I was sitting in a smoky, somewhat overpriced hipster bar that will remain nameless when I happened to overhear what I can only describe as the mating call of the forever doomed "indie rock" act (read as just another local band). It’s the same woe is me story about how great some idiot thinks his band is but how he can't quit his day job at Kinko's because Warner Brothers or Sony won't realize his genius and swoop in on their private jets and woo him.
The fact of the matter is that the music business is about business first, and music is a very close second. The folks at Atlantic and Stax or even Sub Pop didn't start out huge with top named acts, they built themselves up with the tools they had at their disposal. Now it's true that with the death of the record store and radio it's gotten a bit tougher to get new and non-pop related artists out to the public ... but there are still ways to do it. All you have to do is get a little more creative.
Let's face facts, commercial radio does not sell albums or break bands anymore, but video games can sure help you reach the ears of teenagers and 20 somethings that do not listen to the radio. This means synch licensing (TV shows, video games, movies, commercials). Learn the terminology and learn to love it. This will pay for gas in your van, merch for your tours, new gear, hotel rooms (when a floor is not available). There is no such things as selling out anymore, there never really was. Just as Massive Attack if they feel guilty every time an episode of House airs on the USA network. Chances are all they hear is a new studio getting built.
Marketing is not a dirty word. You no longer need a giant record label to over-hype your wares to the press and radio. Chances are you're not the next Jimmy Hendrix, so who would believe it just because some marketing group puts it in a press release. Just skip all the middlemen and take it directly to the fans. Thank you, Internet!
You'll have to do it right, though. You can't just throw up a MySpace page and call it a day. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are great and I still recommend using them to your advantage, but your band will still need its own web domain, updated as often as you do the former sites and make sure that you have a digital mailing list, and that you send out weekly or monthly updates.
Now, none of this matters if you don't have the chops or the tunes to back up your hard work. A major label quality release can be made for as little as $3,000-$5,000 with today's technology. Do your homework, find the right studio, the right engineer, and find out if you can book off hours at a discount. Don't sell yourself short and don't over pay.
But most importantly, learn to play your instrument with the proficiency of Jimmy Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen. The last thing that the world needs is one more poser who can look the part, but cannot play. And more importantly, write good songs. People remember the songs long after they've gotten over the guitar burning or the biting off of the bats heads.
Which brings us to the live show. The best way to sell music is to perform live in front of people. The public still wants music; they just don't want it shoved down their throats.
Take the music to the people, offer it to them at a reasonable price, and let them come to you. In other words, keep your ticket prices low, and your show high. If you can entertain, thrill, impress, and/or awe them, the people will remember it and support the band in the future. You increase your market one fan at a time, whether you're selling 100 albums or 1,000,000.
And don't forget to bring the music with you to those shows. When you have a great night (or even a good night) people will buy things from you. Because they liked you, because they want to show that they were there. Hell, some will buy another copy of the album just to talk to you for five minutes. Bring some discs, have t-shirts made, and if you can afford it press up some vinyl, it's making a comeback.
In short, don't be that guy sitting in the bar on a Saturday night complaining about how misunderstood he is. Be the guy playing three states away. It's hard work, and sitting in front of a computer writing a better bio or uploading photos of a killer gig is not glamorous but it is the means to the end. And be creative, no one wants the same old stuff rehashed. Look how well that plan worked for the major labels. R.I.P.
A strange thing happened the other day. Somebody on the radio actually paid attention to music from the motor city. It was on NPR of all places, and it wasn't just some throwaway piece, it came from none other than Don Gonyea. It wasn't about some brawl that Eminem had gotten into. It wasn't about Bob Ritchie’s (oops, sorry I meant to say Kid Rock's) most recent break-up or reconciliation with Pam Anderson. It wasn't about the White Hypes or some garage band that you've never heard of that are supposed to be the next big thing. It was about the city’s musical pedigree. It was about how Detroit just can't seem to make anything of its highly touted music scene.
Now, Detroit is Rock City. I know because I heard it over and over again in the summer of 1976. Sitting in my bedroom watching the needle slip across that spinning piece of black wax, I was all about Kiss and Kiss seemed to think that Detroit had cornered the market on what Rock and Roll was all about. And, if you think about it in 1976, we had.
In under a decade, Detroit had become a veritable epicenter of rock and roll. The Stooges and the MC5, Ted Nugent, Funkadelic, Alice Cooper, even Bob Seger were all products of Detroit just as much as the Mustang and the Charger. They all pushed boundaries, they all drew crowds and they could all tear a room down with the amps only cranked to 5 (well Seger might have need to use 8).
But as the '70s drew to a close, the well seemed to run dry. As countless teens continued to blare Detroit Rock City from their car stereos all Detroit could muster was the Romantics. It wasn't for a lack of good or even great bands but Detroit just couldn't seem to get the music out of the city limits anymore.
All through the punk era we heard about new bands from New York, hardcore bands from D.C., the whole SST contingent on the other coast, Minneapolis, Chicago, but never Detroit. Bands like the Meatmen, Seduce, and Negative Approach all played with the big names as they came to town but ask any teen at the mall in a Ramones t-shirt who they were and all you'll elicit is a blank stare.
And so began the curse of Detroit. Berry Gordy packed up what was left of Motown Records and it was like the magic was sucked out of the city. Oh, once every decade or so we'll offer up some competent musicians with a gimmick to keep the world in awe of Detroit, but it is by no means our best or our brightest.
In the late '70s and early '80s it was The Romantics and Madonna. In the '90s we offered up the thoughtful and skilled talents of Big Chief, who vainly tried to give the masses a healthy serving of funk and rock not seen together in such a fashion since the days of Funkadelic, which was quickly passed over for the more radio ready Sponge that the record buying public ate up with a spoon. The end of the '90s allowed Detroit to give rise to the return of the white rapper with Kid Rock, ICP, and Eminem.
It's almost not a surprise that the local scene can't pull it together enough to dazzle the world the way the Stooges and the 5 did so many years ago. A brother and sister team (or a husband and wife duo or whatever the White Hypes are claiming to be this week) can enthrall the world enough to be able foist the talent-less moanings of the Von Bondies onto the record (read as MP3) buying public. And when we catapult them to semi-stardom based off of an overly vampy TV theme song, it's almost time to throw in the towel.
On any given night you can walk into some shitty bar and see a local act aping one of the musical geniuses that Detroit has offered up to the world. At Small's it'll be some band trying their best to be the stooges. Memphis Smoke has the market cornered on the Seger wanna bes. Finding the Alice Cooper-ites might be a little more expensive, they'll have had an in with Clear Channel or Live Nation and will have scored an opening slot for some tier C touring act. And if you want to find an act that thinks they’re the next White Hypes look no further than the Magic Stick, seven days a week.
So there Don Gonyea, I know you weren't asking for an answer but you got one. Why can't Detroit cash in on its musical legacy? Because almost everybody is busy trying to recreate classic music, not make classic music. Maybe that's why I don't sign bands from Detroit much anymore.