Managing artists is not unlike being a sports coach. I have some experience of both from my day gig in music, obviously, and from my other passion, squash, which I coach at my club.
A few seasons ago a keen squashist came to me for lessons to improve his game. Having seen him play I could see what he was doing well and what was preventing him from doing it even better. To my surprise, he didn’t return after the first lesson. He told me that he wasn’t really interested in the drills and practice play I had him do. Instead, he wanted a “boost” to transform his game.
Many keen artists share this mind set, as if getting to the next level was an extrinsic thing, dependant on contacts, exposure and better gigs.
It stands to reason that if they were already doing their thing really well, they’d be having success at the next level: music professionals would flock to work with them, media outlets would want to feature them and they would attract large audiences to their performances.
If it’s not happening, all a manager can do – as with the squash player – is to urge the band to tinker, innovate and change. Incremental change brings results. Looking for a boost is just a feel good route to shortchanging yourself.
My favourite and only hobby, squash, brings to London next week the world’s top professional players to compete in the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, an annual pilgrimage for the capital’s squash nuts. Incidentally, The Animal Farm sponsors the teams at Blackheath Squash Club where I play. My squad just won promotion to Division One in Kent. It’s the highest level of squash available in our county. Cool, huh?
Squash is the new rock’nroll. Fact.
“Backstage” at a big professional squash tournament, a keen junior was “trying out” in front of the main managers and coaches in UK squash. The kid got advice on what he should work on to get to the next level in his chosen field. I listened carefully and took notes.
In my day gig young musicians ask me how to get to the next level in their field. I can’t but feel that far too often advice isn’t really on their mind. Instead, in their erroneous belief that the music business is a walled garden into which access via a secret door is controlled by “people with contacts”, they are looking for shortcuts to success.
I would have thought that it’s easy to understand how in sport it’s clear that a manager or coach can’t give a young player a shortcut to success. All they can do is to tell him what he needs to do differently and better to affect change in the way he plays the game, so he can start beating guys who are better than him.
Yeah? Just knowing Arsene Wenger isn’t going to get a Sunday league player picked for the Gunners next weekend. My mates in pro squash won’t ask me to chip in. I know and they know that at their level I’d be useless.
Explain to me like I’m a five year old why it’s so hard to transfer that same thought process to pertain to the careers of budding musicians.
Time after time it’s a very similar story: a band has taken it as far as it will go. The numbers are low, they’re not getting anywhere. They’re desperate for help. From the point of view of the person who might be able to help, the problems also are all too similar time after time.
Lack of great songs
If a band’s songs aren’t getting the people closest to them excited, people in the business will be even less impressed and punters far away won’t give a toss. The solution: write better songs. They are hard to come by and the only way to come up with any is to write lots. It’s arguable that talented writers are born, but in developing any skill improvement is incremental and takes time.
Lack of great recordings
If the band’s demos have been recorded by a mate as a project for his music production diploma, they will never ever compete with records made by professional people using professional equipment and years of professional experience. The solution: make better records with someone who knows how to make them.
Lack of a great live show
If friends and family attending the band’s pub gigs don’t go apeshit with excitement and spread the word about the next one, gigs in bigger venues won’t be “better gigs”. They will just highlight the band’s inexperience and lack of ability in front of an audience whose starting position is one of indifference. Solution: do lots of pub gigs to get great. The time to switch to a bigger venue is when the small ones sell out.
Lack of a great image and story
If nobody is reacting to a band and its product locally, more promotion and exposure will only further expose their shortcomings, highlighting them to more people. It’s the equivalent of shouting louder to get the message across. Solution: work, evolve, change, create, build, develop.
The two hurdles
There are two mistakes a band can make. One, they don’t start doing the above properly, with the help and guidance of people who know what they’re doing and care about how they do it. Bizarrely, most fall at this hurdle. Maybe they don’t believe in their own artistry enough to really commit to it, so that they people who are able to help would want to get involved. It’s far easier to play at being in a band than to actually work for it.
Those who make it over the first hurdle have in front of them a long and arduous ride. Many quit too soon. That’s the second mistake a band can make.
Over the eight or so years that I’ve been fanatically obsessed with squash, I have won our club tournament, reached finals in wider tournaments and got to represent my county. I’ve taken coaching, attended clinics and sweated buckets. I’ve spent loads of money in the process.
You might say that it’s not much of a result for eight years of playing and training 4-5 times a week. I wouldn’t disagree!
However, it’s taught me, a music man way past his prime sporting years, a lot about learning and dedication and the “cost” of doing something you really love. Much more so than when I was a young musician trying to make it in music. I didn’t think there was anything odd about my exclusively obsessive interest in music. To me it was normal to want to live and breathe it. Often, it was the only nourishment available to a broke ass musician, anyway.
To the aspiring musician reading this blog and wondering how the hell to break through to the next level, I would say that nothing should be too much, too expensive or too difficult. If you want it bad enough you’ll find a way to do it.
I spent a few days in Manchester at the World Squash Championship. One of the players on the professional tour organised a pass for me so I got to see my “heroes” close up in action. The routines of professional sportsmen are not entirely unlike those of professional musicians on tour.
After breakfast they all get together at the venue for some light training, to get the body working again after the previous night’s brutal physical exertions. In my world, musicians, if they make breakfast at all, tend to get rid of their hangovers – to get the body working after the previous night’s shenanigans.
Different proclivities, similar outcomes.
Working For A Living
Thereafter the day of a squash player consists mainly of waiting around. Similarly, why does the bassplayer not look out of the tour bus window in the morning? Because then there’d be nothing to do in the afternoon. Life on tour, any tour, is for the most part a tedious game of passing time.
An hour before showtime a squash player will start getting ready to play. A lot of them seem to walk around with their headphones on, in seclusion from what’s around them. Their warm up routines are extensive compared to what we do on the amateur squash circuit, where a warm up consists of a few hits of the ball and a bit of banter.
Likewise, you can spot the difference between an amateur local band and those who are serious by the thoroughness with which they treat their soundcheck and pre-show warm up. Amateurs faff around endlessly on stage and go through the alcohol on the rider. The working guys do everything methodically to make sure everything is ready for the show.
Knowledge – Listening – Application
I spoke with three of the world’s leading squash coaches about what it takes to get someone into a position to “make it” as a professional athlete. I’m interested because coaching is not entirely unlike managing or producing an artist.
The coach or manager/producer has knowledge. The player or musician has to be willing to listen. The player or musician needs to apply that advice to their work.
I sat next to a coach who was observing his player get butchered on court. When a squash player is on court getting his ass kicked, panic sets in. You know you are losing and it feels like there is nothing you can do about it. Between games the coach told his player to do X,Y and Z to change the momentum of the game. The player did exactly what he was told and won.
Meanwhile Back At The ‘Farm
Damn if it was that easy in music. Most musicians who get in touch to find answers to their problems listen very well, most agree with what you have to say, but it’s rare to find people willing to change what they do to affect the outcome of what they’re achieving. With alarmingly many it’s as if it’s everyone else’s fault and/or problem that nobody likes the records they make.
Of course, the time perspective is important. The 32 best squash players in the world at the World Championship have already trained from an early age, they have played countless of junior tournaments before graduating to “toilet circuit” pro tournaments to earn enough ranking points to make it to the big tournaments where the big boys play.
At that point they are technically and emotionally able to make changes.
In music you get to that point by “paying your dues”. It means practicing hard for years, writing countless songs, playing lots of shows, watching and learning.
Most musicians who get in touch with us think they’ve paid their dues when they’ve written a setful of songs, made a demo and played a handful of shows. When someone who has Knowledge, tells them to do more, do differently, do better, they refuse to listen or fail to apply.
I’m sure there are many young athletes who drive their coaches mad with a similar mindset. They never make it, just as the bands who have that attitude never will.
It’s All A Ride
A painful flashback came to me when I saw the disappointment on my mate’s face when he lost. I was reminded of a gig my band did at the Dublin Castle in the beginning of our career. We had put our hearts and souls into it. People in the business had come to see us and they really weren’t bothered in the slightest. The tube ride to South London was disheartening.
Learning to get up after having been rejected or having lost is hard. I maintain that there are far fewer failures of talent than there are failures of character.
I made an important discovery today. Readers of this blog may know about my unrelenting passion for the racket sport of squash. So great is my enthusiasm that a few years back I took the official course to become a qualified squash coach. One of the guys I coach said to me today that as a result of the things I’ve told him he’s now beating people he used to lose to. He’s taken what I’ve said on board and worked on it over many games, practice sessions and lessons. The results are, if not career making, very rewarding on a personal amateur level nonetheless.
In my day job of running an artist management company I often speak with artists looking for management. If I like the band, I end up offering advice, guidance and suggestions as to what to do next. A lot of it centres around writing better songs, making better records and playing more small gigs. Granted, the message is decidedly unglamorous and positively work ethic oriented.
Incidentally, so is squash. At a tournament in which I played last year there were also proper athletes in the main draw competing for professional ranking points. They slept on the floor of the squash court over the three day tournament, because they couldn’t afford a hotel. It’s a little bit like a band touring on the toilet circuit.
Anyway, I digress. Giving management advice is a little bit like giving coaching advice. A coach or a manager can only say what the other fellow should do, he can advise on the process of how to affect change. In order for progress to take place, it’s up to the other the fellow to actually do it. He has to do things differently to how he’s done things before, so that he starts getting what he hasn’t been getting.
It makes sense, doesn’t it?
How surprised would you be if I told you that many artists who approach us don’t actually want to do anything like write better songs, make better records and play lots of small shows? They will say: “We understand what you’re saying and we basically agree, but we’re not looking for that. What we’re really looking for is management. Could we just have a bit of that, please. Without the other stuff.”
I would understand it if it was coming from a successful artist with a career to manage. But when it comes from a struggling band who approached us to get a career happening, I wonder what they think management is. Magic? Sorcery? The ability to make people like music by sheer force of will?
It’s no good pointing out that nothing is happening in their career because the songs are average, the recordings are poor and they’ve not done enough gigs to make them a great live act. The management advice of encouraging them to change these defects is ignored. Instead, they want… management.
It’s as if I went to squash coach saying that I want to become a better player, but I refused to work on my basic drives, drop shots and volleys. I suppose I could really really really wish hard to become a better player.
Incidentally, I spent a few days last summer training with one of the best coaches in the world. While I was practicing 101 stuff, he said one thing that changed the way think about how I play. He said not to hit the ball so violently. The word ‘ violently ‘ made me re-evaluate my game.
I wonder if there are any words that would make a young band re-evaluate their game. Got any?
Ah, but then again..
“I am not young enough to know everything.”
- Oscar Wilde
Happy New Year! My personal new year’s resolution is to continue my quest for squash semi-greatness…. after a festive week of heavy training (and the drinking and eating that goes with the season) I’m really feeling it in my bones. Generally speaking, for an amateur club hack I’m quite fit, but I sure don’t have the conditioning to be able to train twice a day, properly like the pros do.
As ever, the connection between squash and music is lost to everyone but me.
The tenuous link is about preparation and planning. Most musicians who approach us and people like us for guidance and advice could do with more of both.
A young band have a set of songs “gig ready”. They want bigger gigs supporting bigger artists. The songs they’ve released on iTunes aren’t getting enough exposure because they haven’t got the right contacts. They realise they can’t do it all on their own and that’s why they need the help of people like us, who can get them airplay and connections to the right people and so on.
That’s what they think. What we think is that of the nine songs in their set, which are the only songs they have, three show promise. The recordings of the songs are average at best. The band gig regularly in their home town, mainly in front of their mates. They’ve done a dozen gigs or so – one a month for a year. Even if it was one a week, it would still be too little.
Even if we were able to gain exposure for what they do, we/they wouldn’t be able to capitalise on it. The band would get killed at bigger gigs. Big stages eat amateurs alive. Their three shoddily recorded nascent attempts at songs won’t blow anyone away no matter what PR stunts are pulled. If only your mates are interested, it’s very difficult to see how the wider world will react with all possible gusto. It’s just too early.
Decent advise to the band should be to work the problem, which is NOT the lack of exposure. It’s the lack of anything to expose. Exposing potential is like asking people to judge a meal based on the recipe. Having just been through loads of very excellent meals at Xmas, we all know the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
I read about the Native American chief Sitting Bull whose reputation as a fierce fighter and a great commander is well known. Turns out he was best at avoiding battles. If you read Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s Art Of War the ability to avoid battle is a winning trait in any good general.
The battle the band wants to do is not the battle they’re ready for. It’s wise to look at the situation in the long term, in which the next year and a half is most definitely the short term. A manager cannot give you a slice of the music business pie. However, he can help you develop your thing so that you become a slice of the pie that will be worth managing.
Indeed, the art of becoming is the battle they’re ready for. Having done some road work, they have trained enough to be able train professionally. Dig?
Some musicians prefer to hear fairy tales about how managers can make things happen by sheer force of will and a thick address book. It’s depressing.
Some say that they’ll come back in a couple of months, having worked out the snags. Their optimism is to be saluted, for sure, but… what’s a couple of months?
It is very very rare to find musicians who have completed the early road work, who have the talent, commitment and perseverance to make it, but who at the same time are excited when challenged by professional people whose goals and desires mirror theirs.
We’re working with a few. It feels great. Fills one up with hope, enthusiasm and determination.
Squash, Injuns, ancient Chinese philosophers and rock bands. We all have a lot to learn from everyone and everything.
I hope 2013 is be the year during which we, creators of art, start working the problem. You know, blaming X-Factor and One Direction and soundalike pop singles is just so… 2012. Honestly.
The crew from the ‘Farm descended upon Reeperbahn Festival and Conference in Hamburg from three directions. From Cambridge, Violet Bones in their trusted road machine, from Winchester, iremembertapes. in their home away from home tour van and from London, the Fabulous Leppanen Brothers who completed the assault from air. We were armed with credit cards, business cards, guitars and love guns.
Surprisingly few Brits on the trip. They warned me not to mention the war. I think I got away with it.
Judith from AIM was on our flight. Always nice to see the indie label community represented if not en masse, then in lieu.
We Open The Door Into The Building, The Artist Does The Rest
iremembertapes. and Violet Bones were performing. And boy did they. They blew the fucking roof off. It was supremely gratifying to see months of work on toilet tours in front of five men and a dog pay off. If ever there was a living advert for putting in the hours and paying your dues, it was at Sommarsalon on Friday night. Nobody could, indeed nobody did doubt it.
When bands deliver, the guys in suits can do their biz. We did. It’s onwards and upwards for the bands with new team members on board. Well done Benjamin, Denise, Erdem, Tom, Ben, Thorsten, Arne, and a host of others.
Talking About Music v Making Music
Music conferences are long plastic hallways (see quote on the top of this page) where everything that is right and wrong about the business of music is concentrated in one very small place. This time the place was the lobby of the Onyx Hotel in Hamburg where a lot of the meeting and greeting took place. It’s a wonderful hotel. The Dancing Towers, they call it locally.
Groups of people who get together on panels to talk endlessly about YouTube monetisation, fan engagement, direct to fan marketing and blah blah blah…. “publishers” who are, in real life, school teachers on a field trip wasting everyone’s time… “managers” who’ve been paid by god awful artists to “represent” them to labels…. “artists” who skipped class on the day talent, drive and commitment were given out…. “labels” larging it abroad with cash provided by government export initiatives that would have been better spent on providing decent music lessons in schools…. it’s all business in the widest sense of the word, I agree, but it’s not the business we’re in.
On the other hand there are also interesting, cool, motivated people who are and have been in the music business because they are, in their love for the artform, lifers in music. I like meeting them. I’m very interested in what they think. I’m eager to put what we do up against what they do. It’s great to meet likeminded people who share your passion for music. You bond quickly with guys and gals like that.
We made lots of new connections of that calibre. Which was nice. I’m telling you this for nothing. There is an army of well meaning people like us out there. People who deeply, passionately and sincerely love the idea of helping your band out of obscurity into a career. We all have our opinions. Experiences. Judgement. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
Having been there and done it, more importantly, having been there and NOT done it, and having got up to do it again differently, people like that have an edge over those who haven’t been there, aren’t doing it and probably never will.
The Coalition Of The Unwilling and Unprepared
So, a band made up of music school graduates who think they know it all because they paid attention in music biz 101 class sends an email to a music company not entirely unlike the ‘Farm, asking for “more better bigger gigs, more exposure, some management with contacts… blah blah blah…”
Look, if you can’t pack a small gig, you have no business looking for bigger ones. If you have 3000 “fans” on Facebook of whom 3 are engaged with what you do… it’s because you can’t buy fans, no matter what the social media pr guy promised you. They were exposed to your music on Facebook and they didn’t opt in. Why on earth do you think that spending more effort/time/money on gaining more exposure will change things?
Forgive me for suggesting that you should make changes, improve, pay your dues, rethink, regroup etc. Do it slowly over time. With patience. Develop the music. The art.
If you’re unwilling to do so you will turn up at the races completely unprepared. The Coalition Of The Unwilling and Unprepared… playing at a venue near you tonight.
The most important thing is to be different.
Then you must to put yourself on the line completely. All in.
On top of that you have to persevere. For as long as it takes.
Out of the above emerges quality, which, in turn, leads to a career.
It Was The Red Light District After All…
Whenever I travel out of town or abroad I look for a sneaky game of squash, the greatest sport known to man, at a local club. Walking down Reeperbahn I couldn’t believe my luck that there was a sports club right next to hotel… perhaps with some squash courts as well.
On closer examination of the signage the activities on offer were of a different kind of sweat inducing nature. Doggy style squash…. I’ll try anything once. No, make that twice, because I might not like the first time….
On my summer break I spent a few days training at Pontefract Squash Club, one of the most well regarded squash clubs in the country and thereby the world.
Professional players the world over go there to train with coach Malcolm Willstrop (pictured) who has produced two world number ones and a legion of junior, county and club players.
I have got to know some of the Pontefract crew socially and, knowing how much of a squash nut I am, they very kindly invited me to their world.
A Fish Out Of Water
Having never experienced such a setting, I didn’t know what to expect. In retrospect, what they do is not unlike what professional musicians do when making a record. They don’t do anything that different to what a hapless amateur does in the studio. They set up, the engineer presses record and then they play. The difference is, of course, in how well they do it and the focus with which they do it.
Being an old fart of an amateur club player I was nervous about getting in the way, naturally. True enough, I had severe trouble following all the instructions to do with the different drills and condition games they played. Also, it was demanding to keep up with it physically.
But, I loved it. It was so cool to be part of such a unique setting, even if I felt like an impostor in a strange world. A well meaning, hugely motivated and grateful participant, but an alien nonetheless. With my background as a graduate of the university of rock’n'roll, my points of reference are not those of normal people, let alone those of sports people.
More Than One Way To Skin A Cat
In music, we thrive on chaos, anarchy and irreverence. Seems to me the sports world with its regimented structures, hierarchies and programmes is in many ways the polar opposite of ours.
As an example, in sport they have have the saying “never change a winning game”. In music we are always looking for something different. Successful artists with long careers never make the same record twice. AC/DC are the notable exception to the rule, of course.
So, we were playing a game of doubles. My partner and I won the first game. Going into game two, we decided to change sides. (In squash doubles partners usually agree to play on either the forehand or backhand side) The coach shouted “never change a winning game!”
Yeah, but it’s more fun if we do… just because.
You Go Back Jack Do It Again
This stuff touches on why some people in music speak ill of music schools. You can’t teach someone to rock or be creative. I agree. That said, I’m a firm believer in the importance of having good technique. You can learn it in your bedroom, in small pubs and bars, in college or wherever – just as long as you learn it.
The truth is that the process of becoming great at something depends on endless repetition. The more songs you write, the better you become. The more scales you do, the faster you get. The more gigs, the better your performance. And so it goes.
About dedication: after a long session, most of us were hanging by the watering hole (some of us hanging on to dear life….) while the imposing figure of James Willstrop (pictured), the world number one, was still on court practicing drop shots on his own. He’s been playing since the age of 5. He’s written a good book, Shot And A Ghost, about what it’s like on the pro squash tour.
Spot the real athlete.
Then we broke for lunch.
Who You Know v What You Know
James’ manager Mick visited our studio a while back. He said with a well meaning smile that “nobody seemed to be doing anything, they were just laying about on the sofas looking cool and nodding along to music”. That’s the music biz for ya. The seemingly lazy, itinerant and narcissistic nature of creativity makes people not associated with the process think it isn’t hard work.
This thought occurred to me: now that I know one of the best coaches in the squash business and the manager of several top pros does it make it more likely for me to find success in that field? Most people wanting to enter the business of music firmly believe that it’s about who you know rather than what you know. Hello…? Friends…. that smell is the smell of coffee. Wake up.
Meanwhile Back At The Day Gig
A final comment on sport versus music. They interviewed the coach of some young athlete who won a medal in the Olympics. He said that his job as a coach is to leave no stone unturned in trying to help his athlete compete victoriously.
It’s not entirely dissimilar in music. When emerging artists approach us, we look at where they are and ask them where they want to get to. Then we suggest a course of action to connect the two. We explain to them what they need to do and why to achieve their stated aims.
Of course, in both worlds it’s up to the artist/athlete to actually do it. A manager can only help the artist who is ready and willing to do the work. Most say they are, but far too many are just looking for the lottery ticket, the secret key to the magic garden.
Old myths die hard, I guess.
The year so far has been successful at the ‘Farm. We’ve done European deals, our artists have been touring extensively, we had our first number one in the US, we hired more staff and bought lots of cool new toys for the studio.
Interesting fact: in Scandinavia streaming on Spotify accounts for over half of labels’ income these days. That’s where the business is. They’re not that bothered about a la carte download sites like iTunes and such.
Our next pit stop is in Hamburg at Reeperbahn Festival, arguably the most important music biz conference in Germany these days. Two of our bands, iremembertapes. and Violet Bones, are playing.
Click below to get iremembertapes.’ brilliant debut album Human Architecture.
Here’s a cool video by Violet Bones.
Final words: remember Sunset Strip Club. You read it here first. Very cool band. More news on that soon.
Regular visitors and those who know me well will know that I’m an avid fan and participant in the game of squash. A sudden flashback to a squash coaching seminar (I’m also a qualified squash coach) brought back an insight worth sharing. At this seminar one of the top UK coaches was talking about “affecting change”, i.e. doing stuff that will make other stuff change, so that you can hit the little black ball more accurately and better.
In the coaching business affecting change is serious biz. Indeed, the only way to change the fact that you’re losing matches is to stop sucking as a player. So, you train better and differently to change what you do and how you do it. The fact you’ve affected change results in better performance.
Musicians, real ones, do it instinctively, by practicing for hours to get something just right. Songwriters, real ones, do it by rewriting and redrafting a song until it’s a beauty. Producers, real ones, give it one more go, just when everyone else has buggered off to the pub.
The problem with a lot of people who call themselves writers, producers and musicians is that they really don’t give a shit about what goes down. Any light relief in the form of YouTube videos or Facebook chat is preferred to actually doing what affects change. It’s as if the thought of being a writer/producer/musician is much more fun than the process of becoming one.
Of course, in sport you get a career if you beat the other guy. It’s different to music, where we get a career if we do what others like.
However, if they aren’t liking what you do, why don’t you take a leaf from the squash coaching book and affect change. Do things differently and better next time. You would agree, would you not, that doing it the same as you did before is not affecting change, it’s not affecting your bank balance (except for the worse) and it’s not getting you anywhere you haven’t already been, which was the reason you came to this website, and others like it, in the first place.
I won’t get any better as a squash player if I just attend seminars and meetings where people who’ve been there and done it talk about how they were there and did it.
At some point I have to start being there and doing it by myself.
So do you. The sooner you start, the sooner things will change.
Finally… sorry I can’t resist sharing my brief moment of glory as the winner of a local tournament…
With an evil red stare, change was affected… squash is the greatest sport known to man.