When James Striker moved to Chattanooga in 1989, he began to make waves in the local music scene by opening The Bay. In an effort to bring bigger name acts through town, he worked with agents in cities like Nashville, Atlanta, and Knoxville to bring artists like Kid Rock, Three Doors Down, and Prince into town. Over the years, he has been contacted by labels, musicians, and other industry players to give feedback on songs, stage presence, and general marketability of performers. When prompted, Striker says, “I would give a straight and honest opinion about each one, and for the most part I’ve been pretty spot on where I thought each of them would land on the charts and how I thought the single would do.” He is helping musicians out still today, but at a different location called RAW, located on Market Street in the heart of downtown.
How long have you been working with artists and labels as a manager?
I never signed on to work with a label. Over the years I worked with different tour managers and booking agents and you start to learn a lot about the industry. After I opened RAW in 2003, I started working with Strung Like a Horse. I took them up to Nashville and we did two or three showcases up there before a booking agency picked them up. We were fortunate and got one of the smaller boutique agencies that handle groups like Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton, and Corey Smith, to pick them up. It enabled them to start touring regionally and then it was just a matter of accepting offers as they came in. As a manager what happens is that booking agents approach you and say, “We have an offer for this and it will be this amount of money.” It’s then my job to figure out the cost behind it and negotiate a price that would work for us and work with the band to figure out a direction as well as branding and how to market themselves.
I just recently started working with a great artist out of Nashville, Chase Martin. She’s been great to work with because she has a good work ethic. She makes sure to schedule two writing sessions a day, song writer rounds, looks for advice on how to improve her songs, etc. Other than her, there are a couple that I help out with here and there. They’ll come to me when they need the help.
At what point does someone need to consider getting a manager?
When it gets to the point where they’ve played a whole lot of shows or been signed by a booking agency, because by that point an agency realizes that this band is making waves. Typically they don’t want to work directly on managing or developing the band, however, because that’s not their job. They want to keep their relationship with the artists positive, so they hire a manager to work with the band to boost the positive and cut out the negative aspects of their careers. This often includes things like helping bands recognize when they connected well with an audience by playing a great show or speaking up if an attitude adjustment is due. Managers will help you advance shows and keep up with an itinerary. If you’re overwhelmed by advancing shows and keeping a schedule, you probably at a point where you need a manager.
What trends in the music industry have you seen work successfully?
I know a lot of local musicians who don’t like to hear it, but cover songs get a lot of views on social media and tend to connect well with audiences on stage. In my mind, if you don’t do that then you’re not allowing the band to really open up their market. Strung Like a Horse ended up taking that suggestion and started doing cover songs in the bathrooms of venues (they’re called “Toilet Seat Covers,” and you can find them posted on the band’s Facebook page). If you look at some of those videos now, they’ve garnered 20,000 views, which is a pretty good start. Clay (the lead singer of Strung) wasn’t initially interested in performing cover songs, but he’s added a few to his repertoire and changed them up because an original band has got to realize that their first job is entertainment. Their job isn’t to force–feed their music down someone’s throat; when they’re hired by a venue their first priority is to entertain. Performing a cover song really helps an artist connect with the audience.
I look at it like this; a musician needs to think about what they need to do to make a living until their songs sell or their band becomes popular enough. I don’t think there are many, if any, bands that have made it on just their original music. There’s always at least one or two covers in their set to connect with the audience. A lot of musicians have started out as cover bands and then gone on to become extremely famous. That’s how the Rolling Stones and the Beatles had their start. The Rolling Stones came to the States as a blues cover band before they played their own music. Their first tour was cover songs. Just recently, someone as big as Zach Brown was a cover musician who played for three hours in coffee shops and eventually put together a band to play that stuff, but he made quite a bit of money doing that. In the meantime, he would start adding his own music. His cover rooms (music venue where cover bands are a mainstay) would start turning into almost all original rooms, which still allowed him to be paid a higher check because cover rooms end up getting paid more.
An original band can expect anything from barely covering gas money to reaping thousands of dollars if they’re popular enough, but if you play a good cover set you can generally expect $500–$1,500 a night. And you can still add some of your original songs to that set and get paid that amount of money. It’s a financially stable way of getting out there. The truth is that most musicians give up because they can’t afford to pay their bills. Your first priority should be to pay bills and take care of your family. That’s always been my approach to it.
Where do you see Chattanooga’s music scene in the next five years?
Hopefully with what SoundCorps is doing, it will become more organized and musicians will start working together. If they’re gonna grow as an industry, they’re gonna have to. I’d love to do songwriting circles here and focus on improving song quality. I don’t see any young bands working together to write music in Chattanooga. It’s different in Nashville because it has a predominantly identifiable sound, country pop, even though there are more genres than that. Chattanooga doesn’t have that popular sound; everyone is doing a little bit of everything so it’s difficult to have songwriting groups because there are so many different styles.
Photo Credit goes to Striker's Facebook page.