This is the second in a four-part series (the first featured guitarist Brooks Betts) where I provide an inside look at various aspects of the business of Mayday Parade, a rock band that over its 13-year career has sold more than 1 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, Mayday are 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, is out today. (Check it out -- it's great.)
I have to admit I don't really know what a manager does.
Think of a band as a company and the band members as the owners of that company. The manager is like a CEO brought in to help run things on the business side.
If we do our job correctly, the business moves forward... and the band can focus on the creative side of making music, playing shows, etc.
Another way to look at it is that I'm the gatekeeper for the band's vision: My goal is to turn their dreams into reality, to make sure the dots are connected while staying in line with their vision.
Use Mayday Parade as an example. What's their vision, and how do you help them achieve it?
From the start, from when I started with them 7 years ago, the goals have been to expose them to a larger audience and to grow all sides of their business: From records to touring to merchandise to endorsements.
But, and this is key, to do it in a way that feels authentic, and natural, and genuine to who they are as people.
Mayday Parade sees themselves as guys next door who started a band that people connect with. They're not trying to be the most famous band in the world. They're not trying to be enigmatic rock stars. They just want to tell the stories they want to tell through music.
So we try to keep it simple.
Authenticity is both a blessing and a curse. In some ways your job might be easier if an artist just wants to get famous.
Any time there's a sense of credibility attached it adds challenges. You're right: It can easier to find a kid that just wants to be a YouTube star. There's a formula for that: Write a song with X number of beats per minute, work with certain types of producers... if you're looking for a quick hit, there's definitely a formula. That doesn't mean the formula will always work... but there is a formula.
Mayday Parade want to be working musicians. They want to have a long career in music.
That's why it's so important to understand an artist's real hopes and aspirations. When I met them in 2011 they had put out a record they weren't totally happy with. They didn't feel they had the control they wanted.
So that was a lot of the conversation. They wanted to have control. They built their band from the ground up, they wanted to stay in charge of how that took place... they just wanted help connecting the dots.
I hope that is what they would say they have now. (Laughs.)
How has connecting those dots changed as the industry has evolved?
Obviously the business has changed a lot. On the business side, a record was something you would use to get an advance from a record label. Rarely would you recoup on that advance, so that's the last money you would see from it. (Laughs.)
Now, on the touring side, they've grown internationally. Clearly they're big in North America, but we go to the U.K, to Australia, to Asia, to Europe...
And "soft money" is a bigger slice of the pie. (Soft money is a concert where attendance is free and the band is paid a fee; that fee is not based on ticket sales. Like colleges who bring in bands as part of an event and don't charge students who attend.)
Those are non-traditional plays and they've become really important, if only because they're also ways to play markets you may not normally play, and to expose new fans to the band's music.
What about merchandise and other revenue streams?
We've worked hard on the merchandising side as well. Years ago Mayday could generate a couple thousand dollars a night in merchandise on the road. We've added a direct retail side, selling merchandise at chains like Hot Topic and other retailers, and that's become a significant source of revenue for the band.
Also they had never focused on bundling with merchandise with album pre-orders. Now when they put out a new record, like Sunnyland, that bundle becomes another source of revenue.
So are VIP meet and greets. Just about every artist does those now; it's a way to generate a tremendous amount of income while also providing a special experience for the fans.
And there are different types of endorsements. Along with tour sponsorships, for example we did an outside-the-box experience with Twix that generated not only a fee but exposure in Wal-Marts.
The key is to find ways to generate multiple income streams instead of banking on having a hit record. Or banking on a tour completely selling out. As with any business, diversity matters.
So does controlling costs.
Absolutely. We're conscious of every cost, whether it's the type of tour bus, whether we need a semi- truck or a box truck... we line item everything to make sure the band is comfortable but also that we're spending money wisely. And of course that also helps ensure there's a sufficient budget that allows them to put on great shows. They would much rather spend money in places where the fans benefit.
Fortunately the band is open to all of that. They understand this profession is art and business, and they want their business to be viable over the long term.
And they're very hands on. Alex likes being involved in the touring side. Jake likes working with merchandise. They're all involved in songwriting.
And they vote as a democracy. If 3 out of 5 vote for something, they move on... and they don't seem to harbor bad feelings. That's been their principle from the very start.
That approach doesn't work for most bands, but for Mayday it does. And it keeps them from getting passive aggressive with each other. (Laughs.)
Ego and passive aggressiveness has killed more bands than just about everything else combined.
What's the hardest part of your job?
Not specific to Mayday but just generally speaking, probably dealing with anxieties that come from expectations that may be out of line with reality. Any time a band releases a new record different people have different aspirations: Appearing on late-night TV, getting featured in print in Rolling Stone, having people perceive you as the band you feel you are...
Sometimes those expectations are in line for where a band is, and sometimes they're just wishes. Also, different people define success differently, and that can be a source of disappointment or anxiety.
Anxiety is pretty common when people travel 200 days a year, are away from their families and support systems... That's a huge challenge.
I've never been a therapist and I don't want to be one, but the therapy aspect can be 75 percent of the job when things are going poorly.
Even for successful artists, it takes a special person to thrive in the face of all the pressure and constraints of this industry.
Flip it around: What's the best part?
The best part, the reason people do this -- the reason it can almost be addictive -- is when you find an artist and you hear something before other people do, when you can help that person and open doors for them and build an infrastructure to support their art... that's a cool feeling.
Like The Fray. We signed them and within a year they were playing arenas. That was really cool.
It's fun to help people achieve their dreams. It's fun to help creative people get to that next level.
The Warped Tour wraps up after this summer. With hip hop and pop being the predominant genres... how does having opportunities like that go away affect bands in other genres?
Pop punk is more of a lifestyle brand. It's not mainstream. The Warped Tour has been so successful because it is a place for left-of-center artists to meet fan bases that are left-of-center and hear music they don't hear on the radio, don't hear on MTV...
Kevin Lyman, who owns Warped, has opened so many doors for so many bands. Mayday is a great example.
Their first EP sold 50,000 copies before any label partners got involved. Even though they weren't even playing the festival, the band drove around in a van, walked the lines at Warped before the gates opened, let kids listen to their CD on a Walkman, and sold them for 5 bucks.
Then, when they came back to those towns to play a show, since, they had sold 500 to 1000 CDs to kids in line... now they could draw a few hundred people who had heard their music.
Long story short, the Warped Tour was in many ways the birth of this band.
Warped going away will be a loss for many artists -- but if Kevin taught any of the bands anything, it's that if they want to be successful they have to be proactive and do things no one else has done.
For a band like Mayday... we're in a privileged place. We're one of the bigger bands in the genre, and it's up to us to lead the way and help younger generations of bands grow and keep the scene healthy over the long term.
Speaking of keeping the scene healthy... talk about how you're dealing with other broad changes in the music business.
Really the story is about how people consume music. In the '50s it was singles, in the '70s it was albums, in the early 2000s it was downloading... now it feels like you constantly have to present new content: To almost be a band that doesn't put out albums but puts out singles. Or at most, EPs.
That will change how artists distribute music. Maybe 5-song EPs will become the norm?
What worries me is the potential impact on the art. Streaming being so powerful -- and often so short-term -- may affect an artist's willingness to spend years writing and crafting an album's worth of material.
Beyond that, I'm constantly thinking about how bands can better monetize every aspect of their business.
Yet if I look at the past 10 years... opportunities to make money have changed for the better. You can play a lot of different places, you can make more money on the road if you tour efficiently, you can sell merchandise differently, there are tech companies getting involved... so as with any business, the key is to quickly adapt to changes as they come.
The key is for a band to see themselves as a working-class band. They have to think that every city on your tour is important, and every person who comes to your shows are important because next time they'll bring 3 of their friends... and next time those people will bring their friends...
Overnight success is increasingly hard to come by. If it ever really existed. (Laughs.)
Some bands think hard about making new music because the return probably won't justify the cost. And new songs won't result in larger tour audiences. Take a band like Def Leppard: Their fans come to shows to hear the hits, not new songs.
Artists like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen... they don't need to make a new record to fill arenas. They can keep doing that that for as long as they want to.
If you're a younger band, though, to be able to fight for people's attention -- and for their money -- you have to be active. If you aren't putting out music regularly, what are you doing to show you're relevant? To be successful over the long term, most artists need to bring their fans along for a long-term ride -- in a variety of different ways.
How do you do all that? I don't have all the answers , but I'm lucky to work with bands that are creative, that do have answers, and that are willing to fill in the dots as new challenges come along.
That's why we work with people who want to do this for a long time. They naturally embrace that challenge, because being an artist isn't just something they do.
It's who they are.