This year's Road Rally was a smashing success. By all accounts, it was the best Rally yet.
Once again, the panelists were very open and generous in sharing their knowledge of the industry with the members who attended. We were also impressed by how willing they were to chat one-on-one with our members after they finished their panels.
I thought it might be nice to share some of the questions and comments from the A&R panel with our members who were unable to come to the Rally this year. I hope you enjoy it.
VP of A&R at Interscope Records. Tony signed No Doubt. Their last album has sold over 17 million copies, and their new album is on track to do the same. Tony also signed TAXI band Fisher whose first single "I Will Love You" is already breaking on radio stations across the country.
Started at Capitol Records in Nashville in 1994, and has worked with Garth Brooks, Trace Adkins, Deana Carter, and Tanya Tucker. He is now Manager of A&R at Virgin Records, Nashville, and has worked with Clay Davidson who went to #3 on the charts with his song "Unconditional."
Although Jon Lind is new to the A&R world as the Vice President Of A&R at Hollywood Records, he is also a hit songwriter with cuts like "Crazy For You," by Madonna and "Save The Best For Last," by Vanessa Williams, just to name a few. Jon co-wrote, co-produced, and A&R-ed the soon to be platinum BBMak record, with one of his songs, "The Ghost Of You And Me" emerging as the probable next single.
Was the Managing Editor of CMJ from 1983-1990 and then Regional A&R Manager for Sony Music 1990-1996. Dave is Co-producer of the High Sierra Music Festival since 1995, and Co-producer of the Berkshire Mountain Music Festival since 1998. He is the founder and president of indie label, High Sierra Records, whose roster includes The Meters, The Radiators, and The Greyboy Allstars.
The Senior Director of A&R at Epic Records, Max has also worked at Universal Music Publishing, Giant Records, and was the Urban Programming Director at Video Jukebox. Max also had a label through Elektra that had a major hit with Adina Howard.
At the time of the Road Rally, Marc was Vice President of A&R for Jimmy and Doug's Farmclub.com, and, the Universal Music Group "internet entity" created by Interscope Chairman Jimmy Iovine and Chairman and CEO of Universal Music, Doug Morris. Soon after the Rally he went over to Interscope Records. Marc's first signing to Farmclub, Dynamite Hack, had one of the most played songs on the radio this summer in "Boyz in The Hood." Previously at Universal Records, Marc had a hit signing in Merril Bainbridge and was instrumental in bringing rap label Cash Money to Universal and Alt rockers 3 Doors Down to Republic Records. In previous stints at Casablanca, Bearsville, and Sire Records, Marc helped the success of artists like Todd Rundgren, KISS, Donna Summer, and Talking Heads.
Michael Laskow: Let's start with Tony. Can you give us a look into a day in the life of a major label A&R person? What do you do between having your first cup of coffee and when you go to bed at 2:00 in the morning?
Tony Ferguson:Well, there's golf, there's lunch. [laughs] It varies. First thing in the morning, there is a lot of catching up on e-mails to do. There are a hell of a lot of phone calls as well. Most of my days and evenings are spent on the phone--between cell phones, and pagers, and regular land lines. The day is actually not spent listening to music that much. Because there are so many solicitations in A&R, you spend most of the time fielding tapes, and fielding CDs, and phone calls, and all of those solicitations. In my situation, I actually have to make appointments with myself to sit down and listen to music. That's why sometimes you can miss certain things. When the phone keeps ringing, or people walk in, or you have to go to marketing meetings or other meetings that are held at the company to support your artists and other artists, there are not a hell of a lot of hours in the day left to actually listen to music. That's kind of the downside of A&R.
ML: What's the upside?
Tony Ferguson: The upside is actually listening to the music and finding something you really like. That is definitely the upside. That makes up for a lot of . . . [ Tony's cell phone rings, the audience laughs] See there's the phone! Finding a piece of music or a band you can get excited about, or getting a good tip on something, makes up for a lot of it.
ML: Dave, can you tell the audience why in some cases it's a much smarter move to sign with an indie label than it might be to sign with a major?
Dave Margulies: . . . Or perhaps to do it yourself. It really depends on what the artist is in it for. I think everyone who makes art has to look at their own set of parameters and understand inside why they're doing what they're doing. They should set their goals and then proceed accordingly. If you have the big game dream of writing songs, or being that artist who can take it all the way, as you proceed through that, the path begins to narrow and becomes more and more difficult. There are obviously possibilities and success stories which can be told by this panel, especially in Jon's case (Jon Lind, hit songwriter cum V.P. of A&R, and fellow panelist). He has gotten to write some songs that have gone on to become hits for major recording artists, but again, it depends on what you're doing it for. There are songwriters out there in the world who have set the bar perhaps a little bit lower for themselves.
I work a lot on the organic level with a lot of singer-songwriters who are just out there doing it. They're doing it because, first and foremost, they have to do it. It's who they are. They're artists. They're songwriters. They're musicians. They're performers. That's what they're here to do--to deliver that message and make that art. So they're out there finding any way possible to make that happen. Usually it's on the live touring aspect of things. They're getting out there every opportunity they can to play music in front of people--whether it's at conferences, or music festivals, or in clubs, or creating a local scene, or what have you. They're doing it for that and hopefully building a base and being able to expand it on a grass-roots or natural level. There are a lot of successes in that field as well.
A great example that comes to mind is of an artist named Greg Brown. I don't know how many people in this room have ever heard of Greg Brown, or know him, but he's an incredible singer-songwriter who has his own independent record label called Red House Records. He probably has at least a dozen records out there, and he sells anywhere between 20- and 50,000 copies of his records. He tours probably 150 nights a year. He makes a beautiful living doing his art his way, answering to no one but himself and his own rules. That's one extreme of someone who does it and does it successfully without having to compromise or fit into any other set of expectations.
And then there is the opposite. There are a lot of people out there who probably have dreams of either writing for major recording artists or being one themselves. As I said, that becomes increasingly difficult. You have to figure out why you're doing it and what reasons you're doing it for, and then proceed. The rest will then just naturally unfold.
There is a band that we've been working with for years through our music festival called The String Cheese Incident. I don't how many people are familiar with them, but they are a band out of Boulder, Colorado who started about six years ago. I remember they played our festival. They begged us to let them play on our showcase stage for free. They played in front of a couple of thousand people at various stages over the weekend. We gave them some high-visibility spots, and they've become an incredibly successful band in the sort of jam band/hippie scene world of the Grateful Dead and Phish. And now they're selling out the Hammerstein that holds 3,500 people. They're selling 50,000 albums, and they're doing incredible things on their own. I just saw them in New York last weekend and half the staff of Columbia Records and Donny Ienner were out there sniffing around wanting to plug in and work with this band. Now had they done this four years ago, I think the band might have been interested. But the band is so far along their path under their own power, that they don't need a label like Columbia. If a label like Columbia got involved now, yes, they might be able to take it all the way. But when you get involved in the major label deals and so on, in the long run, the band would probably make more money continuing to do it themselves. They'll probably be a lot happier doing it themselves because the path has been cleared for them to go
So to make a long answer longer, it all depends on what you're doing it for. Just follow your own truths, and set your own goals, and stay true to them. That would be my call. But I think there is a lot of merit in signing with independent labels or doing it yourself.
ML: How much work does it take to do it yourself?
Dave Margulies: Oh gosh, you need a team. You can't technically "do it yourself." People can and people have tried and can do that, but you have to eat your Wheaties everyday to get the energy to try to be the artist and be your own record label, and manager, and a lot of the other things it takes. But if you can put a team of people together to do it yourself, and divide up those responsibilities, then it just takes persistence and knowing the avenues to travel. It takes dogged determination, but it's very possible to do it with the right knowledge and the right team of people. But who better to do it than your inner circle, and your family, and your team? Who better to carry out the vision of who you are as an artist?
ML: Can you have a day job and still do it?
Dave Margulies: I don't think so.
ML: Max, the pop A&R community spends a lot of time in clubs checking out the acts that they're interested in signing. Does that happen in the urban A&R community, or is there a different method of finding the music that you sign?
Max Gousse: Urban A&R is very much producer-driven to a large extent. I spend a lot of my time maintaining relationships with the "A-list," hot producers who have acts that they're developing. I also keep an ear out for the up-and-coming producers who may not be on everybody's radar, but because of my publishing contacts, I'm able to identify producers that I think will be coming up next. I form relationships with them. I stick close to them to see what kinds of projects they are developing. Another way I go about finding my acts, and Epic in particular is very big on this, is through regional showcasing. So what I'll do is identify a market that I feel is untapped. Basically, I try and go where other A&R guys don't go. So I'll go to Oklahoma City. I'll go to Kansas City. I'll go to St. Louis. I'll go anywhere to do a showcase, because I think that 1) most A&R guys reach a comfort zone and won't go to those regions, and 2) most A&R people really wait for the demo tape to come to them. I'm not a fan of that. I like to see it. I like to touch it. I like to see audience reaction. If it's a regional label that is having some success, I like to see the operation, see the street team, just see how committed they are to their own product. Because it's so competitive out there, if somebody is kind of doing it on their own, it gives me a gauge on how they'll work with a major label to take it to the next level.
ML: You mentioned how it is producer-driven. How do the producers develop artists? Do they have a stable of artists that they work with and then they bring them to you--maybe one producer will bring you three or four acts throughout the year?
Max Gousse: It really depends on the producer. There are producers that have first-look deals at different labels. Perhaps the act was passed on at one of these labels, but because of the close relationship I have, maybe he'll bring it to me second. If I like it, then I'll do the deal. Basically, the producer to me is an A&R source. I try to stick as close to them as possible.
Question from audience member: Do artists like Madonna take royalties and claim songwriting credit when they don't really write the songs?
Jon Lind: I don't think that's so much the case today as it was in the past. I think it still happens. It didn't happen with me on "Crazy For You." In the case of Madonna, I have a lot of respect for her, particularly after "Crazy For You." She has in fact set trends, broken rules, changed the music, and done her own thing. Pat Leonard had started writing a song with a friend of mine, Richard Page, and in the context of Pat Leonard's relationship with Madonna, she heard it in an unfinished form. She liked what she heard, and then she did what she does, which is make it hers--make it work, change it, modify it to taste. To that degree, I don't think Madonna is a good example of somebody like that. She didn't get any publishing on "Crazy For You," and she didn't get any writer's credit, although she wanted the words changed. It was so early in her career, that we were able to stand up to her.
ML: When you do go out looking for a song for an existing artist that you have, how often do the lyrics or the songs get changed? 50-percent of the time? [no hands from the panel] How about 10-percent of the time? [getting some hands on that] So really, it's something that doesn't happen very often. The song really needs to be in the shape that it needs to be in . . . What if the artist gets it in their hands and says they really like it, they'd cut it if . . . and then calls up the writer and says, "Do you mind if we change this word or the chorus?" Does that go on much?
Jon Lind: Part of what I'm doing on this panel that is different, I think, is that when I look at the potential of songs that are sent to me by friends or colleagues for a certain artist, I am comfortable, and even excited, to go back to that guy, with total songwriter respect, and say "This is not who she (the artist) is. This is not who she is in this chorus. Are you willing to go back to the drawing board?" And it's not always because it's not right for that particular artist, necessarily, but I actually think that the song would be better. Songs don't grow on trees. If you buy a suit off the rack, you need to have things tucked. One of the things that I'm real excited about is tailoring a song that has already been written. I think there is a tremendous value in getting a relationship with writers where they are willing to go back and be creative and make it better.
Jason Krupek: I think in Nashville, it's such a songwriter-sacred community, and it's still a good old boy system, that writers are likely to respond by saying, "I'll change whatever you want to change, man, cut the damn song! I'll change a lyric or two."
Max Gousse: I think it's important for the songwriter that is seeking the placement to be flexible to a certain degree. While I was at MCA, there was a young duo named Anthem. They were first-time writers who were able to get a song on Mary J. Blige's album by allowing her to make certain changes to the song. Whether or not she really improved it, who knows. It wasn't a single, but it made the album.
ML: Did she take writer credit?
Max Gousse: She co-wrote. She did get writer's credit. But she actually did contribute to the song. If you're flexible, you can get that major placement.
ML: When an existing song comes in that the artist says they'd like to modify, and they work on it for a few hours with the writer, do they really try and guess-timate what the actual contribution of the artist was in terms of a percentage of writing credit?
Max Gousse: In Mary's case, she got 15-percent of the song. She wrote about 2-1/2 lines and made some modifications to the bridge.
Audience question: For somebody who is in their mid-40's, is it impossible if you have a great voice and great songs to make it in the business as a singer and a songwriter?
Marc Nathan: I got fired once for trying to sign The Cowsills in 1991. (Audience laughs)
Tony Ferguson: It's increasingly difficult. Obviously, most of the labels are looking for young blood because music is evolving all the time and becomes a hybrid of whatever has been before. Is there a future for somebody in their 40's and 50's? Absolutely. The be-all and the end-all is not a major label deal. You could be doing jingles. You could be doing disco dance music. You can make a lot of money in many, many other forms of music. It's not necessarily the major label. But if your specific question is about a major label, it's a problem. Sorry.
ML: What's the next big thing? What are you going to be looking for next week, six months from now, twelve months down the road. Does there have to be a "next big thing" or can it just be great music?
Tony Ferguson: There always has to be a next big thing. We're like sharks. If we don't swim forward, we drown. I don't think any label has launched the next big thing. Somewhere around the world, there is the next big thing coming. I think the next big thing is going to be smaller. It's going to be encapsulated. I think the chances of an Elvis Presley, the Beatles or Nirvana coming up and changing the world again are going to be less and less. I think it's going to be more about fashion statements that become a blip on the screen for maybe three to five years at the most. Those changes in social structure that happen, the changes in society--it depends on what's going on politically and economically in the world before those kind of things happen.
ML: Is the day of the career artist over?
Tony Ferguson: No, but I think careers are going to be shorter. The chances of an act lasting 35 years like Fleetwood Mac are slim, with the bands and artists that are coming up now. I think there are shorter careers. They are more intense. There is more money to be made in a shorter space of time, so the careers become shorter.
Audience question: We're a contemporary folk duo and we've been playing about 2-1/2 years together. We've finally come up with a name for what we are, "contemporary folk." We were just wondering how important is it to A&R people that you have a category, and a label, and a niche?
Tony Ferguson: Actually it's very important, because one of the misconceptions with writers and artists is that the more diverse they are with their material, or the more they bring up in the way of lateral thinking with their material, the more it makes them appealing as an artist. That's not really true when it comes to a major label. A label likes an artist to be extremely focused, and to some degree one-dimensional, particularly when you're trying to launch an artist. When you're getting one or two spins a week on radio, and you're relying on people's ears to pick up on something and respond to it positively, it's better for the artist in the initial start of their career to become focused. I think that the fact that you're defining yourselves is one thing, and you're defining your music as one thing, at this stage in your career is a smart move.