Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Southern California. I'm a product of this environment.
I went to Grant High School. Amongst my classmates were Steve Lukather
and Steve Porcaro from Toto, and a year behind me was Johnette Napolitano
who went onto Concrete Blonde semi-greatness. We were a rock & roll
school. I've been here my whole life, since the day I was born.
What was it that first got you interested in the music business?
Well, I suppose buying the Beatles records when they came out. I still
have my vinyl copies of Meet the Beatles and the Second album and Sgt.
Peppers and The White Album. That's what touched me musically. My first
concert was the Crosby, Stills and Nash "Four Way Street" show at the
Forum where they recorded the record. I think that was 1972. I was in
junior high school. Music is just a part of my life. I fell into it
as a career. It just kind of happened.
How did you fall into it?
I guess I wasn't the coolest kid when I was in school. I was the one
who was typing my notes at home and studying a lot. I had a good grade
point average up until UCLA when I discovered drugs, Devo and Talking
Heads. My compatriots at UCLA were people like Perry Watts-Russell (Capitol
A&R) and Greg Souders, who's at Warner Chappell (Publishing), Liz Heller,
who's at Capitol. We had a very big clique at collegewe were a "new
wave" clique. I really don't have any musical talent. I guess I'm just
kind of a musical voyeur.
My first foray
into this business was selling t-shirts for Todd Rundgren for six months
in 1979 on his tour. I met a guy named Danny O'Connor, who I'm still
friends with today, who was doing his merchandising. I went to 14 Todd
Rundgren shows in seven nights at the Roxy. He still holds the record
there. I was there at every showme, my Todd Rundgren friends, and
my brother. This guy saw me out in front the last night and said, "You've
been here every night." I said, "Well, we're Runts." That's what we
called ourselves. "We worship Todd." I had a shirt that I had made that
said "Todd is Godd." He said, "Would you want to come out on the road?"
I was really not prepared mentally because I grew up in the Valley,
and I'm from a divorced homemy mother raised me and my brotherand
I had never really been any place. I said okay, packed up and took one
bag with me and went on the road for about six weeks. Then I freaked
out in Toledo one night and just had to get home. I came home and went
to work for UCLA for a year until I got my first job in journalism at
Gambling Times magazine. That was about 1980, which ultimately led me
to a job interview with Larry Flynt (of Hustler magazine fame) who I
worked for 13 years.
So how did you turn your 13 years with Larry Flynt into a career
as an A&R person at Arista?
I started with Hustler magazine as an associate editor in 1981. The
first two years I was there, I was reviewing porno movies and doing
humor shoots. I was in this incredible world of decadence. It was truly
exciting. Larry Flynt had parties at his house and Jack Nicholson, Timothy
Leary and G. Gordon Liddy and all these wacky characters would be there.
I did everything at Hustler for about six years.
wife Althea had an idea to start a rock magazine called Rip which was
the first non-sex publication at Flynt Publications. The one thing that
Larry taught me in my years at Hustler was to be completely brash. Don't
let anybody mess with you and just go for the jugularjournalistically
and in entertainment. There is a shock value to everything, and he believed
everybody should push the envelope. That's how he made millions with
no formal education whatsoever. I took that ethic, and after six months
after Rip started, I walked into his office and I said, "I think you're
doing something wrong with this magazine, and I really want to get out
of the adult stuff. I have listened to and loved rock music my entire
life. Let me do this magazine." They gave it to me in its sixth issue.
I think it's celebrating its tenth anniversary in December. Since I
left it's been a different place, but the years when I took over Rip
and built the magazine, I used it as a baseas the center of my hard-rock
went out and promoted the magazine everywhere. I hung out with some
people at MTV, and I got to know them and did a promotion with them.
That promotion was a "Megadeth Party Bus" promotion. Carol Donovan,
who was the producer of "Headbanger's Ball" at the time, who is now
the executive producer of almost everything including the Video Music
Awards on MTV, said "We should develop a spot for you personally on
MTV." I said, "That's a great idea, let's do it." So that led to two
years as "Friend At Large" which was a segment I did on "Headbanger's
Ball." Without script or any preparation, I would just tell kids what
was happening with their favorite bands for like three minutes, two
segments a night.
at that same time I was introduced to the people at Hits magazine by
Michael Lippman, who is sort of like my godfather in this business.
I started this "Pedal To the Metal" section of Hits which was the hard-rock
section. That year my visibility in the industry just ballooned. That
then led me to a syndicated radio show with Norm Pattiz and Westwood
One, which I did for 18 months, called "Pirate Radio." I had all that
going at one time, including a movie soundtrack for Fox for the film
"Airheads." We put White Zombie and Primus and Candlebox and all these
cool bands on it. I did the music and made great friends. Adam Sandler
became a great friend from that film as well as Steve Buscemi. It was
a blast. It didn't sell all that well, but what it did do, was to make
the people at Arista aware of my existence, especially when I brought
in White Zombie before they really broke and got them in the film.
months of meetings, I decided to take the plunge. I've worn so many
hats in this business, why not go "inside" and learn more? I am not
arrogant about knowing everything in this business. As of my two-year
experience herewhich brings us up to dateI didn't know anything
about the inside of a record company, the inner workings, the bureaucracy,
the politics, the in-fighting, the positioning, the posturing, the passion,
the altering-of-history stories, and the spins.
How do you see that manifesting itself?
You find what words can do to translate a situation from an A&R stand-point
into something that is completely unreal. Completely. Like a false bidding
war. Or a situation where a band is all of a sudden three times more
expensive than they were a month-and-a-half agosimply based on words
which have no basis in reality. It's just the spin.
(president of Capitol) said this to me when I took the job here: "You're
going to have a really hard time, but you're going to college. You're
going to the best college of the record business." I've kept that in
mind through many frustrations here. This is a remarkable company. It's
a wacky company. They sell a lot of records here. It's a very special
company. It's "Clive Records." That's what this is. Arista is just a
name I think that he liked. [laughs]
Arista is known as a company that spends a lot of time on an artist's
career development, something that a lot of other labels talk about
doing but don't necessarily do. Can you tell our readers a little bit
about how that philosophy works?
The philosophy is almost a double-edged philosophy. The criteria for
signing here is so strict. It essentially comes down to: Is this artist
formidable enough to make records here for the next decade? Is that
artist a star? Will that artist break? If you can't fall into those
three categories, if you're just going to be a glamour signing, if you're
going to be an image signing, if you're going to be a signing for one
hit, then you can't close the deal here. The artist development standpoint
comes from the idea that Clive has to see the future and therefore,
he will unload the cash and the tools to develop you over a career.
Wouldn't that be something that any record label would say"This
isn't a vanity signing. This signing is because we see a ten-year career
for this artist."
Right. That's the line every record company president who wants to close
the deal gives.
Arista is always thought of as a "Rolls Royce" or "Mercedes" record
Right, because we don't have a big roster.
How many artists are on the roster?
About 65-70 artists, including Nashville. That includes, I believe,
joint-ventures as well. That is startlingly small when you look at MCA
and Atlantic's rosters. They have literally four to five hundred artists
on their rosters. MCA has cut down, but Atlantic definitely. This is
a very hit-driven company. Essentially, you've got to start paying off
here probably sooner than later, because they do make a tremendous promotional
investment in you very early on. Once you're signed, you're going to
get the attention.
So what's your personal mission at Arista?
My agenda here is to try to build an alternative roster, along with
Steve Ralbovsky and Kurt St. Thomas in New York, so we can develop the
leverage that some of the other companies have with the radio formats
out there who are championing this type of music. Also, we need to have
artists that can help romance other artists into the company. If you're
sitting with a punk band in Texas, and you think they're the coolest
thing, and they're asking you who is on your label, and we say we've
got Sarah MacLaughlin and Kenny G, and Crash Test Dummies, we might
not be an appealing label for that band. But now we can also say, "We've
got the new Patti Smith record." Thank God she's got two-decades worth
of insurmountable credibility as someone who is probably the first and
truest alternative female artist. She stands strong. I have sent memoranda
to New York urging them to use her as our leverage within this universe,
because we don't have any leverage there right now.
I signed a
band called the Bogmen my first week here which has been an exhilarating
yet frustrating project. The band is not like everybody else. They weren't
embraced by radio, except at a few stations in the Northeast. That's
a situation where, because we're a company that didn't have a lot of
cool alternative bands, we couldn't use that as leverage to get more
airplay. So we're starting from a place where they sincerely have to
"get" the band in order for the band to get the access. A lot of radio
didn't get it. You really had to see the Bogmen to get it. It's discouraging
that we didn't break them, but again, Clive is completely committed
to this band. We're going to work another track, and we're going to
go into the studio probably at the end of the summer and make another
record. That's going to be my next year herestill working with them
and still pitching acts that I think are ready.
All this signals a paradigm shift for Arista. It's so well known
as the Kenny G label, the Whitney Houston label. Is bringing you on
board Clive's way of infiltrating the alternative market?
He needs to support the infra-structure as well. It's a big task here.
We're not considered a cool place to be signed if you're a rock/alternative
act. We have to show people something.
Does it matter anymore though?
Yeah, it still matters.
The requests that we're getting at TAXI lately seem to be shifting
towards more melodic, certainly more pop-based songs, and away from
the harder alternative stuff...
Well it's hit-driven. Even modern rock radio is hit-driven.
So by the time you guys get up and running with the alternative thing,
it could be that everybody is into groups like Oasis, and alternative
is dead or dying. Is that something that enters into your psyche? Are
you watching that trend and modifying accordingly?
Of course. The Oasis and the Garbage records are my two favorite records
of the year, mainly because they are so incredibly melodic. There are
more hooks on those two albums than any records that have come out in
years. That's what Clive is really about. His ears hear the hooks. I
know that he definitely gets Oasis.
Are there any particular types of artists or any special qualities
that you look for personally?
In my former gigs I was able to see the stars early in their careerslike
putting Guns 'N Roses on their first magazine cover, and covering these
bands and playing them up. That's what I saw were the future great artists.
But I was watching it at the point where the record was already made,
and they had been through the production scenario, and somebody had
already worked with them maybe one, two, even three years. Now I think
with different ears and with a different mind. I hear with different
ears, and I watch with different eyes.
It's not enough
to just "get" the band in its earliest stages. You have to see that
they have the potential to develop further. Another important thing
that Clive always imparts to us when we're looking at acts is: What
is the frontman like? I hate to use this as a "Vegas" kind of quality,
but a "bigger than life" quality. An angst. A pain. A cabaret. There
has to be something there that separates them from your average Joe
who is up there, or from your average L.A. unsigned band who is up there
riffin' out some four-chord alternative music. They need to convey something.
That's like the first thing to look for.
And then, on
balance of course, is the material. Are these songs, even though they're
early and they're demos, the beginnings of breakthrough material? Will
this music react? Now, oft times, it's not there that early, but if
you see the band, and you get to know these artists, and you spend time
with them, it could lead you to understand that the potential is there,
but it just hasn't been developed. If you had heard Tori Amos' demos
and then had seen her last night at the Greek Theatre, you'd have had
to be a visionary to believe that she could go from there to where she
is now. It's not always "there" at the very beginning. But maybe there
is something in the personality, or even one song, which leads you to
believe there is going to be a catalog of material that is going spring
forth from this person's psyche.
If you hear something that you think might be great in the future,
but isn't quite ready yet, what do you do? Do you put in development
work with artists you haven't yet signed? Do you sign development deals?
I did a demo deal with a band in Austin, Texas after I saw them play
their first show they ever played together two years ago at South By
Southwest. I just saw something in the singer I thought was unique,
and their songs were very melodic. I'm still working with them, they're
just not ready to be brought into a major label recording process yet.
There is no science to this. Hypothetically, I could go with you guys
to a show tonight at the Alligator Lounge, and I could see an act which
blows my mind. You guys are there with me and you agree. Maybe I have
one of my scouts or my assistant with me too. We all agree this is incredible.
Logic dictates we're going to leave the building, and the next day I'm
going to write a note to Clive Davis and tell him, "This band is amazing.
I think we should sign this band right now." Nobody else was there.
We were the only A&R people in the room. We could do it for $100,000.
I have a sense that it's going to turn into something because it's very
early." If we're lucky enough to be in that position, we have to climb
mountains to convey to our superiors that this is worth the investment,
because there is no cheap record deal. Ultimately, it's all a half-million
dollars, because you have to make the record, and you have to work the
record, and you've got to make the video. So there is nothing cheap.
It's just, do we do this or do we wait? When does our vindication arrive?
Now I didn't
wait with the Bogmen. I just did it, and because I was here the first
week, Clive let me run with it. He told me it was the first band in
22 years that got signed that he didn't see before the deal was done.
I had an in to the band because I had met the brother of the bass player
three months before, and I was working it on the phone before I even
got into the label. I had to do that then because all the sources around
me were telling me from the get-go that in the next month, this would
have turned into a "situation." But with the Bogmen, I did it, I closed
it, and it was done. Their career is ahead of them. Years from now it
will be a story I will tell. There was nobody (from the industry) there.
It's like Alanis
Morissette. Everybody passed, but Maverick got it, and four days later
the deal was done. There was no situation. Nobody was banging down the
door to hear Glen Ballard's demos with her. Or Hootie and the Blowfish.
The two biggest records of the decade! We have situations now where
everybody is out seeing these bands that, really, there is nothing exceptional
at this point about these acts. There are no hits. There are no reactive
songs. They're young, they're developing. But the A&R community is so
hungry to find the next Soundgarden and the next Green Day, that the
aggressive ones, the labels that need to build their rosters, are doing
the deals regardless of what they cost. They're bringing all of their
people down to see the act and because of that, other labels are bringing
their people down. And then Hits magazine is writing about it, and the
AOL industry folder is talking about it, and all of a sudden there is
a bidding war for an act that, if you were there alone two months ago,
you would have watched and said, "I wouldn't sign this band for $50,000.
Now it's going to cost me a half-million a record for three records?"
It doesn't make any sense.
It seems the A&R community, in general, tends to prefer to sign acts
that other labels are already interested in. Most of the amateur musicians
out there perceive an A&R guy as someone who goes out and finds that
gold nugget out there that nobody else knows about and wants to sign
it. Why do you think A&R people gravitate to what other people want?
Because there are more followers than there are leaders. It's the path
of least resistance to go after an act that ten labels want. They must
all be right.
And if the record tanks, you're not wrong and you don't lose your
gig because everybody else wanted them too. That's the safety net.
Right. That's it. But sign an act that there was nothing going on for,
you're ass isn't on the line to the point where the whole industry thought
this was a hit and you blew it. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you
don't. I could tell you the Bogmen story about the "Suddenly" video.
It was universally loved by MTV. It had its window of opportunity, but
we could not show them the radio story at the moment in time that they
had to see it. It didn't happen. We didn't close it. We lost it, and
that's history. It could easily have been added, and the Bogmen would
be a hit, and things would be different. But what am I supposed to do?
Kill myself over it? No, we move on. Look at MTV. It's too powerful.
They've got 100 clips coming in a week, and they're adding two or three.
What do you have to do? You've got to develop your band other ways.
You cannot sign a band because you believe that their first video will
go to MTV.
A common thought in the industry is that an unsigned, unknown band
should get themselves noticed by widening their circleplaying local
gigs, playing regional and national gigs. That's how you get noticed
by A&R. If you can sell 10,000 units of your own CD, you'll get a deal.
How does that translate out of the band category into the future Whitney
Houston's and future Kenny G's?
It doesn't. That's an entirely different scenario.
So then how does an instrumental artist or someone singing in a church
in Mississippi get noticed?
You have to preface the answer to this type of question first by: There
are no black and white stories to anything. The way somebody gets discovered
can come from a million different places. It could come from a record
store owner getting a demo tape from someone who came into his store,
and he knows the program director at the local radio station and gets
the tape to him. The PD spins it at night, and it reacts, and all of
a sudden they're calling up for the disc. It isn't even a disc yet,
so they make up a few, and he sells a few hundred. Then the regional
rep from the record company hears about this and gets an A&R person
to fly in. All of a sudden he's met with the band and there you gothere
is a record deal. That's one scenario.
Another scenario might be a singer/songwriter who's sitting in their
room and doing ADATs or four-tracks, who believes that they could be
the next Toni Braxton. They probably need a "handler" to bring them
to the forefront. I guess it's all about access, unfortunately. It's
about being in the right place at the right time.
I don't know the Whitney Houston story first-hand but I've heard it
from many different people. Essentially, somebody took Clive to see
this girlsomebody who saw her before Clive saw her and believed in
her. But you need Clive Davis to justify your belief and bring "the
machine" on board. Back ten years ago when this happened, somebody got
him there. Somebody had the influence and the access.
If Diane Warren
(arguably the top songwriter in the business todayed.) has an artist
she thinks is good, Clive will pick up the phone in a minute for her,
and he will go and see them. If some local rep from a Musicland in Nashville
sends a note to Arista in New York and believes in this act, it's going
to take a few levels of influence before Clive will see or listen to
the tape. It's going to take his people to bring it to him. It's about
when Clive was in town (L.A.), and he just happened to be at a club
where the Sweet & Low Orchestra was playing. He was having dinner and
he saw them play. That band got a deal, but Clive told me, "They were
very entertaining, but I wouldn't give them a record deal. They won't
be played on radio." That was the criteria. But radio changes constantly.
Radio now is almost an aberration. It's so driven by reactive, momentary
songs. I've never seen a universe of radio drive towards one format.
What are programmers protecting us from anyway?! Why did they "protect"
us from Jewel for eight months before we got to hear that song? Why
would they "protect" us from Dave Matthews for so long? And what about
the disenfranchised metal kid who not only doesn't have "Headbangers
Ball" anymore, he doesn't have a radio station anymore?
What does this kid have?
This kid prays that Pantera comes through his town, or that Motorhead
comes through his town. And what of the young acts that are trying to
riff, like Glen Tipton from Judas Priest? What about these new kids
that their heroes were Ozzy? They're out there. They're buying KISS
tickets. There is a musical snobbery about being "cool," and about being
in that little window of coolness that MTV tells us we should be in,
in order to be successful in the '90s. What's cool to a kid in Missoula,
Montana is not cool to somebody in Los Angeles, California. I thought
the Garbage record was the coolest record of the year, but I didn't
believe that it would be a multi-platinum record because only the coasts
would get it, but the middle of the country would not. They just wouldn't.
"I'm Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl" have great hooks, but
they're not nearly as attractive as a Van Halen track to a kid in middle
America. All labels want to sign is alternative rock music.
But "alternative" isn't alternative anymore, it's mainstream now!
It's whatever is being imaged as being cool, whatever you want to call
it. That's the problem. There are too many formats and labels on everything.
We've got to fill up this panel before we move to the next panel. Just
send the song to everybody, and if they like it, they'll play it.
If you've got leverage.
Yeah, if you've got the juice. That's the political part of this which
is so incredible. Can your label get the song played? That's it. I believe
that anything, no matter how crappy it is, if it comes out of Geffen's
promotion department, will get played somewhere on the radiofor a
little while, but it will get a shot. Conversely, I think there are
some companies that may have the greatest modern rock record of the
year, and they will have to kick and scratch to get anyone at 99X to
listen to it. The leverage isn't there.
So where do you think it's all going to go from here?
I think the first time I saw Nirvana and Pearl Jam on MTV, you didn't
have to be a genius to see that was the future for the next several
years. But is there a trend? What happened to the big punk scene that
Green Day was supposed to open up? There were about a dozen punk signings
and none of the bands did anything. That's what I like seeing tooafter
Guns N Roses, the 47 Guns 'N Roses clones signings, and then after Nirvana,
all the Nirvana signings. That's not why I came into A&R. For however
long I'm going to be here, I will not sign any act that is in the least
bit derivative, without at least redefining the situation to their extent.
Blatant rip-off to me is abhorrent. You must strive for some originality.
You can worship your heroes, you can take from your heroes, the way
Oasis takes from the Beatlesliterally copying the opening of "Imagine"
for "Don't Look Back In Anger"but they do it with pride, and the song
then goes on to become as melodic as any Beatles song. The Gallaghers
are shameless, but they're also completely legitimate to me and where
they come from as songwriters. They are not posers. Noel Gallagher is
the most real songwriter to come out since like Lennon and McCartney.
They have the gift. And they look so cool. They're probably pricks to
most people, but it doesn't matter. It's part of their cool.
What's your favorite part about what you do for a living now?
I love playing golf with people in the music business and making that
part of my job. I love being with people and travelinggoing to New
York every three or four months and networking there. When I'm into
a new artist, I love getting to know that artist and living vicariously
through their musical sensibilities. As you can see by my office which
is a little bit loud, I've always been about artists my whole career.
I just want to be one of the guys that when I walk in a room, they say,
"Oh cool." Like Tori Amos last night. I haven't seen her in two years.
I just peeked my head in the dressing room, and the arms came wide open,
big hug, big kiss on the cheek. "How's your daughter?" That's it. What's
my agenda? I'm from another record company. It's like she's part of
the family. It's like Metallica. Last month I went up to San Francisco
just to see their club gig they did at Slim's. I was up all night with
them. I didn't sleep. I got driven to the airport at seven in the morning
and came home. It was just a stunning, spectacular evening with old
friends. If this is my job and it's this much fun, then I have no regrets.
It's when it gets political that it gets me emotional. I'm an emotional
person. I'm driven by emotion.
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