Jan 16, 2015

Our First Offical Meeting with a Record Label, Whats It Worth

for what its worth
My brothers and I had driven up to Austin from San Antonio early in the morning. Feeling high. Feeling invincible. Though the traffic was bad. Though the sky was ready for rain. Though we had a hard time parking. All I was thinking was, 'this is happening... this is really happening.' Our first official meeting with a record label for at a small hotel along the river.

Abe checked his phone for the last text, "He's in the brunch area..."

hacienda band"brunch area?" it sounded so un-rock-n-roll to me.

The concierge pointed us down a long narrow hallway towards the back of the hotel. And while the lobby was impressively modern with polished marble floors and pillars, gold railings, an automated computer check-in, a contemporary jazz pianist under a chandelier and large art installations, this part of the hotel seemed surprisingly neglected.

Going through the hallway was like walking backward through time, a chronological collection of the hotel's past hung on the faded yellow paper in plain wooden frames moving us further and further back. 

The carpet was stained and worn thin, the pattern of a dull brown with endless blue diamonds. Abe leading the way, no one said a word as we approached the end of the hall towards a dark carved wooden door.

Maybe we were all thinking how strange this was. Maybe we were trying to get our negotiation faces on. We had no idea what to expect. The closest idea I had was a mixture of crime movies and music documentaries. Old guys in big suits and cigars. Guys who swung around in big leather office chairs and laughed while they answered vintage rotary phones, and always pointed a fat, gold ringed finger when they shouted to make their deals.

Through the door came a blast of sunlight and cold air. I felt it push down into my chest, or maybe that was my nerves? We walked into a small room, converted from a patio, the walls were amber tinted glass that sloped up and over our heads.

On a good day it would've been a nice view of downtown, but on a rainy day like this, the windows were steamed and the sunlight barely came in through the foggy blur.

"We're here to meet our uh," I said to the captain trying to think if the reservation was under his personal name, my name, our band name or the name of the label. 

The twenty-something blonde girl with her hair pulled back tight into a ponytail didn't notice my fumbling. She seemed to be expecting three teenagers in western boots and jeans, "Right over here," she interrupted. Saving me from murdering the rest of my sentence as she took us to the corner of the room and a small table set for one.

She swept her arm across the air, towards four chairs crammed in the small area, "Should I send three more plates?"

Without looking up from his plate or the smear of eggs below his nose, he waived her away with a grunt.

Her eyebrows jumped quickly as if taken back by his answer but left politely.

"I'm almost done."

Here he was. The guy with our future in his hands. And the first look at him, the look on his face, put me off. And I wondered if the captain had the right idea.

His eyes were tired. Not the good kind, from lack of sleep or last night's party. Not the tired I felt having built up so much excitement in my 19 year-old brain. His tiredness came from deeper in his soul. The kind that permeates bone and changes the nature of the body. To know genetically the beat, battered, exhausted feeling of struggling with yourself. The dark circles, the peppered uneven beard, short sandy-blonde hair, the yellowed-white Hanes and stained jeans, everything about him was worn. 
After a quick introduction, and some complimentary waters, we stated really talking...

"Things are bad. Not just for me. I'm actually one of the better ones. I'm talking across the board. Bad... F***** Bad. Man, if this was a few years ago... if this was the nineties... you know what I mean? We'd be going. There's no doubt you guys have talent." 
I didn't know what he meant. The nineties for me were spent watching cartoons, hanging out in the library, little league games, and listening to the radio. I wouldn't know what he was talking about for a long while. At the time I felt like he wasn't coming down on us. And by the serious looks on my brother's faces, they thought so too.

I watched him eat as he talked, his plate, his knife sliding against porcelain, the yolk bleeding out and around crashing into the toast. The fork rising to his lips, and the cracked lips taking in every bite.
"Forget albums... Albums are dead. You think anyone makes money on albums anymore? Like I said, if this was the nineties man... Back then albums made f***** money. If you'd get on the radio, get some buzz going, you've practically got your own printer going. I could develop... artists like you, you know... but now, f*** I don't know. But the thing is... and I know I'm back and forth on this... What are you guys gonna do? You gotta have an album... I mean what good is a band without an album right?"

At first I thought this guy was just a downer, or brushing us off, maybe both of those are true but he was still telling the truth, it really felt like he was being honest.
But it would take us some to time to learn how things were changing. It took us time to learn what his advice meant. That's the thing about being on our own. We had no management. No directions to follow. We were stumbling our way through this. Teenagers trying to solve a incredibly complex puzzle. Learning as we go.

It takes time.

I always had this feeling that I never had the complete picture.  He wanted to be truthful, but you can't do that and keep a secret right there at the surface. I could feel it coming up, wanting to tell us the bigger picture, but with each bite he pushed it back down.

But I understood that things were changing. Big things. Behind the curtain things. And this big change in the industry wasn't a surprise, the industry had seen it coming for a while. It wasn't a burst, but a serious of small cuts. Slowly bleeding out from the larger body from all sides, without one centralized place to take stock. With out one vision of how to stop it. But there was the question. And the feeling like someone just needed to come up with the answer. What is the value of music? What is it worth? If you could figure it out. If you could answer that, you could stop the bleeding.
I stretched out my neck with a snap. I hadn't realized how long I'd sat nodding my head quietly. This meeting was too much to take in. Too much to understand. I had no idea what the industry transition meant for us, because I didn't know where the industry was much less where it was going.
"I've never seen a band look so happy," he leaned back in his chair, "you guys are doing things, s*** you shouldn't even be doing. I mean no one writes songs like this anymore. You know? The guys I work with, they're never as happy as you guys."

The waitress came by to get his plate.
"I just don't know right now, about a band that's never played a show. Doesn't have anything. It's just not how it's done... I mean, it's been done. But now... every thing's changed. Those big money days are gone. But right, I wasn't in it either... I've gotta worry about my s**** now and tomorrow. What does it mean to even have a band? F*** it's like I said guys: What's it worth?"

So many things I wanted to ask. Or say. But they didn't come to me. I watched my glass of water, the falling condensation run against my finger tip as his words washed into me. 'What's it worth?'

Music is worth everything to me. An album, a song, a melody. They are an expression of my being. My life and place in the world. I'd give it to anyone who'd listen. I'd give it to no one. To the air. To the sky. I'd give it the animals. The trees. And emptiness. And the stars. That's what I wanted. Help getting our music out there. We weren't thinking of trying to make a printing press. We were thinking about music business. If money was my goal, I'd probably have done something else for a career. What is it worth? What is an emotion worth? An idea? A philosophy? A move? A life? A song?

But don't think I am some artist who is against return. I'd love to get paid more for what I do.  I'd love to not have to worry about rent and food and bills. And like I said, I've learned a lot since that meeting. The me of today, would have answers, and a different view. Confidence. That meeting would be so different. But life moves one way. So it's about the next one, not the first one.  I keep trying to make it better. More accessible. More vibrant. Trying to answer the question: What's it worth?

It's up to the business minds to figure out how to monetize it, the label, manager, and most importantly the artist because they are the one who can set everything with direction, it takes a team, but the artist is the captain, the leader, the vision. Any artist concerned with success needs to have a business mind, or know someone else who has one. 

It's up to the artist to create desire.

Desire is worth.

But it's up to a society to set the price. They are the regulators. The hidden force that says. This is how I listen to music. This is how I want to buy it. This is what I will pay for it. This is who I will give my money to.

And so the question is for all of us. Cause I believe that people want to help people. Artists want to give to fans. Fans want to give to artists. And more importantly, fans care more about the quality of the work than any dollar amount. That's why I pour everything into every word I write. My songs, poems, this blog. What I put out matters more, than what comes back. And hopefully what I put out will help what comes back.

He didn't stand when the meeting was over. He shook our hands from his seat, and ordered an afternoon beer, "I've got lots more people to see today gentleman. Later."

It was a quiet walk back to the van. Back through the hotel. The hallway back to the lobby. And the pianist was on break, the morning check ins were done. Everything was quiet but the slushing sounds of cars running through the street.

We left the meeting without a deal, without answers but only a strange optimism to find my solution to that ever present question, "what's it worth?"

"What do you guys think?" Jaime asked.

"I think we should've gotten a plate," after a few hours I hadn't realized how hungry I was, "I mean we drove up here. We should've at least gotten fed."