John O’Brien on The Business of Music

John O’Brien on The Business of Music

John OBrien musician” What I loved about reading Billboard magazine was that it kept convincing me that music was actually a business and not just a form of love that you would just keep giving to and never get anything back.” – John O’Brien


Episode #281 : A.V.A Live Radio Behind The Music with Jacqueline Jax

Jacqueline Jax logo photoGETTING TO KNOW JOHN O’BRIEN
by Jacqueline Jax host of A.V.A Live Radio

Music business…
It’s kind of interesting because when I lived in New York I would go into Manhattan fairly regularly and I always bought Billboard magazine to read on the way home on the train. What I loved about reading it was that it kept convincing me that music was actually a business and not just a form of love that you would just keep giving to and never get anything back. Music is a business there’s no doubt about it there are millions of dollars to keep going in and out of the system and to various people some of whom are talented some of whom are not really talented, but just I hope I hooked up in the right place at the right time. We all know those one-hit wonders and you kinda wonder what happened to them. The more I approach it as a business, in a way, the less I really like it because I think the creativity piece of this is something that isn’t really well-suited to being linked into a highly competitive business.

Pros and cons…
Well one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re booking your act you basically have to really go out. They don’t really come after you. What you have to do is go after them and you have to aggressively pursue dates and times then you have to discipline your act which can be hard to do with a large act and then on top of all of that sometimes (rarely) it just doesn’t work out. I remember a few years ago my act was booked at a major festival in St. Augustine. It was the Cathedral Festival which is actually the biggest festival that goes on in St. Augustine and about one hour before we were to go on my drummer called me and told me he couldn’t make it! After about five or 10 minutes of panicking I called the act that was coming on after us asked for the drummer’s phone number, called him and asked if he would sit in with us on our set since he was going to be playing right after that anyway. He did and it worked very, very well but I will say that there are so many moments of panic in the music business that you just have to go with the flow.
Overcoming the hurdles and pitfalls…
I just keep plugging away and I think I’ve recognized how to do that without wasting mine or anybody else’s time. But I do believe that anybody who’s been in the music business for a long time has developed a strong survival instinct. It’s not one of those businesses where you get a job and as long as you do your job your fine. You really need to keep getting better and better and understand the trends that the music world is going through.

Social media…
I’ve used social media to promote the act that I’m in now which is called “Atlantic Blu” and we play all around St. Augustine and we’ve gotten very popular. As an example of how I’ve reached out to social media I guess this interview is a very good example.
Sometimes I feel like I’m playing out too much, and in that case I feel boxed in by the act I am playing in. My current act does a lot of very popular rock music and while the audience loves it, and I love it when they do, sometimes I find myself almost waiting for the gig to end. But when it’s over I actually want to keep playing so how do I explain that? I love many different styles of music, like Latin, Caribbean, country, and many other genres.

Singles vs an album…
I have so many songs I’ve written and recorded that the idea of a single is great from the standpoint of promotion, but what about all my other stuff? Since the Internet started selling singles as opposed to only albums, it is clear that singles are a very robust form of release that can get some attention. I might point out that you are interviewing me about one song out of about 40 that I’ve recorded and put out there. So if the world is going to be oriented toward singles I certainly will go with that. I remember years ago I was in a discussion with an executive for Sony records, this is going back about 20 years, and I tried to convince him that they should be offering singles for about a dollar each for download just like at the time Napster was doing. Well he dress me up and down telling me that will never happen can never happen, shouldn’t happen, and every other explicate that he could throw me. Well anyway I guess I turned out right.
Talk about the differences in your marketing strategy to support your preference. As I mentioned I think I have a number of different preferences with regard to the genre. Maybe that’s a weakness for me because if I just concentrated on one genre I would probably be more successful. If you listen to my latest album, which the song Innocence is on, you’ll see that the genre range is quite large. I’m not sure if that’s good or if it’s bad.

I guess I keep exploring social media now to find ways to get out there. I will keep doing that and I want to thank you for including me in your discussions and your radio station. I just want you to know that I always appreciate any outlet that allows me to access its audience.

I was born in the 1950s…
actually 1950 to be exact. I remember my parents had a music machine that I couldn’t really describe at this point but we had the big band records which we play at 78 RPM. We had the big bands but then we also had a lot of the music from the 50s like the rock ‘n roll on LPs. I started playing guitar, with a gift from my late uncle when I was six years old and just never was able to put a guitar down after that. At that time I lived in Rochester New York which was the home of the Eastman School Of Music and after a while and the 60s we had bands like the Young Rascals and others that kind of came out of the music culture of Rochester during that period of time. My first band, which was called the Norsmen, was formed when I was 12 years old. I remember that the first gig we had we played at a high school dance and we went over very well but, tongue-in-cheek, I learned the meaning of “grinding”. Since then I’ve never stopped performing and playing.

The song is about being out in the nightlife. I was in my 30s and I had spent quite a bit of time carousing around Long Island and Manhattan and got to see how people reacted to being out and about in the club scene. At the time I was playing in a very popular act on the island, Holy Smoke, and got to see a lot about it that you don’t see when you’re actually out in the audience. But I saw a lot of guys out there that seemed to have a strong attitude about getting to meet women and to know them intimately and I thought well “what would they be saying if they really wanted to say what they were thinking?” It’s funny even though this is a very jazz oriented and complicated song it only took me about 30 minutes to write it including the musical progression, the arrangement and the lyric. I will say though the recording it was a whole another thing.
When I put it together I sort of confronted the musicians in my band at the time and told him that we had to do this song and I would be kinda difficult to do. However, the musicians in my band at that time, which was called “Festival” were very, very talented and, although it took a lot of practice, they picked it up and were just able to nail it. I was recording in a studio on Long Island and the engineer that was doing was absolutely floored by the way it came out. I really love this song and I could probably listen to it over and over again for the rest of my life.

“My Revelation” available on Amazon.

I actually have been recording music for so many years and so many tracks that I’ve recorded either in a real recording studio or at home on my ProTools and I have many songs out there. One that I really like was actually written for screenplay that I learned about on Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay writer’s website. It was a screenplay called “Harsh Comfort”. I was very motivated back then I was writing screenplays myself and it was a creative outlet that really did improve and help me with my creativity. (I have two screenplays on my website.) Anyway the author of a screenplay didn’t want me to name the song after the play so I named it “I Won’t Give It Up” and put it on one of my albums that was self- made. Like so many musicians the music not only pours out of me all the time but it also keeps me up at night because I have a continuous music loop going through my head that I just can’t shut off. Although I will say LOL, at least I can change the song.

I really started to play music when I live in Rochester New York…
actually Pittsford, New York. As I mentioned before, that’s where I had my first band the Norsemen and where a started out playing my first real gigs. After being there I moved to Rockland County New York and was involved in a number of different acts that were playing nightclubs there even though we were underage we were able to play some of the hottest clubs in the county. After that I moved back to Syracuse to go to Syracuse University and the band that I had their name the Crystal Revelation became very popular not only in upstate New York but also through Western Massachusetts. We ended up touring the Catskills and the Berkshires during the summers while we were at Syracuse University. Interestingly, we recorded a single in 1970 and it has become a very popular garage rock song in southern Europe and in Australia. It’s actually available on iTunes and other digital outlets.

I live in St. Augustine Florida…
and have lived here for about 10 years. I’ve been involved in two acts that have become very popular. The first one was called “High Water” and it was a southern country rock band. After I moved here after having a very popular band in New York called “Baysiders”, I fell in love with country music. It’s probably because there was not much in the way of country music in the New York music scene. So we were playing all the country favorites the Lynyrd Skynyd, Marchall Tucker, Kenny Chesney and other southern rock acts that were really very popular during that time and before. We played many great St Augustine clubs including Arnolds, A1A Aleworks, Tradewinds, the World Famous Oasis and many of the very popular outdoor festivals that go on here in St. Augustine. In fact, I found St. Augustine to be an incredible place for a musician because while is a very small town on a weekend night if you walk downtown you will hear at least 15 different venues that have live music. St. Augustine is a very live music scene.

I’m definitely an ocean person…
You know it’s kind of funny there seem to be two kinds of people here on earth some are “ocean people” and others are “mountain people”. I love walking on the beach with my dog. I love hanging out in the Tiki bar by the beach and having a nice summer drink. Musically I’ll go out and listen to other acts and meeting other musicians and talking to them about the experiences that not only I’ve had but they have had. It’s kind of funny because many, many of the experiences that I’ve had are also experiences that other musicians have had. I guess maybe that’s not so funny really.

I would love to have 5 minutes alone with…
Okay it can’t happen but if I could get five minutes alone with Dan Fogelberg. I would give anything for that. Unfortunately he passed away, but I was huge fan of his. I actually thought that he would become the Frank Sinatra of our generation because every year he had at least one top 10 hit and he had a huge following. Other than that my favorite act is Steely Dan and if I could get together with Donald Fagan for five minutes I would absolutely love it. I admire Donald Fagan because he was able to meld together the classic jazz sounds that I love with rock. What is very interesting is that one would think that all of steely Dan songs should sound alike, but none of them do and that’s over the course of 15 or 20 albums.

Emphasis on being current and trendy…
I have to admit that I do follow the trends in popular music, but they don’t really drive me one where the other. And you got new stuff coming out like Adele who seems to be able to capture the heartstrings and the musical feel goods of everyone who’s listening. But the idea that I could in any manner emulate Adele is kinda silly. On the other hand I think if you don’t look at current trends and you don’t think about the stuff that people are listening to, you are kind of missing the boat, and that’s a boat I want to catch.

I am most afraid of…
Not much, I’m getting pretty old now. I’m 65 well into my adult years and one thing I’ve learned is that I can’t be afraid of what anybody would say about my performance and my music. However, all of my recent performances of cover songs goes so well that I’m kind of embarrassed at how well all this is going here in St. Augustine. I faced a lot of criticism over the years about music and it’s always been something that I have solicited, listen to and integrated into my act and my thinking.

My personal definition of success is..
If I can make people enjoy the music see them having a great time see them being in love with other people as inspired by the music their hearing that’s all I need. I think if you look for something else and success, whether it be money or fame or other types of self-indulgent rewards, you’ll miss the boat and that boat is the boat that floats across the emotional sea of people and how they view themselves, their lovers, their loved ones and everything else in their life that makes them happy.

I’ve also had success putting bands together and integrating talented musicians into a sound that goes over very well in the venues in which we play. I just sorta learned how to manage musicians, some say it’s like herding cats, but the fact of the matter is that most musicians do want to play in a situation where they are accompanying other musicians and making a sound that is much bigger than they can make by themselves. (Well except for maybe Todd Rundgen – “Something Anything”)

My over all goal for my life & career is…
I really would like to have a popular recording out there and be able to play the larger venues. I was recently asked to play some summer concerts in northern Italy and that would be resurrecting and directing my 70s band “Crystal Revelation” which was really a garage rock band. I pretty much decided to go ahead and put together a garage rock album because I think that the genre is make it come back here in the states as well. It has nuances that many people don’t understand, and quite frankly even me at this point, but I truly believe that if you’re a real musician it doesn’t matter what the genre is, what matters is that you study it you learned it’s been popular it’s real and you’re not going to let it down.

3 Ways that I challenge myself…
That’s a hard one because I challenge myself quite a bit musically. I guess I admire people that are so talented as musicians that there are no challenges they just pour out that beautiful music and become commercially popular. I remember when I was young I would be amazed at listening to guitar players who could play the music exactly the way it was being played in a recording. So I took up that challenge and really did learn how to play guitar very well. I never took the challenge of trying to play lead guitar, but I’ve become very proficient and talented rhythm guitar player. I also have learned to play (not well though) piano and on the second most popular song on my new album called “I Miss You” I do play all the piano parts myself. I guess the real challenge in being a performing musician is being able to feed off the audience, look in their eyes, watch their bodies move, and most of all watch the way they interact with the venue that you are in and the people that they are there with.