Feb 3, 2011

Why I Signed The Head Set

Nearly 3 years ago, I discovered The Head Set in CMJ's New Music Report.  Their album, Way Past Used, was being reviewed, and favorably - a small blurb comparing the band to big-market acts like U2 and The Killers.  I streamed songs on their MySpace page and was immediately impressed by the musicianship, the singer, the quality of the songwriting.  The opening track in particular, "Enemies", reeked of commercial appeal.  I was surprised to discover that they were based out of NY and were playing at Mercury Lounge a few weeks down the road.  I reached out to the band and was quickly invited down by guitarist Eliot Wadsworth.

It was a cold March night on the Lower East Side, I stumbled in to Mercury Lounge solo wearing my night stalker trench coat and a thick wool hat and - uncharacteristically - made my way to the very front of the crowd right before the band started.  If any of these guys were conscious of the audience at that point, they surely must have thought, "Who's that serial killer up front?"

The set was electric, and a friendly chat with Eliot at the bar after the show gave me some answers - The Head Set were signed to a publishing deal with Sony ATV, they had representation, they were nice guys, they seemed like they were on their way.  However, they had no label and we agreed to stay in touch.  I saw them again at Mercury a few months later, brought some friends.  Then at The Annex, same deal.  Met their representatives, exchanged business cards.  Over this period of time, I expected to hear some good news - that the band signed to a major or at least a big indie, putting out a new album, that they were touring.  Nothing.

This, of course, was not the band's fault.  They put their faith and their music in the hands of their people, like most bands do, and probably expected more to happen beyond playing local clubs every month or so.  They had a deal with a big publishing company and were likely expecting placement in ads, on a soundtrack.  They got a nice advance and dedicated time and money towards making more quality music, what a band is supposed to do.

A decade earlier, I was in a similar band - a pop/rock act called The Substance.  We foolishly jumped at the chance to sign with an unknown indie who proceeded to do all the wrong things to promote our debut album.  We hired management who were stuck in the previous decade and were trying to carry that success into a new age of music making and promotion.  We played big shows opening for big acts (at the time) like Sugar Ray, yet something always went wrong and stunted our momentum.  We showcased for every major label A&R numbnuts on the planet - Jason Flom called us "too Britpop," Andy Karp from Atlantic was too busy signing Kid Rock to be impressed with us.  We laughed at Andy Karp's Kid Rock hat when he came to see us - Kid Rock was a no-name white trash Beastie Boys wannabe at the time rather than the Sheryl Crow-banging, Tommy Lee-fisticuffing, Lynyrd Skynyrd-sampling white trash Beastie Boys wannabe we all know and love (?) today.  Andy Karp laughed all the way to the Bawidtda-bank and we were still without a deal.  We played for Kevin Richardson of The Backstreet Boys (!), had a handshake deal with their management company that fell thru at the 11th hour.  Eventually, the many failures outweighed the successes and I left the band.  The Substance changed their name, went thru the whole process once more without me and failed again.

So I understood what The Head Set were going through.  They had what it took to be successful, but they were surrounded by people who didn't, and it eventually got to them.  They all had day jobs, Harvard grads, smart guys with contingency plans.  Eliot departed to go to UCLA Business School, bassist Brett Sherman moved to Cleveland.  The band, effectively, was kaput.

The Head Set's story is representative of everything that's wrong with the musical "farm system" in the 21st century.  Band has potential, band has great songs, band gets signed, person who signs and waves flag for band gets laid off, band gets lost in the shuffle, band gets re-prioritized, band gets forgotten, band gets frustrated, band dissolves.  It started in the late '90s and by the time the ol' dot-com bubble burst a few years later, The Head Set were just another great act that didn't "make it" because there wasn't enough gladhanding going on, not enough favors done under the table to make them the next Strokes or Kings of Leon.  Does anyone remember a time when bands were signed and promoted simply on merit?  Neither do I.

Time passed.  Eliot and I stayed in touch from opposite coasts, and eventually I got together with lead singer Jordan Blaugrund and got the latest - no more Sony, no more management.  Both guys sent over new material that had been lying around without a home, and that reignited a spark.  These songs needed to see the light of day - so what if the band wasn't technically together?  Good music is good music.  Eliot came back from California, we made it happen, professionally and painlessly.

The Head Set and Bald Freak are in business - Lord knows what I can do to make a difference, but I'll pull out every card in my deck to get it done.  Maybe some of these great new songs will hit the radio, maybe we'll get them in ads or on a soundtrack.  Maybe nothing will happen despite everyone's best efforts.  This is the music business, after all.

What *is* already happening is that the band is rehearsing again whenever they can.  They're excited to be doing it, maybe they have another album in them, maybe more.  Time will tell.  They haven't peaked yet, that's for sure, and an opportunity or two can make all the difference in the world.  When the signing finally seemed imminent, I had a super-nerd fist pump moment - this was really happening after a 3-year courtship.  Persistence paid off for once.  Bald Freak isn't exactly a breeding ground for commercial success and yet these dudes still wanted to pull the trigger.  Unlikely scenarios can still play out.  The stars aligned.  Now we just have to keep them in place.

If you like U2, The Police, The Strokes, The Killers, David Bowie, Neon Trees, Bruce Springsteen, Elefant, Elvis Costello, Television, The Jam, British modern rock, indie rock from NYC with soul and a groove, you will love The Head Set.  'Like' them on Facebook.  Tweet about them, chirp your little asses off.  Spread the word.  This is big for them and it's big for us.  If you're on the East Coast, come see them perform on March 10th at Tammany Hall.  Big big night for us.  Buy their albums (their debut EP, Ask Her Twice, is no slouch either) and get ready for a new one in May.

This is about justice.  This is what running a label is all about.