News From The Woods - September, 1991

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published September, 1991


"It's Not What You Know But Who You Know"


One of the nice things about living in the Ozarks is the peaceful serenity of our environment. We take things at a somewhat slower pace, which I believe helps stimulate the creative process. Here at Cedar Crest we have no clocks on the wall to remind us that "time is money." I'm not saying that we don't burn the midnight oil on occasion, but as a rule we aren't hard-pressed to crank out product like an assembly line. My motivation is not to make as much money as fast as I can in order to pay the next indispensable "black box" studio effect.

We try to concentrate on the songs themselves and the way they are being performed by the artist. It is true that with enough effects you can bury the wimpy or poorly executed performance in the mix. Production techniques have turned weak arrangements into accessible product as far as the public is concerned. There are examples of this every week in the Billboard Top 100. How many times have you musicians out there heard a song on the radio and said to yourself, "Man! I could do better than that!" And you probably were right.

So what's the answer; move to L. A. and try it there? A lot of people I know have done just that and they really don't seem to be doing any better out there. For one thing, the cost of living is much, much higher than here. Also there are more musicians per square foot than anywhere else in the country.The competition is fierce and cutthroat tactics between bands turn many deserving musicians away from the field. I have seen many good players, who have spent more than 20 years learning their trade, give it up and take a "straight" job. There's no question about how difficult and "dirty" this business is. We all have horror stories to recall while packing up the gear at 2 am. So what is the answer?

No doubt you've all heard "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Well, no matter how you cut it, there is a lot to be said about that. Cliches became cliches because there was truth to them. I'm afraid that is the case here too. However, there is more to it than that. It's not enough to have an uncle in charge of A & R for Columbia. It's not enough to have a cousin whose sister used to sing backup with the Grateful Dead. Those may be doors that are open to you, but you still have to have a good product, image, and proper representation. It's a Catch-22 situation and it's very frustrating for all of us on the "outside."

You still have to go through the rituals of forming the band, writing the music, rehearsing for hours and hours, playing a lot of low-paying gigs in front of disinterested bar patrons who probably would be just as happy with a juke box. Besides, they don't want to hear original material. Of course, we try to sneak them in anyway, just in case the guy over there in the corner with the gold chains around his neck might be some rep with little or no connection to the A & R department. Of course he won't tell you that, because he wants to play the big wheel in front of your female lead singer besides, he might get some free demo material from you to listen to on the plane trip back to L. A. There are a thousand different versions of the scenario, but you have to play each one as if it might be the one and you'll never know it until the fat lady sings.

It is so distressing to me to see a band that has spent so much time getting it all together, only to implode on themselves due to personality conflicts. I learned a painful lesson a few years ago as I was managing the group Paperkid. Anyone who ever attended one of their performances will tell you that they seemed to have everything going for them. Their songs and style were original; each member was an exceptional player. We had worked together for five years, building the song catalog and perfecting stage presentation. In my opinion, their music was timely and their lyrics could be embraced by a wide demographic section of the record-buying public. It was not just a clever attempt to "cash in" on the current music scene. Their music was real. You could tell that by the way they presented themselves on stage.

I can tell you that their hearts were in the right place. They played many benefits to raise money for good causes. We first built a local following, then a regional audience, then went on to become on of the best bands in the state. I compiled all their press clippings into an impressive press kit. We had all sorts of publicity poses to choose from. We even produced no fewer than three music videos. Fort Smith radio stations got behind the band and even played several cuts from the demo tapes we were producing. Whenever they played Old Town it was absolutely packed full of people who were singing the lyrics along with the band. It was positively the best group I had ever worked with.

I began sending out press kits and demo tapes to L. A., Nashville, and New York. I sent packages to every record company representative I schmoozed with over the phone. Many were interested and requested more material, which I sent along as fast as we were recording new material. We always got great publicity in the form of lengthy articles with pictures in both the Gazette and Democrat. All of this was over a period of about three years. The record people wouldn't say no, but they wouldn't say yes either.

I would send tapes, bios, photos, videos, and the latest press releases to anyone even remotely interested. The cost was tremendous and, believe me, none of us were rich. Anyone who has played in the state of Arkansas knows that gig money is just enough to keep up with expenses and maintaining the band. At first I would call the guys every time we got a bite. After a while though, the phone bill (which was already high due to calls to the coasts) became too expensive and I finally had to cut back on communications with the guys. The band started hearing things like "Why don't you guys have a record deal yet?" and "You guys are too good to keep playing here, why haven't you made it yet?"

We had invested so much time and money in the project that my own business started to suffer. Susan and I were dealing with our own bills and such, so needless to say we couldn't bear the expense of going to California for an extended period. Eventually it began to wear us all down. I have never seen or played with a band that didn't have any personality conflicts and Paperkid was no exception. To make a long story short, by the end of that five-year period we were all worn down. There didn't seem to be anything else we could try.

By the time my management contract with the band expired, several of the guys had other musical interests and opportunities. It wasn't exactly anybody's "fault." There was no guilty party. Everyone just felt like it was time to move on and that was a shame; their music was really special to me. I still have all the tapes and, since the music was registered by our publishing company, DIME-A-DOZEN MUSIC with BMI, I can still try to get these songs recorded by other artists. I don't think we'll ever recoup our losses, but the money is really secondary. The Paperkid project could have made a mark on the music scene, but because we weren't at the right place at the right time with the right contract, it never got the chance.

I guess the moral of the story is that it takes good music, good lyrics, good arrangements, good players, good representation, good contracts, and above all else, a good attitude. You muse be so dedicated to the project that nothing will sway you from your goals. It's tough enough for a single person, but when you multiply the situation by however many people are in your band, the odds don't look too good, do they?

So why do this to yourself in the first place? It's painfully simple we need to express ourselves through our craft. We are artists, just like any other artist. Our paint brush may be a guitar, drum, keyboard, or microphone, but we are compelled to do it, no matter what. So my advice to you is this: If you feel that you have to play, perform something you enjoy, because if you are lucky enough to really get the chance, you'll be doing that same material every performance for a long time. Play the music because you live it, not because of the glamor or the money; it's really not worth it otherwise. Commit yourself to it and don't quit. Many of today's popular artists will report that at just about the time they were ready to quit it all, they still stayed with it and got their "big break." What you do with yourself after that break will determine your future and your career.


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