Learning Agility: Soldiers in the World of Song

In the new world of rock and pop, solo artists, bands and record labels must be limber and adaptable. To make ends meet, punk rocker L.P. (Laura Pergolizzi) had to give up her dreams of stardom to become an Earth-bound staff songwriter, before getting to live those dreams, courtesy in part of her song and voice appearing on a TV commercial. To put food on the table, singer/songwriter/piano man Bob Malone had to take a steady gig playing keyboards for John Fogerty. Former country rock guitarist A.J. Gundell phased out his performing career in favor of the “mailbox money” he started to receive by writing cues for soap operas. Hot hip-hop producer and label head Alex Da Kid (Alexander Grant) spent more than a year developing something different and wound up taking Imagine Dragons from local notoriety to international fame. The pathway to success in music has taken dramatic twists in the past dozen years as the industry’s business model continues to evolve. Here are four examples of what rockers have to do to survive and thrive.

Laura Pergolizzi aka L.P.

Laura Pergolizzi is a former punk rocker from Long Island, now known as L.P. She’s the soaring voice behind the Citibank commercial featuring those mountain-climbing vacationers hanging off the side of a cliff to the tune of “Somebody left the gate open,” a lyric from L.P.’s song “Into the Wild.”

“For a little while there was a stigma on new artists having their songs in commercials,” says L.P. “I don’t believe in that. I heard that Feist doesn’t like to do ‘1234’ [the song that gained popularity from its appearance in an iTunes commercial] anymore. I respect her opinion, but I think if you’ve made your life music, don’t you want people to hear it, regardless of how they hear it?”

Having been signed to several recording and publishing deals in the past few years that didn’t pan out, L.P. was getting used to the idea that her impassioned singing days were over, in favor of the sedentary life of a staff songwriter. But not quite.

“I started singing out of that club Bardot in L.A. I was doing it in the spirit of, ‘Hey I’m a songwriter and I’m writing some songs that I’m not pitching, that only I feel like singing.’ ” At the same time, “Cheers,” a cut she had on the 2010 Rihanna album “Loud” (written with nine other collaborators), became a single and started riding up the charts. “It was a mixed feeling,” she says of the hit. “If I was just being a songwriter I’d have buried myself in all the opportunities of having a hit with a major artist, but because I was all of a sudden doing my own work as an artist again, and being approached by labels, it kind of overrode that. But it gave me an interesting added dimension. ‘Oh, so you write songs for other people and for yourself? You have a song on the radio and you have a song of your own that you sing in a commercial?’ ”

One of these gigs was at a semi-private party at L.A.’s Soho House, where an A&R man — a talent scout — from a record label she’d spurned was in the audience. “I was getting heat because I was playing in that club, just for fun. I was playing covers and at the same time writing the best stuff of my life for myself. I think writing for other people took some pressure off me, and I just felt inspired to write songs, not to get a deal. I thought I was kind of done being an artist in that way and I was like, ‘All right, I’m just going to write songs.’ I did two shows there, and at the second one I remember seeing this guy who I had turned down five years before. But now he was at Warner Brothers.”

This meeting led to L.P. signing with Warner Brothers in 2011, a month before the song her publishers had submitted to Citibank became an anthem for thrill-seeking mountain climbers. “Warner Brothers had no idea about the commercial when I signed to them,” said L.P. “When they heard about it, they were like, ‘Sweet!’

“At least at Warner Brothers they’re rolling their sleeves up and getting their hands dirty a little with artists that can matter at the same time as they’re still doing the pop stuff,” L.P. says. “I see artist development a lot at Warner Brothers, by people who really know and care about music. They’re trying to find people who are onto something and nourish them.”

For L.P., this is a second (or fifth) shot at stardom. “I had blown through two advances from two record deals, with nothing really to show for it,” she says. “Then I got a publishing deal with another advance, and I really had to hustle. “You always have to get to that next level. When nobody gives you an advance, you want an advance. When you get an advance, you want to get a hit song. Now it feels really good to be allowed to take a record to fruition. We’re in the mixing phase right now.”

Soon after she was signed to Warner Brothers, to take advantage of her TV commercial exposure, the label released a live EP, “Into the Wild.” “With the commercial fueling people’s knowledge of that song, we started doing a lot of festivals. Warner Brothers chairman Rob Cavallo and I were talking about the record. We decided to put the band I had at the moment in the studio, and go through all the songs I had live. As that process was going on, Rob was like, ‘Why don’t we record it really well and maybe film it,’ and it grew from there. By the time I was done in November, I was doing ‘Austin City Limits.’ I was playing at South by Southwest for the second time. I was playing in front of 5,000 people, which was huge for me. Whatever happens with this record, I hope I get to tour. Touring is really one of my strengths. I just really want to work.”

Bob Malone

“We had the same lawyer,” Malone says of his chance discovery in 2011 that John Fogerty had fired his keyboard player. “I auditioned and got the part.” Malone’s regular job as a solo artist, at times backed by a band, is worlds away from Fogerty’s Pleistocene Era touring experience. “I tour with them 40 to 50 shows a year. We play arenas and theaters and big festivals for 100,000 people. There’s a crew, and we fly in a private jet. As for me, whenever Fogerty’s not on the road, I’m still doing it the same as I did 10 and 20 years ago. I still have no crew. But I haven’t had to drive across country for gigs in 10 years.” 

Instead of a regular band, Malone has experienced players in various parts of the country who know his material, whom he can call on at a moment’s (well, six months’ advance) notice. The Fogerty credit has proven to be a drawing card primarily in Europe, where he spends at least half his performing time. “In America they don’t care if you’re a sideman for somebody big,” says Malone. “Overseas, just being an American musician was enough for people to come out before, but if you add this in, you can charge more money.”

As far as his own touring, because of his experience building an audience, Malone generally commands more money than he did 10 years ago. “The economy has made things harder, but I’ve got a better profile than I did back then.” CD sales is a different matter. While his first few independently produced CDs sold around 10,000 copies each, that figure has dwindled in the past four years. “If anything has really killed off CD sales, it’s streaming, which is totally legal,” he says. “Technically, we get royalties for it, but they’re so small it’s pretty much nothing. Then again, I get more royalties now than I used to, from airplay on Sirius XM [satellite radio], which makes up for some of that. To tell you the truth, touring has become the last viable guaranteed way to make money. The other income streams are happening, but they’re changing and they’re tenuous, and they’re getting smaller.”

Nevertheless, this past year Malone’s been in the studio working on his first album since 2009. He’s hoping the Fogerty link will boost his profits. “When I first started doing it, it really didn’t matter,” he says. “Now I’ve been seen doing it quite a bit, so it’s a pretty good time to make a record. I haven’t lost the muse, but it gets harder as you get older. Half the time you sit down to write a song and it’s a lesser version of a song you already wrote, so you have yourself to compete against as well as everybody else. But I feel like I’m doing some of my best work right now, so I’m pretty happy about that end of it.”

Like most freelancers, Malone is loath to turn down any assignment that pays. Last year he orchestrated a piece for the musical theater while on tour with Fogerty. “We were playing all of these dates in Northern Europe and it was summer and it was light all night long. I was completely turned around. I’d stay in the back of the bus writing this theater project, and I’d look up and it’d be 6 in the morning and the sun never went down.”

Some of his work can be heard in the background of TV shows like “Dr. Phil” and “Entertainment Tonight.” “They go into a music library that pitches my stuff. That’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

But not enough to replace the nearly 100 gigs a year he needs to maintain his California lifestyle with his wife of 10 years. “She was also a touring musician,” says Malone. “So she knows what I need to do to make a living at this. If we had kids I might have to reconsider the amount of time I spend on the road. Then I’d have to think about doing piano lessons, or get that tux out of the closet and start hitting those wedding gigs again. Do I want to change diapers and start doing wedding gigs again? No, I don’t.”

Imagine Dragons

Racking up the travel miles this spring and summer, the band Imagine Dragons may have been longing for a few months off as they journeyed through a string of one-nighters in Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Great Britain, taking a break to skip over to Tokyo, before concluding in Boston and New York — interrupted only by dates in Scotland, Finland, Russia and Lithuania.

That’s the price you pay when your debut album, “Night Visions,” sells 83,000 copies in its first week. Imagine Dragons has done it the old-fashioned way, through a couple of massive hit singles. But both singles had their share of TV play before mainstream radio put them into heavy rotation.

When released in 2012, “It’s Time” achieved that rare “quadfecta” of having been performed live by the band during a six-month span in front of late-night TV’s Mount Rushmore of Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien. Throw in appearances on the fourth-season premiere of “Glee” and sixth-season finale of “Gossip Girl,” and you’ve got the makings of a top 15 lead into the summer of 2013’s biggest hit. “Radioactive” cracked the top 10 after appearing in video games, TV promos, a trailer for the much-anticipated Stephanie Meyer movie, “The Host,” and in the headset of LeBron James as he prepared for the NBA finals.

“We’re heading toward a digital revolution, and I just want to be at the forefront of that creative culture,” says Alexander Grant (Alex Da Kid), Imagine Dragons’ producer and the head of their label, KIDinaKORNER/Interscope. In 2010, before he got his own record deal, his production of the Eminem featuring Rihanna track “I Love the Way You Lie” was the top song of the year. But Imagine Dragons is a different animal, one thought to be nearly extinct, a rock band in love with electronics, but firmly rooted in the arena mold of U2 and Coldplay.

“I never wanted to sacrifice their credibility with a reality show, and I didn’t want to just rely on radio,” says Grant. He attributes the huge success of “Radioactive” (sales of 4 million and still rising) to his staff and their understanding of the new multimedia world. “That’s why I preach the whole thing of not really relying on just one element to launch a career,” he says. “Even from the start, when we had our first planning meeting at Interscope, every single department head came, and they were all energized about them. We did a showcase at iTunes a couple of months before we put the album out, and they became big fans once they saw the band live. We’ve had tremendous support at Target and Best Buy.

“For a debut rock band to do what they did is definitely healthy for the record industry,” Grant continues. “I always have conversations about whether rock can come back to the mainstream or not. I totally believe it can. I just don’t believe it’s going to be the same rock you’re used to.”

Grant feels today’s bands will be able to maintain their integrity. “I think we’re heading toward a future where artists will have the freedom to not just bow down to reality TV or top 40 radio. They can make the album they want to make and still have a career, especially as streaming continues to evolve. Right now, people are still trying to figure it out, but once the real money starts coming in, I’m sure people are going to make smart deals.” Signing Imagine Dragons to his fledgling label (the other artist on the label, Skylar Grey, put out her first album in July) is surely the smartest deal Alexander Grant has made so far.

“When I first heard of them, they’d done three EPs by themselves,” he says. “We went into the studio and just started writing.”

A version of “It’s Time” had been previously written and recorded, appearing on the band’s third EP, also titled “It’s Time.” It had even been sent out to radio, with disappointing results. “But we believed in the song and decided to put it on the fourth EP,” Grant says. “Once we got involved, we continued to add radio, and it took off.” To Grant, the EP was the perfect evolutionary step. “An EP is a good way of building a fan base. We wound up selling 100,000 EPs, but if we had just put out an album straight away, we wouldn’t have had the same response.”

As opposed to the staffs at many boutique labels during rock’s long slide into near-irrelevance, Grant’s employees at KIDinaKORNER have a lot of fun showing up for work these days. “Having a hit definitely perks up the morale,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to work with some great people. I’m a humongous fan of David Geffen and what he did with Asylum. Jimmy Iovine [Geffen/Interscope/A&M Chairman] has been a huge mentor to me. Once you get a little bit of success, how you grow that success is the really hard part. I definitely want to expand, but it has to happen at the right time. I don’t want to expand too quickly.”

A.J. Gundell

The former country rock guitarist, Yale graduate and multi-Emmy-winning songwriter A.J. Gundell learned the value of music libraries while toiling as a music supervisor at the soap operas “Guiding Light” and “All My Children” in the 1980’s and 90’s. “In the course of being in the trenches of network TV, I became acquainted with production music libraries,” says Gundell. “They’re a collection of music in many genres, styles and tempos. I became acquainted with how they worked, and frankly, how they didn’t work. Often, I might have had to go through 9 or 10 CDs to find something I could use. (Now it’s more like hard drive and cloud and Web delivery options.) After years of doing this, I had an epiphany moment where I said if I ever have a chance to do this myself, I’ll do it much better.”

He got this chance in 2003, when he hooked up with an audio postproduction house called Tonic, became their staff composer and started producing a song library for them. “We primarily branded ourselves \"\"as a song library, because in my experience the song part of it was where the quality tended to be on the low end. Our brand and mantra was ‘The best songs you’ve never heard.’ ” Over the next few years Tonic placed about 1,000 cuts on talk shows, daytime dramas, in promotional ads and on movie and TV trailers. Recently Gundell has become co-owner of the library, and is preparing to re-enter the marketplace with a completely refurbished and revitalized approach. In the offing is a co-publishing deal with one of the world’s biggest independent publishing companies.

Getting involved with a traditional publisher has necessitated a change in Tonic’s business model. For one thing, where composers used to be able to place their songs in any number of libraries, changing the song’s title for each one, the move now is toward exclusivity. “A big problem in the industry is that there’s too much re-titled stuff floating around out there, and users are becoming reluctant to consider it,” Gundell says. “It’s led to a lot of confusion, too. Let’s say a song is used in a movie; the songwriter would get credit, but would he get credit for the new title used in the movie, or the original, because that’s what’s on the album, that’s what he’s selling on iTunes, that’s what he plays in public? No, what we licensed was the re-title. That’s where the model breaks down. So we’re transitioning our roster to our new model. It may be harder to make the deals, because no songwriter wants to part with their publishing unless they know it’s going to be effectively exploited.”

Like a record company scout, Gundell spends a portion of his time scouring the Internet for new talent. “The fact there’s so much out there and it’s gotten so good is because there’s no filter anymore,” he says. “In the old days, you needed to get a record deal, which gave you the budget to spend $100 an hour in a state-of-the-art recording studio with live musicians playing, to make the record to release and distribute and promote to radio stations to play — to get the buyer to go to the store to buy the album. And 49 out of 50 bands would never recoup their advance. Now the landscape has completely changed. You can produce an album on your own. Consequently, what we’ve had is an explosion of independent music.”

Client relationships are vital, Gundell says. “Once you get that music supervisor, director or producer to love you, you’ve got a client for life, because the music supervisor in the trenches of a TV show is probably the most stressed person on the planet. If you give them music they love, you’re a hero and they keep coming back, and that’s what generates the checks, the performances and the revenues.”

If a song has been played for a year in the deep background of a daytime TV show, Gundell says, this exposure could be a plus. “It’s a multimedia universe of cross-pollination these days,” he says. “I think it’s possible an artist could be attracted by a song that was used on a particular show, maybe even multiple times — it could create an opening for that artist to sync his version to that show, pull that audience into his following, establish a relationship with the TV production company that could lead to using the song as a promo for the show.”  

Authors

  • Bruce Pollock

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute