I am bad at judging time. I was in New York for less than a month but it felt like I was there for longer than my whole stay in Los Angeles with Jonathan. Maybe because I did so much work while there? Or maybe because the time with Jonathan was like an object in the rearview mirror, getting smaller and smaller the farther away it was?
I was then at home in Boston for another couple of weeks, during which time Bart and I got together to play every day. Not because we had to, because we wanted to. Michelle was pretty sick of me by the time I left for LA, I think. Just kidding. Michelle was pretty busy with her own stuff, and I think maybe she was glad I was keeping Bart occupied. She was getting ready to go on a trip to Guatemala (or was it Ecuador?) where a factory was going to start manufacturing her handbags, which is kind of cool when you think about it.
And then there was the day Courtney brought me in to speak to her marketing class.
Let me tell you, I was not prepared for that at all. But the way it went down, I couldn’t really say no. Carynne was the one who was originally supposed to talk to the class, but she had gotten the flu and was so sick she could barely talk on the phone much less go anywhere. And Courtney talked to her professor who was sort of in a panic because she didn’t have a fill-in lesson planned…and anyway this is just how those things go. The show must go on.
The class was in a brownstone in the Back Bay, which meant that from the outside it didn’t look like a school or classroom building, really. It looked exactly like the brownstone houses and apartment buildings around it. Come to think of it, it looked a lot like the place Bart and Michelle had bought.
I followed Court up to the second floor, and into a classroom where most of the class was already sitting. All the buzz of talking and joking around and gossiping went silent the second we walked into the room. You’d think a follow spot had just hit me.
The only reasonable thing to do was act like it. “Whoa. You guys don’t miss a beat.”
A couple of them laughed at that.
“I’m Daron. But you knew that. Give me a second while I find out what your professor wants me to do?” Court took me to the front of the room and introduced me to the professor, a woman in a long scarf with a long last name I didn’t catch. She said to call her Sandy. She reminded me of Ziggy’s vocal coach, only gray-blonde. And not as operatic a personality.
She said to the class and me at the same time, “Why don’t you tell us a little about your experiences in the music business, and then we’ll take questions from the class? Do you prefer to stand or sit?”
“Uh, I’ll stand.”
“Then the floor is yours.” She took a seat and Courtney sat next to her. The room had long tables instead of desks and they were all angled toward me. There were about twenty students, maybe twenty-five?
I took my old winter army jacket off and draped it and my scarf across the head table. It wasn’t really spring yet in Boston. It’d feel like winter for another couple of weeks.
“Okay, where to start,” I said, looking at the palms of my hands for a few moments. “I’m a musician.”
“And a songwriter and soundtrack composer and band leader,” my sister added.
“And big brother,” I added back. “Hey, who’s giving this lecture, you or me?” The class laughed. “Okay, yeah, and all those thing, too. I wrote a song that went to number three on the chart, and I’ve got a gold record in my living room. I’ve toured three continents with two different bands. And I’m currently unemployed.”
That got me some confused looks, including one from Courtney.
“Okay, technically I’ve got a gig that starts in like a week. I’m going to tour the US with Nomad and I’m flying to LA to rehearse. But that’s next week. This week, technically, I’m not making any money. That means I’m spending money. This is how it works when you’re a working artist. When you have a gig, you’re making money; when you don’t, you’re spending it.”
The professor looked intrigued by this line of discussion so I kept going. I honestly wasn’t sure, when they said “Marketing and Publicity” what exactly they were talking about, but I figured they would let me know if I was wildly off topic.
“So a lot of time is spent lining up gigs. If you’re not in a band, you’re trying to get into one. If you’re in a band, the band is trying to get shows or trying to get a recording contract. Once you finish a record you’re back to trying to get shows. If the record sells well, then you get to make another one. If it doesn’t, you can end up starting over. That’s kind of where I am right now, I guess.”
A girl in the back, her hand shot up. I called on her immediately.
“Wait, are you saying you’re not working on another Moondog Three album? I thought there was one in the works.”
It had been reported at one point that Trav had been “attached to the project,” I recalled. That must have been what she was thinking of. “It’s complicated, but the simple part is BNC, our record company, decided the album didn’t sell enough to be worth doing another one. There was some argument about, well, contractual obligations and who was owed what, and the upshot of it all is basically they shot down the idea of another Moondog Three album, but they signed Ziggy to a solo deal. Which I guess you might not have known about unless you’re reading Cashbox or the CMJ every week.”
“I do read CMJ every week,” she said.
“I don’t know what to tell you. Part of the deal of them re-signing Ziggy as a solo artist was they let the rest of us go. I have an instrumental album coming out in Wenco’s new age line. I guess technically I am a free agent.”
A guy this time, looking confused. “Aren’t you in Nomad now?”
“I guess technically I’ve been in Nomad all along. They’ve always had various extra musicians go in and out and I’ve been playing with them since I was twelve. I’ve toured with them twice–this’ll be the third time coming up–but I’ve never been a full-time member. I’m not on any of their studio albums. Yet, anyway.”
Another guy, this one I pegged as a musician himself, just from the way he sat. “How did you get the soundtrack gig?”
“Same way I’ve gotten every other gig. By being in the right place at the right time. All the cliches about how it’s who you know are true. The music industry isn’t about the best talent because there’s always going to be more talent than gigs. So some of it has to be drive, and some of it has to be reputation, and some of it is who you know. The last time I felt my talent was what was driving my career was when I auditioned for a fellowship to music school and I got it. Everything since then has been about trying to make opportunities through connections and then trying to make the most of those opportunities.” What I didn’t get the chance to say was that making good music was itself a way of making opportunities.
“Daron,” the professor said, “could you talk specifically about how you market yourself to the public, as opposed to how you market yourself within your industry?”
I blinked at her. “You just said the coolest thing.”
“You did. I never realized it before but you make it so obvious that’s what we ‘re talking about. That most of what musicians do is market ourselves to the record companies, and then it’s the record company’s job to market us to the people, and to the rest of the industry. Even when you go on tour, you market yourselves to the venues and they do the marketing to the ticket buyers. There’s very little we do direct to the public. While you’re on tour your promoter may set up stuff like radio appearances, but they’re more about trying to sell tickets than promote you or your band generally. The record company may set up in-store appearances where you meet your customers, but it’s such a tiny drop in the bucket I don’t know if it helps sales that much. The record company nags the radio stations to play you. They might even pay for your video to be made, or you might pay it yourself–it kind of depends. There are a lot of things like that.”
Courtney raised her hand. “What about fan clubs?”
“Fan clubs are awesome, but they’re their own thing. They spring up organically. Bands don’t want to mess that up by getting too involved. Really big bands have an ‘official fan club’ but seems to me most of what they are is an excuse to send you a T-shirt and then endless junk mail.”
The professor jumped in. “What do you mean, endless junk mail?”
“You know, you join, you get your Aerosmith Supporter T-shirt or whatever, and then they have you on their mailing list so when they tour they can send the notice directly to you. Maybe they even have a special section of tickets for fan club members, if the band is in really tight with their promoter.” I paused to think for a second. “You’d think it would make more sense for smaller bands, with either local followings or niche followings, to have fan clubs than for these huge bands. But I think you have to get to a certain size before you can afford to have someone doing it. When you’re small or in-between, the band itself is too busy just trying to handle all the direct music-related things. Trying to handle a mail order operation and subscription list on top of that…I know I couldn’t do it. I know my manager, who was supposed to speak to you today, wouldn’t have time to lick all the envelopes either.”
The girl in the back who had spoken first stuck her hand up again. She had straight blond hair, pulled back tight in a pony tail, and was wearing dark eyeliner and mascara. (Yeah, funny how I had started noticing that on women after so many years where it was invisible to me.) She looked kind of angry. “Are you saying that even after ‘Candlelight’ was such a huge hit, how can it be that–”
I cut her off without meaning to. “‘Candlelight’ was on the previous album, the one we did with an indie label. The album they really needed to do well was 1989 and it just didn’t.”
The professor spoke then. “Marjorie, can you define ‘huge hit’? Or, Daron, want to tell us about it?”
The student and I looked at each other and she deferred to me. “Candlelight went gold, and so did the album it was on. Gold means it sold 500,000 copies. Whereas the album after…didn’t. ‘Why the Sky’ made it into the Modern Rock top forty, so did ‘Wonderland,’ and they both made the Top 100 on the regular Billboard pop chart, but not the Top 40. Pretty close though.” I couldn’t remember the exact number. “Both songs got a lot of college radio play and a decent amount of AOR and hit radio here and there in the country, plus both videos in heavy rotation on MTV. The bitch of it is, pardon my French, that even with all the so-called popularity of the songs it didn’t turn into album sales.”
The professor piped up again. “You mean, in the media channels where the music was available for free consumption it was well liked and well accepted, but in the retail world, it was not? The class was just learning about the disconnect between marketing and sales.”
“Disconnect is a good word for it. Marketing seemed fine: the word got out. The sales, though…their claim is that our music was too difficult to categorize and so retailers understocked and undersupported, and some didn’t know where to shelve it.”
“But it was a hit,” the blonde girl in the back insisted.
“I know. But there’s the perception of a hit and there’s the bottom line. The bottom line is that the album didn’t make back what they paid us.” I didn’t mention that we threatened to take them to court to make them prove it.
Another student raised her hand. “It must be like when a movie they spent years and millions of dollars making and which got really good reviews has a crappy opening box office and disappears from sight. Well, except I guess with movies the people who work on them, they’re expected after each movie to move on to the next project regardless of how well or badly it does–”
“Linda, did you have a question for Daron?” the professor prompted.
“Oh, well, I guess not,” she said. “No wait, I thought of one. Speaking of movies. How did the Ziggy movie do? Didn’t that help?”
“Star Baby? Honestly, I don’t know.”
“I do,” said the blonde. “It barely broke even in the States, so zero prestige, zero awards, but internationally it’ll turn a nice profit. But I want to know then, if the album from an indie record company can go gold but the one from a mega-corporation doesn’t, what’s that mean? You can’t go back to the indie record company?”
“Well, a couple of things. I don’t know if we would have seen it go gold from Charles River’s sales alone. The bigger company and the re-release almost certainly helped that, and no one could predict that the song was going to catch fire and have the staying power it has. It’s kind of weird, actually. I hear it in airports now. It’s everywhere. And it’s not remotely new. But I hear on light rock stations. It’s kind of…weird.” I know. I repeated myself. But it was weird. And I found myself suddenly self-conscious about being played on soft rock stations. Jordan would be telling me to get over it.
I kept thinking I was over it, but I guess I wasn’t completely.
The professor looked over the class. “Any other questions?”
The girl next to Courtney raised her hand. “Do you believe the adage ‘all publicity is good publicity’?”
“I don’t know. Given that in our case publicity didn’t translate into sales, it’s kind of like all publicity is bad publicity?”
“Ineffective and negative are not the same, though.”
“Then I guess if you’re saying even negative publicity can have a positive effect…” I paused to let my brain turn that one over a few times. “I don’t know. I think maybe what they mean is anything that gets attention is ultimately good because the hardest battle isn’t to convince people to buy something, it’s to let them know you even exist in the first place.” I felt a sudden chill, though, as my mind raced ahead to the next conclusion: infamy was as good as fame, then. And yet. “But the thing you have to remember is that sales aren’t the only measure of good and bad. For example. If negative publicity wrecked your self-esteem so you couldn’t perform, couldn’t work, then even if you sold more copies of your record, you’re looking at a much bigger loss.”
There were a lot of wide eyes right then. I think none of them had ever considered it from that angle before.
Another hand. “What’s the coolest thing the publicity department at your record company did for you?”
“God. I have to think.” I tried to remember who was in that department. “When we signed, they set up a press conference for us at Limelight, which is this night club in New York inside what used to be a big old cathedral. That was kind of cool.” I couldn’t think of anything else. “Honestly I don’t think I had much contact with the publicists directly. They talked to our manager, possibly, or to our A&R rep in the company, who talked to us. It’s probably not like that everywhere. In our case our A&R rep was a VP in the company and in charge of a lot.” And kind of a dick, I didn’t say.
They were quiet then, no one raised their hand. I did that thing of filling the silence by talking. “I have something else to say about negative publicity, though. I don’t think people within the industry believe any publicity is good publicity. I was explicitly warned that a potential PR disaster could have negatively affected our sales.”
“A potential PR disaster?” The professor frowned. “So you mean something that didn’t actually come to pass? How could it affect you then?”
I tried to make an analogy for it. “Imagine you’re selling yogurt. And if the grocery stores knew one of your cows was sick, they wouldn’t buy the yogurt of course. But what if the distributor didn’t even solicit the stores to order because they were afraid the stores might have heard a rumor about a sick cow?”
“Well, that’s just self-sabotaging,” the professor scoffed.
“I agree. And what if the thing is that the cow isn’t sick at all, but the distributor just doesn’t like that kind of cow?”
“But why would the record company, I mean, the distributor, buy from this cow if they didn’t like it?” the girl next to Court asked.
“Because what if the thing about the cow was something you couldn’t see right away?” I found myself looking at the ceiling. “Okay, that analogy just about ran into the ground and I think maybe you still don’t get it. But fear about negative publicity can be self-sabotaging.”
Did you hear what you just said? I said to myself. If that’s true, then…?
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand the situation,” the professor said.
Courtney looked alarmed for a second. I think because she had an inkling of what I was going to say. “We’re off BNC so I can tell you this now. Our A&R rep came right out and told me that me holding hands with my boyfriend at a private party caused our sales to tank.”
“That’s ridiculous!” She seemed highly affronted by the idea.
As was I, if you’ll recall. “Totally ridiculous, and yet. I think what he meant was there are rumors about you, and those rumors are enough to undermine confidence within the company because of fear of the potential backlash. That was a valid point because he’d basically confessed that HE was the one who feared the PR backlash enough to feel continuing to support us was too much of a gamble. So, that’s what I mean by how fear of negative publicity which you haven’t even received yet can drive companies to be conservative.”
Court’s mouth hung open a little.
Yes, I just told an entire college class that I’d had a boyfriend.
“That’s not…While that makes sense it’s still not…” The professor seemed flabbergasted. “That’s flat out homophobia. That has nothing to do with publicity theory or public relations. That’s…” She made an outraged noise.
“I don’t think my sexuality should affect my popularity. I doubt it affects my playing. But the only way to be sure it doesn’t affect my popularity is to not tell the populace.” I shrugged. “I’m also not keen on having my private life as a whole dragged through the papers, even if it helps sell records. Ultimately I want people to buy the records because they like the music. But I realize the record company doesn’t care why people by them, and I also realize that some will buy the records because they like the way we look or because they like me, or the person they think I am. I can see how the opposite might also be true, that people will not buy an album because they decide they don’t like the art or they don’t like the people. Ultimately I wish it was the music that was all that was judged, but it’s not. What the album art looks like helps sell it. All these things…I guess I accept that’s how it is even if I don’t like it.”
A voice from the back, male, but he didn’t raise his hand and I didn’t see which one he was, asked, “Okay, but are you single now?” which got a big laugh from the class, who clearly knew who’d asked it.
“Not telling,” I said with a shrug.