In this article, Jonathan Larr draws on the knowledge and experience of those in the thick of fast-growing areas of the music industry, and maps out what characteristics and qualities artists in 2018 will need to have in order to develop successful careers and rise to the top in 2018.
Guest post by Jonathan Larr of Icarus Law
I already know what you’ll be listening to next year.
In the pursuit of this knowledge I spoke with three people who are actively cultivating the next generation of artists. The first is Britt Witt who runs the Hi Hat in Highland Park. Her remarkable feel for what audiences want in 2017 has led to the rapid ascension of her venue to the top of the Los Angeles music scene. The other two are Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard. They built Burger Records on the same business model that a band needs to follow to be successful today.
The pursuit of musical prognostication led me to a bar across the street from the Hi Hat in Highland Park. I sat down with Ms. Witt to discuss what trends she saw in the bands she booked every night.
She said the most defining characteristic of current bands is that, “There are no boundaries. [Musically] they are going to do whatever works.” She attributed this to two factors.
The first is technology like Spotify. With Spotify, anyone can listen to anything at any time. A budding musician is exposed to far more music than ever before. This means that a great band in 2017 will pick and choose elements from a lot of different genres. One example she mentions is a band called Veers. They combine traditional rock and roll with unfamiliar sonic elements that reflect their diverse influences.
The second is the festival circuit. As a result of this touring, growing artists are introduced to hundreds of bands. This further evolves their personal style.
While the musical styles might be new, the factors that allow a band to succeed and take over the world are the same as always - professionalism and responsiveness to audience feedback.
Professionalism means taking the gig seriously, preparing properly, and not being difficult.
Responsiveness means reacting to the audience and using them to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
She mentioned a band that played the Hi Hat who brought their own light show. This attention to all aspects of a performance are what, for her, separate a truly great band from the rest. Focusing on appealing to the audience and being memorable are crucial.
This attention to detail extends to an artist’s career as well. Even if a band has their live show perfected they need to be judicious in where and when they play shows.
She says a band should, “Practice a lot and play a little.” Playing too much and too often is a killer for young bands. She adds, “You can play El Cid 10 times a month but then when you try to book the Echo or the Hi Hat we’re not going to book you because you already played 10 times.” If someone knows they can see your band any time then each individual show becomes less special and less meaningful. A band needs to carefully approach all aspects of their career.
Ms. Witt believes the next great band will be a mix of an old fashioned approach to the business and a modern lack of musical boundaries. The owners of Burger Records also have a vision of the future that has one foot firmly planted in the past.
Burger Records is run out of a record store in Fullerton with an office/bedroom in the back. Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, “really believe [they] have a chance to help get rock and roll on the radio again. That’s always been our dream.” Burger Records has gained notoriety for a large slate of releases, mostly on cassette. By August 2012 Burger had sold over 100,000 cassettes. When they first created Burger, Sean cashed out his entire 401k and put everything into the record store which became the label. Both Sean and Lee lived in the back of the store for years. They only recently moved out.
The success of Burger Records is built on the same guiding principles that are required for a modern band to succeed.
Lee believes their success is, “a manifestation of Sean’s prowess and digital manipulation and internet presence as well as being on tour for fucking half my life. I’ve been touring since I was 16, then we’ve been doing burger since 07. Putting a popup table wherever we go, putting up stickers, just having a presence in the real world.”
Sean knows that, while social media is important, it’s not without its drawbacks. “Social media is good for getting things heard, getting things to people, but you’re not going to form any relationships through it. I haven’t made any friends from fans who comment on the Facebook page.” A modern successful label, like a successful band, has to have a presence both online and in the real world. Neither can sustain a company or a career on its own.
Asked about musical trends, Lee says, “It’s hard to figure out what the new thing will be. Rock and roll can only be so much. It has to be stripped down. It has to be really simple. The production value has to be, you know, it has to be raw.” One example they mention of a new band with this type of aesthetic is Death Valley Girls. They feature female vocals with a sound reminiscent of the best English punk bands from the 70s.
Sean adds, “Everything will reach a tipping point. There’s too many mixes of things going on. Everyone is going to want straight rock and roll or straight hip hop or straight country. It’s all circular. It will all start over again.” The cycle of music moving from simple and stripped down to more produced is something that’s been going on since the 60s. Sean and Lee are very aware of how rock music trends have changed through the years.
One of the largest factors in their success is their deep knowledge of the history of rock and roll. Sean says, “Since everything is circular you can relate what’s going on now to what happened in the past. Part of our thing is knowing the history of rock and roll, knowing how things came about. I think it’s just a huge advantage over other labels and stores.”
Lee builds on this, “You learn from folks, their mistakes, what they did right that we should do and what we shouldn’t do. It’s all shaped what we’ve done so far. We have a lot of influences. I think it’s holding true because [in 2017] we’re going to be a label for 10 years. We didn’t plan on being a label.”
They also attribute their label’s popularity to their ability to quickly pursue any idea that appeals to them and a willingness to fail. Because the company is just the two of them, they don’t need anyone’s approval. On a whim in 2012 they decided they wanted to put on a festival which they dubbed Burgerama. In 2015, Burgerama 4 featured Weezer playing to a crowd of 5,000.
Sean notes, “Failing or succeeding is so much better than asking what if. It’s all about chances. That’s how the music industry grows. The big labels have to move outside of their comfort zone if they’re going to grow, if they’re going to continue.”
Long term success requires a near religious devotion to achieving their goals. Sean notes, “This is our life. This is everything” while Lee further explains, “Whether it’s a dream or nightmare, we can’t just go home and forget about it.” He adds, “We’re dreamers and I think that’s the most beautiful part of manifesting our vision.”
With all this knowledge, I can now predict what will separate the next great bands from their peers and allow them to succeed.
Their sound will be unique while also stripped down and honest.
They will be assiduous in their attention to all aspects of their career, paying careful attention to everything from their musicianship to their live shows to their overall career planning.
They will not be dicks.
They will have learned from music history to know what works and what doesn’t and will be able to marry that knowledge to the benefits and limitations of modern technology.
Most of all, they will be willing to give everything they have to succeed.
The next great band will be a combination of what has always led to musical success and something no one has ever done before. I can’t wait to hear them.