Moderated By Michael Laskow

Featuring: Tony Ferguson, Vice President, A&R Interscope Records; Marshall Altman, Vice President of A&R, Hollywood Records; Ron Fair, Senior Vice President of A&R at RCA Records; Michael Laskow; Randy Jackson, Senior Vice President of A&R, MCA Records; MIke Sistad, Director of A&R, Arista Nashville; Andy Olyphant, Director of A&R, Almo Sounds

In keeping with this issue's Road Rally theme, we've excerpted some moments from one of the A&R panels.

Ron, what is it that makes you say, "I've absolutely got to sign this band?"

RON FAIR: That's a very tough thing to answer because it's different in every case. There is no one thing, no magic button that has to be pressed in order to sign this or that act. I guess for me, it's just an identification I make in my mind that this person, this artist, is a star -- that they will transcend the run-of-the-mill pack of all the other artists. There are so many other artists on every label. It's so competitive that I have to have a vision in my mind that this is the one -- this is the one that's going to cut through. Maybe there is a presence of an amazing song, or a star quality. It's just different in every case.

At the end, for me, what really presses my particular button is God-given talent, more so than an attitude, or a shape, or a vibe. I've got to hear a voice and a song, a chord change, and a melody, and something that moves me on the God-given talent level.

How important is an act's live show to you, Andy? What are the odds of an act getting signed to a major label deal if they don't have a live show -- a Steely Dan, if you will -- that is just a studio act. Do they have a prayer?

ANDY OLYPHANT : I think every scenario is different. I think it really depends on the act and the artist. I would imagine with something like a Mariah Carey, her live show probably wasn't that important. Her scenario was more about her voice and her songs. As we've learned in this day and age, there are so many acts that really aren't great live acts. They're more entertainment and show, and I hate to say it, but a few of them don't even sing live when they play. Again, I think it depends on who it is and where they're coming from. Some bands have an unbelievable live show and aren't such a great record-making band. Phish were unbelievable live and that's how they made their living. They didn't necessarily make great records. Or the Grateful Dead, or even Ozomatli -- the band that I signed. They have an unbelievable live show, but trying to get that on record is a difficult thing. I think it depends again on the scenario.

Marshall, is an A&R person's job more about finding what you like, what you think your boss will like, or what the public will like?

MARSHALL ALTMAN : That's an interesting question. One of my mentors, a guy named Perry Watts-Russell at Capitol Records, used to say when we would sit and talk about music, "I guess I just have very generic taste." And I would say, "I'm not sure I understand." He said, "Well, you know, I signed Meredith Brooks who sold 2 million records. I signed Everclear," and he just went down the list. I said, "What do you mean 'generic?'" He said, "Well, I just like them. I think they're great. It's music that I think is great, so I just signed it and hey, it sold."

My personal feeling is there has to be a teeny bit of all of those, but if I don't feel passionate for an artist, it doesn't matter. I can't just look at something and say, "Wow, that sure looks like it's going to fit what's going on at radio right now." Or, "Wow, my boss is really going to like that, so I should get on it." I don't really work like that. My boss is a really smart guy. He's got a lot of music coming at him too. I personally don't work that way. It just comes down to your particular passion for music.

Somebody else in the business that I respect once told me there are two ways you have to look at a record in this business as an A&R person. There have to be the records that you want to sign and work. "Work" entails doing everything you can to get the artist to make the right record, to get the set-up right, and hopefully have the record sell. Then there is the other kind of artist whose record you want to buy and listen to at home in the privacy of your own home, in your living room, that makes a difference to you, that matters to your life.

You have to be able to look at those two things and say, okay this one I'm going to love no matter what, but I don't know if I want to hoe the road to try and sell it. And then this other one, I love, and I think I'm going to try and make this one go. There are two different ways to look at music. Unfortunately, that's kind of the way I have to look at it for what I do. Whereas, before I was an A&R person, I could just look at everything equally.

Famous had just been taken off the market for sale. Viacom was going to sell them. In 1996, they were given a new signing budget and given the go ahead to start signing artists and writers again. It turned out when I had called in October of 1995, they knew that they were going to be up and running again, so the president, Ira Jaffe, was actually looking for somebody to be his assistant. It was just lucky timing. I went in and met with him, and we clicked, and I got the gig. I spent about two and a half years as his assistant. He's really good about that. He's had people like Jolene Cherry and Ronda Call that have worked as his assistants before. They've gone on to bigger and better things. He's never one to hold anyone back. He let me go out and see bands. Once I started doing that, he really liked it, because it saved him a lot of time. He actually let me sign a band, K's Choice, while I was still his assistant.

I see a lot of that with A&R people I know. They have a stable of bands and artists that they kind of keep within their corral--people they talk to frequently, they keep listening to their stuff, but they never sign them because I think they know in their hearts it's not an act that is going to sell three, or five, or ten million copies, but they are musicians whose work they respect, but then they have to go sign the other stuff.

MA : At a certain point, if the latest act that I sign breaks out and sells 5 million copies, I can sign whatever I want. But you have to look at it realistically. To me, music is so incredibly precious. You don't want to try and take something that is wonderful and has a different dimension to it and try and square it down so it is going to fit the marketplace. Sometimes it is just better to take it and bring it home to your house and listen to it there. We still all love music. I still love music more than anything. You have to.

RF : I want to backtrack a little bit, or put a bow on what Marshall said. I'm a musician. I've been playing music my entire life. I pretty much was a frustrated songwriter. I always wanted to be a record producer and a songwriter. The songwriting thing was where it all sprang from inside my soul, but I never had any success doing it. I spent years banging on doors. I had songs published that were never recorded. Because my inspiration comes from things like George Gershwin, I was always told, "Take the jazz chords out and maybe we'll do the song." I would say, "Well that's the best chord! Everything is about that chord. What do you mean?" I finally, because of my own soul coming from that place, realized the hard way that there is a giant difference between "music" and "records". Records use music and abuse music.

There is no unwritten law or avenging angel of musical righteousness who makes all good records equal to good music. There are plenty of records out there we've all heard that become hits on the radio and we go, "how can that piece of shit be a hit and my thing be just sitting here?" Because records use music and abuse music. The concept of music to me is very holy. It's my holy covenant. In the privacy of my own mind, I can do anything musically. There is no rule. There is no boundary. It's impenetrable. It's a fortress. But when I put my hat on every morning and become a record man, I leave all that behind. I'll do whatever I have to do in order to do business with selling records. That's the whole point of doing them. We're making them to sell, in spite of the fact that we want to entertain ourselves as well. That's pretty much how I have remained sane through all these years of using and abusing music -- by keeping those two things separate.

To answer your earlier question about how perfect does a song have to be, I don't feel it's the A&R person's role to be music school or critic. We're not here to provide a service to the general public to critique and opinionate and correct the entire body of music that is out there in the cosmos that is trying to get into the funnel. So the point is, your song has to be perfect. You're going up against highly gifted, well practiced, seasoned craftspeople who do nothing but try to perfect songs. So the notion that I'm going to hear a hook on a record or on a demo and think, wow if that had different chord changes, different melody, different beat, different lyrics, I could craft that hook into a potential hit! I don't think so. It's a process. It's a crafts process.

I will say this though, there have been many times in all our careers where we've chosen songs that have gone on to become hits that were recorded very, very informally. Piano-vocal with a flyswatter for a snare drum. We've all had success with those. We're not looking to hear your command of the Pro Tools sequencer system. It's the inspiration, it's the spark, it's what you're saying. It's more about the essence of the material than it is the production.

Tony, it's quiz time. If an artist said to you, "I'm really versatile. I do music in several genres." Would that a) convince you to sign the artist, b) make you think the artist must be a musical genius that has something for everybody, or c) make you think the artist is a boob who doesn't know much about the music business?

TONY FERGUSON : Generally speaking, probably the latter. There is not too much latitude allowed for people who are way too versatile, particularly at the beginning of a career. People want to be brought on board as listeners defined by a certain sound, or a certain piece of music, or a certain style. I think once an artist develops an audience and becomes popular, then the artist can start broadening their scope and show their abilities in other areas. But at the beginning of a career, it is not a smart move to be that diverse in your music. It really isn't. The problem we have today is that there are a few artists that all they have is one trick. So they become one-hit wonders, or they just get the one song across or the one style, and then within three or four years, they're out of the fashion loop.

Mike, let's talk about the newer, edgier Country music. Is there any point in upcoming or established writers still writing more traditional Country, or has the train left the station and there is no getting it back?

MIKE SISTAD : I don't know about the train. I guess I look at the format as there is always going to be that dead center point of traditional Country music. I think that the parameters that we try and function within are spread way out from center on both sides, out to the edges, and sometimes it gets a lot closer back to center, but the center is always there. I think traditional Country music is going to still survive. I don't know if that's going to be the majority of what's out there. Obviously, over the last ten years our format seems to have gone in a much larger audience direction, and things have been accepted as Country in the last ten years that were not before that time. Agree or not, I think if the Eagles' early records came out now, they would be a Country band.

I think the traditional thing will always be there. I definitely believe that that is the foundation of what everything else is built off of. If it works in our format, it's more of a production thing. It's more of an instrumentation type of thing. Sometimes it's the voice that is very traditional or Country. But there have been a lot of things like that. Things that are crossing over and are selling huge that are considered Country right now are artists like Shania Twain. I don't know if that's Country anymore or not. I don't know. I love the fact that it accepts things like that. It's a healthy thing for our format. There are those that don't necessarily look at that as a positive thing for Country music, but I would like to think that traditional style will still be there, and all this other stuff will still be accepted as part of that too.

AO : I think it all comes down to great songs. That's the point that everyone seems to be getting at. Whether it's Mariah Carey or Country music, it all comes down to the fact that you could have a great voice, but if you don't have a great song behind that voice, then you're going to have a really difficult time. With Country music, so much of it today was accepted because for a while there in the (Pop) music business, we didn't seem to be giving people what they wanted. They turned to Country music because there were great songs there that they could relate to, that they could understand.

So much of this just comes down to our opinions. We're kind of rolling the dice and hoping that with what we find, and what we like, and what we're passionate about there are a lot of other people out there that feel the same way we do. But the odds are so against us. Everyone up here certainly has explained that we only sign 0-2 things a year. At the same time, I saw a thing in the L.A. Times where last year there were 33,000 albums that were released. Out of 33,000, only 198 sold more than 100,000 copies. It's very frightening. Because of that though, you realize that if you're going to get involved in something, you better really, really love it.

Randy, it seems all A&R people talk about in this town are bands, bands, bands. How does a Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, or Celine Dion get discovered, and how do you develop that kind of career versus bands, bands, bands?

RANDY JACKSON : I think you develop those kinds of artists by having good songs. Say Michael Bolton's got a great voice -- you may hate it -- but he's one of the few solo males who can really sing. I think Mariah is the same way. Then you have all the teen groups. You have Christina, you have Britney, you have all these people that are good singers. It's just a fad. It's just a sign of the time. Let's look at the Top-10 right now. It's mostly single artists right now, isn't it? So we've kind of come circular in a way. Even though I think in the next year or so, the band thing will be mostly the Top-10. I think that's the way it's going to go. You know, it's a different kind of marketplace that we're in now.

Those artists, by the way, are trying to make the most popular songs. They are not trying to be cool. They are not trying to be vibey. They're not trying to be any of that except have hit songs and sell tons of records. At the end of the day, they know that at the company they are signed to, that's what they are going to respond to the most.

AO : The one complaint that I hear a lot of is, "I'm getting tired of spending $17.99 for a CD that has one (good) song on it." I think the best opinions you can get are from people that don't work in the music business. But I learned one thing from my buddy's wife. We were talking about Alanis Morissette, and the new record had just come out. She said, "The first record was so great. It was such an unbelievable album. On this new record, I like track 2 and 6." That's one of the weird things about today's industry, and I suppose if we discuss the Internet and how it's going to affect the industry, it is changing because people today with CDs no longer talk about a great album. If you go back, talking about the Eagles, when they released their albums, or the Stones, or whoever, and they were on vinyl, you went home and put that down, and you listened to the entire album. You couldn't skip through track 2, 6, 9 and do your own record. Nowadays with CDs, people go home and put on their 5-CD changers, and they only play the tracks that they like.

TF : Whose fault is that, though?

AO : I agree. I think that goes back again to the A&R community not necessarily making the best records that should be out there.