A Grand Plan
The next big step taken was quitting my then full-time day job in early 1997 to dedicate myself ‘round the clock to using my newly completed – and physicalized – CD to launch a bona fide music career, however modest, for myself. I would have been very happy to have had the assistance of a genuinely enthusiastic (and established) record company, manager, and/or booking agent with this. However, I was not going to twiddle my thumbs and wait around for any of these to appear.
So that it (hopefully) wouldn’t be obvious that I was doing all of my own promotional work (or, for that matter, was the only actual hominid at my newly formed label, Hominid Records), and also in the interest of receiving more candid feedback regarding the CD from those I did speak with on the phone, I created an alias using the first names of my two deceased grandfathers. Enter Max Irving…he became the Promotional Guy at Hominid – which, by the way, had a valid business license from the state of Tennessee, as well as its own P.O. Box, toll-free phone number, and business checking account, even if it was operating out of my bedroom.
“Max” threw himself into a three-pronged promotional plan for the CD, which included:
1) Radio Airplay: “We” sent copies of the CD to, and relentlessly followed up with, the commercial radio stations across the U.S. whose format (AAA, aka “Adult Album Alternative”) I believed was the best fit for my music (there were 90 such stations at the time, and 20 of them ended up receiving second copies after the initial ones sent were reported to, during follow-up phone calls to the Music Directors, have been “misplaced”). We also sent discs out to a couple of hundred more non-commercial (mostly college) radio stations, and followed up with those diligently to the degree that Max was capable, given everything else on his plate.
2) Reviews: After phone contact had established that each one did, in fact, accept CD submissions from small/indie labels, copies of the CD were additionally sent to 70-plus alternative/weekly newspapers nationwide, in the hopes of getting some print reviews of the disc.
3) Anything & Everything Else I Could Think of: This included handing CDs out in person to music business people I encountered; getting the CD stocked in the “local artists” section of record stores like Tower Records and Blockbuster Music (remember those?); sending CDs to people I admired in the business whom I thought just might appreciate the music if they gave it a listen (including, among others, Billboard magazine’s Editor-in-Chief and esteemed music journalist Timothy White, and legendary music producer Phil Ramone – who had just joined forces with a record label called N2K and was on the lookout for new artists); and also sending it to: Performing Songwriter magazine (which had a section devoted to profiling their favorite DIY, or “do-it-yourself”/independently produced CDs), acoustic music venues I was interested in playing (locally, and otherwise), select managers of artists I admired, etc.
Many of the above targets, I realized, were varying degrees of long shots. But I also knew that having one “right” person in the biz (someone with enough renown/clout/influence) willing to champion me could make all the difference in the world, and the only way to find out who this might be or how I would fare was to pursue each and every avenue I could think of.
Exciting as all of this was, and as curious as I was to see what would happen if I just went for it, I was also quite aware that I couldn’t count on anything coming of any of the above efforts. There needed to be a more “practical” plan, as well…one that would result in actual income.
The Idea for Procuring Actual Income
I had done well performing for college audiences (formally and informally), and knew that these were great gigs to get for several reasons:
• I’d be playing for peers, more or less (I was only three years out of college myself), as opposed to just rooms full of other songwriters, as I typically was doing in Nashville.
• My music was meant more for listening than for dancing to, and college gigs of the right ilk were, in general, more likely to give me listening audiences than, say, your typical bar/club gigs.
• Colleges tended to pay pretty well all in all, many of them having budgets specifically allocated for this sort of thing.
What if I could book a tour of colleges, wherein I would spend the entire fall semester (roughly mid-August thru mid-December of 1997) playing shows, building a mailing list, and selling CDs everywhere I went? The goal being to play as many gigs as were logistically possible in that time frame, driving myself from one to the next. I had a car, a guitar, and a show’s worth of material (my own, as well as choice cover songs)…all I needed were the bookings, and I’d be a bona fide road warrior!
So….I went to the bookstore (remember those?) and purchased a huge tome called Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges. Then began the cold calls (I decided to do these using my own name, leaving just the record company end of things, which was plenty, to “Max”). I called literally hundreds of colleges all over the U.S. (the biggest concentration of schools was on the east coast, and I needed to ultimately have an itinerary where it would be feasible to drive from one school to the next, so I favored the east coast overall).
IF I was able to navigate, or be navigated, through the switchboard maze at a given school to find the appropriate contact (usually the Director of Student Activities), and IF I reached that person live on the phone, and IF after giving him/her my spiel I got a response along the lines of “Yes, go ahead and send us your stuff”, and IF I verified the exact spelling of that person’s name along with the exact physical address at which he/she could be reached (as well as the direct phone number to that person’s office for follow-up purposes)…THEN and only THEN did they get a promo kit.
The promo kit consisted of the following:
• A cover letter introducing myself and describing the nature of my solo performance.
• An 8” x 10” black-and-white headshot (I had hired a professional photographer for this).
• A bio, printed on card stock.
• An up-to-date list of radio stations (by call letters and location) on which my music had received airplay (if I had confirmed that even one song from the CD had been played on a given station at least once, it made the list). Also printed on card stock.
• A copy of the CD.
I already had a system in place for tracking the history of my contacts and follow-ups with radio stations, and I devised a similar one, using 5″ x 8″ index cards as well as spreadsheets, for the colleges. Every night I would create a list of phone calls, based on the specified office hours of my contacts (and, of course, their time zones), to make the following day: most of these being radio stations and colleges, but also including newspapers and anyone/anywhere else that begged for follow-up. To say that this was labor-intensive would be an understatement. However, there was nothing I would rather be doing if it meant a true shot at doing what I loved for a living – even if I was just eking out a living.
The record company component of the campaign (as described above in “A Grand Plan”) was very much shot-in-the-darkish. But the college tour end of things seemed viable, mostly boiling down to effort and organization. I had talked with someone personally who had pulled it off in the past and even self-published a book on the subject (that I read carefully cover-to-cover). It seemed to me that if I was simply willing to work hard and relentlessly enough at it, I was sure to succeed.
A Numbers Game
This whole endeavor was both incredibly exciting and pretty damn stressful. I was putting a lot on the line. By quitting my day job and severing the umbilical cord to all known/predictable/”guaranteed” income, I was taking a pretty big (if very deliberate and calculated) risk. This was especially hard to do knowing that such action would incur some serious disapproval from my parents. They may have been over 800 miles away geographically, but their voices of objection were ever-present in my head and required persistent drowning out with more affirming ones.
I was also racking up some significant expenses. My first month’s phone bill while doing all of this came out to over $600, and the second month’s over $500 (this was before the days of ubiquitous cell phones and a fixed charge for unlimited long-distance calls). Regular trips to the post office to send out the hundreds of packages described above meant significant charges on my credit card that I could only hope and trust would be recouped.
Some more numbers:
I had been earning around $20K/year from the job I had just released myself from (and at which I had worked for about a year).
The total number of colleges and universities that met my criteria (as elucidated above) and that I actually sent out promo kits to, after all of those cold calls, was 182.
I did not have a fixed fee for my performances; rather, I decided I would negotiate this on a case-by-case basis (depending on such factors as the location and size of the school, whether or not I could secure groups of bookings in the general vicinity, etc.). But I figured that the fee per gig would (allowing for some exceptions, and in accordance with a given school’s entertainment budget) generally be in the range of $500 to $1,000. At this rate, I would need somewhere between 20 to 40 gigs to earn $20K doing this. With 182 prospects I was actively pursuing bookings at for the fall semester, this seemed doable! Yes, I’d have to work my ass off, but the payoff would be that I would be earning about the same that I was previously earning at my day job…but by doing what I loved. It could not have been more worth it to me to endure wearing all of these “business” hats in addition to the musical ones – at least for the time being – in order to make this happen.
“I Can DO This!”
Just from being on the phone as much as I was, I actually secured a few bookings for the current (spring) semester.
The first was at a very small liberal arts college called Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN (about a four-hour drive from Nashville). I managed to quickly strike a deal over the phone (without even having to send out a promo kit) to play a gig there for $200 plus dinner and accommodations for the night.
I remember sitting in my motel room after the show, positively glowing. I had only sold one CD that night, but still…it worked! I DID IT! I pulled this off by myself – without a manager, booking agent, record deal, or anything. I can DO this!!!
I had become, in effect, a one-man singer/songwriter/guitarist/manager/booking agent/record company.
Shortly thereafter, I took a road trip to Pennsylvania, wherein I played a couple of gigs at my alma mater, Penn State, that I booked in the same manner as above (one paid $600, and the other $200). I had graduated three years prior, but knew some people who were still up there, and crashed on a few couches during my stay. I also stopped in Philly (my hometown) on the drive up to and back from Penn State for quick visits to see family and friends.
Nothing major was breaking, but I was accruing small victories along the way, and each one provided more fuel for my tireless efforts. I was getting airplay on some commercial radio stations, in places I had never even heard of before (Angel Fire, NM; Rock Springs, WY; Bend, OR), as well as some I had but never been to (Spokane, WA; Stillwater, OK; Ann Arbor, MI). Learning about each of these was incredibly exciting, especially when there was any degree of enthusiasm on the other end of the phone.
A really big thrill was learning that the Music Director at WIQB-FM (“Rock 103”) in Ann Arbor, a guy named Jerry Mason, had chosen Sanity Check… to be the “Rock 103 Tower Record of the Week”. The station had an arrangement with the local Tower Records wherein they would promote a new CD on the air as such, and Tower would have an in-store display dedicated to the weekly pick (needless to say, I hurriedly shipped copies to Tower to sell on a consignment basis as soon as I learned about this so they would be sufficiently stocked!). The disc chosen the week right before mine, I learned, had been Van Morrison’s latest, so this was an incredible honor. 🙂
All in all, though, I was fighting a seriously uphill battle. The overwhelming majority of messages I left went unreturned, I endlessly got the runaround from people I did speak with, and rejection (mostly in the form of being completely ignored, but sometimes dished out with candor) was very much the norm.
A good number of my contacts at the colleges were student volunteers, as opposed to paid professionals. They would soon be leaving for summer break, and I would be left hanging on the status of not-quite-confirmed bookings. In a number of cases, the students in these positions would be changing hands and not even be my contacts come the fall semester.
On top of all of this, I found myself in an intense long-distance relationship that mirrored both the excitement and the stress of the music business roller coaster I was riding. I agonized over the fact that it seemed like these two vigorous pursuits (the career, and the romantic relationship) seemed at odds with each other.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which the results of all of this frenetic activity will be revealed, as my personal story of determining What I Want to Be When I Grow Up continues…