Rocky Athas

Rocky Athas

About Rocky Athas

By the age of 23, Rocky Athas was named one of the first Texas Tornados in Buddy Magazine's list, "Top Ten Guitarists". Over the years, other Texas Tornadoes have included Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Johnny Winter.

At the beginning of his career, Rocky was the creative vortex behind Lightning, one of the biggest draws in Texas nightclub history opening for national acts. After Lightning, Rocky moved on to be showcased as lead guitarist with national acts, including the southern rock one-of-a-kind Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas. When Rocky was asked by John Mayall—the iconic Godfather of British Blues—to take the lead guitar role on his 2009 album, Tough, Rocky was honored and agreed.

Rocky has since played on multiple albums with John Mayall and currently plays lead guitar on Mayall's 80th Anniversary Tour. He is also releasing his own music; in early 2014, he released his album Let My Guitar Do The Talking.

Hard Work Alone Won't Prevent Costly Mistakes

Hard Work Alone Won’t Prevent Costly Mistakes

By Rocky Athas - Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

written by: legendary guitarist Rocky Athas

When I started my career as a guitarist, I was focused on being able to play guitar all day, every day, at every possible opportunity. I was young and excited to live the life of a musician (truth be told, I’m still excited about playing, writing, and recording music). I thought that if I worked hard, I’d make it, and everything would turn out okay. While I’m proud that I lived by that standard and worked my ass off, time has shown me that the theory is flawed. Yes, it’s incredibly important to build a solid foundation on hard work… but real success requires something more.

My years of hard work would have gone much further sooner if I had known a few things up front. When I was young, I knew little of how the business side of music really worked. I did not know what my rights were, and I trusted the people I worked with. Surely they had my best interest at heart…

My lack of awareness and naivety resulted in a number of headaches and heartaches. I’m not too proud to admit that I learned these lessons the hard way. I’m a bit wiser now.

What surprises me today is how much things have remained the same. Even though new tools and technologies are available to musicians, we still face many of the same challenges I faced years ago. Now, I want my fellow musicians to be able to turn their passion into a sustainable business (which happens to be my personal goal). I also know how big a difference real wisdom gained through experience could have made in my early career. So, I’ve decided to share some of my experience with you.

To all musicians—young and old, novices and pros, local legends and road-weary warriors, solo artists and band members, rock stars and country crooners and rappers and everyone in between: please, let my mess be a message to you.

Early Times were Good Times… Mostly

In the 80s, I was hired to play guitar with Black Oak Arkansas. For those unfamiliar with the group, BOA was one of the top 5 touring rock acts in the 70s. They earned three gold albums and sold close to five million records from 1972 to 1976. BOA’s frontman, Jim Dandy, was a huge influence on later acts (like Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth). Bands that are legendary today—like KISS, Bruce Springsteen, and Aerosmith—all opened for BOA. Given the band’s status, I was more than happy to be a member.

When I joined BOA, the group had an attorney that also acted as their manager. They had also signed a record deal with a label and had received a sizeable front, to be used for recording an album. Not one penny of that front money was disbursed to the musicians; it all went to studios, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals that the label hired.

As happy as I was to be in the band and to be recording, I was thrilled when they asked to use five of my songs for one of their albums. Songwriting was not part of my compensation agreement with the band, so I was entitled to receive royalties for my songwriting. I was very excited about this new opportunity.

Getting Paid is Not So Easy

Of course, getting paid for the songs would’ve been nice. That’s right. Even though five of my songs were recorded, I didn’t get any money. Not for writing the songs, not when they were played, not when they were recorded, and not when the albums were sold. No royalties whatsoever.

Now, to the band and the record label’s credit, it wasn’t their fault that I wasn’t paid. As unbelievable as it may sound now, BOA had trusted everything to the manager/attorney that had been hired to handle the band’s business, and we focused on making and recording music. After all, it made perfect sense to think that a manager who was also an entertainment attorney would do a great job representing us as the musicians of BOA. The rub came because the manager was also our attorney, which created a conflict of interest. A good attorney is focused on the best outcome for the people they represent. When that same attorney represents himself as the manager of the band as well as the personal interests of the musicians in the band, it creates a problem.

At the time, none of us understood the conflict of interest that had been created by allowing our manager to also represent us as our attorney. After all, we were famous because of our music, not our business degrees.

Lesson learned: never allow your manager to also be your attorney.

One of the business aspects handled by this manager/attorney was the distribution of income from mechanical and royalties payments; these came from the record label and were to be distributed to the songwriters. And… well, he handled it, wholly and completely. If we asked about payments owed to us we were told “all the money was used to offset expenses”, that nothing was left for us. However, we were never told what or how much those expenses were, and we were never given statements to review and reconcile. In retrospect, I now realize that if our manager had not also been our attorney, we could have gotten to the bottom of this problem.

My patience began to wear thin. I was all about creating music and performing, but I found it difficult to focus on the music I loved. Was I getting screwed by the very people I trusted? All I needed was a little cooperation and clarity, but after a number of failed attempts to resolve the problem, I became even more frustrated. It appeared that our manager/attorney was not able to provide the information that I needed to see. Details showing how the money was spent and what royalties were paid were not available to me.

Very frustrated, I decided to leave the band.

It Just Gets Better

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. A few years later, I was out shopping with my wife, killing time while she did her thing. I was perusing the many CDs offered in this huge retail chain store when I saw a brand new release—a greatest hits album for BOA. Curious, I turned it over and looked at the track list and credits. Sure enough, two of the songs that I had written were on this new album… and I had NO idea! Again, my songs had been used without compensation, and this time they didn’t even bother to tell me about the release!

As you can imagine, this discovery really ticked me off. Instead of walking away like I had before, I hired my own lawyer to find out where my royalty payments were and who was holding them up.

It turns out that the record label had paid my royalties all along… straight to the BOA manager/attorney, just as I had suspected. These were the royalties that were supposed to be disbursed to the songwriters. That was, after all, how our contract had been written. So my new lawyer went after the band’s old manager/lawyer, trying to get my royalties back for me. Sounds easy enough… except the old lawyer had died a year or two earlier, and everything was tied up in probate.

After spending a good chunk of money to find and recover my royalties, my new lawyer told me this: it would likely cost more money in legal fees to sort through the probate mess than I was actually owed. Of course, we had no way of knowing how much I was owed unless we pursued the matter further. So, did I spend more money to recover an unknown amount… or did I let it go?

I let it go.

This means that the only people making money on those five songs were the manager/lawyer (and whoever inherits any fortune he might have left behind)… not the band and not the songwriters (including myself).

Lessons Learned

There are several morals to this sad and embarrassing story.

First and foremost:  Be careful who you trust, and only trust what you can verify, and never use your attorney as anything but your attorney.

Second: You’re never too big to be swindled, misled, or mismanaged.

Third: Take responsibility. I am ultimately responsible for the situation I was in. I signed a contract I couldn’t verify and I was forced to trust those I was working with—this led to lost opportunities and an unknown amount of lost income.

To this day, I do not know how much money I lost to the pocket of that lawyer, and I’ll probably never know. It was an expensive mistake, but it hasn’t been a complete loss. I’ve learned that my music career is really MY business, and that no one but myself is responsible for it.

In light of that, I’ve worked hard to educate myself on aspects of the business that I have ignored in the past. Going forward, I won’t make the same mistakes. And I never sign anything that I don’t fully understand. You cannot expect others to do the difficult stuff for you if I you are unwilling to do it for yourself.

My hope in writing this article is that you don’t have to learn these painful lessons firsthand. So, listen up. Be smarter than I was. Don’t blindly let someone else handle things—royalties, sales, anything—for you. Pay as much attention to the business side of your career as you do to making and playing music. Don’t let your hard work—your writing, playing, and recording—be for nothing. Hard work is very important, but being involved and caring about the mundane details of your own career in crucial.

Want to know more about me? Check out my new album or biography or find me at a show near you. I’d love to meet you!





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Making It Without a Record Label

Making It Without a Record Label

By Rocky Athas - Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

written by: legendary guitarist Rocky Athas

I’ve been playing my guitar professionally for over thirty years. In that time, I’ve played or toured with a number of notable artists and bands, including: Al Green, Van Morrison, Foreigner, Peter Frampton, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buddy Miles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones, Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Kansas, Black Oak Arkansas, Joe Bonamassa, Three Dog Night, Cheaptrick, The Cars, Joe Walsh, .38 Special, Bo Diddley, Steppenwolf, Steve Miller, Gregg Allman, John Mayall, and B.B. King.

Needless to say, I’ve got some incredible stories; I’ve also gained a good bit of insight. I’d like to share a little of that here, especially since I hear about talented musicians struggling to “make it” in the new world of music we live in today.

Making It—The Long and Bumpy Road

When I first started my music career, I spent all of my time developing my craft, developing my technique, and writing songs. I also played every gig imaginable—thanks to a club owner who “wanted to try something new” and my well-intentioned manager, this included a week-long surprise stint competing with exotic dancers for the audience’s attention. Like I said, every gig imaginable.

DefiningSuccess_Inset1

There were definitely bumps in the road, and there were days when the struggle to convert my passion into a financially viable career seemed impossible to overcome. Despite the bumps, I persevered. Giving up wasn’t an option for me. Music was my passion, and I knew I’d never be happy with another career. All I wanted was to be able to pay my bills by doing what I loved: playing my guitar.

In the dark days, hope and passion kept me afloat, and perseverance moved me along. Fortunately, my hard work and perseverance began to pay off. I was playing my guitar and paying my bills; as a bonus, I was having fun doing it! I loved the music, loved the people I played with, and loved performing. Looking back, life was good. At this point, I should have felt like a success, but I didn’t. In my mind, something was still lacking.

At the time, the musicians I considered successful were those who had been signed to labels. They were releasing records and touring on a label’s dime, not their own. Talented musicians and bands were offered recording contracts. If you weren’t with a label, it was because you weren’t good enough.

Needless to say, that’s how I defined success. That’s how every musician I knew defined success. That’s what I needed to feel like I had “made it”.

After years of hard work, a day came where a label whispered in my ear the sweet nothings musicians dream of hearing: “We’ll put out your brilliant albums.” “You’ll be in stores everywhere.” “We’ll send you on tour!” The promises kept coming, and I was sold. I quickly signed their paperwork. I finally felt like I’d made it!

Almost Paradise

For a while, things were great. The label footed the bill for just about everything up front. They handled all the scheduling, ordering, distribution, and marketing. I was playing great gigs, releasing new albums, and going on tours. Again, I loved the music, loved the people I played with, and loved performing. I felt like a success.

But… life with a label wasn’t quite what I dreamed.

Over the course of my career, I’ve been in various bands as well as on my own, and I’ve worked with a few different labels. To be fair, each of them had their strengths and their shortcomings. The fact that I had to deal with the shortcomings surprised me, even though I knew other musicians who were in the same boat.

While with a label, I was so far removed from manufacturing, distribution, and marketing decisions that I barely knew what decisions were being made, let alone had any input on those decisions. I’ve had labels tell me what music I could release and when I could release it. I had to work the way they wanted me to work or not at all. And, to top it all off, I almost lost all of my rights to the music I had created.

I’ve been with labels that had absolute control over my bookings, which sounds nice until they stop booking shows and don’t respond to phone calls. Scheduling shows or releasing music on my own would have caused a breach of contract and even more of a mess. If getting the label to respond about releases or bookings was hard, getting accurate sales records from them was even harder… which made verifying or fighting their claims that I owed them money nearly impossible.

As worrisome as these issues were, I dismissed the nagging thoughts and kept playing. I told myself that, since I was signed with a label, I’d made it. I’d be okay. After all, I wasn’t the only one going through it; my fellow musicians were in the same boat. That’s just how it was; there wasn’t another way… Right?

Redefining Success

One day while on tour, I met a musician whose spectacular guitar playing blew me away. Thoroughly impressed by his talent, I asked him which label he was with. His response was not what I expected.

He wasn’t with a label, and he did not want to be signed.

It turned that he had rejected every label offer that came his way since starting his solo career. He wanted to be independent. His philosophy was simple: you don’t need a record label to have people to enjoy your music.

DefiningSuccess_Inset3

This was different than anything I’d heard musicians say before. I’d always associated talented, successful musicians with labels. Yet, this guy, with all the talent in the world, was happy to be independent, and he was doing well. Really, really well. The guy had millions of fans across the world (currently millions on one social network alone). He spent his time writing the music he wanted, recording and releasing it when and where he wanted, and touring the world to play it for his fans. He was personally involved in all aspects of his career, from writing the music to selling his merchandise directly on his website. Yes, he had help, but he was involved and in charge.

All of his involvement and work paid off. Without a label controlling what he did, he was free to take his career any direction he wanted, and he had the knowledge and network to make it happen. And, without a label to take its cut of his profits, he actually made a good living doing what he loved; there was no scraping by or making ends meet. In short, he’d really made it.

And how was I doing after signing with my label? Not so well.

So, shortly after meeting a musician who was thriving out on his own, I decided to walk away from my label.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Walking away from my label has been a bit of a struggle. I’ve had to step up and do things myself that, for years, were done for me, often without me even considering what was going on. When I start to feel overwhelmed by all there is to do, I remind myself of my talented friend’s example—he had achieved success without a label, and so could I.

Since leaving my label, I’ve started recording new music. This means finding the studio and producer, scheduling the time, making travel arrangements, and footing the bill myself. I’ve built up a nice network of contacts over the years, and I enjoy getting to choose exactly who will be involved on my projects.

In terms of booking shows, I’ve been blessed with some incredible opportunities, and my show schedule is pretty full… but not so full that I have no time to write and record. That full schedule has led to some wonderful publicity and interviews, which is great as long as you do something with it; so, I’ve had to learn a bit about PR. I’ve also had to find and hire photographers, graphic designers, and videographers to create product packaging, promotional materials, and music videos.

I’ve had to find manufacturers, order my merchandise, and figure out where to sell it. Very few retail stores still sell music on site, and even then they tend to promote only the biggest names and the hottest new acts. Many online retailers either won’t take you without a label or distributor (who happily takes a large cut), or expect to get a large cut of the proceeds themselves, or both. After years of only getting a tiny cut of the profits from my work, those options weren’t very appealing. So I focused on selling music in person at shows, and that’s gone very well so far.

Speaking of “online”, the internet wasn’t even an option when I first started playing music. There weren’t websites, online retailers, social networks, or streaming services. It’s an entirely new way of thinking for this seasoned musician… but it’s something I’ve had to tackle.

I had to create, manage, and update a website; fortunately, this also gave me the option of selling my music on my own website (in addition to live shows) and retaining all of the profits. No longer was I giving up large chunks of the income that my music produced. Another big plus for me is making a real connection with my fans; when they purchase my music online, I actually know who they are. When I have sold music in the past, I was often not told who purchased it; the retailer kept that information from me. It is very difficult to create a lasting relationship with a fan if you do not know who they are or how to contact them!

I have also created various social media profiles to connect with my fans, and I regularly update them with new content (often linking back to my site for the full post or video). And I’m working to convert those fans from likes and followers on social networks to full fledged relationships with complete contact information on my own site. I can think of many artists that struggle to communicate effectively with fans on social media sites; their posts are just another blurb scrolling past the fan’s homepage, often going unnoticed. Since these fans represent my best opportunity to sell new releases and attend my shows, I am very interested in connecting with them.

DefiningSuccess_Inset4

I’ve definitely had some help along the way—friends and family, kind fans that want me to succeed, and hired pros who can do what I can’t—but I haven’t sat back and let others do for me, without me. I’ve been in the trenches right along with them, watching and learning and then doing it for myself as much as possible. It’s been overwhelming at times, but I persevered, just like I did when I first started playing.

The good news? It’s starting to pay off. I’m writing and recording the music I want, playing with phenomenal musicians, and performing to wonderful crowds of fans. I’m connecting with those fans online and at shows. I’m selling my merchandise. I’m able to pay my bills by doing what I love: playing my guitar.

I’m starting to feel like a success.

Why Am I Telling You This?

I know how I defined success years ago. Having traveled that path and now traveling the one I’m on, I humbly admit that I was wrong. I wish I knew then what I know now, but I can’t change my past.

I can, however, help others avoid the mistakes I made.

Every day I hear talented musicians pining for a record deal—from up-and-coming young artists to old pros who have been burned by labels before. I see their hunger for that definition of success; I hear it in conversations with them, in their posts online, even on those reality TV shows. Yes, record labels can do a lot, and you might be able to sign better contracts than I did. You might be savvier than I was.

But, you might not need a record label, and you might be better off without one.

Today is the best time in the history for making music as an independent artist. There are so many tools available that simply didn’t exist before. Moreover, it’s truly fun to be an independent musician, evolving without any strings to tie you down and hold you back. Yes, there’s a lot of work involved. But for me, the hard work is so much more enjoyable knowing who and what I am working for!

Want to know more about me? Check out my new album or biography or find me at a show near you. I’d love to meet you!





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Let My Guitar Do The Talking… With My Friends

By Rocky Athas - Estimated reading time: 0 minutes Less than a minute

Written by: Rocky Athas

I am thrilled to announce the US release of Let My Guitar Do The Talking, an all-instrumental album that I am proud to say is all guitar, all the time. Please click on the video below for a preview.  Enjoy!

LMGDTT

Also, this album is available for purchase, in digital or physical format, exclusively in our new online STORE.





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