David Kessel

Phil Spector and David Kessel (R) at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's opening

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Los Angeles. I was born in Hollywood.

You have a pretty interesting family. Tell me about them.

My dad is a jazz guitar player, Barney Kessel. My stepmom, B.J. Baker, is one of the top vocal background and vocal contractors in the history of the Hollywood music business. She did records with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Ray Price, Elvis and all kinds of people.

So you were privileged at a very early age to meet some of these artists and go to some of the sessions.

Yeah, a lot of heavy sessions from a very early age. I went to jazz sessions and rock sessions. I remember being three years old in the studio when my dad was recording with Ray Brown and Shelly Mann.

The story goes, I'm told, that one day your dad took you and your brother Dan to a recording session with legendary producer Phil Spector.

Absolutely. My dad had played on a lot of Phil's sessions and had actually given Phil some really good advice: he suggested that Phil get into record production. Phil is a very good guitar player, but when Phil was a teenager, he wasn't sure what to do. My dad kind of analyzed him and recommended he be a producer. I guess he wasn't too far wrong, as Phil certainly was able to do that.

So you and your brother met Phil Spector. What came of all that?

He was just finishing up the John Lennon Rock and Roll sessions at the time. I was about 17 or 18 then. What's amazing is that right after the first day, he asked us to stay in the booth after everybody left. We stayed up all night with Phil and the engineer in the studio—and it was night after night of that. Then we all of a sudden got a call to bring our instruments down because we were playing, and so we started playing on sessions with Phil Spector and the Wrecking Crew. All the great guys—Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, Nino Tempo etc., etc. It was a really exciting experience. We worked with Phil almost every day and hung out with him, gosh, for six or seven years almost every day in a row.

So you became almost like the sons he never had.

Well, that would be for him to say, but we certainly worked very closely and I consider him a tremendously great friend.

Can you describe what life with Phil Spector is like?

It's an extreme pleasure to deal with a man of such genius and intelligence. It's also very illuminating to see how a man with such genius and intelligence deals with individuals who don't quite get it or might inadvertently obstruct the progress. I'm talking about what it takes to be a genius and what it takes to make it happen when you have a vision and you're trying to get it across on record.

How did your association come about with IUMA, the Internet Underground Music Archive?

Actually I was introduced by multimedia wizard David Traub who did the One For the Road CD-ROM with B.B. King and the Queensryche double CD-ROM. I was into multimedia, and I was an executive producer on a multimedia disk for Monster Magnet with my partners Luminare and Chronic. That was for A&M Records.

It was a very nice CD-ROM. That was cool, but I wanted to take it to the next step. I realized that, for me, the Internet was the next step. It was where things were going. But when I went to IUMA, I was introduced to Jeff Patterson (co-founder and president) and Rob Ward (co-founder, no longer at IUMA), and after fifteen minutes I diagnosed that they needed a record label. I said, "Hey I'll do the record label." That really wasn't what I was into, but it just became obvious that it had to be done. So within fifteen minutes we agreed that we were going to do it. That's how the record company association started. There were some personnel shifts that came about as a result of the two founders having a difference of opinion about vision. Jeff asked me to step up to the plate and help steady the ship. So I became Chairman of the Board of IUMA at the time. We brought in some extra folks to also help steady the ship. Then after that was going on, I stepped down from the chair, remained on the Board of Directors, but my focus and attention was being President and Owner of IUMA/Offline Records. Now we have a release, Crunchy Smacks, from the Internet Underground which is an enhanced CD of some of our bands. We're working on all sorts of Web promotions and strategic alliances right now. I'm proud to say that IUMA/Offline is very happy to have pacted with TAXI and use them as our first tier of A&R. They obviously can give us some really serious third-ear input as to what we should consider and what we shouldn't. I have my own ideas as to what the sound is, but it's really good to get some feedback when you're doing something so important as actually trying to break an act and not merely putting out a CD. Anybody can put out a CD, but we're trying to break an act and make sure all the nuts and bolts are there as much as humanly possible.

Do you think that a band or musician who has their own website really has a shot at success on the Internet, or is there more to the picture that they're not seeing? If you're a band in Peoria, can you simply put your stuff out on the Internet and expect to sell 10,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 units?

I've always contended that the Internet site is part of what we call the "synergistic package." By having a website, you have a centralized location to direct a fanbase, to create a fanbase, to give information, and to sell product to a fanbase. You can put your URL on any sort of promotional materials you send out. I think by having a website you eliminate costly mailings of CDs and all of these colored pictures and brochures that you think you're going to send to somebody that actually go in the trash. What you do is you can send one card that says: "Check us out, we're hip, we're cool, we're neat, here's our website and URL. If you like what you see and you want more, give us a call." That way, if somebody is really interested, you save yourself all of that mailing stuff. You save yourself the hassle. And you also have the chance to put it on flyers when you play clubs, on posters, on matchbooks, on anything that directs people to a centralized location. But it doesn't take the place of having good tunes. It doesn't have to take the place of having your act together or trying to work the band in any way you can. It's a beautiful opportunity to have as an add-on to direct people to get a sense of who you are and to get a database and fanbase.

How many hits does the IUMA site get?

We're creeping up toward 400,000 hits a day.

Isn't it far more advantageous for a band to be on an existing site that pulls 400,000 hits a day, versus having their own site?

If you have "Joe's Garage" website, at least you've got a website. You can direct people to it in a town where you're playing a club—get in touch with 50 or 100 people. At least you've got something. It's better than nothing. When you have IUMA, you have a dedicated site where people are specifically going to look for bands they haven't heard of. We go out of our way to feature the new bands that come on and say: "Check these bands out, they're cool." The thing about IUMA is you know you're going to have the traffic, and you know that people are coming there to look at unsigned bands. Obviously the traffic is important, and the fact that people are looking for things they don't know is important. That's what IUMA provides. A garage type of website is certainly better than nothing, but you've got to have traffic. And if you don't use it as part of your overall publicity program, it's a waste anyway.

Do you think that the Internet is going to decimate the record industry as we know it today, or is that overblown?

It's in the progress. I think that the record companies that alter the structure of how they're articulating their business models will succeed. That means the goals are the same—selling music and breaking acts are the bottom line—but there will be new channels and improved channels. Obviously, if you have a Blockbuster and you have a Kmart, you're going to have some CDs in there, but it's really going to be at the discretion of the consumers how they choose to buy them. But more and more and more people, as the statistics indicate, are buying online and by mail order. And when we have electronic distribution, this will change the industry, but the function will be the same. The delivery systems are changing.

How will that be different for signed bands versus unsigned bands? Let's look ahead five years in the future, and say records are being distributed online, not only in the CD form that we're familiar with now, but electronically. You can put a CDR in your recorder at home to buy a certain record, you download and record it. Then it sends you an album cover, and you shove that in the jewel case, and you've just saved yourself a trip to the record store. How might that be different or the same for an existing famous act with a brand name versus an act that doesn't have a name yet?

One of the things I see is that for a signed act, when their contract is up and after they've made it—maybe their first two albums are delivered—they can maintain electronic distribution rights because all they have to do is go into the studio, produce it themselves, and sell it digitally. They don't need the record company if they have their fanbase. What they might do then is license the tape to the record company for the archaic in-store stagecoach mode of selling, which there will still be. You will still have those tray lots, whether it be at the car wash, or the market, or the Kmart or wherever—maybe a Top-10 rack or something like that. It gives you leverage to just sell direct to your fanbase. For instance, if U2 has a new album coming out, they can tell their fans go to U2.com where they can download the new album. Then if they have 5 million people come and download the album, then it's just been direct-marketed to their fans.

In the New York Times, there was an article stating that the Artist Formerly Known As Prince is releasing his new record only on the Internet. He is no longer signed to a label because EMI went out of business. He is going to take orders for 100,000 units before he presses it.

It's pre-sales. I've advocated pre-sales as well. For instance, if someone downloads the album digitally, but also really wants to buy the hard copy for whatever purpose—maybe they think it's sonically different, or for nostalgia or whatever—and you know you have an order for 5 million units, then you press 5 million units. The band makes all the money. You sell it direct, and that's one on one. That's different than the record company model as we know it. So I think what record companies are going to have to do is start negotiating for the electronic royalties or options on electronic royalties even after the contract expires on the next two albums that might come out. They will want to have an option on the electronic distribution because they've taken the time to break the band.

As far as an unsigned band, if there is a demand for their music, they don't have to press up the CD if they don't have the $2,000. It sure saves some money for Top Ramen and spaghetti. Say they've got a song that's starting to click. They might have a hit digital single. Everybody in the neighborhood gets turned onto it, and they tell a friend, and they tell a friend—it's just some kind of hip song. Well, all of a sudden, they go to an Atlantic Records or somebody, and they say: "We've just sold like 75,000 songs at 99 cents apiece to 75,000 people." That is a database that says these people have an audience. We should invest in them further as far as promoting them, getting them maybe with a booking agent. I think the record company role is really going to be in aligning with the booking agent and really being a tag-team. By the band going out and working, they're going to sell more units. If they're selling more hard units and getting bigger, that's one way to make up some of the royalties. Maybe the record company can also underwrite the tour, maybe for a percentage, and start getting in the tour business as well a little bit, because they already are underwriting things.

You're a board member of IUMA Online and obviously a big proponent of music on the Internet. Why did you start IUMA Offline—a record company that has the word "offline" in it—a curious thing for a guy who is so involved in music online? Where did that come from?

Well, it's a play on words. I thought it sounded cool.

Yeah, well I figured that part out for myself Dave...

Oddly enough, with all of this talk about electronic distribution and everything, we do have units of CDs available. You know, the idea of CDs going away is not going to happen for some time. DVD is coming in, which is going to be great. Let's face it, there is going to be some kind of hard copy for quite a while. The deal with having the record company is to have product that comes from online. If we have some IUMA bands that are really cool, and we put them out, then it's product that came from online to offline, which is how it got in your hands in the first place. That's opposed to electronic distribution, which is sort of online/offline. But this is offline from being online. [laughs]

But the record label is not exclusively a relationship with IUMA Online? Your bands don't only come from IUMA, right?

No. We certainly give it priority, and any bands we do find, we will put on IUMA. That's a prerequisite. That's absolutely 100-percent a fact. We're just escalating the label, getting into full swing with various promotions, distribution arrangements, and webcasting chats to help promote some of the artists.

Rumor has it that some major labels have already approached you about buying an interest in IUMA Offline. What is your feeling about that?

Well, I've been approached regarding some business arrangements. I'm not opposed to offering high-level distribution to our artists. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-record-label. I'm just anti-misuse-of-record-label. I like it when you can take an act and really get it to where it needs to go with the right promotion dollars and that kind of thing. One of the models that I'm looking at is maybe doing some distribution deals with a few different labels. One label in particular is talking about more of an elaborate relationship. It's not out of the question, and I welcome the opportunity to make more exciting opportunities available to our artists.

I would think the companies who are showing an interest in buying a piece of IUMA Offline are really looking at buying a piece of the future.

They are interested in buying a piece of the future. Also in buying an A&R resource, which is absolutely outrageous. We have boxes and boxes and boxes of tapes submitted, which is another reason that I'm really happy with our relationship with TAXI. It gives us an opportunity to utilize their expertise and give everybody what I consider at least a fair shake to be heard—good, bad, or indifferent—and saves me the time and gives me third-ear feedback as to what maybe I should be listening to. It's impossible to listen to all of the tapes. Even if I listened to all of the tapes, I don't think I could do anything else with my life.

Anybody interested in buying a piece of IUMA online?

Gee, you're nosy!

It's my job.

Yeah, we've had some very serious interest from entities wanting to invest in a piece, and that's all I can say.

What is your prediction for where the internet will take the music industry ten years from now?

Digitally downloading music from satellites directly to the consumer's brain, and completely getting rid of everything in the middle.


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