April 13, 2023 - 7:39 pm
It’s kind of amazing — at least it is to me — how sometimes great business relationships come out of something that had pretty much nothing to do with business. I know a guy who has built an entire entertainment production business basically on a chance meeting he had more than 30 years ago with someone in a liquor store who turned out to be a fledgling promoter doing mostly punk shows in the Los Angeles area. They have been working together now for close to four decades on what have grown to be some of the biggest and most highly-regarded music festivals in the world.
This story is not nearly that dramatic but it might be more fun. Just go with me on this…
Back in the late 1990s, I was the editor of a national magazine for working musicians called GIG. It was the beginning of my nearly life-long journey as a “remote employee” long before there was even a term to describe it. To my friends and many business associates, I was just a weird guy who had an office in the garage of my house in Altadena, California, while the magazine I edited was based in New York City.
We had no Zoom or Slack or Skype or anything like that. We were only barely using email, really. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my managing editor, who was based in the NYC office. And once a month, I flew in to the city to oversee the final week of the production process. Occasionally, I would extend the trip so that I could go out with one of the sales staff and do the schmooze with potential advertisers. This is about one of those trips.
We actually started outside of Boston with a company that makes cymbals whose roots run 400 years deep and that started as an attempt at alchemy. Really. Then we made a stop in Connecticut for lunch with a company renowned for making acoustic guitars for earnest songwriters (which we’ll get back to) but whose roots were in making things like helicopter blades for the military. Indeed, their very popular guitars were largely made from the exact same material.
After lunch, we headed to our final stop in a little town called Brattleboro in Vermont (and, yes, until I sat down to write and research this, I called it “Battlesboro” because that is the way I heard it and I am a moron about the geography of New England).
At this point I should note that during this period of time, I had an unusual way of ensuring I was able to practice my guitar playing while on the road. Without getting too far into the music gear weeds, the short version is that I took a cheap Fender Stratocaster copy and took it apart, separating the neck from the body so the whole thing would fit into my suitcase. And, yeah, it was about as ridiculous an idea as it sounds like. But it worked and is crucial to this story.
We were in Brattleboro to see a guy by the name of David Rose who was, at that time, the gatekeeper to the advertising budget for Sweetwater Sound. Sweetwater is now one of the biggest retailers of music gear in the U.S. and was always ahead of its time. They were one of the first music retailers to really embrace the Internet and were based in Indiana while their lead marketing guy was in Vermont, making them an early adopter of the whole idea of remote work, too.
For all I know, Brattleboro may now be a teeming metropolis full of great restaurants. But back then it was a sleepy little town that was best known as the home of a couple of liberal arts grad schools and an insane asylum that had been there since the early 19th century. Dining options were pretty limited.
At David’s suggestion, we met him at a local pub for dinner. It was basically a bar that served food and that had a small stage in the corner. There was a tiny drum kit up there and a couple of amps and a single mic on a stand. Unbeknownst to us (at least to me and the ad guy whose name is Andy, David may have known), we walked into the place on Open Mic Night.
It was every stereotype you can imagine of an open mic in a small college town in New England. As we ordered and schmoozed, there was a seemingly exhaust-less stream of super earnest college girls playing acoustic guitars all singing original songs of heartbreak and the late ‘90s version of social justice. It was… excruciating. (And I told you we would get back to the “earnest” thing.)
I don’t remember how the next bit came to pass, but it may have been my idea. (I should probably note here that this was seven or eight years before I stopped drinking.) Andy played some drums and David was a bass player. Someone said something about how it would be a kick to get up there and teach the Earnest Girls a thing or two. If only there were a guitar up there…
Next thing I remember, I was outside with the trunk of Andy’s car and my suitcase open with a screwdriver in hand putting that Strat copy back together and making at least an attempt to get it in tune.
Now, this whole thing was a goof. A kind of Yankee version of “here, hold my beer.” None of us had ever played a note of music together and there was no chance that anything we did was going to be actually, you know, good or anything.
As I was the only one among us who could say they had been a lead singer, I probably got an extra vote on the song we were going to do serious damage to. Which makes the choice even more ridiculous. It was a song I had been forced to play hundreds of times in every cover band I was in since the late ‘70s. It may have been on my mind because I had recently found out that someone I was working with had played cowbell on the original recording. Really.
Anyway, while I was outside reassembling the guitar with Andy, David walked up the street to his place and grabbed a bass and then put us on the sign-up list back at the pub. I think he called us the Gig Guys. I think. Like I said, I was still drinking, so, there ya go. By the time I made my way back inside, there were just two Earnest Girls up before us.
We heard our name called and headed for the stage. Three dudes all kicking 40 in the pa-toot (at least I was kicking it, Andy and David may have already been there) in a room full of college kids in their early 20s. Barely able to keep from laughing out loud, David plugged his bass into the house amp and Andy sat behind the tiny drum kit and I took a deep breath and started playing it.
If you grew up listening to the radio in the mid-70s, you could probably do an “I can name that song in five notes, Alex” with The Riff. We had all heard it thousands of times and, as noted earlier, I had been unwillingly playing it at gigs for at least 20 years. (And in the sign of a true classic, was still playing it on the odd lounge gig as recently as just a few years ago.)
“Play That Funky Music, White Boy.”
Yeah. Really. That is the song we came up with to play in front of a room full of college kids, some of whom were likely conceived after their parents boogied to The Riff. I’m embarrassed just typing it.
I think we probably expected to get booed off the stage. Which didn’t happen. In fact I seem to remember that we did an epic 12- or 14-minute version complete with drum and bass solos and extended audience call and response vocals. When we finally stopped, the place exploded. I had been playing gigs since I was 13 and I don’t think I ever got that kind of reaction before that night.
We made our way off the stage and let people buy us a few rounds of shots. And then we left.
When I thought about writing this story out, I reached out to Andy to see if he remembered the incident (he did) and if he remembered details like the name of the town or the person we were there to see. Good thing his memory is better than mine. And he provided the Crucial Point to all of this and the way to circle back to the whole personal/business angle of this story.
He replied to my text and noted this: “The open mic night was a brilliant bonding event, which broke a major account for us: We visited with David Rose of Sweetwater in his home town of Brattleboro, Vermont. He was always a total jerk to me and never advertised… until that evening, when everything changed.” Indeed, if I remember right, Sweetwater was a full-page advertiser every issue from that point until GIG went under a half dozen years later.
This all proves that you never know what can happen when you get a few crazy music types together under circumstances with at least a semblance of plausible deniability. (Thank God I did most of my really stupid stuff before YouTube and social media were a thing.)
Lay down the boogie and play that funky music ’til you die, indeed.