If you read this blog you probably know by now that "making it" is completely relative, and that sometimes I feel like I've "made it" while other times I feel like I've made a big mistake. However, most of the time I fully understand that my situation as a musician is a lot better than most, and according to most I've "made it," in every sense of the "it." Because of the relativity of "making it" these days, just assume that every time I say "make it" I'm picturing the term with quotations around it even when it doesn't have them.
Because of the belief that I have made it I am frequently asked about how to do it. I field many different questions but most of them really mean: What sort of secret hook up did you have? What trick did you pull to get a leg up on all the other local bands? Who do you know who could get me signed?
The truth is we were just like everyone else, chasing down leads to inevitable dead ends, getting our hopes up over silly things like getting our demo in the hands of popular musicians and producers, putting our faith in things that were a shot in the dark at best. Nevertheless, it is the opinion of many struggling musicians that we have "arrived," so I'll attempt to share our story from the business perspective with the hope of enlightening those aspiring musicians who read this, as well as to dispel a few industry myths.
Here is the condensed version of how we formed: It was February of 2003. Justin and Skip played in bands in high school and had moved closer to Seattle to go to school. They'd been writing songs together for a few months, and when they met Alan at school they asked him play bass on the songs they were writing. They looked for a singer, and tried out over twenty different guys (some hilarious stories about a few of these tryouts) until I answered the ad in the Stranger (Seattle's weekly free liberal-artsy newspaper). I listened to their songs and thought they were really good. I played some of mine for them, and they seemed to like them. We recorded their songs on a tape player outside the band room door, and I went home and wrote the lyrics and melodies to three of them. I came back and sung to the songs live and the rest is history. A lot of history.
I remember there was a certain feeling back then like we were good, better than other bands. Turns out we weren't nearly as good as we thought we were, but I think that feeling is important. If you don't love your music, it'll be hard to get other people to love it. We were also fully committed. We had all realized this was what we wanted to do, and we were completely committed to seeing it through. We dropped out of school and got restaurant jobs so we could practice every day. We spent the summer of 2003 playing anywhere we could, we brought demos to coffee shops, entered battle of the bands contests, networked with other local bands. We never once got paid to play a show (unless we won a contest), and most of the time it cost us to play. We were jerked around by promoters and ignored by the more popular bands. We were just like everyone else.
Talent and Dedication - I think unsuccessful bands usually lack one of those things. Talent makes your songs good, but dedication makes your songs heard. Dedication is probably more important than talent, because talent can be learned through the process of dedication, and as we all know some very untalented bands can also become quite successful. This is probably due to the fact that their dedication surpassed that of other bands, or it could be because of something that you should never count on: luck. The best bands work hard, they don't rely on luck and neither should you.
In our early stages as a band we thought we were pretty good, but we knew we were completely committed. I remember having conversations with my band mates about having no back up plan, about how we were all going to do this thing 100%. Was it smart? Probably not, but it got us this far. We haven't lost a member yet and we've been able to pay our bills for five years, travel, meet people, and impact lives in a surreal way. I wouldn't change it for the world, but it didn't just fall in our lap. We worked for it, struggled for it, and we still do.
Sure you have to have talent, but you can't just have talent alone. Songs are everything. A producer friend told me years ago that "for every thousand songs you write only one will get you paid." It only takes one to build a career, so keep writing. Don't hold on to old songs, always write new ones, improve on the old ones. Not every song will be great, but it could be a stepping stone to something great. Without great songs your chances of "Making It" are slim to none.
I recorded our first demo's in the band room by myself. They turned out pretty bad, so when we finally felt like we'd come into our own as a band we decided to shell out $2000 for a seven song EP. We did this EP with a guy named Casey Bates, who I originally met at audio school in Seattle (he took school much more seriously than I). He had been recording local bands for a few months and his production quality sounded like it was worth the money, so we recorded our 6 best songs and one instrumental with him in about a week. (We recently released the song "Weapon of Choice" from the EP on the Vagabonds Deluxe Edition.)
A good recording is key, and it's easier than ever these days with the advancing capabilities of computers. Label people will always tell you that they can hear through poor production, that they're listening to the song, but they're either lying or delusional. Most of them are song-deaf and you have to slap them in the face with a close-to-finished product before they'll get excited. They want a product that they can take credit for. Do I sound bitter? I hope not, because in my years I've found this to be a simple truth. Good producers can see diamonds in the rough, but A&R's (label representatives) can only see diamonds. Get a good producer, and if your songs are good, the A&R's will spot them. Do not promote yourself with crappy sounding production unless you're like The White Stripes and it somehow strangely fits your genre.
Here is the condensed version of how we got signed: In late 2004 we paid for one of those ads on Purevolume.com back when it was like $150 or something. We were featured on the front page for a week, and our shiny new songs started getting more plays than ever through our Purevolume.com profile. There are tons of sites like Purevolume.com now, and even better ways to get add space and promote yourself. Because of the feature, we were contacted by a guy who worked for EMI-CMG (which is the umbrella label for Tooth and Nail), and he flew out to a show and took us out to eat. He wanted to sign us to a developmental deal, something small at first, where they front a little cash to do a record and then see if they want to sign a real record deal if it does well. It wasn't something we were too excited about at the time, but we were encouraged to know that a label rep found us and thought we were good enough to invest in.
We decided to hold off until we could find representation, which didn't take long because our management sort of found us. We had a buddy in Portland who started a clothing company. He decided to sponsor us as well as some other bands. He loved our EP so much that he sent it to the manager of one of his other bands and the manager contacted us. That manager loved the EP and him and another manager flew up from LA to watch us play. After some debate we decided to let these guys represent us. They were able to get us showcases for Interscope, Epic, and other major labels. None of these showcases added up to anything for us (Side note - we played the worst show in our history as a band at one of these showcases. I'll have to go into detail about that at some point). Eventually through the contact at EMI-CMG our management got a Tooth and Nail A&R to come out to a show in Seattle. He loved the show and over the next few months we played more showcases for Tooth and Nail, negotiated a contract and signed it in June of 2005.
Getting signed is only the beginning (but it's not the only beginning, there are plenty of ways to DIY and do fine nowadays). Once signed, you have a pass to play on the national level, but it's not like you've suddenly arrived. The real work has only just begun, and the cycle of writing, recording, and touring can go on for as long as you are mildly successful (which in our case has been over five years). If you're songs are good enough, and you're dedicated enough, someone somewhere is going to discover you and want to invest in you. If you're talented and dedicated enough people will purchase your music, come to your shows and support what you do. It takes time and dedication to make it happen, but it can happen. Remember things like "luck" and "chance" are fairy tales at best, it's the "blood," "sweat" and "tears" that you should bank on.
When you look at our story you'll find that all the good things happened when people listened to our songs and loved them. That's a pretty simple test. When people hear your music do they flip out? Is it that good? "Pretty good" wont cut it in this industry, music has to move people in some way (even if it's just to dance) in order for it to spread. Not everyone will flip out, but it's always a good sign when the people who listen to music for a living enjoy listening to yours.
Not Quitting - I think that might be the most important thing. So many good bands and talented musicians hang it up before they really give it their all. Opportunities come with time, and you have to give yourself time in order to be presented with them. If you really want to make a career out of music, "not quitting" is probably the best thing you can do.