The Road Rally means many things to the staff and me. First on the list would have to be the hundreds of little details that we must pay attention to in order to have the convention go smoothly. There are also plenty of major tasks, like deciding what kinds of panels will give our members the kind of information they want and need most. Then, of course, we have to find the right people to be on the panels--not just people with great credits or resumes, but people who "get" the TAXI vibe. In other words, industry executives who come to the Rally to share what they know, not act like a bunch of elitist snobs.
But in the end, the "thing" that the Road Rally means most to the staff and I is the personal connection to our members. It's the one time a year that the staff gets to meet the people they work so hard for all year long. It's also a time for our members to meet each other.
I must admit, it's pretty cool to sit back for a minute and take it all in, knowing that these meetings, or moments in time, wouldn't be happening if I had not had just a single idea late in 1991. That idea of course, was TAXI.
And now there are people from all over the United States and the world coming together to learn about the music business, meet each other, and collaborate. The spirit of musicians coming together can be felt during the panels as well as in the hotel's hallways, lobbies and restaurants during the Road Rally. There's something very special in the air, but it's hard to convey it in mere words. It has to be experienced first-hand to be fully understood.
Hopefully, you'll be able to join us next year so you can experience it for yourself. We look forward to meeting you in person.
VP of A&R at Interscope Records.
Director of A&R, Warner Bros Nashville.
VP of A&R, Atlantic Records.
VP of A&R, Capitol Records.
Sr. VP of A&R, MCA Records.
ML: Tim Devine (Sr. VP at Columbia Records � ed.) was recently showing me a list of all of the phone calls he has to make in a day, and said he hardly has time to listen to music anymore. Is that the same for the rest of you guys? Do you do most of your listening in the car or at home?
Tom Storms: If I put a tape in at the office, it will take me three hours to listen to two songs. If the phone rings, you lose concentration. I listen in the car, or at home, or on an airplane. Those are really good listening times.
ML: Danny, take an artist like Faith Hill. From the time you start looking for songs, which I'm guessing is a year and a half to two years before the record gets made, how many songs do you listen to?
Danny Kee: That varies so greatly from project to project, but if you want to isolate Faith's project, I'd say easily a couple of thousand songs--including hundreds and hundreds by myself personally. Then she works with local producers, and those producers have staffs that screen songs. Her management company does too. She listens to a lot herself. So there are thousands of songs in the case of Faith.
ML: Tony, you've told me recently that the new trend in the industry is that people are looking for kinder and gentler stuff, that we're getting away from the angst-ridden stuff. You said it was happening already before September 11th.
Tony Ferguson: Did I say that? [laughs] I think that there is a certain breed of writers coming up in certain bands like Staind and Lifehouse, where there is a certain lyrical value that is changing, more so than musical values. I think there is always going to be room for hard rock and angst and anger when you've got to cater to a large audience predominantly between ages 14 and 28. It's going to be testosterone driven. That's human nature. Music reflects human nature. It's all about emotions. But I think what I was probably alluding to was that I've seen a lyrical change happening in rock now and for some time.
ML: Tom, our members always ask me, "Why do I have to fit into a particular genre?" Why can't they just do that 7-minute song that doesn't have any structure or a verse or a chorus, and doesn't fit into any format. Why do they need to be in a genre or format?
Tom: Obviously, it's to market it. That makes it a lot easier. But on the other hand, if you do get something that falls in-between radio formats, there is a chance of having a bigger crossover success. Someone like Jewel was being handled at Atlantic as a folk singer-songwriter, but she didn't really fit into any one genre. Then they tried it at alternative radio. Then they went to pop radio, and it fit into all of those different genres. The ones that fall in between formats and break are the biggest successes because they appeal to such a broad spectrum of people. But as to why people think we pigeonhole bands, it is simply because it's the easiest way to know where the market is to reach those people and those radio stations. I would hesitate to tell people to try to write a song or have a new band in this genre or that genre. If you ask an artist to do that, you're totally compromising everything they do, and you'll probably fail.
ML: Danny, where do Country artists come from? Where do you hear about them? I know that the Pop and Rock world get on planes and fly all over the country. You guys seem to stay in Nashville, and the artists seem to come to you. How do you find your artists?
Danny: Boy, I don't know that there is one way that we do. TAXI is certainly a very valuable vehicle. It is valuable whenever we have a relationship with somebody, whether it's with an organization like TAXI, or with an attorney or a manager or an artist--somebody that we deal with on a regular basis and respect their opinion. They may call and say, "I've heard something that I think is really wonderful and you need to give it a listen." That is probably the best, most legitimate way to hear a new artist � word of mouth. Or sometimes you hear of somebody that is in the Nashville community, maybe a songwriter or a demo singer. A lot of times I've listened to demo tapes of songs that were pitched to me just as songs, and may or may not have been interested in the song, but by listening to the demo singer I could draw a conclusion that there was a great talent there as a singer.
ML: What do you think is missing from what is being sent to you? What are songwriters not doing that could be done?
Randy Jackson: Years ago when I was a musician, I was working with a producer by the name of Tom Dowd. He said, "Listen, the smartest thing you can do is you can listen to the Top 10 and figure out why those songs work. Pull them apart. Write songs like them. Do whatever you have to do to figure them out, and don't worry about whether or not you like them. Dissect those songs. Find out why that series of chords works. Find out what that lyric really means. Really do your homework, so that when you start putting pen to paper, or you sit down at the piano, you have a basis from which to compare your songs to other songs." If you just start there, it will be tremendously helpful.
Audience question: Putting aside that Michael is a friend and colleague of yours, how often do you use TAXI to look for new talent or new songs as opposed to other avenues? What would be those other avenues besides scouts?
Danny: I use TAXI when they send me a tape in the mail, and then I listen to it. When Michael is gracious enough to do that, then I use the service for that. In addition to TAXI, the other usual sources that I get songs from are usually from songwriter relationships and publisher relationships that I have. That's in Nashville. And as far as artists, they come from every direction, up to and including attorneys, managers, from other artists that I work with, from maybe hearing about a local buzz on an artist in a certain area, all the way up to and including just getting a tape in the mail.
Audience question: I live in Spain, even though I'm from Chicago. I joined TAXI this winter, and there is sort of a slight contradiction in some of the comments I get from the screeners in regards to lyrics. I sometimes see, "You're not creative enough," and then occasionally I see, "This is obscure." Where is that line for you between being creative with the lyrics and being cliched?
Tom: A lot of it is in the delivery. For instance, Kurt Cobain had some really simplistic lyrics, but somehow they were really deep and meaningful. Ninety-nine percent of the American public can't put their feelings or their emotions into words, and music helps do it for them. It is a fine line. Lyrics have to be easy enough for people to understand them, but they also have to be deep enough so that people can find meaning in them as well. I think it all comes down to delivery and the way that it's set up in the verses. It's all about delivery.
Ron: It's also a matter of opinion. If you played your songs for the five of us on this panel, I bet you'd get five completely different opinions.
Audience question: I'm from Denmark. I'm passionate about writing in the A-A-B-A form. Am I outdated in the contemporary market today?
Randy: No, not at all. I think you still find songs that are hits with that same formula written today.
ML: How important is song form to you guys on the panel?
Randy: To me, it's all about the chorus, because that's the part that every one of you will go home singing. That's the part that you will remember. You won't remember the track. You won't remember the guitar riff--well maybe if it's Zeppelin. You go home singing the chorus. That's the hook. That's it. Every time you go into Tower or Virgin or whatever record store you shop at, you sing that hook and that's what's going to stay in your mind for you to buy that record.
Audience question: I'm from New York City, and I'm self-releasing an album that is getting airplay now. The radio promoter suggested I fax you guys updates on what airplay it is receiving. I feel like unless it's a rep who is already following me and wants the update from me, it's not going to make any difference. You wouldn't look at it. I was wondering if people have done that before and if it's effective at all?
Ron: The thing is, we get so much stuff in A&R departments. If you want to continue to send fax reports that illustrate that your song is getting played, and that the fact that it's on the air is translating in some way by either getting requests, or it's getting some kind of positive research, chances are it might find its way to us. Like all of you, we're affected by the things that make impressions on us. If I'm going through all of my shit, and I see the name of your record two or three times, it might actually connect. Michael made reference to Tim Devine saying that he makes so many phones calls during the day. All of us spend the day taking and making phone calls, looking at our email, looking at magazines, so as things come through the system, if you can somehow make an impression on us more than once, I might recognize it. Even if I don't have time to research it, we all have A&R research departments. I might ask A&R research to check the radio station playlist, or call the music director and see if there is something happening with your record. If there is a buzz on your record where it's getting played, we'll probably get the record in and somebody will listen to it.
Audience question: I'm a songwriter-artist from Alaska. I have been a TAXI member for about a year and a half and only in the last four months felt my material was good enough to forward to TAXI for listings, at which time in about 30 packages I've been forwarded 12 times--but no one has called back. How many times do you call back?
Michael: Let me preface this by saying, Tony is probably my closest friend in the industry. I can send Tony anything I want, anytime I want. Am I correct in saying you don't bother calling me back unless it's something that grabs you, even as close as we are? I think it's a general rule of thumb that you're not going to call somebody to tell them you don't like it. You're going to call to tell them that you love it only, right?
Tom: Yes, because there is just so much that we receive. If we called everybody back all the time, then we wouldn't have any time to listen. The reason that we even listened to yours is because we didn't call the last person back! (laughter) If you call and you're respectful, like to see if we got the package, or find out if it's been listened to, that's fine. Just call and be respectful. Once in a while I'll pick up the phone and it's just like, "Dude, did you listen yet?" I don't want to be a jackass to the guy but . . . if you're cordial and nice and ask if we got the package, that's okay, and we'll call you if we like it. That's basically it.
ML: When somebody does call and they get you on the phone, what do you want to know from them, and how long should that phone call last?
Tom: I don't mind if people call sometimes. I actually had a guy call the other day, and his tape was sitting right there on one of the tape listener's comment sheets, and I sat there and talked to him for a minute. Quick and short. If I like it: Where are you from? Where are you playing? Do you have a Web site so I can see what's going on and how motivated you are? Do you play live? What kind of local press do you have? If I want more information, that's the kind of stuff I ask. If you don't have a Web site and you're a band, you shouldn't be in a band, because that's where we go. If I like a tape, I look there and see that, okay these guys have gigs, they have press, they have some MP3s up of other songs. I can see what they look like and how creative they are. I can see how creative their Web site is. Is it stupid, or is it cool?
ML: Is that what most of you guys use the Internet for, to check out something you've heard about? Or do you sit in your office all day cruising the Internet looking for acts?
Tom: With MP3.com, maybe I've heard about a band and tried to look for them there. But not to go, oh god, it's #3 in the hard rock polka genre! That's not going to happen.
Randy: I think, for me, basically what I do is I have a lot of songwriter friends of mine from around the world send me MP3s of their songs to me, as opposed to sending me tapes. It's a lot quicker. I respond to them. I'll still send mixes via MP3. I agree with him that the Web site is just so important to look up an artist and see if there is even something interesting there for you. Because you're not going to get me on the phone!
Audience question: I'm one of the few R&B cats who write my own stuff, produce my own stuff, and I've been playing piano since I was five. I know I've got what it takes. I'm about to move up to L.A., and I know the market is kind of flooded with people who say they do the same thing. How do I get noticed in a town where there are so many people essentially doing the same thing that I'm probably doing? I have a couple of connections up here, but nothing has really taken off for me yet.
Randy: It's probably the songs. You probably just don't have that runaway hit yet. It's about having that hit. I would try to find the right manager or attorney and really get to working with it. Get somebody to shop it and do the whole thing. If you think that you really have it going on, you'll get some results back.
ML: There are almost less managers, and certainly less attorneys, than there are A&R people. How does an artist or songwriter get to them if they can't even get to you?
Randy: You can do a show. You can send in a tape to one of the scouts. Send it in to me. You can send it in to everybody on this panel. You may not get a response back. That means that they probably didn't love it. It's all about a hit song. If you've got the talent, it's all about a hit song. The thing about having a hit song is don't listen to what your friends say, or your girlfriend, or your husband or whatever. Find people that don't know you, that don't care, that could care less if they offend you, and have them tell you the truth about those songs.
ML: So what I'm hearing is we need to have a lot of people at the shows. We definitely have to have units sold. We need to basically have a buzz going on. If you have an artist that is not selling tons of units but you love the music, will you still sign them?
Danny: Absolutely. I think there is basically a theme that is going on here with the questions that, if I can summarize it, is: How do I get