At The End Of The Day, Musicians Are Entertainers

Trailer Radio 1

Even John Lennon knew that The Beatles had to be entertainers—the point was made early when the very green Beatles were ordered to Mach Schau! Mach Schau! by a Hamburg club-owner in their early days on the Reeperbahn. From making motion pictures to prancing around in tights, the most beloved and emotionally resonant rock band in history did what needed to be done to entertain the fans, who in turn supported the band with fierce loyalty and devotion.

Nearly 20 years ago Dan Rothchild introduced me to virtuoso guitarist David Michael Weiss. Dave at the time fronted SlackJaw (aka SlackJaw Blues Band), who, despite their prodigious musical talent, remained unsigned. All the requisite elements were in place: good songs, serious chops, tight band and commanding vocals. So why weren’t they signed? Probably because they relied exclusively on the music. As far as I know, David and his crew didn’t spend their time mugging for the camera while dressed like Peter Pan or Robin Hood. Surely some photos would have surfaced by now.

Because I dug both the music and the human being, I signed David to my production company, Alternator Records, and planned to include him in a joint venture label deal with RCA Records.  Everything was in place for a successful career to launch–until the RCA brass killed the deal, presumably as a byproduct of an impending corporate reorganization.  Whatever the reason, Slackjaw Dave was again without a clear roadmap to domination of the Top 40 charts.

So he moved to New York, armed with a Telecaster and an early Matchless DC30 with the fabled green transformer. Interesting factoid: I bought that amp from Greg Lake of ELP before playing it on A.J. Croce’s Transit and New Radicals’ Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed, Too, and eventually sold it to David because he made it sound much better than I ever could! But that’s another story for another time.

Fifteen years later Dave resurfaced in my life. He had cracked the musician-as-entertainer code by seamlessly blending smoking hot chops with redneck comedy lyrics and an over-the-top, politically insensitive persona known as Travis Whitelaw. He hooked up with producer and co-writer Joel Shelton to compose and record the album Sexarkana!, which was well received by fans and critics alike and garnered tremendous airplay on XM-Sirius (the only airplay obtainable in light of those pesky FCC regulations for the very “blue” material). The downside, if there was one, was that Travis was so over-the-top and one-dimensional that the joke could easily become old…or convincing. Apropos of that, Dave told me, “Funny and true story: the first time I met Shannon was at a Travis gig where she COMPLETELY bought the shtick and thought I was an actual potty-mouthed redneck. She loved it. I was very proud of the fact that I had fooled a genuine Southerner with my Travis routine.”

Rather than running the risk of overstaying his welcome by allowing the persona to overshadow the person, Travis asked David to re-emerge and assume guitar, vocal and co-writer duties in a super-tight country-rock outfit called Trailer Radio, led by West Virginia spitfire and bona-fide coal miner’s daughter Shannon Brown. Trading the id-driven redneck satire for a clever urban hillbilly shtick, the new band provides a platform for David to showcase his 6-string badassery within the context of an American subculture rich in tradition, tall tales, and culinary delights (boll weevils for dinner?!) as far from Manhattan’s dirty water dogs and thin crust pizza as is imaginable.

Where Travis Whitelaw’s entertainment value is rooted in shock, Trailer Radio’s appeal is in its humanity. The protagonists of TR’s songs are regular folks who find themselves in uncomfortable yet plausible situations. It’s easy to love Trailer Radio’s lead singer, Shannon Brown, when she sings in “Tar Beach” of a rooftop Manhattan summer “staycation” cobbled together from modest resources: “We don’t need no Disney cruise, we can climb up on the roof, drop a lawnchair and a cooler on Tar Beach.” She knows her lane, and she knows how to work it.

Same goes for the completely confused fellow, courtesy of Dave’s spirited vocal delivery, living in the doghouse in [My Heart Is On] “The Bottom Of Her Boots.” You can’t help but feel compassion for the guy as he announces, “Holy crap, she’s flipped her lid, I don’t know just what I did, my recliner’s gone, remote’s been hid, my clothes are on the lawn.” Poor guy…his woman crushed his heart, painted his man cave pink and pawned his shotgun along with her wedding ring. But impossibly he seems radiant in his acquiescence to his fate. There’s a price to be paid for every good story, and Dave’s character revels in the narrative, which makes the ride a fun one for the rest of us.

I’m pretty sure that Trailer Radio’s current success is based on much more than blazing riffs and catchy songs. This band is not afraid of holing up in the woodshed. Their sophomore effort, Country Girls Ain’t Cheap, is clearly the result of a well oiled machine that fine tuned its tightly crafted, hook-laden songs both in private and on countless merciless New York stages. Like the Fab Four, TR understands that folks like to be entertained.

If there’s a life lesson in today’s blog post for recording artists and producers, I suppose it would be to practice one’s entertainment skills as much as one’s artistry. When we make folks feel good about themselves, they reward us with their continued presence in our lives and businesses. Have fun, open up, and live fearlessly! 

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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.