JAIMIE VERNON – The Key To Musical Success… “Sell Out!”

A friend of mine in the business once nailed the real truth of the matter, “It’s not selling OUT…it’s just SELLING”. So what if you’ve got street cred? In the end it won’t buy you a sandwich or get you on the bus when you’re destitute from starving for your art. Ah, yes…the old warhorse argument about commerce versus art. We artistic types spend a disproportionate amount of time protecting our creations. They’re our babies and can’t be nursed by anyone but us. In music, that means slaving over the writing and producing process until every last drop of ‘inspiration’ can be sweat out of the songs.

Bob Dylan said it best: “Musicians don’t finish albums, they abandon them.” Which means that it’s usually deadlines and people paying the studio tab that cause musicians to reluctantly hand over their master recordings to be released into the world like children of the be-damned. And with it they’ll extol the virtues of this particular album holding it up triumphantly next to the very finest moments in their entire oeuvres. Until it fails to sell or critics lambaste it with verbal dynamite (though the latter almost always precipitates the former).

Then the back pedaling begins. “Well, I was under duress during the making of this album and was distracted by the fact that my cat had died, my girlfriend was screwing Carl Lagerfeld and/or I was having a cliché riddled battle with drugs and alcohol.”

What they really need to do is fess up. And admit they blew it. They put out a turd. Everyone hated it and they need to get back on the horse and record an album the masses will like…not just that Goth kid sitting in the back of the classroom exorcising every last poetic demon out the lyrical content because he identifies with the artist’s love for eggplant and razorblades.

When your music career has been well established and you’ve got stupid money from it (c/f Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, et al) then you can shit on a platter and sell it as ‘art’ forevermore (c/f Neil Young’s last 20 albums). But until then, the GOAL is to write and record music that as many people on the planet will hopefully like as you can get. They’re called Chart Toppers for a reason, folks. Because everyone on your block owns one. One in every 7 people in the United States has a copy of ‘Thriller’. Call Michael Jackson anything you want…now…but from 1982-1984 he WAS the ‘King of Pop’. Eight out of ten songs on that album got played on the radio. Nearly as many videos appeared on TV. He wasn’t just dominating Pop music…he was the King of All Media.

Today the media has changed — we’re internet based and it’s a viral world where word-of-mouth is the new ‘radio’. Get people talking about your music and it will sell. Hell, people don’t even necessarily have to hear it. They’ll want it because their FRIENDS have it. They’ll want it because THEY want street cred.

As an indie label owner I’m often asked HOW to make a band/artist a success. And despite tales to the contrary there IS a formula. The people who are famous AND wealthy in the music business not only know the formula…they live it. Some are only on the roller coaster for a short period of time (DownTh’Sync, New Kids On The Dole). Others turn it into million dollar franchises (Gene Simmons of KISS is so successful he owns the copyright on images of money bags with two // through the symbol ‘$’).

1) Steal your music from the best.
 Every artist dating back to Tin Pan Alley writes songs that imitate other hit songs. This is why the cycle of current hits all tends to sound the same…until some brave soul comes up with some other variation…and then the cycle starts again. But do yourself a favour. Don’t steal your music from Nickelback cause Chad Kroeger WILL sue your ass.

2) Steal your image from the best. I can’t tell you how many acts I’ve seen that start their careers out pretending to be just like other bands. Not entirely a bad thing to have role models except when you realize they almost always, invariably, attach their idol wagons to acts who are hopelessly cultish and have no commercial appeal. If you’re going to imitate another act make sure they’re already stupidly successful and RICH. If you’re starting a band that sounds/acts like Joy Division you’re going nowhere. If you start a band that sounds/acts like AC/DC you’ve got a chance; Joy Division are a cult band that few people paid attention to until recently when a bunch of filmmakers decided they’d depress the shit out of us a recreation of ego slide and ultimate death of Ian Curtis on celluloid; meanwhile, AC/DC’s formulaic rock still sells…in the millions. It’s like eating at McDonalds. A Big Mac has no surprises. Everytime you order one it’s the same. And so it goes with AC/DC or Aerosmith or Bon Jovi or Nickelback. And speaking of formulaic…

3) Once you’ve found YOUR ‘sound’, stay with it — FOREVER. Your fans buy your albums because there’s something they like about what you do. If it’s a rock record, keep making rock records. If it’s a folk record, keep making folk records. But if your first successful rock record brings you mass appeal don’t make your next album a DANCE record (mainly because dance records blow, but I digress). People will jump off your bandwagon in droves. However, should the tables go the other way — say, your first two albums are dance records and everyone ignores you, then make an angry CD version of Chick-Lit and dump your last name from the marquee. You’ll sell 15 millions copies in no time.

4) Believe in you. Sell you. Nothing worse than an artist with zero self-confidence (hello, Ron Sexsmith!). It shows. It shows in the writing. It shows in the performing. If you’re depressed and need music as an outlet, then stay in your basement or abuse your cat with it. Don’t drag it out in public cause people, generally, are looking for escapism in their entertainment. They’re not looking for you to reflect back their misery at them. Unless you’re a Goth. Then all bets are off.

5) Be willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING. Not only are you going to have to compromise, you’re going to have to step on those you love and make a lot of decisions that will hurt people. Why? Because success comes on the back of blood, sweat and tears…not through wishy-washy milktoast decision making. You’re going to have to be decisive, focused and calculating in your assault on every aspect of your life. Madonna didn’t get where she is by being nice to people and hoping someone would give her a break. She decided what she wanted and then did what she needed to do to get it (kneepads optional). If you have a hard time looking in the mirror at yourself after making cutthroat decisions you’re not suited to be in the music business. You should become a florist.

6) Surround yourself with talent that’s better than you. This doesn’t mean you suck (necessarily). This means you’re the best at what you do (and you may not necessarily do anything). Make sure those around you are the best at what THEY do. And if in that you’re the weakest link in the chain, others can make you appear even greater than you already are (it worked for Jessica Simpson). Never cow-tow to ‘Yes’ men. They’re only going to tell you what you want to hear. What you need is people telling you what you need to know and telling you when you’re being a complete a-hole.

7) Maintain control. Yes, it’s okay to give away half your publishing (50% of a song the whole world is singing is better than 100% of a song you kept for your girlfriend). Or sign a record deal that locks you into the grip of the evil corporation that “is” the music industry for 99 years. But do yourself a favour. Get paid upfront and bank every dime immediately. Let no one else touch your money (that includes accountants, girlfriends or your Mom). So, when the roller coaster ride of fame finally ends you’ll actually have something to show for it. If you spend your money now, you’ll have spent your future.

8) When the record label says they want a 3:55 pop song for radio, give them one. The million dollar payoff should the song become a massive hit will ease your ‘artistic’ conscience. You can do 12 minute self-indulgent wank offs on your Celtic Kazoo album years down the road when you’re filthy rich and you’re making music just for the hell of it (plus, you will have spent your entire adult life as an entertainer so you won’t know how to do anything else anyway.)

9) Tour. Tour. Tour. You can’t sell CDs or your songs sitting at home hoping someone’s going to stumble across your profile on MySpace, Garageband.com, ReverbNation or the million other sites frequented ONLY by other musicians (who are destitute and wouldn’t be buying your music regardless). Viral works if you’re lucky and, occasionally, clever but putting your sweat-encrusted visage on a stage and making the experience visceral is the best promotional tool you’ve got. The human animal wants interaction. Music isn’t just for the ears it’s emotionally magnetic as well. And the best way to convey that is in person especially when you’re screaming your biggest Emo hit into the face of some drunken jackass at a bar who has more money than brains…and is willing to part with it to make you stinking rich.

10) Swag. That’s right. Stick your ugly mug…on a mug. Or a T-shirt. Or a thong. Not everyone wants to buy a CD at your gig. Believe it or not, some people aren’t digging you for your music necessarily (it could be those religion defining leather trousers you’re sporting). Some may even like you as a person or that illusion you give off as a person. Milk that. And if some chick wants you to autograph her tits, do it…using a pen that she has to buy from you with your logo on it. But do not take her out back and treat her like the ditch-pig you know she is…cause she’ll sue you for everything you’ve got and then Lessons 1 through 9 will be moot.

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. http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html

5 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – The Key To Musical Success… “Sell Out!””

  1. 11. Like on a Marshell always better than a 10.

  2. Al Reilly Says:

    Great article including truths we do not want to face!!

  3. ….unfortunately for too many talented people, this wisdom with age, and usually when they’re too old to make the best use of it. the successful artists have this knowledge early in their career….that’s why they can call it s career. a wise man responded to my mention of the I(ntegrity) word with a suggestion I have come to know to be true; ‘integrity’s important and it doesn’t matter whose ass you have to kiss to keep it’……and for most of us, from my father, (in heavily accented english), too soon old, too late schmart…….great advice jaimie, can I have a mulligan.

  4. ….and btw, any new band who steals from nickleback, should be sued; i’d suggest a class action by music lovers….tragic, but not ‘hip’

  5. amazing, i’m going to put this on blast, people need to see/read/hear this. can i add as well, supporting more and judging less in the music industry is key. musicians shouldn’t be jealous of those who are successful, but should support them, and keep working at it for themselves. the concept of selling out only exists because people label those that “do”. i’ve been guilty of it myself but this opened my eyes. thanks Jamie!

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