Butch Walker: 5 Music Business Lessons I Learned the Hard Way
Butch Walker is a badass and a sweetheart. Anyone who’s met the Grammy-nominated rocker, producer and songwriter knows so within about a minute of conversation and it becomes ever more abundantly clear after a couple drinks. He’s not choosy about his chatter partners, either, and all those nights toiling away at bars have led to many rock-n-roll tales and one momentous memoir, the aptly titled Drinking With Strangers (out now).
For those not familiar, Walker is the sonic, melodic and lyrical brain behind some of the biggest hitmakers on Top 40 radio, from Pink to Katy Perry to Weezer, who make an early appearance in his book -- as the band Zoom, who cruised the Sunset Strip during the late 1980s dressed in nothing but bath towels and roller skates. For fans, he’s the unsung hero of DIY success in the big leagues, having kicked off his career with a hit (Marvelous 3’s “Freak of the Week”), then spending years chasing another with his own band, as a solo artist and, finally, as a for-hire music maker.
“I didn't want to do a book,” Walker a native of Cartersville, Georgia, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Harper Collins approached me and I said, ‘Do you realize that I didn't have as colorful a life as Nikki Sixx or Anthony Kiedis or any of these people who have died fifteen times and come back to life? Why in the hell would you want me to do a book?’” What the publisher wanted to tap into were the same animated anecdotes, musings, and sometimes rants that made Walker’s blog a web destination.
Never one to disappoint, his life story in book form, crafted with the help of veteran music writer Matt Diehl, is just as entertaining. And while Walker has weathered some hard times, like the destruction of his home to the massive Malibu fires in November 2007, during which he lost his most prized pieces of gear, for the most part, he lives with no regrets. Unless, of course, you ask him to list five music industry lessons he learned the hard way. Read on for Walker's words of wisdom…
Don't think your first record deal will be the last: “Be cautiously optimistic and know that, when you get signed to a label deal, you don't want to put too much precedent on that or rely on it too much for your future. Like most people have this timeline dream -- you get signed to a record deal and all of a sudden, people think you're rich and all your friends think you're going to be famous and you think you're going to be famous, so you go out and get your band name tattooed on your body and the whole nine yards. Cut to a year later, nine times out of 10, you maybe make about a grand, your band gets dropped and your tattoo gets covered up. That’s what happened to me. I’m on my fifth record deal.”
Don't get somebody's likeness tattooed on your body unless they're dead…“Because if they're still alive, you're going to run into them and it will get real creepy. Like I have Elvis Costello's face tattooed on my left arm from way back in the 1990s when he got me through a very dark period in my life. And of course, one time I’m drunk at the Chateau Marmont, it's midnight, I get into the elevator to go to my room and Elvis Costello walks on. It's just me and him on the elevator, I'm hammered, looking at him and pointing at the tattoo. He's, like, hitting the ‘door open’ button going, ‘Oh God’ and I realized at that point that I would never be able to just bro down with Elvis Costello. I lost my chance of seeming like anything more than a weird stalker. So I tell people now: maybe just wait to get tattoos until you figure out who you are. Because when you're 18 and 19 years old getting a Tasmanian devil on your arm, you're probably not going to love it by the time you're 40.”
Beware of publishing deals.“Something I talk about in the book is publishing deals, which are basically banks: they give you an advance of money to own the rights to your songs. A lot of people get suckered into doing these deals early on in their career and they give up 50% of the publishing of every song they're going to write for the rest of their life, basically for a small advance. When they say ‘half a million dollars,’ that’s a huge amount of money to a kid, but it's hard to know what that really means until you do the breakdown -- that taxes will get half of that, management is going to get 20%, the business manager is going to take 10% of that and your lawyer will get a big chunk of it. What's left is the smallest piece of the pie, and if you're in a group like Earth, Wind and Fire, where you've got 12 band members dividing the publishing equally, well, you can do the math from there. You'd probably get beer money for the weekend for basically losing ownership to half your song. So I try to tell people to hang on to their publishing unless they're the only person getting the money and there's not a ton of people taking a piece of the pie.”
For every alcoholic beverage you consume, drink a glass of water. “I spend the first half of my day rejuvenating and replenishing everything that I've destroyed in my body. If you don't drink the water, you could end up destroying your liver, becoming an alcoholic and then depression from there… Drinking is more of a celebratory thing for me, but if you use it as a crutch for when you're sad that's when the negative side effects come in... In my old heavy metal band, I drank a bottle of Jägermeister on stage -- disgusting shit -- and then afterwards, an entire bottle of champagne. Somehow, I ended up in the hotel room with the crew giving me a shower because I had caked on rotten cream pie in my hair. There’s apparently video of it somewhere. When I woke up what I thought was the next day, it was actually the day after. I blacked out for 24 hours, Moderation is key. But half of the people I've met in this business and that I've had mostly good relationships with was by having a drink. It’s where the book title comes from: every time I drank with strangers, I've either become friends, or sometimes enemies, but mostly friends and if it's not abused, that privilege is pretty golden.”
- Realize that a lot of times, it’s not about the song; it’s about favors.“When I was worrying about trying to get my own songs on radio and being on a label that solely worried about that, I learned a lesson: it wasn't about the quality of the song, it was about timeshares in Cabo and the Lakers season tickets. You were basically a playing card and I sat in so many meetings where the label field rep would think I was so stupid that I didn't understand what they were talking about, Like, ‘Hey man, where are those season tickets for adding that blah, blah?' I’d be, like, ‘Really? You're going to sit there and fucking say that right in front of me?' It was not about the music. It was, ‘Can you get up at 6 a.m. and be at this topless, wet T-shirt, pie-eating contest with your band? An event that was just a favor for some ponytailed DJ who will sit there and talk over you the whole time because they [often] have bigger egos than the bands themselves. That's when I finally realized, it was not about the commerce of art, it was the art of commerce -- what can you give me and what can you get from me in return? Not, ‘Wow this song is amazing!’ There are some good people in radio, but I didn't feel comfortable selling myself that way. Whatever, if I can help somebody else get a song on, then they can go do the pie-eating contest. I'm not hungry for it anymore.”