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Interview with JOHN WITTMAN, manager of artist relations at Yamaha - Mar 21, 2011

“Endorsements don’t propel artists’ careers – [they’re] designed to expose the credibility of an instrument and support that artist to be as creative as possible.”

picture ...If you’re a musician in love with a particular brand of instrument or equipment then seeking an endorsement from the manufacturer so that your loyalty is rewarded with free gear makes perfect sense for any band after all the financial support they can find - but is it really as simple as that?

We speak to manager of artist relations at Yamaha, John Wittman, about how endorsements work, his own route to becoming endorsed as a drummer and what musicians need to do to attract his company’s support.

When should a musician be starting to look for endorsements?

You must establish yourself as an asset and not an expense before anyone would want to support you. Every day businesses try to cut expenses; they try to leverage and capitalise on their assets. Young players need to get a lot of work done under their belt - they need to be thrown to the mat many times.

I do artist relations for Yamaha Corporation, the Band and Orchestral Division, which is woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion, and also drum-set, for the United States. If anybody comes to me and they haven’t established themselves as a successful musician - someone who is actually making a living as a musician, be it a full-time player, performer, or teacher at a conservatory or music school - how can they expect to be endorsed? They have to have already proven themselves as a viable commodity before we’d consider taking them on. That’s not to say we don’t try to recognise young talent because we really do - it would be foolish not to.

How do you assess whether a drummer is suitable for Yamaha endorsement?

A lot of drummers just contact us and say, “Hey, we have a lot of record label interest, and we’re going to be the next best thing.” Well, that doesn’t mean you’ve already established yourself. The band might be getting some good notoriety and maybe influential in pockets, but that wouldn’t necessarily necessitate a full-endorsement, support on the road ...

We weigh out, “Is the person a side-man, or is he a soloist? Is he in a band that is ultra-successful?” Carter Beauford - he’s the drummer in the Dave Matthews Band - is the dream endorser because he loves the product shamelessly, plays it like crazy, wouldn’t play anything else, because he loves the sound. That’s the key.

The core of a successful endorsement is when the artist finds the ‘it’, the manufacturer that produces the instrument that makes them completely expressive and free. If that’s not there, all the rest will fall. It’s like a marriage, if the love’s not there then it’s not going to work. It’s not like, ‘I kinda like you, so let’s get married. But I’m going to date other people.’ We don’t want people to endorse Yamaha for a couple of months, we want it to be an entire lifetime.

Most drummers are pretty cut and dried; they either love the Yamaha sound, the Ludwig sound, the Pearl sound … and want that sound, so they should go to that company once they are established.

How did your drumming career lead you to getting endorsed by Yamaha, and how did that then lead to you endorsing other musicians?

My relationship with music started quite similarly to many people who grew up in the ‘60s; I saw Ringo Starr on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and it literally changed my life. My earliest memories were of just banging on things, and getting a cardboard drum-set when I was very young.

Since I was a little boy, watching TV was always, ‘How did that hi-hat open and close?’, ‘Why does he have the snare drum that way?’, ‘What is he doing with that foot?’ I went to a small school in upstate New York where they had a very small band program, but I was also playing rock and roll in clubs. It wasn’t until senior year that I really got serious about thinking if this is what I’m to be then I’d better be able to speak about it intelligently. I worked like crazy, got into a band, got my butt kicked, auditioned for college, went into undergrad as a music education major. It was a small undergraduate school and because there were not a lot of us, we all had to play everything - marimba, vibes, chimes, drum-set, timpani. So it was baptism by fire and I reacted very positively to the pressure.

Upon graduation, I went on the road for three years and played rock n roll six nights a week all over the country. It was 1982, some of the coolest music and some of the worst music at the same time, and it was there that I really honed the relationship with the drum-set. And also with music because now you’re really doing it for a living; whether you were sick as hell or feeling great, you had to show up every night and give 100%.

And that led to me trying to get out of that scene alive, knowing it was time to go if I wanted to continue living. I went back to grad school, got my masters in conducting, and was a band director in upstate NY for six years. I loved it a lot but decided to go back out on the road again and started a band with some friends.

The band disbanded abruptly. It was a very cathartic experience to see your dreams shattered because we were really going for that record deal in the sky. I had to recreate myself and realised I had been going through stages leading me up to the point where I could go back to the woodshed and really work out my weaknesses as a player. I worked endless hours on my drum-set skills, wanting to be a really good clinician. I started to do many clinics, a lot of writing, a lot of teaching … I never went after any endorsements. I developed myself as a commodity and then was asked to endorse Yamaha Drums.

From then I was asked to be full-time, after I was an established artist-clinician, as a studio guy, performer, writer, with these other companies. After that I was asked to come on full-time as the Artist Relations Manager for the Yamaha Corporation. I have been in this position going on 15 years, and still am very active as a drummer. I play drums for a singer/songwriter names Jenny DeVoe. Also, I still speak a lot at universities and do as much drum clinics and instruction as I can.

How long is a musician endorsed for?

We really do want them to stay in the family forever, if Yamaha is the sound that they want. It is really a yes or no thing; you either love the sound or you don’t. All the different manufactures make good instruments, but if you really do love the sound and you’re a good person, and you’re a good business person, and you communicate respectfully and your expectations are realistic then we want you on the roster forever.

Endorsements don’t propel artists’ careers - that’s a huge misconception. Endorsements are designed to expose the credibility of an instrument through artist endorsement and then to support that artist to continue to be as creative as possible.

What is expected from a musician in return for a endorsement?

Good communication. If they’re going to be on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’, if they’re going over to Japan, or a new record release is coming out, we want to know about it so we can support and promote them. If you don’t communicate well then the relationship’s going to be lopsided. There are a lot more artists than there are staff for artist relations. And we don’t want to have to not hear from somebody and then they call up and say “You guys never call.”

We expect them to play our instruments consistently. In other words, they can’t say ‘I endorse Yamaha’ but then when they go down to play a jazz club in the village, play a competitor’s horn or a competitor’s electric violin, because that’s the sound they really like.

We also expect them to be vocal when appropriate as to why. We do chip in pretty extensively and consistently for support for clinics to help students get good material and information from the Yamaha artist-clinician. When a kid raises his hand and says, ‘What do you play?’ the dude says, ‘I play a Yamaha trombone, and let me tell you why …” And the students then go, ‘I want to sound like him,’ and hopefully buy Yamaha stuff.

Do you feel that there’s any unique opportunity that exists from being with Yamaha? Is there something other than the instruments and the music?

Yes. Number one, we are very dedicated to education. If the artist is also dedicated to education, we’re going to be consistent with our support of their educational endeavours.

We’re very dedicated to the pursuit of sound. The designers in Japan are relentless in the search for really great sound and great quality. Our artists benefit from the consistency of Yamaha’s design, which is one thing that makes Yamaha very unique. If you’re a trumpet player in Japan and tried a Yamaha trumpet and then were transported to Los Angeles and got the same model of trumpet off the shelf at a music store and played both, the playability and the consistency will be off the hook.

We are a family and we have a world-wide network of support. When our artists travel internationally, the phone rings, and it’s like, ‘John, my saxophone just got run over by a train, I’m in Tokyo, what the hell do I do?’ That’s not a problem. That’s when the endorsement artist says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll never leave Yamaha.’ There’s a very high level of expectations working with Yamaha, we expect the best of our people, and when our artists travel to different countries, they’re treated with a lot of respect by our staff, and that goes a long way when you’re in another country, and your instrument breaks down or is lost.

Another benefit would there are ateliers, pro-shops in Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York and Frankfurt where wind people, as well as percussionists and strings, can come in and get and get work on their instruments by real artisans. This is where science meets art. They trust these people to take their baby apart and make it sound more blue - or more grey. That is an expensive commitment, and it’s a huge statement to our artist community.

Does it make a difference if it’s a representative of that artist, or would you prefer to hear from an artist directly?

Even if management contacts us, I won’t sign anyone until I talk to them. It’s a relationship. Some major rock-stars have great representation - we deal with their techs, personal managers, or business managers - but I prefer to have an artist call me because I really gotta know what makes them tick.

An artist who has a manager call because they’re trying to impress does not impress. If they’re on such on a high level and it’s part of management’s job to represent said artist, to talk about an endorsement relationship, I totally get that. But if they are not of the highest echelon of the music business then pick up the damn phone! Let’s be real folks, we’re all trying to make it, right? I don’t expect anything but honesty and good communication.

We’ve had some major artists in major orchestras or rock bands that just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi, I’m ___ and I just love Yamaha and I love to play your stuff. Are you into that?’ That’s the kind of call that makes you happy you do what you do because they’re really shooting straight.

Is there a better time of the year to approach you?

A really rough time to call is December/January because there are many conventions, the Midwest Band and Orchestral Convention, the NAMM Show, Jazz Education Network, Percussive Arts Society … during December and January I don’t field one call from a prospective artist because we’re wrapped around major shows. February, March, April is when I catch up and actually listen and call people back.

What are other mistakes musicians make when approaching for an endorsement?

The worst thing to do is cold-call. Say ‘Hey I’m Johnny Rotten and I’m really good.’ The best thing to do is to be an expert on our philosophy, and our procedures and go to our website. Most of the people who are really good players and really good people know they’ve got a few hoops to jump through and will happily fill out an application and send in a press-pack.

I’m just asking you to tell me what label you’re on, send me a recording, and talk to me about what gear you use. If you can’t do that then what’s it going to be like two months down the line? There’s no relationship if you can’t just be normal and stop star-tripping for a minute. We’re really interested in good people, good players who are self-propelled, who love our instruments, want to keep playing doing their own thing. If major rock-stars can do it, then people who are aspiring certainly can.

It’s not a good idea to walk up at NAMM, or another tradeshow, with a big package and just bombard you. But it’s totally cool to come up and say, “Hey I’m ____ and I’d like to send you a package, I’d like you to hear my music. I love Yamaha drums.” Approach is everything, and if they take time to look at the website and really just know where we’re coming from and know about our instruments and approach us in a good way, then I’m all ears, and really open to opportunities.

From the other end of spectrum, can artists be dropped from an endorsement, and what would be the basis?

It’s very rare that we drop people. People stay with us because we make really good instruments, but we also work really hard at having great programs and great support.

Most of the time when people leave Yamaha, it goes something like, ‘John, I’ve been playing these other horns and it’s just my sound, I love them, and I’m sorry. You guys have been great.” To which I answer, “I totally get it.” That’s life, things change.

As far as really having to drop somebody, it would have to be a real blatant, ‘No I’m not going to do any type of support’, like I won’t put the logo on my drums anymore, or some type of fraud like saying they did these clinics and we paid them and they never occurred.

We just ask people play our instruments consistently. If they’re not really being consistent performing on our instruments then there’s no reason for the endorsement. Sometimes you’d watch YouTube things and they’re not playing your instruments anymore, and then I’d certainly call them to say “Hey what’s going on?” If that’s the case, if they’re not playing and endorsing, then the relationship shouldn’t continue.

If you’re a young player and you’re considering an endorsement, you have to focus on the music first and the endorsements will come. Consistently practice, be a consistent good person, be a relentless good-finder, the mechanics of being a good musician are 25% of success, the other components are who you surround yourself with, and how positive of a person you are, and how you deal with pressure, and those are the things that propel a career.

Is there a success story that really defines a successful endorsement relationship with Yamaha?

Jeff Coffin, saxophone player with the Dave Matthews band, played a competitor’s saxophone when he was with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. We met him and said, “Hey we’re working on some designs of some different saxophones and would love to have you try them out.” He was very open and he tried the saxophones, but didn’t really like them. We then asked, “What kind of saxophone would make the most sense to you? Where are we missing the target on this instrument?” We involved him in the process of how different saxophones were being developed.

Now he plays all of our saxophones consistently and Yamaha has become his sound. He is über successful and still always a phone call away. He’s one of our most active clinicians. Always just, “What do you need me to do? Let me help.” He’s always part of the solution, and a good example of somebody who really understands the correct expectations and a healthy relationship as an endorser.

interviewed by Aaron Bethune

Next week: Rising pop band Beatbullyz on hooking fans into the brand

Read On ...

* A&R Bruce Flohr on taking chances with the Dave Matthews Band