Chris Brokaw's Stormy Documentary, Part One.
"There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it's all dark."
Between his business acumen, contacts and creativity; artist, entertainer and producer, Chris Brokaw's influence has been felt all over the music business.
We've followed Chris Brokaw around for quite a while. One of our editors in particular, Culture Editor, Kurt Brokaw, has been watching him develop his craft from the time he picked up his first guitar. Beginning his professional career as a punk rocker, Chris now lugs around a film camera as well. Kurt's son is now producing a documentary on one of rock and roll's greatest artists, Storm Thorgerson!
.... ahhh, who?
Most people outside the music business don't know who Storm Thorgerson is, but they're extremely familiar with his work. Founder and creative leader of London-based Hipgnosis, Storm has and continues today to design the most iconic album, CD, book cover, poster, logo, bag, video, computer screen, digital wallpaper and collateral designs for many of the world's greatest bands.
(Please click on the iPhone above to review Storm Thorgerson's site.)
Groups such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Phish, AC/DC, Genesis, Foreigner, Peter Gabriel, The Cranberries and Yes now and/or have in the past turned to Storm to help them translate their audio into visual.
In addition to the artists listed above, Hipgnosis has and/or is currently working with next-gen artists such as Muse, Alice in Chains, Europe, Ethnix, Yourcodenameis: Milo, Umphrey's McGee and Deepest Blue, among others.
Storm's approach is simple. First, listen to their music, intensely. Then follow it where it takes you. Then create the actual set and shoot it. Is there a more finicky group of people to please than artists such as these? The answer is yes! The record labels.
Before anything gets pressed into compact disc, vinyl, or even printed on a T-shirt, the "money people," otherwise known as "The label" must green light it. They range from established companies like Sony, Electra, MCA, Island and Universal, to next-gen labels such as Arcade and East/West Recording among others.
In fact CD, album art and all music fan collateral are advertisements. They are designed to sell music. You know it, the musicians know it and the labels sure as heck know it. But if they are done well, they're seamless visual connectors that form a strong bond between the music and the listener.
Times have changed. The music business today has to be more Madison Avenue-like than ever before. Both the Internet and new technology have sliced and diced it to a point that it is almost unrecognizable today versus the 1970s when Storm began working with Pink Floyd.
(Please click on the logo above to visit Chris Brokaw's site.)
That's one of the reasons this documentary is so important. It will help fans take a peek into how the most famous album and CD covers in the world got produced. It will also teach MadAve something about branded entertainment content. If agencies think their clients are tough, they should try working with Jimmy Page, Roger Waters or Peter Gabriele some time!
Brokaw is one of the most sought-after stage and studio musicians around. This past year Chris played well over 100 gigs, either as a solo artist or on tour accompanying other musicians, in over 20 countries. Here's a partial list of the cities and countries he strapped his guitar on to play in 2007: Austin, Barcelona, Baton Rouge, Brooklyn, Chicago, Dublin, Germany, Italy, London, Los Angeles, Mali (Africa), Milwaukee, Netherlands, New York, Portland OR, Providence, Seattle, Slovenia, Syracuse and Vienna among others.
His performances have ranged from performing with Thurston Moore on Sirius or on the Jimmy Kimmel show, or playing Radio City, or selling one of this tracks to NBC's Friday Night Lights program. Chris's work is as varied as Storm's so it was no surprise that Storm let Chris produce the documentary of his extraordinary work.
Tim: How's it going?
Chris: It's going very well, thanks!
Tim: Before we get into the music business and the documentary you're producing, please tell me a little about your life as an artist, entertainer and producer.
Chris: Well, I've been playing guitar primarily rock with ancillary offshoots of punk rock & folk music. I've been making records since 1990, so I've played in a number of different rock groups. These days I divide my time doing several things. I play in a few different groups as sort of a contributing writer. I do solo recordings and performances. I also do some accompanying for more popular artists, soundtrack work and some scoring for dance companies.
Tim: Wow that's quite a range of work! What made you want to become a professional musician?
Chris: It wasn't necessarily a conscious decision, but I've been playing music and obsessed with music since I was about 11 years old.
Tim: So you've been doing this for over 20 years?
Chris: Yeah, and it's really just enthusiasm and I guess perseverance and that's kept me at it. For a long time I had to supplement my income doing other jobs and then about 5 or 6 years ago I reached a point where there were so many tours coming up so quit my day job and made the decision do music full-time.
Tim: What's life on the road like?
Chris: It's great; it's a lot of fun.
Tim: (Laughing) So you're basically working 2 hours a day?
Chris: LOL! Not really! That's sort of where the boundary between play and work begins and ends. It becomes kind of blurred. There are times when you feel more like a truck driver because you're driving most of the day versus the hour or two you're up on stage, which is your real job. Even when I'm not on the road I spend a lot of my time corresponding with people setting up future work.
Tim: So you're sort of a musical entrepreneur.
Chris: Yeah, you could say that.
Tim: Give me what an average day on the road looks like whether it's touring nationally or abroad.
Chris: Well it's getting up, packing, taking all your gear and putting into the vehicle, get to the next place and then go straight to the club and do a sound check. If there's enough time you check into the hotel, get something to eat, play the show and sell the merchandising. Then you pack up your stuff, get paid, go back to the hotel and go to sleep. That's basically it.
Tim: You make it sound so simple. Given that you crisscross the Atlantic like others drive to the train, it takes a little more than what you're hinting at!
Chris: It's the life of a professional musician. The road can be a lot of fun too. Ideally if you've got time you can get out, see some things, and have dinner with friends. One of great things about touring is you get to go to these cool places that you've always wanted to see. Of course the tragedy is that sometimes you don't have any time to check them out. I was just in Europe a couple of weeks ago and we had a day off so we got to do some stuff in Barcelona. That was a lot of fun.
Tim: You've done a lot of different types of music, from playing folk to punk, backing up bands at CBGB's. What enables you to have that ability to play all different genres of music? Is it your natural talent or something you've worked on?
Chris: I think it's just being interested in doing different things. If you get obsessed enough for music with a different feel, the next thing you know you're playing it. Several years ago I started playing acoustic guitar rather than electric guitar. After a couple of years I was opening for folk artists.
I don't think I do a great deal of "genre hopping" but if I develop an interest sometimes I start talking with people that are playing that music and I've ended up wanting to play it.
Tim: How do you feel you're positioned within the industry? How do you think your peers see you. You've obviously been successful at continuing to get steady work.
Chris: I think a lot of peers in my global neighborhood know who I am and that I'm fairly well respected. In a sense, it's on the outskirts of the larger music industry, but what you discover is that there is the larger music industry that sells popular music and then there are hundreds of other of industries that are flourishing within it, where people develop lifelong careers. I realized after a certain point that just because one group of people don't know who the artist is, that doesn't mean that the artist is not enjoying a great career in a whole different neighborhood.
Tim: Sounds very much like Madison Avenue. We live in a society of niches.
Chris: I think that's always existed. If I go to Italy and I see a poster for a big singer that I've never heard of, that's probably the same as it was in the 1950s. There are other artists who do quite well in small areas of the world and that's fine. And 99% of the people in America may have never heard of them and may never hear what they do. To me that's really interesting. It's exciting to me to know that there are these things going on. If you're lucky someone will introduce you to it.
Tim: Let's talk about performing vs. producing. Which one do you like better?
Chris: I prefer performing to producing, in part because when you play a show anything can happen and it's not going to be perfect. When you're making a record it has to be perfect. You might say, "Oh, I'm not a perfectionist" but when it comes down to it, you're going to really strain to get it right. Like any producer, I can make myself a little crazy determining what "right is." I enjoy the process of making records but it's definitely more anxiety-producing than performing is.
Tim: Other than the documentary you're currently producing, have you produced any artists?
Chris: Yeah, I've produced a few different records. In some respects it was a lot of fun and less anxiety-ridden because it wasn't my music!!
Tim: LOL! Name some of the groups and artists you've worked with and some of the genres they fall into.
Chris: I've done a couple of records with Pullman. They're a folk band and produce mostly instrumental largely on acoustic guitars. Their music gets played a lot on NPR. There is another folk group I've started this year called Dirt Music and we recently went over Mali in Africa to play at a Festival In The Desert which was pretty exciting!
Tim: Very cool.
Chris: We'll be touring in Europe in the spring. Last year I did a lot of work accompanying a couple of bigger rock artists. Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and Evan Dando from the Lemonheads, I played guitar with both of those guys.
Tim: In the studio or on the road?
Chris: This year just on the road. Thurston asked me to play on his record but I was going to be in Europe the week that he was recording so I couldn't do it. Once it came out he asked me to do the tour.
Tim: Do you have an agent?
Chris: I don't have a booking agent in the US right now but I do have a couple in Europe and the UK.
Tim: How did you find them, or how did they find you?
Chris: They're just people I've met along the way. They book all my venues when I'm playing solo.
Tim: How about the bands?
Chris: Working with Dirt Music, we just struck a deal with a pretty big booking agent in Germany. He'll now be doing a lot of our booking overseas. It's a guy that we've worked with before. Most of the time you meet people along the way and you strike up a business relationship. If you get along and it's fruitful you just keep going with it. In my experience a lot of times, it's just people who start off as enthusiastic punk rockers who eventually sort of get jobs in the industry.
Tim: That's great.
I was playing in Dublin a few weeks ago and there was a woman there from Belfast who had booked me 10 years ago. At that time she was a student in college booking acts out of her dorm room. Now she's working for one of the biggest agencies in Ireland. She said, "Hey, come on back this Spring! I've got tons of money, a really great budget to work with. Come on up and we'll put you in a few places you haven't toured in a while." There's definitely something very rich about working with people you've worked with for 10 or 20 years.
Tim: Absolutely. Kurt told me recently that you sold a track to NBC for one of their TV shows.
Chris: I licensed one song to NBC for show called "Friday Night Lights." I've also licensed a song to ESPN for a public service announcement.
Tim: How does something like this come about?
Chris: There are companies in NY in the punk rock trenches who I've worked with over the years who have started music placement services. What they do is take your music and send it to all sorts of people who are producing films and TV shows. If they're interested then they broker a deal.
Tim: There was so much going on with regard to the TV writers strike. They took a very aggressive stand to protect their work in the digital medium. Is digital rights management something that you're concerned about? Do you have any idea where it's going?
Chris: I have no idea where it's going. I'm basically watching it. I'm not participating in a dialogue about it. I think it's amazing that the internet is free. Everyone says that's ok. However, it wouldn't surprise me at all if people started charging admission. There are people who say everyone should be able to download music on the internet for free. I'm not entirely happy with that.
Tim: What did you think about Radiohead's move?
Chris:I thought was interesting. Whenever a multimillion dollar rock band makes a move like that you say, "Well, they have the luxury to do that." The Beastie Boys were some of the biggest proponents of giving songs away. But they're also in a different position than 99% of musicians trying to make a living.
Tim: When big bands like that do things like that, it adds to their cache and the popularity. It's a great marketing move.
Chris: That's right. The labels for those bands spend a lot of money on publicists to generate buzz. I thought the Radiohead move was interesting but complicated. On the one hand it came across like, "We give up. The thieves have won, so you guys decide what you want to pay." On the other hand another possible message that comes from it is saying, "Okay, we know that the cost is of producing a CD and vinyl records, but what is a digital download worth? Maybe the public should decide what its worth is."
Tim: Anything on Phish that's worthy on commenting on?
Chris: They've had a very successful career.
Tim: In sort of an underground way.
Chris: Well, they did have a label behind them. They didn't really need the label backing so much though because most of their business was in touring. The way it looks to me is that a lot of "jam bands" came along after Jerry Garcia died. The Grateful Dead had created a very unique community and market. Once Jerry was out of the picture, there was this gigantic audience that needed something else to do. Phish was basically the biggest of those bands.
Tim: Let's go back to the TV deal for a minute. Kurt indicated that it was fairly lucrative.
Chris: It was. Fortunately, I have a couple of different companies sending my stuff out there. The downside is that there are a million of those companies trying to license music, and a million bands trying to license their music and get those deals. I'm not sure that deal will make it more likely to get further work. Some people might say, "Hey, his stuff sounded well on the show." Other people might say, "Hey, they used that guy before let's use somebody else, let's do something different." The music business is fickle.
Tim: What was it like growing up as a kid with a father in advertising? How did it influence you?
Chris: The primary influence was that a lot of the advertising he was producing was for rock music, so I grew up in a household where a lot of rock music was played. I was exposed to that culture at a very young age. Here it is, decades later I'm working in the rock music business!
Tim: It's in the Brokaw DNA!
Chris: LOL! On another level it gave me the practical humanizing take on it, which was seeing first-hand that advertising doesn't come out of nowhere. It's created by real people that figure out how to do an ad campaign to sell things to people.
Tim: How do you feel about marketing your work it after it's finished?
Chris: That's tougher. I prefer it when other people do the marketing for me. I'm not the best salesman. That's not where my strengths lie. Essentially what you want the press and the media to say, "There are 10,000 records this week and this is the one you should check out and here's why."
Tim: Are there really 10,000?
Chris: Let's just say there's a glut of music out there. And that's not just records. It's also bands coming though town that week. I try to work with people who are promoting what I do in an imaginative and creative way. I've never thought that anything I was doing was going to sell millions of records. I was in a band at one point that was getting a lot of offers from bigger labels who said they could sell millions of records. We just didn't see it so we ended up staying with an independent label. It was at a time in the 90's where many bands were signing with major labels and then a year later the whole thing just went to hell. I don't think it was snobbism and defeatism on our part. It wasn't like we were thinking, "We're just going to stay here in our little music ghetto." I think it was a realistic take on what sells out there and what it takes to have a hit record.
Tim: You have to pick your shots. It's important to be selective who you work with. We've experienced the same thing running two small businesses.
Chris: I know what you mean. I have a friend who does music mainly for television. Once we were working together and he got a call at 1:30 in the afternoon from someone in the Teen TV business who said, "We're going to send you some lyrics. If you record a soundtrack for it by 5:00 today. If we pick it we'll give you $20,000." Of course it never pans out.
Tim: Do you see a similarity between producing music and advertising?
Chris: The main difference in advertising for me and most of the people that I know is that we're creating music just because we want to produce a piece of art. And then what we're going to do with it afterwards is totally open. Whereas producing advertising is like, "We've got this thing to sell so how do we do that?" I think it's a different creative process. A lot of times I make the record and I think, "Gee, I don't even know what this is and who I'm going to sell this to." But then I start playing it for people and it becomes clearer who the audience should be.
Tim: How do you make the decision of who you are going to play with?
Chris: I have to like their music. If I don't, I'm not going to play it. I guess I have the luxury of not having had to do that.
Tim: We live in a You Tube society. You understand the value of video. What effect has modern technology and the internet had on your business? I'm not talking about file-sharing I'm talking about everything else surrounding it.
Chris: Well, email has made communication must simpler and faster so that's given me the opportunity to be involved with a lot of different projects and have a lot more things going on. That alone has expanded what I've been able to do. I don't feel personally like You Tube has had a big impact on what I do or how the music comes across. I haven't made a video that exploded on You Tube. Some people I've played shows with will see a video of their performance on YouTube the next day. That's cool but it's not had a big impact on record sales or concert attendance.
Tim: I've surveyed a lot of musicians on their MySpace pages who have done a fairly good job branding who they are and what they look like. They have variety of tracks you can listen to and put them on your own site. You have a really good MySpace page.
Tim: You see a lot of well known acts putting their videos up because they're going to get more exposure to a more qualified audience than trying to get it on MTV. I expect that video is only going to become more important in everything you do.
Chris: As someone who's concentrating on creating music, I have mixed feelings about videos. When you create a song, you create your own visual in your mind. I was definitely ambivalent about when the video age came about in rock music because suddenly instead of thinking about the song you thought about the rock video on MTV.
Tim: I'm thinking about the garage bands and how they can now have videos of their own.
Chris: Yeah, the average punk rocker thinks it's great. You can get a video of you and your band instantly. And then suddenly you have an audience!
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2, where Chris talks about producing the documentary with Storm.