Over the course of his career, music biographer Jake Brown has had the opportunity to meet and interview many of the greatest names in the music industry. He has just hit his 50-book milestone with his most recent release, Behind the Boards: Nashville, which released in June. Now he recounts how he got started and shares some tricks of the trade.
Brown’s extensive resume includes the critically-acclaimed Nashville Songwriter book series and the Beyond the Beats rock drummers series. He also trade-marked the In the Studio series, where he’s co-written books with Lemmy Kilmister and Motorhead, Ann and Nancy Wilson and Heart, and the Tupac Shakur estate. His books cover the stylistic spectrum from Tom Waits and Tori Amos to Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin to Iron Maiden and AC/DC. He has also co-written memoirs with guitar legend Joe Satriani, Teddy Riley, Freddy Powers, Merle Haggard, and other prominent names in the music business. When asked how he has been able to interview so many great names, he says, “Luckily, I kind of designed it to be the niche I wrote in from the beginning because it’s the one I knew best and had the most interest in myself. An author, in my opinion, should always try to write from a place of actual interest, and I grew up a musician in bands and then producing records myself in my 20s and 30s on the rock side, so I have a relatable place I can ask interview questions from, for instance, and usually get a more organic and revealing conversation going because they’re not talking to someone reading off a question list.”
He also credits growing up in the 1980s for most of his childhood, which he feels exposed him to what he says was the “most eclectic and colorful decade of music ever with all these new genres on the Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown and MTV Top 20. It was an incredible time to grow up in, and I’ve been very fortunate that many of the artists I have written with over the past 20 years are those very ones I grew up listening to and learning music to as an ear player.” Artists like Heart, Motorhead, Joe Satriani, Rick Rubin, AC/DC, and Iron Maiden are just some of those, and Brown is grateful to be able to make a career out of interviewing and writing books with the producers and songwriters. “There’s a natural set of reference points I’m lucky to have, and to be fair, the color of the personalities like Lemmy Kilmister or Freddy Powers or Smo or Teddy Riley, some of the people I’ve co-written memoirs with, they play the biggest role in bringing these books to life with the amazing conversations we have and the stories they share of their own muses.”
A true dream come true for the author, who got his start with publisher Tony Rose (who ran Amber Books with his wife) and a book on Suge Knight that was released in real time with Knight’s release from prison in 2002. Thus began a career writing hip hop books in the early-mid 2000s that led to the launch of the In the Studio series with Tupac Shakur’s estate and Afeni Shakur. After that, Brown started his Behind the Boards series on rock producers, which “opened a flood gate of producers who’d never been spoke to in their own chapter profiles, at least not the way we did it. It was just an amazing honor and planted the seed in my head to one day write this book. As I’ve touched on some of the other titles in my system that came later in what became a charmed career over 20 years and 50 books, it’s not a career I planned on, but that’s actually a theme in [Behind the Boards: Nashville] interestingly, of producers who first came to town to be stars or songwriters or session players or record executives, and wound up finding their true calling in the music business.”
With so many interviews and published works under his belt, Brown has no shortage of career highlights. He cites “working with the amazing artists across the stylistic spectrum” as one, as well as completing works like the Beyond the Beats Vol 1 rock drummers book and the Nashville Songwriter series. He has also been published in nine countries around the world and considers himself lucky to have come up as an author “at the top of the millennium when e-books and audiobooks were just in their infancy as industries.” He says, “So I was fortunate to have a couple hundred thousand books in print throughout my career, which makes for bigger royalty streams and retail exposure, which less and less new authors get the opportunity for these days. On the flipside of that, the opportunity to be part of the newest generation of readers’ favored platforms is HUGE […] And the fact that throughout all the books I write – which almost all include some slant on the behind-the-scenes stories of the writing and studio creation of these amazing catalogs, fans of these artists and bands can stream along while they read in real time about how their favorite albums and hits were created. It’s a really cool synergy to be able to tap into given the era of technology we’re in. You have to as an author competing in this era of publishing or you become obsolete FAST.”
In order to avoid obsoletion himself, Brown is always working. He usually writes several books at a time and currently has four in various stages. One is a screenplay, which is currently being casted; another, the updated THE SPREE OF ’83: The Life and Times of FREDDY POWERS book, which Brown has been working on since 2012 and features 20 new interviews. He has also been working for the past seven years on a memoir of Teddy Riley, who invented New Jack Swing, and the book features interviews with prominent stars and a Foreword written by Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs. The project is slated for release in 2021. Also upcoming is NASHVILLE SONGWRITER III with 30 new interviews with some of the most legendary songwriters in Country music. Brown adds, “I’ve also begun a life-long dream-come-true project of recreating the summer camp I went to for 5 years as a kid and thousands of other kids did for the 25 years FORTY LEGENDS was open, and now with the family, fellow former campers, counselors, etc, we’re writing an autobiography of that very special place in a book.” In 2022, he will also release the updated 2Pac in the Studio book, which features new producer interviews and his brother Mopreme Shakur among others, and Beyond the Beats Vol. II, which features 30 of rock’s biggest drummers. “I just hope to keep helping tell these artists’s amazing stories and the stories behind their music as long as people are interested in reading about it.”
Of course, with such a long resume and so many great experiences, Brown has some favorites and some projects that he says he would “probably never write again.” But he does cite some artiststs he “was so blown away to be working with.” These include Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart; Joe Satriani; Teddy Riley, who influenced him growing up; and Lemmy Kilmister “because of the shot he gave me at a time when I was still what you’d call an ‘up and coming’ vs. established book author.” Brown also really enjoyed writing the Beyond the Beats rock drummers series’ first book because he grew up playing piano and drums and learning to play along with some of the greatest drummers of all time. The fact that series was published by Yamaha in Japan was an added bonus for the author. Finally, “Rick Rubin was a HUGE indelible influence on me from the 4th grade on when I got the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Run DMC’s Raising Hell in the same year, and then on through the Less Than Zero soundtrack, the Cult’s Electric and of course, BloodSugarSexMagik by the Chili Peppers. So Rick Rubin: in the Studio, as well as Dr. Dre: in the Studio are both crown jewels in my trademarked In the Studio series.”
As such a seasoned professional in his field, it seemed only right to ask Brown to bestow some words of wisdom on others trying to make a living writing. “Pick another profession!” he jokes before more seriously adding, “This is a TOUGH business to make a living in. It’s a constant grind, and you have to constantly put out new material to keep your name relevant with readers in whatever genre you write books in because there’s so many young talents coming up, looking for the same book deals, and publishers make as much of an effort to invest in the next generation of talent as they do keep putting out books by those war horses of us who are in our 40s now and have been doing it since our 20s.” To that end, he gives his top 10 tips:
- Be prepared to work 24/7.
- Take WHATEVER gigs come your way when you’re starting out.
- Ask for Advances as early as possible.
- If you take on a literary agent, which you’ll almost certainly need to get your foot in the door as a first-time author or new author even with a couple books under your belt, make sure to VET them! Google can give you that access to see what other books they’ve placed, what recent books, the variety of publishers, as their relationships with acquisition editors at the big, medium and boutique-sized publishing houses are KEY to you getting in those doors, the first time, 2nd, time, etc as you build a catalog. Remember the 15% you give them should be worth it.
- Do your due diligence on the publishers who offer you deals if you get any interest, there are SO many publishers now adays trying to do deals where first-time authors have an e-book published first. Nothing kills physical book sales quicker than an e-book release, or even an Amazon order, because most people are going to buy your book ONCE in one version on Amazon, so try not to rob yourself of those physical orders, which pays you more on your royalty schedule and also tends to hold more credibility and promotional value, as most any book store that might do a book signing will want physical books on shelves or available before committing.
- Try to write for as diversified a group of publishers as possible. I’ve been fortunate to write for 15 in 9 different countries throughout my 20 years doing this, which creates more reliable long-term royalty streams for one thing, and gives you the opportunity to pitch your new material to more prospective publishers.
- Try to write with eclectic a pallet of people as you can. You have to be fearless as an author in what you take on. You’re committing 2 years minimum to the project, and every one of these books, even as long as I’ve been doing it, have some bump in the road on the way to retail, so just make sure you try to work with as colorful artists with even more colorful, open-minded fan bases as possible as it will make the whole creative process, even with its inherent headaches, more memorable and ultimately enjoyable.
- LEARN from your mistakes. You will make them and keep making them even when you succeed, so take each of them to heart as things not to repeat, or know are worth the headaches, and even risks. I’ve had books I had NO IDEA would do as well as they did, and others I invested 2 years in, and then bombed at retail.
- That’s why I go back to writing as many projects as you can at once. Learn to wear multiple hats, and be entrepreneurial because you’re ultimately selling an artist you hope will work with you, or a prospective publisher, and ultimately readers on why that book is unique enough to be worth buying from the other 20 sitting on the shelves or Amazon.com list behind it and beside it.
- Last but not least, and this is probably the most important long-term advice I could give to any author who hopes to be doing this for life: Be GRATEFUL for every new book you get published. Even at 50 books, I NEVER take that for granted.