There’s a certain stress that is gone when you let go of your expectations. By mid 2012 our only goal was to have a great time. We knew the clock was ticking and unless something really amazing happened, we’d eventually have to close up shop. Our last hope was in one of the songs that we had recorded in early 2011 with our producer Allen Salmon. “Baby Run Away” was as charismatic and catchy a pop/rock song we’d ever written. We thought it was our last best chance to get the ball rolling one more time.
We decided that we would go all out for this one. We’d shoot a music video, promote it like crazy, do a bunch of shows, pitch to radio, and hope for the best. Even another TV placement with this song could give us the momentum we needed to make some more noise, literally. Through all of this, though, our spirits were high. We all came to a point where we truly cherished what we were able to do, even if we weren’t making money doing it. We became more and more thankful for the experiences in our past, and didn’t try to use them as excuses for anything. We just had decided to enjoy it, because we didn’t know how long we’d be able to.
We landed a corporate gig to help pay for the expenses of the single, and even entered into a local battle of the bands where we were pretty sure we’d win, just so we could make some cash. We won, and I’ve never felt so bad about accepting a thousand dollars. Battle of the bands is something we said we’d never do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. We took the money and put it all into the video and the song, and began to lay the groundwork for release. We needed to make enough money from Baby Run Away to pay for the next single that we had already recorded.
Now, based on previous blogs, you’re probably bracing for me to tell you story of another failure, disappointment, or series of circumstances out of our control that wrecked our plans. The truth is, we were forced to drop all of those terms. “Failure” was not possible because we had nothing left to lose. For the first time in a few years, we just wanted to make something. We knew we were limited in our experience and abilities and majorly limited in our budget, but we didn’t care. It was all about the creation of something. We realized that art in and of itself was a noble cause. We realized the idea of failure was an idea imposed by our society, and we had to let it go, as hard as it was. Now you may think that sounds like a cop out, and maybe it is. But when your dreams are on the line, you have to rationalize it somehow. We had to change our measure of success from financial to creative. September rolled around and we released the song and video. We did our best, but it hit the internet with little fanfare. The youtube video filled with comments like “why is this not more popular?”, a common theme with our songs. In October we made a run to Florida to help promote the single. We were having a great time, no stress, lots of laughs, but the song only made us a few hundred dollars, if that, and we knew that soon it would be time. Our hands were tied, more songs done, but not paid for, and the task of paying for them, even just a few thousand dollars, seemed a mountain too high to climb.
Bands break up for all sorts of reasons. Often they can no longer stand each other, or maybe they’re tired from years on the road, or the work has taken it’s toll on their families and they just want some quiet. None of these things happened to us. We were family, we weren’t road dogs, and our families were supportive. We just, ran out of money. We realized that to get back in the game would take not only extraordinary work and commitment, but extraordinary luck as well. The game had changed and success was found more easily through a retweet from Taylor Swift than actual hard work and great product. I had a one year old at home, and mounting debt from never holding a full time job so I could be in the band. Jim, Kyle, and Matt were still single and wanted to hit the road full time and see parts of the country we were never able to, and I didn’t blame them. At that point, I was holding them back.
How do you end something that has been your life for such a long time? This is what I wanted to do since I was 13. This was my dream. I had my chance, and it just didn’t work out. Whether I was a victim of circumstances, didn’t work hard enough, wasn’t good enough, or something else, it didn’t matter. It was time to move on, for the sake of our well being, and to what I didn’t know. I still don’t know. This was putting an end to a chapter of my life that had changed it forever.
December 2012 I was in charge of putting on a Christmas show at our home church. I booked Jars of Clay to come play, and our church was kind enough to let us open the show. This felt like the right time. The guys had a big tour planned for the new year, and we decided together that this would be the last show. For me, the day itself was incredibly busy. I was in charge of the entire event. All of the logistics, load ins, catering, and sound checks that go into this sort of thing ate up my entire day. The Jars of Clay guys were completely gracious and easy to work with, but no one really knew that this was it for us, and the emotions I was dealing with. We decided to not promote it as our last show because we were just the opener, and didn’t want to take focus off Jars of Clay and the Christmas spirit. We played 6 songs I believe, most of which is a blur to me now. Before the last song I said something to the effect of “this is our last song, I mean, our actual last song.” Before we knew it it was over. We shared a hug in the green room afterwards, but I was needed somewhere else because I was the promoter. After the show I was able to drive the guys in Jars of Clay back to their hotel in Cleveland where we had some great conversation. I shared with them briefly of what the night meant to me, and they were sympathetic. I remember getting back in the van after dropping them off, and driving home in silence. That was it. No big goodbyes, no party. No fanfare. It was over, just like that. Roughly 9 years we poured into it, and I would be lying if I said this ending was bittersweet. It was bitter. Like so many moments before, filled with disappointment and letdown. My identity was wrapped up in this band. I was not just Clay Kirchenbauer, I was Clay Kirchenbauer, lead singer of the Warner Brothers recording artist, The Undeserving. It was who I was, and almost more importantly, who I wanted to be. What was I going to do now? Who was I going to be? Truth is, these are questions I’m still figuring out, 4 years later. But I have figured a few things out.
To be continued (one more time)….
Here’s the video we released in 2012 after our last show.
Touring. I don’t think I’ve said one good thing about it during this blog series. Truth is, I loved it, for a certain time at least. We would see friends in bands who had record labels that actually helped them. We’d see them get on a big tour, come home, then have a booking agent book them a 2 month run. The longest run the Undeserving ever made was 3 weeks, I think. We just didn’t have the means without a record or support and were always limited booking ourselves.
I did love it though. I especially miss the van rides. Kyle, Jim, and Brennan were all amateur impressionists, and my skill was laughing at them. I’m pretty sure the hardest times I’ve ever laughed were in the band van laughing at Jim on a long drive on no sleep. There is such a comradery when you’re in a band, especially one as “successful” as we were. When you struggled, you knew that there were 3 other guys who knew exactly what you were going through and when you were flying high, you had people to share it with. I miss that. I miss the uncertainty of late night driving in a city you were unfamiliar with. I miss hanging in the green room before shows with some of the most interesting and hilarious people.
I miss the stage. I miss that feeling where you are allowed, expected even, to let your narcissism completely take charge. I miss that feeling that I had every once in a while where the whole room was at my beckoned command. I miss the moments when you feel like you’re absolutely killing it. I even miss the times I messed up, fell down, tripped over or forgot my words, or made jokes that bombed. Most of all I miss that feeling of the show being over. The feeling of relief and exhaustion. I miss hanging with people at the merch table after the shows. I miss hearing their stories, and learning about their towns. I miss the adventure.
In the fall of 2011 we had but one choice: tour. We finally had our record to sell and promote, and had to get it in front of as many people as possible. We got hooked up with some friends in a band called Mike Mains & the Branches to do a couple week run through the Midwest and the south. Some of the shows we got paid for, some we didn’t, so it was vital we got people in the door and put on a good show. Our merch money would be our lifeline. I was never one for sleeping in the van, especially in the summer time, so we stayed in more than our fair share of cheap hotels. Rooms that smelled like all sorts of things. Rooms with running water that was brown. It was the life we chose, so we had a good time with it.
This particular run was fun because we shared it with good people. We got to see some cities that we had never seen before. After a show in Tulsa a guy came up to us. Only about 50 people showed up that night. The guy told us he had heard our song on Idol and had to do some homework to figure out who we were, but found us. He said he was shocked that only 50 people were there, and he was expecting like a thousand. “Welcome to the music biz” we said.
At the end of the tour we had a show outside New Orleans on a Sunday night, then the final show was not until Wednesday night in Little Rock. A day off on tour can be fun and restful. Two days off? That’s a recipe for trouble. It means an extra day of expense with no income. Little Rock was not all that far from New Orleans, so we spent Monday exploring the Bayou, the gulf, and the city, saw some gators, and got into Little Rock early Tuesday afternoon. We checked into the hotel and I asked the lady at the front desk: “What’s there to do in Little Rock?” She gave me an odd look and said matter of factly, “drink”.
We wandered around town that night, got some unforgettable BBQ, and tried figure out what were going to do the next day and a half. Wednesday afternoon came and we grabbed lunch at the city market. It was a really hip, vibey place full of millennials and good food. Matt, who was running sound for us on this tour, was single. There was a pretty girl about his age working at one of the little stores and we all pressured him into talking to her. Matt is a great guy, but it’s fair to say he’s probably a little shy, especially at the time, but he finally gave in. We all watched from a distance as he talked to her. It looked to be going well, and he came back looking accomplished. He had invited her to the show that night and seemed to think that she actually might come.
They always say you should play with the same passion for 2 people as you would for 2,000. Well whoever said that has never played for two people. I don’t remember the name of the club we were at that night, and apparently no one else did either. Two people were here to watch us and Mike Mains. Who were these people? Friends of Mike Mains who were hosting them at their house that night. We delayed the start but no one showed up. The sound guy got us ready and left. What a disaster. We could’ve gone home Monday. This is when I learned about that passion thing. We were pretty dejected and upset, and gave a half hearted performance, even cutting short our set. We were supposed to be pros and knew better than that. Mike Mains and the Branches blew us off the stage that night, and we deserved it. We packed up and got ready to drive home. The promoter walked in and handed us $4. “You sold one ticket” he said. We were confused, not sure who paid. The two there were on the guest list. No one in the other band knew anything, nor did ours. We got in the van and asked Matt if he knew. “Yes, I bought a ticket for the girl from the market, but I guess she didn’t come.”
Sounds about right.
“Well, here’s $4 back.”
To Be Continued…..
FINALLY. What else was there to say? 3 years earlier we stood on this stage in our home church and told them we were signing with Warner, having already finished recording half our record. Now here we were, finally releasing that record, finally free of Warner, and finally free to make what we want out of our future. I’ve spent a lot of time in this blog series telling you about how hard it was. Telling you about all the things that went wrong. Telling you how devastated and hopeless we felt. September 6, 2011 was not one of those nights.
We had just arrived home from a completely disastrous trip to Kansas City. We needed this release show to help pay back our cd production costs, but most of all, we needed a morale boost. We weren’t really sure how many people would come see us. The room seated about 800, and we didn’t expect to sell out, but we were hoping to at least make it look full. About 500 people showed up and I was moved to tears seeing the line of people outside the building. Up to that point we always wondered where we stood in our local community. We felt like we had support, and our social media sites drew more visitors than any other local band, even in the Toledo area, but we had never drawn 500 people in a hometown show before. Not where we were the headliner. This felt like validation to us. It made us feel like we were legit. A legit rock band who was good enough. And we felt like our little town showed up to support us. At the time, few people knew what we had been through. It was hard telling people that no, our record wouldn’t be available in Walmart and Best Buy. If their grandma in Kansas wanted a hard copy, they’d have to order on our website. In that moment, though, it didn’t matter to us.
You see, artists are inherently narcissists. We make things to prove to ourselves that we can do it, but also need validation from others before we are fulfilled, and then the cycle repeats. We had been forced without that validation our entire career. Having people show up to our release show helped us realize that the validation was far more meaningful coming from our local community, friends, and family than it was coming from any high level record executive. We had had that validation before, and it really only led to frustration. This was real, and tangible. What a feeling. Something I really haven’t felt since, at least to that extent. The show ended, there were cheers and appreciation. We signed autographs and spent time with our fans, friends and family. We were exhausted, but fulfilled. This was a long time coming and we enjoyed the heck out of it.
The truth was, this was a mountain that would be incredibly difficult to reach again, and we knew it. It’s part of why we enjoyed it so much. While glad to be free from Warner, we now were a bit directionless. We had recorded 4 new songs in the spring of 2011, but hadn’t paid for them yet, and didn’t know how we would. The best we could do was hit the road again, this time with an actual product to sell, and see if we could build this thing. This would be the ultimate test. Not just on us, but our wives and families. Everyone was still rooting for us, but the clock was ticking. It was all on us. If this was going to be our career, we needed to make it one, and fast.
(To Be Continued)
Tom Petty once said “The waiting is the hardest part”. Well, in the course of our career, we didn’t get really good at much, but we got really good at waiting. Everything we had done to this point had taken enormously more time than we predicted. Everything from making our record, negotiating our deal, signing our deal, and now getting released from our deal and putting our record out. It was Summer 2011, and we were fighting for a record that we had finished 2 years earlier.
This is the point where I give credit where it’s due. Jon Sparks, our longtime manager, went through hell for us. I’m sure I don’t even know the amount of emails he sent and phone calls he was on to get us free of our deal. We hadn’t paid him in 3 years, but he refused to give up on us or leave us stranded. When we found out in December of 2010 that Warner wasn’t going to let us have our record, he fought tooth and nail to get it back for us. I don’t know how that all went down, and I don’t know what the legal ramifications were, and I don’t know all the hoops he jumped through, but in July of 2011, we were free.
Signing release papers was so very bittersweet. I think for the other guys in the band it was more sweet. But for me, it represented some form of failure. I had to come to grips with the fact that our story wasn’t going to play out like I thought. Whatever last bit of hope for reconciliation I had was stomped out. The reality of making a living creating music that we were oh so close to realizing, started to slip away, little by little. My wife and I had a newborn and the weight of supporting a family grew heavier, as it should.
“Free” is a funny word. We were free in the sense that we now owned our record. We could do with it what we please, except use the publishing. That means that if there were any more TV placements to be had, it would have to be through Warner. This still stands today. We were free to release the record how we pleased, tour, make money from record sales. Free to try to rebuild our career on the whatever momentum was left.
But we were broke. 3 years on the label had left us with nothing. We all were working jobs and scraping by. There was no money to get CD’s pressed, get merch, and properly promote a record. The last few TV placements were airing, but whatever money we would see from that was at least a year away. Brennan’s parents loaned us a few thousand dollars for CD production. My parents and Jim’s parents pitched in for some merch and artwork. We would release in September, work our butts off, and hope for the best.
Now we needed a boost. Something to gain some cash and get the snowball rolling. Jon presented us with an opportunity. There was a big Christian music festival in Kansas City that usually drew about 10,000 people. They had a pay to play slot available between the headliners. Jon had offered to pay the fee if we could pay to get out there and play it. The idea being, we sell a couple hundred discs, recoup the fee to play, and get our music in front of ten thousand new faces. It was a couple weeks before our actual record release, but we got the discs in and would try to make back the money.
Now, playing Christian gigs was something we did only occasionally and we had never paid to play anywhere. We often joked that we weren’t Christian enough for the Christians, and too Christian for the mainstream market. We were always trying to figure out how to fit in. This was just one show though, and it was a lot of people. If we made the most of it, it would be well worth it.
We drove to KC, had some fantastic BBQ, and got to the festival. The first thing we noticed was there was less people than we were told. maybe 2500. Our rule as a band was to always expect 10% of the crowd that the promoter tells you. So, at 25% we weren’t devastated. We were playing right before Steven Curtis Chapman. We had a 20 minute set, and I thought we nailed it. Everything went off without a hitch, the crowd was into it, and we had a blast. We would head back to the merch tent and wait. A few people came back, but this was a festival. It was outdoors and dark, and leaving your spot in the middle of the set meant probably having a hard time getting back to it. SCC played, then Jeremy Camp. We were set up between their merch tables. Prime spot. We just had to wait for the show to be over then cash in.
What happened next was a microcosm of our career. About halfway through the set the wind picked up. It got drafty. Sprinkles turned to sideways rain and there was lightning. Tornado sirens in the distance. Jeremy Camp wrapped up and the crowds exited. I mean it was a mass exodus. Straight for the parking lot. People were running. Dads had their camping chairs in one hand and small children in the other. No one, I mean no one, was heading to the merch tent to support their favorite artist. There we were, sitting in the tent, watching as our bank account literally drained, and we couldn’t stop it. Helpless. Forget about paying Jon back for paying for the slot, we weren’t even going to recoup our own travel expenses. We basically drew straws for who would call Jon. I dialed, heart pounding and pit in my stomach. “How much did you make?” he asked. “About $40”.
At this point I think I blacked out, but I can assure you Jon was gracious. Now we had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps again, and get home from KC on $40 and officially release our record.
To Be Continued
(This is blog #4the about songs featured on my new project “Creation EP”.)
“At Last, I’ve met my match, my soul is free, You belong with me. At Last”
This song was inspired by a feeling I’ve only felt a few times in my life. The feeling of complete belonging. Something that can only be brought on by an transcendent experience. Something that is always temporary, where you inevitably come back down to earth. This is represented by the short length of the song. It’s also that moment brought on by culmination of all of your previous experiences, here represented in the beautiful score by my friend Mark Evitts. (The melodies played by the strings are the melodies from the previous 3 songs).
But this song is not about those things it was inspired by. This song is about hope. Hope that someday the infinite mystery of God will not be realized, but be embraced. That we would find ourselves loved and cared for in that mystery. That we would no longer hold on to our defensiveness and certainties, but find a home in the mystery. When we do that, the mystery brings us great comfort and relief.
There is freedom in the mystery. Someday, every day, I’ll say “At Last”.
This was the hardest blog so far to write. When things are going great, the story is less interesting. It’s easier to relate with the struggle than it is the success. 2010 was the closest we ever got to success.
We were on our way home from Nashville. We had just found out our song Something to Hope For was being used in the new American Idol preseason campaign. We pulled over into a McDonalds somewhere near Bowling Green, Kentucky. This was 2010, so none of us had smartphones, and Wifi at restaurants was a relatively new thing. It took about 20 minutes to download, but Jim, Kyle, Brennan and I sat in a booth in the back of the restaurant and watched the commercial that would be played for millions.
Up to that point, our songs had never hit radio outside of northern Ohio. We didn’t have our record out, or even a song on iTunes. We literally only had the exposure that we had made for ourselves touring around the country with songs that weren’t yet available. The only place people could hear our songs was on Myspace, where we were seeing about 10k plays a day. This tv placement.. This was huge. The song we thought that had the biggest chance of being a hit would be played multiple times during key slots like big tv dramas and football games leading up to the Idol season. I don’t remember when I saw it for the first time, but I know it was on my DVR for a while. Shortly after things started moving. There were a few other TV placements. “One Tree Hill” was the second one, and local artist Crystal Bowersox made the American Idol finals, so we got to open for her big hometown show. We did a silly parody video that got half a million hits on youtube. We were doing interviews with big magazines and newspapers and local tv appearances. We played a show at Cedar Point on opening weekend. We got to go on a shopping spree in Nashville and have a photo shoot for our record.
That thing we made that got us all this. I mean, we had other good qualities, like our looks and personalities, but I digress. When it comes down to it, what got us this record deal was our songs. I know that now and I knew it then. Our outlook on writing was to write something memorable that the most people possible could relate to. This was easy at times, difficult at others. There was always a vagueness to the lyrics. We wanted these songs to be for everyone. We really did think our songs could move people, and we wanted that. We also knew that the more people there were that related to it, the more cash in our pockets. We felt like we accomplished our goal with this record. It had hit potential. The problem was our relationship with Warner was at a standstill. We were already busy writing on record #2, and we didn’t even know when record #1 was going to be released. We know there was still some negotiations going on between WB and Cause for Alarm, and that was delaying things drastically. Meanwhile, a sweet lady named Lori Feldman, who is head of TV and Film Licensing for WB got a hold of our record somehow. She flew to Nashville from NY to meet us, and was instrumental in getting our songs more television placements. Through 2010 we built momentum, but we weren’t sure for what. The tv placements were great for publicity, but in reality, they were putting money back in Warner’s pockets, and because our record wasn’t out, it didn’t really translate into sales. Every good thing seemed to have the worst timing.
Sometimes though, things just don’t go how you think they’ll go. I remember hearing about Kristina Perry’s song “Jar of Hearts”. Someone danced to it on the show “So You Think You Can Dance”. She sold forty thousand singles that night on iTunes, and signed with a major label within weeks. Our song “Something to Hope For” was finally on iTunes as a single, and it too was featured on “So You Think You Can Dance”. We sold around 700 singles that night. Idol used it again, as did some MTV shows, the Biggest Loser, and several others, but it never translated into single sales. I don’t know why the song itself didn’t take off. The lyric video did ok, but things like Shazam weren’t common yet. People would hear the song on TV and have literally no idea how to find us without googling sections of the lyrics. I remember playing a show in Lexington, KY at a giant theater. Except, we didn’t play in the theater. We played up front in the pool hall, on the floor, in front of the restrooms. People would awkwardly walk by us while we played songs that millions of people had unknowingly heard while watching their favorite tv shows. This was fairly common outside of Ohio. Warner wouldn’t always notify us of the placements, so several times our phones would blow up on a random Tuesday, when all our friends called and texted to tell us they heard our song again. We appreciated the love, but we began to realize it wasn’t actually helping us that much. We were all still working, struggling to pay the bills. Unable to take off long periods of time to tour, and trying to operate with our hands tied behind our back. The record had now been complete for 6 months, and we weren’t legally allowed to put it out. Even if we could tour, without music to promote, we were essentially driving long distances for band practice. It just wasn’t financially justifiable. Our last hope was that Tom Whalley and Kevin Law would get their stuff sorted out, and we could finally get some support from our record label.
August or September of 2010. Jon calls me.
“Tom Whalley is stepping down. There’s a new guy coming in, he’s gonna evaluate the roster and he’ll let you know what’s next.” Great. A few more months of mystery.
To Be continued…
Momentum was building. Word was out in our community that we had signed a deal. Our little town of Fremont was behind us, and we had even done some local TV appearances in Toledo and Cleveland. Things looked like they were coming together, and people were excited for us, but behind the scenes, we had a huge question mark. Our record deal was up in the air, and with it being December, the industry had shut down for a month for the holidays. From November 2008-January 2009 we had no idea what the business side of our endeavor was going to look like. I wish the next part of the story was more interesting, but it’s not. Sometime in January 2009, after two months of ambiguity, we found out that Warner Brothers was going to pick up Cause For Alarm’s half of the contract. None of us remember the details all that well, but we found out we were 100% a Warner Brothers recording artist, and after some paperwork, we were clear to send the now completed record on to mixing.
Mixing our record was literally one of the highlights of my life. Only twice did I ever feel like we had the power of a major label behind us. The first was the last few songs we recorded, which was 3 weeks straight in Nashville with a full budget. And the second was mixing. Mixing the record just means you take everything you’ve recorded, and a mixing engineer makes it sound way better than when it was recorded. Kevin Law was technically still involved with us in some executive capacity, and he was friends with Michael Brauer, who is one of the most sought after mixing engineers in the world. Michael works out of Electric Lady Studios in NYC, built by Jimi Hendrix. Michael cut us a great deal because he knew Kevin, and the label was on board, so in March of 2009 we went off to NYC for ten days to work with one of the best in the world.
If you want to know what intimidation feels like, try walking into a studio where there are platinum Coldplay records on the wall. Where the walls themselves wreak of music history and legends. Where you run into big stars in the hallways. A place where movies have been filmed, and the best of the best have recorded. Again we felt in over our heads. All of this money spent on us. Could we deliver? Were our songs actually that good? They say art is found in the overlap of complete narcissism and crippling self doubt. Well, both of those emotions hit us hard that week.
We went into studio 2 where Michael is set up. Michael Brauer is a total New Yorker. He made an art form out of swearing. He was kind and generous, and also yelled at Brennan for bringing that “****ing smelly Subway ****ing sub sandwich back in his studio.” Then he ordered us pizza. We were pulling 2 songs a day to get done, and Michael worked his butt off, even through a day where the console went down, and we didn’t get started till after 9pm, and finished after 2am, then were back at it by 10am. For this we were so thankful. We learned how to be pros during this trip.
We came home from New York and got ready to get back on the road, this time our biggest tour ever, with a band called Secondhand Serenade. We played 9 shows in 10 days if I remember correctly, all in theaters or large clubs. There was actual catering. People came. It was something. Now these blogs may make it seem like all of this was happening fast, but remember we started recording this album in 2006. By 2009, the record is in post production, but we’d been working on it for 3 YEARS. A few of the earlier songs written for the record, like “There for You”, were 5 years old. For the most part, we were sick of these songs by now, and were still waiting on Warner to give us a release date. So we’re out on the road, playing for $100 a night, which isn’t enough to cover gas, so we rely on merchandise sales to help. The problem was, no one wants a tee shirt from a band when they don’t yet have their music. This was 2009, and people still actually paid for music back then. So not having it to sell was really difficult. We came back from that tour $70 in the red + the work we missed at home. Oddly enough, we spent $70 of band money at Outback steakhouse one night. Figures. We got home from tour in April, and started the waiting game.
3 of the 4 of us kept our regular day jobs during this time. We all had bills to pay, and even while on the label, there’s no consistent income. We all shared in some humbling experiences. There’s something about running into a fan who wants to hear about everything you’re doing while you’re working at Big Lots stocking the feminine products. I remember working at a dog food packaging plant for a short time during all this. We’d hear Tom Petty on the radio and I’d joke “there’s my label mate Tom”. Not sure anyone believed me. I’m not sure I believed me. I also worked for my church of 1500 people. The questions were constant, and though I loved the attention, basically lying to people to keep their interest got old. The truth was we didn’t know what was happening.
The late spring and summer of 2009 are a somewhat of a mystery to me. I don’t have any journal entries, photos or videos. I know we played some shows and stayed sharp, and wrote some songs. You see, through all of this there was some sort of disagreement between Kevin Law and Warner Brothers. To be honest, I have no idea what it was. Probably money. We stopped hearing from Kevin during this time, and our manager Jon just tried to keep us in the loop. I remember feeling more and more hopeless, like we would never get a release date for our record. We also had little to no contact with anyone from Warner Brothers. Were we still on the label? Technically yes but it sure didn’t feel like it. All we ever heard was we needed to be on the road more. This was going to be difficult without a record to push but we went and met with a big booking agency anyway. They basically told us they wouldn’t help us out until our label made up their mind. So label says play more shows, that will get ball moving, booking agency says, we’ll get you shows when your label makes up it’s mind. We felt handcuffed, unable to do anything with the art that WE MADE. Completely stuck. Until that September, when we got a phone call. “We’re going to LA to showcase for the CEO of Warner Brothers”.
To be continued…
Sitting in Brennan’s living room, all 4 of us around his coffee table with Jon on speakerphone. “We need to know by tomorrow. There’s good and bad to both. Think about the people you want to work with. This would be a good time to ask God for some wisdom”. Two contracts. Both worth over $120,000. We literally had drafts of both sitting on the table in front of us, and we stared. My stomach turned. We literally did not know what to do, and we had to know like right now. We had played for all the majors. Had dinner with a few, and now had finished negotiations with 2 labels. Warner and Universal.
Let me tell you, without getting too ahead of myself, I don’t have any regrets. I am thankful for the experiences I had, some of which I will share with you. I’m thankful for what my life has turned into. I’m thankful for my wife, and my two little boys, who may not be here if things were different. But I would be flat lying if I didn’t think about what my life would be like had we just chosen the other contract. Every. Single. Day.
Now on with the name dropping.
It was January 2008, and we flew to New York twice in two weeks for label showcases. If you aren’t familiar with how these showcases work, let me fill you in. A label pays for you and your band to fly in to their town, usually NYC, Nashville , or LA. They rent a small rehearsal room, rent all your equipment, sometimes even the obscure stuff, and you play a shortened set for a very small number of people. These showcases are UTTERLY TERRIFYING at first, but you’d be amazed how acting confident can actually make you confident. One of the hardest things about these showcases is just reading how to interact with whomever is watching you. You don’t want to treat them like a fan, because they’re there to essentially scrutinize you, and often it’s only 2-3 people. I never quite figured it out. One time in Nashville, we performed for Brad O’Donnell who was with EMI. This particular showcase was at a coffeehouse, and I decided it would be a good idea if I went all out. In our normal shows, I would often partially stand up on my piano and my stool during the last song. Well, this particular stage was small, and when I stepped up on the stool, it tipped forward, my leg smashed between the stool and piano, which drew blood and left a nasty burn, and the stool then fell back and hit my guitar which was on the stand. I didn’t completely hit the floor but it was close. There was a moment of terror, but I’ve heard it said better to crash going 100mph than 10. Brad was gracious and we had a laugh. Lesson learned.
Kevin Law was the former VP of Universal Music Group. He made his name signing Nelly, and had substantial success there. Through some circumstances that I’m not aware of, he left Universal and started his own label called Cause for Alarm Records. Cause for Alarm was just launching, but had substantial financial backing, and a small team of people working. They also had a partnership with Warner Brothers. Showcasing for Kevin was the first time I saw that my personal faith could be a detriment in the music industry. “Are you guys Christians?” he asked. “Well, we are Christians in a band, not a ‘christian band'”. “Good” he said. “If you want to make a Christian record we are not the label for you”. I appreciated his honesty, especially because I did not want to make a “christian” record. Kevin was charming and made us feel like we could trust him. We really liked the appeal of being their first band and having a group of people work just for us. It was hard to not be impressed.
Universal was also very attractive to us. We liked our A&R guy, and they were welcoming to us. I honestly barely remember playing for them, just that is was in the exact same room that Cause for Alarm had put us in. The contracts were very similar, but there were a few hang ups with CFA/WB. We felt in our gut that they were where we were supposed to be, but our lawyer said don’t sign there unless they change this or that. I don’t even remember what it was at this point. So we gave a verbal commitment to Universal, and upon informing Kevin, CFA budged and went after us hard. It felt great to be pursued like that. We burnt our bridge with Universal and in June 2008, after 6 months of negotiations, we were a Cause for Alarm/Warner Brothers Records recording artist.
As long as I live I’ll never forget the feeling of holding our record advance in my hand. There were two checks, one from WB, and one from CFA, totaling roughly 120K. We felt so important. We were also lucky to have Jon in our ear, constantly reminding us “you haven’t done crap yet so don’t get too ahead of yourselves.” We each got to keep around $10k, and the rest was spent on lawyers and record production. I banked my money and didn’t quit my day job.
We spent 3 weeks in Nashville recording songs for the record. We spent some time at Tobymac’s studio in Franklin. Toby was very friendly and would come into studio B every morning to say hello and steal our coffee. One afternoon, we heard what we thought was the rap section of “Jesus Freak”. We ran out into the hall to hear Toby going all out. He had a vocal booth on the other side of a door, and all 4 of us and our producer Allen had our heads up against it like 10 year olds. Toby was doing overdubs for a live DVD and was redoing Jesus Freak. How cool is this? We got out our phones to capture whatever audio we could and when he was done we tiptoed away, all smiling ear to ear. I’ll never forget that.
November 2008. Our record is almost done and the economy has crashed. We were in my parent’s kitchen if I remember correctly. The phone rings, it’s Kevin Law. Getting Kevin on the phone was not completely uncommon, but not normal either. “Sorry to tell you guys this, but the financial backing for Cause for Alarm is pulling out. I’m not sure what this means for you just yet, but it may mean you don’t have a record deal”. I remember thanking Kevin for all his hard work, trying to stay positive, hanging up and wondering what the heck just happened. We had no idea what we were in for.
FAR FROM HOME
There we were, sitting in the office of one of the most powerful people in the entire music industry. Tom Whalley. The CEO of Warner Brothers. The freaking CEO. We were in our early twenties and ready to take on the world. We were four small-town boys from Ohio that had no business being there but we didn’t care. We had been through “adversity”. We had the songs. We were prepared. We had worked our butts off. And the CEO of Warner brothers was on our side. The world was about to be our oyster and we were going to savor every second.
But then, everything turned on it’s head.
Before I tell you the rest of that story, we should start at the beginning. This is my story. It’s a tale of struggle, battle, victory and loss in the music business and in life, and I hope it’s also one of love and redemption.
As a kid, I never had dreams of playing music. I wanted to race cars. (Still do). Around age 13 I had an experience that changed all of that. You see, my childhood was focused around my church. My dad worked for a church, and we had to adhere to certain rules. Music was one of them. I went through all the stereotypical “rock and roll is evil” sermons and drums are bad and don’t even think about dancing lest ye endeth up in hell. I always wondered why my church had an electric guitar and a bass but no drums. It’s as if we left out certain verses in Psalms. At age 13, my dad took another job and things loosened up, and for the first time I was exposed to this thing called “Contemporary Christian Music”.. or CCM for short. My friend exposed me to this band called FFH (Far From Home), and I was hooked. I remember listening to it on the way to school and feeling like I was pushing the envelope. There were drums. Hooks. A freaking guitar solo. But they were singing about Jesus so I was a little confused. The only other “Christian Rock” band I had heard of was Jars of Clay and they were way too risqué. I borrowed the CD from my friend and showed it to my dad, not sure what he would say. At the time my dad’s musical interests mostly were made up by Christian acapela groups (I didn’t yet know of his love for Cat Stevens and the Beatles). To my surprise, he enjoyed it, and my path towards fanboy began. We went to see FFH, and again, and again. One time after a show, when I was probably 14 or 15, they got their guitars back out and we sat around in a circle and sang their songs. I cried afterwards. I loved their songs, their accessibility, but I was really drawn to their live show. They were pros, and they used their platform to point to Jesus, and I could see that it had a massive impact. I couldn’t help but think that someday I wanted to do the same.
I picked up my dad’s old guitar and took some lessons. I practiced non stop. My mom would get on my case for playing FFH songs way more than I practiced from my guitar book.I spent a summer mowing lawns and bought my first decent guitar. A Tacoma, with the sound hole in the upper right hand corner that looked kind of like FFH’s. Then, at age 16, I had my first big opportunity. FFH was having a contest. They were at the peak of their popularity at the time. They had hits on the radio and sold a few hundred thousand records, and made a decent following for themselves, and had a fan club, and you can bet I was in it. The contest? Record yourself singing one of their songs and send it in. Winner gets to fly to Orlando to hang with them and go to Universal Studios. This was right in my wheelhouse. My future father in law set up an appointment with a producer he knew and we went to a little garage in Toledo to record it. (We talk all the time about how we both lost the audio file). This saved me from sending in a demo made on a 4 track cassette recorder in my basement that sounded like the air being let out of a balloon. We recorded a medley of their songs, put it on a disc, mailed it in, and waited.
Later that summer, while at church camp, you know, one of the ones telling us rock and roll drum beats lead down a dark path, a message was relayed to me that I had won. My friend Jerod had checked my email from my home computer and called my dad at this camp. I got home to a voicemail from Jeromy, the lead singer of FFH. I don’t think I was coherent enough to really remember what he said, but it included, “can’t wait to see you in florida”, and “bring your guitar, you’re playing on stage with us”. That originally wasn’t part of the prize, but for some reason they wanted me to join them on stage. What I didn’t know was that this was a youth conference, with about 3000 teenagers in attendance. Up to that point the biggest crowd I’d played for was 40 in my school’s chapel services. We flew to Orlando in December of 2001, just after Christmas. As a 16 year old I picked my hippest outfit, put some gel in my hair, made sure there was nothing caught in my braces, put my cool Uncle Sam guitar strap on my guitar, tried to fake calm, and walked on stage near the end of their show and played my guitar and sang my nasally voice out.
Had I known before that this performance would be the catalyst for what shaped the arc of my life, I would have had second and third and fourth thoughts about doing it. It could’ve saved me a lot of suffering and heartache. But I walked off that stage, and I was hooked. 3,000 of my peers cheering for me? Are you kidding? And you can get PAID FOR THIS??? Are you serious? Naive, I know.
The next two years I was an average student. I skirted through math and algebra and physics and history because I had one thing on my mind. Music. I knew school didn’t really matter because my future was set in stone. I started playing church youth groups and selling burned copies of a demo I made for $5. I played anywhere and everywhere I could chasing what I thought would be my future….
Funny how things play out.
(To Be Continued…)