March 1st, 2010
Five Things Gordon Ramsay Could Teach About the Music Business
Gordon Ramsay is a helluva good chef, and a powerhouse TV personality.  His most recent show, “Kitchen Nightmares,” is one of my two admitted reality-TV addictions (the other is “Project Runway” – and yes, those are really the only two).  In it, Chef Ramsay heeds the plightful calls of struggling restaurant owners, and in a speedy, emotional, and explitive-filled week he turns their luck around, giving them the tools they need to get out of the red and into the black on Page Six.
Chef Ramsay is decidedly not in the music business.  But as one of the world’s most successful restaurateurs, and host of this brilliant addition to the ever-expanding televised universe, I think he would have a thing or two to say about the way musicians approach their profession.
1. It’s a business, dammit
It’s the same sad story over and over.  A poor, misguided young (or sometimes very old) fool loves to cook and found a friend to lend her some start-up money.  This alone does not make for a successful restaurant owner.  In fact, it can only end in tears.  And it often does (I told you it was good TV).
Singer-songwriters armed with nothing more than a guitar on their back and a song in their heart should be similarly warned: it takes more than passion to make it happen.  What kind of investment do you really need to release an album, or book a tour?  What skills do you have, and who do you have to enlist to fill in the gaps?  When you think about getting into the music business, don’t ignore that tricky second half of the phrase – it’s what makes the first half possible.
2. Passion good, pride bad
No, you are not the greatest chef who ever lived when your only clientele is the cranky crowd in for the cheap deal on an early bird special.  Get over yourself.
Pride, arrogance, haughtiness, hubris…whatever you call it, it’s a cardinal sin in more than Catholicism, not to mention a huge turn-off.  Don’t be afraid to take criticism, whether it be of your music, stage persona, business tactics, or any other aspect of being a musician.  Those who genuinely critique you are doing so because they want you to be better, and know that you can be.
3. Taste your food
Seriously, if you wouldn’t eat what you’re cooking, you shouldn’t send it out to your customers.  Some chefs pile on spices like some writers insist on flowery, superfluous, meaningless, excessive, long-winded adjectives.  It’s just sickening.
If you love your music, and your mom loves your music, and your dog loves your music, that’s awesome.  But that doesn’t make it good music (no offense, Mom).  Make a playlist of artists in your genre, or of people you’d love to play alongside one day, and slip your tunes in the mix.  How does it hold up…really?  Go on, give it a little taste…
4. The front of the house needs the back of the house, and vice versa
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing better than watching a good manager-waitress shouting match on “Kitchen Nightmares” to make me appreciate how simple and beautiful my own life is.  But when it starts reflecting how my band is working together, or my relationship with bookers, agents, or (heaven forbid) fans, there’s something wrong.
The mixing engineer, the promoter, even the bartender, these people are all part of what makes your career work.  Find effective ways to communicate with them, and do it regularly to build a cohesive message.  If the comminication breaks down, it doesn’t matter how good the music (or food, as the case may be) is, cuz no one’s gonna hear it right.
5. Substance matters, but so does style
Filling your restaurant with fake plastic palm trees stuffed with jungle-themed Beanie Babies is a bad idea.  I don’t care how good your teriyake salmon quesadillas are, I ain’t coming in.
Websites, album covers, merchandise and all those other “surface” things can make or break an artist’s career.  Think about the way you’re packaging yourself, from stage persona to liner notes.  Does it fit with the brand you’re trying to build for yourself and your music?  Does it make your fans want to run home and listen to that song one more time, or does it make them want to wash the icky residue off their hands and get so drunk they never remember that painful memory again?
When it comes down to it, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  But if you can, go for it with all you’ve got.  Cook up something great.
-Miriam Jayne Brousseau

February 26th, 2010

Good Advice

I’m not good at getting advice.  I’ll listen, agree, nod politely, and do whatever it was I was going to do in the first place.  To be fair, the same goes for when the advice comes from me.  Like Alice says while wandering aimlessly through Wonderland, “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”
Still, one piece of advice that has always stuck with me came from my guitar teacher in high school.  He doesn’t remember saying it, he’s told me as much.  It came out amidst a flurry of other unrelated ideas which only a deeply experienced musician could venture to assemble into coherence.  But for whatever reason, it hit me.  ”Miriam, if you’re gonna be the leader of the band, be the leader of the band.”
Oh.  Okay.  What?
I pretended to, but I had no idea what he meant by that, and it showed.
When I was 15 I recorded a demo with my band, Furthur (yes, with two u’s, and yes, I know) at a studio in Racine, WI. Racine, the home of the almighty kringle, and the dying blue-collar town where I grew up.  The guy who ran the studio was a local pastor who went by the moniker “Wimpy,” which probably should have tipped us off right there.  But I was a teenager about to hear my voice singing my songs on tape for the first time, so I didn’t ask questions.
Those days in the studio with my band were almost surreal.  My E string broke at least six times, and the guys and I would sometimes get so worn out listening to endless playbacks that we’d fall asleep on the floor, nestled around the base of the drum kit.  We laughed a lot and learned a little and paid way too much.  I remember Wimpy giving me my first tour of ProTools, his inexperienced hand clipping and clipping at various takes, trying to get them to meld together inconspicuously.  A bass player named Spun (who was easily 30 years our senior and who refused to reveal his real name, or, for that matter, why he went by Spun) sat in on a couple tracks and later did my hair for prom.  When the mixing was almost done, I brought in an early version of the CD to my school band director.  ”The vocals are behind the guitar,” he critiqued, hands frenetically scrolling the length of his jazzy hollow-body.  Behind?  What did that even mean, behind?  Whatever.  I thought it sounded great.  So I didn’t say anything.
That was all ten years ago.  Furthur has since disbanded (surprise, surprise…I once heard that the average lifespan of a high school band is 7 months, and we made it a couple years).  I’ve since gone to school, for both my bachelor’s and master’s (bachelorette’s and mistress’s?) degrees, moved to Chicago, gotten hired, gotten *ahem* let go, gotten hitched (yay!), and found music again.  It never really left, but it was lost in the mix for a while – no pun intended.  I was busy going to school.  I’m good at school.  But now I’m done with that.  Instead I’m going to go learn something.
I’ve been with MLC and ToyBlock Music for only a couple of months now, but I feel like I’m finally learning to be the leader of the band.  Metaphorically, of course.  It’s not about doing everything right and never having to ask questions.  It’s not even about singing lead, or having a title.  It’s about accessing your talents, your passions, and really owning them.  Sharing them.  It’s about looking at yourself as a work in progress, and affording your team the same courtesy.  This is the vibe at TBM, and it’s one I’m trying to take with me wherever I go.
So to Ken, my guitar teacher extraordinaire, who let me get away with bringing in a new song every week instead of learning my modes – thank you.  That was good advice.  Even if I couldn’t take it at the time.
-Miriam Jayne Brousseau

December 3rd, 2009

Huuuuuai guys,

It’s Claire the intern.

Let’s get to know each other, yeah? But not like Internet know each other (a/s/l). More like speed dating! For starters, I am 5’3, roughly, and I really like to eat. So much so that my only reasoning for taking this internship was so Joanna could feed me Notolli sandwiches every Thursday evening. Another reason I am the official MLC intern is because DP and I are tight. We talk to each other and I refrain myself from singing/rapping Dead Prez – ‘Hip Hop’ to her. One day she’ll learn her unofficial name of ‘DP’ is featured in that song. She’s probably the coolest kid around. Even cooler that the “I’m a PC and I’m 4 ½” girl. Yeah, you know whom I’m talking about.

All joking aside, I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity and learning experience. Working with Joanna and Sandro (along with the many others MLC leads me to), I have truly grasped the notion of multitasking. It’s refreshing. Honest. Slowly but surely I am starting to realize and understand what it takes exactly to make it in the business and every little detail that is involved. Ok, well not every detail—yet, but I am getting there. It’s great to build off of what I’m learning at Columbia, what I’m learning from MLC and applying that to tasks and projects. Their confidence in me was something that took me a while to get used to but it makes me feel a sense of belonging within MLC (I’m a month .5 in). We’re like an unofficial gang here. Except we don’t have colors but we’re packed with street Kred (with a capital K).


Claire – 12/3/09