This being my third go-round with publishing a book, I’ve got a moderately jaded – let’s call it realistic – set of expectations, which can be summed up as, “If they buy you cheap, they’ll sell you cheap.” With notable exceptions, most books that start out small stay that way – publishers scale promo to the original investment, which is reasonable. I had a very modest book (Desolate Angel), and then got lucky and because of the subject had a large book (A Long Strange Trip).
These expectations apply not only to the publisher and his/her advertising and promo budget, but also to the reactions of the media. Generally speaking, your average editor is going to react more quickly to Random House than, say, Counterpoint.
So I had what I thought were appropriately modest expectations about the reception On Highway 61 is going to get. But I’ve just returned from a music business conference that seems to suggest I might be pleasantly wrong.
My buddy Jack Barton is the editor of the Triple A format coverage at Friday Morning Quarterback, which is the bible of the radio industry. Every year he runs a conference for the executives of those stations in Boulder; they listen to panels which explore how they can stay in business and hold on to the central principle of Triple A, which is a respect for the old free-form heritage from “underground radio” in the very late ‘60s and ‘70s – variety, freedom, all that good stuff. They also listen to short sets from new bands – 38 slots in the course of three and a half days.
I was grumbling about the music business and Jack told me I should come to Boulder and meet people. I’m not shy, but being the only stranger in a room full of people who know each other and are proving it by happily raving with each other is not my idea of paradise. But for lots of reasons I decided to go. I armed myself with a stack of postcards with the cover of On Highway 61 on one side and some other info on the other.
I have no problem in representing other people, but I’ll admit selling myself is a little embarrassing – but I do believe in the book and I managed to turn into a shameless promo guy fairly quickly. What happened at the conference was that it turned out to be stunningly easy to talk to these folks about the history of American music as depicted in On Highway 61. In fact, they actually care about music, and were glad to talk about things like helping spread the word about a book, which isn’t the usual thing at commercial radio stations (some were commercial, some not).
Being a little dense at times and not thinking things through, I’d failed to remember that I’d actually worked with lots of these people – I’d just not met them. So when one of my faves, a radio lady in Madison, Wisconsin, named Gabby Parsons, saw my name and gave me a very warm welcome… it relieved lots of anxiety but also made sense; I’ve been talking with Gabby for a long time.
Gabby introduced me to somebody new, Gini Mascorro, who’s the music director at KXT in Dallas. And Gini, I’m pleased to say, got the idea of the book right away. Turns out her boss, Mark Abuzzahab, is an old friend of mine from RatDog’s visits to Boulder’s (now Denver) KBCO – that part doesn’t hurt, either.
There were lots more encounters like that, either with old telephone friends or brand-new acquaintances, but I’ll spare you the namedropping.
You get the idea. What started as a chore evolved into a hangout with friends, which is pretty much ideal. And the book made sense to these music people, which is the kind of response you want. So while On Highway 61 isn’t likely to get a ton of ink (there being less and less space available for book reviews in any case), you very well might hear about it on the airwaves. Not too dumb, considering it’s a book about music, anyway.
Finally, let me add that I listened to many of those 38 new bands, and liked quite a number of them. But I fell in love with Lake Street Dive, which features a lead vocalist named Rachael Price, who has a voice that can rip your heart out, and a standup bass player with serious chops named Bridget Kearney. The guys – Mike Calabrese on drums and Mike Olsen on guitar – are not slouches, either. Really impressive – consider this your free tip for the week.