Where do your musical influences come from?
I grew up in London, so that has been the basis of how I view music and
what I'm into. I first got into music when I was probably ten or eleven
years old. The first music I was into was punk and New Wavethe Sex Pistols,
Buzzcocks, Undertones, Bow Wow Wow, the Ruts, and Sham 69. All of that
stuff was like regular pop music over there. It was what every kid was
into in the late '70s. As I got older, I got into the Two Tone stuff when
it came out. I was born in Coventry which is in the middle of England.
It's real working class. It's like being from the Midwest in the States.
The Two Tone groups like the Specials, and the Selector, and all of those
groups came out of Coventry and Birmingham.
We moved to Canada
in 1982. When I got over there, I started hearing all of the regular rock
bandsclassic rock stuff like Rush and Led Zeppelin. We lived in an immigrant
neighborhood, so the school was made up of black kids from the Caribbean,
Greeks, Italians, kids from India and Pakistan. All of the white kids
were for the most part into heavy metal and hard rock. All the black kids
were into hip hop.
How did you end up in the States?
I went through high school and was a good student. I ended up getting
into Harvard. I wanted to go to school in the States. I was really thinking:
I've got to make a lot of money because this is terrible. I've got to
go to the best possible school. I applied to Harvard and Yale and I got
into both of them. During my time at Harvard, I got more and more into
What was the hip hop scene like at Harvard?
It wasn't that big. Harvard has a fairly affluent student body, but mostly
the black kids were heavily into hip hop thenexcept in the late '80s
and early '90s when house music was big.
At what point did you realize you were ready to make a living in the
music business? For a Harvard-educated man to choose A&R and the record
business is quite rare.
I knew I definitely wanted to end up working in music, but I didn't want
to go through all of the horseshit of interning and earning no money and
all of that. I couldn't afford to do it. I started interviewing for banking
and consulting jobs, but quickly realized that wasn't for me. I decided
to go for broke and tried to get a paying gig in the music business. I
just started researching by getting names out of Billboard and calling
the people who were players at that point. I figured I should go talk
to people in the black music departments. I sent letters and resumes out.
People for the most part were actually pretty cool. I could get through,
but if I wasn't getting through to the people I wanted, I started to develop
relationships with their assistants or whoever was around. I had some
contact with people who said I seemed to have something on the ball, but
that I didn't have enough real, direct, practical experience, or that
they didn't have anything available right then.
So I ended up
having to go back to Toronto, and took a job at a record store. I was
basically a lowly retail clerk. They hired me because they didn't have
anyone on staff who knew a lot about hip hop and urban music. I learned
how retail works.
About six months
later, I got a call from the president of Tommy Boy. She said she had
gotten my resume, and I seemed like an interesting person. She said if
I was coming to New York any time soon, they wanted to talk to me about
some opportunities. She called back about a month later and said they
had two openings and really wanted me to come down. I couldn't pass that
I came down and
spoke to Monica Lynch, the president. I thought it went terribly, but
I guess it went alright because they called back and said they wanted
me to meet with two other people in the company. Monica flipped my wig
the first time I met with her. I was like a real head. I was raised on
college rap radio stations. They're not about playing the hits and the
commercial stuff. They're about the real shit. She told me about what
was really selling. That kind of re-oriented my whole thinking about the
records that really do well and what really pays the bills for record
So it turns out Tommy Boy was your first and only gig so far.
Yeah, I've been working at Tommy Boy for six years. It's been a journey.
As much as you ever read about what A&R is, or what promotion is, it's
nothing like doing it. I wasn't really experienced. I knew what the job
meant, but I got thrown into the deep end. Here it is, do it.
What is a typical day like for you during the week?
I generally get into the office about 11 am. Our office communication
is on e-mail, so I'll check on e-mails from England from the day before.
I'll check my voice mails from the day before, and then just make follow-up
calls to people who have left me messages. That could be people in the
office needing various things for projects in play right now, to just
following up on calls I made to people I'm trying to rustle up demos fromforeign
labels, attorneys, or whoever. Generally, I'll have at least one or two
meetings a day on a heavy day with producers or someone shopping a prospective
artist. We have an A&R meeting once a week on Wednesday mornings, which
lasts two and a half or three hours. At least once a week I'll have a
meeting with an act that we're consideringsomething that I've checked
out from the tapes, or from a live show, that I've played in an A&R meeting
and have had some positive feedback on. We might want to take it to the
next step by meeting the artist and finding out what they're all about.
I catch up with correspondence. I do a lot of e-mails during the day.
I follow up on a lot of things that are A&R-specific and even into the
marketing field. The A&R people here at Tommy Boy kind of act as the product
managers for their projects as well. A lot of my day is spent doing stuff
that isn't really traditionally considered A&R duties, but more marketing
stuff: making sure an artist gets to where they need to go, or getting
information together in preparation for an album release, supervising
or following up on remixes that are underway. During the evening, I go
out to gigs, showcases, album release parties. A lot of that is to check
out groups that we might be into and to network with people that might
have a tap into bands we might be interested in.
How much time do you actually get to listen to new music?
It's tough. On the day-to-day, you'd be amazed at how little I actually
just listen to demos, which you'd think would be the primary thing I would
be doing as an A&R person. I'll try and throw on stuff to listen to sometimes,
but in terms of your big stacks of CDs and tapes that come in, where you
just want to go through them and see what's good and what's not, it's
hard to do that unless I hit a slow day and can just plow through them.
Every two or three weeks that happens, and I'll go through 20 or 30 things
in several hours. For stuff that I solicited actively, I'll pull that
right out of the pile and check it out.
What do you think is going to be the next trend in signings?
Clearly, I think in terms of a lot of urban music, there are a couple
of trends. There are definitely more progressive elements being reflected
in urban music. I think that is a good thing, because I think a lot of
contemporary hip hop and R&B is not groundbreaking, not pioneering, like
it used to be. It's not as exciting as it was, although it is way more
lucrative than it has ever been. There is more money being made in urban
music than ever before, but the music is less adventurous than it has
ever been. I think there are signs of that changing. You have artists
like Erykah Badu, or Lauryn Hill with her new album, or Timbaland with
his production where they are referencing the classic sounds of the black
music tradition and mixing them with hip hop production or aesthetic sensibilities.
I think you're
also seeing a rise of underground and independent hip hop with artists
like Most Def, and Quali Talib, Defari, and the Gig Masters on our own
Black Label who are coming with hip hop that embodies what hip hop used
to be aboutknocking beats, lyrical skills, originality. There is no
doubt that the commercial end of what hip hop has been about has been
far more successful, but I think you're going to finally see some of those
artists break through and have significant sales.
I don't profess
to follow or enjoy all facets of what is going on in non-urban music,
but clearly you are still seeing people at the tail end of the ska wave,
and now swing music is really hot. There are still major labels signing
a lot of that stuff as well. I think there is probably a lot of life still
left in that. I was at the Warped Tour, and it looked like kids were really
digging stuff that was incorporating little bits of everything. There
were acts that had a bit of a swing element, a bit of a punk element,
a bit of a metal element, a bit of rockabilly. I think there have been
some acts out there that have been real safe and calculated like your
Matchbox 20's or your Third Eye Blind's, even Harvey Danger. They have
great catchy songs, and they're calling it "alternative," but it really
is just good classic pop rock music. Metal hybridsLimp Bizkit, Seven
Dust, Korn, Deftoneskids are into that stuff. They live and die for
it. It's the energy. It's street. It's real.
Do you have the corporate pressure at Tommy Boy that a lot of majors
No, we control our own destiny. The reason we do that is because basically
we are almost like our own distribution company. Depending on the releases,
between two-thirds and 90-percent of our sales are direct to the major
chains. We will solicit directly a buyer at Wherehouse, Camelot, Tower,
or HMV. They order direct from us. The other 10-percent we handle through
regional one-stops like ADA or Valley. When we release our records, we
get to call the shots on how much product we get out there and in what
manner, where it's seeded. We're not competing with like fifty other releases
that week that are going through WEA or Uni Distribution. It's us doing
it. We keep our product flow relatively small as compared to most major
Tommy Boy has been very successful with compilation releases like Jock
Jams and Party To Go. Do you think it has reached its peak, or do you
see compilations becoming even a bigger part of the marketplace in the
next couple of years?
There are so many releases coming out, and specifically compilations,
so you have to be smarter about how you reach people. Compilations, I
think, in a lot of ways reach passive music buyers who aren't swayed into
buying an album because they hear one hit. But maybe if there are ten
hits on one record, they will want to buy it. Or if you can package songs
that weren't necessarily hits in a way that recontextualizes them, it
makes sense. I think we've been really successful at doing that with the
Jock Jam series. Monica Lynch identified it as music that was getting
played at stadiums and bars. Everybody knows these songs, but could you
buy them all together? No. How could we package them in a way that would
make them exciting and make sense? She came up with Jock Rock and Jock
Jams after that. I think Pure Moods did the same thing for that collection
of all of these songs that everybody knows. All these mellow new agey-type
tracks were put together and advertised on TV. What we did, and what they
did, are both examples of identifying other means of recontextualizing
music and marketing it by non-traditional meansbe it late night TV,
800 numbers, direct mail, whatever. People are going to have to get smarter
and smarter about it. Punk rock labels do that all the time. They do a
lot of direct marketing and selling at clubs, all ages concerts, festivals,
fanzines, comic books. Electronic acts get their music as the soundtracks
to video games. Kids today are doing a lot of other things other than
just buying records. Buying a record is not as cool as it used to be.
Getting the latest "Tekon 3" is cooler than buying the latest record from
Foo Fighters or whoever.
What are Ian Steaman's goals as an A&R executive? Where do you think
you have solidified yourself, and where do you want to go?
I've worked on a lot of successful projects. I've had projects from successful
soundtracks, to artists who have had gold and platinum singles and albums.
But, I'm still waiting for my acts that are going to do the same thingsomething
that I discovered from the get-go. I think I have a couple of projects
that have as good a shot at being successful as anything out there.
a lot about the A&R game at this point. I've spent more and more time
recently getting into other aspects of how a record gets broken. The longer
I'm in it, the more I learn about the politics, and the timing, and just
how many resources and priority a project is given, and how much that
really determines whether a project is going to be successful or not.
Making a hit record is the first thing, and then there are a million other
things outside of that that are going to determine whether a record is
going to happen or not. I'd like to really take those skills at some point
and be able to do my own thing. I don't know if I really necessarily want
to go work at a big major label, and be a cog in a wheel, and have to
learn a whole new set of faces, and a whole new set of procedures, and
politics, and all of that. But I would love to pair up with some like-minded
people who are young, smart, hungry, still into music, and excited about
hanging out and seeing new bands play and do a label where we get to do
our thing the way we see it. You sit in a marketing meeting sometimes,
and things aren't going your way, and you just feel like you know there
must be a smarter way, or a cheaper way, or a more innovative way, or
just a less bureaucratic way of doing it. But you know you work at a company,
so you're working as part of a team. You have to deal with that. I would
love to have my own team of support and have my shot at executing my vision
Did you ever think when you were at Harvard, and studying hard to get
good grades in high school, that you would be in an A&R meeting with the
likes of Naughty By Nature and De La Soul and thinking you could really
make a living at it? How much of a shock is it that you could actually
do what you wanted to do?
I'm pretty shocked. Sometimes I'm on the phone talking to De La Soul about
the beats I sent them or trying to give them an idea for their record
and I think: Who the hell am I to be telling these guys anything? I was
in college buying their first album, and now I'm their A&R guy. People
like KG and Tretchwhat can you tell them? They are geniuses at what
they do. If I can throw them an idea like which song they should be focusing
on as a single, or beat ideas, or be in the studio helping them out and
fixing up the clean versionsif I can do any of that, I feel that I'm
blessed that I get to work with them and that they take my ideas seriously.
I love this job. I never wake up and wish that I was doing what my friends
are doing. It's the opposite.
They all wish
they were doing what I'm doing.
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