The hours you put in can and may directly correlate to your success no matter what industry you’re in. In this episode, Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst talks with Michael Alexander, the Entertainment Director at Brat Fest and Vice President of operations at Crystal Grand, about the path Michael chose over 23 years ago and the music industry as a profession. Michael’s passion has driven him to succeed in an industry where only a few really get over the hump. He shares how he taught himself how to play the guitar, how he dove into the challenges and obstacles of life, and how he was able to come out a better person not only for himself but also for his children.
Listen to the podcast here:
Driven To Succeed: From Baseball To Music With Michael Alexander
I have a great guest for you. I’ve known him for a long time, Michael Alexander. He is an amazing individual. Every time I talk to him, I get inspired myself as well. He's created something from his life that is amazing. He is the Entertainment Director at Brat Fest. He's the Entertainment Director at Crystal Grand as well as a musician. Thanks for being on the show, Michael. How are you doing?
I'm doing well. How are you doing?
Michael, you and I met in college at Edgewood College. Were you a soccer player?
I was on the baseball team. I had my right arm rebuilt. It didn't take me long to realize that my dreams of playing in the bigs were never going to happen. I quit the baseball team and taught myself how to play the guitar.
How many albums do you have out there?
I have six.
You taught yourself how to play the guitar. How long did it take you to learn how to play the guitar?
I'm still learning. I don't think it's anything that you ever master. I'm hopefully better than I was when I started. I played for about six months. I put out my first record, which was a solo acoustic record after about six months of playing.
How long have you been in the music industry?
It’s probably about 22, 23 years, something like that. I've been working with Brat Fest for several years. I've been their Entertainment Director for a few years. I've been with the Crystal Grand for a few years. I was their Entertainment Director for the last few years. In the last few months, I am the Vice President of Operations, Crystal Grand as well. I'm going to get into how you transform that into something huge. For the readers who don't know what Brat Fest is, in Wisconsin, we have this amazing thing that was going on many years. It was Tim and Kevin Metcalf’s father, Tom Metcalf. It was a grocery store parking lot promo for his customers.
In the great tradition of Wisconsin, there’s broths and beer. You added in a little music to it. Some of the major headliners have been there. Who have you brought in?
Some of the people we've had in the past are George Clinton, Randy Houser, Travis Tritt, Everclear, Lita Ford, Smash Mouth, Bret Michaels, Across The Board, a lot of country and a lot of pop and funk. We try to get the best available local, regional and national walls filled, keeping a tight budget. We have been able to raise over $2 million to charity. At the end of the day, it's a free event. The whole focus of the event is not only providing a great weekend for the community but also to raise money for a local charity.
That's such a great event to go to as well as, having those big headliners at that music event is such an amazing thing. Going back, I know your story and how amazing it is, how you transitioned yourself into a role. The music industry is a tough one to get into, isn't it?
It is. My dad, when I told him that I was out of college, I laughed and I worked for the Guthrie Theater for a year. I was going to do some acting stuff. In my head, acting was all big Hollywood blockbusters, but all the jobs that I was getting were musicals. It turns out I'm allergic to jazz hands tight. I headed back down. While I was working on my music, I took a job with the YMCA. I was managing youth centers. I did that for about 7 or 8 years. The Middleton Youth Center had closed down. I got offered a middle management role but I turned it down.
I decided to focus on my music full-time. I had started my own booking agency a few years before that. My dad looked me in the eyes and said, “No benefits, the penny is all up and down. You're playing the guitar trying to figure out where your next paycheck is coming from. People are going to question this decision. Your best bet is to tell them that your backup plan is an NBA basketball player because that at least seems a little more attainable.”
It’s a hard place to make a living in. It's challenging, but like anything, if you're going to be at a certain level, whatever your career path is, it's going to be challenging. It's going to take a lot of long hours and a lot of long nights and a lot of sacrifices. Regardless, as you well know that if you want to be successful in anything, you got to put in the time. It doesn't matter when you're trying to get to a certain level, it's going to be challenging whatever your career path is.
That speaks to the importance of a passion and a purpose. Yours was music. A lot of times people don't understand when they can't see it or they've never done it, the drive that is associated with that. You may not be a celebrity or may not get the money right away or it may save much time that like, “You're wasting your time doing this.” How do you mentally get around that to be able to push yourself forward? How did you do that?
It's like a poison. I've told you that before. When you're driven, it is literally like a poison that is in your genetic makeup and there's not an option. You're driven that I can't imagine a scenario where I'm not involved in music in some capacity until the end of my days. In college, I would wake up probably 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, I'd play guitar for a few hours and drive my roommates wild. I would go to classes, come home and play guitar for another few hours. You do it over and over. That's the only way where you get to a level where you can compete.
The bottom line is, in my industry, everybody's good. There are people who are playing the subways in Boston that have much more talent than I do. I've never let anything like a lack of talent get in my way. If you're driven enough, you can literally will yourself to accomplish almost anything that you to want to within reason. There are people that are born, whether it's mental or physical situations where they're not able to get to a certain level. As long as you are healthy, from the time you're born, there's no reason that you can't accomplish whatever you want in this country. It's that simple. I'm proud to say that I had loving parents, but one of the best things that happened to me is we didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up. I didn't have that to fall back.
I went to college and I have these astronomical bills. I couldn't get ahead. In my late twenties, I had my first daughter. As a single parent, even if I did the 9:00 to 5:00, I couldn't make enough money to pay for her. I had no choice but to succeed where a lot of people will say something like coming from a place of not having a lot of money or once their kids were born, they weren't able to maybe accomplish their goals. For me, I view that as the reason why I was successful or why I continue to succeed at what I was doing is because of my children. I want to make sure that they have a great life. With the amount of debt that the college gave me and the amount of debt being a single father, I had to find a way to make more money.
The 9:00 to 5:00 by the time you pay for childcare, it's impossible to make it, which is why many people fall into the trap of the whole welfare game because it's more appealing. As a single parent, you start to recognize that, “I'm working 40 hours a week. I have less money and I don't get to see my kids.” I understand how that can happen to someone. For me, it was an absolute asset and it drove me to be better and more successful.
That's a great lesson for your kids to be able to see something or someone like yourself, the role model in their life to push forward and constantly work to get something more for them. It's through those actions. That's the one thing I look at in your life. I go, “There's a lot of things that you did that a lot of people could take away and trail into their lives. Challenges and obstacles, you look at finances, a lot of people go through financial obstacles and like you said, it's finding that goal to be successful. As I look at your music career, to be able to put out that many albums, networking is a huge thing and you have an enormous network. What are some of the things that you would say are the best assets to be able to create a network to create that friendship that is not one-sided but it's dual-sided?
I won't be able to talk about all of the major players that will be in the Brotherhood. Speaking of those relationships, the Brotherhood will be releasing its first single and that will be a core of two well-known recording artists and me. We're bringing in on every release 2 to 3 other well-known industry artists. Our first date publicly, we haven't announced who's in the band yet, will be March 21st with Saving Abel and Molly Hatchet. The reason that I mentioned that is because the most important thing in any industry is chasing the relationships and not the dollar. If you chase the relationships, you form strong bonds and you're a good person with a good work ethic, you will accomplish your goals.
If you chase the dollar, you will always end up chasing your tail because money is something that is there one day and gone the next. If you build solid relationships, it's those relationships that can carry you through. There are many times when I had my agency. I was working with big clients. We would lose massive amounts of money. It would be one of those scenarios where the show didn't work out and you have to make sure that you pay them. You have to make sure that a lot of times, I didn't take anything for any of the bookings that I did nationally for many years.
I booked Bradfest for a few years. I played it for a few years without taking a dollar. I did it for the relationships and my role at the Crystal Grand didn't exist. There was no entertainment director. There was no vice president in charge of operations. It's more important first to start the relationship, show that you have value and ask to be compensated for that value once you have proven that you have value. The problem that we had and that I've had with some employees, better of the younger generation is that they come right out of college and they expected they're going to make all this money. They demand that it's going to be there. Where the most important thing you can do is before you demand anything, prove your value. Once you prove that you have value, it will be impossible for them not to compensate you for that value. That's how I've always handled every decision and every move I make.
To give some people an idea of what the Crystal Grand is, it's a music theater in Wisconsin. They've had incredible entertainers through the years like George Carlin, Blake Shelton, Justin Moore, REO Speedwagon, Jay Leno.
We have Scotty McCreery, Tracy Adkins. We have on the upcoming calendar, we've done everything from REO Speedwagon and Styx to Justin Moore. Tyler Farr is coming up. Roseanne Barr will be here. Darcy Lynne Farmer, she's doing great for us. I can't tell you this publicly, but Martina McBride will be announced soon. If you're a fan of the Fireman Rob show and you read that, it would be okay.
Tons of people love to hear about the music industry and how dynamic it is, how cutthroat it is. You're sitting here, bringing in these top-level celebrities. When they come in, for the most part, how do they prepare for something like this? They have many dates throughout the year and yourself, you've been on tour as well. How do you prepare for that every single day to be at the top of your game?
You're not. I remember being a kid, I loved music. I remember the first concert I ever went to was Metallica when I was twelve years old. I remember thinking, “Why is Pelican Madison on Tuesday or Wednesday night?” Now I'm in the business, I think to myself, “It was a routing date and they probably got a heck of a deal on Metallica. They got on a Tuesday because Madison is a secondary market. There were times where people would see a concert on say a Sunday. You'd be like, “They didn't sound good. The last time I saw that act, they were good.”
I'll tell you why. There's a couple of rules. If you catch somebody at the end of a run, a run is going to be three shows or more. A tour is typically a lot of runs put together. Most people are on runs. I usually do mine anywhere between Wednesday or Thursday and we play on Sunday. Most people take off Monday, Tuesday, sometimes Sunday, so Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and they're back on the road. If somebody has played Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and you catch them on the fifth day in a row, they're not going to sound good. It's that simple. If you catch them at the beginning of a run, there's always that chance that the band isn't that tight and that everybody isn't completely banging on all cylinders.
Maybe at the end of the run, they'll be tighter and maybe they'll sound better or maybe that singer will have got his butt handed to him over the last few months and he's not going to sound that great. When you're doing a run, you have to approach it like when I would play football. You got four quarters. You can't go out during the first quarter and give it everything you’ve got. You're not going to have anything left in the fourth quarter. If you were on the run, you want to make sure to pace yourself throughout the four days of that run. When it comes to the last day of the run, you make sure that you give that audience a good show. What does that mean? Typically, everybody has this idea of the music business or what it used to be as a Motley Crue video where everybody's partying and Vince Neil's all getting crazy. The bottom line is the lead singers, the majority of the time right after the show, they're on the tour bus or in the hotel room. They’re maybe taking steam or oxygen and doing everything they can.
I do speeches and it's one thing to get excited about that, but it's another thing to have sets. How many sets or songs are within a set to be able to do that? It's interesting because I saw Kenny Rogers. My wife loves Kenny Rogers. We went and saw him later in his career. It was interesting because they usually have those encores. He got to the end of his set and he goes, “I'm too old and I can't move that well. I'm going to do the encore now and you don't have to call me back up here.” It was one of the most classic things I've ever seen. It was awesome to be an entertainer.
I worked with Kenny a few years ago. He's still putting on a great show. He's done now. It was on his last run. He and Charley Pride are about the same age and it's funny how age doesn't hit everybody the same. Charley Pride, the last time I was in a room with him, he was telling jokes. He’s vivacious and completely full of life. The last time I was in a room with Kenny Rogers, I was afraid that he was going to crumble. He did not feel healthy. You never know. I saw one of these posts on your Facebook about several years ago that he used to work at The Dry Bean. That's another place in Madison that no longer exists, but you introduced Rob Thomas when he was there.
I brought Rob Thomas to The Dry Bean. That was one of the first big acts who’s the first international superstar that I ever worked with. I booked him into The Dry Bean. There’s a funny story that I can tell you. I was wet behind the ears, super nervous, intimidated, the whole nine yards. I had been talking to one of the top brass at Atlantic Records. I had been talking to him this whole time getting everything set up. It took about a month or two to get Rob all set to come to The Dry Bean. They show up in a black SUV. Two security guards come out and they did a perimeter search. Rob comes out and gets out. They walk up and shake my hand. Rod Cigar introduces me to Rob Thomas.
I say, “It’s nice to meet you.” He says, “It’s nice to meet you.” We walk into The Dry Bean and we go into the back office. Security does a sweep. The dude from Atlantic Records leaves and it's Rob Thomas and me. We're sitting there staring at each other. I'm a bit of a smart Alec and I like to diffuse situations by making people feel at ease, but by being a smart aleck. I look over at him and the office was a bit messy. I looked over and I said, “If you're going to be here, you could at least make yourself useful.” He looks over at me and he cocks his head. He goes, “What?” I said, “If you’re going to be here, you could do some of this paperwork or tidy up a little bit or something.” He looks at me and he gets this smirk and he goes, “I suppose I should answer the phone too.” I said, “It would be nice.”
The phone rings and he jumps up. He hands it over. He looked at me and he smiles. He says, “Thank you for calling The Dry Bean. This is Rob Thomas,” and you can hear on the other line go, “Is Rob Thomas is going to be there tonight?” He goes, “Thank you for calling The Dry Bean. This is Rob Thomas.” They’re like, “That's not funny. We want to know if he's there or not.” He goes, “Rob Thomas is going to be there,” and he hangs up and he and I have a good laugh about it. I said, “Rob, I got to go take care of some stuff.” A security guard came back in. I’m like, “Are you good? Do you need anything?” He's like, “No, I'm fine.” I laughed. I came back about 15, 20 minutes later to check on him. There were people moving all over by that time. I said, “How are you doing, buddy?” He goes, “Good.” A guy came in, I didn't like the way he looked. I fired him. There was an attractive young lady that came in and I gave her a rate.
Being part of that situation, that's awesome to have that lightheartedness.
To me, people are people and we're all on this rock together. People want to be treated like people. I know I do. I don't want anybody ever acting weird around me no matter what the situation is. I know that everybody else who has accomplished anything, if they're worth their salt, feels the same way. People are people.
Your posts are hilarious, but on one post you said, “Life becomes much easier to maneuver when you understand that it’s about the challenges and being pushed to your personal growth.” That's so true.
It becomes a lot easier once you understand that it isn't about the accomplishment. It's about the journey to the accomplishment because I don’t think I would be as successful or the person that I am had I not been handed a decent amount of challenges. There are many people that have had more and probably people that have less. The bottom line is we all have a cross to bear. We sometimes forget that it's supposed to be a challenge. What would it be if we woke up every day and there was nothing to accomplish? There would be no reason to keep working. It would be chaos. It's all about personal growth. It's those challenges that build us. I do believe that good men and women are born, but I believe that great men and women are forged.
That's such a great statement, especially from you who has taken on those challenges. Now you have hand surgery on your hand that you're playing guitar. That's not the greatest thing, especially when you're launching a release on March 21st. How did that hand surgery go?
It went great. My doctor down at the UWU, my surgeon is incredible. We had a lot of conversations. I've had to have steroid injections over the last years. They weren't cutting anymore because my hand was locking up and I couldn't move my finger. It's a common thing that people get when they use their hands a lot and playing guitar. I use my hands a lot. My ring finger would lock up and I would have to pry it open with my other hand. The last couple runs I was on, my dexterity was not good. Playing guitar, the pain you can get through, the stiffness you can get through, but when you can't physically do it, it was time. I had to meet with the surgeon. We expect a full recovery. It's not awesome if that makes it better not to have surgery on your hand. As far as hand surgeries go, it went well. It's not that complicated of a surgery. He does expect that I will make a full recovery. When that is, we're not sure.
I know that you'll probably get better. You have that new single from Brotherhood that's going to be released. It's going to be Until the Wheels Fall Off.
That will probably be released soon. Michael Alexander, Big Mountain CBD Oil will begin to be available. It'll be shipped to me. The goal of my CBD oil is I've personally benefited greatly from CBD oil, but the good stuff is expensive. I have worked tirelessly to come up with a full spectrum of CBD oil. It's independently tested and we will sell it between 25% and 35% lower than the leading CBD oil on the market.
It's one of those things that when you get to a certain point in your life and you can do the great things that you're doing and be part of something bigger, which is exactly what you're doing. Can they go on your site, MichaelAlexanderAndBigWhiskey.com or is there going to be another website?
I would go to my Facebook. One of the challenges I had was somebody hacked my website a while back. The whole thing got pulled down and it's in disarray. Your best bet is to follow Michael Alexander & Big Whiskey or Michael Alexander on Facebook. It’s @MichaelTheSandman on Instagram.
You're the greatest, Michael. I'm excited for that release on March 21st. That will all be also on your Facebook, I'm guessing, and Instagram. Who will be in that new group that you formed?
I'm looking forward to it. The only person we know that's not going to be in it is Keith Richards. We do have some incredible artists that are going to be playing with us. Keep your eyes open for that and always a pleasure, my friend.
I always end my show with some questions. They’re not true or false. They're questions for you to answer. I don't give them to you before this because I love to have genuine answers. Here's your first one. What is one thing you haven't done, but it’s outside your comfort zone?
Number two, what is your quote and why?
“A good sense makes good neighbors,” because I do a lot of negotiating and relationships are important. If both parties know what they're getting into from the beginning, it’s a lot easier for negotiations to go smooth.
Here's your last question. If you could pick to have coffee with three people, they can be deceased or alive, at a firehouse coffee table, in other words, nothing is off the table to ask and talk about, who would it be and why?
Probably Jesus Christ, Johnny Cash and Albert Einstein.
That is an eclectic group of individuals. Here's the last part. It's a rapid question. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
Camping or hotel?
Sleep in later or wake up early?
Wake up early.
Run or walk in your cowboy boots?
Walk in my cowboy boots.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Here’s the best one. Use a porta-potty or continue to run or drive to the next physical bathroom?
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
Michael Alexander, it's been great to have you on the show. I greatly appreciate your time. We look forward to that release on March 21st. Thanks, Michael, for being on this podcast.
Let me leave you with one of my quotes, “The easiest way to score the most points is to
stay in the game the longest.”
Michael Alexander & Big Whiskey - Facebook
@MichaelTheSandman - Instagram
About Michael Alexander
Michael Alexander is a Southern Rock style recording artist born in Virginia and raised in Madison Wisconsin. Michael has shared the stage with some of the best in music to include support for A list acts such as Bret Michaels, Rick Springfield, Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and Korn. Michael has also toured the country doing Support for bands such as Wayland and Saving Abel. Michael is one half of the acoustic act. "Crowbar inc." With Grammy-nominated Nashville recording artist, Rick Monroe. Michael is currently working on his 5th studio record in Colorado With Scott Wilson of the Rock band Tantric. In addition to touring and making records, Michael is the Entertainment Director for "The world's Largest Bratfest" and The Crystal Grand, where he has worked with acts such as Charlie Daniels, Aaron Lewis of Staind, Travis Tritt and many more.