Update May 2009: The Brothers have flown off into the mists of history. However, many members, including Rex board member Roger McNamee, can now be found in a new band, Moonalice. They just finished a spring tour, in support of their new album and of the Rex Musical Caravan.
‘Hippie musician,’ venture capitalist, and Rex board member
Roger McNamee sees things from a unique perspective
By Casey Lowdermilk
What happens when you mix a musician with a Rex Foundation Board member and a venture capitalist? You get Roger McNamee, co-founder of an eclectic lineup known as the Flying Other Brothers, whose San Francisco sound recalls the limitless energy and vocals of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
When McNamee isn’t living the dream up on stage, he finds himself behind the desk as managing director and co-founder of Elevation Partners, a private equity firm that invests large sums into innovative media, entertainment and consumer-oriented businesses. He also finds time to serve as a member of the Rex Foundation’s Board of Directors, and all these interests and skills give him an interesting perspective.
The Flying Other Brothers include musicians drawn from several decades; their live shows are at once retro and very resonant with modern times. Powerfully driven by Barry Sless on lead guitar and pedal steel and guitarist GE Smith, the FOBs also include Pete Sears on keyboard, Ann McNamee on vocals and percussion, Jim Sanchez on drums, Bert Keely on guitar and trumpet, TBone Tony Bove on harmonica, Bill Bennett on bass guitar, plus McNamee on rhythm guitar. The FOBs have “been blessed by getting to play with a lot of people that they respect most,” acknowledges McNamee, including Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Warren Haynes, Steve Kimock, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Boz Scaggs, T-Bone Burnett, Paul Kantner, and more. The band just finished recording an iTunes exclusive, due for release by the end of 2006. A new album featuring collaborations with T-Bone Burnett is currently in the mix and will be released in the spring. The future looks bright for a simple band that plays great hippie music.
“They’re totally separate,” admits McNamee, when asked about balancing his work as a musician in the FOBs and his day job at Elevation Partners, where his expertise is in identifying and investing in innovative new businesses. The firm focuses on media and entertainment companies, an industry that is constantly evolving with today’s information technology. Elevation Partners recently became a minority shareholder in Forbes Media, the publisher of Forbes magazine and Forbes.com. Not only does McNamee bring the musician’s perspective, U2′s Bono contributes as an integral advisor.
McNamee says his role on the Rex Foundation Board of Directors has been “extraordinarily gratifying,” and the Rex Foundation highly values his unique blend of skills. We recently had a chance to visit with McNamee and discuss Rex, the Flying Other Brothers, the current state of the music industry and more.
Rex Foundation: How did you get involved with the Rex Foundation?
Roger McNamee: I got involved with the Rex Foundation in 2001. Bobby Weir asked me to do it.
I had spent three years advising the band on technology, their direct-to-fan business, things related to the website and vault releases. There was a big question in the late ’90s about what was the right direction for the music industry, and how the Dead would support their extended family in the post-Jerry era. It turned out that the Deadheads continued to be excited about the Grateful Dead’s music; I think that came as a huge surprise to the band.
I sort of fell into this great opportunity. They really needed some insight about what to do next, so I spent some time doing that. A real decision had to be made as to whether they wanted to continue to run their own business or whether they wanted to outsource it. I did all of that analysis for them. And in the end they outsourced it to the Dave Matthews organization. It was their business; they had the opportunity to do whatever they wanted. So I helped them to do that.
Afterwards Bobby said, “Hey, one of the things we’re trying to do is save the Rex Foundation; we’re putting in some new people, we’d like you to join it and try to help out.” I said, “That would be an honor.” At the time I wasn’t looking for new stuff to do, but he’s a very good friend of mine, and he asked, and I said sure.
I got involved right as Sandy Sohcot, the current executive director, came in. It was such a great group of people. It included most of the original folk, some of whom are still involved, but a number of whom got us through the transition and moved on.
It’s been extraordinarily gratifying; I have been very happy to be a contributor to this. I have a very limited set of areas where I can really make a difference, but I focus on those and I think Sandy gets some value out of it, and I think other members of the board do. I wish I had more time, but you can’t control that stuff. You just do the things you can do. It’s been really great.
Rex: How do you view the role that you have played for the Rex Foundation?
McNamee: I’ve done an enormous amount of stuff around startups, and I’m involved with a bunch of other not-for-profit things. I’ve had some experience on how to put these together.
I was one of many people who worked with Sandy early on about how we should organize it, what should our priorities be, and that kind of stuff. Now there’s a whole bunch of people who are really good at that that’ve come on board. So now I focus on, basically, acting a sounding board for Sandy; there are certain areas where I can help them raise money; I’m enthusiastic and I love the music.
The key thing here is that I really believe in the Rex mission. I view it as, we live in a world without safety nets and, if you will, risk has been pushed from businesses to individuals, and most of them just aren’t equipped to handle it. So there are a lot of people struggling to balance their career and family and personal finances.
A lot of these things are happening at a level that’s just below the radar of traditional foundations. Somebody’s got to step in to that point. I’m really proud of Rex for the way it has created a truly differentiated foundation. I look at this and say, I don’t think we necessarily get absolutely everything right, but who does?
Rex: Given your experiences of being in a band and being a partner at Elevation Partners, what do you see for the future of music?
McNamee: I believe the music business is undergoing a dramatic change in its business model. After 30 years in which selling records and then CDs was the way most people got paid, we’re going back to a model that’s closer to the one that existed before the Beatles, of the music business not actually being a particularly great business. It was a thing that could support people who were really passionate about it, but it wasn’t a way to get rich.
I think we’re going back to that kind of a model. Bands are really going to depend on their fans to support them. We live in an environment right now where there’s a whole generation of people who believe that music ought to be free. This sounds great until you think about the poor musicians who are trying to create it.
One of the things that I’m doing in my day job is to work on ways to help musicians take more control of their destiny. This is a huge problem, because the average musician typically looks at the financial side and says, I’ll leave that to my manager. A lot of managers are really qualified to deal with the music side of things, but they’re not particularly well equipped to deal with a radically changing business environment in the music business. Somebody has to step in and fill that void.
The reality is [Elevation Partners] is not going to be able to fill the whole void, but we’re looking for ways to start. It took 50 years for the music business to get this messed up; we’re not going to be able to fix it overnight. We are going to try, and at the moment there are not enough people who are trying. Given some time, I’m hopeful that we will be able to help here.
The essential point here is that the music industry is about artists and their fans, and everything else is a choice. Today the music industry has layer upon layer of middlemen; managers, agents, lawyers, wholesalers, retailers, and concert promoters. Every one of them is taking a slice of the action. For every dollar that comes in, typically less than 20 cents goes to the artists.
In today’s world, artists can’t afford that. Importantly, they don’t actually need to. You watch the success of bands like the Arctic Monkeys or Arcade Fire, where fundamentally their success was made by their fans. The same is true for the Grateful Dead. If you develop the right kind of bond with your fans, they will support you. True fans don’t want to rip off their band. The Grateful Dead learned this. What [Elevation Partners] is really about is helping artists create direct links to their fans, at every possible level, so that they can prosper in an environment where business is shrinking. They’re creating all the value; they need to start getting paid for it.
Here’s the real problem in the music industry, just one sentence: Last year’s #1 album in the U.S. did all-sale business of less than $85 million; King Kong spent that much money on marketing alone. The music business has lost the ability to compete for the attention of consumers. The notion that you can now create an event to cause the world to buy an album is an illusion. The only people who are going to buy your album now are the people who already like you, and their friends. Bands need you and your friends to be their big promotion tool.
That requires a lot of artists to re-think the way that they run their business. The young guys typically get it. The whole notion that signing a record deal is suddenly going to result in you getting rich is ridiculous. When you sign a record deal, it’s really like taking out a mortgage on a house, except at the end of the mortgage when you’re done paying it off, the bank owns the house. They own all your content – which part of that makes any sense?
At the end of the day, I don’t know that we’re going to be successful; I just know that we have to try.
Rex: Where do you get the time to play 60-80 gigs in a year?
McNamee: It’s pretty straightforward: I have no children and I don’t play golf, I have all the time in the world! Literally, that is how it works. I’ve always done it. It’d be harder to try to tell me stop.
The reality is, I’ve played in some pretty terrible bands; even earlier versions of FOBs weren’t any good. But all bands go through that. If you keep at it long enough, one of two things happens – either there is no audience, in which case you stop, or you develop an audience, in which case you get to play a lot cooler gigs. We’ve found an audience. Our expectations are pretty limited; this is about playing music at clubs and at festivals, and it’ll always be about that.
There’s not enough great hippie music out there. There are a lot of jambands, but they don’t play hippie music. They play trance or instrumental types of stuff. We have great soloists, and we play hippie music. There are a lot of vocals and there’s harmony. The key thing is we’re really serious about this.
Rex: You’ve got a serious day job – how can you be serious about playing music?
McNamee: I can’t imagine not being serious. You got to be serious; people pay money to come hear us play. The reality is they don’t have a lot of extra money. We’ve got to show them a great time. That’s what’s so fun about it. This band has really found a connection with its audience, and what a privilege!
We recently played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. They said there were like 30-40,000 people there, and what a charge! We played a great show. The way I know is, 25,000 of the 30,000 had never heard us before, and yet everybody was slamming the music, cheering and clapping. The adrenaline rush is just humongous. How much fun is that? Nobody is jaded. How can you be?
Rex: The FOBs feature an eclectic collection of musicians. How do all these backgrounds come together for your performances?
McNamee: But that’s hippie music too! There’s some incredible jambands out there right now. But if what you liked was the ’60s or early ’70s sound, the stuff Grateful Dead came from and the Beatles played into, where can you hear that? You can pay $200 and see CSNY when they come through town every third year. But there’s not a lot of that going around. Where do you go if you want to get surprised?
People think that rock ‘n’ roll is all about busting up hotel rooms. It turns out what it’s really about is people’s souls. There’s something special that happens in the setting of live music. There’s a feeling that you get playing it that you never get anywhere else, and there’s a feeling that you get when you’re hearing it that you never get anywhere else.
Rex: It seems like the FOBs have always had a tendency toward performing at benefits. What’s this attraction? Why do you do benefits, as a musician?
McNamee: San Francisco’s music scene was built around free live music and building a sense of community. A lot of the people who got that started have gotten older, and in many cases their financial situations have been perilous. We have worked really hard both to help the people of the music business and also the next generation.
We do a lot of our benefits for the cause of teaching music to little kids. We just did a little kids’ rock benefit at [San Francisco club] Slim’s that was really successful. We do a bunch of things in various communities to help them pay for the teachers who teach music. And we’ve done things to help raise money to pay the cost of the estate of [Family Dog concert promoter] Chet Helms. We’ve done a lot of benefits for people and we’ll continue to do a lot of benefits for people. It’s all about giving back. We do this free thing in Union Square all summer long. It’s fun to play music; when you’re at home it’s really inexpensive to do [benefits].
We’re doing a benefit in December (2006), the Mark Vann Benefit, for the former banjo player in Leftover Salmon, who died of cancer. They do a benefit every year, and we’ve done it before. We were really close with that band; we traveled a lot with them. We’re still close to the people.
That’s one of those things where, for the right situation, we’ll travel to a benefit. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no better feeling on earth than playing music for people who appreciate it. We’ve spent years getting good enough to do that, just like every other band. It’s pretty rare that it all happens at once.