By Brian F. Johnson
Traditionally, musicians haven’t had to do much but write and perform their songs. But in these increasingly D.I.Y. times, artists are being forced into the business side of the industry and are spending more and more time off-stage and away from the studio, working on tasks that used to be taken care of by record labels.
Mark Bliesener, who has the hindsight of being a working musician as well as the experience earned from 30 years behind a desk in the biz, helps bands as ‘The Band Guru.’ Counseling everyone from solo musicians to bands to independent record labels, Bliesener has received 16 Gold and Platinum records from artists whose careers he has helped to manage, including Lyle Lovett, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Back in his days as a musician, Bliesener said he was always the guy in the band who cared about the bio and whether or not “our picture made us look lame.” That eventually dovetailed into a publicity stint with Feyline Productions in the late 1970s and early ’80s. From there, he got into band management and, along with famed promoter Chuck Morris, he started Morris/Bliesener and Associates.
These days, in addition to consulting bands as the Guru, Bliesener manages a small roster of bands, including Alan Parsons, George Inai, and together with Chris Callaway, he co-manages the Boulder Acoustic Society.
Bliesener isn’t afraid to tell bands to go in another direction, or to flat-out scrap an idea they have had, and while his honesty and directness may not always be well received, initially, he prides himself on being able to get bands to the “next level.”
Marquee: What was the first concert you ever attended?
Bliesener: The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Blues Magoos at McCormick Place in Chicago in either 1965 or 1966.
Marquee: What was the first album you ever owned?
Bliesener: My first single was “Wake Up Little Susie” on forty-five, in 1958. I used to buy singles because they were only 64 cents, kind of like downloads.
Marquee: What question do you get asked the most by bands?
Bliesener: How do we build an audience both for discs and live shows? And, really, it’s the basic foundation of doing a killer live show and promoting it to death. There was one act that I worked with in the early days of MySpace, that told fans that if they e-mailed them they were coming they’d put them on the list and buy them their first beer. So, they spent like $100 a show to do that, but it really helped and the promoters were always happy that they had a decent turnout.
Marquee: Do you often give advice that isn’t heeded?
Bliesener: I work with artists (laughing). It’s not my decision. I’m their counselor. I’m their sounding board. I’ll tell them what I think, but in the end, I work as a collaborator rather than a dictator. And because my early days were as a musician, I have more empathy because I’ve been there.
Marquee: Have you ever told a band that their stuff was good when it wasn’t?
Bliesener: I’m always brutally honest and that treats me tremendously. In the consulting world it’s often just a quick hit, one or two meetings and I’ve got to get the point across quickly. I have no problem telling people that. I don’t see myself as a Simon Cowell, or a shatterer of dreams, but I think people come to me because they want a dose of reality and if I don’t give that to them, I’m cheating them. I’ve told people flat-out, ‘Don’t quit your day job’ and tried to explain to others that there’s nothing wrong with being a successful local band, or an occasionally gigging band. Everybody doesn’t get even near to the brass ring.
Marquee: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over the years?
Bliesener: The competition. You know, things in this day and age are supposed to be quicker than ever, but it’s taking longer than ever, because there’s so much competition. There used to be only 20 bands that could hold the stage opening for a big national act, at a place like the Fillmore. Now there’s 150 and it’s not just Denver, it’s all across the country. We have all of these tools so that anybody can affordably record an album and get it out, and market and promote it in ways that the labels could have never dreamed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that everybody is doing it. The money for support acts is going down, not up. Now, not are there only 100 bands in line for an opening gig, there’s 50 of them that are willing to do it for free.
Marquee: So, how does anyone make it anymore?
Bliesener: It goes back to that notion of putting on a killer live show. Not to negate any of the other stuff, but a good live show is more important than your website or your MySpace page and your new release. If you’re not doing great word of mouth shows you’re probably not going to move much further ahead.
Marquee: But, doesn’t it come down to luck and timing too?
Bliesener: Absolutely. That’s a huge factor and if you can’t roll with that then you’re in the wrong business. I’ve been involved in projects where the fix was in with radio, the money was there for touring, the marketing and advertising was in place and the record comes out and nothing happens. Three weeks later a similar album with a similar setup drops and it goes through the roof.
Marquee: Do you push bands toward trying to find big label interest?
Bliesener: No. Why anyone would want a big record deal is beyond me. To sign up with a label for five or seven albums when we don’t know what’s happening next week? Wow! But I understand that emotion.
Marquee: How much should a band spend on recording their album?
Bliesener: I always try to impress upon these bands that I know it’s your art and I know you want it to sound as good as it possibly can, and that I know it’s the most important thing in the world to you. But I try to let them know that this isn’t their final statement. It’s a demo and if you want to bring people in and move ahead, get it out there and get the interest so you can spend their money. It always gets me when a band spends $17,000 on recording an album. I always say, ‘Don’t you realize that you could have bought gear for $1,200 to record it and gone to a studio to tart it up?’ Smart bands these days are spending $3,000 to $5,000 and that includes buying gear that you’re going to be able to keep.
Marquee: You teach Music Business at University of Colorado, Denver?
Bliesener: Yes. All the stuff we learned back in the Sixties about developing a band is now in a textbook, but I tell all of my students on the first day that if they can get a gig tomorrow they should quit school. And I’m serious. Because when they leave here in four years with a piece of paper, which is good, that you’re going to get in line behind some kid who was getting coffee and working in a mail room when you started school. And that may even be the person who is hiring you.