No one does anything truly worthwhile on their own. That's true in most things, and especially in business.
Even the business of music. A successful rock band is the visible tip of a huge underlying pyramid of talent and effort: A dedicated management, committed agents, supportive record labels... building a long-term career for artists is truly a team effort.
This is the first in a four-part series where I provide an inside look at all aspects of the business of Mayday Parade, a rock band that over its 13-year career has sold more than a million albums, produced 60 videos that each have been viewed over 1 million times on YouTube, and are a hugely successful live act just coming off a sold-out U.S. tour.
Besides great music, they're a great entrepreneurial story: The band got their start selling homemade CDs in a Warped Tour parking lot... and now this summer they're headlining the final edition of the Warped Tour. (How's that for coming full circle?)
And their new album, Sunnyland, comes out tomorrow. (Check it out -- it's great.)
We'll start with Mayday Parade guitarist Brooks Betts, a guy who invested his college money into producing CDs the band sold to fans waiting in line to see other bands play.
How's that for a cold call?
Most people who want a career in the music business think a lot about the music... and very little about the business. Yet you guys were basically door-to-door salesmen.
Absolutely. We were musicians who became salesmen.
We had to convince people to put on headphones and give us a second of their time. Keep in mind we were all right around 20 years old, so we were pretty brave. (Laughs.)
But it makes sense when you think about how we got to that point. In my band before Mayday Parade we had to book shows, so I would use the computers in my high school tech class to email venues. We played a show at Jackrabbits in Jacksonville and the regional promoter put us on the guest list of some regional shows in Florida. Not to play, just to go to the show.
We had 70 CDs we had made ourselves, one of us had a CD player... and we walked up and down the line selling our CDs. We sold them in about an hour.
So using classic entrepreneur math, we figured if we could sell 70 CDs to a line with hundreds of people.... think how many we could sell to a line of thousands of people at a Warped Tour! (Laughs.)
Yep. "If we can just capture 2% of the market..."
So I took my college money and we recorded and pressed 10,000 CDs. And we got a little money for a van and hit the road.
Wait. How did your parents feel about that? Mine would have had a heart attack.
I knew I wasn't going to go to college right off the bat. Even as a sophomore I remember talking to my parents about wanting to try to have a career as a musician. So they knew.
Sure, we could have failed just like a lot of startups fail... but you don't know unless you try. And you don't learn unless you try.
So you go to a Warped Tour parking lot...
And it worked out. We would get there early, which was the perfect time to meet a lot of kids who were passionate about music. It definitely had a community feel to it, so if they liked your music, and they knew you were genuine about what you were doing... a lot of people were willing to take a second and listen to one of our songs.
And once they did... they were sold.
So we weren't really "selling." We just asked people to give our music a try.
Eventually you sold around 50,000 copies without any label support -- which led to the band getting a record deal. I have to think those early bootstrapping days paid off later, especially in terms of understanding the business.
Speaking only for myself... I wanted it so bad. So I researched the hell out of it. Some days that's all I did. Reading about the business, figuring things out as we went along... plus we got a lot of advice from bands we toured with. They would tell us about mistakes they had made, things they had learned... other people helped us a lot.
Over time we've been fortunate enough to be smart with most of our decisions. Like any business, you can bury yourself by signing bad contracts, by making dumb decisions...
We knew that being in a band was not unlike being in any other business. So we treated it that way.
Plus, we have really good people around us. Like in any startup, choosing the right people is key if you want to build a sustainable and long-term business.
Speaking of decisions: The band often makes decisions by voting -- and the vote is final.
If 3 out of 5 vote one way, that's what we do. We've been doing it that way since the beginning. And it actually works. (Laughs.)
But it can be tough. Sometimes you're in the minority. That's not always fun. And many decisions get made depending on one guy going one way or the other.
Very rarely is a vote unanimous... but that helps make sure no one gets too crazy. There are some crazy ideas that pop up, and if it was one guy running the show... that might not work out so well. (Laughs.)
How does that work with songwriting?
We all write. And we all help make each other's songs better. Everyone has a hand in it.
But it can be painful. Your songs can definitely get put on the chopping block. Sometimes you write a song, you really believe in it, you've worked on it almost every day for hours in your little studio perfecting it... and then they go, "Eh, it's all right..."
Yeah, that's tough.
But that's how it works. If one guy was writing all the songs and running the show... I don't think you can do that over the long haul and keep making great records.
How have changes in the music industry affected the band?
When we first started, things were very different. CDs were still selling fairly well. Sales were falling but were still solid. Plenty of bands were going platinum and gold.
Now that rarely happens for any artist.
But that shift didn't affect us too much because early on we weren't selling a ton of records. Our first record was pretty successful, and it certainly put us on the map, but we weren't a gold- or platinum-selling band.
So right off the bat we toured -- a lot. For our first real tour we went out and didn't go home for 7 months. We were dedicated to being on the road and pushing ourselves to be where we wanted to be.
Plenty of startups give up if the initial launch doesn't meet expectations.
That was never in our heads. While we wanted people to buy our music, it didn't matter too much. And it didn't matter that fans were downloading for free instead of paying. They were still coming to shows. They were still buying merch.
We were in it for the long haul. I was committed to give it at least a few years of consistent effort.
These things usually don't happen quickly. If you're going to succeed, you have to put the time into it. It can't just be make or break.
Then you're counting on luck... and not talent and hard work and persistence.
You talked earlier about having the right people around you. You recently signed with Rise Records, the label that is releasing your new album, Sunnyland. How did you choose them?
A lot of it was seeing the bands they represent and the successes they've had.
That doesn't mean a label will automatically be able to do that for you, too... but it's the best way to see that it is possible, that they have the resources...
Although sometimes a band will basically do it on their own and the label takes credit. (Laughs.)
But I can't say it's easy. Most labels will make lots of promises, but many will dial back their effort really if you don't immediately do well. They sign bands; if one does well they put more money in and keep feeding the momentum... while with others they'll quickly give up and put them on the back burner.
So we asked a lot of questions, we talked to other people on our team, we looked for a label with a proven track record... and so far Rise has been great.
It's a huge thing for a band to get with the right label. If you don't... the label can set your career back in a major way.
Many bands have decided not to put out new music; the revenue doesn't outweigh the expense. That's clearly not the direction you're taking.
One, we're artists. We love to create. That's one of the reasons we chose this way to make a living.
It's also important for us to keep up the momentum. If you went away for a long time, people might stop caring.
Plus, our fans are really engaged. Some come to shows and know the words to every song, even new ones. They listen to whole albums, not just a single. They crave new music. Maybe that's us, or maybe that's the scene... but it's important to fans.
We're also lucky enough that after five records we have enough good music we can play live shows and not be boring. (Laughs.)
So they're not coming to hear you play one or two specific songs.
No. We can fill a set list with songs where the crowd knows every word. Again, I don't know if that's a scene thing or a Mayday thing.
But it's a good thing. (Laughs.)
You started out totally involved; how involved are you and the band today on the business side?
A lot of of what we do has more to do with making larger decisions than micromanaging. And we all have different areas we're more focused on. For example, Jake (Bundrick, drummer) is also an artist and does a lot of our merch design. Alex (Garcia, guitarist) likes to get involved in touring.
But generally speaking, our manager is constantly making contacts, finding different avenues to promote the band... those emails come to us and we do our majority vote thing.
We're working partners -- we sift through the information and make our decisions.
We're in complete control of everything. In terms of decisions, there is nothing we don't control.
What's the best part about being in a successful band?
Being able to play for thousands of people, to see your hard work pay off, to get a true, genuine reaction... we're artists, we love music, and we get to go out every night and get that immediate feedback.
It's very rewarding.
Being able to do that every night is a double-edged sword, though. That means we're gone -- a lot.
That's the hard part. Events, special occasions, family, relationships... it's hard.
But you can't beat it. I can't do anything else. (Laughs.) I can't think of anything else I would want to do.
Think about it: We get paid to do this.