Industry Profile: Tom Jackson
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tom Jackson, Tom Jackson Productions.
Tom Jackson practically burns up the telephone wires as he energetically discusses his role as a live music producer.
The former bassist excitedly details how a well-prepared live show protects artists from off nights, while giving them a foundation from which they can create superb performances time and time again.
For 22 years, Jackson--author of ďTom Jacksonís Live Music Method,Ē and the creator of the DVD series, ďAll Roads Lead to the StageĒ---has diligently worked with artists in order that they can learn to gauge their strengths and weaknesses to kill onstage night after night on tour.
Over the years, Jackson has worked with Taylor Swift, The Band Perry, Jars of Clay, Casting Crowns, Thompson Square and hundreds of others.
Based in Nashville, Jackson and his teamóthrough classes, workshops, events, a multi-faceted website, charity-related programs, and direct makeoversóseeks to have artists understand that they themselves should drive their show, instead of their songs; and that performing live is more than taking songs off a recording, stacking them in a nightly set list, and playing them with expertise.
One of the most popular speakers on the music industry's conference circuit, Jackson has also been a guest speaker at such leading American schools as Berklee College of Music, the University of Miami, and Anderson University in Indiana.
You are a live music producer?
Correct. Iím not a performance coach. Iím not a choreographer. Iím not a drama dude. I am a live music producer. We coined the phrase. We watched the competitionópeople that want to do what I doóand they are performance coaches. For the first 10 years (of working in this field), thatís what I was. Then I thought, ďI am so much more. Iím a producer. I produce the show. I re-arrange songs so that they work live. Like what a producer does in the studio.Ē
Is what you do similar to record producer taking an act and handling every aspect of their production?
No. No. Most of the artists that I work with record, and they record for radio, because thatís the mass market that everybody is trying to use. Thatís a 3 1/2 minute format. You canít develop ideas too deeply for pop or country radio or whatever it is because of the (listenerís) attention span and where people listen to it (music) which is probably in their car.
A live performance is obviously different.
In essence, a live show is a string of songs put together with an artist interacting with an audience. They arenít really emulating what they are putting on the radio.
No. In fact, thatís where the producing part comes in because what I generally do is take a 3 1/2 minute song, and turn it into moments. Usually, if you tell a lot of artistsóďOkay, you have 20 minutes (as an opening act),Ē the first thing they think of is, ďHow many songs can they cram into that?Ē
Instead, I think, ďHow many moments can we create?Ē The way you create moments is inside the artistís songs. This is where the producing comes into play; inside those songs. On radio, thereís an 8 or 11 second intro at the most; live, I can further develop an intro.
Weíve seen cases where it (the limited record intro) transitions into intros live that are awesome. Its like, ďHow clever was that? How interesting. How captivating.Ē You (as an artist) donít have time to do that. I have developed five minute intros from a three minute song.
So your performance concept is to take the ideas that are inside the songs.
When we work with an artist, I get the material beforehand. I look inside the songs. I know what Iím looking for after 22 years. I might say, ďI love that background vocal where they are all singing harmony. Live, Iím going to strip that down, and have five people come out and do this cool vocal harmony thing that shocks the heck out of everybody; that nobody knows is there except the producer and the band.Ē All of a sudden, it turns into a vocal moment that is awesome. I can do that with any kind of show as long as if the part is inside the song.
I use this example. ďThe SimpsonsĒ is a 30 minute, animated sitcom on TV. In reality, itís 22 minutes and 8 minutes of commercials. Now, ďThe SimpsonsĒ came out with a movie (ďThe Simpsons MovieĒ) in 2007. If you walked to the theatre, paid $8 to $10, sat down, and watched 22 minutes of content, and 8 minutes of commercials---or even two or three episodes strung back-to-back--you would have felt ripped off.
So the idea is take the concept of ďThe SimpsonsĒ and develop two things: themes and characters.
Themes, in a song, meaning a guitar riff that is awesome but the band has only been playing it once because itís on the radio (version). So we develop that into whatever needs to be developed. Thatís what rehearsals are for. We work with the artist to develop those themes that are inside the song; whether they are musical, rhythmic, lyrical, vocal or whatever. There are all kinds of ideas crammed into that song. How many times have you heard a bridge in a song that is actually the best part of the song?
This is a method. Itís not tips.
My main gig is the live show. Itís being able to generate a connection with an audience that will generate more revenue for an artist whether they are starting or whether they are in the biggest arenas in the world.
The overall goal being that better performances lead to a more profitable career.
Iím not cheap (to hire). But itís an investment that easily that pays off. Without naming names, I have seen revenue streams per head go up 600% after we spent 5 to 12 days working on the show with an act. I had a manager walk up to me at one of the award shows, and thank me because his bandís revenue went up $8 million on a tour after working together for a week on the show. And I have indie artists that are now selling more CDs a night.
Do your bigger name clients insist on non-disclosure agreements?
Not every one of them, but Iím sensitive enough not to discuss them. Iím happy most of the time (about that). Since the artists that Iíve worked with have won 200 awardsóGospel, Juno, CMT, and Grammysóit would be nice once in awhile to be acknowledged. But Iíd rather take the non-acknowledgement, and the great living that I have, and get to do what I love to do.
Is there a perceived stigma for a known artist to be working with someone like you?
Artists may not want it known that someone has been hired to re-work their live show.
Just six weeks ago, one of the (news) things that popped up while I was on the internet was, ďSinger gets voice lessonsĒ like it was going to destroy his voice. It was a rock singer. This is news? Weíre talking about vocals. Believe it or not, the performance aspect is a little bit more personal.
Perhaps itís because contemporary pop started as being anti-entertainment, and anti-show biz.
Then thereís the whole thing with artists and the press. Like the Beyoncť national anthem thing. That she didnít sing live. Because the business is run by business people, the geniuses in the business have become the marketers. Everything in our industry except the live show is controllable. You can go into the studio and make a great record. Everything is controllable that an artist sends out to the general public. Hereís the irony in my world. The one thing that is not controllable is the live show, and itís the last thing that artists pay attention to. Itís a big mistake in the long run with their career. But the businesses guys advising them donít think itís that important or they think know better. I tell managers, ďYou manage.Ē
Alarm bells about an artistís live show only ring when they do a string of shows that bomb.
Hereís something worse. The artist has a hit song so they sing that hit song (as it is on the record), shake their butt, and people scream. They mistake that as (a sign) that they have fans for life. What they donít understand in this instant society is that once that song is gone, they are gone. They arenít really gone, but they are then scrambling to get back up the hill. Thatís when people came out (of a show) and they werenít just screaming over the song. If it was an awesome show, then you can build a career, and keep those fans forever.
Of course, there are thousands of artists striving to be successful.
The good news for me, and my small company is that there is a handful of people, about 10%, willing to learn (about performing). Itís more than enough for me. What breaks my heart is watching the other 90%. They are talented people and, in a lot of cases, good people, but they donít listen. Years later, they scratch their heads, and ask, ďWhat happened?Ē
What are my options as a new act within your company?
It depends what track you are on. Fast or slow track.
First thing to do is to get the book (ďTom Jacksonís Live Music MethodĒ). The next thing to look into is our Tour Sponsorship program. Another form of revenue for indies or people trying to move their way up the food chain is our sponsorship program that Iíve had for 20 years. We have raised over $2 billion for food, clothing, helping kids, and women issues. Itís a partnership with the artist. Over the years Iíve given over $100 million to artists on tour support for the corporate charities that we work with.
Well over 600 artists have signed up for this tour support program over the years. If you are playing in front of even 1,000 people a year, I can make it work. It also provides them with a relationship with my team.
You started the company 22 years ago. Was it then based in Nashville?
No, in Los Angeles. I cut my teeth in LA with artists who were getting ready for (industry) showcases. I have been in Nashville for 19 years.
How often are you on the road?
I am probably on the road 120 days a year teaching, working with an artist, and working a bit with our tour support programs.
How many people on your team?
I probably have 10 people that I work with on the charities, and there are three core people that are full-time.
Are there personnel doing what you do as a live music producer?
Yes. I have two associates, both in Nashville. They work with some of the major acts with me.
Okay, Iíve got the book, and done the sponsorship program. Whatís next?
I have an (online) Backstage Pass (on our site) that is $18 a month. It has 600 blogs, and 150 videos of me working with people as well as some of the seminars that Iíve done. I do a free blog every Tuesday. Iím trying to develop a curriculum online, and get into colleges in order for people to learn this method.
If you are on a fast track, you call us and we go out and work with you. It becomes a money (fee) thing. You work with my associates or in a combination (with me). We can go to artists or they can come to us.
Is your work primarily in North America?
Primarily. But in May, Iím going to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia.
For direct work or for industry conferences?
Do veteran acts hire you?
Honestly, nowadays not a lot of veteran acts do because they think that they know (about performing). Itís a big mistake. You can always learn. This month I worked with four tours. Just the other day, I was working on an act and another (new) idea came up. You think you know it all after 22 years. The whole deal (for continuing success) is about learning, and getting better. Once we stop doing that it, becomes about surviving, making money or being lazy. I think thatís one of the downsides of the music industry. Iíve lost some gigs because I tell people the truth.
With lesser music sales in recent years, live is where most acts today earn revenue. Still, they try to hold onto their money as well. An emerging musician will buy a new guitar before hiring someone like you.
No if buts or ands (about that). Or they will go to the studio. They will do the easy thing all of the time. Are you kidding? I once talked at a workshop, and there were 1,800 artists there in an isolated part of the country. Iíve got product to sell. And I was not moving any product. I was there for the whole week. My classes were jammed. Finally, on the last day, I said, ďI just got a call from my travel agent. Weíre doing this musical (seminar) thing on a boat, and Iíve got a deal. If you sign up today for $399, you can do it too. Whoís in?Ē Almost everybody raised their hand. They had all told me earlier in the week that they didnít have money to afford my material. Itís not about me selling product, itís about them getting an education.
Interestingly, few bandsóeven successful ones----know how to properly conduct a rehearsal.
Of course not.
Rehearsals are usually a band jamming the song, tightening it up. Unless itís a major band, the performance isnít looked at.
This month I did acts on the two biggest tours of the first quarter of the year. I did the middle slot act for one of the tours. It was the first time that I had worked with them. We had 5 days of rehearsing, which is cramming. They are going to be in front of a million people. (Having) 5 days of rehearsal tells you right now that they donít know how to rehearse. We are talking about the biggest tour in the world, probably, and they have a 45 minute set.
I walk into the rehearsal room at SIR in Nashville where there are 5 rooms. Thereís a big room. Thereís a pretty big room. Thereís a decent size room. Then thereís two really small rooms. The band was in the second smallest room, cases strewn everywhere. They are sitting on their cases. They are like, ďOkay, we are ready to rehearse.Ē Then we worked on one song. I started digging into this one song and we spent 3 1/2 hours just on the one song. The leader says to the manager, ďWeíve never spend 3 1/2 hours working on a song.Ē Iím like, ďNo wonder.Ē
A band might spend three months to a year writing and recording an album. Preparing for a 40 day tour, except for working out lighting and technical cues, they donít often spend much time on their performance.
No itís absolutely true. It blows my mind. Only the great ones. You start thinking from the purely business standpoint as an investment, the recordóthe recordingóis now more a promotional tool than anything. It is not a revenue generator. In some cases it is, but itís mostly a promotional tool. You try to get it on the radio. You try to get it on the internet. You try to get people out (to the shows). Where the revenue streams really come in is at the live show.
The irony is that people now are spending most of their money on promotion. It is kind of like have a restaurant where thereís amazing promotion, and you spend all of your time and energyó60-80% of itóand then when people walk into the building, you donít spend any time cooking the food carefully, and creatively so that people will come back.
Other than artists youíve worked with, are there artists that obviously rehearse the right way?
I would say Prince, probably. I have a good friend (guitarist/singer) Dez Dickerson who played with him for 8 years (as a member of the Revolution), and they would rehearse for six weeksóthis was their schedule. Six days a week, 12 hours a day to get ready for a tour. Thereís also Madonna, and Garth (Brooks).
So yes, there are.
The idea to go in there, and rearrange those songs (for a live performance), thatís probably what I spend most of my time doing. Rearranging the songs to create a movie instead of a sit-com because thatís what a 3-1/2 minute song is about.
You look for things that will emotionally connect with audiences. That means looking at songs, the authority of the players, all kinds of different things.
Exactly. So what you have to do is become like a sports coach, and find the strengths. You have to go in there, and poke around. Thereís one group that I just worked with in Texas. They are moving up the food chain. The best guitar player I have ever worked with in my life. He was like Eddie Van Halen, Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny and your favorite guitarist all rolled into one. Basically, however, through the whole night, he stood in the corner (of the stage), and played his solos the way that they were on the record. A complete waste of talent. So I arranged the songs so this guy could step up and own the world.
Some actís goal is to give audiences exactly what they hear on the record.
You are talking about major artists. I have taken over 100 #1 songs and re-arranged them. There are some songs that you just have to leave alone; particularly the ones that are out at the moment. But, if you have a #1 song, a career song, and you have played it 20 years the same way, there are ways to develop it, to find that balance that the artist is still excited about it, and the audience is still excited about it.
A lot of veteran bands get lazy with their hits over the years.
No question. Itís important to stay on top of (performances). Thatís why in professional sports there are coaches who are constantly reminding players (of their strengths and weaknesses), and players are watching tapes. (A live music performance) is far more precise, obviously, because thereís artistic license, and spontaneity. But thereís spontaneity in sports. But thereís form and spontaneity in live music shows. That is what makes a great show.
It might be beneficial for a band to listen to some of their early board recordings of live shows in order to hear how they first played the song.
Yes, no question. Even on a long tour, by two-thirds of the way through the tour, they should go back and listen to earlier shows. Hereís what they donít realize. This is what happens. The drummer gets a bit lazy. The drummer drops two things out of it (a performance of a song). The guitar player drops two things. The melody changes because one night the singer had a bad night. His voice wasnít happening so he embellished a little bit less. At the end of the day, you have 10 parts that are completely different. The players donít realize that because they only took two parts out (individually). They donít think that itís such a big deal.
Why does a band kill one night, and dies the next night on tour?
Typical. Let me tell you why.
Because of different venues?
Well, that might have something to do with it. The audience and the sense that it is the wrong demographic. But hereís what happens. They donít know what they are doing. Bottom line. They donít know what they are trying to accomplish. They donít know what they are doing onstage. Itís not just the set list. Itís the delivery of it. Itís the visuals, the arrangements and other things.
This is what rehearsals are all about. If you create moments in the show, they will work every night, if done in the right venue. They will work every night to different degrees. On a bad night, you still win. On a great night, itís all over.
One of the biggest mistakes, by far, is the bands do not go into rehearsals knowing what to do. They donít know how to rehearse so they donít rearrange the song to create moments. They think because they wrote the song, and because itís them playing the song that itís special. But there are rules onstage. The arrangements have to be done correctly. The set list has to be done correctly. There has to be some vision, and creativity. Then you have to be able to visually pull off a show.
But why does a band kill one night, and not the next night? Same set list, same banter?
Hereís what it is. A perfect example. I am a pretty talented basketball player. When I go to rehearsal with a new band, most rehearsal venues have a ball hoops outside or whatever. Eventually a bunch of guys in the band will play some hoops during the breaks.
The first day at rehearsal, we will pick up three and three. Say thereís five guys in the band. On that first day, I cannot miss. I mean, Iím in the groove. I kill it, dude.
So we come back to rehearsal the next day. It comes to the break time. Everybody jumps up, and says, ďIíve got Tom.Ē Well, au contraire. They are idiots because I am not a professional. I have not developed the consistency to know what I am trying to do (as a basketball player). I have the talent. Every one of the bands that we are talking to have the ability. Itís not a matter of ability. If it was just ability (to be successful), everybody would be a professional basketball player, or a professional musician. It has to do developing professional onstage skills, and doing things consistently every night so that on a bad night you know how to lead and control an audience.
Most artists do not know how to do this. Their set is not set up with cues in there so they can listen to their audience to know where they take them next. They just play the songs. They are not sure what they are looking for from their audience. So if you know those cues, and you have them written into the set now, you can start listening and make adjustments on the fly, if you have to.
Doesnít experience also make a difference? A performance isnít going to gel in 10 shows. Doesnít it take experience on top of those things that you are talking about?
Well, thatís a loaded question.
So many bands have their first big hit, and then fall apart on the road.
Typical. Thatís because they donít know how to deliver a show. They are learning as they go. They are not as prepared as they go out.
With a hit record, a band has to get out on the road fast.
I get that. That goes into the preparation beforehand. On some of the major acts I work with, we will go in for two, three or four weeks and we will do everything from beginning to end. Some musicians saysóďWe are artists, and we have to be spontaneousĒ (without having a live concept). This is a bunch of crap. Spontaneity comes out of form. If they do not do it correctly in rehearsal enough, then when they get out onstage, itís all over the map. You asked the question why one night it kills, and one night it doesnít. With the same set list. Well, there are so many intangibles that are happening differently each night, because they have not rehearsed correctly consistently.
This does not mean (doing) Disney crap, where itís the same thing (each night), and thereís no freedom to be spontaneous. Iím not talking about that.
But there should be enough form, and enough vision to know what you are looking for. There are certain cues that you send to an audience. One night, you will send them to them consciously because you are an amateur, and you donít know what you are doing, and everybody did the right thing at the right time with this song on this night. And letís face it, itís easier when you walk into a building, and itís a love fest already. But really what makes a great performance is when you walk into a tough setting, and win the audience as an opening or a new act. Those (shows) are the most satisfying. Thatís where you are going to learn your craft.
Many artists maintain that they have stagecraft figured out.
With a lot of artists, when I tell them what I do, they say, ďHey man, we jump around onstage all night long.Ē Itís not about jumping around the stage all night long. Itís about having that confidence, authority, charisma and being able to understand what you are trying to accomplish. In fact, standing or sitting on a stool if you can control an audience from there, you have authority.
Is less more?
At the right time, 100%.
Are there artists that are never going to be strong performers? Some people donít have natural charisma. I donít believe if that trait can be learned.
Well, I disagree. I have never worked with an artist that if they do the work that they do not get noticeably better, and start walking with the authority that they are called to do (as an artist). If they are really an artist. If they arenít an artist, and if they are plumber, you are talking about the right thing. I will never be a plumber.
To me, itís like a building block. It starts with confidence, goes to authority, and charisma gets on top of it. Itís a process. Bono or any of these people who have charisma didnít have it the first day. They had inklings of it. They developed it (charisma) over time by taking risks and understanding what to do, and how to do it.
When Bono first did this (started performing,) he had authority. He did everything at the wrong time (onstage), but he had authority. Then he started doing authority at the right time, and that started developing into charisma. He is the consummate example (of developing charisma). Obviously Springsteen is a charismatic performer. I love Prince. Iím doing some classic guys here. Theyíve learned their craft. They know it. They walk in it every single day.
Some artists seem over prepped. Very mannered, and predictable.
People like that have not rehearsed enough in many cases. Meaning they have learned it (a staging aspect) once or twice. Itís not repetition; so itís natural (what they are doing). But they are then thinking about it once they are onstage. So what comes across is planned and canned. Itís like learning to play guitar. At first you have to think about it (playing). Itís very mechanical. Thereís no feeling. Once you start learning how to play, you no longer have to look at it (the fret board). You go to it naturally. After you learn the G chord, you donít even think about it.
Isnít that muscle memory?
It is. It has to do repetition. But as a guitar player, you can play that G. Every guitar player in the world plays a G. What makes it unique is that they are way past thinking about the G. Now they are thinking tonality, phrasing. Thatís what makes them unique. But, if they are still in the fundamental stage of doing this, it gets mistaken as that they arenít a good performer. The problem again is that they donít know how to rehearse. They do not know how to go in and do it right so that it becomes a part of them. They have three days of rehearsal for a show and they try to cram things and they are going out on the first 10 or 20 dates thinking about it. Itís muscle memory and they have not spent enough time on rehearsal.
Iíve seen shows by major acts where the energy falls off the end of the stage.
It happens all of the time. Iíll tell you why. The dilemma is that the musician onstage is feeling it (the music). The musicians are singing their song. The adrenalin is flowing, because 100 or 100,000 people are watching them. They are inside that stuff, so they are connected to it. They do not know how to connect their music by what they do onstage to the audience. That where one night it is magical because it just happens. Again itís an amateur performing.
A professional performer knows how to connect emotionally with an audience every night. Again, on a bad night they still win. On a good night, itís all over. Itís history.
With, the exception of an opening act, audiences have expectations of a bandís performance. They have a $75 to $125 investment in the show. Doesnít that work against bands a times?
Well, you tell me. If you drop $100 for a meal, and itís a bad performance what do you do when you walk out of that building?
Iíll say ďWell, that was horrible.Ē
And who do you tell?
Thatís it. So it can be a career killer, potentially.
But audiences have expectations, right?
They absolutely do have expectations. There are three reasons people go to a show emotionally. They want to be captured, and engaged; meaning that they want to be completely present. Itís like going to a movie and when the movie is over you go, ďGosh, itís overĒ because it kept you so present that you forgot about everything else in your life.
Second is--and people donít do this consciously, by the way---they go to experience moments. They want to laugh. They want to cry. They want to jump and down. They want to have this emotional connection with the songs, and the artist. They want to experience all that. Thatís why sports is so stinking big.
The third thing to go for is that they like to haveóagain not consciouslyóthey would like to have their lives changed a little bit. If I go to a Springsteen show, and if he says something, plays something or does something that moves me to a space that I havenít been to before and that I really like then Iím a fan, forever. Iím going to go back because I want to relive that.
Not only that, but you are then walking out of that building going, ďOh my gosh.Ē and you tell everybody. And in todayís world with the internet, you are blogging, and tweeting, "Oh my gosh, I just saw this show. It was unbelievable.Ē Now you are talking about free publicity.
A performance can provide escapism. ďI work in a crap job but with my buddies here and a great band; Iím out of this life for a night.Ē
But if it doesnít do those things, then you are disappointed.
Is the preparation different for club and concert shows?
If you are talking original material, conceptually itís the same. If you are talking about copy music (played by a cover band) itís totally different. How they end a set. How they set up a set. All of that.
Certainly stage dynamics and body language must differ in larger venues than in clubs.
Well, it has to be bigger in an arena. But even in a club, Iím still using zone communication. Iím still doing applause cycles. There are places that I put in a show saying ďClub or arena.Ē
Weíre talking conceptually. Conceptually, I know that, as a musician, I am creating moments. I know that I have places in the show that specifically listens to my audience. I know that my songs donít sound the same, so they shouldnít look the same. So even on a small stage I will make adjustments. On a big stage, I have ramps, and more to work with. On a small stage, I will move a monitor to get a little bit more room. But I will do conceptually exactly the same thing that I would do on a big stage.
Explain zone communication and applause cycles.
Well, there are a million technical (stage) skills that most artists donít understand. Letís take applause cycles. A song ends; this is perfect place to allow the audience to express themselves. So we have to put the correct ending on the song so we can listen to what our audience is saying to us. If we get too clever in an ending, that when we finish the song the audience isnít sureóweíve all experienced, ďIs the song over?Ēóand thereís just a smattering of applause. What artists have to understand, particularly as an independent artist or someone playing these smaller venues trying to win the audience, is that we put the right endings on sends out the right signal so you can listen to the audience, and they can tell you what they are thinking so you can make adjustments onstage.
Zone communication is that I break the audience into zones. Depending on the size of the venue, obviously, the musicians communicate with a person or a sectionóeven if they canít see on a big stage. The whole band does this. The idea is to have 5 or 6 people all doing communication with people in the audience. They involve the whole audience, and itís what I call overkill. Everybody in the audiences feels that they are part of the show.
If you look at a certain section, depending on the venue, and you do something physical from the stageóand Iím not talking about being goofyóor go to a certain side of the stage to deliver a solo instead of staying behind your guitar pedals every song, then you are gathering up the audience in that section so they feel that they are part of the show. And honestly, it goes back to the expectations of an audience, Larry. They go to hear music but they go for much more than music.
Applause is the adrenalin of any concert.
It is. Great players, great athletes find a rhythm. But the great ones force their will on the audience. I donít mean that in a negative way.
That comes with authority, right?
It comes with confidence, authority and charisma. And those things can be learned.
Does your approach change with the musical genre? Pop, country, Christian, hard rock?
I havenít worked with a lot of hip hop and rap. All of the other genres I have. Iím conceptual guy. So the answer at first is no. Are there adjustments? Of course. But the key concepts that I teach, and work with, you just talked about: confidence, authority, and charisma.
With every one of those genres, we can name someone, and say, ďOh my gosh they have charisma.Ē And that is what sets them apart. In fact, itís the most attractive thing. So it doesnít matter what genre it is.
So a set list, to me, itís not even a set list. Itís how do you write your show from beginning to end creatively, pulling the great moments out of the song into a show. Those things remain the same. I donít care if Iím working on a gospel show or whatever. In fact, I recently worked on a legends tour for Christian music. Some of the moments that I pulled out of them would be musical, a little bit more verbal and lyrical. Whereas with a metal band it wouldnít be lyrical so much. With a funk band, I think I would develop the rhythms a little bit more.
For each genre, you accent different elements of the show?
Yeah. Depending on the genre. Exactly. What Iím looking for here is that, stylistically, the song is always the script. Inside those songs--country, pop, rock, metal, you name it--there are some awesome parts that have not been developed because of the radio context. An act has to get to them, get through them, and out of them.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Buffalo. I lived most of my life in Southern California. I was 8 when dad moved us from Buffalo to Santa Diego. We went from Buffalo with five feet of snow to 80 F in San Diego on Christmas Day.
Did you go to college?
I did about 18 months of college and I realized that I want to play music. I was at Grossmont College in San Diego, taking general ed.
Did you play in bands while in high school?
I didnít really start playing my instrument (bass) until I graduated high school. In my whole life, Iíve only been in three bands. I was in two bands where we did quite a bit of stuff. Thatís how I learned some of the business stuff. My whole world has been how do you make the live show work. I donít really understand publishing or the record industry. I know just enough to get in trouble.
One of my biggest pet peeves in this industry is people overstepping their boundaries. They think that they know more than they really do. We know enough to talk about it but we really donít know enough about it.
Did any of the bands record?
Well, Harlequin did. It was a local thing (in San Diego). We did our own records. Got played on the radio. We were voted Best Band in Southern CaliforniaĒ (by the San Diego Reader magazine). (Group member) Rick Elias wrote a lot of the songs on that 1996 film ďThat Thing You Do!Ē He was the lead guitar player in that band. Heís here in Nashville now.
[Harlequin was a Ď70s progressive rock band akin to Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull. The lineup included frontman Tom Schlesinger, Rick Elias, Jay York, Tom Jackson, and John Prim. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist Elias later made several solo records with the Rick Elias Band. He moved to L.A. in 1984, and recorded as Rick Elias and the Confessions. From 1993-2002, he was a member of Rich Mullins' A Ragamuffin Band.
Harlequin performing the song "Torn Curtain" at Studio West in San Diego in 1975 can be heard at: Youtube.]
Did Harlequin take you to Los Angeles?
No. I was getting on. I was going to get married. I was tired of traveling. It was like, ďWhat do you want to do when you grow up?Ē It came down to music and I went down the list. I could teach bass. I was a good bass player. I wasnít a great bass player. But I went through the list, and I realized that the thing that I loved the most was the performance part (of music) I understood it too.
Being on the road for years as a musician, you had considerable live music experience.
I had some ďa-haĒ moments over the years (with Harlequin). One was doing a show in a small market where 1,300 people came. We set up in the afternoon and then we went out and played football in the field. The drummer broke his arm. Thereís no way to get anybody else in there. So we get his arm set, and he played one-handed. As a musician, you want the band to be tight. That was the last thing that we were. The first song I am sweating bullets. I thought people were going to start throwing things at us. We were so bad. However, at the end of the song, we got a standing ovation. It was an ďa-haĒ moment.
There were dozens of those moments when I was performing that when the audience is paying attention to you is different than what the band is paying attention to.
In essence, thatís what the whole thing I do is about.
I understand being inside the head of the musicians because I have played onstage thousands of times. I love great music, but what I want to discover is what does the audience pay attention to? How do we connect those two (the musician and audience perspectives) without changing who artists are?
Iíve been at great shows when thereís only been a handful of people. Where the club owner informed the band they werenít being paid. The smart bands will say, ďLetís do itĒ and will have one of their best shows ever.
There are legendary stories of Van Halen and others playing shows with nobody in the building except 5 people and they just went for it. Those are gigs where a band can still be working on things. The question shouldnít even be asked, ďShould we do the show?Ē
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē
The recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry, Larry will be honored at the 2013 Juno Gala Dinner & Awards on April 20th in Regina, Saskatchewan.