Maybe your band should break up.
That's the implicit and unwritten credo of the new book Everything I Know About the Music Business I Learned from My Cousin Rick, a playful and practical guide to success and failure by Raleigh industry veteran Dave Rose. Though Rose hasn't played in bands in more than a decade, he's been one of the driving forces behind area record label, artist management company and production house Deep South Entertainment since the mid-'90s.
Long before that little business began to bloom, Rose thumbed the bass in a number of almost-anonymous area acts—Majesty, Paris Red and 9811. Those experiences served as a veritable Home Improvement marathon for Rose, teaching him how to do things well in the music business by allowing him to do even the most elementary tasks incorrectly. In 1989, after opening a sellout gig at long-gone Raleigh club The Switch, Rose's band accepted a fill-in headlining gig at the same club a week later. They were too young to know they needed to promote the gig or, better yet, wait a few weeks until their next show. They played for eight people. "The mistakes I made that week," Rose recounts, "were numerous."
At times a memoir of misery, My Cousin Rick finds Rose to be a disarmingly self-deprecating narrator. He includes embarrassing photos of himself in his hair-metal heyday and awkwardly posed snapshots with his more-famous friends, alongside consistent admissions about just not getting it. He wasted his time in the recording studio listening to new Ryan Adams tracks and convinced himself that playing a dozen gigs in his hometown in a few weeks was real success.
"I made every mistake known to mankind during my first years as a musician," he writes. "But I learned from those mistakes."
Indeed, since his days of puffed-up hair and botched bookings, Rose has made a living as a music industry executive in a region where music industry executives aren't altogether common. His early work with his compilation-based label helped launch the careers (or slivers thereof) of '90s hitmakers Marcy Playground, Butch Walker and Far Too Jones. He's managed piano crooner Bruce Hornsby and scantily clad Christian metal heroes Stryper, country chanteuse Allison Moorer and bedrock 'n' roll band Little Feat.
For five years, Deep South even booked, produced and managed Bud Light Downtown Live, an artistically slim series of free shows in Raleigh that helped persuade suburbanites to visit (and soon revitalize) the city center.
"It was always a conscious decision to have 10 streams of revenue rather than one," Andy Martin, Rose's longtime Deep South partner, admits. "If you've got one super huge band and they go away, you don't have a job anymore."
Rose's book is intended as a guide for young musicians hoping to find some security in the dubious financial decision to be an artist. On that level, it succeeds as a recital of fundamentals and exigencies, exploring questions such as how much you should pay for a recording and when you should turn your band or your songs into proper legal entities. This advice comes delivered with great candor and a welcome dose of impudence.
Rose instructs zealous readers about speaking the language of booking agents (warm bodies and booze sales) and balancing cover songs with originals in a live set ("It depends on your goals"). He talks about how and when to audition for American Idol and how many hours of sleep musicians should get per night.
Most important, though, Rose's book brims with the symptoms of those desperately in need of the restart button, either for their lives or their bands. Throughout My Cousin Rick, Rose consistently stops just short of declaring "Give up," an admonition that would neither be consistent with his avuncular Southern air nor with his résumé as an oft-rebuffed musician who finally found a way to make music his livelihood. In that sense, his life serves as a parable of sorts, a survival guide for those without fortune or fame. Rose realized he likely wouldn't make a living making music, so he stopped in time to earn a living by working with those who could.
"By deciding to try to 'make it' in music," he warns within the first 20 pages, "you have decided to enter a profession where the vast majority of people who enter this field never make a living. If you enter the field of music as your career choice, it's very unlikely that you will become a professional musician."
That is, music isn't for everyone. In an Internet era flooded with instant music, and in a local market that's arguably as musically productive as it has ever been, it's a sobering and useful proclamation, especially from someone whose job has historically been to help folks get famous. Don't plan to be great and popular, Rose's advice reduces; plan to be decent and, just maybe, lucky.
Given Rose's dossier of clients who have been something or never were very much, it's tempting to poison Rose's own well, to dismiss his music business philosophy as dated claptrap. (Here, I must confess a measure of similar pretrial bias.) But that's precisely the point: Despite the tumultuous landscape of the music business and his relative geographical isolation within the industry, Rose and Deep South have been in business for more than a decade. He has successfully been living out the childhood dream he had of a life in music since his cousin Rick played him Boston's first LP in 1977.
Rose had the sense to know he wasn't good enough to make a living by making music, but he realized he might be able to do so by managing its commerce. In 1990, Rose graduated from N.C. State with a degree in economics. He opened a second branch of his father's Eastern North Carolina accounting firm in Raleigh, performing double duty as the diurnal number cruncher and nocturnal hair metal musician. More than 20 years later, that duality perseveres, as Deep South doubles as an accounting house for talent. Even as some of their clients have advanced to bigger firms, Deep South still manages their books.
"We handle tour budgets and finances for acts," Rose explained in a recent series of interviews about the book. "Taxes and accounting aren't quite as sexy as concerts."
Rose, 45, doesn't deal with ledgers in My Cousin Rick, but he does assess bands with the same diagnostic approach that an accountant might use for any young business. He urges acts to collect data and be analytical and honest about the results—that is, if they're getting them.
At one point, for instance, Rose imagines the all-too-real scenario of a band climbing into a van, heading into a market other than its own to play a show, being disappointed by the lack of turnout and, a few months later, repeating the process for even less fans.
"Eventually, you need to start saying to yourself, 'Is this worth it?' Is it worth traveling eight hours to play for 10 people?" Rose writes. "If you play eight hours away in the same town on three different occasions, and your fan base isn't increasing even slightly, then something's wrong. It's not connecting like it should."
In 176 pages, Rose often deals with those who are, as he sees it, doing it wrong—bands who have yet to define their own success, bands who incorporate and lawyer up before they've written a song anyone enjoys, bands who don't respond enthusiastically when someone actually cares about their music.
Having experienced the tedium of such characters in his office, Rose recounts their stories with a bit of irk and irreverence. Just as he writes about famous clients who have made the right moves, he uses these errors as teachable moments. "Don't use the word 'score,'" he quips in response to an inquiry about how to score a meeting with someone at a label. "It makes you sound like a tool."
The bulk of My Cousin Rick is concerned with not sounding or looking like a dolt, or making bands at least seem like professionals. If and when the spotlight comes calling, they're ready for the glint.
"I'd bet that if a record label had their eye on two bands whose music they liked equally, and one had their stuff together and one didn't, they'd sign the one that had it together," writes Deep South client Allison Moorer in her foreword.
Rose goes so far as to offer a style advice section, dubiously writing "Name me five overweight popular singers and I'll name you 50,000 physically fit ones" and pejoratively equating the jazz musician in a Metallica T-shirt to the banker in beachwear.
But the book itself is a decidedly hobbyist enterprise for Rose, who enthuses about its early sales figures (around 600 copies sold) and its distant Amazon Best Sellers ranking (near 280,000th place, a decided improvement from somewhere beyond the one-millionth position upon release). As such, My Cousin Rick—written in late-night spurts of inspiration and edited largely by interns at Deep South, Rose says—is a mess, beset by counterintuitive formatting, circuitous repetition and entire sections that should have become seas of to-be-deleted red. It is not glamorous or polished; it is a brain purge guided by a meek attempt at order.
Yet strangely, My Cousin Rick works with the tale of Rose's career. His is a path of wrong and right turns that have kept him in motion, his ideas always in trial phase and, crucially, his ass and skill set out of the tour van.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Music isn't for everyone."