What Music taught me about Business. Part 2
The Power of Publicity
One of the most useful skills I acquired in the music business is how to work with editors and reporters. I learned that you cannot trick or fool these folks. They are smarter than you and me. They’ve heard it all before. I learned to bring them good stories that fit their mission and publications. When they called me I always made time to talk to them. We also made sure all of the appropriate reporters and editors were on our comp list and had a tab at the bar. I wanted them to have a great experience at my show and I delivered on this promise. The result was a series of mentions and features about the band and our recordings. Each time an article was published, we instantly saw a surge in the audience and more importantly, merchandise and CD sales.
When I first started performing in bands I had no idea what a “brand” was. In my defense, I was only fifteen. However, I was lucky enough to perform with a number of great blues artists and it was their sincerity that gave me my first inkling of the importance of an authentic brand. I wasn’t a good enough musician to play every kind of music and everything I played came out sounding similar – a mix of honky-tonk, blues and New Orleans juke joint, good time dance music. As soon as I embraced my sound and stopped trying to emulate my heroes, my unique brand was formed. Over the years, I honed this brand so that everything the public saw and heard supported this concept – from clothing and song choices to posters and CD art.
I was baptized by fire as a young man when I walked into a local club and attempted to sell my band to the grizzled curmudgeon behind the bar. We played for free that night. The club, on the other hand, made out quite well. It didn’t take me long to figure out that there was a game at play. At first my goals was to get as much money out of the club as possible with zero concern about its bottom line. As my education progressed, I realized the clubs and talent agents wanted the same thing I did – to make money. I learned to craft win-win deals that shared risk among all parties. As long as everyone did what they promised, everybody came out with a pocket full of cash. Many clubs even awarded us unexpected bonuses at the end of the night because they were so pleased with the show and the attendance levels. We, in turn, handsomely tipped the bar staff. Now that’s a win-win scenario!
Handshake deals are fine for friendship, but not for business. When deals are hashed out over a number of beers, details tend to drift. If there are strippers involved, all hope is lost. Enter the contract. I used to think contracts kept people honest. I’ve learned that a contract means nothing to dishonest people. One of the most important lessons the music business taught me is to only do business with people you trust. The contract simply records the details of the deal (acceptable colors of m&m’s, quantity of cold cuts, etc.) so all parties don’t forget or get confused. As my group became more popular, many deals were struck a year in advance so the contract was a critical part of the exchange and ensured mutual benefit and understanding.
I’m sure there are other things the music business taught me (like hippie chics are great dancers and the darkest, smelliest clubs always have the best food…) however, my most valuable lesson is that knowledge often comes from the least expected places and people. I owe a debt of gratitude to my music mentors – some famous, some not. They taught me the blues but their lessons and advice have allowed me to build several successful businesses, support my family and help others do the same.
I don’t play much anymore but I still miss the feeling of fronting a super tight band in a hot, sweaty dive packed with a couple hundred music affectionados all existing in the same zone at the same moment. I would have never thought that the lessons I learned in these dark, hallowed dance halls would serve me so well, so many years later. But I guess that’s what life is about – you learn as you go.