Interview with MARTIN ATKINS, author of 'Tour Smart and Break the Band' - February 25, 2008
"Some bands have convinced themselves that they don't need labels anymore, and that's true!"... says Martin Atkins, but not without detailing all the hard work and advisory help a band needs in order to succeed.
Atkins is a legendary drummer in the alternative rock circles. He started his career playing for ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon's band Public Image Ltd. Later on he played with Ministry (Top 20 US), Killing Joke, and his own band Pigface.
Last year he published 'Tour Smart and Break the Band' - an invaluable bible for every up-and-coming band who wants to learn from someone who was out there, making mistakes and learning from them.
Atkins introduces his book to HitQuarters, and shares invaluable advice about saving money, investing in the right things, balancing the work load within the band, and many other crucial insights based on his vast experience.
How did you start your career?
I started playing drums when I was nine years old, simply because I was given a drum at school. I could have been given a xylophone and then this would be a different interview Ö I grew up listening to the Beatles, Pink Floyd and pop music in Ď70s England. When I was about 17 I played in a couple of bands in the north-east of England.
I was pretty good but bored, and tired of playing other peopleís songs and just trying to be a better drummer - then the punk rock revolution happened.
It spoke to me and I moved to London, missed an audition with the first version of John Lydonís PIL (Public Image Limited) and spent the next two years calling people and trying to reschedule an audition and eventually joined PIL. After eight years of playing, that was somehow the beginning.
So how did you get the audition that second time?
I didnít audition, I just kept calling. It was a notoriously difficult band to be in or around and so every time they fired a drummer, which sometimes happened every week, I would call and eventually I called one day when they were in the studio but didnít have a drummer. It was one of those things.
They just said, come to the studio. So I co-wrote a song called ĎBad Babyí on the Metal Box album and joined the band after that. It introduced me to amazing packaging. PILís ĎMetal Boxí is the most amazing packaging. It introduced me to journalists, record labels and the do it yourself idea.
I donít know that many people from back there who are doing it themselves. But for me there were the seeds in the late Ď70s. I got a record label thatís 20 years old now and released 350 albums, I have a sound library, my own merchandise company, my own recording studio, I published my own book and I tried to open my own school.
Who is your book aimed at?
Itís a textbook I use at Columbia College here in Chicago and various schools and colleges around the country are using it. I would say itís mainly aimed at people in bands, who without this information could lose tens of thousands of dollars very easily. I know because Iíve done it. Thatís why it says Ďfuckí 166 times.
It has a lot of graphics and pictures because thatís what I need in a book. I need things explained to me in a way that opens my mind. But it is aimed to anybody who wants to tour, could also be a politician. There is a section about one of Al Goreís organisers or a section about a childrenís theatre group. There is also a lot of useful marketing information.
People call it the bible of touring. It covers everything: how to give a good interview, how to deal with promoters, agents, managers, vehicles, merchandising, planning a tour, why you should do it yourself, how to screen-print, how to be a better opening band, how to get a better sound, sex on the road.
There are about a hundred other people that contributed to the book, like managers, promoters and peopleís stories about being on the road. It has 600 pages. If you go to the amazon.com website I think you can actually look inside the book.
Do you actually go into detail about for example how to make sure you have a good sound live?
There are all kinds of information from a technical standpoint. But my book is full of advice like make sure you get to the venue early because if you are late, whatever pieces of advice you have donít mean anything. There is some great advice from the guy who does the sound for Macy Gray and the basketball finals when the Rolling Stones play at half time.
He advises bands to tune up their guitar and bass at the same time, otherwise if you tune up the guitar first and then the bass, one of the instruments can fall out of tune again. Or when you walk into a club in America, make friends with the house sound guy. Be nice, donít be an asshole.
I have seen bands come to the States from England with attitude and when the low end blows up the sound guy will put his hands in the air and say, ďOK, there you go!Ē For an opening band there is advice about streamlining your equipment if you use a lot of electronics. Maybe work on the cables that there are only one or two things to plug in, less to go wrong.
People donít realise how many stupid, silly, avoidable things can go wrong on the road. One of the things I talk about a lot is using the brainpower you have before a tour starts, before a show begins, to avoid problems.
If your band is worth $500 for a Wednesday night in Chicago and your agent and manager get you $1000, that seems like a triumph, until the day of the show when the promoter tells you he was expecting 200 people but only 50 bought tickets. The reason why you are worth $500 is because a 100 people show up and they are happy to pay $5.
But because your manager extracted a $1000 guarantee the venue has to make the tickets $10 or $12 now. So maybe the people who wanted to come will say, ďFuck this!Ē What happens next is, you donít get paid.
If you run your band like a business and pay attention to how many people you played to last time in Chicago and what the ticket price was, you know that this is too much money. More people will show up to a show if itís free and beer is cheap Ö
If you never played Chicago, well, you never take your country to war, if you are not sure of the outcome. So the first time, you play as cheap as possible. Take the advice of a venue. For example make the ticket prices cheap and keep 80% of the door.
Maybe you didnít make as much money as you could this time but you get every single personís email address and you make sure everyone comes again when you play next time in Chicago and thatís when you get paid.
If you ask for $1000 and 10 people show up you are not coming back to Chicago and the guy in Detroit is going to call and go, ďI just saw the ticket sales in Chicago and now Iím nervous, maybe we shouldnít do the show.Ē Leave your egos behind and look at the reality, the worst-case scenario.
Bands should practise playing a good show through really bad equipment. Iím not a genius; Iíve just been doing this for a really long time. I just been to China and did an album with scratch deejays and Tibetan singers. I go out with my band Pigface and I play to loops. When you play drums to loops you have to hear the loops really loud to be able to play along.
I spent years having problems with monitor engineers. At one point our soundman walks up to the monitor guy at sound check and gives him a motorcycle crash helmet. The monitor guy goes, ďWhat?! I donít need this.Ē And my sound guy said, ďYou will if you donít pay attention to the drummer, he needs to hear the loops!Ē
After three years I bought a monitor and an amp. My guy who plays the loops is right next to me so all I have to do is raise my eyebrow when he looks at me and he will give me more volume. I donít care about a monitoring guy anymore; it doesnít have any impact on the show if he is going for a walk with his dog or whatever.
If you use a drum machine or computers on stage and you find out the sound systems isnít going to give you enough level for it to sound great or the main sound guy is too afraid of pushing the levels, you have to buy a couple of speaker cabinets and have a mini PA on stage so you can kill the people in the first five rows regardless of the sound system of the venueÖitís going to be fantastic.
What kind of advice do you give in regards to merchandise, for example?
OK, how many T-shirt designs do you have? When you only have one T-shirt design you are asking the audience, do you want to buy this T-shirt? The answer will be Ďyesí or Ďnoí. If you have two T-shirts designs you ask the audience, which of these T-shirts are you going to buy? You have to give people a choice.
Maybe you sell four more T-shirts a night. That means four more people are going to wear your T-shirt in Liverpool and they want to come and see you again! It only matters if you work hard. 10 shows means an extra 40 T-shirts, 100 shows, 400 T-shirts! Now that does matter!
For a lazy band my book is useless. Itís funny and they will enjoy it but for a band that wants to work, there is advice that if you play 200 shows in front of 100 people a night it will make a $70,000 difference.
Do you set different prices for different countries for a T-shirt?
I cannot tell you about Germany, but in America you can sell a band T-shirt in a small club for $15 to $20. When I tour with Pigface we have 50 different types of T-shirts and we have a credit card machine. You will make 20% more if you have a credit card machine. You can sell other stuff like albums, special live albums, demos, remixes, dub mixes, interviews, DVDs. The more things you have to sell, the better.
Do you take a person on tour with you to sell it or do you take locals?
If you are trying to move forward as a band you need someone at the merchandise booth that isnít just selling T-shirts and CDs. He or she should be capable of telling people about the next shows or telling them ;donít buy that disc, itís cool if you have everything else, but for your first disc buy this oneí. You need people there who can be helpful.
Itís definitely good to have an extra local person. When it comes to put up flyers, a place to stay or maybe they can tell you that the club you are playing didnít pay the bands last time, so you can be careful.
How do you find these people? MySpace perhaps?
I think MySpace is totally wrong unless there are 25 additional things that you should be doing. Hillary Clinton doesnít just have a MySpace page - she is out there talking until she has no voice left making face-to-face contact with people.
You will see immediately if someone looks like one of your audience members. Youíll look them in the eye and say, hey, if I give you some CDs and posters, will you help? Itís expensive to send stuff to people. I think thatís how you find managers and agents, too. You have to be out there and do it.
When do you think a new band should start playing live shows?
The sooner the better. OK, If your agent says, hey, itís your second show, I got you the headlining slot at The Astoria in London, then thatís crazy. You need to go and play in smaller cities like Newcastle or somewhere where you can make mistakes and it's not going to be in the press.
The ten songs that you thought were amazing, maybe just five of them really are. When you see the audience stops dancing and walking away and looking confused, it means the song you thought to be fantastic perhaps isnít. So playing live helps you to rethink your songs as you go.
If you want to be in the music business you have to work nine days, 28 hours a day. The sooner you start doing that the sooner youíll get used to it. The sooner you will get used to going on stage when you donít feel really well or when you just had an argument with your girlfriend or the bass player, the better.
These are all tools you need on the road. You need to be able to do that show, maybe feel horrible and then do a great interview with somebody. These are the skills that you need on the road.
What kind of venues should a rock band start playing in on the first stages?
You donít want to play a place that is set up like a dinner theatre with tables around. You donít want a stage that is seven feet high because you canít connect with the audience because they are way down in the pit. There are different venues that are right for your music. Obviously the music has to sound good.
Everybody needs to know what they are doing. You can use smaller shows to find out you have a problem with the keyboard or that a computer doesnít travel well or these cables are fucked. When I started playing drums, I think the first time my mum and my dad came to see me, one of the legs of my bass drum snapped and the bass drum just rolled off the stage.
Nowadays I have four bass drum pedals, two hi-hats, spare cymbals, a spare snare drum set up the same height as the snare drum Iím using so that it will fit with my legs and the microphone.
You should make your own scenery too. Every band should know how to screen print. I just had a gallery show in Chicago and New York City with all the scenery I made for Killing Joke, Pigface, Test Dept, Sheep On Drugs and some other stuff from China. We had Red Bull come in and had an open bar, it was a big celebration.
What about a band who played local shows and wants to start playing in cities where nobody knows them yet?
Thatís a common question and problem. That band is probably playing their local market too much.
I would ask you - do you have a MySpace page? Where are your fans? Go on the Internet find out where bands that you know you could play to their audience are playing, where the venues are. Pay attention to similar bands that are bigger than you. See if you can do a couple of opening slots with that band.
Another thing you can do is, contact a band in another country that maybe wants to play in your place. So you could play with them here and you play with them there. You create like a little partnership.
But unless you know there will be some people, you have to assume that no one shows up to see you. Here where I live for example, there are events like the last Thursday of every month when thereís a big fetish disco event where 500 people go to anyway. Those events would be good things to plug into. Events where people have ten reasons to go there and you are just one extra reason.
Zim Zum from Marilyn Mansonís band sent an email to all of his MySpace friends asking them where do they want the band to play. He found out that all of his fans were in cities and suburbs he never heard of, not the places that you would think of.
Not many of those places had clubs so he put a PA system in the back of a truck and he went to those cities and he had 500 kids show up that went crazy because nobody ever played in those cities.
You could do a thing on your MySpace that says, Ďweíre going to book some shows, where are you? Tell us where you are and weíll come thereí. If you have a place with just two fans theyíll bring along ten of their friends.
If you play to ten people you can come back and play to 30. If you play to 30 you can come back and play to 6o, and so on, eventually after five years you can play to 1000. I saw U2 playing to 17 people at the Rock Garden in London. But they just kept going for years.
What would you say has changed in the music scene compared to the Ď80s?
I think in the Ď80s there were people doing it to help bands, to get them to progress from playing to ten people to playing to 1000. Now it's just business. You see venues with nine bands playing each night, trying to pay the rent. Gas costs more money and there are more things for people to do other than going out to see bands. Itís harder.
When you think about band politics do you believe in a democratic system or one leader?
I think democracy in art is death. A camel is a horse built by a committee. Art needs to respond immediately to changes and feelings with one voice. A good band will function like one person.
Thatís when bands become very powerful. When people are all pushing in the same direction. Conquering the world, Europe or America will take you several years and every ounce of energy, money, spirit and dedication that you have.
Before you go out there you should make sure everyone is pushing in the same direction. Some tension is good. We had some good shows with PIL after we had some big fights back stage, bottles flying and everything. But everyone has to be vaguely on the same page.
How did you share the money in the bands you were with?
It depends. When I toured with Ministry they just paid me. In PIL I was part of the band. With Pigface I produced the tours. That means I pay everybody. I take all of the expenses and the risk. There have been a few tours where I lost over $50,000. But if there is a tour that makes money, thatís my money.
It depends how you want to do it. If one person in the band wants to make all the T-shirts, well Ok, if no one else wants to do it that person can say I want $5 for every T-shirt I make and the band can split the profit when they sell it. There are different ways of dividing the labour. One person could book the band, one can handle the mailing list and the website, one can handle the recording.
If there are four people in the band and two people are working their asses off making all the scenery, the T-shirts, the live album, chopping together a video, staying on the web talking to fans and there are a couple of other guys who are just useless. Then to placate the two useless members you might offer to split everything equally.
But then after a month of seeing the two bastards getting an equal share, the two guys who are working hard might stop working so hard. Now you lost the engine thatís driving the band. I have three children. There have been some times where Pigface was really important to me and some times where I havenít done anything for a year.
But if everyone in the band is trying to make the band succeed then I think you should have a meeting and look what is everybody preparing to do. If you want to tour America, one of the easiest ways of how to make a North American touring budget work is by playing everyday.
If your singer says he can only do five shows a week you are screwed right there. So you have to know everybody is prepared before you spend 20,000$ on the album to break America because if you cannot come over here and do the work that you have to do, you shouldnít spend the money making that album.
One other thing that Iím starting to do is tell a band, instead of just a recording or doing a mastering session, what about putting something up on the web site: suggestions about remixes, what should be the single? Maybe some editing, the order of the songs, some T-shirts and other material that you sell at shows, all this stuff.
Because it seems like there are a lot of bands in different combinations that want to do the work, have the ideas, have an audience base thatís bigger than nothing but still need work to grow that needs help.
I think MySpace, a couple of people in the industry and bands themselves have convinced themselves that they donít need labels anymore, and thatís true! I started my own label. Iíve proved that you donít need a label but you do need somebody. You need someone to advise you on your album, on the artwork.
There are so many bands that have a bizarre painting on the front cover and inside thereís an amazing photo of the band that communicates everything the band is about. Bands are equipped to step outside of themselves. They are not equipped to advise themselves. That was the job of a record label.
You can say record labels are evil and some of them are. they would advise you to spend all your money in a certain recording studio for instance. I donít want to give advice that destroys your band! When you are not signed to a label, it doesnít matter.
If there is a media promotions company or a manager or an agent that gives you advice after two month and after giving them 5000$, your band implodes because there is a million other bands desperate for the same advice.
My advice to any band is: find a relationship to somebody. I know there is a big wave with Ďwow, a seven-year deal with a label, thatís insane!í. Managers want just a one album deal. If I would be the label with one album, why would I care? My label is 20 years in the business.
I know what it takes in North America to get a band playing from ten people to 1000. It takes five years. The first album: you are just giving it away, the band is playing for nothing and you are calling in favours. The second album: same kind of thing. It takes three to five years to build it up. The most valuable thing is an audience.
Here is the thing: the good news are (and itís being proven since 1976): you can do it yourself. The bad news is: itís the biggest amount of work that you can imagine in your life, itís just lots of different things. You can do all of it.
To me thatís empowering, itís encouraging and itís glorious. To some lazy people that just want to blame other people for failing, that cannot be right because if itís their own responsibility, they have no one to blame.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
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