Using A&R in Venue Management

 

Artist and Repertoire is a cool job. The A&R men, as they are known, were record label executives who found and nurtured talent toward stardom. The position was integral during the record industry boom, as they were the ones responsible for keeping a record label’s pool of talent both fresh and full.

It takes a very specific skill set to be exceptional in this department. For one, You have to have a good ear for music and be able to hear how much potential an act has by doing what I call “listening through the show.” You have to be a powerful influencer. Not just with potential artists, but with those who hold the purse strings at the record label. I once worked with a legendary A&R name on a very limited basis. He taught me that the Artist and Repertoire agent never has the “final say” if a band will get a record deal. Instead, he had to work with potential acts to prep them for the pitch to those with the means to launch their careers.

Once an A&R person lands the act they have been hunting, the job truly begins. Now, they must work between artist and label to align the talent in a way that meets the business needs of the financier. They may work on the entertainer’s image, adjust their marketing and promotion, or train them to become better performers live among a host of other tweaks.

Unfortunately, the A&R gig has been downsized along with the mammoth record labels that existed pre-Napster. Something I was saddened to be reminded of during my undergraduate studies in music business.

Six years and an MBA later and I am on my way to a second venue in one night to catch a band. This will be one of four venues visited that day and about ten in two weeks. This act is one of nearly twenty on my evolving “need to see list” that stems from research online, word of mouth, and solicitations from those looking for work. It is not uncommon for me to check a country band, Ozzy Tribute, Tejano lounge act, DJ, and guitar soloist in one week.

I am directly responsible for filling nine lounges with weekly varied entertainment. On top of that, the company I work for is always on the look out for talent to place in lounges in Vegas, Texas, Arizona, Seattle, Oregon, and on every major cruise line. We need everything from DJ’s, to duos, trios, rock bands, Latin bands, tributes, bingo callers, and soloists. On top of that, our clients demand professionals who can read the room and meet very stringent brand aesthetics.

So, I am out scouting to fill our talent funnel working like an A&R man. Never letting the bands know I am coming. You can’t see how they will “really” act if they know a suitor is there. When on site, I am working. I am observing the band. How do they look? How do they sound? Is the crowd into it? Are they holding the crowd? Are they drinking? Is the crowd drinking? Would their song choices, style, and delivery meet my client’s needs?

Now, if you think I find acts that meet all of these criteria. You are sorely mistaken.  As I analyze, I look at what they do well and the investment we would need to make them into a good match for any of our buyers. Are they simple fixes, like updating their dress or more complex situation such as adjusting their music selection or learning to read and control a room. If I think we may have a match, I reach out. If not, I may come back again to see how they are progressing.

I’ve got a list for that as well.

Much like an A&R man of 1987. After we have landed a group for our client’s. My real job begins. We work on getting them ready for our stages, our protocols, and our needs. I catch their gigs, take notes, and if needed call them the next day to suggest changes. And just like the A&R men of the past, I am working with the record label (or in my case my venue client), probably assuring them that the new act will result in positive ROI, or that we will adjust their dress, drinking problem, or break times to help push those metrics.

I find great talent and nurture it into a successful product for my client’s needs. It is just that instead of my client selling records, they are looking to sell drinks, cruise getaways, or more time in the casino. By looking at my procurement funnel from the view of an A&R man, I can help them achieve those goals by crafting a pipeline of talent that will keep their venues fresh and full.

I guess I got to be an A&R guy after all.

 

Listen Through the Show

 

As an entertainment manager, I receive a constant influx of artists looking for work. These emails and requests come from numerous sources including colleagues, agents of our venues, and (of course) the artists themselves. This results in one large “procurement funnel” I work with daily.

I attack the funnel strategically.  First, I weed out acts that do not fit our client’s geographic, budget, and demographic needs. Next, I check out the musician’s live videos. You read that right.  Their “live” videos.  From my experience, I can attest that most entertainment bookers prefer live videos that are un-doctored over flashy promo. Yes, iMovie and Final Cut are cool, but we want to get an idea of how you handle yourself in a live situation…and how you sound when you do it.

If these videos pique my interest, the next step is to go see you live…but, I won’t tell you when I am coming out.  Why? People act differently when they know a booker is in the room, so if you are in a band. Here’s a hint. Always think an agent, label, or other type of gatekeeper is in the room.  Later on in this blog, I will share a story from my days on the road that demonstrates why you should do this.

 

But Jeremy, we don’t have the gear to make quality live videos and the places we play have horrible FOH, so we always sound bad, but we are really good. I swear.

 

This is where “listening through the music” comes into play. I have over twenty years in this business with the majority as a performer in a variety of bands. I have worked with legendary artists, taught music, done cruise ship orchestra shows, fill-in theater gigs, and even studied at Berklee where I was my Production and Engineering roommate’s go-to session drummer. I have been through countless challenging live-sound situations, which have taught me some key attributes “professional” artists possess that prepare them to succeed in, pretty much, any live situation.

These fundamentals vary by instrument, but boil down to musical ability and stage presence.

Musical ability: This covers the gamut of being a professional musician.  How does the intonation of the brass section sound?  Can the rhythm section keep solid time? Is the singer holding her mic properly and projecting from her diaphragm? Is the guitarist using the right gear and producing a quality tone? Does the entire group start, stop, and make the band hits together?

Stage presence: Are all members into the show…especially when there are only three people in the audience?  Are they reading the room correctly? Are they controlling the room properly? Are they smiling? Do they talk to fans during their breaks? How are they dressed? Do they care about the show…no matter how big or small?

Now look at those again…did you notice that I am not worried about the front of house mix? Nor the monitor mix or the lighting?  That is because it is my job to listen through the show and analyze the core of the product on that stage.

But, why?

It all boils down to an old saying: “garbage in… garbage out.” Sure, a bad mix can impact your gig, but you shouldn’t let it define your musical ability.  The greatest band in the world – The Beatles played before over 56,000 fans with nothing more than 100 watt amplifiers.  They couldn’t hear themselves. Ringo relied on watching Paul’s foot to keep the show going and they harmonized blindly.  Zeppelin recorded the best drum sounds I have ever heard with just three microphones (and one in the chimney on occasion). Duke, Bird, and Miles made some of the most iconic music ever and didn’t use in-ears, a separate monitor mix, or line-array speakers.

All of these acts created great music because they relied on their musicality and ability to control the stage night after night. When this can be done, the sound crew is capable of working from a clean slate and can enhance that quality and make it sound great at any time… at any volume.

 

 

A second lesson regarding why you should “listen through the music.”

Ok, here’s the deal with booking rooms. Contrary to what everyone thinks. You are not guaranteed a great night. I have watched numerous outside forces kill an amazing event. Weather, economic downturns, a competing concert that suddenly pops up and steals your marketing momentum can all kill your night.  As a venue booking agent (especially in the minimal cover/free club scene), we must do what we can to mitigate losses on those particular nights. One of those ways is to find entertainment that can “hold a room” no matter how many people are in it.

If you have read my article on Herd Mentality in Entertainment, you know that I believe strongly that an “adoption point” can be acquired if a room-specific attendance percentage is hit. I also believe that maintaining that crucial number and avoiding the “exodus point” is critical to the success of your live venue and this is directly related to the skills discussed before.

Sometimes you catch a potential group and the room is jammed. You immediately start thinking. This band will save my venue and maybe they will, but first. Take an inventory. With the room jammed, the band may have better than average stage presence.  However, is their musical ability up to snuff or has herd mentality simply taken over.

Flip the switch.

Don’t just walk away if the room is dead. How does the band sound? Do they look enthused? Are the people in the room hanging out, drinking, and pulling their eyes away from their phones to watch the group? If the answer is yes, maybe you need to keep your eye on this particular act and return to check them out a few more times.

Data is a funny thing. The good stuff sometimes likes to hide. Checking out an act is not checking out the room. You are looking at the band to see if they meet your needs or could be coached to meet those demands. Taking away the external elements and listening “through the show” will make it easier for you to book quality entertainment for your venue.

 

Would you like to discuss your venue needs?  Contact Jeremy today. 

 

A Tidy Shop Saves the Show

This past weekend, I was working at an outdoor concert when the rain came in…and it came in hard.  Luckily, the foresight and preparedness of the production manager and his crew literally “saved the day.”

As fans, we often equate the show with the actual performance. Many do not get to see the hours, days, weeks, and even months that go into preparing for that gig. Diving deeper, many do not see the countless hours spent on non-show days constantly preparing for what the future, and mother nature, could hold.

In this particular situation, the production manager runs a clean and organized shop. When his men in black aren’t running a console, they are cleaning gear, organizing cables, marking road cases, and testing equipment.  To many, this would seem like nothing more than busy work. However, it is anything but. Standing stage right of a colossal set-up of line array speakers, LED walls, lighting hanging from a shiny truss system reaching into the sky and connected by a sea of cables the production manager explains. “We spend all that time in the shop preparing, so we know that once everything is rigged we can just turn it on and go.”

If that wasn’t enough to justify his clean-shop initiative, this weekend’s monsoon rain would easily cement his theory.

About an hour into an opening set on a gloomy Sunday afternoon the rain came in…and it came in hard.  Luckily, our manager and his team were ready.  They had already covered the hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear with tarps, canopies, and tie-downs earlier that morning after not liking what they saw in the AM weather forecast. A sprinkle here and there didn’t bother them, but the outlook on the Doppler did, so they lay in wait, checking their situation on a constant basis. Soon, the sprinkles turned into a downpour that just wouldn’t move on and the outside show was facing a dreaded cancellation.

With lots invested in this performance, leadership asked our stage manager if they could move the show indoors into their showroom… a spot which had hosted a national comedienne the night before. Luckily, our black-clad leader’s preparedness had ensured that the stage was struck, the cables tidy, and the space ready for any situation – even an emergency pool party on a rainy Sunday. With just a team of three, he agreed to the move and instantly went to work. I was so inspired by what I was about to see, that I offered a hand and over the next few hours one phrase continued to pop in my mind.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”

After a quick delegation of what to grab from the tarp covered stage, the leader and his side-kick headed to their shop to pick-out what they required to set-up their second show in less than six hours. Thanks to their preparedness, the quickly surmised, located, and loaded the needed gear before wheeling it from one end of the property, up and elevator, and backstage into the new venue. Preparedness made sure that when they needed a 25-foot XLR cable, they knew where it was. Preparedness ensured that when one CDJ 2000 was out of commission due to the rain, they simply grabbed the back-up sitting next to it. Preparedness made sure that the act could go on with his rider requirements in place. Preparedness made sure that the show could go on.

Preparedness saved the day.

We live in an “instant” world and sometimes turn our noses at the work that goes on behind the scenes. The cook prepping at 10:00 am for the dinner shift, the flight mechanic who spends hours in pre-check before a plane takes off, the server who wraps dozens of sets of silverware before her shift. We turn our noses, because we sometimes do not see the direct impact these events have on the final outcome. In rock and roll, we often only see the show…the band under the lights. We do not see the sweaty, hungry, tired guys running like mad behind the scenes to make it all come together. And sometimes, we certainly do not see the countless hours they put in while the speakers are quiet to make sure the show will always go on.

This post, if anything, is to formally thank those “men and women in black” and their preparedness. Without them…rock and roll would cease to exist.

Buddy, Berklee, and Big Swing Face… a Lesson in Fundamentals for Musicians.

 

Buddy Rich Big Swing Face

I have listed to a lot of music over the years…I mean a lot. One of my favorite albums is Big Swing Face, a live album recorded over two nights by The Buddy Rich Big Band in 1967. There are a number of reasons that I enjoy this record. For one, it stars the indisputable king of drumming, Buddy Rich. Second, it is a big band album and as a drummer who has driven thirteen to eighteen piece swing bands, I can attest there is perhaps no greater challenge to the craft of the instrument. Each section of a big-band pulls/pushes time differently. Trombones, due to the difficult nature of their instrument, will pull. Trumpets, with their top of the spectrum tones and quick staccato, will push. As such, the drummer must control those fluctuations, all while reading and matching hits with each section.

Buddy Rich was a master of this.

He was also one of the hardest bandleaders ever to walk this earth. He berated, threw tantrums, and regularly fired band members for the simplest of infractions. If you want to hear just how rough Buddy was on his band mates, and if a whole lot of swearing doesn’t offend you, take a listen to The Buddy Rich Bus Tapes and be mortified by his leadership style.

However, before you cast judgment on Buddy, do two things. First, remember that Buddy always gave at least 110% on the stage night after night right up until the end. Don’t believe me, watch this video from 1982 when the drummer reportedly had a heart attack during his solo on the last song and still finished the set. Second, take another listen to Big Swing Face. This album is virtually flawless in every regard from time, to phrasing, and intonation. These musicians nailed their takes live without the aid of computer software to fix their mistakes or enhance their sound in post-production. The latter is a very important lesson when it comes to making music.

Garbage in…garbage out.

I was first introduced to this phrase during a late night recording session at Berklee College of Music in the mid 90’s. At that time, we recorded to tape and ProTools was still in the early adopter phase and not available to anyone with a computer. The option to fix takes later wasn’t as simple as it is now. Luckily, all Berklee students (including those in the production and engineering program) must undergo intense fundamental courses in ear-training, harmony, and private instrument studies so they know how to make musicians sound better BEFORE they are patched into the board. They understand that the fundamentals of the craft will always trump technology.

So why am I sharing this story?

Now that I work behind the stage booking entertainers I hear a lot of excuses, especially from those of the younger generation, as to why they aren’t sounding their best. The monitors weren’t right. The room was dead. The engineer doesn’t know what he is doing. We would sound better with our equipment…with our engineer. Truth is, the excuses are sometime so relentless that it gets me thinking that it could be the outside environment and not my musicians. Then I cue up Big Swing Face and I am reminded that nearly fifty years ago sixteen musicians could perform some of the most complex music live. Record it and wind up with an almost flawless album all without today’s modern technology as a crutch. Swing Face teaches me to constantly listen beyond the front of house and focus on the musicianship happening on stage. To seek out entertainers who are good at the fundamentals of their craft. The singer who knows exactly how far her mic should be from her mouth. The DJ who can match keys and tempos as well as beats, and the drummer who can swing a group of multi-time musicians into shape. I know that if their fundamentals are on point, the rest of the show is simply enhancing those skills, which is much easier for all involved and the key ingredient to a stellar performance.

Solving The Casino Millennial-Baby Boomer Marketing Funnel Conundrum with Entertainment

 

What do Millennials, DJs, and funnels have in common?

The answer may surprise you. As fun as the three combined may sound, it isn’t the set-up for a new drinking game. Instead, the three components come together to help us understand the future of the gaming industry and how we can capitalize on an impending change now efficiently and cost effectively through entertainment.

The Millennial demographic was the topic of discussion at the 2015 Global Gaming Expo in Vegas, as this collection of consumers brings with them a huge opportunity and perhaps an even larger challenge. According to the PewResearch Center, Millennials are projected to surpass Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation 75.3 million to 74.9 million by the end of 2015. Normally an increase of this magnitude would be a welcome sign in any market – a fresh crop of new consumers to replace the old. However, this new charge doesn’t appear to be responding on the gaming floor in the same way as their ancestors. Research is revealing that Millennials typically find current slot products uninteresting, seek skill-based games, want a social atmosphere, and prefer night clubs over gambling – pretty much the opposite experience that has been cultivated collectively by the industry up until now. This has left many in unchartered waters as they seek out what drivers will lead this next generation to the gaming floor. According to the CEO of the American Gaming Association, Geoff Freeman, there is “going to be a lot [of] throwing things up on the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Freeman’s statement provides us with a key element regarding Millennial based marketing in the casino business. It suggests that they may not be opposed to gaming, but rather they are sitting at the top of the marketing funnel, a place where consumer behavior teaches us that prospects are still learning how the intended products and services can enhance their lives. This, in turn, tells us two things. One, it will take time before this group will take the place of the profitable consumers currently on the gaming floor. Second, because the head of the funnel is larger than the spout we will need to fill it with more prospective Millennial gamers so a reasonable amount can filter down the funnel and eventually replace their predecessors. Taken together, this creates a unique challenge as we are left with two disparate groups within the funnel. Sitting at the bottom are previous generations who are converted, loyal, and most likely advocates for a particular brand. As such, they provide the property with the majority of its revenue at this moment in time. However, the longevity of a casino’s success will eventually rely on getting enough Millennials to replace them at the bottom of the funnel.

So how does a casino’s marketing team attack this situation? With the current mix of generational consumers nearly split down the middle, you cannot simply cut the budget of one and give it to the other. Especially when you are taking away from the profitable sector in the Pre-Millennials and allocating it to the generation that is still contemplating if your services are the right offerings for them. For these same reasons, it would be unwise to dramatically re-align your entire marketing message and risk alienating those gamers that currently help you keep the lights on. What you can do now is to re-align through your entertainment offerings– especially if you are a larger entity with various programming opportunities such as lounges, clubs, showrooms, pools, and restaurants. Take Las Vegas where many prominent casino brands have adopted a tent pole design that “props up” the organization by attracting non-gaming individuals to the property through key entertainment offerings. Many big names on the strip include four elements in their portfolio: (1) a branded show such as Cirque, The Blue Man Group, or Absinthe; (2) a headliner such as Céline Dion, Carrot Top, or Britney; (3) a celebrity chef/kitchen such as Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse; and (4) a big-name DJ such as Steve Aoki, Dash Berlin, or Tiësto.

These poles achieve a lot of good for the casino. For one, they create additional income centers for the property. In 2013, an article in The New Yorker reported that half of Steve Wynn’s profits were coming from his dance clubs with the gaming floor beginning to take a back seat to bottle service and confetti cannons. The pole’s also provide powerful branded ammunition to compete in Vegas’ noisy market. Today, nearly every major casino on the strip features a high-end night club and outlandish pool parties stacked with brand-name DJs. MGM has Hakkasan with Steve Aoki and Tiësto on regular rotation; Encore has XS with the likes of Diplo, Zedd, and Manufactured Superstars; The Cosmopolitan has Marquee with Cash Cash and Dash Berlin. You can grab a Gordon Ramsay Burger at Planet Hollywood or one of his steaks at Paris before you head out to a Cirque de Soleil show at AriaNew York New York, the Bellagio, the MirageMandalay Bay or Treasure Island. Any of these offerings could be destinations in and of themselves in other markets, but in Vegas they are revenue centers, marketing machines, and perhaps most importantly investments in a Millennial generation that hasn’t even been realized yet. Why? Because they continue to bring potential new prospects onto property, which places them in the mouth of the funnel where they begin their journey of learning how gaming can enhance their lives and (hopefully) move down into the spout to become brand ambassadors.

This pole design is not exclusive to Las Vegas or even properties with big brand names and even bigger budgets. Many casinos outside of Sin City have multiple bars, more than one restaurant, and spaces that can create revenue and achieve long-term branding goals if properly utilized. This makes it very plausible to craft a diversified entertainment program that appeals to your current profitable customers while luring future prospects onto the property. You can continue to appease your Pre-Millennials with showroom entertainment while hosting afternoon pool parties with regional DJs that drive those Millennials across your floors where they can hop in the funnel and begin the process of learning about your brand and how it fits in their lives. Clubs, lounges, and bars can easily be rebranded by adjusting the entertainment offerings towards one side or the other and then allowing the demographic shift to happen naturally (or with a little marketing push if needed), just as adjustments in menu selections and price points can sway the clientele in a chosen restaurant. These are all efficient and cost-effective modifications that can be done without sacrificing your budget or the overall brand of the property and they can help protect your very valuable current assets in the Pre-Millennials while positioning your property for long-term success with this next generation of prospective consumers by allowing them to investigate your offerings while your management team can learn what drives their behaviors, so your property is ready to capitalize when the time is right.

Lego Photo by Stefan Schindler from Flickr Creative Commons

Marketing Funnel from http://adamhcohen.com

Solve the Issue Not the Problem

 

 

When I signed up for my HMO health care provider, I chose a D.O. over a M.D. In my research, I found that while both save lives and treat illness everyday the D.O. focuses on the “whole” person while the M.D. seeks to address the disease itself.

Much like my medical provider preferences, I have found that the holistic approach to management may be best in the live entertainment field as well. This is due to two primary issues inherent in our industry. The first is there are numerous stakeholders with varying agendas working on a single project (the show). Many times these needs clash with one another. For instance, the artist may feel like the bass is overpowering her vocals, making it difficult for her to reach specific notes. However, the sound guy argues that the current bass mix is paramount to the best F.O.H. sound. Off stage, the waitstaff feels the overall volume is too loud, making it difficult for them to take drink orders while customers in one section feel as though they are struggling to hear the boom stick. Each one of these stakeholders has different needs regarding this one element of the show – the bass EQ. Making matters worse, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are additional sound frequencies that must be addressed along with lighting, seating, ticket pricing, bar service, security, and parking among others, resulting in a litany of stakeholders’ needs that must be balanced.

Contributing further to the need for a holistic approach is the subjective (and at times emotional attachment) these stakeholders place on the final product. This is especially true when there is a lack of communication between senior leadership and line-level employees. For example, a bartender may enjoy the light jazz he has always had in his room because he is a fan of Coltrane and it allows him to chat with his guests more freely. However, management has decided to attract a different demographic and in doing so has shifted entertainment to hip-hop, a style of music the jazz-loving bartender feels is nothing more than noise.

These two underlying issues in the venue space make reactionary approaches to problem solving oftentimes inefficient and short lived. This is because the quick-reflex tactic will likely address the problem, but only appease one stakeholder group, leaving the other factions feeling alienated. This alienation is only exasperated by their emotional attachment to the product, which can increase the probability that (given the chance) they will work outside the box to return to the environment they once deemed as satisfactory. This could lead to them challenging the new initiative a number of ways such as poor performance, internal gossip, and negative appeals to customers – all of which can ruin the guest experience and put the organization’s mission, strategy, and profitability in jeopardy.

While management will never have 100% buy-in from such a diverse and emotionally charged group of stakeholders, they can mitigate this risk by simply stepping back and analyzing the issue from a holistic approach much like a D.O. would do. For example, a few months ago there was a huge problem with volume at a venue I manage. Waitstaff in a particular location couldn’t hear their customers, so they demanded that the volume be turned down. The sound technicians obliged immediately and brought down the overhead speakers that made up the house. However, the volume was never low enough for the waitstaff who continued to complain and thus the cycle continued until there was nearly no sound in the house. The reactionary approach to the problem was not working and a result was needed. The technicians and myself decided to step back and walk the room. We stood by the bartenders who were having trouble hearing their customers and traced the problem to the position of the artist’s monitors. We then spoke with the artists, who informed us that they relied on the house system to hear their vocals and when it got lowered they needed to make-up the difference via their monitors, so they would turn them up. Stepping back, speaking with all stakeholders involved, and walking the room revealed that the reactionary problem solving approach of arbitrarily lowering the volume was actually contributing to a louder environment and making the problem worse. Instead, we followed a holistic approach, which led to true results that helped appease all involved and moved the program forward.

The take-a-way from this should be that it never hurts to slow down, step-back, and seek out the root of a problem. Most of the time it will only take a minute and a simple fix is all that is needed. However, the few minutes it takes to analyze the problem offers a host of benefits. As mentioned, it will provide keen insight into a potentially larger issue that will only re-occur or get worse if not properly addressed. In addition, there are numerous indirect benefits to the holistic problem solving approach. For example, it will force you to speak with and (more importantly) listen to your line-level employees. The benefits of listening to your troops on the ground are tremendous. They know your customers (probably better than you), have a unique view of the day-to-day operations, and can offer suggestions to better the guest experience, work environment, and profitability. After you are done listening, you can explain your plans to address the issue with them. They will see this as a sign of respect, which may help them buy into your ideas and act more patient as your plans unfold.

While this post is focused on my experience in the entertainment industry, the concept of tackling problems holistically can be carried over to many organizations. Give it a shot and let me know the outcome in your business model.

Photo Credit: Gavin Schaefer from Flickr.