What I Have Learned So Far (random thoughts on this gig)

I keep notes all over the place – on post-it notes, napkins, Shinola Detroit notebooks, and on a surprisingly useful app called Evernote. Lots of bits and pieces that I turn into, what I hope are, stories and such about my professional life. As I celebrate another trip around the sun today I am pulling a few “so far” bits together here.

 I exist, professionally, in a bubble of sorts. I’m not part of the band or production and yet I am closer than most people will ever get. I’m always made to feel welcome and I never overstay. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable and it suits me just fine.

The very notion that an artist, in a band that I’ve never heard of, has a “side project” that, according to their representative, is something that I should become involved with is absurd. I wish said artist would work harder on his “main project” so that we all could benefit. Thom Yorke from Radiohead has a viable side project called Atoms For Peace. Use that as an example of how this works.

Modern artist relations is akin to speed dating. I use you and you use me and we see where it leads. I don’t invest heavily – a vocal mic, for example, for the lead singer. The truth is most of the bands that I deal with, in their current form, are gone within two years. Which leads to my next point.

Production people are my best friends. The men and women who do this touring gig are amazing. I don’t think there is another field of work where such a wide range of skills are brought to bear. Drive a forklift in the morning and program a digital device in the afternoon. Oh, and mix a concert in the evening for thousands of fans who have paid good money. They know where the good restaurants are worldwide as well as the best tattoo parlors. They put some sanity into my speed dating analogy and they are my experts on the music scene.

If you are speaking directly to the artist, you have set the bar too low. I know that sounds crass and there are notable exceptions to this but, for the most part, in my experience it holds true. Don’t get me wrong, I have some serious high profile artists who I do speak to directly but the conversations and relationships tend to center around an authentic friendship. We rarely talk about gear and when gear is involved, the artist/friend directs his or her “people” to handle the details with me.

Last, if the bar is closed at the Admirals Club at O’Hare Airport at 8AM and James Earl Jones sits next to you, you will get a drink.

 

That Went Badly. Or Did It?

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I’ve wanted to talk about this for a while now; the times when things don’t go your way with an artist. This is appropriate now as I am mopping up a rejection of sorts. I try to tone down naming names in my blog – products and artists – but for this to make sense I have to say it was a Sony DWX wireless microphone package for Bob Seger, a musical hero of mine who was embarking on a big juicy US tour.

For those who don’t know me, I bleed Detroit rock and roll so a little background is in order here. Anyone from the Detroit area knows the power of Bob Seger. NewJersey has Springsteen and Michigan has Seger. Years ago, my brother Scott and I worked on a local stage crew in Lansing, Michigan. We set up a fair amount of Bob Seger shows and it was always a kick. He had great band members and that voice was, in my mind, the voice of rock and roll. The sound company was almost always Dallas-based Showco and that was my first encounter with rock and roll Texans. I loved it.

I vividly recall one show where he came off stage after the last song and asked ME what he should sing for an encore. Rock stars don’t ask the crew guy what to do for an encore!  I was taken aback and blurted out “Cat Scratch Fever” which was a Ted Nugent song, not a Bob Seger song. He gave me one of those looks as if to say, “how the hell did you get here?” before bounding back on stage to do “Ramblin Gamblin Man.”

Seger, these days, doesn’t tour a lot so I knew this was going to be a long shot, but I was determined to get him gear to try. Through an admittedly thin relationship with his management, help from a contact in Colorado who works closely with one of the tour background singers, and a brash call to another tour that had the gear already and was passing through Detroit – “I don’t care, you have to leave it in Detroit. I’ll send a guy to St. Andrews Hall tonight to pick it up. Something’s come up…” You get the idea. I was on a mission.

I arranged to have the demo system delivered to the rehearsal facility, and a day or so later I had a call from Bruce Knight, Seger’s FOH mixer, introducing himself and asking me about the system. I gave him the story as best I could and he agreed to get the mic in front of Bob. Actually he agreed to attempt to get the mic in front of Bob. The schedule was nuts with Bruce bouncing back and forth from a few remaining dates with The Doobie Brothers and only two days to rehearse with Seger prior to the first show.

A few days later I received an email from Bruce saying that they didn’t have time to really dive into the Sony but thanks anyway. In the ensuing days, much to my delight, I had a couple of phone calls from Bruce where we talked shop. Some of these calls, I’m sure, were due to massive storms in the Northeast that altered his schedule mightily. In other words he had time on his hands. But what a great opportunity for me – we talked about rigging points, the wireless rigs that Bob is using, amp and guitar sounds that he’s getting with the lead guitar player, intros to their monitor mixer, and even why he uses a particular model of chair that Staples sells. I know more about this tour than I ever hoped I’d know. Oh, and we got the wheels turning for other opportunities with the Sony gear.

The Hipsters and the Rock Guys.

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“ It's time for the music industry to embrace the neohipster digital marketing crowd as the future. Yes they are annoying, arrogant, non-musical know it all’s. But they are also fanatic and passionate about new ways to sell shit. They are full of ideas. They are superfans. They are the Malcolm McLarens of our era. And if you want your gear to sell like never-mind-the-bullocks, you better look past the skinny jeans and PowerPoint manifestos and hire their asses.” Dave McVeigh

 

Why isn’t there a better connection between the rock guys and hipsters when it comes to marketing? The hipsters would seem on the surface to be really good at helping the rock guys. Hell, they act more like rock guys than rock guys do. In truth though, the only similarity to rock and roll that hipsters have is that they dress like indie musicians and thus all look alike. Rock guys don’t care about fashion, hell they ARE fashion. It would seem, however, that there would be a huge sense of “we’re in the same war” and everyone could make money.

Definitions are in order:

Rock guys are folks who work in the MI (music instrument) and pro audio manufacturing world. They build stuff for musicians. They market to the professional and amateur musician, DJ, sound mixer and recording studio users. They tend to have fairly tight marketing budgets and believe that, often wrongly, “if you build it they will come.”

Hipsters (my definition for the purposes of this discussion) are digital marketing experts. They tend to be young and gravitate towards young and fashionable clients. They are the embracers of everything that the rock guys despise, music that arrives on a compressed file, brightly colored headphones, Uber car services.

Don’t get me wrong; rock guys need to be more hip. The rock guys are all very old now and it shows. But unlike an old shoe salesman who is glad to retire, rock guys just get better, assuming that they keep their head in the game. They have the connections-real connections that come from time in the trenches. They know that there is an invisible line that can’t be crossed through “Likes” and “Views” where serious musicians see a product as frivolous. They know that Instagram and Iphone videos mean nothing and that music, real music can still save souls. The hipsters have no concept of that.

Siting at the adults table…

The downside of the Hipsters is that they seem to lack, oddly, imagination. They don’t play well with others. They view “lifestyle” as a real marketing strategy. The rock guys deal with One Direction, Five Finger Death Punch, Joan Baez and Cee Lo pretty much the same and in the breath. The Hipsters heads explode with that.

 

A Zealot Looks at Sixty

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Time, apparently, does fly when you’re having fun. I turn sixty at the end of March and it’s time to reflect. I’m not much of a reflector but it’s time to get it on paper, as they say. I will get right to the point – how do you keep your flame burning for artist relations? I fully understand that you are only as old as you feel. I’ve had sixty years to figure that one out. But as a group of professionals in an industry that, to a large degree, doesn’t eat its young, can we stay relevant and interested in this fast paced job? Can we avoid the trap of becoming grumpy old men and women and continue to love what we do? As we all know, this is a job that doesn’t allow for faking, phoning-it-in, or other foolery.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I wrote an article for Mix Magazine called “I’ll Sleep In September” about the touring life as seen through the eyes of a factory sales guy. It was a fun thing to do – going on tour and seeing how things really went together. I got quite good at my chores and was asked back for several subsequent tours.

Fast forward to a week ago. My sister was on a long layover in Los Angeles on her way to Australia. My wife, Claudia, and I (with our sons) met up with her for a lunch. Amy and I got chatting about the sixty “event” and what did I hope to do? Taking up tennis and that sort of thing. I suppose the modern term would be “bucket list” but I reject that in favor of a “sieve list.” I keep it fluid…I pointed out that, for the most part, I am very content and life is a gas. One word did blurt out though and I think it took my sister by surprise. Tour.

I would love to go out on something that was interesting and required little or no heavy lifting. I could work with my clients or other interested parties and tie AR into this.  Sounds crazy, I’m sure. But for me, thankfully, the fire for this gig burns brighter than ever. Simply put, I love being around this stuff. I’ve found a home where my contributions are appreciated to the degree that I can make a comfortable living. I’m fine knowing that I’m not part of the band but also I’m not NOT part of the band either.

So, Rick Elias, my sights are set on you. Let’s hit the road and promote that new CD, Jōb. Come on, it will be fun!

What ways do you keep the fire burning, lit or at least glowing? 

A Case Study

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“Roll them cases out and lift them amps. Haul them trusses down and get‘em up them ramps.”  The Load Out, Jackson Browne

I thrive on influences and influencers. Whether it is The Kingston Trio, The Who, Jack White, or Chance The Rapper, I will find something that I can apply to my business of artist relations and pro audio marketing. A current influencer is David Meerman Scott, the marketing strategist, author, and music nut. He wrote a book called “Marketing Lessons From The Grateful Dead” that is great. All of his books are hugely helpful.

And while artists and products come and go, one item has stayed more or less consistent and important to me. The road case. I’ve loved road cases since the first time I saw them come off a bobtail truck at the Michigan State Fair. The road case was, and still is, a symbol of music, travel, and adventure.

Road cases, specifically the ATA type from companies like Anvil – the holy grail of cases – housed secrets. When working for my brother Scott’s local stage crew, some of those secrets were unlocked. One of Springsteen’s truck drivers showed us “the sound” inside a road case. A glockenspiel. If you can’t place it, think of the intro to “Born To Run.” Famed bassist Leland Sklar’s case was purposely made so that two stage hands had to carry it, thus insuring, theoretically, that it wouldn’t be mishandled.

Of course it’s all fun and games until you find yourself on the receiving end of a case coming down a truck ramp at, what I consider to be, a reckless speed. I was almost flattened by percussionist Steve Forman’s huge case that held hubcaps, garbage can lids, bells and other goodies that one would think didn’t need such care and protection. I was tempted to ask him if he couldn’t just steal hubcaps in every city and save freight hassles.

When I moved to Southern California I got a job driving the truck for Express Sound, a great company that built pro studios and the occasional portable recording system for all sorts of clients, mostly in the Los Angeles area. One day I was sent to the Anvil factory to pick up cases for a mixing console that Express had sold. Needless to say I was in heaven. I got a tour of the facility and was told that I could pick out any color of briefcase, they would stencil it with my name, and give it to me for free.

A couple of weeks later my very own blue Anvil briefcase showed up at my house. I had arrived. This, combined with the fake Marshall Tucker Band tour jacket that my brother had given me, made me feel alive. I loaded my papers, pens, and a copy of CREEM magazine into it and, well, didn’t do much. But I looked good. Later, when I began doing serious travel for manufacturers, it became apparent that the Anvil briefcase was not practical and was retired.

I continue to be fascinated by road cases and they still play into the work that I do. If you really want the inside scoop, look at the outside of a case. Check the stencils and other labels on them if you can. Management contacts, studios, rental houses, sound and lighting company intel is there. There are also some great old logos that pop up – Brother Records/The Beach Boys come to mind.

Being inquisitive is a critical and often overlooked component to business success. Data and analytics are good. But so is a road case.

 

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Chalk It Up To The Ghosts: finding my way back to the big gig

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I’ve discovered throughout a forty-year career that sometimes the best path is to take on the big stuff and postpone thoughts of a so-called simpler time. This lesson did not come easy to me – I have experienced both sides and am naturally drawn to the simple.

Such was the case when I worked for a northern California-based loudspeaker manufacturer and got it in my head to visit the island of Bimini. I was traveling throughout Florida with my friend and co-worker who we will call “Rick.” I prefer to leave his real name out as he still works for this company and I’m sure remains a person of interest with regard to my old expense reports.

We were making the rounds in the Miami area with dealer and contractor visits. A series of meetings, lunches and dinners discussing some fairly heavy projects. I can always tell a heavy project when I’m handed a hard hat on a site visit.

It’s at this point in the story that I should mention my growing dissatisfaction with the job and line of work. I felt I was losing the music and at the time had no solution. I had a taste for something different and no idea where to go to satisfy it. And that’s when I spied the Chalk’s Airline billboard. “Daily Flights to Bimini.” It wasn’t too hard to pull rank and tell Rick that we were going to a tropical island for the next couple of days. He was up to the task and used to my shenanigans. The next thing we knew we were on a commercial seaplane taxiing out of Miami harbor.

If you ever get the chance to fly on a seaplane, do it. With Chalks, given their long history, the experience is amped up. Just prior to takeoff headphones drop from the ceiling. Actually they sort of crash down – these were old heavy headphones. Expecting the usual flight safety recording, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in The Head” playing rather loudly.

After the short flight we cleared customs and checked into the historic Compleat Angler Hotel. This tiny hotel burned down in 2006 but in its day had played host to many interesting characters. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent guest and, according to lore, wrote much of To Have And Have Not there. Jimmy Buffett also hung out there and found inspiration. Old photos lined the walls of the bar with images of spirits and days gone by. I loved it.

A couple rum drinks later Rick either chickened out or wizened up and decided to catch a flight back to the mainland. So I was left alone with the ghosts and a very empty bar. It was raining hard outside and with no town nearby to walk around, I sat in the hotel’s reading room and took it all in.

It took all of twelve hours before I got thinking big again. This nagging voice in my head was telling me to set up a meeting with an organization, in this case the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), who we had been courting for a large sale. I’m sitting in a room where Hemingway wrote greatness thinking, “The wrestling event is essentially in the round. How will we place the subs? The broadcast portion is huge – how does that fit in? Where is the next show?”

The next morning, I flew back to Miami, regrouped, and within ten days or so found myself at the Spectrum arena in Philadelphia witnessing the spectacle that is professional wrestling. Earlier in the day I watched as the sound crew placed microphones under the wrestling “ring” and tested them. Want to know how they test mic placement at a wrestling event? They get a guy and literally throw him down on the mat and listen to the “thump” over the PA. They are able to get three or four shots at this until the “thrower” is too tired to toss. I loved it.

My take away from this experience is that, for me, all in all bigger is better. The large gigs can seem dull, at least in initial stages. Countless planning meetings, specifications, drawings, bids, etc. But there is a lot at stake – the excitement does build – and I want to be part of that. And at the end of the day, when it comes to live sound, fifteen thousand screaming wrestling fans in Philadelphia trumps an empty bar in Bimini.

Holy Holy NAMM

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It’s been far too long since I last wrote for the Artist Relations Specialist page. Truth be told I’ve been pleasantly swamped with work having added Martin Audio to my group of clients. There is a great synergy that is happening these days between Heil Sound, Ultimate Ears, Sony Pro Audio, and Martin Audio, although only Martin Audio requires a basic knowledge of truck space. The others use the overhead bin.

One goal that I set for myself this year, and something that I’ve written about previously, was to visit more and listen more. I’ve been to everything from hip-hop shows at the famed Shrine Auditorium, Pucifer at the Ace Hotel, rehearsals for Barry Manilow’s Christmas show and everything in between. I love it. I still contend that nothing beats a face-to-face conversation when it comes to pro audio gear and artists.

My most recent endeavor is with Sony, Heil Sound and the Tony Visconti/Woody Woodmansey “Holy Holy” tour. This band of all stars will be performing “The Man Who Sold The World” on the east coast and it will be amazing. Steve McGuire is mixing FOH and Tour Managing, and it’s been a riot fielding phone calls from him and hearing the scoop. You forget how many details a FOH engineer that is also tour managing must contend with – all of the audio/production advance details, hiring tour buses, crew, itineraries, press requests, not to mention artists personal details like making sure Woody will have an oscillating fan at every show (a very good idea) – among others. 

So now we are headed to NAMM. I’m looking forward to this one as two of my clients, Heil Sound and Ultimate Ears are doing some interesting things. Actually, interesting isn’t the right term. This stuff is downright cool.

First, Heil Sound is kicking off a yearlong celebration of their 50th year in the business. A new booth, new videos, as well as the introduction of a regular ongoing podcast series called “Bob Heil – 50 Years of Maximum Rock & Roll.” I’ve heard the first couple episodes and they are terrific. If you are at NAMM Friday join us at booth #7018 for cake and champagne. The goodies will arrive at 4 pm.

Ultimate Ears, on the other hand, isn’t looking back in terms of history but looking way forward. They have set a goal of scanning ten thousand NAMM attendees with their groundbreaking 3D Digital Ear Scan. Four UE booths will be at the show – one in each exhibit hall – and…all heck will break loose. They’ve got daily drawings, a grand drawing, bells, balloons, buttons and stuff. When Mike Dias tried to explain it to me I realized that I could never properly describe it. I trust him so, trust me, it will be great!

Here’s wishing a great holiday to everyone and I hope to see you in Anaheim!

'You Do Not Want To Go To A Mexican Jail'

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I’ve been watching “The Bridge,” the excellent crime thriller being shown on Hulu. There two versions, the original, also known as “Bron/Broen,” is based in Denmark and Sweden, and the US version takes place in El Paso, Texas and the Mexican city just across the border, Ciudad Juarez. It’s harrowing stuff and for anyone who follows the news knows, Juarez is a very, very dangerous city.

I used to work for Crest Audio back in the late 1980s and we sold a large amount of power amplifiers to a disco in Juarez. I don’t remember the name of the club but I do recall that the DJ and head honcho went by the name “Bobby C.” Bobby had invited me to visit if I ever got to El Paso and on a business trip through Texas I took him up on his offer.

At the time, the Crest 8001 was the flagship model and considered a beast. It delivered a whopping – for its time – 1400 watts per channel into 2 ohms. The 2 ohms thing was a big deal and Crest was the only power amp manufacturer that could not only tout 2 ohm operation, but back it up in terms of performance. Running an amp at 2 ohms was considered by many to be foolish but it did allow the sound system designer or operator to wire a lot of speakers to a single channel of the amp. Discos loved Crest amps.

As darkness fell on El Paso I gathered my pile of Crest Audio t-shirts – “Power Is Serious Business” – that I had brought for the crew and headed on foot to the pedestrian bridge over to Juarez. Laughingly referred to as “The Friendship Bridge” it didn’t feel very friendly then and it hasn’t got any friendlier now that the cartels are in charge.

Once in Juarez I felt scared and wished I was back in El Paso. The neighborhood looked bad and smelled worse. Remember this was pre-Internet, smart phone, 24-hour news, or any of that stuff. I was on my own. Luckily the directions that I had received from Bobby were good and once inside the club, and after a couple beers and a shot of tequila, I settled in.

Bobby took me up to a beautiful room that doubled as a DJ “booth” and VIP lounge for special guests. He proved to be not only a great host but also the ultimate multi-tasker. One minute he was spinning records and getting the crowd jacked, shouting into the microphone, and the next he was getting drinks for the few guests as well as conversing with me about the sound system.

At one point in the middle of our chat about all things impedance, he said to me, “Greg hang on one second.” Bobby grabbed the mic with one hand, did something on the lighting control with the other and before I knew it he had killed the sound and shined a spotlight on the dance floor where a fight had broken out. He said, “Stop fighting right now or you will go to jail. Believe me when I say that you do not want to go to a Mexican jail.” The culprits, off duty soldiers from nearby Ft. Bliss, immediately pulled themselves together, gave a nod towards Bobby and left. With a flick of his hand, Bobby restarted the sound and lights as if nothing had happened. He picked up our conversation exactly where we had left off.

I was slack jawed and thought long and hard about that scene as I made my way back across the bridge to my hotel. It felt good – great actually – to have been around it. I had been out of my comfort zone in a big way during a business trip with a customer and I had witnessed something that not too many sales managers get to see. I was in the trenches and seeing what our customers deal with on a nightly basis. Do I recommend visiting Ciudad Juarez on a regular basis? No. But I often think back to that experience when I’m in a meeting that is making me uncomfortable. I stayed out of a Mexican jail and lived to write about it. A little danger in business is good.

 

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In My Way And On My Nerves: A Gift From Shelby Lynne

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Actually the complete sentence was, “Sounds like somebody in my way and on my nerves. I’ll give them 5-6 minutes before I go on stage in NC.” This, in an email to me from Shelby Lynne via her manager, Elizabeth Jordan, was in response to my request to shoot a promo video for my client, Heil Sound, with Shelby during her upcoming show in Raleigh NC.

This story begins a few months ago when my wife, Claudia, and I were invited to Shelby’s house for an after show party. It was a small affair with a group of friendly people from several walks of life. Shelby and Elizabeth were great hosts and at one point Shelby said to me, “You know Greg, my voice is in that microphone,” referring to the Heil Sound mic that she has been using and liking. I remembered that line and vowed to use it someday with her. In a video. In Raleigh.

My first thought after reading her response, honestly, was to pull the plug on the whole deal. Take the coward’s way out. But I realized that Shelby was right. We would be in her way and, most likely, would get on her nerves. But I also knew that when that promo train leaves the proverbial station, you not only better be on it, you are on it. Shelby’s management team, the road crew, band, video crew, and venue were all on alert ready to go and we were going to make this happen.

My brother Scott and his company, Incue, have become my go-to partners in the US when the opportunity to shoot an artist video arises. Based in Raleigh NC, via Hollywood CA, Scott creates a relaxed atmosphere for everyone and brings a high level of professionalism and experience. He’s shot interviews with a “who’s who” list of celebrities through the years and nothing throws him.  I’m lucky to have him on my team.

I’ve always been a “no news is good news” sort of guy when I know that the task, whatever it may be, is in capable hands. Still, I was pacing the cage all day waiting for a call from Scott to tell me that the shoot was going great and Shelby had delivered those six precious words: “My voice is in that microphone.”

Finally the phone rings and it’s Scott with a report. She wouldn’t say the line but she sang a song about Heil Sound that, I suspect, she made up on the spot. Did I mention that Shelby Lynne is a Grammy winner? A gift of gold.

Lessons From The Bee Gees

“At some point we determine exactly what the melody is, note for note. Then when we do our lyrics we don’t detract from that melody. We don’t change the melody to go with certain words that we may like. We religiously make the words fit into the melody that we’ve pre-established.” Barry Gibb.

This is from an excellent multi-part documentary about the Bee Gees that I recently discovered on YouTube. Released in 1997, it has footage and interviews from just about every phase of the band’s storied career, one that spanned several decades and garnered record sales of over 220 million. The band, comprised of three brothers, had great success as a pop act in the late 1960s and early 1970s and massive success in the late 1970s as writers and performers in the disco era. They continued to perform and write hit songs, often for other high profile artists, up until the death of Maurice and later, Robin. Surviving member Barry still records and tours.

Watching the video, I was struck at the way the three members could sit and, in a workmanlike fashion, create a song. They were crafting within fairly rigid guidelines a message or story that potentially millions of people would hear. Also, within this strict set of parameters they are acting as a team – an incredibly creative team – to solve the musical puzzle and make the parts sound right, both lyrically and melodically, and make sense to the listener.

I believe that a comparison can be made between great songwriters creating a song and content gatherers (a horrible term I think I just made up) putting together posts. Just like a song, social media is fairly structured, especially platforms like Twitter. Think of the social platform as the melody and your message as the lyrics. Sure you can fudge it with longer posts that the reader must click on to read the entire thing, older readers will recall eight track cassettes used to do that too with a annoying audible “CLUNK,” but to do it right, you are locked into some rules.

As an artist relation’s person, and one who is tasked with gathering meaningful content for my clients, this video hits home. It helps that music is the recurring theme in the video and that my clients are in that business, but the thought process here can be applied to any industry that is trying to use social media in their strategies. I suspect, too, that in any corporate social media group there are a few guitar players who can relate to the songwriting analogy.

So embrace your inner songwriter. Remember, it could be worse. Imagine if social media postings had to be in the form of a Haiku.

A Broadcast Legend & A Pocketful of Sharpies: A Soulful Moment

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It’s important to be aware…

This story started percolating in my brain while thinking about artists and autographs. The few forays that I’ve made into that territory usually end badly. I was turned down once by Carole King after being the only person at a party to approach her and say how much I liked her music. That was about fifteen years ago in NYC and I swore I’d never do it again. Then just last month I brought a picture for Bob Seger to sign at a show and his manager said “no.”

But after some reflection I did recall a successful autograph “get” and it involved my dad, Hugh McVeigh, and the legendary Detroit Tigers baseball announcer, Ernie Harwell. This was in 2000 and my brothers, Scott and Dave, were camped out at the abandoned Tiger Stadium on a HBO shoot that Billy Crystal was directing called 61*. The brothers McVeigh were doing a “making of” feature about the film.

The film told the story of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s 1961 battle to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. The Detroit location, with Tiger Stadium acting as Yankee Stadium, was perfect for McVeigh family members, especially Dad, to visit the set. Also visiting was Ernie Harwell, and one day Dad got to sit with him and talk, mostly small talk, a kick for my dad. Sometime during that day a picture was taken of the two men. The framed photo hung proudly in Dad’s living room.

Later that winter I was visiting my dad and received a call from Dave saying that he had contacted Ernie’s wife, Lulu, and she was pretty sure she could get Ernie to autograph the photo. Dave said that she was expecting my call. I gave her a call and we agreed on a time to meet at the couple’s apartment complex in suburban Detroit.

My first thought was to try and surprise Dad – tell him we were going shopping and then take him to meet up with Ernie. But I figured that he would notice that his favorite picture was missing and the whole thing would go off the rails. So instead I told him the deal and I’m glad I did. He was like a kid with excitement and had the good sense to insist that we stop by Staples and get a couple of Sharpies to try before going over to Ernie’s.

Outside of Ernie’s house we sat in the car with a few new Sharpies and scraps of paper that resembled the rather dark photo. We only had one shot at this and the thought of an unrecognizable Ernie Harwell autograph was more than we could bear. Nothing looked great but we figured we had one color that would be acceptable.

As we approached the buzzer to his apartment I could tell that my dad was nervous. He wasn’t exactly a stranger to celebrity, between Scott and Dave’s video work and my work in music, he’d been exposed to some stars. But this was different. He asked me questions; how long should we stay? What should we talk about? I told him to relax and see where things take us. I’d give him a sign when it was time to go. We hit the buzzer and THAT VOICE sounded in return. That unmistakable, to any Detroit sports fan, voice saying in his soft Texan drawl, “Hi Hugh, I’ll be right down.” Magic.

And here is where it gets even better. Ernie walked into the room with a pocket stuffed full of Sharpies. And a fistful of the markers too. In every color imaginable. I didn’t know that Sharpie made so many colors. When I commented on that he laughed and said, “I’ve done this a time or two” and then signed the picture.

For the next half hour or so the two men chatted about Detroit things; the car business, property values, and of course The Tigers. When it was time to leave we all shook hands and Dad and I thanked Ernie. At home he put the picture back in its frame and on the wall. He smiled for the next three days and never missed a chance to show it off to his friends when they came to his house for a visit.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to embrace the totality of that experience for me as an artist relations specialist and businessperson. The photo is compelling, just my dad and Ernie Harwell – a broadcast legend and artist in his own right – sitting in an empty Tiger Stadium talking. And the fact that all sorts of movie activity is going on nearby is cool too.

But add to that the work that Scott and Dave were doing in town with HBO, their awareness and alertness to get that picture – a photo that had nothing to do with the film – the phone calls to Ernie’s wife and then to me and finally the run to Staples and the sit-down with Ernie transforms it into something…soulful. And sometimes we, in artist relations or any business endeavor, need some soul.

Later, during his Tigers broadcast that day, Ernie mentioned meeting my dad on air. “He's so proud of his kids and he should be... A swing and a miss... they moved out to California and they're doing really well..."

Get Off The Couch & Visit Your Customers

Splitting the atom causes an increase in energy. Divide and conquer fits into this discussion too. So does six degrees of separation. Getting ones ass into the car, driving to a venue, and meeting with the many good folks on a tour creates all of the above and then some.

I find that it is easy to get complacent or just plain lazy given the Internet and its supposed way of bringing people closer. This has been bothering me and I’ve been on a personal mission to get out and visit my customers and contacts. What now seems like a no brainer actually began as a post-NAMM revelation when I drove to Burbank to drop off gear at Center Staging. Walking around the facility with audio manager, Doug Dubin, reenergized me for some reason and I made the decision to focus more efforts on visiting folks in the field.

Last weekend I drove to Las Vegas and visited the Bob Seger gang at the Mandalay Bay Event Center. Early in the afternoon of show day, I met up with Bruce Knight who is Seger’s FOH mixer. We had never met in person – see my snide Internet comment – but had become email friends and he had helped open some doors previously with Seger.

For most of the afternoon I stayed at Bruce’s FOH area while he tuned the PA and attended to his duties there. Soon though he took me backstage and got me a pass, partially, I’m sure, so that I could leave him alone without getting thrown out.

A lot happens during the day at an arena show and being privy to issues that others aren’t seeing can have benefits. For instance the tour manager informed Bruce that he’d need to move the entire FOH (and lighting) position ten feet so that the promoter could run three more rows of chairs. This, 45 minutes before the band was due to arrive for sound check, is a big deal and could have been nasty. But everyone stayed calm and by being there and assisting in a very minor way I opened doors with a select few people who jumped in to get it done. I also got my own security guy who tipped me off to a restroom that few in the arena were aware of. Priceless.

The catering room is also a fantastic place. It’s imperative that you keep your wits about you though; be careful not to get caught up in whatever road gossip you may hear. A heated discussion by an ex-employee of the Eagles who was visiting is a perfect example. The guy was mad and wanted to engage anyone who would listen. I wasn’t about to chime in – no sense in saying something that could come back to bite me. I nodded my head and muttered a sympathetic “that sucks” and turned to conversations elsewhere.

My point here is that there is no substitute for visiting your customers or artists and talking face to face. Too often we communicate, and I use that term loosely, via email or texting and think that we are tight. Spending time, real time and not “thanks for the tickets, sorry it was too loud to talk, and I had to leave early to deal with the babysitter” time doesn’t cut it. Go in with an open mind. Heck, even the slightly buzzed girl and her sister sitting with me at FOH were connected to a high profile studio in South Florida. You never know…

A Picture Is Worth…How Much?

In this brave world of social media, content, etc., photographs – great photographs – rule. Great photos are timeless and, regardless of the platform, important to any artist relations strategy. The experience of finding and using a great photo on the Internet can be a pain in the neck but also a golden opportunity to show an artist and your relationship to them.  As as with anything related to business on the Internet the rules are murky and God help you if you have a misstep.

In the late 1980s, when I was the marketing director at QSC Audio, I had the idea of hiring famed photographer Annie Leibowitz to shoot photographs for a series of print ads. I liked her rock status and getting a renowned photographer to shoot products that were, quite honestly, dull, seemed attractive to me. I was going to make her part of the story.

I got the phone number of her agent and called him. I should have known that this was going be out of my price range when I discovered that an agent was involved. I was told that it would cost in the neighborhood of $12,000 per day plus all travel and meals for a staff of five. Needless to say it never got off the ground. But, looking back, at least the rules were spelled out and it was a simple “yes” or “no” deal. It’s not so easy any more.

These days there is confusion surrounding this, especially with photos of artists. I’m not talking about permission to use a photo. That’s pretty straightforward. I always clear a photo prior to using, although even that gets weird. Not too long ago I came across, what I thought was, a great photo of the bassist and singer, Meshell Ndegeocello. It was on the Facebook page of a venue that she had just performed at. Just to be sure, I contacted her manager to let her know that I thought it was a cool shot and I was going to post it on the Heil Sound Facebook page. The response was, “we don’t think that is a good picture so please don’t post it.” I like these folks a lot so I resisted the urge to point out that the ship had sailed the instant that the venue posted it.

My latest episode involved several photos of singer/guitar player Lauren Larson from the Austin-based band, Ume. She is a rocker, and a photogenic rocker at that. Perfect for a promo that I helped put together with Heil Sound, Electra Guitars, ZT Amplifiers, and Ultimate Ears. I found four shots that I thought were great and could fit into the message. They were from four different photographers and all had watermarks on them.

I sent Lauren an email to get her permission to use the photos and she agreed but asked me to also get permission from each of the four photographers. She gave me their email addresses and I set about to get the needed nod. The first response from all of them was fairly consistent – “I love helping this band but if the picture is for commercial purposes I want to get paid.” My response? “Fine, how much?” Silence. Then responses started trickling in with tentative, almost apologetic price quotes. “Would seventy-five dollars be too much?”

The lone exception was Julian Bajsel, a photographer based in Houston, who provided a timely response with pricing, terms and great follow-up. His price was higher than the others and for good reason. He knows his stuff and does this on a regular basis. In fairness to the others, they are a great and talented bunch and clearly enjoyed shooting concert photos. In fact, Heil chose one for a teaser ad.

My point to all of this is, “Hey photographers, get your act together.” You’ve got a great opportunity to get your pictures in the hands of folks who will pay for the right shot. It won’t be Annie Leibowitz kind of money, but you will get your great concert photos into some cool places. But if you are a business, act like one when a manufacturer inquires about one of your photos.

Ageism in Artist Relations

I started a blog the other day about my recent experience with gear for Bob Seger. As many of you know I bleed Detroit rock and roll, and Seger plays huge in my life. But as I got going on the story a couple things happened. First, Bobby Keys, the great sax player for the Stones and others passed away. I met him once at a bar in Dallas and he was as nice as can be. And today the equally devastating news that keyboardist Ian McLagan died. Both were artists that I had the highest respect for. Real, honest players.

The timing didn’t work out with the Bob Seger camp. It was a long shot but I made a batch of new friends – a fourteen-piece band with assorted crew members will do that – and it got me thinking about what part age plays in what we do. Bob Seger is almost 70 years old. Hell, I’m 60.

So here is a question. If you had an endorsement deal to offer an act, with no strings attached (unless, of course, you are a string manufacturer) and the band gave full cooperation, management was onboard, etc., would you give it to the Rolling Stones or to One Direction? It’s a loaded question with many layers and I’m interested in what you think.

I promise to get back to my Bob Seger story someday. It's a good one!


Connecting The Dots With Artist Relations And PR

Everyone talks about the importance of content, that seven letter word that in my opinion, has turned many truly creative people into jacked-up drones willing to upchuck pretty much anything online. I used to be a marketing guy and a writer. Now I am a “content provider.” But I digress.

Your marketing department, sales team, and customers all crave content. Stories. Stories are everything in business and always have been. How we tell them changes, but not much else. And in our world of pro audio and MI products, the artist using those products plays huge in the story. Artists help cut to the chase. And who better to get that story than the artist relations person? You have the relationship that nobody else has. You’ve sat with that person and hopefully they have liked your product. You have the inside track.

Granted, you won’t be able to quote an artist or do sneaky smartphone photos without his or her permission, nor would you want to. But if you keep your ears and eyes open, chances are you’ll come across something that can be used in a meaningful way by your PR or marketing department. In my case I tend to do both PR and AR for my clients, which greatly streamlines the process.

Which brings me to one buzzword that actually makes sense to me. Brand journalism. You are a reporter for the brand that you represent. Make sure you help your company connect the dots. Otherwise you’re just one of those posers that the road crew snickers about.

The Shelf Life of a Grammy Win for Artist Relations

Does a Grammy win have any impact on a company’s artist relations strategies? I’m asking under the assumption that said winner/artist is already using or endorsing said company’s products. Are there some bragging rights that can be leveraged? Movies that are associated with an Oscar win always promote the fact in their marketing post-award and I’ve been thinking about how a Grammy award can work.

I remember way back in 2003 when Norah Jones took home five Grammy awards. Her FOH mixer at that time, Lee Moro, was emailing me during the telecast each time she was called up on stage to receive an award. “Ten more feet of truck space.” Another award, “just got ten more feet of truck space.” And so on. And sure enough, when Norah did her next tour, there was an additional truckload of goodies for the sound crew.  How ‘bout those analytics!

I should point out that I’m not talking about the actual award telecast. Equipment, gear, products or whatever you want to call it for that is a different beast. Much is used based on a technical partnership born out of the need of the production (massive amounts of wireless mics, for instance). On other end of the spectrum, those greasy corporate “branding” swag bags now increasingly pass for artist relationships for some misguided companies.

The broadcast is its own spectacle -at times masterful and at other times cringe inducing. I’m always amused how two different views of a performance, both by people who know, can be so polar opposite. The other day Shelby Lynne posted about the simplistic beauty of John Legend playing piano and singing at the Grammy show. That same day the Los Angeles Times ran an article that, among several criticisms of the show, pointed out how boring (their words) the John Legend performance was. To each his or her own, right?

I had the great fortune last night to visit, and spend time, with John McBride from Blackbird Studios in Nashville. He was in town mixing FOH sound for his wife, country star, Martina McBride. I posed the Grammy question to him during a break and he replied, “two days.” Two days, in his opinion, are what the Grammy’s are worth to an artist and related affiliates. Martina has won one Grammy and a boatload of CMA and other awards so he knows what he is talking about. John added an additional interesting tidbit to the conversation too. In his opinion, the daytime talk shows such as “Ellen” offer artists far more visibility these days than the slew of late night shows.

I suspect that, as with any news in these times, a Grammy win will be a great victory but short lived – certainly not enough clout to wrap a long-term marketing effort around. So, be ready for some immediate opportunities-singers especially will be photographed in post-Grammy glory. Grab the bragging rights, make hay, and move on. 

Grown Men Asking For T-Shirts

I once found myself sitting at a bar talking to the late Sherman Darby. Sherman was B.B. King’s long-time road manager, a dapper-dressed man who always referred to his boss as Mr. King. I’d seen him in action and was impressed at his wide range of skills. We had crossed paths a few times through the years and had a mutual respect for each other. I liked his style and he liked mine.

On this particular evening, Mr. King (I go with the flow) had finished his show and Sherman was relaxing before leaving town for the next one. Our conversation was interrupted several times by crew members asking him about a rumored batch of T-shirts. Swag from the promoter. Like sharks smelling blood in the water, these guys were hunting free shirts.

Sherman patiently explained to each that, yes, shirts had been received, they were safely in his hotel room, and that the loot would be distributed shortly. He then turned to me and said in a world-weary voice, “Grown men asking for T-shirts. What the f#@& is up with that?” I completely lost it and laughed way too loud.

I’ve been thinking about that chat recently. We all, I suspect, want to think that things like T-shirts don’t matter. They are a byproduct of an outdated marketing strategy and we, thankfully, have outgrown all of that.  We can throw out those cool Showco and Pine Knob Amphitheater shirts. Donate the Ludwig Drum and Jefferson Airplane duds to charity. We’ve moved on. Or have we?

The other day I was sitting outside at a coffee shop that I frequent, wondering why I was feeling out of sorts and invisible. My age? Not likely – around Palm Springs I am a spring chicken. Was it the fact that I was wearing a T-shirt that had nothing written on it?  I had purposely worn that shirt thinking, “Aha, so this is what adults do,” and it made me feel like just another jerk sipping ice tea.

So while I was busy overthinking this I found a napkin and a pen and made of list of T-shirts that this grown man is going to ask for. The new Electra Guitar shirt looks great. Also Kacey Musgraves’ “Same Trailer Different Park” and some Team Kalitta Racing shirts. I wonder if Zamboni has T-Shirts?

Mr. Morse, Mr. Quilter and The Haji Truck

The other day I came across a cassette of a four-song mix session that I was involved with in 1979. It was for a great local band called “Lost Angeles.” At that time I was working for a company called Express Sound, which was a rather amazing business that built recording studios for many high profile musicians in the Los Angeles area.

One week we had the famous Haji Recording truck in for some maintenance. The Haji truck has a huge history in rock & roll music, having been part of 20 Gold albums and a handful of Platinum. I was in awe when it showed up. The details of how this next move came about are a bit fuzzy but my friend and co-worker Chris and I decided that it would be fun to “borrow” it for the weekend and record Lost Angeles at a little bar in Newport Beach. I still can’t believe that we got away with it-you’d think that my purchase of several rolls of very expensive two inch recording tape late Friday might have tipped off my boss. That, and asking for the keys to the truck.

Anyhow we did the recording and it was a blast. One of the players in the band was a guy named Gary Morse. Gary played pedal steel and pretty much stole the show every night. In the “it’s a small world department,” Gary and I had gone to high school together in Birmingham, Michigan. While my friends and I were banging out Stooges songs, Gary was playing Hank Williams. Really well. He and I didn’t hang out much back then but did reconnect via Lost Angeles once both of us moved to Southern California.

After this recording, and as things tend to go, Gary went his way and I went mine. I knew he had become an in-demand session player in Nashville and was touring with Brooks & Dunn. I was busy with my career but always had it in my mind to reconnect. So when I found this cassette with him playing on it I thought it was time to look him up.

I found out that Gary did endorsements for Eminence speakers, so during this past NAMM show I walked over to their booth. Sure enough, there was Gary dressed in black, wearing a cowboy hat playing the heck out of a pedal steel guitar for the onlookers.

As I was listening, I heard a voice that sounded familiar say my name. I turned and it was Pat Quilter, who was dressed head to toe in buckskin like some kind of grizzled fur trapper.  I used to work for him at QSC Audio and he’s an interesting guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got the utmost respect for Pat and he was there to hear Gary as it turned out. But I had to laugh thinking that I am standing here listening to a guy dressed like John Wayne from Birmingham, Michigan and talking to a guy dressed like Kit Carson from Laguna Beach, California. And loving every minute.

My point to all of this is, keep your head reasonably clear and your stories and memories churning. There should be a depth or soul to what we do and you don’t want to miss out on any of it. 

National Public Radio Has Been Good To Me

Yesterday I visited a group called Intocable during their sound check at a casino venue near me in Indio, CA. I had been in communication for a few months with their manager, Oscar Carrasco, and Noe Calderas, who mixes FOH for them, and sent them some gear to try. My visit to Indio was a chance to finally meet them face to face.

So who, you may ask, is Intocable? They are a six-piece band from Zapata, Texas who write and perform in the “musica norteña” style of Spanish language music. The band came together about nineteen years ago when accordionist/vocalist, Ricky Muñoz got together with his friend, drummer René Martínez, and began writing songs.

Grupo Intocable has gone on to win Grammy awards, have hit records, and tour the United States and Mexico extensively. They own their own sound system, buses and trucks. They are huge. The band has 3.1 million Facebook followers. Just as a reference, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have 2.8 million followers.

Intocable is the latest group that I’ve discovered via National Public Radio. The interview that Ricky Muñoz did there opened my eyes to this wonderful band and I tracked them down. NPR, through the years, has exposed me to The High Strung, Pete Yorn, Rachel Flotard, The Hotel Café, Lana Del Rey, Arcade Fire, Nas, and many more artists who I’ve ended up dealing with, in varying degrees, for artist relations.

Having a “filter” plays large for my AR efforts. This is perhaps where I miss record companies and that whole machine. I sort of liked certain aspects of “the man” implying that I’d like Green Day or Dave Matthews and should get to know them. We don’t have that anymore which is both good and bad when it comes to artist relations. And this is where my hat goes off to NPR.

So my afternoon with Intocable was great and as usual, at least in my world, featured a few laughs. Most of the band and crew speak English, but leave it to me to find the one guy – their monitor mixer – who spoke only Spanish and had questions about latency and word clock issues in digital consoles. Fortunately, “I have no clue” is a universal phrase and understood by all. He laughed.