The Rumpus Interview with Martin Atkins


The first time I call Martin Atkins in Chicago, I get his voicemail. The second time, Martin answers, but he’s just arriving home from his office, so I offer him a few minutes before I call back. As one might expect of a man who’s worn so many hats, Martin proves voluble, digressing, answering questions through stories or with examples that sometimes initially seem tangential.

Over the course of our conversation, I’m gratified to discover his passion for teaching, which comes across in the way he talks about his role in the classroom and especially in his enthusiasm for what some of his students have accomplished. Atkins’ openness in talking to me and sharing details of his life bespeaks his generosity as an educator, a label owner, a manager, and a musician, all roles he’s played since starting out in the music industry more than 30 years ago. His latest endeavor is the book Welcome to the Music Business … You’re Fucked, an unflinching and no-nonsense manual for anyone wanting to break into the music industry.

The Rumpus: I’m interested in how you came to teaching. Are your roles as a writer, a teacher, and a musician related?

Martin Atkins: As a label owner, I was putting together package tours. It seemed like a no-brainer when I’d have five or six bands going out on their own, not doing much to market themselves. Then, about seven years ago, I went to Columbia College Chicago to get some interns to help. I did a presentation to the faculty. I said, “This is what we’ve been doing.” They said, “When can you start?” I said, “I can take some interns with me now.” They said, “No, when can you start teaching this?” I describe this moment whenever asked to talk about opportunity because my initial reaction was, hold on a minute, I need the interns because I’m seven weeks away from a five band, four bus, massive US tour; I can’t do this. But before the words came out of my mouth, I thought, what would I tell my kids? I’ve got four kids. I tell them to seek any opportunity. How often am I going to be asked to teach? I said, “When does the class start?” thinking it would be six months away. The class started 10 days later. I said, “How long is the class?” thinking it would be an hour; I can talk my way through an hour on any subject. It was a seven hour class. I quickly discovered the textbook they were using was written in 1962, which was offensive and also eye-opening because I couldn’t believe a student would spend over a hundred thousand dollars and allow himself to be taught from a textbook in this subject that was that old. I started to put my own materials together for the class, and eventually that became my book, Tour: Smart. I’d been onstage all my life, but always behind the drum kit, or I sang in a band for a while, so I challenged myself to create spoken word appearances around the country that gave me the confidence to stand up and talk without being sped up and adrenalized. I’ve been more places in the world the last few years than I ever was as a musician, but I’m still everything I ever was. I just sent my friends in Killing Joke a Facebook thing saying I heard Paul Ferguson wasn’t available for a three week tour they have coming up; I’d love to have done that. I produced a top 40 album for a band in Peru called Bocanegra. The things I do as a teacher inform the things I do as a label owner or as a producer or a musician, and the things I do as a performer inform the things I do as a lecturer when I’m keynoting or doing one of my own events—not necessarily when I’m lecturing to a class, although I still try to inject theater into that because the whole area of education needs a new look, more of a punk rock approach.

Rumpus: Are most of your students involved in the music industry? Do you get people in your courses from other disciplines?

Atkins: I do two different things. At the moment, I teach at Madison Media Institute. I also do workshops. The main class I teach at Madison Media Institute is Advanced Entrepreneurship, and I try and bring an entrepreneurial mindset, obviously, to that class. Some of my examples are based within music, but most of my explorations are outside of music. We were just talking about how game theory is used in Sweden to incentivize people to drive safely. According to game theory, games are used to reward good behavior, not to punish bad behavior. In Sweden, they’re using game theory at stoplights. If you pass through the stoplight legally, you’re entered into a lottery to win some cash. I think one of the problems I’m dealing with fairly effectively as an educator is, without napalming old educational values, how do we translate information into a new world? If the mindset is just music, I’ll explore ways we learn from politics or oil change facilities that would help us promote a band or a number one single. For instance, my last label manager went on to work on the Obama campaign, the mayoral race in Houston, and the mayoral race in Pittsburgh, and he’s now a mover and a shaker in politics. When I talk to him about what he’s doing, every time he says, “Mayoral candidate blah blah blah,” you could go back and edit the thing to say, “Potential hit single!” I’m trying to broaden the examples for students because the music business is the last place that learns from any other industry. Panera Bread is giving away free sandwiches, and yet most people in the music business are still screaming about that whole concept. My lecture Wednesday is about how to put on the first rock show on the moon. The first thing I do is give everybody in class this tee shirt, First Rock Show on the Moon! Local Crew. It’s silly, but you engage brains in solving a problem. The students don’t know what the solution is. Just as importantly, neither do I.

Rumpus: In your book, you talk about how musicians build an audience by networking not just with other musicians, but above all by building a relationship with their audience. Traditionally, in rock music, the performer maintains a fair amount of distance from the audience. Do you think musicians have always had to cultivate the same kind of relationship with their audience they do now, or do they have a different relationship than the one they had a few decades ago?

Atkins: That separate relationship, when it’s existed, has enabled some lackluster artists to gain footholds and have careers. The artists who have existed solely on that pedestal are having the hardest time with the changes in the industry, with making demos available and allowing fans to do their own remixes, for example. I would disagree with you that now the playing field is level. It used to be the artist on stage, the audience in the pit. It’s the opposite now. The audience has all the power, and those artists who can understand that and pour gasoline on that relationship are succeeding on the radar and under the radar, gaining an audience, building careers, sustaining, and growing.

Rumpus: Your book seems to imply that a musician always has to be selling his persona in order to build his audience. Even in the context of a more personal relationship, do you feel like a musician has to turn himself into a commodity?

Atkins: Some musicians have had too much of a problem for too long with the idea of selling. “Hold on, I’m just a guitarist; that’s somebody else’s job.” You know what? Fuck off. Because when you’re onstage, and you’re about to go into that melancholy middle eight section, when you take one step forward into the light, and you furrow your brow and look upward because your eyes look good in that light, and you know how that’s going to look because you practiced that look in the rehearsal room mirror, you’re selling the melancholy middle eight of the song. You’re always selling something; that’s the theater of it. Some musicians are still trying to get their heads around that fact. “We don’t have any tee-shirts.” Fuck off, then. You’re not nurturing your brand when you don’t have tee-shirts. That’s not about money. It’s about somebody going home with your shirt, waking up in that shirt, remembering your band, so when you play again, they’ll come and see you because there’s an affinity. You’ve used a physical object to memorialize and sustain the relationship you created the evening of the performance. Bands get so short sighted about that. If you give people your album, they’ll come back, and they’ll buy the shirt; they’ll come to the next concert, and they’ll buy the live album. But you have to have a product range for the new strategies to work. If you only have one album, of course it doesn’t make sense to give that away because there’s nothing else. You need to have another live album and the remixes and five different tee-shirts and a cookery book.

Rumpus: Is that one of the ways you see musicians being able to capitalize on the fact the audience holds all the power?

Atkins: I say to bands, if you’ve got an amazing album, and you give it to somebody, you’re not losing ten dollars. Anytime of the day or night, when the person you gave that album to is in the bathtub, in the shower, while he or she is shagging somebody or just sitting around the house, that album is an exploding, never ending guilt-bomb. When you give everything away, when you give away all of the power, if your music is good, then people will want to come and watch you stand on stage singing those songs that have meant so much to them. It’s this paradoxical thing. The more you give up, the more you stand to make back; the more you hold on, the less you stand to gain.

Rumpus: In the early days of punk rock, musicians were doing their own thing, but they could get into the media spotlight very quickly. Has that changed for bands starting out now?

Atkins: When I started out, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Sounds were the three musical papers in England. If you were in London, they came out Wednesday evening; otherwise, everybody read those on a Thursday. There was a synchronized culture—the same was true of television and radio—so it seemed like momentum was gained quickly and over a broad geographical area. The same was true in the States. We came over to the States in ’81, and everyone was playing Hall and Oates. We played on American Bandstand, and everybody saw that on Saturday. Now, if I’m driving around with a couple of my kids, I might be listening to NPR while my kids are in the back playing Nintendo or listening to their iPods. Even two people sitting on the same seat are having a different experience. But if a band starts doing the things we used to do to build an audience one or two people at a time, then over a period of years, you grow your audience, and that’s it. One of my things in my Welcome to the Music Business, You’re Fucked! lecture is, “tweet is the new fax.” When the fax machine came out, it was amazing. Nowadays, people say, “What’s a fax machine?” I watch people get caught up in the technology, whether it’s Pro Tools or tweets or whatever. The story exists in the real world, and you communicate about it in the digital world. Some bands are forgetting that. They’re forgetting the art of talking to people, of manipulating an audience in a good way—manipulating them for artistic gain, whether that’s money or a feeling. When an artist is screaming about his lack of control, really he’s screaming about his lack of information, his lack of understanding, his lack of new tools, and a lack of his basic ability to create a need in another human being.

Rumpus: Arguably, that’s what people pay for. When I go to a show, I’m paying ten or fifteen bucks to be manipulated in a particular way.

Atkins: Exactly. A friend of mine, Kimberly Freeman, in One-Eyed Doll, was getting six dollars for her EP. That’s a good price for an EP, and her fans were happy to pay it. But once she said to them, “Pay whatever you want; I’d like to get six dollars, but if you don’t have any money, you can grab it for free,” she gets an average of 12 dollars an EP now. When you’re doing something that resonates with your fans, and you show them respect, it’s like when you give somebody a hammer, and you put your testicles on the table and say, “If you want to fucking smash my nuts, you can,” most people won’t. Some will. Good luck to them. That’s the new frontier, is artists understanding commerce and making entrepreneurial risks that fuel their art and gain momentum for them to take more risks on stage. You should be taking your risks on stage musically, with the scenery, with the timing of the show, with your relationship with the audience and the things you’re saying. You shouldn’t be taking risks poorly estimating the miles per gallon of your vehicle and fucking up your budget. Take meaningful risks, interesting risks. Don’t take boring risks like, “We don’t have a map, we’re lost, and we missed sound check.” More bands will sound bad because they got lost and missed sound check than lack of rehearsal and not having the right equipment.

Rumpus: At the risk of stating the obvious, I assume a lot of what motivates you must be helping younger musicians who are trying to gain a foothold in the industry. Have you always felt like that’s an important thing for you to do, as somebody who has a place in the industry yourself?

Atkins: When I started my label, I naively thought I could help people and then found myself in the position where there were a few projects, a few artists where I cared more about them than they did themselves. That gets dangerous when you spend 60 days in the studio producing and mixing somebody’s album, and they don’t even tour. What turns me on now is finding the light switch. I teach students who are interested in writing, so I’ll talk to them about marketing and what I’ve done with my books and how that works. One of my students started his own film festival. I try to broaden what is usually a fairly narrow idea of what they’re going to do into a spectrum, a plate-spinning miasma of shit going on, so if and when two of the things they try fail, it becomes a learning platform to plug directly into two of the things I crazily suggested might help. If I can find somebody’s on switch, help them stumble into the answers themselves, they can learn about anything. But someone has to be driven to stay up all night asking and answering the questions. Until you can find the on switch, you’re banging your head against the wall.

Rumpus: Do you find your students come back to you at some point and say, “Hey, this worked for me?”

Atkins: It’s not just students. A band called Asleep contacted us, and they said they’d read Tour: Smart; they’d been handing out these flyers and felt like they weren’t getting anywhere, so they went back to their rehearsal room and built a 15 foot high robot. I invited them to bring the robot to my event at South by Southwest, which led to an interesting situation with the organizers of South by Southwest because they said, “Is it just you and your laptop again, Martin?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s just me and my laptop and a 15 foot high robot.” They’re like, “Ha, ha, ha!” The day of my event, here’s this 15 foot high robot. They’re like, “Oh, shit.” They didn’t think for a second I actually had a 15 foot high robot. We helped this band, and this band helped my event. Jim Derogatis from the Chicago Sun Times and Sound Opinions on NPR began his review of my lecture with a picture of this band’s robot.

Rumpus: Are any of your children interested in music?

Atkins: No. If I was an attorney, they would all be full on music business. But because I own a label and a studio, it’s like, “Yawn.” I ask them, “Will you come and help me move these boxes?” They’re like, “Aw, fuck.” That’s great, though. I didn’t want to push them down any kind of road. My eldest two are in drama programs. My two youngest are heavily into sports. I’m guiding them without pigeonholing them. I’m trying to be very careful about that.

Rumpus: Is your relationship with your students parental at all?

Atkins: It’s not reciprocal, but it feels parental on my side. If there was a bumper sticker, One of My First Students Started His Own Film Festival, I’d have it on the back of my car. The industrial education model doesn’t work anymore; you can’t drug students. The reality is, you have to go down whatever road it is with each student and see where it ends up. It’s fucking messy, and there needs to be 10 times more teachers than there are. It’s mind boggling it isn’t more of a priority.

Rumpus: In some respects, punk rock, the music that reinvigorated popular music in the late 70s and early 80s, doesn’t seem particularly professional; often, it seems deliberately amateurish. Obviously, it was a very social scene; that also seems to be true of indie rock. In your experience, does the social aspect of the business ever conflict with the professional side of the business? How are those two sides of somebody’s life as a musician interrelated?

Atkins: First off, punk dispelled the idea you had to be ridiculously technically proficient to be in a band. That means some bands were fucking appalling. But weirdly, a lot of bands came up with at least one hit single—“Another Girl, Another Planet,” by Peter Perrett, in The Only Ones, for example. Elvis Costello came up through that scene. Joe Jackson. The Cars. They were all crazy punks for a minute or two. That doesn’t mean they weren’t technically proficient, though. Charlie Watts is a fantastic drummer, very technically proficient, but you wouldn’t know it by analyzing any beat in a Rolling Stones song. But he’s doing the right thing for a Rolling Stones song. The first thing punk did was say, look, there’s a difference between technical proficiency, total fucking instrumental masturbation, and being in a band. It was always about the vibe. That’s something else some bands have forgotten. Vibe trumps tuning, content, song structure. Vibe trumps the warmth of the bass. If all you’re about is recording your bass through a neat preamp directly to tape, that’s not going to save a song. Vibe will save a song. Vibe will excuse all kinds of horrifying technical mistakes because vibe wins. That’s what punk did. It said you question everything. Then we all got interested in post-punk, which became industrial, and we experimented with dub and recording techniques; then industrial was absorbed into pop music. Now, industrial and punk have become caricatures of themselves. In an industrial band, you have a few guys in plastic pants with an oil drum. In a punk band, it’s a couple people with mohawks.

Rumpus: Who were your influences?  I assume you must have come up in the British pub rock scene, which became the punk rock scene.

Atkins: I started playing in clubs in the north of England when I was very young, starting when I was eleven years old and continuing when I was a teenager. I was playing seven nights a week and Sunday afternoons backing strippers. My influences went from the Beatles to whatever was happening at the time to old jazz, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, all kinds of stuff. Punk was frightening because I’d spent eight, nine years getting very, very good at playing my instrument; I thought, hold on a minute, that doesn’t matter now, all of the practicing? Six hours a day in my parents’ bedroom, it doesn’t matter, anybody can do it? What the fuck? But if you were better technically, your message could get across. The Police were a punk band, and they were all individual virtuosos. Those musicians that were technically proficient had a broader vocabulary. Sometimes when that broader vocabulary was coupled with a larger budget from a record deal, it all went horribly wrong. The economics of desperation—no time, no luxury—can create some really great music. Historically, that’s been the case. It doesn’t always follow that a band’s second or third album is going to be better than the first.

Rumpus: Oftentimes it seems like it’s the other way around.

Atkins: We spend a lot of time trying to unplug people from adversity. That’s what I was doing with my label for a while. But really, to get the best out of people, you need to throw them into adversity, create an obstacle course.

Rumpus: And let them find their own way out?

Atkins: Absolutely. I always said that was the great thing about anybody who came out on the road with Pigface. For the road crew, it was some insane obstacle course. It was so expensive to run that band and fly people in, especially for a couple of shows, the only way we could do it was to do 42 shows in a row. You get to a situation where you can say, “Look, I don’t know exactly what’s entailed, but I survived a fucking two month long Pigface tour, so I can do anything.”

Rumpus: You seem like you’ve taken on some projects that must have been pretty overwhelming. Have you ever had things fail catastrophically, and what have you done when that’s happened?

Atkins: I had a really bad tour, lost about 60 grand, went out too soon. It was an object lesson in how somebody who’s been doing this for a long time can make a really big mistake. My wife had a miscarriage on tour; that was fucking horrible. I’ve been through that. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Rumpus: What do you think your insight about musicians needing to do for themselves means for music in particular and for art in general in terms of the future? Do you think people in other disciplines—writers, for instance—can benefit from what you do?

Atkins: A lot of people have said my lectures are useful to any entrepreneur, and that’s great to hear. I’m always exploring. What can I learn from other businesses, and how can we bring that into the world of music? Anybody doing anything creative can learn from any band, any Amanda Palmer. Of course, you have to work harder as a poet or a writer or a musician because if someone likes the poem they read today, they’re going to look for five more—today. Print on demand, you won’t make much money, but things will stay fluid, and you can build your catalogue and your audience. Add a tee-shirt in there, add some recipes, add some music. Vary it and start to experiment and find the broader picture of yourself as an artist. Embedded in my packaging lecture is an experiment for a band. If you’re going to make 100 copies of your album, what should the packaging be? Should it be sharp? Should it be rusty? Should it make you want to go to sleep, or should it be sexy and slick? Once you’ve made those decisions, you can bounce those ideas back into your music. Once you realize your music is dark and jagged, it helps you visualize the sound, and you become more focused on your brand. The sound of your voice, musically or poetically, starts to emerge. It’s about finding that and having it be correct. It’s about finding your overall voice for you as a person standing on stage in a commercial world with products to give and sell.

Tom Andes has published fiction in Witness, Natural Bridge, News from the Republic of Letters, the Akashic Books Mondays Are Murder Flash Fiction Blog, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans and can be found here: @thomaseandes. More from this author →