For Michael Bailey, success was no coincidence or happy accident.
He isn’t surprised that for nearly three decades, his band, Vic Ferrari, has continued to evolve and enjoy a loyal following. He planned for it.
Bailey likes to tell a story. When he was in seventh grade, his mother played as an organist at a church event, and Bailey sang. He got paid $20, and she got paid $10. When his mom asked him why, his answer was simple: because he asked for it.
“I got grounded,” he says. “It was well worth the 10 bucks, I gotta tell you.”
Bailey says he started Vic Ferrari with a simple vision: have fun and make money. “If we’re having fun, we’ll make money,” he says. “If we’re trying to make money, we won’t have any fun.”
The Vic Ferrari front man says too many bands begin without a business plan. But Bailey, who also teaches music full-time at Neenah’s St. Mary Catholic Middle School, began plotting his career at a young age.
“I told this one kid the other day that when I was in fifth grade, I told Mrs. Siebers that I was going to play in a rock ‘n roll band and I was going to teach, and here I am,” he says.
His teacher probably never would have imagined just how far her pupil would come. In the past 29 years, Vic Ferrari has played more than 2,500 shows in 10 countries and 25 states. The seven-member band is showing no signs of slowing down, boasting a record month in January.
Vic Ferrari, whose name originated from one of Andy Kaufman’s characters on the TV show “Taxi,” has remained remarkably intact over the years, Bailey says, losing and gaining only a few members. That group dynamic is vital, he says, and success means everyone contributing equally.
The secret to that success when it comes to audiences, Bailey says, is focusing on quality, entertainment value and approachability. That focus on the fans extends to music selection. When it comes to selecting songs, Bailey, whose band has written songs but not played them live, says they do so with the fans in mind. They try to choose danceable music with a lot of vocals.
Bailey also credits a willingness to travel for the band’s longevity. This year, the band will perform in locales ranging from Wausau to Las Vegas to Mexico, entrusting his classes to substitute teachers when he travels to faraway venues. “Not traveling and playing in the same markets repeatedly will kill you,” he says.
Providing happiness is what moves Bailey, not racking up accolades, though Vic has received its share. He’s always prided himself on practicing kindness and recognizes the help he received from mentors, a gift he now shares with others. “To this day, we’re never afraid to assist a band that wants our help.”
That shined through to Tony Garton, who taught Bailey when he began his academic career as a non-traditional student at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley in 1993. Garton praises Bailey’s gumption to start a second career teaching music and says Bailey established himself as a leader who other students admired.
Garton quickly picked up on Bailey’s self-confidence, talent and ambition, noting that he was equally at home in the rock-pop and classical genres. “He’s got this magnetic personality,” Garton says. “He’s totally out there.”
Perhaps Bailey, who eventually graduated from St. Norbert College in 1998, could have rested in the band’s popularity, but about 10 years ago, he noticed they had begun to plateau and began to search for a new challenge. The result? Symphony on the Rocks, which marries the music of Vic Ferrari with a 26-person symphony and adds audio and video elements.
With the symphony, Bailey, a classical music fan, wanted to give audiences a different way to experience music. Instead of stands, musicians in the symphony use iPads, creating a clean show that removes barriers and allows the audience greater connection with the performers.
For those who are tempted to call Vic a cover band, take note.
“We’re never really trying to be like everybody else,” Bailey says. “We’re never a cover band. Go write for a whole symphony by pencil and paper — write and arrange for all these instruments. Cover bands don’t do that.”
Matthew Schliesman, executive director of the Capitol Civic Center in Manitowoc, affirms this. He describes Symphony on the Rocks as a musical theatrical piece and says the Vic Ferrari members elevate the music and make it their own.
Vic Ferrari was the first act to sell out the venue since Debbie Reynolds, Bailey says, and Schliesman just booked the band for its fifth year, saying the buzz around the show remains year after year.
“The performers are world-class,” Schliesman says. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The spectacle is something I really wasn’t expecting.”
At 54, Bailey says his voice is better than ever, and he has no plans to slow down. The band has bookings extending into 2020.
“We’re actually really doing a lot of things right now — 15 years ago, we couldn’t sing like this, blend like this,” he says. “As long as we’re having fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”