Interview: Rob Eberhard Young

Dan McAvinchey: Rob, when did you first realize you had musical aspirations?

Rob Eberhard Young: I come from a very musical family. My grandmother on my father's side is retired first chair violinist for the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Her sister - my great aunt - was first chair cello. My father also played guitar. The first instrument I tried was violin, but it just didn't take. Then I tried drums, and finally guitar when I was around 10 or 12. I continued to play occasionally and was mostly uninspired until a few years later when I heard the first Van Halen record. Wow!

Dan McAvinchey: Tell us a little bit about your guitars and other musical gear, and how you use it to get your sound.

Rob Eberhard Young: My main guitar is a Froggy Bottom Model K with koa back and sides and a 100 year old German spruce top. I also have two guitars built by Maine luthier Tom Higgins which I have used a lot in the studio. One is a 12 fret parlour guitar based on a Martin OO profile, also made of koa, and the other is a 14 fret OM sized guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides and an Engelmann top. I have always liked koa as a body wood because I play in so many different styles. Mahogany is great if you play soft fingerstyle, but doesn't do well when you push it. Similarly, rosewood stands up well to flatpicking, but looses overtones when played softly. Koa seems to do everything fairly well.

On the road I have always used a combination of three pickups, each running into its own Trace Acoustic preamplifier as a mono signal, with all three signals blended finally at the board. I use a Fishman saddle piezo for the midrange, a Seymour Duncan soundboard transducer for the highs, and a Sunrise magnetic pickup for the lows. Piezo mids sound great, but the highs are brittle, and the lows are boomy. Similarly, soundboard highs sound great, but lows create feedback. Finally, magnetic pickups have a great warm, transparent bass, but mids and highs sound nasal. By separating the pickups, and rolling off frequencies that don't work for that pickup, you can find a great sound for any size room by simply blending the pickups with little or no EQ at the board.

Since I spend most of my time these days scoring for films and television, I should probably mention some of my studio gear. My main writing workstation is centered around Logic Audio Platinum, which I have used for years. My main keyboard/controller is a Korg Triton Pro-X. I also use the Nemesys Gigasampler, which uses disc leveraging technology to stream samples fro the hard drive without loading the into RAM. Everything is patched on the front end through a pair of Yamaha O2R digital recording consoles, which I am basically using as analog boards these days. Also of note in my racks are some great mic pre's and compressors from Milennnia, Avalon, and Neve.

In the endorsement department, I am currently working with D'Addario and Seymour Duncan - both companies have really done a lot for me over the years.

Dan McAvinchey: What are you striving to achieve musically?

Rob Eberhard Young: Scoring has taught me the value of minimalism and always striving to say "just the right thing," and not a note more. I'm not sure I have done that yet on any guitar music that I have recorded yet. I've gotten real close
probably a dozen times, but then I guess I'll never be totally happy with
anything I've done anyway. Also, I don't want to sacrifice melody in favor of
texture. I love dense rhythm and harmony as it associates to it. So I guess
a general compositional goal would be to write huge yet intimate, dense yet
sparse, moving music that has really simplistic and memorable melodies. Does
anyone else out there find that as difficult as I do?

Dan McAvinchey: Elaborate on your experiences with Will Ackerman's Imaginary Road label - what did you find to be the advantages and disadvantages of that relationship?

Rob Eberhard Young: In the beginning, I was definitely under a lot of pressure. To start, I was basically launching the label with Will under all this marketing hype that I was the continuation of his acoustic guitar legacy. It is a pretty tall order to try and live up to the hype of being the first guitarist signed and produced since Michael Hedges in 1980, by the father of modern acoustic guitar.

There were a lot of other advantages and disadvantages. I think "Sticks & Stones" is a really good record. Will did a great job of producing it and it was a blast playing with Michael Manring, and Will, and doing a duet with Hedges. It did, and continues to do very well internationally, and has given me the freedom to do a lot of things that I always wanted to do - like touring internationally, playing with some of the best players in the business, and opening a lot of doors for scoring work, publishing deals, licensing, etc. It was also really great to record an album at Imaginary Road Studios. I can't think of any better place in the world to record an introspective guitar record. It really is a magical place.

I also cherish the memories of sleeping in the loft above the shop at Froggy Bottom and making tacos with Michael Millard. I try to remember only the good things about those days, but there is a lot of negative stuff too. Most people think of Imaginary Road as being an independent label. It really wasn't at all. Being a joint venture with PolyGram, it was subject to all the classic industry stuff that we love to hate. In the end, Universal swallowed up PolyGram as part of a huge takeover and kicked Imaginary Road out of the building. This kind of thing happens a lot in this industry, so that part of it was fairly easy to take. What was particularly difficult for me was that the core team at Imaginary Road turned out to be no less impersonal than the major label guys. They really threw all the artists under the bus. I still have an album in limbo with them that I had just finished when the shit came down. I actually found out we didn't have a label anymore when I read it in Billboard. No one even bothered to call.

All in all, both the positive and negative experiences have made me stronger and certainly wiser. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to record for a major label, but I will never do it again.

Dan McAvinchey: What do you feel are some of the general pitfalls with the kind of label deals being offered to musicians today?

Rob Eberhard Young: I don't know what kinds of deals are being offered these days. I'm sure that things have changed for the worse since I left PolyGram, but in terms of royalty numbers, if you are not getting 14% on general retail, with sales bumps to 16-17%, you probably aren't getting what you should.

Probably the biggest traps that a lot of newly signed artists don't know about are recoupable expenses. Recording expenses, including travel and session fees as well as promotion and marketing expenses, like mini tours, are recoupable. For illustration, consider the following scenario: You have reasonably good success for a debut instrumental record and sell 50,000 units in year one (for the record, I don't think anyone has a remote chance of doing even close to this today, but we will use it anyway). At 14% on retail of 16.99, that's $118,930 earned. Not bad. Now back out the $50,000 you spent to record the record with a decent producer at a world class studio and world class session players. Now you are down to $68,930.

Now suppose your label wants you to do a major markets promo tour to do a showcase in each city with radio interviews, and the whole works. This generates $0 in revenue, but is necessary to launch the record. If you and your road manager/guitar tech/help carry the suitcase guy fly to 30 major markets in 45 days, that's 30 x 400 x 2 = $24,000 in airfare, and 45 x 100 x 2 = $9000 in hotels, and 35 x 45 x 2 = $3150 in per diem money for food, taxi, etc...for a total of $36,150 for a 45 day tour. These numbers are very realistic for a major label artist. You're not flying first class and staying at The Ritz, but you're not slumming it either. Anyway, now you are down to $32,780 in your pocket for selling 50,000 records! What if you only sold 25,000 records? With the same expenses, you would be -$26,685 in the hole, which would have to be recouped in full before you ever saw a dime!

Of course, it is not quite that simple and there are other sources of revenue like publishing royalties, profitable tours, etc., but you get the idea. Now look at the numbers generated by an independent artist, selling and manufacturing his/her own record via the web without any retail distribution. If your record sells for $17 and your distributor takes $4 per record, and the record cost you $2 to make, your profit is roughly $11 per record. Based on the above numbers which illustrated your profit on 50,000 units doing things the "major label" way, you would only need to sell 2,980 units to make the same money, with virtually no risk. Food for thought.

Dan McAvinchey: Tell us a little but about your current musical projects, and what you have planned for the future.

Rob Eberhard Young: After I get finished with the initial marketing push surrounding the re-release of "Consistent Variation", my first priority is to either strike a deal with Universal to buy back by long lost acoustic fusion record "Speak!", or re-record it. "Speak!" is the record I had just finished when Universal pulled the plug in 1999/2000. The record was produced by my long time friend Kip Winger, and actually recorded at his home in Santa Fe. It was a really fun project. My core fusion band is Rod Morgenstein on drums, Michael Manring on electric fretless, Alan Pasqau on piano, and Andy Snitzer on soprano/alto sax. The album also has guest performances from Chris Botti (Sting) , Joel Derovin (Eric Clapton) , Marc Clark (Ottmar Liebert) Robbie Rothchild, Greta Rose, and Kip even played bass and sang chant vocals on a few tracks.

After that I have to finish a collection of original scoring music which I will be releasing as an album. There is absolutely no guitar on any of it. It has been a goal of mine for quite some time to make a record without guitar to see if I could actually write anything compelling without the old crutches!

Dan McAvinchey: How do you feel about the national guitar-oriented magazines and other publications in the United States and how they are currently covering instrumental music?

Rob Eberhard Young: I don't really know, because I haven't read any in a while. I sure do hope they will continue to be supportive of me though... Hey - if any of you guitar type magazine editors read this, you still have to do stories on me even though I'm not a major label artist any more. You do know about that rule, right?

Dan McAvinchey: What led to your decision to re-release your 1994 debut album "Consistent Variation" at this time?

Rob Eberhard Young: Over the past few years we have thousands of emails from fans wondering why I dropped out of sight. It really has been a conscious choice not to make guitar records in recent years. I really wanted to spend some time composing other music, and I have used scoring projects as a financially feasible way to do that. Now I am at a point where I really want to do both. "Consistent Variation" was sort of 'made famous' by the marketing PolyGram did surrounding the "Sticks & Stones" release. I used to be an electric player and had a musical epiphany one day when I really 'heard' the acoustic guitar for the first time. I composed/improvised a lot of material in the first week of experimenting with alternate tunings. I recorded all the initial material and released it at the urgings of friends in 1994. "Consistent Variation" was the first stuff that I sent to Will Ackerman, and ultimately was the catalyst for my signing with PolyGram and launching Imaginary Road. My webmaster, Matt Guthrie, had been trying to convince me to re-release it for years, citing its historical significance in the forming of my career. I finally gave in and I'm glad. It's cool to listen to old stuff and see how you grow over the years. I think the innocence of the stuff is remarkable. It is selling really well so far, and the early reports are showing that people really seem to like it.

Dan McAvinchey: What do you now find to be the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent musician?

Rob Eberhard Young: If there is a disadvantage, it is only in the total number of people you can reach in a short period of time. Big labels have long arms, and they use those to really catapult you around the globe in no time. They also give you credibility which makes national magazines want to write about you which further fuels promotion.

It is also really cool to live like a rock star when you are traveling. You get to go to all the right parties and people make a big deal of you. You have your people call famous musicians to play on your record and they call you back at home! You fly first class instead of coach, and get limo service instead of taxis. It is really fun spending label money!

On the other hand, being independent allows you to totally escape A&R, and do whatever you want. In the next three years I am releasing a solo acoustic guitar record, a fusion record, and a record with no guitar on it. I would never be allowed to do that with PolyGram. Being independent allows you to always be in control of your own music. You don't ever have to have your album be out of print.

You also don't have anyone to blame but yourself for missed opportunities. I think the ideal situation for anyone would be exactly what happened to me. Try to get a label deal and use their money to build a following. Have all those fun experiences, while being paid to travel the world and build your self confidence. Then bail out with all the knowledge you gain and do it yourself.

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Dan McAvinchey: Can you share any marketing or promotion tips for musicians about to release their first independent record?

Rob Eberhard Young: Work your tail off. There are no shortcuts. If you want to get a label deal, send it to everyone. If you don't, send it to them anyway. You have to be creative. I used to have my girlfriend dress up in a stolen courier's uniform and hand deliver discs to press and label people who never open their own mail. How else can you get them to listen to something that usually comes in the mail?

In terms of your first release, if you aren't giving away 200 out of every 1000 records you manufacture, you probably aren't working hard enough. That's what labels do to blast you around the globe - why should it be any different for you as an independent? Try to get as many reviews as possible. If you can't get one national magazine to write about you, get 30 non-nationals that will. Try to get famous musicians to give you press quotes. It will give you credibility in the eyes of potential purchasers. I know for a fact that people buy my records every day just because of who I have played with. They figure if I'm strong enough for so and so to play with, I must be great.

Above all, work hard and it will pay off. I'm living proof that it can be done without the help of MTV or commercial radio. Did I mention work your tail off?

Dan McAvinchey: What do you see yourself doing in five or ten year's time?

Rob Eberhard Young: In ten years I would like to be a competent classical composer and travel the world again - but this time sitting in the audience listening to my music played by others for a change!

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Although he had been playing guitar since age 8, Rob Eberhard Young was originally inspired at the age of 15 by the first Van Halen record, and has been at it ever since. Now known as something of a specialist on acoustic guitar, Young has recently re-released his 1994 debut album, "Consistent Variation", on his own, after releasing his "Sticks & Stones" CD on Will Akerman's Imaginary Road label in 1997, and having a third album ("Speak!") remain unreleased after a major label shakeup. None other than the late Michael Hedges was quoted as saying, "I like the strong pickwork, melody, abstract development, and the way the music moves."

Dan McAvinchey touched base with Young to get his thoughts on music, and his first-hand experiences with label deals.