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  • Smooth Jazz Network

Bryan Lubeck: Behind the Beats

Updated: May 4, 2022

Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: Bryan Lubeck.

Bryan Lubeck’s current single is getting some buzz on the Smooth Jazz charts and we decided to grab a few minutes with a very talented smooth jazz guitarist, who’s name might not be familiar to some of our readers.

Bryan, you have been involved in the smooth jazz music scene for many years. Tell our readers about some of your career highlights thus far.

One of my favorite quotes is from the Latin/Pop Singer Marc Anthony. Someone asked him after his first hit what it was like to be an overnight success and he answered something like “Well, that was a 14-year-long night.” That resonated with me as I’ve found success is not a finish line but rather a series of highlights and finding ways to keep playing no matter what. If you are playing and people are listening, no matter how many, you are still in the game and it’s a good thing.

As far as recent highlights, last week’s news was a big one. I was astonished to see my new album Midnight Sun reach #1 on Amazon’s Smooth Jazz best seller list. I was floored. It rivaled the time years ago when I first heard myself on the radio and had to pull over to the side of the road overcome with emotion.

Opening for Michael McDonald this year was also a great recent highlight. Plus, other live show highlights like my first smooth jazz show opening for Craig Chaquico back in the day, and a standing ovation by Richard Elliot fans in one of my first opening shows come to mind.

There have been so many show and studio highlights in my career but the best memories, the things I carry with me, are talking to fans who, after concerts, come up and say that a particular song or album got them through a difficult time, celebrated a life changing moment, or is just an important part of their everyday life. That truly is what gives me rocket fuel to keep going.

Tell us about the recognition you received from Billboard. When you are an independent artist, you do your best to self-promote and build a team to help you both get attention and distribute your music. But what sometimes lacks is the power to get noticed by the industry trade magazines when you don’t have the power of a label behind you – especially back in the early 2000s. I saw great success in sales with my first very Spanish style instrumental album Acoustic Vineyard – but it was mainly with retailers, not on the radio.

To follow that up, I did a holiday album with the great guitarist Johannes Linstead. He was one of my favorite guitarists and I pitched to him that I had great retail connections and could do really well with a holiday album which we called We Three Strings. We then approached Thomas Michaud as a third collaborator and off we went. Hobby Lobby and a few other retailers loved it and purchased an amazing amount of product. Almost as an afterthought we did some light promotion to radio.

A few years later I was wondering if we ever got any radio play and searched “Billboard Magazine Bryan Lubeck” and was surprised to find that my song “The First Noel” – a heavy upbeat Latin version of the song – was a Critic’s Choice for Billboard! To this day, I have no idea how it got to them or noticed but it’s definitely one of my most significant critical achievements. I was luckily able to find a copy of that year’s magazine and get if framed. Thanks, EBAY! I was also surprised to find that the holiday album still receives significant radio play every year. It’s been a staple of many stations during the holidays and on Christmas Eve. That means a lot. I’m happy to be a yearly part of such an important time for so many.

Bryan, the new single “Invincible” is fantastic. It has been released at a time like no other - in the midst of a pandemic, as well as a moment in smooth jazz history where we have seen more new releases than ever before.

It is a little surreal having you call the new single fantastic. We all want our songs to grow up to be doctors but the reality is it’s not that easy. I’ve been so fortunate to have a few songs on the radio, but this latest is really one of the sweetest considering how much great music has hit the airwaves this year!

I pretty much had finished the studio recording of the new album by the time the pandemic locked everything down. I had decided to use all live horns and strings and that part of the project was completed thankfully, so we lucked out there. However, being a former marketing executive, I was well aware what was coming - a bunch of amazing established artists and up-and-comers trapped at home with nothing to do but write music and record. This would mean a LOT of music being released over next year. Probably more than any other time in recent history. I could have rushed the album’s release but just didn’t feel right about that. I had the best engineers, producers, and mixing/mastering folks in the business lined up and couldn’t rush that. Pristine audiophile sound has been my signature and I couldn’t abandon that just to get the album out sooner.

My radio promoter Dave Kunert had prepared me mentally for the fact that the album might get lost in the noise of all the releases. I was thrilled to hear from him when we started getting picked up by the major stations and that Spotify streams went from 7k to 70k a month within a week of the release. I think the key is to believe in what you do, always make sure those on your team are the best, and write music that deserves their attention and efforts. After that you have to realize it’s “art” and people will accept it in the way they want and need to. At that point you have to let go and let it be what it will be.

You’ve worked with everyone from Richard Elliott to Brian Culbertson and Craig Chaquico… all diverse in their music. How did you connect with each of them musically?

I’ve been so fortunate to be able to do two-act shows with most of my idols in the business.

In college, I was awarded a classical guitar scholarship, but I was a Smooth Jazz fanatic. Even though I loved everything including pop, jazz, rock, punk, country, and more, I felt that the Smooth Jazz format really had the best of all the different styles all fused into one. I was doing a lot of summer stock and music theater shows as a singer and dancer as well, but kept getting drawn back to the Smooth Jazz format and dreaming of turning my classical guitar talents into something that might play on the radio someday. The CDs in my car were Richard Elliot, Marc Antoine, Craig Chaquico, Rick Braun, Bobby Cauldwell, The Rippingtons, Keb Mo, Brian Culbertson, The Manhattan Transfer…the greats.

After college, I decided I would do a “bucket list” item and put together a group, do one show of my original music, and call it good. As luck would have it, a Smooth Jazz live show promoter was there. He called me afterwards and said he was bringing in Craig Chaquico and needed an opening act. I started giving him names of all the people I thought he should hire. He then said something that stopped me in my tracks: “No, I meant I want you.”

That was really the beginning of it all – it was 2001. Next, I was asked to open for the great Richard Elliot so I knew I’d be in front of thousands of people. I figured this was my chance to come out with an instrumental album. What came out was my unique mix of Spanish guitar and pop/jazz grooves that I had loved growing up. I wasn’t sure it would resonate but after a standing ovation and signing CDs throughout Richard’s entire set, I knew I might have something!

After that I kept getting asked to do two-act shows with the greats – Mindy Abair (4 times), Richard Elliot (5 times), and many more. It’s been a wild ride. Obviously, I was a student of the “sound” which I think helped me connect with their audiences but I was also unabashedly me – doing flamenco guitar breakdowns in the middle of my set, connecting to each of their fans in a unique way, and, in the process, growing my own fan base, thanks to them. Sometimes I get asked to play with them during their show and that, too, is a thrill.

You started music at a young age and have had some other interests along the way. Tell us about your experiences with music as a youth.

I had a very transient early life due to my mother being very ill. I think I was in four different schools in first grade alone. However, I had one constant - a guitar my mother bought me that I didn’t know how to play but was always under my bed wherever we were staying. In 2nd grade, I finally settled down to live full time with my grandparents, and they found a guitar teacher for me. I was incredibly fortunate that in that small town in Indiana they found a woman who taught guitar, mandolin, bass, drums and piano. She put her students together into a group and we started touring when I was 13 – festivals, concerts, churches, backyard picnics…the works. We had denim outfits and everything. The pictures exist in the dark corners of the internet. Ha!

When I look back, I know how fortunate I was. Even more so when I think about how I started experimenting with fingerstyle guitar one lesson and she reached back to her bookshelf and pulled out a Segovia Spanish/classical guitar method book saying “now we will do this.” That really created the beginnings of my unique style of fingerpicking and Latin guitar. I wish she could see what all happened, where her talents and teachings took me, and the places all over the globe her influence has taken me. I’d like to think somehow that she and my grandparents know.

How have you kept busy during this past 18 months with little to no live performances?

I have been blessed with so many music silver linings during the pandemic. For many the pandemic has been a true tragedy in many ways, health – financial – relationships. But I have also seen it be a blessing in disguise for so many as well – slowing things down and bringing some perspective back to life’s pace, work and family.

Although I would trade all my silver linings to not have a pandemic at all, I definitely have benefited. I’ve done things that would never have happened without the unique circumstance that we found ourselves in. Through some twists of fate, I did online shows with Michael McDonald, Rick Springfield, Kenny Loggins, Lindsey Buckingham, Daryl Hall, Sheryl Crow, Seal, Vince Gill, Boy George, Jewel, Boyz II Men, and many more.

With my unique background of music and marketing I was able to help a large tech company stay relevant and visible with their customers by hosting 45-minute-long performances and chats with some of the greatest music legends of all time. They were private events and meant to entertain their customers and their families globally. It started off as just me having an “artist-to-artist” fireside chat and taking some audience questions while the artists played some of their hits. It morphed into me actually playing with Michael McDonald for the holiday version, singing with Rick Springfield, and having fun with the others. My chat with Lindsey Buckingham was the first time he had been heard singing and playing following his heart attack and the breakup with Fleetwood Mac. That earned us recognition in Rolling Stone magazine. What a trip! When things opened up and we could do things in-person, we even have done some on the stage with the likes of Daughtry. It’s been such a rush in so many ways – and trust me I am completely aware of my good fortune.

Any favorite ‘bing-worthy’ tv shows to share with us?

I’m sure this is going to throw people for a loop but I don’t watch much TV. It’s odd but when the pandemic hit, my TV watching went from a lot to almost nonexistent. I think it was because I was so focused on the new album and my new adventures with the music legends series I talked of earlier. However, I do have some “go to” shows lately. I’m a huge fan of detective mysteries and have revisited ALL the Columbo episodes from my childhood, and have totally gotten immersed in all the different Sherlock Holmes iterations – Elementary (CBS), Sherlock (BBC) with Benedict Cumberbatch, and any other of the kind I can find old and new! I’ve even gotten addicted to listening to old time radio shows of Sherlock Holmes - The Shadow and Green Hornet from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I can get lost on YouTube listening to those for hours!

That said I did have one guilty current binge pleasure this year - Schitt's Creek.

What advice do you have for musicians, who have been putting their music out there or playing with bands for years and ready to push to the next level?

From a music perspective, it’s so important to surround yourself with the best you can in instrumentation, recording, and production. Don’t produce, mix, or master your own music. That rarely works out well. I’m just the writer and lead line ringleader – there are no style points for whether I’m the best talent on the album. I just want people to have a great feeling when listening to the album. It’s not about me; it’s about the listener.

When it comes to how to take it to the next level in this digital day and age, it can be daunting. But I did pose that question to Daryl Hall when we talked recently and what he said gave me great reinforcement for my approach. I asked him how he thinks he would have fared now with his music compared to the old days of radio play and CD sales. He said something so true. “I’d just be Daryl Hall,” and “The key in any day and age is build your audience, however you can – online, live, etc.” So, I’ll echo that. Be yourself. Be persistent. And be prepared for the marathon – the music business isn’t a sprint. Find your audience and build it out. Be open to input and be a good listener, too, when it comes to what people want. Figure out where what folks want and what you do intersect and focus there. I’d love to continue my vocal career but I’ve sold about 200 vocal albums compared to tens of thousands of instrumental albums. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure out that as far as the public goes, I need to focus on my instrumental talents! Also, one thing I’d add is that I’m fortunate to be in a genre that doesn’t recognize age as much as it does talent. A big thank you to all the fans and industry folks that have supported me!

Keep up to date with Bryan Lubeck via his website.

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