I really appreciate Tom Jackson’s writings about the nuts and bolts of music performance and the music business. Even though we are pretty far removed from the kind of bands he works with, I’ve learned a number of important things from him. And I’ve often nodded in recognition at some of his more blunt observations.
This time he writes about the common practice of investing everything in the production of a CD, then passing it around in the hopes that someone important will notice.
I just came back from half a dozen speaking engagements with about 150 CDs from various artists. Some of them are gorgeous! The amount of time, energy, and money spent on them is staggering. And though the intention is right, the way we’re doing it does not help the artist.
Can I tell you how the conversation usually goes? An artist hands me a CD and they say, “I’d love for you to listen to this and tell me what you think.” To be honest, I used to listen to every CD I was given. I even took some notes, so I would be prepared when the artist would call to find out what I thought. (I told them the only stipulation was that they had to contact me, and I would give them my card and number.) I was amazed that over 90% of the artists NEVER followed up with a phone call!
The fact that artists failed to follow up—even after an explicit invitation to do so!—astonishes me, but it doesn’t surprise me. We’re all trained to think that our gifts are innate and fully developed, or mostly so, and that success is merely a matter of being recognized for the wonderful people that we are. The 90% who never contacted Jackson were not looking for critical feedback in the first place—admiration and a hand up, maybe, but certainly not a helpful assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
I learned this lesson just after we had finished our first CD in August 2005. I had sent a copy to our mentor Pete Wernick, in expectation of … well, I didn’t really know what to expect, I was excited about it and thought he might be as well, in some vague way. I didn’t hear back from him, and didn’t see him again until two months later at IBMA. I located him in the exhibit hall, waited patiently as he talked to other folks who were also hovering, then took my turn.
After catching up, I asked him if he had listened to the CD, and if he had any comments. He very kindly told me two things that, while not exactly deflating me, sobered me up and taught me something about the process. First, he said that he was actually in the business of evaluating CDs—that for $75 an hour he would do careful critiques for a band based on what he heard. Second, he pointed out that once the CD is a finished product (as ours was), there was really no point in critiquing it as a CD, since nothing could be done to improve it.
Actually, he told me a third thing, which was that he kept a tall stack of CDs next to his player, CDs that had been given to him by various artists, and periodically he would shrink the stack by playing them—with his finger hovering over the next track button. For him to spend more than ten seconds listening to a track was unusual, not because the track was bad but because it was nothing unusual, fine for the people who wanted to hear it but nothing he needed to take note of. And he said that when he had gotten our CD he had actually started to listen to it critically, making mental notes of all the problems—and then stopped himself, reminded himself that this was something his friends had done, and then listened through it (quickly) with that in mind.
I actually liked that last part, since it helped me do some level-setting, reminding me that there truly was not much unusual about our CD—it was fine for a first effort, like lots of other first efforts that have come and gone—but also that he wanted to spend a little time listening to how his friends were doing.
Back to Tom Jackson, who says he actually did what those artists unreasonably hoped that he would do, i.e. pass on the more intriguing efforts to someone in the industry—but even that is now impossible:
After doing that for a while, I figured if it wasn’t important enough for the artists to call me, then it wasn’t worth my time to listen. So for a while, I would listen to some of the CDs that intrigued me a bit more and pass them on to someone in the record industry.
Now I say, “I’d love to listen to it, but I don’t know what to do with it!” The reply is usually, “if you like it, pass it on to someone you know in the industry.” But all I can say is, “what industry?!” The industry has changed so much. Plus, why and how I listen to music has changed so much, there’s no physical way I can listen to all these songs (if I want to sleep at night, anyway).
And he goes on to point out that even if it were possible, this isn’t what an artist should be doing anyway. An artist should be soliciting intelligent critiques of his work and responding to them accordingly. The rest will take care of itself.
In the rare circumstance that you are an artist that should be signed to a label in this ever-shrinking music industry, what would help the most? How do you get heard? What would move them to even sign you?
Listen to what Josh Bailey, head of A & R at Word/Warner/Curb, says: “The best and most likely way to get labels’ attention is to build up your career and fan base with your live show SO well that promoters, radio folks, managers, other artists,…start noticing!” Josh says that kind of buzz will eventually get back to labels – and that’s usually the way it happens in the recording industry.
We heard the same cruel but accurate truth at one of the IBMA conventions we attended. When you’re hanging out on the lower rungs as we are, you hear a lot of griping about how if only it were possible to get the attention of the higher-ups, things would really start to happen. People quite literally are looking for someone to share the secret handshake with them. And during a workshop put on by some well-known promoters and publicists, one bold person asked the eternal question: “How do we get you guys to notice us?”
You could hear egos deflating around the room as one of the panelists answered, “Well, just keep working on your stuff. If you’re any good, we’ll hear about you eventually.”