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These articles by Peter J. Mladineo and Barbara Fox were published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 24, 1998, all rights reserved.
Survival Guide I
Gone, almost, are the days when record label executives would show up at a gig with a Big Break ready for some lucky but unknown band. These days, a major record label -- like Columbia, Island, or Geffen, for instance -- might be more willing to send out an A&R rep if a band can sell a lot of CDs before the elusive contract is rolled out.
The term A&R, which stands for artists and repertoire, is today somewhat of a misnomer, referring to a more hands-on approach that record companies applied to their performer's careers and material in days past. But musicians now are learning that the road to a recording contract is far more navigable to the self-starter.
Strategies on making it in the music business will be discussed Monday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books in Nassau Park. Call 609-514-0040. A panel consisting of industry professionals from New York, Philadelphia, and Central New Jersey will offer up-and-coming musicians information on everything from press kits to making discs.
The line-up includes John Vanhalla, a national sales manager for GRP Recording Company; John Baker, a sound engineer; Randy Alexander, a music features writer for the Trenton Times; Michael Mazur of Mazur Public Relations; Erin Riley, executive director of the Philadelphia office the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences, Guy Austrian, summer program director for WPRB radio, and Dave Mountain, marketing manager of Disc Makers. Here's some of the advice:
First, while there might be plenty of shortcuts through the ziggurat of musical success, the bottom line is that the act has to be good enough that people will want to spend their own hard-earned cash on the artist's CDs or spend ridiculous sums of pocket change to see them play live.
GRP, says Vanhalla, wants performers who have what it calls "singular voices." "The music and the artists are number one. Our boss would say they got the goods. In our realm, it's important for the artists to work into their own sound."
It also takes a slightly less-intangible trait: "desire," a euphemism for business sense and a knack for tireless (and sometimes, shameless) self-promotion. "What separates the equally talented artists is desire and the ability to get out there and develop your own career at the beginning stages," says Vanhalla. "That's what attracts a label. It's so important to go beyond great music."
An artist needs good business and marketing skills not only to get the attention of a label, but also to protect his or her career from an industry which occasionally resembles the shark-laden Great Barrier Reef. "The day is gone when the label picks somebody up and manages them for their whole life," says Vanhalla.
But on the other hand, being a great businessman is no substitute for being a great artist. "First and foremost is the music," says Vanhalla. "A huge marketing and sales budget is not going to turn an artist into a star with longevity without that."
Carrying acts such as George Benson, Spyro Gyra, and Acoustic Alchemy, GRP started as an independent label but was purchased by Universal Music Group, a unit of Seagram's, the liquor manufacturer, five years ago. (The founding executives went on to join N2K, the New York City-based music multimedia firm, after the acquisition.) Incidentally, Seagram's recently purchased another music giant, Polygram, and will soon merge the two companies together, a deal that could create the largest record company in the world.
Vanhalla, 37, joined GRP four years ago after playing trombone and keyboards professionally. His experience as a trombonist helped him develop his business acumen -- which landed him jobs backing Ray Charles, ska bands, and Broadway. "I attribute my business skills to being a trombonist, mainly," he says. "It's the Rodney Dangerfield of the music business. If you play an instrument like that and plan to make a living at it you've got to be a good player but you have also to be really good at getting work."
But there's a difference between being vigorous and being relentless. Mazur, who started his East Windsor-based public relations firm four years ago and is now working with acts such as Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Full in the Mouth, doesn't recommend a hard-sell approach when dealing with reporters. "You need to care about your craft and your art, but I don't think you have to be over-the-top on pushing your talent," he says. "There's no reason to call a reporter five or ten times about one project. They're inundated with stuff and if you're thorough with what you're sending out people take that into consideration."
One of the keys, says Mazur, is following through. Years after she has become immensely popular on the alternative folk circuit, Ani DiFranco still sends thousands of fans and reporters updates on her career. Mazur is still on the mailing list. "It gets the message out that she's a workhorse. It's going to be oversaturation at some point but you want to keep the press community informed. These are all small details that can build into a great campaign down the road."
DiFranco's success demonstrates that it is possible for some artists to "make it" without ever having to sign a contract with a major label. DiFranco has become a cult favorite and has successfully spurned major labels in favor of her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which she runs out of an independent office in Buffalo. "She's does more for our business than all the print ads that I can point at," says Dave Mountain, of Disc Makers, a manufacturer of independent CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records based in Pennsauken.
"Record labels are nothing but banks that are charging you a nasty and hidden rate of interest," says Mountain. "If you can do your own stuff and sell it and keep your eye on the bottom line there is nobody else in your pocket. If you can do your own tour booking that's a booking agent you're not paying. If you can do your own management, that's a manager you're not paying. The indie route is tough. But it is, for the long-term, one of the most successful things that you can do."
Mountain, 29, was one of the co-founders of the Philadelphia Music Conference, an autumn event that features prominent speakers and dozens of gigs by unsigned bands. Mountain is also an indie musician, a singer and songwriter for They Eat Their Young, an unsigned alternative band that produces and distributes its own CDs. At Disc Makers Mountain has also co-written an in-house publication, "The Independent Musician's Survival Guide."
In a market that heavily favors the wares of major labels, Disc Makers provides a host of services to assist indie musicians on a quest to justify a musical calling. "Jesus they need help," Mountain declares.
Disk Makers does all of its cassette work in-house, as well as CD premastering. It also burns gold (write-to) CDs, and will send silver CDs (the discs that are duplicated from the gold disc) to Sony for replication. "We send them something they can't screw up," Mountain quips.
The cost of self-producing a CD varies. To burn the music onto the gold disc costs $49 for one disc. Replication starts in the neighborhood of $2,500 for 1,000 discs in standard CD cases. The cost goes up for art work and designs on the CD, but the cost goes down for bulk jobs.
Bands can end up investing thousands of dollars in making a self-produced CD and there are many companies like Disc Makers to help them accomplish this along the way. But the plain fact is, the more CDs a band can sell on its own, the better off a recording artist will fare at the negotiating table with a major label. "Even the bands that make it as a major start as an indie," Mountain reports. "You have leverage. It's no longer a matter of some A&R guy going `I hear hits from this band.' Because there are 20 other A&R guys saying the same thing about their bands."
-- Peter J. Mladineo
Bucks County is known for its historic charm and its quaintness. Now it wants to be known as Mecca for business retreats. The Bucks County Conference & Visitors Bureau holds its first "Gateway to Bucks County" cocktail reception and mixer, cosponsored by Mid-Atlantic Events Magazine, on Thursday, June 25, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Pen Ryn Mansion, 1601 State Road in Bensalem. Call 215-345-4552, extension 100, for information.
This event will feature representatives from all corners of Bucks County's hospitality industry. Besides members from the Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau, there will be food from the Lambertville House and the Yardley Inn, strolling minstrels, live jazz, and characters from Sesame Place (in costume). "It's almost a catalog that you can walk through," says David Jackson, the visitors bureau's corporate sales manager.
This is Bucks County's move to boost its image as a place well-suited for more intimate corporate retreats and team-building getaways as opposed to large, sprawling conventions. The bureau recently changed its name from the Bucks County Convention & Visitors Bureau to reflect this esthetic, reports Jackson. "We can put on a killer conference here," he says. "We're opening up the treasures of Bucks County, from its lodging to its attractions to its shopping to its museums. We've got a lot to offer -- restaurants, wineries."
So far, Jackson reports, the bureau expects more than 200 attendees, who will be treated like visiting foreign dignitaries visiting Disney World. After parking, the guests will be picked up by a horse and carriage and taken into the mansion, where they will be greeted by Sesame Street characters and people in Revolutionary War garb.
"Our guest list is going to include meeting and event planners. We're looking for general managers, human resource directors, public relations people, travel managers. We're looking for corporate secretaries who you and I know are really running the boat."
One of the organizers of the event is Charlene Clark, the bureau's 30-year-old assistant director. "What we were looking to do was draw the meeting planners out there, let them see Bucks County, but give it to them in a manner that was indicative to the county -- country hospitality but with a professional flair."
Bucks County is a late entrant into the business meetings market, Clark reports. "Up until the past three years ago we haven't been strong in marketing to that market," she says. "Now we're really starting to broaden our reach. We're going outside the area and really starting to bring the business in."
Philadelphia or northern New Jersey need not worry -- Bucks County has no intention of stealing big conventions from major markets. Says Clark, "We don't have the convention centers that Valley Forge and Philadelphia have, but we have more intimate and more unique settings, with the bed and breakfasts and museums. There's plenty of business to go around, that's for sure. We have a special niche here."
As the summer heats the girders, the fresh tar, and the backhoes on construction sites, the legal landscape is getting hotter too. Terms like design/build, lien statutes, alternative dispute resolution, and the entire controversy doctrine are swirling in the air.
The New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education will attempt to explain much of this new legalese on Saturday, June 27, at 9 a.m. at the Fairfield Radisson Suites in Fairfield. Cost: $109. Call 732-249-5000 for more information.
The speakers include Stephen W. Bialkowski, with McClellan & Bialkowski, on lien statutes; Steven E. Brower, with Ravin Sarasohn, on legislative news; Patrick J. Greene, Jr., with Peckar & Abramson, on delay damages; Megan Gajewski and Leslie Lang of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, on school construction; Robert McPherson of Posner & Rubin, on alternative dispute resolution; and James J. Ross of Wolff & Samson, on new bond statutes.
"This is really a product of a lot of new developments, mostly statutory, that have come about in the last 10 to 12 months. Some are extremely important in terms of their effects on contracts that are being let publicly," says Paul Sandars, a co-chair of the New Jersey State Bar Association construction and public contract law section and an attorney with the oldest law firm in New Jersey: Lum, Danzis, Drasco, Positan & Kleinberg, the Roseland-based firm that was founded in 1869.
Sandars, 41, speaks about design/build at the seminar. "When you get into a design/build situation, contractual relationships are very different from what we're used to," he explains. In a design/build situation, the contractor and the architect are now on the same team. In the old system they would often have an adversarial relationship. "Any conflicts are going to be resolved in-house so you remove one level of conflict," says Sandars.
The downside of design/build for the building owner is insurance. "The contractor's general liability policy does not cover errors of omission," says Sandars. "He needs two kinds of insurance. There is added expense in terms of overhead."
Leslie Lang, who works out of a home office in Belle Mead, also spends her time working with building owners, who in her case tend to be school boards. "School construction is booming all over the state," she says.
And so are school construction lawsuits. "Everybody knows that litigation is the rule rather than the exception now. So you've got to prepare them for that when you start a project," says Lang. "You've got to explain to these boards of education why you should have a lawyer up front. A construction lawyer is like an apple a day."
The issue du jour for school construction lawyers is the new "five primes" legislation, which is currently pending in the New Jersey Senate. While municipalities can hire one company contractor to oversee general construction, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and structural steel, a school must put out separate bids for each of those functions. This imposes a lot of extra work for school boards, which are not exactly trained in the art of hiring contractors. "It's hard to get five contractors for a job," says Lang. "Secondly you have administrative problems. Then you also have the fingerpointing issue."
Lang started her career teaching high school in between college, (Douglass College, Class of 1978), and law school (Rutgers Newark, Class of 1984). With Wilentz, Goldman since 1986, she was the construction counsel for the $180-million New Jersey Performing Arts Center. "There was a very short timeframe," she recalls. "That was an in-the-trenches experience working with a great construction manager, Turner Construction, and working with an owner who was really smart enough to have an in-house architect (Anne Thompson) to manage the project. She knew what to look for. She hired the resources to get the job done. It was absolutely terrific to watch that structure go up."
There is no free lunch," says builder Harry H. Williams. "Renovation is not a commodity. We are selling a concept, and you don't know what it is until after you have got it."
Williams joins Leo H. Mahony AIA on a panel for homeowners moderated by attorney Roger S. Mitchell of Szaferman Lakind on Wednesday, June 24, at 7:30 p.m. at West Windsor Library, 333 North Post Road. For a reservation for the panel, entitled "Tips for Avoiding Home Remodeling Hell," call 609-275-0400.
Williams, a civil engineer who went to Lehigh, built his first house on Carnegie Lake in the 1950s when lots were $10,000 and construction cost $3,000. His firm, Williams Builder, is on Route 130 in Robbinsville (609-587-8500). "In the '60s people realized that it made more sense to add on than it did to move. We carved out a niche, and that's where we started," says Williams. "The market was there in the older houses and is still there."
Mahony went to Pratt Institute, Class of 1958, and has a general practice on Route 518 in Hopewell (609-466-2871). Of all his designs, he is most proud of the work he did at Ramapo College, where he was the principal architect from 1968 to 1980. He also has done at least 20 religious facilities, including St. Anthony's in Hightstown and the mosque on Route 1 South. "I'm a designer, and I love dealing with the churches and the appointments and the stained glass windows," he says.
Under state law, says Mahony, you can build a house or plan renovations in these ways:
But Williams warns that architects often underestimate the cost, and meanwhile the homeowners have invested themselves emotionally in the architect's beautiful plan and are tempted to pick the very cheapest contractor.
Who would this be? People speak in hushed terms about low bidders, known in builders parlance as Someone Who Works Out of a Truck. "They get into trouble, not because they are bad people," says Williams, "but because they are poor business people. They may underbid one job and have to get money from another project before they can finish the first job."
The design-builder helps you decide what you want and may even provide drawings, but he hires an architect for final drawings.
How to choose the architect or contractor? Williams says to call the bank, the building inspector, other clients, and the insurance company. Interview them to find out how the chemistry works and whether that person can use the methods you want to employ.
Where do most people go wrong? Trying to be their own general contractors. "I have already sorted through the process of the best and worst people to get things done," says Williams.
Williams says that problems happen because of communication: "The more you can remove the uncertainty and indecision, the faster the project can go." These communication tips come from the remodelers' trade association brochure:
-- Barbara Fox
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