No one from BNC called that morning. I found out later why, when we were nosing around the performance hall, and a guy in jeans and a corduroy jacket came in carrying a briefcase. “You must be Daron,” he said when he saw me.
“Yes.” I took the hand he was offering and shook it.
“I’m Mills, A&R, BNC.”
So they flew this guy all the way out here for this. As if we weren’t playing New York in two weeks, anyway? “Nice to finally talk to you.”
“Likewise. You and I have a lot to discuss.”
Well, cut the preamble and let’s discuss, I was thinking. “Do you want to go somewhere?”
“Actually, I have to take care of some bullshit first, but I’ll be sure I talk to you before the night’s out. Have you seen John…?”
Fine, whatever. I shrugged in the general direction of the seating area. I had to wonder, though. Was he sent out here to bully a signature out of me? To double-check the goods prior to purchase? Because he liked being a jet-setter? Could be all of the above.
MNB were big here and all the local radio stations had personnel wandering around with backstage passes. The show was being filmed, too, for something. During soundcheck a second group of techies had to set and reset the lights for filming. I overheard one of them remarking that it was being shot on film, not video, to capture more shadow and nuance. Yet another little factoid to file away. I wondered if it was more expensive to shoot a video that way–it must have been–and how that would affect our plan to do our own, or if maybe it would be BNC’s responsibility soon.
Tread caught up with me backstage by the catering table. “So I hear you’re going to be with us the rest of the tour, eh?”
“That’s right, you’re stuck with us.” I clapped him on the back. “So what do you know about this guy Mills?”
Tread made himself a sandwich while he answered. “He’s the hot guy in A&R, the one with the magic pen.”
“What do you mean?” I started making myself a sandwich, too. The spread looked much better than in Portland, the lettuce crisp and more kinds of meat. “Magic pen?”
“He’s a VP in the company. So he has the power to say yes or no, to sign, to make things happen. Without him on our side, we’d never have gotten this far.”
“So he’s a nice guy?”
Tread gave me a disgusted look. “Daron, he’s a suit. Even if he doesn’t wear one. Don’t forget, he’s a suit.”
Okay, I thought. I can handle this guy. If he ever gets around to talking to me.
It became obvious the little chat wasn’t going to happen before the show. Big deal, I told myself. Maybe he does want to see us play before he puts the cards down. It’s only smart. I hoped Ziggy wasn’t off his stride after last night. Onstage in Portland he had seemed fine, like he was having fun, but I guess he wasn’t given how he’d sulked after. I looked around but didn’t see him. Well, he’d turn up. Once I’d put Mills out of my mind, and Ziggy too, I started to worry about Digger. Why would he track me down on the other side of the country? Just to say hi? There had to be some ulterior motive. I wondered what agency he was working for and why he hadn’t told me right out. I tried not to think about him, either. But all that happened was I ate some more catered food and thought about one, then the other, then the other, round and round until John told me we had fifteen minutes to lights up.
I gathered the others around me. “Make this a good one, guys.”
“Right,” Chris said. Ziggy and Bart shook hands. We went to the stage.
A local dj went on first to announce us. I couldn’t really make out what he said. But he ended with a loud flourish that got the crowd cheering and we took the stage and went into the first song in the set hard and direct, no futzing around. Everything was working and for a while I had that feeling like I wasn’t really there. But I woke up when I noticed the cameras swiveling back and forth. I had thought they were only filming MNB, but I guess they were doing some of us, too. I wondered if we’d get to see it. Maybe it was something Mr. Magic Pen could arrange. A cameraman crouched down in the wings near me and I grimaced at him. We were coming up on the solo in “Rush” and I played it with my face to the audience but my attention, my energy, on the ninja-like figure in the wings. I write my solos short, only eight bars most of the time; I like to burn a streak like a shooting star in the middle of the song. So I burned, conscious of the round eye of the camera, but not held back by it.
And people sang along to Candlelight! It wasn’t quite the flickering lighter extravaganza I’d once envisioned, but there was passion in the air, and every note rang out sweet, sweet, and true.
I almost wanted to end the set right there. But Ziggy wisely held off the intro to the song that closed our set and let them cheer for a bit. We exchanged smiles and he said into my ear, “almost like having an encore.”
“Yeah. But quit teasing them.”
He led the count off and we kicked into “Fire and Flight” and it seemed like only a few moments later we were done with our bows and were making our way back to the dressing area.
I clapped hands with Tread, my hand slick with sweat. “Hot crowd tonight, dude. Knock ’em dead.”
“Sure thing.” And then they went to take our place.
There was no sign of Mills. I made myself another sandwich and took a can of soda back to the couch where Chris was sitting. My sweat soaked into the worn upholstery and I had a vague thought, wondering who else might have sat here in the past. The thought didn’t stick. “What did you think?”
Christian whistled then made one of his understatements: “I think that was pret-ty darn cool.”
I nodded and started to eat. Bart stripped out of his bowling shirt and pulled on a brand new MNB t-shirt. We exchanged looks, like–yeah–and I kept eating.
A few minutes later, Mills burst in and said to everyone in the room “Great set!”
“Thanks.” I washed down my last bite of bulkie roll and cold cuts. “Were they filming us?”
“You bet they were.” He pulled a chair up to sit across from me and laid his briefcase across his lap like a little desk. “But I’m getting ahead of myself.” From inside the case he produced a small stack of paper, two bundles several sheafs thick each. He handed me one.
I took it with two fingers, as if it might turn me to stone if I looked at it the wrong way. “Is this a contract?”
I knew now was a bad time to be doing this. I was still shaky from my performance high and there were people all around, wandering in and out, distractions. Christian sat up with interest in his eyes. I took a deep breath and copped an attitude. “Surely you don’t mean for me to sign this now.”
“I just want to go over the details with you.”
“Details like our current deal with Charles River?”
He gave me a chagrined half-smile. “Let me put it to you straight, Daron.” He paused while Bart settled himself into a chair behind me. “We’re convinced that Moondog Three has the potential to smash the market wide open. The Candlelight single is hovering low on the chart and it hasn’t even received any mainstream airplay at all, and no video. If we put our promotion machine behind that single, even as old as it is, we could put the album into the Top 40. Charles River can’t do that for you. And although I’m sure your next album will be every bit as good, now is the moment to move.”
I didn’t know which chart he meant and felt I’d look stupid if I asked. I’d have to ask Watt about it later. Probably the college radio chart. Watt had been going on and on about how the CMJ chart was growing in influence–I’d only partially followed it. But I wasn’t trying to puzzle out how the industry was changing at that moment, I was trying to listen to Mills and see if he made any sense. The idea to re-release the song under another label had never occurred to me and suddenly the leisure of making another, better, album, felt like it was evaporating. We were moving a hundred miles an hour and I was struggling to keep up.
“You see, even if Charles River could get a video made and pull in connections at MTV to get airplay, even if they would get you the kind of national media coverage you need, like get you guys into Spin and Rolling Stone, they haven’t got the inventory to have the CD in the stores when the consumer rush hits. Even if they could promote you every bit as well as we can, they still wouldn’t have the kind of chart-topping sales you need. Not to mention the difference between getting a mention in Spin and say, being on the cover, is the kind of difference we’re talking about here.”
I was thinking fast now. The Spin reporter was already on our trail, that was how Artie’d heard about the deal rumor. Mills must have been feeding this info to the same reporter… would that get us on the cover, I had to wonder, or was this mere razzle dazzle? BNC probably could feed this to MTV without much trouble if there was a video… which, as of tonight, there probably was, thanks to the live film crew. Mills had lined up all the pieces. How was I supposed to say no to a setup like this? How could it go wrong? “What about our contract with CR?”
He turned a few pages in the contract. “Basically, we pay them a chunk of money to release you from your contract there, and then you sign with us.”
“And if they won’t take the money, or they want too much?” I already knew the answer to this, but I wanted to see what he’d say. He told the truth.
“We already own the distribution network they use. It wouldn’t be hard to buy the whole company, in which case, we’d take over all their contracts and responsibilities.”
“Just for one band?”
Mills hunkered down over his briefcase. “Look at what one AOR album in the Top 40 makes for a company like BNC, especially considering we didn’t have to put out any money to produce the album or in artist development. Then look at what we’d pay to buy out a company like CR.” He was sketching on the back of the contract. “Even if your next album isn’t a top seller, we still come out ahead of the game.”
I had never looked at hard numbers like that. “So, let me get this straight…” I said, squinting my eyes and trying to act like I was guessing this, which I partly was. “If you buy out CR, you’ll do all the things you said you would in order to make the album go Top 40, because that way you get return on your investment. But our contract with them remains intact and we continue operating under it. The other way, you pay CR a chunk of money to let us loose, then we sign a new contract with you.”
“That’s essentially right.”
I could feel Bart’s eyes on me, Christian’s too. I wondered where Ziggy was. For all I knew, he was back there, too, padded up on silent cat feet. If they bought out CR, I knew what would probably happen to the rest of CR’s roster, the other local bands they had signed. They’d probably all be dropped the instant their contracts ran out or their riders were violated. Or BNC could easily put the whole CR catalog out of print with one wave of Mills’ magic pen. And then our contract, which only extended for the life of this album, ran out, we’d have to renegotiate with BNC anyway. Whereas if we cut our ties with CR they’d get a nice nest egg and we’d be on our own negotiating a contract from scratch with Mr. Magic Pen himself. “I’ve got to think about it.”
“Of course, of course,” Mills said, pushing his chair back as he stood up, as if giving me the space to think. “Take a look through that contract and we can talk about specifics later. Although, I’m sure you understand the timeliness of this…”
He walked away, his eyes roving ahead of him like his mind was already on his next errand. Were all management people like that?
“Jeezus.” I turned so I could see Bart’s face. “Did you follow all that?”
I waved the contract in the air. “It’s totally the opposite of what I thought.”
“Which was what?” Christian had a frown on his face.
“I thought if we cut out of Charles River that we’d be screwing them. But it sounds to me like if we stay with them, they’ll get screwed.”
Bart chewed on his lip. “That’s what it sounded like to me, too. I don’t think Watt would take too well to returning to the corporate fold, either.”
I let my eyes drift over the fine print–it was all fine print–on the pages in my lap. “Yeah. But I can’t help but feel we, the band, would be safer that way.”
“Safer?” Christian’s brow was unknotting a little, but he still looked troubled.
“I wish we could be sure that we could have all the provisions and guarantees of our contract with CR with BNC, that’s all.” I had the distinct feeling that I’d need to hire a lawyer to read this contract, just like BNC’d hired a lawyer to write it. Probably the same lawyer is who I’d get, and he’d be on retainer for them, and tell me what I wanted to hear of the interpretation… or maybe I was being paranoid. Would it be any different with Artie and Wenco? “I guess I have to tell Artie what’s up.”
“That’s right,” Bart said. “He wanted first dibs.”
My head was starting to hurt. “You know, if we had a manager, someone else would have to deal with all this.”
Bart laughed as he frisbeed a piece of olive loaf into a trash barrel. “Don’t say that. You know we’d still have to deal with it, it’s just if something went wrong, we’d have a scapegoat to blame it on. That’s not much consolation when your career’s in the toilet.”
“You’re right.” I looked around for the Ovation to put the contract into its case, but it was with the road crew. Which was too bad, because I would have really liked to do something with my hands right now other than flip the pages of the damned thing. Well, I suppose nothing was stopping me from getting both the guitar and case out of the gear. “Maybe I’ll take a cab back to the hotel and have a look at this someplace quiet.”
High-pressure hard sell right when you’re most vulnerable. Yep, he’s a marketer.
At least if he’s looking to screw me it’s in a purely metaphorical sense.
I am not a lawyer and I don’t practice law. I do review (from a purely business perspective) a bunch of artists’ contracts with companies far larger than BNC.
When I first see the contract it’s not only heads I win, tails you lose, it’s “Heads I win, tails you lose, and if the quarter drops on the floor and rolls away you owe me a quarter and THEN it’s Heads I win tails you lose.”
Two years ago I sent back a $55 billion company’s “standard contract” covered in red ink. They folded and asked the band to write their own and they’d review it.
The only reason to get totally screwed by these people is a testosterone deficiency. Oh, there’s also stupidity. But there’s always stupidity.