May 23, 2012

The star next door

What ‘making it’ means in the music business today

Peter Searcy started singing in Squirrel Bait — his first “real band” — at about 16. “I remember having to get a note to get out of school so we could play CBGB’s in New York City,” he says.

With numerous bands and as a solo artist, Searcy is well traveled in the music business, both physically and contractually, having been signed to more than half-a-dozen labels in 25 years. He entered through the underground and got chewed up by the machinations of the major labels in their late 1990s heyday. Signed to a subsidiary of Arista Records, Searcy found himself caught up in an executive shuffle.

“I had a release that came out at the same time they were ousting their CEO, Clive Davis. The incoming CEO, L.A. Reid, wanted nothing to do with the outgoing’s projects. It was frustrating,” he says. “I had a No. 1 song in a few markets and a label that wasn’t getting behind it.”

When Searcy was a child, becoming a rock star seemed as impossible as becoming Superman, or at least Wilt Chamberlain. Rock stars were bigger than life, from Elvis and the Beatles to outlandish characters like David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Kiss. No one had a neighbor who paid their bills by working as a professional musician, unless they lived in New York or Los Angeles. But in recent years, evolving technology has made it possible to make a record at home, promote a band online practically for free, and earn a middle-class income from music — without being hounded by groupies.

The dream really hasn’t changed much — some start out with the clichéd “song in their heart” that they need everyone to hear, while others notice at a young age that a guy or girl with a guitar usually equals access to other guys or girls. What has changed is absolutely everything else: The music industry has sustained more upheaval than nearly any other industry in such a short time. The last decade has seen a once-mighty business fragment into a million tiny pieces, consolidating its power into the hands of three major companies. At the same time, there have never been more people claiming to be artists and CEOs, and while there are fewer brick-and-mortar places to buy new music, the ability to hear it has never been easier.

And still every day, someone new steps up to the microphone and feels the first rush of an audience’s approval. But instead of seeking super-stardom, many are content simply making a living making music.

Friends, Romans, Pop Stars

Louisville has had many turns in the spotlight. The major labels have kicked our tires countless times — Days of the New and the Villebillies enjoyed varying levels of success with Universal; Nappy Roots made hits with Atlantic; Playa and Static Major worked well with Def Jam. The late Tim Krekel had early career success playing with Jimmy Buffett, and later sold songs to some of Nashville’s biggest names. We can even venture back to Prince Phillip Mitchell on Atlantic, or New Birth on RCA. Of course, My Morning Jacket, one of the most critically lauded bands active today, a festival constant, continues to define their hometown in the eyes of many worldwide as a result of success achieved with ATO Records.

It doesn’t always have to be about the major labels, either. Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, has enjoyed more than 20 years recording for the indie Drag City, with dozens of releases and tours all over the world.

There’s a great quote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson about the business: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Turns out that’s a common misquote, and the real line is actually about television and not quite as sexy. The point stands, though. (It’s a point that I, the writer, can vouch for, having been an artist manager, producer, engineer, songwriter and record store manager.)

Jeffrey Smith is another hyphenate. A former artist who signed a deal with a major label years ago, Smith has since “lost the desire to perform” but stays in the business via his Crash Avenue Media and Management company. Crash Avenue’s front line is its public relations, serving artists through social media, blogs and press. That he also acts as a manager consolidates two of the more business-like positions in music; all he needs is a working knowledge of tax law to complete the trifecta.

As a manager, Smith can’t afford the luxury of labor-of-love projects the way a larger PR firm can. As you live and die by 15-20 percent of your act’s income, a niche artist who’s only playing five nights a month is hardly worth the time investment. Smith elaborates: “We were still focused on selling records as the main revenue stream in 2001 when I transitioned to the business side of the music industry. Now we’re narrowing in on every stream of income, from monetizing YouTube, strategically positioning an artist with brand opportunities, to partnering with the right promoter …”

Amber Garvey spent three years as the head of A&R (artists and repertoire) and project manager for local Sonablast Records. She preemptively addresses an issue some artists struggle with: “Bon Iver said in an interview that he did a placement with a whiskey company, and some people said he sold out. But he was like, ‘Well, I do drink whiskey.’”

It’s a sentiment Smith shares. “You have to be able to provide opportunities for the artist under your care,” he says. “You have to be able to put them into a position to make a decent living now, and hopefully set them up for having a career at creating music. If you can’t do that, you’re not going to be able to make a living from it either.”

An Army of One

Justin Lewis is just entering the fray, his views rose-colored and bright, though this is more due to his generally positive disposition than any naiveté. A regular on the coffeehouse and dive bar show scene, the 24-year-old has only been playing out for three years. Through plenty of unpaid “exposure” gigs, he’s managed to build a growing following, which could explode via his upcoming collaborative EP with popular singer/cellist Ben Sollee, himself a perfect embodiment of the everyman, middle-class star. Lewis is not sure just yet what’s to come of the record.

“There are a couple well-kept indie labels that I have spoken with that have intrigued my growing process, but having full control of what I do as an artist has been very rewarding,” Lewis says. “Being an independent musician has become a very plausible way to make a living nowadays. No artist needs a major label to help make them successful anymore.” Asked what defines success in the current mode, he continues, “The only things that mean you have made it are a high level of happiness and making a livable profit to take care of yourself.”

His day job at Swags Sport Shoes still sustains him and allows for his ferrying to and from shows and studios. “The worlds of touring, performing and studio time are such different environments. I had a lot of internal struggles with this record with Ben because of my lack of studio experience,” Lewis says. “So many artists go in expecting the same movements and outcomes as that of their live show. You really have to mold into each position.”

For Okolona resident Ronald Jenkees, home recording software and YouTube was all it took to earn an audience for his keyboard-driven music. The Murray State grad benefited from attention from G4’s “Attack of the Show,” Paste magazine and the popular blog Boing Boing, as well as an endorsement from the most unlikely of fans: Katy Perry.

“It’s been working great,” says Jenkees, who has kept bloggers curious with questions about his appearance and true identity. “When I released my first CD, I put some effort into making a CD purchase, physical or digital, easy from my website, as opposed to pushing the customer away to some third-party merchant handling that stuff for me. I think people feel more comfortable with that. There is website maintenance, customer service, and shipping my own CDs eats up time, but I would say I keep 60 percent more of my earnings that way. More importantly, I get to personally take care of my fans when there are problems. I end up getting to connect with them.

“If I was signed to a large label,” Jenkees adds, “according to them I wouldn’t be doing so great right now, and they’d be pushing for more, more, more. I’d obviously be keeping a lot less of the music sales. I’m not saying all label arrangements are bad, it’s just not right for me right now.”

One of the biggest struggles of the independent musician is the idea of having to do it all. Peter Searcy, who is 44 and married, has worked as a realtor for the past decade. “I love writing, recording and playing music,” he says. “I really can’t stand the self-promotion part of the job. I didn’t pick up a guitar, look in the mirror and say, ‘I want to be a music publicist.’ In today’s climate, you have to be a multi-tasker.” Building a team costs money, and if it’s not coming in droves, the industry norm of 15-20 percent can starve you. “For me, worrying about websites, blogs, booking — it all just kills my creativity,” Searcy adds.

Meanwhile, Lewis is easing toward being able to delegate his workload, though he’s not ready to give up those percentages yet. “Things have been getting pretty crammed on the business end,” he says. “It’s tough to keep up on recording songs and work on the live show when there are so many tedious business things popping up as I grow.”

Doing the Work

In Peter Searcy’s words, an artist’s team is in place to “play bad cop between promoters and labels.”

It’s a role Mat Herron of Karate Body Records has had to take on from time to time. Formerly LEO’s music editor, he’s familiar with being on the receiving end of publicity and with the pushback of management companies when something doesn’t go their way. He’s also an artist, drumming for The Fervor, and has co-manned 20 Karate Body releases with partner Joe Seidt. They represent the more artist-friendly end of the spectrum, eschewing contracts mostly for handshake deals and distribution over ownership of records. The selling of those records (and getting them in stores) has turned Karate Body into as much of a marketing company as a music company, sharing a perspective similar to local powerhouse Sonablast.

Sonablast is a Louisville-via-New York company headed by Gill Holland, a film producer and creator of The Green Building. Before taking a job there, Amber Garvey didn’t have much music experience beyond fandom. “Music is a huge part of my life, and I wanted to learn more about the business, and I was given the opportunity, so I jumped at it,” she says. “I never thought I’d work for a label, but thought I’d give it a try.” Asked what services a company like Sonablast provides beyond what an artist can do for themselves, Garvey looks through a wide-angle lens.

“We are basically a development center for new artists. We bring them in and help them with all the nuts-and-bolts basics of navigating the music industry. We guide them through the album production process, from the recording and manufacturing side. Then, when their album releases, getting the word out as much as we can. The artist’s role is really just to be as much of an advocate for themselves as they possibly can. We’re there to advise and guide and nurture, which is a huge value.”

Karate Body’s Herron sees his job as more fine-tuned to alleviating the tedium artists endure. “Writing and recording an album demands a lot of creativity, talent, determination and patience,” he says. “By the time a band or artist listens to the umpteenth revision of its master, they’re spent, and not just financially.” His label can pick up the ball at that point and let the artist focus on shows. “We do album and tour publicity at no charge to our bands. That promotion is so important when you’re getting ready to release a record.”

Both Garvey and Herron temper the idea of success. For Herron, “Success means you get to keep working.” Garvey expands on that notion, saying, “For a lot of artists we work with, it’s just being able to make a living playing music, which they’ve always dreamed of doing.”

Friends with Albums

Karate Body began as a vinyl-only company but has stretched out into CDs and digital downloads, recently picking up international distribution through the Chicago-based Carrot Top Distribution. Sonablast is as much a publishing company as a record label, its biggest strength being the ability to use Gill Holland’s connections for a different kind of airplay, like placing a Lucky Pineapple song in an episode of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” “I think you’ll see people doing less physical reproductions and just focusing on spreading the word about the artist, to get them placements or tours,” Garvey says. “We are good at getting placements for our artists in TV and film, which can pay quite a lot.

Lucky Pineapple co-leader Matt Dodds says, “Having ‘Moment in an Empty Street’ used repeatedly on ‘Jersey Shore’ is both a highlight and a lowlight for me. It’s really the first time I’ve ever made any amount of money I’ve kept from making music, and I definitely needed it, but also, you know, it’s ‘Jersey Shore.’ The song is actually a very personal one about my eventual death and leaving my wife alone and my lack of belief in any afterlife, so it kind of bummed me out to see it used as background music for monster people fornicating in a hot tub. But, whatever.”

Ryan Davis is an artist — leader of the band State Champion — but also releases his and others’ records through his Sophomore Lounge label. “I started putting out my own music because no one else wanted to, and a lot of friends felt the same way,” he says. “A few of my friends’ bands started writing ‘Sophomore Lounge’ on the discs they were selling or giving away at shows. It started like that, playing house with friends … more of a support group than a label. I’ve been putting out vinyl almost exclusively since then.” Davis’ take is more tongue-in-cheek, and though his overall outlook is positive, there’s an acidic quality to his view.

“As corny as it may sound, if a release looks, sounds or feels as good or better than envisioned by both myself and the artists involved, then it’s most definitely a success,” he says. “The number of experiences I’ve had since starting the label that could be considered financially ‘successful’ efforts could probably be counted on one healthy hand, if not some sort of war-damaged hand with three or four fingers … It’s truly a labor of love.”

Speaking the Truth

Born Christopher Owens, Truth B. Told is a spoken-word artist who is unsigned, self-managed, doesn’t have a booking agent, and yet is a full-time poet — as in, no, you won’t bump into him behind the counter at a coffeehouse or find him behind a desk from 9 to 5. He tours regularly, self-releases a couple of projects each year through Bandcamp and hand-to-hand sales, and does it all through social media. Still, a recent attempt to raise funds for a tour with two others through Kickstarter didn’t quite pan out; the trio only raised $180 toward a $3,000 goal. So considering how many more “traditional” singers and emcees still have to count on day jobs at the beginning of their careers, how does a spoken-word artist manage it? “Perseverance, adaptation, and an ability to continue learning,” he says. “That, and a very thick skin.”

The 32-year-old adds that you have to want it and work hard. “My previous employer taught me a valuable lesson: Look past the ‘Nos’ to get to the ‘Yes.’ If I don’t book shows, I don’t eat. It’s that simple.”

Having been in the business professionally just three years, he’s a graduate of the only version of the industry he’s known and has nothing to unlearn. “The digital concept of the business has definitely been a game changer,” he adds. “Being able to direct audiences to my website to purchase products while at a show is great. Apps like Square for smartphones are critical for artists as well, to help their bottom lines.” Gone is the excuse of “I’d totally buy something, but I don’t have any cash” — Square gives everyone the ability to securely process credit card payments, swiping via a free attachment. This also works for that buddy who’s owed you 50 bucks since ’97.

Then there’s the recent emergence of digital music service Spotify, yet another game-changer in the music industry.

Spotify has gotten a lot of press for tiny per-play payments, but is still a startup. The model now is to provide would-be pirates an alternative: an easy, inclusive, and ever-more intuitive music experience that provides creators and rights-holders some income. As they grow, expect both costs and payments to increase.

But the old guard still sees a physical world that has long since given way to the ethereal. For those who have been in the industry for a while and watch the Grammys with incredulity, wondering what a “Skrillex” is and how he got invited to play next to the cat with the mouse helmet on, it’s an unrecognizable future. For those in the audience, however, it’s just the sound (and the business) of now. The dream doesn’t change much, only the execution.