Selling it for a song: Two local authors present memoirs about the music industry

Image 1 and 2. Don Silver writes about working for Clive Davis at Arista Records.

Image 3 and 4. John Jeter recounts creating and running Greenville’s Handlebar.

what: John Jeter, Don Silver and Michael Supe Granda read and sign copies of music biographies
where: Malaprop’s
when: Friday, Feb. 1 (7 p.m., free. http://www.malaprops.com)

“Can you squeeze art into commerce?” asks John Jeter, author of Rockin' a Hard Place: Flats, Sharps & Other Notes from a Misfit Music Club Owner. “I have serious doubts that you really can.” Jeter has spent nearly 20 years as co-owner of live music venue The Handlebar in Greenville, S.C. Rockin’ recounts the hard lessons Jeter has learned as a self-taught talent buyer and promoter.

Which sounds cool, and more than a little bit glamorous (the Handlebar has hosted legends like Joan Baez and up-and-comers like Sugarland and The Zac Brown Band when those acts were just getting started). In fact, Rockin’ is a cautionary tale.

So is Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl by Asheville-based author Don Silver. (Silver joins Jeter and writer Michael Supe Granda at the Malaprop’s event Three Music Biographies this week.) That memoir recalls the two years Silver spent working in artists and repertoire (aka A&R) for Arista Records under the tutelage of music industry executive Clive Davis.

“Clive didn’t believe a record would or wouldn’t be a hit. He knew,” Silver writes of the man who inspired his foray into hit-making — a foray inspired by a love of music. It was the late ‘70s, Silver was in his early 20s and living in New York City: “I was one of maybe 50 people in the country with a job that everyone I met found fascinating. I got into any club I wanted and was generally treated like a rock star,” he writes.

But the job soon brought disillusionment: “I learned a lot about how, if you love something, you should protect it from the urge to commercialize it,” Silver tells Xpress. “It was a costly lesson for me. It’s a costly lesson for all of us in the creative world.”

Jeter, too, came to the music business as a fan. Early in Rockin’ he reveals, “Our idea — half-baked as it was because nobody actually thinks an idea All The Way Through — came from somewhere. Ours came from McDibb’s, a magical listening room in the heart of Black Mountain, a two-hour drive away in Western North Carolina.”

With his brother, Stephen, and wife, Kathy, Jeter opened the first iteration of The Handlebar in an old textile mill. Their inaugural act, Livingston Taylor, informed the newly minted club owners that “you all are at the bottom of the food chain” in the music business. The lesson was driven home, over and over, as Jeter and company learned the ins and outs of booking bands, promoting shows and trying to work out why some shows would sell out while others — wonderful shows by the musicians they loved best — were woefully under-attended.

But Rockin’ also recalls triumphs: “We discovered a powerful tool in the music business: a black Magic Marker,” Jeter writes about learning how to deal with the crazy requests made on band riders. “With it, a promoter can legitimately and legally redact line after line, page after page of ‘requirements’ that ranged from truly important to downright impudent.”

And to Xpress he imparts this bit of wisdom: “The most successful bands are actually small businesses that happen to sell music.” Which is to say, as the corporate end of the music industry continues to decline, musicians have to become Jacks of all trades, able to book their own shows, negotiate contracts and promote their performances.

The Handlebar, says Jeter, receives around 4,000 queries per year from acts hoping to fill one of the venue’s 300 slots: “The whole infrastructure is so thorny,” says Jeter. “After years of booking artists because they’re great artists, now, unless they sell tickets, we’re not doing it.”

Silver’s role in the music business also morphed. “There was a definite need for curators,” he says of his work in A&R. Discovering bands and hit songs was what he’d dreamed of doing. The reality was different — his job was more often about turning down hopeful artists. “If I was to glorify myself, I’d say I was a curator. But that’s bullshit. I wasn’t a curator at all. I was an exterminator.”

So, after two years of working for Davis, he and a colleague formed their own production company where they worked with a number of acts, most notably Orleans. One memory from those days: “I found them ‘Let It Be Me,’ that great Everly Brothers song,” says Silver. “They sang it so beautifully. But right as we were recording it, Willie Nelson did it and came out with a huge hit.”

Silver says he enjoyed the production company, “just like I enjoyed working at Arista, for Clive, because I learned a phenomenal amount.” But, he continues, “when the learning stopped, it was still the early ‘80s and it really wasn’t all that much fun to try to make records that fit into the tiny little constraints that pop music required.”

Even though Clive recounts only a few years in the music world, it’s a peek into an industry that’s all but gone. “Technology unseated these (mostly) dudes, because they never would have let go of their own volition,” says Silver. The accessibility of tools like multitrack recording programs, drum machines and auto-tune drastically changed the landscape of record labels.

Jeter has seen changes, too. It was John Mayer who, more than a decade ago, sold out the Handlebar due to his success on Napster. Now there’s Spotify and Pandora, says Jeter. “What we’re seeing is that the bands who are the most successful are the most social-media savvy.” He tells Xpress that, at a recent meeting, a powerful Nashville agent said, “With the labels being gone, we don’t know how to develop bands anymore.”

Talk to Jeter and Silver, and it sounds like the publishing industry is going the same way. Both writers have previously published novels through mainstream literary houses; both chose an independent route for their memoirs (small press Hub City for Jeter and self-publication for Silver). Those decisions — like their turns to writing as a creative pursuit — were at least in some way informed by their music business experience.

“You have to make your own terms for all art,” says Silver. “You do it for the love, for the muse.”

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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