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In today’s episode, I talk to Grammy-nominated musician, Ben Kweller.
Ben started in the music industry when he was 12 years old! He was part of the popular band Radish—which was signed to major record label, Mercury Records.
But when Ben was 19, Radish disbanded. So Ben moved to New York and went solo.
30 years later, he’s still releasing new music, runs a production studio, and mentors musicians to help them navigate the behind-the-scenes side of the music industry.
Check out Ben Kweller’s music wherever you listen, and get more from him on his website BenKweller.com.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn about what it’s like to be a young rockstar, you’ll love this episode.
In this conversation, you’ll enjoy 3 BIG things:
- Why Ben never had a backup plan out of the music industry
- How “jam-nesia” is the KEY to having a long-term music career
- And what ACTUALLY makes you money as a musician (spoiler alert: it’s not your songs)
Enjoy those 3 things… plus a bunch more ear nuggets along the way.
If you’re interested in helping support Ben and his family through this difficult time, check out this GoFundMe page.
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Ben Kweller Interview Transcript
Ben Kweller: I never had a backup plan. It was always going to be music. And I always tell people, like, young artists if they’re like, hey, I’m thinking about doing music, but also I’m really good at math and I’m thinking about going to college. If there’s other stuff that you’re good at and there’s any doubt in your mind, like, maybe this is a better move than music, then do that other thing. But like, if you feel like, all I can do is create music, then that’s when you really go all in.
Noah Kagan: What is up, you beautiful bastards? It is your boy The tao crusher. Aka rabbi can’t lose. Aka. Noah kagan. In today’s chat, I talk with Grammy-nominated musician and one of my favorites, Ben Kweller.
Tragically, a few days after recording this episode, Ben’s son sadly passed away in a tragic car accident. To honor him, I donated. And if you enjoyed this episode or you want to support him, go to GoFundMe.com/f/DorianKweller.
Ben’s music career started when he was twelve years old, which is just insane. And talking with him and getting a chance to meet someone I really have always enjoyed their music is amazing. He said to a popular band, he made some money and when he was 19, he disbanded. So he moved to New York and he went solo. He also worked with some of my other favorite artists and knows them like the Strokes. And 30 years later he is still releasing music. He runs a production studio and he mentors musicians to help them navigate behind the scenes of their music industry.
Go check him out on Spotify, Apple Music YouTube. My two favorite songs are Falling and Wasted and Ready.
You can also check out his website, BenKweller.com, or on Instagram or Twitter. Go send him some love, but I’m sure him and his family would appreciate it in this sad time.
If you ever want to learn about what it’s like to be a young rock star and a great dude, you’re going to love this episode. In this conversation, here’s three gigantic things you’ll takeaway.
- Why Ben never had a backup plan
- What is the key to having a long term music career? (It’s pretty surprising)
- And three, how do you actually make money as a musician? Like, how does the economics really break down?
He shares a lot with us.
Enjoy those three things plus a bunch more earnouts along the way.
I find it super fascinating 1) to check out a new city and show it to people, and 2) to find out how people get rich. I like seeing how people get rich in different ways, that there’s no one path to live and inspiring people to figure out their own path.
Also, if you want to launch your own business but you don’t know where to start or you’ve stuck or you’ve tried and failed and you need a little help, or you need a little guidance, we have reopened our course Monthly1K course for just $10. This is the exact process I’ve used to start AppSumo.com, which has done relatively well, and other successful businesses also my failures, plus some of the things I’ve learned being an early employee at Facebook and Mint.com.
If you need help and want to get started, it’s helped thousands of people start their business journeys and I know it’ll help you too. Head over to OkDork.com/Monthly1K.
Also a special pre-show shout out to listener Portland Venturer. He left a review saying, “Noah is a real pro. I’ve been following Noah’s work for a couple of years. He’s affable yet BS-free. His podcasts reflect that they’re packed with useful small business tips, but more importantly, inspiration to get off your butt and try stuff as a newbie entrepreneur, at times debilitating perfectionist, that’s been really helpful for me. Sometimes the style can be a bit bro marketer, but it’s clear his heart is in the right place.” That was a really nice review. Thank you, Portland Venturer. Good luck on your journey. I know it’s tough out there. You’re not alone and there’s people here, like me, who want to see you succeed. And I love every other one of you gorgeous listeners.
If you want to shout out in a future episode, leave a review wherever you listen to it. We check every single one of them.
Let’s dive into the interview with Ben Kweller…
Noah: I think what I’ve learned about relationships, especially about myself, is that, like, I think I’m looking for the 20 year old relationship where I’m like, oh, 100%. Yes. When it’s really like, yo. Is this a great person? Yes. And can you build a great relationship? Not is it already a great relationship?
Ben: Were you ever in a long term relationship?
Noah: I’ve been in some for like one to three years. I think it was funny. I had talked to the guy last night and I think one of my biggest regrets is not calling relationships sooner.
Ben: It’s tough, man. I mean, this is life in a nutshell. Like finding who you’re going to live with and grow with, grow old with. I’m a very sentimental person. I’ve always been super sentimental and I think that comes through in my music, clearly. And it’s probably what a lot of people like about my music. But ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to get married, have a family. My grandparents were amazing role models for me, and I remember being at their 50th anniversary, 50 years together. He does that. That’s such an old school thing. And I remember my grandfather, who I called Zaide, which is Yiddish for her grandfather, and it was Bobby and Zaide. Bobby was my grandmother. And I remember at their 50th anniversary, Zaide prepared a whole speech to his wife Marilyn, my bubby, and it was all about Dayenu, which means it would have been enough. And some people might know about the holiday Passover or Peso, which Jews celebrate every year, and it’s all about the Exodus, leaving Egypt, leaving slavery. And there’s a song that we sing over Passover called Dayenu, which means it would have been enough. Because when one good thing happens to you and then another good thing happens to you, what you had before would have been enough. And it’s kind of all about staying humble and counting your blessings and appreciating what you already have. And we live in a culture where all we want is more and more and more. And that really hit me. I must have been like twelve years old, but he did this whole speech about Dayenu and about how everyday it kept getting better with my grandmother. And, you know, there they were, 50 years married. And I remember when I met my wife Liz, who I call Lizzie, the first song that I wrote her was called Lizzy, but the working title was Dayenu. And in the chorus I say Dayenu, probably one of the first Western songs maybe in pop culture that uses a Yiddish word. I’m not sure. Although the Black Eyed Peas did use Mazel Tov. But my first love song that I wrote for my wife mentions Dayenu because I was thinking back about my grandparents. They were really like a rock in my foundation early on as a kid. And just seeing it’s so true. Like, we learned from example, if there’s drama and chaos in the home, that’s going to trickle down to the kids and god, I sound like a freaking, you know, old school guy, but I kind of am. I also feel really lucky. I I met my wife when Iwas young and we actually got married when I was 22 years old. The way I justified that, other than being madly in love, and we had lived together for four years prior, which is kind of insane to think about. But Zaide got married to my grandmother when he was 22, so I was like, okay, it can be done if, you know, you found your soulmate and you’re both on the same page and love. My story as Ben Kweller really starts many years before that. I started writing songs when I was eight. My dad was a drummer and he would always tell me, all drummers are frustrated guitar players. And so when I was seven years old, he took his old drum set out of the attic, set it up in the living room, and he would play guitar, I would play drums. He taught me how to play a beat. He’s a doctor. That’s what he does for a living. Everyday when he got home from work, we would play Beatles and Hendrix and The Hollies and just all the 60s rock and roll music, and we had a little repertoire of like seven or eight songs, and I did that for a year with him. Fell in love with music more and more. When I was eight, someone taught me how to play heart and soul on the piano like every American kid has done. And I saw the pattern and I said, okay, well, what if I skip the second chord and go to the third chord, and then the second chord, and then the fourth chord, and then it sounded like Let It Be. I was a huge Beatles fan, and I Was like, oh, wow, so let it be his heart and soul inside out, that’s kind of cool. And so I said, all right, well, what if I skip the second and third chord and go from the first chord to the fourth chord, and then the second chord, and then the third chord? And that was something completely new that I’d never heard before. Although many years later I realized it’s a very famous chord progression. Like a million songs have been written with that progression. But when I was eight, I hadn’t heard it before, and I was like, oh shit, I’m going to make something out of this. So I wrote my first song when I was eight. At the same time I was obsessed with The Beatles, and I remember my parents had this console record player and I was listening to Magical Mystery tour All You Need Is Love. And there was something about that melody that I just broke into tears. It was so beautiful. There’s this chord change that John does and the way he Rises, the melody and the chorus, it just blew my mind. And I remember looking at the record spinning, looking over at the piano, looking back at the record, and I was like, okay, this is what I want to do. I want to write songs. Essentially, I said to myself, I want to make people cry. That was like my mission because it was such magic. I’m like, how the hell are these sounds giving me these emotions so deeply? And so that’s when I became a songwriter. Then I got my first guitar when I was twelve, and Nirvana came out, totally changed my life because that was the first band of my generation that I really got down with. And so I always say The Beatles made me write songs and Nirvana made me form a band. And so that’s when I started forming bands with my friends in middle school and high school. And then eventually my first real band, Radish, was formed and I was a freshman, I was 15. Long story short, Radish signed a record deal with Mercury Records. I was 15 years old. So at that point, I was now contractually obligated to go on tour and fulfill this contract of making recordings for a major label record company. So I signed a record deal at 15, took my GED, dropped out of high school,9th grade for rock and roll, never looked back.
Noah: How did your parents respond there?
Ben: Well, they were really fucking supportive because at that point, remember, if you go back to playing drums at seven and then writing originalsongs at eight, all I did was make music from eight to 15. So I put in way more than my 10,000 hours. And they knew there was nothing stopping that train. That was just all I cared about. And so by the time 15 came around, it was like, I’d been doing it a long time. And so they knew, okay, this is his passion. Clearly these record companies think he’s good at it and we’re going to let him go for it. And so I basically left home at 15, and then I met Liz when I was 17, so by the time I met Liz you mean like a.
Noah: Show or how did you meet?
Ben: So Radish was still a band and we needed a new bass player. And so we flew to Boston, me and the drummer, John, we flew to Boston to audition a bass player named Josh Latanzi. And on that trip, Josh had a gig. He was playing bass in another band up in Boston. So we went to go watch him do his show. And at that show he introduced us to a bunch of his friends. And one of the people in that group of friends was Liz. And we totally hit it off that night. And it was as if we knew each other from another lifetime and loved all the same music. It was incredible. Andshe said, oh, I’m going on a field trip. I’m a dad, so field trips on the brain, chaperone and chaperone. I’m going on a road trip with my best friend Anna. We’re coming through Texas. And I said, oh, well, you gotta come stay at my place, you know. And she was like, okay. And so meanwhile, I was still living with my parents. Like, she didn’t realize that piece of the puzzle. She knew I was 17, but she knew that, like, I at least had something going on, you know, like I was there on business, you know, it was kind of a funny situation. We all got our first cell phones. Iremember this was like 1998, and so I had a cell phone, she had just gotten a cell phone, sprint PCs. And for that month, while she was on a road trip, we just talked every night on the phone and just got to know each other, told each other everything and just fell in love, developed this huge crush for each other. So then finally, when she made it to Dallas, it was just like we were together. It was pretty like fairy tale looking back. It’s a total fairytale situation. But yeah, then we moved to New York City.
I was being a rock star at 15, by the way, because I feel like there’s kids in my high school that were cool, and to be the star of a band and go tour and stuff, that’s like another level in that age.
Yeah, I mean, for me, I was just so naive and so all about the music and not caring about anything else. I was number one most stoked about not having to go to school ever again. I wasn’t really thinking about like, I’m a rockstar. I was just thinking, oh, I’m doing what I really want to do, what I’m meant to be doing. So it was almost just like the whole thing. Like, if you want to go backstage and you don’t have a backstage pass to act like you’re supposed to be there and chances are you’ll be able to get back there, it was like, fake it until you make it. I was a rock star inside. I felt that. So I was just, like, living it out, you know what I mean? Now looking back, I’m like, oh my God, I have a 16 year old son who’s in high school. And so it’s incredible to think how young I really was. But everybody is different. Everybody’s got their own journey and their own path. I’m just lucky that I survived all of that because it could have gone really bad. I kept my head on my shoulders. We moved to New York. Radish broke up. I was writing really autobiographical music at that point. This is like 2000, 2001, and at the same time there were all these bands starting up like the Strokes and the Moldy Peaches, and we were all friends in the Lower East Side. And so there was this whole NewYork revival happening in the early 2000s that I got swept up in as Ben Kweller as a solo artist. So that was like, chapter two. Well, chapter one is just me alone at my house as a kid making up songs. Chapter two is Radish, the record deal, leaving high school, going on tour. Chapter three really is me going solo in the early two thousands. And then I guess the chapter four that I’m probably still on is, like, how I can really help other artists and obviously continuing my career. And my creative output is number one always for me. I have the bandwidth, luckily, to be able to help others. And that’s always been something I loved ever since I started working with other people in the music business, other creatives, like record producers, mixing engineers, and then even people at the record label level, publicists, radio programmers, things like that. I’ve just loved that. And there’s also an element of, oh, shit. I signed that first record deal when I was 15. I learned what the word in perpetuity means at a very young age. I learned about intellectual property at a very young age and copyrights. And part of my mission with the noise company, which is like what I started about ten years ago, is to really help other artists navigate through that. I mean, the landscape has changed many, many times since I got into this business. And me and my wife always joked that being a musician, you’re always reinventing the wheel because there’s always some new technology or new platform or new way or culture itself shifts. And so then the content that artists create changes and what the fans want to listen to changes. And so you’re always just kind of bobbing and weaving and swinging and ducking.
Noah: How is Ben Kweller today?
Ben: Well, literally today, he’s pretty stressed out. I got a lot going on. So we’re one month ahead of South By Southwest right now. We’re doing a bignoise company showcase. All of our artists are performing at the Mohawk on March 17, friday night at Mohawk during South By. It’s going to be pretty insane. So, like, a lot of that stuff. So my team is working hard on that. A lot of asset creation. I hate the word asset, but that’s what it is, Isuppose. Digital artwork, flyers, logos, tons of design. I mean, Matt, he’s like the head of the art department. He is the art department. But I Was like, hey, Matt’s the head of the art department. He’s the man. I mean, he’s got so much work on his plate right now. But it’s amazing I Couldn’t do this without him because that’s the other thing. The music business has always been so difficult. We’ve all heard that the music industry sucks for the artist, and historically, that’s pretty true. Nowadays, there’s such a pressure to be on every platform. There’s a pressure to create a video with every music release because audio isn’t enough. And so it’s like the amount of digital art assets that have to be created if you really want to do it right. Quote, unquote. It’s insane the amount of labor that goes into that side. And like, most of us musicians don’t really feel like doing that stuff. Luckily, I’ve always had a love for art, for visual art. Early on, when I would go to the record companies that I was signed to, I’d always hang out in the art department. That was always the coolest place because they had the big EPS and scanners and the big printers. And I learned how to do photoshop from this amazing dude, Brett Kilro, who isn’t with us anymore, but a legendary album art designer for RCA Records taught me how to use photoshop. So I’ve just always been into the design aspect. But these days it’s just so intense. It’s a fulltime job just to do the visual side of music.
Noah: Yeah, I’ve heard your stuff since, I think, 2004.
Noah: And then I remember Dustin was like, oh yeah, there’s a guy who’s kind of a musician that owns a house next door. And I was like, that’s no fucking way. I love your stuff, man. So I was excited to be able to connect with you and get a chance to meet you. It’s a small world.
Ben: It is such a small world. It’s such a small world. And, yeah, music is amazing. I love it.
Noah: What does it mean to you?
Ben: Well, it plays into my sentimental nature, which we’ve talked about a little bit. There’s just something about music that just takes you certain songs take you to a certain time, a certain place and a certain smell. I mean, it really just activates so many emotions. There’s something about melody in conjunction with words that just I don’t know, it can hit because poetry is cool, but if you add a melody to the words, it just does something different. You can have really mundane words, but with the right melody or the right performer delivering those words, it can just change the whole meaning. I always say Jeff Tweedy, one of my favorite singers, the singer from Wilco, he could sing Row Row Your Boat and it would be like a badass jam. Like, you’d be like, oh, my God, these lyrics, you know what I mean? Because that’s just kind of the thing about delivery and a melody. Even in hip hop, a voice and the cadence of a rhyme is just different than reading words on a page. It affects all the senses.
Noah: Two things I’m curious about this lower research after definitely those are the songs that I’m familiar with. And I’m also curious about the separation because I do some of this content stuff. Ben Kweller versus Ben Kweller. Right. You’re an artist with the name of Ben Kweller, but you’re also human of Ben Kweller. So I guess I’m curious how that experience of that period of time was and then your identity during that time and your identity almost even to this day.
Ben: Yeah, I think that my identity. It was always the same person from the Radish time. Like when I said that I was really naive and hungry and just stoked not to be in school and I was playing the part of what I wanted to be. I was being what I wanted to be. It wasn’t like I was being Ben Kweller, the leader of this teenage punk band. And then I’d go home and I’d be like, the kid Ben Kweller. I was just kind of living that guy. So it’s always been very similar or the same. It’s been one person, I would say where there might have been a shift in the two is probably when I had kids. And that’s probably when the Ben Kweller human really became its own thing. But as an artist, I still feel I’m the same. The Ben Kweller rockstar or whatever is the same. It’s just that it’s humbling when you have kids because I’m just their dad, you know what I mean? It’s like, they know who I am. They’ve seen videos and go on YouTube or Googled me. I’m sure at an early age and seen all sorts of embarrassing things, probably, that you would want your kids to see. But I’m just their dad, and I think that’s the same for everyone. I’m friends with Sean Lennon, John Lennon son, obviously. And it’s funny when he kind of mentions things like off the cuff, like, yeah, blah, blah. Well, my dad never blah blah. And you’re like, yeah. And it’s like, oh, well, you’re also talking about the most famous rock star of all time. It’s really interesting, but I like to think that we’re the same, us. Ben Kweller’s, I’m a Gemini, which is the twins. So I do have multiple personalities, I’ve been told. But I don’t know, I try to just be me in all aspects. I’ve never liked people that put on airs, and I don’t know, I think.
Noah: None of us know a lot of things. Yeah, I think that others always know. I’m like, oh, this person knows how to have a good relationship. This person must know how to do this thing. It’s like, yeah, they’re figuring it out, too.
Noah: The reason that question was I do want to come back to chapter three, because it’s interesting to have such longevity in a career here. I think in traditional courage, people are used to it, where it’s like, yeah, you’re an accountant and you kind of did accountant and you stick with it. And I think in music, you hear a lot of you don’t hear the people who started had something and then kind of pieced out like Maritime or the PromiseRing.
Ben: Promise Ring, yeah.
Noah: Promise Ring is probably one of my favorite songs of all time. Best looking boys. And I got an interview him maybe about five years ago, and he is now an accountant. Wow. I think, for Target.
Noah: And I was like, that’s a one eight. He’s like, yeah. Got kind of burnt out of the music. And I don’t know, I guess I was really impressed that you found your calling early and you’ve evolved and you’ve been interested in it. I always find that impressive in career.
Ben: Yeah, no, I think about that a lot. I never had a backup plan. It was always going to be music. And I always tell people, like, young artists, if they’re like, hey, I’m thinking about doing music, but also I’m really good at math and I’m thinking about going to college. If there’s other stuff that you’re good at and there’s any doubt in your mind, like, maybe this is a better move than music, then do that other thing. But if you feel like, all I can do is create music, then that’s when you really go all in. I was just going all in from day one. At eight years old, I went all in. I was like, I want to be like, the Beatles. I never admitted that, especially when I was a teenager, because it was in the Nirvana era of like, anything that was popular was considered a sell out. So it was like, you wanted to be, like, anti famous, you know what I mean? So I lived through the grunge era. Like, I was a part of it. But now, looking back, I just knew that I wanted to do this. So longevity was always the goal. And in fact, I remember when Radish put out the first album with Mercury, silver Chair had come out like six months before, and we were the same age, and I was already seeing the backlash of Silver Chair where the critics and music fans would be like, oh, yeah, they’re cool, but they’re kids. And no one really took it seriously. And I was like, well, fuck, like, I want to be taken seriously because I’m going to do this the rest of my life. I kind of sabotaged a few of the things along the way in the Radish era that might have made us more famous.
Noah: Like what?
Ben: Well, I would do things like, well, I dyed my hair every other week a different color. And I remember the publicist at Mercury was like, ben, we’re spending so much money on press photos, no one knows what you look like. You keep changing your look, you’re cutting your hair, you’re growing your hair, changing the color. And I was like, whatever. And just turning down certain opportunities, certain TV shows or things that I Didn’t want to be a sell out or I didn’t want to be famous on the coattails of my age, you know what I mean? So there were things that I really kind of avoided because I did want to do this forever. Now, the fact that I’m still doing it and still have all these amazing fans, that does kind of blow my mind a little bit. There are people out there that have been with me since, like, four, but there have been people that are with me since two since Radish even. There’s maybe 500 fans that are Radish fans still out there today. The fact they’re still with me really is incredible. And I Think about that a lot. I mean, my fans, they’re everything to me. So I don’t know. I don’t know why they’re still there. I like to think that I’m still making good music and they’re loving the stuff that I’m releasing and putting out. And I do try to engage my audience on a personal level a lot.
Noah: Yeah, I saw in one of the interviews where you’re like, yeah, I do direct email, which I thought was dope, and you did things during COVID And I Was like, I like that you’re still active with it. For someone who’s trying to start in music, that’s obviously one of the common questions. What are the recommendations you have for someone getting in today? I like. The all in thing. Like if you’re doing it, you have.
Ben: To go all in. I would say well, so there’s a bunch of facets to all of this. Going back to the pressure of being everywhere at once. We feel like we have to be on every platform. TikTok, Instagram, twitter. Whatever. Facebook, not a lot of Facebook for the younger artists. One thing I recommend is kind of pick one platform and go all in on that and really just build your audience there. I think less is more. I don’t think you need your own buy your own URL, but I don’t think you need to build out a website right away. A lot of it’s kind of basic. Definitely learn about the business. If you want to perform live, that’s great. Live performance is good. There’s not one formula, unfortunately. And I’ve thought about that a lot. Like, I’ve put together different programs on paper of like, this is how you do it. But I’ve learned that this is not how you do it. Because every artist is different, every audience is different. So it’s really a case by case situation. When I work with younger artists that are really serious, that are all in, I usually just tailor a plan for them and like, this is what we’re going to do. Also with their comfort level. I’m kind of a weird case because I am an artist who also enjoys the business side, which is really rare. And I think a lot of that goes back to me starting so young and kind of feeling like, oh, I’m in this adult environment and what am I signing? What’s going on? So I learned about it and I’m also totally a Curious George and want to know how shit works. I’m obsessed with knowing the behind the scenes of stuff. I’ve gotten really good at all of those things. And then transparency and accounting. I know there’s a very boring material right here, but that’s really important to me, transparency, because so many companies in the music biz aren’t transparent and you don’t really know where the dollars are going and what is a royalty rate mean and what are the profit margins that are happening with music. Unfortunately, there’s so many different products at play. It’s not just one product. Yeah, the music is probably the focus product, but there are all these other what are they like? Hard products and soft products, right? So the music, I guess, is probably your hard product. And then you have all these soft products under it. Unfortunately, themusic, what’s interesting is the hard product. The music probably makes the least amount of money, but it grows your brand the biggest. So it’s really fascinating, man. One thing I say a lot is in music there’s a million revenue streams and they all pay pennies. But if you add up the pennies, you can make a really good living. But you have to learn how to manage all of those streams. And that’s something I’ve gotten really good at. And that’s probably one reason that I’ve survived longer than most. I’ve never had, like, a Top Ten hit. I’ve never had a platinum record. I’m close to gold on a few records, but I’ve never won a Grammy. I’ve been nominated. I’m an underdog artist, you know what I mean? People that know Ben Kweller know Ben Kweller, and some of them are obsessed, but a lot of people have heard the name but don’t quite know it. But from a business standpoint, it’s done really well, and so I’m happy with that.
Noah: I am curious. Some of your proud moments are like high low moments during that chapter three, the lower you have with The Strokes and you put out these, like, for me, the albums that I’m like wasted. Wasted, yeah, the songs that I’m familiar with, yes. There’s some of the stories that come to mind in that period.
Ben: Yeah, there’s a lot there. One high moment in that era, concert wise, was I played a show with the Flaming Lips and the Violent Films. And the films are one of my all time favorite bands. I remember I was doing a radio interview. The show was going to be in Chicago, big show, like 10 or 20 thousand people. I was doing a radio interview like, the week before the show. And the DJ said, also, can you believe you’re playing with the Violent Films? They’re your favorite band. Like, oh my God. I was like, Dude, I know the films. Holy shit. And he was like, cool. I’m talking to them right after I’ll tell him that you want to play a song with them. I said, no, dude, don’t do that. That’s too much. I don’t know if I can handle it. And so I show up to the gig a week later, and the singer and the bass player from the Violent Fins walk up and they’re like, hey, BK, so stoked to play the show. So what song do you want to play? I heard you want to get on stage with us? So the DJ totally set this thing up, and I was like, okay, well, I can’t back out now. And so we did kiss off. And yeah, it was just like next level. I think I jumped the whole time up and down, pogoing. And just playing the SG, that was a moment. The Strokes was incredible because we were all together on this New York wave, which was kind of like a baby Seattle happening. They were clearly the front runners of the group, but we toured a lot together and just seeing that band explode in real time was really fun. But also, they’re kind of an underdog artist too, because they never really had huge hits, but I mean, way bigger than me. So I was always opening for them and that was great. The pivotal moment for me, though, when I moved to New York right before I made Sha Sha, which was my debut album with the songs you mentioned, I made a CD, like a bootleg CD called Freak Out. It’s Ben Kweller? And I printed up 1000 copies and played as many shows around New York as I could. And one day I got a phone call, and it was a voicemail from this dude, Evan Dando. He had a band called The Lemonheads back in the they were one of my favorite bands. And he left me a message that said, hi, Ben Kweller, this is Evan Dando calling and I got your CD, and I can’t stop listening to it. Give me a call. And so I was like, oh, my God. And That really was, like, the moment that really everything changed. Because up until that point with Radish and everything, the people that were kind of kissing my ass were music business people that wanted a piece of me. And Evan calling me was the first person that I considered a peer or a fellow artist that was, like, recognizing my talent. And so I called him back and like, Dude, what’s up? He’s like, Dude, do you want to go on tour? And I said, yeah. He said great. I’m flying into Hartford tomorrow. Can you pick me up at the airport? I said yes. I hopped in my gray Volvo, my CUESI guitar in the trunk, went to Hartford, Connecticut airport, picked him up, and we toured for like six months together. And so all of my first shows is Ben Kweller. We’re opening for Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. And so all my first fans were Lemonheads fans. Also. That was right when Napster was at its peak. And so, for me, I have always loved Napster because I was one of the positive side effects of that company because people would come up to me at these Evan Dando shows and say, hey, man, I never heard of you before, but I downloaded some songs off Napster, so when you played tonight, I could sing along. I knew the song since I was like, right on. So that Napster really helped me a lot, you know? And so that’s big memory, for sure.
Noah: Two things there. One, how did you process where you ranked? And how did you deal with that mentally, even to this day, where you’re like, yeah, it’s like you’re with The Strokes. And I had a friend I like The Strokes as well. He was like, Dude, they could have been one of the greatest bands all time. And they had everything there. And I don’t know what happened. I really don’t follow him that closely. But that first album was just, like, out of control. So I guess what it was like for you to see some people not get as much attention, some people get less. And how did you work through that?
Ben: Yeah, whenever we create something that we love and we want a lot of people to recognize and hear whether it’s a song or a product or anything or an idea. Right. We’re, like, stoked it’s like that invention process of like, holy shit, I just came up with this thing, and I want to tell the world about it. We all have that as creators, but I’ve tried not to get caught up. And I’m sure at different times in my career, yeah, I’ve had disappointments where I wanted something to perform better than it did. But I always have tried to keep this sort of Zen feeling of like, everything’s meant to be. At least I just made the thing and it came out. And I’m grateful. I’m always grateful for whatever I have. It’s Dayenu. It all goes back to that. It goes back to my grandpa. That might be part of my longevity, too, because, man, I would have probably thrown in the towel a long time ago if I was really just keeping an eye on metrics and how things were performing, or, like, year over year growth and all that stuff, because I’ve never done that. I’m just thinking of things more from a creative standpoint.
Noah: I guess I started feeling like a low moment for you during that period. Like, you have a guitar. I think songs come from your experiences in your head.
Ben: Yeah. A low moment of me going to drive to the airport for Evan Dando.
Noah: Or just during that era of, like, maybe a loan in some room. I don’t know, where you got vision.
Ben: Yeah. You mean the Dayenu song itself?
Noah: No, or just during that period of time. Like, what were some of the was there a low moment? Or like I’m in New York. Like I’m out here.
Ben: Yeah, well, okay. Specifically, I do remember one moment now that I’m just thinking of disappointments and stuff. There was a moment on my second album which came out in 2003. It was called on my way. And during Shasha, I was able to tour the world and went to Japan and Australia and Europe a few times and was building my audience globally. And so then my sophomore album, On My Way came out and super excited about that. We had a tour in Europe that was booked and might have also included Australia and Japan. Anyway, this tour was booked, but at the time, I still wasn’t profitable enough to go and do an international tour and fly my whole band and crew. I wasn’t profitable enough to do that on our own. So the record label would have to give us tour support, which is a thing that’s kind of rare these days. The major labels still do it, but back in the day, because if you’re developing an artist, there isn’t a lot of income happening. So someone’s got to fund that tour. Right, that’s tour support. RCA decided at the last minute because they were probably looking at certain metrics for my record sales or whatever. Whatever reason I remember the head of International told us that they weren’t going to give us tour support for this European tour that was already booked. And that was a pretty crushing blow for me, because I knew we were building something really great, and I knew that this was probably going to be the last tour overseas that would need tour support, because at that point, I’d be playing on the tour after I would have a higher ticket price and probably more people come into the shows. And so we could probably bootstrap the tours. And that was a big bummer. So the tour never happened. And so then I think it wasn’t until my third album, which was the self titled album, which came out in no. Six. At that point I was going to say brand, just because I’m talking to you, dude, but my brand was big enough on the self titled album where I could afford to go. I didn’t need tour support ever again. So I was able to grow through that time on the second album, organically, luckily, but Ijust always felt like had I gotten that tour support, things probably would have happened quicker and maybe bigger. I try not to look back. That’s another thing. I always say I have Jamnesia. That’s what I call it because I have a very short term memory for tours and shows. And I think that’s also part of the longevity, survival. The key to longevity is to kind of not remember everything, because I have friends that remember bandmates and crew members who remember every show in every city. Or that one time I remember when I got sick when we were in Vancouver and I feel like when you remember too much, that can kind of set you up for failure a little bit. So I don’t know. Do you know whatI’m saying? Part of me every day is a new day. It’s kind of a weird concept, but I do feel like my Jamnesia has actually been really good becauseI’m always starting from a new blank canvas. Obviously there are certain things that I’m cognizant of and I remember a lot of shit, you know what I mean? But I think kind of the more macro, like bigger picture stuff, I don’t harp on all these little things that happened in the past, is whatI’m trying to say.
Noah: It’s also amazing to think about the evolution of your career, whereas I always wanted to do it, did Radish then wanted to go solo and then how did it evolve from there in terms of the career stuff? Because I think you also write music, you don’t have a label. I’m curious, like the different webs that have been spun.
Ben: Yeah, so went solo, made a few albums as Ben Kweller, I think on my second or third album, it was the second album on My Way when I didn’t get the tour support. So around that time, 2004, Sony Records in France reached out. They had an artist named Pierre Glamard, and he was a big fan of mine. And they were they were wondering if I would be interested in producing his album. And so I was like, yeah, I would love to do that. So I love record making. I love production. That was the first album that I produced professionally. I always record friends, bands and stuff in high school and always had a little studio in my bedroom. I just love that. But that was the first time where someone paid me to produce a record. I took it very seriously and ended up making a second album as well. And so that’s when me as a producer, that side of my world opened up and then that kind of bleeds into the songwriting. I’m known maybe most in the industry as a great songwriter. And so I embrace that. And people come to me that need help with choruses or just want to co write. The songwriting process is my favorite because that’s when you’re truly inventing shit that hasn’t happened before and you’re just grabbing words and melodies out of thin air. And then all of a sudden, at the end of the day, you have a song that has never been heard before and now it can be heard. That’s cool. And these days, writing and producing, they kind of bleed together a lot. Things used to be more separate, where you had songwriters and producers. A lot of producers are also great writers now. And so when I’m producing a record, a lot of times I end up helping with some of the songwriting. And then the record label aspect happened. When I moved to Austin in 2008, my record deal with ATO Records was up and I decided not to resign with them. And instead I was like, you know, I’m going to start my own label. And at that point, you know, I had many years of experience in the record business and understood the copyright structure and just how all of the inner workings because it’s something that I want to know. And I Was an expert at that point. So I started the noise company. So that’s when I put out an album called Go Fly a Kite. That was our first release. And I remember I went all out on the artwork. It was funny because being on ATO Records, they always had these rules in place, like, you can’t spend more than $3 per unit for artwork. And I was always like, what’s up with that? What if it’s an amazing the best artwork ever, and people are going to love it. Why wouldn’t we do that? So when I started Noiseco, the first thing with this album, Go Fly a Kite, I was like, Dude, I’m going to go all in on the artwork. And after doing that, I realized why ATO had a rule, $3 of the ceiling, because there’s no profit on that thing. But we got nominated for a Grammy for best album artwork in 2012. So that was really cool. So we got to do the red carpet and the whole thing. So it kind of paid back in a different intangible, which was rewarding. And then I discovered this band here in Austin called Wild Child, who were amazing. And so we signed them. They were our first artist. And then they went on to sell lots of records, and then they upstreamed to a much bigger label called Dual Tone Records. Then they broke up, and Kelsey, the singer, started Sir Woman, who really popular band right now in Austin, but at the south by Southwest showcase that we’re doing, Wild Child’s doing a reunion show at our show, which is really cool.
Noah: It’s like there was always a theme for you, and it just kind of explored it in different ways.
Noah: It was like making it yourself or being a band and being a producer and all these different things. I don’t know. When you were starting out, like, how much did you make back in the day? Like, I don’t need money wise. Yeah. Kind of curious what these, like, 15 year old salaries are like.
Ben: Yeah. Okay, so let’s frame this correctly because it was the mid to late ‘90s. The music business was still huge. CD sales were enormous. There was no Napster. Okay. So, like, music still had a lot of value at $15 a unit. And so the record labels had a lot of money to spend because they were making a lot of money. So when Radish was a thing, actually, all six major labels at the time wanted to sign us. And so there was actually a bidding war, and it was kind of nuts. And that’s a whole other episode. I could talk about the stories that happened, like going toMadonna’s house and hanging with Tom Petty. So everyone wanted to sign us. We ended up we didn’t go with the label that offered the most money. We went with Mercury Records, mainly because Danny Goldberg was the president of Mercury at the time, and he was Nirvana’smanager. And because I loved Nirvana and Kurt Cobain was my hero. I really believed in my heart at 15, I was like, well, if this guy worked withKurt, then maybe some of that would be good for me. Horrible business decision.
Noah: Nobody would turn down.
Ben: Well, yeah, no, that was probably the first mistake. But Danny’s a great guy, and it was a wonderful but again, it was all meant to be. Like, I really do believe that. And it all set me up to become Ben Kweller because I wasn’t, like, this teen pop star or flash in the pan, like Silver Chair who actually continued to make really cool music, and they’re really a great band. I like Silver Chair. So what was cool about the music business back then? If a company really liked you and saw potential in you. They did have money, and so we signed a really big record deal. And so I would want to say that I got maybe 250 grand. John the drummer, I think, got about the same, and we were basically a partnership. I mean, she had to get real. Like, we had to incorporate and do the whole thing. We had to 15. And my parents, because I was a minor, my parents had to become my legal guardians in a business sense. They almost had to divorce me from being parents and had to become basically like guardian trustees. And then they were kind of on the line because there was like, he’s 15. He could tomorrow, after signing this contract, say, I don’t want to do it. And apparently at 15, you have that leeway because you’re not 18. So there were all these things that had to happen. But I got good money from that record advance, and then there was the publishing deal. I’m going to do a side note here and just give you guys out there a little bit of music biz sort of copyright law information. Every song has two copyrights in it. There’s the copyright of the sound recording, which is the actual recording. So let’s take like a famous song like Smells Like Teen Spirit since we’re in the Nirvana train, okay? That recording of Nirvana Playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, that has a copyright, and it’s called the master copyright. That’s what the record company owns. Then there’s another copyright in that song called the publishing. And that’s the song itself. That’s literally like the words and the music and the melody that Kurt wrote. Publishing companies own that copyright. So what’s kind of interesting, if you go back to the 1960s with Bob Dylan, he had a genius manager who basically realized, like, oh, my God, Bob Dylan like, you’re an amazing songwriter. He’s like, Columbia Records owns your recordings of Mr. Tambourine man and all your other songs. Columbia owns that master recording, but you still own the publishing to the song. So I’m going to go have my other artists record your songs, and then their labels will own that master recording copyright. But we’ll own the publishing because it’s your song. So Mamas and the Papas and the Birds, all these bands would cover Bob Dylan. That’s why if you ever think about there’s a lot of Dylan covers, and that’s because his manager, Albert Grossman, had this genius idea of basically you’re duplicating the same copyright. And that’s kind of historically why a lot of people in the biz would always say, oh, it’s all about publishing the songwriting, because a song can be reproduced many times and someone’s still getting royalties from that. A sound recording is only owned by that record company. But Mercury Records owned our sound recordings, and we got good money for that, which is in advance, by the way. It’s not like you just got money. It’s that you now are in debt half a million dollars. If you took both of our quarter mills, me and the drummer that we split, now we’re in debt half a million. We’ll never recoup. Radish will still never recoup because also the dirty little secret that not a lot of people know about the music business is you sign a record deal and you get a royalty rate. And at the time, I think Radish got a 15 point royalty rate, which is basically 15% of net revenue. Very low. So hardly any net revenue to begin with, but 15% of that you recoup at that rate. So even if they bring in$100, they don’t put $100 on your PnL as recruitment. They only put $15. So they brought in $100, but only 15 goes towards that half a million that they threw down. So anyway, whatever, but it was a good bargain because it’s a high risk business. So that’s kind of at least what the otherside would tell you, is.
Noah: Like, yeah, it’s a high risk business.
Ben: Dude, we’re giving you the seed funding for your little music operation here. Here’s a half a million dollars with a lot of money. So whatever. I’m not going to diss at all what I went through because that money that I got set me up, dude. But going to the publishing deal. So we did the record deal and then there’s the songwriting, right, which was me. I wrote all the songs. And so I signed with Famous Music Publishing, which is owned by Sony ATV. Now and that literally was a million dollar publishing deal for that album. Well, so the way publishing works, do record deals, the agreements are done in albums, publishing deals are done in songs. So it was like a certain amount of songs. And I think that it was basically like if you it was like twelve songs per album or whatever. So it was a two album deal, which was kind of insane. A million bucks for two albums of songs. The Radish album was the first publishing qualifying album for the million dollar contract and then the second qualifying album was Shasha when I went solo, that will recoup because Shasha has done really well. But still it’s taken a long time. 20 years later. I want to say real quick, though, I was 16. I got a million dollar publishing deal. That’s incredible. It set me up like that. So even if Sony will always own the publishing copyrights for those songs, I’m cool with that because one of my great mentors wasn’t even in music at all. He was my first landlord in Brooklyn, New York. Scott Cohen. I rented an apartment from him on Smith Street in Brooklyn. And like a year later, maybe, we were there for two years and I called Scott and I’m like, hey, man, I’m thinking about buying something. Like, I’m looking at condos and co-ops in Brooklyn. And he’s like, dude, if you can save up a little more of a down payment, get a multi family dwelling, because then you’ll live in an apartment and you can rent out another one or two others and that will pay towards your mortgage. So that’s when I first learned that concept of almost using other people’s money. And so that’s what we did. We bought a brownstone in a neighborhood that was still really inexpensive in Brooklyn, lower Carroll Gardens. And I remember we were looking for like a three family brownstone. That was the goal. And I looked for like six or seven months. I had a binder of listings and different real estate agents I was working with. Finally, I’d look at The New York Times every Sunday, open houses, and there was one for sale by owner, $780,000 on this street that I knew in Carroll Gardens. I called the guy up at like 9:00am and I said, hey, I’d love to come and look at this house. And he said, oh, well, I already have people coming at 1011 and twelve. And I said, well, can I come down right now? And so he’s like, yeah, I guess. And so Liz and I ran down to this house and we were like, okay, this is exactly what we’re looking for. The Price is right, blah, blah, blah. And I remember it was this really old couple, Tom and May Katunio, these old Italian couple. They got married and they lived in the house for like 40 years. And we’re standing in the stairwell and I said, we love it, this is the one. And Tom said, well, should I call everyone and tell them not to come and look at the place? And I said, yes. And his wife said, Well, Tom, I don’t know, maybe we should have other people come look at the house. And Tom said, they’re like us, if they want it, they can have it. And so we were the only people that saw this house. After six months of looking, like I knew to tell him, yes, don’t let anyone come. You know what I mean? Like that was New York real estate. Bought my first piece of property when I was 18, so then I became a landlord at 18. So now we’re like learning about plumbing, electricity and rent and all that stuff. So that real estate has been a big part of my success financially too, just because it’s been the one stability in my life, along with music, because music is like feast or famine. My business now is really interesting because I’m really developing Noise company, even though it’s ten years in, and I’ve had different ebbs and flows of that and different employees and all that. I really feel like I’m just now starting it the right way. It’s funny. We have our CFO, we have Matt, the head of the art department. And I have my. GM pablo. Who’s. Amazing. And so it’s just a small team and I’m just really learning how to expand, but also keep the margins right. But also offering these services to other artists. It’s complicated, but it’s so much fun.
Noah: How do the economics of a label go?
Ben: There’s all different ways. So the other thing is we do artist management as well. Pretty much everyone on the label is also managed by us. Because when you’re talking about independent artists, it’s important that it’s a holistic approach to the whole thing. So, like, from touring, because historically, labels just owned the copyright of that master recording that we talked about. They’d pay the money to put the artists in the studio and that’s all they cared about was selling records. But that is kind of dead now. It goes back to the revenue streams that pay pennies. You really have to administer all of it to really give the artist, like, a healthy career.
Noah: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s really amazing about your career, and this is my observation, in my view, you have a love of music, a deep love of music that you called early on and that’s a lot of people takes forever at any time to get it. But I think what you’ve done, which is amazing too, is that you’ve had there’s probably a longer story around it, which is the balance of the economics. Like getting into real estate. Like, you own the house here, you own the New York thing, how you understood the deals, you kept your head above your shoulder the whole time and really easy to be like, getting into drugs right now.
Ben: Of course. Yeah.
Noah: So it’s really impressive and good for you. Yeah.
Ben: I had a producer, the first producer I ever worked with. He always had this motto, create your own reality. He would always say that in the studio. Create your own reality, dude. And I’ve always kind of subscribed to that. Obviously there are things with reality that we have to pay our bills. You know what I mean?
Ben: There are consequences. But I’ve always really just tried to okay, well, how can we create our reality and what are the ways to do that? Obviously, with music, it’s weird because you have to have a product that people want to consume. Like, the music has to be good at some point. Right. That is one thing I will say, because it’s art. So it’s very difficult. You can’t just take any artist and say, we’re going to run you through this accelerator program and then you’re going to have 10,000 followers on Spotify by the end of the month. That just isn’t going to happen. The music has to be there. But the nuts and bolts of how to manage the career, anyone can do.
Noah: Part two, coming soon.
Noah: Do you want to sing Dayenu to end it?
That is a wrap. I hope you love the episode. As much as we did putting it together for you. Give Ben somelove on Twitter, Ben Kweller, or Instagram, as well as his website, which is BenKweller.com and donate to support his son GoFundMe.com/f/DorianKweller.
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Have a stupendous day. What’s your favorite word? Word…