Any and all of the people could be primary writers. Any and all of these people make it work and without them the magic is lost. All you need to do is think of two or three great bands and it’s easy to point out an instance where the loss of a minor member seemed to change a band’s spirit and as a result the band’s golden years were over.  Making music is a touchy thing, little  changes often have big results for the better or worse.

Since this is the case how does a band split up the money?  In a way this question misstates the reality of the way money is usually dealt with within a band.  The vast majority of bands are controlled internally by one or perhaps two creative geniuses.  This is the person that writes the material and provides the vision that makes the band unique. This person has more power than the other members so saying how does a band split up its money is dishonest.  The real question is how does the person that controls the band allow the money to be split up? Or what is the best way for a band to work out a compromise that keeps everyone on board and gives credit and money to the person (s) that deserve it based upon contribution.

Another wrench that gets thrown into the possibility of an easy fair system is the fact that most of a band’s career is spent in poverty. The lifespan of bands after they get a deal or a hit, or build a base is, at the absolute extreme 10 years with 3 years being a much more likely scenario. As a result of this reality in most bands money is never discussed except perhaps as a fantasy until it is too late and there is a pie to split up without a system to do so.

I suggest quite strongly that if you are in a band, form a band or join a band that you force the band to have some kind of agreement on how money is cut up.

In the underground indy world, the world that I lived in for twenty years and helped create, there is little money to worry about as a band works out its career. Gigs can be for $50, or perhaps a $100 and recordings are simple affairs that are self financed.  So nothing to worry about right? No, there is still a little money being passed around and more importantly people will often PUT MONEY INTO THE BAND.  So you and your Mother’s Uncle’s Nephew pay for the band to record a record, who owns it? The answer is 50% you and 50% your brother. Or 50% you and your brother and 50% the band. What about the producer? I think you get the point.

When your band first starts out have a serious band meeting. Discuss the following topics and write down the results. It’s better to lose a nutty bassist during an argument before things get going then to have him walk out on tour when he doesn’t get all of the door which is what his warped mind had decided was fair. (this happened to me. He started with “Everyone knows I have the most talent…..)

1. Does the band keep a joint piggy bank? Who keeps it? In what form? (cash or an actual bank account)

2.What is done with gig money? Most bands use this to build up the piggy bank.

3. If you pay for a recording what is the split on the ownership of the recording? On this one I will suggest that you work out something where the person that pays gets their cash back first, then the band owns the recording with the person that paid getting an extra share for risking their money. This is a common arrangement.

4. Is one person the leader and or main writer? If this is the case that person MUST GET SOME CONTROL over the use of their songs, and get the publishing money. I will explain this later in the blog. Let me just say that songs make money and bands make money and the songwriter is gonna end up with the song money no matter what you may want. If this pisses you off then write a great song about it, turn it into a hit and keep all the money to prove how unfair that system is….

Have a meeting. Write this stuff down. Then rewrite it in the form WE the members of Dog Dandruff being Joe, Schmoe, Larry Schmoe, Curly Schmoe and Gonzo Garbigian do hereby agree  to the following……then put all the crap you agreed to and sign it. Make four copies sign them all and Larry, Curly and Joe get a copy. Gonzo’s mom gets a copy since he can’t read.  This is a binding contract. It’s not a very good contract and it’s not a contract written up by a lawyer but in court the judge will hold his nose and respect it. Make sure it covers what to do with gig money, royalty money and songwriting money.

Now if it comes down to a fight about money and this goes to court this contract and your two-bit agreement will run smack into the LAW. There are laws about songwriting royalties. (see one of my blogs for an explanation) There are laws about contracts and working for hire and working for a cut. There are sleazy lawyers. There are sleazy bass players with sleazy lawyer cousins.  What does all this mean? As soon as you have some success and/or a manager redo all of this with a lawyer doing the consulting.  If you do end up using a lawyer YOU TELL HIM WHAT TO DO!!! He doesn’t tell you. He works for you. He will advise you and you’d be an idiot to pay him and not listen but in the end if the band wants to leave all of the money to the Museum of Idi Amin then that’s tough luck for the lawyer.

Now for some practical advise. Perhaps this will help our Reader Oliver. The vast majority of bands, and by that I mean a band formed by unknown musicians in an attempt to make it big, split their gig money evenly.  Since recordings are becoming less and less valuable as money-making endeavours this may turn out to be the lion’s share of the money.  So split the money evenly after the band covers gig expenses. The better you do the more the gig expenses cover. Once the band starts to play regularly and your fee starts to get healthier it’s wise to start a system of per diems. (that’s Latin for Per Day) What does that mean? Well, let’s say your band is getting paid $400 per gig. You are doing 4 to 7 gigs per month. The gigs are all within a day or two drive from your home base. The band will be covering a hotel room where you can all fight over who gets the single bed and which three fools have to sleep together in the King size. The gas for the van will be covered as will tolls and strings and drum sticks etc. What won’t be covered is food, drinks etc.  (of course, you will read one of my future blogs about how to get a promoter to feed you and get you drunk. But that’s only one meal a day) So in this situation you make a joint decision to give each band member a $20 per diem each day you are on the road. If you have crew it applies to them as well. (even the T shirt girl) Why would you do that? It’s simple. If  you try to have the band pay for dinner, and drugs, and alcohol you will soon be really pissed at the one guy in the band that eats steaks, smokes high-class bud and get’s loaded every day. Every band has one. Well, maybe Fugazi didn’t…well come to think of it I think they just SAID that everyone was straight…

If you go with a system where everyone gets a little cash every day then if they eat too much or drink or whatever most of it comes out of their own pocket. This is fair. You will be surprised how many days you can go on twenty dollars a day if your bed is paid for and the promoter gives you food and drink once a day.  sometimes it’s $5, sometimes $10, sometimes $50, I’ve never seen it go over a $100 unless it was a cheap excuse for the band to subsidize the members drug habits. (the breeders, The stones, Etc.)

When Miracle Legion toured Europe in 88? (I can’t remember which of the dozen tours it was) I sent a new member of the road crew out with them. His name was Tommy, he was from Philly, someone’s cousin’s friend, tough, strong, compact, didn’t say much. The kind of crew i prefered. If he had been Scottish I would have had him cloned. Hey you can clone a dog, why not a great roadie?

Well Tommy was new to the road so I gave him the standard lecture and then told him he would receive $24 each day. I forget why we picked that number but that was the per diem. He looked at me like and owl in the headlights. I asked him what was wrong. He said “That’s a lot of money.” The other crew members laughed.  LAter I noticed him loading a ten pound sack of rice into his backpack with a camp stove and pot. I told him he had to dump the rice. He looked hurt so I told him we would buy him ten pounds of rice in London since the issue was bringing grain across the English border (no fruits or grains)

The tour went out for twelve weeks.  When I met them all for the wrap up at tours end I asked the tour manager how Tommy had done. “Too fuckin’ good!” was the reply. It seems that Tommy lived on boiled rice and whatever he could scrounge. He didn’t smoke or drink. He got high once a week on the band’s day off.  Since the band demanded a full meal each night at the gig he was all set for food. So he hadn’t spent much money. To top it off he had lent all the other crew money when they ran out and charged them 5% interest (he ok’d this with me. How the hell could you say no to that?) He came back with everyone owing him money and he still had $1780 of the 2100 in per diems. Smart Kid. They all ended up hating him because he made them look bad. They tried to keep him off of the next tour so I made him crew boss with a different band.

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So you split up the gig money evenly. You give out per diems based upon what makes sense.  Now we come to publishing and recording which was the central issue with Oliver’s questions.

I’ve seen numerous solutions and they all have strengths and weaknesses. I’ll start with recording.

The most common solution is for the band to split the royalties from and recordings evenly. This split only pertains to records that you actually play on. If you leave the band you keep the royalty payments on albums you played on and forfeit all future royalty earnings on future albums. You have no rights to the band’s name. That remains with the band that continues on. This is important. Ask the prog rock band Yes. They had a PRODUCER take the band’s name away from them. That sucks huh?

Now we come to the complex one, songwriting and the use of songs. This is often where the big money comes in. This money is largely outside the grasp of the record company. It has the law backing it up. Radio pays it. TV pays it. Concert Halls pay it.

When a songwriter writes a song it is, by law and common sense, his property. He cannot stop someone from recording it including his own band. They do, however, have to pay him for it and the payments are set by law. (I strongly suggest that you read my blog about royalties.)

This brings us to Reader Oliver’s questions. In essence since he is the writer and guiding light he is wondering what is fair when it comes to splitting up money from his song’s publishing.  Should he give his band members some of this money so that if he becomes wealthy they will too, at least in some smaller way. There are arguments on both sides.

Now keep in mind that this does not have anything to do with songs that the whole band writes of songs that other members write.  In that case everyone will share or the individual writer will get the money. But what about a band where one member is the writing machine?

So let’s now imagine Oliver goes to see his Big NY Entertainment LAwyer Harvey Jacobowitzhofffriederstein. Yup he sounds like he’s a stereotypical NY jewish lawyer.  Don’t worry I will also send Oliver to other stereotypical characters of other races and religions in future blogs spreading his fictional life around amongst all of America’s stereotypes! whoopee! Sorry I got carried away.

Harvey is smart, he knows the business and he has decades of experience. He says

“Kid what a you meshugenah?  You’re talkin’ about giving away your money? Don’t you think the law is fair?”

He goes on to explain to Oliver that careful consideration had gone into the law and songwriters get exactly what they deserve.  He, of course, is a lawyer and lawyers are paid to represent your interests alone. They also seem to think that the law is always fair. If they changed the law today, he would tell you it was just as fair tomorrow.  In some ways the lawyer is right. Why would Oliver give away his money?

Oliver on the other hand realizes that if he has a hit song his royalty money will pour in. The band will not see any of this cash. Yes, the record will sell but the band will be in debt to the record company for big money. All of the sales of the record will go to paying off the band’s debt and the individual members will see little of it. This brings about a situation where one member is rich and the balance of the band gets nothing.

So now Oliver goes to see his manager, Clive Bakersfield -Coopersmith, a sweating, overweight Englishman with bad teeth. The manager listens to his problem while answering phone calls and returning emails.  He says

“Oliver, baby, you’ve got to keep the boys happy. You should split up your songs and give everyone a share. You’ll get the most of course. I’ll make a call and get you a publishing deal so everyone has some money by next week. That should keep everyone happy.”

He goes on to explain that Oliver will write many hits and will be rich beyond his wildest dreams. He shouldn’t begrudge his band mates a piece of the pie. In many ways the manager is correct as well. What to do?

Now oliver goes to see me, the retired Indy manager that has seen bands implode for ridiculous reasons and for good reasons.

And I say “Oliver, thanks for reading my blog. Here’s some advice from someone who has no dog in the fight, me. Your instincts are good. You should make some provision for the guys that play in your band. It is, after all, your band and your songs. Lots of the people who you will play with will forget that or never learn that fact fully. This members will become problems and you cannot be tied to them forever.  So this is the practical solution that I would suggest.

1. Start your own publishing company Artful Dodger Music.  This company will publish EVERY SONG YOU WRITE.  This company can collect your radio, tv and movie royalties directly without any other middleman. Choose one of the performance rights societies, either BMI or ASCAP and join as both a writer and as a publishing company.  Of course at any time this company can choose to sublicense some or all of the songs to a large established publishing company in return for a cash advance and a commitment to land soundtracks, commercials and tv spots.

2. Offer the band members a publishing contract. It would work like this. They must publish all of their songs through your company. At any point they can opt out of this requirement in which case they lose all FUTURE payments on FUTURE work. They will still retain any income or rights earned up to that point.

3. As the second part of this deal they will receive part of the publishing company’s income. It will work something like this.If they write a song and publish it with Artful Dodger Music they, of course receive all of the writer’s shares and also a share based upon the main writer’s deal (oliver’s cut) This makes it so they cut the same cut for their songs that you get for your songs.

4. The longer that they stay in the band the more interest and ownership they will gain in the publishing company.  Each year will add a set percentage until they reach a maximum cut. They will never lose this, the company will pay them royalties in perpetuity (forever or until Ronald McDonald is elected president whichever comes first) The percentage of these cuts is open to discussion  although I would suggest that  you enter into the discussion with two numbers in your head. An ideal deal for you and a compromise that you’ll except in order to do the deal. Remember ONLY WEAK PEOPLE DON’T KNOW WHEN TO COMPROMISE. I might suggest that you shoot for 50% of the publishing company and settle for 40%. This would leave 50-60 percent for them to split up.  If they stay in the band 4 years they get their full cut  of the band’s piece of the publishing company.  Each year they are in the band they receive 25% of the total amount they might get if they make it four years. As the band builds up their cuts the unassigned money goes to you.

5. If they leave they retain payments on everything published up to the day they leave.  They never lose this percentage. Any new member starts out at the bottom and has to accrue his cut as he goes, once again he maxes out at four years.

So what would this mean in the real world. OK let’s say that your write a hit “Beat’s the Dickens out a me”. It is published by Artful Dodger and released on your band’s major label record.  The record label pays mechanical royalties, radio plays it and sends in royalties and it appears in a bad kids sitcom where Miley Cyrus goes to 19th century london. For each $100 the song generates this is how it splits up.

1st year    $50 to oliver directly as the writer

$2.50 to each of the four band members that own 1/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of  50%

The balance of the $50, $40 goes to oliver so he earns $90 in the first year.

2nd year  $50 to oliver directly as a writer

$5 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $30 goes to oliver so he earns $80 in the second year

3rd year

$50 to oliver directly as a writer

$7.50 to each of the band members that own 3/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $20 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

4th year The band members reach full shares

$50 to oliver directly as a writer

$10 to each of the band members that own 2/4 of their potential cut of 4/5ths of 50%

the balance of the $50, $10 goes to oliver so he earns $70 in the second year

If they bitch about such a small cut explain to them that they are free to write their own hit records at any point and publish where ever they like. Also tell them that you do not have to give them anything and this is most commonly what is done.

What I like about a deal structured in this way is that it provides some incentive to stay in the band, do as they are told and not bitch too much. It also recognizes that they are helping your career in a substantive way.  This earns them money for good. And finally if you become stinking rich they become really rich. Most people can live with that.  Since a hit record in today’s market could generate about 1,000,000 in publishing in a year you can see how it would be a fair deal.

The band will secretly pray that you write lots of hits and hopefully help you do that by giving you the solid backing you need………with a deal like this you are on your way to succeed at rock…………………………..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

How to find music industry people and gain access to them (part 1)……….


I realize, or maybe remember, that when you are starting out in the great adventure of being in a band that the music business is a great mystery. It seems to be this magic city on a distant hill and the road to go there is nowhere to be found. Gee ain’t I poetic?

This is reality for most musicians and it can be intimidating and disheartening. How the hell do you break into the music business? These people fly overhead in gold plated jets while you slog away gigging in the mud. Right?

Well, not exactly. Let me pull away the curtain and correct many misconceptions. This should help you understand the music business and gain access to people.

First major misconception; the record labels and agents and producers are in the music business and you are not in the music business. This is utter crap. If you play in a band you are in the music business. If you play a show, anywhere, you are in the music business. If you write songs, you are in the music business. The fact that you don’t make money at it doesn’t mean you are excluded. The vast majority of musicians make little or no money from playing at different points in the life. The people that are commonly thought of as being the music business people are PARASITES that attach themselves to bands and music. They don’t play, they don’t write, they don’t perform or tour or practice or anything. They only exist to attach themselves to other people that make music. The people that make music are called MUSICIANS and they are truly the heart of the music business.

This may seem like a minor point but it’s not. If you play in a band; you and your bandmates are the real deal not the turd sitting at a desk in the record labels southeast distribution division. Keep that in mind at all times. Don’t let them intimidate you.

Now, those that know me, know that I actually like and even admire some of the characters that inhabit the music business. It’s true there are a few good people but they are rare. When you meet the good guys in the music business you will know them. They will stand out from all the turds. Always remember that you can’t polish a turd.

Next, I’ll give you a tip. You have access to a huge library of reference material that contains the names and some of the contact info of the people in the music business that you are trying to reach. You may be stunned to discover that your main research library is not the web. It is the stack of CDs piled next to your bong.
I remember being 15 and reading the back of the Yes album “Close to the Edge”. They listed the band members and there was a listing for a guy named Eddie Offord. He was called the producer. I thought ‘what the hell is a producer?’. I was pretty stupid when I was 15. (I haven’t blossomed with genius in the past 38 yrs). Then I noticed that he was named on an ELP record as well. There was even a song about him called “Are you ready Eddy?”. I slowly dawned on my clouded teenage brain that this was the guy that recorded the band’s records. This revelation passed for genius when I was 15.
Your CD and vinyl collection is a treasure trove of info for you. If you take you ten favorite records and read all the little notes in the CD booklets you will end up with a list of music industry names that are involved with your favorite bands. Often you’ll see references to managers and booking agents. You’ll see the names of roadies and girlfriends. You see the names of other bands that the band pals around with. These kind of notes are most common on a bands earliest CDs. When a band finally gets a record deal they feel like they have to thank everyone that helped them get to the top. So they list all their names on their first release.
Gee, let’s think about this for a minute. You have a list of people that helped Joe Schmoo and the Dickfucks climb their way from a basement in Joplin Missouri to a deal on Crackhead Records. You love Joe Schmoo and the Dickfucks. You even sound a little bit like Joe Schmoo and the Dickfucks. You are a young band that is part of the new Dumbfuck Rock movement that Joe Schmoo started. Wait a minute… I feel a flash of teenage brilliance coming on….I’ve got it! Maybe a few of these people could help your band climb out of the swamp and become a star! They did it once they could do it again.
The dirty little music business secret is that people in the business are always looking for the next great band.
Over the past three decades I have seen scores of “Guide to the Music Business” scams. You give some ass $400 and they send you a poorly printed list of all the major record labels and all the major agents. These guides are worth about $4. This blog is worth a hell of a lot more if you actually want to find your way into the music business. You can make a much more current and useful guide by digging through the notes of your CD collection. (for those of you that have a collection that consists of 50,000 ripped songs with no art, or CDs you are shit out of luck. You can ask your buddy that buys the music of the bands he loves if he will let you look through his collection)
In the old days most records had almost no names of music business people on them. This has changed. Since we now live in a culture that seems to be “all about me” the people at labels push hard to have their names included in the CD booklet. The bands usually hate this. Any band would rather put their cat’s name in the CD booklet than second assistant asshole from the label.
If you want to take this to the next level find copies of your favorite bands indy releases. These always have tons of info on them. Sometimes they will even put their manager and booking agents phone number in the booklet.
Once you start this list it can quickly become the heart of your black book that contains the contact info of everyone that could possibly help you in any way. Every bit of info helps. For example you may see a reference to another band in the thank you section of the booklet. That band may very well still be hunting for a deal and as a result they may play small clubs. It will be easy to figure out a way to bump into that bands road crew or manager and they may become fans after you give them the gift of your music.
In the next blog I will explain how you can use this info to open a few doors…….
© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2013

New Format and things I like…………..


Any old readers, returning to this blog, will notice that I have dumped the old format of Black and Red. It worked well for awhile but as the number of posts grew it became unmanageable. So I have trotted out a new format.

I haven’t posted in a dogs age. Instead I have been compiling everything I have written and expanding the material for a book. This, unfortunately is not as fun or easy as tossing a blog up onto the web.  Feel free to send comments on the idea of a book and what should be included.

Well that’s enough blather, on to today’s subject – listening to cool bands.

So far all of my postings have dealt with the mechanics of being in a band and promoting yourself up the food chain. I haven’t spent much time writing about music. Music, is, of course, central to the whole damn experience of being in a band. In some of my early blogs I posted what I was listening to as I was writing. I did that to, hopefully, turn people on to cool bands that they hadn”t heard.

A large part of being in a successful band is writing undeniably cool music. Even if you are gunning to be the next Madonna you need to understand cool music and have a good grounding of all the rock gods that have come before.  The more you listen to music the greater the spread of your tastes should become. For me this is certainly the truth. I have been steadily listening to music since 1966 and I am still finding cool things that are new to me.  If you only listen to your favorite band and the half dozen other bands that sound like them you are doomed to writing music that is derivative and likely boring. Your influences are like a color pallet is to a painter. You need many colors and influences in order to have depth and art to your music. You can argue that Picasso painted cubist masterpieces with one basic color scheme. You would be correct.  If you are the equivalent of Picasso in his blue period then you don’t need my advice on influences. Of course Picasso traveled through the history of painting and explored color and light and perspective masterfully before he decided to reinvent art by becoming a cubist.  If you ever had the great fortune to meet Picasso and ask him how to be a great painter, and he answered your question (he was notorious for being cryptic). He would likely tell you to teach yourself the history of art.  It’s the same in music. You need to know the past in order to forge ahead.

So my advice in today’s blog is to learn to listen to new things. Be aggressive about it. Dig into the info on bands you love and find out what their influences were. Then listen to those bands/artists. This will take you down new paths that will provide inspiration.

In my next blog I will post a list of some great bands that you may or may not know. It’s impossible to be comprehensive but the list may introduce you to a few names that you have never heard. I also encourage every reader to post band names in the comment section. DO NOT POST YOUR OWN BAND! That’s a cheap trick and we reserve cheap tricks for me.

© 2012 Brad Morrison/ Billiken Media

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

Why the Flamin’ Groovies are cool……………….


So do you know about the Flamin’ Groovies? It’s likely that you haven’t heard of them since they are still relatively obscure.  The fact that there is a chance that you’ve heard of them is a major improvement compared to thirty or forty years ago, that is to say, when the Flamin’ Groovies were still a band. They made a few albums. They were signed to a major for a nanosecond.

The coolest trash in San Francisco.........

Then they made their own recordings and released them on little labels. They went through personnel changes. They became hip among  hipsters in France and still no one paid attention. They were ahead of the curve and they could write songs. Here is a video of them on French TV in 1972. The song,  “Slow Death” is in the grand tradition of drug songs like “Waiting for my Man”, “Sister Morphine” etc.

http://youtu.be/EL3pP29N-Wc

The song even got them banned from airplay.  This is often a step towards glory in the sun, success, stadium shows. In their case it never worked. The point of today’s blog is that there is a difference between being cool and being successful. The Groovies are cool. They wrote some great songs which have survived to be covered by other cool bands. They were never successful, at least not in the terms of becoming rock stars.  They did all the things beyond coolness wrong. They signed with a label that promoted kid pop. Since they weren’t kid pop they were ignored by the label.

Don’t take this little tale in the wrong way. Cool is great. Cool is very important. The world needs bands like the Flamin’ Groovies, or Big Star, or Mission of Burma or The Velvet Underground. These bands show us the way to creating music that is new and exciting. My point is that more often than not these bands aren’t very successful.  Instead they are influential. Their music echoes through other bands that go on to make it big.

Big Star is another case of too cool to be huge. They, once again, got signed to the wrong label. They were a Beatlesque band with soul roots signed to a large southern soul label. When I first heard them in 1979 they were completely unknown since they sold less than 3000 records total. They were a hidden treasure. People passed around tapes of their songs from hand to hand. They never made it. When I met Alex Chilton, one of the two writers in the band, he had given up playing for almost a decade and was living in a tent in the woods.  Eventually the girl pop band the bangles would have a hit with alex’s song September Girls. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, another of their tracks became the hit theme song for That 70’s Show, performed by Cheap Trick.  Once again cool wins through but not for the band that was cool.

Too cool for words

The ultimate combo is an ultra cool band that explodes all the way to the top.  If that is you send me your tracks so I can come along for the ride. If not, learn about cool and learn how to make it your own since it will open doors and pack in the fans as you struggle to succeed at rock………..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

Further thoughts on why Major labels suck….


Now it’s 2011. As I mentioned in my Christmas post I intend to add tons of new posts in the first 4 months of 2011.  As of now I don’t have any structure or plan covering these upcoming posts so I will encourage everyone to post their suggested topics as comments. I will certainly be adding more info on recording, playing live and band politics. Beyond that I will just write what comes to mind.

This morning I had a conversation with a musician friend about the demise of the music business.  It’s interesting to note that some people are still arguing that the music business still exists. This is complete lie. The days of the huge labels controlling a massive industry are over. The labels that remain are pale shadows of their former selves. How did this come to be? It’s simple. They did it to themselves. 

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s the music business underwent a format change. Vinyl records became obsolete and the CD became the new format.  For the major labels (names like Columbia, Warners, RCA, BMG, Arista etc) this brought in a deluge of unearned money.  It’s important to understand why this money wasn’t earned.

rebel yell

All you labels suck!

When CD’s were first introduced they were viewed as some kind of miracle. The supposed quality was in a new class.  This new technology was promoted as extremely expensive to produce and manufacturer. This, of course, was a lie. Yes, the earliest releases cost huge amounts of money to create. Yes, the new production plants were expensive to build. Yes, the digital format had higher apparent clarity and as a result the recordings needed to be carefully produced in order to exploit this clarity but the whole story was cleverly hidden from the musicians and more importantly the public. The real story was that the manufacturing process was like most manufacturing processes and as the amount of units created rose the costs per unit plummeted.  Soon after the introduction of CD’s the cost to produce each CD dropped from $6-8 to $1.25 per unit,  On the other hand the labels had used the introduction of the new format to raise retail prices from about $7 per vinyl record to $14 for a CD.  Their production costs had risen slightly and they had doubled the price.  And then, like a rain of gold from the gods, every hit record from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s became hits again.

What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of music is bought by people 16-24 years old. This is a key factor in understanding the mechanics of the music business.  It defines the way records are marketed. It drives the cycles of music movements and it means that a tyranny haunts the record labels. If they don’t get you to be a fan of some of their artists in that 8 year period then you are lost to them forever. Yes, there are some odd characters, like me, and, perhaps like you, that listen to new bands for decades of their lives but most people are not like this, they fall in love with certain bands as a teenager and they listen to them ’til the day they die.  This makes the music business obsessed with youth culture and youth trends. They create them. They track them. And they exploit them.

The format change to CD’s didn’t change this pattern of human behavior but it did add an interesting wrinkle to it. Suddenly everyone that had loved music when they were young decided to completely rebuy their favorite artists of yesterday. This translated into a deluge of cash to all the major labels.

Rather than seeing it for what it was, an aberration, a strange one time gift, they decided that this was the new normal pattern and expanded their staffs – fueled by the river of money rolling in the door.  The mania reached a fevered pitch and the word that money could be made in this remarkable way spread. Sony, the Japanese electronics giant, bought Columbia and Epic records in an effort to acquire their catalog. The thought being that they could introduce yet another format change ( the mini disc) and sell billions of dollars worth of gear to those crazy americans. They falsely believed that they could once again resell the complete catalog to the whole american public. All the while that this was going on the web was growing in scope in the background. It didn’t occur to any of them, as they counted their millions that the massive price increase that they had duped everyone into paying wasn’t in direct opposition to the MARKET. That’s the MARKET as an entity. The type of entity that levels playing fields with brutal indifference.

It is interesting to note that my experience working inside record labels as a manager had taught me that on the whole the executives of the large labels were lousy businessman. The upper echelons of the major labels are stocked with people who couldn’t run a Carvel ice cream store with any authority. On more than one occasion I sat through a lecture by an executive about how the music business was different. The normal rules and market forces didn’t apply.

All of this carping and self-delusion was a smokescreen to cover a little considered fact.  It’s a dirty little secret. The Music Biz is an illegal cartel. To state that more clearly in case my terminology is kinda vague, the biz is a group of huge corporations that meet secretly to fix prices and control all supply to the stores. The same companies own the production and large portions of the distribution networks.  They own it all and they never compete in the one area that counts, price. That’s why a visit to any large music retail chain will find the average music buyer looking at a sea of releases, all at the same price. Imagine that, what an interesting coincidence. How do they get away with it? Do you really have to ask? The answer is bribes. Big ones paid to politicians and regulators.

So now this particular blog has moved up to recent history. Starting in the very late 90’s the music business started to hemorrhage money. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.  Let me take a moment to point out, so as to be crystal clear, that I am not talking about musicians. Musicians have little to do with the music business. The music business if made up of people who know little about music and in my experience have little interest in music and more to the point none of the are musicians.

As file trading came on stream the fact that music CDs had never fallen to a market driven price sent the feeding frenzy of kids downloading into overdrive.  Any what did the major labels do? Did they let the price of CDs fall since they were a dated technology? No they sued their potential customer base and got together to decide that they should RAISE the price of CDs. What utter idiots.

Now they are attempting, yet again, to use a potential price controlled monopoly system to get everyone to pay ridiculous prices for music – Apple’s I tunes. Yes it’s an amazingly convenient brilliant new technology that demands you pay the same damn price that doesn’t work in the stores. It makes this demand even though there are no costs of delivery, no physical format to manufacture and minimal artwork to produce.  I expect that some of you will argue with me on this point. Go ahead I will argue back. Please keep in mind that the rise of filetrading devalued my life’s work by a factor of ten. Nonetheless I believe it can’t be fought and needs to be utilized cooperatively.

What does this mean to you, the dudette playing in a band? It means that the labels are of no value to you. They are whales beached in the sun. Their continued attempt to dominate the market will only serve to drive music from the center of youth culture. It will only serve to make every band have to make it by playing live and promoting themselves. It means that the labels will now move aggressively into merchandise (t shirts and stuff) and live fees as part of their contracts. It means that you should avoid labels like you avoid herpes. Oh wait a minute that’s a bad analogy for musicians…fill in your own…..Is there a way out for the majors? Yes, but I am not about to tell them how to do it.  Right now there is a kid in his bedroom that has the same thought and he will end up buying their catalogs. Good for him……………..

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011