"So, have you decided what your opening line will be?" asks Dan Reed.
Why, yes, I have, my hostess with the mostest! Here goes...
Over 170 million people tune into an NPR station every day. If my wife isn't in the car with me, I'm not one of them.
It's Pete Townshend's and Joey Ramone's birthday, May 19th, I've been in the Old East Coast charming, but seemingly deserted, downtown area of Wilmington, Delaware, for about six hours now, attending something called [the world-famous NPR radio station in Philadelphia] WXPN Presents World Café's Non-Comm-vention, and Dan, the man behind the curtain, overseeing it all, is really the only reason I'm here.
Hmmm... okay... lengthy exposition necessary after the very first run-on sentence...
In January 1991, after almost 20 years trying to get into the music biz as an artiste, I made one call to my pal, industry bigwig and Binky benefactor Bill McGathy, and in less than 30 minutes, had made the somewhat odd and somewhat rare leap from musician/songwriter to industry guy. Within weeks, I was promoting every major label's rock-oriented acts, a job I've done for over 20 years now.
The word "promotion" in the music industry has a very specific definition. Promoting an artist means Trying To Get Them On The Radio.
My job has been to get radio programmers to listen to a specific song(s). Once they've deigned to do that, my next task is to try to get them to put the song on the air. If I am able to get that far, I then try to get them to play the song more often than once a night between midnight and 6 am. Boiled down, that's promotion.
There are really just two ways to get this job done... Hard sell, soft sell... Hassling or building a relationship. I've always been a relationship guy.
So, for 20 years, I've been interacting with the two main cogs at any given radio station who can make the decisions that record labels pay me to affect, the music director and/or the program director. Music directors (MDs) are usually charged with creating the logs for the music (the order in which songs are played in a 24-hour period) and act as a filter for the program director when it comes to the new music that spews forth from every orifice and pore of the Music Industry on a weekly basis.
This entails two actions... One, listening to all the music that comes into the station, whether as a CD or a download, and picking out the very best for the program director to hear. Two, interacting with record label promotion reps, listening to their pitches and sharing info and viewpoints. Maybe being swayed, maybe not.
So, why does the program director need a filter/gatekeeper like a music director? Well, because a program director is responsible for literally every second that goes out on the airwaves. A lucky PD, as they're called, might have an OM in the building. An operations manager is basically in charge of everything else that's happening at the station that does not go on the air.
Okay, so, one day about 4 months ago, out of the blue, I got a call from Dan Reed, MD/OM of WXPN, the NPR station in market number 8, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Oh, for God's sake, more damn exposition needed here... Sorry...
While there are a myriad of formats that are designed to appeal to various demographics, there are really only two kinds of radio stations in this country, commercial radio stations and NPR (National Public Radio) non-commercial stations ("non-comms"). And there are basically two types of NPR stations, music-centric or talk-centric programming.
WXPN and its highly successful spawn, World Café, are among the top 3 or 4 music-centric NPR stations in America. World Café is syndicated to more than 200 other markets besides Philly. Dan Reed is, besides being the guy who makes the trains run on time, one of the preeminent and broad-tasted (with excellent taste) music freaks of this business. Actually, the old Mussolini line is glib. Dan is the guy who everyone needs to find when something has gone awry or a big decision has to be made. Dan is the guy who has to talk to over 100 people every week about music, bookings, events, local issues, national issues... I mean, you now know in the simplest of terms what an OM and an MD do. Dan, being both, is literally involved in virtually every aspect of getting this radio station on the air on a minute by minute basis. With live media that is how it rolls. Okay... hold on, let me just sit a minute... I'm tired just typing about how Dan spends his day.
Okay, okay... So, Dan calls me and tells me he's read all my Huff stuff, thank you, Arianna, that he loves my stories, and that I have to come do a show on New York Rock in the 70s with him at WXPN and tell some Huff Po stories on the air. Then I must come to the 11th annual World Café Non-Comm-vention in fetchingly Civil War Era downtown Wilmington.
"Binky, it's totally different world from the commercial radio vibe you're used to. You would love it... Very cool people, and I think it would make a great topic for one of your Huffington Post blogs."
Well, a boy can't have too many stories to tell... Yes, I'll come, Dan. Thank you very very much. Yes, this should be very interesting... even if I'm gonna have to listen to a bunch of songs about wood-burning owls played exclusively on acoustic guitars.
The fact is, while my wife loves the typical type of music that NPR stations play, I had kept myself sorta willfully ignorant about a lot of the more cerebral and free-range acts that live on those play-lists. This convention Dan and his minions and mentors had organized for the 3rd weekend of May had a lineup of performing acts that read like a major festival's roster of the NPR genre. Big established acts and the hottest up and coming critic-darling bands and singers. John Popper, Ben Harper, my dear old chum, Thurston Moore, Jayhawks, Keb Mo, Sam Roberts, Bright Eyes, perennials like G. Love, and Todd Snider... Along with much-hyped Civil Wars, The Head & The Heart, Junip, Raphael Saadiq, Cave Singers...
Here I come...
I love traveling by train. Wilmington is 2 hours from Penn Station in NYC. Piece of cake.
But, the ¼ mile hill-trudge up to the hotel and venue was somewhat unpleasant on such a muggy afternoon. Tut tut.
Once I'd settled into my room (and stood in front of the air conditioner for 15 minutes, drying off), I made my way 3 blocks east and one south... Standing on a loading ramp was Blues Traveler's legendary harp-player/singer, the still-svelte John Popper. This was the very first person connected to the event that I encountered. Cute.
Another fifty feet and [Boi-oi-oing!] I ran right into Dan Reed his own self.
"Hey, Bink, great to see you." says the obviously distracted Dan. "I'm getting my head prepped for my Cliff Burnstein interview. Come on, let's get you registered."
Nothing like walking around with The Poobah. Dan hustled me through 'customs'. I burst out laughing when I was handed my requisite laminate-on-a-lanyard.
The Huffington Post
Okay, so, who is Cliff Burnstein?
Well, among other ways to spend his time, he manages Metallica, Muse, Nickel Creek, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Black Keys, Josh Groban, Snow Patrol, Three Days Grace, Cage The Elephant, Silversun Pickups, Gillian Welch... In addition, he's worked with Def Leppard, Shania Twain, and some band called The Rolling Stones. Believe me, these artists have sold thousands for CDs for Cliff, thousands! A guy like this is actually a True Worthy of an in-depth interview.
There are those who joke that Cliff looks like a homeless man. I beg to differ. To me, he has a wise-man-at-the-top-of-the-mountain vibe. You know, the guy that everyone goes to for the Secret of Life in New Yorker cartoons. The hither-thither-and-yon-ness of Mr. Burnstein's hair and facial follicles connote a man who has neither the time nor patience nor need for folderol like shaving and haircuts.
I expected Cliff to be interesting, especially since I knew that Dan was a stone pro who'd elicit great answers to great questions. But, I was surprised by how entertaining Mr. Burnstein was. He presented his life in the music business in a very self-deprecating falling-up kind of way, while acknowledging that it had all been a huge amount of work.
While he'd been a knob-turning radio music freak and record collector as a kid, his professional journey embryonically began at WXPN (why he was at this convention in the first place). He and a buddy of his did a weekly Metal show called Meat Power in 1969. This was very very early on for that kind of show.
But, it actually took Cliff 'til he was 25 to realize that he actually belonged in the music business. And it was a record label's boring business/accounting side he initially got into.
As he told it, the business half of the label was on one side of the central elevator bank, and the creative guys/gals were on the other. Cliff spent all his lunch breaks on the "other" side of the building. Inevitably, a job opening popped up on the creative side, in Rock Promotion (you can see why they chose Cliff to interview), he was in the right place at the right time.
According to Cliff, his first move was to call all the guys who did the same job at other labels and point-blank ask them to teach him how to do it, too. Wwwwow!
Mr. Burnstein had successfully switched from the business side of a record label to the creative side... one hell of a trick, I can tell you that. Once there though, Cliff found himself in an untenable position. He was always on the artists' side and found that increasingly difficult to deal with. Because, the truth is, for decades, the major label artist's agenda was ignored or trampled on if it didn't make 5000 tons of money. Hence, Cliff Burnstein's switch to artist management. He called his company, Q-Prime.
I was somewhat astounded to learn that my dear old pal Dave Schulps, one of the founders of legendary fanzine Trouser Press, was mutual friends with Cliff and that it was Dave who, when Cliff asked, told him that Metallica was what "the kids were all talking about" back when they had only one unsigned album out. Why Dave didn't alert Cliff about ME is something I've got to discuss with Mr. Schulps someday soon. Maybe because the kids were NOT all talking about me?
Anyway, later that week, Cliff flew to London to meet up with his partner, Peter Mensch, a college DJ he'd met when he was doing promotion. Once there, he told Peter that they had to go find a copy of the album by this band called Metallica. They walked into a small shop that specialized in Metal and Hard Rock. Two of the four kids in the store were wearing Metallica t-shirts. Cliff turned to Peter, "Jeeeez! We don't even have to listen to this fucking thing!"
When Dan asked what Metallica and QPrime's goals were when they first started working together. Cliff burst out laughing...
"Goals?! The basic goal early on was to get to the next gig without being arrested."
Dan Reed asked Mr. Burnstein where Radio stood in the agenda at his management company, QPrime.
"If we have a 10-point game plan for an artist we manage, Radio is 1 through 9. That's how important radio still is."
When asked what was the most satisfying or meaningful moment with all the amazing success he's had, Cliff said that when they agreed to manage Cage The Elephant, the band told him that if he hadn't come along, they would've probably broken up.
"Having that kind of positive effect on an artist's life. That's the greatest reward."
But, maybe my favorite Cliff story...
The last time he had been to Wilmington DE was when he got married. No blood tests in Delaware and he was squeamish. He and his bride wore matching Metallica t-shirts. She was 38 weeks pregnant. Their two witnesses were two DJs from the courtroom down the hall where they were drunk-and-disorderly defendants. Mazel Tov!
Then, for the first of many times, we all headed downstairs to listen to another interview, this time with The Band's Robbie Robertson. This old renovated theater (beautifully envisioned and designed by my old schpeeno buddy Herb Ivy's sister, Jackie) had a wonderful night club/restaurant on street level and a full-blown theater with a super-comfy balcony and a world-class PA and lights.
But, first, our first live music of the convention, a nifty new band called The Givers. This was the kind of gig that the president of a record label would attend. Sure enough, Daniel Glass, the natty head of Glassnote Records, was on hand to schmooze. Mr. Glass, a very savvy vet of the biz, has a remarkable streak going. His roster includes Phoenix and Temper Trap and Mumford & Sons. They are all familiar to you whether you know it or not. These bands' music is ubiquitous in TV commercials these days, as well as in constant regular rotation on commercial and public radio.
Robbie Robertson was interviewed by the venerable, David Dye. The two had an amiable chat about carnies, movies, and a surprisingly candid description of the dissolution of The Band.
It was around this time that I realized that there were a lot of very normal looking people
attending this convention. That's when I noticed they all were wearing laminates around their neck that said WXPN LISTENER. Wow... a music industry convention that invites civilians! What a concept! What I found most unexpected was that these folks were not in tie-dye and Birkenstocks. The majority of them looked like they could be going to a Celine Dion or Garth Brooks show. It was truly enlightening (and very encouraging) to see that actual AMERICANS were digging genuinely challenging and esoteric music.
As I sat at the bar that first night, I chatted with three non-industry women, Teresa, Lisa, and Michelle, who'd paid a registration fee to attend this event. They were all dressed like (classy) suburban housewives, they were all outgoing and told me that they came to this convention every year. "We love to hear different kinds of music and no one else plays the interesting stuff we hear on WXPN." Throughout the rest of the weekend, I saw them enjoying every single artist's performance.
One of the most enjoyable and instructive moments came when WXPN's Program Director, Bruce Warren, an actual no-kidding celebrity in the world of Non-Comm, one of the true forward thinkers of this type of radio programming, held a discussion forum that included pros and civilians. Bruce, besides being a charming self-effacing bloke, was expert in drawing out questions and observations. I was very impressed with the listener-civilians' questions and comments. Radio is a very different beast viewed from the inside and a bunch of Bruce and Dan's listeners were eager for the insights. I also suspect some of those insights turned their aesthetic stomachs. What's that line about making sausages...
That is a statistical truth about the 170 million people tuning into an NPR station every day in this country. This is healthy and necessary. For those of you who feel that it's a waste (or worse) of tax dollars to help fund these stations, I would answer that I don't enjoy my tax dollars paying for $95 screwdrivers and $110 toilet seats at the Pentagon or World Criminal Cheney's pension, any more than you like having yours spent on music other than Brooks & Dunn or Lady GaGa or Kanye West and discussions that do not revolve around Prez Barry O being a Nazi from Neptune.
Select music performances from the Non-Comm-vention are now available via the XPN Media Player. You can access archived performances at the following link:
Among the stuff worth seeking out...
Sarah Jarosz... a smoky-voiced 19-year-old with a wisdom and ache in her voice that is almost weirdly beyond her years.
Todd Snider... a Woody Guthrie for the 21st century?
Keb' Mo'... a Robert Johnson for the 21st century?
The Head & The Heart... three monstrously talented singers (two guys and a gal) fronting an excellent band. Their vocal blend was aural ambrosia. Hi, Josiah!
Thurston Moore... a dear old friend, Thurston used to sit at a table directly in front of me whenever I played CBGB in the early days. He wound up world-famous as the leader of the premiere Avant-Noise-Pop band, Sonic Youth. His set was the polar opposite of what one would expect from Mr. Moore... ethereal mood-pieces featuring viola and harp (!) as well as Thurston's wistful acoustic guitar (man, I think I counted only 5 or 6 electric guitars all weekend). Afterwards, he told me that he's actually making as much money these days doing voiceover work as music. Yo, VH-1 Classics... Here's your narrator for a dozen different specials!
Raphael Saadiq... A former member of Tony! Toni! Tone! (THAT's why he looked familiar), he and his band arrived late having driven to the wrong city! His show and songs are funtastic (Did I actually just type that?!) revamps of R&B/Soul music from the 60s and 70s. His band (who he really should call, Back In The Day) was dressed like Curtis Mayfield's band, back in the "Superfly" days. In fact, every aspect of the show was a time warp... except Raphael, who looked firmly 2011-nerd, like a very cool Steve Urkel maybe.
Ben Harper... A Big Dog in this sphere of music. Ben spends most of his time on stage trying to dampen his own charisma. It doesn't work. The man is a Star. His band rocked harder than any other act all weekend and was, consequently, a blast of refreshing power. Ben's voice and slide playing hit me hard.
Rebecca Pidgeon... I had no idea who she was beyond a wonderful singer... Turns out she's a famous actress, married to David Mamet. She talked to me for awhile. A very nice woman. I didn't know enough to fawn, thank God.
Junip... From Sweden, I fully expected to watch half a song and go back to the bar. Instead, they were literally mesmerizing. They would start with as simple two or three note riff and slowly build on it 'til it was a gorgeous hypnotic roar. I felt stoned listening to them. Highly recommended!
Matt Nathanson... You've heard his stuff on any number of TV shows... a sensitive singer-songwriter fronting a Stones-y rock band. Genuinely cool beans!
Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst)... By far the most impassioned performer all weekend. A huge crystal-clear voice filled with righteous fury and fear. A True Artist. Taken by total surprise, I was riveted.
Cave Singers... The closest we came to Garage Rock throughout the convention. A looser, goofier White Stripes maybe. A raucous-party version of Black Keys? Rough and raw!
The Civil Wars... I save the best for last... Currently, THE critic darlings! I HATE critic darlings. Almost always an over-hype. I'm here to tell you, they got it right this time.
Holy crap... John Paul White and Joy Williams are two of the best singers I've ever heard in my entire life. Their harmonies were tight enough to seem like one voice.
Their music, sort of a cerebral take on Country ballads, is actually not really my thing.
But, their talent and utter commitment to making the highest quality music possible just blew me away. About 15 minutes after they were finished, I bumped into John Paul.
A totally down-to-earth jaded-but-passionate badass... A guy secure enough to admit that Steve Tyler (utterly antithetical to Civil Wars's music) is a hero. Ride 'em, brother!
The last big event of the convention was a truly fun exercise called The Music Meeting featuring another NPR show's hosts, "Sound Opinions" Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis, two dead-on-the-money and deadly funny tastemakers. The "music meeting" is what the radio industry calls the radio programmers' mostly-weekly ritual of choosing what new music is deemed worthy of their airwaves.
Depending on the PD's methodology, music meetings can consist of one, two, three fellow employees, or maybe even a committee, that gets together once a week and listens to anywhere from 5 or 6 to 15 or 16 new songs, looking for the one or two tunes that deserve to fill the available slot in the station's play list. This witty fella, Sean Coakley, organizes these things beautifully and it was almost like being on a TV show or something. Out of about 120 folks, there were about ten of us who piped up with opinions after a song was played. Utter loudmouth who thinks his opinions are etched on tablets, I had a comment for every damn song they played. I've got two words for me... Shut the fuck up! ["Midnight Run"... De Niro to Grodin]
Having said my goodbyes to Dan, and his wonderful wife, Ann and ultra-kool-kid son, Max, I was back on Amtrak, heading to New York, 30 minutes later. I must tell you, I felt quite the I'm-a-serious-stud-on-a-Saturday-afternoon, sitting in the Cafe car, with my ancient laptop, writing the first 1000 words or so of this story.