Cars wind their way up the 405 freeway on a lazy late winter day that feels like spring in Southern California. Siri has found new and creative routes to enable me to duck and weave my way through the notorious L.A. traffic, the result being an on-time arrival at the designated location. Calling to announce my arrival, the iron gates swing open. I park the car, open my door, and in a flash–before I have time to react–I’m blindsided by two very large, very aggressive dogs.
It’s quickly determined to be friendly fire; however, as the only real danger is being beat up by wagging tails and licked to death as I laugh uncontrollably. Duke and James “Buck” Brown, the semi-official greeters of Renman Music & Business headquarters have made their presence known.
Steve “The Renman” Rennie is a music industry veteran with over 30 years’ experience as an artist manager (Incubus), record label exec (Epic/Sony), and concert promotor (Avalon Attractions). He now runs Renman MB and Renman U, which are an array of informational interviews with recording artists and music industry professionals as well as online courses designed to help young people who are contemplating a career in music.
Rennie has the vibe of an incurable optimist. Watching his online lessons, he’s constantly talking with his hands, punching the air for emphasis. Given the grinding nature of the music biz, one wonders how he’s managed to maintain the positive attitude after so many years. “I think part of it is the personality you see that wouldn’t have changed if I was a stockbroker, I suppose, or a golf pro, for that matter. I love it. I’ve been a music fan forever, still a music fan, still love finding new stuff or finding out about an artist. I’m gonna be 60 here in a month and a half. So I think there’s part of me still — the 16-year-old in me — that loved finding a band and getting deep down into it. It still exists. It’s always nice to hear people go, ‘Oh wow, you’re so enthusiastic.’ Because there’s days when you’re living in your own skin, where you go, ‘I just lost my fire for it.’ Not lost my fire, but it just takes so much out of you. And particularly working as a manager, working with artists, it’s such a personal thing that it takes a little out of you. So I think I have to get myself geared up for it.”
“But I think at the heart of the whole Renman U and the Renman MB thing is a guy that really loves talking about the music business, that loves sharing whatever wisdom I can throw into the mix for people that are perhaps at the beginning of dreaming and doing where . . . I’ve been dreaming my whole life, but have been very fortunate to do it. When I look back now and realize I’ve been playing at the big-league level for a long time, and have had the chance to meet and work with some unbelievably talented people on both the professional and the artist side of things, I think that’s probably what keeps me fueled up.”
Renman U is a paid online course consisting of ten modules: The Big Picture, Making Great Music, Treating Your Career As A Business, Building A Professional Team, Managers, Marketing And Promotion, Record Labels, Music Publishing, Touring and Getting Started. Within each module are short videos covering topics relating to each module (for example, within the Managers module are Why You Need a Manager, How To Find a Manager and Artist Manager Relationship.) The course is priced at $99.99, which frankly, for all the insider information packed into it is a bargain. When it is mentioned to Rennie that the course could actually be underpriced, he says “You’re not the first person to say that. Yeah, it’s $99.99 and our original — still — our idea for it was to make it a standalone course. So I could do it once and didn’t have to . . . it sounds horribly lazy, but not have to show up every time. Or be able to show up when I want to, not feel tied to it. And that said, in the great Renman MB tradition, I always think low and then shoot high. So we’ve been offering to the first folks that have signed up an opportunity to be a part of the Google Hangout on Mondays, and so they get a chance to, in effect, talk to the professor if you will.”
“And so when we were thinking about pricing . . . I know that most musicians — God love them all when they read this — will find $100 for beer or blow, or weed, or new strings, or a new fucking pedal, which won’t help them understand what they’re getting into. And there’s a point where that whole creative process needs to be sacred, and it needs to be emotional, and it needs to be in the moment. But that ends when you want somebody else to listen to it, buy it, help you turn this from a hobby into a career. That’s where it fundamentally changes. That requires more than just an emotional take on it. It requires a tactical take. “
“But back to the pricing, just to finish that thought. The hundred bucks was my way of saying, you know what? I’m not trying to get rich on this. I wanna make it as accessible as possible. In retrospect, or in the moment here, I sit there and go to bed at night thinking, ‘Is the reason more people aren’t buying it because I priced it too low?’ Because the personal interaction, we’d always kind of thought that, well, that’ll be like getting the VIP ticket, or the really good parking space, or the really good seat at the basketball game, or getting the chance to come and meet the band afterwards. That’s not for everybody. I didn’t write the rules, but in this world, you pay extra to sit up front on the plane or in the train or whatever it might be.”
“And so I don’t trip on that stuff because everybody can decide how they want to spend their own money. But when I think about $99 in the real world, trying to detach my ego from it, just look at it dispassionately, from the kind of knowledge that people will willfully pay for a single course at Berklee, it might be $1600 for a music business course on how to be a manager. I actually taught one of those. They’ve got great people there. They got a great reputation. It’s a great school and all that stuff, but I’d sit right in the room with the head of that place and say, ‘Your course compared to mine is not even in the same league.’ And they go, ‘Why?’ I’d say, ‘Two things, the person giving it and the perspective — the real world perspective — that I have from doing it, and not being an educator.’”
“I’m a doer. I’m not an educator. What people learn from what I’ve done is kind of up to them. And with Renman U, we try to put it together in a little . . . it’s about as close as you’re gonna get to an academic approach from a guy like me, but it’s very much in the language of today. I did it on videos first and then wrote the little bits. It’s more like me talking and then writing afterwards. And then when we shot all of these new Renman U segments, it was a little bit, ‘Okay, take that course you did kind of extemporaneously and make sure you hit all the buttons in here,’ but it doesn’t read like a book. It reads, I hope, more like a conversation with somebody about the music business, the same conversation, ironically, that I’ve been having for 35 years.”
“So I think I like the term ‘mentor’ more than ‘educator.’ Because ‘educator’ for me suggests a certain kind of academia approach, where mentoring suggests a much more real world tactical, contextual, ‘Here’s how you do this, kid. Forget the book. Here’s how it really goes down.’ Mentoring suggests a lot of what we call in the golfing business, local knowledge. It looks like it’s 150 yards, feels like it’s 150 yards, but it plays 170 . . .”
That point of conversation is interrupted by Buck, who has suddenly decided he wants to be my new best friend. Rennie talks to him: “Buck, down. Buck, down. JB, down. Sit, JB, down. Okay, you gotta go. Go to your brother out there, man. JB, go.” Soon, Buck gets the message and trots away.
“Do you ever watch the Dog Whisperer? The greatest show of all time. It’s not what you say to the dogs. You just gotta look them in the eye and go, ‘I’m the big dog here. Sit the fuck down.’ And they do! You don’t have to say a word. My wife begs him. I just look at him and he just goes into a heap. Anyway, that’s the long answer to your question there. “
At the end of each topic within the modules is a quiz, and a “contact the instructor” button. For a student to have a direct line to decades of experience in the music industry is worth the C-note alone, but begs the question: Where does he draw the line between accessibility and privacy? Rennie has a deliciously dry, profane sense of humor, and listening to him weave a story is a treat.
“If you are you calling me to ask ‘Can you plug me in with somebody?’ The answer is, ‘No, I’m not gonna. I could, but I’m not gonna. That’s your job. If I was your manager, that’d be my job, but I’m not, so it’s your job.’ If they say ‘Well, I don’t know how to do that,’ I counter with ‘Well, how about you fucking think about it? How about I make you think?’
“So I’ll give you an example. A young kid watches the show frequently. He’s from New York City. And I’ll get these emails from kids. Sometimes it’ll catch my attention. Sometimes it won’t. Anyway, this kid is big fan of Troy Carter. He wants to work at the Atom Factory. So this kid writes me and says, ‘Can you help me out? Can you get me his email address?’ I said, ‘You gotta reach out yourself.’ Come on, kids. Figure it out, okay? Everybody at Universal Music is email@example.com. Do some homework here, man. Because if you’re not gonna do that first level of homework, I’m here to tell you got no fucking chance in this business unless you write Stairway To Heaven and it’s so big that it gets you everybody. And it happens just often enough to keep that dream alive, but more often than not it’s a non-starter.”
“So anyway, long story short, six, eight months later I’m in a Capitol Records party in the back lot. So we’re sitting there and they’re having like a 2015 record company party with the In-N-Out trucks outside. This is not sushi. This is like ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a fucking barbecue,’ which, when I worked at Sony, everything was an epic event for the executives, so we spent more money on 10 people back then than they spend nowadays on for 400.”
“Anyway, I see this kid come walking up, and after years of doing this I just kind of got a radar for when somebody knows who you are, but you don’t know who they are. This kid’s clearly coming up. He’s fucking eyeing me, and he says ‘Hey, Renman, do you remember I sent you an email?’ Somehow I actually remember this kid’s email. And he goes, ‘Dude, I just want you to know, man, that because of you, I am now working at the Atom Factory.’ And I said, ‘Well, how is that?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you know, I took your advice and I figured it out. I just started typing in tcarter@atomfactory, troy@atomfactory, troycarter@atomfactory, and fuck me if he didn’t actually send me back an email.’”
“I said, ‘Well, everybody thinks I’m asshole buddies with Troy Carter, but I’m not. I contacted Troy not through any of my friends or anybody, but I sent him an email saying, ‘Hey, my name is Steve Rennie, blah, blah, blah.’ And I assumed nothing when I sent it. This is my mentality. I assume nothing. I’m gonna tell you who I am, and I’m gonna tell you what I’m calling about. So anyway, the kid wound up getting a job as the receptionist at Atom Factory. And last time I talked to him he graduated to being an assistant on somebody’s desk. “
“Another example: I’m talking to one of the kids that bought our Renman U course, a kid from a pop/punk band from England, really sharp kid, good musician, but he’s that guy. Every band has one guy that could be the manager, and this is clearly the kid. So we’re having our Google Hangout, and he says, ‘You know, I’m trying to get on the Warped Tour,’ and I said, ‘Look, you must’ve missed the first part about ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ okay? It’s not a gag. It’s not a fucking shtick. I know I turn it into a shtick on my show here, but it’s because I want to hammer it home. And I’m smiling, but it’s true. I tell him ‘I’m betting you $20 that if you send an email to Kevin Lyman and tell him, ‘Hey, I saw you on Renman Live and you were fucking awesome,’ and you blow all the smoke up his ass, I’m betting you $20 that I think he’ll respond to you.”
“Next morning, kid sends me a note, ‘Dude, I owe you 20 quid because I sent a note to Kevin Lyman and he actually sent me back a note. And then he sent me back another note after listening to my two songs.’ I say, ‘Okay, what’s the moral of the story?’ He goes, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ And I said, ‘Correct.’ I said, ‘Who did the work on that one?’ He goes, ‘I did.’ And I said, ‘So there’s the story.’”
“I’m not trying to be a prick when I tell people, ‘Don’t call me up and ask me, ‘What’s my next step’ and ‘Can you hook me up with some of your buddies?'” Why would I do that? I don’t know you, okay? I’ve got 35 years with some of these people, and part of it is based on I don’t fucking bring up shit except stuff that I think it will work.”
“A great attention-getter for some of these kids is, ‘Hey, I saw you on Renman Live’s web show.’ And I can’t tell you how many big players that have been on my show that will send me a note that says, ‘I had a kid come up and tell me, ‘I saw you on Renman Live.’ Tom Corson, president of RCA, sent me that note. He goes, ‘Jesus Christ, man, all the time people are going, ‘Dude, I saw you on Renman Live’s show.’”
“I’ll tell you, I have made myself accessible beyond just my normal accessibility, which is if you knew somebody who knew me and all the typical stuff, the trusted source. And then we have the Ask Renman section on our site, which was a definite attempt to sit there and go, ‘Okay, here’s my manageable answer to ‘You don’t ask, you don’t get,’ which begs the question, well, ‘Who am I gonna ask, okay? I could ask my mom. That’s not gonna help me, but I can ask Renman.’ So that’s a great place for people to contact me, a place for me to manage the conversation in terms of my time. I kind of answer them once a week and go through those things.”
“But what I typically try to do is reference them and make them do the work. That’s my MO now. And sometimes — I’ll be honest — when I look at some of my answers, I sit there and think, ‘Well, there’s some kid on the other end, he sitting there and going, ‘Fuck, this guy is really testy.’ But part of it is not accidental. It’s part of me getting into, ‘Dude, what, do you expect me to do the work?’ I already did the work! I gave you a place to ask questions. Here’s all the information sitting there. Have you even searched ‘A&R guys’? Because you’ll find 50 clips, not from me giving you my opinion on what an A&R guy is looking for. I could certainly do that and have some reasonably good input on that, but there’s 20 A&R guys here telling you what they’re interested in, and those are the guys that I’d have to convince if I was your manager. Those are the people that you have to convince. So dude, do your homework, okay?’
“I may come up with one last section that’s just, ‘Hey, do your homework.’ Make believe you could only ask one question of that big player you get — one question. Would you sit there and go, ‘How do I go to the next level?’ and expect them to give you are five, six-hour fucking answer? That’s bullshit. That’s not gonna happen.”
Rennie has so many cool stories that the next is better than the previous (ask him about the time he played golf with Malcolm Young of AC/DC). However, he’s a busy guy, and the longer I stay, the greater the chance the traffic will flip from normally shitty to catastrophically shitty. Time to say goodbye to both The Renman and the dogs.
“Duke might be the most famous rock ‘n roll dog on the planet and would get a very high cool factor because he would just sit there on the couch with people. And when I have people coming in at first, they’d hesitate and I’d say ‘You know what? This ain’t the Tonight Show.’ People are coming to my office and this is exactly what the fuck you’d get except we moved the couch over. And instead of having a big desk, I have my little freaking desk over there. Duke will literally just get up and start licking somebody until the credits. Most of the guests actually have found it irresistible. ‘Look at him. How can you say no to that face?’ They found him sometimes more amusing than the host.”