20 Things I’ve Learned From 20 Years of Tonic
Check out the article Emerson wrote for Artist Waves below:
20 years ago, my band, Tonic, released Lemon Parade. Recently, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time revisiting that record and that time in my life. Perhaps it was something like how parents feel when their kids graduate high school and they long for diapers. Or, perhaps the current landscape of the music industry leaves me wishing it was 1996 again. In any case, 20 years have past and I’ve learned nothing if not to be grateful for our fans and the fact that I can still do, at 46, what I did at 26, and still whole heartedly love every moment of it.
I’d be lying if I told you I had some grand story to tell behind the “20 years since” Lemon Parade came out. Over the past twenty years, somehow I’ve played rock n roll, had some hits, survived, and come out on the other end with a clearer focus. Really, after 20 years, my vision is finally right. It’s like 20/20 — look, I made a pun, my daughter would be proud. Ironically, at 46 I’m wearing glasses for the first time in my life.
I don’t have a long story to tell but I can tell you that behind this sharpening, this focus, like many, many things I have learned. Many I learned tripping and falling over myself, making mistake after mistake, and some I’ve learned watching others do the same.
It’s been 20 years and here are 20 things I’ve learned:
1) Don’t cheat on your gift. I have watched a lot of people who I came up with or who came before me destroy the talent they have been lucky enough to be given. Its alright to have a good time but remember to keep your party habits in check as they will add up and get heavier to carry as you go. It’s hard to play a show or show up on time anywhere when you’re having to tend to the cocaine & booze addicted elephant in the room that’s you.
2) Be a fan. Don’t let whatever current disaster is going on in the music industry or your career make you jaded. Make time to go out and see a band you have never seen and listen for the love of music. In this world, every night an artist is walking on stage somewhere because they believe. Find them.
3) Don’t look sideways. Focus on your own beard or melody or style. If you waste time looking at everyone else and begrudging them their success you will miss the opportunity to be a better artist and most likely trip and fall. I’ve done it. The beard didn’t work for me.
4) Have a point. When you are writing a song, work as hard as you can to get to the heart of it and illuminate your subject.
5) Learn to listen. There is value when someone shares a story. Be still and listen. Even if you write a song about their story later — maybe they’ll be ok with it.
6) Don’t count on other people to do your Job for you. It’s ok to ask for help but there are lessons to be learned in the work of building your career.
7) Go through old song books. I have a ton of song books I have stumbled on in random book/music stores over the years. I learned how to play guitar with them when I was a kid starting out. I believe they have made me a better writer. Music, along with everything in this world, is cyclical. There are “old” songs hiding in books that need to be re-discovered and re-interpreted all over again. Go find them.
8) Be gracious and professional. Don’t show up at a radio or TV station acting like they owe you something because they don’t. Treat them with respect and roll with the changes that might happen regarding rescheduling and early hours. You can refer to #1 on this list to make the morning show easier. You will see these people again in different locations of the world in different stages of your career so be professional. There are radio DJs out there that still play my old songs, not because they’re working at a ninety’s station (they’re not), but because I did something right back in the day. Maybe I remembered their names, maybe I made them laugh, I know I showed up on time.
8-B: REMEMBER THEIR NAMES — if you take your whiskey goggles off (see #1), it makes remembering people much easier. Everyone appreciates it when you remember their name.
9) Use social media as a tool. People want to know what’s going on in your life and that’s ok. You can share what you feel comfortable with and let them know about tour dates, thoughts or musings. Never use it as a weapon.
10) Get as much of the Master share of your record that you can when you sign a deal.
11) Make sure your publisher understands you. This is a two part lesson. If you have signed, want to sign, or are about to sign a publishing deal, make sure you are honest and clear about your goals as a writer. It will help them guide the ship. If you don’t have to sign a pub deal because you have enough money to survive and you know people to shop your songs, then do your work and keep your publishing. The money/royalty difference between the two is staggering.
12) Learn how to write songs alone. This process and the act of knowing how to do it will make you a better writer. I’m not downing on co-writing because I continue to enjoy it myself and really enjoy most of the folks I write with. If you learn to write alone you will be a better co-writer when the opportunity presents itself.
13) Get a lawyer. Or make friends with a great lawyer you can’t afford. Or, make friends with your great lawyer. This one is important. Its all in the language of the deal.
14) Keep your Tastemakers small. Everyone will have an opinion on your work so weed through and pick two people you trust. Too many opinions turns a great idea/song into a confusing, watered down disaster.
15) Have friends who are not in the music business. I have a few friends who know what I do for a living and don’t have the slightest clue how it works or even care to know. They have always kept me grounded. They always remind me that its a big world out there and everyone sees it differently.
16) Don’t check your phone or social media when you are in a meeting. It can wait. People have made time to meet with, hang out with, or catch up with you so don’t waste their time checking your likes on Facebook. Facebook won’t matter in the end. If it’s your spouse/partner or child make that known and excuse yourself if you feel it could be important.
17) It’s your managers job to make you money. Your manager is there to help you navigate your career and bring you opportunities. I learned this from Irving Azoff who managed Tonic for while. He told me, “If I don’t make you money, you should fire me.”
18) Play the hits. If you are lucky enough in your career to have some popular songs, play them in your set. I have seen bands not play their hits because they didn’t feel like it or just wanted to play new material only. Here’s the deal: you are there as an artist because you are part of your fans story and they are a part of yours. They may have had their first dance to your song. They may have fallen in love to your song. You are part of their soundtrack. Do a mix of both new and old and be kind to the people who got you there. As my wife reminds me frequently (regarding other things non-musical): Don’t be ass.
19) It’s ok to be nervous. When I was 19 and living in NYC, my buddy was a PA on a video shoot for David Bowie’s Tin Machine project. He was gracious enough to sit down and smoke a cigarette with me while I nervously asked him questions about music. I asked him if he still got nervous. He told me, “If I’m not a little nervous then I’m not doing something right.” I always repeat this to myself every time I start a new project.
20) Hard work brings good luck. I know this has been said a million times but it is as close to the truth as you can get. Work hard at your art and it will reward you. The muse despises the lazy.