A lot of people remember when record labels seemed to own the music business. Talented (and untalented) artists competed for lucrative record contracts and a healthy share of royalties from album sales. Those same artists were obliged to go on tour to help promote their albums, but the really big source of income was the sale of albums.
Times have certainly changed. Today, illegal downloading of albums has slashed profits from album sales, and artists can no longer count on significant income from album royalties. Live performances, once only used to boost album sales, has become an increasingly important source of artist income.
Otsego and Delaware counties have more than their share of talented bands and musicians who offer pleasing live performance and who would like to take the next step toward fame and financial gain. How can they take advantage of these new opportunities for live musical performance?
To find the answer to this question, I spoke with well-known Albany-based promoter/concert producer, Ted Etoll. Etoll has been producing and promoting live music in the Albany area for 21 years. He has an exclusive long-term lease on Northern Lights, a venue in Clifton Park that can hold 1,000 music fans. He produces successful shows there and he also promotes shows in other Albany venues, including the Empire State Plaza, the Washington Armory, the Palace Theatre, the Glens Falls Civic Center and two smaller clubs, Valentine's and Jillian's.
Etoll is known throughout the country as a person who can choose talented bands and produce successful concerts. Although 95 percent of the shows he produces are for nationally famous bands, he is also willing to give a chance to smaller, less well-known local bands.
I said, "You're a very well-known concert promoter. How is your business doing?"
He laughed and said, "Being a concert promoter is not for the faint of heart. The financial risks are tremendous and it's a lot of work. We're paying the bills and we're making thousands of dollars worth of improvements at Northern Lights. Business has been pretty good. I like what I'm doing, but I also understand the need to find joy in other areas of my life, too."
I asked, "What advice or training can you offer people who want to become concert promoters? You've worked with SUNY Oneonta music industry majors who served internships with you. What do they do while they work with you? Have you hired people who have served internships with you?"
He said, "Yes, one of my full-time employees is a SUNY Oneonta graduate who interned for me a few years ago. I work with interns from all over the country. Some of their responsibilities include:
"Catering: Assist with ordering, set-up, break-down of catered events;"Promotion assistant: Help plan and coordinate concert promotion, including poster display, telephone contacts with clients;"Hospitality: Work with company and artist to ensure fulfillment of artist riders;"Show settlements: Help account for receipts and compensation paid to artists and suppliers;"Merchandizing: Help account for merchandise sold, used in promotion and returned;"Show advance: Help account for advance paid, service rendered by artist, remainder owed based on ticket sales, promoter participation."
I asked Etoll whether he has ever worked with a band from Delaware or Otsego counties at any of his venues.
"Yes, we had an incredible Oneonta instrumental band a few years ago. They crossed over between indie jam band and progressive rock," he said. "They had a lot of talent and a good attitude. I was sorry to see them break up after they all graduated."
He said he'd be happy to work with other bands from our area, so I asked him to tell us how he chooses a local band to play at the venues he manages and promotes.
"When a band comes to me to play a national show, they have to be good. They have to bring something to the table," he said.
"What do you mean when you say they have to bring something to the table?" I asked.
Etoll said, "Any manager or promoter will tell you there are no more handouts. The band has to sound good and it has to play a genre we can use."
"The band has to have a crowd. They have to be able to sell tickets. I give them 25 percent of what they sell, and that helps to convince them that they need to help market their shows. 75 percent goes to the club to help cover expenses, rent, insurance, licensing," he added. "No club will book you if you aren't working as hard as I am. If you want me to do more work than you, you're never going to work for me. My national acts work on a higher percentage basis, but they still depend on the number of tickets sold for the show, as well as a flat guarantee. A club owner can tell in 30 seconds whether kids are hard-working. All the band has to do is one show to prove they can bring in an audience."
Etoll said band members need to be salesmen.
"A band has to sell their product to every person they encounter," he said.
"Successful bands build fans organically by selling themselves, being talented and building a fan base through their Internet presence. Then they get a break, and they play a show with me in front of a lot of kids, and their fan base increases. They can parley that by playing similar shows at other venues and continuing to draw."
"They have to have products to sell and give away at shows, and they need good merchandise," he said. "In the late '90s, throughout the local hard-core scene here, the business was massive. These kids were masters of marketing themselves with T-shirts, CDs, and CD release parties. I helped them create their concert scene, and they networked with other fans throughout upstate New York."
There are some challenges that bands may face today that they wouldn't have a decade or so ago, Etoll said.
"The economics of the business today make it very difficult for a band to sustain itself on the road. There aren't so many places to play because clubs are going out of business," he said. "Bands can play in all the clubs that will take them, but they also need to go to other venues, like the local VFW or a firehouse. Play in as many places as possible, as often as possible, and always plan for the next step in you career."
Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.