Making Live Shows Meaningful

Making Live Shows Meaningful

This interview was first published in December 2014.

 

Brendan James is a singer/songwriter with over a decade of experience as a nationally-touring recording artist. Originally from Derry, NH, he got his start in the music industry after college, when he moved to New York City and began to write songs and play open mics and small shows in clubs throughout the city. He was signed to Capitol Records in 2005, then to Decca Records/Universal Music Group in 2007, where he released two albums. All of James’ albums have been in the top ten on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts, with his sophomore release, Brendan James hitting #1. He has played alongside artists including John Mayer, Paula Cole, Keb Mo, Parachute and Green River Ordinance. In May of 2013, James had the honor of giving a TED talk about the importance of consciousness in his art and of writing songs with real meaning. Brendan has had his songs featured in television shows such as Private Practice, American Idol, Bones, So You Think You Can Dance, Army Wives and One Tree Hill. Since becoming an independent artist, Brendan has continued to tour constantly, playing at venues large and small, cultivating real fans and sharing songs with genuine messages. His latest release, Simplify was produced by Matt Chiaravalle (Warren Zevon, Joe Bonamassa) and came out in 2013. The Kickstarter campaign for the album netted nearly double its projected goal.

 

BrendanJames

 

Brendan talked to me about how he has managed to build a successful career as an artist during some of the most challenging years in the music industry’s history. He also shared some tips for musicians who want to connect personally with their fans through their art and cultivate a real fan base.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Brendan. How did you get into music?

 

BJ:

 

I was a late bloomer. I actually didn’t know I was going to be a songwriter or a professional musician until I was about 20. I started playing piano at about 19, and I fell in love with the feeling of singing while playing. And I started writing melodies and lyrics to explore that.

 

I graduated from college at 22 and had written a bunch of songs in the basement of the music department, to the point where it distracted me from my other classes. I moved to New York City and decided to make a go of being a singer/songwriter. I didn’t really have a plan B. I was just really excited to share these songs with people and perform live.

 

For the first few years I was in New York, I had a day job at Urban Outfitters. I hit the streets playing open mics and little shows here and there. At this point, I think I’ve played at just about every venue in the city, and I certainly played a lot of them during that time.

 

I got pretty lucky, because in 2005, three or four years after I moved to New York, I got my first record deal with Capitol Records. In retrospect, I think I was a little young for that deal, but it was really exciting at the time. I was on that label for a couple years, but didn’t put out an album, because I was signed during the huge Virgin/EMI merger that was happening at the time and got dropped before any of my music was released. I worked with two or three different producers over 18 months.

 

After that happened, I worked really hard to get my own album together, which was picked up by Decca Records/Universal Music Group, where I stayed for a couple years.

 

Music Consultant:

 

New York City and L.A. are obviously great for making music industry connections, but not so great for getting your music heard, because there is just so much of it going on. You must’ve been doing something right to get noticed by labels. What do you think got their attention?

 

BJ:

 

I think it was a perfect storm of events that happened back in 2005. The manager I had at the time and I were really hungry for success, even though neither of us knew a ton about the music business, and he was determined to get me with professionals. And after a couple years of doing weird demos in strange studios, I met a fantastic producer named Tony Bruno. He was the first professional producer I’d worked with. I had five songs I really loved, and he and I got into the studio, and magic happened. We had an amazing demo. The producer knew how to get excitement going at venues in New York City; he got people excited about my music, so they wanted to come see me play. He managed to get a big showcase set up at The Living Room in New York. People from labels heard about me and showed up. There was just the right amount of buzz and mystery around my project, and it piqued people’s interest. I got offered deals by five labels.

 

I flew out to L.A., met with Andy Slater at Capitol and played some songs on the piano for him and his staff. He walked me up to his top floor office and asked if I wanted to be a Capitol recording artist. Of course, I said, “Yes, let’s do it.”

 

So, I think I got attention at that time because of the combination of a hungry manager, some solid songs, a great producer and the fact that I was able to get a good buzz going at the right time.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Obviously, your experience at Capitol ended up not being so great. What was it like being an artist signed to Decca/Universal?

 

BJ:

 

I feel like I had really personal relationships with staff members at Decca/Universal, which was nice. It was hard at Capitol because there were a lot of artists and a lot of people on the staff. It was hard for them to provide a personal touch. Decca was a little bit smaller label than that, and my A&R rep really cared about the project. They invested some real time and money in me, and I ended up putting out my first two albums there. It felt like I was making real progress: We recorded albums, released them, and I went on tour.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And you are now an artist who can do a national tour. Did you cultivate your national touring base at Decca?

 

BJ:

 

Yes. I built it with the push of my label, management and my own drive to get my music heard. Everyone was really supporting me, and it was what really jump-started the build of my core fan base. I’m grateful for it to this day.

 

Music Consultant:

 

A lot of people are signed and go out there with tour support, but don’t make anything happen. Sometimes music just doesn’t connect with people, so that can be a reason for failure, but sometimes people also fail to build their fan base because they miss the mark on the business side. Obviously neither of these scenarios was the case with you. What do you think you did right from a business perspective that helped you build your fan base on the road?

 

BJ:

 

My real secret to success has been non-stop touring, talking to people after shows in every city, promising I’d be back in six or eight months and following through with that to the best of my ability. I have gone around the country and toured so much since 2007. I’ve never stopped. I’ve gone out every night to all these different cities – whether opening for someone or headlining –and just really toured my ass off.

 

What’s also important to building a real fan base is taking your songs and the performance of your songs very seriously. Every time the lights come on, and I have to walk on the stage, I really care about my songs. I hope people see that, and that it makes them really want to follow me. I hope they see someone up on stage that they know is going to be around for a while because he cares so much about what he is doing.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And you’ve been doing that non-stop for seven years.

 

Based on what you just said, you must have come across a lot of artists who don’t care about what they are delivering to audiences or are not taking what they do seriously. What has that looked like?

 

BJ:

 

I don’t necessarily think being a great artist is about taking the music too seriously, because music is about risk taking, and a show should be fun. But I do think it’s about authenticity. The artist, the tour and the album all need to be authentic. Sometimes you can see through the “act.” You can see through an artist that has a lot of label money behind him, but is not really being true to his own artistry. Sometimes can see the money and effort that has been put into promoting an artist, but not the real artist. When I see this as either a fan or a fellow musician, I wonder how long this artist will be around.

 

This is just my opinion, but I think building the kind of fan base that timeless artists like Neil Young, Pearl Jam or Radiohead have is about authenticity. You can see exactly who they are reflected in their music. I’ve always tried to emulate that. Whatever mindset I am in with my music, I try to live it fully on stage.

 

Music Consultant:

 

You mentioned you felt like your career really started in 2005. Technology has been changing significantly since then. What online tools have helped you share your music, build your fan base and make a real living as you’ve progressed in your career?

 

BJ:

 

At this very moment in time, Facebook is still my biggest social media site. My second-biggest is Instagram. These two platforms have just really worked for me personally, even though I think they serve a similar purpose. I’ve always loved photography, so Instagram just makes sense. I’m also just not great at tweeting and re-tweeting and describing what is happening in my life on Twitter. It’s just a little tricky for me.

 

I do love taking photos of what I’m doing and why and putting captions on these photos, interacting with fan comments, etc. on Instagram. I think that’s why I’ve been successful with it. I can post a photo, get a few comments, interact and move on.

 

Everyone is talking about the movie Artifact about Jared Leto’s band, Thirty Seconds To Mars. I would say it’s probably the most important music documentary that has been made in the past decade about exposing the reality of the industry that we’re all in. It’s amazing. The reason I thought of it is because you just mentioned I’d been in the business from 2005 to now. And that’s right around the time that all these music historians in the film said the music industry really fell off officially. I think it’s funny that this is where I started. I got all the inertia and momentum going that helped me move to New York City and get the attention of a label. I was all ready for my big debut, and then the music industry just crashed.

 

It’s so funny to me. I can really laugh about it now. My nine years in the business has been trying to pick myself up out of the rubble after a big explosion and start a real career.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I think it’s always been a “golden ticket” sort of business. I got my first record company job back in 1995 during my last year in college. Yes, there was actual money coming into labels from master recordings, people still bought physical CDs, and it really meant something to get a big package of them from a friend at another company. It was like Christmas every day. But at the same time, there were still so many people banging their heads against the wall and totally lost. It’s never been an easy business.

 

BJ:

 

It’s true. It makes me wonder if there was ever a time when people were working at radio stations and labels and it was just pure excitement. Was there ever rationale attached to commerce and art?

 

Music Consultant:

 

I don’t think anyone can point to exactly why some artists are successful and others are not. I was an A&R person, and I know that those A&R people who are most glorified for picking hits are actually those with extraordinarily common taste in music. It’s a funny thing if you think about it.

 

If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were just starting out in music, knowing what you know now about the business, what advice would you give yourself?

 

BJ:

 

What I would say to myself at 18 is, “Be prepared to strap yourself in for the long haul. If it’s true that you want to write music and share it with the world, really make it your life. Don’t build up too much excitement for big and fast opportunities. If you ride the wave and prepare to work really hard for a really long time, I think you’ll enjoy it more.”

 

Music Consultant:

 

I think that’s really good advice.

 

BJ:

 

I’m 35 now and I can honestly say that I am still just as excited about my next set of music, the next chapter of my career and how high I can go as an artist as I was when I was 24. I would’ve never known that kind of longevity is possible when I was 18. But I would tell anyone at 18 who wants to become a musician, “Stay cool, stay sane and enjoy the ride.”

 

To learn more about Brendan James and his music, check him out on Facebook and Instagram. You can also watch his Ted Talk, “Conscious in Unconscious Times.”