Clyde Lieberman

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana and lived there until I was 18.

And did you move to New York then?

No. I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. As a kid, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. But then, like so many other people my age, the Beatles came on television and changed my life.

So how did you get from there to the music business?

I didn't really know the music business existed, because my family was in an entirely different business. It had nothing to do with entertainment or music or anything. But I really wanted to play music. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, but two summers before that I started cruising around the country and encountering musicians from outside of my home town for the first time. In the summer of 1969 I went to a series of pop festivals that culminated in going to Woodstock.

At what point did you get your first real job in the music industry, and what was it?

My first real job in the industry was a year and a half ago.

Really? You'd better give the short version of what you did for the last twenty years.

It's really a simple story. I went to college. Two years into college, the American government bombed Cambodia. I quit college. I traveled around the world for three years. I had my guitar with me. I discovered songwriting while I was traveling in the backs of buses through Central and South America. I met people from Los Angeles, and they said, "You know, you have some talent. If you ever decide to go back to the States, come to California and you can stay at my house." Three years later I took them up on the offer, and drove a Volkswagen squareback to California. I parked it and walked in—my friend said, "What do you know?" I played my six chords and he played his six chords and said, "Well, let's make a band."

Eventually, I discovered a music school in LA called the Dick Grove School of Music. I was a student there for three years. I was a grunt, working the front office. I eventually became the head of Financial Aid, then I became the Registrar, and eventually I became one of the key people running the school.

Did you use that as a springboard?

Yeah. During that time I was given the task of booking all of the seminars for the school. I saw an opportunity to network. So I took a mailing list, and started inviting these top music industry people to come and do seminars. I met the people in the music industry who eventually helped shaped my career.

In the 1980's I started writing songs more seriously and I got a break. I submitted a song through a fellow named David Landau to Mel Brooks for the movie Spaceballs.

Did you get the gig?

Yes, and I got to meet Mel Brooks. It was the first cover I ever really had. And I got to see how the process worked, and what covers meant, and what the recognition could do for my career. One of the songs that I wrote made it to Arista Music Publishing. They pitched it to Clive Davis, and he put it on hold for Jermaine Jackson and they offered me a songwriting deal. So, in 1986 I was signed as an exclusive staff songwriter and a co-publishing deal to Arista Music Publishing and I stayed there for four years.

I'm glad I asked for the short version of that story! Just kidding. It's a great example of how a kid from the sticks can make it to the big leagues. What happened next?

At the end of those four years Danny Strick came in to run BMG North America, which was the parent publishing company that bought Arista Music Publishing during the switch over. Danny and I knew each other from when I used to bug the hell out of him pitching songs. He listened to what I was doing and asked me to stay on. I discovered a songwriter named Rhett Lawrence and brought him to Danny's attention. Danny signed him to a deal and shortly after that Rhett worked with Mariah Carey and that sort of alerted the company to the idea that I might be good behind a desk. I'd like to go on record saying that almost everything I have accomplished, I accomplished because I was a songwriter.

Consider it said. What's your title now?

Senior Director of East Coast Creative Services for BMG Music Publishing.

I may have to shorten that to get it under your picture! What's the range of responsibilities in your job?

Well, my mom asks me this question all the time. You know the hardest thing in the music business is to explain to your mother, or your father, or your friends back home in Indiana what the hell you do for a living. Because it seems ridiculous.

Well, give it your best shot Woody (laughter), I mean Clyde.

I'm responsible for all creative decisions and events that occur in this office. That includes signing new talent on the pop side, overseeing the signings and new talent on the urban side. Working with all BMG writers whenever they work in the New York area. Signing new writers in the New York area. Developing relationships with all of the A&R people in the New York area. Looking for talent all up and down the eastern seaboard, including Canada in certain circumstances. Liaising with all of our European brethren at BMG Europe. And obviously, administering all of this paperwork that you see ( I saw plenty! ed.) that is part of the job.

And just for the record, you've got at least 200 cassettes and CD's on your desk.

Somebody asked me the other day if all the stuff on my desk had been listened to. The answer is that pretty much of it has, but ultimately it won't get a shot at BMG, but it was interesting enough to stay on the desk for the time being. And five times that much didn't stay on the desk!

Also for the record, there are at least another 200 cassettes over there.

Easily.

Where do most of the tapes come from that are the ones that you actually do listen to?

When I was a songwriter and people would say to me, "It's better if your tape comes from a manager or from a lawyer." I used to really bristle at that. Then I realized that the industry was bigger than just its components. There were cogs. There was a wheel turning. And when you were told, "Gee, listen kid, if a lawyer that I know brings me this tape, it's more likely to get listened to." I would think, "Why lawyers?" I mean, they're not musicians. But a lot of things I've found out are really kind of surprising in a cool way.

Almost every lawyer I work with has some musical background. And the thing is that those guys like music, and they are knowledgeable and no one said their knowledge is any more or less right on than mine. The only difference is that if they're going to get their jobs done properly, they don't set aside as many hours in a day to listen as I'm supposed to.

However, the good news and the bad news is that now that I have a 9:00 AM to 2:00 AM job. My phone starts ringing at 9:00 in the morning at home. My writers from L.A. frequently call me at 2:00 in the morning, which is only 11:00 PM for them. It's just an accepted part of the business.

You discover that the music has to come from somewhere and if you just accepted all music from all people, you wouldn't get your job done. So most music comes recommended by someone who you have a personal relationship with. It's always from somebody you know.

What's BMG's policy on unsolicited material?

We don't accept unsolicited tapes, and also to be very, very, very blunt, they won't get listened to.

How do you see the roles of publishers and/or A&R people changing as the information superhighway makes its way into the music business?

If you're talking about how things will be delivered to me, it doesn't make me any happier if somebody can send me their music by modem or over a fax line on my commuter as opposed to me having the CD. It doesn't effect what I do at all. It is meaningless. It's either music or it's not music.

The issue is will my profession of music publishing or that of a record executive become obsolete? That's the issue, and that's important. Will an A&R executive, whether in publishing or records have a significant role to play? If you can go into your garage and on a great ADAT system make a wonderful mix-down-to DAT tape, which you will go out and press 5,000 CD's and send it over the Internet or whatever into all of these people, and people say, "I want to buy it—how do I buy it?" And you send it to them by a modem over a telephone line... Those issues are being looked at by executives at a much higher level than me.

Those people are sitting in board rooms right now saying, "How do we control the copyright usage if somebody records at home, and sends the information by computer to another computer? How do we get word of this?

It's not going to affect the established major artists such as Sting or Barbara Streisand. But it will affect how music is purchased and hence, how royalties are paid in the future and that directly affects my business.

What do you love most about your job?

The big advantage of being where I am right now is that I can be involved in the education of young musicians at the same time that I get paid to be a creative source for my company while still being an executive. I get the opportunity to give something back to people who mirror who I was twenty years ago. In some cases I help them miss potholes that they were going to fall into or sometimes help them out of that hole. Or sometimes, hopefully block the hole and give them another route to go. That's what I love about what I do.

Are there any potholes that you can warn our readers about before they fall in?

Everybody overproduces their music. It's absolutely unnecessary. Especially if you are trying to write songs to be noticed by music publishers as opposed to being in a group. But even in a group, whether it's R&B, hip hop or alternative, or soft rock or whatever, almost everything we receive that doesn't come from savvy people is overproduced. Production is not what we base our decision on.

When you sign a deal with someone, is that decision based on personal taste, or are you signing something that will be right for the company?

Everybody in the music industry will tell you that it if you let your personal taste constantly interfere with what you sign you might lose your job. Some people will argue with that. My opinion is that if you're not moved and passionate about something, you probably won't try to make a deal with it. However, at sometime in the process you have to ask yourself is there an opportunity for my company to be successful with this artist or this writer? If I believe that the answer is "no", that doesn't mean I won't go after it. It probably does mean that I will tell the people sitting on the board of my company, this is an artistic decision purely from my viewpoint. I believe in this artist. I can't guarantee you anything.

When this company decided to sign Ace of Base on the recommendation of myself and people from Arista Records and other people inside this company, we were making a decision that would, from the outside, appear to be a purely financial one. Like, it's pop music—what's the big art? But truth be told, there is some great songwriting on that record. So, we were going for the talent. We were happy to make the money.

So you're looking at the writer's career as well.

When people walk in here, we only look at one thing. Can they write a song and does that song hold together under the scrutiny of all of the creative people in this company. Because this is a consensus oriented company. We make decisions together.

How would you suggest that a songwriter from Pig Valley Idaho get his tape the people in the music industry?

Songwriters have to do everything pretty much by tape. Their presence is fairly irrelevant in the beginning. My first recommendation to almost everybody who is a songwriter would be go to the nearest big city or the nearest city where there is an ASCAP or BMI office. Get the local rep to hear it. That's what ASCAP and BMI and SESAC are there for. They should take advantage of that.

The most important thing to do if you're a songwriter is to make your demos concise so that when I get them and I put them on the song is easy to hear. Don't make them so I have to listen through a bunch of production.

People always ask us before they join TAXI, "How good do my tapes have to be? All I have is a four track or an eight track at home." We tell them if you're a songwriter, four tracks or an eight track is definitely all you need.

Definitely. Don't ever go into a 24 track studio. You are only going to screw it up. It's not where song demos are made.

If that kid from Pig Valley walked into your office right now, what sage advice would you give to him or her?

My first piece of sage advice is keep your music simple and to the point. Present it in the most honest and direct manner that you can at all times. Try not to get obsessed with the business. Try to stay obsessed with music. Don't let the music business become the reason that you're making music. It will destroy your music. It will destroy you in many cases.

Therefore, my number one piece of advice would be make your music as good as you can make it. And if you make it and then play it as much you can, especially if you are in a band, you can get recognized. A lot of the most successful bands in America are not from L.A. or New York or Chicago. A lot of them come from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, or from Bloomington, Indiana, or from Springfield, Illinois, or from Kansas City...they can come from anywhere. Look at Seattle. There was a place that nurtured those musicians. It gave them an opportunity to live the life that they needed to live in order to create the music that they have created. It's never going to be like it was in Los Angeles and New York again. That's one thing that the information superhighway will change forever.


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