Michael Rosenblatt (right) and Interscope A&R VP Tony Ferguson at TAXI's '98 Road Rally

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

How long have you been an A&R person?

A really long time. When I was nineteen I got a job working for Seymour Stein at Sire Records, so I moved from L.A. to New York. The job was a messenger boy. But I knew that A&R was what I wanted to do, so I just started going out to all the clubs, and I discovered a band called the B-52s. I had just turned 20 when that happened. So I have been doing A&R for 22 years in November.

And still employed!

And still employed. And never not employed.

That's pretty incredible. So were the B-52s your first signing?

No, because they ended up going to Warner Brothers instead of Sire.

Were you still credited with finding them?

Oh yeah.

I didn't know until about a year ago that you're the guy that actually signed Madonna to her first deal.

Yeah.

That's a pretty serious credential. How many records has she sold in her career?

About 100 Million, so they say. Wow! Well either you had a very bad publicist or I had my head in the sand, because I...

Everybody thought everything at Sire was signed by Seymour, but I really found her. I discovered her.

Did you find her in a club, or did you get a tape?

I was really good friends, and still am, with Mark Kamins who at the time was a DJ at Danceateria in 1982. He told me about this girl who he wanted to... well, let's just say he had amorous intentions. She had this great look and supposedly had a tape, but he hadn't heard it yet. I was at the club one night, at the bar, and I saw this girl walk up to the DJ booth and I knew that had to be her because she looked great. So I went up to the DJ booth and said, "Hi, I hear you have a tape." She responded, "Yeah, so." And I said "Well, I'm an A&R guy, why don't you come by and play it for me?" She said "Okay." That was Saturday night. Monday afternoon Madonna and Mark came to my office, played the tape (which I still have), and it was okay, but not great. But she was just a f*%#@ing "star" who radiated greatness, if you know what I mean. So, we did a deal, right then and there.

The next day I had her come back for two reasons. One, I didn't believe her name was Madonna, so I wanted her to prove that it was. I just thought it was too good to be true. And the other reason was that I had to introduce her to Seymour, who was in the hospital at the time. So she came by the next day and she had a passport with her, and lo and behold, there it was: "Madonna." We went up and met Seymour in his hospital room and he was into it, so we celebrated the deal that evening.

What a story. Did you have a clue that she would go on to be as huge as she is?

Yeah, I didn't know she would become like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis, a cultural icon, but I did say to Seymour that she would be the biggest he'd ever work with. And he said, "So how big is she going to be?" I said, "Seymour, she's going to be bigger than Olivia Newton-John!" At the time Olivia Newton-John was the biggest selling female act in the world.

That was the 'Let's Get Physical' era.

Yeah—that was it. So I said she was going to be bigger than Olivia, and I was right.

I hope you had points on those records.

Seymour did. They weren't giving A&R people points back then.

Is there one mistake that you see aspiring artists make over and over?

No, because there are just so many mistakes. I don't think aspiring artists understand how difficult it is after you get the record deal. The chances of an act getting signed are pretty astronomical, and I think once you get signed, a lot of bands think, "Oh, I've made it". You've just walked through another door, that's all. I mean, you've walked into another room, where you're chances are now not astronomical, but they're really bad. Only one in twenty signings make it?

So what's the secret to success once you've got the deal?

The secret to success is all about songs. There's no secret there. I mean look at any genre whether it's pop music or rock or alternative or disco or urban—it's all about songs. Because when you go back, and you think about great songs and great records that you loved when you were a kid, you remember the song, you don't remember the artist. You go "Who did that? Who was that?" You know the song, but you don't know the artist. It's all about the song. And there are some artists that will do anything to get that song. A lot of people don't know that Madonna didn't write "Like A Virgin"; Madonna didn't write "Borderline".

Steven Bray?

No, two guys Steinberg and Kelly wrote "Like A Virgin" and Reggie Lucas wrote "Borderline". She wrote a lot of her album, but was ready to take whatever great song there was that would become hers.

How old was she at the time?

We're the same age, so she was like 23 or 25.

Most artists would say, no I've got to cut my own songs.

Madonna was wide open.

So obviously song writing is very important.

Song writing is the key. To me it's all about songs and stars. Because when I sign somebody and we're going to invest a million dollars between videos and tour support and price and positioning and all the stuff that I have to spend money on—it's a million bucks. For a baby band, first record, it's a million bucks. I want to believe that there's a "star" there, because it's all about stars. People want to look up to somebody who they think is somebody special, as opposed to just some schlep. So for me it's all about stars and songs.

Great songs trickle down to every aspect of what goes on under this roof here at a major record label. Do you think that that's the difference between people in Promo getting on it and people in Retail getting on it?

One of my jobs once I sign a band is to sell my band to the record company, because they're going to be the people that are going to sell it to the world. I don't call radio stations, I don't call Wal-Mart, I don't call 'The Tonight Show'—I don't do that , but all those people do, so I gotta get them very excited about the artist.

And how do I do that? By playing them the demos, or once the album's done, playing them the finished songs and hopefully they're hits. I introduce them to the artists if I feel that I have someone that's just a star—who just radiates it. I walk them around and introduce them to some of the key people in the company, then they go off and start working it around the building.

How produced does a demo have to be to make you want to sign an artist?

Totally unproduced. I don't care. I'm listening for the song. And if I like what I hear, then I'm going to ask for more, and I'm going to ask to see them live and meet the person or group. But all I'm really looking for is a song and a style, I'm not looking for quality. When someone hands me a finished recorded project, then I have to listen as a consumer. As opposed to, if I hear something really rough, then I can think, "If I get this producer or maybe this songwriter or engineer, it would be great." I like to be creative, if you come to me with something that's really finished, I'm less creative then.

You signed New Radicals, which has turned out to be a pretty hot act. I'm your biggest fan for signing that group.

Thank you. We hope to do really well overseas, we're launching it overseas and it looks like we could come in top five in England and all over.

How many acts do you personally sign in a given year?

About two. I haven't signed anything at all this past year (1998), except New Radicals.

How do you generally find new talent?

Generally, somebody tells somebody, who tells somebody, who tells somebody else. I go out to clubs a lot. There are very few A&R people on my level who go out as often as I do, but I just like to go out and the chances of me running into something amazing, blindly is really, really rare. But even though I may not find a new act by going out, I may run into somebody who will tell me about something worth following up.

Then again, I did luck into the B-52s, I was just out one night drinking with some friends and they walked on stage and that was it. I don't think that would happen again now just because of the way the business is, but I still go out. I like music, I like hearing live bands. I went out the other night to hear a great band at the Roxy, and while I was watching them play I remember thinking I have a really cool job; I'm out seeing this great band, they're rocking out, this place is sold out, I'm digging it, and this is what I do for a living.

That's true! Or you could be an unemployed A&R person which brings me to my next question. Aren't you glad to find you still have a job after the consolidation?

Yeah. I think what's happening in the industry is horrible. I think it's bad for everybody.

Well so much press has been given to the nay-sayers who think that the consolidation is such a terrible thing. There must be some aspect of it that's going to prove positive.

The only positive aspect is that I think independent labels are going to come up and be a force once again. You know, there are the big indies, but I also think that smaller record companies, you know, people with a lot less resources than the larger ones are going to come up and I'm all for that—the more players the better. I think the big problem is that at every record company there's that arbiter of taste. For some companies its a couple of people. People who can actually say "Yes, I will sign you", and they don't have to go to anybody else. Their word is law. With the consolidation of A&M, Island, Interscope, and Geffen, you got rid of 11 people who could say "yes" and replaced them with four. How could that be good?

Well, is it good for Seagrams?

I have no idea. No idea.

At some point, Edgar Bronfman (CEO of Seagrams) must have called Jay Boberg (president of MCA) into his office and said "Jay, here's what...

Well, I'm not the person to ask, you should ask Edgar. But I think he thought that having market share was where it was at. We're now 25% of the entire industry and I think he's happy with that. But from the artist side, you went from 11 to 4 people who could green light a project.

Less people who could sign, and less projects that will get signed.

Exactly. It goes without saying.

So, let's say you're right, and we're going to see a proliferation of indies. But often times, indies don't have enough money, resources or mojo to break a record.

But at some point Priority didn't have enough money and Def Jam didn't have enough money and it turned out okay.

Finish this sentence for me: In five years, I think the music industry business model might be like...

Some sort of indie—fill in the blank, I don't know. But it's going to be an indie, it's not going to be the majors, I'm telling you. It's going to be Gary Gersh (former president of Capitol), or Dreamworks, or somebody we don't know yet.

Doesn't that scare the hell out of the majors? Or are they just so big and so overconfident that they don't see it?

They're just so big that they are into the whole market share aspect of it. You know, Universal is going to do great, it's 25% of the market, how can you do bad? But I don't know if we're the model. If you look at the model for the '80s—it was Geffen Records. Look at the model for the '90s—it was Interscope. What's going to be the model for 2000? I don't know.

And now we have the Internet to contend with. My personal theory is that most consumers will soon find that it's more cost effective to go to a website and build a compilation of 14 cuts that they really love that are all hit singles for that $15 expenditure versus buying a major label record with one artist that's got two good songs and 12 mediocre songs on it. So if that model comes true, and I'm pretty sure it will, where does that leave the major labels? They can no longer really sign an artist deal and put out a record..

I think everything is going to change. I still think there are going to have to be major labels; everyone talks about 'Oh the bands are going to be able to go directly to the consumer'—how? With what? Great you make this record, you have people that are making record quality material in their home studios and now what? You start a website for your band, and then what?

It's like having a store in the middle of Montana and nobody knows where you are.

Exactly, nobody knows even what you're selling, or where to find it. So the major label is still going to have to be there to be the bank that will fund it and then bring it out to the people because you're still going to want to be on MTV, you're still going to want to be on the radio, you're still going to want to tour and have posters up, so we're still going to be needed, but what I don't know if we're going to need is record stores.

Or trucks to deliver the records to the stores. Those are two things that are going to go bye-bye.

Yeah. For me, I still think stores are going to be there. They won't be the percentage of sales that currently are, but they'll still be around. I love walking into a record store, walking up and down the isles and using the listening booth. But in the last month, I've bought four CDs on Amazon.com, and it's certainly not as much fun. I enjoy going to Tower and Virgin on Sunset and just parking and doing my thing.

You're a record industry guy. Talk to your forty year old friends who live in your neighborhood, who have to pick up the kids from soccer practice and work late. Do they find the time to browse the racks at a record store?

Oh, the forty year old guys, they'll definitely go to the Internet, but I don't know about the eighteen year old kids, maybe I'm just an old fashioned guy.

To the kids, I guess it's like Starbucks, you know, it's a place to hang.

When I was a kid living in the Valley, my friends and I would pile in a car, smoke a joint and head for the Tower Records store on Sunset. We'd walk up and down the isles and buy some records.

Right! And afterwards you'd head to the Haagen Dazs store to do something about your munchies!

It's somehow a lot more fun to be handling records and touching them, than doing that on the Internet.

Is there one great truth that you've learned from being in the music business?

One great truth? Geez, I didn't know that there are any great truths. I think that there are no rules. Every act is totally different and just because Madonna did it this way, doesn't mean New Radicals are going to do it the same way. Every act is different and you've got to treat every one differently.

Is there anything that I haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about?

No.

Then we're done.

Awesome.

Can I play you a couple things?

Sure.


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