I came across the first music business article I ever wrote recently. It was 1998 and I was about twenty four years old working at Lava / Atlantic Records at the time. I had just been made an A&R representative after years of sneaking into clubs at night and working as an A&R assistant during the day.
I’m posting this not because any of it is relevant today but because I think it’s important to remember where the business was just a short time ago – labels were the only game in town… Musicians were still frustrated – they just had better scapegoats back then. If you need to get in the 1998 mindset just watch Titanic or listen to Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitta”…
The Following was originally published on Starpolish.com as an article called “The Art of Showcasing”.
I don’t know if any of the links still work. It had been edited at least once by someone else who updated my place of employment to Elektra (several years later) and added some MC Hammer reference that still baffles me. If this is your first visit to this blog… you’d best try a different article first.
Working in A&R, I have seen literally thousands of bands in the last several years (I actually tried counting the bands I had seen at one point to try and talk my boss into giving me a raise; no, it didn’t work, but thanks for asking). Let me make an early disclaimer by saying that there is very little scientific about the showcasing process. This article is not meant to be a foolproof plan for how to get signed when you showcase; it is really just a collection of my experiences with what has worked or not worked for people in the past. The more I see what gets signed or what becomes a hit, the less I think I understand the record industry — so believe me, even on the other side of the fence there is confusion and frustration with this crazy business that we’ve chosen for ourselves. That being said…these are the things I hope you’ll be able to get out of this article:
- What it is A&R people are looking for during a performance or a label showcase;
- A checklist of things to accomplish that will have labels chasing you and not the other way around (If done right you can showcase on your own terms);
- How to troubleshoot and make sure the showcases run smoothly;
- And awareness of other factors that can influence the decision making process for A&R representative or other music business executives.
(Or your mom really likes the new demos — is it time to cold-call record company presidents?) Ideally there are three things that I would strongly recommend you do before getting to the whole shopping and showcasing process.
- Have your team (Management and Lawyer) in place;
- Have professional and radio-friendly sounding demos;
- And demonstrate that you are not waiting on major label funding (or anything else) to start you career. If you can, you should be pressing and selling your own records (see Producing a Demo/Early Album), getting airplay (See Chasing Radio Airplay), marketing yourself on the Internet (See the Marketing and the Internet section, beginning with Music and the Internet), and touring the country (See Promotional Tours), etc.
Having been a musician myself for the last 10 years, I realize that the aforementioned tasks are easier said than done — but I promise you that these three things will be your guardian angels as you endure the showcasing process. If done incorrectly, this process can be as challenging and humiliating as going through puberty.
OK, you say — on paper that sounds easy. But back to step one: How am I supposed to find a decent team? Well, once again there is no science to this, no set of rules I can give you that will bring you from point A to point B. I will say this: as you are playing clubs and developing your following, meet and talk to every band, manager and promoter you encounter. Your strength as a developing act will be the people that you know and the people you are able to trade favors with. Ask the big local act in your home town what they are doing for management or if they’ve encountered a lawyer that they like. Managers and lawyers do seem to find new clients from existing ones, so this is a very viable way of encountering potential team members. Also, research what managers, lawyers and agents are successful, and would understand your genre. Take meetings with everyone who will give you the time of day.
Even if nothing comes of these meetings, you should keep in friendly contact with these people — you never know when you might need one another for something. One more thing to keep in mind is that great bands make great managers and lawyers. If you are really having that much trouble building a team, perhaps you should spend more time focusing on perfecting your craft (writing better songs, playing more and better shows and building your following). In other words, if you build it, they will come. (For more detailed information about building your team, see The Music Attorney and Management ).
OK, I’ll work on putting my team together, or at least doing the right things to attract the right team members –but why is this guy babbling about good demos when he’s writing about showcasing I’ve found that good demos are usually the most important factor in finding a major label record deal and the most efficient way of generating enough label interest to get to the showcasing stage of your career. My advice on this front is beg, borrow or steal – in other words, do whatever it takes — to come up with the cash to make good demos before you start to showcase (See Producing a Demo/Early Album for more detailed information). You should try to find a local studio/engineer/producer whose work sounds radio-ready (and that maybe did another band’s demo that you like) and try to work with them. Research everything before spending your money on recording. Remember that most major labels are radio driven, and for the most part not in the business of selling your live show. I’ve seen bands that could barely play live get record deals because their demos sounded ready for radio. In these cases, the showcase was really just a formality — the record company’s mentality being that even if you suck live, you can’t tell that over the radio. I’ve even heard of bands with great demos being signed without ever being seen by a label rep at all. On the other hand, I’ve seen amazing live bands that just couldn’t come up with decent recordings of their material, and which to this day remain without a deal.
How the hell am I supposed to just start my career? I’m lacking funding, time and contacts to get the ball rolling. Aren’t you being a bit unrealistic? What can I say about that, except what you already know — the record business can be rather unpleasant. In recent years, the burden of artist development has shifted from record companies to management and the artists themselves. I don’t like it and I don’t agree with it, but that is really the way it is. Yes, it is unfair. Yes, it is hard as hell to get things going on for your career without major label resources. But yes, if you are able to start your career without help from a major, you will be that much more of a sellable commodity come showcase time. Look at it this way: As an A&R person, I am an investor for my company. You as an artist or band are a corporation. Your team is your senior management staff pitching your corporation to people like me. I am in position of acquiring corporations that I think will be successful. If your corporation is already beyond the blueprint or demo phases and is already demonstrating its viability in the marketplace, I am much more likely to want to invest in your future. In my experience, the only thing that can predict future sales in this business are existing sales. It is hard as hell to do on your own, but it can be done. Think about this: Kid Rock had sold well over 100,000 records on his own label before he signed to Lava/ Atlantic. He already had over 50 street-team members, and had received a decent amount of coverage by national periodicals. My company did a great job with this record, but nothing we did would have replaced his 10 years of legwork. In addition, that kind of legwork may put you in a stronger bargaining position when negotiating your deal. Dave Mathews and MC Hammer both got better than average royalty rates to lure them away from their already profitable independent careers.
“Anyway, you were about to stop this long-winded preamble and tell me what to do when I’m about to rock out in front of record execs, right?” I will in a minute, I promise… But first, I just want to say a word about gauging a label’s interest in your project. It’s important to know where people stand when they show up at your showcase, and it is very hard to tell. Musicians often misunderstand my intentions and interest level, so I guess I’d better explain what it means when I say or do something. Wow, I’m gonna be honest here…I know I’m going to regret this later but, here goes… When I say, “Please send me your demo,” it means, I want to hear this, someone told me it’s good, or I noticed the band doing something right. It doesn’t mean anything until we speak after I’ve listened to it — at which point you’ll know what’s up. When I say: “Well, let me know next time you play New York (my home town),” it means: Well, your demo was good, not great. Maybe if the live show is earth shattering we might talk about doing some demos or something. It kind of means keep in touch; let me know as things progress. It also indicates that I am not excited enough to get on a plane to go check you out just yet. It doesn’t mean that you should call your travel agent and book a tour ASAP — the interest level isn’t quite at that point yet. When I say: “OK, I’ll come see your next show — even if it is out of town — it means, I’m pretty excited here. Either I loved the demos or the fact that you’ve demonstrated that your project is making money in some way, or someone else in the business that I trust has convinced me that your project needs my immediate attention. It doesn’t mean I am the only person you need to impress. Like most A&R reps, I need approval from the upper tier to get anything signed When I say: “You guys were great, I’d like to get my boss to come see you now,” more often than not that statement means my decision is over. If it were my label, I’d sign you — but since it is not, I will see what the response is from the man upstairs. Depending on his reaction, I will decide on how to proceed. It doesn’t guarantee that the man upstairs will like you. If you thought convincing Cynical Bastard, Jr. was a task, just wait until you meet Cynical Bastard, Sr.
That said, most reps wouldn’t proceed unless they think their boss will understand your project. Major label interest is like venereal disease (or so they tell me): when you’ve got it, there won’t be any doubt in your mind.
Setting Up a Showcase
“OK — major label interest is a requirement for a showcase, and understanding the level of label interest is helpful. But will you tell me about showcasing now, please?” You’ve been patient, so… have your lawyer and manager take copies of your demos or album and send them to their closest industry contacts looking for feedback. You can do this yourself if need be, but it is likely that your material will get listened to more quickly if it is sent by a lawyer or a manager — and one or both should follow up on it to see if it was received and/or reviewed. I’d stress that your materials should be sent to your closest contacts first; that way, you get someone who is more likely to listen carefully and provide you with honest and detailed feedback and criticism. If your closest contacts are letting you know that they wouldn’t even travel across the street to check out your project, you might want to consider going back to the drawing board and working on your demo material some more. If the feedback is decent, however, by all means invite them to the show. Now is the time to sit down with your team and figure out which label(s) would be your ideal home. You’ve already sent your material to the people you and your team know the best — now I would recommend making sure that packages are sent to the labels you perceive to be the best fit for your project. If luck, timing and talent are with you, maybe you will get some people down to check you out.
Rules for the Big Rock Show
“So say I get a couple of labels interested — where do things go from there? Should I perform in their hometown or mine? Is it better to showcase in a rehearsal studio or in a venue? Should I bring out all of my drunken friends to the show? What about the guest list?”
If a label gives you the option of “your place or mine?” do not default to your one-night-stand logic — your response should always be “my place.” Ideally it should be in your hometown, at the venue in which you are most comfortable and in front of as many fans as you can find.
A showcase will likely be stressful for you no matter where it is, but in your home town and in a familiar venue you will be better able to predict all of the little pitfalls of playing live. Will you get a sound check? Is the soundman any good? Will the promoter/club owner move your set time? What is the back line like at the venue, and what equipment will you need to bring? Do everything you can to get a sound check and make sure you know (and tip! ) the soundman. If you have to be out of town, try to bring your own soundman, or at least find one who comes highly recommended wherever you wind up showcasing. Another good reason to avoid coming to label territory is that the crowds in New York and Los Angeles (where most record labels are located) suck. People rarely go out to check out new acts and tend to be too cool to move or show any real appreciation. Also, no matter what night you choose to play in New York or L.A, there will always be a national act or another buzz band you’ll be competing with.
Another thing to consider is that an A&R representative tends to feel less at work when seeing a band in a venue that’s not one of his or her usual haunts in downtown Manhattan or Los Angeles — and believe me, that can help. You may not be given the decision to play under ideal circumstances. A very common story for showcasing bands is that they will be seen first by a representative or scout in their hometown, and then flown in to New York or Los Angeles to play for the senior officers at the company, or sometimes most of the record label staff. This can be a brutal experience and I really don’t know how to tell you to prepare for it. Picture this — you’re in a room filled mostly with strangers who you know nothing about except that they work for a record label. There’s no alcohol, usually no smoking, and no one looking to pick someone up like they would at an ordinary show of yours in a bar somewhere. You are the sole focus of attention for a mob of jaded record executives. A friend of mine had his band showcase for an entire label staff last year and had one of the most horrifying experiences I’d ever heard about. In a sterile rehearsal room like the one I just described, the band waited for the label president (a living legend) to arrive.
After a half-hour of being uncomfortably stared at by several dozen New York hipsters, the band was finally greeted by the label head, who had a couch placed under his ass and was then carried to within spitting distance of the stage. The label head sat expressionless with arms folded during the band’s entire set. What could you do to prepare for this? Well, I guess the only thing I can think of is to practice until you know your set forwards and backwards so you can stand and deliver under any circumstances. Another option worth considering is performing in a studio if you know you can put on a good show there – not exactly easy or natural. The advantages are that you’ll have time to soundcheck, you can have everything set up the way you want, and you’ll have far more control if that appeals to you.
The Importance of Fans…
If you have a legion of loyal fans, don’t be afraid to bring every last one of them down to your showcase. It’s a very difficult thing to pack a venue (even if there is no cover) unless you’re doing something right. When I go out of town to check out band, I’m watching the crowd as much as I am watching the performance. The funny thing about doing A&R is that with every passing day in your job you become less like an ordinary consumer. For example, I haven’t purchased a CD or paid to see a performance in months. So honestly, I’m almost more interested in what your average 16-year-old kid thinks than what I think. The president of the label I work for once told me a story about seeing a band several years ago that went on to be a multi-platinum act. He didn’t get it; in fact, he hated it. Being rather bored in the middle of this packed show, he wandered around and talked to people in the crowd about the band. Every person he talked to swore that the band was the next coming of Christ. He allowed the A&R representative that brought the band to his attention to sign it and they went on to sell millions and millions of records. Obviously there were other factors involved, but the rabid fans at their show that night played a huge part in their signing.
More often than not, you will find yourself showcasing in less-than-ideal circumstances, so do your best to improvise and make do with what you have. If you are forced into a sterile rehearsal room, bring candles or some elements of your stage show to the room to liven it up a bit. If you have the means, have someone who knows your set operate the lights — lighting can really help out a show. Remember, you will likely be playing to a room of zombie-faced record execs who tend not to move a lot, so even a simple strobe light can do wonders to make it feel like something in the room is moving. You can talk to the label about bringing a case of beer and some friends down to the rehearsal room; I can’t imagine most of them would mind. If nothing else, it might make you feel more comfortable — which, as you can imagine, helps a great deal. Do be careful when playing the drunken-friends-in-a-rehearsal-hall card, however, because I’ve seen it do more harm than good. When it works right it’ll just be a bunch of people enjoying your music and having a beer. I’ve seen it appear very forced, where it seems like the band instructed every member of the audience to freak out and overreact to every song (which might just be them trying to be helpful). Be careful about audience coaching in general. When I go to see a show on the band’s territory, I’m expecting to see a well-promoted and packed show — the best example of a show they can do there. If I see one hint of something that looks staged (I once saw a band thanking a group of young girls and handing out $5 bills not too long after they loudly demanded band autographs in the middle of our conversation), it can be a total buzz kill.
Set Lists and Spontaneity
Obviously you are the one who has to live this out, but I would recommend writing out your set list several weeks before the showcase and practicing it over and over the exact same way you intend to play. Make sure you are so comfortable with your showcase set that you could play it while having hand grenades lobbed at you. Also, short sets tend to work better than long ones. I would say play only your strongest and/or most commercially viable material during a showcase, particularly if it is in a rehearsal hall. If you can, find out which songs the record company is focusing on.
If it is an ordinary show you have a bit more flexibility, but even then you should leave the crowd wanting more and pray that you get an encore (always a good sign). Put the song you are getting the best feedback on in the middle, or maybe in the latter half of the set because A&R people are notoriously late. I would even go as far with your rehearsals to script out the in-between song banter. At a venue or real show always announce your project’s name once or twice during the set (this way there’s no mistaken identity) and don’t be afraid to call out mailing list and CD info. I always like to know that a band isn’t shy about selling their records and is organized enough to keep a mailing list. This does not mean you should go overboard with stage banter. Song titles are cool to mention, crowd interaction is always a plus, but no one really wants to hear your life story. Besides, if you do your job right on stage, people will ask you for your life story when the set is over.
Guest lists for industry people shouldn’t be a big deal, but for some reason or another it can cause problems. The one plus about showcasing in a rehearsal hall is that you won’t have deal with all of the fragile egos and bullshit whining that comes with putting together a guest list. Make arrangements with the venue you are playing at beforehand so you don’t discover too late that your guest list is over crowded and you have to come out of pocket for the extra people on your list. If you know up front that you won’t be getting a large list, don’t worry about it — A&R people have expense accounts that can be used for paying a cover charge. If the show will be sold out, then and only then should it really cause a problem. If you’re selling out a club, they shouldn’t be giving you shit about the size of the guest list anyway, so make sure that your industry guests are on the guest list and getting in. You should know that younger scouts and A&R people are far from wealthy, so if you’ve got an A&R assistant or scout helping you out, throw them a bone if you can. If you’ve got the space to put people on, it’s a nice courtesy. If you don’t, just make sure you communicate with the people you invite about the list — anyone who would let a nominal cover charge deter them probably isn’t worth your time anyway.
“Say things are going very well and I have several people interested — do I invite them all to the same show? Should I play labels off of one another to get a better deal? Would it be advisable to get my project in the middle of a bidding war?” There are cases where there can be too much of a good thing. On numerous occasions I have seen bands that have managed to get the majority of the A&R community in New York down to one of their shows and then blown it. That being the case — and being that anyone can have an off day — I would say try bringing people to your shows in smaller groups, or maybe even one by one. You will not always have that luxury if there are multiple labels interested in seeing you and you showcase in New York or Los Angeles. But if you can do more than one showcase for different groups of people without making it any less impressive, do so.
I’ve found that if too many people show up at a certain show, I will be more critical of the performance and will find myself asking if the band is really worth all the hype. I know it’s childish, but a packed showcase for a buzz band is kind of like going to see one of those blockbuster movies that spends millions on advertising and gets dozens of huge corporate sponsors. The movie might be good but it rarely meets your expectations because of all the hype, and will never quite be as good as a great movie you just kind of stumble upon. Major A&R turnout at your show doesn’t always lead to disaster, though. Sometimes only a few of the attendees step up with a deal and the band goes with whomever they feel most comfortable with — or whomever offers them the most generous deal. Other times, however, when there many labels interested in a band, the band can find they are in the middle of a bidding war. While this is obviously an enviable position to be in, it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand the band will have many different options to choose from; on the other, they will also be up against their own inflated perception. This is once again the obstacle of surviving the hype you generate for yourself.
Some of the biggest bidding wars of the last several years have been over bands such as Radish, Rubyhorse, Hayden, Flick and Furslide. If these names sound familiar, then trust me when I say you are quite up on your obscure music. Like a majority of bidding war acts these bands did not go on to perform like the collective A&R community thought they would.
I believe the heightened expectation placed on these bands has something to do with their failure. When a band that cost a label a great deal of money is released, the unconscious perception of the label staff is that it should perform better than the average new release. Since this is not always the case, it seems that people are quicker to dismiss a bidding war record even if it is selling moderately well. Once again, beware the hype. The best-case scenario is to get an offer in from one label and see if you can leverage that offer into a better offer from other labels. With luck you will get a modest amount of competitive deal offers on the table. Having just reread the last two sentences aloud I thought now would be a good time to mention this: ALL OF THE IDEAS STATED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE JUST THE OPINIONS OF RICK GOETZ, AND NOT THOSE OF ELEKTRA RECORDS OR ANYONE ELSE. Anyway, it can be a very touchy subject, and you must be careful to treat any deal memo you get with respect. Deal memos do get pulled off the table all the time, so don’t think you can take your time and flaunt the fact that you are continuing to shop even though label X has put its money where it’s mouth was. If you get an offer from a dream label and it seems to you and your team like a reasonable deal, then maybe you should just sign and get on with your career. If it is an offer from a label that is at the bottom of your list then maybe you should delicately put a spin on this in your pitch to other labels. When I say delicately I mean don’t call everyone in the A&R community and try to stir things up.
Just call those labels that have expressed the most interest to date (other than the label who has made an offer) and let them know that just for their information, there is now a deal on the table and that the band will not be available forever. Be warned — if you take too long looking for other options, you might loose the deal memo on the table. So be careful. If you do get a second label to make an offer, you can look to improve the stakes from both interested parties. As long as there are not too many offers and too much hype, you don’t risk the pitfalls of being a bidding-war band. I never said that a little friendly competition was wrong. But be warned that when you’re the middle of these negotiations you don’t exaggerate what one label is offering to the other one.
The music business is a twisted little social group that is not unlike high school — people talk and gossip frequently, and we all seem to be at least one or two degrees of separation from one another – so there is a good chance that if you tell one label that the other is offering you the moon and it isn’t true, that little lie will be uncovered, and screw up your rapport with one or both labels. One last comment: Rapport with an A&R person or label is crucial. You should try to understand his/her position within the label (i.e. level of seniority), and determine whether or not you can communicate and understand each other. You should also ask what their vision for you is, and hope that it somewhat lines up with your own. If there is a competitive bid situation, the person or label you communicate better with is very important, and could decide not only where you land, but also how happy you’ll be once you’re there.
Buck Up, Little Campers…
If you’ve made it this far, you are a real trooper. I think I’ve run out of silly anecdotes and half-baked witticisms for you. Your job in showcasing is to find the right label for your project (and in the process, get as many free fancy dinners as you can). I hope you continue making good music and not let the many obstacles before you deter you from your dreams and goals. Please bear in mind that this process is more like a marathon than a sprint — so don’t loose hope!