Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

Los Angeles, in Brentwood specifically. I was a beach kid.

Do you remember when you first realized that you wanted to be in the music business?

Yes. I was probably 9 or 10 years old and my uncle took me to—I'm almost embarrassed to admit this—a Styx concert when he was Vice-President of Creative at A&M Records.

So, you're the proverbial "I got my job because my uncle's in the business!"

Exactly! At least I got my foot through the mailroom door, so to speak.

What was your first real job in the business?

I started in the mailroom at Virgin Records in 1987 during the summer while I was still in school at UC Berkeley. The first summer I worked there, I think there was a total of twelve employees.

What was your next job?

What happened was, that first summer I worked in the mailroom, and then I went back to school. The next summer I came back and worked in the International and Video departments, kind of as an assistant—nothing with a whole lot of responsibility, but basically I got to see how those different departments worked and how they interfaced with the rest of the company. I should probably add that the Video department at Virgin Records, unlike a lot of Video departments, was probably one of the favored departments.

Then I went back to school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Economics. I thought I wanted to be perhaps an entertainment attorney. I started working in the Business Affairs department at Virgin Records, which at the time was not only the Business Affairs department for Virgin Records, but also for Charisma Records, Virgin Music Publishing, and I think Cardiac Records as well. I worked in the Business Affairs department for about a year and a half.

Then I decided that I didn't want to be an attorney, so I interviewed for a couple of jobs that were opening up within the company, one of which was a product management job. I didn't get it despite the fact that my uncle was co-president of the company. Then—I was actually the first, and probably last, person in the history of Virgin Records to do this—I took a two-tier demotion and a pretty sizable pay-cut to work as an assistant for Aaron Jacoves. He was just promoted from, I think, Senior Director to Vice-President of A&R while I was working for him.

So how did you end up here at MCA?

I worked for Aaron for about 10 months, and I knew I probably had to get out of Virgin Records to make the next move in terms of being an A&R person. I got a job at Elektra Records, and I was there for about a year and a half. At times it was difficult because I was working for somebody whose tastes were very unlike mine.

From there I went to EMI Publishing and was there for about seven months. I really got to see how a publishing company works, especially with the concept of development and how publishers develop bands. Because part of my job was to shop tapes of bands that we published, I was able to meet people, and eventually I got some job offers from MCA Records, American Records, Warner Bros. Records and I think maybe one or two other labels. Then I kind of parlayed that into coming over here to MCA to work in A&R with Ron Oberman, who was the head of the A&R department at the time. I've been here for over two years.

MCA hasn't had the greatest track record in the past five to ten years of breaking new acts, and recently in the last four or five months you guys have gotten a new president, Jay Boberg. Jay went from being the President of IRS Records to become President of MCA Publishing and then left there to come to MCA Records. How do you think his arrival will change the way that MCA works?

Once again, I can only really speak from my experience in the last two years, but the situation now is set up very differently than it was before, namely the A&R department now reports to the president. There is not a "head of A&R," per se. In fact I think it's been a pretty common trend within the industry not to have a head of an A&R department, but to have kind of autonomous A&R people who might report to more senior level people—there is not a head of a department who acts as an "arbiter" of taste. Basically, they give you a rope and it's up to you whether you decide to hang yourself or lasso a couple of bands. It's really your choice. I think everyone here is going to be given at least three or four shots.

As Jay said when he first met us, "After three or four shots if you don't sell records, then perhaps you're not the right person to take those kind of risks." That's fair because it's a very risky business. It's very trend-oriented. The fact of the matter is, three or four shots is probably sufficient to prove yourself—and you might get it on the first try, you might not get it until the fourth. If you haven't scored by the fourth or fifth time, maybe you're better suited for another job within the business.

But getting back to your original question... I think that MCA hasn't done very well in the pop and rock arenas in the past for a couple of reasons. Probably the biggest is that I don't think they have ever had the right bands. They never had "A" level bands. I think a lot of it had to do with perhaps they might not have had "A" level A&R people that attracted "A" level bands. Or perhaps they did have "A" level A&R people that for some reason couldn't convince bands to sign here for a multitude of reasons. I don't think it was a case of MCA having great bands and not being able to break them. It was probably a case of somebody one day spreading the word that MCA wasn't a great place to be and that caught on, so it was self-perpetuating.

If you were to make a sales pitch to a band as to why they should sign with the "new" MCA, what would that sales pitch be?

I would say is that this by far is the smallest pop and rock roster of any major label out there. I think there are maybe 18 or 19 bands right now on the roster. In fact, it's probably smaller than most independent labels' rosters, which means that the company has that much more time and resources to devote to breaking those few bands that they have.

Whether you want to admit it or not, every band is in competition with every other band out there in the industry, not to mention being in competition with every band on that particular roster. The less bands that you have on a particular roster, I think the better chance you have as band of succeeding by having the company focus on you and not being distracted. Plus I think there are a lot of young, creative executives at the company that they have acquired over the last couple of years which is really a large credit to the regime prior.

Jay Boberg has brought in Abby Konowich from Maverick who has a reputation for being a great guy and good executive...

...and very effective. Anybody who can sell 3 million Candlebox records in my opinion is a genius. Jayne Simon from Geffen Records is coming here in the next couple of weeks and will be the head of Sales and Marketing.

I think that as a result, it's kind of en vogue to be at MCA. Geffen Records is here, Dreamworks is here, Almo Irving is through Geffen through Universal, the Krasnow label, 510 Records—a lot of really high-level music executives have now found themselves here at MCA. It seems to be the fertile ground for the future. I think you're going to see a continued migration of now the mid-level executives coming over to MCA from Warner Bros. which is my prediction.

Many people think that an A&R person spends eight hours a day listening to tapes. Would you tell our readers what a day in the life of an A&R person is really like?

I probably listen to, at the most, two hours of music a day that are in the demo form. Usually at least a half an hour to an hour per day of that is during my commute from my house to the office. I would say that 80-percent of my time is spent either in meetings or on the phone. I get between 50 and 75 phone calls a day from lawyers, managers, producers, studio owners, club promoters, agents, songwriters, of course artists, you name it, ASCAP and BMI, independent label owners, retail distributors—I talk to a lot of different people during the course of a day.

Is it a fair statement to say that you spend 60, 70, 80-percent of your time shepherding projects that you're already on?

I'd say about 60-percent of my time is spent with current projects, and maybe 40-percent of my time is spent keeping in contact with the group of industry people that I talk to on a regular basis about new projects or currently seeking new projects. I read record reviews, take meetings with people who have bands they want me to hear, maybe take meetings with producers who are working with a bands on spec, or various ways I hear of a band. Maybe I'll read a review or maybe someone in the office in another department will tell me about a band they saw when they were out the other night who they thought were incredible. There are more ways to get a tape to me or to get me to hear a band than you would think.

I'd imagine the one way that they can't get tapes into you is by sending them unsolicited.

Correct. I don't know exactly what MCA's policy is regarding that, but it's been my experience in the past that the reason that major record companies don't take unsolicited tapes is because their liability would be too great.

Also, it comes down to a function of time. If you accepted unsolicited tapes, you wouldn't have time to deal with the bands you've already signed. There are just too many tapes out there, and that's why you need to go through an intermediary, whether it's TAXI or an attorney or a reputable manager. There is just not enough time to listen to every tape.

I would imagine a major label like MCA must get hundreds of unsolicited tapes. I think we do and I believe we send back a little letter that says, "We regret to inform you that we cannot accept unsolicited material." A lot of companies don't even open the packages, they just send them back. Some of them just trash them, they don't even send them back. We probably get a couple of hundred unsolicited cassettes a week I would think.

I get an average of probably about 50 packages a week that are solicited—a dozen a day, more or less. Probably the majority of those are actually solicited from people that I have relationships with, or bands that I'm familiar with, or I'm hearing current or more updated material. Maybe it's just somebody that got my name that is a friend of a friend from high school or something. I even consider that somewhat solicited, as long as it's through somebody I have a relationship with.

If you were in a band from Minooka, Illinois, what would you do to get yourself noticed by a major record label?

If you're in "Wherever, Illinois," there probably aren't a whole lot of reputable managers or attorneys, so you're probably going to have to find somebody who knows a reputable manager or attorney. Or you can go through an intermediary company like TAXI that pre-screens. It's probably the cheapest thing rather than spending a couple of grand coming out to Los Angeles with no guarantees to showcase for people that probably won't even show up because they haven't even heard the tape. That's the opportunity cost. If you don't go with TAXI or an intermediary, I guess the other option is to drive or fly out to either L.A. or New York and showcase for the industry, yet there are no guarantees that even one industry person will be there. Then of course there is the other way which is just to continue to put out records independently until it catches the eye or ear of an A&R person like myself. Then I take notice. Usually in most cases, it's probably best to go through an intermediary, whether it's an attorney or manager or TAXI or whoever.

But it is possible [to get heard] without going through a company like TAXI or having a lawyer or manager if a band kind of works their area and works their region. What steps would you advise a band to take?

I think the most important thing is to probably do as much as you possibly can on your own as a band. In other words, to develop a following within your hometown, and then from that work and see if you can expand the circle of influence, so to speak, maybe 50 or 100 miles. Then eventually, hopefully you can develop a touring route. Also maybe do your own records—either produce and sell your records at the shows, maybe give them to some industry people and some college radio stations, etc. The more that you get the word out there, the more product you put in people's hands, and the more shows you play, the better chances you have of being noticed or discovered by an A&R executive.

Is it possible for that band to make a demo on a decent home studio that would be good enough to get your attention, or do they need to go a pro studio to make their demo?

I can't speak on behalf of other A&R people, but I listen to songs and not production. I would say that you don't need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to make and produce a great sounding tape. If the songs are there, that should be enough. Some of the best demo tapes I've heard have been on 4-track. I've even heard songs that have been somebody singing into a boom box. I actually think that most bands should save their money and instead of spending $5,000 doing a demo with a top-flight producer at a 24-track studio, they should maybe spend that money on touring as self-financed tour support. They should spend less money on producing expensive demos and maybe more time on writing great songs.

What do you think are some common mistakes that bands make while producing their own demos?

A lot of times, I think for the artist, the last song they've written is usually their favorite song. That's what also causes them to continue writing songs. Their favorite song is the last one they've written, whereas the A&R person's favorite song is usually the one with the most memorable or hooky melody. I think that a lot of times, bands don't know their best songs. Unfortunately, they'll usually put what they think the best song is first on a demo tape. More often than not, it's not the best song.

How might they go about finding out what the best song is prior to having contact with a real live industry person?

Various ways. I would probably suggest that they play it for a couple of dozen people and solicit people's responses. Also, by playing live you should be able to gauge a reaction from a live audience to find out which songs are working and which ones aren't. If everyone is clapping and going crazy, you know you've got something.

What kind of information should a band include in their press kit and bio?

Maybe the places that they've played, the venues and the cities that they've played. Maybe if there is a retail story, if they've sold records on their own. Maybe they have a small independent label and are putting out their own records. Maybe they're just selling a four song demo tape at a show. If they are garnering any local airplay, that is a really good thing to include.

Once you hear a tape that excites you, what are the next steps that you take as an A&R person to check out that artist?

What I usually do is call the person immediately who submitted the tape and find out various things: 1) If there are any upcoming shows, 2) If there is any more material that has been recorded that I don't have on that tape. That could either be new stuff or old stuff. Sometimes it's helpful for me to hear old stuff to get an idea of where the band is coming from and maybe how far they have progressed over a certain period of time. Also I'll call around to people around a particular locale where the band is to find out what they know about the band and what their thoughts are about the band—if the band is great live, if they never play live, if it's only a studio thing.

How much time typically might pass from when you first hear that demo until a deal gets signed, if you do in fact want to sign a band?

The case of The Samples is probably an extreme—that has taken over the course of five years. They've put out five records on their own. Unfortunately, I would say it doesn't happen as quickly as you might expect or an artist might hope. It's not a case where you hear a band on Monday, you bring them in on Tuesday, you sign the deal Wednesday, and Thursday you have a gold record. Unfortunately things don't operate that quickly, but I would say a pretty good window of time is probably a three to six month period.

How much time would typically pass between when you sign the band and when the record actually comes out?

That depends on if you're dealing with a band [who has already made a record]. For example, take a band like Bobgoblin. The record is going to pretty much be done at the end of March, so I think you could probably turn that around in about two months. Whereas, if I was to sign a band that had not made their record yet, they might need a couple of months to write, and then they might want to go into the studio in three or four months, and then they might be in the studio for two or three months. Then maybe you don't want to put it out in the fourth quarter (October, November, December). That could take maybe about a year, maybe a year and a half. I would say that usually from the time that you sign a band to the time that a record is out is usually within a year.

Why wouldn't you want to put a record out in the fourth quarter?

For a debut band, I think it's really tough to put a record out in the fourth quarter because traditionally, record companies have released their super-star artists fourth quarter for impulsive Christmas shoppers. Usually, if you're trying to break a new artist, a "baby" band, you want to be able to compete in anything other than the fourth quarter.

Would you give me some examples of types of deals that are typical throughout the industry, not just here at MCA. What is a modest deal, what is a mid-sized deal, what is a "Janet Jackson" deal?

You could have, depending on the band's negotiating power and the label's interest and how many labels might be interested in a particular band, a situation where you could make a very small commitment, like a commitment to only record—not even put out—a single. In most cases, you could have a situation where a label commits to doing a full-length record which is the standard I guess. In the case of dance or pop, you could actually even do a singles deal. I would say that the average deal probably would range from a one-album deal, not "firm," which means that the record company is obligated to pay for the recording, mixing, and mastering of an artist, but they're not even obligated to release it. I would say that that's probably the average deal, a one-album deal with maybe six or seven options—the record company's option, not the band's option which tends to be a major point of misunderstanding among artists when they go around telling their friends that they have a seven-album deal. It's not a seven-album deal, it's a one-album deal with six options at the record company's option.

A two or three album firm deal is probably the next step, and that's usually when there are two or three or four labels vying for an artist. I've seen some of the best records made for a couple of thousand dollars, or you could spend a half a million dollars. Michael Jackson might spend a million dollars making a record. I would say the average is probably in the $75,000 to $200,000 range to record a record. I would say the average points are probably in the 12 to 13-percent range, with escalations usually at half a million and a million (units sold).

Labels typically spend about a million bucks in the first year to break a new act. Can you give our readers a rough breakdown of where that money goes? Let's say that they spend about $200,000 on the recording of a record. Say they give the band $50,000 to live on. Then the label wants the band to tour so they buy them a van. That costs maybe $50,000, and then on top of that, maybe they'll spend another couple hundred thousand in the next year sending them on the road as a support act or maybe even headlining small clubs. We're up to probably $500,000 there. Maybe we might want to do two videos. They might be $75,000 a piece, so maybe we're at $650,000 there. Then we probably want to do some independent promotion, hire some independent promotion people to help out with some key radio stations. That might be an extra $100,000, so we're at $750,000 there. Then say for example the band wants to buy some new equipment. That might be an extra $50,000. Maybe the label wants to make some t-shirts or some weird promotional items. That might be an extra 30 or 40 or $50,000. Maybe you might do an EPK [Electronic Press Kit] that is only for internal use that maybe costs an extra $25,000. It's not that hard to get to a million dollars. I think that's what Bob Krasnow at Elektra used to called "the million dollar bullet." All told, it's a lot easier to get up to that million-dollar mark than you think.

Of course when you get up to that million-dollar mark, it's not like it is a gift form the record company. It's a loan.

Right, it's a loan against future royalties, what we call backing "unrecouped." Obviously the understanding is, the more of the label's money you spend up front, the more record sales you have to make back in order to see royalty #1. If you're a million dollars in the hole, that's a million dollars worth of royalties that you need to make back before you see your first penny.

However, the flip side of it is, say you're a million dollars in the hole and you don't sell any records, the record company can't then repossess your apartment and your equipment. So it's like a loan in that the record company gets their money back before you see any money, but the record company can't go and repossess your equipment, etc. because you haven't sold enough records.

So basically you should take the advance, spend as little as you can in the studio, and buy as many toys for yourself as you can!

Perhaps! [Laughs] It depends on how you look at it. If you want a career, I think the best thing is to probably spend as little money as possible so you're not totally beholden to the record company. That just means that you see royalty rates that much quicker.

How important is the A&R person to the band after the deal has been signed?

I think an A&R person's role varies at different labels. Here at MCA for example, I know I work very closely with the product managers ushering a project through the different stages of the company, if you look at it like an assembly line. At other companies, the A&R person might sign the band, make the record, and then hand the record off to a product manger. It depends, but usually the A&R person is the person who is the main cheerleader of the band within the company, rallying the different people to see the band or to hear particular songs. That person usually is the person that lives and dies by the band. In other words, if the band sells no records and there are maybe three or four instances like that, then that A&R person might not have a long A&R career. On the other hand, if they end up selling a lot of records, the A&R person can be promoted, and maybe that person will become the president of the record company. It's a high risk.

What are some of the other key players at the record company who are involved in breaking a new act?

Obviously the top executives of a company usually set the agenda and will set the parameters—whether it's the amount of money that they are going to spend to market the band, usually what type of priority they are, what type of radio format they are going to go for. I would say the head of Promotion is extremely important, especially in terms of picking a single. The head of Marketing is extremely important in terms of properly marketing the band—making sure the advertising is in the right publications, talking to the right retailers.

I also think the tour marketing person happens to be very important in terms of packaging tours. A lot of bands that I like are touring bands, not studio bands. For me the live thing is very important, so that person plays a key role in developing the band on a live scale. The Creative Services people are extremely important in terms of imaging the band—maybe on an album cover, maybe for an advertisement that is going to appear in a magazine, maybe for a press release, maybe for a long-form video if the band becomes successful.

Jay Boberg (MCA' s President), is really into the whole "team" idea which I think maybe came out of A&M. It's not just one person who is responsible for breaking a band. If you look at any successful artist, usually there is a team of devoted people behind it—the A&R person, the marketing person, a product manger, maybe an art director, maybe a promotion person in a particular radio format. It's not just one person, it's usually a team of a half a dozen or a dozen people, and not just in the home base. Those regional people are what we call "Promotion and Marketing Managers" and we have a couple dozen of those people out in the field in different locales that aren't Los Angeles or New York. They are dealing with everyone in between the coasts who buy records. A lot of people in between New York and L.A. buy records.

There seems to be more band-related material on the charts these days than there are self-contained artists. There are very few adult contemporary artists—Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Vanessa Williams—I think that has shut some doors for some songwriters for the moment in that vein anyway. Do you have any advice for songwriters?

I think in the music business, like a lot of other businesses in entertainment, there are cycles. Currently I think we are in a cycle where these self-contained artists, usually bands, are at the top of the charts. Maybe five years ago it was probably the peak time for "performers," those people who perhaps just sang but did not write their own material. I think that will come back. I think everything comes back in cycles and that the cycles get shorter and shorter with the advent of better and better technology. I think in the next three to five years that is going to come back.

There are a lot of other avenues for songs besides being covered by an artist. Obviously, film and television is a big one and also with all of the interactive and multimedia stuff going on more opportunities will arise. A great song is a great song. I wouldn't be so concerned about it not being the "right time" for outside material because that will come back. By the time the person writes that great song, we'll probably be back in that era where the outside song rules over the self-contained artist.

People ask all the time, "If you guys are searching so hard for stuff, if the A&R community is working so hard to find good stuff, why is there so much crap on the radio?"

I think a lot of it right now is that radio tends to be very hit-driven, meaning that if you have a hit song you can get on the radio. On the other hand, no one might know who you are in a year. That's the down-side of hit-driven radio. I think that maybe ten years ago it was more about touring bands, whereas now if you have a hit song you can get on the radio. I think that music becomes very disposable in that type of era. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I think we're in that type of era right now. I think things are going to swing back and radio will hopefully be less hit-oriented than it is now, where they'll maybe play a second and a third track by a band that they might not have earlier. I think you're going to start seeing more of that rather than hearing a hit song by a band, a one-hit wonder, and then never hearing them again.

Do you think AAA radio is the harbinger of things to come in that regard?

Yeah, I think AAA radio is a really great place to start. You don't really sell a whole lot of records unless you crossover into another radio format. A perfect example is the Counting Crows. They maybe got a lot of AAA airplay initially and then crossed over pretty early I think to commercial alternative. I think AAA radio is definitely a great niche. I still don't know if it is that responsible for selling a whole lot of records on its own. It is usually when it is coupled with another radio format that you see success.

What do you like best about what you do for a living?

Something that I really love is seeing a band maybe in front of two or three people, or hearing a tape in my car coming back from work at 8 p.m., and all of a sudden being completely blown away. A lot of my job is looking for the needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, you have to go through a lot of hay to find that needle. When you find that needle or that gem, there is nothing like it.


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