John Wozniak, has worn many hats during his fifteen years in the music industry: As Singer/Songwriter; Record Producer; Owner of Mushroom Studios (Vancouver, BC), A&R Rep (Capitol/EMI), but he’s probably best known as the creative force behind Marcy Playground; the band that brought you the 1997 hit “Sex and Candy.” Almost 12 years later, John continues to write and release albums with the band, and I was able to catch up with him by phone last week, as Marcy Playground’s “Leaving Wonderland 2009/10” tour found their bus rolling into Houston Texas.
This is part II of the interview with John You can find Part 1 here. We were discussing what it was like for John when they had their first hit twelve years ago and I was just about to get more current…
Musician Coaching: How has touring changed? What kind of tools are you using?
People think… even if you’re not selling records you can tour. Well, it’s expensive to tour. It’s not free, and it’s not cheap. First of all, you need a booking agent. A booking agent has to be good. They have be able to get you good shows that offer high enough guarantees to pay your expenses. They also have to know which promoters are legit, and which promoters are crooks. Otherwise you could end up in Europe, playing your heart out and never get paid. Don’t believe me? Watch the recent documentary on the band ANVIL. You also need a tour manager. Somebody has to advance the shows with the promoters, organize the travel plans, and settle at the end of every night. If it’s going to be your bass player, he’d better be really good, and have the patience for it, or he won’t be your bass player for very long. So if you’re going to have a booking agent and a tour manager, portions of the money you’ll be making on the road are obviously going to be going to them. Not only that, but you have to have a bus or a van with a trailer for your equipment, money for gas, money to eat. You might have to have a hotel room or two. If you can crash at people’s houses on their couch, good for you, most people can’t. So, the point is, touring is not cheap, and it is definitely not free. You have to find ways to pay for your tour other than guarantees. Sometimes there may not be a guarantee. The promoter might want to do a deal where you get a portion of the door receipts. Well, if nobody shows up that night, because the promoter didn’t feel like spending any money to promote the show, you’re going to be shit out of luck and out of money really quickly. Selling T-shirts is a good way to supplement tour income, as long as people buy them. But why would anyone buy a t-shirt from an unknown band? Who goes to a bar and buys a T-shirt from an unknown band? Not many people. I haven’t bought any. My experience has been that people only buy T-shirts from bands they know. What they will buy, however, is a CD. So, selling CD’s on tour is critical. If nothing else, you have to get your music out there. You should also be gathering names for your mailing list. It’s easy to set up a table with cards on it that people can fill out. If you have somebody’s email address, Facebook page, MySpace page, etc… you can keep them informed about what you’re doing.
So starting out, touring is not a good way to make money, or to get heard. If nobody knows who you are, there’s no impetus for them to come out and hear you play. So you almost have to get your music out for free on the Internet just so that people care. You can’t be selling a record if nobody has any idea who you are, and no idea of what they’re getting themselves into. It’s like trying to pick a prize behind a curtain where you have no idea what it is. Imagine trying to pay for that prize behind the curtain. Nobody’s gonna do that!
And you’re assuming the odds are it’s a prize. With what I know about music, most of it I don’t like.
Actually, I’m with you. I’m assuming it’s not a prize.
I think the way to do it in this day and age, if you’re going to do it at all, is to network. You have to get into a market, a place, a city where there’s a music scene and where people’s attention is focused on that music scene. Doing it from Kansas City, MO isn’t going to happen for you… just like doing it from Olympia WA wasn’t going to happen for me. You would be the luckiest band in the world if you make it out of some city in the Midwest that is not Chicago or Minneapolis. It’s almost impossible to do it. So move to Minneapolis, or Chicago, or New York, or LA. Move to a music hub. Seattle’s a poor place to do it at this point I believe. People are looking at Portland a bit these days, because there is a good music scene there. Atlanta, Nashville — there are a couple places where it makes sense. But you need to go to one of those places. Get involved in the music scene there, go see bands, introduce yourself to other musicians you like and find a community that accepts you. In that community, you can support each other. There’s always that guy with a ProTools rig in his garage with some killer gear that he spent his life collecting, that would be willing to record you for a small piece of the back end (2 or 3 points)… or just for fun. If you get a deal out of the demo he makes, you give him an override on the record.
One thing I want to be really clear on is, you have to be very careful about who you shack up with in business deals in the beginning. There are a lot of bottom-feeders out there. If you’re a young local artist that starts to show some real talent and potential in your area, you will find that there is no shortage of unscrupulous people who call themselves “Managers”, or call themselves “Producers.” Pond scum like that will likely weasel up to you and try to take a piece of your future. You need to be cautious and avoid those people. Do your research. Get books out of the library, or go to your local book store. Amazon is a really amazing place for buying used books for a dollar. There’s no lack of information out there on the business of music. Once you have that side of things figured out, and you understand the difference between a mechanical royalty and an artist royalty, you can better make decisions about your career. And then, when someone offers you a deal, you’ll be able to tell if that person is for real… or a weasel.
Another thing young bands have to be aware of these days is getting stuck in a “dead deal.” Let’s say you sign your five-album deal, two firm plus three options, and a month later that company no longer exists, you’re going to be kicking yourself while your contract is in probate for the next six months to two years, wondering why you didn’t research the company beforehand. This happens a lot. Bands get stuck on labels that don’t exist anymore. Unfortunately, somebody still owns the assets of that dead label, which includes the exclusive rights to your band’s recordings. In this day and age, that scenario plays out more and more. Labels are being sucked into other labels, others are being closed. It’s very common. Google is an amazing resource, and you can find out a lot about what’s happening at certain record labels, or their parent companies, just by Googling news and information on them. I personally think it’s worth doing a little Google research before doing business with anyone.
What tools are you using for Marcy Playground that have come around recently?
The most important thing we’ve discovered is the same thing everyone else has discovered. Social networking sites work. You can really start to develop a fan base through social networking: Myspace; Facebook; YouTube. YouTube is probably the most under-utilized of them all. As much as people like to listen to music, they’d rather see a video and music at the same time. On your website, you can always take the YouTube code and embed videos into your webpage … or your Myspace or Facebook pages. You should get yourself one of those $120 Flip video cameras and shoot yourself playing songs, or getting out there and goofing off to your music. You should develop a profile on YouTube where you can have a big presence. You can make them funny too, so they’ll have a better chance of becoming viral. The band “OK Go” put up that famous video of them dancing on treadmills, and all of a sudden, they have millions of hits for a video that they shot themselves. They came up with a really good idea… four guys dancing on treadmills. Next thing you know, the MTV Video Music Awards roll around and there’s OK Go doing the treadmill dance, onstage. Who had heard of OK Go before that? Not many people. Now that video has around 49 Million hits.
What would you do differently having lived through this experience as a new artist?
Nowadays I’d network like crazy, but still keep my core organization small and smart. That’s my philosophy on it. I think the fewer personalities involved in a creative endeavor, and the smarter they are, the better. There are a few large organizations in management that do very well for their clients, but sometimes all you need is one really aggressive, intelligent, self-motivated individual out there. That’s what we had in Chris Blake at the time when “Sex and Candy” broke. He was just one guy with a few key clients– Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Odds, and Marcy Playground – but he was super motivated and really smart, and we were able to make a lot of good decisions, and reap the rewards of his wisdom whenever he was around.
Aside from that, I would move to a big city, go out every night and see live local music, get involved with other musicians and collaborate a lot, write with other songwriters, be as social of an animal as I could possibly be, and meet everybody in that scene. I’d probably try to avoid the “open-mic night” crowd, since my experience has been that that tends to be a pretty “dead-end” scene – Find real musicians, including a real drummer, and get a real gig! – I would work on my song craft and make as many recordings as humanly possible, shooting for the best sounding thing I could possibly get. I’d bang down the door of the local radio station and get them to spin it on one of their “Featured Local Artist” segments. Most big stations have a segment in their programing like that, where they match your song up against another local band’s. I’ve seen those contests work for artists. In fact I recorded a band in Vancouver called Stabilo that had won one of those. Their demo for a song called “Everybody” was getting some spins on 99.3 CFOX in Vancouver. I owned a major recording studio there for over 7 years, called Mushroom Studios, so I was in town on business when I heard their song come on the radio in my car. I was surprised that it was a local band because it sounded like a hit to me. Shortly thereafter I went to see them play at a club on Granville Street called The Royal. There were 10 people in the audience, but the band was great. So I went up to them afterwards, introduced myself, and invited them to come to the studio the next day to discuss their career plans. We all hit it off, so I did a few recordings with the guys, pitched them to some labels, and did my part to help them become a national act in Canada. They’ve gone on to do quite well. If they hadn’t entered that CFOX local contest… who knows what would have happened. That sort of local success becomes incredibly valuable, because it gives you something tangible you can build upon and, hopefully, translate into something bigger. If you’re in an urban market, and your song is being played for millions of people, so much the better.
I’d get a band together and play local shows without spreading ourselves too thin. Instead of hitting the road and wasting a lot of time and money touring… I’d try to get a residency at one of the local bars or clubs in town, and play there every Tuesday or Thursday night and start to develop a following. If I knew of a bar that had one slow night a week… I’d ask the owner if they wouldn’t mind having my band play for free, and then I’d bring all my friends out. I’d keep a mailing list and inform the people who signed up for it of all my news and events. And, of course, I’d use the internet to socially network like crazy.
You just have to get involved, meet people, have new experiences and learn. Make yourself an expert on everything and be social. Don’t sit in your parents’ basement smoking pot, wondering when the A&R guy from Capitol is going to knock on your door and come down the stairs to listen to your brilliant music. It’s not going to happen.
Check out what John is up to on the Marcy Playground Website.