Bonnie Raitt and Tim Devine

Interviewed by Michael Laskow
part two  |  part one

You have been involved in bringing some outside labels into the Columbia fold. Tell us about that.

When I first came here, I tried to look at some areas we could strengthen. When Rick Rubin's deal ended at Warners, I advocated bringing his American Recordings label back to Columbia. Rick had had his biggest records here in the 80's with the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and LL Cool J. His work with Tom Petty and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among others made him one of the best producers in America as well. The first record he did here was System of A Down, which has done very well obviously, and he's got some exciting new projects coming soon from bands like Palo Alto and Loudermilk. I also brought in Aware Records run by a guy named Gregg Latterman out of Chicago. They were the first label to provide national exposure to some regional bands like Hootie and the Blowfish, Better Than Ezra, the Verve Pipe and Tabatha's Secret, who eventually became Matchbox 20. We put the first Train record through Aware and they have a great slate of new artists coming this year. We are putting the finishing touches on a new label with Andy Gould and Ric Wake. Andy manages a number of successful bands in the hard rock genre, including Rob Zombie, Powerman 5000, Static X and Monster Magnet. Our first signing is a band from Florida called Endo which just did some work with Static's producer Ulrich Wild, which will knock you on your ass!

I think that musicians think, "Oh if I sign with a major, they're going to rape me monetarily and I'll be one of 230 acts that they're going to release this year. What are my chances of getting noticed?" However, my take is, those odds are probably better than being signed to an indie label that is going to put out 2,000 CDs per acts and has a marketing budget of $5,000 at best.

Right.

Musicians come up to me in every city and say, "I've got finished product, and I'm just looking for a record company to distribute me." Would you please explain the fact and fantasy involved in that scenario? Do record companies ever just find an act and say, "Gee, you did such a good job with your ADAT and your Mackie, we're going to put this record out as is, and we're just distributing it for you."

Record companies can and do pick up finished masters. I think it just depends on the material you're given. When I heard Train, they had a finished independent record that they had just begun selling in the Bay Area. We went and recorded two additional songs with Matt Wallace and resequenced and remastered the record, but essentially, that debut album (that eventually went platinum) is the result of the creative work embodied in their independent release.

However, record companies are so much more than just a distribution vehicle. If somebody is merely looking for distribution, they should probably contact an independent distributor, because a record company is not a distribution company. The record companies have names like Columbia, Epic, Warner Bros., Atlantic, RCA, Capitol, Virgin and Arista. The distributors are the companies known as Sony, WEA, BMG, Universal, etc. These are two closely related, but ultimately different, kinds of companies.

And the major distributors don't take on unsigned, unknown independent artists and put them in their chain, though, do they? I imagine only an indie distributor like RED would take them on.

Yes. Sony owns a piece of an independent distributor named RED. In fact, I have put records out through RED as a way of developing them outside the major label system.

Is that because RED has distribution to stores and buyers that more closely fit the demographic that you're looking for in that project?

Sometimes. I think it can more closely fit the needs of certain projects without engaging the major label machinery at first. I've done this on records like Train. I did it with Dr. Octagon rapper Kool Keith. We began the career of a guy named P.J. Olsson by putting an independent EP through RED prior to his Columbia debut.

Have you met with desirable results by doing it?

Yes, it can be a good way to warm up the marketplace before pushing the big button on a project.

So it's kind of a test run, if you will. You're getting a feel for market acceptance before you spend the big bucks?

Sure, it can be a way to lay a base for an artist to set up the next hopefully successful venture with a major. I signed a band out of Orange County called Zebrahead who is in the Offspring/Blink 182 vein. They had wanted to put out an independent record through a Southern California label named Dr. Dream. I was happy to let them go ahead and do that because it gave them a piece of product to tour behind, and it allowed them to create a fanbase at the same time they were working on their debut for us. They ended up getting on the Warped tour as a result of that release, had a number one video on MTV2 and went on to sell 100,000 copies of their debut album, so it can be a win-win situation under the right circumstances.

A&R people always ask us to find them "something new and different." But when we do, they squirm in their seats and pass on the act. Are they just looking for more of the same, but with a new twist, or are they really looking for something new?

I can't speak for other A&R people, but as far as I'm concerned artistic originality is the zenith of what we look for. There's no denying the most important artists over time are the true originals. When the history of the music business is written, there are always big chapters on Dylan, Hendrix, Springsteen, Bowie, Sly Stone, Kurt Cobain, etc. An A&R person would give their eye teeth to discover just one of them. However, "new and different," doesn't necessarily mean "good and marketable." You can be different and just not fit the game so it's a judgement call. Nowadays, it's really hard to get something different through. Programmers want catchy hits, pure and simple. This can often result in a sort of generic, pablum rock. I don't have to name the bands but we all know them. Trouble is, without an overall importance, your days are numbered. You may be big today, but you're not gonna be making records as long as Neil Young or Lauryn Hill. The only advice I can give to young musicians is to try the best you can to make a real difference.

How about if an act says to you, "Our music covers a wide range of genres." How would you feel about that?

I think an act has to be focused on what they do best and has to come to the table with a largely singular vision before branching out musically. Even the Beatles, who went on to be some of the most creative and mind-expanding musicians of all time, still began as a four-piece pop band. Essentially, I would say figure out what you do best and put that best foot forward. If somebody is not interested in that, then you probably have to rethink your whole equation.

What is a typical day for you like in the world of A&R?

Surprisingly, it's not what a lot of people think . . .

You mean you don't listen to music from 8:30 am to 7:30 at night, non-stop?

I am constantly running into people who think an A&R person's job is to listen to demo tapes all day until they find one they like. This is far from the case although we take a lot of pitches, do showcases and demo deals frequently as well.

A good A&R person spends a lot of time working with their existing roster to try to develop it, both creatively and eventually in the marketplace. I spend a lot of my time, of course, building the records of the acts I work with. I work with them creatively with songs and song structure, and on the dynamics of recording, the choice of studio and producer, and trying to assist in the creative realization of the artist's vision, combined with the marketplace necessities for singles to sell the record.

I've also worked with a lot of artists that I may not have signed, because of personnel changes at a label and so forth, so that adds to one's responsibilities, too. At various times I have worked with acts like the Beastie Boys, Butthole Surfers, Cocteau Twins, Luscious Jackson, Soul Asylum, Stabbing Westward, the Offspring and even Paul McCartney handling their A&R duties after they were signed by someone else along the way. You try to ultilize your resources to lend a hand to artists and managers in navigating the complexities of this business.

Because it's a packaged goods business as well and each and every project is completely unique from each other, there are a lot of below-the-radar elements involved with the nuts and bolts of releasing records. Things the public doesn't really think about like label copy, b-sides for different territories, remixes for various formats of clubs and radio, packaging issues, cover art for albums and singles, etc. Because of my marketing background, I interact with the various departments within Columbia to achieve the best results for my artists in terms of exposure, promotion, publicity, touring, video, retail programs, online marketing, international, etc. Fortunately, we've got a great staff of professionals in every area who are the best at what they do yet still welcome input and work on a collaborative basis to achieve as much success as possible for the artists we represent.

How many artists a year do you typically sign personally?

I would say I probably sign about three or four acts a year.

Are those acts that you find, or is it a combination of acts you find and acts that people in your department find and you give the green light to?

I have two scouts in this office, Jon Pikus, who works with me on Crazytown and Liars Inc., and Barry Squire, that go out every night and look for bands, cover conventions and go through all of the submissions that come in the mail, as do I. We also have John Weakland, who signed Neve and Union Underground, and Rod Kukla who both report to John Kalodner here in LA. We have a lot of coverage both on this coast and New York as well as a series of regional reps around the country. So we hear about most of the good stuff out there.

Do you take unsolicited tapes?

No, not really. The flood of material coming into an A&R office every week can be upwards of several hundreds submissions. When you've worked in the business as long as I have, you know a lot of people, and a lot of people know you. All I can say is there are always more pitches than the day is long. My time for dealing with new pitches is somewhat limited. So I try to start at the top of the pyramid and work down.

In other words, the top of the pyramid are the people you have the closest relationships with, and you work your way down from there?

Yeah. I'm not just looking for an act that is "good enough," or "deserves a deal." Every day that I come in, I'm looking to find the best act the world has to offer. Of course, that's easier said than done, but it's also the only thing that really matters. Right now I'm handling about a dozen artists. Given all the aspects of the job, you have to be very selective about who you add to that list.

Is it the time element, or because you don't want conflicts where you have two artists that are too similar to each other, or all of the above?

First of all, let's be honest. There aren't dozens of brilliant unsigned artists sitting around looking for record deals. If anything, this industry has over-signed, not under-signed. Secondly, like being a manager, an A&R person—or a record company for that matter—can only take on so many artists and still fulfill the qualitative and quantitative commitment to the artists that you've already acquired. You want to do the best possible job for every artist you sign, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of work. It doesn't allow room to sign a new band every week if you're doing your job right.

TAXI shopped Tal Bachman to at least a dozen major label A&R people about two years before you signed him. What did you hear that everybody else didn't?

A couple of things happened. I saw that the end was near for the current wave of indie lo-fi four-piece shoegazing bands that had had a good run throughout the early Nineties. A lot of the people who passed on Tal did so because I think they thought he wasn't cool enough. But what I saw was what I referred to before when I was talking about the consistency of material. Actually, it was one of your TAXI screeners, Jackie Holland, who first brought Tal to my attention. When she played me the tape, I heard hit, after hit, after hit. He flew to New York to showcase. I brought our chairman, Don Ienner, down to see him at Mercury Lounge. And three songs into the show, Donnie had me go to the car to call Tal's lawyer and make the deal. Tal is a great pop-rock singer-songwriter. He has written over a dozen songs that could someday be classic copyrights. We met with a bunch of producers and eventually did a great record over in Maui with a great guy, Bob Rock. At the time, Bob had wanted to get out from under the heavy metal producer tag with Metallica, Motley Crue, the Cult, etc.

I thought that was an interesting choice for producer. Was that your call or Tal's call?

We talked to a lot of different producers; Chris Thomas, Jerry Harrison, Rupert Hine, etc. But Bob turned out to be the perfect match. A lot of people may not know of Bob's background in bands like the Payolas and Rock & Hyde, who were on I.R.S. and Capitol respectively. Bob was a pop-rock writer-performer himself before he became a hard rock record producer. Because Bob and Tal are both from Vancouver, and Bob knew of Tal growing up, we all thought this was the perfect combination for Tal's debut album. The fact that Bob had a studio in Maui was just icing on the cake. And now Tal is at work demoing songs for album two.

Let's talk about Cake for a minute. What made you guys decide to do that signing? How long had you been romancing the band? What was it that first got you intrigued?

Will Botwin and I became aware that Cake was coming to the end of their deal with Capricorn. Will and I had always been fans of the group, and we decided to pursue bringing them to Columbia. They are a great self-contained creative unit. Their frontman John McCrea has a very distinctive musical vision. Based on their previous platinum level success, we felt we could take them to the next level on a worldwide basis. We spent the better part of a year pursuing them about joining us here at Columbia. They are working on their first record for us right now.

What do you think the next five years in the music industry might look like overall?

No one has a crystal ball as to where this business is headed. It's pretty obvious that the Internet will have a large role to play within it. Certainly more musicians will have access to a greater audience. The public, however, it strikes me, will always need some kind of filtering mechanism to help separate quality music from that which is not. There are certainly systems in place to deal with that already—record labels, radio stations, critical press, etc. The greater number of artists that come to market will inherently require greater levels of promotion to ultimately reach a mass audience. However, once the business can get a handle on monetizing digital music for the benefit of all the hard working musicians, producers, engineers, publishing, labels, and managers, the better off all musicians will be.

How about musically? How long do you think the current pop trend will last?

I've seen a lot of cycles come and go. Every time some musical trend gets bigger than life itself, it seems that we are historically around the corner from something new happening. It was true in 1967 when the psychedelic groups overtook the pop crooners. It was true in 1987 when new wave and punk out of Britain and the U.S. knocked off the corporate rock of the Seventies, and it will probably be true of the current wave in teen pop. Who will be the next Jimi Hendrix, the next John Lennon, the next Kurt Cobain to break through and change the world? That's what makes this job interesting, isn't it?


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