Interviewed by Bud Scoppa

What areas of music would you say the major labels are focusing on these days in their search for viable talent?

The electronic thing, obviously. Whether it's valid in terms of being the future of music or not, it's being talked about so much. It's definitely something that people are trying to explore; to educate themselves about it. People have been so steeped in rock & roll that they really have neglected to pay attention to either the dance market or the electronic music market. I think people are trying to move more into that area. They're trying to move into pop-oriented dance music as well as stuff that's techno, trip-hop, ambient dance music. I think they'd like to have another LaBouche.

I would say there's a lot more attention being paid to heavy music now, because it's been proven that a band like Korn can sell a lot of records without a lot of support from MTV or a lot of [radio] airplay. I think that's something people would like to have on their roster, an artist that can do that. Obviously, radio is in real flux and there's a limited number of slots there and a limited number of slots at MTV. Everybody's looking for that self-supportive artist, which could be a really heavy rock act that's got a real fan base and sells its records off of touring and word of mouth. Or it could be a young punk band that does the same thing. Or an artist like an Ani DiFranco type that's really built up their own thing. You see all this interest in Sister Soleil [just signed by Universal Records] right now, and the reason for that is that she has marketed and released her own record and been really successful, not just in having the gumption to put out her own record, but also doing some really creative marketing around it. People want something that is already semi-created, not something they have to start from ground zero.

In the wake of the breakthroughs of Hootie & the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band, are A&R people looking for other bands who have built regional fan bases?

Most of those bands have been signed by now. Immediately following Hootie, everybody took a look at every region of the United States. Any band that had a significant following with significant record sales got snapped up. People had finally caught on to what should have been obvious—that if a band is doing that well on their own, given the support and firepower of a major label, they ought to be able to do several times better. It's not always the case, of course.

That sounds like a more objective way of talent scouting, as opposed to falling in love with a band and signing it out of personal passion. But it does make good business sense to have hard data that you can support your interest with, like significant regional sales of an indie record, sellout tours or T-shirt sales. In fact, that kind of data could be the basis of interest rather than the music itself.

It's practical A&R, not seat-of-your-pants A&R that's important.

There's a lot of speculation in the music business about trends—people are wondering whether electronica or alternative-country or whatever will be the next big thing. I have a feeling that ultimately the way the mainstream moves has more to do with the talents of particular individuals being manifested in a specific way than it does with some kind of general stylistic movement taking over rock. Like if Beck had made an acoustic record, maybe it wouldn't have been as big a seller as Odelay, but it probably still would have been a significant album that people paid attention to because of his talent.

Absolutely. There's always a spearhead to a movement. I've always been a believer in observing market trends and lifestyle trends in areas unrelated to music. I've always believed that there is a Zeitgeist and you have to keep your eye on it. It does affect musical trends to a certain extent; but in terms of an overwhelming change in the way music sounds, it's usually a few musical leaders—like a Nirvana, etc., and bunch of followers. Before Nirvana there were the Melvins and early Mudhoney; then you have Nirvana, who take it to a commercial peak and blow it out; and then you have a constant stream of bands that follow in their footsteps, some of them also great bands.

There's nothing invalid about an artist being inspired by another artist; in fact, it's inevitable. The resistance to that notion comes from a kind of cynicism that's built into the culture of distrusting things that seem to be motivated by the desire to cash in on something that's commercially successful. But it's just as likely that the talented bands who were inspired by Nirvana were inspired by the music, not by the fact that they became very successful.

Exactly. And in the same way that Nirvana was so blatantly inspired by the Pixies, Mudhoney, the Melvins and a million other bands.

The new U2 album, Pop, has drawn criticism for what some reviewers see as blatantly appropriating elements of electronic music in order to be seen as hip and trendy. But others see it as the band reading the Zeitgeist and exploring the music of the moment.

There's a fine line between reading the Zeitgeist and exploring the music of the moment and spying a trend and blatantly trying to cash in. You could read it as either one. It's just how cynical you are when you look at it. I think when you see an artist like U2 or David Bowie appropriating, if you will, elements of contemporary dance and electronic music into what they do, it's not necessarily a calculated move. Here comes feminine metaphor, which is what I always do: There's a thing in fashion known as "adjusting your eye," which means basically if hemlines are short this year and next year skirts will be long, the first time you see long skirts on the fashion runway it looks weird to you. Then, after a while, you see it enough and it starts to look good to you. Then it filters down into popular consciousness and starts appearing in ready-to-wear and knock-offs and on the streets of Peoria. Pretty soon it looks normal to everybody. It works for long skirts, for blue nail polish and it also works for techno music. It's an element that was there and all of a sudden it's everywhere and your ear adjusts. It seems natural. So if I wake up this year and I put on a floor-length skirt, it doesn't even mean that I thought very hard about it—it just started to look right to me. If I'm Bono or the Edge and I want to make this kind of a record with this kind of an influence, it could just sound right to me. That's valid.

Continuing our focus on trends, this decade has been dominated by what has come to be called "alternative" rock. But record sales have flattened out, several alternative superstars have released albums that were big commercial disappointments, and now a lot of industry watchers are saying that alternative is dead. What's your view?

What the fuck is alternative? Beck, with elements of just about everything in it? Tool, who are like a heavy progressive rock band? Metallica, who are a metal band? Korn, who are also a metal, but completely different type? No Doubt, who are a pop band that used to be kind of a punk-ska band? Bush, which is pure guitar-rock band? The Wallflowers, classic rock? Jewel, folk music with a Gen-X sensibility?

So much of the alternative tag comes from how the record's marketed and presented and where it's springboarded from. Something like Jewel or the Wallflowers are perfect examples, because those could be couched in almost any kind of terms. It's just how they come to the attention of the public. Fiona Apple is the same thing.

So the current connotation of the term "alternative" has changed a great deal from when it was first used. There was a kind of aesthetic connotation initially. Now it seems to have to have more to do with the positioning of a "product" than a particular kind of musical approach.

Oh, yeah. I think when people say alternative rock is dead, they are referring to a specific brand of alternative music, the post-Nirvana, heavy-guitar-angst bands; maybe also the nerdier, bespectacled guitar-angst bands—bands that are a little less heavy, more indie-rock in sensibility. I think there's a surfeit of these bands. Only a few bands are going to make it in any year's crop of new bands anyway; there's a huge percentage of these bands that are failing miserably. It doesn't necessarily indicate the death of the music; it just means that there were too many of those bands that got signed and weren't ready or good enough in the first place.

Do you think the A&R community has learned that lesson?

Oh, yes. You look at the waves of layoffs and waves of roster trimmings in the past year and a half or so, I'd say it came home pretty clearly to everyone.

It does seem that the new model for a successful label is Interscope. It's putting out a few records, each of which is totally prioritized as a marketing project, and each of which has a reason to be released in the first place.

Yes. Why sign a hundred acts and break five of them? Theoretically, if you have a functional marketing and promotion apparatus and there was a reason for the acts to be signed in the first place, you should be able to break a greater percentage of your roster if you keep the number of bands-to-firepower ratio down, if you sign fewer things and focus more on what you have signed. That's what we try to do at Work. That's why we have a roster of 20 artists today.

When you first started here in early 1995, we talked about the fact that it was going to be difficult to keep the roster small enough.

It hasn't been that difficult. We have a real select roster of artists that we think are musically really high-quality and at the same time have a fair chance in the marketplace. "Fair" meaning a really great chance, given that it's jaw-droppingly competitive out there. Everything that any one of us has considered signing, we hold up against an artist like Fiona Apple, who has had a beautifully developed career to this point, who has a gold album, and who we all think is artistically incredible. We hold everything up against a model like that in all ways—artistically and in terms of the marketplace. If it pales in comparison, we stop thinking about it. There is just no reason for us to add to the roster unless something holds up against everything else we have. I think that's served us really well, because now we sign really, really carefully.

What's the trend these days in terms of record deals? Are buzz bands still getting big money and perks when they're signed?

I would say that the wave of signing of alternative bands has really done artists a favor in the sense that there are things that artists will get in contracts now that they never would have gotten before. There is a definite trend in artist-friendliness because of the competition that came out of that frenzy. Issues like reversion of masters are now being discussed. Bands get things guaranteed in contracts, like tour support, that didn't used to be a given. It's a healthy trend for artists in that sense. Financially, deals have ballooned, which I'm not sure is such a good thing.

What that really means is that these bands are being loaned more money on the front end of the deal by the labels.

Exactly. The potential for disaster is much greater on the back end.

The expectations are commensurately greater according to the dollar amount that's thrown out initially. I do think that the traditional record deal has been so favorable to the record company, it's only fair that some of these things start coming more into balance.

It really couldn't have gone back the other way. There's a trend towards considering artist's needs in a million different ways. If you have an artist who's created their own career by touring, selling records out of the back of the van, doing their own marketing and publicity, there's just a certain amount of room that now you would carve in a deal to accommodate that person so that they can continue to run things the way they want to. A lot of artists are much more involved in their careers than they ever used to be.

Are living expenses addressed in deals?

Quite often, yes.

The era of one-album deals with an option on album two is over with for any band that's being sought after, right?

I would agree with that. That is also born out of the fact that it's so intensely competitive out there. Artists and managers are very aware of the tendency of a label to possibly cut its losses if the first record doesn't sell. The bigger the deal is, the more likely [that scenario] would be. As an artist, you want a guaranteed second record in order to make your label stand behind you. It doesn't always turn out that way, but it's a good concept.

Are radio and MTV as powerful as ever? It seems like they comprise the big constant in the music industry.

It has been the big constant for quite a while now and certainly continues to be. The future is a little doubtful from a practical standpoint, because MTV's music programming is diminishing, which they are fully happy to admit. The percentage of music coverage has shrunk considerably. But, if you look at the whole electronic thing, that was pretty much the jumping-off point there—MTV's sudden announcement that they wanted to focus more on pop, dance and electronic music. Everyone perked up there ears. Wouldn't you? If MTV came to you and said, "I hear you're looking at Band X, and if you sign that, we're going to be supporting that." You would sign it. Like, okay, where do I sign?

That's one way of turning an idealist into a pragmatist immediately.

Certainly, with something like techno, if MTV makes a statement that they are going to support techno... There are really only four or five significant techno bands out there right now that are known, have great songs and have a live show, which everybody seems to feel is real important to that medium right now. There's only a few of those, and of course, all of them are going to be snapped up immediately. Since only a couple of them, Underworld and Prodigy, were in any way available to A&R people for any kind of deal, that was the first thing anyone went for.
I think the statement that MTV made has really affected what people are going after. It's odd, because they're not playing the hell out of that kind of music. They're playing Prodigy and the Chemical Bros. and they have the Amp show—that's pretty much the extent of electronic support they've given so far. I'm sure that will change.

But to see MTV lead in any way on a trend is remarkable. It would seem that the mere perception that MTV is going to put its clout behind a particular style of music is big news, whether it's turns out to be true or not.

When a medium senses its power like that, it's almost like, "Oh, we can do this, we can make a difference." Radio's been doing it for a couple of years now. A really influential modern rock station like KROQ (in L. A.) will pick up a record that's on an indie or on import that's not being played anywhere else and they'll champion it. It will break out and become a signing frenzy, or it will become a really huge independent record because of their support. It didn't used to be that way. The record companies used to lead the way. They would create what would happen around the act and kind of drag the marketplace with them. Now you see the media doing that instead, which I think is an interesting shift in the balance of power. It makes it hard for us.

KROQ does seem to be championing certain non-mainstream records as a strategy for maintaining the perception of hipness. But to mistake that for an interest in artist development is a big mistake. They're interested in their ability to sell advertising.

I'm sure there are music lovers at alternative radio too—but just like the record companies, they have a bottom line to answer to. We all do. We can never lose sight of that.


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