Luke Mathers – Breaking the Band #1

by / November 19, 2012

I’m Luke. I’ve been active in the Northern Irish music scene since 2002, mainly in the two bands that I formed in that time, with the current being Unquiet Nights. I’ve experienced a lot of what the scene in our northern part of Ireland has to offer, and apparently because of this, Chordblossom have asked me to write monthly with my account of the “ups and downs of being in a band”, an exhaustive topic.

I’ve known Daveit (chordblossom founder) for about as long as I’ve been in music, and watched the upward trajectory of his various bands, characterised by the same dedication, self promotion and belief in the potential of those bands that means it won’t be a surprise for me to watch the Chordblossom website grow in stature quickly. As a 17 year old I remember sharing with him the first two song masters of my band at the time, fresh from Neal Calderwood’s Manor Park studio. We exchanged ideas about what makes a good song and I remember being really happy from my perceived result of the recording. Luckily enough, both those songs did give my band the immediate exposure we wanted by people like Cool FM, Downtown, BBC and UTV. I say luckily, because although I still believe in the strength of the songs, they could just as easily not have been given any attention at all by just a few key people and ended up an unheard demo. I’m not implying that you need to be lucky; in fact I believe the opposite – you make your own luck ultimately, but I’m setting up what I think is the most important thing to understand when trying to build the career of a new band. Simply, it’s just not enough to have what you think are a few good songs. You have to have more, which will get me onto the subject I wanted to cover in this first article.

Stealing Some Press

“Without promotion something terrible happens, nothing.” – PT Barnum (Legendary Publicist).

Everyone who’s been involved in a local music scene will be able to name some bands that have split up, while having a song or two that you thought should’ve been good enough to see them have much bigger exposure. Similarly, everyone can list bands who have been endlessly covered with not much in the song department. If a band are not willing to acknowledge how important it is to put in the time in order to compete with well established bands for exposure, and ultimately steal some press off their table, they might have a good time in the band for a couple of years, but in the end they won’t see their potential come to anything more than a few good memories. You’ll have to adopt a Darwinian fight or flight attitude to PR, if you want your band name to start meaning something tangible in the music industry.

Knowing It’s a Game, Playing The Game

The perception of most bands is that their potential is huge. The natural successor to whatever place U2 hold at the top of the current music tree, and a musical revolution in the waiting. Employing the law of averages to this and the cold light of day – some are right, more are wrong. But let’s assume our example is a band of real talent and dedication (of which there are usually a good few in the NI scene at a given time), to live up to this potential – you’re going to have to go through hell. “Worse than any nightmare you ever dreamed”, if I might borrow from Rocky IV. When your name does not carry any commercial value to the industry, which it won’t at the start unless your name is fortunate enough to be attached to an already famous act, almost no one will want to hear from you. People won’t want to take your calls, read your e-mails or listen to your new material. Secretaries will make up a huge number of lies to cover for their workshy bosses not wanting to talk to you. If you work hard though, the ice can start to melt in surprising ways.

The idea is to me, and should be to you, that you have to keep building the weight of pressure on these people that someone will cave and give you your first handful of publicity to get you off to a running start. After that, it should get progressively easier to power grab your way to notability. In a deviance from most articles about promoting bands, I’m going to say that I think there’s no reason you shouldn’t target national radio play with your first recordings. If you can do it, it’s the sort of thing that might help your band be viewed as the equal of, rather than the lesser of, another act who may be in competition for the same break that you are. Don’t get hung up on national and international coverage at the start though; keep collecting as many blog features, podcast and local radio plays as you can. And don’t be rude to anyone who shows your band respect, remember them and thank them. They didn’t have to do it.

If Your Band Play Good in an Empty Wood, Do You Make a Sound?

An absolutely huge mistake that my first band made between 2002 – early 2005, amongst more than one, was to fail in archiving publicity on our website for the benefit of people getting into the band to look through and to solidify our growing notability to whichever industry types were visiting the site. We had a hail of national and international radio play that at the time of writing I haven’t been able to match yet with Unquiet Nights, certainly in Ireland anyway. All of it means nothing now because it was rarely recorded and kept for nostalgia. Remember, this was in the barely conceivable time before Myspace, Youtube, and other sites had revolutionised the way bands operated. The same goes for written press, of which we had a good amount of too, which has been lost. Speaking of which, anyone have a copy of The Fly UK Gig Guide with a big glossy picture of me on stage at the Rosetta to publicise the upcoming Glasgowbury Festival of 2004? If so – I’d love a scan of it. Important never to miss an opportunity.

A major label act doesn’t have this problem as much, as every little thing they do is rammed down the public’s throat. But, in the case of an establishing independent band, have every positive step you take be verifiable on your website. The word soon spread about what Genghis Khan was doing in C13 Mongolia when he left a pyramid of skulls outside every village he’d passed through. See what I mean? Far from this being a psychotic analogy, it will only help if you realise the importance of making big PR statements. And not letting anything you do go unnoticed.

The Truth About The Music Industry

Most people already know that nearly all decisions made in the music industry on a daily basis are cynical, in a “how can this band’s growing reputation help ME?” type of way. This is true. The music industry is largely the rotten, nepocratic mess that Hunter S. Thompson famously reported it to be, loaded to keep the unconnected and unprivileged artist down. You’ll meet scores of obnoxious people who do not even like music, let alone love it. They will celebrate out of proportion whichever acts have made both they and their corporate masters the most money during the previous 5 years without having a basic respect for the influences who were crudely approximated in order to achieve that success. Who’s surprised to read that? Probably no one is my guess.

Whilst the above is true, the lesser known truth about the music industry is that there are in fact a minority of people who do actually love music in all its forms, as long as it’s honest. They collect albums religiously in all formats, attend gigs, support hard working bands on all rungs of the ladder, and are generally in the business for the right reasons. There are also people with less affection for music, but who are not utterly contemptuous and will recognise your band to have market value, even if they don’t understand your music. Simply put, there is wiggle room if you are doing all you can to present your band positively in the hope of stealing some publicity out of the mouth of a more established band, which is essentially what every band, everywhere – is trying to do.

The Importance of Strategy

Every band can picture a height they want to reach in their career, and while this is different from one band to another, you can be sure it’s a long way from where the band was conceived originally, and a massive leap of faith. How do you make something out of nothing? If you can visualise it though, and picture how you actually get there in a long line of logical steps – you can do it. To illustrate the idea of planning a career, I want to use the example of The Answer, as a band who I saw do this before my eyes. We were both around the same rung of the ladder at the same time from about 2002, and playing a lot of the same venues (The Pavilion, Katy Daly’s, The Empire) for the next few years, and for a while progressing in similar ways in terms of radio and the venues we were doing, until they accelerated out of sight around then. I noticed though, that from the very start there had been a plan. Nearly everything they did was a noticeable step forward and up, enhancing their name and putting more beef on their CV. Counting off the markers in their career that they knew they had to pass in order to get where they were aiming to be. The last time I spoke to them, we were standing in the middle of a field, and I remember Cormac, the singer, saying to me “we’ll all get there in the end”. I had no idea why he felt that to be likely of me, but I was damn sure he knew it about himself. They knew what they wanted quite obviously and graduated to stadiums pretty soon after that encounter. And from what I knew of them they did it all the hard way.

My band broke up soon after, and while we accomplished quite a lot, it’s very obvious we weren’t a vehicle built to travel as far as The Answer have done. I was younger than nearly everyone in the “scene” at that time, and hadn’t really thought much about exactly how you take your band from having good songs to actually developing a name in the industry that will break past the so called “glass ceiling” of your own country. Eventually to the extent that your band’s name holds the commercial value that allows you to be able to travel and play the type of gigs and festivals you’re aiming for and expose your music in the magazines and on the stations you feel it should be in and on.

But that was late 2004, and much has happened in between times including major label burns in London, session work scar tissue and extended periods of cursing the music industry. All this to arrive at a point in September 2010 when, having formed a new and more resilient band called Unquiet Nights, I had the first studio master on my laptop, and the task of getting some people to start talking about it. So I will expand on my experiences from that point on in my next post and get into more detail.

Keep pushin’.

Luke Mathers

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