Conversations In LA: Realities Of The Music Industry
Posted on November 24, 2015
November 24, 2015 | by Jonathan Diener
I had a week off in Los Angeles and decided to catch up with as many of my friends as possible. As it turns out, a lot of people I grew up with in my travels are pretty successful in their respective crafts. Everyone from big time music video directors, a band signed to a major label deal and a very popular artist’s manager. The interesting thing was finding out how people, no matter how high on the food chain, are still hungry for more and struggling like the rest of us.
The first person I met up with was my friend Zack Sekuler, who has become a big name in the music video world. After struggling with his punk band and doing design work here and there, he decided to direct videos and within a few years is already signed to a large agency having done videos for X Ambassadors, The Neighbourhood, George Ezra and even Jonas Brothers. After passing the storefront of the bar where It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is filmed, we sat down at a cafe in the hip, Art District and started to play catch up.
Right off the bat I was informed that the amount of money he made as a director from each video is only a tiny fraction of the budget. Usually directors get 10% of the total budget, but since he has a partner, he has to split it two ways. After paying for the equipment, supplies and the crew even a $30,000 budget (which is standard) becomes only a few grand in pocket. After paying the ridiculous rent usually averaging around $2,000 and paying off student loans each month, it’s not even breaking even, it’s just coasting. Although he’s sent potential projects from his agent, Zack still has to bid against directors just as hungry as him to secure each job, even when he feels like he has no chance in hell. Although in most of our minds he has “made it” in his line of work, he is still living paycheck to paycheck like the rest of us, working to get to the next level.
My friend Jillian Newman, manager of Taking Back Sunday, and I went hiking up some hills in Malibu while I asked about her career from the beginning. It’s always interesting hearing about a band manager and finding out if they’ve been a work horse for years or just got lucky with an overnight success. It turns out, Jillian has had a little bit of everything happen to her. She worked at indie and major labels, marketing firms, managed several bands and has done the whole damned thing. With TBS she deals with large scale decisions and focuses on the band’s longevity, but with newcomers Modern Chemistry she is dealing with a band starting from scratch. Adjusting from the old school mentality to the new Wild West of the ever-evolving industry is still a bit of a chore for a lot of people, and Jillian openly admits she can still learn from the younger generation.
In 2015 the music industry is navigated by a slew of youthful tech savvy people, thus social media has created a need for transparency and a deeper connection with the fans. A band like Modern Chemistry has the chance to carefully set up their online presence and let people into their world, so while growing a fanbase they can grow as individuals. It’s strange, but it helps to actively think about even Twitter statuses if you’re looking to create a brand for your band. Already established artists like Taking Back Sunday can honestly take it or leave it when it comes to the strategy aspect, but the members still choose to post on each of their social media accounts. If you don’t give back to the people who support you or the avenues in which to do so, some problems or even backlash may occur. A manager’s job is adapting to new technology and ideas just as much as taking care of their bands. Although it can be frustrating and overwhelming at times, it’s still vital and Jillian, as well as many industry veterans are re-learning the game every day.
My buddy Nick, who I met years ago playing shows together in Michigan, was later in a band signed to a major label. His former band broke up and he jumped at the opportunity to to move to Nashville, TN to join the band he loved. He signed a major label contract and was soon introduced to a strange, new life immersed in songwriting, meetings with suits and partying. $300,000 was invested in the band, their rent was covered and they were encouraged to live the rock star life. The management and label hinted at them moving in the direction of Kings Of Leon, Neon Trees, Black Keys and whatever was hip at the time. Their singer oozed machismo and it was only fair to incubate that “it” factor until it was ready for rock stardom. The guys would drink heavily, work on new music, submit it to the label and at one point even decided to shelf their record because it didn’t feel like them. They wanted authenticity and on paper they had things under control, but a few higher-ups didn’t think so.
The band had to re-showcase for the label to prove themselves worthy. One of the lights from the lighting rig actually fell onto Nick during the performance and he had to power through the set, knowing his band’s career was at stake. It worked, they wowed the place and were groomed again to be household names. Huge shows with bands like The Darkness, The Beach Boys, Bush and Scott Weiland followed, and they experienced what I call the “nacho eater” crowd. The “nacho eaters” walk into an arena eating their overpriced food and barely notice the opening band playing their hearts out onstage. The guys were put in that position and unfortunately, nothing took off. The band ended up splitting and now Nick lives in LA and works for a management company trying to help artists learn from his ups and downs in music.
We all grow up hearing about the fantasy that is Los Angeles and Hollywood. Daydreaming aside, if you work hard enough, you can have that. You have to be able to pay your rent, stay relevant and not burn bridges. It’s important to understand the realities of the music industry, be open to changing who you are and have the courage to get up when you’re knocked down. Sometimes literally. The three friends I focused on each have their own stories that you can learn from to make a career for yourself, and I sincerely believe they’re all far from over.
Jonathan Diener used to drum in The Swellers and met lots of FPs (“Famous People”) along the way. His new band, Braidedveins, just released their new, self-titled LP. Stream/buy it here.