He was an aspiring golf pro turned law student who went on to manage one of the most successful names in modern rock. Today he is inviting the entirety of the music industry into his office for some lively, and often deep, conversation. Through his web series, Renman Live, and his coursework at Renman U, Steve Rennie is preaching the truth of the music business and trying to share all he has learned with the next generation of managers and industry professionals.
We caught up with Steve Rennie to find out what a good education really is when it comes to the music business and what people really need to know to make it.
What do you think has been the biggest pivotal moment in the industry just since you got started 36 years ago?
Definitely, without question, the advent of the internet. That changed so many things about the way we do business. It didn’t change the core of what the music business is. It’s actually much simpler than people want to make it. It’s about great songs and great performances. Without that, there is no music business. The internet hasn’t changed that. How you make the songs, distribute, promote, listen, buy, experience has changed dramatically and in that change you see all the worst instincts of the music business- fear, insecurity, politics…all of that playing. And that’s what contributed to the general anxiety of the music business. It was always there, but has been heightened by the internet. It’s hard to believe things could be crazier.
Do you think it’s harder or easier for artists to get noticed these days?
Before the internet, artists had to find a way to get the attention of the label guys. Bands started playing the Troubadour or the Whiskey and little scenes developed. The only way for business types to plug into that scene was to go to clubs. Or artists would go to lawyers or managers and try to get insider status. That’s where the action happens. They were face to face connections, eyeball to eyeball. Now with the internet, artists have new ways to make money and new ways to present themselves to the industry in a much more complete way. They have photos and videos and websites and can make a more complete presentation. They have more control over that first impression.
People are using the internet to connect, but they’ve always had to make those connections. The tools being out there mean there are countless records out there. More competition for attention, but some ways to bring attention to what you’re doing on your own terms. That’s a huge, huge thing for most artists to present themselves in a way that is true to themselves.
The business is important whether you’re a big band or a small band. The decisions you make after you make the music have a huge impact on your likelihood of success. After you get to a level where you’ve had some successes, your focus should be on making great songs and having great performances. I think that’s the challenge for young artists. How to generate that attention that attracts that professional team- manager, attorney, agent, publisher that have connections and depth and insider status in the business that can help you compete for opportunities that can change your career.
So, you are now a presence on the internet in your own right! I love your videos and interviews..the whole vibe is very ESPN…
I’ve heard that before. My good friend Brendan O’Brien says I’ve become the Dan Patrick of rock. I can live with that.
That’s not a bad thing to be!
I’m glad to hear that you feel that because …not so much the ESPN thing, but the idea was to make people feel like they’re in the office with me when I have some kind of associate there. The great thing about the internet is you can take an idea like networking and turn it into something. I can have someone in the office and we’re going to have a conversation about the business and you’re invited. You can call in or Skype in. If you think this is just for fun, you’re missing the point. This is how you make things happen in the music business- ask questions. You network. You hang out with smart people. Period.
You have to make a personal impression on somebody.
I enjoy your web show. You ask the questions I would ask. How did you get started doing the web show?
When I started it was literally to have some fun and kill some time during the ever-lengthening cycle of Incubus being creative and going out and promoting it and waiting for the next cycle to start. That’s the honest answer of why I started.
One of the main reasons I keep doing it is because I really enjoy doing this web show. When you say my questions are on target- No disrespect to all those cute girls they have doing music shows on yahoo and all these other places, but they aren’t in the music business. I am John Madden. I have been there, I have done it. I have clanked heads and banged bodies and been deep down in it, so the questions I am asking are questions I know are relevant. By and large they are questions I know the answer to, but I want people that are watching to see it’s not just Steve Rennie’s opinion, this is what all these people are saying.
There are all sorts of ways to get started in the music business. Rennie talks about it with everybody so you can see the common denominators. All these other people reinforce what I believe are the common elements to be successful in the music business. Would I like to have a TV show? That would be kind of fun. I watch Anthony Bourdain all the time and I think, “This guy used to be a chef!” What would you call him now? I think that’s kind of where I am. His show isn’t really about food, it’s about people.
It would be great to have a show on the golf channel, where I go out with all the musicians I know and all the professional golfers I know that are musicians and go out and have a conversations. I’ve had so many of those conversations privately and they’re great. I was out to dinner with Brandon Boyd who I had a meeting with and a golf psychologist who’s real big in the sports world named Dr Bob Rotella and Podrick Harrington who is a 3 time major championship winner. To hear them talk about how similar their careers are, travel and family and all of these things, same kind of principles…if any musician was sitting at that table they would think, “That was the greatest meal I’ve ever had in my life!” They might take up golfing too!
I find the similarities striking between athletes, musicians and politicians. All 3 of those jobs, you are doing basically the exact same thing, it just looks a little different.
Yeah! It’s the same story but a different frame. I was out hitting balls with Doc Rivers from the LA Clippers and he’s talking about how he motivates his players how sometimes they get in their own way and there are great players who don’t think they can shoot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remind the singer of a band, “Dude you’re the greatest singer out here! Stop thinking about it! Just grab that mic and sing! The rest of the stuff you’re driving yourself crazy with. You have 18,000 people out there screaming your name and you’re worried about one jerk writer who has no life but to ruin your day?!”
What music business jobs and skills do you think are the most important these days?
Your website- Kings of A&R. The ability to spot talent before it becomes mainstream is a talent itself, a knack that few people have. You guys work with it more directly, but you don’t have to just do that. If you’re a concert promoter, you’re doing A&R judgments to determine if someone can sell tickets. if you’re a manager, will you spend X amount of your life with this artist. The ability to identify talent before it’s obvious is a huge one.
The job of manager is probably more important than ever. The manager has to have a really good sense about where the artist is and where they need to go. I don’t care how smart you are, it’s never about a single person’s talent. You’re going to need help. Getting people to join you in your mission is huge and the manager has to today get it in their heads that they’re setting sail on today’s breeze, not yesterday’s breeze. Rather than getting married to every sacred cow I know, I’m suspicious of them now. It’s why I enjoy talking to the grizzly veterans and the growing amount of up and coming professionals and musicians in the music business who want to pick my brain and I want to pick theirs as I question what is relevant about my experience.
Managers and A&R. For all the talk about doing it indie, the label still has a huge role to play in the process of breaking you to a big time level. Not 5 thousand records, a million records. They have undeniable and long lasting relationship with radio, which is still a huge part of breaking an act, and they’ve had to learn new tricks too. Getting your music heard is the single most important thing. Millions of words are spewed about artists getting screwed and how hard it is to be successful, and I’m sitting here after 36 years going, “Surprised?” The only people who ever made money were the ones who were hugely successful! Did you think because you got garageband that it lowered the cross bar for success? If you believe it has, it hasn’t. It might have even raised it! You can’t worry about that. It’s nothing new.
Write great songs. Get attention. That will get you that team.
You give a lot of good, practical advice for people just entering the music business and have even started offering up courses on specific subjects. Do you think there is still value in a fancy formal education?
You can go into the mail room of the William Morris agency and find MBAs. That has been going on for some time. I tried to get a job in the William Morris mail room circa 1980 and they did a degree check on me. I hadn’t quite graduated at USC yet…they wouldn’t hire me until I graduated college. Their rationale is simple- we can get all kinds of people in here, we can get smart people in here. They want to know that you can finish something. Finishing the deal is important whether you’re a college graduate or not. College is great for giving you a broader look at the world and giving you skills. I studied accounting and business and all that, so the skill set they taught you, those basic skills, helped you.
But here’s what college won’t give you and what still might be a hindrance. You come out of college thinking 2+2=4. That’s what they taught you. But if you work in the business for any amount of time, someone will ask me, “Hey Ren, does 2 + 2 = 4 in the music business?” No! It can equal anything! It might equal 4 or nothing or 8…who knows? I can’t tell you how many times I had a very smart MBA guy show me their power point presentation on the music business, “we’re gonna do these premium experiences and this will benefit and that will benefit” because that’s how they’ve been trained, but they’ve never dealt with an artist.
“I got us a bunch of money to play such and such show”- “I don’t really like those guys, Steve.”
“How about this opportunity?”- “I’m not really feeling it, Steve.”
Not feeling it, huh? The graduates want to make everything practical and that is how they have been taught, but in the music business- songs and performances, where do those come from? Lawyers, accountants? They come from artists and they’re all about FEEL.
What have I learned? I can get them to feel like it was their idea.
Music business school can’t really teach you to deal with an artist who just “doesn’t wanna…because reasons.”
Clive Davis is a Harvard educated guy, he is best known for his A&R skills
Jimmy Iovine didn’t go to college and he’s best known for his A&R skills
One from a college, one not from a college, what they mastered and understood was feel. They had enough of a practical side to manage feel into reality. The biggest lie out there is that a college degree will make you successful in the music business. If you’re a programmer, a coding guy, it HAS TO ADD UP. If it doesn’t add up, something is wrong. That coding mentality doesn’t work in the music business. If it makes any sense at all in the music business, run! It’ll never work.
I tell people this and they laugh and then they come back to me 6 months in and say, “Wow, Ren! You’re not cynical, you’re the voice of reality, man!” It’s why managers and artists ultimately go sideways.
Is that why you started Renman U?
The show is really where I have the most fun, to be honest. What’s become obvious to me and what wasn’t my intent, but are the people who are really interested in our site say ‘you’re the best coach I’ve ever had.’ So how can I make that meaningful? I have to put my manager hat on here. Incubus didn’t do a lot of free gigs because they had to get through me. If you wanted my band to play for you, you have to pay. Have a heart? We have a heart. We’ll make a big donation from the Make Yourself foundation. But we make a living by getting paid to play. If we didn’t get paid, it would be a hobby.
Take all this knowledge and put it in something akin to a college course, an online course. Everyone wants to be a student. Instead of me fighting my natural instinct- don’t give me a student, give me someone who is dying to do something in the business and I’ll do the rest. You saw a hint of it with that Renman U.
We’re turning this into an online course and breaking it up into different things. I get a lot of requests to be a consultant, which wasn’t my intent, but I sit there and think, is there a way for me to play consultant for the people who are really serious…the ones who would pay to take a class at Berkley or Full Sail or whatever. With the greatest respect to those places, they don’t have anyone there that’s had the same level of experience and enthusiasm as I do. That may sound horribly arrogant and pompous but it’s true.
There are all these people with all of this experience who are no longer in pre-defined roles. They’re getting innovative. Some of them are consulting and mentoring…
The ones that are in the biz are indie marketing consultants and have experience working with the machine. The challenge they all have is the artists who really need their services are the least able to afford their services. Which speaks to the whole industry. Why do you need to be with a major label? Those guys are used to spending money if they believe in something. They are used to having managers like me saying, “Hey I need 30 grand for that independent publicist,” and fighting them to get it.
They’re not just the banker, they’re smart bankers. They have infrastructure. The stuff you see on the charts is not some indie kid in his college dorm room. Even Macklemore and Lewis, yes, they were independent, but they were plugged into the mainstream distro and sales channels and once that record started to show itself BANG you have all the grizzly professional mercenaries on the team. Slightly different deal, better deal for Macklemore and Lewis but that was part of the mainstream music business success. That’s the challenge.
I’ve had more than a few of my friends look at what I’m doing. And sometimes I think they’re thinking ‘Maybe I should be doing what Ren is doing.’
Renman U is kind of my funny take on the music business, but maybe there is a broader conversation. There are a lot of great people out there with great experience and the right attitude. Like myself, they’re suspicious of things that used to work and are only interested in things that do work today.
Some of the schools are not teaching the real music business. The real business is more feel than curriculum. If you knew everything about publishing or how the label operates or everything about making great music but you weren’t good at networking or meeting people or working through a million no’s to get one yes, you’ll never make it! Colleges don’t spend enough time talking about the real music business.
Can you teach the ‘feel’ aspect?
I think you can. Here’s what you can do- feel…part of that feel is about having a bigger picture attitude. If you look through some of those big picture lessons on the website, you’ll see none of those are nuts and bolts. They’re just big picture. For example- The Best Idea is Your Idea. What does that mean? If the artist doesn’t want to play ball, your mission is to turn practical into something that feels good for that artist. I may have taken 10 different approaches with artist x, y or z. You need to make it their idea. You need to make it something they will go in and be an advocate for.
You’re the manager and you have a million dollar offer for your artist. You walk into the dressing room and the artist says to his buddies, “HERE’S WHAT I THINK WE SHOULD BE DOING.” In my early days, I would say, “THAT’S WHAT I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TELL YOU!” In my more experienced days, I would say, “Now THAT is a great idea.” And then walk out of the room.
I’d say that’s teaching feel. It’s all about timing and lighting.
The Black Keys, for example. They’ve been around for over 10 years. Where were they for those first 8 years before I knew them?
You keep showing up. You keep getting better. You get shot down, but you improve. You have to have the right attitude. They don’t teach that in schools. I think you can teach feel, but it’s all in understanding the big picture. 1 in a million. Probably going to be a hobby, not a career. If you’re lucky enough to have success, don’t be an idiot. The money stops.
Instead of a college degree, it’s more important that you get a mindset to hang out with smart people and ASK QUESTIONS. The marketing promotion, how to tour, that’s all easy.
The ironic part about this, for me, in terms of this being a business, I’m not sure it’s much different than being in a band. The place where I get the most money out of people is to actually spend time with me personally. They want to have somebody to talk to. Anybody that’s ever worked with me and became a manager became a great manager because they have the mindset. “I should be scared. I’m crazy for doing this. I could get killed at any moment, so let ‘er rip!”
You gotta be prepared. Be prepared to win. A million kids say ‘oh it’s so tough why should I do this’ I can’t answer that for you, but there’s a tiny few who play at the top and they all planned on winning. So figure it out, kid. If you’re not prepared to win, it will be a fluke if you win and flukes aren’t careers.