Industry Drivers - Joe Testa - Vic Firth
You know the guys - the ones who are always effortlessly hanging around at the side of the stage at clinics, the ones who appear to have triple A access at any gig they go to? The one who the ultra famous drummers call on first name terms and greet with a hug? Who are they?
Well, this series looks at these guys and girls, the Artist Relations people for the big (and not so big) companies. These are the people who are the go-betweens for the artists and the industry, the soothers of problems, the passer-on of ideas.
Without these people the drum industry would grind to a halt in no time. How did they get there? What do you have to do to get into these hallowed positions? Well, in this series we talk to some of the most important people in the whole industry and find out how they found themselves in these lofty positions.
Want to get into the industry? Have a look at life from a slightly different angle...
Joe Testa - Vic Firth artist relations
What does your day to day job entail?
On any given day, you’ll find me doing a lot of different things. But if I were to try to summarize it, I would start with product support.
Obviously, taking care of the artist’s stick needs is the first priority for us here at Vic Firth Company. If an artist needs sticks, they get the sticks where and when they need them. We get some unrealistic expectations; but most seasoned artists have it together and give you enough notice. And for that occasional emergency, we make it happen; we have enough contacts throughout the world where we can get someone to help us out.
You know, it’s funny—a lot of artists forget about ordering sticks until the last minute. Sticks are like the wheels on a car: you don’t think about them much until you need to drive, and then suddenly they are the most important things in your world.
Everything else can be summed up into various marketing functions that utilize the artist name, image, and likeness to enhance the VF brand. It may sound simple and easy, but it does encompass a lot of aspects: clinic support, product design and new concepts, advertising, website material development, marketing concepts, branding, etc. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying these jobs are my responsibility. Specific people handle and oversee each of these functions, and they are amazingly talented at what they do and they make it happen, but the AR team is the portal for all things artist related. So ultimately, if an artist is involved in any way, it comes through us at some stage of the process. VF is a small family and team. We often cross over into each other’s areas just by the small size of our staff, but we all contribute to the one brand known as Vic Firth.
To give you an idea of the size, there are only two of us in the Vic Firth AR team–for the entire world: Ben Davies and me. Ben is my partner in crime, and I couldn’t be happier to have him. I think we make a pretty good team.
How long have you been with this particular company?
I’ve been with Vic since June 2010.
Before this job you were artist relations for Yamaha Drums US. How long were you with Yamaha?
I was with Yamaha Drums for 12 years, having started in October 1997.
What is your musical background within the industry?
Like many others in the industry, I played in various high school bands and had my own rock bands. I attended State University of New York Potsdam’s Crane School of Music and studied with Jim Petercsak for four years there. I began my studies in music education and then realized I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. I think teachers are very special and gifted people; my wife’s a teacher, an amazing teacher. I am not a teacher; I just don’t have that gift. Figuring this out early was a blessing, because it allowed me to focus on other areas of music and the music business. So I majored in musical studies, graduated, and started working in the industry as soon as I could.
So have you got any business background, did you study?
No. I just tried to use a lot of common sense. I started out working for DCI Music Video back in 1991. Jim Petercsak had another former student who was running the sales for DCI Music Video. Jim called him up and told him, “I’ve got this kid who wants to get in the business. Can you give him a job?” He said yes; and I went from living in Rochester, a small town in upstate New York, to living in Long Island and commuting to Manhattan every day.
When I took the job, I didn’t even know how much I was getting paid. While in college, I figured that, after graduation, I’d get a job, buy a car, get a house, and do all the “grown up” things we’ve all heard about since we were young. What I didn’t realize at the time was I was basically starting my ‘real’ schooling. The pay was nothing, but the experience was well worth the hard economic times. I made the decision to stick with it; it was really rough at first. I was making such little money, I could only afford the train into Manhattan from Long Island. I couldn’t afford the subway so I used to walk seventeen Manhattan blocks every day – in the rain, sun, or snow. I could have worked a lot of other places and made a decent living, but it wouldn’t have been the start of a career. Sometimes you have to think long-term, not short, and the start of my business career was definitely a long-term gamble that paid off for me. I have been very blessed over time.
About eight months after I started, DCI got purchased by CPP/Belwin Publishing, Inc., whose president at that time was Sandy Feldstein. Sandy moved DCI down to Florida in January 1992. I’d never even been to Florida until the day I moved there. I was still in sales (domestic and international) but I started doing AR duties. Video artists would call and request some copies for themselves. For example, Dennis Chambers would call in and see if he could get a few of his videos to send to some friends. No one wanted to deal with the artists, because it would slow down their sales calls. But I loved it! I asked for all the artist calls.
Then, it got to the point where when an artist called in, they just passed them to me. Suddenly I was a sales and AR person. Eventually I moved over into production, but I kept the AR duties. That was the key move and watermark in my career: that’s when I started to work with Sandy directly. In life you are sometimes lucky to stumble upon certain people who are just extremely talented and special. When you do, consider it a true blessing. This is what Sandy was to me: a blessing in every way. He quickly became my mentor. He was just an amazing man, unbelievable.
By the mid 90s that company had become Warner Bros Publications. Sandy’s contract was coming to an end, and when he was not kept on as President in 1997, I knew I had to get out.
I heard through an artist who’s a very good friend of mine that Yamaha was moving their whole drum division back to California and that they were going to need an AR guy. The funny thing was that the person who was going to run the new division was Jay Wanamaker. I knew Jay Wannamaker as he was a Crane School of Music alumnus and also worked for Sandy early on in his career. I called Sandy, he called Jay, Jay called me, and I moved to California in October 1997 and started working for Yamaha.
What do you look for in a new artist?
A lot of things I suppose, but four things stand out the most. Each could stand alone or any combination of the four could work too:
1: Popularity. The person needs to have a certain amount of exposure or influence within a market: that doesn’t mean he has to be selling millions of records - but that doesn’t hurt! He could just be a really influential local player, too. He has to be popular and be able to influence sales in a positive direction.
2: Talent. The person has to be able to play: whatever genre of music he’s playing, he needs to be competent in that style. At Vic I like to think that we have most of the best of the best. People naturally gravitate towards excellence, and having our leader (Vic himself) be one of the best percussionists in history, I think we are ahead of the pack. If I’m a drummer I want to be part of the elite group. With us, it starts with Vic. Some of the best drummers in the world originally came to us because they respect Vic as a player, a person, and an honest business man. Excellence just attracts excellence.
3. Loyalty. Ideally, it would be the person already playing Vic sticks, because then you know they really do want to play our sticks for the right reasons. Some drummers just look for any endorsement they can get from anybody; I’m not really interested in that. If you want that, go to another stick company. I’m interested in building a family. Family can’t be built on anything other than true passion and belief in something: that something has to be our sticks. I don’t want to waste my time on artists who don’t really care about what sticks they play. We spend so much time perfecting the art of making a drumstick, and we want the people playing them to appreciate that.
4: Personality. That’s really important. I like to know I can work with the artist and that they understand it is a two-way street. Sometimes the business side is very different than the music side. It’s a balancing act that most reasonable people understand and appreciate. If they don’t, I’d rather not work with them; and our competition can have them. Again, I want family: people who will give as much as take.
What do you see as a company your role is for an artist?
First and foremost, the company has to make a product that is worthy of the artist. Then, the artist will desire to play your product. If you can’t make the best product, then why would all the best artists want to play your product? If an artist’s music means that much to him, then having the right tools should, too. Vic has been an artist his entire life, so to have a company started by a man of his caliber really sets a strong precedent. It was always about product for Vic. He couldn’t find the right product for himself, so he made it. He was an artist first, so he knows how to treat our artists. Other companies have to learn those lessons; but at Vic Firth, those values are built into the fiber and DNA of the company.
How do you manage the artist roster, people are signing more and more people now, when guys aren’t using sticks do you drop artists?
There are different ways of thinking about AR: some people do the shotgun approach (sign everybody you can) and then there’s more of a sharp-shooter approach (sign a very small amount of people). I kind of like a mixture, somewhere slightly right of center is the right place. We don’t want to sign just anyone, but we also don’t want to pass on a talented and good personality that can be an added value to our family. You can spend a lifetime trying to figure that formula out, but in the end, you’ve got to go with your gut.
I’ve never been in the mindset of cutting artists from the roster; I don’t think that’s right. I think if you sign somebody, you shouldn’t have to cut them from the roster unless something crazy happens. For example, if an artist does something insanely criminal, naturally you don’t want to be associated with them anymore. That’s where the personality part of it comes in. You pick people you feel can be a good ambassador for your product. Over time, you get a feel for people, and you’d like to think you get a feel for their personalities pretty early on in the relationship.
Plus, if an artist is loyal to the brand for most of their career, I feel it is the company’s obligation to return the favor. That is what true family is about: being for each other, thick or thin. Only a select few drummers maintain a high exposure level over their entire career. Most drummers’ careers peak and then start to slow down at some point. When that happens though, they just don’t need as much. AR is not all business; it’s personal, and you can’t expect to create a family if you present an atmosphere where you get rid of your old. No matter what stage of his career an artist is in, he should always feel a part of the family.
Would you like to add anything to this interview, any words of wisdom, any pointers?
I’m not sure I am the person to come to for wisdom, but if I have learned anything in this business I would say don’t focus on endorsements! I think the kids today have been so brainwashed to think about endorsements first. I actually think it may be the manufacturers’ fault because of the overdone ‘shotgun approach’ of giving everybody an endorsement. Kids think that getting an endorsement is like achieving some kind of status goal to brag to their peers about. In the end it’s not about that: it never has been. It’s supposed to be about the music first. When did we lose sight of the music and started focusing on the endorsement deal? I have never heard of a drummer getting a gig because he had an endorsement; but when you get a good gig, no doubt an endorsement will follow.
Play what you want to play. Find the best instruments and tools that allow you to speak as a musician. The companies whose products you’re playing will find you as you get bigger and bigger. If you do that your whole career, you’ll never be making a sacrifice. Your music shouldn’t ever take a hit due to some “deal”. You should never have to sit down, get ready to play and think to yourself that your gear is “almost right”. Even if it’s a half percent wrong, that’s a half percent that you’ve compromised in your music. So when you’re playing, you’ve got to adjust just for that half percent. It’s very small portion, and great players can make anything work; but why do that to yourself or your music? If the gear is right, it makes it easier to speak the music freely and freedom creates the best music.
As a fan, I want to hear a drummer play great music. I don’t want to be cheated out of a complete musical experience from my heroes. For that to happen, the music needs to come through naturally and not tainted by all these possible adjustments. The music has to be at 100%. And when you hang with guys at that level, you’re witnessing musical greatness. And that is what makes everything worth it.
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