Saturday, January 29, 2011

What Every Artist Can Learn From The Joshua Tree


1987. Regan was still president, Beverly Hills Cop 3 was at the movies, and a little band named U2 released an album titled “Joshua Tree”.  Joshua Tree is considered by many music critics as one of the greatest rock records of all time. Not only are there gaudy album sales to prove this album was special, but amazingly artist after artist and band after band continue to list this record as a major influence twenty-four years later. Cool. Fine. Great…but why?
Great songs are everything!
When I sit down and start listening to songs like, “Where The Streets Have No Name” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” I don’t notice how bad the bass tone is or how sloppy the drums are. I hear huge energy, great lyrics and above all amazing melody. How in the world can a recording be that “bad” and yet are considered as an all time classic? Honestly the answer is quite simple. Great songs. Great songs can make fans forgive a band for a bad live show. (Watch the band Keane live sometime) Great songs can help listeners ignore a terrible singer. (Bob Dylan, please forgive me.)  And in U2’s case great songs help us forgive a pretty bad recording. If you don’t have great songs then you have absolutely nothing.
Most independent artists are under the impression that the unobtainable “hit” song is written by a mysterious person born with super human musical genius in just five minutes. Then simply recorded in thirty minutes and then sent to radio. This is nowhere close to reality. Trust me when I say even the most talented songwriters are very human. Writing a great song is a fight! It’s pushing through and not letting yourself settle for that “just OK“ melody or lyric. It’s finding all the parts of the song that your gut tells you are just OK and replacing them with something that excites you. My producer friend Lynn Nichols says it best when he says, “Great songs are not written. They are re-written”.  Don’t be afraid to tear apart your songs and rewrite them.  I guarantee that’s just what they need.

Written by: Blake Easter

Saturday, January 22, 2011

White Guys Can’t Jump!

Remember the 1992 film, “White men can’t jump”? Woody Harrelson, playing the geeky but some how loveable Billy Hoyle, hustling LA’s toughest basketball players? Man, I loved that movie. As a short, white and probably geeky kid myself, I loved the playful banter that addressed certain stereotypes that otherwise might have been taboo. The movie made it plain and undeniable. Sometimes generalizations are just flat out true. Recently, I’ve started to become aware of certain “general” truths concerning bands or artists in the music business. It seems the same handful of issues just keep coming up.
General Truth #1:  Band’s are there own worst enemy
How many times have we heard of a band breaking up just when things were about to break? In the last year I can think of five different artists right off hand that have ruined opportunities just by their bad attitudes and ego. Bands that find a way of staying together have a way of being successful. It might seem like I’m playing the part of Mr. obvious here, but it’s the truth. After all, in your town who is the most booked band? Who has the best merchandise table at shows? Who has the most industry connections? The band that has been together for a while, that’s who.
            General Truth #2:  You don’t need a manager until there is something to manage
Every band that has credible talent will at some point be approached by somebody that wants to “manage” them. This can easily be the biggest mistake you will ever make in your music career, so be very careful! Industry standard for managers is 10-15% of gross earnings. That means they make money off of everything from shows to t-shirts to the movie you just starred in. A good manager has there hands in everything as the job description reads something like, “to enhance and create opportunities for growth in all facets of the artists career”. The only times that you should hire a manager is if you have so much going on that you can’t handle all of it yourself or if the person wanting to manage you is the manager of U2 and somehow fell in love with your music and is willing to stick by you as you grow.
            General Truth #3:  In an artists development there are no shortcuts
We’ve all heard the term “pay your dues”. When I hear this I instantly think of the old, chain-smoking, blues man.  This is a way of quickly describing the process labels refer to as “artist development”. Every show you play, every fan you interact with, every interview you conduct, I mean everything you do, will help form you into a better artist. It’s worth noting that even American Idol has its contestants for almost a year prior to you seeing them on TV. Why don’t you know that? Simple, contestants sign a contract with a gag order and if they talk about it, they are history.
            General Truth #4: Anything worth doing in life takes sacrifice
If you don’t believe in yourself enough to sacrifice for your dream why should anybody else? Every producer, engineer and record label executive has worked and sacrificed to be where they are. They have no time for wimps. Suck it up, work hard or go home.
Treat people the way you want to be treated. Enjoy the experience and whatever you do don’t be your own worst enemy!  For every Billy Hoyle you will find a white NBA dunk contest champ like Rick Barry or Rex Chapman. Sometimes the general rule doesn’t apply, but we would be foolish to let our pride blind us to the fact that most the time it does. This short, geeky, white guy is finally willing to admit white guys, on average, can’t jump!

Written by: Blake Easter

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What In The World Do Labels Want?

 In 2004 after just finishing my first solo album, I had the opportunity to meet with a prominent entertainment attorney in the hopes of having his help in shopping my new CD to labels.  Our meeting quickly got started with him asking me a series of questions. “Do you have any more music besides what I've heard? Do you have a band? How many shows are you playing a year?” Wait! What! More music? Shows? A band? I had just spent everything I had on the recording. I didn’t have a band yet because I thought once I was signed that would all be taken care of by the label. Wasn’t my new album enough? Lunch ended and the interest that I had previously heard in his voice was gone and he didn’t even take one of the ten winter green folders I was trying to pass off as a press kit. I was crushed!  This brings us to the issue that keeps every artist up at night. What in the world do labels want?  
Rule #1: It ain’t what it used to be.
All of us have read countless articles on illegal downloading and of CD sales plummeting. This has forced labels to go back to a singles approach. Instead of signing a hundred bands and seeing which two or three stick, now an A&R persons’ artist that they have signed has to work out or they lose their job. Simple as that.  Freshly signed artists don’t have the chance of an album or even an EP. They have a single and if it doesn’t hit then they are history.
Rule #2: Labels want everything done for them.
Labels want to hear a record with “hits” ready for the shelves. They want to see you booking lots of shows. They want to see a fan base. They want to see local or regional radio play already in place. Simply put, a label wants to come in to something working, growing and launch it bigger. If you can sell ten thousand CD’s on your own then they feel confidant and comfortable that they can sell a hundred thousand nationally.
Rule #3: Do you really need a record label?
 For all the noise about the DIY movement, record labels still control the radio waves. This matters if your music falls into the popular music genres. Justin Timberlake needed a record label because of his style of music. However Widespread Panic does not. A jam band does not get huge radio play outside of college or independent stations. Where they make their money is playing live, so why should a label have a piece of their pie? Yes, there are some great independent artists who have chosen to go their own way and make a great living doing what they love. But remember, only you can decide what the right path is for you. Just know that labels still own the radio and if that’s something you want then you have to play the game by their rules.
Rule # 4: Just because someone works at a record label doesn’t mean they know what there talking about.
In the last few years of working at a label, working with prominent producers, managers and radio promoters, I’ve been amazed by how many people are just flying by the seat of their pants or, worse yet, don’t even like music. Nepotism, cliques and just good ole fashioned brown nosing are some major contributors to the problem. This will never change. Instead of fighting the system set your sights on what you can control.  After all you control the quality of your music, how many shows you play and most importantly how many fans you have.
Its worth mentioning that there are some incredibly knowledgeable, talented and passionate music lovers that still work in the music business. It’s also worth mentioning that the entertainment attorney I met with in Nashville four years later gave me my first major break in my music career. Don’t give up and don’t give in. Preparation will beat out luck every time!

Written by: Blake Easter

Why You Need A Producer.

At least once a week I get a CD of an aspiring artist handed to me. I’m convinced Starbucks is the music and business hub of Nashville. I really try to make an effort to listen to everything that I receive. After all, I know first hand from the last fifteen years how hard being an independent musician can be.  You never know, that blank disc with the band name scribbled in mint green marker just might be the next Coldplay.
Ninety-nine percent of the time the CD is sonically not up to par (this is my nice way of saying absolutely freaking terrible!) and there are always basic song writing mistakes spread through out. Now if you had stopped reading here you would walk away thinking there is no hope and that Blake guy is a total jerk. But wait, there is hope! This is the point where we all sit back, take a deep breath, take a sip of our favorite coffee, and address the issue of why working with a producer is so important.
A friend of mine once told me about when he worked at a small boutique ad agency in the mid seventies. He had just gotten back from being on a two month long tour with his band.  To land a job that wasn’t bagging groceries was a huge stroke of luck. As the agencies youngest employee, he soon found himself marketing everything from toilet paper to Swiss cheese.  Once a week they would all gather in the conference room set the product for whatever new account they had just landed in the center of the table and they would start brainstorming. “What’s different about this product than its competition? What are the products uses? What are the benefits? What are the negatives? How do we hide or spin the negatives?” It wasn’t long before my friend realized how much his new work at the ad agency was a perfect image of artists in the music industry. The point is, when you are “the product” it is near to impossible to be blatantly, terribly, and ruthlessly honest with yourself about the quality of your product. I think the job description of a producer is this. A person that helps you do what you do better, or as my mentor Lynn Nichols says, “Let’s figure out who you wanna be when you grow up.” 
We live in an amazing time where every ten year old kid has a pro tools setup in their bedroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of every artist spitting in the eye of the cigar smoking, music biz fat cat! The fact is, in order to compete in today’s music business you need great songs and a great recording. Yes, I know there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. We’ve all read articles about the guy who recorded his whole Grammy winning album in his bedroom in Iceland or whatever. That’s great for him, but for the rest of us mortals we need to seek outside input to reach our potential.  Don’t let pride or even fear be the reason why you release sub par music.  Find yourself a producer!

Written by: Blake Easter