I think you may be the only person
I've ever interviewed twice for the Insider. I thought you
might offer a really unique perspective in that you've had
three major label A&R jobs, and did a stint at TAXI between
a couple of those gigs.
being said, would you please give us the short course on your
background again, and tell us how you ended up in the music
I grew up in New York, in and around Manhattan. I ended up
getting into the music business peripherally. I left college,
where I was studying business economics and minoring in music,
and I ended up going to music school and studying composition
and arrangement. That led to a career as a programmer ñ drum
programming, arrangements, and stuff like that. That eventually
led me to buy a studio. From the studio, I ended up meeting
some people in the EMI family and working on the development
team for some software projects for them while still running
my studio. I became really intrigued with the record business
at that point. I quit my job designing software, closed down
my studio and took a job at Capitol Records in the sales and
marketing department. I got signed to a record deal with Aware
Records for my band Farmer while I was working at Capitol.
So you were signed to one label but working at another?
Correct. I signed a publishing deal, as well, with EMI Music
Publishing while I was still working at Capitol. That led
to making a record and touring. While I was on tour, I was
working as a scout for Capitol. That led to a job offer from
Gary Gersh (former Capitol president) to do A&R. So that's
the story of how I got into the business.
And from there you went to Hollywood Records. You were
there for two and a half years, and now you're at Columbia.
Is there an "A&R culture," if you will, from one department
to the next?
Oh, there is definitely an A&R culture; it sort of comes from
the top down. The head of A&R sets the tone for the A&R department,
as the president of the company sets the tone for the whole
company. At the end of the day, everybody wants to consider
themselves an old-school A&R person ñ meaning that they're
doing development and having direct involvement with their
artists. A&R is so broadly defined that I just don't know
if any two A&R people do the job the same way. The culture
of an A&R department definitely stems from the person who
is running the department.
In the case of Columbia, it's Tim Devine who is Senior
Vice President and General Manager for the West Coast. A lot
of what he does with his A&R job and team touches on marketing
as well. What have you learned from Tim in the short amount
of time you've been there?
Oh, tenacity and immense concentration on detail, delivery,
and follow-through. In the two months I've been working here,
he has been so focused on not just the short-term rewards
of any move he makes, but he also looks at the long-term rewards
of every move he makes with regards to his artists. It's inspiring,
You've been on every side of the fenceyou were in a band
that was signed; you're currently signed to a writer deal
with EMI; you're doing A&R at what is arguably the most desirable
label to do A&R at; and you worked on TAXI's A&R staff for
several months while you were working as an independent writer
And I was honored to.
What wisdom do you have for our readers, having such an
incredibly rich and varied background in the music business
and seeing it from all of those different sides?
I think the first thing that I would say is writejust write.
Write as much as you can. In my experience in the businesson
the creative side, the label side, the artist sideI'd say
just write as much as you can. You'll know when you hit something
great. I think the exercise of writing is without fail the
most important part of being an artist and being a writer.
You think of the greatest songwriters in the worldfrom Elvis
Costello, to Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach,
or contemporarily, you look at Ryan Adams or Pete Yorn, who
are great writersthey write a lot of songs. The songs that
reach the public maybe represent 10-percent of what their
actual output is. That's obviously just a guess, but if I
could sit down with any of your members, I'd say, "Write."
And be very, very self-critical. Finish your songs and then
try and address them as impartially as you can. If you're
trying to write a Country song, then it needs to sound like
a Country song. You can't write a Country song that sounds
like a Pop song and say, well when you produce it "Country"
it's going to be great. Be very thorough and direct in the
presentation of your music. It doesn't need to be produced
by George Martin with the Royal Philharmonic. It just needs
to be a direct representation of what the song is and what
the song sounds like. Write your song, record your song, and
move on to the next one.
How do people learn how to be better writers? Some people,
I'm afraid, might have outmoded writing habits they need to
lose. How do they improve?
Obviously, without plugging TAXI too overtly, I think TAXI
is a great way for writers to get better. The resources that
are available to them as members are great. If they listen
and pay attention and really take to heart what is written,
I think that is a big way to step forward as a writer. I think
another good thing to do as a writer is to listen to a hit
song. Dissect the hit song. Listen to the changes that are
taking place. Whether it's a Pop song, or a Country song,
or an R&B song, or a Rock song, try to understand and really
analyze what's going on in the songfrom the changes between
the verse and the pre-chorus and the chorus, to how the arrangement
changes, to how the melody changes sectionally. And then listen
to the lyrics. If a song affects youif you hear a song on
the radio and it moves you to one emotion or anotherthey
are doing something right. As a developing writer, or even
as an established writer, I think it's important to try and
understand the song beyond your own emotional response to
it. Writing, like anything else, is an interesting process.
You crack a code every now and then. For instance, there is
the Beatles trick of resolving to the minor four before going
back to the one, in turning around the chorus. That's a key
that you have. That's a trick that you can add to your repertoire.
If you're a skateboarder, you add new tricks to your repertoire,
and then you have different things to pull from. Each time
you crack a code, in terms of writing, you automatically start
at a higher level.
Are there any shortcuts to cracking the code? Are there
any books that have compiled any kind of a hit-list of favorite
tricks or codes?
I think Songwriters On Songwriting is one of the best
books a songwriter could read. It's not really full of codes,
though. I don't think that you can find Songwriting For Dummies
out there. In its essence, songwriting is an emotional art.
The mechanical metaphor of cracking a code is really just
an emotional shortcut. If you want something to feel sad,
you're going to use a minor or diminished chord. You know
that. You have that in your bag of tricks. You don't say,
we'll make this feel sad by just being sad. Being sad is not
something that people can hear on the radio. You have to evoke
that response using melody, lyric and arrangement. Those are
tools that you have to discover on your own. A lot of that
comes from listening to the radio and music in general. In
my experience, there is no book out there that can sort of
help you make the leap of cracking the code. Obviously, there
are a bunch of great books that you guys recommend at TAXI,
but it's like when somebody tells you something in theory,
it's never quite as true until you experience it for yourself.
You once told me that you enjoyed screening tapes and CD's
at TAXI because it helped you sharpen your skills as an A&R
person and as a writer.
As an A&R person, I try to give as much attention to everything
that comes in front of me as possible. I feel as though I've
been honing my skills over quite a long time where I can tell
very quickly, usually by the end of the first chorus, if a
song or an artist is something that I'd be interested in listening
to more of. Basically, at TAXI I was so refreshed to hear
so much music and to be able to actually write down my thoughts
with regard to that music. When something was great, I was
able to say, "This is great." When something was flawed, I
was able to say, "This is flawed and here's why, but this
is why it's good too." As an A&R person, we don't get those
opportunities for the vast majority of music that we listen
to because most of the time, we just say, "This is a pass."
We don't have the time to sit and say, "This is a pass, and
here's why, and here's what I think you need to do to help
better this song." TAXI was great for me because I just love
to listen to new music and to be able to actually take my
experience as a writer, and as an A&R person, and sort of
help things along.
Did you ever see a situation where you saw a song come
back redone, and it had dramatically improved because of the
Definitely, and it was really refreshing. Truth be told, that
doesn't happen as often as I would have liked to have seen
it happen. I don't know if the members of TAXI are utilizing
the service to its fullest potential. Granted, making demos
is expensive, but hell, the first act I ever signed was signed
off of a demo where the kid sat in front of a boom box and
played his guitar. At TAXI, if a screener suggests some changes,
and then you send the same CD back and another screener suggests
the same changes and then another, then maybe you should go
in and try and make those changes. As a writer myself, it
took a long time for me to understand that sometimesand
you have to pick who you trustbut there are people who can
help you with your songs.
It seems like a lot of A&R people have started taking more
chances lately, maybe less signings, but signing stuff that
would be considered risky three years ago. How far are the
successes of people like John Mayer going toward getting radio
to also be a little more adventurous in the future?
The radio situation right now is stagnant. I think anybody
who listens to the radio realizes that. But like anything
else, we're in a cyclical business. There is an ebb and a
flow. In the late 70's, everybody hated disco. That's all
that was being played on the airwaves because it was selling.
The early 80's were a great time for independent music, for
new music. The late 80's tended to get a little stagnant.
The early 90's were a great time for independent, fresh music.
Radio was playing new things. The late 90's and early 2000's
has been a little stagnant. I think everybody knows it. But
bands and artists like Pete Yorn, and John Mayer, and the
Strokes and the Hives, and Ryan Adams all getting played on
the air at the same time with Limp Bizkit, and Korn, and P.O.D.
I think things are probably fresher than they've been in a
long time in the record business, and hopefully radio will
Once you find somebody you're interested in, what is the
process that you go through before you sign or decide not
to sign? How long does that process take?
That process can sometimes take three years if you're following
an artist and waiting for them to develop. Or sometimes it
can take ten minutes. It's sort of difficult to define.
If you find an artist, and it takes three years before
you finally sign them, is it because you're typically a) waiting
for them to write better songs, b) waiting for the market
to come around to their kind of music, c) getting to know
them better to make sure they're an artist that you want to
be in bed with for a possible long-term career, or d) all
of the above?
Oh, definitely all of the above. There are times when you
meet artists and you know immediately that you want to work
with them, but they may not be at the point where a full-scale
record deal is imminent. Often times, getting a record deal
before an artist is ready is pretty destructive. That's a
fine line to cross. You may risk losing an artist because
you don't sign them early enough, but you also risk derailing
an artist's career by giving them a deal too soon sometimes
if they're not prepared emotionally or artistically. Sometimes
you give somebody a record deal and it completely changes
their way of life. We can't look into the future and say if
we give this person a record deal, it will completely change
his work ethos and how he approaches things, but sometimes
those are the risks we take. If there is a perceived kernel
of talent there, and to say we're just going to get it and
hope it developsthat's not necessarily how the business
is being run today. Obviously, margins are a lot tighter.
The corporate culture that we were talking about earlier doesn't
really allow so much of that. It is a rare circumstance when
you can make a decision like that. If you're the president
of the label, or you own your own label, you can say, "Wow,
I see Pete Yorn and he has a tremendous amount of talent.
I'm going to take the time to develop him because I've got
enough other artists to concentrate on and sell-through in
addition to developing this artist." That's a great situation
to be in. We're very fortunate to be able to do that at Columbia.
One hears so much chatter these days about how major labels
"suck". What does a major label bring to the party that smaller
First of all, major labels don't really suck. At this point,
major labels obviously bring more marketing and promotion
dollars, and they bring the weight of their established artists
to the party when trying to break a new artist. That's the
most obvious thing. The things that people don't really look
at are the years and years of experience that the people inside
major labels havefrom the marketing director, to the head
of marketing, to the head of promotion, to all of the promotion
people, to the A&R people, to the heads of A&R, to the president
of the company. That's a tremendous amount of experience that
didn't just start at the top. Nobody comes into this business
and starts at the top. Everybody comes in and starts at the
bottom. That's one of the wonderful things about the record
business. There are very few people who haven't held a mop
in one sense or anotherwhether it's working a desk as an
assistant, or starting in the mailroom, or being a studio
assistant and sweeping floors at night. You add up that tremendous
amount of experience, and if you have the right management
philosophy, that experience can make a huge difference in
breaking an artist.
labels obviously have less money. They are independent and
don't have the same network and access to marketing and promotion
that a major label has. But they are also a bit more of a
fertile breeding ground, and they have the opportunity to
take more risks than major labels might on the surface.
I think larger labels are now tending to function more like
indies as we move forward. It's a bit more pragmatic. Smaller
deals, faster deals. I think what is exciting about the record
business now is that risk-taking mentality appears to be making
a comeback. People are willing to shoot from the hip a little
bit more readily now. It makes the entire artistic community
more exciting and the business more exciting. I think it's
a really exciting time for the record business. It's a time
of dramatic change, but it's an exciting time nonetheless.
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