Rat Skates started his musical career as the first drummer of Overkill, a band he was with until 1987. Shortly after leaving Overkill, Rat released Some Stuff I Recorded, which was a hit in Japan. Since then he’s appeared and contributed to a number of music documentaries, such as Born In The Basement and Get Thrashed.
Rat Skates is a New Jersey-based musician and music journalist who is currently working on a new documentary called Welcome To The Dream, which is an in-depth look at the music industry. The third music documentary Skates has been a part of, Welcome To The Dream will be his directorial debut, and should be released later this year via the MVD Entertainment Group.
In the conversation below, Rat and I discussed various topics, including his new film and how the North American concert market has changed dramatically with the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation.
Before you began production on Welcome To The Dream, what was the most important issue that you thought had to be brought up in your movie?
The absolute most important thing is fear. It’s sort of an umbrella—meaning that when musicians are very young, they’re fearless and they go into everything without any second thought to the consequences of their decisions. I understand that you are just so anxious to get into the business and learn about it. Ultimately, it’s fear you hang on to. You’re fearless at first, and you become fearful later as your career moves on. If you want to change your style a little bit, how will your fans react to that? What about your record contract, it’s not a good contract? You’re fearful that if you don’t sign it, you may pass up an opportunity. Fear really commands a musician and it has been that way for a long time.
In your film, what would you say was the hardest subject to address with the musicians you interviewed?
The hardest thing that everyone had a little bit of difficulty talking about is sort of within that fear category. That was actually personal happiness integrated with career happiness. People want to be happy in life at what they do. Since our careers consume so much of us, all the musicians that I have ever spoken with have had to, at some point, rethink their definition of happiness in the career of being a professional touring recording artist because it is a lot different than what people think once they get there. It’s exhilarating and it’s also terrible at the same time (laughs).
It’s the kind of thing where you have fear. I’m one of the guys that said, “I’m not happy, and I can’t see myself ever being happy.” I love music, I love writing, I love playing, I love everything about the art of music. But everything else that is going to go along with that, for me to sustain a career, I can’t do that. If I had to weigh out the two, the leverage of what I have to sacrifice in my life, weighed out. I could always play music but I just don’t think I’m going to be able to do it professionally if this is what I am going to have to do and this is the amount of time I have to spend on the road and this is how much of my life tour itinerary is going to consume. Personal happiness is really a tough thing because, like me, we all dream of getting to this place and once we get there, are you really happy?
How do you feel that the market has changed with Ticketmaster and Live Nation being merged into one company and pretty much being managed by the same person?
It really has morphed in the same direction as the federal government, meaning it is expanding and the bigger these monopolies get, the smaller the individuals get. Bigger in that sense does not mean better. When you have something like Ticketmaster and Live Nation that are completely controlling everything, it’s just like in politics; We got your back and we will give healthcare and make sure everything is free or be fair to everyone, but that’s not how it is because when they are calling all the shots—their agenda is profit. There is nothing else, so that is not good to have an entity that powerful at all.
Is there ever an appropriate time for a band, or their management, to find a personal lawyer to look out for their best interests?
You should be doing that as early as possible. Bands should do that immediately; they need to understand [that] what too many musicians do is that they focus entirely on playing and their performance, and that’s great, but that’s the easy, fun part, and they only want to do it for a career and they want to “be in the business,” but don’t find out about the business at all. All they know is that they want to be in it—that doesn’t make any sense. Why would you want to be in a business that you really don’t know anything about? They need to find out about that.
The young bands that are paying this “pay to play” stuff is just a really pathetic thing that adults are doing to kids by paying to play and victimizing them like that. Sometimes they’ll say, “We’ll give you a certain percentage of the door if you go over so many people…” These people never have a count, the bands don’t ever go over and ask them for a head count. “Did we do better? We see a lot of people buying our shirts and stuff, so we make anything past that breakeven point.” You know what (pause), you have got to know, you have to understand as much as you may not want to, if you are going to do this, you have to understand every single person in the business out there, even though the business has changed, everyone is out to profit off of you, period.
Is there any sort of benefit in knowing the meaning of a really verbose record contract, even with the aid of a personal lawyer?
The thing is every contract is negotiable, and this is why there is an attorney. You just have to know what it is they think you are going to sign; you should get an attorney right away. No one is ever going to look out for you like you will for yourself, and that includes an attorney.
An attorney that has represented you has represented other bands, and has probably represented labels too and that side of the contract signing. The truth of the matter is you are sitting down, usually in your 20s, to sign a recording contract with a major label and you’re going through these negotiations and you have an attorney and they are telling you what the terms of the contract are. He is using this verbose language that is pretty heavy. You don’t understand it. You are all looking at him and then looking at each other and shaking your heads. All you know is that you want to sign the damn thing, and this is just insane. Everyone signs contracts that they do not understand. You need to understand what your attorney is explaining to you. You are paying him to be the mediator.
Could you give an intelligent move a band could make when the topic of pay to play comes up?
I think a great move would be with what I have seen in these pay to play shows… A lot of these guys, these promoters who are taking advantage of kids, are just renting out American Legion and VFW halls and everything. That is no big deal to do that and get a PA system. Why let some guy make all the money he is going to make at the door? They will tell you they are not, but they are—otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it. Bands can get together. It is going to work a heck of a lot better and work for bands to band together and say, “Let’s put on a show. Let’s get four or five bands and get this American Legion Hall with our parents or whatever, get someone to rent it out, have a cheap PA, have a couple of lights…” and you have basically the same thing and you didn’t pay $200 to some guy for doing nothing when they don’t even promote you. They should run their own shows, absolutely.
For the bands that are fortunate enough to found their own record labels, what advice would you give to people in that kind of situation?
You mean bands that are actually running their own label and then signing other bands to their label? I really don’t know, I think that’s interesting. I would like to find out more about that myself, but all I can say is that if you are doing that and you launched a small label that is successful and you are bringing other bands on board. Don’t become part of what has been the problem that is greed. You start seeing you can make money and you have a band that is not paying attention and they are willing to do just about anything. Don’t go on the other side of the fence because the nature is, “Hey, we are making money, we could make more, they are not asking any questions.” Don’t turn a good thing into a bad thing by becoming a part of the industry and the profit mindset. Put yourself in the shoes of a musician. That is what is needed right now.
To find out more about Rat Skates and his various projects, check out ratskates.com. For more information on his new film, Welcome To The Dream, go to welcome-to-the-dream.com.