A Year in the Life
Hello, all. Advance apology for the length, but I was asked to write about a “year,” so it averages about a page a month, not bad. When asked to write a recap of the past year in the life of our band, The Rosenbergs, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it because I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell the truth about our situation, but then I thought about “Booger” from Risky Business: “Sometimes ya just gotta say, ‘What the fuck?’.” The reason I wasn’t sure is, because in all the interviews and panels I’ve done in the last year, everyone always expects you to “Put on a happy face.” Ya know, keep up the public persona bullshit. And you do it so much, it becomes a reflex. Speaking on panels around the country entitled “Internet Success Stories” or “Maintaining Creative Control and Still Succeeding,” you sit there and try and make yourself sound as attractive as possible because nobody likes to hear a bunch of whiners, right? Well every time I’m on one of these things and I’m speaking and saying how great everything is going, or how we’re able to survive so nicely doing it ourselves, I just feel like saying, “This is all bullshit, man! You guys have no idea!” The bottom line is, WITHOUT MAJOR PROMOTIONAL DOLLARS, YOUR MUSIC WILL MOST LIKELY FADE INTO THE SUNSET AND YOU WILL BE PUT OUT TO PASTURE WITH THE OTHER MISGUIDED HOPEFULS.”
Now, those of you who are familiar with us may find it hard to believe that we, The Rosenbergs, the so-called “Indie Giant Killers,” or “The Leaders of The People’s Revolution”(that’s my favorite so far), or whatever we’ve been called, are coming out of the closet and saying that doing it yourself is for the birds. Well, I guess we pretty much are — but that’s okay, cuz no one’s gonna read this thing anyway, so who’s gonna know? The preceding was an attempt at brevity before the axe falls. It’s not that we don’t believe in what we’re doing anymore — lord knows, we passed up the possibility of a major deal to try this baby out, and I speak about these issues every chance I get. It’s that I personally feel that we, as an artist community, are years away from making real major change because for the most part, we just don’t give a shit about each other. Here’s an attempt to pull back the curtain on the last year in the lives of our “Indie Success Story,” and although you may not agree with my assessments on the current state of the “Biz,” hopefully, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Anyway, here’s a perfect example of hindsight being 20/20.
We started out with a loan for about 150 grand from Robert Fripp’s company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM). Before we were even out of the box, our nest egg was more than cut in half by studio time, lawyer fees, etc. We still owe some of our closest supporters close to 20 grand because they didn’t get paid back when the gates were open, as it would have left us with almost zilch right from the start, and for that we feel pretty bad. The four of us, as a band, also erred as we each took a thousand dollars a month draw from our company, LZI (Lord Zorch Industries — don’t ask). This drained four grand a month like a sieve from our seemingly bottomless well. But ya gotta realize, after busting our collective asses for years, in and out of bands and in and out of $6.00 an hour jobs at the local asbestos plant and coal mine, running up bad credit reports and procuring debt the size of a small country, having the opportunity to reach into the cookie jar and live like a “Working Musician” was just too alluring. Okay, so, it’s early February and we’re excited about everything at this point ‘cuz we’ve got the PR firm doing their thing and our booker, Paula Leone, bless her little booker heart, is putting together our Napster tour. Napster had just agreed to spring for our idea of releasing a second, full length “bonus CD” with every purchase. “Physical File Sharing”: You buy the album, you get a free copy to give to a friend. I’m pretty sure it was the first case of a band giving away two records for the price of one. We hoped, that by jolting the industry’s “business as usual” release procedures, we’d be noticed by the relevant news organizations, as we didn’t have near enough money to promote the record through the traditional channels. We weren’t noticed. At least, not enough. What we thought would make a “SPLASH!” made a “ploop!” Obviously, if Pearl Jam did it, you would’ve heard about it loud and clear. Oh, well. We did the “2fer” because we’re a LIVE band, and aside from the PR move, if we sold 20,000 copies, that would mean 40,000 potential people hearing our music and coming to the shows, and when ya get right down to it, that’s what we’re all about, as are most bands — playing live.
The Napster Tour
We hit the road heading south on our Napster tour a few days before the record comes out. We’ve got four very large Napster magnets stuck to the sides of the van, which were subsequently stolen within weeks. On the highway, everyone beeps at us and yells, “Yeah, Napster!” We’re also on Napster’s front page and getting a lot of articles in the local papers as well as on the ‘Net, but without radio play or exposure on a certain video channel, does anyone really know who you are? Incidentally, Evan just brought along a friend’s CD to Atlanta this weekend and there’s a song called “Famous” on it. It pretty much hits the nail on the head with lyrics like, “It might be good art, it might be bad art, but I can’t tell, ‘cuz it’s not famous.” Anyway, the tour begins and Paula’s telling us all the promoters are really into us and they’re making sure to put us on with pop bands that have some sort of following so when we hit Arkansas without radio play and Best Buy promotions, there’s actually live human beings there to see us — not to mention the actual “promoting” the promoters are gonna do, hence the word, “PROMOTER”. It definitely sounds like an oxymoron to me. Little by little, each town we get to, folks come up to us and say, “Damn! It’s lucky I was walking by the club and saw your guys picture ‘cuz it just went up yesterday.” And those “pop” bands they were supposed to put us on with turned out, in most cases, to be the winners of their high school “Creed soundalike” contest — get the point? Oh, also, almost every show was over 21, so all the kids who use Napster are e-mailing us saying they’d like to come but aren’t of age yet. Okay, we’re doing our best to keep our chin up at this point — heck! When the record comes out, things will be different, right?!
Let The Pigeons Loose!
The record comes out. A great record I might add, not as good as The Beatles but definitely better than Creed (can ya tell I love Creed?). The first thing that happens is that we get word that a lot of the “indie” stores are boycotting the record. Wow. Here we are trying to be as “indie” as possible and the indie stores hate us. Why do they hate us? Because we’re doing a Napster promotion and Napster takes business away from them. Uh, hint hint, without applications like Napster, half their records would never get heard, but that’s neither here nor there. The funny part was that Dave Matthews, about to release his new album, was on Napster’s front page proclaiming how great it was, along with Thom Yorke and a bunch of others. Our business manager, Angus, also happens to be Dave’s biz mgr. He tells us that Dave is releasing his new single through Napster FIRST, and I ask our manager, Adrian, if the indie stores are aware of this, because surely they will boycott Dave as well. Are you laughing yet? Me too. See, we all know it’s about money, but the way it was explained to us was, that we had the tiny little Napster logo, the “Kitty Cat,” way up in the corner of our free CD, and THAT is what the indie owners were pissed at — not at the actual Napster “affiliation” — because if they sold Dave’s stuff and not ours, it would make them hyporcrites, right? So, we were boycotted because of the “Kitty Cat,” and Dave didn’t have a kitty cat. See if you can imagine this being explained to us and us trying not to hear, “Ya see, guys, the problem with your album cover is that SHE’S the victim. On Dave’s cover, HE’S the victim”.
Our PR firm, Girlie Action did an “okay” job, as we could only afford to pay them “okay” money. Sure, we had articles in a lot of the local newspapers, but so do runaway pets, if ya get my drift. It soon became obvious that unless we wielded some major label muscle and money that the Maxims, Spins, and Rolling Stones would ignore what we were trying to do. It’s sad that articles about artists rights have to appear in the Times Sunday Magazine or GQ. I’m sure no self-respecting 16-year-old dares buy his suit or his summer home without consulting one of these periodicals first. Had we walked out of “Obar” with a half-naked and drunk Courtney Love, we would’ve been in Maxim.
Breaking The Rules?
Many other fun things happen as well when you’re trying to go against the grain. We had retailers opening up our CD’s and selling the “free” copy, without a booklet, in a flimsy jewel case, for FULL price. As recently as two days ago, Michael Smith, Kenny Howes’ manager, said that he ordered the CD from Buy.com. They sent him a thin, shrink-wrapped, Napster copy, by itself, with a bar code on it, and charged him full price. We had reviews in trade magazines from storeowners saying, “I LOVE this record! However, I’m not going to be selling it.” Personally, I kind of expected the Towers and the HMVs to get all huffy about giving away two CD’s for the price of one. But they took ’em with no hassle whatsoever. Alas, on the major front, the Coconuts chain boycotted the poor thing. To make it even more hilarious, we’d been told by Ryko, our distributor, that we were getting HMV in-store play and “Featured band of the month” stuff. Then, days before, we were told we’re being bumped to next month for some major label act. We were not naive enough to believe that the term, “Next Month,” actually meant the month following this one.
National Distribution* — With an Asterisk
So, we drive from town to town and become our own little “Record Police.” As I type this, I can’t help but think of all the other bands who’ve walked this particular path before me and all who will come after. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve got “National Distribution” — the fine print should say, “National — meaning sort of national.” On the average, I would say our record made it into about 40% of the stores around the country. Not bad, we just happened to always be in the other 60 by coincidence. We’d place the daily call to Adrian crying that our record wasn’t in this store or that and for Christ’s sake, “We’re playing tonight!” The record never made it to any Wal Marts or K-Marts or Targets, as Ryko did not have distribution deals with them. But let’s focus on the positive: Great! We’re in Tower and we’re in listening posts! Woohoo! Let’s go see! (Upon walking down our aisle): “Uh, what does row 14, disc 5 on the select button mean? Does that mean that there are 70 artists on listening posts in this store!?… No? Oh, good… What!? It means there are 70 artists in our ROW? HOLY SHIT!
Two funny record store stories, feel free to skip if I’m boring you yet:
1. We’re slated to play the Virgin Megastore in Times Square the day after Weezer plays. The folks there were great to us, no bitterness whatsoever for a change. Day One: Weezer plays, guys are everywhere, pushing stages, moving lights, bringing in speakers the size of Rhode Island, etc. They also have the HUGE “W” behind them in flashing lights, very cool. Day Two: We play. “Where’d everybody go?” You’d think John Ashcroft showed up at the Marriott Marquis across the street and was letting people punch him in the face for a dollar. We lugged our own equipment in, paid about 16 grand to park the oversized van, spent a fortune to keep 1/18th of Weezer’s rented stage and sound, and, in place of the HUGE “W,” I drew an “R” with a sharpie on a piece of notebook paper and taped it behind our drummer, Joe’s, head. It wasn’t as cool but it got the point across.
2: We’re slated for an instore at Tower in Paramus, NJ. The manager there is a sweetheart but obviously doesn’t control every detail all the time. About a week before we played, I went down there to make sure the posters we sent were hanging up — do I even have to tell you? The staff directs me to the “Art” guy. He tells me all of our posters were destroyed in shipping and unusable. “ALL OF THEM?! We sent about twenty!” He replies, “Yes, they were all destroyed. But! We made a banner of our own with your name on it and it looks absolutely terrific!” I say, “Wow! That’s great! Where is it?” “It’s in the storage room.” Oh, brother. So, I go back to the storage room and look and sure enough, there’s this huge banner with our faces on it, easily eight feet across. I walk back out and ask him when he’s actually planning on putting it up. “Thursday.” “Uh, that’s like the day before we play. Any chance of putting it up today?” “Well, we’ve got the Bada Bing girls coming from The Sopranos tonight, so maybe after they leave.” Yeah. Do I have to tell you when the banner went up? At least the folks in the stock room knew about the show.
We did a bunch of Borders stores as well, and they were really cool about almost everything and hung our posters up like they were supposed to, but without major promo dollars… “Who are The Rosenbergs and why should I show up? I’ve got a toenail clipping class that day.”
Getting an Opening Slot When You’re Not as Cool as Lenny Kravitz
Moving right along, we finish the Napster tour and are attempting to get a support slot on another — preferably one with people. Now, keep in mind, we received a ton of supportive e-mails when the Farmclub thing was going on from all these “higher profile” artists saying “Way to go!,” “Hang on to your rights!,” “Need a favor just ask!,” etc. When it came time to ask them to help us out, even the crickets weren’t chirping. Okay, keep trying. We’re inches away from closing the Semisonic tour. It’s practically a done deal. Then, “Who’s Pete Yorn?” “What do you mean his brother’s Mike Ovitz’s right hand?” “Oh. That sucks.” I actually like Pete’s stuff, but it’s good to be the king.
Next up, Echo and the Bunnymen. Ian and the boys are great guys and we had a lot of fun — lord knows, it’s better than working at Sam Ash selling those darn green Paul Reed Smith’s all day to those wanna be “boybandwithdistortionpedal” dorks. I’m just not sure our music was the best fit for a Goth crowd. We actually went over surprisingly well almost everywhere, and the places we didn’t, we told ’em we were Bon Jovi.
Radio Promo, or “Let’s Make a Deal, Monty!”
As all of this is happening, we were lucky enough to have probably the most powerful radio promo firm in the country pushing our record… but only on the Internet. See, we couldn’t afford the boats, cars, houses, and “orange five-hundreds” (Monopoly reference), so once again, we’re guinea pigs! (I’m getting tired of being poked and prodded, I want a normal million dollar deal like everyone else!). We were gonna be the first band to break solely over Internet radio! Can you hear those crickets chirping? It’s quite difficult to do when the entire Internet listening audience is the size of WPLJ in New York. Oh, we got some terrestrial airplay, mind you, but it would always come at like, 6 AM Sunday morning when everyone would wake up, and feeling not the slightest bit hung over, flick on the radio and sit and listen, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, while waiting for the butler to bring them their tea.
It was basically laid out for us like this: If you guys can spend about 40 grand this week, we might be able to get ya overnight in Seattle. MIGHT. For another 50 gs, you MIGHT get overnight in Chitown, etc. etc… cha ching cha ching. Hang on, let me check my wallet. It became obvious that if we wanted radio play, we’d either have to pull a real live version of Airheads and take Harry Shearer hostage, or one of us, preferably Evan, would end up marrying Sumner Redstone’s daughter, or — if it got us radio play — maybe even his son. Believe it or not, we’re actually on the same side as the labels with regards to promo. Obviously, they do not want to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars for these indefinable “promoter fees,” and guess what, there’s no law limiting what these “promoters” can charge you. Unfortunately, thanks again to Congress, the labels can’t get together and say “We’re not gonna pay this anymore,” because then it’s collusion and anti-trust. Someone on the promoters’ side has a Pretty Powerful Pal up on Capitol Hill.
No self-respecting rant about radio would be complete without a nod to the big guys themselves, Clear Channel. In case you don’t know, Clear Channel is run by a man named Lowry Mays (I did not make that name up — probably has a Roman Numeral after it and everything). Thanks to the Telecommunications Act, turns the American media world into a buffet and allows any tycoon, not partial to race, creed, or color, to now own as many radio stations as he damn well pleases, ole Lowry and Sons here go to town buying up every single station in sight. Then they fire all the employees, especially the ones who’ve been there for decades, and replace them with talking Schnauzers. Clear Channel owns about 60% of the modern rock radio stations in the U.S. They also own television stations, radio tracking magazines, and most importantly and terrifying, the promoting companies and the venues. Basically, if you’re not gonna play ball with Clear Channel, you’re gonna end up like Luca Brasi. Of course, most artists are chomping at the bit to talk on the record about these guys (sarcastic). Keep your fingers crossed, or in a few years, we’ll all be listening to their music, watching their television, reading their newspapers, believing their news, using their toilet paper, wearing their sneakers, and eating their chicken. My little acronym for radio is, “Ridiculous Advertising Dollars In place of Originality. Technically, it spells, “Radipoo,” which is just as good.
You Moron-San, There Ain’t No Pop Market in Japan!
Don’t fear for a minute that just because we owned our music over here in the States that we wouldn’t get a taste of exactly WHY we decided to own our masters in the first place. You see, we did a licensing deal with Avex in Japan. A large, predominantly dance oriented label over there, but they do have some acts like Muse, etc., so we figure, why not, especially since they’re giving us close to 40 grand for the record and promising tour support, pre-release trip for press junket, etc. Personally, this is where I thought we’d do the best, considering that these days, the US is overflowing with fashionably angry teens who’d beat up Aunt Bea just to impress their friends, and tons o’ pop bands have made entire careers playing to the Japanese fans. But apparently we were mistaken, as we’re later told, “Japan isn’t a very big pop market.” That’s like saying China doesn’t have a really big Asian population. So, our record comes out over there, we sign a sub-publishing deal with Kiss’s guy in Japan, and the video hits MTV Japan. Mission: You sells 2,000 copies in under three weeks in Japan — this is without us ever having set foot on Japanese soil — and Avex stalls and stalls about the “pre-record” tour, until it becomes the “during record” tour, until it became the “There’s no record out, why tour?” tour. We got a fresh dose of what it’s like to deal with an A&R person. The exact reason we were doing what we were doing over here was killing us over there. Basically, one annoying wretch of a woman stopped everything cold. This woman named, “Junko” or “Jinko” or “Junkyard” or something like that took weeks to reply to Adrian’s e-mails. Then, an opportunity arises to tour with Sloan over there, and we think we might finally go. Everyone is happy, the cost is cheap, the promoter loves the band, Sloan is cool with it, THE COST IS CHEAP, etc. Alas, at the Midem Conference in France, Avex drops the bomb and tells Adrian one of the funniest things I’ve heard in my entire life; that basically, 2000 units is all that can be expected out of a pop record in Japan, because, after all, Japan isn’t a really big pop market anyway, and there’s no reason to bring the band over as they “Probably won’t sell anymore.” The guy then proceeded to amazingly pick the next six winning numbers of the Illinois State Lottery and currently has his own Jamaican fortune telling show late nights on CBS. We’re currently trying to get the record back from these rocket scientists.