As a freelance guitar player in LA, I was typically in a minimum of five different bands at any given time and found myself playing so many styles I was bouncing from rock and retro to reggae and back again. I eventually realized that I had become a musical chameleon, sounding different every time I strapped on my guitar. I wanted to sound like me, to have my own musical identity. All the players whom I was asked to emulate in recording sessions did.
So I began thinking about recording my own album to discover what my own musical personality was. What did I really want to say as an artist? Did I really have something to say? Around that same time, I had just put together a new home studio, my first in fact, and was eager to start working with it. This struck me as a good maiden voyage.
It was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and I was taking a break from services with some friends, walking around outside. One of them started humming one of the old, traditional melodies which caused me to reminisce back to my childhood. The melody itself was beautiful and since I was looking for a project to record in my new studio, it occurred to me that this would be an interesting and unusual choice. I had just purchased my first synth and at the time (around 1991) it was the cutting edge Korg M1. Now, of course its a dinosaur. In fact, the internal battery, which usually lasts the lifetime of an instrument, ran out a couple of years ago. I laid down some simple pads outlining the basic chords of the song and thought the melody would be nice on a nylon string guitar. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one. I went out and bought a set of nylon strings and put them on my steel string acoustic, an old Gibson Heritage.
I remember having to do all sorts of weird things to get the strings to stay on. I tied crazy knots on the string ends so the pegs would hold them in and then hoped they would stay seated in the nut even though the notches were way too narrow for nylon strings. Once all that was done, I couldn’t even keep it in tune for more than 16 bars at a time so I had to keep stopping the tape machine and retune. If that wasn’t enough of an ordeal, what made it even more agonizing was that the studio, being in my apartment wasn’t particularly quiet.
My neighbors made noise all the time and my place overlooked a back alley, which apparently many mistook for raceway, so I played the guitar in my closet. It was at least large enough for me with my guitar, and with clothes on hangers all around, it functioned as a reasonably quiet, isolation booth. I’d start the tape machine on a new track about 30 seconds ahead of where I needed to record, make a mad dash across my living room, down the hall, through my bedroom, and then into the closet, grab my headphones, pick up the guitar only to find that the high E string was suddenly out of tune or a jet plane from LAX decided to roar over my neighborhood at that moment.
Needless to say this took some time. Eventually though, I finished the tune and mixed it. I called it Avinu,a partial title of the traditional melody my friend was humming that day, which is a Jewish prayer many centuries old. Later, I started recording original material and as I got used to the process, everything got easier. It looked (or sounded) like I had a real album in the works so I contacted a friend of mine who was a graphic artist who agreed to do the artwork. At the time there were probably only about 30 CD manufacturers in the United States.
Most people were not on the internet back then and I was no exception. But with aid of a telephone book I let my fingers do the walking and managed to find a good and reasonable mastering lab and manufacturer for my CD. I had 1000 copies made and then wondered what to do next. I approached several Tower Records stores who allowed me to place a few CDs in each of their stores on a consignment basis. Somehow though, there needed to be a demand for them otherwise they would just sit on the shelves and never sell. Radio is certainly an ideal way of promoting music to masses of people and I figured there had to be some way of approaching radio stations, even for an independent musician.
From playing sessions in LA studios, I saw magazines like The Gavin Report in the lounges and contacted a few of these publications. When I was able to reach someone, they were surprised that I created my own album on my own. It was unusual at that time and I offered to send them a copy to see if they had suggestions. My first response was from Gavin who encouraged me and generously offered me a free, temporary subscription so I could learn about radio. This helped me identify stations that I thought would be receptive to my music and I sent them each a CD with a letter of introduction.
After a few weeks, I made follow up calls to the music directors and learned the value of having a good radio promoter. Some stations had a 2-hour time window every 2 weeks for these calls and scheduling them and sitting on hold for an eternity was only made worse when they answered, “I don’t see your CD here. Would you send us another?” After a few of these with the same people I felt like jumping through the phone and strangling them.
The first station that I had a nice conversation with and actually gave the CD a spin was not surprisingly, a college station. They even started getting requests from their listeners for particular tracks. That encouraging news sustained me enough to keep following up on the phone with other radio stations.
One day, while in a recording session for a producer who hired me to play on another project, I realized it was one of those precious call times for a big P1 radio station that I had sent my CD to. A P1 rated station is one with the largest broadcast range, P3 being the smallest. P1 stations are very important and if I didn’t call within the next 2 hours, I would have to wait another 2 weeks and by then I was certain they would have lost my CD and I would have to start all over again. I excused myself and went over to a phone to make the call. I reached the receptionist at the station and when I announced my name, she said, “hang on, he really wants to talk to you.” That certainly surprised me. Once the music director got on the line and realized I was the artist and not a radio promoter, he exclaimed in disbelief, “Wait a minute. Are you Bruce Burger, RebbeSoul (my stage name)? You mean you’re pushing your own record?”
I was embarrassed but admitted I was.
“Well,” he continued, “let’s see. The artwork is nice on the cover although I don’t like your choice of colors.”
He went on for a while and I wondered why he wouldn’t just get to the point. I interrupted, “Did you get to listen to any of the music?”
He laughed. “I’m just joking with you. Not only did we listen to it but we already played a track on the air. I take it you don’t know anything about this yet.”
“Your song that we played,” he went on, “received more phone calls than any other song in the history of this radio station.”
I fell off my chair.
Still he was cautious saying that they weren’t putting it into rotation until they tried it a few more times. After all, I wasn’t on any label, let alone a major label and this was a prominent P1 radio station in a major city. Within a few weeks though, the response was still favorable and put into heavy rotation where it stayed for months. The song was Avinu, the first one that I recorded in my home studio. It remained their most requested song ever and other stations began to take my CD more seriously.
Stations in other genres in the same area sought out different songs on the album and played those on the air. I became a familiar face at UPS because I was there every day shipping boxes of my CDs to record stores in the SF bay area. I called back one of the distributors who rejected me at the beginning and they were suddenly interested. Why? My CD was outselling CDs by major acts on major labels in that area. I remember calling a Tower Records store and while I was on the phone, I overheard someone over the PA system in the store saying,
“Get some more RebbeSoul CDs from the stock room!”
I had put together a band and now we started getting requests to come and play in the SF bay area. On one of my first gigs there, I visited the radio station that gave me that break and was amazed at how the phones would light up when they played Avinu. The people at the station were amazed too- amazed to see me, just a musician without big label support and a huge entourage, entering their offices and shaking their hands, thanking them for giving me a chance.
All this led to my first record deal and since then, I have always been careful not to sign everything away but rather to create licensing deals where I still own all my masters.
My last release, Change The World With A Sound was the #1 add on the CMJ world music charts when it came out. I donât put nylon strings on my steel string guitar anymore. In fact, I now own several nylon string guitars that I keep in different parts of the country for touring. I also worked out some endorsement deals with manufacturers whose equipment I believe in and like to use.
Looking back to when I started, I didn’t have a comprehensive plan with all the necessary steps in the whole process. I just started recording a song. That was the first step and once it was completed, the next one became more apparent. In the process, I think I found my own sound too.
I learned a lot being an independent artist and a student in the school of hard knocks. And through all this, I tried my best to treat others with respect and kindness, whether the person was the head of a record company or a stage hand at a gig. I also followed my own instincts and played with honesty and sincerity regardless of what the current trends were in the music business. I think itâs important for musicians to remember that music starts with us and not with Clear Channel or some MBA behind a desk. We need to carve out our own niches and listen to the music in our own souls and follow that. We also need to help each other out when we can. We’re all in this together and there’s plenty of room at the top.
May it mean success for all of us and may it better the art form.