July 29, 2014
Judy Collins may have sung about looking at love from "Both Sides Now," but Steve Rennie has been looking at the music business from three sides - as a concert promoter, an artist manager and a label executive. And it all started when he threw a New Year's Eve concert featuring The Motels over 30 years ago. After a very successful career, Rennie has decided to use his accrued knowledge to launch an interactive mentoring program, which includes webcasts featuring industry figures such as KROQ/Los Angeles APD/MD Lisa Worden, label promotion ace Jacqueline Saturn and Elektra Records Pres. Jeff Castelaz. Here, Rennie cites some of the things he learned all along the way.
When you first got into the business, putting on that Motels' New Year's Eve show in L.A. over 30 years ago, did you have specific goals of being in the business?
Back then, I had visions of being the local "Bill Graham Presents." He was the man and that's why I called my little company "Steve Rennie Presents" ... like anybody else would've cared. I knew back then that I definitely wanted to be "somebody" in the concert business, and that show at the Beverly Theatre was my "big break" and the start of a different league for me. It all started with getting that one gig away from Avalon Attractions in their backyard. I haven't thought about it in years, but looking back on it now, I think I was showing the signs of some business instincts that would serve me well for the next 30 years.
How have times changed for the independent entrepreneur in this business?
Obviously, more than a little bit has changed. I recently talked to my oldest son, who's just now starting in the business as a 20-year-old, about the whole idea of doing something on your own. Going out on my own was not my first choice when I was starting out. I just couldn't get a job in the mailroom at William Morris. I got impatient looking for jobs so I started my own concert company. Looking back, it was the first evidence of the "Fuck the Gatekeepers" mentality that has become one of the flags I now wave all the time in my music mentoring efforts. If you want to get stuff done, figure out a way around the gatekeepers and get it done. Starting my own company gave me a great attitude that I had to do whatever it took to make something happen. And that's what I told my son.
Working on my own forced me to network my ass off, which served me well when I was hired to work at Avalon, where I was finally working with the big guys. There I had no problem getting people on the phone. I had mentors such as Brian Murphy and Bob Geddes. Bob was the financier behind Avalon, a very hard-nosed business guy. Brian was the relationship guy, so I was learning both sides of the spectrum. It was the perfect place to be. I'm very much a "big picture" guy who doesn't like to personally delve into the details; I'm much more of a delegator. At Avalon, I had a great staff of people to work with and take care of those details so I could focus on the things I did well, which was networking and getting people to say "yes."
Working for a bigger, more successful companies in between my stints as an entrepreneur, first at Avalon and then a few years later at Sony Music, made me a better entrepreneur when I became a manager the second time around.
When did you feel that you had a decent handle on how the business was run?
From the perspective of what the business was back then to where the business is today, I was lucky to start in the concert business. I loved going to concerts; it was like getting the chance throw a party with every show. Even so, back then the record company guys swung the big stick. Compared to them, promoters were kind of the second-class citizens of the business. I can't tell you how many times I fetched tickets for a record label big wig at shows we produced.
One thing I learned early on at Avalon was that even though the label guys were big time players, it was the artist managers who everyone worried about. They repped the band and if they wouldn't play ball, we all had a problem. That was my first real consciousness of the influence of managers.
When I was booking lot of new wave bands, a whole batch of them came from England, and a lot of those guys had less-than-professional managers. They tended be friends from school or their blow dealer. There were some great English managers, but a lot of riff-raff as well. Nevertheless, these guys were always the center of attention. That's when I first decided I wanted to be a manager. I thought I can do this. I knew how to deal with record company people. I knew who I needed on my team and how to get things done. And I think that after seven years of being a concert promoter, I needed a second phase of learning of what I call the real music business.
So I left Avalon after seven years, I left to became a manager. I managed Dramarama, which features John Easdale and Chris Carter, the latter who I've had on my web series and has gone on to do great things. I started managing some of the English bands I used to book based on relationships I had built at Avalon. That's where I met the young Lucien Grainge, who was doing publishing at Polydor, who hooked me up with The Wonder Stuff. That led me to Ned's Atomic Dustbin, which helped build a relationship with Don Ienner at Columbia. My friend Marc Geiger hooked me up with The The. He introduced me to legendary U.K. label head Alan McGhee at Creation, who led me to Primal Scream and Stabbing Westward. All the networking and connections led me to manage six or seven bands.
Ultimately, all those relationships with record companies eventually led me to a gig at Epic Records. I made friends with Richard Griffiths, who was the President of Epic at the time and who now manages One Direction, amongst others, who hired me to be Epic Records' GM over a golf date. (Come to think of it, I got that New Year's Eve show because I played golf with the manager of the band, and I helped close my Avalon deal because a guy at the company is a golfer.) Richard Griffiths became my mentor for the record business. Richard was very much a "big picture" guy. Epic Chairman Dave Glew was a much more "hands-on, get in the dirt" guy and he helped teach me the real nuts and bolts of the record biz. He was a mentor for me as well. I took in all the lessons I learned -- good and bad -- and it gave me a very realistic and unvarnished look at how record companies really operate. Looking back, it was like going to the graduate school of the music biz.
When I left management to join Epic, I swore I'd never do it again because a manager can be one of the most thankless jobs around. No matter how smart you are as a manager you are only as good as the success of your bands. I was way too happy at the record company, which paid stupid money and provided first-class treatment for travel and transportation. It was like being a rock star in those days. Of course, much of that has been somewhat muted these days.
But timing is everything, and while working at Epic, sometime in 1995-96, my former client from Dramarama, Chris Carter and I went out to a club one night to check out this young band that, at the time, didn't have any really great songs, but they had unbelievable stage presence. I loved what I saw so I went to Richard and said that we had to sign this band, saying, "I know I'm not a fucking A&R man, but these guys are so good, I would manage them." Somewhat prophetically, that wound up happening two years later. That band was Incubus, and we signed them to a record deal -- two albums solid, options for four, no 360, and you get an advance. It was one of the last old-school record deals.
Incubus was the perfect combination of a band that had great talent and had a much better-than-average perspective about life, ambition, art and commerce. For me, it was a chance to take everything I had learned as a promoter, manager and label exec, and use it to help break a band. It was at this point that I finally felt I had a good handle on the whole of the music biz. So it only took me about 20 years to figure it out.
All that Sony experience came in handy when after three records, we had to sue Sony in order to get the band paid what they deserved. Having seen how labels work from the inside, it was somewhat predictable that once a fight started that they would fold because labels folded every other time artists sued them for better deals under California Labor Laws. And Incubus meant real business back then. It's not as if they didn't believe the band would see better days; the fact is labels don't offer big money because an artist deserves it. They pay it when they have to. In the end, though, I think that one worked out better for us than Sony. I've often joked that I could feel the proverbial door of the old record business hit me on the ass the moment we left the Sony office in NY to jet back to L.A on the Sony pony.
It was around that time that the first mp3 player was introduced into the market, and Napster was right around the corner. When did you realize the impact the digital revolution would have on the music industry?
When I went to Epic in 1994, it was the dawn of the Internet. I had not been a record guy for long but as a former manager, I tended to be more practical than political in my early days there. I recall sitting at a label meeting one day thinking, "Shit, if you can download porno, news, video and audio - even if it wasn't the best quality -- that was going to be a game changer and we better get our arms around this and make it work for us." It occurred to me that we would not be able to tell consumers how to buy music anymore; they'll tell us. And I share those thoughts frequently. And I think that attitude made some enemies on the distribution side of the company, which was a hugely powerful division within Sony, but these guys just couldn't get their arms around it. I could definitely see this big fucking tidal wave coming, and knew we had to get to high ground or we were going to be in for a hell of a ride.
The record biz had a mindset that sales and distribution was their sacred cow, so they tried to do what labels normally do - they sued Napster and others to stop it. They couldn't see that this was bigger than lawsuits. From then on, the consumers could get music way any way they wanted it, period, end of story. It paved the way for a generation of kids who think of music as something you can get for free. We could've done a better job if, right from the start, we said, "We'll give it to you any way you want as long as you pay us something for it."
When I left Epic, I joined Artist Direct with Marc Geiger and helped run it for a couple years. Marc is truly one of the real visionaries of the web and its ability to empower artists. So many of the ideas about artist channels and distribution that Geigs saw way back then have come true today.
Obviously, judging by the declining sales and revenue, the labels aren't what they used to be. How has that impacted up-and-coming artists? Has it made it easier or harder for them to break through?
Two things come to mind: One, lots of folks still want to be artists. There are still millions of people who are trying to occupy the 100 slots at the top of the charts. So while it's true that there are more ways to get yourself heard today, there are also a lot more people trying to do the same thing, which creates a lot of noise -- and makes it very difficult to stand out.
Despite all the negative doomsday chatter, the major labels and the indies still have a hugely important role to play for the artist. Artistic inspiration is one thing. Those are the key elements - great songs, great performances. Without that we do not have a music biz. But you also need business expertise and infrastructure - and that's where labels still have sway. When I talk to young artists, I tell them about those parts of the business, because it's not enough to have great songs and be great performers. If you don't have a great professional team around you, you won't be successful.
Where does radio fit into the mix? Do you feel it's as important today as it was when you were managing Incubus, or years before that?
I just had Jacqueline Saturn on my web show, who talked radio. Is getting airplay still worth worrying about? Yes, and here's why: If you're making great music, the next thing to do is get it heard. That's what gives it value and builds careers, and for years, radio was the primary and dominant source.
Today, you've got more sources to hear music, what with streaming services such as Pandora, Rdio, Spotify, Beats and so on. The debate rages on about who's paying and how much, but what gets lost in the conversation is that unless you get a ton of radio airplay, you never make any money off it.
Radio is still a huge piece of how people hear music, but my kids listen to music on YouTube with a visual mix. I listen to satellite radio more and more. That wasn't an option for you and me when we were young. Now people have the ability to program the stuff they want to see and hear it when they want to. More people are listening to music than ever around the world and they don't have to listen to something transmitted from a tower. Today even your favorite traditional stations like KROQ are broadcast not just in L.A., but around the world on the Internet.
If you want your music heard you need to get exposure on all these channels, so you have to work hard with all formats, not just on the traditional radio that you and I know. But if you want to be heard in a lot more places, you're going to have to do a lot more work. For all the talk of how much the music biz has changed, the biggest hits still get played everywhere; there's just a lot more of everywhere out there today and that's a good thing.
So in the end, are things better for aspiring artists because of all these avenues of exposure, or harder because the label infrastructure and corporate radio aren't as productive?
Aspiring artists are clearly better off in today's music biz in a number of ways. They have unbelievable tools to make and promote music that in the past were unaffordable. The net result is more artists are making music than ever.
But its also true that standing out from the crowd was always the toughest thing to do, even when the music industry was cranking out 5,000 albums a year versus God knows how many today. And it still tough, maybe even tougher today given all the traffic.
The labels today might be more important than ever because they do have the infrastructure you talked about. They've got money, they've got experience, and they've got infrastructure in place.
The thing that artists need to understand is that there was never a middle class for most music artists. You were either nowhere or somewhere. The middle ground is mythical. If it appeared that there was a middle ground, it was just a snapshot of artists on their way from nowhere to somewhere, or vice versa. That might be changing a bit in today's world with the advent of the YouTube star but its still too early to see if five minutes of YouTube fame translates into a real career.
I recognize the business has changed. I can be as cynical as anyone else who has spent almost their entire life in this business, but I want to remain optimistic. If more people are listening to music than ever before, certainly there can be ways to create a means to make as much if not more money for everyone. Record companies might be counting pennies today after years of counting multi-Platinum albums. While it's fun to reminisce about the "good old days," doing that won't get us where we need to be today. We've got to fucking stop whining about the old days and figure out how to make things better the way things are today.
We still need compelling artists who have great songs and when we find then, we need to surround them with a great team of people. Making big money in this business is always a one-in-a-million phenomenon. As Bob Lefsetz says, artists aren't owed a living just by being artists, and most artists are starving artists for a reason. In general, the pay for being an artist is not good.
And what about your future? Is doing this web series as a mentor for music biz neophytes where you want to be from here on out, or is there still an urge to get back in the business?
Great question. I've had an unbelievable, almost fairy tale career in the music biz for the last 35 years. I'm thankful for that, for spending the last 17 years with a band who I admire tremendously and who are great people. But after 17 years, we just ran out of gas. Whether the band has more gas in them or not is up to them. For me, I needed to do something different, something more personally fulfilling.
One friend asked me if I've retired. Fuck, I don't even like how that sounds. No, I'm not retired. I do the mentor thing because at this point in my life I can do what I want to do. I do it because I have a lot of fun doing it. I never thought about polishing up the resume and going to work for somebody else. I like to think of myself as the rock version of John Madden. I've been to my rock Super Bowl. Madden could have coached another team for sure and I could manage another band. But I feel better now sitting in the "booth," talking shop about the music biz with friends who've done great things in the music biz and young folks who are looking to do something great and just getting started. I still love going down to the proverbial locker room, slapping players on the ass, trading stories and offering advice. This is just a new chapter in my music biz career. And strangely, I've gotten more "back in the business" doing the webshow over the last couple of years than I was with Incubus over the last six or seven years, who frankly have spent more time on break than creating and working.
I started the website and webshow as a way to kill time between the growing gaps in the Incubus album/touring cycles. It was just for fun. But now, as a business guy, I want to try to turn this mentoring web series into a business that pays for itself. I want it to be more than a hobby; I want it to be self-sustaining. And the reality is that there are lots of folks out there paying big money for a music biz education at top universities around the country. What we've been doing, talking with real players in the business and allowing music biz hopefuls a chance to personally interact and ask questions is the way it should be taught. It's not academic. It's real. Just like the music biz.
So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and we are developing an interactive, online course that we are going to offer for sale. I've done a couple of paid online workshops recently and will do more in the future. And we'll keep doing Renman Live webcasts with old friends and new friends as long as people say yes when I call. It's funny. After spending my whole adult life working with bands, I feel like I'm now the singer in my own band. And the anxiety of making this work on my own terms is like performing onstage. And I kind of like it. Who knew?