Accidental music mogul Dave Brown helped launch the careers of Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes and The Album Leaf, among others. These days his record label turned consulting company, Holiday Matinee, beefs up the resumes of dot-coms and other merchants of cool. I got a chance to talk to Brown about the details of his journey from music enthusiast to a record label founder. Illustration by Dave Brown.
I had the pleasure of meeting Dave a few years ago. I was co-working in his office and he rode in through the front door on his bike directly to his desk. Recently, I've been emailing with Dave about how he got started as a music man. What follows are some excerpts from an interview on how to hack being important in the music industry—especially if you're not Russell Simmons.
Kelly Abbott: How did it all start?
Dave Brown: In 1998, I sold my drum kit for gas money to move from NY to CA. It was in a house in San Diego I designed a record cover for Jimmy Eat World and their label at the time (Capitol Records) hired me to be their publicist.
KA: Why did that happen? How did you get from drum kit to Capitol Records? Proximity? Random connection? What were your original intentions when coming out to the West coast?
DB: I originally moved out West with the intention of going to grad school to become a teacher. However, I couldn't afford tuition being an out-of-state resident so I decided to experience Southern California for a year. During that year, I met a lot of bands who needed help getting their music to wider audiences and I felt compelled to help. It was then I started Holiday Matinee and my determination carried for years to come. As for the contacts, most came during college, as I had made friends with a lot of record labels and bands from publishing a fanzine called Muddle. I didn't know it at the time but I was indirectly gaining experience about advertising, publicity, marketing, distribution, chasing invoices, dealing with egos and just about everything in between.
I had no idea what a publicist even did but music was my everything so I spent four days straight in Borders reading every book and magazine I could get my hands on. Thus, Holiday Matinee was born.
KA: What does a publicist do?
DB: It's a bit different nowadays with the ever changing economic climate, but from 1998-2005, my responsibilities as a publicist was to gain coverage for my bands, artists, filmmakers in all forms of media from local, regional and national to online, print and broadcast. I would reach out to writers, invite them to concerts, handle guest lists and photo requests, set up interviews, write informal press releases and most of all—try and convey the honest passion I had about whatever client I was working and have people of the media relate to that in hopes of sharing in such a cool experience. I got to tell people about Death Cab For Cutie and Bright Eyes before anyone really knew who they were. It was a pretty special time.
KA: What's the difference between being a band publicist and a record label? What does a label do exactly?
DB: The label gave us a chance to release music by bands and artists we were really excited about and do so in a way that was personal yet professional. PR is just a piece of what goes into releasing a CD or digital album. There's also distribution, marketing programs, music videos, finding a booking agent, advertising, tour support and about ten other headaches.
KA: Clearly you've had some success. At what point did you think you'd become successful in the business?
Success is a funny thing. For me, the first feeling of success came when I had enough money to buy a postage meter. That was a big day for the staff, especially the interns. After that, it was probably when I landed my first feature in Rolling Stone or completing the sold-out Holiday Matinee Winter Tour 2001 with The And/Ors, The Jealous Sound and Death Cab For Cutie.
Other highlights include:
1. Death Cab For Cutie playing acoustic in my living room
2. Backstage with Ron Jeremy during Sigur Ros at Hollywood Bowl
3. Meeting Bob Moog (the guy had a great sense of humor) and then getting him a feature in Entertainment Weekly
4. Travelling the film festival circuit for Boxers and Ballerinas
5. Making a documentary on my friend Kumar
6. Touring Europe, Iceland, Taiwan and Japan with The Album Leaf
7. Bright Eyes playing acoustic in my living room
8. Booking Superdrag on Conan
9. Licensing indie music to Grey's Anatomy, The OC, CSI, MTV, Jeep and Hummer ads...
10. Steve Poltz taking me into the Padres clubhouse last week to meet Jake Peavy and Trevor Hoffman
KA: Let's talk logistics. Office space? Interns? How much? How many? What do you need to space and people for?
DB: I started the company in my bedroom, sharing a landline with seven other housemates. It was a nightmare trying to convince a major label client that you were a legitimate agency when one of your roommates picks up the phone during the middle of a conference call. A year later, I moved into a loft in a shitty neighbourhood and turned 85% of the space into the office. I had two interns and eventually hired both of them full time as the business grew. The next year, I leased our first true office space. Looking back, I was way in over my head but we had some great times there. Not to mention, Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes and The Album Leaf all playing acoustic performances in the loft. Since then, we've had two upgraded offices in downtown locations and experimented with an East coast satellite office as well. I think if I were to do it all over again, I'd certainly be wiser on budgeting and experiment with co-working. I love collaboration and believe in having just as much fun as you are at working.
KA: Bookings, press, and tours... can you describe in a little detail what it takes to get booked on Conan? How do you arrange a tour? Does someone call Rolling Stone and say "I've got this great band you need to review"?
DB: Every publicist has their own style. Mine was to be personal as well as professional. I turned down a lot of work because I only wanted to be involved in projects I truly believe in 100%. In doing that, I remained somewhat broke but also developed a solid reputation of only working good stuff, hence writers eventually took my calls and my clients saw results. However, there was one experiment in the early days where I really wanted to get my bands reviewed in Flaunt Magazine. I could never get through to the music editor so one day I called and told his assistant I was Russell Simmons and she patched me right through. When he answered, (I must have had about three Dr. Peppers—was super wired) and insisted he listen to my theory on why publicists sucked but band helpers were cool. Not a year later, I was hired on as a freelance music writer for Flaunt.
KA: What happened after the label?
DB: After that, we started getting bigger offers and not just from bands but brands such as Xbox, Apple, Urban Outfitters, Museum of Contemporary Art, etc.
KA: So once you've developed the rock 'n roll style of getting things done then brands will ask for the same approach? How does that work?
DB: I'm not sure that's the formula to follow but I knew I was interested in a lot more than just music so I expanded my reach to cover my other interests (new media, technology, fashion, etc). I'm really obsessed with discovery. Whether it's a new song, gadget, t-shirt, iPhone app...it's still one of the best feelings in the world to find something new and useful and incredibly clever. And if it's good for the environment then that's just the icing on the cake.
Thanks to Dave for taking his time to talk to us about his entrepreneurial journey. Know anyone else who's doing something cool you'd like to hear more about? Make your interview requests in the comments.