the first failed experience

As the program director of a college radio station, I took calls from radio promo people every day, asking me about this band or that, asking me to play their records, report them to CMJ, whatever.  

Most of it was a big shell game; radio promo reps sending freebies to college kids in hopes that they’d mention their bands names when making their weekly phone calls to the radio trade rags, because those phone calls were all calculated together in some wacky, proprietary bullshit formula to develop the “chart.”  In radio, everything was measured by charts.

So if the radio rep at Record Label A had a sexy voice, or a friendly voice, and could do a good job of schmoozing college kids who, in the short term, wanted to be cool – and in the long term, wanted jobs – then there would be a better chance of getting a raise, or a promotion, or, as I learned years later, simply getting to keep your own job and keep working in the glamorous record business. So it was important to make “friends” with as many college radio program directors.

On my end, although I realized that this was obviously what was going on, I also felt that I had made “true” friendships with a few radio promo people.  They called me at home, chit-chatted for hours about nothing in particular, talked about bands on other labels.  They all knew I wasn’t going to be pushed into reporting a band that wasn’t receiving airplay on WSAM; I would “add” their music if it was any good, and then leave it up to the air staff to determine what they liked enough to play.  At the end of the week I would count how many times songs from various new albums got played.  The album that got played the most was #1, second-most was #2, et cetera.  There were no shenanigans, nobody asked me to engage in them, and everyone was clear about that.  Plus, WSAM was such a tiny station that its playlist had very little bearing on the “charts” anyway.

Which is why I was totally flattered when I was offered a job in radio promo before my final semester had begun.

(This is the first time that the “naming names” issue has arisen on this blog – I’m surprised that on the second day of this story’s life, the “names” issue has arisen already.  In this particular case, I’m NOT going to name names.  In the case of this story it wouldn’t be fair, because I think it makes the label look kinda bad, but in reality the whole thing is my fault.  Given that this person still works in the business, at the same label, there’s no point in naming names – but the story is illustrative of my naivete at the time, and also helps lay some of the groundwork for how dromedary got started.)

The phone call came from out of the blue.  The Radio Rep told me that the label had a job open in college radio promotions, that it was an entry level job, and that it only paid $12,000 a year.  She also told me that she thought I was perfect for the job, and asked if I could handle working for such a low salary, given the fact that she knew I was planning to get married right after college.  I asked her if it was okay if I thought it over for a day or so, and that I would call her back.

I discussed it with my fiancee, and we decided that despite the ridiculous salary, it was great experience, and worth doing.  So the following day, I called her back and told her I was interested.  She said something along the lines of “Great!  It’s going to be a blast working with you.”  A while later, she called me back and told me that she needed me to come in for an interview.  She stressed that the interview was just a formality, but that other people at the company needed to meet me.  So we scheduled an interview, I went out and bought a suit, and made the long drive to the state where the label’s headquarters were.

On the date of the interview, I dressed myself up in the suit, pulled my hair back into a nice ponytail, shined my shoes, and got there good and early.  I waited in the lobby alongside the drunken, sleeping body of one of the most famous people in alt-rock at the time, who was at the label’s offices that day to sign a contract.  Music blared from speakers in the lobby.  Rock was everywhere; it was almost overwhelming in its coolness.

Eventually I was called in; my friend sat in one chair and her colleague sat in another, in a tiny office with no windows and rock posters everywhere.  We talked about the long drive, we talked about the new band they were signing, we talked about the records they were “working” at the time.  We talked about the guy passed out in the lobby, and they told me some other “rock star” stories from personalities on their label.  We talked about how long the commute would be for me, and how I’d be able to make the job work for the next six months while I was still living in Hartford.  We talked briefly about the responsibilities of the job, and whether I understood them.  “Sure,” I said.  I was not particularly formal, as I was trying to establish a rapport with my future co-workers.  We talked about what new records were on the horizon for the company.

Eventually they asked me if I had any questions for them.  My unbelievably intelligent response: “Well, I’m getting married a month after graduation, so can you tell me if you offer health benefits?”  The two of them looked at each other, one said “Yes,” and the “formality” was over.  They told me they’d get back to me.

On the ride home, I felt great.  I was going to work in the record business.  When I got back to my campus, I stopped attending my classes, made arrangements with my employers so that I could only work on weekends and still maintain my campus housing, and made arrangements with my academic advisor so that I would receive full college credit for my new job.

Then, I waited for the phone call.  

A week went by – no call.  I figured it was no big deal, they must be swamped with their new signing.  I enjoyed myself by blowing off all my classes for the week and partying with my buddies.  The second week I started getting a little nervous, but I still didn’t attend classes.  At the end of the week I left a voice mail for my friend, but didn’t get a return call.

After three weeks passed, I realized that I usually spoke to my friend at that label at LEAST once a week for the radio station, but not only had she not called me, she hadn’t returned SEVERAL calls I’d made to her.  Meanwhile I had blown off three weeks of classes, thinking I’d be dropping them all so I could go to work.

Finally in week 4, I spoke to my friend, who told me the job had been given to someone else.

The interview that was a “formality” was a nightmare.  I walked in, thinking the job was already mine, and so I asked about health insurance.  I didn’t ask any of the obvious logistical questions, or questions about overall label philosophy, because I figured I’d learn all that stuff once I started.  I didn’t try and wow them, because I figured I’d already wowed them.  In reality, I went in for an interview that was a “formality,” and I blew it so badly that they gave the job to somebody else.

Meanwhile I had blown off nearly four weeks of college classes in my last semester, and I had a June 22 wedding date. I had to graduate on time.

If there ever was an appropriate time to use the phrase “I am royally fucked,” this was it.  I was as royally fucked as one could be.  I couldn’t imagine telling my future in-laws that their daughter was going to have to live in a dorm room with her new husband and some other roommate for a semester.  I couldn’t imagine having to cough up another semester’s worth of student loans so I could graduate.  I couldn’t imagine having to go out in the workforce without having completed my degree.

As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened.  I worked with my faculty advisor to officially drop all my classes, and receive work-study credit for my management of the radio station.  I received an internship credit for my work with TOTC.  My advisor assigned me a large-scale project for an Electronic Media Management class he ran that consisted mostly of independent study.  I got my 12 credits, graduated from college, got married, and did not have a $12,000-a-year job in the record business.  I had put in an extra semester at the radio station, and felt like I had a good chance to get a decent job in indie rock.  The only drawback was that I was three credits short of a Sociology minor, and I had to give that up because there was no way for me to pick up three Sociology credits that late in the semester.

A small price to pay.  I learned from the experience, and although I didn’t talk to the label rep much after that, I was sure I’d be able to find something in the music industry.  Living in Northern New Jersey there were record labels and promotion companies everywhere, and I was sure I had gotten enough solid experience that it wouldn’t take long to find a cool job in indie rock.

~ by Al on January 4, 2009.

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