Matt Watts is a music industry double threat. By day he's the VP of Marketing at Fender Guitars. At night he continues to play guitar with pop-punk legends, the Starting Line. Matt joined us in 2019 for this conversation in front of a live audience
Matt Watts is a music industry double threat. By day he's the VP of Marketing at Fender Guitars. At night he continues to play guitar with pop-punk legends, the Starting Line. Matt joined us in 2019 for a live conversation in front of an audience about his varied pursuits - on stage and off.
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Lawrence Peryer: Matt Watts, meet Lyte.
Matt Watts: Hi, Lyte.
LP: Lyte, meet Matt Watts. [Applause]
Matt is our gracious guest today. He's VP of Artist and Integrated marketing at Fender. He's also lead guitarist in a little rock-and-roll combo called The Starting Line. Last night, Matt was on stage in front of, what, 15,000, 20,000 people at the Shoreline Amphitheater.
MW: About that.
LP: And now he's here with about 20 or 30 of us here today.
There are a few really unique things about Matt, one being he's made this interesting transition from being a recording and touring artist to a very successful business executive. The other being he actually had a vision for doing that. And the third is, at least in the time I've known him, he's proven to be a very humble person, in addition to being accomplished and passionate and smart, and generous with his time, as exhibited by being here today. So, thank you for joining us.
MW: Thanks for having me.
LP: Of course. So how do you go from playing to 15,000, 20,000 people and the high of that, to coming into a room of 30 people? How do you context switch?
MW: The performing and the touring component of my life, it happened over the span of 10 to 12 years. So now my normal day-to-day life is sort of business professional, marketing executive, and the band stuff is just a part-time thing that we do a handful of times a year that I'm very fortunate to do. But it's like leading sort of a double life, so to speak.
It's funny. My girlfriend and her daughter came out to the shows this weekend. It was the first time that they saw us play, but I've been dating her for nine months, and I've known her kid for about six months now. And it's just not a side of myself that I think about in sort of current tense. But jumping back into it, it's sort of like riding a bike. It's such a big component of my life. And I think they all work together – or both parts work together pretty seamlessly.
LP: Is there a Matt Watts stage persona versus the Matt Watts office persona?
LP: What's the larger-than-life version of you?
MW: The business persona, I'm very pragmatic, logic- minded, very structured, and regimented. Not that I'm not that way with the band, but I think there's enough preparation and guardrails in place that everything sort of functions. But when I'm onstage, I really let loose. I'm 100 percent present and focused and just in the moment.
It’s amazing to watch people singing along after all of these years. We're in the middle of a 20-year anniversary run, and I can't believe that the band has been going on that long. I started the band when I was a sophomore in college with the intention of playing one show. And it just snowballed into more than I could ever imagine, opened up more doors than I could ever imagine.
So, being in that moment playing onstage and seeing people connect with music that we wrote 20 years ago, up until maybe a couple of years ago when we put out our last EP is just something that I cherish.
LP: Let's go back to the beginning. What's the Matt Watts origin story? Where did you grow up?
MW: I grew up in Churchville, Pennsylvania, which is about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. Somehow, I managed to shake the Philadelphia accent when I got ridiculed for it in college. I went to college in Connecticut. But you know, I always had a passion for music.
My brother is about 16 years older than me, and he moved out of the house when I was a kid. But he had this really cool, what my parents would call a “rec room” downstairs, whatever that means.
LP: Was it paneled?
MW:It was totally paneled. It had blacklight posters - Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, had a record player, stack of vinyl. He was fortunate enough that when he was 18, the drinking laws in Pennsylvania changed, and he was grandfathered in to be legally allowed to drink. When he was 18, he could buy alcohol, and then it was raised to 21. He had a kegerator in there. And it was like the – you know, for an 18-year-old it was probably the greatest thing ever.
But when he moved out and got married, that room just – my parents just didn't touch it. So, when I was in elementary school and junior high, I would go down there. I wouldn't hit the kegerator, but I would go –
MW: My parents are probably watching. Come on.
But I would flip through his vinyl. That's where I got into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and all of these guitar-based bands. I was always into skateboarding growing up and music. I think that enabled me to build a sense of community with people who were into the same stuff. Got my first guitar in fourth grade. My parents signed me up for lessons. The guy tried to teach me music theory. I rebelled against it and didn't play guitar until I heard Nirvana in ninth grade, and picked up that same guitar, figured out a couple songs. And that was enough for me to get over that hump where it made playing guitar seem attainable.
And then I went to college in Connecticut and studied civil engineering. I think it's one of those things where when you're 17 years old trying to think about what your future looks like, you're given three or four options. I didn't know music business or music industry was one of them, nor did I think that was attainable.
I went away to college, and I was studying civil engineering. And my roommate in college played in all of these DIY punk bands, and was booking his own tours throughout the summer, pressing his own vinyl, and just doing some really cool things. And that inspired me to say, “I just want to play in a band.” I want to know what it's like being on stage. And if it's just one show, that's cool. I just want to know what that feeling is like.
This was 2001 – or actually, no, it was probably 1999. This is when AOL was a thing, dial-up internet, super awesome. And I remember being in my dorm room looking through the AOL member directory for people who had “singing” and other binds I liked in their profile.
MW: It was Lagwagon, NOFX, Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World. I sent out a ton of emails to people from my hometown in Philly, which is about a four-hour drive from Connecticut. And Kenny (Vasoli), who would go on to be the lead singer of The Starting Line, was the only person that responded. And I explained what I was looking to do. I was 20 at the time. He said he was "like 15," which in retrospect is one of those creepy How to Catch a Predator moments, but pre-How to Catch a Predator or How to Catch a Predator Gone Right. So…
LP: The statute of limitations is long behind us.
MW: Yeah, we're good. He and I traded a couple emails, talked about music for a little bit. And then I went home that next weekend from Connecticut, and his parents dropped him off at my parents' house. And we hung out in my basement, which sounds creepy now that I'm telling the story. And just jammed and wrote a couple songs. I had never written songs with anybody, and it just felt like a – it was a really great feeling. And from there, we put a band together over the course of a couple weeks. Within a couple months, we booked our first show.
I scammed us onto a show with a band called Saves the Day, which was one of our favorite bands at the time. They put out their second record called "Through Being Cool," and they were doing a record release show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour and a half away from Philly. And I called –
LP: Were they Amish?
MW: They were not Amish, and I don't think they're Amish now, either.
I called the promoter. I did one of those things where, I'll say it was a lie. I lied to him. I lied to his face and said, “My band is on tour, and our show fell through. Is there any way we can play for the door?” And luckily enough he said yes. And I think that gave us the ability to be like, “All right, this is a real thing now.” We just opened for one of our favorite bands for the record release show. We didn't bomb it. It wasn't great, by any means, but I think that gave us the ability to be like, "We can do this."
And from there, you know, we kept playing shows every weekend through the remainder of my college career. I graduated in 2001. Kenny, at that time, was 16, but things were trending in the right direction. There was a label called Drive-Thru Records that was L.A.-based at the time that had Fenix TX and New Found Glory and a couple other bands. And we knew if we made it onto Drive-Thru good things would potentially happen to us.
They said they would offer us a record deal if we could figure out how we could go on the road, given that Kenny was 16 years old. So, his mom really was amazing in this process and met with his high school guidance counselor, figured out how he could graduate high school early, and how he could actually go on the road.
MW:I told my parents at my college graduation, "Thank you very much for the civil engineering degree. Your baby boy is going to go live in a van with his friends for a while." Which, you know, they really reacted favorably too. They did not.
LP: [laughs] Did you wish you had Kenny's parents at that point?
MW: In retrospect, maybe. But no, they ended up coming full circle and were super-supportive. But I think to any parents, that's just such a crazy thing to hear of, you know, my kid just completed college. He's going to – what does it mean that he's going to go live in a van for a while and tour with his friends? But it all worked out. We went on tour - I think for about six months was our first run, and we came home, and our hometown show in Philly, we opened for a band called The Juliana Theory. And it was at the venue that my parents used to drop me off at as a kid. And they came in, they saw the show, and I think that finally connected for them.
And then everything went from there. The band experience of touring for 10-plus years really opened up a lot of doors. And I was always the business guy in the band; I just took a natural liking to either how the business operated or what could be improved upon. Every chance I got I would meet with promoters or managers or label people and just ask them questions. And luckily, everybody was always very receptive to sitting down for 15 minutes and letting me pick their brain about things.
LP: That's a great thing about our business and something that a lot of people don't fully appreciate is that the older generation or the people that came before, there's a very strong sense of pay-it-forward. There are so many people in our business that are known for being gruffy or difficult or not nice, but when you get them one-on-one, this is definitely a hand-me-down industry. Whether it's access to a rolodex or just the inside of how it works. It’s interesting to hear you tap into that as well.
MW: I think on top of that it's a young-person's game, right? The younger generation that's coming up, they have their ears to the ground. They know exactly what's going on in terms of music, culture, tech. And I think there is a responsibility to usher in that next generation of people that will be running the business one day.
I think it's a two-way street. The people that have reached out to me that just want to grab coffee for 30 minutes and learn from my experiences or want to hear sort of how I did X, Y, or Z, I find just as much value in hearing what they're listening to or how they're listening to stuff, or how they're going to shows, or what their consumer behaviors just because I want to still have my finger on the pulse.
LP: Let me dial back for one second and ask you, before we get into the crazy life-on-the-road stories, it doesn't sound like there was a whole lot of – you weren't in 50 bands before you made it big.
LP: There was a straight line, and it was a methodical march.
LP: If you hadn't been in college, would it have moved faster? How do you think about your trajectory versus somebody who toiled for 10 or 15 years, you know, as a singer/songwriter in a coffee shop type thing?
MW: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think it's different being in a band versus being a singer/songwriter where everything is sort of on your shoulders. I think for us, the benefit was, you know, I was 20. I had never been in a band before. The other guys were 19, and Kenny when we first started was 14, 15. I think we were super naïve. When you're young and creating music and you don't know anything about that, I think that really helps.
Would I call a show promoter now and ask if my band could jump on and open first? There's no way in hell that would happen. But being 20 years old, being hungry, and wanting to play with Saves the Day, yeah, there's no way that I was not going to do that. That’s what it boils down to.
LP: So, you go out on the road for six months in a van with a handful of other people, carrying your own gear, doing all of that stuff.
LP: What's that look like? How do you survive on the road? How do you get gigs? How do you get from one place to another? Tell us a little bit about what that looks like day-to-day.
MW:We signed to a label called Drive-Thru, and Drive-Thru was super supportive and really helped us learn the ropes. This was right around the time that Blink-182 was starting to break. For us, that was certainly a band that we looked up to, but they weren't massive yet. I mean, they were getting big, their songs were being played on the radio. They were on MTV. The other bands that followed after them hadn't broken through yet.
It was still a very DIY, punk mindset. A lot of VFW halls, Knights of Columbus halls. It wasn't necessarily like real venues. It was kids putting on shows. Playing for your peers and playing with your peers. There’s something super cool about that.
Drive-Thru, one of the things that I think was the ethos of the label was community. And they wanted to make sure the bands on the label got along with each other. They could tour with each other. And every band wanted that, there was also the “strength in numbers” thing.
When we first signed to the label, they had gotten us on a tour with Rx Bandits to play the first of three or first of four bands on that tour. With our advance, we had enough money to buy a 15-passenger Ford van. It was used and totally beat down. It smelled horrible. I can still – you know, talking about it, the scent just comes back to me immediately, and it's repulsive. I don't wish it on anybody to smell that van, if it still exists.
We were just learning as we were going. We were making $100 to $250 a night. There were four people in the band at that point in time, and we had two people on our crew. We had a merch guy, and then we had a guitar tech. And we were just figuring it out as we went.
And this is – I don't want to say "pre-internet," but the internet wasn't as successful as now. So, it was printing out directions from MapQuest or having the old-school atlas in the van. Playing a show, and then driving probably three or four hours after the show, all cramming into one Motel 6 hotel room or staying at a fan's house, some of which were great and super welcoming. Other times it was kind of creepy, as one could expect. And waking up early, driving to the next show, doing it again.
At that point in time, it was just so exciting to be on the road with your best friends. I saw my friends from college graduating and going to work, and I felt like I won the lottery, doing this and making $100 a night. And things slowly got bigger and bigger with every show. But in the beginning, it was a grind. I think it was the perfect time in my life to do that. When you're that age, you don't have the financial burden that you have when you're 30 or 40 or 50.
We were just looking to prolong our adolescences as long as humanly possible.
LP: You guys get noticed by Drive-Thru. They say, "We'll put you on the road. We'll put out a record, if you can go on the road."
LP: At what point did you have songs that have been around for the whole 20 years? Were any of the early songs with Kenny usable?
MW: That's a good question. We recorded a four-song demo, which is online somewhere. It's awful. Tempo changes everywhere. Botched notes. I think it was before Kenny grew into a man, the man we all know and love. He did a really good job of navigating the voice changes, but his voice was definitely super high, definitely wasn't as polished as it is now, but he did a good job of navigating that.
After that and once we started to take things more seriously, and once we started talking to Drive-Thru, we got some notes from them about what was lacking in the songs. I had gotten Richard from Drive-Thru's AOL screenname. And one of my friends was like, "Just send him an instant message. Say something really messed up just to catch his attention, and you know, strike up a rapport, and start talking to him about your band." I'm like, "Okay. Cool." [laughs]
I send him an instant message, and I'm like, "All right. I got it. Here's something super fucked up." So, I'm like, "I hear you like children." And he was basically like, "Fuck you," and blocked me. So, now I know where the line is.
So, I started a new AOL screenname. I send him an instant message, and we strike up this rapport. But I come to find out that wherever he goes, there's an entourage of 14, 15, 16-year-old boys following him around. It's never crossed a line to my knowledge. He's a great dude, but it was definitely sort of a sore subject.
LP: Is it because he's the godfather of the scene, and these are kids that looked up to him?
MW: He’s the godfather of the scene. I think that's it. We start developing this rapport, and I send him songs. He's like, "I really like the songs. We should meet up when I'm in New Jersey." He lived in L.A. and he lets me know when he's going to be in New Jersey. He calls me when I'm at band practice. And he's like, "Hey, I'm at a hotel in North Jersey. You guys should come up and walk on my back." And I'm like, “I don't know what that means.” I'm just like, “Oh, it's just like a music industry term.” And I'm 20. I'm super naïve.
So, I get off the phone. I'm like, "Hey, good news. Richard wants to meet with us, and he said something about walking on his back." And everyone's like, "I'm not doing that." And I'm like, "Fine. I'll go." So, I went by myself to this hotel in North Jersey. And –
LP: – This guy here is a gamer.
MW: – yeah, I played him our demo. And I walked on his back while he laid on the floor of his hotel room. And then I got off of his back after the fourth song, and he's like, "You guys don't have choruses." And I was like, "Oh, shit. We don't have choruses." So, went and wrote choruses, and then we got signed.
LP: Let's talk a little bit more about the back walking. Shirt or no shirt?
LP:Both of you?
MW:Both of us fully clothed.
LP:Shoes, no shoes, socks?
LP:White socks. Were the white socks indicated, or just that was what you were wearing that day?
MW:That's a good question. I want to say there was a –
LP:– Like a rider?
MW:– Yeah, there was a rider. Let's say there was a rider.
LP:So, you –
MW:– So either the band was good, or I was just really good at walking on a back. It's –
LP:– We'll take that offline. So –
MW:– Therapy has really helped me, by the way. [laughs]
LP:I would imagine. I would imagine. So, you pass the test.
MW: I was great. I was great.
LP:You walk on what you were supposed to walk on. –
LP:And so, the record label and Richard or A&R person or whomever, helps you learn how to write songs?
MW:I wouldn't even say they helped us learn how to write songs, but I think they brought a level of awareness to our craft. None of those bands had broken through, so there wasn't textbook songwriting in that genre, but we saw what our peers were doing. I don't want to say we emulated that, but we thought we stood neck to neck with everyone else.
LP:What was the genre, just so we are clear?
MW:I would say at that point pop punk or what would become emo. It was that whole thing. We toured a lot with Fall Out Boy and Paramore, did like five or six full Warped Tours. So it was that lane. And you know, we were there right at the right time when that genre became mainstream and hit critical mass.
We were learning as we went. Even as it goes from songwriting to touring, we're just learning as we're going. We didn't know about song structure. Kenny, our singer, who is our principle writer, he plays bass and every other instrument. He just developed this proficiency for songwriting immediately. He has a natural tendency to write these really amazing melodies and take things to a place where, you know, you thought it was going to go to a familiar place, and then it would just go to a different place, but still be equally as hooky and compelling.
I think just having some notes from the label or eventual producers of, "Hey, have you tried this?" or, "The bridge could be a little bit stronger." I think he would be able to take that feedback, distill it, and really push himself to do better.
LP:That makes sense in terms of my understanding of how recorded music works. There's usually a producer or an A&R person who helps the band craft. Who does that for you with your live show? How do you learn how to be onstage?
MW:For us, it was just putting in the 10,000 hours. I think it's getting up there and seeing what reacts and what doesn't react and just being comfortable.
LP:Were you ever self-conscious?
MW:Yeah, totally. And I think I'm still self-conscious to some degree, especially now since we don't do it that often. And I think there's a lot of pressure because, you know, we've been a band for 20 years. Some of those songs have really impacted our fan's lives, and we want to make sure that they have a great time, and that the music is as good as it should be. There's an onus on us to really deliver. And we live all over the country at this point, and it's not a full-time thing.
We practice a lot at home, and we get together and rehearse a couple times before we play a show, and make sure it's really tight and succinct. But for us, it was just all about touring and making sure the transition from song to song is great. We put a lot of thought into what key certain songs are in, and making sure it flows seamlessly, and just seeing what reacts with fans.
We don't really change our arrangements up too much from a live perspective. For us, we want to make sure it sounds as good or better than the recording. And fortunately, we've always been one of those bands that's been able to do that.
LP:How long between when you were signed and you were doing that six months out on the road, to when you had product on the shelves?
MW:When we first started touring, there was an EP on the shelves. For us, it was important for fans to be able to leave, listen to the music, connect with the music. And then for us, every time we'd come back to a certain city, we wanted to grow our fan base. And doing that with new music and merch and we were genuinely interested in meeting the people coming to our shows, so developing a sense of community around our own band.
Ultimately, putting in those hours and connecting with everyone on the road, building those one-to-one connections in VFW Halls and Elks Lodges and staying at fans' houses, I think that's the reason why we've been able to sustain it for 20 years. Because we never relied on radio or MTV or anyone else to build those connections for us. It was still that DIY mentality, even when we were on major labels.
LP:What was the next step? You’re out on the road. You've got product out. What broke? How did you break?
MW:That's a good question. We had an EP out, and we were building a little bit of a buzz. We were on some cool compilations, and then it was time for us to make our first full length. We were and still are huge fans of Jimmy Eat World. I think their album "Clarity" is probably one of our favorite records.
There was a gentleman named Mark Trombino that produced that record, and we just loved how it sounded. We loved the arrangements. And Mark wanted to produce our first record. So, we went into the studio with him, and he had made, at that point, records for Blink-182, for Jimmy Eat World. He played drums in a band called Drive Like Jehu, which is a band that we all really admired as well.
I think being under the microscope with someone who is so good at his craft like that, it was one of those "oh, shit" moments that really made us step up our game. We did preproduction with him for about two weeks, and he really helped us get the songs to where they should be, but also from a playing standpoint, really drilling into where we need to improve upon. And I think that's the underlying theme of Richard and Stefanie from Drive-Thru or Mark Trombino, being able to hold up a mirror, and being able to help us recognize where the gaps were. And to be self-aware enough of, “Here's how we fix those gaps” and then to fill in those gaps. It was really helpful for us.
So, we went through that recording process. And there was a song called "Best of Me" that we recorded on that record, and that was the breakout song from that record. It is probably the reason we're still able to play shows 20 years later. I don't want to say it's a one-hit wonder sort of thing because it was never a massive hit. But it was an emo anthem at the time, that if you were between, 14 and 20 years old, that song, for whatever reason, really resonated with you.
Kenny wrote that song. He got a journal for Christmas one year, and really just wanted to fill in the journal with lyrics that he was proud of. He literally opened up that journal, and that was the first thing he wrote in it, the lyrics from start to finish. And for whatever reason, Mark was able to pull out some magic. And things – we saw things get exponentially bigger from there and just really connect.
LP:One thing that strikes me about your story is that it sounds like, first of all, you guys were incredibly earnest and focused. And it didn't happen by accident. There was a lot of hard work. It sounds like you were open to direction, but you still had a sort of ethos and a point of view you came from. Was it fun?
MW:It was a blast, yeah. I mean, those guys are still some of my best friends. To be 22 years old and seeing the world with your best friends and going to Japan, Australia, Europe, California, all over the world, there was nothing better than that. Every moment was fun. It was definitely not super fun to stay in a Motel 6 hotel room night after night with five or six other people, but we made it work.
I don't think we knew what the definitive goal was at the time. I think we kept setting small goals for ourselves and accomplishing those, and then raising the bar with every step. I think if you would have asked me 19 years ago, "Do you think you'll be playing shows in 20 years?" You know, have this sort of career longevity, probably not. So, I think it's a matter of setting realistic goals, attaining those, and then just raising the bar with every step.
LP:At what point did you start to think about and plot a course for life after your music career?
MW:I had a hunch that we weren't going to be The Rolling Stones. I mean there's only so many bands that tour for 40, 50-plus years. And once we started going through the major label ringer…So, we were on Drive-Thru. Drive-Thru had an upstream deal with MCA, so if a band got to a certain point, you're on MCA now, and you're on a major label.
LP:And you got a big check for that?
MW:It wasn't a big check, but we got a check.
LP:A big check.
MW:A big check, a big, huge check. No. But you know, for us we got to that point where we had sold a couple hundred thousand records, and it's like, all right, well the major label is here to put gas on the fire. And as soon as we got up streamed, MCA folded into Geffen. So it was, “Go make a new record.” And we're figuring out the new internal structure of Geffen Records.
This guy named Jordan Schur was the president of Geffen at the time. For whatever reason, we just didn't really connect with Jordan. I think we had different visions. And I wouldn't say he was wrong. I wouldn't say we were right. I think it was just one of those things where it was just two polar opposite ends of the spectrum. I think we were young and naïve. We had a vision for what we wanted. He had a vision for what he thought we should have been. We felt like he wasn't respecting what he had heard from us.
We went in to make our second record, and it was definitely the record we wanted to make. I don't think it was the record that he wanted us to make. And they really didn't support it. But it did really well. We grew our fanbase. Our headline shows got bigger. We got bigger festivals, bigger tours, but it just didn't connect in that commercial sense that's important for a major label.
We got out of our deal. We ended up signing to Virgin Records. That record, it's my favorite record that we made, but right after the record came out, when our song "Island" started reacting at radio, Virgin got acquired by a company called Terra Firma. And all assets were frozen, and we were told to go make a new record. So, given the fact that I was the business guy in the band, I negotiated our first record deal using the Donald Passman Everything You Need to Know About the Music Business book. I didn't do a great job with the negotiations by any means, but I had a thirst for knowledge about the music industry. So, after our second record, I just wanted to help out younger bands and started getting into artist management, and I picked up a couple bands that were just friends from the Northeast. I wanted to learn artist management.
Our manager (Randy Nichols) has been a great mentor for me throughout my whole professional life. Any questions or problems that I had - I would call Randy. He would help usher me through. But when we were touring, when we were in a tour bus, which was the end of our first album cycle, all throughout the rest of our career, I would essentially advance a production office for myself every day.
The bus would pull up to the venue around, you know, 6 a.m. We would sleep until 11:00 because that's what band guys do. And the rest of the band would go try to find food or hang out in the city, sightsee.
MW:And I would go into the venue. [laughs] Come on. Come on. Circle of trust.
I would go into the venue, and I would have my own production office. And it was basically my mobile artist management company. And I would learn how to manage artists.
When the band announced that we were going on hiatus in 2007 or 2008, after Virgin got acquired by Terra Firma, I moved to New York and worked for Red Light Management and did artist management there. But I think it was the last three years in the band that really showed me that I had built some skills that I could piece together and help younger bands grow and hopefully right my wrongs, the mistakes that we made, or not playing ball when we should have. Not that I would do anything differently, but I might, you know – it would have been interesting to hear some different advice.
LP:What's the longest time that Starting Line stayed on hiatus without playing or recording?
MW:We went on hiatus in 2008, and I think it was two years without playing any shows. I think the major label ringer, you know, two records on major labels that didn't get the support or attention that we felt like they deserved was dejecting. And also, you're living in a bus with, you know, 12 people. You're a carnie at some point. No offense if any of you guys are carnies.
Doing that for nine months out of the year, it just became super exhausting. And I think certain people, including myself, wanted a sense of normalcy or to see what else is out there. You know, Mike, our guitar player, had started a family. Kenny had different musical ambitions that he wanted to explore. I think everyone just wanted to do different things.
So, we had the conversation of, “This has been really great. Let's put a pin in it for now, and if we want to come back to it, we can. If we don't, that's cool too.” We did a final headline tour in 2008, which ended up being one of the biggest headline tours we ever did. We just wanted to go out on a high note.
LP:Did you promote it as a farewell?
MW:Yeah, we did. Because to us, it was a farewell. And you know, now that we still play shows, it's more like – in my opinion, it's an event. I think it's something that we're looking forward to as much as the fans. But we don't have aspirations to be a full-time touring band anymore. Granted, I would love to get in a room with those guys and make some music, and maybe play three or four more shows, but it's gone back to the very beginning of why it started. It was super fun in the beginning. Not that it wasn't fun in the middle or the first end cycle of it, but it's fun again.
I think it's easy to lose focus of why you start it, how you got to where you are, and the reason that you started playing music in the first place.
LP:What does the success or even the months of living in a bus together do to individual relationships?
MW:You notice the nuances of people, and the quirks that you either like or don't like. I think it's hard enough living with one or two people, let alone 10 or 12 people. It definitely increases your tolerance for –
LP:– It's like a rolling frat house.
MW:It's like a rolling frat house. And I think it increases your tolerance for bullshit. It makes you appreciate your personal space. It makes you cherish your personal space, but it also gives you the ability to be able to coexist with people even if they have different views, different habits, aren't as clean as you, leave food out, leave bottles out. You just cope with it.
LP:The band winds down. You're an artist manager. How do you transition to the corporate world? What happened next?
MW:I was an artist manager. I worked at Red Light and a company called AAM, and I did that for about seven years. I had a roster of about eight bands. As an artist manager, you're essentially the CEO of a band's business. You’re dealing with everything from the band directly, to the merch company, to the booking agent, to the promoter. Setting the vision for the band's marketing plan, album launches, what the touring cycle looks like. Collaborating with the business manager to make sure that the band is making money and can focus on creating their art and survive.
I was doing that for seven years and towards the end of it, it felt like karma for all the craziness I put my manager through, like late-night phone calls. There was one phone call I got from a band I was managing, and the singer was flying to L.A. from Ohio for a writing session. Lots of times bands would miss their flights, and it's a manager's job just to fix it. It's a lot of babysitting and handholding. Super glamorous stuff.
And this dude calls me from his layover in an airport. And he's like, "Hey, question for you. I'm at layover. I forgot to take my machete out of my backpack." And I'm like, "What do you mean?" And he's like, "I got through security with my machete. Didn't realize it was in my backpack. It's in my backpack right now. What do I do?" I'm like, "I don't fucking know. I'm not certified to give advice on this." I'm like, "Put it in a trashcan maybe." [laughs]
I don't know what ever happened to that machete but at that point I was just like, “I don't want to do this anymore.” [laughs] I didn't flat-out quit then. I wound it down for about two more years. But I started looking at other opportunities in the music, marketing, entertainment space. Because once I started putting my resume together, I realized I had transferrable skills. Being an artist manager, dealing with operations, marketing, logistics, crisis management.
Where do I want to go? Who do I want to be? What do I have a passion for? And it goes back to wanting to help creatives and working with music, marketing, entertainment, and culture as touchpoints. I started looking for jobs in the entertainment space. And at this point in time too, it was when I don't want to say the record business was sort of plummeting in a freefall, but –
LP:– I'll say it. The record business was in a freefall, and it was plummeting.
MW:Thank you. Thank you very much. –
LP:– How did you react? [laughs]
MW:I was like, “I'm probably not going to work for an artist-and-repertoire-forward company because I don't know what the future looks like.” This is before streaming had really hit critical mass and was a real business. Record sales were on the decline. It was just a grind.
I knew I wanted to do something in music, I started looking at what's music adjacent. I had really good conversations with Apple that didn't lead to me getting a role there, but it was enough encouragement for me to be able to speak with recruiters, go through the interview process, and realize that my skills actually meant something.
In 2010, I saw a job open for director of marketing and entertainment for Hard Rock Hotels. It was in Orlando, Florida. I was living in New York at the time. So just as anyone in New York romanticizes about moving to Orlando…It's the music and culture capital of greater Central Florida, as they call it.
I saw the role was open. I had my resume ready. I submitted it. Fortunately, when we would tour through Orlando, we became really good friends with Chris Kirkpatrick from NSYNC. [laughs] And we would crash at –
LP:– Of course you did.
MW:– Of course, as one does.
MW:And I didn't mean to name drop, but it's a key – he's a key part of how I sort of got from Point A to Point B. And I think it's a matter of building those genuine connections and friendships and relationships.
I called Chris, and I was like, "Hey, you know, I applied for this role. Do you know anyone there? Because I'd have to imagine, you know, you being in Orlando, you probably know someone who works for Hard Rock." And he's like, "Yeah, my sister's been there for like 15 years. What do you need?" I'm like, "I just need someone to read my resume who works at the corporate headquarters."
He was able to put a bug in an ear. Someone read my resume. I got a phone call. Went down for an interview. And my role there, it was leaving the music business and going on the hotel/casino side of the business. At that point, there were 22 hotels and casinos in 11 countries. Having a seat at the table as to how to shape this iconic brand in new territories, like Goa, India, or Ibiza, was super exciting.
To do that through the lens of music and to play a role on the marketing team and how we market and promote these hotels, what the overall vision was, for me, equally fulfilling as creating music, going on the road, and touring with my band. It was –
LP:– Did you ever do anything naughty or inappropriate? You're incredibly earnest and driven and hardworking. Like, what's up with you, man?
MW:– I mean –
LP:– How do you blow off steam? Do you kick the dog or something? Or like –
MW:– I shake it a little bit. No, I'm totally kidding. No, I'd never. I love dogs. Come on.
LP:You don't act out?
MW:No, I mean, I've always been really balanced, for the most part. I've always been into skateboarding and surfing and running and got into transcendental meditation about two or three years ago, so that's helped bring focus. But for the most part, I think the day-to-day of being able to solve a problem or put things together or build something has been exciting for me. And I don't want to say that's a vice because it sounds super, super lame, but I get a lot of fulfillment and enjoyment in that.
LP:In your experience of having gone through it firsthand, as well as shepherding other artists through the process, what do you think differentiates you or the fellow guys in your band versus other young people that come up through the same meatgrinder and who don't come out on the other side of it with any hope for the future or options, or you know, mental health? Why do some people get chewed up and spit out, and how did you not?
MW:I think the punk community is really amazing in the sense that it is a true community. And I think there's no room for bullshit. I think everyone, for the most part, that we came across held themselves to a high moral standard. It was collaborative. You wanted your peers to do well. And I think we had the vision, whether we knew it or not, to scale that. And I think that's where we came from, of playing those small shows, connecting with people there, and bringing that to large clubs and theaters and festivals and so on.
I think that's one of the reasons that the band worked. In regard to life after the band, everyone's adjusted really well. We weren't one of those bands that had crazy drug problems, or you're reading crazy stories about, you know, misconduct with fans or any of that stuff. I think all of us came from good families, held ourselves to a high moral standard. And I think the crew that we surrounded ourselves with did the same exact thing.
We had a really good crew of people, and we also had a good vision of what we wanted. That’s where people can get lost. We never felt like we were owed anything. Everything that we built we felt like we earned, and we were proud of that. I think there's a lot of coming up that are like, "I'm waiting for my big break."
Whether you're in marketing, in operations, or an artist, no one's going to give you your big break. You have to develop that story and knock on the right doors respectfully and the right way and do a good job. And eventually, doors will open. You just have to be paying attention when they do open.
LP:That's great. So, you're building a career in the corporate world or in the business world, keeping one toe in music, playing a few times a year. Mainly Starting Line, or did you have other things going on?
MW:All Starting Line. I mean, I've jammed with a lot of people and started some side projects, but never played live. Recorded some stuff.
LP:If you are going to be an artist, it is going to be with those guys.
MW:Yeah. I felt like I accomplished everything that I wanted to do with that band. And it's just weird having that connection with anyone else at this point.
LP:Fast-forward me now. What do you do at Fender?
MW:I'm the VP of Artists and Integrated Marketing. I came onboard about a year and a half ago, and my role was Vice President of Artist Marketing. Fender went through a shift a couple years ago bringing headquarters to Los Angeles to be closer to the music community, to artists, to the people that play our instruments.
With that there was a new executive team that came onboard, some really brilliant people. Andy Mooney, our CEO, was at Nike for a long time. Evan Jones, our CMO, who is my boss, was also at Nike for a long time. Their mindset was, “How do we evolve from a manufacturing company to a bran?” And one of the touchpoints was to deepen our connection with artists, and to do that from a genuine place.
My role was really to build and work with the artist relations team and grow it into an artist marketing team. Really transform the ways that we work with artists going from a company that gets product to artists, it's focused on product seeding, making sure they have the right equipment to write, record, and tour, to how do we leverage our 9 million fans on socials. How do we integrate artists into our content? How do we tell the artist story? How do we give them a platform to showcase what they're doing?
Not that we aspire to break bands, but if we can give them another avenue to get their music heard, to develop new fans, I think that that's one of our passion points. That's been one of my goals at Fender. About six months ago I took on more responsibilities on the integrated marketing side. And that is essentially taking our physical products to market.
When we're releasing a new guitar series or amplifier or any physical product, working hand in hand with the product team on developing the marketing briefs, working with all the functions in the organization, whether it's creative, social, PR, email, CRM, and so on. And really developing that plan and making sure there's a seamless, unified, go-to-market approach. Making sure our sales team has everything that they need for retailers to set us up for success. The MI or musical instrument industry is still very brick-and-mortar driven.
For us, it's just having a really tight, succinct approach, to here's when we're launching product, here's when the content's coming out, and developing those assets that go out to all of our key dealers, retailers, and so on. But also building our direct-to-consumer approach, not from a sales strategy standpoint, but making sure our Fender fans know when products are coming out, what the features and benefits are, and then driving them to retailers.
LP:What role does technology play in your job or at Fender? How is Fender adapting?
MW:I mean, we've grown our digital marketing team and CRM team exponentially over the past couple years. For us, it's really digging in deeper to understanding what consumer behaviors are. We did a big-brand health study, which was really sort of enlightening, where we learned 90 percent of first-time guitar players quit playing within the first three months.
When you see The Washington Post write an article that says, "The guitar is dead," the guitar isn't dead. I would say there are more people playing guitar now. They might be using it in different ways, but I would say the guitar industry doesn't have an awareness problem. It has a retention problem. So how do you get people over that hump because if they get over that three-month hump, they'll buy five to seven guitars in their lifetime.
CRM and understanding our consumers plays a key role in that, of knowing what they want. If we know a first-time buyer has a 70 percent propensity to buy an acoustic guitar, well, when are they ready for their first electric guitar? When are they ready for an amplifier, for pedals, for theirmnext-level guitar? And how do we super serve them on their journey?
If we can do that, it's good for the guitar business in general, but it's also good for music. We want more people out there creating music. And whether it's someone shredding onstage or using a guitar as a sonic paintbrush with Albeton and just making beats and laying guitar over it, you know, that's what's going to inspire the next generation of musicians and players and so on. We really want to figure out how to foster that through understanding our customers.
LP:Can you speak at all to the app strategy that you guys have to get people playing and to keep them playing? That sounds like a piece to get them through that first benchmark of the three months or whatever it is, to make it easier to pick up a guitar and play.
MW:Yeah, for sure. With that brand health study, we launched our digital learning app called Fender Play. And it's been wildly successful, and I wish they had it when I first started playing guitar. I think I mentioned before I got a guitar in fourth grade, and I quit because my guitar instructor wanted to teach me music theory, and I just wanted to play a Guns N' Roses song.
At Fender Play, it literally teaches you everything incredibly quickly, and it's super thorough. And you literally play your first song and riff your first day. You fire up the app, and it walks you through a path, and it gets you playing immediately. And for me, learning a Nirvana song when I first picked up guitar, that was enough of a hook for me to want to keep playing, to go further down the rabbit hole. That removes a big barrier of entry because if you look at a guitar, you look at all the frets and all the strings and the dots, and so on, and it's like, "I don't even know where to begin." This teaches you were to begin and how to get better and how to get proficient.
LP:How do you balance having a very demanding – I would imagine demanding, important-to-the-company day job with this alter-ego Rockstar life?
MW:The Rockstar life is on weekends, and muscle memory is a very real thing. 20 years in, we all know the songs really well. We're strategic about where and when we play them. The other guys have jobs as well. Kenny, our singer, plays in another band called Vacationer and tours full time with them. We’re really limited in what we can and can't do.
From a Fender standpoint, I have a really incredible team that are best in class at what they do. And I'm not the type of manager that micromanages by any means, so I think it's setting everybody up for success, managing expectations, being standard-operating-procedure driven, being process oriented and process driven. And understanding what's coming out when, and what the priorities are, and keeping everyone on track.
Everyone on my team knows everything that's happening at all times, and likewise. And I think it's just a matter of being overly communicative and setting realistic goals and expectations. Also, pushing yourself to do better every time. I think as long as there's a plan, and everyone's aware of what those pieces are, and what the potential moving parts are and risks, then it all sort of balances out.
LP:How has touring changed since you were first out on the road? And I don't mean in terms of being in a van versus being in a bus. But have you – from the artist perspective, has touring as a business changed, or has the mechanization of it changed at all, or is it – would a touring artist from 40 years ago recognize life on the road today?
MW:Interesting. Yeah. I mean, there's way more festivals, right? When we first started touring, there was Warped Tour, and that was about it. And we played the final Warped Tour yesterday, which was the 25th anniversary, so it was an honor to do that. And that's the last touring festival, to my knowledge, which is crazy. We have these regional, larger-scale festivals, and I think that's what bands really sort of time album releases around, those big marquee moments.
When we first started touring and playing, there was a couple big drivers. If you got an Apple sync, or if you played Kimmel release week, or if you were featured in a TV show, those were really big drivers that would move record sales. And then the live aspect would grow as well.
I feel like major festivals were that for a moment. I don't know if that exists now or not, but I think, artists and labels are still strategically releasing albums and songs and so on around those big touch points and trying to create big moments at those festivals. And that's, to me, the one big driver that still exists, if you can create a really big moment.
LP:Knowing what you know about the way the ticketing industry works and how it can be exploitive to fans, or at least aggressive towards fans, and the fact that artists are complicit in some of the wrongdoing perpetuated on fans, either by being willfully ignorant, turning a blind eye, or in some cases participating in aftermarket ticket activity, if you could roll back time to the beginning of your career on the artist side, is there a point of view you would have had about ticketing for your fans? Or is there anything you think you could have done differently to make it a fairer ecosystem for your fans?
MW:It’s a great question. It’s one of those things where, being a touring artist, it's something that we just didn't think about. I think we were just not informed. We didn't know there were other options out there. We would book a tour, and we would look at the ticket counts, but we didn't understand the subtle nuances of the business. And it's only when I got into artist management did I really understand how sort of messed-up that landscape is.
Digging in further and seeing how unfair some of these deals are or what goes on in the secondary market, I mean, for me, worked – having worked in artist management, or you know, being an artist myself, like not having that customer data of who your super fans are and being able to notify them when you have, you know, a new piece of merch, if they're interested in hearing from you, or you're playing two shows a year, and they're in these markets, and relying on a third-party to sort of handle that comm strategy for you, I don't think is a great service to anybody.
So for me, I would have rather been able to have a seat at the table and understand who is buying tickets for our shows, what the demographics are, are they in line with who we think we're marketing to, and are they getting what they want out of it. And you know, I think the overall ticket purchasing experience isn't seamless by any means, and I wish I would have asked those questions early on. Not that I would have been able to necessarily affect change, but I think there's a much better way to super serve the fan, and I think that's a big pain point from where I sit.
Female 1: I have a question. The statistic you started about 90 percent of guitar players will give up after three months of playing, do you think it has anything to do with music programs being gutted from schools, and the drop of musical literacy among children?
LP:Go ahead. We've got it.
MW:Okay. Cool. Yeah, I do for sure. I think that's a big part of it. So, you know, at Fender we're working on hopefully a solve to some of that that we'll be announcing in September. But yeah, I mean, I think that's a kid's sort of first inroads to music. It's connecting with other kids and learning how to play. So yeah. I mean, I – it's such a bummer to see music not be as widely available as it was when I was a kid.
And you know, there's organizations like us, and anyone else in the music business, that I think there's an onus to sort of raise your hand and step up. And whether it's through developing a 501(c)(3), or you know, supporting other likeminded programs like VH1 Save the Music or Notes for Notes, I think, you know, that stuff needs to exist, and I think people need to make it a priority.
That's a great question.
LP:Knowing that we're going to control the edit on this, can you talk at all about what the initiative you're going to roll-out?
MW:Yeah. So we're launching the Fender Play Foundation in September. I've been working on it for the past year. And it's all about sort of getting music education back into schools and providing, you know, schools or institutions access to, you know, Fender Play. So they'd get free Fender Play subscriptions, as well as free instruments.
And so we've gone down the road of trying to partner with LAUSD, which is the biggest school system in the country. The bureaucracy of even trying to get instruments in there has been a huge, huge pain point. Like, you know, there's 50 different people you have to talk to, and then you have to sort of influence the people at the individual schools. Some of those people care. Some of them don't care. So that's been – you know, it's been a huge issue, and I don't know if we're going to move forward with LAUSD as a partner, just candidly in this room.
So we started looking at alternate options like Boys & Girls Club. Because that's something that we can scale, and those are in underserved communities. And you know, they're – you know, the ages of kids that participate in Boys & Girls Club, it's up until you're like 12 years old.
LP:That's when you get them.
MW:Yeah. And you know, they're – Boys & Girls Club are having issues with getting teenagers there, so they're looking at us as, well, if we have some cool music programming, if we have instructors, if we have Fender Play, if we have instruments, we might get some, you know, 13 to 15-year-old kids in here.
So that's the plan we're putting together. We're launching it in September. And then we're also partnering with artists, primarily signature Fender artist, but artists who do drops in their hometowns at their old sort of elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, to really serve as ambassadors of the program. So you know, in conversations right now with Post Malone, Tyler the Creator, Brad Paisley, Chris Stapleton, and figuring out exactly what the plan is and how we execute it. Because it's much easier to call up Chris Stapleton's middle school and say, "Hey, Chris Stapleton wants to come by and drop off 100 instruments and some Fender Play subscriptions," versus, "Hey, we're, you know, a corporation."
LP:"We're going to send a publicist and a marketing executive."
MW:Totally. Yeah. So for us, you know, we're really passionate about that. We're going to start in L.A., Nashville, and Scottsdale, three areas that we have corporate offices in, and then wherever the artists happen to be from. And then we're going to look to scale it over the next couple of years.
LP:Yeah. It's interesting. One of the things I've seen since I've gotten involved a little bit with organizations that do music education is that they're all so focused on band instruments, meaning school band instruments, which is great. It's great to give kids exposure to any kind of performing. But when you hit the teenage years, it's not what they want. You know, they want a guitar. They want a bass. They want maybe a keyboard. And all the programs are going after trombones and trumpets, and things of that nature.
Female 1: Violin.
LP:So I think there is a disconnect there between the agenda of the sort of mainstream music educators and what kids really want.
MW:There was one LAUSD school that we spoke to that we're beta testing this now. The teacher totally got it. And I think that it really comes down to the teacher and the instructor, right. If the teacher has a passion point for wanting to inspire these kids, it can be effective. If they're not inspired, then, you know, the kids are going to suffer for it. But we met with her, and she was like, "I would like to replace my recorder program with a ukulele program." So we gave her, you know, 40 ukuleles. The kids are playing ukulele now instead of the record and super psyched about it.
But it's like come on. Who wants to play recorder? [laughs] No offense if any of you guys are proficient at recorder, it's your passion point. But –
Male 4: Andrew 3000.
LP:Yeah, fair enough.
MW:Yeah, that's a very good point. [laughs]
LP:Any other questions?
Male 5: It's not the most important thing, but you'd said early on in the thing that Drive-Thru had you touring with the Rx Band.
Male 5: Was that the tour with The Benjamins?
MW:That was the tour with The Benjamins.
Male 5: Did you play Pound SF here?
Male 5: I went to that show.
MW:That's amazing. Wow. Look at that.
LP:Well, and the piece you're not getting is Ben's also a touring musician.
Male 5: I don't tour that much, but I played in another band with the Benjamin's drummer, which is why I went to that.
Male 5: Yeah.
MW:That's awesome. Ben from the Benjamins was texting me last week.
Male 5: He manages The Replacements.
MW:He does. He's doing all right.
LP:Oh god, he's a saint.
LP:Before we release Matt back out to the wild, does anybody else have any questions?
Male 6: Who was your favorite Drive-Thru band back in the day?
MW:Oh, that's a good question.
LP:Other Starting Line.
MW:Man, I mean, New Found Glory really showed us the ropes of how to tour, and they literally taught us how to be a band and survive on the road, so I would have to say them.
I mean, from a musicality standpoint, Rx Bandits I thought just sort of pushed the boundaries of what anyone at that time was doing. I wouldn't even say they were one of those – they weren't in the same genre as us, but they taught us how to be better players for sure.
Male 6: I used to manage two Drive-Thru bands way back in the day, in the 2000s.
Male 6: An Angle and Self Against City.
Male 6: Yeah.
MW:Did you ever walk on Richard's back?
Male 6: I did not, no.
MW:Okay. Circle of trust. We could be sharing a moment right now.
Male 6: But the An Angle guys definitely heard the same stories, so it's reinforcing.
MW:There we go. Fact checking, you know.
LP:Yeah, exactly. Anything else? Thank you.
LP:It was great to have you here.
MW:Yeah, it's great to be here. Thanks, everybody.
[End of recorded material 01:08:00]