The Steps I took to get into the Music Industry

Category: , December 4, 2020

I worked in the music business from 1999-2010, I took some unusual “steps” to get there.

In 1999, I was really starting to get into HTML and website development, and was freelancing at a place called SixDegrees.com, which was basically Facebook before Facebook.

My friend DJ, who was a travel agent, had won a pair of tickets to Paris on the Concorde through some sales contest. He was divorced at the time, so he asked me if I wanted to go. I of course said yes, never having been to Paris, or ever flown on the Concorde. He suggested that we travel to Amsterdam after Paris and hang out there a few days. We had frequented Amsterdam in the 90s, because well, it was Amsterdam. While we were already over the water, to get to Amsterdam was nothing.

The Concorde was amazing, you had your own terminal, first-class everything, champagne, breakfast, the works. Our flight was at 9am. The plane was always so futuristic looking so seeing it outside where we were going to board was really cool. All the seats were first-class, you got your own silverware and actual glass S&P shakers. It was really loud at first, and I recall at take-off feeling the thrust. There was an electronic indicator on the wall that indicated the air speed, and I watched as it climbed and climbed and the readout read M1, and kept going, that was impressive.

Anyway, this is a music story not a travel review. We made our way to Amsterdam and relaxed with a beer and a little hash, a nice way to start. We had met up with my roommate Eric and his girlfriend who were going to be in Amsterdam at the same time.

While in Amsterdam my back started hurting me, I had some back problems at the time and it would flare up now and then. One day was a little rainy and I decided to hang inside the hotel for a bit and get high to relieve the pain and watch European TV for a while.

I loved watching MTV Euro most of all. They would show videos you would never see in the U.S. They showed a lot more pop music too, which I have a sweet tooth for. The appetite for pop music there was very different. They would even send American pop stars over there to get popular then bring them back to the U.S., their success didn’t always translate back and forth, but a lot of times it did.

I see a video come up with a boy/girl group, 3 girls and 2 guys, all dressed in slick matching outfits. The sound was a bit of ABBA and dance music, very poppy. I thought the song was good, and the girls were smoking hot, so I was pretty engrossed. I noticed that they were on Jive Records. Eric, my roommate worked at Dreamhire, which was a professional audio equipment rental company owned by Zomba Music, the company which also owned Jive Records among other imprints at the time. I knew Eric worked with people from Battery Studio, the in-house studio for Zomba, where Jive artists did some of their recording, so he was well acquainted with people at the label.

So later that evening Eric comes by and we’re talking, and I’m telling him about this group I saw, and how I was digging it, and they are on Jive Records, maybe you’ve heard of them, and then he asks the name of the group, and I reply “Steps”, and well, the look on his face was not encouraging. He shook his head, and rolled his eyes, and was probably thinking, “is this the same guy I went to a bunch of concerts with, Beastie Boys, U2 and all that, the guy who is always cranking Zeppelin and Alice In Chains?!”

Now the pop movement was happening, the Spice Girls were already huge, I had worked at MSG in 1997, I think, as I was leaving one night the Garden plaza was just overwhelmed with young screaming girls. I came in the next day and asked what the hell was that, when I found out it was for this UK girl group, I reflected how unaware I was that this was coming.

So move forward a couple of weeks, and I’m home working on my computer, and Eric comes in and tosses a few CDs on my desk, and says something along the lines of “here’s that crap you said you were into…” I’m looking at the CD, checking out the fun graphics and the hot shots of the girls. OK, here we go.

Steps CDs
a sample of what my roommate got for me.

There were singles and remixes, and the album. I pop it in and listen to the two songs I know, confirm that they still spark some joy, and then listen to the whole album. I had gone online and looked up what I could find about them, you have to remember in 1999 not everyone had a website, or a place to provide info.

I had found some fan sites, the label had a site but was very weak and never updated. I also found some fan boards where you could communicate, which I did, and would correspond with other fans, all in the UK of course. They even wondered how I knew about the band as they were so new and not very well known.

When working with HTML and trying to build websites, I was always looking for ideas, there’s only so much you could do with just dummy copy and a frame-set, plus I was starting to experiment a lot with Flash, which was the new web animation software. I was into all this technology, I would spend hours, looking at code, trying to figure things out, and make cool stuff, still doing it today in fact.

I decided that I would build a Steps fan site, that would give me a bunch of material to work with, with bios, music, photos etc., plus it would be a labor of love. I decided to use Flash so it would force me to learn it, and I would create an animated site with music. So off I went. I added music, I did gifs of 3D, it turned out pretty cool. I’d post it in Flash but since Flash is being killed, no sense in going there. I did convert it to a QuickTime video, so you could check it out, without interactive capabilities.

The original Steps Flash site, converted to video.

So fast forward a couple of weeks, and Eric tells me that the international rep had mentioned to him that Steps were coming to the US, to support Britney Spears on part of her tour. Even better than that, they were going to be filming a video in a club called Twirl, on 23rd St., two blocks from the label headquarters, and three blocks from my house.

So, of course, I start hounding my roommate, “can you get me into watch it?”, “is there a way I can sneak into the club?, can you ask someone for me?, c’mon man, look at the timing of this opportunity”, all said in about 5 seconds. He looks at me incredulously,  and responds with something like “I don’t even work for the label, I’m just passing some info on to you, the rest is on you”, and I cleverly respond, “won’t they be using some equipment rented from your company?”, and he shakes his head at my end-around, “I might load it up at the office but Im definitely not the person heading into the club.”

So I’m running ideas in my head, he sees my desperation, he offers this. “ if you want to take my JIVE windbreaker(it had a big JIVE logo on the back), it does look official, like a security guy would wear, but you DID NOT get it from me, you don’t know me!” The subtext was obvious, “I’m not losing my cool job because you want to stalk some POP band.”. I’m thinking it through, I’m wondering what I would say if I got caught, I’m sure ejection is the worst, which I can handle. I’m thinking that the JIVE jacket alone might not be enough, so I decide to forge (sorry, there is no other word for it) a JIVE ID card. I have no idea what one looks like, and I can tell you that it didn’t even exist as something someone would carry. Let’s remember, this is 1999, the complete infancy of the digital age, I didn’t even have a cellphone yet, so there was never going to be a scannable ID or the like. It was usually still a laminated card at this point. I used to draw fake bus passes back in high school, by hand, so this was familiar territory.

So the day arrives, Eric found out a general time that they would be shooting so I had my plan. I got together my CDs, a camera, I did not bring the jacket, it was a beautiful warm day, and it was a lined jacket which would look really out of place, I did have the ID with me.

I wander over to 23rd street, the club Twirl was located just east of 8th Avenue, right near the Chelsea Hotel, it’s now the Gotham Comedy Club I believe. As I start getting close to the club, I see a truck outside, and some scattered audio equipment on the sidewalk, I know this is the place. I see a few people scattered outside, just hanging out, and as I get closer, I realize that three of the group members, 2 girls, Faye and Claire, and one of the guys Lee, were just outside talking. I stop and look at them, and they see me stop and looking. I walk closer and say “are you Steps?” Well, they were blown away, they look at each other in shock, then they ask me “how do you know about us?” I explain my trip to Europe and seeing the videos, and I have a friend (no names) who works with the audio company and told me you were coming.

Outside the Club Twirl. Top: Me with Steps;
Bot: Mgr Pete Byrne talks with two of the girls.

They were really friendly, and chatty. If you recall I said not every act can translate from UK to US, so it’s a crapshoot, I guess for them, so early in their career, to be recognized in the US was pretty cool, even if it was only me. The third girl, Lisa came out, and they presented me saying “ look we have a US fan already”, we talked a bit, then the manager came out, and they introduced me. He was much more inquisitive about how I knew about them, what I know about them etc., marketing research I figure. I tell him that their web presence is weak and they need to have better representation. He couldn’t agree more and lamented that the label was not really focused on that to his dismay. He also told me that they were playing Philly the next weekend opening for Britney Spears, and asked if I were coming. I told him I did not have a ticket but I would try.

I hung around for a bit, got some autographs on the CDs, had a couple of pictures taken, they had to go in and do the video shoot, so I went in and looked around, but when they started working, I felt in the way a bit and just left. I went and dropped off the film to get developed and went home pretty satisfied.

I posted the pics and related the experience on the bulletin boards with the fans, they were psyched to see them in the US and doing their thing. I mentioned that I would try to get down and see them live if I could. My roommate is laughing at my story and shaking his head, he’s like “good for you”. He then tells me that the sound guy who is doing the Philly show was in his place getting equipment, and mentioned that he’s dealing with him this week. I ask him if he thinks he could get me a ticket through work, but alas Britney was breaking out, and becoming a star, and her concerts were not easily accessed. I told him that I was going to try and get a ticket for Philly.

The next day Eric tells me that he was talking to John, the sound guy, and telling him about how I was into this group, and John said, well if he shows up in Philly, let me know, I’ll bring him back to say hello. Well now I have to get a ticket. I find a ticket-scalping service, a ticket service by phone, and get a ticket in the balcony for not too bad a price, especially since I only wanted to see the opening act. I then went and rented a car, since it would be impossible to do otherwise. So I actually have the picture I had taken of me with them, so they can sign it. I head down to Philly, get to the venue super early as that’s when the sound guy would be there.

My ticket stub to see Steps open up for Britney Spears in Philly.

I show up at the stage entrance and ask for the sound guy by name, they tell me to wait. A few minutes later, John comes out, I introduce myself, we talk about Eric as our mutual connection and his work a little, and then he brings me inside with him. He asks me if I have a ticket because I won’t be allowed to stay back here during the show, I tell him I do.

We head towards the hospitality area where the whole band is just sitting at a table eating and drinking casually, he brings me over to the table, and says “I have someone who wants to meet you”, and I step forward, and say hi, Faye jumps up and comes over and gives me a hug, and she introduced me to the one guy I didn’t meet, Ian or “H” as he’s known. He says “I heard about you, our NY fan!” I apologize for interrupting their mealtime, but they assure me it’s cool. I tell them that I just had to see them live after hearing all the music. I ask them to sign my picture, which they happily do, we chat some more. Actually, there was some issue with transportation, because the guy asked me if I had a car and could give the group a ride to the airport. I hesitated, then made an excuse that I could not. I was not driving that much, and was trying to be really careful, and couldn’t imagine having them all in my car and trying to concentrate on driving.

Steps open for Britney in Philadelphia, 8/29/99

This is a video of the concert taken on a MiniDV cam I snuck in, since I came in the stage entrance. So that ended a bit of a whirlwind two weeks, and now I was locked in, it was all Steps. In retrospect it might have been a little overboard at times, but I was just plowing forward, ignoring any responses from my friends. Actually most of my friends who knew me, knew that I could have eclectic taste and weren’t really surprised by any music I got into at this point. My room had posters, I would buy the UK FHM and other rags because it would have these amazing spreads of the girls.

The floppy disk with the site my roommate submitted.

This next part I’m not actually clear about, but my roommate came in one day and said “hey could you put that Steps Flash site on a disk, I want to show it to someone. I said sure, and I didn’t think twice about it, I actually put it on a floppy disk with a STEPS logo as a label. I was freelancing , so I was always sending out samples looking for any work to get. About a week later, he says “hey, you got a resume I can give to this guy at work?”, now I’m like “what?!” , he said not at Dreamhire, at Jive, “I heard they were looking for someone to handle web development, so I sent that disk, and they asked for your resume. You’ll prob get a call from this guy Adam, he’s the knucklehead in charge of all that.” I’m like OK, I’ll be ready.

So sure enough, I get a call from Adam, a really nice guy. I come over to 25th Street to meet him and have a talk. We talked about where the web was going, AOL, handling audio and video, creating Flash sites, all kinds of stuff. I could tell he was really smart. As I was leaving he brought me over to a file cabinet, opened the door and it was just filled with all different CDs, he said “look through and take a few you might like, see who we represent”. So I grab a bunch of CDs, and he says we’ll be in touch.

A week or so later, I get an offer, the salary is already way higher than what I was making as I was freelancing. So I stopped back to see if had this all straight. I’m going to work for the record label of the group I am massively into. I’m going to be in permanent employment with benefits. I’m going to be working on websites 24/7, mostly in Flash with animation and music. I am working in the music business. Wow.

So I became an employee of Zomba Music, the parent company of Jive Records, and many other imprints. Now, I’m into music, but I also play music, and music was and is a huge part of my life. What I found out at the music company, almost everyone is like that. A lot of these people were in bands, and when you’re into music and you can’t make it playing, you still want to be close to it.

Everyone knew I was a huge Steps fan, as my cubicle would reflect that, and no one cared, they were all into similar music, as it was paying the bills. I understood that my priorities now were dictated to me and I wasn’t just working on Steps all the time. So I was working on Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC, and the like. It did freak me out a bit, up until then I worked on sites that had minimal traffic, these sites were being pounded by millions of visitors, that was an eye-opener.

When I started, we were on the same floor as A&R, and I had no idea of how cool that would be. I could talk to the producers and rep guys and pick their brains, they would give me remixes to check out, sometimes asking what I thought. There was always loud music blasting at the office, could be from multiple sources, as everyone is cranking their own. I didn’t realize how being on A&R would affect me until one day I was with someone and “Bye Bye Bye” by N*Sync came on the radio, and I said “OMG I’m so sick of this song!”, they looked at me and said ‘what are you talking about, it just came out two days ago!”, and I realized, I was just exposed to the endless playing of the track on our floor from the A&R dept. for the three previous weeks.

Anyway, so I’m still into Steps, however I cannot be as free and open with info about the group as I am now working at the company. I still kept in touch with fans on the boards and they looked at me as one of them that made it inside, I respect that. Steps are starting to tour, in the UK of course, and I want to go. I ask to see if I could get tickets through our international dept., no problem they say. You’ll have to go to Zomba House in London to pick up your tickets. Cool, so now I’ll see the UK office. It was a bit of a letdown, being in an outside section, Willesden I believe, and in an actual house, not an office building. I get to meet the UK reps for the band and talk to them. One of the fans from UK alerted me to the fact that the band was appearing for a meet and greet at a HMV in London, so I ask the rep if its OK to go to that. She said sure, just show up, I’ll be there, just get my attention.

Eric had decided to come with me as he wanted to chat with some of his UK counterparts which he had only met by phone up to now. We loved London, so heading there for a few days was no issue, the Steps concert was just one night, but he said he would go to the show too, just in case I got out of hand. He’s a good observer, so it was probably interesting from an outsider’s perspective.

So I actually arrange to meet one of the UK fans to go with him, Ali, he was really helpful in getting me info in the early days and was a really good guy. We show up to the HMV and there’s a huge crowd. He had a ticket, which you needed, I didn’t. So I find the rep in the store, and she’s busy so I don’t want to bog her down, she tells me to just get in line, and it’s all cool.

So I’m in line with Ali, and I actually take one of his items to get signed so I feel like I fit in and we’re proceeding towards the front. When we get to the table you walk past each of the members, and they say hi and sign something for you. So it’s a reception line of sorts. So I come up to the first girl Lisa, she takes the CD but doesn’t look at me, then looks up and has a really funny look, and says “hey you!”, at which the other girls look over and start laughing, Faye gives me another hug. They ask me, “did you come over here just to see us?!”, I said well yes, but I have business here too. They looked satisfied. I said I’m working for your label group now, designing all the artists websites. They just looked at me with such incredulousness, I said “no, seriously, I’m working at Zomba US.” They were still just looking at me, not sure what to say, did this fan really get a job at our label?! Faye says “did you really?”, so I don’t have business cards with me, I didn’t have them yet, but I had a pay stub, and it had the Zomba logo and my name etc. So I show it to her and she looks at it and says wow, that’s really cool. Then she’s looking at it a little further, and she says “you make more than we do!”, which I thought was hilarious, but opened my eyes to how the music business really worked and where the coin actually ended up, as I found out over the years.

We go to the concert, have a great time, everyone is dancing singing, having a great time. My first time at Wembley Arena was a complete success, I bought a souvenir soccer scarf, and program, and went home satisfied. They were becoming huge in UK and Europe, in the US, eh, not so much.

A few months later, I had mentioned that these bands that were really aimed at a younger audience, and that a cartoon version of the band might be an interesting way to help introduce them to certain audiences.  Cartoons were huge at the time with Disney and Nickelodeon hitting their strides. My boss said, “go for it, let’s see what it would look like”, so I had a mission, not so much during the work day, mostly on my spare time, not yet anyway.

I like to draw, I like creating animations, I grew up on cartoons, so I was ready, but I was not entirely skilled for all this. So I turned to my brother-in-law, Rob, who is a cartoonist and animator and summoned him for a project, He was in 100%. I sent him a bunch of photos, and some starting faces and looks I was going for. We had some sessions where we would discuss options and looks. He would send some roughs, I would tweak where I thought needed, he would tighten back up, and before you knew it, we had a working version of the Steptoons, as they would be known.

The Steptoons, cartoon version of the group.

I showed the drawings to the people at work, and they were digging it. Now we had to figure out what to do with them. They had a hit called “5-6-7-8”, which is a line dancing, country kind of song, far from my favorite, but the label thought this song would be a good foray into US with line dancing being popular at the time.

I created a fun little animation for the song, using the Steptoons, dressed up in country costumes, and I added the lyrics with a bouncing boot (I always loved those bouncing ball sing-along cartoons). I look at it now and it’s crude, but lovable. Anyway, we used it in email promotion, and on the site and people liked it, but I don’t think it sold any CDs.

So at this time, the band was way more popular in the UK and had a UK website, which I was not in charge of, I only handled the US version. The animation was only on the US site but it is the world wide web so it got around. In the meantime the next album is getting ready for release in UK, not in US, and there will be another UK tour. I get called in and I‘m told that the band saw the cartoon, loved it and wanted to play it during the concert on the big screen, while they do a costume change.

The Flash animation, that I later converted to a video to be shown at their live shows, during a costume change.

I’m a bit taken aback, this is so cool, and then I quickly come down to earth and tell my boss that, this is a Flash file, a .swf file, built for use over the web and that they would need it as a QuickTime file I assume, and then I assume it would have to be in PAL format, for UK, not NTSC which all our equipment handles. I had a bit of work to do. I got in touch with the UK tech guy for the AV of the concert, and he confirms that yes it indeed would need to be a PAL video file. This might seem easy now, but we’re in 2000, where this stuff is still being developed.

I break it down into a few steps. I need to convert the SWF to a video file, then convert the NTSC file to PAL. It took me forever to figure out, it would do the video but the audio wouldn’t be there, or the video would have remnants. It was a bit of a pain, I ended up recording it onto a Mini DV tape, then recapturing it back into my computer to convert it, but it was done.

I asked my boss how was this getting to London, it was for their new tour, and he said “we’ll send it first but we’re sending you over too, that way if something happens you’ll be there. I’m cool with that, trip to London on the company, concert tickets, see my work on the screen, I’m in.

When I get there, I check in with the AV guy and he got the tape and says it works great and everything is all set. Awesome, I can just relax and enjoy the show. They gave me seats about the 20th row center, Im def in a good position. I buy a program, and I see my name mentioned in the thank yous as the creator of Steptoons, did not expect that, very cool. Also, one of the girls points me out and waves from the stage at the end thank yous.

Single cover with Steptoons sticker and liner notes credit.

The band never really connected with the US audience, they did some events with Disney but it never really took. There were a couple of more Steptoon animations, and they even contacted me to create a custom screensaver to be included on an enhanced CD (a CD that contains extra content like a video etc on the ROM). These were a pain to create and I’m not sure how well they did, but it gave me a chance to create more content. So I did that and it came out OK. It was mentioned on a sticker on the cover and I got credit inside the liner notes.

A year or so later my interest in the band was waning. It happens with most things.  They were coming to NYC to do some recording at our studios. Someone asked me if I would go with the car to greet them at the airport, mostly because they couldn’t find anyone else to go. That told me something about where the band was in US priorities. So I drive out to JFK with a driver of a big escalade limo car. He waits outside so I can go in and bring them to where he was parked.

I wait for them, see them get off the plane, wave to them, they recognize me, we chat and they look around and ask, “is it just you?”, I said “yes, just me, I’ll take you to the hotel in midtown”. I think they were a bit disappointed, they’re coming into NYC all excited, and the only one to meet them from the label is this nut?! No promo or marketing assistants. We chatted about the flight, and other light topics, I tried to help them get their phones working as they were all on UK Sim cards, we got to the hotel, I took them inside and made sure they were all set, then I left.

I had been behind the curtain for over a year now, and how I behave towards artists while at work has to be professional at all times. When artists are at our office, they are like important employees, you don’t go up and talk to them unless you have business with them, you def don’t ask for a picture or autograph, everything is professional. I had become used to this regardless of who was there, and you never knew who would be. I had to pull Justin Timberlake by the arm because he was in the freight elevator with me and two other people and he was blocking the eye so the door wouldn’t close, no one cared that it was JT, they were like “dude, get in the car!”, I had to eventually take his arm and pull him into the elevator far enough for the door to close, I did, it closed, he looked and said “ohhhh, sorry”.  I shrugged and laughed. You just never know who’s around that day.

I continued to work at Zomba, through its many iterations as it got bought by BMG, and then eventually Sony Music, when I was promoted out of the label to Sony Music to handle the websites for all of Sony Music artists, but now it was a team of developers, and websites were changing to user-interactive sites, or web 2.0 as it was referred to at the time.

As the music business collapsed under the lack of foresight into the digital future, I was let go in 2010. I wasn’t shocked, the business was floundering hard. I’ll never regret the experiences and friends I made during that time, and I definitely don’t regret how I got there.

The whole experience taught me something. I followed my heart, at the risk of ridicule and embarrassment but never felt either, I was just following what I wanted to do, it was so natural now that I look back at it, and haven’t had a similar experience since, although I am open to it. It was very liberating both creatively and professionally and am always glad I was able to have the experience.

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