Piano man stays true to his own pop roots
Jim Brickman and Melissa Manchester
Brickman, Manchester visit Van Wert Feb. 23
Photo by Jeff Klaum
February 13, 2020
In 1989, Cleveland ad man Jim Brickman moved to Los Angeles to follow his muse and seek his fortune.
Like a lot of people who move to southern California to make it big in one of the entertainment businesses based there, Brickman had no plan and little money.
Plus, his talent, to be frank, was a little weird.
Brickman wrote gentle pop songs like the ones you’d hear on commercial radio if commercial radio had any interest in gentle pop songs without lyrics, vocalists, or bands.
Brickman’s songs were designed to be played on the piano (the pianist being Brickman).
Brickman will play those songs on that piano (or one like it) at Van Wert’s Niswonger Performing Arts Center on Feb. 23. He is sharing the bill with Melissa Manchester.
The success he enjoys today was hard-won. Asked to describe those first few years in L.A., Brickman pulled no punches.
“It was horrible,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “It was a nightmare. I hated it at first.”
Brickman had a good job back in Cleveland. Leaving a good job for a dream is nothing like leaving a good job for another good job, he said.
“If you get transferred, there’s instant social interaction and you get a paycheck,” he said. “But when you go somewhere and kind of get off a Greyhound bus, you’re basically kind of like, ‘Where do I even begin?’ It’s totally overwhelming.”
Record company executives didn’t know what to make of Brickman and made it clear that they didn’t want to make much of anything of or with him.
“They’d say, ‘So, it’s just you?’” he said. “I should title an autobiography, ‘Just Me.’”
His big break
Brickman used some of his money to record a few of his songs in a studio. He said he did this more for therapy than as part of some employment strategy.
He listened to the recordings with a critical ear and decided there was a niche he could fill.
Most composers don’t want their music to be relegated to the background in any context, but Brickman dreamed of having his music in various backgrounds.
“I listened back to [those recordings] and I thought, ‘I would listen to this to chill out to or something. There’s not a lot of stuff like this that’s good for a romantic evening or a bubble bath,’” he recalled.
The mecca of instrumental background music back then was Windham Hill Records. But the company didn’t record pop music. In fact, it seemed almost militantly opposed to pop music.
It took a chance on Brickman, however, especially since he told them of the vast network of radio loyalists he had built up in his jingle-writing days.
“I figured that once I had my foot in the door, I could make it whatever I wanted it to be,” he said.
Brickman said he didn’t really mind his music being labeled as New Age at first, because he intended to become the brand. In other words, he wanted “Jim Brickman music” to be its own genre.
Windham Hill execs were purists about the label’s folk/classical/jazz aesthetic, so they pushed back against Brickman’s suggestion that they record a pop vocal and market it to the sort of big-money stations that probably didn’t even know Windham Hill existed.
“So I said, ‘Just let me try it and if it’s a success, we’ll go from there,’” he said.
The single, “Valentine,” with vocals by Martina McBride, was a huge hit, as was the album the song was on.
“It blew up,” Brickman said. “They were like, ‘Oh my god. Nobody ever sells this many records at Windham Hill.’ I am not going to pretend that I knew it was going to turn out that way. It was kind of a confluence of a lot of things happening at the same time.”
Leaning on the hustle
Brickman said he owes his success to hustle. Windham Hill didn’t even have a commercial radio department, so Brickman put on his ad man cap and made the rounds of radio stations and retailers’ conventions.
He even made appearances at piano stores.
Brickman couldn’t find a music manager to represent him, so he hired a guy who had previously worked with stand-up comics.
“I ran him ragged,” he said. “He was wonderful.”
Windham Hill is long gone, but Jim Brickman still performs “Jim Brickman music” like nobody but Jim Brickman can.
The business has changed quite a bit since Brickman started out. He said he doesn’t try for hit singles anymore, except around Christmas, when a new Yule tune just might squeak through.
Brickman said that social media is good for tending to the existing fanbase, but it hasn’t proved itself suitable for growing that base.
Getting the music to the listener
As for streaming services, Brickman is one of the few major artists who can be heard praising those digital innovations.
“Digital has actually helped my career,” he said. “Because, if you like my genre, you can find me. In the ’90s, unless I had a song on the radio, it was harder to know that I had new music out. Today, people can stumble on a playlist or find my Pandora channel, which is massive. Two billion spins or something like that.”
Balancing the creative and business aspects of his career can get exhausting, he said. Agreeing to do an interview with a journalist means he is taking away from time he would have spent playing music.
Even though he’d rather be writing a song, he usually makes decisions that favor the business side.
“My philosophy is, I could write the most amazing piece ever, but if nobody ever hears it, what’s the point?” Brickman said. “I have to work just as hard to get someone to hear it as I do while I am creating it.”
Brickman still tours with vocalist Anne Cochran, although she won’t be won’t him in Van Wert due to the double-bill nature of the show.
They have known each other since high school.
“When I say it and people don’t react, I am not sure that they grasp that it’s been 40 years,” Brickman said, laughing.
Brickman praises her Clevelander work ethic and the bond they have.
“I’m extremely loyal to the people in my life,” he said. “It’s kind of a problem in the sense that I have a hard time letting go to people who have been with me a long time. I think a lot of it comes from the kind of business this is. The people you trust are the people who knew you before this happened to you.”