Drummer in music business education spotlight

Martin Atkins hosting weekend conference

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British drummer Martin Atkins came to Chicago to chase down a local concert promoter who owed his band $5,000 and wound up staying.

So it should be no surprise that Atkins, 54, has written a book titled, "Welcome to the Music Business ... You're F-----."

That's the light version of two textbooks Atkins has authored, "Tour:Smart" and "Band:Smart." Both are written for musicians wise enough to realize that knowing how to use Microsoft Excel is as important as knowing how to run a sound check.

Atkins, a veteran of punk and industrial bands Public Image Ltd., Pigface and Killing Joke, is organizing his first Band:Smart conference this weekend at the SAE Institute, an audio engineering and entertainment industry school that opened its seventh U.S. campus in River North last year. SAE hired Atkins this month to chair its music business department.

Atkins has wispy, gray hair populated with a few dreads. He wore a gray suit worthy of a North Shore country club to our Thursday interview. But it had a twist. In a handful of spots on his jacket, he had screen-printed images of bugs in various shades of gray. Scary bugs. On a pinstripe suit.

"Why is anybody teaching business plans anymore?" Atkins said. "You don't need a business plan. You need a marketing plan. You need to learn how to crowd fund your band. And f--- the banks. It's momentum that matters. Not money. If you have momentum, you can get anything you need."

This is how Atkins talks. His speech is as scattershot as Dick Cheney on a deer hunt. And incredibly entertaining. And vulgar. So we will note that the book's actual title spells out the expletive. And from here, we're editing his quotes because he curses a lot, and we're a family-friendly publication.

So back to how a British punk rocker came to live in Chicago. Atkins said he flew in from New Jersey to hound the promoter, and, while here, "stumbled" into the studio with the metal band Ministry.

The band asked Atkins to join its upcoming tour, which he agreed to do on the condition that Ministry didn't work with the promoter who owed him money.

He later discovered the band and the promoter were working together. And moments before a sold-out New Year's Eve show, Atkins threatened to take his drum kit off the stage unless his band got paid. The promoter delivered the $5,000 check.

Atkins' face lit up with pride while delivering that punch line. He had beaten "the man" — that time, at least.

He was far less happy when recalling the financial inequity among members of Public Image Ltd., the punk rock band formed by vocalist John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols.

Atkins joined Lydon's group in 1979 at age 19. And got fired "like three times." In a 2001 interview with a Public Image Ltd. fan site, Atkins said it was "because they were paying me every week. Let's fire Martin, if we need him in two months hire him back! Save a bit of money. It was tough, it was tough to be in PiL and get fired."

He left the band of his own accord in 1985. After nearly a decade of artistic success, Atkins said he had $80 to his name by 1988 when he became so frustrated with the industry that he started his own label, Invisible Records.

"If I hadn't started managing Killing Joke, I wouldn't have had a band to play drums in," he said. "I felt there was no way I could screw this up anymore than record labels had screwed things up on my behalf."

Here's a sampling of what he's learned:

Study Jay Z and Taylor Swift. And new business concepts like pop-up shops. Don't dismiss them.

Don't book a venue that's too big. "A small crowd in a theater is a funeral," he said. "A small crowd in a tiny bar is a riot."

Learn how to screen print. You'll be able to test your branding and merchandise ideas — before ordering 500 T-shirts to meet the minimum quantity for free shipping.

Email addresses are as valuable as cash. Give away free stuff in exchange for emails. Then use them to build your fan base.

Don't tour west of the Mississippi River until you're a big deal. The fuel costs alone will eat up your profit.

Don't overbook your local market. Instead, cautiously expand one 50-mile radius at a time.

Don't give away the rights to your songs.

And you don't need a record label.

So says someone who owns a record label.

When I pointed out the irony, Atkins said that in order to make big things happen, at some point a band will need the alliances and leverage that a record label can bring.

"In general things are moving toward the place where they always were; core content, a message, an idea, a spark, a vision, the stuff that differentiates you from others is what matters," he said. "The medium changes. The essentials haven't."

He credited teaching and having children of his own with putting him on a more, oracle-esque path. Atkins said he has learned that you should be "the nicest to the person you think you have the least reason to be nice to."

He shared this nugget of wisdom after telling a story about getting into a fight backstage with Kevin Lyman, founder of the Warped Tour, over the rights to a six-pack of beer in the early '80s.

"It was a full-blown scrabble, rolling-around-on-the-floor fight," he said.

Atkins said that four years ago, in front of 600 people at a music seminar in New York, he apologized to Lyman for the fight.

"One of my former students was out on the road with U2 last year," Atkins said. "And he sent me an email saying, 'Thanks for teaching me how to not look like a complete a-- hole.'"

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential

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