Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson, to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Since the age of 17, guitarist Arlen Roth has been influencing the scene of rock music, film, and television with his slide guitar, dobro, guitar and pedal steel guitar-performing skills. His most recent album, The Slide Guitar Summit, brings together many great musicians Arlen admires, like Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, Lee Roy Parnell, Jack Pearson, and Tom Hambridge and many more for a large concert and jam in Nashville. At the moment, magazines like Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar have planned interviews with the musician regarding his new work. Most importantly, somebody who knows Arlen personally and lives in my hometown within Huntington spoke highly of his new record. Arlen’s friend Billy said:

“The album I feel will be important to musicians interested in the bottleneck and slide formats. I don’t think any recordings have ever put the “cream of the crop” together in this way and just let them challenge and play off of each other.”

Arlen tells me, over a telephone conversation, “I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said “What should I do for this next project, what’s going on?” Simultaneously, we both said, “What about a slide guitar summit project?” Now, I am known as a guitar player, in general, who has influenced and taught many, but Slide guitar has always been a big part of what I do. In fact, there is a book about slide guitar I wrote when I was 19 years old. It is still the biggest slide guitar book in the world. This was 40 or so years ago. I don’t want to date myself too much, but that’s always been a big thing of mine – specializing in the slide guitar. I am sure you are aware of what slide guitar entails and what it means, and how different it is from other guitar playing, but it has also become the voice of American music these days.”

Slide guitar is a technique of guitar playing where the player presses down on the strings while wearing a piece of bar, brass or glass cylinder on one of their fingers. Arlen adds:

“In the old days, it used to be called Bottleneck guitar because players would take a piece of actual bottleneck and put it on their pinky or third finger, or whichever finger suited them. I prefer a heavy piece of brass. You can also alter the tuning of the guitar to an open chord – EBEG#BE for example – as opposed to standard tuning. There are some great standard tuning slide guitar players, but I prefer the open chords. This started to be common back in the ‘20’s with Delta Blue players like Robert Johnson and Son House.”

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

If you listen to Q.1043, WBAB, or any rock station within and around New York City and the Tri-state area, you have heard slide guitar. Whether you listened to, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “My Friends,” The Black Crows’ “She Talks to Angels” (in which the guitar is tuned to the open chord), or the instrumental version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (recreated by Arlen Roth), you heard slide guitar. Yes, I am thrilled that the first official interview article on the Music Historian for 2015 covers a guitar playing technique that has captivated all types of audiences. Rest assured; however, Arlen Roth will not pay a simple ode to the beauty and joy of playing guitar. Arlen shares his story about how he was at the forefront of bringing slide guitar into television and film. Most importantly, he talks about the importance of passing his passion of guitar to his students, family, colleagues and musicians who are gaining a new appreciation for American roots music. It is my pleasure to welcome Arlen to the Music Historian.

“When I was writing my slide guitar book at 19, I remember asking myself, “How do I know all of this stuff?” I have not even had time to learn it, but at that point, I had already been playing for nine years. I was deeply involved in the blues and in country music. So, at that time, I was the only person in New York City who was playing pedal steel guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar, just because I loved that sound. I used to tune into the far off radio stations and listen to country music in Upstate New York. Whether I was listening to it from Pennsylvania or Wheeling, West Virginia or the famous WSM from Nashville. I picked up all of those stations, and I would pick up and fall in love with those sounds.

“When you say, you’re the Music Historian; that’s what we all are. We all fall in love with something like the Blues or Country, and we want to keep getting deeper and deeper into it, and it does not take very long. I can remember at 15 or 16 saying, “I love Mike Bloomfield, now I love B.B. King, now I love Buddy Guy, now I love Son House, now I love Robert Johnson.” Being so young and voracious for this material, and so you are learning ten-fold, and the speed at which you pick it all up can be amazing.”

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Arlen was 21 in 1974. In addition to writing his book about the slide guitar (also titled Slide Guitar), he went on tour with the Bee Gees across Canada. In 1975, he toured with John Prine, then between 1976 and 1978, he performed on an episode of Saturday Night Live with Art Garfunkel, taught guitar and recorded his first solo album. In 1983, he would tour with Simon and Garfunkel. However, Arlen assures that his road to success was not always rosy.

“I was in the opening act for the Bee Gees,” recalls Arlen. “They loved my steel guitar playing, so they would have me play on their song [Arlen sings] “I’m a-Goin’ back to Massachusetts.” This is like the real original Bee Gees, before they got into R&B and disco.

“We were touring Canada, and we had just done an album with a $100,000 budget. While we were on tour, we discovered the album was being shelved. It was not going to come out. Some of these things in the music business, you never know how much delay there is. The Slide Guitar Summit, I recorded two years ago. Almost, three years ago. Sometimes, that’s how long it takes to get things together.”

Arlen (middle) with (l-r) Sonny Landrith, Jack Pearson,  Lee Roy Parnell performing in Nashville to promote The Slide Guitar Summit, Jan. 2015

Aside from delays within record productions; Arlen also experienced plenty of challenges on large global tours, this time with Simon and Garfunkel.

“In 1983, I was teaching Paul Simon. I would also help and give him some pointers in some of his songs. Then, they asked me to do the world tour, the big Simon and Garfunkel tour. It was exciting to be on a tour that big, playing for 40,000 to 100,000 people a night.

“When you do a tour like that, the music connects with people, but more as part of an event. You are on the big screen, and one little move you make, gets 20,000 people to yell. It’s a whole different thing. I like it more when you are closer to the audience, and you have a closer rapport with the crowd.”

“True,” I said. “When you are on a global tour, you want to make a bigger event to get more money to pay back more of the expenses (operational). I’ve also noticed across the world, that in some countries, especially in Europe, music is made more for entertainment, and large events like that.”

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” responded Arlen. “It seems like they have festivals all the time, and these huge gatherings of people. I remember doing some of them with Simon and Garfunkel, and when the crowd got violent, there were riots and people getting hit over the head.

“We were playing “Scarborough Fair” and people are hitting each other over the head with bottles of Evian. Paul, when he saw that yelled, “Stop doing that. We will stop playing if you don’t stop hitting that guy!” People were getting crushed, running on stage and pulling your clothes; it was kind of scary.

“I also remember being in Boston, and [the crowd] getting unruly. People were hitting us in the face with glow sticks. I saw my niece in the front row, and she looked so worried because she was getting pushed from behind. Once the crowd starts pushing, they don’t stop. So, in the bigger events, try to be as safe as possible. But still, it’s exciting to be part of something on that scale.”

As I thought about having thousands of people watching every move a musician makes on stage, I recall reading about another major event in Arlen’s career where he performed for a large audience. This time, his guitar playing had caught the attention two actors on the set of Saturday Night Live – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A jam warm-up session that night with Arlen transformed into the beginning of The Blues Brothers.

“That night in 1978, [on the set of Saturday Night Live] there was no “Blues Brothers” yet. Belushi comes up to me, puts on a hat and sunglasses and says, “Look, we are going to warm up the crowd. We’re going to put on these blues outfits, and we are going to be these blues guys.” We just warmed up the crowd with a song, which happens to be on this new album, “Rocket 88,” which I also did with Johnny Winter on the new album. John Belush (Left), SNL Host (Middle), and Arlen Roth (right) on the set of SNL, 1978

“What happens at Saturday Night Live, is you start on Wednesday, and by the time you hit Friday, you do the show over, and over. You have a rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal, then a live show. By the time you do it, you don’t even care anymore. You don’t even know it’s live, you are like blind. They keep cutting routines, changing them, and I remember I was backstage with Belushi.

“I wrote out the words for him, and he was very much an actor saying, “Quick, give me the information right now.” Then I remember Andy Kaufman was there, and everything was amazing. Then, we hit the stage and warmed up the crowd with “Rocket 88.” In fact, later that night, after the show, we all went to this bar afterward – because the party never ended with Saturday Night Live – and we were jamming and playing the blues. That’s what turned into the Blues Brothers.”

According to outside sources, The Blues Brothers became a musical sketch on SNL, then filming of the movie started in 1979 and then premiered in June of 1980. While it earned just under $5 Million on its opening weekend, it went on to gross $115.2 Million in theaters worldwide before its release on home video. The film has become a cult classic (en.wikipedia, 2015).

By the 1980’s, Arlen had taught Paul Simon, toured the world, and contributed to the beginning of The Blues Brothers. In 1986, his influence would later grab the interest of director Walter Hill, who had just started filming the film about the legendary Robert Johnson titled Crossroads. Walter invited Arlen on the set to be an authenticator for the film, to play much of the guitar in the movie and to coach Ralph Macchio on his playing, and the guitarist made sure to deliver.

“What happened in a scene – which included Robert Johnson in 1937 recording in a hotel room in San Antonio – I said, “Hey look, the guy has tuning pegs on his guitar from the 1980’s.” They [the pegs] were bright chrome, and I told them, “No, you can’t have that.” Walter had to shut everything down just because I said that. I told him, “We’ve got to get the right guitar. If I am hired here to make sure that all the guitar scenes go down right, even if the guitar is wrong. I am going to point it out.”

“The actor who came in said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.” He didn’t have anything covered. He did not understand that the guitar had to be the right one for the era of the scene. So, we shot another scene instead and then, the following day; we shot the authentic and correct Robert Johnson session.

“Walter would sometimes let me sit in the director’s chair and direct the scene. He already had his camera angles set right and said, “Arlen, this whole scene is about the music, and I don’t know anything about it, and you do. So, I’m going to go in my trailer, and you be the director.” I thought, “Wow! Here I am in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field sitting in the director’s chair saying “cut.”” Everybody was looking at me like I was the director now. They did not even miss a beat. I personally think Walter did that to give me a little thrill.”

While Arlen acted as a director for a popular film, performed on television, and taught famous performers, he did not stray away from his life as a performer and a music teacher. He did not depend on these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for his living. Arlen claims that teaching and showing an artist’s innermost passion is what he is all about.

“Many years ago, I was one of the first people to ever document famous musicians teaching. I had started a company with my late wife Deborah called Hot Licks. We formed it in 1979, and it was as far back as 1973 that I knew I would start it one day. In ’79, I started recording my teaching on audio cassettes. I then found other peers of mine – guitar players, piano players, drummers, whoever might be – anyone who would be willing to do something like this. It was a very new idea – it was not something many players embraced – the concept of laying it out on the line and saying “This is what I am about.” I am self-taught, I never took lessons, I don’t read music, I only learned in real life, in front of real people!

“I thought audio recorded lessons was a great way for people to learn because, and till this day, I still encourage my students to tape their lessons. I teach privately, and I always tell them [students], please tape it [the lessons] because you will lose everything, you will miss a lot of what we say. One day, a student said to me, “I miss those lessons on tape.” That student moved out to Colorado, and I said, “Aha! Lessons on tape. That’s what I will do someday when I need to start another business.

“Music is up and down. I was touring off and on, in between teaching and recording. When I got to the point of doing [one of the earlier albums] Toolin’ Around, I had many folks who had done videos for me, like Brian Setzer, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton – who was a big fan and friend of mine – Duke Robillard, Jerry Douglas, the incredible dobro player who performs with Allison Krauss, played on the album with me. This [album] stretched from 1989 to 1992, and it came out with 8 or 9 artists on it with me.”

Arlen playing guitar at Building 24 in October 2014 Arlen now touches on an important point – the fluctuation in the music business. For many musicians, across the different generations, teaching had provided a stable endeavor for instrumentalists. He claims that this is why he stuck with teaching. In addition, teaching brought Arlen equity.

“I figured that no matter what, people would enjoy my playing and be interested in my playing because I would change the way people were learning the guitar. I had self-taught musicians, teaching everybody else to teach themselves.

“Many of the artists I recorded or filmed never actually sat down and ever had to explain what they did. I had Buddy Guy talk about the blues. Here is a guy who is my hero from when I was about 15 years old, telling me, “You’re the boss, tell me what to do!?” I said to him, “Buddy, just do it, just play.” All the people who I had admired for many years, some of them whom I really looked up to, suddenly there they are sitting in that chair, in front of those recording cameras for an instructional video, produced by ME!!

“I had directed more than 180 instructional videos with about 140 artists, over a 25-year span. It was quite something. We had 2 million students worldwide; we would make these documentary-type videos into films or box sets. The company that bought my business is still to this day converting things over to digital, DVDs and little snippets on the internet.”

Arlen also filmed about one thousand instructional lessons for Gibson.com, each being five or seven minutes long, but some over an hour in length. He describes them as “a meaningful vignette of an archetype, a certain aspect of guitar playing and music that is a little gem that someone might hook onto and say, “Wow. I never knew about that!””

The musician expresses, “there is a lesson to be learned in everything.” He also believes in “the timeless quality of passing all of that information onto people” and down to his family. Lexie, Arlen’s second daughter, picked up the bass guitar when she was eight years old and entered the world of performing within her teens. Now, in her mid-twenties, she is working on her third album. In the meantime, Lexie also works as a natural gourmet chef. Earlier this month, she starred in a commercial for the Food Network.

“She writes great songs,” says Arlen. “Many of them are very hard-hitting and she’s wonderful and incredible with lyrics. Give her a few chords to go with a guitar part, and before you know it, there is another song.”

Arlen’s first daughter Gillian, who had incredible poise, beauty, and dignity, learned to play the guitar, and started doing commercials at 11 years old. She also performed with Arlen at a concert when she was 12. She even received a contract to star in a television show, where she would be the main actor, guitar player, and singer. Sadly, in the late 1990’s Gillian passed away in a car accident at the age of 14, with her mother, Deborah just two days after she had recorded the theme for that show.

These talented girls learned guitar early from watching their father. Reflecting on the lessons Arlen gave students, adult performers, and his family, I wondered about the most important lesson Arlen learned from his lifetime in music. I asked, “If there were any advice you would give your younger self, what would that be?”

Arlen says, “Because I did start playing so young, I worked with many people who were much older than me. Looking back, I got the spotlight a lot, but people also took advantage. I think you have to be a little cautious about that; there are must as many predatory people out there [today] as there ever were. When you are young and happy to do anything for any money, people start to know you are not the kind of person to turn stuff down.

“Something good has always led to something else. If you do something great, the word spreads and you get called for something better the next time. For example, in my old days in New York, in the early ‘70’s, I would get called to do recording sessions. I really grew up listening to the music that came out of California, Chicago and Nashville. What made me stand out in New York at that time was, there were not too many people my age who played slide guitar, dobro or my unique string bending method. They could not even get a good sound on a guitar in New York.

“I came to New York [in the early ’70’s], into a recording session. I would hear myself play on the record what sounded like this little “chink, chink, chink” sound. I told them, “That’s not the sound I am giving you. I’m giving you this wonderful rich guitar sound,” but the guitar was not important. The guitar was secondary, and you always had to be careful of what you’d say to these folks.

“It [New York] was a horn town, where they wanted to hear strings, horns, piano and drums – jazz. Now, I think there is a wonderful movement in New York and Brooklyn where many people are embracing the roots of rock music, the blues, and the country sound again.”

Recalling this experience in New York during the 1970’s, I asked Arlen what he learned. He responded:

“[I thought], “what are they asking me to record here?” I am recording nothing on this guitar. They were so impressed with me; they saw me perform, they jumped out of their seats and the next thing I know, I am playing “chink, chink, chink” on a record. Then I realized, this is what it is [sometimes] to make a record, at least back then. In those days, it was about overdubbing, layering, getting different sounds, going for hours and hours, breaking for lunch, and then doing it again.

“It was a whole different experience that I never knew. You learn from everything you experience, and all that learning is beautiful.”

In addition to the openness to learn, and the need to protect oneself from being misled, Arlen thinks of another piece of advice he would like to give his younger self:

“Stay true, and learn from those lessons. I had recording gigs that were just nightmares. You walk out of there, and you feel like you aged ten years. The reason it was such torture is because I already had the direction I needed to go in, and they were trying to force me into another thing. That’s part of working as a session man or a musician. Sometimes you have to play backup, adhere to what they want, and be attentive to find the moments where you can shine, and be your creative best.

Slide Guitar Album Cover “You have to stay true to your music, stay ahead of the pack. Don’t try to be a trend follower, it is better to be a trendsetter. Pretty soon, people will come to you, and turn their heads to what you are saying. I think that’s a little bit of what’s happening now with The Slide Guitar Summit.”

From Hollywood films to recording studios in the south, and on television, slide guitar has become very prominent in soundtracks. Interestingly, the average layperson does not think they are listening to slide guitar. Therefore, Arlen decided The Slide Guitar Summit would help educate and seize a very special moment. He explains:

“I’ve got this wonderful breadth of people, great friends and greats who play various forms of slide guitar,” which includes Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Johnny Winter, Lee Roy Parnell, Greg Martin, Jimmy Vivino and more.

Arlen also asserts that when people think of slide, they think of blues. Slide Guitar Summit however, will expand into many different territories when it comes to slide guitar music. While listeners can expect the electric blues and Delta blues, they can also expect rock, southern rock, country, and Hawaiian. It is a little more challenging to categorize, but that is what makes it fun. Listeners can expect duets between the artists mentioned above and tributes to songs that have become classics within American music.

In his concluding words about The Slide Guitar Summit, Arlen says, “I wanted to do something that was going to catch people’s attention, and get them to appreciate it and love it. For me, I think of it as a legacy. To me, it is very much about what I am doing now. I loved getting together with these people. Some of the musicians, I had never met before or played with before, and some I had known quite a bit. So, we are going to get it all out there and make something new!”

Arlen Roth and his Slide Summit band will be in upstate New York on May 29th and 30th. Before that, he will probably hit New York City. To get the most updated information on concert dates, standby his website and Facebook.

I let Arlen take the reins of this conversation to share his amazing story. What many music listeners often forget is that music is cyclical. While the slide guitar tunes I learned when I took guitar lessons as a teenager are not the same tunes Arlen taught himself when he was a teenager; that technique transcended eras and continues to do so. What also transcends eras are the lessons musicians learn from being within the business.

Performers and recording artists continue to learn how to walk that fine line of staying open to new experiences within creating music while never losing focus on the sound and the style that makes them passionate. For Arlen, it was always about the playing and being self-taught. For other musicians, it may be about revitalizing a genre that made them happy growing up, or experimenting with various genres, or focusing on layering sounds within music, or simply about performing or collaboration. Whatever we stand for as professionals, we must never lose sight about what makes us who we are. Prosaic? Sure. Valuable though? Yes.

Works Cited

Wikipedia.org (2015 Feb 17). The Blues Brothers (Film). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blues_Brothers_(film)

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission

The Blackfoot Gypsies: Modern Southern Rock That Helps You Release Internalized Feelings

 When I listened to the song by the Nashville-based band, The Blackfoot Gypsies called “Don’t know about you,” I immediately felt the timbre within the singer’s voice resembled that of Bob Dylan from the ‘60’s. In addition, I felt splashes of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Garage Rock, and Americana. As far as the rest of the song is concerned, I heard very little country. I initially found this curious because I thought Nashville was the capital of country music. Thankfully, the band told me this is not the case.

“I think it is more of a touristy thing that Nashville is only for country music,” explains the bass player in the band, Dylan Whitlow. “Where we live in Nashville, there are mostly rock ‘n’ roll bands.”

The group’s harmonica player, Ollie Dogg adds, “It used to be that way, but I always played the blues.” As I talked with this group at the dimmed Delancey lounge on the Lower East Side, I soon learned that only two members of the Blackfoot Gypsies are Nashville-natives.

The group began as a duo in 2010 with drummer Zack Murphy and Guitarist and vocalist Matthew Paige. Zack had just moved back to Nashville after spending six years in Knoxville, and Matt had recently moved from his hometown around Portland, Oregon. Both young men were new to the music scene and somehow, they found each other and started playing. Then, in 2012, Dylan, who relocated from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania met with Matt after seeing the duo at a show. The final addition to the band is Ollie Dogg, who was introduced to the group by his cousin at a Marathon Party. Now, all members live together in the same house.

Research this band’s Facebook page, and you will see a charming photo of the band right outside of their beautiful home. Dig deeper onto the “about” section of their page and you will find something that if it doesn’t grab your attention, it certainly grabbed mine – Band Interest: “Spreading the terrifying joys of realism.” I asked Matt to talk to me a little more about this.

“Being a real band is almost a challenge,” he begins. “Being a real person and entertainer is very difficult. Touring as a real band and seeing how terrifying it really is, it makes people say “oh man these guys are real; [they’re] people playing music because they like it.””

Zack chimes in, “to make money without compromising ourselves or our art.”

“To be able to earn money, be silly and entertain, and somehow keep a leveled head about yourself,” concludes Matt.

Just a few minutes into my chat with this band, I have already learned that something besides country music is happening in Nashville, and the realism this group speaks of might actually go beyond the lyrical content within their songs. For the remainder of my conversation with this group, I wanted to learn more about the band that described themselves as “The amplifier for your heart and soul, your love and your hate, your on and off, your push and pull… there is no room for thinking… Only feeling (Blackfoot Gypsies, Facebook, 2014).” It’s my pleasure to welcome the Blackfoot Gypsies to Music Historian.

When the group says “there is no room for thinking… Only feeling,” within their music, they emphasize the need for listeners to lose themselves in a song – a human aspect that is left out of today’s modern music. Further, the feelings Zack and Matt wish to evoke through their music are visceral. Matt elaborates:

“They are the ones you can’t control, and the ones that you want to hate, but you can’t. We’re not necessarily trying to prove anybody wrong [about themselves] but mostly trying to tear down the walls of the preconceived notions people usually create about who they are and what they like.

“When they come to the show, [for example], I’ve watched guys try to be straight, square and cool in front of girls, and then they turn into these ape monkeys because something happened [inside of them]. It is in the music, it is in the energy, and sometimes, it gets so fast and perpetual that you lose yourself.

“We lose ourselves all the time, that’s our job and getting other people welcomed into that. This is the type of feeling we try to harvest in people. That is the human aspect so often left out of music nowadays. That’s real.”

I could tell this band wanted to convey something to the listener within the first song on their 2012 LP On the Loose, titled “Don’t Know About You.” In the opening verse, only the guitar accompanied the voice. The lyrics are – I wandered out last night/ looking out for your home/ knowing you like to roam/ without your telephone/ But you don’t know because/ I never said a thing. Then when the chorus came, later in the song, the one element that grabbed my attention was how the down beat in the drums, the harmonic rhythm in the guitar, and the voice came in synch, emphasizing the lyrics I don’t know about you, but I feel like makin’ love.

These compositional elements attract the listeners’ attention and make for a memorable melody. Then, there are other songs on the record that have sadder lyrical content, like “Stone Throwin’ Angels.” One of the verses in the song is You’ve got three kids in the yard/ and watch you come and warm your bed/ and a fugitive conscious that goes unsaid… I asked the band members about the meaning behind these lyrics.

“That one is mainly about a friend of mine who was once a musician and could have followed the dream, but then he had kids and a wife, and I watched it not happen,” explains Matt.

While this song is based on a true story, Matt claims that if it holds any relevance at all, the fun part is making up the rest, in a way, that applies to the songwriter.

“We are just doing real life, even if it’s just something stupid,” he continues. “We were just jamming on a song called “I’m on Fire.” It was really hot in our room one night, all of the amps were turned on, and I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to sing?’ “I’m on fire!” There it is, a song, and it’s real.”

I decided then and there that I would share a story about when I took a trip to West Virginia for the Appalachia Service Project. “I was 15 years old, and I went to Logan County as a volunteer with a church to fix homes for those in need,” I said to the Blackfoot Gypsies. “One day in July, I was doing roof work and I thought to myself, it was scorching up there.”

Then Zack asked me where I was from and somehow, I mentioned that I grew up in a Romanian-speaking household. I promise, I’m not babbling. This information will become helpful as the article continues.

At the moment, The Blackfoot Gypsies currently self-distribute their LP and it is available for download and 12” vinyl. Zack describes the process of being your own musician and entrepreneur as rewarding.

“It’s nice to have help in getting everything done, but when you all of the work yourself, you get all the rewards for yourself. Do you really want to pay someone else money that will not be used for you? Would you rather have that money yourself? You don’t have to pay anybody back. It feels good.”

This made me wonder – since the Blackfoot Gypsies are currently unsigned – whether the group is currently on the hunt for a record deal. According to Zack, the band is looking for the “Right record deal.” Matt adds, “It’s not really like we’re hunting, it is more like they’re hunting.”

“It’s so much like dating someone – ridiculous. It’s through a friend of a friend that saw you at a show… and now they’re bringing their friend’s lawyer to check you out. Then, there is a meeting and contract, and ‘Oh my God,’” he continues.

While this method of networking with labels proves to be more efficient, the group should be ready to ask a handful of questions. I asked the members whether they had been careful when speaking with lawyers. Zack reassures, “We usually consult our friend who is a lawyer. We ask him questions in order to decipher what we should ask [the label representatives].”

As the group keeps experts within the music legal field close, they simultaneously stay atop of their long-term goal for the future, which Zack claims is “being the next big thing.”

Matt_and_Zack_BFG “Anyone who says they don’t want to be famous for what they are doing are probably lying,” he expresses. “So, why are you doing it? You want to be unsuccessful with it, do you want nobody to hear your music?”

I agreed with Zack. I then asked Matt to share his thoughts, and he expressed something similar, but with a little more hint of sass. (Remember that information I shared with the members regarding my ethnic heritage? It will be useful now.)

“One of the greatest bands that ever lived. We’ll be 90 years old and still doing it, God willing none of these guys gets hit by a bus, or overdoses or falls in love and runs to Romania. That could be bad!”

“It’s only bad if you don’t have a plan,” I politely and diplomatically replied. “But, if you know someone who can help you get established…”

“Romania is fine, I’ve got nothing against it,” said Matt jokingly.

Regarding the Blackfoot Gypsies’ immediate future, the group is currently focusing on a few projects. The first, a new LP titled Handle It, which they plan to release at the beginning of August. The second, a Gypsy Camp Tour set to start in July, which Zack claims will be amazing. Matt, Dylan and Zack say the band is coming to do a show in New York City on July 11th, at the Bowery Electric, as part of a two-week camping excursion, romping around the middle of America.

Basically, The Blackfoot Gypsies will perform at venues everybody recognizes. Instead of heading to a motel after the show though, the group will set up a tent somewhere. Given the lack of camping grounds in cities like this one and Chicago, the band already established they will sleep under a roof for these particular shows.

“It is part of the adventure,” explains Matt. “We are shooting for the gypsy concept but sometimes that does not always work out. We will sleep under a roof when we come to New York City or Chicago.

“We also encourage artists to come out and sell their jewelry, pictures and art. You can buy things, and you can trade. Why restrict it to just us? Have other people come out.”

The group sees the Gypsy Camp Tour as more of a recreational pursuit than an entrepreneurial endeavor. They did it for the first time last year, and it was “a blur of great memories.”

While the band definitely does find time for fun, they expect to get paid for the performances they put on. After all, performing is still work. The camping is their downtime. In addition, while performing and touring presents its benefits, including the constant changing of scenery, meeting new people, and keeping oneself busy; there are also challenges, even for musicians who don’t mind “roughing it.”

“All of the driving in all of the conditions possible, and making a dollar stretch longer than it should, the show we perform determines whether it is worth it or not. It happened to be worth it almost every time,” says Matt. “The challenge is, you can’t predict when you lose. Sometimes you lose, but when you win, you really win.”

I saw a performance by the Blackfoot Gypsies at Spike Hill in Brooklyn. The energy that filled the audience, the amazing and full-bodied harmonica playing by Ollie Dogg that drew in the attention of the whole crowd, and the well-rehearsed set from the rest of the band assured me this group is really searching for winning moments. These moments don’t only come from performances, they will also come from the right record deal that will benefit both The Blackfoot Gypsies and the label helping distribute and promote the band’s music to audiences in all corners of the U.S.

Lovers of Americana looking for the perfect music that will help them temporarily lose themselves and feel both the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, positive and negative emotions all at once need to check out this band. They can download their album through their Bandcamp website, or go to a live show, which can have its perks. The Blackfoot Gypsies like to bring a close-knit line-up with them, enabling listeners to get a taste of other Nashville-based independent musicians who have a similar sound.

Meanwhile, label representatives should continue pursuing this group, especially since, as Nashville-based artist Kim Logan would say, “Americana has taken hold, and as vinyl makes a comeback,” more artists will be performing rock ‘n’ roll (as cited in “Plugging into Modern Southern Rock,” 2014, para. 33).

As I conclude this interview article, I want briefly to share the inspiration behind the band name.

“I had another band before this one,” said Matt, “and we all sat around trying to think of a name that was cool and close to home, like the Blackfoot Indian tribe. And gypsies are cool, I like them. They wander around nomadic style, you know, like Romanians.”

“Not all Romanians are gypsies,” I explained.

“Yes they are,” he responds.

Perhaps The Blackfoot Gypsies don’t play themselves up as a mysterious rock band, but who needs mystery all the time? Let the music take over every now and then, and help you release some of the feelings you have internalized for a while. Try it. You might actually find it enjoyable.

Works Cited

Blackfoot Gypsies (n.d.). In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved June 9, 2014, from https://www.facebook.com/blackfootgypsies/info

Trutescu, P. (2014, June 18). Plugging into Modern Southern Rock: My Interview with Kim Logan. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://musichistorian.net/2014/06/24/plugging-into-modern-southern-rock-my-interview-with-kim-logan/

Dive Into The Minds of Industry Players: A Review of the New Music Seminar

If you currently work in the music industry, or aspire to, the New Music Seminar deserves your attention. I had the privilege of being invited by the Workman Group to attend and cover the three-day conference which brought together music and entertainment leaders committed to exploring ways to expand and grow the business.

The New Music Seminar started with a bang with a red carpet and performance at Webster Hall on Sunday, with a line-up which included ASTR, Cardiknox, Mayaeni, Born Cages, and Meg Myers. On Tuesday night, at 11:15 pm at Tammany Hall with a performance by the winner of the Artist on the Verge Awards 2014, VanLadyLove.

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The three-day conference took place at the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown and occupied two floors with booths that for the following companies, Buzz Angle, GCA Entertainment, Showpitch, Music Times, Corbin Hillman Communications, ASCAP, Noise 4 Good, Steven Hero Productions and more. These firms offer services in royalties, publishing, digital distribution, data mining of online music consumption, music journalism, artistic representation, and artist and repertoire. In addition, the conference rooms on these two floors served as meeting places for panelists and discussions, and mini acoustic showcases with some of the artists selected for the Artists on the Verge Project 2014.

The New Music Seminar conference helps industry leaders and players better understand how consumerism and music is evolving and how they can continue to innovate. In addition, this same conference brings the New Music Seminar Music Festival. Musicians have the chance to perform for a large audience and industry players, and develop valuable partnerships with producers and managers.

While I have five full-length interview articles in the making with these five bands that were invited to the NMS Artists on the Verge Project – Juicebox, The Dirty Gems, Desert Sharks, Kim Logan and the Blackfoot Gypsies – I first want dive into what I learned from A&R representatives, music publishers and the staff of Pitchfork in some of the panels in the past three days. More specifically, I will take you through what label representatives look for in an artist before they invite them onboard, the types of criticisms new singer songwriters typically receive, and the dos and don’ts for publicists who work with musicians.

The A&R Movement: Where music is headed

Let me start backwards. On Tuesday, the last day of the seminar, David Massey, President of Island Records conducted a conversation between nine A&R representatives: Tayla Elitzer (Capitol Records); Alyssa Castiglia (Island Records); Brandon Davis (Atlantic Records); Jon Coombs, General Manager at Secretly Canadian Publishing; Jenna Rubenstein, Creative at Insieme Music Publishing within Glassnote Entertainment; Austin Rice (Columbia Records); Jessica Strassman (Startime International); Patch Culbertson (Republic Records); and Dylan Chenfeld (Razor & Tie). Here are the essentials that musicians and A&R representatives alike should know about music today.

Trends in Music

Panelists emphasized which particular styles currently excite label reps. Electronic, rhythm and blues, and emerging trend of world music, deep house music from the UK are among these genres. In addition, there is a cool cross between electronic and indie, better known as Indietronica. Avicii is one artist who accomplishes this by mixing electronic dance music with bluegrass. Another artist who combines guitar driven music with electronic dance beats is The Chain Gang of 1974, who recently performed at the Governors Ball Music Festival.

On the topic of guitar music, another speaker claimed there has been a significant void in guitar-driven alternative music, providing musicians within this genre to re-emerge. He added that bands like this who entered the scene more than 10 years ago, including The Strokes and Jack White, still drive large performance crowds. The way I see it, there is no reason why someone now cannot come out and do the same. An audience for this music still thankfully exists.

A&R, Musicians and Social Data – What works, and what does not

One of the most important pieces of information an A&R rep must keep in mind is the difference between data and buzz. When researching an artist, data is crucial. One must put their personal taste aside and understand the consumers’ tastes. While start-ups like Buzz Angle, who are currently in their beta-testing phase, record data of online music streaming and purchases; the other type of public data most A&R reps use is Twitter. Retweets of videos, hashtags of performances, and robust discussion about the artist serve as valuable data. Additional social metrics includes plays and followers on Spotify, and views on Youtube.

If you are an artist, please note that an A&R person wants to know you are going to sell records. One of the panelists signed the New York City-based Indie Rock band, Born Cages based on how many times the band’s songs and videos were retweeted. Although he had not seen the band play a single show before signing them, he believed in them. In addition, after speaking to the band in person at the red carpet event, this group claims performing is their favorite part of their career.

In short, social media and staying relevant on the music scene is essential. A&R reps will also tell you that now, more than ever, musicians must create a marketing plan and build a fan base by themselves.

On the other hand, some social media presents a negative. The panelists mentioned a habit of some A&R reps adopt involves aimlessly following buzz about an artist on blogs. The problem with unsigned bands made ‘hot’ within the blogosphere is that these articles don’t help the A&R rep determine whether that band will be promising to sign. I agree with this claim. Unlike twitter, which marketers across the advertising industry have utilized to research the purchase intent of customers, blogging platforms do not provide this data or information about the consumer.

Key Performance Indicators – Play Live and Good Songs

Data has not entirely replaced a good ear for talent. Some of the reps on this panel claimed that a strong instinct about the artist must come before research. This might include the bands that one’s friends talk about. Most importantly, musical ability can be used to judge how well an artist performs live. As a rule of thumb, A&R reps do not think highly of a band that does not often perform.

If you love to play live but perhaps are not them strongest performer, there are ways A&R reps can find you help in establishing an excellent stage presence. In this case, the A&R rep might not sign you right away, but they might start developing a relationship with you, hopefully as partner on your journey. However, several panelists did agree that most of the time, the longer it takes a sign a deal with the artist, the better. There are A&R reps who have attended a musician’s performance 14 times and they regularly keep in touch.

What if you are an artist who loves playing live and plays well, but do not currently have any original music? A&R representatives will tell you, songs lead the way. Good songs have a way of rising to the top. If you don’t have any original songs, they do not feel compelled to bring you on board. Finally, selling singles and full albums still serve as an artist’s main source of revenue. This is one trend that has not changed.

So what has changed in A&R? The availability of information about the artist and their potential as an economically successful artist is now more public than it was 10 years ago. In addition, the competition on the musical landscape today escalates rapidly.

The Take Away

The most valuable advice this panel had to offer to the artist looking to make money with their music is this, always remember the music should be about your fans. Deliver the music your fans love. Thanks to social media, artists now have an excellent way to interact with fans and secure that base that is going to help the musician get attention from an A&R rep, and hopefully get signed.

Now, if you have always been musically inclined, enjoyed performing, but are just starting out as a songwriter, and might be looking to work with a label or music publishing group, keep reading this post. I am going to give you an idea of how it feels to have your music critiqued by A&R people and music publishers in the overview of this next panel.

Music XRAY Presents: A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions

This panel was conducted by Mike McCready, Co-Founder and CEO of Music Xray. The players included Tayla Elitzer, Jenna Rubenstein, Alyssa Castiglia, Stephanie Karten, A&R from Robbins Entertainment, and Chloe Weise, A&R from RCA Records.

I arrived late to this discussion, but luckily, the guitarist from the Boston-based band The Venetia Fair, Mike Abiuso – who I had met at the opening night at Webster Hall on Sunday night – was able to fill me in on what I missed. He said that earlier in the program, “The critics assumed nobody would want to listen to a demo of a song because it is an unfinished product. When they [the critics] asked the audience however; many listeners said ‘yes,’ they would listen to a demo.”

Michael also explained the process of how this panel would critique music. They would read off the names of some of the Artists on the Verge, class of 2014, and then ask for a CD of their single and play it for the entire room to hear, and then publicly share their criticism. This type of workshop will help singer songwriters and performers in the early stages of their career in the following ways: 1) It will help aspiring musicians build a thick skin towards criticism; 2) This is a great opportunity to receive constructive criticism; and 3) They will learn what record labels search for in an artist who is looking to get signed.

Some of the Songs up for Critique

The first song I took notes on was “Insomniac” by The Dirty Gems. Upon listening to this track, the panelists said, “While the vocals were good and I liked the guitar in the forefront, I don’t see a lot of hit potential. Strengthen the verse a little bit.”

Afterwards, the panelists chose “Call on Me,” a Hip-Hop track by rapper Just So Smooth. The speakers pointed out, “No dynamics, the melody is static. The hook needs to be cleverer, along with lyrics. Also, the phrase “call on me” has been used before.”

The last song review I listened to was about the dance tune “Problem Boy” by Toni Atari. “The production is not great, and the vocals are a little bit muddled,” remarked the panelist. She also suggested the artist develop her lyrical content and the context in this song.

A Critique of the Artists on the Verge Awards 2014 Finalists

Fast forwarding to the final panel of the day The A&R Movement, I thought it was only fair to include the A&R rep’s point of view about the AoV Awards 2014 finalists – Garage Rock group from Philadelphia, June Divided; R&B singer from New York City, Kiah Victoria; and Pop Rock group from Provo, VanLadyLove. Although everyone now knows the winner is VanLadyLove, I wondered who the A&R reps thought would win.

One of the panelists gave Kiah their vote. Another panelist said, “Kiah commands a stage, but she would do well if she focused more on carrying her pre-choruses a little further.”

An A&R rep stated they would sign VanLadyLove. One of the reps then stated this band “has a cool sound and great stage presence.”

As for June Divided, one of the reps claimed he would put this band in the “to be watched” folder. Another panelist positively commented on the band’s energy, but claimed “Their style is a little dated,” and emphasized the group needs to focus on their audience.

The Take Away

All artist starting out on the music scene must listen to criticism in order to improve their chances of getting representation. Luckily, these critics do bring up a few valid points. For example, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be a writer or artist?” This question is important in dance music, a genre for which they suggest the following – “Focus more on sophisticated lyrics. In dance music, the lyrics are not very deep.

“The music also has to deliver the same magnitude as the vocals. This comes along with more songwriting practice.”

Additional advice they provide is this, “Think really well about where your song fits in this time period. A sound from six years ago will not fly now.”

They then offered this last piece of advice, which I found interesting, “There is a lot of risks these days, so you have a better chance with a radio-ready song.” While three of these panelists, Tayla, Jenna and Alyssa, would also agree with those A&R reps from The A&R Movement panel who claim that an artist does not need to be on the radio to be successful; they suggest a radio-ready song just so that a single has the best quality possible. A poor quality recording could turn off the A&R person and prevent them from giving a well-written song a chance.

So far, I have talked about the types of criticisms new artists on the independent music scene will likely receive from industry players. Now, I want to take you to the last segment of this review – advice for publicists working with musicians; the dos and don’ts they should apply to their practices.

Online Media Music Discovery

Jay Frank, Founder and CEO of DigSin served as conductor of this panel, which took place on Monday. The players included Mark Richardson, Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork; Andrew Flanagan, Writer and Editor of Billboard; Joe Carozza, Senior Vice President of Publicity of Republic Records; and Andy Cohn, President and Publisher of The FADER. The discussions between panelists provide me with advice for what a publicist should do in order to increase coverage about their artist, and what to avoid.

Do Tell a Story to the Industry Player

As a publicist, when you pitch an artist to someone else in the industry, ask yourself what makes the artist different and why that industry player should care about them? The type of story you tell keep the reader interested. Although some artists might want to hold back on the story, encourage them to speak and share.

Don’t Blame Publications for not Creating Enough Attention

The publications tell the artist’s story behind their music. An artist must convince listeners to care about them through music. While I attest the writer has to care first about the artist and the music they create in order to tell a great story; the publicist must be a mover and shaker, the one who helps start a relationship between the writer and musician.

On this note, the writer’s job is to help present a face to a record label, one that shows the artist has potential to stay with a label on a long-term basis.

Do Use Social Media to Create Attention

Publicists should push this, especially since artists today are on the forefront of their social media, and this can be curtailed to create new stories. Focus on how to get people to pay attention to the artist’s social media.

Don’t Rely on a Viral Music Video to Create Attention

Joe says “Many artists come in my office and say, ‘I want to make a video [for my artist] and I want to know how to make it viral.’ This is the wrong mentality. You have to spot an elephant in the room and see how it is different from everything else that is out there.”

In other words, Joe means that publicists must not put so much faith in a music video that will tug at the heart strings of Youtube, Hulu or Google Play users. One of the reasons might be that the music video, like the written article, is a promotional tool; it does not define to the listeners why they should care about that artist. If the music does not stick, neither will the video.

Do look at the writers’ past work before pitching them

Any public relations expert will tell you to research the media outlets that will have the most chance of showing interest in the person, service or product you represented. Would you send a press release of an album launch by an independent hip-hop musician to a magazine that covers strictly classical music? Probably not. On the other hand though, journalists sift through hundreds of press releases every day simply because they don’t feel the story fits with the publication’s brand identity.

Luckily, the agent will not need to examine each media outlet front-to-back and split hairs in order to decide whether or not to pitch the artist to this publication. Instead, they must judge whether the writer really thinks about music based on previous articles they have written. Can the writer generate new ideas about how to present a musician to a producer or record label? The publicist should ask this question.

Don’t think nobody will cover your artist because they are not big

Publications like Pitchfork will not solely cover bands that everyone knows. They recognize there is good music out there, but the artist might have a small audience. If you are publicizing an artist who writes memorable music and writes it well, then chances are someone will want to cover that musician.

Final Thoughts

The panels that I spoke of are the ones I attended. So many more took place at The New Music Seminar, I just couldn’t be present for all of those discussions. During the seminar, I also split my time between scheduling interviews with bands, researching their work for questions, having conversations with them, and traveling to their shows all over the Lower East Side. Indeed, the three-day conference kept me busy, and the experience is worth the effort.

Many believe investigating secondary resources like books, websites, television, newspapers, magazines and additional publications that talk about the evolving music industry is the most convenient way to learn about this business landscape. It is only convenient if you sit down and conduct all of the research. Based on personal experience, studying the most accurate information will take weeks. You can save time to learn about the best practices by attending a conference. The greatest benefit one can gain from the New Music Seminar includes the opportunity to network and mingle with additional industry experts, music entrepreneurs, and build new business relationships within one stop.

Tom Silverman, the Executive Director of the New Music Seminar writes, “It is surprising that something so essential to human happiness can be so undervalued. The purpose of the New Music Seminar is to bring people together to discuss new ways to increase the value of music.”

He adds, “The opportunity for music revenue growth is even bigger on a global scale. The largest growth potential exists in parts of the world that never had a meaningful music business. Now, billions of mobile phones can deliver music to music-loving people.

“As we change our paradigm from one of selling music to one of selling the attention that music drives, we will experience a doubling of the value of music within ten years – and another doubling in the following decade (New Music Seminar Guide Book, p. 84-86, 2014).”

Bibliography

New Music Seminar. The New Music Business: Guidebook NMS 2014. June 2014, New York, NY, USA. Unpublished Conference Paper, 2014. 84-86. Print.