John P. Strohm is an example of what happens when you stay positive, you make the best with what you’ve got, you give it your all. Strohm’s first band was Blake Babies, straight outta Boston, 1986, Juliana Hatfield. The band had some minor success and Hatfield went on to stardom. Strohm kept making music and eventually became an entertainment lawyer. He’s a happy man, with positive outlooks for artists AND the music industry. Pretty impressive. Strohm is also still a rootsy musician. Keep reading for juicy tidbits from the Lemonheads years, why licensing is not a bad thing, details on inspiration for songs and mp3s.
You’ve had an interesting career. How did you decide to become an entertainment lawyer?
When the Lemonheads broke up in 1997 I didn’t really have a way to make a living. I’d ended my nearly ten-year run under contract with Mammoth, and my prospects were not very good. Nevertheless, I decided to make one more record in an attempt to establish a career as a solo artist. I decided if the record did not establish a career, I would go back to college and figure out what else I could do.
I made the album Vestavia, which I feel is the best record of my own music by far, but obviously it didn’t end up a career-making record. It received some very nice press and I toured the U.S. and Europe, but by 1999 I was back in school full-time. I was sort of in a crisis time because I really had no idea what I could do other than music. I wanted to find a way to work with musicians, but I really didn’t have a plan. Then I did really well in school, which opened doors. I decided almost on a whim to apply to law school.
I’d noted that lawyers in the music industry have a pretty sweet deal. Lawyers are usually independent of the major labels and publishers, and they get to be involved with a lot of different careers. I hated the idea of working for a major label because I had mostly negative feelings about those companies. My main ambition was to find a way to make a living, but I also really wanted to find a way to help artists in their careers without having to work for a record company.
I went to work for a firm in Birmingham out of school by choice, and I’ve remained in town ever since. Since there are no entertainment lawyers here to speak of, I was really on my own to build a practice. My firm’s been very supportive of my fledgling practice. Some of my clients are quite successful – more successful than I ever was – and some are brilliant but obscure. I feel it’s turned out really well; I wouldn’t have seen myself doing what I do back when I played music full-time, but it’s a really good fit for me.
What’s your role in the Future of Music Coalition?
I started going to the Policy Summit when I was still in law school, on a musician scholarship. Since then I’ve gotten to know most of the people on the board, particularly Michael Bracy, the co-founder and policy director. I’ve done a bit of transactional work for FMC, but mostly I’m just an avid supporter and a member of their advisory board. I’m doing a panel at the Policy Summit next month, which is a huge thrill. It’s a real honor and privilege to be involved and to participate in the policy discussions. It’s such a challenging yet incredible time for this industry.
How do you feel about the music industry in terms of file sharing? Do you believe it’s good for bands to give away their music for free?
Since I’m essentially a copyright lawyer and I represent copyright owners and rights-holders, I take a dim view on unauthorized copying. But having said that, I think we’re in a time of transition right now, and obviously the old way of looking at the sale of recordings as the core of the industry is over. I don’t think so-called file sharing will be an issue for very long, because as I’ve believed for most of this decade I think we’re quickly moving towards a new paradigm where ownership will be mostly irrelevant. It should be amazing for the music fans, because we’ll legally have access to all music (and all entertainment product) all the time; the issues that need to be settled are how to charge for the access and how to pay the rights-holders.
I’ve observed that people – even prolific file sharers – will pay for music if it’s cheap and easy. Some won’t pay under any circumstances, but of course some people will shoplift CDs as well. What most people won’t do at this point is drive to a store and drop seventeen dollars on a CD – that represents the greedy, outmoded model of scarcity that led to bloated profits for the majors. Once the major companies realize that’s over and fully embrace the new paradigm, and once all of the parties get together and devise a system to pay the owners and creators, the industry will be healthier than ever for the long haul. Music is more popular than ever- all of the issues arise as a result of the problem of competing with “free.”
That said, free has worked quite well recently for all sorts of artists (including some of my clients), and I have absolutely no problem with artists giving away their music, assuming they control all of the rights. Most artists don’t make their money from selling recordings and never have, so it makes sense to use the recordings as a loss leader to generate interest and increase other revenue streams, such as live concerts, merchandise, and licensing income.
What about the idea that once you sign on with a company and represent a product, you’ve lost your authenticity? What about the claim that art should be for arts sake and not to sell products??
That was the prevailing school of thought among “indie” musicians back in the 80s and early 90s. Over the late ’90s and into the new century that specific branch of indie purism has fallen away somewhat as many musicians and fans now accept that musicians must have a way to underwrite their “art,” and licensing money is more readily available than, say, profits from touring and artist royalties. Also, in contrast to labels, licensees don’t generally exert any creative control over the actual music.
I typically choose to remain silent on the topic, because I represent different musicians whose attitudes differ wildly. It’s not my place as an artists’ attorney to express attitudes about authenticity, but rather to help my clients make a living. Some of my clients have found that certain types of placements piss off their fans, so the market really sort of reigns in what they can get away with to an extent. I consider ALL of my creative clients to primarily be artists, and my role (in addition to protecting property and risk management) is to help them find a way to make their art work in streams of commerce. And, for the record, I generally agree that on balance media licensing is a great thing for creative musicians because it helps them to stay truly independent and make a living.
The whole quest for authenticity is tricky, because a lot of the music that most everybody considers authentic (such as early 20th Century blues and hillbilly music) was primarily commercial music in its time. Popular music is necessarly in commerce, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which sorts of commerce are appropriate and which are not. If you contrast indie music with, say, commercial country, the big difference is that indie is art first, commerce second, whereas commercial country is pretty much all commerce.
Tell me about the music scene in Birmingham, where do you fit in?
I followed my wife here in 1997 with some trepidation. The scene here at the time wasn’t very strong, and I quickly reached the point where I had to leave town to make any money in music. In retrospect this was a good thing, because it hastened my return to college. I don’t know if I’d have chosen to go to law school if I hadn’t moved here. If I’d have stayed in Boston, I would have been busy enough doing sessions and production work to avoid the difficult questions.
Now that I’ve been here for twelve years, it’s really become my home. I’ve made so many amazing friends in and out of the music scene, and it’s small enough that I feel like I’ve really done some good, especially in the music community, which has steadily improved since I moved here. When I moved here there were basically no good venues, and now we have some of the best venues in the country, particularly the amazing Bottletree Cafe, which has become a favorite stop for touring indie artists from around the world. My clients actually come through town on a regular basis, which wasn’t true even a few years ago.
What are you working on personally? What’s the band with Macey Taylor?
Music is more or less a hobby for me now. I have three young kids and my job is time-consuming, so there’s really not enough time to do anything very ambitious. I released an album in 2007, but it took me the previous five years to finish making it.
Macey is a friend from the music scene here – I’m good friends with his entire family of brilliant musicians. I’ve known him since before he worked with Conor Oberst, so I think of him as another really cool guy and good player rather than as an indie star. I was asked to put a band together for a client recently, a Canadian band called Oceanship who made a great record and have a radio hit various places in the country, including Birmingham. Our triple-A station here, Live 100.5, wanted to do something special for their first anniversary, so they reached out to Oceanship to do a series of shows. They are a duo and they couldn’t afford to bring their entire band for just a few shows, so I called some friends. I got Macey to play bass and Les Nuby, the former drummer from the band Verbena (now defunct, the former band of AA Bondy) to play drums. I played guitar. It was a fun exercise because their music is this really anthemic, piano based pop-rock – way different from what any of us typically do. It’s really huge, sung to the rafters music, which is fun as hell to do onstage. We hope to do more shows soon.
I’ve recently assembled a band that’s roughly in the Americana vein called Electroliner. It’s formative, but it’s going to be a really great band. I wanted to have a band in which I wouldn’t have to sing every song, so I reached out to a couple of my favorite singer/songwriters in town, Bo Butler (who used to front a band called The Saturdays) and Claire Cormany (who fronts a pop-punk band called Kiss Me at the Gate). We have a multi-instrumentalist who plays mandolin, lap steel and pedal steel, but it’s more pop than straight country. It’s the first band I’ve ever had that can nail three part harmonies, and I’m really excited about the possibilities.
Do you have plans to release anything?
We’ll do an Electroliner album eventually, time permitting- but we’ll just play around town for the foreseeable future. For now we’re just mining our back song catalogs and doing cool covers, but eventually we’ll start writing for the band. It’s exciting to have three writers and three singers- I hope we can write an album as a true collaboration. I also have some songs I’ve written on piano I want do to something with eventually. It all depends on finding the time, and thank goodness it’s not my livelihood.
What are you currently listening to? What are some of your favorite bands?
I try to keep up with what’s going on in the music underground, but I tend to like the rootsy, song-oriented stuff. I’ll admit that I mostly listen to old records, ranging from depression-era roots music to 60s country and soul and classic punk/indie stuff. Some of my favorite recent artists include Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Dawes, Andrew Bird, Bowerbirds, Grizzly Bear, Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s, Heartless Bastards, Kaiser Cartel. My favorite songwriter is Townes Van Zandt.
When you look back on your time with the Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, Velo-Deluxe, etc., what do you miss most?
I miss the process of writing and recording. I really enjoyed the work of conceiving an album from start to finish, camping in the studio for weeks on end. I also miss the feeling of community when the tours went well, and the travel. I wish I could live that life for about two weeks per year now.
What was your favorite show you ever played?
That’s tough, but one stands out. I was the drummer in the Lemonheads in the 80s, when they were a punk band playing basement parties and stuff. Then I left the band and they became a successful major label act. I re-joined as the guitar player in 1994 when they were at their commercial peak. I hadn’t played many big shows, but for them it was all big shows- really exciting. A couple weeks in we got a call that Van Morrison had cancelled his appearance at Glastonbury. We were on this odd bill, between Jackson Browne and Johnny Cash. It was by far the biggest crowd I’d played in front of, probably 80,000 people in the middle of the day. Then after the show Johnny Cash and June Carter were walking around backstage. Cash was my childhood hero, so I found the courage to introduce myself and pay my respects. He said “thanks for warming up the stage for me,” and then he invited me into his trailer to sit and chat with him and June. He signed my guitar, the Jazzmaster that I still play.
My favorite Blake Babies song is “Train.” What was the inspiration for that?
It’s a song about watching a friend become addicted to drugs and feeling helpless. Heroin was a big problem in Boston in the late 80s- several of my close friends developed a habit, and a couple of them eventually died. It was deeply, deeply disturbing. The “hold on to my arm” line is literal- once my friend didn’t have a belt and he wanted to shoot up, so he asked me to hold his arm to slow the flow of blood. I did it- but it was a harrowing moment for me. I left Boston at least in part to get away from the drugs and the drug culture. I wasn’t a user, but the whole thing just tore me up. I’m proud of that song.
Are you teaching your kids music?
I encourage my kids to do music, and I teach them a little bit. But I really want them to find it on their own. My son is five, and he’s just beginning to show interest and to demonstrate natural talent. My oldest daughter is 7, and she is already an obsessive. She is taking piano lessons and I’ve taught her a bit of guitar. She wants to be Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus combined.
Are you in touch with your old music pals, Juliana, Evan, Freda, Jake? I heard Freda and Jake moved…to London?
I’m in touch- and on friendly terms- with all of them. Jake and Freda moved to Nottingham, U.K. Jake is a professor there, and Freda is pursuing a degree in creative writing. They have two sons, one already a teenager.
Will you reunite with any of your old band mates (the Blake Babies reunion tour was clearly a success)?
Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of time that we had then. We knew that the Blakes reunion was our last chance, because I was about to start law school and my wife and I knew we wanted to start a family (and we did practically right away after that). Now, there’s no way I could find three months or even three weeks.
I’ve done a couple of one-offs with my former bands Antenna and Velo Deluxe for Musical Family Tree, an Indianapolis music site, but those were really more for fun, for the locals who were really supportive when those bands existed. I’d love to play with Evan again some day, but it’s really a problem of not having time or being in the right place. For now, I think I’ll just have to stick to my own projects and helping in a business capacity.
You wrote a lot for Musical Family Tree about your music, playing in all your bands, etc. What prompted you to do that? Your writing was very clear and inspiring even. Any plans to write more?? (Those were taken down…how come?)
When Musical Family Tree was just getting started I wanted to contribute something significant to help them get things going. The people who started the site are my good friends, and I really wanted to spread the word. I also wanted to write down some of my stories so I’d have them for posterity. I got into this rhythm where I’d sit down basically every Friday evening and write a couple thousand words, then I’d edit over the weekend and post the following week. I did this over three or four months, and eventually I had a book-length memoir.
I was inspired to finish by really encouraging comments from MFT members, and I really enjoyed the process. But eventually lots and lots of people read the posts. I ended up offending a couple of people with my account of events, and that’s why I took it down. I cleared the text with the major people such as Juliana, Freda and various girlfriends; but it was people with smaller roles who didn’t like how they were portrayed. I learned some important lessons about the Internet, that’s for sure.
I’m eventually going to take the draft and substantially edit- I’ll change some names and cut out some parts, probably add a few more. I’d like to publish it once I’ve edited. I’m not sure how much interest there would be, but I know it’s the sort of thing I really like to read. I hope I get around to it. I’m especially proud of the chapters about my teenage years in the early 80s punk scene. Those were really interesting times.
John P. Strohm: Another Losing Season
Blake Babies: Train