Bret Alexander

THE REAL GIG: Somewhere, someone knows the answer to that – finding a mentor

THE REAL GIG: Somewhere, someone knows the answer to that – finding a mentor
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I am sure some of you have been watching the show “Vinyl” on HBO. I have been checking it out quite a bit. Some of the characters I am not sure about but, predictably, one of them I love. It’s the R&B singer turned band manager Lester Grimes.

Here is a sample of Lester’s vibe. He’s talking to a young band, The Nasty Bits, who are about to sign their first major label deal:

“You get an idea, you can’t shake it. Hum along with it when you’re on the train. You like it for a minute, but then you hate it. It ain’t good enough, but you write it down anyway just to get it out of your head.

Then you pull out your guitar, see if it might stand up.

Your mouth, your thought, your hand.

Put a microphone in your face, somebody hits record.


Now you sign a deal with a label, paid you a big chunk of change to cut an album, so you’re feeling like the man, but they gonna hit that pile of cash, pull out a stack to pay for the studio, the guy pushing the button and the cover art and the poster and the launch party.

That’s called recoupment.

Cut the record, it sells in stores, shop gets half. Take out a buck for the manufacturing. Buck and a half for the distribution. A buck for marketing.

Not a whole lot left for you.

But even if there is, you don’t get to see a dime of it till they pay off your production costs. Probably need to sell 100,000 records to do that. 100,000 is more people than you’ll ever meet in your life.

You know the difference between mechanical royalties, performance royalties, artist royalties, songwriting royalties?

All that shit’s gonna show up on a stack of paper, your name at the bottom under a dotted line like it’s already done.

And Richie Finestra’s gonna hand you a drink and a pen.

He knows that every single one of those things is negotiable down to a hundredth of a percent.

I know.

Only ones that don’t know is you. And you’re the ones holding the pen.”

And with this little soliloquy, this week’s column begins.

I am talking from the vantage point of a vocational musician but, really, this applies to anyone. Here goes…

When you have been doing anything for decades, inevitably some asshole is going to come up to you at some point and ask, “If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”

A lot of people would say they would “pick more daisies” or “follow their dreams.” For me, I picked enough flowers to be satisfied with the numbers, and I followed my dreams since I was 15 years old, so that doesn’t really work as an answer in my case.

My answer would be this: I would ask more questions.

And, most importantly of all, I would surround myself with more people that knew the answers. And I would start getting to know those people long before it was time for me to ask them anything. Basically, I guess I am talking about mentors. The more good ones you have, the better.

To be honest, this is easier than it sounds. Hang out and get to know people in your field. Become pals with folks who have already done what you want to do. Most experienced people enjoy talking about what they do and what they have learned doing it. Their passion is your gain.

All you’ve got to do is ask and they’ll talk your ear off. It won’t cost you a penny.

One of these days, you are going to need some real advice. Quickly. And your name will already be in their phone when you make that call.

That is not the point when you start looking for friends. Believe me.

Many young people who have never lived in a world without a computer have a strange attitude. They feel there is this huge cultural gap between them and baby boomers and Gen Xers that renders the old people’s wisdom irrelevant. Certainly things have changed, but much is the same old, same old. People want to make money, they want to be loved, they want to feel important, they don’t like to be wrong, they’ll screw you over if it benefits them, they’ll leave you behind if you’re expendable, and on and on.

Now, you can Google five million stories in an instant that pertain to any situation and, chances are, you will find some good advice in there. But the thing about Google is, it doesn’t argue with you. It doesn’t know the important details of your personality and what you value.

It doesn’t know you.

It is true that failure is a better teacher than success. It is also true that a lesson is repeated until it is learned. But, honestly, Lady Luck isn’t going to let you keep taking her big ol’ SAT test of life over and over until you pass it. Eventually, she’s going to say, “This guy’s an idiot,” and move on.

That is where mentors come in.

Here’s an observation I have had: In rock and roll, a good portion of the best stuff is made by working class kids. I was one of them. And it is a common attitude among working class people that “rich kids” are successful because their parents have “connections” and all the money in the world to make their kids uber-successful like them. This is not entirely false.

But I have also noticed that you can give many of these poor kids the same connections and money and they will still fuck it up. Why? Many books have been written on the subject. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” touches on it. Basically, the working class kids did not grow up around success. Money wasn’t the deciding factor – knowledge and understanding was. There were no mentors around grooming them for their time at bat, so when it came, they freaked out and made the wrong choices. There was no one to call. No one they trusted to put things in perspective.

And Lady Luck shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

In 1995, our band The Badlees made an independent record called “River Songs.” We released it in the Mid-Atlantic region and it took off quickly. Within about three months, we had sold about 12,000 of them regionally and we were all over the radio. We had been at it for six years, but after this record started gaining traction, things took off quickly. Within one week in late spring, we received three major label offers from Polydor/A&M, Lava/Atlantic, and Columbia. We had to make a call fairly fast. The Columbia guys came and saw us at a club in New Jersey. They were very complimentary and cool. I mean, we could be on the same label as Dylan and Springsteen? How cool is that? The Lava/Atlantic folks came out to a gig in Harrisburg. They were a new imprint but were starting to get some exciting things going. And, finally, Polydor/A&M came to a show in Scranton. And they were a great crew, too.

It was a tough choice, but ultimately we chose Polydor/A&M. We just got a great vibe from them. A radio promo friend of ours spoke highly of them and we agreed. It was the toughest choice we ever had to make as a band, and it went down fast.

In our case, from the crew to the band to the management, everyone had done an amazing job getting us to where we were at. However, not one of us had ever been there before. This was new territory, so we went with our gut and made our choice. It was a difficult choice, but unanimous.

In retrospect, we were treated amazingly well by Polydor/A&M. They never wavered in their support while we were there, and they put lots of resources behind us. Things went very well, all told. We owe them a lot.

However, if we had someone in our corner who had done deals like that before, I believe we would have considered the other suitors even more than we did. We received a letter post deal from the head of A&R at Columbia telling us how he felt that we had made the wrong choice. All his points were good, and it was all stuff we hadn’t considered. He didn’t have to write that letter. We had already went elsewhere. I can only surmise he felt very strongly about the band. We just didn’t realize how much.

The A&R guy at Lava/Atlantic had called our manager just before we made our choice. He was super excited that “River Songs” was going to be a huge record, and we were going to be his first signing. We really, really liked him, but ultimately we decided to take another offer. Most of the bands on his label were fairly unknown to us. Some of the new bands just starting out that we had never heard of were Edwin McCain, Matchbox 20, The Corrs, and Sugar Ray. Our young A&R guy also went on to sign Kid Rock, Simple Plan, and Porcupine Tree, among others.

Within three years of our signing, the parent company (Polygram) of our chosen label was sold to Seagram, a merger that destroyed piles of labels and crippled the careers of hundreds of artists. In a way, we were one of them. We begged for 18 months to be released from a deal we fought six years to get.

Now I’m not here to cry over spilled milk. We had a great run in major label land – a lifetime of memories. And everyone did a great job for us. Polydor/A&M supported us like we were their kids. Our crew kicked ass. Our manager was a tireless advocate for the band. The guy never stopped. And the band was hitting on all cylinders at the time.

The point here is that we didn’t have anyone in our corner who had been there before when our time came. We were all newbies. Were there points in the Columbia deal that were negotiable? Did everybody know that Lava/Atlantic was poised for huge success? Was Seagram already in the beginning stages of buying our label when we signed? With a successful independent record, a regional touring base already built, a fair amount of good will already in radio, and three offers on the table, what was our negotiating position?

Somewhere, someone knew the answer to that.

We just didn’t know him.

Years later, a manager friend of mine said, “For once, I want someone to tell me I was right when it matters whether I am right or wrong.” A day late and a dollar short, as the saying goes.

Experience is a great teacher, but fate is a fickle thing. Get yourself a mentor, folks. Or two… or 12. Before you need him.

I am sure a lot of musicians are reading this and thinking, “We need a manager,” or “We need an attorney,” or “We need a booking agent.” You may or may not need those things at this point in your career. But one thing is for sure…

You do need a friend.

And, preferably, a friend who has already done what you want to do. A guy who knows the terrain and has your best interests in mind. A guy who can fluently speak, read, and write the language of your dream.

Remember, the same five letters that spell “Santa” also spell “Satan.” The order of things matters a great deal.

There are people out there willing to share what they have learned, and all you have to do is look them in the eye and listen.

That’s what friends do.

The Real Gig is a weekly column collecting the stories, observations, opinions, and advice of NEPA songwriter, engineer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Bret Alexander. Look for it every Friday on NEPA Scene.