Ken Williams

1. What things can a band do to make it?
My first question would be, “What is ‘making it’ to the band?” Some bands think they want the record deal, but may truly want to have only regional success so that they won’t be required to travel around the country and leave their home, job and family.

If “making it” means getting a record deal and traveling around the country playing music as a full-time gig, then bands need to have the following:

– Unique and interesting music. Music that is unique and interesting to people other than your family and friends.

– Sound very good playing that music. So often a writer will try to become a musician; a writer and a musician aren’t necessarily the same thing. Don’t go by what your family and friends say; they love you and of course they are going to tell you that you rock the world. Back in the day, my parents were my band’s biggest fans. Only trust what many outsiders are saying about your music. Keep your ear to the rail to find out what is the truth about your music.

– Have an excellent representation of your music on CD. This is one of the biggest obstacles that musicians face, since putting the music on CD costs a lot of green. If a band is going to try to record the music cheaply, chances are the music will sound cheap. One way to save on production costs is to know your music. Play the song live for about six months and work out all of the kinks, and then record the song only when you know the song like you know your mom.

– Find a good producer. These days, a band can record their music from their bedroom. I have heard a couple of songs in town where this has worked, but it’s very rare and record labels can see through this immediately. It’s good to have that “bedroom” copy for reference when you go to a producer to negotiate, but not as a final mix to send as your final representation of your band. It is suggested by many producers, however, to have a “bedroom” copy like this when you come to them so they can get an idea of where your band wants to go with the music.

– Keep the ego on stage. Anyone who is in this business has an ego. Part of a band’s persona may be a large ego. If this is true about your band, keep it on stage, not when you’re talking to your fans and especially not when you’re working and dealing with the other groups. At this level, there are no “rock stars,” period. Be gracious to everyone and let everyone know that you appreciate the moments they spend taking the time to support your group.

– Work with the other bands. To have an attitude toward another group in your scene is about the silliest thing your band can do. If you don’t like another band because they’re hard to deal with, chances are that many other groups feel the same way about that band and they probably won’t be around long enough to cause many problems anyway. Whether it’s your band or not, if a band “makes it” to a record deal in your scene, this will only help your band. They will draw attention to the scene, giving your band more of an opportunity to be exposed to people who can help your band. If a band is so insecure that they don’t want to allow their niche of fans to be exposed to other bands, then that band needs to again refer to the above. Help other bands, plug other bands, support them, and they will, in turn, support and be a benefit to your band.

– Be creative in your promotion. There are literally hundreds of bands of many levels in St. Louis. The difference between one band to another could come down to how they are noticed. Be creative when promoting your band. Create a buzz. It’s great to hand out flyers, but we’re in St. Louis and it will take more to be noticed than a simple flyer. When handing out flyers, talk to people. Be excited and sell your “product” to each person you hand the flyer to. Your band should be thinking about promotion every single day. When my band first started, we were all very young and couldn’t get into a club to play. No one would let us play in their bar, even for free. We wanted more than anything to start playing on the Landing, back when the Landing was the hottest spot in the region for live bands. There were just too many established bands playing out and we knew that we needed to do something to get noticed by the bar owners who wouldn’t talk with us. We decided to force them to notice us. One Saturday at 5 p.m., we went down to the Landing to a bridge near Syberg’s and set up a truck trailer as a stage and rented a generator. We set up our equipment and immediately covered it up so no one would notice that we were there. At around 7 p.m., we started canvassing the Landing with flyers that showed a map to where people could go for a free outdoor concert to see the hottest new band in St. Louis. We didn’t put our name on the flyer, but we did have a large banner with our name on it for when people showed up. My band started playing at 9 p.m. and drew so many people to the location that it angered the bar owners and they called the police. We were cited for public disturbance but the following day we received three phone calls to play in the clubs on the Landing. I’m not saying you should do this or break the law in any way; I’m just saying that you need to stand out somehow.

– Keep your Web site up-to-date. I’ve noticed that, when I’m talking to a record person and bring up a band’s name, the first question they ask is what is the band’s Web site and they immediately go to it while we are talking about the band. They use this information on your site to find out how “put together” your band is. Your Web site is a flash representation of your band, and although it may not be the main factor in a record label’s decision to contact your band, it could be that little edge your band needs to be noticed.

– Management. Get a real manager/management company. Get a lawyer to represent you the way you want to be represented. Get a publicist to represent you. If money is tight at first, one way to get help on these matters is to contact the area colleges to see if there are any people studying these fields; maybe they will take you on as a project while helping themselves refine their talents by getting their feet wet.

2. What is the biggest mistake that bands make when it comes to promoting themselves as a band/product?
I think it’s when a band assumes that they are owed something. There are way too many bands out there and no one owes you anything, especially those who might be able to help you promote your band. If you don’t do it, no one will. I’ve actually received complaints from bands saying that I’m not playing their music enough so they aren’t going to support my show. That’s a real shame, and they shouldn’t wait for me to call them asking for their support. Promoting a band and their product is a process that takes time. There really are no shortcuts; it just depends how aggressive your band is at getting the ball rolling to develop a reputation. A band is considered new even if they’ve been together for a year. A band might be sick of playing the same songs they’ve been playing for the last year, but they are still new songs to everyone listening.

3. What is your background?
I studied music and communications in school. I played in two St. Louis–based bands for a total of 10 years. I’ve written two songs that received rotation on St. Louis radio. I’ve worked in the radio industry for going on 9 years, during which time I have been involved with the St. Louis music scene for about 7. I have been creating/producing/hosting the St. Louis music show “The River Home Grown” show on 101.1 The River for over two years. The River Home Grown show is the recipient of the 2003 Missouri Broadcasters Association’s First Place award for “Special Programs.” I love music but listen to it as a musician, which can be a curse at times.

4. St. Louis is a great town, but do you think it supports its local music/arts scene?
Not nearly enough. I believe that many of the problems with city government, living, and culture lie in our lack of support of the creative people in town. Whenever we discover that we have a shining star in the arts, they leave St. Louis to pursue more opportunities on the coasts where people are more open and tolerant of the arts. What does this have to do with government and living? If we would nurture the culture and creative arts of St. Louis and help to develop them, people would stay to express themselves more openly in St. Louis. This would lead to more people drawing attention to downtown, as well as the other parts of the region. People would be more inclined to stay in the city and the city government would become more stable and be more inclined to open their minds to bring schools, hospitals, and groceries stores to the city instead of hiring people from New York to come to St. Louis to close them. The media are usually the first to be blamed for not promoting the city, but the media follows the story. The media will follow the stories that are created by the above-mentioned, and then they will become the main supporters of the music/arts scene. From there, the masses pick up on the scene and become a part of the mix, and that’s when thing really explode. Notice that I saved the masses for last? They will ultimately need to be convinced that we have a special music/arts scene here in St. Louis, and once they are convinced, then everything will move quickly. Bar owners will then see the profit potential and they will open more doors for the culture. I’m oversimplifying this, and it takes time, but I think you get the idea.

5. Without getting yourself fired or greasing the path to promotion, describe the pluses and minuses of local/national radio. Also, is there really a difference between local and national radio anymore?
National radio is usually given the bad rap because of the lack of support for local radio and the local culture. If there weren’t a market for national radio, then there would be no national radio. My suggestion would be to give support, as a listener, to the stations that support the local culture—and, yes, I am talking about 101.1 The River as one of those supporters. The positive for national radio is that once they do grasp what is happening in a particular scene, they have the power to expose it immediately worldwide. The only negative I can see for local radio is there is not enough support for what is happening locally. I’m not talking about turning stations over to an all-local format, but at least tweak the programming to allow for a bit higher profile for the culture.

6. Given control of the world, what would you change about the music business?
I would make the music business get back into the trenches. I believe that the decision-makers are missing out on artistic gems simply because they don’t have the people to get down into the various scenes across the country. The decision-makers in the industry are so protected by the massive amount of material out there, that some of the special stuff gets overlooked. I’m sure that part of this is due to economical issues, but the question included that I was given control of the world.

7. I decide to form a band. For the sake of argument, it will feature banjoes and accordions, and we will all wear kilts. Other than learning our instruments (somewhat), what is the first thing we should do to prepare ourselves for the stardom ahead?
First of all, I want to see this band if you plan to play rock. Then I would say (assuming that the band has everything else in line with what’s been mentioned so far) don’t believe all of the hype about your own band. You are never as big as you think you are, and if you think you are that big before you really are, then you will find out soon enough that you are not. Never miss the opportunity to help someone who is doing the same thing you are doing in your scene and be gracious.

8. You moved the Home Grown show out to the Enigma Lounge. How has that been going?
The Enigma Lounge is a fantastic place to hear good sound. The people who work at the Enigma Lounge are great and are as obsessed about St. Louis music as I am, so it’s been a great fit for the show. The show has worked well for the area. It’s an uphill battle, exposing an area to something that they are not used to, but that’s the part of the process that has to be done and so far, I feel that we are meeting most of the goals of the show.

9. How many times a week do you have to shave the head?
I shave my head once a day. If I let it go for too long, my head starts to itch when the wind blows through the bristles.

10. How does a band get their music played on the River Home Grown show?
It’s a lot easier than most people think. I listen to every song on every CD that is sent to me. If I think it fits with what we’re trying to do with the show, I play it. I will play most styles and genres of music. I’m currently not taking anything less than well-produced material. If a band honestly feels, from the bottom of their musical hearts, that they have something special to show to St. Louis, they can inquire about the show by going to www.wvrv.com, or they can e-mail me at ken.williams@wvrv.com.

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