Managing the Iconic Emblem of Weirdness: Scott Booker

Plucked from his day-job at Rainbow Records, Scott Booker knew nothing about managing a breakout rock band, especially one as quirky as The Flaming Lips. More than 20 years later, though, the would-be school teacher is an authority on sustaining a music career.

When Scott Booker began managing a ragtag group of freaks called The Flaming Lips in 1990, the odds were impossibly against him. The band had more charisma than musical ability, and they were from Oklahoma City, which in terms of the record industry might as well have been Pluto.

But, somehow Booker inked a record deal with Warner Bros., the first in a string of improbable events that is still unfolding for him and the Lips, more than 20 years later. The Lips now stand as one of the most critically adored, artistically adventurous bands in the world. Booker, meanwhile, turned his managing gig into a small media empire that is still growing.

Part of that growth is the Academy of Contemporary Music. Two years ago, Booker helped bring the ACM to America, stationing it at his alma mater, Oklahoma City University. The ACM began in the United Kingdom about 15 years ago, teaching everything about music from performance to business. Booker is now the school’s chief executive officer at OCU.

With so much to do, Booker’s schedule is impossibly packed. This interview fell through on first try because the Lips’ entire stage show had just been ravaged by a storm. But, Booker eventually found the time to talk about the music business, ACM and his improbable journey with America’s weirdest band.

Get In Media: The crumbling of the music business has been well documented from the perspectives of bands and labels, but no one really talks about what it has done to managers. How has your job changed with the changes in the music industry?
Scott Booker: The job of the manager is to be the filter between the band and every other aspect of the music business. What’s going on in the music business—that’s kind of a very broad topic to talk about. Specifically, in regards to The Flaming Lips, we’re not selling as many records. But, no one is. We are making a great living touring, licensing our songs, selling merchandise, and frankly, to some degree being a brand, an iconic emblem of weirdness. We’re subversive. We’re playing with the Dave Matthews Band (at DMB’s Caravan festival), knowing that we’re going to blow the minds of those people because they’re never going to have seen anything like us. We want to change in some small way how they think of art and music. It’s just as valuable to us to convert someone to interesting ideas as it is to convert someone to buying a Flaming Lips record.

Digital music is worthless in the sense that people don’t believe it’s worth anything. I don’t think it devalues the music; it’s just the physicality of it. We’ve created a situation where it’s not a commodity anymore. It’s a thought. And it sure is hard to keep thoughts from people.

GIM: How have things like the Internet and the rise of digital music affected your job?
SB: I think that the Internet and the way music is being digested by the public, we were preparing for that without knowing it 20 years ago. It’s my job to be the commercially minded entity behind the group, but it’s never been about making money. It has always been about, “What’s something that’s going to expand people’s imaginations that we can do that we can also make some money from so we can pay our bills?” Even in the early days, I still worked at the record store, Wayne [Coyne] still worked for his father, Michael [Ivins] still flipped hamburgers at Harry Bear’s, you know? We always had our various day jobs while we were doing these other things, knowing that maybe the art we made would supplement our income rather than being the way we survive. I worked at a mom-and-pop record store called Rainbow Records here in Oklahoma City. That’s where I met The Flaming Lips. They shopped at my store, and we became friends, and I eventually became their manager through need. They needed someone. It was really a dream come true, but I was also willing as the manager to do a lot of things that wouldn’t be seen as very much fun, like figuring out how to do their accounting. I still do their accounting. They don’t have a business manager.

GIM: Your college degree was in education, right?
SB: Yeah, I was supposed to be a high school history teacher.

GIM: So you really had no training at all when you started managing the Lips.
SB: No. I was lucky because they did have a lawyer, who is still their lawyer, by the way. He was willing to spend time talking to me, explaining publishing, explaining how deals worked. But, part of starting the Academy of Contemporary Music here in the States and doing it in Oklahoma harkens back to the fact that I do have a degree in education, and I know that people would love to be in the music industry, and they can be, but they need to understand how it works or it just won’t happen for them.

GIM: It seems important to teach those things now, especially since the music business is still in a pretty radical state of flux.
SB: Exactly. If you’re interested in the history of the music business, you see these kinds of weird cyclic ups and downs. When radio came about, people thought, “There’s no way for anyone to make a living making music, because now people can just listen to it for free any time they want.” And then radio became the ultimate tool for selling music. I look at the Internet the same way. I don’t think we really understand how the Internet is going to change the way people consume and digest music. My attitude is, if more people are listening to good music, that’s a good thing, no matter why. I don’t worry about whether people are downloading our music for free. The record labels should worry about that. And sure, we’re losing some royalties, but to be honest, the artists earn so little from royalties anyway. If a million people downloaded our music for free online, that means that there will be more people buying our tickets. More people will want to pay to license our music for movies and commercials because more people are aware of these songs. Ultimately, I think it’s good for record labels, too. And then, we need to create something that people want to buy. Digital music is worthless in the sense that people don’t believe it’s worth anything. I don’t think it devalues the music; it’s just the physicality of it. We’ve created a situation where it’s not a commodity anymore. It’s a thought. And it sure is hard to keep thoughts from people. That’s where LPs, and T-shirts, and special packaging and all these things—it’s our burden as an industry to come up with creative ways that people want to buy into artists.

There is an element of loyalty in the sense that we’ve been on Warner Bros. longer than almost any artist that’s still with them. We’re used to how that machine works. My dealings with independent labels, to be honest, have been harder than dealing with Warner.

GIM: So, say a new student at the ACM asks you for advice on managing a band, with the industry the way it is right now. What is your advice?
SB: My advice would be not to worry about how the record industry works but to worry about how the artist you’re dealing with works. With The Flaming Lips, I don’t think there was another way we would do things. If you look at them now, Wayne and the band work just as hard, if not more so, than they did then. Even the gummy skulls and the record releases we’ve been doing this year—because technically, we’re not signed to a record label right now, although we are signing to Warner Bros. again—but these things have been us selling them directly to record stores. Wayne and Michael and Steven [Drozd] are recording the stuff, some of it with [longtime producer Dave Fridmann], some of it without, and then literally figuring out together how to manufacture it. Wayne sent Michael down to the record plant in Dallas to make the records. I think Warner Bros. was shocked that we were willing to work that hard. It’s one of the reasons that every other band of our generation was either dropped or broke up, and we didn’t. I would tell students to get a grasp of what kind of personalities you are dealing with. You want to know who these people are, because it’s seldom when just the music is enough. So, look for artists that you get along with personally and understand philosophically the work ethic and then base their career around their work ethic. Are they well suited to being on the road constantly? Send them out on the road. If they don’t like to tour, then you’ve got to be very strategic, because that is a key element when you’re talking about rock bands. Frankly, if it’s something that isn’t going to be played a lot on the radio, they have to be a live band, or it’s just not going to work.

GIM: Why are you sticking with a major label? It’s interesting, especially because so many other acts—Radiohead and Beck come to mind—seem desperate to finish their major-label contracts and find different ways of reaching their fans.
SB: It’s a combination of a bunch of things. If Warner Bros. wasn’t willing to do a 21st-century recording contract with us, then we wouldn’t have signed there. But, I feel like they’re doing something cool and interesting with us contractually. There is an element of loyalty in the sense that we’ve been on Warner Bros. longer than almost any artist that’s still with them. We’re used to how that machine works. My dealings with independent labels, to be honest, have been harder than dealing with Warner. I think part of the reason we’re still on Warner Bros. is because there were times when we knew not to ask for money, whereas other artists would be vain and say, “Contractually, you owe us this.” When we saw them dropping bands like Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine, it was like, “We want to keep making records and doing things.” So we just hid. We didn’t ask for money. We made “Zaireeka” with the same budget that we had for “The Soft Bulletin.” We didn’t expect Warner Bros. to pay us a bunch of money to make an experimental record. I feel really proud that Warner Bros. put that out.

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GIM: Why did you start the ACM at UCO? Was there anything specific that made it seem like the right choice at the right time?
SB: One of the things a manager should be good at is recognizing opportunities. I was involved in a group called Creative Oklahoma, where we’re trying to make better, cooler things happen here with business, art and commerce. I met the person who is in charge of the whole university system here in Oklahoma, and I suggested that I teach a class on the music business, and he said, “I can help make that happen.” This was maybe four years ago. And, he did. He hooked me up with the president of the university, and UCO was the school I graduated from, and I worked very close to it, physically. As we were talking about me doing a class, I discovered the ACM in the U.K. As luck would have it, one of the regents was in Austin at South By Southwest when I was there, and some of the guys from the ACM were at a showcase I had. They were very interested in the concept of bringing the ACM to Oklahoma. So, I was the catalyst of that happening, and then the president of the university called me, and he was like, “Would you run this program?” I was like, “I would love to, but I can’t quit working with The Flaming Lips.” And, he said to me, “I wouldn’t want you to do that. In fact, I think it would make the program better.” I talked to Wayne and the guys, and they were excited by the possibility of this. So, we started it two years ago; we’re up to 500 students now. I’ve had master classes with Roger Daltrey, Jackson Browne, Steven from the Lips, Wayne’s there all the time, I had the president of Warner Bros. there. We opened our own venue. Bands like Dr. Dog and the Mountain Goats have played there. We have equipment that our students can check out; we have two studios that they can use. We teach music business, music performance and also production. It’s amazing. I have the two greatest jobs ever.Get In Media

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