Not So Enchanted Fairy Tale: If At First You Don’t Succeed, Kill Yourself Trying!

Not to be deterred, I formed IBB version 2 as a hard-working, self-contained unit. We owned our own record company and toured in a van purchased at an auction. After spending thousands of dollars with the previous band we were simply out of money. Recording at home, on a 4-track recorder, was the only option and it forced us to think differently.

Bassist Charles Amos and I, the sole survivors of the band’s first incarnation, formed the core of the new lineup. Charles and I wrote 10 songs and thought it was time to expand our sound. We took the freshly written songs to our friend, Tom, who owned a modest studio in the basement of his house. Tom didn’t have to rely on recording bands as his primary income, which allowed him to pick artists he wanted to work with. This also allowed him to keep the prices low. We hired a local drummer to play on the CD. All the personalities worked well together and the end result was an album we were very proud of. Since there was no actual band, we put ads in the local music papers and auditioned guitarists and drummers. In the meantime we looked for more cheap alternatives to print up CDs, t-shirts and posters. We used a network of friends, family and contacts to complete our record. We knew that, if we were going to make this work, we needed to treat this as a business. We had to be self-motivated. We already knew we were talented, but talent wasn’t going to get us the break we needed.

I never went to college; my fundamental goal in life was to make a living in music. Growing up, I watched my heroes get rich by age 21. Already 26, I had seen friends give up music for more stable lives. I wasn’t there yet but I could hear faint whispers of the word “failure” in the air. My boss at Barnes & Noble, a very practical man, told me to quit music, go back to school, get married, and have a family. Plus, the record industry isn’t very forgiving; one’s chances of getting signed decrease with age. My stubbornness prevailed, and I soldiered on despite the warnings I received from friends, family, co-workers and even strangers.

The second coming of In-Between Blue, meanwhile, was playing shows wherever and whenever we could, selling our CD at gigs and honing our craft as players. That year we broke even financially. It was a great achievement most bands don’t even get close to. We also investigated other avenues to expand our audience. Music festivals had become a great way to get our music heard by record companies, booking agents and any other music-industry affiliates.

Our big break came at the Philadelphia Music Conference, a then up-and-coming conference that spanned five days of panel discussions, “meet-and-greets” and performances. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of bands and artists trying to get their music heard. Whenever there was a panel discussion, like “How to Make It in The Music Industry,” all the major labels would send out their A&R (artists & repertoire) people out and the room would be packed full of hopefuls.

In the music industry, A & R is the division of a record label company that is responsible for scouting and developing new artists. During these panel discussions, A&R staffers stressed that they had no desire to be bombarded by CDs from unknown bands. In other words, A&R didn’t want hear from you, unless someone else they already knew raved about your band.

Throughout the 2000s, the record industry was doing so well financially, they simply waited for bands to create enough excitement on their own; then, all the labels would start a contract bidding war that could reach upwards of $3 or $4 million before anyone knew if the band in question would be able to recoup the record company’s investment. And yet, after A & R panel discussions, every musician in the audience inevitably rushed to the dais to give the A&R representatives their music. Most, if not all, of the sample CDs wound up in the trash.

On Sunday, the final day of the PMC, there was a listening session held in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. All the bands at the conference signed up for evaluations by label executives on a first-come, first-served basis. We overslept, arrived late, and were forced to sign up with a little-known independent label. As luck would have it though, that label, The Orchard, ended up signing us to a record contract virtually on the spot. The Orchard was an independent record label run by music industry veteran Richard Gottehrer, known for producing Blondie, The Go-Gos, and Madonna. It was the realization of The Dream, the elusive Recording Contract. I may as well have found the Holy Grail.

I announced to my co-workers on the following Monday morning that I would be leaving soon to become a rock star. Over the following days we were anxious to get the signing over and done with. When we were finally presented with the contract, we had to hire a lawyer just to understand the document. Of course, changes were necessary, which required more waiting. A month-and-a-half elapsed before we signed on the dotted line. No matter, though: I was finally a Recording Artist. Our songs had caught the attention of the right people, but we never would have been heard in the first place without persistence and luck.

Discussing our plan of attack with The Orchard was thrilling. Our first duty was to embark on a tour, a real tour, where we would sleep in hotel rooms instead of in a van or on someone’s beer soaked floor. I looked forward to no longer having to book the venues, pester publicists, and do the scut work I had been doing for years, but alas, I wasn’t quite at that point yet. Our new benefactors did promise it would come soon, but we still needed to do it ourselves for the time being. They wanted us to grind it out and build a name for ourselves. Okay, we thought, we’ll do this for a little while and prove that we’re a hard working band, since they already know we’re a talented bunch of fellows.

We played every coffee house, barnyard, backyard and trainyard we could find, and in doing so, we became a well-oiled machine. Yet, there was still no support from the Orchard; in fact, they didn’t seem too eager to pick up our phone calls. Meanwhile, we were still playing dives and getting more and more frustrated, just barely making it from one town to another. Demoralized, we played in front of empty rooms in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, hateful crowds in Baltimore and dinky towns throughout Pennsylvania. Even in our home town of New York City audiences were bored with us because we played so much. Then we got the news: The Orchard didn’t want to be a music label anymore, they wanted to become an “online distribution company.” That was the apparent wave of the future. Except, The Orchard needed to find a way to get rid of all bands to whom they were contractually bound. One by one bands got frustrated and started breaking up. One band got lucky and signed to Marilyn Manson’s label.

In Between Blue was the last band left because one man still believed in us. Mark Lee was third in charge and was willing to fight for our second album. In fact, he believed in us so much that he put forth his own money to finance the recording of a second album, which could subsequently be sold to a major label. At least that’s what the band thought: “Get the money; we aren’t getting any younger.” Mark’s plan was a little different. He wanted to create a new label and build the band up over a 4-5 year period, but we weren’t interested in waiting that long.

As we went into the studio to record our second album, we felt the pressure to put out an amazing album. There were also more personal things to deal with: our drummer and his girlfriend were having a baby. Charles was in love for the first time and wanted to get married to a woman who didn’t approve of Charles’ rock’n’roll lifestyle. Guitarist Dave was pondering whether or not he wanted to climb the corporate ladder. Money and stability were very important to us at that point in time, so there was a lot riding on this album.

There were a total of four producers, two engineers, and three different studios involved. Twelve months and $25,000 later, heterogene was released. Our release gala was a “Who’s Who” of the music business: 700 people showed up to this event, including representatives from Sony, Virgin, BMG, and Warner Bros. This was our moment to shine. Our “Purple Rain” moment. And shine we did, but the labels weren’t impressed. They weren’t interested, they were looking for something else that we apparently didn’t offer. When the free alcohol dried up, they left. I don’t think it really mattered how good we were that night; what the label representatives were seeking was beyond our control.

It all came crashing down pretty quickly, the following days after the show. Charles was the first one to jump ship. He felt that if didn’t take a chance on love he would regret it the rest of his life. David felt that he had to secure his future by taking a promotion. Aaron had a baby. But the big loser was Mark Lee, who had put up his own money because he believed in us. The fact is, we had all the confidence and talent in the world. We played our hearts out and did whatever we needed to do to make it. But we just weren’t lucky. No matter how much talent and confidence we had we either didn’t know the right people, or weren’t in the right place at the right time.

Of the 30,000 bands in America at any given moment and the 300,000 artists on MySpace, it is impossible that all these artists lack the confidence or talent to succeed in the music business. In spite of the high standards most artists presumably set for themselves, no artist can account for that elusive element of luck. It transcends confidence, ability, and hard work; I’d like to offer my experience as proof.

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7 Responses

  1. For every label looking for the next proven product or teen sensation, there is someone out there looking for something interesting, intelligent, and challenging to listen to. Although it’s unfortunate that the artists who most advance the cause of American music are largely marginalized, the profession relies on people like you, toiling in obscurity. Keep going. There’s an audience out here.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience Ryan. I never had the courage to follow through and achieve what you did. My bands never got too far from the garage. Great read. Thanks again.

  3. while i know this story all too well and have been through the first stage or two of it a few times, it always feels good to hear that i am not alone.

  4. Ryan, I’ve heard bits and pieces of this story over the years. It’s interesting to finally read it from beginning to…well, I don’t think it has ended. I agree with Sue and Michelle, keep doing what you do. Your passion is obvious when you’re doing the things you love.

  5. Ryan,great job on the article.I still remember the wonderful IBB shows,and still enjoy the cd’s. I like to think the story is’nt over yet. Cheryl

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