Interviewed by Michael Laskow

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 college—we 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 show—me, 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 home—my mother raised me and my brother—and 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.

Then Flynt's 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 jugular—journalistically 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 base—as the center of my hard-rock world.

I personally 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.

Coincidentally, 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.

After several 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 here—which brings us up to date—I 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 ago—simply based on words which have no basis in reality. It's just the spin.

Gary Gersh (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 label...

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 here—still 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 careers—like 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 circle—playing 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 go—there 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 girl—somebody 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 today—ed.) 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 timing.

I remember 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 radio—for 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 too—after 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 Beatles—literally 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 traveling—going 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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