(originally posted to my Posterous on 2/14/09)
I used to manage a band called The Format. They ceased to exist one year ago today. It was a 4.9 quake in the grand scheme of the music world, causing damage to only poorly constructed buildings over small regions. The truly scary thing is that it didn’t occur anywhere near a fault line – not a single soul predicted it, let alone those of us who had built a house on top of the ground that ended up splitting in two.
I was in Bali, about four weeks into a break that coincided with the band’s writing period, (those gaps between records are actually used for developing relationships, writing about them, then fucking them up by leaving for 16 months). Anyone who has ever managed a musician will tell that this is the time where you feel about as useful as a snowplow in Jamaica. The band’s principle songwriters, Nate and Sam, had a method for writing that was frustrating enough to send me packing. For example:
Me: So where are you at with new songs?
Nate: We’ll be ready.
Me: It’s cute that you would think I’m that dumb. Where are you at with the songs?
Nate: We have some stuff.
Me: Songs or parts of songs?
Nate: We know how all of the parts are going to go together. So, songs.
Me: But they’re not songs yet.
Nate: They’re parts of songs that form songs.
Me: I understand.
Me: So, when are you writing the songs?
Nate: We were talking about it while playing Halo last night.
Me: Oh, that’s a relief to hear. At least you’re getting together and talking about it.
Nate: Oh, no. Sam was at his house and I was at mine. We were on headsets during the game.
Me: You’re writing songs with a video game as the conduit?
Nate: Chill out. You’re starting to sound like an old person.
The day in question had already been one of the worst I’d had in years. I had found a boy floating facedown in the hotel pool, pulling him out with another guest and watching as a hapless lifeguard attempted to bring him back to life. I went back to my room after the coroner finally arrived, his mother making noises like those of a person trying to breathe shortly before a fifth round of water boarding. I trembled on the turquoise couch in my air-conditioned room, then found my phone and checked messages, glad for any distraction that they could provide.
A voicemail from Sam. “Dude, you should call me.”
I’ve heard parents talk about the nuances of their babies’ noises and about how they know exactly what each sound means, even if the child has not yet learned to speak. A manager will also tell you that they can hear these tones from the artists with whom they work, and that “call me” voicemails can go unreturned for at least a few hours if necessary. “You should call me” is very different. It often means that the band’s recording session is a complete disaster, that the artist wants to pull off of a tour or that the van’s real axle has inexplicably fallen onto the ground. These calls always involve strife, dismay and some kind of cop/caper bailout plan. I was quite sure that Sam would tell me that we were going to push back the making of their third album, which would mangle several months worth of scheduling and preparation. It was an annoyance but an annoyance that I was paid for, nonetheless.
“You’re gonna hate me”, said Sam. I knew it – we were pushing back recording. “Um, no dude. You should sit down.” He would explain to me over the course of the next hour that the band was taking a hiatus, “or something”.
This was nothing that I was prepared for. I asked hundreds of questions, in an attempt to figure out what might be done to put this back together. A manager always looks to fix things, since most Total Fucking Freakouts (TFF’s) last exactly 24-36 hours and number 7-10 per year. Yet, as the minutes went by, the conversation felt more like someone soft-selling a breakup (Sam) in an attempt not to hurt the other party (me). He kept trying to make it not sound like a big deal because he knew that aside from all of the things this would do to the band members, it was also going to ruin me. I had spent the previous two years helping to rebuild The Format’s career, betting that their future success would justify the extraordinary amount of time that managing their scenario entailed. Their breakup was the equivalent of folding my cards with four aces.
To review. The rejuvenation of The Format’s career was a hot story, mostly because the odds were completely against it happening at all. It was an anomaly that had come with hard work, screwball determination and a total turn of luck. I had begun managing them at the end of their first album’s cycle, a moment during which any person with common sense would have Run Like The Dickens, just to get away from the sinkhole that regularly appeared at their feet. To put it mildly, they were about as attractive as a hooker with a lip sore. Still, based on recommendations from a few trusted friends and some incredible new Garageband demos, I flew to Phoenix to meet with them.
Nate and Sam picked me up in their touring van, sticking me in the back with a roped-down Wurlitzer and mismatched guitar amps. I found this wildly charming, although I might have pretended to be inconvenienced at the time. Over the next few hours we would discuss everything that had happened to them thus far: Signed amidst huge buzz, then just 18. Making an album under the thumb of a major label, with multiple producers and huge sums of money spent. The same record label being bought just after the band’s album was released, practically assuring that it would get lost in the shuffle of commerce. An ungodly amount of touring. A slow and steady rise in audience, despite indifference from radio stations and magazines. And through it all, just enough money to get them through to the next tour and keep them from giving up.
The story amounted to these two kids bashing their heads against a wall for three years, knowing that they had something worthwhile but unable to find strong support, beyond their booking agent and lawyer (it should be noted here that the band’s new label had some solid supporters but were caught in an industry quagmire, what with eleven year old kids becoming able to get music for free – for eternity – on their six hundred dollar computers). On the surface, especially to the music biz, the album was a complete flop. It didn’t matter that they had been swept under the rug, nor did it matter that “The First Single” was a mega-hit waiting to happen. The data showed that this horse had run its best race and come in second-to-last (always more pitiful than loser).
Sitting in front of me were two young men who were nothing short of desperate. They both smoked an extraordinary amount of cigarettes, perhaps one for every minute in an hour. Their knees shook through the holes in their jeans and they both picked at their food in a way that suggested apathy for the thing that might keep them alive for the next day. It wasn’t sadness or despondency; it was pure depression.
We agreed to work together and they were dropped from their label within a few months.
For the next couple of years, these two guys (and their band of merry men) would work nonstop, doing almost anything that I asked them to do (the bad examples are hilarious and, given my ego, must appear in their stories and not mine). We opted to release their second record with only the help of the company that I worked for, a concept which is now gaining popularity but seemed like assisted suicide at the time. We tricked out the internet, trying almost anything that was invented in any given week, with the band’s newfound freedom allowing us to out-maneuver the clumsy beasts that are known as Major Record Labels (not without making some hilarious errors in judgment along the way). Nate answered the same ten questions about 5,000 times, in twenty languages. Sam minded to the business, phoning daily to keep tabs on finances and projections.
In short, we kicked some serious ass and, in my opinion, created our own luck using the technology that confused most other contemporary recording artists. Our ship may have looked beautiful from the outside but inside all of the passengers were screaming the same thing as we hurled along into uncharted space.
We kept everything together with duct tape and crazy glue, selling about 70,000 albums over the first twelve months. The band shouldered all of the marketing costs but ultimately saw a lion’s share of the revenue. We threw in one last tour before the end of the album’s cycle, deciding to give away the album for free on its one year anniversary. 30,000 people downloaded the Dog Problems that week and the tour sold out as fast as the link went around; we were learning that one empty pocket might somehow line the other with a fistful of bills. A show at The Mayan Theatre was recorded and released on DVD. It was a recording of a band which was about to have it all, on their own terms and after the industry had left them for dead.
Which takes me to Bali, to the boy dying and to the “or something” that had befallen The Format.
As strange as it may seem, I do not think of the boy in the pool very often. He seems faint to me, a person whom shaped my life but only in a way that would come out in a wallet-breaking shrink session. I’d bet that his mother and I have figured out the same thing in the past year: We are not in control. We, the people who can shape and steer, do not hold the power. The control belongs to the boy and, possibly, his creator. We will never learn why he drowned, what we could have done better or if we might have saved him. We did the best that we could, we made the best choices possible and we’ll live with the consequences, for better or for worse.
So, here I am, one year later, on a rooftop in Chile.
Sam is creating music as a soundtrack-maker, also whispering about a new project that has me wondering if he’s cracked the online code, yet again. He’s started a merchandise company built on integrity and heart, which makes perfect sense if you know Sam. He is noble and kind and brilliant, like some kind of character left out of a Narnia book.
Nate is completing an album with a new band, including a couple of songs which even morphed from The Halo Album That Wasn’t. I’m listening to rough mixes now, absolutely confident that “All The Pretty Girls” will be my favorite song of 2009 (I’m on day five of singing every lyric and am paralyzed by the hook). I feel jealous and sad that I won’t be a part of this release, almost as if I didn’t see something through that I might have. But at the same time I’m smiling, thinking of Nate playing me the demos in his car while trying to park his Arizona car on New York City’s streets, his fender banging into the vehicle in front of us and his cigarette ashing on my arm.
The truth is that I never expected to meet these guys, these mismatched brothers. The kid with the beard and the boy with elfin hair. I don’t think that they’ve even fully processed how much they’ve done together, how much they’ve accomplished and against what odds. It’s too soon for that sort of tallying up. Still, I am hoping that they both go to bed tonight realizing that they are lucky to have been given the chances that they have.
I think tonight I will let the band go and allow myself to dream about the boy, about the things that he might have seen and done. And about how empty my arms felt as I pulled his waterlogged body from the pool. It might be a good moment to grieve for something more important than the songs that spilled out of the heads of two kids from Phoenix, no matter how important they have been to us all.
What a difference a year makes.