Rock 'n' Roll: for radio airplay, go to college | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Rock 'n' Roll: for radio airplay, go to college

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Erich McMann's mission: to parlay his band Crickle's second full-length album recording on his own label, Paisley Cowboy Records, into a deal with a bigger, better-financed record company. His strategy: college radio.

"College radio is the last open frontier for new music," McMann says. "There are so many groups of talented musicians who make a demo, but nine times out of ten if they don't get a record deal you'll never hear them. But any group with 1,000 CDs and $1,000 in postage can get their music heard on college radio."

Ah, but this is only the latest step in McMann's quest for rock stardom.

On the night John Lennon was murdered, Crickle was playing a gig at Tuts (now Avalon Niteclub). In attendance was a booking agent with dollar signs for eyes spinning around in a slot-machine head. His pitch to McMann and bandmates went something like "Drop the originals, add more Beatles tunes, cut your hair like the Fab Four, and we'll all make a million."

McMann and company had been playing their own songs along with Beatles covers and other 60s stuff, and by now virtually impoverished, they took the bait.

"We were tired of hitchhiking and burning furniture for heat," McMann says. "So we sort of sold out artistically."

The first year or so, the band did well. "We were making big bucks playing two or three nights a week," McMann says. "But after a while, I realized we were treading water." Nearly five years after the birth of a compromised Crickle, McMann wanted to return to writing and recording original music. But he was alone in that inclination.

"In the intervening five years, the other group members lost interest in doing original music," McMann says. "They became accustomed to this B-level type of rock stardom, never practicing, and things just disintegrated. It was sad. . . . In the short term we capitalized on [Lennon's] death, but in the long term, that was the thing that killed us."

So in 1985 McMann quit the group he founded. The band had accumulated a wealth of light, sound, and transportation equipment over the years, and McMann used his share of the liquidation proceeds as a down payment on an eight-track tape recorder, on which he hoped to revive his musical vision.

"My utopian dream was to build a recording studio, earn enough money recording groups to live, pay the bills, and not have to work," McMann says. "I never wanted to work, I just wanted to rock."

And rock he did. McMann's affordable rates offered plenty of low-budget bands a chance to record, but earning the few hundred dollars a week he needed to live took up most of his time. He managed to record and send out a number of demo tapes, but they were routinely rejected, and the cost of making and mailing them was a drain on his meager finances. "I was just scraping by, stuck at a self-imposed poverty level."

At 25, McMann faced a reality check--he was going to have to get his first full-time job. He landed one as a groundsman with the Schaumburg Park District. These days he jokes that his record label should be called Schaumburg Park District Records because the steady paycheck continues to finance his musical endeavors.

"I was getting responses from record companies, but the dotted line was never signed," he says. "So many other people in groups were doing the same thing I was doing. But in 1987 or '88, record company guys started to feel sorry for me or something and said, 'Dude, you need to put out your own record.'"

In 1990, McMann borrowed $5,000 and with help from drummer Tim Rutkowski put together an album called Around & Around.

"Around & Around was basically all the material I'd sent to record companies the previous two years. I was bound and determined to put them out to prove they weren't bad songs, it was just the music industry."

Armed with 500 cassettes and 500 LPs, McMann managed to garner some college radio airplay, and they hooked up with guitarist Sean Fried and made the rounds of the college concert circuit. But a recording contract eluded them.

"I sort of mismanaged my 1,000 copies," McMann says. "It was a good learning experience, but I was disappointed when I sent out the last copy and realized we didn't get a record deal."

Undaunted, McMann segued into record number two last summer. McMann, Rutkowski, and Fried recorded and mixed Love over a six-month period. Whereas Around & Around was a country-tinged effort, Love is an eclectic mix that pays homage to 60s and 70s pop-rock. In February, McMann had 1,000 CDs in his hands and began his assault on college radio and music publications.

"I treat these CDs like each one is gold, not money. Every one is like a specific chance for airplay or a review," he says. "Unless we get significant airplay, there's no point to have them in stores.

By May, when school ends, that's when the record will have run its course--and we'll know if we're going to record for Paisley Cowboy or some other record company."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nuccio DiNuzzo.

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