L to R: Jay Buberg — President MCA Records, Tommy Lee, Ti Lo — Methods of Mayhem, and Tom Sarig.

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland.

What made you decide to choose the music industry?

Actually, when I got out of school, I was an accountant for a year. I was an accounting major in college.

Did you know at that time that you eventually wanted to end up in A&R?

Yes. I got the mailroom gig, ten years ago now, before A&M was bought by Polygram. It was still kind of a big office in New York. I kept bugging the A&R people there, because the mailroom was not really a full time job. I was always bugging them to let me listen to tapes, let me go see gigs. I was such a hustler that I used to help out other departments too. I got to be friends with a guy who got a job as an A&R guy at Arista. I left A&M after six months in the mailroom to go be an assistant at Arista.

What did you do at Arista? And how did you transition to TVT Records after that?

I worked at Arista for a year as an A&R assistant. Then the guy who brought me in to Arista left the company. I stayed on as an A&R scout doing song edits and scouting bands. Basically, I was doing A&R as a junior, junior person. Arista is a really great and unique company. It was an incredible experience working very closely there in A&R. Then I brought in a band to Arista called Funland from Dallas that made one EP, and it never got to first base. The guy who runs TVT Records, Steve Gottleib, was going after that band also, and we got to know each other. But, I was a little frustrated. It's very difficult for a young A&R person to come up through a major label. It's very, very difficult. I was 24 then, and I thought it would be great to get experience making records at an indie label. And TVT was not a small indie label, but a big indie label that had money and was able to sign acts. So I went to TVT in late 1992.

What are some of the differences between doing A&R at a relatively small, well-funded label like TVT, and doing A&R at a major label?

Doing A&R is not that different. I still look for the same kinds of talent — things that are unique and special and also commercial. But other things are different. Marketing budgets, marketing methods, the length of commitment, the monetary commitment, all kinds of things are different. Even the people are different.

Are the lengths of commitment to artists shorter or longer?

Well, independent labels tend to have less acts than major labels, so they sometimes stick with acts longer because it's all they have. Major labels sometimes can be quicker to jump off acts. Not always. But, I think we're one of the good ones at MCA. We stick with acts more than some other majors do. There are just so many records coming down the pike at some majors, that it can be tough for some majors to stay focused.

Can you break down an average week for you in terms of how much time you spend doing different A&R tasks?

Basically, it's whatever it takes in the efforts of making a great record, or what you think is going to be a great record. That can entail being on the phone going over material with a producer or an artist, or telling them what you like and what you don't like. Strategizing and talking about songs, and images, and arrangements, and production, and all of those sorts of things. After a record is made, you deal with more strategic things, like calling and begging a booking agent to book your band and telling them that that label is really behind them. A lot of it is really creative though, at least in my job experience and history. If any of the readers have been a part of making a record, they know there are a lot of issues that come up in the process. Umpteen issues! And when you're making a record with a bigger company, all of those issues need lots of discussion and lots of consideration.

How often do you have to go out and see bands? Why do you go see them?

I don't really go see bands as much as I'd like. I go see a band if I've heard something about them from somebody I trust. If I hear that they're amazing, then it's something I should go see. Or if I've gotten a CD or tape that I've listened to and think it's interesting, and I want to see how they perform live. Otherwise, I won't go see a band just to check them out. I won't go to the Viper Room on any given night just to see what's playing.

How many hours a week do you actually get to sit down, and not answer the phone, and just listen to music?

In the office? Rarely. A lot of my listening is done at home at night, or in the car, which is constantly. It's a lot. It's hours a day. At home I have a listening station, and every night there is something to really focus on and listen carefully to. I also have to listen to projects that I'm in progress on. There is always something new on the plate that's possible.

What are some of the most common misconceptions you think musicians might have about A&R people and the process of finding and signing talent?

I guess that a lot of musicians might think that A&R people don't know as much about music as they should. Some maybe don't, so maybe that's not a misconception. Maybe they think that they don't care, that they're not really committed, that they're just careerists who are in it for themselves. That may be true too. I don't know. I can only speak for myself really.

I find that in doing these interviews, many people on the A&R side of the business started out like you. They were involved in college radio or booking shows or worked at record stores. That love for music is very common, and it's not so much career-driven.

Being in the business hasn't affected my love for music at all. You just have to take the time. There are not enough hours in the day sometimes, that's all.

What are some things that artists can do to get themselves noticed?

Create a following and a story. Things that would contribute to a "story" would be various data that we could track — sold out shows, record sales, and getting airplay on their own. That happens all the time. Those are things that virtually all A&R people look for.

What if you're a female pop singer and live in Kansas City — a Christina Aguilera type? There are not a lot of venues for a pop singer to go out and build a following. How does someone like that get themselves noticed?

She got herself noticed by hustling and getting herself onto the 'Mulan' soundtrack. She was in "The Mickey Mouse Club." These kids are killers. They're born entertainers. I think you have to chase it. You have to leave Kansas City, basically. You've got to go out and do it somehow. That means if you're just the singer girl in Kansas City, then you need to go to L.A., or New York, or Nashville, or wherever and find the right producer and the right co-writer. You've got to put it together yourself. No one is going to come to you. Those stories of seeing someone on the street corner and just signing them on the spot are a little rare.

Can an artist like that be signed if they are just a great singer but they don't have material?

They have to go find great material. Sometimes artists get signed if they are just great singers. I don't think I would sign an artist that was just a great singer. There has to be something more than that. There has to be a perspective, something very unique about them. Even if they didn't write the material themselves, they would have to bring something special and unique to the party.

When you find an artist or band you're passionate about, what's your next move?

I go see them live. I need to see if they're great. Maybe I'll see them more than once. I just have to make sure that it's something that I really care about, and that it's something really great.

What are the things on that checklist?

I look for a certain uniqueness or specialness, an artistic point of view or perspective that is interesting somehow, that's not dumbed down. Great songs. Looks play in to it. That's not to say you have to be good looking to be signed, but looks play a part in all of this, obviously. It's the presentation. You don't have to be great looking, but you have to have some sense of yourself, presentation-wise.

How important is song craft to you?

Extremely. I think one of my biggest disappointments now is that I hear very few artists that can really write great songs. I'd love to find the next Billy Joel, or Bruce Springsteen, or Marvin Gaye. They don't come around very often. You get little flirtations with that occasionally, but there are so few. And so few who can sustain it over a career.

When you find things you're interested in, do you have A&R department meetings where you vote on stuff?

It's a process, but in the end, basically it boils down to getting Jay's approval (Jay Boberg, President, MCA Records).

Is that healthy or unhealthy for the industry? It seems as though there are half a dozen people or so in the industry who control what gets signed and what doesn't.

Well, if those people have great taste, it's not a problem. That's one of the things that makes Jay a desirable person to work for. He's a music guy.

How much of a factor are radio people in the process of an act getting signed these days?

I'll sometimes play music for radio people before I sign an act, but I like to think we're as good or better judges than our radio people. The radio department is extremely important, probably the most important department after A&R, and you need their support. But I don't look to them for direction or validation in signing acts.

What does it cost to break a pop act in today's market?

A label may spend as much as several million in marketing. I couldn't tell you exactly how it gets spent, but it would most likely be split between the radio campaign, independent radio promo people and the advertising campaign. It's not unusual to spend $500,000 for a really great video, and maybe as much as $500,000 for retail price and positioning for a big push. On the other end of the expenditure scale, we have this band Fenix TX, a punky pop band. Their first record sold 250,000 units or so. They've never taken a penny of tour support. They've done a great job of building up a large following, so that helps them be more self-sufficient.

Do you spend any time on the Internet cruising around looking for bands?

Just cruising around? No. But sometimes I check things out on certain sites that I hear about. Sometimes if I hear about a band and don't know anything about them, I'll go do a search on them to find out more or get a contact number for them.

In today's market it seems we're always creating trends or chasing them. However, for example in the '70s, it seems anything that was good had a shot. If you find something really unique and interesting, can you do anything with it?
I'm really hungry for new sounds and new things, but you're hitting on one of the real problems in the industry today. One of the problems is radio. In America, radio is so formatted, and it's so tough to get past those gatekeepers. They're in a fierce battle for ratings, so they're looking for records that will immediately result in phone response. Who could blame them, but it's a vicious circle. Sometimes the great songs don't react immediately. We all have records we love from the '70s—like when I first heard Todd Rundgren or Led Zeppelin. Those records might not have been so instant. Sometimes it takes a few listens before you're completely in love with it. And sometimes those are the best records. Radio doesn't really have the patience for that now. And major labels are owned by large corporations, that have bottom lines to watch out for. We're expected to make sales quotas and all that sort of thing. That puts various other kind of pressures on us as well.

What trends do you see on the horizon a year from now, two years from now? Are there any trends starting to develop?
I'm hoping that the trends will be against the trends that we see right now. I'm hoping that people will demand more thoughtful and interesting music. I think a lot of music now is a little uninspired, dumbed down. Just because it's successful doesn't mean it's good.

What would you rather have a hit song, or an unbelievable artist?
An unbelievable artist.

What do you like most about your job?
Working with music that I consider really great and with artists that I think are really interesting people.

What's the one thing you'd like to accomplish in your career that you haven't accomplished yet?
I don't know. I've been dabbling a little bit in producing. I think I'd like to produce a Grammy Award-winning record some day.


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