And like you’re supposed to do, we promoted the CD. We sent it to every major blues and folk publication we could find. And surprise of surprise, we not only got reviews, we got great reviews. The LA Times loved it, saying that "the band’s fundamental humor and musical vitality come nonstop, making this 19-song, hour-plus excursion go by like an express train through a sleepy burg." Whew. We got a great review in Living Blues, a publication that is so traditional that only a handful of white artists have ever made the cover. And we were decidedly non-traditional, and decidedly white. But they loved our CD, though we did not make the cover. In fact, every major blues publication available at that time loved the CD. Blues Access‘ review was so good we could have used it as a promotional device. Relix, the Grateful Dead journal, loved it. European publications loved it. It took almost two years to find someone who spoke Flemish to translate a review from Belgium, but it was worth the wait. Offers to perform in Greece and the Netherlands arrived. We had an almost overnight international profile in the blues/roots world.
We got radio play locally, and eventually got radio play all over the world. Especially in Australia and, of course, Belgium. We did radio interviews. We recorded radio call letter promos. We learned that radio play is nice, but apparently has absolutely nothing to do with sales of product. In fact, in today’s "audio streaming/every show archived" world, radio play may have a negative impact on sales. Now you can record the songs you like from streaming audio.
And some of the band didn’t "get it." They didn’t understand that many bands spend their entire existence trying to get ONE review in a major publication. Most bands don’t receive offers to play overseas. Most bands don’t get radio airplay. And although we were able to parlay the good press into a few great gigs, the world did not change greatly. This was a local band, with half the members holding day jobs, and most with families to support. Touring was out of the question. Europe was out of the question. Our more "prestigious" festival gigs or opening act gigs for touring artists usually paid poorly unless we could sell a lot of CDs. The members that were more money oriented lamented that all the press and air play hadn’t added a dime to the take at our bread and butter bar and special event gigs. And they were right.
The big push was to do a better recording for our second release. We spent about 3 years working on CD #2, and in my opinion, created a vastly better product. The first CD featured almost all original material, but the original material on the second CD was stronger. The sound quality was hugely better. The quality of the performances was much better, and arguably, the cover and tray card were better. We released the CD in late summer of 2001, just prior to playing a large festival.
It’s easy to put part of the "blame" for the major change in the music business on 9/11, but in our case the reality is that the second CD didn’t do as well as the first CD for a variety of reasons beyond bad timing. The world of periodicals was changing daily. We got another great review in Blues Access, but it turned out to be their last issue and distributorship was very limited. Primarily only subscribers saw the review. Several other blues publications ignored the second CD entirely. Although our reviews in Europe were strong, distributorship issues kept our always tiny sales even lower. Our main distributor made a little mistake and provided sound samples of a gospel group instead of our band on their web page, and then compounded it by sending the same wrong samples to Amazon.com and every other international web distributor. This problem has not been resolved these 9 years later.
The second CD did get us a distributorship with a firm in Sweden, and for several years our European sales were far stronger than our domestic sales, if you can identify checks for $150 as "strong European sales." We provided a song for a compilation recording for the Swedish record label owned by the distributor, then we broke up just as the distributor and his record company disappeared from the face of the earth. The checks stopping coming.
In hindsight, I’m not sure what we could’ve done differently to make the second CD receive the accolades and sales we felt it deserved. No, with 20/20 vision, we should’ve taken a much more aggressive tact when the first CD did so well. I think that even our small modicum of success/fame altered our perspective. We just assumed if we did a better job on recording #2, we would garner even better response. A lot of one hit wonders probably assumed the same. And we didn’t even get the one hit!
On the plus side, we started the band for fun, and we had a lot of fun. Luckily the amount of money involved in the CD business was so miniscule that tempers rarely flared much, and we concentrated instead on playing music. There were some very good times had by all. We did get to play a number of festivals and other cool gigs, and rubbed elbows with B.B. King, Little Richard, John Mayall, and a number of our idols. It was great having John Hammond and Bo Diddley tell us that we were a good band. Cool stuff.
So the moral of the story is, when good things appear to be happening, indulge them, embrace them and cherish them. Work a little harder so that your good luck takes you a little farther. And don’t lose track of the fact that you probably didn’t start playing music assuming it would make you rich. At least I hope not.
In the meantime, support live music. Buy artist’s CD from the artists if at all possible, and download from the artist’s approved vendors. Remember that music can do things that nothing else can accomplish.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.