He’s the songwriter behind one of the biggest hits of rock radio, “Missing You.” But John Waite has decided that going the DIY route is right for him, and he revealed the reasons why at the 2005 DIY Convention during an interview with writer Melinda Newman……
JW: John Waite
MN: Melinda Newman
MN: Hi I am Melinda Newman, West Coast Bureau Chief for Billboard Magazine. I know he needs no introduction, but I want to give him one anyway because he just got in from Kentucky and I want to give him a few more minutes to collect his thoughts.
JW: It’s too late
MN: John Waite has had a remarkable career that spans more than thirty years and has spawned numerous hits, including Isn’t It Time, Everytime I Think Of You, When I See You Smile, and the classic Missing You. It all started more than three decades ago when John and his group, The Babies, cut their teeth playing gigs in London. Following success in the U.K., the group broke through in the U.S. After five albums with The Babies, John went solo and hit record Nirvana with his third solo album. That project included the international hit Missing You, which is still a radio staple more than twenty years later.
After a few more solo albums, John joined the super group Bad English again scoring worldwide success in the late eighties. In the last decade, John has been writing, touring, and even playing with one of his musical heroes Ringo Starr.
His latest solo album, The Hard Way, came out last fall on his own No Brakes Records. As part of the promotion, John has been doing a Borders tour, in fact that is why he was in Louisville, playing a few tunes, greeting fans, signing autographs, and we’re quite sure selling a few records along the way. Please join me in welcoming John Waite.
JW: Thank you everybody. It’s very nice to be here.
MN: I have several questions I am going to ask and then in twenty-five minutes we are going to open it up to any questions you want to ask John.
You clearly had lots of options, you could have gone to a major or an Indie, but what made you decide to start your own label?
JW: Well there were two offers on the table from major record labels. The labels were headed by people that I had worked with in the past. People that I had a very strong, deep, emotional friendship with and had been successful with. They heard the record and the dialogue went on for a week and then it stopped. One of them went on holiday and the other one just didn’t pick up the phone again. Well I thought if I was digging someone’s music I wouldn’t be going on holiday. I wouldn’t be leaving the city until I had really taken care of that. I think that this is my best album and I thought that these people would get it, but even though they might have got it and had some suggestions about mixes, one of them still went on holiday and the other one had his hands ties doing something with his company.
I just thought, I get up in the morning at 6, making e-mails, I am on the phone immediately. I am calling my band up or writing songs, I am doing something that pertains to my career that I want to see happening that day. I don’t go on holiday really, and if I do I take it with me. I really do, I live it 24-7, every day of the year, and my heart is in it. It’s not about business, it’s not about shareholders, figures, demographics, or bullshit like that. The word demographic just fucking gets me nuts. It’s an insult to the public, it’s an insult to everybody involved in music. It’s somebody behind a desk making decisions about music and who they are going to sell it to and they try and adjust the music to fit that demographic.
MTV started off as a deviant, kind of beautiful machine, that played these great artists and now it’s just gone to shit, and because it’s run by people who are in it for the money. I digress, but the thing was that I thought I couldn’t deal with this any longer. I am no good with uniforms, I am no good in offices, I’m no good with suits, and I am not going to listen to anybody anyway, and I own this album already. It’s about distribution, it’s about going out there and playing for people, so I decided to get No Brakes Records together, which is my own label, and here we are today.
MN: I want to talk about distribution. How did you get distribution, both in the U.S and internationally?
JW: Well it isn’t released in Europe yet, but my manager and I have given it a lot of thought and there was this small company coming out of South Carolina called Red Eye. They are a very small muscular, stripped down kind of company that can really do the job. The record is in every single record store in America, five deep. It gets re-ordered and they are there, they get the product to the store immediately. It’s in Best Buy, Virgin, Barnes and Nobles, Borders, Tower, everywhere and it’s a small distribution. So, why would you want to be with a label and pay them eighty five percent of what you are going to make, to make fifteen percent to pay them back for distributing your record and all the things that they buy on the side are for their own pleasure and their own luxury and it comes out of your fifteen percent. Then you have to pay everyone back times ten and it’s all bent anyway, they are fiddling the books all the time. These guys are like legal criminals. I mean you can tell that I really hate the music business but I really love music. It’s so unjust and if you can just go out there and find distribution and you are prepared to go out and play in every single city that you can get to, it makes a huge difference because people believe you and you are going to them. You aren’t going through some huge company, it’s grassroots, and if you are good live that is what you are supposed to be all about.
MN: You were just running down some numbers with me and we were talking a few minutes before. You were talking about eighty five percent and fifteen percent. Run down some numbers with me in terms of how much per record are you keeping, minus your expenses, versus the comparison with The Babies, solo during Missing You, and Bad English. How much per record are you keeping now versus then?
JW: Well The Babies never got paid a penny, and I still don’t get paid for the catalogue. Chris tells me that I owe them money. How about that?
MN: So they are saying that you are still under coup?
JW: A million dollars. Yeah. EMI, they run a lot of the catalogue too, and it’s the same thing. I make some sort of payments. I get money coming in from all different sources, but they won’t account to you and you continually owe them money. I actually phoned up Chris one day and said “ I have got to find out what you owe money and where do I stand with this”. Somebody said that there had been a fire in the accounts department in New York City and my file had gone up in smoke, they were really serious, and that was the end of the conversation.
MN: So compare that with the time that you were in Bad English…
JW: Well I was a moneymaker. We did pretty well, but the money was coming from live and t-shirts and publishing was huge. I think we sold about two million records and we still didn’t go into the black.
MN: So you never made a penny off of any records that you sold on a major compared to how much you are making right now?
JW: Yeah, right now I make nearly eight dollars a record and that is after everyone has been paid and all the commissions come out. I make nearly eight dollars, that’s a huge amount of money. If you sell a hundreds thousand records that’s a fortune, and it’s not impossible to go on the road and sell a hundred thousand records. People come out to see you and they all come to buy the record.
MN: What you are obviously not counting in is the fact that you are a well known name. People are going to come see you-
JW: Yeah, but I have been up and down like a sailors trousers. One minute I am number one and the other minute I am number eighty-nine, then I am number one again and then it’s like who’s John Waite? I have been doing this for like thirty five years, it’s only got so much currency having hits at a certain time.
MN: That was kind of what I was going to ask you. It was going to be my last question to give people some hope, but you walked right into it now. Given the vagaries of the music industry, a lot of people out there are struggling right now. Like you said you’ve been at it much better than I could, but you have had some ups and downs, what advice would you give them if they are struggling right now? Should they be looking for a day job?
JW: I think there is no choice involved. I think if you are an artist there is absolutely no choice. If you are not doing what you love, you are going to be seriously unhappy. So there isn’t a sacrifice that there isn’t worth making. If you got the heart to do it, then that’s all there is in life. If you could do something that is art and pleases you, you will be happy all your life. If you get a day job that you can’t stand you will probably end up an alcoholic or you will shoot yourself. So I recommend, no matter what the odds are, getting deep in there and doing your best work. Never give up and keep your vision. The guy behind the desk doesn’t know better than you do. When it comes to art, you have lived those years, you’ve got the art, you’ve got the heart, they don’t because they are businessmen. They look at you like a chicken dinner, they don’t get it, just hang on to what you got and to yourself. Get a good lawyer.
MN: How did you educate yourself?
JW: The hard way.
MN: Nice little plug for the CD that I am sure John is selling later.
JW: It’s called the Hard Way on No Brakes Records. I had some horrific things happen to me in the music business, but rather than just be crippled by it and going to be a carpenter I am no good at being a carpenter. There was no choice. Every time they knocked me down I just got back up because there was nothing else to do.
MN: What do you wish though before you started No Brakes? What was the one thing you wish you had known about running your own label?
JW: I haven’t found the thing with it yet that I can’t handle. I think that promotion, record companies have huge promotion departments, and that is the one valuable asset that they have. It’s very expensive to get airplay. If radio loves your records then great, but a lot of people can’t add the record because they are on Clear Channel and it’s locked up. Some guys, it’s like Bill Gates, they own the record business, and they decide what they add. They decide who they hire to play their tours, it’s just incredible because it’s like Big Brother in the music business. Promotion is valuable, and if you can get a promotion guy then you are really ahead of the game.
MN: Have you hired any Indie promoters?
MN: What’s your experience been with that? Would you recommend that people do that?
JW: Yeah, I think it’s invaluable. They all know each other and if they like your record it’s word of mouth inside the small business. That is the one thing that I can’t replicate. It all takes a certain amount of money, but I can afford to do everything like cut a record, hire people to work in the circle that I’ve got for the tour that I am doing, but promotion is like a million dollars you go to radio with to get your record played, and I am just hoping that this time around that people are going to be so moved by the record. I mean it’s very naïve to say that, but what else have I got? I have to believe that people are going to respond from a soulful place or I might as well just stay home.
MN: Even if a radio station isn’t playing you, have you been able to do a radio tour while you have been doing this Borders stuff?
JW: Yeah. We have been doing these Borders tours, which is like a bookshop. We go in there and we play for about half an hour and we have been doing it for about six months. We actually call it the Booze, Babes, and Books tour.
MN: Is Borders providing all three?
JW: No. Book tokens.
MN: Just checking.
JW: A friend of mine, Jeffrey Gaines, the folk singer, beautiful guy, I saw him play in Cleveland at a Starbucks about ten years ago and I thought it was a great idea to go into a bookshop or a Starbucks at lunchtime and play these songs. Ten years later I am doing it. In Cleveland we had two hundred and fifty people show up, in Cincinnati we had three hundred. I mean for a little bookshop, well it’s kind of big, but I mean three hundred people it’s impressive. People are knocked out that you made the effort to do that, and it’s sincere. We have a meet and greet after, we shake hands and you look them in the eye and you talk to people. You can’t buy that or it’s back to MTV, The Real World or whatever the fuck it’s called, it’s just absolutely garbage. It’s got to be about music again or we are all lost. That is why the big companies are in trouble, because it’s not about music anymore it’s about demographics.
MN: How did you set up that Borders tour?
JW: My manager just called them up. It doesn’t cost them anything, we just asked them if we could do it. They have a little room where authors go and read and they do question and answer just like this. It will facilitate an acoustic guitar and a small P.A., so we just do a budget on it. It makes no money whatsoever apart from the CD’s that we sell, but when you are selling that amount of CD’s it will just pay for itself I guess. I set aside like ten grand for a certain period just to get us through. We do gigs in the middle of it, we peel off and do full band gigs. We are going to Detroit next week, playing a big gig there, and that money will go into the Borders tour. We stay in Red Roof Inns, we eat Taco Bell, we drive around America with the windows down.
MN: Because the air conditioning doesn’t work in the van?
JW: No, because the Taco Bell. It’s a hard life out there.
MN: Does Borders advertise or do you buy advertising so people know to come to the Borders? Or are you doing that via the Internet?
JW: No we are doing that on the radio. We played L.A., and in the L.A. Weekly they ran a thing with a little picture, talking about the album, saying which location. We played Fourth Street Promenade in Santa Monica and Westwood. They advertised it. I am not too sure what the advertising situation is out on the road in America, but we do radio and morning shows. It’s good because morning shows allow you to play a lot of hits acoustically and I am pretty lively. The fact that I can get on the radio and promote the Borders thing, one hand actually watches the other. I don’t know how easy it would be to do it without having the radio, because radio is everything. When people are driving to work in the morning, stuck in traffic, and you can get on the air,that is the keys to the kingdom right there. All of America is on a freeway somewhere stuck.
MN: That is where you have an advantage over a lot of people here, because they can’t call up and get on a morning show-
JW: That’s right.
MN: They don’t have a background.
JW: There are sometimes when I can’t get on, it’s not like I am Prince Charles. Sometimes it’s John who?
MN: For any artist who has name value, would you recommend any of them being on a major label? Is there anything, other than the radio promotion, an advantage to them being on a major label?
JW: Well just seeing what Liz Phair did, she was sort of a left of center, avant garde kind of really odd act. She couldn’t get arrested. She was the queen of Indie music, she’s beautiful, she’s very gifted, and she’s creative, but she couldn’t get arrested. So she went to major, well Matador was attached to a big label, and they sort of groomed her a little bit and they made these great videos and put her out there and she played the game. She used the major labels, sold a couple of hundred thousand records, and she stands a chance next time of hitting a number one record. So that, in Liz Phair’s case, worked very well.
MN: I want to talk about the Internet and how you use that to market. In terms of reaching your fans, in terms of downloads, and we can tackle them one at a time. You have a website right?
MN: How did you use that to reach out to your fans?
JW: Well a lot of people log on everyday and it’s out of New York, it’s very hip, it’s worldwide, well they are all worldwide now. People do log on and it’s the same thing with all of us, we just log on to our favorite websites to see what is going on. People do show up at gigs, come to radio shows, benefits, and I mean it’s indespensible. I think back to Ani Difranco, people who take the bull by the horns, people who make their own records and have their own companies, without the Internet I think it would be quite difficult. Well then again she started off with just the acoustic guitar and no Internet, and then she found the Internet.
MN: Did you do any kind of viral marketing? Where you sending out e-mail blasts or collecting a database or any of that kind of stuff?
JW: Well Sharon Williams, our Internet person, I think she is in here somewhere.
MN: That’s an interesting thins because you are mentioning your manager, the person who runs your Internet, how important is it if you are really going to try and do it yourself that you are really doing it yourself with a team?
JW: Oh yeah. I mean when it says John Waite, No Brakes Records, that’s nothing. It’s like being John Waite the lead singer in a band, if you take the band away I am just standing there like Tom Thumb. It doesn’t matter. At the moment I have a great team around me, I have people I really admire, I have a manager that’s not really big time she’s more of a publisher, she’s a woman, I like working with women because they are more sensitive. They are not competitive with guys, they talk to you and look at you in the eyes, so I have this team of people that are just great. Without that team I would be still on the phone with Borders asking if we could do a show down there.
MN: I think there is a lot of power in saying Hi this is John Waite-
JW: In certain places maybe, but-
MN: They probably don’t believe it’s you.
JW: No. They believe it’s me.
MN: Are you aware, like one of the panelists from the previous panels runs a company called CD Baby, do you know about them?
JW: I know about them yes.
MN: I went on it and you aren’t on CD Baby.
JW: There must be a reason for that. I think I am on iTunes aren’t I?
MN: You are. You should also be on CD Baby, just a little plug for them. They are an absolutely amazing site, I don’t think Derek is in the room right this second, but you two should meet. Also on that panel they were talking about the value of doing a video is greater than before because of MTV and VH1 might not play you, but there are so many outlets, there are a ton of local and regional outlets, but also Internet outlets. Did you make a video?
JW: Yeah, we just cut one last week for this new single called New York City Girl, and we made a very cut price, fifteen thousand dollars video. Tom Petty’s daughter, Adria, she’s a producer, a filmmaker in the East Village, and her boyfriend, Ed Gillete, is this wiz filmmaker. Mike Taylor lives in Tom Petty’s guesthouse, so it’s a long story.
MN: It’s all about connections.
JW: It’s all about connections and looking cool. So I got it together, flew to New York, and we cut a video about ten days ago maybe. That is going to be on Music Choice, I mean Music Choice is really cool. I think that is taking over for MTV as a very eclectic, fashion proof, division of a video, it’s very innovative. Music Choice seems to have a lot of great young people there, and they are music fans. The guy running it is no more that about 32, so it’s a very interesting situation. So it will be on Music Choice.
MN: So you would still recommend making a video since there are outlets for it?
JW: Well yeah, it’s not like it used to be. In saying that, just the Internet, if you want to get it on the Internet I mean that’s a fabulous thing.
MN: I want to talk about publishing, because for me, even after all these years at Billboard, it is the most Byzantine part of the business, virtually impossible to figure out. Do you own your own publishing?
MN: Do you wish you did?
JW: Are you kidding? I do at the moment. The songs I write now and the songs on the new album I do.
MN: Right. Some of them said Sony for you and some of them said-
JW: Yeah. I signed a deal with Sony about ten years ago for a large advance and then they renewed it again about five years ago for another large advance. It all comes back to me a year from July. From ’89 forward, I get like a hundred and fifty songs.
MN: But would you recommend someone sign a publishing deal?
JW: No. I think you should get a day job before you sign away any publishing. Hang onto the songs because that is where the money is and two hundred thousand dollars after taxes is a hundred thousand, and after you bought the Ferrari it’s nothing. Just kidding. Money disappears on you and if you don’t have it to spend you won’t spend it. You’ll make your way some other way, you really will. And what is a big advance? You’ll spend it foolishly or with tax it’s just dumb. Why not have all your songs and have somebody administer it, you can make a fortune. If you have any kind of a hit you’ll be secure for life. You’ll be able to buy that loft. Never do a publishing deal.
MN: Do you have your own masters back from the labels?
JW: No, I got my masters back from my last deal, which is in fact why I was able to do this record. I used half of those masters as a spine for the record and then I cut some more song to put them alongside with these remixes. That enabled me to actually make a new record and put it out, otherwise it would have cost a hundred and forty thousand dollars.
MN: We talked about your experiences with major labels, but a lot of these people are obviously DIY, but major labels may come calling or big Indie labels, if they do decide to go into some kind of negotiation what are the three things that you have learned that you would say go in with this eyes wide open if they start talking to a label other than one they own?
JW: Well it depends what they’ll talk about. If you could own the masters then that would be a tremendous advantage, but it’s unlikely they will let you do that.
MN: Some Indies will.
JW: Indies will but a major won’t.
MN: They might split it with you.
JW: I think accounting is crucial, like every six months. If you are going to take the advance to make the record you’re kind of lost because they will just keep adding to that. They will add to it things that you have never seen before you will be charged for. I would say if you are going to do a deal with a major, mortgage the house or get a day job, but pay for the album. Deliver them the album so that you own the masters. You want to know where the money is from day one, you are in profit, and you have promotion dollars that need to be recouped. If you do a small tour and you don’t take tour support, tour support will absolutely destroy you.
MN: That’s what I wanted to ask you next.
JW: When I was in The Babies, the first time we went to New York City, I was with these two Playboy Bunnies in this Volkswagen-
MN: You enjoyed yourself.
JW: It gets better. They took me to Time Square, I was really drunk, and they told me “look at that” and it was a huge billboard and it was The Babies. I was just thinking that must have cost a hundred grand.
MN: And that would be a hundred percent recoupable, at least fifty percent. It varies with labels what percentage is recoupable.
JW: Exactly. If you are doing a video and you aren’t splitting the recoupment on that then you are being charged by absolutely everything. So really get the point straight on what you are supposed to be paying for.
MN: I want to open it to questions, but I want to give you guys time since we started a little late we were going to cut it a little short. Please raise your hand and go to one of the mics…
(Audience Question Inaudible)
JW: No. Out of money that I have made out on the road, publishing royalties, and BMI has been great in the past. I am ASCAP now, but the one thing that I never great at all creative with is BMI, I just let that money come in because that’s money in the bank. If you are in serious rotation, like maybe twenty different songs around the world, that’s been the one staple that I could say I thank God for it, because when I have been broke and on my knees that money has come in.
JW: It’s a full band, it’s four guys, me, a tour manager, and a sound man.
A week. Well say if you get fifteen grand, twenty grand, or fifty grand, I wouldn’t know the percentage, but I would say it costs about eight grand per gig to have the band there and hotels, but if you have a good tour manager they could do a great budget for you. Like with this Borders thing we are staying at Red Rood Inns because we are on a budget. It’s Taco Bell.
MN: You have a booking agent. You never know who we might run into at Red Roof Inn. Would you recommend that people try to find a booking agent?
MN: That’s hard to find though at a certain level because ten percent isn’t enough for them to invest in.
JW: Some of them take fifteen. But if you do it on a very grassroots level and you are playing small coffeeshops, small gigs, you can do it on the phone. You can have your tour manager call up and organize a small tour, and you can get in the back of your van and just go. As long as you are getting gas money and a place to sleep you are going to survive. I suppose it’s the next level where it gets interesting, you are trying to do as many gigs as possible, trying to get the band out to play bigger gigs, but playing the bigger gigs the overhead is bigger as well. There’s all sorts of things you wouldn’t believe you have to pay for like worker’s comp, insurance, if someone in the band gets run over then you are responsible. If someone in the audience gets hurt you are responsible.
MN: Now how did you educate yourself on that?
JW: Someone got hurt in the audience at a concert once.
MN: So you really found out the hard way?
JW: Yes. A roadie almost got his head crushed by a truck. Thirty-five years of this and you just watch it coming at you, but after awhile it’s very simple. There is nothing really complicated about it if you are paying attention.
MN: But you would recommend someone have a good lawyer?
JW: Yes. I think it’s indispensable.
MN: Other questions? You?
(Audience Question Inaudible)
JW: Yes very much. I think if you can go to Europe you can make a fortune. Sheryl Crow, when she was working, she is one of the hardest working women in show business, she worked everywhere in America that she could, when there was down time she couldn’t go back into those markets for awhile to let them cool down, so she went to Europe. It was about ten years ago when she first came out, I was just drifting around Europe just in this bad period, and I would be walking down the side street somewhere and there would be a poster on a wall saying La Monde- Sheryl Crow tonight 8pm. You think Jesus Christ, you walk pass La Monde and it’s the size of a cupboard, but she went and took care of it grassroots and she made that connection with the fans. I think Europe is vital and it’s a huge market now. Germany is gigantic and so is France.
I haven’t been on a European label in a long time but I know they are selling a lot of records. I know that I have gotten a few offers for this album, we have been interested in dealing with a few labels, I am not really sure which ones I have been dealing with because it’s been a few months, but some of those people sell hundreds of thousands of records with smaller labels. They are really intense, the Germans especially.
MN: So you said that you don’t have European distribution, but it’s something you are working towards?
JW: Yeah. I mean I would love to have a major record. It’s just so difficult to get to Europe with a full band, because you have to buy like five or six plane tickets, hotels in Europe which are very expensive, a coach to drive to each country, it’s just insane. They offer you the Unplugged option, which is like going in and playing in small clubs unplugged. It’s very uncomfortable on a lot of levels because you really want to bring it home, it’s not a folk act it’s a rock act. Thank you.
JW: Opening for me?
MN: Do you have opening acts?
What happened did you play? They asked you to reschedule, who did that? Jeff Wolley? I have no idea about it. We do this benefit once a year for this women’s shelter in December. I am sorry to hear that you didn’t get to play.
Hey that had me on the side playing acoustic. I just fly in and do that I have very little say about who else is on that bill. I am sorry if you got booted.
MN: Speaking of, are you looking to sign other acts to No Brakes or is that solely for you?
JW: No, it’s too complicated. I have got my hands full. I mean it’s not that big, it’s just for me. God forbid if I had a really huge success I would. There are people in this town that are really brilliant that have to play Molly Malone’s, sandwiched between five other acts that are just brilliant people. Because it’s L.A. they are overlooked because there are a billion musicians here. I would like to help people, I always try to include, that is why I am sorry about the opening slot that guy missed.
JW: I can’t say what I hate about my team, they won’t work with me. Mike McVeigh is a promotion guy from the Midwest that is a very believable, solid character that is very influential in the music business. He’s a consultant. I met with Mike in a hotel in L.A a few months ago and he has connected us with a few people at radio, suggested this to them, a window to get me on the air or to do a show for them, to do a promotional thing, and you would be amazed at the impact of that. It doesn’t cost the earth, it’s just a small thing where he picks up the phone and calls. He loves the record, which I think really helps. McVeigh has been a real player in this, he has made a lot of difference. I think my manager, she’s Linda Blum, a publisher from L.A. Linda and I have always been at odds, I have known her for about twenty-five years and every time we were in a room together we wouldn’t hit it off. I bumped into her in the songwriting circle about a year and a half ago and we kind of went to the next level. The next thing I know we are working together. She’s very influential too, and like I said about women they are kind of in it for the long haul, they keep an eye on you.
MN: We don’t have commitment issues.
JW: I used to. That was pretty good actually.
MN: Are you asking about if you are trying to do tours outside of your own market, trying to link up with the band who has a local following?
My hunch is that if someone has a local following they are not going to be nice enough to let you- she’s asking if you are doing a tour, do you try to find someone who has a local following?
JW: Yeah. Local bands, if you are playing a three thousand seater in Detroit and you look like you are going to headline and there is a really great local band with a following, you could put them on the bill and you can guarantee about five hundred people showing up. That really helps.
MN: I am getting the sign. Is there anything, no pressure, you want to say? Any sage words of wisdom?
JW: No I think I said it before about hanging onto yourself. I don’t want to repeat myself because it gets a bit lofty. It’s all about the arts. I do wish you the best of luck because it’s a difficult business. If you believe in yourself and what you are doing, you will get through to the side of it, you really will.
MN: Thank you so much.