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Photo by Eddie MeeksVenerable Laguna Beach guitarist/ vocalist/songwriter Richard Stekol, whose greatest claim to fame is his stint with the critically acclaimed, 1970s folk/rock/soul band Honk, was recently asked to give advice to a younger local band that is already souring on the deal it just signed with a major record company (the name of the band has been withheld to protect their innocence).
Stekol's advice: run!
Honk's first album—an indie by today's standards—was the soundtrack for the landmark surf film Five Summer Stories. The band went on to record for 20th Century and Epic records and tour with the Beach Boys, Chicago, Jackson Browne and Dave Mason before breaking up in 1975. They reunited in 1985 and played the occasional gig, usually for charity. They no longer record or perform together full time, but it's not because of the usual "we all got strung-out on drugs, slept with one another's spouses and now hate one another forever" reasons you'll find in your typical VH1 Behind the Musicepisode. The members of Honk actually get on quite well—when they see one another. Drummer Tris Imboden plays with Chicago. Saxophonist Craig Buhler lives in Seattle. Guitarist/singer Beth Fitchet and bassist Will Brady have thriving solo careers. Keyboardist/singer Steve Wood runs a recording studio. And Stekol teaches . . . golf. (He also performs solo and as a session player, sits in with friends' bands, and writes songs for other artists; the Los Angeles Times' Mike Boehm once wrote that Stekol "at his best is one of the finest songwriters Orange County ever sprouted.")
"Honk had a reputation for being a musician's kind of band," Stekol said. "It was a lot of fun. Honk's problem was with the business, not the players. No one had any difficulty with anyone else in the band. But no one had the ego to stay with it when things weren't working."
And things seldom work when a record company's involved. The band or artist must pay back 90 percent of what the company puts into a recording—from money earned after the company takes a sizable cut from record-sale revenues. "No one sees money off records," Stekol said.
Honk never made money on the road either, and through it all, there was no time for the musicians to work on their craft. "When you're with a record company, you don't get to practice playing music," Stekol said. You travel all day in order to "keep playing the same show every night. And if you're not touring, you're in different meetings with your tour manager, your business manager, your individual lawyers, record-company executives, record-company presidents all day, all the time. There is not enough time to continue learning to play music."
He believes musicians are better off working without record companies. In this computer age, it has become easy and relatively inexpensive to record, market and distribute your own music, and you'll receive 100 percent of the profits. "By recording your own record, you start recouping your costs at record one," he said.
But there are even greater benefits.
"You don't have to deal with an A&R man who's jacking you up," Stekol said. "You don't have to deal with a record-company president telling you how to record the background vocals."
That's exactly what happened to Honk. "Oh, yeah, you have people telling you what to do all the time," he said. "Producers are in the record company's camp. They don't care about you. So why not own the record company yourself? You can record it the way you want it to sound. If people don't like it, at least they don't like it the way you wanted it to sound, not the way some record-company executive made it sound."
The unnamed, young, Orange County band's problem? They already have record executives telling them what to do. Stekol urged them to get to know the company's main man—not the record company's main man, but the man who runs the corporation that owns the record company. Make sure he's in tune with the band. If he's not, walk.
"After a few record deals, you figure out that you are a tool to the record company and the record company is a tool to you," he said. "You're each trying to use the other to get what you need. If you want to be a real band, you have to realize that the record company needs you; you don't need them. You can always go set up somewhere and play for free if you have to. Fuck the business. Remember why you became a rock musician in the first place and be a rock musician."