Artist Diary with ... WESTLAND - Aug 2, 2010
“If you meet people in person you make fans for a lifetime”
Unscrupulous promoters, idle roadies, inept management ... the young rock band’s journey into music fan consciousness is littered with dubious characters threatening to derail it, as evidenced by the stars of our latest Artist Diary, Westland.
Although the Boston five-piece show how negotiating a much career is a sobering learning process, and as such have a great many lessons to share, they also show that as much as there are people out to create a nuisance there are fans, friends and other believers that are invaluable in helping keep the show on the road ...
Having played together in different local bands and projects for a couple of years, our singer Aaron Bonus and guitar player Ryan Bassett decided to try to attract some wider exposure by uploading some of their home recordings onto MySpace. It was a decision that set in motion the rise of Westland.
The producer Evan Bakke heard the MySpace recordings and approached us to ask whether we wanted to cut a record with him. He proposed recording at a studio in Chicago belonging to Steve Gillis, one time drummer for Filter.
The offer sounded really good and we decided to go for it. Having taken a loan out to fund the venture, we spent nine days recording our ten song album ‘Don’t Take it Personal’.
We then had it mixed by Mark Trombino, who is known for his work with bands like Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182 and Something Corporate, and then mastered by multiple Grammy award winner Vlado Meller. To this day it is a decision we are happy with.
Shortly after receiving the final masters, we had a piece of good fortune in being selected to take part in the The Extreme Tour 2009.
The Settling of Westland
With the tour and the CD ready all we needed were dedicated and talented new band members. An old friend [Jon Cornelius] who had come to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music filled in as second guitarist and with the College right around the corner we also had an array of drummers eager to step in, from whom we chose Carlo Ribaux. We also decided to try out a few Berklee bassists but were unable to anyone that fit and, believe it or not, in the end it was Craigslist that helped us find Jeff Motekaitis.
With effectively a whole new band, we thought it wrong to keep the same name and so changed it to ‘Westland’, inspired by the avenue we lived on. Everybody we asked thought the name fit the music.
Our first break as ‘Westland’ arrived shortly after when one of our songs, ‘Cold Sweat’, aired on ESPN as part of their ‘Big Monday’ college basketball show.
After two weeks of straight practice we left for Jacksonville, Florida where the tour bus for the Extreme Tour stood waiting. Together with six bands from all over the US and Canada, we toured from Florida up to New York.
Although the experience proved successful in terms of getting some great connections, the tour itself wasn’t very well promoted and dates kept getting cancelled. We ended up only playing about half as many shows as originally announced. The organization had obviously tried to make their tour appear a lot bigger than it actually was, a practice that is far from unusual in the music industry. Lesson learned.
A Wise Management Deal?
As the tour and summer ended, we were offered an artist development deal with JPC3 Management, who are based out of Thousand Oaks, California.
Before we signed our names to anything we took the precaution of showing the contract to a number of different people. They all told us that it didn’t look right, with the fact that we had to pay them a fixed amount of money rather than a percentage being seen as particularly fishy.
We decided to sign it anyway because a) we had always wanted to go west and b) they had lured us with a college and a high school tour on the west coast.
Right after signing we left for LA and on the way out there managed to play some good shows and also pick up our first helper, a guy called Ginger. However, we were soon to discover that he was the laziest possible piece of roadie. As a rule, never take somebody on the road that smells bad and doesn’t know how to work hard. Lesson learned.
Once we got to California we started playing at high schools during the lunch hour - a genius idea for any up and coming bands because schools have a built-in crowd. In a given area we would play three to five high schools plus a couple of acoustic Hot Topic shows and while there we’d promote our club shows that took place over the weekend. This resulted in packed clubs and happy promoters, even in places we’ve never been to before.
On top of that we did ‘ten-a-days’ which is selling ten CDs at the mall or other places where our audience demographic (which is about 80% females from 12 to 22 years old) would hang out.
For accommodation, we’d sleep over at fans’ places and at people’s homes we found at CouchSurfing.org. We managed to get by but it was rough, especially at those times when JPC3 failed to book more than two high school shows for an entire week. I’m sure they would have put more effort into our bookings if they were receiving a percentage and not a fix income. Lesson learned.
For three months straight we played every high school between Seattle and San Diego, every college between Idaho and Arizona and in doing so managed to build up a great following along the west coast. It seems the more rural and boring a town was, the more successful our shows were. Everybody was happy that something exciting was happening.
Support of Believers
Just before Christmas something exciting was happening for us, too. We won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest on Sonicbids (HQ interview with CEO) despite not having been aware we were even taking part. It seems our guitar player’s dad had submitted us a while ago.
This event just highlights how important it is for an independent band to have people working and believing in your project. We seem to have quite a few of those helpers. In fact I wouldn’t even be writing this diary for HitQuarters if it weren’t for our bassist’s uncle who put up a profile on here a while ago.
I want to take this opportunity to give a shout out to all those people who stay in the background but help us from day to day: Thank you! We couldn’t make it without you.
We won a few things via sonicbids.com during this period, one of which was a contract with the publishing company Audiosocket, which pitches songs to radio and TV stations.
It was winning the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, however, that enabled us all to go home for Christmas. The prize is playing the John Lennon Stage at NAMM in Anaheim and included hotels, a good amount of money and, most importantly, airfare to and from Boston.
Being able to play at NAMM was great for us. We got a lot of exposure and were able to connect with several gear companies. Some of them asked us to team up with them and offered generous endorsements, which we gladly accepted.
Nevertheless, the exposure could have actually been better but because our management had failed to book us shows right before NAMM we weren’t sufficiently warmed up and didn’t really play to the best of our capabilities.
In fact through the whole month of January JPC3 had been slacking and had hardly booked us any shows. What’s more they failed to keep their promise of changing the contract to a percentage after six months, and so we decided to part ways with them.
Anyway, having taught us how to survive as an independent band we didn’t really need them anymore. It was still a shot in the dark, but that was why we had waited so long to make the decision. Fortunately, it proved to be a worthwhile one.
So we started booking our own high school, Hot Topic and clubs shows and, by applying everything we’d learnt so far, we successfully toured California for two months.
During this time we had some very unpleasant encounters with promoters. They forced us to sell an insane amount of tickets - which we did - and then took a lion’s share for themselves. In Anaheim, for example, we sold 90 tickets for a show and only got to keep the money for ten of them.
But the majority of promoters, bands and such were very nice. There are the good ones and there’s the bad ones and it’s important to talk to people and check out websites to find out who are on which side. Lesson learned.
Music Video and Photo Shoot
Without management we were finally able to set our own priorities and so decided to shoot a music video. We got in contact with Chris Cullari, a screenwriter and director based in California. He came up with some brilliant ideas that really appealed to us.
We didn’t have any money, but where there’s a will there’s a way and before we knew it we were setting up our gear in front of a giant green screen in a studio in Hollywood. Chris and his team of team of four people did an awesome job and the video was done within one long day.
As a funny side note, our drummer Carlo had to wrap up his drums in red ribbons because his lime green kit had the exact same color as the green screen.
To fund the video shoot, we’d set up a donation link on our website and told all our fans about it and after only a few weeks we had the money together. We’d heard stories like the one about a 14-year-old girl from Bakersfield asking her dad to give us $1,500. He didn’t of course, but he did end up donating $100, which is a pretty good amount too! This was one of the moments where we realized that we wouldn’t be anywhere without our fans and that Westland has the best, most dedicated fans in the world. Lesson learned.
After that we headed back to Boston to take new pictures with photographer Dan Gillan who is well known in our genre for taking pictures for bands like Boys like Girls.
A Genius Marketing Idea
For Spring and Summer 2010 we had a very special plan. As a result of our success from selling at malls we’d figured we could sell our CDs even better if we went to concerts and showed people our music to people waiting in line.
We tried it out in March at the ‘Bamboozle’ Festival in Anaheim and it worked out so well that we decided to promote our band by following the ‘Bamboozle Road Show’.
While one band member stayed at home to record different bands in his studio the four of us followed the road show through over 20 states. Within six weeks we’d met thousands and thousands of fans of our style of music and convinced more than 3,000 kids to buy a CD.
As I write this article we are following the Warped Tour doing the same thing all over because we think it’s a genius way of marketing ourselves. It’s better than any ad in a magazine, because if you meet people in person you make fans for a lifetime.
Losing Faith in Fan-Base Competitions
While following the Bamboozle Road Show we also finished first place in a fan-vote based competition organized by Motel6 and called ‘Rock Yourself to Sleep’. A jury then picked three of the top five bands to open 15 concerts for a bigger band called Every Avenue. Unfortunately, we weren’t chosen.
This wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been the second time this had happened in a Motel6 competition! Just a few months earlier we finished third and didn’t get picked to win free motel rooms for six weeks. What caught our eye was that both times it was bands signed to labels that were picked. Anyways, we stopped believing in fan-vote based competitions. Lesson learned.
At this time we were on the look out for new management but our past experiences had made us extremely cautious. In the end only one company met our high expectations and after three months (!) of negotiations we signed with them.
Based in New York, they’re called Extreme Management Group. We have a really good feeling about them and have signed with them for one year for now.
Regarding our immediate future we have some good things to look forward to. A nationally distributed music magazine called Substream is going to print a big interview with us in its August issue. This is a follow-up to an article introducing us to their readers last December.
What’s more the music store Hot Topic contacted us and wants to put our CD in 120 stores on the east coast with an option to expand it across the country if it sells well.
The popular smartphone application ‘Pandora’ have also agreed to featuring us in their rotation. After having been on DJ Rosstars ‘Punk Rock Show’ and having done a bunch of local radio and internet radio interviews we were asked to do interviews and performances on bigger shows such as ‘Fearless Radio’ and the ‘Gunz Show’.
From August to October we will be on a coast-to-coast tour with Rookie of the Year and Scarlet Grey (who are currently opening up for a.f.i). We’re excited about playing nice places like House of Blues and the famous ‘Roxy’ in West Hollywood. Once again our hard work and unceasing hunger to plant the seed and spread the word about our band throughout the whole country has paid off manifold, which shows us that we are doing things the right way.
For the future we definitely want to keep doing what we are doing and also expand to Japan, Australia and Europe. The latter one is the most likely since our drummer is from Switzerland and has a lot of great contacts with bands, booking agents and labels there and in the surrounding countries. A contract with the worldwide operating merchandise company JSR is already set up and ready to supply us wherever we go.
Key to Our Success
We are five guys coming from nothing, stepping up the ladder and building a healthy foundation as a band and a company, taking one step and lesson at a time and applying everything we’ve learned. Within one year we made our way from a totally new band to a national phenomenon in the underground scene with over 77,500 friends on our MySpace site and between 5,000 and 20,000 plays a day.
The key to our success is that we stay hungry and do everything that needs to be done to achieve our goals. Of course we would be nowhere without our talent to write catchy songs and put on a great live show, but we know that it needs both to make it; hard work and talent. We’ve played well over 100 shows this year and visited over 35 states, but we know that we are still at the beginning of our journey. We are ready to take the next step.
Drawing by Sabrina Lambert
Next week: Making Waves speaks to Sore Eyes
Read On ...
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