The Brooklyn-based quartet The Yes Way spent August gigging like crazy. During the hottest, slowest 30 days of the year, they were on a month-long tour that took them from Maine to Wisconsin to Hoboken, opening for OK Go one night, playing at music festivals the next, putting itself in front of different crowds almost every night.
Impressive stuff, to be sure, considering that the band doesn’t have a single release available – they recently took an older, self-released EP, Who’s Better Than You, offline, and only a handful of the band’s demos are available as streams. But when you add in the fact that the band isn’t even signed to a record label, things start to get confusing.
How are these guys doing this? Who are they? What is going on?
A hefty part of the answer is musical, of course. Three of the group’s four members studied music in college, and their accomplished indie rock’s received positive write-ups everywhere from The Culture of Me to The Deli, which nominated named them as a possible Band of the Month while they were on tour.
But equally significant is the work of RethinkPopMusic, a bold new venture that offers all the services record labels used to provide, from marketing and publicity to booking, recording and legal assistance.
The one key difference? RPM doesn’t sell its artists’ records. It doesn’t own its artists’ recordings. It doesn’t own its artists’ publishing rights. It has no say whatsoever in its artists’ creative processes.
Instead, RPM offers its artists career guidance. “I think that our band, and numerous other bands haven’t had the right heads on their shoulders to put a strategy into place,” says Aaron Mendelsohn, the band’s guitarist and lead singer. “It’s really nice to have something like RPM on our sides, because we can trust that they’ll help us come up with the right strategy, and it makes us feel like we’re in a good position right now.”
Speaking of strategy, now might be a good time to address the nuts and bolts answers to those questions.
Several months prior to their tour, RPM founder Bob Berman was introduced to a comparably established band, Hollis Brown, and immediately decided to do a co-billed show at the Mercury Lounge. Both bands had good local followings, and so the show drew over 200 people. It also made the band and RPM over $600, all of which they immediately turned around and invested in August’s tour.
Thanks to previous gigs, the band had dependable draws in Philadelphia, and Hollis Brown knew they could draw in Boston. But they decided to go bigger. They tapped RPM operatives in Chicago to help get the word out in the Midwest, they swapped gigs with similar-sized, similar-sounding bands in markets they were new to (Milwaukee, e.g.). And at the end of it all, despite driving close to 4,000 miles over the course of a month, the band broke even on everything.
Not bad for a month’s worth of valuable exposure.
When the Yes Way formed a couple of years ago, they were clueless about most of the non-musical aspects of their careers. They gigged around in Manhattan and Brooklyn, they made some friends, they recorded an EP because they figured they ought to. “Before we met up with RPM,” recalls Nick Burleigh, who plays keys, violin, bass, and guitar in the band, “we didn’t really even know how to record an EP properly. We didn’t know how to get a tour together. We didn’t know how to get exposure.
“I think we’re learning about how to go about those things.”
In under a year at RPM, the Yes Way’s learned quite a bit about the intermediate steps bands need to take to get to milestones like releasing albums and going on tours. It’s one of the reasons the band is on tour, and why their demos have remained demos. Though the Yes Way’s music displays promise – their songs “Mets and “Where Was I” are tightly threaded with ’90s influences like Pablo Honey-era Radiohead and Gentlemen-era Afghan Whigs – both the band and their partners at RPM realize that further refinement is needed.
Berman knew that it was important to achieve that refinement organically. He also knew that further gigging would help the band sharpen its sound. “The guys are figuring out what they want to do with everything,” Berman explains. The tour, he explained, is “a warm-up. They’re stretching before the big game.”
Budgets for this kind of artist development are disappearing, but Berman and company are able to offer it by doing everything smarter: touring with friends, recording with friends, promoting with friends. “It’s all about the collaboration,” Mendelsohn says.
“There is power in numbers,” adds Berman. “If everybody gets together, it is possible to change the industry.”
When the Yes Way got back to Brooklyn in early September, they discovered that they’d actually won The Deli’s Band of the Month honor, which earned them three free hours of studio time at Grand Street Studios on the lower east side.
For most bands, that would be the cue to grab all their best songs, try to find a producer, and cut the debut album. But Berman saw the studio time as a different kind of opportunity. “We are going to record,” Berman says, “a single-take live album.”
As Berman sees it, a well-miked, well-mixed live recording serves two purposes. Not only does it represent the live show, and therefore something that the band’s new fans might want to buy. It’s also great producer bait.
“There are a lot of producers we would love to work with when we decide to record the debut,” Berman explains. “What better way to get their attention than show them a raw, live sound that will only get better under the right guidance?”
It’s a calculated, savvy, patient move, the kind that any well-advised band would make, based on the kind of advice given by parties that have a band’s best interests at heart.