Aside from the Rolling Stones, The Who and some major record labels, not many entities have lasted 50 years in the rock- music industry. Especially when one flies under the radar. But an oft-overlooked music industry service recently claimed the gold prize this year—and is still going strong.
Meet Los Angeles-based Musicians Contact, if you haven’t already, a mostly one-man operation run by 72-year-old Sterling Howard that has a simple mission: connecting musicians through classified ads and referral services.
“It’s a very narrow business. I don’t book bands. I’m not a manager. I just connect musicians,” Howard states. “[Musicians Contact is] not a place to sell your song or make a record deal. It’s just a referral service between the musicians. People think I must produce groups, but I just find members and that’s that. It’s not an employment agency.”
With the tagline “Connecting Musicians to Working Bands Since 1969,” Howard’s sterling service has been utilized by famous musicians ranging from Rick Springfield to David Hasselhoff to the Smashing Pumpkins, not to mention more lesser-known artists than he can count.
That said, “As a rule, I’ve never told people to join [Musicians Contact] to try to get famous, because it’s such a longshot,” Howard discloses. “At least 99.9999 percent of bands we’ve booked are garage bands, wedding bands, festival bands, original bands, cover bands, full-time and part-time bands.”
Howard started the business because he himself was an aspiring rock singer trying to find bandmates in Hollywood in the late ’60s. With no magazines or newspapers featuring classified-ad sections where musicians could connect, he opened an office upstairs at the Whisky A GoGo, paying rent at a rate of $75 a month, and launched his innovative business.
“Dr. John, Todd Rundgren, Canned Heat, Strawberry Alarm Clock ... the reason I got those bands was because they were already going up to the Whisky office and noticed mine,” Howard recalls. “I'd walk the street with fliers, and anyone who looked like a musician, I gave them a flier [for Musicians Contact].”
Back then, the phones at Musicians Contact used to ring about 300 times a day.
“In the good old days, bands played five days a week—at everywhere from a big club to a Ramada Inn,” he continues. “When those shut down, it put thousands of bands out of work.”
Howard evolved his business with the times, opening a second office near Disneyland and using custom-made computers connected to tape recorders. But the biggest change probably came 20 years ago when a little thing called the internet came along.
Howard suddenly found other websites competing with his company—not to mention Craigslist—where musicians can post ads seeking other band members for free. But while the internet increased competition, it also gave Musicians Contact a presence across the US. Whereas the company used to be a “local SoCal service” for 30 years, in the last 20, it’s served as a national organization.
“We’re getting gigs from all over the country we’ve never gotten before,” Howard says. “A band can put in an ad from New York now, and gigs have expanded across the country. Thanks to the internet, I don’t need to enlarge our staff.”
Currently, Howard works full time, and his wife and son support his business on a part-time basis. While Musicians Contact’s Facebook page has about 7,000 fans and a monthly newsletter list of more than 47,000 subscribers, he says the company drums up most of its business thanks to word of mouth.
“Social media has done very little impact because I’m not a heavy social media person,” he frankly admits.
Howard adds that he could grow his business significantly without having to expand the size of his workforce—but he simply doesn’t feel the drive to do so.
“I would have to be more busy,” he laughs.
Howard has kept Musicians Contact alive and stable by following two simple mantras that are typically antithetical to others working in the music business. “I’ve remained relevant as a businessman by being honest,” he says. “This is not a big moneymaking company. Customers are paying me flat little fees in order to survive. This has been my only job, it’s allowed me to buy a house and have a family. I’m pretty much an average American. “Persistence would be the other thing,” he adds. “A lot of people after doing this for a while would’ve quit, but I actually enjoy it. I don’t even see retiring because I’ve still got bills to pay.”
In Howard’s dream world, more concertgoers would attend shows by not just original bands but also cover bands, as they comprise the majority of his business. But those gigs have tanked drastically due to the rise of karaoke, DJs, booze laws and sports bars, he says.
On the flip side, Howard is pleased with the current state of Musicians Contact and optimistic about its future.
“When I start reading the testimonials on our website from artists we’ve connected, that lifts me up,” he imparts.
One of them, by Gentlemen’s Blues Club leader Mick Stover, reads as follows: “I consider MC to be THE go-to resource for finding musicians and gigs. I’ve been successfully using MC for many years. Sterling has always been friendly, knowledgeable, and super helpful. The first time I used MC, I landed a four-month touring bass gig. MC is the real deal...”
Naturally, Howard is flattered by such remarks—and honored that he has helped some musicians achieved their dreams.
“Some of these people, I’ve changed their lives without even knowing it,” he says. “I recently talked with a guy who, after seven years, came back from Singapore, and he says he got a job because of me. That’s good-old gratification.”