The Beginning of Modern Backline (Part 2)
by John Hanti
In Part One of this story, I chronicled the contributions of Manhattan’s Ruth Polsky and the Danceteria club to the birth of the modern backline rental industry. Ruth and the clubs she booked played a critical role in the Second British Invasion, which in turn gave rise to the modern backline industry. Part One introduced several other key players in backline development, including the New Music Seminar.
In those early days, my partner, Neal Cooper, and I ran a club in Manhattan called the Eighties on the Upper East Side. It was a seminal music club featuring eclectic new bands of the day. Neither punk nor pop, these were bands who did their own thing--performance art set to music. They included Television, James Chance and the Contortions, Lydia Lunch, Breakfast Club, Huey Lewis and the News, the Plasmatics, and Madonna and the Millionaires (she knew clearly where she wanted to be!).
Backline back then was not needed. These were all New York-based musicians who brought their own equipment in.
ENTER THE NEW MUSIC SEMINAR
This was the scene in Manhattan when Danny Heaps and Tom Silverman showed up at the Eighties. They ran a little alternative music paper called the New Music Press that covered the latest releases on the dance charts. In 1980, Tom and Danny extended their influence by starting an annual music industry event called the New Music Seminar.
Neil befriended Heaps and Silverman who would use our club to try out new records and work on their sets, as well as to review the acts we were playing. We had no idea then that Tommy Silverman would go on to start Tommy Boy Records and that Danny Heaps would end up becoming a major player at Geffen. They came up with the idea of holding a New Music Seminar” and they booked the large rehearsal room at S.I.R. in New York to host it.
It was a small event—about 200 attendees. The event exploded in subsequent years, expanding its focus to cover the growth of the music industries, and to include a music showcase festival called, “New Music Nights.” These were held in various New York City area clubs and venues and were eventually opened to the public.
It was the first international convergence of music, art, and business in America. The birth of The New Music Seminar would change the course of music marketing for years to come.
The Smiths (featuring a very young Morrisey)--one of the bands SST worked with during the Second Britsh Invation
EQUIPPING THE SECOND BRITISH INVASION
I was building SST at the time. We had by then acquired six 15-passenger vans and a substantial inventory of backline gear. Tommy and Danny knew I had a working knowledge of the bands they wanted to import from Great Britain. The bands would be a major draw for the seminar, and the New York industry’s opportunity to see them. It was a brilliant move.
Building upon Ruth Polsky’s pioneering ideas, these live events became the catalyst for international showcases which, in turn, stimulated American record labels to export their new signees to international territories, and vice-versa.
But the NMS had a problem: how to handle the equipment needs of more than a hundred bands arriving in New York from overseas? S.I.R, the leading backline provider of the day, had no passenger vans, nor did they boast the staff to run the show. SST had the vans, the gear, and the staff.
So, I got the call and I accepted the challenge.
The NMS was an enormous undertaking. The challenge was to organize and utilize virtually every piece of gear available in the city. I made sub-rental deals with S.I.R., Carroll Music, The Toy Specialist, Danny Brill at Keyboard Instrument Rentals. The Seminar shows kept SST gear, vans, and crew in perpetual motion during its five-day schedule. We would pick up backline at the venues as late as four-in-the-morning, return it to our warehouse for repackaging and checkups, and start deliveries again and 10:00 that morning.
So many great bands! And it was my job to make them all happy. We had not a single fail in five days, not one disaster; it was all smooth sailing. This significantly elevated SST’s standing in New York as a first-class backline operation.
The NMS prompted us to grow in ways we never expected. It became the foundation of our philosophy: to hire only the most dedicated employees who were willing to represent SST above and beyond the call of duty. It was not a 9-to-5 job. It was a 24/7 calling.
The long-term success of any company rests in the hands of its staff every bit as much as its management. I believe, in fact, that the workers on the ground are more critical to that success than management decisions. SST would not have the stellar reputation we enjoy today without all the wonderful people who have worked for us over the past 35 years.
The New Music Seminar was the mother that gave birth to the modern backline rental industry…a baby nourished by the law of supply and demand.
With the demands of a hundred new bands hitting our shores from overseas came the need for supply. They required vans, drivers, techs, and backline. These bands would hit the road self-contained in one 15-passenger van. We’d remove two seats in the back to make room for the backline. The more successful of these bands rented cargo vans for the backline to make more room in the van for band and crew. A select few got enough airplay and pay to even rent a tour bus and trailer. They’d pull up to SST’s warehouse to load them up with backline gear.
This massive influx of new talent also created a need to supply gear for talk show television appearances. The bands who were on tour would have to leave their backline in Boston, or wherever, to make quick trips back to the City for an afternoon TV performance and they would need backline for those shows.
In the beginning, there was S.I.R. Studio Instrument Rentals. That’s what they did; they rented gear for recording studio sessions. After the New Music Seminar, and throughout the resulting Second British Invasion, backline rentals evolved into a whole new ball game, with SST as a starting player.