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
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 obviousthat
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 trendspeople
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 leaderslike 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 itit 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
bandsbands 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
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
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 waysartistically
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 thereMTV'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
showthat'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 toobut 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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