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Gumption, Ambition and the Music Business

(Originally published on the Music Think Tank, 27 Sep 2017)

I’ve been lucky enough to run several successful businesses. VNUE, along with its partner DiscLive, has grown to be the global leader in recording live concerts and releasing them in high quality to fans on limited edition CD sets and USB drives, immediately after their performance. We’ve worked with venues and artists all over the world, from Father John Misty and The Pixies to Blondie and 3 Doors Down. I also own and founded both RockHouse Live venues in the great city of Memphis, offering live entertainment every single night (as well as some killer grub).

It’s surprising how often people assume that someone like me was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, or that I somehow stumbled upon these businesses and got lucky, or that my clubs are just a write-off.

So I’d like to rewind a bit and talk about ambition and “gumption,” which is defined as “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness.”

I was raised by a single mother – a lifelong educator and an English professor who was very hard on me growing up, but did teach me values and lessons that I employ every single day in my life. While she could barely afford to keep a roof over our head, what’s important is that she succeeded, and she often worked 18 hour days to do it. We never, ever went without necessities, but we did not live lavishly by any stretch.

My skinny butt was out mowing lawns at a very young age to keep a few coins in my pocket, and then I got a job at 14 as a Sonic carhop. (Sorry, unfortunately no skates.) At 16, I was already promoted to night manager because of the aforementioned “gumption.” I paid for my books, I bought my own lunches, I bought my first motorcycle, and after that, traded up for my first car. I did it all on my own, without a cent from my mom, and felt great about it.

So even though I didn’t have the proverbial “silver spoon,” I did have the very smart values my mother had taught me, and unknowingly leveraged that in virtually everything I did. She gave me the skills to forge my own path, and the ethic to do my best to treat people right, both of which I’ve been working hard to do with VNUE and both RockHouse venues.

I also have an undeniably deep love for music – which is a must if you want to make it in this business – from my days as an engineer and producer to my current, more entrepreneurial role at VNUE. I’ve been so fortunate to do what I love at the intersection of music, business and technology, and create things that make people happy. I’ve worked with amazing artists and been to amazing places, and can trace it all back to the lessons my mother instilled in me – not luck or fortune.

While pretty much any position in the music industry takes sacrifice, most of the musicians and entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over the years know that you can’t stand on a corner and expect success to come to you. You are the only one who can create your own destiny, and you are responsible for your successes and your failures.

So if you have to take something away from this post, let it be this: Work hard, focus on your objectives, and don’t make the mistake of thinking there are any shortcuts, because there are none. If you don’t go out and fight for what you want, someone else will take it. Don’t be afraid to stand up to people who say “that won’t work” or “that can’t be done,” and don’t be afraid to show them that they’re wrong.

​And more than anything, if you’re going to make it in the music industry – show some gumption.

Making Live Music Fun and Fair

Originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 9 Mar 2018.

Memphis is a music city with a rich musical heritage. With Beale Street and the wide assortment of music venues across the metro area, on any given night you can find just about any kind of live music that you want.

But did you know that many of the rightsholders of the music you hear are not being paid for the songs being performed?

There are organizations in the music industry called “Performing Rights Organizations“, also known as “PROs”. Their purported goal is to protect these rights and look out for their members, usually writers, performers and musical artists.

However, unlike radio and TV, where everything is tracked digitally, there is a gaping hole in how rights are protected and monetized for music that is performed in venues. In short, it ain’t right.

PROs use what is called a “blanket license” in order to convince (usually force) a venue or a bar that it must license its entire catalogue of music in the event any song from that catalogue is played.

These are expensive and generally cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, and you must license from all the three major PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). Major PROs collect several hundred million dollars per year in “general licensing” fees.

Many venues cannot afford these expensive licenses and, therefore, will avoid it, despite the very real threat of a copyright lawsuit coming from the PROs if they do not comply.

Many of my peers in Memphis have received continued threats of lawsuits and non-stop phone calls from PROs suggesting that venue owners who do not comply are in danger of a copyright lawsuit. Mom-and-pop shops are put out of business each year or simply stop having live music when faced with this dilemma.

It’s not that they don’t want to license. They cannot afford it;  moreover, they don’t know what they are actually paying for, or even if the music that is being played is being paid out properly.

The murky licensing structure is antiquated and based on decades-old laws and lack of suitable technology. As a result, most writers and artists whose content is actually played in these venues are not being properly compensated.

We need better technology. Shazam can quickly identify recorded music using digital fingerprints. Why not do the same thing for live music? Some of us are working on that.

My company VNUE, is developing the MiC System. It uses AI and custom algorithms to identify songs and facilitate payments to exact rightsholders.

We recently announced the acquisition of a music tech outfit called Soundstr (soundstr.com), started by Eron Bucarelli, a founding member of platinum-selling artist Hawthorne Heights. Their “in venue” device called “Pulse” will become an important part of the overall system.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Fairness in Music Licensing Coalition (musicfairness.org) are lobbying Congress for copyright reforms and other changes.

Every musician, artist, writer and publisher out there needs to be aware there is a good chance they are not getting paid for their work (i.e. ripped off). They need to sound a steady, constant and loud drumbeat to move the industry forward.

Let’s start that movement right here in Memphis.

“Spare Tire” is diet wake-up call

Originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 15 Mar 2009.

I LOVE FOOD. No, really. I love to eat. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the world.

Fortunately, all my life I have been blessed with being able to eat anything I want. I’ve always been a skinny guy, although when I was younger I hated it.

In reality, it’s a good thing, because I grew up in the South, and as we all know, we like to fry things in the South. Fried chicken. Fried okra. Fried everything! And I fried food. Uncle Lou’s fried chicken is one of my favorites.

My diet has consisted of virtually everything fried for as long as I can remember. And because of that, I’m the guy that most people love to hate. You know, I get those comments like, “Where did all that food go?” or “How do you eat all of that fried food and stay so skinny?”

So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when I noticed something frightening around my waistline: a small (and I emphasize the word “small”) spare tire, a.k.a. “love handles”! I have to tell you I was in a state of catatonic shock.

At first , I wrote this off to the fact that I have been much less active lately (and a little older, too). I’ve always been an active person, but more recently, I’ve been desk-bound. So when I noticed this “inch of pinch,” I decided I needed to get busy again. I started going to the gym, and mind you, the word “gym” was like a foreign language to me.

But I didn’t change my eating habits, not in the least. I can’t tell you the satisfaction of gripping a big, nasty double cheeseburger and squeezing it to the point that the grease was running down to my elbows. Ahh, the life.

Much to my dismay, despite the extra exercise, my weight was not really changing and the pinch was still an inch. And it was bugging me, even as I gleefully cruised through Taco Bell and picked up my six crispy tacos.

So I went to “Googling.” I started out with a simple search about the offending body part, “spare tire around waist,” and retrieved hundreds of pages of data. Only one really stood out, a CNN article entitled “Spare tire doubles the rate of dying even if BMI is OK.” Say what? Dying? That certainly got my attention. I started with the CNN article, and began poring through other documentation from numerous sources. Of course I had no clue what “BMI” stood for. I have since learned it means “Body Mass Index,” basically our amount of body fat as based on height and weight.

What I also learned was that the spare tire alone isn’t the killer. A major contributor, however, is what’s called “visceral fat .” This is the fat that is actually inside the body cavity, deposited between the internal organs in the torso. We commonly refer to this as a “beer belly.”

Fortunately, my own issue is confined mostly to the spare tire, otherwise known as “subcutaneous fat .” This is the layer of fat that is right below the skin. But what I read about visceral fat was alarming.

The study that CNN referenced, originally published by The New England Journal of Medicine, noted

My diet has consisted of virtually everything fried for as long as I can remember.

that people with a build-up of visceral fat have a higher risk of dying during a 10-year period than people who do not have it. For example, just a 2-inch increase in waist circumference raised the risk of mortality by 17 percent in men and 13 percent in women. Scary.

The good news is that we can do something about it. Obviously, exercise is key. Even moderate exercise can stop or reduce accumulation of visceral fat. According to researchers at Duke University Medical Center, exercise equivalent to a 30-minute walk six times a week can prevent accumulation of visceral fat. More intensive exercise can actually reduce it.

But what about my annoying “spare tire”? Well, unfortunately for me and my love of fried foods, everything I have read says that I have to cut down on my fatty food intake and continue my exercise.

As a result, I have found myself reading the labels on everything I eat. You know those big double cheeseburgers that I’ve had a loving relationship with for 30 years? They have 770 calories each, and of that, 430 are from fat! And my beloved fried chicken was almost the same. Quite the wake -up call!

So no matter how hard it’s going to be — and trust me, it’s going to be very hard — I am going to have to keep up my exercise regimen and refrain from the intense and ever-present call of the drive -thru. Wish me luck! Zach Bair is a freelance writer, musician and technology entrepreneur based in Memphis.

Local Legends die without fanfare

(Originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 2 Aug 2009)

Joey Easterling was killed in a motorcycle accident in April, a tragedy that was witnessed by his wife, Cassie, and child.

 

In a short span recently, we lost Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson — both icons of at least one generation if not more — and then Billy Mays, the pitchman who we all know from hawking OxiClean. And let’s not forget Ed McMahon, Walter Cronkite and the list goes on.

These high-profile deaths always garner heavy press coverage. Recently, however, my co -workers and I endured a loss a lot closer to home, but equally devastating, and equally newsworthy. His name was Joey Easterling. Joey’s story should be told, too. Joey was a very unassuming young man, quiet and diligent in his daily work, never forgetting that family always came first. Confined to his computer at work, he would grab a quick lunch and get right back to it, remaining intently focused. Eventually the phone would ring signaling the close of the day.

“Honey, what time you coming home?” It never had to be said, it was written all over his face: “Yep. She loves me!”

The same was true on a particular Friday in April. Joey would reach many milestones on this weekend. He looked forward to seeing family from out of town, as well as his closest friends. It would be one of the happiest weekends in his life. Neither he, nor anyone else, realized that it would also be his last.

Joey was overjoyed about picking up a motorcycle he had just purchased. The bike was in Mississippi, about 50

Please see

miles from his home in Southaven. He and his wife and child excitedly made the drive to retrieve it .

Although stormy weather was approaching, Joey decided he was going to beat it, and decided to ride the bike home.

It was the first and last time Joey would ride it. On the way home, he somehow lost control of the bike and crashed into a guardrail at highway speed. His wife and child were following behind him in the car and witnessed the crash.

We are told that Joey probably went quickly and likely didn’t feel a thing. One can only hope that was the case.

The following week was difficult for all of his co – workers. The “seal” of his cubicle had not been broken since Joey left on that Friday afternoon. Joey’s father-in-law had phoned one of the guys to help put together some items for his memorial.

Stop The Legalized Extortion: How to Make the Live Music Experience Fair For All

Here’s a fact that may surprise live music lovers: Artists may not see a cent from songs played on jukeboxes, radio, karaoke or any other music played at bars, restaurants, fitness centers or clubs throughout the U.S. Despite this, thousands of venues are required to pay as much as $5-10,000 per year to allow these songs to be played, or else risk facing expensive lawsuits. For example, a college cover band’s take on “Takin’ Care of Business” at a venue run by an out-of-the-loop owner who didn’t pay the right fees upfront could put him out of business.

So where does this money go? Business owners across the country are required to pay Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC fees upfront. These blanket licensing expenses are oddly based on square footage and seating, and covers every potential song in their respective catalogs, rather than the actual usage of the music, and even odder is that the fees are not fairly distributed to the artists and writers behind the actual music performed. Secret proportional calculations are made by the PROs (which make billions annually) and then handed out.

Scott Ellis, director of the Fairness in Music Licensing Coalition (FMLC) and Executive Director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA) recently said “the entire process is opaque for both small business users and songwriters,” and others in the industry have called it “legalized extortion.” Adding to the problem is the fact that the PRO system is skewed towards radio as opposed to live performances.

I’m intimately aware of all this because I’ve owned venues myself – and have had multiple run-ins with all three major PROs. After these negative experiences, I decided I had had enough of it, and something needed to be done. Since I have spent the bulk of my career in technology and basically “automating myself out of jobs,” I went home, wrote a patent, and filed it, and put the show on the road. It was clear to me, and others, that technology employed correctly could help solve this problem by directly identifying and tracking what’s being played at these venues, leading to a more fair pay structure for venues, artists, writers and publishers.

What I came up with is called the MiC™ system, and it features patent-pending technology that would bring transparency to the public performance marketplace that is presently such a mess. This system will identify music that is played in venues, no matter if it’s live, recorded, karaoke, or some other form of performance.  It will track the plays and provide 100%  transparency for the content owners, PROs, and business owners, in the same way that radio and streaming music services track the number of plays each song has.  For the first time, writers, artists and composers of music played in these types of businesses will be paid accurately, and we hope to lower the cost of licensing to venues by allowing them to pay for actual usage, while at the same time increasing participation.

The FMLC has joined us in our goal to make public performance music agreements fairer and more transparent for small business. With the PROs collecting more than $3 billion annually from artists’ royalties and the licensing system itself so skewed, we know there are millions of dollars left on the table for artists, and that’s a big part of why we’re doing this.

With the technology available today, there is no reason for those who create music to be totally in the dark on what’s going on in venues and in the accounting spreadsheets of PROs. We’re looking forward to a day when songwriters and publishers know exactly what is being played in venues throughout the country and can be accurately compensated for it. We’ll be beta-testing MiC later this year, and whether you’re an artist, publisher, or business owner who’s passionate about live music, we hope you will join us.

**Originally posted on hypebot.com.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!  This should be interesting.  At least, I hope it is.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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