Industry Spotlight: Steve ‘Renman’ Rennie (Renman Music & Business)

Hello and welcome to the final Industry Spotlight of the week. We have featured a number of big time industry players this year so far, but I strongly believe this particular interview to be amongst the best we have ever done. The person at the center, which I will introduce in a moment, has been working in this industry longer than 95% of our audience has been alive. He’s also willing to share his knowledge, which is what makes him an ideal candidate for this column.

This blog exists to promote the future of the music industry, and to do that we need input from people like you and your music-loving friends. If you have any questions about the content in this article, or if you have an artist you would like to see featured on this blog, please contact james@haulix.com and share your thoughts. We can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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There are times when I sit down to write these introductions and I wonder whether or not I will be able to fill the space needed to properly setup the feature that will follow. It’s not that any guest is bad or lacks an interesting background, but as we tend to deal with younger professionals there is often very little to tell about a person’s life that is not also covered in the accompanying interview. Today, however, I face the opposite problem.

Steve ‘Renman’ Rennie has lead a career that even he describes as being akin to a fairy tale. With over 35 years of experience, he’s worked at one of the world’s biggest labels and learned from the best minds the business as ever known. He’s booked shows, signed artists, promoted releases, and even spent the better part of two decades managing Incubus. He’s the kind of guy that has a billion stories to tell, and in recent months he’s begun doing just that through his own web series.

Renman Music & Business is a site started by Steve Rennie with the hopes of sharing his knowledge and experiences from the world of music with aspiring professionals. Through video, audio, and text based posts Steve informs his audience about the real music industry. There is no sugar-coating or hand holding to be found. He tells it like it is, and does not hold back in the slightest, which in our opinion is the only true way to learn about this business.

Recently, Steve and I had the opportunity to speak over the phone about his career in music, as well as the events that lead to him launch Renman Music & Business. We spoke for nearly and hour and I walked away feeling like I had been through music industry boot camp. You can read what he had to say, below.

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SR: Where are you based out of?

H: I’m based out of Boston, but the home of Haulix is located in the midwest. 

SR: I’ve looked at your product, and I was hoping you can tell me a little bit more about it. At first sight, it looks like more of label thing. Do you have a lot of independent artists using your product?

H: At first, we were focused on labels. Over the last few years we have made a big effort to focus on indie artists, and there are a surprising amount of performers who have taken it upon themselves to discover our offerings. They tend to not stick around as long our label clients, but I think the customization we provide, as well as our watermarking technology, really appeals to those wanting to stand out.

SR: Okay, great.

H: It’s a great honor to have you with us, Steve. You are someone a lot of people have requested that we feature. It seems you’re quite a popular person in the music industry.

SR: Well, I’m happy to be popular if that is in fact true. (laughs) I’ll take it.

H: We use these spotlights to show people that no matter where someone is today in their professional life, most people started off just like anyone else, scraping together pennies to chase a dream, and from what I understand that applies to you as well. I read that you got your start booking shows while attending USC, is that true?

SR: I did book at USC, but a step before that I was booking shows at a local community college in Santa Monica. That’s where I first got involved with booking, and I ended up transferring to USC on a debate scholarship. I continued to book shows at USC from there, which allowed me to feel like I had four years of experience before I got out of college. That may have been a bit of an inflated view on my end, but I was working with artists and managers as a talent buyer, albeit an amateur one.

H: Did you finish college? I read somewhere that you..

SR: No, I dropped out. I went 8-12 years and I got close. I won’t bore you, but there was a little bit of a back story involving my scholarship funds running out before I was able to finish. The truth is though, I was in a rush and hellbent to enter the music industry. I’ve regretted it a little bit, and I have a son in college now that I’ve asked to try and finish. That would be nice. (laughs)

H: We go back and forth on this a lot, because it seems like today there are a large number of music industry programs and no one really knows which one is best. People ask us if they should go and study these programs, and if so whether they should go after a two or four year program. I usually tell people that if they really want to work in music and go to college they should find a major that is a little more general, like business or marketing. How do you feel? Do you feel these degrees give you a leg up at all?

SR: No. Actually, let me step back from that a bit. If you talk to the vast majority of people in the music industry people today, and certainly the people running the music industry today, you’ll find very few of them that have a degree in music business. Part of that is because they didn’t teach music business courses when people like me were in college, but what we did have back then were things like a concert committee, and college radio stations. That’s where you will find a lot of people, especially those around my age, got their start. This phenomenon of music business being taught at universities is kind of new, and what I’ve found as I have entered this mentoring space is that so many times, and I don’t mean this to be a knock, but many of the people who teach music business are music fans who were never really music professionals. I make that distinction because when you talk to people who are actually working in the business and ask them how they learned it they will tell you they learned it by doing. It was not from a book, even though they may have read a few. You learn by doing, and when I was coming up that meant finding a mentor who could show you the ropes. As I have gotten further into this mentor thing myself, which is something I’ve been doing naturally the last 35 years, I think I’m becoming far more aware of what universities are teaching. I applaud what they’re doing and their enthusiasm, but I think most schools have a far more vested interest in selling the notion that a piece of paper will get you somewhere in the music business when in fact it won’t. What people in music business are looking for are people who are enthusiastic about music, who are willing to learn, and those who possess a killer instinct. By that, I mean a willingness to work until a problem is solved. 

I think the music business programs that they’re teaching at universities today, and this is going to sound horribly self-serving, they should be doing it the way I’m doing it. By that I mean introducing one big player after another and having them sharing their story. Then, after that, opening the floor up to students for questions and conversation. That’s how you learn the music business. Not through a book.

H: I couldn’t agree more. I feel like the best way to learn, especially if you want to learn about life today, is to talk to people living it. 

SR: It’s simple. It’s about asking questions about the things you don’t know. With the greatest respect to my friends in their young 20s, in terms of the music business you don’t know shit. You really don’t. And if you think you do then you’re failing the first test of consciousness.. When you’re 30 you’ll know a little bit more, but until then you need to ask questions. You need to hang out and network with smart people. You need to make a commitment to learning, and part of that is understanding that you do not know shit right now. You need to find someone who knows more than you, ask as many questions as you can, and soak it up like a sponge.

H: You mentioned you had mentors growing up. Can you tell us about them?

SR: There were a number of people over the years. There were two gentlemen I have talked about at length over the years, but I will mention them again. One of the men was Brian Murphy who works over at AEG. He was a partner, as well as the booking guy at Avalon Attractions. The other guy was Bob Geddes, a very hard-nosed business guy with strong instincts. I’ve always characterized those guys by telling people Bob was Clint Eastwood and Brian was more Ozzy Nelson. Brian was the good dad who always had time to be nurturing, while Bob was far more firm. I think that those two points of view ultimately shaped my mentality because over the years I have not been afraid to tell people what I think, but in that same person is the guy who managed bands and worked to figure out what they needed in order to do the things I needed. 

Later on, there was a guy by the name of Richard Griffiths, who is the person that hired me at Epic Records. Him and a gentleman by the name of Dave Glew, who was the chairman of the company, also helped me. Richard taught me the record business, but he has a very decisive ‘make something happen’ point of view. Dave was a ‘nuts and bolts’ Cleveland guy. I had one person showing me the big picture while another one showed me the little stuff. So twice in my career I had two mentors that both showed me different tricks.

H: Something curious about your history in the industry that I wanted to touch on is your participation in launching ArtistDirect. If possible could you tell us a little about the internet at that time and the motivations behind launching that site?

SR: Sadly, I recently read they were selling off the assets of the company (Artist Direct). 

ArtistDirect, when you cut through all the bullshit and rewrites in history, it was the idea of Mark Geiger. He was a big music fan and a big fan of technology, which we shared, but Mark was way more into the tech side than I. In the early days of the internet, you would visit these bulletin boards on the web and find interesting things to download. We often talked about how everything was going to be digital and how that would be a game-changer. That conversation evolved over the years, and by 1998 I had left Epic Records to join the guys at ArtistDirect. I was the last guy to come in, and it was an incredible ride. We thought it would be a hub for artists to have their own corner of the web, and over the years since a lot of those ideas have become a reality online. 

Timing and lighting is something I talk about a lot in life. Being in the right place at the right time plays a big part in the success of a project. I think Artist Direct had the right idea and all the right intentions, but I think it got to the game a little too early. The ugly analogy I always use involved D-Day. The guys who arrived at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were able to land on shore. The guys who arrived at 6 o’clock in the morning were floating in the water. The idea was much better for the second wave than the first wave. Geiger has been on the streaming train for fifteen years, and it’s just now coming to the forefront. 

So the timing wasn’t great, but it was an unbelievable experience. Both good and bad from a business point of view. We ultimately took the company public, raising over a $110 million dollars, and we pissed away every dime of it. (laughs)

H: That tends to be how things go.

SR: I was telling someone the other day who raised a lot of money that raising funds and getting VCs on board is no closer to being done than signing a record deal. It’s the start of the game. Don’t get distracted before you reach the finish line.

H: Exactly. So, how long were you at Artist Direct?

SR: Two and a half years. After that, I left to manage Incubus because, if I’m being honest, working at Artist Direct was the single most draining thing I ever did in my life. I was the first of the partners to leave, and that wasn’t very popular in the moment, but one by one we realized that we had a better idea than we had a business.

H: That’s a hard realization to make. 

SR: Yeah, and I think I got there first. We went public the day after the Nasdaq crossed 5000 for the first time, and it has never reached that point again since. It’s a time in my life I look back at fondly, but it was pretty intense.

H: I would like to talk about what you’re doing now because it falls perfectly in line with what we hope to accomplish at Haulix. Have you always wanted to step into the role of an educator? What made you decide now was the time to bring about your current project.

SR: First off, and I don’t know why, but every time someone calls me an educator a little part of me cringes. I don’t know why, maybe I don’t think it sounds hip enough or something.

Two things…One, I’ve benefitted mightily from having mentors around. I always had a subconscious awareness of how lucky I was to have that kind of guidance. I’ve also, truth be told, I’ve always been the guy that loves to sit up and talk shop. It’s how I got into USC, I was on the debate team because I had no problem climbing on a soapbox and pitching an idea. I don’t know if it was a gift or whatever, but I was comfortable with it. Over the years, people would ask to pick my brain or run ideas by me. I’m brutally honest with people, and sometimes in the music industry that causes discomfort, but I’ve found over my 35 years that it’s better for someone to be slightly uncomfortable with you in the beginning for being brutally honest than waiting to deal with something ugly in the end. The sooner the better.

Anyways, over the years people have always asked me questions about the industry. When I first got involved with Incubus nineteen years ago the internet was just beginning to boom. All the sudden there was this growing ability to have conversations with people around the world that centered around the same thing – ‘hey, can I pick your brain on something?’ I think it has always been part of my mentality and I enjoy it. I went back to USC a number of time over the years to speak about the music industry and really enjoyed it. What I’m doing now is really an extension of that more than an attempt at being an educator. I’m on a mission to teach people about the music industry, but if you’ve seen our presentation then I think you would agree it’s decidedly non-academic. This is my version of the music industry. Not the fairy tale world they tell you about at college, this is the real music business, where it’s fucked up and people are insecure wrecks. I think it resonates with people because they think – love it or hate it – I am being honest. I’m not sugar coasting things. I’ve been doing this for a long time at a fairly high level, so unlike so many internet music business experts with no real world experience my resume speaks for itself. 

H: Definitely. Here’s something someone asked me today. Do you worry that when Incubus becomes more active it will be difficult to do the show regularly?

SR: No, because I parted company with Incubus in January. 

H: I did not know that.

SR: Yeah. In a strange way, that kind of says something about where Incubus is at, and I don’t mean that to be a negative. I was with those guys for over seventeen years and we had an unbelievable ride, but as Incubus fans know over the last seven or eight years there has been less and less activity from Incubus. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out that when a band starts spending the majority of their time working on other stuff that’s kind of a review of the state of affairs. 

So I parted company with them and I no longer worry about it. I will be honest though, my current project is a direct result of the band’s growing gaps between making music and promoting it. I made the decision to manage only one band after leaving Epic, and I stayed remarkably true to that, but there were times over the last seven or eight years when I had to ask myself the question, “If you’re managing a band that’s not creating to promoting, are you a manager?” So this web mentoring is a direct outgrowth of my own frustration with all of that and at the end of the day I did something similar to the band, which is to not not worry about working on Incubus until they do, and there is only so much you can do to encourage that stuff. They’re all grown men, and if I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s that you cannot make people more ambitious than they want to be. God knows I’ve tried.

H: Do you see yourself managing more bands in the future, or would you say that part of your life is behind you?

SR: No. [laughs] I’ll give you a full answer on that. Let me explain my perspective. When I sit and think, the calculating business guy in me who is now 59 and believes he had his own fairy tale ride in this business asks himself what the chances are that he finds another band that has as much talent and work ethic as is needed to reach the top of the mountain. When I sit and think about all the great bands I have managed that could not make it to that level, or at least not stay there, I have no desire to spend another 10 years trying to get another group to that place. Incubus were the twelfth band I managed. Every group had talent, but they [Incubus] had the right head for it, and that’s what matters. 

Longer answer still, when I look at where I am in my life right now I much more fancy myself the rock and roll version of John Madden. He’s a gregarious character who loves football and lived his rock and roll dream in sports by playing in the Super Bowl. After that, he walked away to become a mentor and enjoy the game from that role. That’s kind of my head space today. I don’t need to get my resume in line and send it out. I’ve been really lucky and I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I still love music and I love working in the music business, but when I get an email from some kid who says my work inspired him that’s all I need. I also know if I had to manage that kid he may hate me, haha, but that’s the nature of the beast.

H: I know we only have a little bit of time left, but I wanted to ask you about your goals. Does this program you’ve launched have a specific goal?

SR: Our goals have actually changed quite a bit. I started this show as a hobby because I thought it was fun to do. I started with 24 videos, and then we moved on to the web show, which inspired me to contact friend after friend to guest with me. If you go back through the hundred-plus shows that have aired, you will notice that a few episodes that show a clear evolution from everything that came before. Things have changed, and I think part of that is because I started to look at the show as a business. The business guy inside me refuses to let me have a hobby, I guess. So I’m much more conscious about the educational aspect of what we do, and based on the advice of a young person we have here in the studio we have begun putting together a curriculum for teaching people about the music industry. We’re putting it into an online course that we plan to sell. People have asked me about being a consultant before, and I never really thought about it, but as I’ve found a need to pay for these web efforts – which do cost money when done right – this seems like a good solution. 

We’re also going to work with some of my friends who have shown interest in mentoring and I think see a business opportunity in it. I know band members would cringe at the thought of charging, but if you think about it – USC doesn’t mind charging $60,000 for music business education and Berkelee doesn’t mind charging even more. If all those people gave me their students for a day none of them would want to go back because what I offer is real. Also, we’re all buddies.

So I’m trying to find a way to make this self-sustaining and I think I’ve finally started to figure it out.

H: You have accomplished a lot in life and you have more accomplishments to come I’m sure, but do you have any loftier goals for this or your life in general that you can share?

SR: I don’t really know how to articulate this, but it’s crazy how it all goes. Bobby Geddes gave me a great piece of advice once. I had some wacky idea that I wanted to share with him, which I did all the time, and he said “Let me tell you something, Stever. In life, there are a million things that are going to whisper at you. I only listen to the screams. I don’t have time for the whispers and that sounds like a whisper. Go find something that screams.” When you ask me what I want, I’m not really sure, but what started as a whisper has grown to a scream over time. I’ve learned over the years that opportunity sometimes comes at the strangest times, in the strangest boxes, in the strangest ways. You might not recognize it at first, but over time you realize it could change everything. I don’t know where it is headed just yet, to be honest with you. Maybe more speaking engagements. There’ also been talk of a TV show. I don’t know where it will all go, but it’s definitely louder than a whisper now.  I’m like a dog in a field, I know there is a bird out here and I am going to find it.

H: I think we have time for one more question. Before I let you go, do you have any additional pieces of advice for our readers?

SR: If somebody out there is dreaming about doing something big in the music industry, I’ll tell you a couple of things…1. You need to know what you’re getting yourself into.  Talent is not enough. You need talent, calculation, and a strong business sense coming together at the same time. If you want to do something big you need to understand it’s about more than music, and you will need people around you to help. 2. Nothing happens in a day in this business. It typically takes 5 or 10 years from the day you plan to do something to the point it actually happens, and that applies to both artists and industry professionals. If you want that, start early. Start as soon as you possibly can and give it your best shot. Never lose your passion.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.