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Inside the Industry - Jacob Slichter, musician

press photo of Jacob SlichterWhile touring the world as the drummer of Semisonic, Jacob Slichter began detailing his experiences in road diaries. Later realizing that his memoirs might offer insight into the inner workings of music industry, he decided to write So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star, a compelling book that shows that there's more to the life of a musician than just 'sex, drugs and rock and roll.'

SoundAffects: In a business that's like an ever-changing river, what did you find most helpful for remaining focused and grounded while a touring musician?

Jacob Slichter: Mainly, I was helped by the fact that my band mates and I are such good friends. If any of us faced any kind of personal crisis, the other two guys would always be supportive. And while performing is a tremendous high, it's also a good way of staying grounded. It enforced a good kind of mental discipline on me, requiring me to stay relaxed and to keep my ego from shriveling up or ballooning out of control.

SA: What helped you to overcome stage-fright?

JS: Playing lots of shows. Dan referred to it as "getting your sea legs." That's a good metaphor. It took me a year or so on the road to finally get comfortable with the crowds and the energy of performing. One important insight was to realize that my panic attacks were feedback loops: my body would send my mind the signals of being afraid, and my mind would respond by amplifying those signals and sending them back into my body. I learned to break those feedback loops by relaxing my face and my breathing. That was an enormous help.

SA: What role do you think things like music videos play in the development of a band's career?

JS: As far as I can tell, videos make little difference until you already have a hit on the radio. I hate to think of all of the money spent on our videos that might have been better spent keeping us on the road.

SA: What was it like making the video for Closing Time?

JS: It was a blast. The song was taking off on the radio, and the feeling of "hit song in the making" permeated the video shoot. What I remember most about that video was that it was done without edits, so as we neared the end of each four-minute take, you felt a lot of pressure not to screw the whole thing up by laughing or tripping.

SA: What elements factored into the decision process when choosing a producer?

JS: You have to think about who you are as a band. What do we sound like? What kind of record do we want to make? Given how we sound and what kind of record we want to make, what areas do we need help in? Then you have to hope that when you meet the producer you want to work with, you get along.

For people who aren't aware of the ins and outs of the industry, describe the role an A&R person for a major label plays in the development of a band's career.

JS: A&R stands for artists and repertoire. The A&R person is the person who scouts out bands, signs them to the label, steers the selection of producers, songs, and mix engineers. The A&R person is the person at the label most responsible for the quality of the finished record. If the record company bosses like what they hear, the A&R person gets a pat on the back. If not, he or she might get fired. It's a tough job, and we were lucky to have two great A&R people: Steve Ralbovsky at Elektra and then Hans Haedelt at MCA.

Did Semisonic ever consider continuing without a label or starting an independent label?

JS: No. Dan and John's previous band, Trip Shakespeare, had done that already. There are reasons for and against the indy route. In our case, we thought our songs had a shot at getting on the radio, so we went the major label route.

SA: In the current industry climate, what place do you feel that independent labels have?

JS: I think one has to be careful not to lump all independent labels into one pile. Having said that, the best thing about independent labels is that they are much more patient in the career development of their artists. I'm listening to R.E.M. as I type, and they are a perfect example of a band that would never get launched on a major label today, because it took them several albums to build a big national following. So, the role of independent radio is to bring us more great bands like R.E.M. who require patience.

SA: One of the facts that I found particularly enlightening (or perhaps, frightening) in your book was the incredible influence that just a few radio programmers now have over much of popular music. What role do you feel this shift plays not only in artists being heard, but in the diversity of music that audiences are exposed to in general?

JS: The lack of musical diversity on commercial radio is driven by the endless quest for superior station ratings (which produce higher advertising revenue). Program directors are merely doing their best to take listeners away from their rivals, and they do this by playing the songs that win the most people over in the shortest amount of time. Thus super hook-laden songs get played, and songs whose appeal is less immediate get left behind. It's a familiar paradox. When was the last time a politician got elected by promising something other than a quick fix?

Describe the feeling of performing for a live audience as large as the one at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.

JS: It was beyond my teenage fantasies of playing for a huge crowd. There are times when the power of a gigantic crowd can actually move you, physically. In the case of our show at RFK Stadium, I was nearly knocked off of my drum throne.

What have been the most profound changes within the music industry during the past ten years and to what do you attribute those changes?

JS: We signed our record deal with MCA at the end of the "artist development" era. Now we are in the age of the blockbuster, where labels have no interest in developing bands over the course of two or three albums. Today, you're lucky if your record gets two or three weeks of attention. In response to that, there are more independent labels. There are also more outlets other than commercial radio. This is the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. We'll see how far it swings.

Looking back to when you first dreamed of rock and roll stardom, what surprised you the most about the daily realities when it actually manifested in your life? Did it meet your expectations?

JS: In most respects, the reality exceeded my expectations. You just can't know the pure joy of performing until you do it. The same goes for the immense satisfaction of making a record. The downsides of being a musician resemble the downsides of many jobs, long stretches of boredom--in our case, killing time on a tour bus. But, if that's the biggest complaint you have to make, you've got a lot to be thankful for.

What inspired you to write about your experiences in Semisonic?

JS: I had always wanted to be a songwriter, but realized that I would never squeeze many songs on our records, given Dan's prolific output of superior songs. So, I started writing road diaries in 1998. They caught on with our fans, and I quickly had the idea of writing a book for a wider audience, one that might not know or even care about Semisonic.

With the gift of hindsight, what advice would you impart to someone embarking on a career in the music industry?

JS: Enjoy the shows and the making of music as much as you can. It's the very best part.

How do you define success?

JS: In my case, it was simply sticking with music long enough to have a chance to play in a band that I was proud of, and to be lucky enough to have found an audience.

SA: So You Wanna Be A Rock and Roll Star provided such an accessible glimpse into the day to day events of life in a band, as well as an overview of the industry. Do you have plans for any future books?

JS: Thanks. I do have plans for another book, but the ideas are too poorly formed at the moment to say more than that.

SA: Where can people purchase your book?

JS: Check your local store. Most bookstores have carried the hardcover and now the paperback. Amazon has it.
Anyone who wants a personalized signed copy can order one from Seventh Avenue Books in Brooklyn. 718-840-0188.