An Interview with agent/manager/musician Steve Hecht, director of Piedmont Talent: Blues music is like religion

"Our agency motto says all I need to say, “As Honest as an Agent Can Be”!

Steve Hecht: Think young!

Born in 1962 in New York City, Steve graduated from the State University Of New York at Binghamton where he earned a BA in Philosophy. While there he began his life in the blues world as a blues dj for 4 years and promoter of blues and folk shows at the school.   Steve headed south to North Carolina and started Piedmont Talent which he has headed since 1989.

The agency was founded out of a love of blues and roots music and has never strayed from that focus. Director, Steve Hecht, is a two time recipient of a Keeping The Blues Alive award for Agent/Manager of the Year; an award given out annually by The Blues Foundation.

With 25 years experience as a booking agent, Steve knows how to work with all varieties of promoters needs, whether they be major seasoned promotion companies or down home Blues Society events. He is also a songwriter and photographer. Lets talks with Steve Hecht about  the blues, Piedmont Talent, Blues Foundation, music business, Robert Crumb, Jorma Kaukonen, Johnny Winter, Frank Zappa, Johnny "Clyde" Coppeland, Dick Waterman, and Cab Calloway.


Interview by Michael Limnios


Mr. Hecht, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & what does music offered you?

I really had no choice. Music has been I was ever interested once I out grew sports and religion; either listening or performing. I promoted blues and folk shows for my college and did blues radio back then in the early 1980s. I was building contacts at the time but I didn’t know it. I graduated with a philosophy degree so when I moved to Boston I found a job as an agent. I had never realized booking agent was a career choice


"My other musical tastes include John Fahey, Hawaiian guitar music, 1920s dance orchestras and Frank Zappa and Hot Tuna (after all Jorma Kaukonen’s music introduced me to the blues in 1975)."

How has the blues music changed your life?

Blues music is like religion. I suppose most music can be, but somehow blues resonates more with me. It has a timeless character with its history shrouded in some mystery being that blues was a genre that existed before it was ever committed to recordings.


Tell me about the beginning of Piedmont Talent. Where did you get that idea?

After college I worked for a booking agency in Boston called Concerted Efforts. Paul Kahn gave me a great opportunity to get into the business. I worked there 5 years but really didn’t like the cost of living in Boston, so I packed my bags and heading south and started Piedmont Talent.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There are too many best moments to single out just one. Seeing the Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan’s first gig would be among them as would watching Johnny Copeland in Grant Park closing the 1993 Chicago Blues Festival. The worst moments are purely business related like when an artist whose music you absolutely adore makes poor career direction choices and you just don’t get the same good feeling listening to their music any longer.


"I really had no choice. Music has been I was ever interested once I out grew sports and religion; either listening or performing."

What are some of the most memorable project you’ve had?

All the different Johnny Winter tours, the Fat Possum Juke Joint Caravan and the current Blues and Burlesque 2012 tours I’ve begun working on. Most of my work isn’t project based but rather on going touring to keep artists busy and happy.


Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

The people I admire most tend be behind the scenes players rather than musicians. I’ve always admired Dick Waterman for all his many and varied contributions to the blues, particularly back in the day when the rules for booking and management weren’t written but need to be created. Mike Kappus at Rosebud would be on the music biz admiration list.


If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

There wouldn’t be too much I would do different. There have been a few staff changes in the 23 years of Piedmont Talent. I perhaps would have watched out for that more carefully.


Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet and work with?

Much of my taste in blues lean towards prewar blues. I would love to have been a fly on the wall and gotten to hear Bo Carter, Charlie Patton, the Harlem Hamfats and Blind Blake. Whether I’d want to work them would remain to be seen! Outside of blues that list would include Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike), King Benny Nawahi and Cab Calloway.


What characterize your philosophy about the music business?

As far as booking an artist goes, you have to remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all business. What works for one artist isn’t necessarily right for another artist. Also, the blues business is a subset of the entertainment industry. I try to persuade artists to consider what makes musical artists in other genres work so well and add those elements to blues. On that list are harmony vocals, duets, a vibrant stage image and professionally shot video and promo materials. Vocals are of utmost important. Many excellent blues instrumentalists should keep their mouths shut and let someone do the singing. The blues press tends to ignore that issue for the most part, but lack of vocal prowess is what causes many an artist to bump into the glass ceiling sooner than need be. I’ve heard some totally unlistenable CDs in the past few years by guitarists who insist on singing out of key and the various blues press don’t call them to task on it.


"Blues music is like religion. I suppose most music can be, but somehow blues resonates more with me. It has a timeless character with its history shrouded in some mystery being that blues was a genre that existed before it was ever committed to recordings."

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

I will keep this question in reference to blues music which is my specialty. As the demographics of the blues audience has skewered higher over the decades the demand for blues artists has shifted from club work to festivals. Cross country touring with occasional weeklong club engagements are long gone, but the number of festivals has jumped like Apple stock. This does cause feast and famine situations. As the record industry has declined and blues labels have fewer outlets with the audience being less digital downloading types (again the demographic issue) the happy mutual circle of love has collapsed. It used to be that an artist would release a CD and its initial press would spur sales and sales would spur gigs which would spur more press….. That’s mostly history now that the gigs are a primary source of CD sales, and the bands become mobile record stores. Few artists sell enough CDs to drive gig demand. Media is tough too. Again, as the blues demographic rises, the remaining print publications, both national and local devote less space to covering blues artists so articles are reviews are more frequently in online publications that few people ever heard of, let alone look at as having any clout.


"Much of my taste in blues lean towards prewar blues. I would love to have been a fly on the wall and gotten to hear Bo Carter, Charlie Patton, the Harlem Hamfats and Blind Blake."

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

The present is the most interesting period and the most challenging.


What are the secrets to the blues music business? What is the word "seal" of your work?

Our agency motto says all I need to say, “As Honest as an Agent Can Be”!

Why did you think that Piedmont Talent, continues to generate such a devoted following?

Any following we may have is a reflection of the artists we represent at any given time. Of all the agencies that work with blues artists, and there are fewer now than ever, we probably stick closest to the blues. We don’t stray as far from the blues world as do some of our colleagues. It’s more a matter of personal taste than anything else. I still do blues radio on WNCW, so blues music continue to be the focus of my energy in and out of the office.


"The blues press tends to ignore that issue for the most part, but lack of vocal prowess is what causes many an artist to bump into the glass ceiling sooner than need be."

Which of the artists were the most difficult and which was the most gifted?

The most difficult artists were the ones with unclear goals and inconsistent demands and expectations, as well as those who put too many roadblocks in frothier own path. The ones who looked for shortcuts to stardom and didn’t want to do the roadwork to get there were the toughest. Some artists are just logistically hard (nine piece bands will always be a bitch). Also musicians who confuse their friends with their peers can bring a lot of career envy with them. None of that diminishes the artist’s talent. The most gifted ones to me were the ones who could sing, play and write monster material and had stage presence to boot. Sean Costello, Johnny Copeland and Eden Brent come to mind but the list is much greater. Have a business sense is a major plus as well.


What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you so popular in music business?

Perserverance and not getting caught up in minutia. I am dedicated and passionate about blues music so I just keep at it. After a while you learn how to do things efficiently. You also have to be a diplomat. Some artists and buyers you can be bluntly upfront with, others you have to be more particular with how you address things. It’s important to not get rattled easily and never develop a temper.


"Think young! Most of the blues industry entrepreneurs were just out of college when they began their business on a wing and a prayer; Alligator Records, Blind Pig Records, Piedmont Talent!"

Any comments about your experiences from The Blues Foundation?

I was skeptical of the Blues Foundation when I received my first KBA in 1996. Its history until that point was fairly dubious. In subsequent years they really focused their efforts. Without the Blues Foundation in its current endeavors the blues could be no more than a museum piece. They should present themselves with a Keeping the Blues Alive award for their efforts in bringing new talent to light via the IBCs. Without that talent the path for new artists to get recognized would be an overgrown rockstrewn path.

Did you help many artist in the meantime did you found any gratitude from them & which do you consider the good friend?

For a while I keep my distance from artists as friends as the relationships change frequently in the booking world. I’ve helped some artists in need with medical bills, rent payments and the like. Over the years many have become good friends. At this point in my career I’ve become more comfortable with getting close to artists again.

"My secret dream would be to see blues become relevant again to more of the mainstream. Years ago blues was a commercial and vibrant segment of the industry."

What is your “secret” MUSIC DREAM? What mistake of the blues music business, would you wish to correct?

My secret dream would be to see blues become relevant again to more of the mainstream. Years ago blues was a commercial and vibrant segment of the industry. The prewar blues artists and all the way through the early 70s blues was a single oriented music. Every 78 or 45 issued was expecting to be a hit and many succeeded at that. I loved having a 3 minute song that could establish lyrical beauty, instrumental excellence and commercial appeal.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the blues 

For decades blues flew under the mainstream radar and was consumed almost exclusively by African-Americans. It wasn’t subject to the same schmaltz that the music of the Hit Parade masses was subject to. To me it was the perfect blend of niche commercial purity. It is mind boggling how many different styles of blues and niche music was recorded on 78s in the 1920s. Labels were looking to exploit everyone back then and kept releasing everything hoping to find what stuck. That gave us a huge body of excellent music by artists whose existence on record is nothing short of a miracle. That can never be duplicated or undone.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians, promoter, agencies, thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Think young! Most of the blues industry entrepreneurs were just out of college when they began their business on a wing and a prayer; Alligator Records, Blind Pig Records, Piedmont Talent! The old business models no longer work and we have yet to see an influx twenty-somethings taking the reins except as performers.


What does "When I listen to old music, it's one of the only times that I have any love for humanity." (R. Crumb), mean to you?

I see you’ve done your homework about me! That quote is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but it since I am an not a fan of most contemporary music, it reflects a yearning for the illusion of simpler times, a bygone era and purer music when the world wasn’t so connected and regional styles of music still had their place.

I presume that big part of your life is somehow connected with blues.


Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music?

My other musical tastes include John Fahey, Hawaiian guitar music, 1920s dance orchestras and Frank Zappa and Hot Tuna (after all Jorma Kaukonen’s music introduced me to the blues in 1975). My hobbies include fishing, cooking, reading and photography.


Piedmont Talent - Your Source for Great Blues & Roots Music


 

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Tags: Blues, Copeland, Hecht, Interview, Limnios, Piedmont, Steve, Talent, agent

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