HotStar: Martin Sexton

Martin Sexton does not weep for the record industry. In fact, the current environment, where live performance is tantamount to a sustainable career, is what he’s been waiting for.

Sexton has always charted his own course, beginning with 1992’s In The Journey. The cassette of self-produced demo recordings eventually sold 20,000 copies – most of them from the sidewalks and hometown shows where the Syracuse, N.Y., native could often be found performing.

A contract with Atlantic resulted in a pair of well-received albums but the singer/songwriter realized he needed to follow his own star. So he left the label and started his own imprint.

Sexton’s website bears a quote from John Mayer proclaiming him “the best live performer I’ve ever seen.”

“I love being on the road,” Sexton told Pollstar. “I’ve been doing it a long time and I’m still lovin’ it. I’ve gone from singing in the subways to the House of Blues to the great festivals we’re on this year like [New Orleans] Jazz Fest and Bonnaroo.”

As for the implosion of the major label system, Sexton believes that’s actually a plus for artists.

“It’s an incredible time to be independent,” he explained. “There are so many avenues open now that weren’t open even a decade ago – everything from social media sites to satellite radio.

“The vehicles that used to be the make-or-break avenues like radio, mainstream press and MTV are no longer as relevant. There are so many other options available to get music to people.”

As it turns out, one of the people who bought a copy of In The Journey – and still has it – is Red Light Management’s Chris Tetzeli, who started working with Sexton.

“It was brilliant,” Tetzeli told Pollstar. “I bought it because of a write-up in a magazine. I literally sent the check in with an order form and got the cassette in the mail. I’ve always been a fan of his and that continues to this day.”

That incredible sense of loyalty to Sexton, particularly when it comes to his live performances, runs deep.

“I enjoy this unusual base,” the singer said. “It’s definitely unique. Someone once asked me, ‘What’s the demographic of your audience?’ And I couldn’t answer them because it’s not 20-somethings or hippies or young urban professionals or housewives. It’s everyone.

“If you look at my audience from the stage, they’re everywhere from 15 to 55 or 60 or 70 – or, in some cases, older. They’re black and white and gay and straight and Republican and Democrat. It’s really cool, because when I sing about things, I’m not preaching to the choir. And when they sing in harmony with me, they’re not necessarily singing with like-minded people.

“I feel like I’m in a really cool position to bring people together who might not otherwise be.”

Sexton knows his audiences get his message and that they’re there because of his songs. But they still surprise him.

“I was in Nashville the other night and it was like I hired a 500-person choir to sing these three parts with me,” he explained. “It was beautiful. And that’s in a town that’s kind of famous for being jaded. You know, ‘We’ve seen everything. Show us what you can do.’ But they were out there singing in three-part harmony.”

And Sexton has a message for bands that think success can only be found by playing major markets.

“Sometimes you’ll be in an off-market town on an off night – it’s not House of Blues in Boston it’s, say, Little Rock on a Monday – and those shows turn out to be the greatest musical experiences,” he said. “Because you just don’t give a shit and you go out there and incredible stuff happens. You break into ‘Helter Skelter’ and you didn’t even rehearse it with the band. You just wail it out and the audience freaks and it becomes a great musical experience. That’s been happening a lot on this tour.”

Tetzeli said he’s thrilled to be able to add the muscle of Red Light to Sexton’s arsenal.

“We got him to Jazz Fest for the first time and we got him to Bonnaroo and he’s doing shows with Dave Matthews Band,” he explained. “He’s incredibly worthy of all of these opportunities and it’s exciting to be able to provide them for him.”

While Sexton’s current path will definitely carry him further into the mainstream, where things like radio hits and massive iTunes sales live, don’t expect him to change too much.

“My career is primarily tour-driven,” the singer explained. “I’m not reliant on things like Top 40 radio. I enjoy great support from independent sources like public and college radio. Although, on this record, we’ve actually been getting some good traction from commercial AAA radio.”

And even though a lot of people in the music business paint a bleak picture of the future, Sexton believes it’s just the universe righting itself.

“I would hope the days when some pop star can have a hit but suck live – and still have an incredible career – are gone.”