This is the question I’m most asked when I speak to the students interested in music at Carmel High School career day. These are talented students who come out of the award winning music classes at the school and many do go on to pursue the dream. So what can this relic from another era possibly tell them about the business today?
My book, “Don Perry Produced The Music”, is subtitled: “My Journey Through The Golden Years Of Rock and Roll”. They were indeed golden years. Singers, songwriters and musicians could form a band and practice in someone’s garage. They could play in local clubs and at dances. Venues hired bands…not DJ’s. That same act could cut a record and actually see someone at a record company and walk out with a deal. There were scores of independent labels looking for and breaking new talent. The industry was still run by creative people. Later on big companies, lawyers, agents and managers took over and made it harder for a new act to submit talent.
While you could become a star overnight, the process was far from easy. Even the Beatles played clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg for nearly three years before they got their big break. Getting a record deal was just the beginning. The record needed promotion from the label and exposure to the public. That meant play on AM radio. It was the only game in town. Every small city had its own rock station. In the peak years, labels put out 300+ singles a week, vying for less than a handful of spots on the playlist. Unless it was a follow up to a hit from an established artist, the road to the playlist in the major markets was through the small town stations. I personally “hit the road” promoting my artists and records at small stations along the coast and in the valley from San Bernadino, Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara and Monterey to Sacramento, Stockton and Bakersfield hoping to get enough play to approach the major “breakout” markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
All this began to change with the advent of FM radio and a switch to an emphasis on albums and away from singles. Finally, with the acceptance of Rock on television and the development of MTV and videos, artists had instant visibility and the importance of the small markets and AM radio itself faded. One appearance on nationwide media could create a star overnight.
Getting your product out there is even easier today. Artists no longer work in garages. They surround themselves in home studios that rival what we recorded in. They can generate music on sophisticated electronic gear and bypass labels on multiple music sites. It would appear that it is in some ways easier to make it today than it was in the golden years. Bear in mind, however, that once a record was released then it was in competition with a couple of hundred new releases. How much product per day is now uploaded online? The truth is it has never been easy and never will be.
Here’s simply what I tell these talented students: “Can you make it in the business today?…No…. If you accept this, then you don’t have to listen to anything else I have to say today”. But in my experience, starting in the dark ages, from recording mono to stereo, two track to forty eight to digital, from records to cassettes to CDs, from swing to rock to country to hip-hop, one thing remains constant….talent. The simple truth is that the vast majority of artists pursued the dream in spite of being told that it was a nice hobby.. but make sure to have a skill to fall back on. It doesn’t matter what the media was, is or will become, nothing will replace talent… and if you believe in your talent, you owe it to yourself to pursue the dream. The saddest thing I encountered over my thirty years in the business was hearing people say to me, “You’re so lucky to be working in the music business. I wish I would have given it a try when I was younger.” The great philosopher (and hockey player) Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Can you make it in the business today? Only if you take the shot.