Archive for the ‘ Professionalism ’ Category

Who Needs A Manager? – Interview with Tommy Merrill

The music industry is changing, and quick. Artists and musicians take on more and more of the roles and responsibilities traditionally held by record labels and managers. If via various internet platforms, artists can skip the intermediate steps and connect straight with their fans, what’s the point of shelling out money (or a portion of profits) for a manager, booking agent or publicist?

Tommy Merrill spent 7 years as Talent Buyer at Rockwood Music Hall, helping to develop (and vet) artists from the ground up in New York City’s famed showroom on the Lower East Side. More recently, Tommy jumped to The Press House, where as President of Artist Development & Booking, he works directly with artists on the upswing of their careers.

As someone who works with tons of independent artists, Tommy answered some questions about what relevance management and representation has in the DIY music economy and how artists can make the most of those sorts of partnerships.


In the do-it-yourself music economy, what do managers and booking agents have to offer that artists can’t provide for themselves?

TM: Two things, relationships and assistance in planning strategy.  A good manager and/or booking agent can get you in the door somewhere you haven’t previously been.  Managers are wonderful for coming in and really laying down the short and long term goals and strategies needed to accomplish those.  Whether just starting out or being further along in one’s career, introduction to the right people in the right situations can really help.  

Artists were coming to me regularly expressing their frustration at not being able to get an agent because they hadn’t toured in the past.  They just didn’t have the background to know what venues made the most sense and who to contact. There was a huge gap between developing artists and those that were starting to gain traction with larger agencies. This is one of the primary reasons that Dawn Kamerling and I launched this new division of The Press House to come in and assist. We’ve been able to get artists into outside markets, both around the US and internationally, with a good level of success for the past year because of our relationships. 

What do you look for when taking on new clients at The Press House? Besides “raw talent”, what makes a viable artist?

TM: I look for a couple of things when taking on new artists.  First and foremost, there certainly needs to be that raw talent that you describe, but I also think a very strong work ethic is needed to be successful or to even lay the foundation to be successful.  It’s a pleasure when artists bring more than talent to the table.  I’ve always thought that knowing the ins and outs of one’s industry, no matter which aspect you focus primarily on, makes that person infinitely better at what they do.  
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Don’t Get Caught Talking the Talk!

It doesn’t take long playing music to have heard it all– the A&R people coming to the next gig, the big national tour, the record deal right over the horizon. The fact is, sometimes those things happen and (often) they don’t. Name-dropping, telling people about opportunities that haven’t yet materialized, or about all of the gigs to come damages your credibility– and your credibility is some of the most valuable currency there is when it comes to having others take you, your word, and your music seriously.

I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes catch myself “talking the talk”. It’s tough to avoid in an industry based so strongly on people’s perception of status. But when I do catch myself, I feel awkward, as if I’m wearing a mask. It’s critical to take a step back and realize that gratuitous, unfounded talk is not only cheap, but also cheapens you and your image. Whether or not the possibilities on the horizon come to fruition, hopefully, you’re enjoying the gig for what it is now and putting in the hard work required to take your music to the next level.
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Having People Take You (and Your Music) Seriously

It seems simple, but it’s what we all want, right? Taking your ideas and your skills from the bedroom and releasing them out into the world to be judged can be intimidating, but the rewards are invaluable. Reminding yourself of this fact can help inspire you to push yourself to the next level and can get you through even the crappiest four-hour gig playing to three people in a bar with a drummer who can’t hold it down.

The best way to have others take you seriously is to show them that you take yourself seriously. Investing time in good preparation, putting value in developing your skills, and respecting others’ time demands that others respect you. If, as an artist, you throw together unlistenable voice-memos and email the tunes at 11:00pm the night before a rehearsal, or as a musician, if you listen to those tunes for the first time on the way to the gig, you give others the impression that music is not your priority.

The same principles stand for performing and promoting your music. If, on stage, you come off as disinterested, disconnected, or unprepared, how can you expect an audience to feel engaged? Best to bring a positive energy to the stage and to all of your interactions in networking and promotion. Others will feed off of your energy, and will thus foster a lasting connection with your music.
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Maintaining a Good Vibe

It’s easy to get nervous when your music (and money) are on the line, but if you surround yourself with musicians who are supportive and experienced, they can take the pressure off and give you a team to fall back on. People typically work best in a guided but creative environment. Don’t worry about “letting people do their thing”– they’ll do it, no matter what, if they feel like what they’re working towards is valuable and taken seriously.

Nobody got into music to feel stressed out, so take a look at the factors in your musical environment and shape them so that you feel most creative and in your element. Music is fun, remember?

In this telling scene from Let It Be, we see The Beatles on the verge of falling apart. Paul McCartney, who knows the cameras are rolling, has been pushing George Harrison to play less (some might say “more appropriately”) on the classic song “Two of Us”. George, fed up with years of Paul’s pushiness, busts out his passive-agressive side. For me, the most telling moment of the entire interaction is how in the midst of what George is saying, Paul can’t look him in the eye, and continues noodling throughout what is a very tense moment: clearly, a subconscious way of avoiding the confrontation.

Paul may or may not have been right (you can take a guess as to which school I fall into), but it’s undeniable that by putting George on the spot in a negative way, Paul lost out on George’s creative impulses and contributions. Paul (and another one of my heroes, Sting) were both musical visionaries, as well as strong-headed (and sometimes hot-headed) bandleaders. But the proof is in the pudding: The Beatles and The Police would surely not have been the same without Paul or Sting at the helm, but their respective solo material following the demise of those bands never reached the same heights without the creative contributions of their bandmates. You may have an ingenious musical vision in your head, but even if you’re Stevie Wonder, realizing your creative vision often relies on the contributions of others– and maintaining a positive ambience is the best way to elicit those contributions that will take your music to the next level.

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How do I tell the band what I want?

As an artist, you are not expected to be an expert at every instrument– that’s why you have a band! So if you’re unsure how to make the drums sound the way you want, have no fear– you hired the drummer because he or she is an expert at drums and is experienced at writing drum parts. All you have to do is listen carefully and attentively to what your band plays, individually and as a unit, and communicate effectively how it makes you feel when performing the song. Effective communication is a true skill and will help you in all aspects of your music.

That said, while everyone communicates differently, learning the language of music is an invaluable tool to you. Perhaps classical music theory isn’t for everyone, but a healthy understanding of the harmony in your songs– that is, what chords and notes you’re playing (and not playing)– can be a boon to arranging and preparing a band. Learning to differentiate between the kick and snare drum, between the hi-hat and the ride cymbals will streamline communication with drummers (insert caveman-drummer joke) and instantly gain your respect in their eyes.
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Everyone’s Favorite Pastime: Scheduling Rehearsals

Setting reasonable goals for a gig as far as new music and new musicians will save you lots of stress later on. Once you have those goals are set, scheduling the right number of rehearsals in the right proximity to a gig will ensure that everyone is fresh and prepared.

For a 50 minute set of songs that are already arranged– that is, the band is learning off of pre-existing tracks or arrangement, I’d give a pro band that hasn’t played the material before two 3-hour rehearsals. The latter rehearsal should be a day or two before the gig, with a couple days in between the two rehearsals to review anything that needs work after the first.

If the songs have yet to be arranged, you’ll want to budget in time to spend arranging each song in the rehearsal room. Professional musicians who can write their own parts in a quick and timely manner help a lot. I’d add about 30-40 minutes per tune that needs to be arranged assuming that they are fairly typical as far as form without too many twists and turns. If you’re playing a through-composed song with alternating odd meters… well, you could set aside a couple hours of rehearsal to arrange it, or you could have someone arrange it beforehand.
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Do I Need Charts For My Band?

This is an important question to ask, because effective charts can cut down rehearsal time, but ineffective charts can do the opposite.

Sheet Music: Helpful or Harmful?

In a typical rock/pop/singer-songwriter context, professional musicians will be accustomed to transcribing songs from a track or demo and making their own charts, notating exactly what they need to know, which varies from instrument to instrument. I also find that making my own charts helps me to memorize songs, so that later I can get my head out of them and look like (less) of a tool onstage.

That said, there are a few good reasons to have professional charts prepared:

If you are playing particularly complex music, with dense harmony or specific (and varied) parts that you want the band to play, charts can be very effective and save hours of uncertainty in the rehearsal room.
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Finding the Right Musicians

It’s a sad fact, but the best musicians are not always the right ones for your project. You may like the drummer’s playing from such-and-such band, but before committing to have them on a gig, make sure that their professionalism lives up to their chops. Someone who seems very invested in your music may or may not have the experience to come up with appropriate parts. So how do you know who will do your music justice and won’t waste your time?

This drummer's on the wrong gig.

Seek out recommendations. I wouldn’t hire someone to paint my house before checking with a referral. If you don’t have the personal experience working with someone, it’s always good to ask for others’ opinions. Friends, colleagues, and other members of your band will be eager to recommend someone with whom they’ve had great experiences working before.

Once you’ve got a lineup for the band, taking into account your budget and the size and aims of the gig, make sure that they have what they need to know your music inside out. Don’t send too much, or too little.

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Preparing Songs for Your Band

How can you as a musician or artist be heard above the static? How can you distinguish yourself so that you are the one that gets remembered, that gets the call for the next gig and the gig after that?

Artists: How to Effectively Prepare a Band

There’s no one way to get your band together. Miles Davis, James Brown and The Beatles, for example, all had notoriously different ways of running their bands, of working together (or not working together), and all made excellent music.

The harder it is for your band to listen to your songs, the less likely they are to know them!

There are, however, several principles to follow that will ensure that everyone takes your music seriously and that result in a much tighter musical unit.

Preparing Songs for Your Band
Send a single demo of every song. Make sure that the demo is listenable, easy on the ears, and representative of how you want the song to sound. YouTube and other streaming media are a no-go– if your band is able to get it to work, they’ll likely only get to hear it once. Read more

Respecting People’s Time

People often ask what it takes to be a working musician in New York City. How can you as a musician or artist be heard above the static? How can you distinguish yourself so that you are the one that gets remembered, that gets the call for the next gig and the gig after that?

Respecting People’s Time
There’s nothing more important than showing your coworkers, collaborators and friends that you respect their time. The nature of the music industry usually requires that people invest all of their free time in several projects: if you’re not performing, you’re preparing for a gig. If you’re not creating new music, you’re promoting the music you’ve made. If you’re not booking a gig, you’re working on marketing. The vast majority of musicians need to play with numerous artists and/or work numerous jobs to make ends meet and get to do what they love.

So if you show them that you respect their time, they will respect yours. How can you indicate to people that their time is valuable to you?

Show up on time. If, as a musician, you show up late to a rehearsal, not only do you waste the artist’s time (and possibly money)– you waste the time of every other musician in the band. If, however, others see that you are prompt and efficient, you will stand out and are likely to be on everyone’s list for the next gig.
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