Tonawanda News: Profile

PROFILE: ‘No Reservations’ for local musician

June 30, 2008 10:19 am

— KENMORE — Rock music once had a business model based on movies and sitcoms from the 1950s, one that involved neighborhood kids in a basement, constant practice leading to a gig in a bingo hall or at a school dance, and the requisite lucky break that got the band recording deals and radio airplay.

A look at Nelson Starr’s career suggests that the old paradigm for success went out with the Studebaker.

Better still, look at Starr himself, a Kenmore product who has the respect of his peers in the industry, a steady stream of appointments and no lack of ideas. At age 40, he looks like the rock and roll version of 30. A consummate musician, he has co-authored a book on electric bass technique, toured the world as a session and concert performer, scored films and television programs, taught music instruction, and has played in nearly every venue and recording studio in Western New York.

He nearly got Anthony Bourdain, the globe-trotting chef of The Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” television program, to come and sample Buffalo’s cuisine. And that’s in the past two years.

Starr was also a 2006 inductee in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, an honor typically awarded for lifetime achievement. He’s become a master at keeping the pot boiling, at not merely hatching ideas but developing the necessary follow-through. A little advice from this one-man conglomerate could go a long way, in anyone’s career.

He claims it’s a business necessity — “I wish I had the luxury of focusing on the tastier bits of my career, but there’s not much you can turn down as long as you can do it, and it pays well,” he says — but clearly, but not every local musician does things his way.

“It’s why I keep branching out, getting more work, and that leverages into more work. It doesn’t matter where you live, except for making personal connections, but I can get to New York and Toronto and those places. The cost of living here is so much more reasonable, and I have the luxury of the opportunity to invest in my own keys to success.”
So much for the necessity of moving to Los Angeles to succeed in the music business.

What some might identify as a scattershot method — try a variety of projects and see which are hits, which are misses — Starr sees as “”a comprehensive fabric of my career.”

“The reason is organic,” he says. “Everything is an outgrowth of my career. Each part tends to reinforce the other. One informs the other. I end up with a greater skill set than if I’d specialized.”

After a few minutes of this, one wonders if he’s seated at lunch with an expert musician, a motivational speaker or an MBA graduate.

Actually, he is self-taught and self-empowering. He’s also Nelson Starr IV and part of a family of musicians who trace their lineage to a great-great-grandfather who was among Father Baker’s orphans. Granddad was a professional trumpeter. Starr’s father played in Tommy Dorsey’s band. On his mother’s side, he mentions a grandfather who was an interior designer for the Birge Company of wall coverings, and for Buffalo China.

The famous Nelson Starr — expert in piano, guitar, bass and voice — is a product of Kenmore’s school system, and rattles off the list. “Roosevelt Elementary, Brighton, Washington, then Kenmore Junior and Kenmore West High School, Class of 1985, where I was involved in musicals, whether on stage, in the chorus or in the pit with the orchestra.” There followed degrees in political science and philosophy at SUNY Fredonia in 1989.

Then came the formation of The Tails, a seminal local rock band of the ‘90s, which opened the door to studio work as a producer and musician, collaborations with jazz and rock artists (including his brother Eric, based in New York), tours, jazz concerts at Lincoln Center, awards and friendships.

Whenever a musician is working on a project, Starr is working on six. One suspects the telephone is always ringing at his house.

The Starr method seems to be non-stop pursuit of opportunity. “It’s the only way I know how to be,” he says. “Become the best musician that you can be. Play convincingly in multiple genres. Know your stuff about music, theoretically and as it’s performed at a high level. After saying all that, everyone has to follow his own path, but the music business doesn’t offer single-strand approaches for success anymore. That whole old career path, that space is dwindling.”
Single-strand approaches. That’s how they talk in business school.

“You have to have a certain business savvy. I’ve had agents in the past. They were never able to devote time and energy to the process. Self-management is my default position and it’s proven the most advantageous.”

It helps that he has an in with his brother and the Eric Starr Group, and that another brother, Jeffrey, is a television and film producer (“they’ve been a great resource to me. Some of the connections they’ve built have been instrumental”), but it does not explain the sheer volume of work that comes his way. Musicians are not taught the success secrets of, say, salesmen — keep plugging, keep thinking, keep looking for opportunities — but Starr seems to have them ingrained. Plenty of players would like to write a book on technique, but Starr actually did it (“Bass Guitar, from Lines and Licks to Chords and Charts” published earlier this year by Adams Media). He auditioned (twice, in Toronto and in New York) for the television reality show “Rockstars,” wherein singers from around the world sought to join an established supergroup. Never mind that he didn’t make the cut; he gave it a try, and presumably returned to Kenmore with a pocketful of fresh business cards. And that led to Anthony Bourdain.

Of the “No Reservations” television program, in which the wisecracking star visits Peru or Malaysia or Slovakia with an interest in local cooking and culture, Starr says “that show is so well-written and so deep. There’s a sensibility that makes connections to literature and pop culture, and it’s framed within the margins of the region’s own standards.” When Bourdain sent out a call for suggestions of places to visit, Starr the videographer sent him a short tour of Buffalo’s most distinctive restaurants, with a heavy emphasis on the excellence of our indigenous cuisine and the joys of living here. While his entry finished behind that of a restaurant critic from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Starr got to meet Bourdain and plot “a segment or an episode highlighting the contest and its participants”. Starr, and Buffalo, will appear on the program this summer.

That experience kick-started the next project, a television program about Western New York cooking. Starr and his colleagues are developing it.

“We’ll shop it first to The Travel Channel, then to Bourdain’s production company. We’ll work our way down to public access,” he laughs.

Perfect your craft. Work, often. Get connected. Chase opportunities. Bootstrap all your successes. This is the sort of career advice graduates typically don’t get at the commencement ceremonies, but probably should. Nelson Starr most likely could do it, and regard it as just another opportunity.

Ed Adamczyk is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Tonawanda News. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

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