“In this day and age, an artist should never go on stage without understanding their business,” says Jay Nazz, drummer with Austin country-rock band Reckless Kelly.
Let’s let those words sink in for a minute, because not only are they potentially artistically apocalyptic when you think of the countless talented performers and songwriters out there born without a business brain who might get swallowed and spat out, but Nazz might just have a point.
In 2016, when the music industry is, if not dead, a different beast entirely compared to twenty or even ten years ago, making money requires more than a little tactical know-how. It might feel like managers and labels are taking more than they’re earning, resulting in more and more musicians taking on those duties themselves. It’s a rough musical world out there.
"It doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing this for twenty years," Nazz says. "It’s changed so much now that you have to re-approach everything. The generation coming up now, they’re going to be expecting free music. They’re not going to know what it’s like to pay for music.”
So the members of Reckless took their business into their own hands.
“We’re running our own record label,” Nazz says. “We’ve had great record labels in the past, but when you realize that you can cover most of the work and then keep the money that we were leaving on the table with the label, it’s financially such a better setup for us."
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Of course, everybody needs a little help, and even the fiercely independent Reckless Kelly works with outside sources, including new distribution partners Thirty Tigers. These aren’t guys looking to shoot themselves in the foot in order to make a quick buck. In fact, they’re astute businessmen, and they have been since the beginning, in the mid-1990s, when they realized that the tried-and-tested path to country-music success wasn’t for them.
“The manager at the time and some guys who later left the band were trying to push to go from Oregon [where the band formed] to Nashville, for better or for worse,” Nazz says. “But the band didn’t want to get into anything that was going to push the songwriting or the playing into a certain mold. They just wanted the band to be what it was, which I think is a really cool thing. Reckless Kelly has had that kind of integrity since day one. Instead, we moved to Austin, because we realized that we could play a show every night of the week and get better.”
Reckless Kelly’s ninth studio album, Sunset Motel, comes out in September on the band's own label, No Big Deal. It’s the followup to 2013’s Long Time Moon, which actually won a Grammy for its artwork. 2011’s Good Luck & True Love received a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package, and this time they’re hoping to be recognized for the actual music. They’ve been working at it long enough.
“Coming from a drummer’s standpoint, when I was younger I used to hate theater shows because I just wanted to play so loud,” Nazz says. “Now we’re playing way more theaters because we have this show with a dynamic that goes from Willy (Braun, frontman) singing a couple of songs by himself, then I come out front with a marching snare drum, then we play acoustic for three or four songs, then we do a double-drum solo where Willy comes back on a drum set that we built together. It’s great because of the range of emotion you can take the audience through by being so dynamic and giving them a wide range of musicality.”
That musical maturity also translates to a whole bunch of smart decisions, even when they’re tough to swallow. For example, the band likes to include quality art with its releases (as the Grammy recognition proves), but they’re also aware that in this day and age, the returns on that are limited.
“As we’re watching trends in the market as far as digital selling more than hard copies, we’re ordering less of the hard-copy albums, so you have to consider what you’re spending on the hard-copy artwork — but we still want to have something that makes the physical copies special,” Nazz says. “Imagine Abbey Road if that came out as just singles you could download and you didn’t have the experience of listening to that thing front to back. We understand that maybe that’s not where everybody’s head is at, but that’s how we enjoy making music and making a piece of art.”
Reckless Kelly plays the Gothic Theatre on Sunday, and while Nazz says that Denver is always a tour highlight, he doesn’t quite know what they’ll have in store for us yet.
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“Willy usually writes the set list the day of the show,” he says. “We’ll be doing an acoustic thing in the middle of the set. We’re gonna be playing a couple of songs off the new album, songs off of all the other albums, and hopefully the double-drum solo. I’m looking forward to a really good time. It’ll be the last date of a five-week tour.”
And after that? Work, work, work. A band like Reckless Kelly, which views itself as a small business, doesn’t have the luxury of time off, or at least not a lot of it.
“You almost don’t feel like a tour begins and ends,” Nazz says. “Again, as we’ve been maturing in our business, we realize that we have to understand where our strong markets are, where we want to grow, and then make sure we don’t overwork ourselves so we have the time to be at home, be with the families. After this, we’ll go home for a little bit, and then we’re doing a quick Midwest run for ten to twelve days.”
Reckless Kelly plays with Ben Marshal at 8 p.m. on Sunday, August 21, at the Gothic Theatre; 3263 South Broadway, Englewood; 303-789-9206; $17.50-$20.