Chad Cunningham is a man of purpose and honor. He grew up in an artistic family and music became the food of love and a second language for a young boy who idolized his Rock & Roll father. It isn't any wonder that Chad followed in his father's footsteps. They were inseparable - father and son. Chad learned plenty from his father, not just about beautiful sounds or syncopated rhythms, but creating a life worth living and walking a straight line with integrity.
The pursuit of excellence is as natural for Cunningham as taking a deep belly breath of fresh air and exhaling with a smile. Impossible expectations became a love without an ending. As CEO of Prime Brothers Furniture, Cunningham has mastered the art of marketing and branding product quality, creating one of the most respected and quality-oriented businesses in the Great Lakes Bay. His love for music led to the creation of Bullfrog Records in 1987 and an involvement with local '60s icons Question Mark & the Mysterians. Shortly after Cunningham started fostering local artists with promise and talent such as Lucid Jones.
Most recently Chad invested his energy into taking the dynamic songwriting and musicianship of Finding Clyde to new levels of national and international attention, earning accolades from such notable rockers as Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue and guiding them up the play lists of radio stations in markets as varied as Palm Springs, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and even Peoria, Illinois. Cunningham is also a master concert promoter, bringing major artists such as Alice Cooper, George Thorogood, and Ted Nugent into Bay City's Vets Park every summer during major festivals and community events such as the Fireworks Festival and River Roar.
Remarkably humble and preferring to work 'behind the scenes', recently The Review caught up with Cunningham in the midst of his constantly busy schedule and road trips with Finding Clyde to discuss a variety of topics ranging from the growth of Bullfrog Records to the current state of the landscape with contemporary music.
Review: Chad, what led to your interest in music?
Cunningham: My interest in music stemmed from my father. My dad played drums behind Sonny & Cher back in the day. He was always in a band, and I grew up with music. He played in Battle of the Bands and was in The Delrays and The Fall-Outs way back in the day. He played against Ted Nugent, played with Bob Seger and all those guys, so I always kind of grew up with music in the house. My Dad playing in the bands, so I guess that's where it comes from.
Review: I heard about your father, and I think you take after him. What did you learn from your dad?
Cunningham: What did I learn from my dad? I've just always been around it. I guess I don't know how to answer. He's just always influenced us, you know, with music. My dad's my best friend and we hang out together, so yeah I guess everything we do is kind of together.
Review: When did you form Bullfrog Records?
Cunningham: Bullfrog Records would have formed in 1997. There was a band called Lucid Young. Really how it kind of all started was I recorded a record from a band, Question Mark and the Mysterians. There was a record label that hired me to record it called Collectible Records, and we did Question Mark and the Mysterian's album, which is still in stores today. It has 96 Tears on it, of course, and other popular songs, because their song recording rights were up and so they needed it re-recorded, so we re-recorded it.
When I got done with that, Bobby Balderama wanted to do a solo blues project, and so that's kind of how the label started. Then another band called Lucid Jones and a band called The Haskells, which Andy Reed was a part of, came into the fold. But then the label really faded, I want to say in 2000, when everybody was downloading music illegally.
We couldn't find a good way to sell records and do stuff, so I kind of walked away from it just a little bit and got back into just promoting shows and doing the live shows in the Tri-City area. Then probably two years ago, Bobby Balderama came to me and said, “You've got to sign this band.” I said, “I'm done signing bands.” He said, “Well, I just want you to listen to it.”
Out of respect to him, I listened to it and then listened again. It was the band Finding Clyde. Later that week one of their songs “Thoughts of You” came up on my IPod. I said, “Wow, that's a great song,” and I couldn't figure out what artist it was from, and so we looked, and sure enough, it was Finding Clyde.
I called Bobby and said, “I want to talk with those guys.” He got us together, and I've been working with them now for two years, so that's kind of the long and short of Bullfrog, I guess.
Review: Finding Clyde is really hitting it big. They're really living the life. How was the process of breaking them out into a more national scene?
Cunningham: Yeah, that was a royal pain in the butt. It's a very hard process. It's endless miles, calls, and travel and going to see everybody, and make them aware, and you know, just a lotta, lotta, lotta work. But it's been good; I mean the Active Rock has embraced them. They went to 39 on the single called, “Let Me Be.” Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue picked them as the pick of the week and said their song was better than Gus Mac, and there's a little rivalry, which is fun.
Now they're getting ready to release their next song. Their album went out to college radio three weeks ago, and they've got 57 stations already spinning it after two and a half weeks. Their next song, “Get Higher,” which is the next single, gets released the end of this month. I'm really excited for those guys. You don't just call the radio station and they start playing your record.
Review: Does your knowledge of music help you pick the right artists for you, for Bullfrog Records?
Cunningham: Well, again, is there a process to picking that? I don't know. You know this guy's a producer, that guy's a musician. You know the next person could be a schoolteacher. I think that everybody has ears and you know what you like and you know what you don't like. I guess kind of how I pick things is my own personal taste and what I think. It's just something I think other people would like and we should work on getting it out to more people. That's kind of really what I go by, not the fact that maybe it's the best musicianship or the best guitar player or the best drummer. I don't think that's always what wins. I think it's probably the chemistry of the band and how they gel together - what do the songs sound like? What are their writing skills? That kind of stuff, and “is the song catchy, is it something that people are going to want to sing, the meaning of the song, and all that type of stuff. I think that's more important than, “Wow, that guy really knows scales on a guitar.”
Review: You've been in the game a while now. What's different for you now?
Cunningham: You know, that's a great question because what's different for me now is the fact that I can get distribution. The hard thing about having a record label like 10 to 15 years ago was that you needed the record to be in Harmony House and FIE, Meijer's, Target, and now you don't any more. You need to have it on-line, on Amazon and ITunes, Spotify, you know on all the digital things, and that's easy for me to do.
With the record label that we have, I'm able to get all the distribution, and that's the only part we were missing because we can do the promotions ourselves, we can do the touring ourselves. It was just a matter of we couldn't do distribution. These changes today make it possible for our label to be on an equal playing field to the majors. You know, there's nothing that a major has over us except for a lot more people that they have to answer to, and a lot more red tape to go through, which we don't have. If we decide we want to do something, we do it. We don't have to run it through 20 vice-presidents and a president.
Review: A lot has been made of, and you've heard this before, and I've heard it for years. I've heard it since the '70s really, the death of rock and roll. Much has been made of the death of rock and roll, at least the most popular genre. Do you see rock music becoming secondary, a secondary genre like blues is now and jazz?
Cunningham: I see it becoming secondary with the media. I see it becoming secondary with Billboard, and I see it becoming secondary with articles from the media, but are you telling me when you look at a band like The Foo Fighters who were the only real band to play at the Grammys? The rest is all pre-produced garbage. You got Katy Perry out there with a bunch of dancers lip-syncing, and if anybody thinks that's real, they're just getting faked out. So what are you buying into?
I don't understand why the public continues to let it go on and buys their records and stuff when it's all just fake garbage. There is still a huge, to me, audience for real live rock and roll. I mean when you go to these shows, they're packed. You can't take a band like The Foo Fighters and deny it. They're selling out huge arenas all around the country. There's a thirst for this, but for some reason, Top 40 radio is hesitant to play local artists.
Review: What's your take on the new digital sounds created in the studio?
Cunningham: So, I mean it's a matter of, you go in the studio, and they're not playing with live musicians all the time and they're just producing a record and coming out with electronic drums or vocal correcting software. It's not real. Back in the day you had to play, and it had to be real and authentic. I think there's still an audience out there who really respects that. I think most people do. Again, it just gets me upset to see all of this what I call fake stuff. Everybody lip syncs and they put on a show. You know, if you want to go to a show, go to a show; but if you want to see a band play, you should see a band play. The whole thing about that is they can do what the record does live without all this help and play into a CD. I just don't understand it.
Review: I was thinking about Greg Shaw. He had Bomp! Records, and I got to know him a little bit. He passed away, but Greg produced the Flamin' Groovies and Nick Lowe. I talked to him in the '90s and he felt that rock and roll was not the most popular genre anymore, but there'll always be fans that love rock and roll and it will continue to flourish in small pockets across the country. Do you see that from your perch?
Cunningham: We see that. When we went out to Spokane, Washington and played it sold out and most people are there to rock. I mean they love it, Flint, Michigan loves it, and Madison, Wisconsin loves it. There are definitely still those places. I mean, Kevin Zink at The Machine Shop down in Flint. What an awesome place and what an awesome venue and what an awesome concept. If we could get that thing franchised throughout the rest of the country, I think it would work. I mean he's just got a great, great thing going down there. You can't tell me that Flint, Michigan's not ready to see a live band rock and is going to start offering, you know, some produced dancers to the stage.
Review: What was it like working with Chuck Alkazian? It sounds like he's a friend of yours, and he's a pretty big-name producer, isn't he?
Cunningham: Yeah, I mean Chuck's done a bunch of stuff. Saving Abel, Ted Nugent, shoot I'm drawing a blank, but I know a bunch more. He's done Trust Company. He's done a bunch of stuff down there. I've known Chuck for, I don't know, 10 or 15 years. He's been a great guy. He's come a long way. He's really got his sound figured out and his studio figured out, and he's easy to work with, he's creative. I think he helps the process instead of hurting it. I think he gets the most out of every band that he can.
Review: Tension Head recently signed with your record label. Is the hard rock metal genre new to you?
Cunningham: Yeah, I've never worked with anything quite as hard as Tension Head. You know, I like it. The energy that they bring is unbelievable. The only heck of it is that it's a little harder to find a way to get it out. I'm working on that right now. How do we get this out to the public because it's not as easily played on the airwaves; although I think the rock stations are going to love the song. It's got a great hook, which is not really common in metal type of music.
Review: I was told that you helped write it. What did you contribute?
Cunningham: You know just trying to get a little more of the structure to it. Really Tension Head had most of it done when I got it I just put a little structure in it. We put a bridge in there, just kind of the way it flows a little bit. Yeah, maybe we put a little bit of salt and pepper in it, but they made the dinner.
Review: Do you see yourself branching out further now, like to different forms of music, whether it's jazz or…
Cunningham: You know, ultimately I'm open to hear anything, but really my focus will be on these two bands - Finding Clyde and Tension Head. I'm not looking to expand our roster as of yet. You know it's not a huge staff. It's me and a couple of interns and it just doesn't pay to get too spread out where we can't service the people we need to. At this point I'm happy with Finding Clyde and Tension Head and not really looking to expand the roster.
Review: By all accounts you are very busy and dedicated to your artists. What kind of energy that takes and how do you recharge?
Cunningham: Well, music to me is like what I would do for a hobby, so somebody that would work a regular job has a hobby of going fishing or something. Music is my hobby, so when I have a downtown, that's what I want to do. You know, that's all I think about
Review: Well thanks, Chad. Is there anything that I didn't ask, anything that you want to say that I didn't prompt?
Cunningham: Well, I think that's it. Really, the bottom line is that I'm pretty humble. I don't like to focus on me. I like the fact that you're asking me questions. I'm not looking to slap myself on the back by any means. All I really want, a dream of mine would be for a band to have a number one record. You know, I'm going to do everything I can to help somebody do it. I couldn't do it with my own band. I think I'm better as a promoter, a label, and a guy behind the scenes. If I can help make somebody's dream come true that would make my dream come true.
Review: You know, Chad, you're way too humble because you're known to be the major player in the scene.
Cunningham: I've just been very blessed and had a lot of stuff happen right. I mean, the shows that we've done in the tri-cities, the live shows have just worked real well, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Poison, Ted Nugent, and all the stuff we've brought in, and those have all worked well. We've had some good luck with the band. Like with the playing cards, we've cut a lot of lucky breaks. The guys have toured the whole country and just keep getting bigger and bigger, and you know I'd just love to get to the next level.
I was looking into the guy from Coldplay who was getting interviewed. They asked him if he ever thought about quitting. He said, “Every day.” They said, “Why would you think that?” He said, “Because I question my music and question this.” The guy said, “But you're selling millions of records. Why would you question it?” I think you're never happy with the level you're at. I think you always want to try to get to the next rung, and if you're not, maybe you're dead.
So for us, everything's been really good, but in my opinion when I look at what I've done, it's not enough, and I want to do more…