ADAM WESTON is the drummer for lushly expansive rock group Birds of Tokyo, but this powerhouse wears a multitude of other hats in the industry. Alongside his wife Heidi Weston, Adam co-runs Firestarter Music – a hardworking artist services company that organises everything from CD manufacture, to physical and digital distribution, to tour bookings, publicity and release planning for its roster. Phew! Adam’s days are usually split between time for Birds of Tokyo, and tasks for Firestarter.
I caught up with him for an interview, and he filled me in on what his understandably busy life looks like.
Bec: What has the last week for you been like?
Adam: I don’t really have a generic week. If I had a solid position that entailed a certain list of duties, then I could go into detail on those. But because I spend my time between playing in a band and working from home doing Firestarter, my time is usually topsy-turvy – whether I’m overseas or at home in Brisbane, or working with the band in the studio in Sydney.
Bec: Maybe we should go with a typical day, then!
Adam: I usually try to start the day with some exercise – once you’re out of your early 20s, I find you spend less time drinking, and more time trying to keep healthy and eat well! Heidi and I have a daughter, so I usually do the school run in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon.
After that, it’s time for business. Firstly, one of the biggest parts of my day is listening to new music. I don’t think anyone in the industry can claim to have current expertise, or opinions on facets of the industry, unless they’re solid music lovers. So, all day, every day, I’m checking out new bands, whether they’re local Australian artists, or something I’ve seen on a blog from overseas. Music is just spinning all day long for me.
I listen to a broad spectrum of music. I don’t believe Firestarter can work with, for example, metal bands, unless we know what all the kids are listening to and digging. And that goes for all genres, whether it’s the new Belle and Sebastian record, or the new Mastadon record, or…anything in between. New music doesn’t just help me keep tabs on whatever’s happening and what’s on radio, it also just helps for my own personal development.
In general, my day-to-day routine is mainly about keeping on top of my inbox – and making sure Firestarter’s bands are getting what they need, and, of course, challenging myself musically.
(On his role in Birds of Tokyo)
One thing I try to do while I’m at home is practice. Even though I’m a drummer, drums are the one thing that I don’t really touch when I’m not rehearsing, writing or touring with the band. Over the years, Birds of Tokyo have developed into a band that treats songwriting as a craft (as opposed to the band that just used to hook up every weekend for beers, and kick out the jams in a rehearsal room). This has allowed me to branch out to keyboard and guitar, and get my head around ProTools and other music software. The past couple of years have had less time spent trying to hear each other over the top of noisy guitars, and more time meticulously working through ideas on computers and sharing creative information.
I think that’s also stemmed from being in different cities – our singer’s in Melbourne, I’m in Brisbane, and the rest of the guys are in Sydney…and we all originally came from Perth! So it’s that sort of relationship where you’re just not in each others’ faces 24/7.
When I’m at home, there’s always Birds of Tokyo stuff to do. It is, by far, priority number one. When we’re not writing or recording or rehearsing or touring, we’re constantly brainstorming and emailing each other anything to do with ideas, content and artwork. In particular, this week I’ve been trying to find some cool accommodation that might act as a creative space to use when we’re not rehearsing for upcoming shows. These shows will be our first official touring shows in 12 or 18 months. So there’s a lot of preparation involved. It’s not like we just grab our instruments and pick up where we left off. We’re always trying to treat things as a new cycle and do things differently, while not forgetting what we were good at before.
(On his role with Firestarter Music)
Heidi started Firestarter fifteen years ago. And I’ve been doing it for almost as long, probably about twelve or thirteen years. It honestly stemmed from what everyone else does when they first start out in bands – you book your own shows, you write your own bios, you go about making your CDs. Things just got a little bit more serious as we started working with more bands and booking more gigs in Perth, and developing a roster of artists.
My role specifically, so I don’t get too bogged down in one particular thing, is that I get to oversee everything. Heidi is really the nuts and bolts of the operation. We’re also lucky enough to have five helpers, spread across different states, who take care of things like web and digital stuff, accounts and IT.
Heidi deals with the bands a lot, and I get to sort of oversee how things are rolling out. I ‘proof’ everything. Which means I have to make sure I’m up to speed with what’s happening in all of those areas, because things are always changing, and no band has exactly the same thing going on as another.
This weekend, I’ll be seeing a few shows – on Saturday, one of our bands from Perth will be doing their album launch show in Brisbane. They’re actually staying at my house (laughs). That’s something we also offer sometimes to bands we work with – if they’re touring and coming through Brisbane, they can save a couple hundred dollars on accommodation and come crash with us. Last week, a crazy hardcore band from Perth stayed with us, so the beers were flowing but as soon as they left, it was straight back to the computer!
As of about 2006, rather than just working with a handful of bands and being responsible for them, we began to work with more artists of different genres, on a release-by-release basis. Distribution and promotion goes hand-in-hand with that. So, over the years, through solid networking and the love of going out to shows, it put us in the position of being able to service these releases we were working to media, mainly being radio and press. And my, how that has changed over the last decade (Adam chuckles). Less physical, more digital – a lot less licking of envelopes.
There is a brutal amount of time required at the computer, keeping on top of the current database.
Radio servicing and press and blog kind of stuff takes up the majority of our time. There are so many people out there to be contacted and followed up on and kept in the loop. Our inbox is predominately filled with radio feedback, or teeing up interviews for bands that are on tour. We often take care of planning bands’ release times – we take care of their manufacturing, whether that’s CD or DVD or vinyl, and usually incorporate servicing, like a marketing campaign. And then there’s digital and physical (retail) distribution. So, a lot of the services that essentially a label would offer to their artists.
Bec: Is there a day of the week you keep completely business free?
Adam: …No! I think there used to be, but at this point in time, it’s my choice to take on this much work. It’s not something that I have to do.
The business is developing, and I’m comfortable with being overly busy. Heidi may tear her hair out from time to time, and other things in life can get neglected, but I think, especially within the music industry, there really isn’t such a thing as 9-to-5. When press releases need to go out Monday morning…straight after dinner Sunday night, when most people might put on a movie or chill out, we’re right back at the computer writing press releases, and prepping whatever needs to go out for Monday.
I might have a bit more downtime on a Sunday – I might go to the farmers market in the morning and watch some footy – but I’m still on my email 24/7, so nothing gets past us. In this line of work, I don’t think anyone can afford to take more than 24 hours off. If they do, they’re just coming back to an inbox which is going to take them twice as long to catch up on.
People in a ‘normal’ job, who have maybe two or four weeks of holidays each year, can schedule that time in and go on holiday. Whereas our time is designated around other people’s release schedules. If I wanted to take next week off, I’d be letting someone else down! But the work is there, and we enjoy doing it.
Bec: What would you say are the highlights of your jobs?
Adam: Number one is the satisfaction of hearing your song on radio for the first time. I remember when Birds of Tokyo first had one of our singles played on Triple J – we were all in a jam room together, and we kind of just jumped up and down with excitement. Even later in our career, when we were in America, and hearing Lanterns keep coming on the radio, it gave us this renewed sense of excitement about what we do.
Radio isn’t the be all and end all of things, but I guess it’s part of those small victories. For Firestarter, the highlight would be scoring that for other bands. Watching bands who are doing introductory rounds of promotion – getting their first interviews and first spins, then getting on their first festival because of some rotation they got on radio. And a couple of years go by, and they’re securing management and a booking agent, and then they’re doing their first headlining national tour. We get to share in all of those goals for others. I just dig it when bands can have successful releases and big hometown launches, and be able to tour, and not send themselves completely broke. That’s a measure of success for a lot of people in this day and age. One of our artists just had some great sync placements – so all the rewards come in different shapes and sizes, really.
Bec: And what are the lowlights of your roles?
Adam: Piracy is still being combated. Record sales are super low – it’s so expensive to tour. Everything about being in an emerging band is stacked against you. Opportunities are so few and far between, and the competition is just so fierce for radio spots, and particularly the spots that matter. So it can be a bit disappointing when bands may have material that you really believe in, and things don’t really work out that well, and they have to keep chomping at the bit to get ahead. I always remind people that these are building blocks, and what some bands want doesn’t always happen overnight. The reality is that there’s so much sacrifice to be had in playing in a band these days. In a lot of cases, it’s just not financially viable to tour, and that means it’s becoming more difficult for booking agents to want to get involved with bands.
I think when a band can finally break through and have material that gets ahead of the competition, it all of a sudden just makes things a lot easier. Other opportunities start snowballing, and it all starts looking up. But initially getting out there is a lot of hard work. I guess that’s where, because we do work with a lot of emerging bands, it can be pretty stressful. But that’s all part of the challenge, and it makes it that much more satisfying when those bands start kicking goals.
Bec: Do you have any words of wisdom for people considering a role in your field?
Adam: Probably the same thing I’ve always said, which is, you’ve gotta be able to get your head around as many of facets of the industry as you can. Because you have no choice but to know what’s going on around you, and how certain elements of the industry work. You just can’t be a guy that plays guitar in a band and expects everyone else to do everything for you. It just doesn’t work like that. And, sure, maybe there are those people out there, but they’ll end up paying a severe price for that someday. No one can do anything in half measures anymore. You can’t be in a band and expect to have national exposure and just treat it casually. Unfortunately, it means being put in a position where you do have to put your study on hold – you do have to quit your job – you do have to put every single cent you’ve got into it, with absolutely no guarantee of any return. You may not even like it once you’ve spent years doing the same thing and touring the country. It doesn’t work out for a lot of people they way they dreamed it would. But the same thing goes with business. You just can’t go, “Well, I’ll only do emails between 9 and 4, and someone just sent me something on a Friday night – I’ll deal with that next week”. That’s not 100%. You’ll get left behind. So again, that means sacrificing so much else, in order to put everything into it.
But for myself and a lot of people I know, we’re not doing this because someone’s forcing us to. This isn’t a job I wake up to in the morning and groan about. I feel super privileged that I get to do this – my band’s like my family, and I’ve been doing that for over a decade. We’ve had some awesome times – and some pretty shitty times – but we wouldn’t trade it for anything else. We love what we do, and that’s why we keep doing it.