Brian Allen: Doing it all and surviving to tell about it!
Sam: I love talking music business philosophy with Brian Allen. We’ve both served on the CMAO Board, and over the years, Brian has provided me with fundamental knowledge about the industry. I've had my deepest conversations about the music industry with him, and over the five years that I've known Brian, I've always looked to him for guidance on some complicated subjects.
Sam: Tell us about yourself.
Brian: I left home at the age of 17 to join a band and to pursue the “dream”. That led to 12 years on the road with a band that evolved into doing an album for Polygram, which wasn't terribly successful, but kept us on the road and kept us working. That group fell apart. After that, another band was formed in the 80s called Toronto. That took off beyond what I thought was going to happen. We made four platinum albums and toured all over North America. It was quite a ride. During that time, I co-wrote a song with Jim Vallance, who we brought in to help us with the third album. We wrote three songs, two of which were recorded by Toronto. Everybody acknowledged the unrecorded one was still a good song, so when the band broke up I took it to Mike McCarty, who was working for ATV Music Publishing, now part of Sony. He said, "I love the song, and I think I know who to go after. Heart is looking for new material for their next record." I said, ”Okay, go for it.” The song was a three-way co-write between Jim Vallance, Sheron Alton and me. Mike was masterful in the way he surrounded the Wilson sisters, who are the core of Heart, with this song. He played it for everybody on their team, but not them, to the point where the two sisters asked, “What's this song everybody's been talking about? When do we get to hear it?” And, funny, when they played it, one of them said, “This is way too sucky! We can't do this, it's too pop.” Eventually they were convinced to do the song, titled “What About Love.” It became a top-10 hit worldwide. In 1985 it became a fortuitous calling card for Brian Allen. When you've got a worldwide top-10 hit, people tend to return your calls.
One call came from my former manager with the band Toronto. He said, “Did you know that the A&R position at Attic Records [then one of Canada's largest independent labels] has become open?” I said, “That's great. Who do you think will get it?” He goes, "I'm trying to tell you to apply." I got the job, which was kind of astounding to me. I thought, well, I'll stay here for a few years and see what I can learn – and 15 years later, I was still doing it. It took me up to the year 2000, when the record company was bought by a larger financial concern called the Song Corporation. Through mismanagement, they drove it into the ground and left Brian on the street. The next thing I know, somebody is telling me there's a position open at SOCAN. I worked at SOCAN for almost two years before I realized it wasn't my thing. Then, in 2002, I started my production company, AMPLUS Productions, and went back to where my heart is, which is making music, songwriting, producing and helping other artists realize their career potential through consulting.
Sam: That top-10 worldwide hit, when it came out, what were the financial results from it? Were you making significant money when it was in the top 10?
Brian: I was one of three writers, and each of the writers had assigned the standard fifty-percent share to a publisher. In essence, the song was paid out six ways, and I made a ton of money being just one-sixth. This speaks to music-biz finance and what its mission is in life. I was advised by an accountant to incorporate. It was a smart move - a very shrewd move - because it segregated all of my associated business expenses into a different accounting stream with separate taxation. I realized right away that if I’d kept it all in my personal Brian Allen income, I would have probably paid another 20-25 percent in tax. It was incredible to me that that these things could be achieved legally, so that was a big lesson for me in business.
Sam: You've done it all. You were in a band; you're a songwriter; you've worked in the music industry. So why didn't you stick with songwriting after the successful hit?
Brian: I've always been songwriting, and I’ve had singles that have done reasonably well on radio. I have to tell you, when you move out of a particular field in this business and try another area, eventually everybody feels like you're not relevant to the one you left behind. If we look at how this industry evolves and progresses, it's all based on constant renewal, so every time the charts come out on Tuesday, people are looking for the new hot artist. I was never a pro songwriter, like all the excellent writers in Nashville, New York, or LA. I was just songwriting as part of being in a band. In every career change, I was looking for another endeavour, a different way to apply my skills.
Sam: Why didn't you continue to be a performing artist?
Brian: I was getting to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable being a performing artist anymore. This business is built on new young talent, and I was going into my forties at the time. I thought it might be time to go in an office somewhere and help other people achieve their 23-year-old dreams. After being on the road for seventeen years, and 5 year old Toronto fizzled, and I reassessed myself and thought: OK, there are two aspects of this thing: playing a guitar in front of an audience and being in a band. So asked myself, "You still into playing?" and the answer to myself was: “Absolutely!” I said, “Well, here's part two: you must work with other people in a band.” Toronto, in its last couple of years, became somewhat acrimonious, in that people wanted to pursue different creative avenues and it became less unified. There were some lifestyle habits with some individuals in the band that I just didn't want to deal with. I've always been somebody who showed up sober and ready to work. When someone else didn't, I felt like I was carrying them. I thought, “Do I want to risk that whole part again and get into another band?” and the answer was: “Let's try something else for a while and see how it feels.”
Sam: Was it luck, or was it skill that caused the song to take off? Or was it perfect timing?
Brian: I think it was all of the above. Convergence is something that people talk a lot about in this business. Many of the elements lined up at a particular time to facilitate an event, I have to say. Just as you, Sam, were in the right place at the right time to get hired by a particular firm, and the things that you’d done to build up to that moment … subtract them from that moment, and you wouldn't have had that moment. It goes back to your education; it goes back to who you know; it goes back to how you get your information. All of these things converge.
Sam: Yeah, I agree. I think you can never connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them going back. That's a Steve Jobs phrase. You never know, unless you put the effort and time into something. It took you 17 years of writing songs and performing, which then led to a song that mostly helped secure your financial future. Am I right?
Brian: You're exactly right. It took 17 years of throwing darts at a dartboard to be able to toss one into the bullseye when the camera is on.
Sam: There is a plethora of music and new-media acts (YouTubers, podcasters, bloggers, Snapchatters, etc.). There's an excellent podcast I listen to called Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. They produce well-done podcasts. After each show, they ask listeners to give a dollar for a show. There are a few thought-leaders who say that they’re in a connection economy in which one builds a strong connection with an audience that will want to support you financially. They will support you through crowdfunding, coming out to your show, buying your products. What are your thoughts?
Brian: It's all about scarcity. When it's not available yet – somebody had a taste of the hors d'oeuvre and they know the chef is good – will they advance pay at a reasonable price to have the next creation? There's proof that people will. We have to look at S-mass. What I call S-mass is an acronym for survival vs. maintenance vs. acclaim vs. success… what is the artist’s goal? What level do they want to achieve, and how is that defined when they know they've got there?
In this world of "doing it yourself", this doesn't get enough print, but it is still very painfully obvious: there still is nothing like the power of one of the large entertainment companies. Unlike the indie artist, they can press a button, and instantaneously an awareness machine cranks up smoke and ends up going coast to coast, vertical and horizontal, through many strata of media – from social to print to broadcast. The artists cannot command that field of fire the way the entertainment companies do. That's why many artists still aspire to sign with a record label.
Sam: Right now there's big music, and then there's everything else. They're making a splendid amount of money; it's like the professional sports leagues.
Brian: If you ask a new artist out of Smith Falls, Ontario, the same question as you ask Adele, “How much does digital proliferation bother you?” Guess who's going to answer “It bothers me” more? It's not going to bother Adele; she's rich, even after the digital proliferation has eroded whatever revenue streams it has eroded. The Smith Falls artist doesn't have that kind of demand, so they're probably looking at a 50 to 100 percent erosion. Adele's looking at, what? Twenty percent erosion? Thirty percent erosion? it doesn't matter. She's still got a billion.
Sam: It depends on what you want to achieve out of this. Do you just want to create music? Then you have to be willing to have an alternative avenue for making money, whether it's a day job or business. You need something that's going to help you survive. Maybe you're a trust-fund baby, and that's fine, but I guess it goes back to, “What do you want to achieve out of this?”
Brian: It always does, because failing to plan is planning to fail. That's one of the things that have driven me my whole life. I read it somewhere. You cannot replace good planning with anything else. There is no substitute for good planning - luck might come and go… but that's serendipitous. You can't count on it. Proper planning? Yes, you can rely on it.
Being in a band that was successful, and working in A&R, watching success and failure at very close range, I found out that success involves a lot of hard work and being in the right place at the right time. The reality is there is still only one Number 1, only ten Top Tens, and there are only 24 hours in a day. We still need 6-8 hours sleep a night, and that means one could only be up for 16 or so hours a day. Nobody has been able to download an app that gives you two extra hours in a day. There are certain laws of gravity and physics, and yes, there are only so many that will make it.
When I was teaching at Metalworks Institute, I used to run a record company course, and we would form a virtual record label. Typically, I would put all the roles that it takes to run a record label in a hat. The students would come up one at a time and pull out a piece of paper that had their role on it. One could end up doing marketing, promotion, publicity, A&R, finance or administration. I couldn't tell you how many times whenever somebody drew the finance card, they'd go, “Oh no! I wanted marketing!” or “I wanted promotions!” or “I wanted whatever!” I'd say, “Why are you upset about drawing the finance card?” They say, “’Cause I'm no good at it.” I’d say, “What are you here for? Are you here in this educational institute to cover up your weaknesses or to learn how to improve on something you don't do well?” The well-rounded people in this business are the most successful ones.
Sam: Where do you think the industry is heading?
Brian: Wherever it goes, it's going somewhere I never expected. That's been the hallmark of all the surprises of the evolution of this business. Maybe we have to lose the idea that one traditional source of revenue is the only source of income. I think people need to change their thinking around making money out of audio, and start to think of themselves as a media enterprise. What if they saw themselves as somebody who could market, and at the same time use music to enhance an environment for the individual consumer? It could be that art is going to have to go multi-strata from one source to be able to be renewed again. It could be that audio alone can't do it; it could be that film alone can't do it. We know that if we look back at the evolution of film, the first films were silent, and they had somebody playing piano in the theater. Eventually they figured out how to run a magnetic track alongside the film strip and provide audio, and it put the piano players in theaters out of business. Was it an awful thing for the piano players? They were up in arms about it, but was it a good thing for the consumer? Absolutely! So when we look at where this is going to go, one of the things I strongly feel is combined media. At this point in time, I think artists should be thinking of it as more of an entertainment endeavour than as just a music endeavour.
Sam: It's a different era. Some people have figured it out. They figured out the new media environment and are utilizing it to create connections with their audience. Civilization needs to recognize that there are going to be some industries that are going to need help. You see it here in Canada, where the OMDC has come on board with the Ontario Music Fund.
Brian: Well, I’ve got to give credit to agencies like OMDC, because they have developed categories that have to do with innovation. Ultimately, they’re trying to create healthy tax-paying businesses. When you have to go to work – whether it's in a data processing firm, a call center or an accounting firm – at the end of the day, you don't have a heck of a lot of brain space to come up with terrific ideas. The OMDC has recognized that. Even idea generation requires some gas in the tank. What do you want to give up to make something happen? So people have to give up part of their brain, their job brain, to generate great ideas. This is the other reason why industry people and music people need each other and the support of the government.