Major Label A&R Panel, Part 3

TAXI Road Rally 2006


major record labels

Major Label A&R panelists yuck it up while posing for this group shot. From left to right: Guy Routte, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records, Urban; Tony Ferguson, VP of A&R, A&M/Interscope; Michael Laskow, Moderator; Steven Melrose, President, Left Wing/Virgin Records; Kirk Boyer, Sr. Director of A&R, Lyric Street/Disney, Nashville



Panelists
Guy Routte, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records, Urban
Tony Ferguson, VP of A&R, A&M/Interscope
Kirk Boyer, Sr. Director of A&R, Lyric Street/Disney, Nashville
Steven Melrose, President, Left Wing/Virgin Records (at time of panel)



Audience member: For your current projects, do you guys think you have enough good songs to work with, and, if you don't, why do you think you don't have enough? Is it because there isn't enough talent out there? I mean, if it wasn't for TAXI, you'd get millions of CDs, or you can go and find them on the Internet. There are millions of them. From your experience, can you tell me, do you have enough good songs for you current projects?

TF: There are never enough good songs.

No, they don't need good songs, they need great songs.

GR: As music enthusiasts, we're always looking for the next great song. If we ever felt like we have enough great songs, then we should quit. You know what I mean? You always want the next great song.

TF: Because there are so many out there. There's so much talent out there. Someone did a statistic that any given time of the day right now there are 500 to 600 artists in North America that want to get signed. So, you imagine how many writers there are out there on top of those artists—assuming those artists have a lot to do with writing themselves. We have got to just keep looking for those songs. It's a constant search for the Holy Grail of a great song. Again, there are so many hours in the day, and I'm just one person. Do I hear every band that's out there, every song that's available out there? Absolutely not. But part of my job during the day is to go out and search for that kind of stuff, or talk to Steve or talk to any of these guys and find out what they're looking for. It's a constant search.

KB: And I think the answer to your question too is that the kind of songs that you're talking about they are written so infrequently. The really magical songs, the copyrights, the timeless songs are written very infrequently.

Diane Warren once told me that she writes a hundred songs before she knows she has got one that's a hit, and that she's got to pitch it a hundred times before she gets a cut. And that's Diane Warren, maybe the greatest writer in the last two decades.

TF: There is a woman who goes in six days a week, 9 to 7 o'clock, and writes. She will not leave that room until she's got at least one song under her belt. Then she takes Sunday off. Can you imagine how many songs that woman has? But how many of them are hits? So what makes you think as an artist that every damn song you write is going to be a hit? You've got to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest with yourself and get a team and get opinions from people who really know this business.

GR: Because a lot of people do the work and are just not good enough. I get an abundance of mediocre stuff—not horrible, but just not great, just average stuff. There's so much average stuff out there, and people think when they do average stuff, because it's the best stuff they did in their neighborhood or in their particular crew, that it's great. Great is obviously subjective, but mediocrity is like a pandemic. It's like a disease.

Audience member: If you come across a song that you really like but the artist that it would fit better works for a different record company, do you send it over?

TF: Yeah, sometimes. Absolutely.

GR: If I like the person.

SM: Or really dislike them (laughs).



Audience member: OK. I'm sorry, I came in late, but I want to know how being at this event could benefit us.

GR: Showin' up on time would help. TAXI is an organization that is trusted in the music business, so, a lot of the doors that you're trying to get through—if you're great—TAXI has access to those doors. And being a part of an organization like this does help established production companies, depending upon how established you are. If you're really established, you may not need them.

Audience member: My question is for Guy. Everywhere that we go, everywhere we talk, everything we've heard here at TAXI is about catchy hooks. Is the industry—as far as R&B and Hip-Hop—moving toward being more hook-driven, or is there still room for lyricists and...?

GR: When has it not been hook-driven? Even the best lyricists—you're talkin' Biggie or Jay-Z, whose biggest record is "Hard Knock Life," which has an anti-hook. I mean, so hooks are always going to be necessary. I'm a Hip-Hop enthusiast and I want hooks too. I want good songs. Good songs are good songs. Let's stop trying to define it in other ways. Yes, if you're a great lyricist, you should be able to write great hooks, too.

Audience member: First of all, I'd like to say that TAXI is an awesome avenue, and I think you guys are awesome. I want to give you a round of applause right now. [applause]

What do you think of Electronic Press Kits? If there's a video in it, if you do like to receive it, how long do you think it should be? Do you want sample songs? Do you want full songs or what?

SM: EPK died a death quite quickly, didn't it? It went really fast.

GR: You don't need an EPK, because if you have an EPK, you should have a Web site. If you have a Web site, then what do you need an EPK for? Send as little stuff as you can. Just send the music and a link to your Web site.

SM: And to YouTube. YouTube can be your video; MySpace can have your video in there, two songs, a link and that's it.

GR: People think they're going to set these packages up and the record label is going to be like, "Wow." Do you know that a record label has an art department and a video department and everything within it? They're not going to all of a sudden say, "Wow, this is ready to go." It's not going to happen. Just send the music. Concentrate on the music, please.

That is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. "I've got a finished product and you're going to jump on it and write me a check for $500,000. Three weeks later I'm gonna be on MTV. Six months from now I'm gonna be on a private jet."

GR: Even the rare case when someone comes in and their stuff is ready and it's absolutely perfect, it started with the music. The music was great first, and they would've gotten signed if they didn't have the other stuff because they had great music. And it just happens that they have the great video and the great package as well.

If you guys go home with any one thought in your mind from this weekend, please, dear God, let it be "Write better songs."



Audience member: This question is primarily for Kirk, but I think it's also relevant for Guy. I just want an honest answer, and I'm not going to get all political. Basically, I'm trying to ascertain, one, if Nashville really is the closed shop that some people think it is, and, two—there's been a lot of modern Country that borders on Rock that fuses with other genres—is there any room, or is there any interest right now in Country that fuses with neosoul? Kind of like a black Sheryl Crow, India.Arie. Is there room for that? Is there interest in that?

KB: You know, as I'm listening to the artist packages that I get, obviously I'm listening in the context of the marketplace of the genre. People tend to try to look at trends or categorize things, because I think that's the way we are as human beings. But I don't know, in my opinion, if there really are trends. The way I tend to see it is that people come out and do something that's so compelling and so unique that they drive the market in their direction.

SM: What you're doing sounds amazing...or that your friend is doing. If it's great, any of us will pay attention to it. It is a closed shop, but the door is open if it's great. Always open.

GR: And don't come up with the gimmick first. Do the great music and the gimmick will find itself. People go, "If I'm a rapper, but I'm a cowboy, and I do this..." What does the shit sound like?

TF: I think there's one important thing. I'm assuming that you are the artist in this equation, correct? One thing you don't want to do when you start putting the package together is dwell on the fact that you're the first female black artist that wants to break into Country music, because that'll just shut you down. Let the music speak for itself. Don't be too clever with this. Basically, record your music, make the CD, like Steve was saying, with three or four songs, and just send it out there without any photograph or anything. And if the music speaks for itself, that could open the door. But if you start adding too much information that necessarily would work against you in some way, it dilutes the message that you're trying to do with the music. The music is important.

GR: You may think you are that, and you may do the music and we say, "No, that's not what you are, you're this." You may think you're gonna be the first this and, no, you're this, and that's great too.

Here's the interesting conundrum, though, guys. TAXI is not going to get a call from you or anybody else in the industry saying, "I'm looking for an African-American-female-Country-Sheryl Crow-crossover-neosoul artist," and it's certainly understandable that you wouldn't make that call to us. How is she gonna just get the music...? You're right about not having the bio and not worrying about the packaging. How is she gonna get that music to you?

KB: Michael, obviously, if Country music is where she wants to be, then you're going to have to begin to formulate those relationships in Nashville, because that's where Country music comes out of. And once you get there and you begin to size up the landscape, I think you're gonna answer a lot of these questions on your own. You'll begin to kind of see and sense, "How far can I push this? Where do I need to pull back? And do I have the strong material to get the recognition that I want to get?"

I think if she's got the material and she were to go to Nashville, get on the stage at the Bluebird, and play some of the local clubs...

KB: Nashville is a small place. To me it's like a college campus, because you end up running into a lot of the same people.

You're gonna hear about her if she's got great songs, because she is African-American and she is doing something that crosses over. If it's interesting enough, it's gonna hit your radar in that town.

KB: And if it's good enough people are gonna start shouting your praises.

Same woman: What I'm saying is, they've assumed I've just come with a gimmick and said, "OK, let me try and get in that way." No. A lot of the time—and this is not just for me—a lot of the time people who fuse genres naturally and organically because they just found themselves in that place because their influences are diverse, but a lot of the time we get told, and by TAXI, "Oh, hang on. I can't put you in a genre, so I'm not quite sure if it fits with this." I hear this from other TAXI members that if you're not in one genre, it's like, "Oh, I don't know." So I want to know from you guys that if you have organically arrived at that place and we do what TAXI asks us to do, which is to try and define yourself, if your genre and Guy's genre is interested in that at the moment in the industry.

KB: I don't have those conversations with my colleagues. You know, the thing is, the music just hits ya and you go, "Wow, now there's an angle that I hadn't thought about. But, you know what? It could work in this marketplace." You know, we're just kinda talking in words here, and the thing is, really, the artistry is what either gives you the opportunity or not, ultimately.

Let me address this for a second because I do this in my seminar a lot. I sense your frustration and I understand it. Because African-American people tend to gravitate towards Urban stations; guys who wear cowboy boots tend to gravitate toward Country stations; 18-year-old white males gravitate toward Hard-Rock stations, and the advertisers support those stations because they know the people they're trying to sell products to go to those stations. So in the end, it's the public's musical preference combined with the advertisers' need to find a target audience that forces these guys into not being able to go outside of their format. It's really kind of our fault.

TF: But a trailblazer will always break the rules.

GR: Without question.



Audience member: In the beginning you were speaking about old model kind of meeting the new model and how A&R is kind of merging with marketing. I was wondering what you meant by that.

TF: Well, basically, I'll give you an example. It doesn't really explain it, but it shows the way it's dynamically shifting. When I used to go into marketing meetings, there would be a table this wide. There would be like 30 or 40 people at the staff meetings and the artist meeting. The people who used to dominate those meetings less than five or six years ago were basically radio—the head of radio, certain genres of radio, whether it be Hot AC or Triple A or whatever. They would all sit, and the first discussion on any artist on the table that we were going through would be about radio. Switch to today, less and less radio people are attending those meetings. It is more about marketing, because radio will not support new artists, will not play new artists. As I said before, it's very hard to get radio to commit to helping us to break a new artist. Some of the DJs really don't care, and there are some DJs who have their hands tied through program directors who are facilitating the corporations out there who are paying the money to advertise on those radio stations. So, basically, record labels are looking for other dots to connect—through the Internet, through alliances with other corporations—whether it be a soft drink or a make-up line. So, it's not just about just going to retail, going to radio, put your record out there and see what happens in six to eight weeks—whether we're getting any phones from the radio stations. Now it's finding alternative ways to market our records, and it's all about marketing. It's all about people's relationships with corporations, with ad agencies, with people who do music supervision for movies and TV shows. We are finding every other alternative way to try and get our music out there. The hardest thing a record label does with a new artist is branding the name of that artist with a particular song—it's the hardest thing to do. We all know radio never announces who's playing; they don't care. And then you go into a music store, or you go into a store like the Gap, and you ask the people there, "I like that song. Do you know who that is?" And they don't know. It's the hardest part. You have no idea how many people walk into my office and say, "I heard this song, do you know what it is?" And I say, "Yes, it's one of our artists. It's this person." And they go, "Wow, I never even knew it was that person, but I love the song."

I do that in malls all the time. You actually hear better music in the malls than you will hear on the radio.

TF: Yeah, because it's being provided by the record labels. The record labels provide that compilation stuff to try and find a way of getting the music out there.

And, sadly, when you ask the girl behind the counter who is ringing up your charge who it is, she doesn't have a clue.

TF: That's because music is not that important anymore. It has become the background of our lives. You've got to really go out of your way to actually find out what that piece of music is.

GR: And the A&R person has to come in with more of an entire plan on how they're going to sell this product before they are allowed to sign something. That's why they have to kind of be in cahoots with marketing.

TF: Thank you. That was my point.

ML: And gentleman, I'd like to thank you all for making many fine points today. I hope the audience enjoyed this as much as I have!

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