Justin Furstenfeld is the lead singer of Blue October, an alternative rock band originally hailing from Houston Texas who have had eleven top 40 singles and several platinum releases. Justin was kind enough to take the time to speak to us while promoting the band’s recent documentary “Get Back Up” that chronicles Justin and the band’s rise to success and their struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues. “Get Back Up” is a painfully honest, must watch documentary for those willing to unflinchingly observe what many musicians endure in the pursuit of making great art. The documentary is now available to stream on GetBackUp.TV. It felt a bit trite to ask Justin questions about advice for aspiring musicians when the documentary covers far more important topics, but he was happy to oblige.
Justin- Thanks so much for taking the time to speak today. I wanted to ask you about business advice you have for those wanting to make a career for themselves in music. I realize the world has changed a great deal since you started this journey, but can you speak to what it was like when you were starting out? What was it like when you first started to get the word out about the band and getting people out to shows? How did you do it?
I lived in the day when fliers were everything. You went out and hustled like crazy. There was no Internet, so it was printing thousands and thousands of flyers and getting your name out. People saw your name around town on telephone poles and in cafés and it created the impression that “God, these guys must be huge.” It was all about self-promotion. You would go into those cafés and you would dress cool, you’d act cool and you’d speak cool. It’s a whole thing. You can’t just go in there looking like a slob, like a sweaty mess. You can’t go in there looking like you’re all out of breath and smell bad. You’ve got to look good everywhere you go, and you have to talk like a pro, and you’ve got to act like a pro, and you’ve got to be a freakin’ pro. They want to see what you’ve got going on if you’re out there promoting your band.
If you’re walking around with a bunch of freakin’ weirdos that make people uncomfortable, they’re not going to want to come to your show, you know? Do you walk around with cool looking people? You pick out the people you bring with you. I was so particular when I first started out. I would pick the people that came to hang fliers with me and came to recruit fans. I would tell them what to wear and tell them and how to fix their hair. Tell them what to say and what not to say. Some people might think I’m a dick for that, but I could give a fuck less.
It was all about first meeting people and what they thought of you. And if they thought of you as “Man, I was having a coffee with my girl, and then this group of four dudes walked in and they look so fucking badass. They said they had a band and they invited US like, Wow.” It made people feel a part of something instead of just hoping people showed up. It’s about confidence. It’s about representing a crowd that people want to be a part of, you know?
So when you go out for a weekend, it’s not to go out and party it to go out and literally recruit fans. You have to look your best, act your best, sound your best, and smell your best. So when people look at you and talk to you know when they’re really going to come to the show or not because they’ll want to hang out with you.
It was just so weird back in because it wasn’t about “let’s send a Facebook message out” and that’s our work. That’s such lazy shit. It’s about people. It’s about being in people’s face. It’s all about connection. Then people show up and when people show up you treat them like gold. You spend time with them, you don’t have a cocky attitude and you’re not too emo, you’re not too indie, you’re not corporate.
That’s what I never got was the bands that thought they were too cool to talk to people. What the fuck do you think you’re doing for a living? People pleasing and super serving the fan and the music lover is what I was in the business of doing, and then once they came to the show, it was my job to reach them and keep them there.
How did this expand from just your hometown?
You could basically do what I mentioned in one town, but we would go from town to town. We would basically do residencies. We would set up in a town for a week. We would go to every café etc. and we would hit up people like we lived there and draw them in. So that Friday night we had a show and would see how many people would come then. Then we would go to the next town. We would go to Boston and do that. We would go to New York and do that and we would go to Chicago and do that and we would do four cities per month. We would do that for six months in the same four cities. We would live off of basically nothing.
Is there any equivalent for what someone would be doing with social media today?
In today’s day and age you have to still put in this legwork because that will make the difference, but you can also back it up with social media.
“Hey, come check out our show. This is what it’s about. This is our Instagram, and this is our Facebook. Check those out too.” But it’s literally about face time with these people. It’s about making them feel welcome. It’s about making them feel comfortable and then inviting them like they are a VIP. So when they get there, they not only have your Facebook, not only have your Instagram, they not only have the social media that gives them an actual map to get there, it also allows them into the life that you’re presenting and into the brand that you’re presenting.
Social media has got to be two things- inspirational and motivational.
If you’re about punk music and you want to super serve punk fans, it’s got to be so fucking inspirational about why punk is a punk, and that’s got to be it. It’s about hip hop. It’s got to be why hip hop is hip hop and why you’re the new face of hip hop. It’s got to have colors. You can’t take a picture of what you ate the night before. You can’t post “Mmmmm… Broccoli and chicken- It looks good tonight for dinner” like normal people do and then post “Come see my show.” You can’t do that. Get a personal account if you want to post pictures of what the fuck you’re eating.
You know it’s all about branding. It’s all about “I’m going to see this band because they speak (to me).” So when I go to their Instagram, I want to be just as inspired as I am about their Instagram as I am about their music. Post badass pictures and snippets of your songs. It’s all about consistency, and there’s a lot of people out there that I find that are consistent for the first 6 months, and then they get bored with themselves, so they start lagging off. And if you’re bored with yourself and you’re not inspired, people read through the shit. Then you start writing songs about how bored you are. That’s when you know your shit is starting to stink and you suck. You’ve got to stay inspired. You’ve got to stay liking yourself so that you’re never inconsistent. I see so many people start off hot, you know? They say “I’m going be doing this. I will be doing that” But they got to keep doing it for years! Then they realize they didn’t get famous in six months and they just fall off. The consistent ones are the ones that end up making it.
As a guy who’s made music for 25 years how do you maintain that level of inspiration? How do you not feel like you’re just going through the motions after a while with social media posts and all of the day in, day out?
That’s all about lifestyle. Now we get into the subject of lifestyle. What do you want people to see when they look at you? Do you want people to see someone that might be hung over? You want to see someone that might be, you know, kind of lagging because he’s out of shape? Do you want to see someone who’s just bitching and whining all the time? No. So you have to look at your lifestyle.
What do you need to do in your lifestyle to be one of those people that absolutely love their fucking life? First you need to kick all the negative people out, right? Kick them the fuck out of your life. There you go- bye! Now you don’t have any negative vibes and you’ve got to look at yourself. Maybe you should stop drinking the wine and smoking the dope at night if it’s making you lazy and half assed. If it’s making you chunky because you like those snacks too much when you’re smoking weed then maybe don’t smoke the weed. I mean, it’s all about what’s in your life that could be better. You get all the negative shit out. Don’t get me wrong if you like smoking weed smoke fucking weed if you like drinking wine then fucking drink wine If you like drinking. That’s cool. Whatever.
I’m just saying that if you really want to build a brand- there cannot be one negative thing someone can find about you or hold against you. That’s why I put mine right up in the light. I’m never going back there because I’m not going to be the guy that got too stoned the night before so that I don’t show up to the race on time the next morning. Never going be the guy that shows up late to his meeting because I might have had just one glass of wine too many. I’m never going be the guy that ate too much fucking fast food so I get a half gut. I’ve got to have all my corners cleaned out, because once you do that, it’s this awesome freedom of anything is accessible to you. Anything is an amazing opportunity.
If you keep yourself clean and inspired and always wanting more, you will always have something to write about, something to post about something to be loved about, something to be motivational about.
Then you find things like hobbies. I just find little things that I love outside of music. It just keeps your brain going.
Once you get fucking lazy and complacent and you think the world owes you something and you start living in an entitled space, that’s when your shit is going to smell. That’s when your music is going to be boring. You’re going to get out of shape, You’re going to lose your color. You’re going to get bags under your eyes. You’re going to hate everything and everyone. Don’t ever get in that spot, stay up.
You mentioned kicking the negative people out of your life and one of the things the documentary brought to life for me was just how fortunate you are to have amazing people surrounding you. Many of them are your business partners. What is it like working with a team?
Those dudes are amazing. Paul (Nugent), (Mike) Swinford (Blue October’s management team) and now Missy Callazzo (Megaforce Records). They’re brilliant people. They believed in me. These people in my life gave me all these opportunities. They truly gave me a second chance, second chances. And I owe it to them to be the baddest motherfucker on planet. And I will, in honor of them and my children and this band and my wife. I have to be that guy. And you know what? I fuckin’ love being that guy. I love the fuck who I am today. With their love and their support, I’m allowed to conquer anything. I own my own record label now. I own it with Paul and Swin and Missy. It’s amazing. And I’m competing with all the major labels, so I’m just super blessed. It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So much fun.
How are you finding running around label versus having both bad and good experiences signed to a major?
I loved working with the majors. I truly did. And it was my fault that the 1st album didn’t work out because it only sold 15,000 units. I went with Universal. And then you went with Universal, and they spent $800,000 on that first record, and it bombed. I didn’t go into that thinking I needed a single. If I would have been Universal I would have dropped me too. (Blue October was originally dropped from Universal but ultimately and rather uniquely re-signed there and went on to great success.)
But having my own label these days, it’s so amazing. I got the hardest working team. We’re all we’re all running hot on all cylinders and we have so much to offer. It’s also about inspiring people. And if there’s a band out there that it can inspire people to live better, it’s us. We don’t give a fuck about flash. We just give a fuck about people smiling, feeling good and leaving that venue when we play saying “Damn, that was like a religious experience.”
So as a label, it’s a lot more rewarding because I can make sure all the T’s are crossed the correct way all the I’s are dotted the correct way. I get to hand pick my own radio team across the country, and I know who will be respectful and not piss anybody off but will piss people off just to the point that I need them to.
From a business perspective, is there something that you’ve done consistently that makes you one of the few still making music after twenty five years? Is there something you can point to that you did on an artist to fan level that others didn’t that you think you can credit your success to?
I would credit my success to my management being so awesome and for caring so much, because without them, I would not be heard. You know, I would just be another Facebook ad asking for people to come see me.
But I would credit the fact that our fans are such supporters. Blue October is like a lifestyle and like a family. So it’s like once we gain a fan, we never lose them because we’re always there after every show. It doesn’t matter how many. We played to 6,000 people in Dallas last year and stayed afterwards because I wanted to meet every single one of them on their way out. I shook hands with 3,000 something people on their way out told them “Thank you for coming”, and that goes a long way and that’s what we do every single night, every night. And a lot of bands just don’t do that. And a lot of bands don’t believe that face time is important. A lot of bands are so stuck on how cool they are that they think that the less they do with fan interactions the better. And I just don’t get it. Maybe that works for now. But, man, the long haul that’s not it. That’s not it at all. You have got to let people feel like they’re loved and appreciated
You credit your management with a lot. What advice would you give for somebody who’s trying to vet a manager or find a manager for the first time. What should expectations be for somebody who’s just starting out with a manager?
It can’t be your friend. ,It’s got to be somebody that comes to hear you and they are so blown away they can’t live without you. And don’t sign any contracts whatsoever. Work off of giving them their 15 to 20 percent and sign a contract when you’re ready. Managers are very important and there’s a lot of snake-y ones. I just so happened to meet the right one and that guy will take a bullet for me. But you have to be very careful. And no matter what goes on, you have to have a lawyer check it out. I know that sucks, because a lawyer might not tell you what you want to hear.
I remember being 16 and I went and played SXSW in high school with my old band. This guy saw us and calls and I remember just thinking I’m going to be a star. 16 and going to be a star. My dad said, “well, let’s take it to the lawyer first.” I remember looking at my dad going “What the fuck? Sign! Let’s do it!” And we took it to the lawyer and come to find out that it was just a contract to start like a boy band kind of thing. I just didn’t even read it. So I could I could have been, like, signing away my whole life. Thank God for lawyers and my dad. That could have sucked. Or it could have been great and I could have been the next N-Synch.
You wouldn’t have gotten to go through that eyeliner phase.
Would not have gotten to go through that chubby raccoon look.
What is the one piece of advice that you wish that you had going into this career from a business perspective? What would you tell your sixteen year old self?
No matter what’s going on in your life, no matter how hard it is, keep a positive attitude and only show your positive side. You don’t need to share everything on a business level with everybody. Keep your cards close. Don’t let everybody know what you’re doing. Just do it. Don’t talk about it. Just do it.
If you’ve got plans to rule the music industry, don’t tell anybody. Just go out there and do it. You want to start a band? You really want to test your songs out? Go stand in front of a fucking grocery store and see how many people stop and listen to you. People do not want to be bugged when they’re at the grocery store, so you’ll know if they stop. You got something good, like that’s for real.