JAIMIE VERNON – An Open Letter to Musical Newbies

I used to run a lucrative record label full-time. I now run it occasionally when I find artists who have the desire and drive to help themselves and who only lean on me to sort out mindless applications for grants, pointers on increasing their social media exposure or answering manufacturing queries. I charge a fee to do this because my 30 years of experience deserves more than a ‘let’s go out for lunch so I can pick your brain’ remuneration. It’s like asking a prostitute to give you a happy ending in exchange for a coffee. And, yes, I do equate being in the music business with prostitution.

Doctors spend 10-15 years or more going to school for their professional experience and are paid handsomely for it. I also went to school to earn mine. I did it the hard way by getting dirty in the trenches. I was a musical bricklayer. To date, my compensation has been $1.59, grey hair, and an enormous waistline/wasteline (hey, I didn’t say I would turn down those lunches!)

But, here’s my point (and there is one). When I started learning guitar, playing in bands and recording demos we couldn’t get gigs, couldn’t get signed, and couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to us. Sound familiar? I, like dozens of other motivated Do It Yourself musicians, created the situations and opportunities that led to releasing a dozen albums with my name on them and building a record label that distributed 100 albums by others. Myself and the personnel in my bands had to work together to create our art and sell it because there was no one to ask how to do it. The .PDF downloadable Kindle manual, the University diploma course and the YouTube instructional video didn’t exist yet on “How to conquer the world of Rock Music without having to try.”

The two biggest mistakes musicians make is having a chip on their shoulder because they believe that strapping on a guitar comes with inalienable rights where everyone owes you something and in believing that the music business has anything to do with music. It has to do with selling widgets. Unfortunately, the widgets come attached to ego driven dreamers who believe a career – and money – should be handed to them sans labour. In recent years that attitude is the norm and not the exception. You can blame the ‘American iDolt’ generation for that.

It took years for me to figure this simple equation out despite being told this by music manager Ray-Ace Sare during a period of time when I still had the drive and the Rock and Roll hair to pull off super-stardom. I was that guy with the chip on my shoulder. I was angry at the world because they wouldn’t recognize my talent (real or imagined). Eventually, I started to listen and take advice from those more experienced than I.

Finally, I started creating widgets to sell. And when I did…the industry came knocking on my door with offers to lead me to the land of plenty.

It was the motivation that led to the success I eventually had with Bullseye Records. I built the label as a vehicle for my band from the ground up with no distribution, no radio play and certainly no social networks to promote myself ; we used archaic devices like telephones, typewriters, snail mail and fax machines to communicate our musical message – hell, I even created a magazine that ran for four years as a really expensive advertisement for my product. It was partially to blame for the collapse of my first marriage.

It’s all about good old fashioned elbow grease and extremely hard legwork. You can’t release a new CD [or digital file] into the void and expect something to come out of it just ‘because’. Lesson number one is that you shouldn’t release product until you have a reason to – and usually that goes hand-in-hand with establishing a fanbase. If you don’t know 1,000 people…don’t record a CD hoping to sell 1,000 copies. Believe me, despite what your Facebook page says…you don’t have 1,000 friends. You know 1,000 people who aren’t interested in your music. Because they’re more than likely trying to sell your theirs!

And blaming the vacuous expanse of flash-in-the-pans dominating the charts and airwaves for your own lack of success means you’re not fully grasping how this all works. It takes a career of failed albums, poorly attended gigs, lost wages and sticking it out until your competition has either dropped dead, gone bankrupt or flamed out. In the music business it’s the artists with the 10 year plan and the long-tail that are the last men standing. Because the current crop of Garageband/ProTool graduates have a level playing field in making stellar sounding records, it’s no longer about who’s got better songs. It’s about who has longevity.

Next time an artist bitches about how hard THAT is, I tell them about the four consecutive years in a row I drove to New York City, on my own dime, with a new demo tape and knocked on EVERY A & R man’s door in the city looking for a record deal. On one trip I accidently got off a commuter train from Connecticut with a back pack full of demo packages in the middle of Harlem – proudly, I was able to see The Apollo Theatre in broad daylight and then ran for my life past the abandoned derelict cars and  burning garbage cans littering the middle of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Drives. I wound up with a hernia carrying that 40 pound bag around New York City and dropping packages at 17 record labels – including Clive Davis’ Arista Records at the foot of the Trump Tower. I was soon corrected by a rather miserable receptionist when I asked if it was the office of AH-rista….she said, “No, it’s AIR-ista”.

The highlight was visiting the offices of New York music consultant Phil Sandhaus whose credits include music supervising on the 1993 movie ‘A Bronx Tale’. Phil wasn’t there, but transplanted Canadian manager Steven Shipp was. It was also the offices of Blackheart Records – home to Ms. Joan Jett and musical partner in crime Kenny Laguna. Steven was recommended to me by former Teenage Head guitarist Dave Rave and musicologist Gary Pig Gold. Joan happened to stop by while I was there and brought everyone pizza. I picked their brain. They supplied the food this time!

Of those four trips I was able to advance meetings before my visits with execs from Germany’s Bellaphon Records, Spain’s Blanco Y Negro Records whose A & R rep was a drop dead gorgeous Miss Universe finalist but couldn’t speak a word of English, publishing guru Jerry Love of Famous Music Publishing whose clientele included Mick Jagger and Living Colour, Nettwerk Records’ Terry McBride and some powerless promo guys from Sony who did enjoy people paying for a liquid lunch in exchange for picking their brains.

I got a few bites and some offers, but in the end those people would have destroyed my label and my band in the same manner acts have been destroyed by the industry since the dawn of time. If you’re desperate for fame, then by all means create a disposable widget made to order – the majors love it when you do all the work for them. But if you want a career – one that you control and still allows you to look in the mirror with integrity every day – then get off your lazy social media-stunted ass and make great records, network, pound the pavement and get in people’s face. Your advocates will never come to you. You MUST go to them.

Now, with Artist & Repertoire (better known as A & R) all but dead at the labels, networking in recent years is a treacherous, nebulous black hole. But here’s a few tips once you make contact with industry people like me who’ve been around the block for 20 or 30 years and seen every permutation of shoe-gazing, questionably talented almost rans.

Personally, I think soliciting for a record deal via email, Twitter or Facebook is a cowardly, impersonal cop-out. But if you must do it – especially if your band is located in Stillwaitingtobediscovered, Saskatchewan – then try NOT to do any of the following:

1. Tell the record label that you’re the greatest thing since a) sliced bread b) flakes of ham c) The Beatles.
Not only don’t we BELIEVE YOU, but we don’t care. If the Beatles came to me today I wouldn’t sign them either. Yes, they’re arguably the greatest band of all time, but radio won’t touch power pop anymore than they’ll play Klezmer music. There’s an entire global movement for modern Beatles-styled pop and few of the hard working acts involved in the International Pop Overthrow scene ever get signed. It’s not that it’s bad music, it’s that the industry is looking for something else. Something that involves pre-packaged musical pablum trotted out by ‘Best In Show’ dancing poodles wearing IUD’s for ear rings.

2. Tell the record label that this is their last chance to counter offer a deal you’re in the middle of making with another label.
Chances are really good I *know* people at that other label. The Canadian music industry is a really small clique of like-minded individuals and one remark from me about how you’re attempting to do an end run around them at the negotiation stage will sink your deal…and probably any deal in the future. I will call your bluff and you have nothing in your hand. I know of a fine upcoming singer whose spouse attempted this stunt and they went from having a $300k offer on the table to having no offers, no deals and a door slammed behind them in Nashville. The lesson here is don’t play games with the big boys…oh, and don’t let your ‘better’ half manage you.

3. Tell the record label that you want them to listen to your music but don’t supply a URL to hear the material.
Instead you ask the label to do a Google search on your name in some goofy game of A & R Hide ‘n’ Seek. It becomes more laughable when you decide to name your band something ubiquitous like The Nice or Smith Brothers Band or your own name is Cliff Johnson which makes a Google search pointless when 50,000 results pop up. And if your entire web presence only exists on MySpace, you will automatically be derided and ignored. You will be forced to change your name for no other reason than you’ll never be taken seriously again.

4. Ask the label to come to your gig 3000 miles from their head office.
We will not attend. We may not even attend if you’re 20 miles from our head office. Hell, we may not ever come and see you. So don’t sweat it. If your live show is the cat’s ass (or a PT Barnum Freak show), word will travel (see lesson #6) and we will eventually take notice. If we don’t, you should still not sweat it. We usually have something better to do like schmoozing with acts we’ve already signed and charging them back the cost of the party including the limo filled with hookers and cocaine.

5. Tell the record label that you’ve done thorough research on them and feel your music is a perfect match for the label’s ‘vision’.
I get 20 of these a week from jazz, rap, easy listening, and other genres of music who are not suited to our roster – which is Classic Rock and singer-songwriter based. Do your homework before trying to blow smoke up someone’s ass. The only thing worse than a suck-up is an ignorant suck-up. Conversely, a former artist on my label once came to me with a progressive, jazz-fusion instrumental solo album that I rejected without hearing a note. I told him outright – we do ROCK – we don’t do jazz. He then went into an expletive filled tirade about what a closed mind I had. I told him that I couldn’t pay the bills with an open mind and showed him the door. Seems no one else had an open mind either as the album has never been released.

6. Tell the record label that at the age of 17 you’re ready to take on the world and be the next (insert favourite famous star name here_________).
Tell you what…get in a van, play every stinking puke hole and backwater cesspool of a venue from Labrador to Vancouver and south to Alabama for the next 2 years. Then come back and show me the road scars. I’ll believe that you’re ready for the big leagues when your dick is chafed, your back is fucked, your hands are blistered, you’re malnourished, your vehicle has 100,000 Km and no tire treads, and your drummer has quit the band – twice. Until then, you know NOTHING about what it takes to ‘make it’. Raw talent is only a small portion of the equation. Experience, tenacity and street smarts is 90% of the game. Talent is merely the device used to get it.

7. Tell the record label you’re getting airplay all over the known universe, have a huge fanbase and have had songs placed on compilations, soundtracks and in movies.
I’m ‘plugged in’ as a previous generation used to say. I’m on the ‘net 14 hours a day. I wrote the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. I eat, breathe, sleep music. So, if I haven’t already heard of you then your self-serving hype carries no weight. It’s my job to know who you are. I can smell the bullshit through the computer screen. Call me when you’ve actually achieved the things you’ve claimed. But don’t be surprised if I don’t answer the phone. You’ve already lied to me once…

8. Tell the record label you’re looking for someone to pay your way.
Hate to break the news, there, Bubala but that model is dead. Labels aren’t giving out advances anymore. Work at Burger King. Save your money. Record your demo. Then repeat until you’ve got a sellable widget – or digital equivalent – retail ready to be unleashed on the world. If it’s good enough…a label will come to the door (see above). At the end of the day you can use the label to distribute your release and you won’t have to sell your soul to do it. And you’ll still own your album after the deal goes south after the label warehouses the disc in a different city and the marketing department buries the retail release sheet promoting the new album on page 342 of their monthly catalog. In other words release the album yourself. You’ve got as good a chance as anyone to get people’s attention among the 40,000,000 other upstarts competing against you for ear time.

9. Tell the record label/publisher you’ve written 100’s of songs.
You need to tell the label/publisher you’ve written 10 songs that are the BEST representation of your work from years and years of writing and refining your craft. Those first 100 are sketches. We don’t care about them because they’re representative of the OLD you. What we care about is the last 10 songs you’ve written that are your greatest, sellable tunes NOW.

PS – and when a label person tells you your demo sucks, it really does. We’re not here for the good of our health…we’re here for the good of our bottom line. If you had something sellable we’d be all over you like a grey-haired, pony-tailed, tweed-jacketed former A & R lacky from a failed major label who is still carpet crawling Canadian Music Week.

10. Tell the label you’re willing to do anything to make it.
Really? Anything? Like coming to my house and mowing my lawn or washing my car? Walking my dog? Re-shingling my house? Have some effen self-respect and some boundaries. The only thing you should be willing to do is work hard at your craft and not compromise your principles.

Getting a record or publishing deal is not the be-all but it could be the end-all. It could ruin your hopes, dreams, career…and even your life [just ask Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston]. Every day you need to continually examine your career choices and decide whether you want to take the first offer handed to you from a pariah driven industry or live a perpetual fool’s dream. Statistically there’s a high probability you will starve and waste a good portion of your life on getting nowhere. If you still want to do that – for FREE – then you just might be right for a career in the loveless, disrespectful, back stabbing, heartbreaking, divorce-inducing music business.

However, if you’re just in it for the cash, by all means…whore yourself right up the music industry food chain. There’s any number of pimps and vampires willing to do a Crossroads deal with you.

Don’t miss next week’s column where I show you how!

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and is the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. He keeps a copy of Lightfoot’s “Sundown” under his pillow at night.

10 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – An Open Letter to Musical Newbies”

  1. Great article. There’s definitely a hell of a lot more to “making it” then going to LA with a demo and a dream. Sadly, there are and will always be a lot of dreamers who don’t grasp that.

    Still, thanks for sharing, always love hearing from someone who’s been deep in the musical battlefield.

  2. Jaimie. If by the time you have finished reading this. You want to seriously still help with some session musicians to put some rock music to the lyrics of a brand new song. Then let me know how much roughly it will take in the way of money. ie Dollars. Pounds Sterling. Euros etc. And i’ll contact you again. And if you like you can help me put my foot on the first step of the Rock and Roll Ladder. Thanks. Ian George Hardwick.

  3. Great article, Bob. It should be required reading for everyone who thinks that all it takes is ego and luck to have a successful career in the music industry. Jaimie presents an honest overview.

  4. I tweeted a link to this article, Bob. 🙂

  5. Jeez, Jaimie, to the groin! You had me scared for a moment but I’m that idealistic sonofabitch who thinks he has the chutzpah (and the charm) to toss that realistic bullshit to the curb. Music ain’t for realists, man. It’s for us addle-brained, joined-at-the-mental-hip romantics who know that that pot of gold is just over the next hill and that the chicks who guard that pot have pot and are beautiful, to boot. Cocaine? For losers. I snort swamp gas.

    Another insanely entertaining read. You sure you’re in the music biz? Reads like you’re in publishing.

  6. […] JAIMIE VERNON – An Open Letter to Musical Newbies « Segarini: Don’t Believe a Word I Say. Share this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInJ'aimeJ'aime  Posted in: Non-catégorisé […]

  7. Devastating and inspiring all at the same time. I’m too old to play stinking puke holes in Labrador…or am I?

  8. Always enjoy your writing/posts and your frank, honest, tell it like it is style Jaimie, but I object to the ‘doctors being paid handsomely’ comment. Long story, but when your income and ability to work is controlled by the government… people practice medicine, like music, not for the money but because of passion. People who dream of being rich sell widgets.

    • Ray-Ace Sare Says:

      Sorry Chris, Maybe 100 years ago the family doctor that came to your house to deliver a baby in exchange for a chicken or a apple pie was driven by passion. With the exception of doctors working for DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS, volunteering in a Charity, a disaster area or a war zone or a running a walk-in clinic in an impoverished 3rd world country, the MAJORITY of doctors are primarily driven by financial gain! Their “widgets” are DRUGS ( world’s #1 drug pushers), Sleep Apnea machines, magazine and book deals, TV talk shows, etc. while they are quadruple-billing OHIP (at taxpayer expense) to pay for their Chivas Regal Scotch, their Golf memberships, their platinum Mastercards, their exotic vacations, their luxury cars, their palatial homes and their investment portfolios! Most doctors have a great passion for “WIDGETS”!

  9. This is all great and so true. You really just gotta get out there ( especially on the internet) to let people hear you. There’s a great site http://www.makeastar.com/.

    go on it and upload yourself singing. its free and who knows what could happen! its just great to get yourself out there and promote yourself. people will see you and that is the best thing that could happen for you.

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