Marshall Altman
Marshall Altman A&R, Columbia Records

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New York, in the city, and about a half an hour outside of the city in a place called Rockland County.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were a kid?

Anything my sister was listening to. And that ran from Bowie to Billy Joel to T-Rex, Springsteen, and Elvis Costello.

Anything that was a standout?

Probably the Billy Joel, Springsteen, Elton John—that stuff. That's what I cut my teeth on. She exposed me to a lot of pretty eclectic music. She was always taking me to the city to see shows. But the standouts were probably those three.

What was your first job in the music business, and what did you do to support yourself until you landed it?

While I was in music school, I swept floors and pulled weeds and sort of worked at the front desk in the music school. Then I left there, started delivering pizza, taught swimming, worked at Trader Joe's market for a long time, and sold toilets for a while. Then I asked my Grandparents if I could use the money they had saved for me to go to school with to buy some gear. I got a scholarship to school, so I didn't take the money for that. I bought some gear, bought a computer and a keyboard and a couple of samplers and started writing and producing music at home and eventually; my very first job in the business was as a programmer for a couple of acts on Warner Brothers. That led to my deciding to get into the studio business.

Working in the studio led me to work on some of my own material which got me a development deal at Capitol. It didn't turn in to an artist deal, but it did help me land a job at Capitol/EMI designing software. Very lucrative, not very rewarding. I transferred into sales, and eventually got a job in A&R because Kim Buie (former Capitol VP of A&R), who I still consider a close friend and mentor, hired me as a scout. I brought a band to Capitol which lead to Gary Gersh (former Capitol President) offering me a full-time A&R job.

A long road to hoe. Why did you leave Capitol to join Hollywood Records' A&R department?

I would have to say Rob Cavallo, who is the vice-president and head of the A&R department was most instrumental in my decision. I probably would have gone to work for Rob if he was at Sears. He has a huge presence as a really musical person. And he has not only proved himself in the studio, he proved himself as an A&R executive and a record executive signing the Goo Goo Dolls, signing Green Day, and producing those records. He's got a huge spirit and a huge wealth of knowledge and information, and he wants to share that with me and help me, and bring me along as he was brought along in the business. So it's a great opportunity.

Another big factor is that Rob's father, Bob Cavallo, is the President of Hollywood. He's been highly successful for a long, long time. That didn't happen by accident. In the short time he's been here, he's already done a lot to turn this label around. I'd like to be able to learn from him as well.

Hollywood is owned by Disney. Have you met Mickey Mouse yet?

Ummm, I'm not allowed to talk about that (laughs).

Does this label look for different kinds of talent than what Capitol might have looked for, or is it pretty much the same?

It's basically the same, both labels are looking for great artists. Both labels are looking for franchise artists, catalogue artists, artists that will be around for the long term. Here at Hollywood, they have a very long plan in mind for their success, and that was part of the attraction here as well. It's very stable and well thought out.

What is it that attracts you to a band or an artist?

First and foremost, are the songs. Great and timeless songs are a rare thing.

Let's talk about songs for a minute being that you're a writer and producer. How important is it for an aspiring artist or songwriter to write songs in 'form' versus writing material that's just a run-on sentence with a meandering melody? Do you find value in commercial song structure?

I definitely find value in commercial structure, yes but before that I find value in artists doing what artists are moved to do. As an artist, you have no choice but to do what you do. If you create it one day and you choose to modify it so that it's in a "commercial" style, great, as long as it pleases you, fantastic. If you're an artist and one day you decide to create a song that's based on an ancient haiku, great if it pleases you. If it's something that was created to strictly get a deal or strictly in the hopes of selling records, and the authenticity doesn't feel like it's there, that'll be obvious to me, as a writer and as a former performer myself.

So if the artist does haiku, would you recommend that they learn how to do haiku in a commercial form as long as they're comfortable with that?

Yeah, obviously if you want to be a bank teller and write songs to sort of soothe your soul, that's great, because you can do whatever you want. But if you want to do music and earn a living by doing it you have to be committed to poverty for a while or you have to be very adept at taking what it is that you have created and fashioning it in such a way that it's accessible.

When you hear a demo that you fall in love with, what happens next?

I usually pick up the phone. More often than not, it's on the first listen that something will move me. And I'll pick up the phone, and call either the artist directly, the manager, the attorney, whoever sent me the music if I don't have the artist's number. I like to call the artist, and discuss the music in depth, and find out what kind of a person they are. I think a lot of musicians have the impression that they send in their tape, the A&R person listens to it, picks up the phone and says, "Okay, you want a record deal, I'll send the contract over right now', it's obviously a much more involved scenario than that but the very first step is picking up the phone and reaching out to that artist, making plans to see them live. I prefer to sit down with them face-to-face.

Well, let's assume that you go see them live and you see a lot of potential, and you start to get that feeling that this is something that you want to sign. Is there more to it? Is it a process that takes days, weeks, or months?

I've seen deals go down in a day, I've seen deals go down over the course of six months, it really varies. Working for a large company like Hollywood, I don't have the autonomy to say, "I love this, let's do it. I'm personally going to write you a contract". Obviously, we have to go through our Business Affairs staff, and we have to go through the other senior executives in the company.

Once you find an act, how much follow through is necessary on your part? What are some of the things you would do?

As an A&R person, it's been my goal to be as involved with every aspect of the label's involvement with the band as possible, from making the record to delivering the record, to the artwork, to the marketing plan, to the release schedule, to the radio plan, to the sales goals, to touring, to publicity—everything. Obviously we have skilled professionals in each of those departments who do the work, but it's part of my job to get them excited about the project and make sure the artist is happy with the process. As the A&R person, you are the first and loudest supporter of your band in the record company.

Do you get involved in song selection, and once the record is made is it conceivable that you might say to the group, "Okay, you finished the record, but as far as I'm concerned, it's really not finished. I think we should scrap these three songs, take six months, write some more and record some more"?

That's definitely conceivable. I haven't had a situation that's been that cut and dried, but you can select what may appear to be the twelve best songs ever written before going into the studio, and once in the studio, the recorded songs may not be what you were expecting them to be in the first place. Sometimes they're better, sometimes they're worse. Part of being an A&R person, is being able to constantly check and re-check your own expectations of the band and of the songs that they're performing. But yes, it does happen in this business.

How involved in the business end of things should the band or artist be?

It varies. There are some artists that are very involved with the everyday marketing and promotion of their records. Others just want to be on the road and play and get their checks and show up at their interviews and so forth and so on. I think it varies by artist. I think a lot of artists would like to do that, but they find that the schedule of being on the road, touring full time, doing interviews and publicity takes up a lot of time...it's hard. The easiest part of being an act on a major label is getting the record deal, by far. And I know a lot of artists and a lot of bands and performers think "If only I could get a record deal"... that's really the easy part. The hard part starts once you sign the deal. Until then it's the hope of getting a deal and the prospect of getting a deal that keeps you going.

What's the single biggest mistake that artists make once they're signed?

Not listening to their A&R person (laughs)!

What's the scope of Hollywood Records? I know it's owned by Disney and I know its pretty much autonomous. But is there any crossover or interaction between the motion picture side or the animation side?

There's a ton of it. There's a lot of synergy here.

When Buena Vista Pictures or Touchstone makes a movie and they hire a music supervisor, and the music supervisor picks six tracks that are from current hit artists and they put it in there, do they then come to you to round out the soundtrack? Soundtracks aren't always necessarily the same as what's in the movie. Might they come to Hollywood and say okay, we know that the soundtrack is coming out on your label, do you guys have any suggestions of other artists you'd like to include?

Definitely. We have probably one of the best soundtrack people in the business working here, his name is Mitchell Lieb. And in addition to being a very, very busy man, he's really astute at finding the right artist to fill a slot. And the A&R department here at Hollywood is also involved in giving Mitchell ideas and bands to consider. It might be a situation where there will be four superstars on a soundtrack and then they will want to fill the remaining slots with some developing artists.

Will they ever fill the slots with a completely unsigned unknown artist or does it have to be someone who has to be already on a label?

Well, I think that's already happened with Lisa Loeb, I think for 'Reality Bites.' I don't know what the history is here at Hollywood, but that does happen occasionally. There are so many independent films around the country using independent music because it's much easier to license and clear than signed acts.

So how do you find new talent?

I listen to as much music as I possibly can. Which right now is difficult, because I don't have a stereo having just come to work here two weeks ago.

You have a boom box, what are you complaining about (laughs)?

It's broken. But I really do listen to as much as I can. Unfortunately, I've found that my musician ethic of listening to every single piece of music that gets put in the mail to me to be counterproductive. I can't listen to all the unsolicited material I get. Most of the things that I get turned onto come from a network of people that I know throughout the country — managers, attorneys, club owners, promoters, musicians, press people, and people that I've met in my travels whether I was out on the road as a musician, or out on the road as an A&R person. I go see a lot of live music in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. And once a year, I like to get in the car and go to a part of the country that I'm not that familiar with and just drive for two or three weeks.

Any advice for people getting in to the business, being that you've been a songwriter and an artist yourself, and an A&R person?

I'd say listen to great music. Play a lot. Make music to make music, don't make music to make money. Because if you want to be rich, you should be an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor. Musicians become musicians, we all hope, because they have no other choice, because that is what drives them... that need to create. Because if you make music to make music, we will find you. The A&R community will find you. And lastly, don't listen to A&R people.(laughs)

I always hear A&R people say "If you're good enough, we'll find you" and I don't necessarily agree with that, because I hear stuff come through TAXI that nobody's heard of. A lot of that music would fall through the tracks.

And you know what, I was just going to bring up TAXI.

Sure you were (laughing).

Seriously. There are a lot talented people there whose opinions I respect and who I would go to for advice about a project or about a band. I think TAXI is one of the rare benevolent organizations available. You're really doing a service that benefits the A&R community and the artist. That's huge. And you should list TAXI in my list of resources that I mentioned earlier.

What would you like your legacy as an A&R person to be?

I would like my children to hear one of the bands that I've signed. One, or two, or five. I'd like my kids to hear every single band that I've signed, and were they to not know that I signed them, I would like them to say, "Hey Dad, have you heard this, it's a great record?" And I don't have any kids yet, but when I do have kids, that's what I want. I want to sign bands that are timeless. Every A&R person wants to signs bands that sell records, but I'd like to sign bands that forge the next wave of art, of music, that break the next barrier. I'd like to sign the next "Blowin' In The Wind". I want my children to hear the music that I've signed and be moved by it.


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