Interviewed by Bud Scoppa

Geoffrey, you come from a marketing background, having been a product manager at WB and A&M. At what point when you're looking at an unsigned act does your marketing sensibility click in? Is that a positive or a negative if that happens too early?

To me, it's all unified. I always tell people that I've done exactly the same thing with my life ever since I learned how to talk, which is yelling at people about records. There are really only two kinds of records—bad records and good records. If a record is good—whether it's a very commercial record or a very uncommercial record—if I love it, then there are other people out there who are going to love it. It may be enough to make money, and it may not be. If I love it enough that I have to work with it, then it's my job to just get it to the maximum amount of people I can get it to. I always figure if you make the right creative decision, then it's the right marketing decision. Sometimes that's naive, and sometimes that's smart, but, at least where I work, it's a good rule of thumb.

One way of resolving the dichotomy between art and commerce is to ignore it, I suppose.

I think Warner Bros. has been pretty good at that. We sign artists that we really like, and we work them really hard. Some of them sell millions of records, and some of them don't, like Randy Newman or Van Dyke Parks or Mark Eitzel [former leader of American Music Club]—hopefully Mark will sell records. But if Mark doesn't sell records, that doesn't make him less of an artist. I will fight just as hard for him if he sells 50,000 records as if he sells 500,000 records, because he makes what I think are important records for the ages. Until somebody in a suit tells me I can't, he's every bit as important as a platinum artist, because he's great.

The most succinct encapsulation of the Warner's attitude, in my experience, was interviewing Lenny Waronker five or six years ago. We were talking about the Chris Isaak album that later broke off of "Wicked Game," but at this point people were going, "What's wrong with the approach to recording this guy? He's made the same record three times, and all of them have stiffed." Waronker just said, "You never get hurt making a good record." In that case, a dramatic proof of that statement occurred later on. I think that's an extremely valid rule of thumb: Make the best record you can and hope that fate, circumstances and, in some cases, hard work eventually will get the record the recognition it deserves.

If you look at history, all you see are the bands that were ongoing. People don't look back and remember that the Count Five came and went, or that the Strawberry Alarm Clock came and went. They look back at the '60s and they see the Byrds, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But there were thousands of groups—some of them great and some of them terrible—that were one-hit wonders or never got a hit. That's part of the business. That's a good part of the business. One of the things I like about the emergence of alternative rock radio, for all of its drawbacks, is that it has made it possible for bands who have one good song to get heard. That's a good thing. A lot of bands only have one good song. I like the fact that whether Bush are any good or not, they've got a couple of catchy songs and they're on the radio. To me, it is Journey, but it's better than Journey because it's new.

You may say that, but I'll bet you wouldn't sign a band that had just one good song.

Not on purpose! Another thing that's kind of exciting about the emergence of alternative radio is that some of these bands are getting on the radio and getting well known, when they don't really know what they're doing. What that means is that you are seeing people learn in public. Some of these bands may not have any "credibility" or respect right now. But the Rolling Stones started out as a cover band doing mediocre covers of American blues songs.

So did the Beatles.

I would argue all day that the early Beatles records, however crass they were, were every bit as good, if not better, than the later ones. It's amazing that they progressed the way they did. It's also amazing to me that they emerged from Hamburg and the Merseybeat scene making those early records. Those records have so much energy—they're magnificent records. They may be ignorant of a lot of things, but they're magic.

I agree. But let's move ahead 30 years. What is the basic set of prerequisites that have to be present for you to seriously start considering an act?

Any band that you're going to look at has problems. Everybody wants to go into a club and see something that is spectacular. Usually that happens after a band has been doing it for a little while, and they've had some support from publishing money or record money. Once in a great while I'm sure it happens where you walk into a club and see something incredible. That has never happened to me—that I walked into club and saw somebody who was amazing that I didn't know about. The question I always ask myself is: Is there one thing this band does that is extraordinary? It's like a songwriter who just has a unique perspective, or a guitar player or a singer who's special. There has got to be something about the band that makes me go, "Wow, nobody else can do that!" I figure that if everything else about the band is okay, they'll get better. But there's got to be one thing about it that nobody else can do. That's my criterion. It can even be a chemistry. In a great rock band, it can be four unexceptional musicians doing something extraordinary. But there's got to be one thing about the band that makes me take a step back and go, "Oh my God!"

So it's some kind of personal encounter that leaves you excited.

It could be a tape—sometimes it happens with a tape too. They can have lousy management, a lousy attorney, a lousy rhythm section, but there's gotta be something about the band that is unique. Which isn't necessarily the same thing as wanting to hear something on the radio. I love "Comedown" by Bush, but I don't think they are an extraordinary band at all. It's a disposable pop song, and it's great on the radio. When it comes on, I turn it up. But there's a very big difference between being a consumer in terms of what you want to hear on the radio, and what our job is, which is to try to build careers with immense investments from our employers. We're being paid for our taste, and no one knows. The marketplace is always careening about, smashing into things.

It's a crap-shoot. That's why you go for what's real, instead of today's trend.

Guessing what is actually going to sell is a very dangerous game. Some things are valid for whatever speaks to us, and then you hope that the record and the market have some overlap. Sometimes great records fall through the cracks, and sometimes great records that you thought were going to flop sell 5-million copies. When we put out Green Day's Dookie, we had modest expectations—everybody did. Everybody wanted them, but if you had said to me that we were going to sell a quarter of a million records, I would have said, "Fantastic!" The band told me that they would have been happy selling half a million records. They had a base of 40,000, and I thought we could get them to well beyond that. But I was looking at them, like, these guys are pretty ambitious. I didn't want to give them a lecture about the record business or anything, and say, "That's not going to happen." Happily, I was wrong.

Are A&R people trying to track down "the next Pearl Jam"?

I think the bigger problem with the current state of A&R is A&R people listening to each other too much, and having this sort of conventional wisdom and group-think about everything. There is almost a generic A&R perspective now on what's cool, what's not cool, and what works.

And it's not helpful, I don't think.

Well, it probably was helpful. There was a moment in time when there was a generation of music fans and of A&R people who were disenfranchised because the record companies were out of touch. They went out and they hired a bunch of smart young people who all came up through similar channels, and now there are too many of those people thinking too similar of thoughts. What that means is that when a pretty good band makes a pretty good tape and plays a few pretty good shows, they get offered crazy amounts of money by six record companies who all have A&R people thinking identically. Hopefully some of those bands will be really successful and those A&R people will keep their jobs.

Some of them will fall apart from the pressure that is imposed upon them from the crazy money and being signed too soon.

It is amazing to me how narrowcast the A&R perspective has become. It has probably always been true, I'm sure; we just haven't been around to see it in previous decades, but A&R people are not taking risks.

I think it's really important that A&R people be encouraged to take risks. I have A&R people working for me, and one of the things I'm always stressing to them is: "You have to make the decision. I don't want to have to supervise every decision you make. Tell me what you love. Tell me what you really believe. Don't tell me 'This is pretty cool,' or 'This is getting reviews,' or 'This is 'buzzing,' or that some publishing company is after it. I don't care. Is this the one you want to do? As an A&R person, you have a few years to prove yourself. If you take one of your shots to sign this band, then that's your decision. It may benefit you in some way, and it may benefit the company in some way. If you're right, then you're a good A&R person. If you're wrong, you should go do something else." It's the A&R person's obligation to know, not necessarily what people want, but how far you can take something.

Warners has dramatically trimmed its roster in recent years. What was the rationale for dropping all those acts?

We've been really careful over the last few years to cut back the roster to a point where we feel very strongly about every artist on the label. There was a time when Warner Bros. had so much product flowing into it from so many disparate sources. We had international, we had all these label deals, we had all of these different A&R fiefdoms all over the world, and they were all just feeding product into this pipeline. It got to the point a few years ago where it was just overwhelming. What was happening was it was fine for the records at the top of the pile, because they were getting what they needed. It was a real war for the records that weren't at the top of the pile to distinguish between the good ones and the favored, politically placed records. We've gotten rid of most of those, and it's made a huge difference. The clarity of the operation is so much greater. We go into a marketing meeting now, and there's a reason for every record there. We're proud of every record there. We feel like we all understand the point of every record there.

As a result, the Goo Goo Dolls recently went to #1 [commercial alternative]. "Name" was #1 most-added Pop, and it was #1 Heatseekers. This band has been around forever—this is their fifth album and their third for us—and there was nothing going on, but we had promotion people that were able to focus on this record and really deliver it. Now this is a career record for them. This is going to be a smash.

Speaking of obscure bands getting a shot, what do you think of the chances of the Wilco [on Reprise] and the Son Volt [on Warner Bros.] records to make any kind of impression beyond getting good reviews?

They both already have. Wilco and Son Volt are exactly the kinds of artists that we feel the strongest about. They're not necessarily the flashiest, and they're not necessarily the kinds of artists who have a built-in format, although they certainly can get played on many formats. They're songwriters, they're singers, they're real artists who are going to get better and bigger. No one is going to buy these records for any reason other than loving the music. Hopefully we'll get the Son Volt record on the radio and some new people will be exposed to it. I think the chances that those artists will be important artists for the label is 100 percent. There's a good chance that they'll be profitable.

I believe there is definitely a demand for that kind of music, and it's not currently being met very well by any of the radio formats. I think that will change. Melodic pop/rock is a somewhat disenfranchised form of music, and it doesn't really work on commercial alternative radio, usually. But a lot of people like that kind of music. Wilco and Son Volt play a darker, more country-tinged version of melodic pop/rock, but it's still the same problem. There's a lot of kinds of music that don't really have media outlets. If one artist sneaks through because of a clever video, or an incredible song sneaks into the mainstream, all of a sudden the rules can change.

By that token, Matthew Sweet had no business selling 500,000 copies of Girlfriend or 100% Fun.

And the Gin Blossoms had no business selling 2-million copies of their record.

Last question: Where do you look to find new bands?

I think listening to unsolicited material is probably the biggest waste of time in the record business. I've listened to tens of thousands of unsolicited tapes in my life, and I've never signed a band off one. I know there are people who have, and there are even people who have signed good bands off of them. I think part of the problem is that the kind of people that are sending their unsolicited tapes to Warner Bros. are probably mostly not the kind of people I want to sign.

For me, the most important thing by far is having a network of people I trust. It's people in bands, it's producers, it's people in record stores, it's booking agents, it's fanzines. It's just talking to people who you really respect, and finding out who they're seeing and what they're liking. The most important thing, though, is just talking to people who are big fans in local communities around the world. I have friends who work in record stores or are booking clubs in 50 different cities who I just call up and I talk to. When I'm in town, I take them out and talk to them and see what's going on where they live.


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