Integrity & the Music Biz
Yes, it’s possible that there can be integrity in the music business.
However, there is so much B.S. - from individual musicians, band leaders, club owners, booking agents, promoters and so on all the way up to the highest levels of record labels, publishing companies and big-time artist management.
I've written a little about the negative examples in my own experience;
In this post I want to talk about an exception to all that; a musician, performer and booking agent who had integrity in all his dealings with me; even to the point of detriment to himself when doing the right thing by me.
I can't remember exactly how or when I met Terry OBrien. It was probably in the early eighties when I was in a band that regularly played one of the clubs he booked.
Terry was not only a guitar player/singer/comedian, he was also a booking agent. His agency was called "Big Bear Productions." He had a bunch of clubs in the Kansas City region for which he handled all the entertainment. He also booked events, private parties, wedding receptions, corporate stuff etc. In its heyday I would guess Big Bear Productions was booking dozens of bands, maybe over a hundred - I don't really know.
Our business relationship escalated to the next level after I started leading bands in the mid-eighties.
At one point in 1985, I put together a band for a different agent. This was for a specific club. It was a six-night-a-week house gig for a big dance club in the party-district part of town.
The band was large, besides the 4-piece rhythm section we had a 2 or 3-piece horn section. One of the horn players doubled on keys so at times there were 2 keyboards going. We did high energy dance music - Soul, R&B (Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, James Brown) and horn-based Rock music like Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Chase and the like.
The agent told me the concept was to be that of “a kick-ass band of superior musicians who don’t care what they look like."
So...not caring about what we looked like was because we cared about not caring about what we looked like!
The concept was right down my alley because caring about what I looked like was just an act I put on so I could get gigs; I really didn’t care about what I looked like. So for this agent I had to pretend to care about what I looked like so I could act like I didn’t care about what I looked like…all the while really not caring about what I looked like.
Stupid shit like that happens all the time in the music business when you care about what you look like.
Now I’m getting kind of old so how good could I look…really?!
The contract with the agent was exclusive; we booked only through him and if I did happen to book something through another agent I had to pay the first guy a commission anyway. If I played with another band on my night off or did any matinees with someone else, that was no problem; the exclusivity applied to the one band only.
That was all fine-and-dandy as long as the house gig held up, which it did for several months. It was a happening club and we were smack dab at the middle of the scene. Sweet.
However, all things must pass, and in the case of the music business, most of the time that happens sooner rather than later. The house gig came to an end for some reason I can't remember, and I had to let all the horn players go in order to knock the band down to 4 pieces in order to survive.
Contractually, it was still the same band, same name and the same leader - me! So the exclusivity clause was still in effect. The agent did ok as far as keeping us working but there were occasional lapses in the schedule and there was more road-work than what I wanted.
To fill in the scheduling gaps, I started booking some stuff through Big Bear. Terry didn't require any kind of exclusivity, if he booked you a gig, you paid him a commision, if you booked something through someone else, you didn't. Simple and fair. I don't know if he had exclusive deals with other bands but he never required it from me.
And he never dictated what you were to look like.
Understand that agents play both ends. I'm sure Terry had clubs under exclusive contract; he handled all the bookings for those clubs and received a fee from the club. I know that there were clubs I played through him that wouldn't book you unless you went through Big Bear Productions.
For a while, the first agent waived his fee when I booked something through Big Bear. I appreciated that. It was a tacit admission that he wasn't quite fulfilling his end of the deal, which was to keep my band working full-time and that I had to use someone else to take up the slack.
However, the inevitable was bound to happen. I was gonna get caught between those two guys sooner or later.
When it happened, it was classic. I had a gig booked through Big Bear. The first agent called me with a gig for the same week. I told him that week was already booked. He said,
"If you don't take my gig our relationship is over."
Oooh...an ultimatum! Break your contract with Big Bear or else!
Legally, the guy was in bounds; I had signed an exclusive.
I told him I would talk to Terry and get back to him.
“Hey, I understand. You go ahead and play the other gig. I‘ll find someone else to do my gig and this won’t damage our relationship at all.”
The first guy was still providing the bulk of my work and I wasn’t ready to break our contract so that’s what I did…but only for the short run. From the moment of that ultimatum I started working towards getting out of my contract with him without losing a bunch of income. After all, what kind of guy would you rather do business with? If you had to choose - which is the whole point of an ultimatum.
In February of 1986 I achieved my minimum goal of 50 private students a week. At that point I gave my band two weeks notice. The dissolution of the band voided the exclusive contract with the first agent.
The relationship didn’t end; I booked for years after that through that guy’s agency but was never signed with an exclusive. It was on a gig-by-gig basis. I was free to book with whoever I wanted and he would call me now and then with a gig if he needed what I could do but was under no obligation to keep me working. Under those conditions we got along fine.
I felt that there were times when this particular agent was ethically-challenged - he pulled some pretty brutal, cutthroat maneuvers over the years. To him it was "just business."
But I have to say that this same agent once voluntarily returned his commission check to me when a club owner wrote me a bad check and then declared bankruptcy. The "ethics" are rarely black-and-white - it's almost always shades of grey. I worked a week for nothing and paid my band guys out of my pocket (because of my ethics) but at least I didn't have to eat the agent's commission too.
Anyway, through the rest of the eighties and well into the nineties I booked a ton of stuff through Big Bear. It was always gig-by-gig. No exclusive clauses. No legalese, no manipulation. No instructions on how to dress. Just straight up agreements between the Purchaser (the club owner as represented by Big Bear Productions) and the Provider (me as bandleader).
But the relationship between myself and Terry OBrien evolved into more than that.
Terry was also a performer. He did kind of a singer/songwriter solo acoustic guitar act, sometimes a duo, sometimes more, liberally interspersed with story-telling, comedy and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. Lots. Of drinking.
He was serious about his comedy. He kept a notebook of jokes and ideas. Sometimes he would have a list of jokes for a gig but you never knew when drunken inspiration would hit and off he’d go, chasing squirrels that would randomly cross his path. It was always entertaining.
It was Terry that introduced me to the “Vice Table.”
The Vice Table is a little table that sits within easy reach on the stage upon which are placed drinks, cigarettes, an ashtray and any other accessories deemed necessary to pulling off a good show.
More than once when I had a week or a two-week gap in my gig schedule Terry would say,
”Hey man, come to my gig this week and be my duo partner, it’ll be an easy sell!”
These situations were always successful; he made me more entertaining and I made him sound better.
They were fun gigs. It was basically 4 hours of stream-of-consciousness singing, guitar playing, stories, jokes and drinking. Lots of drinking. Then you get paid and go home. Life is good!
There was an aspect to his personality and life that sometimes crossed the line into crazy but it was always funny! If not at the time then definitely later. Probably had something to do with lots of drinking. Lots. Besides the fact that one of the characteristics of a comedian is that he pushes boundaries.
January 28, 1986 was a Tuesday. That morning the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up on live TV, killing all on board. Not 3 hours later, my band was setting up in one of Big Bear’s clubs. Terry walked in and the first thing out of his mouth was a space shuttle joke.
I don’t remember the joke, I just remember being shocked. The country was still reeling from the tragedy. None of the band members laughed. After an awkward second or two of silence he said,
“What? Too soon?”
Terry had other things going on outside of the music business. He was doing some kind of data entry thing for a plastic surgeon’s office converting their files to digital.
He called me one day and offered me a temporary job 3 mornings a week cleaning and sterilizing six examination rooms as well as refiling the hard-copy files he had finished digitizing (I was filling in for a nurse on pregnancy leave). I took it. I think he knew I was struggling to raise my kids and pay the bills.
Man, I saw more before-and-after boob job pictures than you can imagine. Thanks, Terry!
Unfortunately, I was somewhat jaded by that time due to playing for strippers and wet t-shirt contests so it wasn’t as exciting as it should have been.
One of the reasons I was hired was because the surgeon was a jazz fan. Whenever I saw the surgeon he always asked me questions about music and musicians.
Terry went through a painful divorce and shortly afterwards he showed up at one of my gigs.
“How you doing?” I asked. I could tell he was hurt.
”Well” he said, “I bought this house several years ago. Then I got divorced…and bought it again!”
Ha! I could hear the drum cue; “ba-de-boom!”
Eventually he more-or-less got out of the music business. He managed a blood bank for a long time. Probably did other stuff I don’t know about.
Years ago he remarried and asked me to play the ceremony. I was honored to do it. His new wife was younger; a sweet thing but tough as nails and I think exactly right for him. My wife likes her a lot. That says something.
I suspect she was instrumental in a come-to-Jesus moment for Terry. Love will make you do strange things.
He’s still a connoisseur of fine distilled spirits, however. Jesus probably is too, it’s just not widely known.
In the last few years he’s faced some major health challenges and his wife has been a rock of stability and support. I am so glad he found her. She’s probably saved his life, more than once. I can relate to that.
And yet, in spite of all the trials and tribulations of recent years, every once in a while, I still play a gig through Big Bear.
Trust and respect is earned, and the integrity is still there; he never tells me what to look like.
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