Interview with JASON FOWLER, manager for Pillar - Jun 10, 2003
Pillar, featured artists at HitQuarters in January, have signed to a major record label
Based in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Jason Fowler manages the rock band Pillar, who were featured on HitQuarters in January as one of the talents. Pillar recently signed to MCA and a remixed version of their second album, “Fireproof”, is being released for the mainstream market this month. It was previously released for the Christian market by Flicker Records and has sold 135,000 copies to date. Jason tells us the band’s story and describes the events that led up to them signing to MCA.
What is your background and how did you start out in the music industry?
I’ve been playing in bands since I was twelve years old and, by the time I was twenty-one, I was playing in bands that were signed to record labels. Later I got into road management and set up my management company, Fowler & Associates. I’ve worked with a lot of indie bands who saw how hard I worked when I was booking them and asked me if I’d manage them. Pillar are my most successful act so far. My company also includes a mobile DJ division that plays in clubs, a sound and light division, and a booking division that books signed and unsigned bands.
How did Pillar's original line-up get together?
The original members met in Hays, Kansas in 1998, whilst at college, and the bass player, Kalel, joined six months later. Over the years, they lost a few members who no longer wanted to tour. Noah played guitar with a band that opened for them and, because they knew their guitar player was leaving, they asked him to join, which he did. A similar thing happened with their new drummer, Lester. In fact, Rob the singer is the only one that remains from the original line-up. The new members have taken the band to the next level and made them who they are today.
Initially, one of the guys worked at Wal-Mart and another delivered pizzas, but once they decided that they really wanted to be a band and do it full-time, they all quit their jobs. They busted their tails playing shows independently, they bought an old school bus and went on tour, and they did all that without a deal, without a booking agent, without a manager, without anything. They played enough shows to be able to pay themselves a small salary.
It was mostly Kalel who booked the shows, he just got on the phone and called everybody he could think of. He went to other bands' web sites, looked where they were playing, and called those places. He visited booking agents' web sites and got contact numbers from there. The band booked everything they could, for whatever they could get.
How do they compose their songs?
Rob writes all the words, Noah comes up with the guitar riff, Kalel the bass line, and Lester the drum pattern. There is no one person in charge and everybody contributes, which helps the longevity of the band because everybody feels like they’re a part of it, as opposed to one man taking all the money and all the credit.
What experiences have helped Pillar become what they are?
Some of the bands they played with before helped mould them, particularly Disciple, who have relentless energy on stage, and they either pass out or the show ends. The guys in Pillar opened up for Disciple one night and came to the conclusion that they wanted to be like that. Pillar are different from many of the mainstream bands who are out right now, because these guys get up on the stage and they don’t stop. They’re spinning their guitars around, they’re jumping and screaming, it’s a non-stop thing until the show is over.
They recorded two albums by themselves, "Metamorphosis" and "Original Superman"…
Yes. They saved money and a friend helped them with the recordings. Independent bands mainly record albums for the sake of selling them at shows and getting some money. Pillar’s mentality was to make an album, sell it, make some money to make a better album, and so on. Every dime they brought in from sales, they put towards their next product.
Did they send the albums to record labels, media and radio stations?
They shopped around to smaller labels with the second album, “Original Superman”. Smaller companies will listen to your stuff, but when you send something to a major, they will put it in the trash if they don’t know who you are. Independents may take six months to listen to demos but they’re the ones who are actually out there looking for bands. Pillar looked for labels they thought might be interested or labels that were just popping up. Flicker Records, with whom they eventually signed, were one of those and Pillar were the first band they ever signed. Many of the labels that turned them down are kicking themselves now. So for all the bands out there, just because you've been turned down, don’t quit! Even Alanis Morissette was turned down by every label but Maverick.
How did you first come into contact with the band?
I met Rob at a concert and at that time I was still in road management. I told him what I did and I pestered them to death to let me be their road manager. Finally they called me back, I went on the road with them and so, before becoming their manager, I saw them play lots of shows and got to know them personally.
What did you see in them that made you want to manage them?
Exactly what I like to see in every band I manage: a strong work ethic. Some bands contact me and ask me if they can send me a demo, I say yes and six months later I still haven’t received it, or it takes them four weeks to send it. At that point I don’t care if they're the greatest band in the world, I won’t work with them. But Pillar busted their butt to make it happen and if you find a band that works that hard, then it’s going to happen regardless of whether a major label steps on board or not.
Do Pillar have a publishing deal?
In the Christian market, it's common for record labels to take the publishing, so we don’t actually have a publishing deal, because our Christian label owns most of the rights. They haven’t helped us at all in that sense and it’s something that we’ve been griping about for a long time. EMI has the administration rights to our publishing, so it’s currently up to EMI to shop us to movies and stuff like that, which they’ve simply not been doing. So to all you young bands out there: keep your publishing rights, and if it’s a deal breaker, then it’s a deal breaker.
Do Pillar have a booking agent?
The booking agents we have worked with for the Christian market are Jeff Roberts & Associates. We started out with them and they’ve done a great job. They saw this hardworking band booking their own shows, travelling, and who were willing to go out and do dates for nothing, which is a booking agent's dream. We have been seeking a mainstream booking agent and we've just signed with The Agency Group, who book bands like 3 Doors Down, Creed, Nickelback, Sum 41 and others.
What tours have earned them most fans and recognition?
Festival Con Dios is one of the largest tours in the Christian market and we’ve done it twice, in 2001 and 2002. It helped us gain a lot of fans. The guys who own Flicker were in the band Audio Adrenaline, who are rock icons in the Christian market. They got Pillar on the Festival Con Dios Tour, because they bought some slots on it and could choose to put on any band, and they chose Pillar.
The tour we have just finished, the See Spot Rock Tour, was great too. It sold out mainstream venues of 2-3,000 people across the country and there were some really good bands on it. Even though we’ve been on the Christian market a while, we're still gaining new fans. Previously we headlined our own 35-city Fireproof Tour in 2002 where we had a great PA system and lights, which stepped things up a level for us. That’s when people recognised that Pillar were here to stay. The Winter Jam Tour in 2001 was also important.
At what point were the band members able to live off the income they were making from their music?
It just depends on what kind of level you want to live at. If you want to have a nice house and drive a nice car, they haven’t reached that level yet. But they make a living and they’ve been doing that from the moment they dedicated themselves to the band full-time. Honorariums are getting bigger every day and hopefully one of these days they’ll reach a point where they’ll actually make some money. Since the band own only a small fraction of their publishing rights, they have to tour a lot to make money.
How did Flicker Records first hear about Pillar?
When Pillar had recorded their second album, they wanted to get a song on the radio and so they contacted radio trackers. Donna del Sesto is the best in the business, so they sent Donna a CD and just pounded her until she had listened to it. She finally told them that she was expensive and that she couldn’t help them unless they had a label. Donna contacted Bob Herdman at Flicker, whom she knew was looking for a band and told him that they should sign Pillar because their music was great and they worked hard. Bob contacted Pillar and Pillar invited him to a show. He came to see them within a few days and shortly after that, in June 2000, he signed them. Flicker is still a really small label: there are only five people working in their office, so everyone gets involved because they're such a tight-knit family.
Were all the songs for “Above”, the first album on Flicker, finished when Flicker signed them?
Most songs on “Above”, which was released in September 2000, came off the “Original Superman” album. There were some that they changed and improved, and some that they dropped. For their second album on Flicker, “Fireproof”, which was released in May 2002, Pillar wrote completely new songs.
How did Flicker help Pillar?
Pillar were their only band, so they put a lot of effort in. I don’t think any other label could have broken Pillar, because if we had been on a bigger label with big bands on it, we would have been shoved to the back and been the last in line for the money. Pillar was Flicker’s sole focus and they got us on a lot of tours that really helped push us.
In what regions and markets did Flicker work the albums?
In the Christian market, nationwide. Flicker have a deal with EMI/Chordant, the biggest distributor of Christian music, who distributed Pillar to all the Christian outlets. Everybody at EMI is really fired up about Pillar and it’s one of the bands that they really want to push. We’ve spoken to them and tried to get to know them because once they know you they’re more interested in pushing your album. Pillar have always wanted to make people feel that they have a connection with the band.
How did Flicker promote and market the albums?
They did radio ads for the singles, print magazine ads and as many interviews and tours as they could. The basic stuff, but not TV ads or videos. We only ever made one video, which only cost US$1,800 to make. There aren’t that many Christian magazines: there's HM, CCM, Seven Ball, Breakaway and that’s it.
Because Flicker was a new label, they didn’t have a lot of money, and at first we had to pay 50% of many of the ads that they placed. I don’t mean that these costs were recouped from royalties, we actually had to write them a check.
How much was spent on marketing and promotion for the “Fireproof” album?
All included, about US$80,000.
What airplay was most important?
Radio U is the KROQ (influential rock station in California – Ed.) of the Christian market and its biggest station. Once you get airplay on Radio U, which is tough to get, everything else falls into place. They’ve supported us from the beginning and we’ve never released a song that hasn't gone to No.1 on Radio U. Even our video went to No.1 and was voted Video of the Year, because they have a division called TV U, which is like the Christian MTV.
What were the most important print media articles?
Lots of people sat up and took notice of us when Newsweek covered the Festival Con Dios Tour and the whole Christian rock movement. Pillar were featured in that article and we made use of it in many ways.
How many units have the albums sold?
“Fireproof” has sold 135,000 copies and “Above” about 60,000.
Where did Pillar record their albums?
“Above” was recorded in Kentucky by Travis Wyrick, in his studio, costing around US$15,000. Pillar had a relationship with Travis through the band Disciple, whom Travis had worked with. When Flicker had established themselves, they bought a studio, which is where “Fireproof” was recorded, again by Travis Wyrick. It cost about US$40-50,000.
You have a street team…
Yes, Pillar have a street team called the Underground Army, which has around 4-5,000 members and is headed by two guys, J-Rod and Underground Dave. If it weren’t for those two, the street team wouldn’t be as huge as it is now. The team has what we call “Echelons”, which are groups of "soldiers" that operate in major cities all over the country. J-Rod and Underground Dave deal with the Echelon leaders in each city, who in turn deal with the members of that Echelon. Therefore, instead of us sending stuff out to 5,000 people, we send it to 50 or 60 people and then they spread it further. It’s a nice system and people have actually called us and asked how we set up our team. They keep us going and we do everything we can for all five thousand of them, because they’re a big factor in our success.
How has that fan base been maintained?
We send out what we call Pillar mail at least every two weeks. We have a road journal that fans can log on to, to find out what’s happening from day to day. We take pictures of our fans and put them on the Internet and we try to make them feel that they’re part of something. We have a message board where kids can talk and share their problems with each other. We want to work for them as hard as they work for us. Many bands think that the street team works for them and they don’t give them anything in return. If Pillar faded away, I think our street team would continue to be friends with each other. It’s a really big community and bigger than anything Pillar could ever control.
What does the street team do?
They go out and hit all the message boards they can find and talk about Pillar. They handle flyers, call radio stations and vote in magazine polls.
Did the sales of the album “Fireproof” spawn interest from major labels?
Yes, we sold 8,000 copies in the first week and in the Christian market that’s a lot. We debuted at No.6 on the charts and I had somebody from every major label calling me, including Paula Moore and then later Jeff Blue from Warner, Peter Visvardis from Columbia, Greg Nadel from Atlantic/Lava, and others.
Epic came to Pennsylvania to see the band play…
Lee Ferruci (A&R rep. Epic – Ed.) came to see the band play and he was later really upset that Epic didn't sign the band. After we had signed the MCA deal, Lee was still calling and asking me about the band. I think that a lot of these A&R reps really believed in the band, but there’s such a hierarchy at labels that it often prevents A&R reps from signing bands they really love.
Epic then invited Pillar to an open showcase in New York in July 2002…
Yes. We had about twelve fans there in addition to many people from Epic, including the head of A&R and some marketing and sales people. It was open because Lee wanted some of the fans to be there, because showcases like that are just miserable and he really wanted the label to see Pillar when there were some fans present. Despite the fact that Epic made it an open showcase, I don’t think they were expecting other labels to come. They just wanted to have some fans there for atmosphere. But then Tom Sarig (VP of A&R – Ed.) from MCA and Rick Goetz's (A&R rep. – Ed.) assistant from Elektra also showed up.
Had MCA spotted the band before the showcase in New York?
Tom Sarig called me before the showcase, while we were still on the “Fireproof” tour, and told me that he had heard the band, loved them and wanted to see them live. It just so happened that Epic was doing that showcase and Tom made it there because he works in New York.
What happened then?
MCA were going through what everybody else was going through at the time: it was the end of the fiscal year and there wasn’t much money to be spent on new bands. Finally, Gary Ashley, head of A&R, gave it the go-ahead and they made us an offer. However, just before we signed, they fired their president, Jay Boberg; I had to find out what was going on, because I didn’t want us to be on a label that was in trouble. Then they made Greg Lambert, who was the head of rock promotion, the interim president. They threw out a lot of contracts as Jimmy Iovine, the Chairman of Interscope/MCA, came in and started cleaning house. The good thing was that Jimmy really liked Pillar, so I knew that something was going to happen, because they were going to believe in us no matter who the president of MCA was.
What do you think made MCA sign Pillar?
One thing bands need to know right now is that labels are tight with money. Everything is in such turmoil that nobody really wants a band that they’re going to have to develop, because there just isn’t the money to do that. Back in the eighties, they’d sign bands that no one had heard of, take them from the ground up and make them huge, but labels today want bands that already have a fan base. The fact that we already had that as well as a huge street team guaranteed the label a certain amount of sales.
Also, based on our success in the Christian market and the success that many other Christian bands like P.O.D. and Chevell have had in the mainstream market, MCA thought we might successfully cross over. Pillar are signed directly to MCA now, because they bought the contract from Flicker, but Flicker and EMI will still continue to work with Pillar for the Christian market.
How sure were you that Pillar would mean something in another market?
One of the concerns that we’ve had going into a deal with a major was that what’s hip in the Christian market isn’t necessarily hip in the mainstream. Therefore, the choice we had to make was whether to stay in the Christian market where we had carved out a nice place for ourselves or give it a shot and try to take it to the next level. The advantage is that now we have a whole new market to go to, but the downside is that once the mainstream market is through with you, you’re dropped and you go back to flipping burgers.
What are the important details of the deal with MCA?
When MCA bought the contract from Flicker, they also renegotiated it with us. They gave us more points and a bigger album budget. There were a few things I wasn’t happy about, like them paying us a three-quarter rate for publishing. We hardly get anything from publishing anyway, so that was a disappointment, particularly as Flicker had paid us 100%, but apart from that they did give us more, so overall we’re really happy. It’s a four-album deal.
What advances does the deal include?
Because most of the money went to EMI and Flicker to buy the contract, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be spent. If we had signed directly to MCA at the beginning, we would have got more money, because they wouldn’t have had to pay off Flicker and EMI.
So the "Fireproof" album has now been remixed?
Yes, by Mudrock and Rich Costey. MCA have spent more money mixing the album than we originally spent recording, mixing, mastering, taking photos and marketing it, but they've spent the money wisely, where it needed to be spent. They used Pro Tools and changed some of the guitar parts, so it sounds very different. It’s a great mix, everything is fatter and some of the programs they brought in changed several of the songs significantly. The Christian industry is notorious for keeping the instruments down and the vocals up, because the words are the most important part, but they boosted the guitars, so it sounds like a heavy rock album.
The new “Fireproof” album will hit the mainstream market on 10 June.
What kind of marketing and promotional activities are planned?
We haven’t made a video yet. MCA are running two hundred ads on MTV2 for the record. They want to hit all the mass media, because they want Pillar to be the band that breaks them in the hard rock market in 2003. We’re trying to hook up their street team with ours to create a mass push at street level. There’s already some serious Internet marketing being done and “Fireproof”, the single, is actually the most downloaded song on the Universal Music Group web site, more so than songs by 50 Cent, Eminem, etc.
Will there be a video?
Yes. Our deal with MCA is that they'll pay half up to US$100,000, so we’re going to try to stay within that budget.
Who will own the masters of the album?
Why have Pillar come this far?
Their work ethic. They’re up till three or four in the morning writing to their fans, working out stuff for the web site or laying down tracks on a four-track recorder in the back of the bus. They've worked so hard that they had to make it, simply because you can’t work that hard and not make it.
Have the three Dove Awards (Hard Rock Album 2001 for “Above”, Hard Rock Song 2002 for “Live For Him”, Hard Rock Album 2003 for “Fireproof") been significant for the band?
Not really. There are stories about artists who win a Grammy and then their price goes up ten grand, but it doesn’t work that way in the Christian market. Our part of The Dove Awards isn’t even televised, so it’s not like everyone knows about it. It’s good to be recognised by your peers, because it’s the radio people and bands that actually vote, but I don’t think it has really pushed Pillar’s career forward.
In terms of your involvement with the band, what are you particularly proud of?
The fact that we got a mainstream deal. If major labels ever contact you, that’s one thing, but it’s an entirely different thing to get them to sit down and sign a contract. I e-mailed and phoned Tom Sarig so often that I’m surprised he hasn’t filed a harassment charge!
Another thing I’m proud of is that I run my management company thinking that I work for the bands and not vice versa. Many management companies believe that the band works for them and I think that once you get to that point, you don’t really have a relationship with the band. I’ve been on tours with all the bands that I’ve managed, they’ve come to my house and I’ve cooked them dinner. I like to become friends with them and I get calls from them sometimes just because they feel like talking, not necessarily because of business, and I like it that way.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan