Industry Chat: Flaming Lips Manager Scott Booker

Music Features The Flaming Lips
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You’d never guess it, but the guy that manages the Flaming Lips is running an academic program at a public university in, literally, middle America. Like right exactly in the middle, in Oklahoma. Scott Booker, aside from being a swell fella with great stories, is a man on a mission to make the music business maybe just a bit less chaotic, and at the same time, if his home state of Oklahoma becomes a bit of a nexus in the biz, then all the better. We decided to talk to him because of all that but also because of something else we’ve observed about the music business: With the decline of the importance of the record label, the band manager has become perhaps the key cog in the machine of an artist’s career. We hoped Booker, having been at the center of the Flaming Lips storm all along, could shed some light on the trend.

Paste : How did you find your way into the music business?
Scott Booker: I started out by getting a job in a record store when I was 15. It was a small chain based in the south and midwest called Sound Warehouse. After I worked there a few years, I moved over to another record store where I met members of the Flaming Lips. We became friends and then eventually I became their manager. I stayed at the record store even while they were signed to Warner Bros. Eventually, when “She Don’t Us Jelly” became a hit, I quit working at the store. There just wasn’t time to do both things. I miss working in a record store…

Paste : Many traditional jobs in the music industry are in sharp decline, from journalist to record label marketing and A&R to radio. Is manager a viable career choice right now? More than ever perhaps?
Booker: Being a manager is one of the toughest industry jobs to have because you need to learn about all the aspects of an artist’s career. You have to understand the inner workings of touring, how a record label works (from promotion to publicity and recording to marketing), as well as publishing and licensing. In many ways, the manager is the most versatile person on the artist’s team. Artists will always need knowledgeable managers who want to work with them with respect and love for the music. It’s definitely a viable career choice.

Paste : It seems that for most bands, the manager has replaced the label as the most important cog in the band as a business. As methodologies for generating revenue continue to evolve at lightspeed, the manager’s constant role in the middle of everything would appear to enhance his power/influence. Is this true? How is the manager’s role different than 10 years ago?
Booker: One of the most important aspects of the manager’s job is to be able to recognize an opportunity and determine how best to take advantage of it. This will never change, regardless of the ever-changing industry around it. Currently, it feels the record labels are shedding responsibilities and asking for more of the share in return. So the manager is having to pick up responsibilities that weren’t previously in their realm of day-to-day duties. The main difference between now and 10 years ago is primarily the amount of thought that has to go into the marketing and various aspects of the digital domain. Questions like, “Do we release digitally before we release physical copies of an album?” need to be thought about; 10 years ago it wouldn’t even have been a thought.

Paste : Wayne Coyne is one of the more fascinating figures in rock today at a time when bands are generally pretty boring. What would it surprise people to know about him? Is there a “lesson from Wayne” that other bandleaders would be wise to learn?
Booker: There is no “on-stage” or “off-stage” personality of Wayne. He’s always the same: honest (sometimes brutally so), sincere and truly loving. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be able to work with my favorite band and my best friends. The Lips and I are family.

The primary lesson to learn from Wayne is that you lead by example. Be willing to work as hard (harder actually) than any of your crew. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. Anyone that’s been around Wayne would tell you the same thing.

Paste : Many would be curious to know about the Lips’ decision to stay deeply committed to and based in Oklahoma. It’s obviously not a mecca of anything entertainment or music-related, but even moreso, simply inconvenient to get to from any U.S. population centers. Can you talk about that?
Booker: Although Oklahoma isn’t the center of the music industry, it is in the center of the country. When we all still had day jobs, it was quite easy to tour from Oklahoma. You could take short runs and hit any area of the country over a week and still be back in time to keep your day job. So for bands just starting out, it’s a great place to use as a home base. It also helps in breaking the tedium of the a huge U.S. tour; we have the ability to stop at home several times to recharge as opposed to a band based on either coast that have to tour the whole country before they get back home. I’ve been talking to music-industry officials about the idea of opening an embassy in Oklahoma for artists to base themselves from. A band from the UK could live in Oklahoma for a while, touring the U.S., like an artist from our own country. With the home base they would be able to get relief from of the stress of the constant movement of touring the entire country.

Paste : Tell us about the program you’ve started at Central Oklahoma. Why was it needed and what do you hope to accomplish?
Booker: I wish this kind of information and guidance was available to me when I first started managing the Flaming Lips. This is a business like any other — it just happens to be the business of art. Primarily, what we are concerned with at the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma is that students get a well-rounded, pragmatic view of how this industry works. Of course, we want to help them excel in their personal areas of focus (guitar, bass, vocals, drums, keyboards, production or music business) as well.

Paste : It’s kind of incongruous that the manager of a band with such seemingly chaotic live shows would launch an academic program that on some level creates order in the business of making music. How is the one connected with the other?
Booker: A chaotic live show requires a great deal of order to create the situation that makes it happen. Travel has to be booked for artist and crew, trucks have to get the gear to the show on time, it all has to be put on stage in it’s proper place for the music to happen, videos have to be created weeks ahead of time for the video wall on stage, confetti has to be ordered, balloons have to be ordered, costumes for the animal dancers need to be cleaned and prepared, it never ends. Is it easy to find a bubble for Wayne to walk on the audience? When you find it in Italy, how do you get it to the U.S. on time? The giant blow up costumes get made in India and have to be made weeks in advance. It doesn’t end, especially since the show is constantly changing. The trick is to not be surprised and scared of the chaos. Embrace it. Chaos and order always work together. A school is the perfect place to prepare for chaos. We can’t teach people how to truly be artists, but we can teach them what to do with art.

Paste : The Flaming Lips entertain like few other acts ever have. Got a great story from a show?
Booker: My favorite Flaming Lips show is the very first one I ever saw. It was Halloween night in the mid-’80s. I went to see Sting at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma. It was boring beyond belief. I left the venue with about 10 friends and found a flier on all of our cars for a Sting after-show party with the Flaming Lips. I can’t remember the name of the venue (and would kill to find one of these fliers), but the venue was on the old main street of Norman. My friends and I all walked in to a near empty room with the Lips onstage doing a punk version of “If You Love Someone Set Them Free.” I was immediately floored by the energy on the stage. They were like nothing I’d ever seen before. My friends left before the first song was over. I stayed watching the whole show by myself. I haven’t missed a show within 100 miles since.