The Gigging Musician Podcast

Cover Band Interview (1 of 3) With James Gross - Shirts and Skins

June 14, 2021 Jared Judge
The Gigging Musician Podcast
Cover Band Interview (1 of 3) With James Gross - Shirts and Skins
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The Gigging Musician Podcast
Cover Band Interview (1 of 3) With James Gross - Shirts and Skins
Jun 14, 2021
Jared Judge

In this episode, James Gross, bandleader of the Shirts and Skins band shares his background as a musician and how he started his group. Topics discussed include pay rates for gigs, booking agents, original music, and more.

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, James Gross, bandleader of the Shirts and Skins band shares his background as a musician and how he started his group. Topics discussed include pay rates for gigs, booking agents, original music, and more.

Hey gigging musicians. It's Jared Judge and I have such a treat for you today I have an interview that we are breaking into three parts with the band leader of the Shirts and Skins band in Minneapolis, Minnesota, James gross. His band does over 200 gigs every single year, and he shares his story. So take a listen. This first part talks about his origin story, and how he got his start as well as how he works with booking agents. super interesting stuff. Hope you get a lot out of it. I'm James gross. I own Shirts and Skins band out of Minneapolis. We tour the whole United States been a band for about 16 years. We currently have about 35 to 40 people on our roster. We do casinos, street dances, weddings, resorts, theme parks, kind of everything. Our average is anywhere between 180 to close to 300 shows a year. We're trying to push it over over the 300 mark. But we've all struggled in the last year with that. Oh, for sure. Awesome. So tell me about yourself your musical background? How did you get into playing music? And why did you want to start a cover band. My musical background is right out of high school I went to college for music did that for a couple years. Like school but didn't love school. So after a couple years, I thought I had enough skills from going to music school to move out to the west coast and play in a band. And I did that for multiple years on the West Coast turn up and down the West Coast. Then I realized that the pay in the West Coast was nothing compared to the Midwest. So I moved back when school for engineering. And at that point, I was going out on the road every summer playing original music and then stopping, you know, playing three or four shows that were all original, and then stopping in like Bozeman, Montana, Missoula, Montana or quarterly in Idaho and playing a cover gig to get money to get to the next town. And then I decided it was more painful to play my original with a band that had been on the road for three months, super tight, the best we've ever did it and then play Sweet Home Alabama and pack the dance floor. So So I reanalyzed you know what? What's important to me. And what was important to me was making a living playing music. So I would have enough time to do what I wanted to with music. So I started looking at billboard, and looking at what people were, were digging on in the clubs. And then I expanded and went into the wedding scene to look and see what wedding bands were doing. And realized if we played songs that everybody knew we could pack the dance floor. And that, in turn would make me enough on the weekends to have the weekdays to write music and play music and, and do that. And then it didn't matter if anybody showed up at my shows, because I had people at my shows on weekends. Yeah, that's awesome. So that sounds like I've heard that story again and again, is that, you know, people writing music, have to find a way to fund that original music. So it sounds like it was a similar situation for you. And then once you made the realization that you can pack the dance floor and get paid to do it, then that kind of became a little bit more of your thing. And you're unfunded your creativity through that. Well, and I think the the misconception, I think with a lot of people and and, and I find it with my players too, is for some reason, if you're an original artists, it's looked upon that if you're in a cover band, it's just a cover band. And at the end of the day, we're all musicians, and if we, our job really is to make the fan escape from whatever they need to escape from for 90 minutes or three hours. And if they do that, and we're able to get them to forget about the troubles that they have at home or the hard stress of their job. That's a really a beautiful thing. You know, and and i think that another thing with a cover band thing is that and I tell all my players because I have lots of players that do original stuff as well that we get in we get exposed to, to 100,000 people a year. And when somebody comes up to you at a cover band show and says man, you're just amazing at guitar, there's a fan you can potentially get through your original music, because they want to connect with you already so as to where you're not going to get 100,000 people playing the playing a small original clubs in a year. Yeah, I don't think people look at stuff like that as to where like this is an exposure, man go go meet fans, you know, fans are in every show, you know. So. So that's been kind of kind of my change was was coming up with that or realizing that 10 years ago that this is still a beautiful thing and that, you know, it's all about the fans at the end of the day. Yeah, that's awesome. Did you originally have that realization or did it take you some time to figure that out. It took me some time. I mean, it's, you know, it's, you know, it's Yeah, as you go, and you're playing originals versus covers, you know, like, you're super, hugely passionate about what you wrote, and you want people to connect to it. And it's hugely disappointing when they don't have any place of cover today. And for me to, you know, being somebody that's been doing it for 20 years, I worked. In my early 20s, I was playing guitar, you know, four to eight hours a day trying to learn to play like the greats like Zeppelin's, and that some of the early 80s people, and now I'm playing pop music a lot of times, and I'm playing quarter notes or eighth notes, single lines, you know, it's just like it, you just got to kind of realize that it is what it is, you got to just kind of evolve with it, you know, and, and at the end of the day, if people are dancing and having a good time, that's we're performers, you know, we want to perform and have people respond. Yeah, for sure. Sounds like you're in it for the right reasons. Yeah. For when you when you were touring with your original act. And then you got your first cover bands, or cover show where you called Shirts and Skins, then or was it something else? I kind of started Shirts and Skins. You know, I was in a in a jam band called hullabaloo for a long time. And then when I started Shirts and Skins, you now, everybody asks, you know, ow did you come up with a name, nd it's very generic, we, we sed a band name generator, and ot kicked out 400 names, and hen we all circled 10. And then t the time, the five of us that tarted the band, we looked at nd we're like, oh, I guess the nly one we all like Shirts and kins. So I guess that's what we're gonna do. And it was one of those things that we wanted something that was generic enough, but fun to where we could get into the corporate world, you know, and get into the, you know, and, and that's, you know, really how it just happened. And, and then it just kind of stuck. And then all of a sudden, you know, it's 10 years later, and I'm like, Well, I'm still in this band. Yeah. It's a great name, it reminds me of like, high school volleyball or stuff like that. Yeah. Um, so Okay, so you you started Shirts and Skins, what was the process like to get Shirts and Skins first ever paid gig. More were used to agents in the beginning, you know, agencies, and, you know, a lot of it was those $500 gigs for a long time, you know, and then it was, you know, what, what is your job as a cover band, you're either you either try to bridge, the party, the party band, which is what the clubs want you to do, they want you to sell drinks, that's what your job is, is to do. And if you're not selling drinks, you know, they don't want you and the only way you sell drinks is if you drink with the crowd, when that never leaves anything good. You know. So I think that that was, you know, there was a point where we said, you know, the party is fun, but we can't make a living during the party. And, and you can't, when you're when you drink what you make and eat what you make. And you know, we all know that clubs don't, you know, there's been no pay increases, you know, and for us, it was really when that 2008 housing market hit crash hit. And the bottom just dropped out to where it was before that we were able to make 1200 to 15 $100 a night playing the clubs. And it was the bigger you bring a bigger light show, and you can get more money. And then it seemed like the housing market kind of fell out, or the economy kind of went down. And everybody was trying to play in a band and make an extra $400 on the weekends. So that was the point where we were like, We can't compete with people that are going to play in clubs for nothing. Because there's always going to be that. And we're seeing it right now to where, you know, there's there's bands that haven't played for a year and a half that are like, I understand that the restaurants in the bar industry has had a big hit, I'll play for 300 bucks. Well, I mean, why why were you doing we were constantly as a, as a community, we're constantly undercutting each other. That is, like one of those things that if we'd stopped we don't have a union like this is we have to form something, you know. So I think that was the point where we, we had just decided, you know, where's the money, the money is where a tie and you can go play casinos wear a tie, and you can you can play a corporate event. weddings are way more fun than a club. There's people already there, you know, so I think that was kind of the turning point for us. Awesome. So would you say that, that kind of shifted? Like, once you stopped working with an agency and realized that you could get these gigs yourself? Well, and and we do still work with agencies? I think it for us. For me, it was why do you lay claim to me as an agent, and that whole? Why aren't we playing nice together? Like it's so many of the agents in around the country. They want you to sign these exclusive deals with them and they sign an exclusive deal with you but yet, then you're like, Well, why is this happening? it open, like the reason I signed an exclusive deal with you is for you to have my calendar book solid. And somehow in the last 10 years, especially the agencies, there's no accountability with the agents anymore. It's, hey, I'm going to sign all these bands and throw them a bone here, there. So with the agencies, for us, it's, I would say the agent right now we we do about 50, to 60%, agency stuff. I do 40 to 50. to myself, I have a lot of agents write the contracts up for me, because I do like having a middleman that points to where if they're frustrated, they can complain to somebody, if I'm frustrated, I can complain to somebody without us bickering at each other. But I've also I don't play, I don't play with agents that won't play nice with other agents, if they're if they're set on this 15%. And they won't split a commission. And a lot of stuff, when I find leads, I take seven and a half percent, and I only give them seven and a half percent. And just say you know that we're all playing nice. We're all on the same team. If you don't want to be on a, you don't want to be on a team like we don't want to play with you. That kind of makes sense a little bit? I think it does. I did want to ask, so for a lot of like the newer musicians who don't have an agency, you clearly use them as part of your group's strategy. So I think it's important enough to understand how did you start the relationship with the first agent? The first one, I mean, we went through a lot of bad ones before we found though we use extreme talent out of Menominee. Now and Lord hand, Phil is just one of the greatest human beings that there are, you know, he was a, he was a gigging musician for 25 years. So he's, he's an agent that's got the band's back. But there were a lot of them, you know, they sign you know, we got out of our first contract for breach of contract, because agent didn't have our best interest, and we found them doing shady things. I think you you the best thing with an agent, if you're going to use an agent, is have your be willing to alter the contract. You don't have to sign their blanket contracts. You know, one of the contracts that I did after I had bad experiences was I added a communication breakdown clause to where if you don't respond to my email or phone call, within 72 hours, our exclusive contract is voided. Wow. And, and when they you say that to them, they're like, Well, what do you mean? It's like, well, we're a team if a gig comes in, and it's a corporate event, and it's on a Friday afternoon, and it's a $6,000 contract. by Saturday, they're looking for somebody else, you know, and I don't want an agent that takes Friday and Saturday off. I want one that at least in today, there's no excuse for it. And we all have cell phones, we're all looking at them 80 times a day. You know, so I think that that's Don't be afraid to and also, you know, right now, I we're not signed any contracts, I have handshake deals. And and it's if you don't trust me, why should I trust you? You know, like, I'm not gonna go behind your back. Like, you know, this is small world. Yeah. And I think that that's, there's so much there, you got to trust who you work with. And, and if you are going to sign an exclusive contract, you know, interview bands that have been with them for 10 years, see if there are any bands that have been with them for 10 years. And then how old is your agent? Because we all know that agents, you know, look at agents in any, any market of anything. It's not an old person's game. The ones that are the ones that are in that 30 to 50 range are hungry, you know, as to where, you know, they get there's a lot of agents where I'm like, Man, that dude 70 years old, why is he still working? Like that he obviously didn't do something, right. Yeah. Because I'm not I'm hoping I'm not doing this at 70. Yeah. I'm going to be sitting on a beach somewhere. Yeah. All right. So I think it's you know, and then if you are going to use an agency, what are they afraid of to do a trial? Give them a 90 day trial? Like let's try a three month trial and if we both feel good about it, then maybe sign a year and and ask them you know, are you are you willing to split commissions with people because there's very few agents that have their own rooms but there are a few that do have their own rooms. And you need to get into those rooms if that's good for your crowd. You know, there was there's a lot of casinos around the country that there's certain agencies out of California and Florida that have those casinos and you know if your agents not willing to split commission and take a seven and a half percent or even a 5% and give the guy that has the room 10 you're never getting into that place. You know, I would love to say that I think that that I think that these agents would be gone but I they just not retiring. I know a few of them. Were Like, man, this dude's had this room for 30 years, you know? Yeah. You know, for sure. Oh, cool. So, I mean, I understand there's, there's a lot that goes into working with an agent, when, when you first were getting into this game, did you have to like pitch a whole list of agents to try to find one that bought or that bit at your line? Or were they coming to you and saying, like, I would love to represent you. I think that, right, right now they are coming, they were coming to us in the beginning. But then I was also surprised, because the agency that we, we did sign with right away, you know, for me, I was I was 24 years old, 25 years old, I had an agent that wanted to sign me for three years, and I was just a static, just be able to say that for a while, you know, because, you know, a good agency has nationals and but then you realize very quickly that you're not a priority, you're a number, you know, and for every a band they have, or every national band they have, they have 10 see bands, you know, that are playing in the trenches for $500. But they don't care, they just want their 75 bucks. So I think that at the end of the day, you know, if you've got a strong contract, I think that there's there's enough resources out there now. You know, to make your own contracts, I think that there's, you know, you shouldn't just hand stuff off, especially when you're beginning you know, if you get, you know, if you get a decent gig, then you can do it yourself, do it. But I think also that what an agency does for a band is put some kind of value to them to where, you know, the first time the first time you get that $2,000 gig, you're a static and can't believe it. But that's relatively a low paying gig, you know, when you get to the street dance level or the wedding level, you know, that's, that's when you start getting into the four to $8,000 gigs. And there's not much of a difference on selling a 4000 or $5,000 gig than a $3,000 game. They're willing to pay it, you know, yeah. And I think that that's what people don't understand that that and I think you can also we even find it on the weddings like it's a hard thing of of underselling yourself. I've lost in the beginning of weddings, I lost a number of weddings trying to get stay around that $2,000 mark for a wedding DJs cost 1200 bucks, you know, you're getting a band of six, six to eight people. And then I had multiple weddings that I found out they spent eight grand on their wedding. And I was like, they taught my my perceived value was less because I didn't know, you know, and even though my product is better than what they bought, you know, it's, you know, so it's a hard it's a hard figure. So I think a lot of times in the beginning, the agencies can help you set a value because you can see who they have and what those price ranges of bands are. You know, kind of a deal, for sure. So that was part one of three of our interview with bandleader James gross of the Shirts and Skins band, stay tuned for parts two and three where we dive deeper into his booking process. And if you got any value out of this podcast, make sure to like it, subscribe to it and join us on the gigging musicians Facebook group, and check out BookLivePro.com