Friend-Sourcing, Part 3: For Your Grammy Consideration

MJ the extrovert, cloistered in his secret lair.

This year’s first Grammy ballot is currently in the hands of the Recording Academy’s voting members. Laypeople may be under the false impression that the Grammy awards are rigged. On the contrary, the Academy has gone to great lengths to level the playing field and to ensure fairness.

Having said that, it’s a longshot for an independent artist, or even a major label artist without deep pockets, to make the leap from the first to the second/final ballot. The first ballot is basically a free-for-all. There are so many artists competing for voters’ limited attention spans that my mental image is that of the sea of faces in the iconic Woodstock photos snapped from the stage. A veritable multitude of individuals shouting, “Choose me!”, anonymously disappearing into an ocean of minuscule dots.

Similarly, everybody listed on the first ballot is hawking their wares to other voting members for their “consideration.” If you’ve ever seen those full-page ads in Billboard magazine with a banner that says “For Your Consideration” above an artist’s visage and some category names like “Song Of The Year” or “Best New Artist”, then you’ve seen ads connected to the first ballot.

I’m amused every October when new or indie artists announce that the have been “nominated” for a Grammy award. They are misrepresenting the process—the first ballot vote tally determines the official nominees. The voter package may list literally hundreds of entries in “consideration” for a category like Pop Vocal Album, but only four or five will be the “nominees” on the second/final ballot. Those chosen finalists are the same nominees announced during the televised broadcast right before we hear the words, “And the winner is…”

The nominees are typically artists with hit recordings on the charts. Voting members sometimes pick songs and artists with whom we are familiar because there are simply not enough hours in the two-week voting period to listen to everything listed on the first ballot, especially when we don’t recognize 90% of the names. (The second ballot is a different story: we have three weeks, skirting the holidays, to listen to the cream of the crop before casting our “winner” votes.)

So, the question is: how does one make the leap from “for your consideration” to “nominee”?

If you have access to vast resources like the major labels and superstar artists do, it’s simple. Saturate the market with a solid promotion campaign so that everybody knows about you and your music. Unless they are hiding under a rock, voting members will know who you are. It’s up to them whether or not they like you enough to actually vote for you, but at least they are aware of you. You have a shot.

If, on the other hand, you are an independent artist, you’re traveling a tough road. You may be the best band since The Beatles, but if nobody is aware of your existence, you won’t make the second ballot.

As glamorous as the job of being a successful record producer may seem to the uninitiated, I can emphatically tell you that I do not have the resources to promote my new artist album, titled Marchesano, to compete at that level. (You may stream the full album here.) Rather than writing off the opportunity, I decided yet again to “friend-source” the necessary support.

In Friend-Sourcing, Part 1, I discussed the importance of developing and nurturing balanced two-way-street relationships. Part 2 was about converting a surplus of good karma into significant and meaningful press generation and brand building. Now, in Part 3, I will describe yesterday’s successful call to action.

I looked at the calendar and counted only a few days remaining before the first ballot needs to be completed and mailed. My manager Jan Seedman and I discussed a few options, including an email appeal to everybody who worked on the album to let their friends know about it. Ultimately we decided to use Facebook as the vehicle. My appeal was simple: ask my friends to share links to my album and some individual songs before the first ballot is due.

I briefly let them know that I was on the “for your consideration” ballot in several categories, including Best Contemporary Instrumental Album; Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; and (ironically) Best New Artist. I attached a link to stream the full album, and asked my friends to share it far and wide.

Some of my friends, including Michael Goyette, guitarist from Save Ferris and Artificial Joy Club, shared heartfelt posts encouraging their friends to rally the troops and “share, share, SHARE!!!” Michael’s friends actually did it! By the end of day one, nearly 1000 streams happened on Bandcamp alone, and 72 people shared my original post. Plus other folks began new threads with links to their favorite tracks from the album, which were in turn shared by others.

This may not seem like much traction when compared with The Weeknd or Taylor Swift, but it’s much more than I had happening a day earlier. A few voting members told me that the increased visibility put me on their radars, so they listened and voted for me. More importantly, I was gaining new fans with whom I can communicate directly.

If you want to help spread the word, you can! It’s easy. Click on this link to my original Facebook post, read it, leave a comment, and share it with your friends. For extra credit, follow up with a link to your favorite songs every day until Monday morning. I couldn’t ask for anything more valuable than this: a timely opportunity to make folks aware of my music.

Ask, and ye shall receive. Especially if your friendships are genuine.

Cover artwork : photo by Frank Bevans; design by Shannon Brown and Kristin Prentice.
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Friend-Sourcing, Part 2: Good Press and Brand Building 

Full page feature in Pro Sound News, courtesy of good karma.


What a wild ride the summer of 2015 was! Great music, great bicycling, and great press. My life was in the groove. Plus, thanks to the #1 record, the time was ripe to ask my friends to help me further build the Michael James brand.

In the “new” record business, many folks believe that you don’t make money from record sales, but rather from “building your brand.” For the sake of this post, let’s not worry about what to actually do with said built brand after you build it. Instead we’ll focus on one specific way to raise awareness of your brand: “friend-sourcing.”

In my case, I made a point of engaging with my fans and clients since my first day on the job. I like to think I have some good karma and good will in the bank. Maybe enough to cash in, in the form of enlisting the help of my friends…

My plan? Mobilize the troops to create a renewed buzz about my current success stories, with the goal of expanding my client base.

When one attempts to do this beyond the local grassroots level, one typically (and wisely) hires a publicist and a street team. I, however, decided to friend-source. I called my friends directly to ask for their help.

This decision was not motivated by financial considerations as much as instinct. My gut told me that folks who knew me would be happy to treat me with the same enthusiasm, kindness and generosity that I showed them. Plus their efforts would be genuine, not manufactured.

I was right. Everybody I asked delivered…and there’s a reason.

I’ve always believed that healthy relationships are balanced with respect to both giving and receiving. I strive for this equilibrium.

As an example, Wade Goeke of Chandler Limited made it (relatively) easy for me to buy his products. After each purchase, I inevitably needed support in the form of consultation to ensure that I was able to get the most from his pro audio and guitar products. As we became more familiar with each other, we became professional friends. Not only would I provide real world feedback from the front lines, I would also take a genuine interest in his life—and he in mine. I recall sending him an emotionally uplifting song, Light On The Horizon, when he was facing a difficult challenge. He was very appreciative, and sent a heartfelt note to me, explaining that the simple act of reaching out was exactly what he needed to remember that he was not alone.

So, Wade was happy to help when I asked him if his social media maven could spread the word about my scene in a mutually beneficial manner. By publishing a feature about the role of his products in my workflow, he would be attached to a current hit while I would tap into his network of fans and customers. Win-win.

Several other pro audio sponsors followed suit, including Dangerous Music, Manley Labs, and Glyph Technologies. Their efforts, in turn, led to features with SonicScoop and other prestigious publications.

Meanwhile, I pondered who among my journalist acquaintances might have a reason to pitch a story to their editors. Clive Young, of Pro Sound News, used to publish a fanzine, Joy Buzzer, that was devoted to NY rockers Too Much Joy. Clive interviewed me a couple times about my role as Producer of TMJ’s major label debut album, Son Of Sam I Am. To this day, he and I remain devoted fans and friends of the band, so we share a bond that only TMJ devotees would understand. Long story short, I pitched him a story. Because Clive is a really good guy who genuinely enjoys helping others, he found a way to turn the idea into something even bigger and better.  He determined that we could break it apart into five separate features that would dose the Michael James story across several months instead of a one shot deal. Win-win again…and again.

Friend-sourcing ensured that everybody had a reason to help me. All my friends genuinely want me to succeed in my endeavors. By the end of the summer, I had been featured in around a dozen new, unique, significant publications, both physical and digital. The exposure was huge, and it opened new doors to opportunity.

I highly recommend friend-sourcing to anyone who is serious about pursuing or maintaining a career in today’s record business.  For it to work, however, it is imperative that you give at least as much as you take. Remember: people will want to help you if you demonstrate that you want to help them.

* If you’d like to read Friend-Sourcing, Part 1: Getting By With A Little Help From My Friends, click on the link. And stay tuned for Friend-Sourcing, Part 3, which will be here sooner than you’d expect!

I was a customer at Dalbir Sidhu’s restaurant, and now we’re friends. He’s become an evangelist for my mixing services.

Want To Be A Super Pro? Behave Like One!

Dan Rothchild (left), with Beck, for whom he played bass.

My wife Irina and I were driving the car, enjoying a lovely California evening with the radio playing in the background, when suddenly we shut up, locked eyes, and together declared, “Dude, that sounds like Dan!”

We actually stopped the car so we could crank up the volume without distraction, our eyes riveted to the FM radio dial, anticipating each subsequent note that might offer a clue that the groovalicious bass line was performed by somebody other than our dear friend Dan Rothchild. The feel was sexy, the pocket was deep, and the tone articulate and round. The bass was the perfect pivot for Sheryl Crow’s visceral vocal performance of a song that would soon be a massive hit, “If It Makes You Happy.” Dan later told me that this overdub session took only 20 minutes of getting a tone, and 20 minutes of tracking. 

The thing that blows my mind is that Irina and I both instantly recognized Dan’s unique character just as easily as we did Sheryl’s identifiable voice. By virtue of countless recording sessions with Dan, I was intimately familiar with his musicality, but Irina only knew the finished recordings, which were merely a small fraction of her playlists that included Seal, Crowded House, The Beatles, Peter Gabriel, et al. She had plenty of star power on her mix tapes, and no reason to pay any particular attention to our homeboy who rode mountain bikes and ate Thanksgiving dinners with us. Yet somehow Irina instantly recognized Dan’s unique musical DNA. 

I called up Dan to find out if it was indeed he who rocked the track. He modestly confirmed what I already knew in my bones. I was so happy for him! He was on another hit, one that was certain to raise his profile. Dan then told me that he was finally getting to really do what he loved. He was contributing on a creative level, live and in the studio, with many of his favorite artists.

I’m writing about Dan Rothchild today because there are so many things to learn from him about professional attitude and behavior, whether you’re on the way up or a veteran pro. Here’s one of the secrets to success, as exemplified by Dan: The right attitude attracts opportunities. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to spend your time doing what you love.

Dan was regularly getting called up to the bandstand by Jon Brion during Brion’s Largo residency, which was the equivalent of a master class in unrestrained creativity for us mere mortals. A quick glance at the audience would reveal a diverse crowd ranging from Aimee Mann and Michael Penn to Fiona Apple and Toad The Wet Sprocket. Everybody in the club hoped to catch a sprinkle of Brion’s mad genius, but Dan transcended that desire. He was actually adding to the strange brew without a net and in the moment, and he was loving it! 

So, how did he get to that place in his career where his professional and personal dreams so peacefully coexisted?

Dan’s initial success came from consistency, character and, perhaps most importantly, his positive “we’re all in this together” attitude. Whenever I called Dan for a job, I knew with confidence that we were going to have a good day. The mood would be fun, and the results would be super pro. Dan knew when to cut up and when to shut up & rock. He still does. That’s why he’s one of the top cats in the business.

Dan may be the ultimate team player. He is more than capable of running the show, as evidenced by his production of Better Than Ezra’s hit album Deluxe, but he respects the creative process enough that he is comfortable adapting to whatever role the situation requires. Even when I was the producer on various records, I knew that I would learn something new from the guy I hired. I distinctly recall Dan teaching me how to watch the lead singer’s lips to lock in the phrasing when doing background vocals. Seems obvious, right? Well, it’s not…at least not until you think of doing it. I also remember him showing me two different bass guitar tuning strategies, one for ballads and the other for faster tempi. Strings tend to drop in pitch after the initial attack, so Dan tuned for the sustain on slow songs and for the attack on faster ones with lots of eighth notes.  

When you hired Dan for a gig, you got much more than a bass player. You got an encyclopedia of music history, who would happily share knowledge bequeathed to him from his rock royalty father, legendary producer Paul Rothchild, whose myriad credits include The Doors and Janis Joplin. No matter how fresh or unique you are, you will always benefit from having someone who learned from the Masters on your team. Dan is that guy, yet he is full of experimentation and serendipity. 

Dan always brings his A-Game to a session, regardless of the status of the artist. Major label or independent, it makes no difference to his performance or attitude. Watching him do his thing is a reminder to me of what is truly important to any artist who hires me: the artist wants me to make him/her feel good about the music.

Apropos of that, I recall working on the New Radicals album, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too. Before cutting the song “Crying Like A Church On Monday”, the band (Dan on bass, Gregg Alexander on vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan McCarroll on drums, Danielle Brisebois on percussion, and yours truly on electric guitar) experimented with some arrangement ideas, and really began to gel into a tight unit. And then McCarroll, who was known for playing with Jellyfish alumni in The Grays, tells us that he needs to leave for another gig…before we even pressed the Record button. No need to worry, though, because Dan Rothchild was friends with virtually everybody in the record business. He suggested we call Matt Laug, who played drums on Alannis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. 

Soon enough, Matt was set up and ready to rock. Before recording, however, everybody in the room was so inspired by the new chemistry that we jammed on Police songs for an hour! Nobody was stressed about time because we were in the zone, living in the moment, loving the sheer joy of music. Finally we cut the song. It was so easy to fall into the perfect groove with that combination of cats who knew how to listen, and knew how to have fun.

As a treat to you, my beloved readers, before I wrap up this post, I’ll share a couple personal vignettes that I probably shouldn’t. Even if I get in trouble, these are too good to take to the grave.

1. For a brief time, Dan’s nickname was HinderHat. He was fearless on a mountain bike. Before a challenging race in 1990, my pro cycling colleagues and I warned him to watch out for the Rim Wrecker, a technical kamikaze jump over a concrete irrigation trench that could be safely avoided by pedaling around it. It was marked with a makeshift tombstone made of taco’ed rims. The detour, although safe, was a clusterfucked traffic jam. The fastest line was the straight airborne one—provided you had enough speed, skill and guts to clear the jump. After the race, Dan said he looked for the hazard each lap, but never saw it, even though he sailed right over it! Clearly he focused on the goal, and didn’t get hung up on the obstacles in his path.

The race bug bit him, so Dan began training with a small group of elite racers. One day he discovered that his tires were shot, so I left a pair of new skins for him at my home. My training partners and I pedaled the eleven miles to the trailhead while Dan drove to my place, picked up the tires, and then chased us by bike to the trail after he installed only one of the tires. He wrapped the other new one around his helmet, like a turban, and planned to change it at the designated meeting place. 

When he arrived, however, Dan was eager to hit the mountains, so he elected to wear the tire “hat.” The knobby turban, which understandably slowed him down a bit—and caused at least one spectacularly hilarious crash—became known as The Hat That Hinders Dan’s Progress. And Dan became affectionately known as HinderHat.  He didn’t seem to mind, though. If everybody else was happy, then so was Dan. 

2. Dan recorded Better Than Ezra’s electric guitar amplifier in a van, outside his West Hollywood apartment, by running mic and instrument cables out of the second story studio window to the parking lot. I guess the landlord didn’t want him to record loud music inside the apartment, so Dan did not record loud music inside the apartment. No worries. Problem solved? Check. Hit record? Check. 

Circling back to the theme of doing what you love, the takeaway is that we can create our fantasy life by behaving like the person who would actually live such a life. Across the 27 years I’ve known Dan, he has consistently behaved like the guy you want to have on your team; like the guy who would produce a hit record; like the guy who would play bass for Heart, Sheryl Crow, Shakira and Fiona Apple; like the guy who would get his friend a coveted A&R job at a major label. Because of his behavior, all of those things became reality. 

So, how does this story relate to the rest of us? Simply put, let’s behave like the people we want to be, to ensure we live the lives we want to live.