Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Rochester, New York.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a rock-n-roll star.

What was your first gig in the music business and how did you get it?

Honestly, my first gig in the music business was as an artist managing my own band. I know that doesn't sound like the traditional answer, but that really was truly a job in the music business. I started my first band when I was about 15. I played out locally for several years. When I was about 19, we did a demo deal with Chris Stein from Blondie. Richard Hell produced that demo. That was my first exposure to getting really close to getting a record deal.

How did you get discovered by Chris Stein?

We were just playing gigs in New York. Chris knew an artist named Richard Hell. He gave Richard a tape of ours. It was sort of a punk/indie-rock band. Richard thought it was really great. Chris was going to do an imprint label through Chrysalis Records. He put up the money for us to do a demo at his studio in New York City, and Richard Hell produced it. That was a big break, because I had been sending tapes to record companies at that point for quite some time. I used to send out hundreds of tapes, literally. The only thing I ever got back was a rejection letter six months later from Warner Bros. I have to tell you, from that moment on, Warner Bros. was at the top of my list. [laughs]

How did you make the transition from managing your own band to becoming a record company person?

Basically, nothing ever happened with the demo deal we did with Chris Stein. I was a little bit disenchanted with the whole process, realizing how close you could feel like you were, yet still be so far away. So I decided to do a semester internship in the music business during my junior year of college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I wanted to do the internship in A&R, but when I started interviewing and realized that A&R interns pretty much just answered the phone and logged in tapes — I switched over to publicity. That seemed like a good way to get more exposure to how a record company worked. So I did an internship as a publicist at A&M Records in New York for a semester.

Having been from the East Coast and never having been to California, I thought if I'm going to be in the music business, I should really understand what the business was like in Los Angeles. So I sent out a hundred resumes to record companies looking for a summer job. Luckily enough, one hit the desk of Bryn Bridenthal who was head of publicity of Geffen/DGC. She let me come out for the summer and do tour press for three months.

How did you eventually make the transition from publicity to A&R?

When I left college, I immediately went to work for Bryn when she went to work in New York. The timing was very right because I came from a very college rock and indie rock background. It was at the same time that DGC Records was starting to sign bands like Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, and Nirvana. I started representing all of those bands out of New York as a Geffen/DGC publicist. I did that for a few years, and then I moved to the headquarters of Geffen/DGC in Los Angeles to become marketing director. All along the way, even from back when I was a publicist, I continued to make my own music. I was in bands making records. I had never really lost touch with the actual process of making a record, seeing bands, and having musician friends. So I always had an inclination towards finding new great stuff. That's what interested me. I think probably the first artist I tried to sign was Liz Phair back in 1993 when I was still a publicist.

I didn't know they let publicists sign acts.

They don't. It was just one of those things where I had the tape, and thought it was great. And then you meet the artist, and you develop a connection with the artist. All of a sudden, the rest of the industry starts to realize how great they are. The fact that you can actually speak a common vocabulary counts for a lot. They know that you called them up back when nobody was saying how amazing it was. I just started to build a relationship with her. So, although it was really unorthodox, I did actually try to sign Liz as a publicist. That continued through to when I was a marketing person. I signed Girls Against Boys technically as a marketing person. I signed them along with Jim Barber, who was in the A&R department. But I had played with Girls Against Boys for a year in the early '90s in New York. I had a previous relationship with them and, actually for a long time, had been trying to find fans at the label.

So when did you jump ship from Geffen over to DreamWorks?

About two and a half years ago. At the end, everyone had to cop to the fact that I was doing A&R and marketing. I decided to do A&R full time.

What was it about DreamWorks that was so appealing to you?

I had worked a little bit briefly with David Geffen at Geffen Records. I had a tremendous amount of respect for David and what he built there. I really, really, to this day, have a tremendous amount of respect for the Geffen legacy of Geffen Records. I really wanted to get the opportunity to continue to work with his new venture. Plus, I didn't know Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker or Michael Ostin, but their reputations preceded them. Going to work with them was pretty much a no-brainer.

Is the A&R process different at DreamWorks because they come from that kind of nurturing atmosphere for artists? Do they treat the A&R process any differently than other companies do?

Their point of view on how they develop A&R people and artists is the same. You can answer it that way, in that they realize that you have to let people make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. It takes time sometimes for people to reach their full potential. So what they try to do is highlight that potential, identify it, and stick with it. So I think in terms of the A&R process, if something is really great, if you can't stop thinking about it, then sign it. Work with it. Figure out a way to make it work in the marketplace. That is our number one priority. It's not rhetoric. It's not lip service. It's really the way we do our job here.

So you don't get fired after one bad signing?

No. I'm still here. [laughs]

Have you learned what the "Secret Of Life" is by working with these A&R legends?

I think the secret is patience. For instance, the way Michael Goldstone (DreamWorks A&R and principal) markets his records is that he is constantly patient, but he is constantly persevering and pushing, and looking for opportunities. He never lets up. Whether it's the first week or a year later, he is pushing just as hard. But he has the patience to wait, and wait, and wait, and keep pushing. He's not always looking for the answer to be in the next signing or the next album. He believes in his artists. With Mo, Michael, and Lenny, it's the exact same thing. At Warner Bros., often they would stick with an artist like Neil Young, who would take two or three records to have a commercial hit. But the fact is, they always knew Neil would get to that place. I look at someone like Neil's career as a blueprint for someone who has ambitious records—records that are somewhat creatively left of the normal commercial voice—and at the same time he has success. He has an enormous following. To me that's the best of both worlds. That's where we want to be. It's a double win.

What are some of the must-haves that you look for in an artist or a band?

There are three things that are most important to me. Basically, I always look to the lyric. Lyrics to a song are incredibly important to me—what the artist is saying. Performance is very important to me also. It doesn't have to mean necessarily a lot of facility. It's just: Is there soul in the performance? That means both vocal and melodic performance. And lastly, it's just basic songwriting. The basic way the chords and the melody work. It sounds kind of stripped down, but those are the three criteria I judge everything by.

How important is it for an artist to be young and handsome or beautiful? Does that ever come into play?

Luckily, there hasn't been anything that I've fallen in love with, that I've wanted to sign, that I've ultimately had to pull away from because I felt like there was an issue in terms of age. I've been pretty lucky that I haven't had to really come up against that. Obviously, in the pop music business, you're marketing to youth mass culture. In that process, they want to see a reflection of themselves. So you're always going to have that latently in the back of your mind, evaluating everything. You can't escape that. But at the same time, I really judge the music on its own merits. I guess I've been lucky because I really haven't had to deal with that. I know other people have had that problem.

You haven't found that 45-year-old bald guy with a potbelly who was great?!

I've had people say, "You know, I'm 50, but my songs are going to kill you. They're amazing." I get them, and I'm like "Well . . . I don't really love the songs. What can I tell you?" The age issue has never become a problem for me!

Is DreamWorks still waving the "artiste" flag, or is it beginning to focus more on acts like Buckcherry and Papa Roach which seem to have a more instant and broader appeal?

It comes down to the individual A&R person and what their criteria for signing are and what attracts them. Along with Lenny, I signed Elliot Smith. I've signed a band called Creeper Lagoon, and I've signed a band called Blinker the Star. I hate the idea that you can look at the signings and say, oh he has these tastes. But there certainly is an aesthetic point of view that's clear in the artists I've signed if you listen to their records. I think there is a reason why I'm here, and it is hopefully because I can attract a certain kind of artist, or can find a certain kind of artist, and know how to work with them, and know how to nurture them. We have other A&R people who complement stuff that perhaps may seem more commercial or is more active. I think we have a fairly balanced roster of both artists and A&R executives who do both. I think we've actually done ourselves a disservice if you can turn around and marginalize us by saying, oh that's a DreamWorks records, or that's not a DreamWorks record. We want to be about great music. You can have great pop music. You can have great country music. You can have great urban music. You can have great left-of-center music. And you can have great incredibly active dance records.

What would you say to an artist that says, "My music is the only calling card I need. I'm so good that Clive Davis is going to hear about me and show up in front of my house in a limousine with a briefcase full of cash and make me a star?"

The obvious answer is: "Good luck!" That is by far the longest row to hoe. That's the most challenging way to try to build a career. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes you'll have songs that are so active, or a writer who is just so enormously talented, that it is just obvious to everyone in the music business, and immediately that person has the appropriate support, and other people help them build their business and do it for them. That occasionally happens. But it's sort of like waiting around for gold to fall from the sky. There is no point.

When you hear a demo of an artist that you've fallen in love with, and you can't sleep at night, and you can't get it out of your head, what typically happens next?

I always immediately call the artist. Obviously, if the artist has professional representation by a manager or an attorney, I'll call them first — or if there is someone I got the tape from. But generally, a lot of the stuff that I'm attracted to I will find at independent retail stores, or I'll find them because I hear they're selling out a club somewhere. I'll just call up and get a demo. Usually a lot of the stuff that I'm more attracted to comes from a more left-of-mainstream place. I really prefer to call up the artist at home, introduce myself, and then fly out to see them play. I meet with them and really get a sense of the personality.

If you could snap your fingers and dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

I would change the way commercial radio is programmed so that more records could get played, and so there was a way for more people to be exposed to new and developing artists. I think there is a lot of amazing, challenging, beautiful music that people don't know exists.

I would completely agree with you on that, but don't you think that radio has figured out that this format works and makes them the most money, and that's what their goal is?

Yeah, but it was a hypothetical. It's fantasy. You asked me a fantasy question. [laughs] I don't condemn radio in the least, to be quite honest. I think it's important that your readers understand that part of it. Radio is in a business to service their advertisers. That's the business they are in. I respect that. Most people at radio don't pretend to be in any other business. It's about what brings listeners to their station to sell advertising. Songs are a vehicle to bring in listeners. That's a different business model than we're in. I just wish there was some way, especially the way FM radio used to be in the '70s, for more progressive and more challenging music to be heard by more people. I certainly actually think that although it takes longer for "passive" records to research, there are a lot of beautiful records out there that could have a tremendous life.

I think that if a playlist was twice as long, the audience may grow twice as large. I think that the public is as disenchanted with the tight playlists as those of us in the industry are.

Absolutely. Think about a record like the Moby record, which is doing incredibly well. People got exposed to it through commercial advertising on television, essentially. That wasn't a commercial record. Obviously, enough things went on between the press campaign, commercial advertising, other elements of Moby touring, that all of a sudden people realized: That's a beautiful record. That's a record I want to listen to while I'm making dinner. That is the soundtrack of my life for this month. But that is one-in-a-million. Are there other records like the Moby record out there? Absolutely. The Elliott Smiths, or the Beth Ortons, or the Liz Phairs—those are the kinds of records I feel that could have a tremendous mass appeal if only there was a way for people to know they existed.

What would you like your legacy as an A&R person to be?

The obvious answer is in the records. But the truth is—actually it's probably my own hubris—but I would love the artists that I work with to look back and feel like they made the right decision signing with me and the record label I'm at.


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