WAKE UP EVERYBODY…
A Radio Host/Club Booker looks at the musicians he’s worked with
The music industry is a cesspool.
That’s no secret.
Artists of every race, creed, and color have been ripped off since the dawn of the first recording. Geniuses like Chuck Berry have chased down residuals for literally decades. Racism, nepotism, cronyism, and ageism reign. A buddy of mine offered his major label record exec brother a beautiful, talented 16 year old singer-songwriter and was told she was “too old.” They’re now looking for 14 year olds to groom to be the next Justin Beiber.
In short, most musicians will never pay the bills no matter how talented. And if you haven’t “made it” yet, you’re most likely not going to.
It’s not fair. It never has been. It most likely never will be.
But what about the other side of the coin? What about musicians who are their own worst enemies?
I have been a radio host (and co-host) for 21 years (16 with 50,000 Watt WBAI-FM 99.5 Pacifica) and now with Evan Ginzburg’s Legends Radio for the past five (www.legendsradio.net). I have booked and hosted live shows for nearly as long and am currently the host and booker for my Friday night series, now in its third year, in a lovely Village Café, Gizzis at 16 West 8th. To say I’ve seen it all is an understatement.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’d be doing live radio 2PM in the afternoon at WBAI in front of a sizeable audience and the musicians would rush in late, forget their CD, or cancel at the last minute, leaving us scrambling. One incredibly talented blues singer was so high she literally couldn’t remember her long-standing band members’ names. Not one of them. So much for that “interview.” Singing while high wasn’t the issue; talking was.
On my current radio show I do phone interviews exclusively. Often a musician will forget their cell phone, not charge it, or take the call from somewhere so loud that you literally can’t hear them. One singer was in the middle of skateboarding when I called. With the background noise excruciating, it was “ideal” for a radio interview.
Whenever I see a talented musician for the first time I generally introduce myself and try to exchange business cards. The key word here is “try.” You see, many don’t have one. Or their card will have the number crossed out. Sheepishly they’ll tell you, “This is my girlfriend’s number. I’m staying with her.” Within seconds you go from respect for an artist to, “He’s a kid.”
Over the years I’ve gotten literally thousands of CDs for airplay. Here’s a tip, guys and gals. If it looks like it was made by a seven year old in somebody’s basement, replete with literally dozens of spelling errors, it goes to the bottom of a very big pile. I may not listen for months. Or ever. Unfair? Maybe. But some semblance of professionalism does count. Not that airplay on my show is going to be a life-changer, but I’m sure other DJs will react the same way. That's ditto for e-mails asking for airplay with 37 spelling and grammar mistakes. They’re awfully hard to take seriously. Spell-check is your friend. And the fact that your song is “blowin’ up on da Net” is wonderful. It doesn’t mean I’m going to take you seriously.
The live music scene is always interesting as well. I’ve seen bands walk in “piecemeal” for a gig. If the set is, for example, at 8PM, one member will be there nice and early and anxious to play. Another will be there at the bell. And they’ll wait and wait for the third loser while the audience gets antsy. And sometimes they don’t even know the show time, though it had been discussed and agreed upon weeks earlier. “I thought we were on at 9,” they’ll tell me. “Close.” It was 8. Bands have gone on minus key members because somebody’s so late. And I’ve seen bands actually argue on stage for a variety of reasons with members storming off over some petty squabble. Last booking there, boys.
Promotion is also an issue. Artists will painstakingly put together a website with every bell and whistle. There are those pensive shots of the artists looking longingly into thin air as they wait for their muse. They have a hundred photos of themselves, videos, audio clips, a blog, whatever. What they don’t have is the damn gig plugged. The Facebook/social network scenario is even more frustrating for a booker/promoter. Said artist relentlessly posts videos of cute babies and animals, videos of their favorite artists from 35 years ago, they rage against the political machine, and they talk about every fascinating aspect of their lives down to when they’re clipping their toenails. But, no mention of the gig. Or even worse- the last gig or the next gig is the “important one.” The one you booked them on doesn’t matter and isn’t mentioned. In most cases, though, they’ll remember a few nights before the event to plug it. It’s almost an afterthought. Hey, promotion done on their end. No calls to friends, family, or colleagues. No e-mail blasts to their list (if they bothered to compile one, that is). Plugging it on Facebook is the be all and end all. I’ve seen incredibly talented veteran performers draw ZERO. And most of these folk work in an office, go to Church, go to school, and unless they’re a serial killer on the side, I assume they have a friend or family member somewhere. What exactly is a booker’s motivation in bringing in someone who draws zero and doesn’t even try to? Sure, we know you’re not making big money and you’re here because you love to play. But even on a tip jar gig a larger audience draws more tips and possible CD sales. No “new math” here. A larger audience= better payday.
Another aspect of the booking game that always fascinates me is the “all about me” syndrome. At Gizzis we’ll do a quality show with multiple acts of every possible musical genre. I’m talking on the same night going from country to folk to blues, etc. which hasn’t been done much since The Fillmore days. In other words, they’re shows we’re extremely proud of. But very, very few artists will say the show is from 7-11 PM. “I’m on at 8PM and doing a 45 minute set.” Well, maybe somebody doesn’t want to schlep into Manhattan for a 45 minute show, but they would for a full night out. Hey, don’t even let them know there are others on the bill. That would mean being a team player.
The capper may have been when one of the artists on a recent show excitedly advertised another show at the same exact time as her own. Her own Facebook friends excitedly told her how they were going to the other show. Sure, she was plugging a worthwhile event, and it’s certainly kind of her to be so selfless, but it’s not going to endear her to the guy who booked her. File this one under “go figure.”
I could go on and on. And of course, there’s the other side where an artist is exceedingly reliable, talented, and relentlessly promotes. That’s when it makes this all fun.
In short, musicians have been victims for decades and will continue to be in a cruel industry that spits them out. And I know that because of this, there will be some who are quite angered by this piece. But sometimes they don’t do themselves any favors, either. As Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes sang, Wake Up Everybody. There are folks that legitimately want to help you, book you, and play your music. Don’t make us regret that.