Making Waves with ... ART OF DYING - Jan 24, 2011
“A lot of people will [buy a t-shirt] because they’ve spoken to you, and realised your gas tank’s probably empty and you need to get to the next city.”
For the latest edition of Making Waves, our series focusing on how artists are making things happen for themselves, we speak to Canadian rock band Art of Dying whose tireless efforts spreading their music to an international audience have been rewarded with a major label deal.
Singer Jonny Hetherington talks to HitQuarters about endorsements, licensing, starting your own label, the joys and frustrations of touring Canada and how a financially ambitious decision to accept a slot at the Download festival in England changed everything.
photo credit: Travis Shinn
When and how did the band form?
Greg and I met here in Vancouver years ago when I was playing on the street. He heard my voice and asked me to come jam with him and we’ve been playing together ever since.
We then met Jeff Brown about four years ago through our local music scene where we used to jam. He became our drummer and then linked us to Cale Gontier and Tavis Stanley who are from out east - they used to play in a band called Thornley - and joined this band about three years ago. The way it is right now is the way we’ll stay.
What are some of the things that have given you the most exposure?
By far the internet has been a mass of tools for us. Since day one we’ve embraced social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. It’s amazing to be able to reach out to people and start a conversation about your music.
Touring has also definitely helped. We took some major risks early on. For instance, we got invited to play a festival in England called Download, and were like, there’s no way we’re going to be able to do this. But Greg and I used to have this deal together where we never say no to anything, we just say yes and then figure it out. So on a wing and a prayer, we went to England, not knowing if we would be playing to five people or 50,000.
We made it work. With the internet we focused on the UK for the six months leading up to the show and let people know who we were. It turned out to be a huge success for us, and to be around other bands like Metallica, Alice in Chains, The Deftones and Tool and have our name associated with them was huge exposure.
So what did that exposure actually lead to?
We’ve been famous for beg, borrow and stealing whenever we can to get ahead a tiny little notch. So that show led to some really cool connections in England and to a really good tour with Seether in England shortly after. We were independent at that time and so just said yes and made it happen.
When we were on that tour, Shaun Morgan from Seether used to invite me out and we did an Alice in Chains cover every night. Paying respects to one of my heroes and being able to do that with another one of my heroes was a huge moment in my life.
Everything we did over there led to the relationship with Dan Donegan of Disturbed. He noticed that here’s a band making stuff happen for themselves. He’ll tell you to this day that, other than the music, what attracted him to us was the work ethic and the feathers in the cap that we’ve worked hard to get.
How did you manage to make that connection with Dan Donegan?
I used to relentlessly send out memos to people, and I’d always keep a CD in my pocket. I have some crazy stories about stuff Greg and I used to do just to get it into people’s hands. One of these people was a friend and radio promoter in Boston, MA. A year later he said, “Hey, you might be getting a call from this guy Dan Donegan of Disturbed. I passed on your music and I think he likes it.”
Behind the scenes Dan was listening to our CD, getting into the music, and he’d checked us out online. That’s when he noticed we’d just got off the road from England twice and he wanted to know how we were doing this. So he called me up and said, “I’m a big fan of your music and I’d love to help you guys out in the future.”
I didn’t hear from him again for a year when the phone rang and he was like, “I think I have an opportunity for you. We’re going on tour and we’d like you guys to open up.“ And that was the first real step in the relationship between Disturbed and Art of Dying.
As far as live performance goes, how important is it in overall success in rock music?
It’s amazingly important. If you put on a poor show then it’s better to not put on a show at all. If you put on a great show then it’s better to do that in front of as many people as possible.
So if you do half-assed shows with a half-assed band, or your attitude on stage is not one where everyone has a vision for what the show is, then you should probably work on that a little bit more before you start booking shows and tours. Of course, everyone has to build. You have to get out there and play, and the more time you spend in front of an audience - especially from my perspective as a vocalist - the more comfortable you become in front of them and the more the relationship becomes a natural thing.
Touring really depends on the decisions of the offers that comes in. You have to ask yourself, is it worth spending x amount of dollars and time to play these exact shows? We just turned down a tour. It was a great tour but the wrong time, and would have cost too much for us to do. So you should always ask yourself, is it worth it?
As far as band revenue goes, how does live music stand?
You pretty much always lose money on the road - especially in Canada. We have this amazing country with amazing music fans, but man, it’s just so spread out! I’ve heard before that if you can tour Canada, you can tour anywhere.
Everywhere else is just a step easier, whether it’s on the price of gas, or the cities not being so far apart, or whatever. We’re very lucky to be in Canada because we’re right next door to the US, which is pretty much the number one place in the world to tour. It’s bittersweet.
We tend to try to focus more on the US, but it’s tricky - there’s a whole other ball of stuff you have to worry about, like work visas and getting into the country legally to do shows. There’s a lot of bands that try it without going the legal route and that can really mess you up for a long time.
At the end of the day it’s all about the exposure from the tour because you’re pretty much going to lose money. Touring is an investment; it’s basically an advertisement for your band and advertising costs money. So if you’re going to tour, you have to do it at the right time - you have a CD to sell, merchandise to sell, online stuff to sell … You’re hoping the advertising dollars you’re spending in being on tour is going to someday translate to some money that’s going to come back and keep fuelling the music - buying guitars and making records.
What are your other sources of revenue?
I did really well personally in licensing music, and I’m continuing to do that for Thorny Bleeder Artists, the label I own and run with Brian Thompson, and Greg from the band.
Licensing has been a huge thing. It’s a tight crowd to get in to and a lot of the time I was talking to someone I didn’t even realise was in the TV or film industry and next thing you know I’m licensing a song to be a theme for a show that that guy is the producer on. So at that level you always have to be networking because you never know what it could lead to.
With touring, we’ve done really well with merch sales, but not necessarily because our show and music really helped. Art of Dying is famous as being the last people out. We make the effort to be at the merch table every night. As a singer it’s hard on my voice sometimes to talk to everyone in the building, but we all try to do that, not just to sell merch, but for the awesome side benefits that people really notice when you’re reaching out to them to say hello. If they then buy a t-shirt then killer, it works out, and a lot of people will simply because they’ve spoken to you, and realised your gas tank’s probably empty and you need to get to the next city.
CD Baby and selling music online have been another source of revenue that’s been really good. The physical sales of CDs have done really well, and just out of the trunk of our car.
There’s no trick to not releasing this or digital versus physical, you have to do it all and figure what’s working best for you. The way people are selling music is changing so dramatically every day, month and year, and you have to be in the know and figure out what’s going to make sense. Should we sell a single, should we make an album, should we make an EP, should we put it in stores, should we just make enough for the road … ?
How did your app come about?
We made our app through iLike, a service associated with Facebook. We made it for super fans if you want to get new photos and new information first, and have an iPhone or a device that works for apps. You hit the app, and there’s five new pictures, and bam, you’re the first person in the world to have those pictures on your phone. It’s ahead of posting things on the internet. We thought it would be a cool way to present ourselves, and we’re all iPhone nerds and love our apps.
I tend to do a lot of my social networking stuff just on my iPhone. I got rid of my laptop, and was amazed that through apps, I could do most of what I need to do online every day.
What were some of the key factors in getting your record deal?
It goes right back to three reasons why Dan Donegan became interested in us. Music first, work ethic second, and the desire third.
When we went out on that tour with Disturbed we had no idea those guys had an indie label. It’s funny now looking back because, based on our own connections and phone-calls, we actually showcased for other labels on the Disturbed tour. We didn’t realise we were actually showcasing every single night for Dan and David who would watch our show from the side stage. So that tour of 10 or 12 shows turned out to be a 10 or 12-show showcase for Intoxication Records, which is Danny and Dave’s imprint label on Reprise.
I think the icing on the cake was that we were just playing our hearts out every night, interacting with the crowd, being as professional as we could be on the tour, and making sure we weren’t shit-disturbers. At the same time as having a hell of a lot of fun and reminding the other bands on the tour that it’s fun to party. We blew into that tour, and everyone thought it was happening, and then it turned out it was a showcase. Six months later Danny and Dave flew us out to Chicago and said, “Hey we got the green light to sign you guys to our label.”
How has it helped?
It’s helped in some pretty big ways. We’re about to release our first major label record, early in 2011. That record wouldn’t have been made if it wasn’t for signing to these guys.
It obviously helps with securing Warner Brothers’ intention. Without their approval and budget, we couldn’t afford to work with producers like Howard Benson (HQ interview) and have our records mixed by mix engineers like Chris Lord-Alge - some of the cream of the crop in the world.
We’re just starting our album cycle - our first single ‘Die Trying’ is on U.S radio on the active rock charts right now, and is going to be released in Canada in the coming weeks. It entered the charts last week and just keeps climbing. At the same time, here at home we can’t wait for Canadians to start hearing it. The album will come out early in the new year. We’re just about to put into motion what a major record label can do for a band like us, so I’ll probably have a much better answer at the end of the year.
What are some of the things that you are doing for yourself to keep the band moving forward now with a major label also involved?
I think the bottom line with the record business is no one’s ever going to bail you out. No one’s going to come up with that awesome idea, except you. You’re the one that’s going to do it all because it’s your music and you want people to hear it more than anyone in the world. People at labels come and go - it’s your vision at the end of the day and you still have to be in charge of your own career
If anything, things move slower when you’re at this level, because it has to get through so many hoops and red-tape and so that’s a little frustrating, but I am allowed to dream a little bigger now.
How does one go about getting endorsements? Is it a proactive thing or do you sit and wait till someone comes to you?
You don’t wait, no one will do it except yourself. When we started working with a manager I thought, OK, our manager’s going to take care of this stuff, and the phone will ring and there’ll be a guitar for us to check out … but no. Managers tend to stay away from that kind of stuff.
The companies you’re endorsing are endorsing you in return - it’s an important relationship. You’re endorsing them by saying, “Yeah, I love Yamaha drums, that’s why I’m playing them.”
For us, it was that first Disturbed tour that a lot of endorsements came together. We’d say, “Hey, we’re touring arenas with Disturbed, we’re playing for 10,000 people a night, we’d really like to use your product on this tour, how could that work? Here’s a one-sheet of information on the band and if you want more I’ve got a press kit.”
If you’re building your career, something I do every month is make a nice little ‘one-sheet’. It needs to be clear, clean and to the point, have the newest and most relevant information at the beginning.
Obviously you need a good website so people can look you up on line and listen to the songs and see who you are and what you’re up to. They may decide at the end of the day the band might not be at the right point to endorse. Every single company is a little bit different, and there’s some companies out there who when you hit the right point are really receptive because they smell what’s about to happen, because they’ve been through it before.
How did it work out with your endorsements with Yamaha Drum and SHURE?
Yamaha Drums was one of those companies that came on early, because they have great people there that are always sniffing out who’s coming out right now, and it was the right timing for us. Same with SHURE, they came on board for that first tour. It made sense for them; they needed a new artist, we needed wireless gear, and they saw we were touring stadiums and needed not just any gear but wireless gear that would work every night.
It was funny how the whole SHURE thing came about, because I actually had a problem with a piece of SHURE gear. I called them to ask about it and just took the relationship one step further. I told them, “Here’s the situation, we’d like to use SHURE gear exclusively.” That was a 1-800 number on a SHURE website but she happened to be the right person. The next thing you know we were endorsed.
If you present yourself professionally at the right time in your career it can happen. They’re just normal people at their job and so treat everyone with respect, friendliness, forthrightness, and be yourself, without sending too much information, or spamming or being over the top aggressive at the wrong point in your career. You just want to do it at the right point and hope you find the right kind of people to work with.
What was the approach to Thorny Bleeder Records?
Greg and I put out our first album independently in Canada. One day we realised that we’re doing everything a record label does, so maybe we should just call it a label. We came up with the name and that was it – so we started the label because of the need for a label for our record.
We had a great relationship with Brian Thompson who’s a music guru from the retail industry, from the new media side of things. He shared our dream and passion and shared a lot of the work and excitement that brought Art of Dying into the world. Right from travelling on the road with us, to filming us, to coming up with our promotional videos, he was our sixth member for a while, always around, always helping. We saw the potential in him to be that guy for Thorny Bleeder.
So the three of us decided to put it in words and start a company. We now have ten bands on our roster and we’re also managing bands. We’re trying to do for other bands exactly what we did for Art of Dying and follow the same rules.
I think we’re a massive filter for talent because with our ears to the ground we hear what’s going on, we know what will cut it and what won’t, and we know who to talk to once it’s ready. And between our Canadian contacts, our American contacts, our worldwide contacts, it’s something we built for 10-15 years and we’re always looking for the right music to take to our connections and see what we can make happen.
It’s really fun to go to a Thorny Bleeder music night. Have a few beers and listen to this amazing talent that’s out there and help share that with the world.
So what’s next?
With our single ‘Die Trying’ climbing the charts in the US, and available in Canada this week, the next thing for Art of Dying is to go out and promote our record. If the singles go well, we’ll be on the road for at least a year and half to 2 years.
We’re just thrilled to be a band from Vancouver that started from literally Greg and I meeting on the street to eventually putting a band together and winning the Fox Seeds competition, and now being able to go tour the world with bands like Disturbed and wave the Vancouver flag. It’s awesome.
Interviewed by Aaron Bethune
Next week: Lava Records head Jason Flom on his latest bid for breakthrough success, Jessie J
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