"Over the last six years, I have seen more and more industry people participate; and for the last few years, those folks have been more and more willing to accept material from Road Rally attendees."
TAXI: Marshall, give the audience a description of what an A&R person does, what your day is like, and what your responsibilities are.
Marshall Altman: Over the last six months, I've been directly involved with making records every day of the week. At Columbia on the West Coast, we've got about 23 active artists on our roster. There are basically three A&R people, so my job is to get records made. I'm either having a record made, involved in making a record as a writer or a producer, setting up a record to get made i.e. looking for a producer, studio, or engineer and making sure the songs are in line looking for songs on the street, calling TAXI for songs, or setting up a record's release. That could mean getting them ready to go out on the road and putting all the pieces together with the marketing and promotion staffs. That's a big part of my life right now.
Also, strangely enough, I listen to new music every day. I try to find as much time as possible to listen to demos. I try to spend as much time as I can in the car listening to music. That is usually the primary spot where I get a good chance to dig into some new stuff. As A&R people, I'm sure we'll all agree that we spend a tremendous amount of time on the phone, sort of exploring our relationships across the country, be it with other A&R people, or managers, booking agents, musicians, songwriters and bartenders. Each of us knows people across the U.S and across the world who we respect in terms of their musical taste. That's really one of the highlights of my day to call somebody I haven't spoken to in six months and see what's turning them on, both what's out and signed to other labels, and what is unsigned. Basically, I wake up every day and think maybe today I'll find the Beatles, or Eminem, or something great that I love. That's pretty much it.
I spend time listening to music, but not as much time as I would really like, and probably nowhere near as much time listening to music as everybody in this room imagines A&R people do. When I was a screener at TAXI, one of the things I always tried to get across was to make your impression quickly. Have the first minute of your song be exciting and dynamic. Get to the chorus. Have a payoff. Because of the volume of music we all listen to, it's great if you can keep our attention for 15 seconds, 30 seconds, a minute, two minutes, three minutes, to the next song. We don't really have as much time to listen to music as it would readily seem.
TAXI: Shane, how does it differ for you guys in Nashville? I know that you go out to showcases at 5 pm and 6 pm, instead of 9 pm or 10 pm. How does your job differ in the country market from what Marshall does in the pop and rock market?
Shane Barrett: I think a lot of what Marshall said applies directly to the country industry too, at least to my job in A&R. We spend a great deal of time on the phone and email too. Tons of emails. I really had a battle with the phone while I was at MCA just trying to cover all of my bases. You want to give information to everybody you can. You don't want to leave anybody out, but at the same time, your A&R job is primarily to find things and listen to music. You have to respect that part of your job. I think with my next gig, I'm really going try to segment my day so I can organize it better. There are lots of distractions throughout the day of an A&R person.
TAXI: What are some of those distractions?
SB: You never know when you're going to get a call from a song plugger, publisher, or songwriter saying, "I have a great song you've got to hear." You've got meetings scheduled generally for maybe two weeks ahead of time, but then you always have to allow for those phone calls that are going to be coming in. So there are lots of things that happen that are unplanned. At least that's what happened with me. Then suddenly your day is over.
TAXI: Do you guys spend more time looking for songs than you do for artists, whereas Marshall would spend more time probably looking for artists than songs?
SB: I think my day was split pretty evenly in most cases. Like I said, I'd have maybe five, six, seven meetings with publishers or songwriters during the day, and they'd play me between five and seven songs. That's primarily looking for songs for our existing artists. Then in between those meetings, I would try to dig through the piles of artist submissions and just try and get through those. A lot of times you can't get through a lot of those in a day, so I took a lot of stuff home with me and listened a lot in my car.
TAXI: Qiana, how does it differ in the urban market? Do you guys spend more time listening to tunes or more time looking for talent?
Qiana Conley: Probably more time listening to tunes. One thing that is different about the Urban world versus Rock but Pop is probably very similar to Urban is that in most of your Rock and Alternative worlds, there are live performances. A&R people go out to clubs and venues to showcases. I found that in the Urban world, a little more weight is placed on producers and publishing contacts and things of that nature. In our office right now, we have four or five different artists that we're really looking for content for. The majority of our day is listening to music, or songs, or tracks that meet our artists' needs. For every ten or fifteen different pieces of material that we're reviewing for the day, only five of those, or maybe three of those, will be new artists looking for deals.
TAXI: There is definitely a lemming factor with A&R people. If a label is successful with one thing, then all other A&R teams are either given the order (or do it naturally) to go out and find another Britney Spears, or whatever. Yet when we bring music to A&R departments we often hear, "Wow, that's really good, but it's so derivative. It sounds too much like so and so." It's a conundrum for us. On the one hand, the labels say, find us something new and original. Yet so much of what we hear on the radio is a clone of what's already out there.
Tony Ferguson: To me, that's always a bad sign. Actually, you guys have been pretty good lately. TAXI has been sending in some pretty interesting stuff. They've sent some developing artists that may not be ready to be signed to a major label deal, but certainly I've noticed that within a year or two years, those artists are suddenly appearing in magazines and there is a little buzz developing about them. So you guys have been looking for really good artists. As far as the songs go, it's just potluck. It depends on what we're looking for at any given time as to the quality of the songs that are submitted.
TAXI: Marshall, you personally listened to the music of hundreds of people in this room when you worked at TAXI. What are some of the most common mistakes that you noted? What keeps these people from getting signed to a major label deal?
MA: MA: I can talk about some of my frustrations as a screener. For instance, I would get a submission from someone that was pretty solid. I would give it what I thought was a considerable amount of effort and thought on my part and write a good critique that I thought would really help the song. Then two weeks or a month later, I would get the same exact song back sent in for another submission. Of everything, I think that was the most frustrating thing. I think you guys as writers should really take the critique process to heart, and really look at your songs objectively with the suggestions that come back from TAXI, and maybe make some changes. You don't have to recut the whole demo, but if you've got ProTools, or Digital Performer, or anything like that, you can try doing some editing. You can pull a vocal out. If you have only a guitar and your voice, and you've spent all of your money making up this big demo, just record your guitar and vocal. Try and make some of the changes that get suggested to you.
Now that's just on a personal note. In terms of what I feel like some of the mistakes are, I don't know if "mistake" is the right word, Michael. Songwriting is an artform. It's just part of the process. You have to write shit songs to write great songs. There is no great songwriter who has only written great songs. You have to write a thousand horrible songs to write one good song. And then you have to write a great number of good songs to write one really good song. And then you write some really good songs, and maybe you'll write a great song. That's what the process is. It's not: I wrote this song, and I think this is the best song ever, and everybody in my family thinks it's the best song ever. My kids, and my wife, and my friends think it's a hit song. It's not about writing one song. If you're a writer, you write. Write every day. Write bad songs. Just put the pen to paper. Get it done. Then put it away, and go on to the next one. I wish I could have just reached through the phone to call some of these people and say, "Complete the process. Move on." As a writer myself, you learn tricks, right? You figure something out, and you write a really good song. So everything from that point on is going to be better than anything you've written before. And then you get another trick. You unlock another door, and your songs move up a level. It's about figuring those little things out.
TAXI: Give us an example of a trick.
MA: Let's take going to the minor 4 at the end of your chorus. It's the old Beatles trick. If you want to make your chorus feel a little bit more poignant at the end, and you're on the 4 chord, you hit the minor 4, and then you go back to the 1. It sort of accentuates melodically what you're trying to say lyrically. When you hit the minor 4, your arrangement also translates it. That's a little trick. All of a sudden, your song has gone up to the next level.
Writing is about getting better incrementally. If you're not writing all the time, and if you're always sending in the same songs, there is no way you're going to get better incrementally because you're not completing the process. You don't have to send in everything you write, but write more. Try to understand and evaluate your own writing before it comes through TAXI, and before it comes through to an A&R person. Try to look at your material objectively from somebody else's eyes. If you're in your car, put your CD in and then put the radio on. See if the song sounds like it might make sense. A little self-evaluation goes a long way as a writer.
TAXI: Shane, Country music seems to have gone from being nearly Pop to the other extreme with the unexpected success of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou. Does anybody in Nashville have a sense of where it is all going? What are you guys looking for now?
SB:I think people are still kind of searching right now. Two great examples of things that are just so different are the Dixie Chicks' latest album Home that just came out. It's rootsy and bluegrassy and everything, which is cool and great. That sort of follows what Oh Brother laid the groundwork for. But then suddenly Shania Twain comes out with her next record, and if anybody has heard her first single, it's just a continuation really of the same production and the same songwriting that was so successful for her several years ago. I personally think there is room for a lot of different genres and styles in Nashville and in Country music. I don't think it should be so narrow. I would say both of those have credibility.
TAXI: It's almost like there are two Country audiences. The people over 40 that tend to lean maybe towards the more Traditional Country side, and the younger people who don't want to listen to their father's Country music. Is Country radio fragmented to accommodate that?
SB: I think that's the problem. The problem is there are different demographics and different interests. You've got the young Country people coming in, and there is only one radio format really. People in the past few years have tried to establish sort of an Americana format which hasn't really kicked in the way that they would have liked. Maybe with satellite radio coming in, that will give different genres of Country a chance. I think it's a real shame that there is one narrow focus for Country radio, yet so many viable styles of Country out there that are not being listened to.
TAXI: Qiana, Urban music always does well, and it's pretty much the same styles that have been popular for like a decade. You don't see any dramatic departures. Do you anticipate any breakthroughs? Are there new writers and producers that make you go, wow, this is completely different, radically new, and amazingly good? Or is it going to continue on the same path that it has been on?
QC: In regards to Urban music, it's really heavily set on trends, or what is appealing to the general masses. I think the audience for Urban music has changed now. Where before there was this real rawness with the whole surge of Rap music and Hip-Hop music within the urban community, now it has expanded. It's going out to suburbia. It's the popular thing. As far as new artists that tend to move out of the trend, you know, yes and no. I think people try it, like what you've seen with the Neo-Soul movement in the last couple of years.
That was characteristically different than what was popular at that time. It had moderate success, but you can't compare the success of Nelly or Ja Rule or artists like that to Musiq or India.Arie. A lot of people in the Urban world don't get their just dues for their talent, so I think it's really hard to say that something that is going to be completely different in the Urban world is going to be easy to cross over and be accepted. Though their audience has changed, I think people still tend to look towards the core styles that kind of started Urban music and are still active in it.
TAXI: Tony, physical appearance and youth have been prerequisites for success in Pop and Rock music for a long, long time. It feels like the industry is now more open than it has been in a very long time to new types of artists. Maybe I'm nuts, but it seems a little bit like youth and beauty have become a little less important. Am I hallucinating, or do you think that's true?
TF: You're hallucinating. [laughs] Audiences tend to find things that are quality, like when they come across artists like Norah Jones or Nickelback. Nickelback wasn't exactly the youngest band on the planet. It still comes down to a song and the presentation. I remember when we first saw the Nickelback video, we thought, "oh my god". But the songs were great. Audiences got attracted to it. I think that's all you have to worry about. It's always going to be the song that drives the ship.
TAXI: Marshall, are A&R departments ever going back to the days of true artist development, or have the boards of directors made it impossible to see the value of long term investment in grooming talent?
Marshall Altman: I think at "major labels," no. I think label groups are setting up feeder systems--basically, alliances with smaller labels, independents, and production companies that will do the artist development for them. It's just not cost-effective to sign an act and use your resources to spend 24 months developing the act on the road. It's expensive. If Joe Schmo indie guy who has a label in Wisconsin develops three acts a year, and you give him $50,000 a year so you can get first look at any act he has, that's really the way artist development is taking place in the business now at the major labels. There are also smaller labels within the major label communities that are independent and are doing that. I really don't think the days of spending three albums to set up REM or U2 are ever going to be back at the major labels. I just don't think it's happening that way.
TAXI: Is there anything that people in this room can do to make themselves more viable?</p
Tony Ferguson: The one thing that comes to mind is not to get too precious about what you do. Marshall said a very important thing: keep writing. Keep writing, writing, writing. I find that some of the people who are less developed as artists or songwriters that we come across tend to have maybe half a dozen songs and are so convinced that those are the songs that are going to launch their career some way or another. They are so convinced, that that's all they play, and that's all they shop around. I can understand Marshall's frustration where you get the same songs back again six months or a year later. I recently got a CD back three years later from the same act up in the Bay Area, and it's the same CD I got three years ago. They are still trying to sell the same thing. The point is, don't be precious about what you do. If you're not that unique of an artist, like an Eminem or a Bono of U2, or something like that, make alliances. It surprises me the number of writers that do not co-write with their peers. There are many ways of stepping up and getting stuff moving. If you sit around when you're 20 years old, and then suddenly you wake up one day and you're 45 years old, don't start blaming the industry because you're bitter because you didn't get off your ass and do something about it. Go out there and meet people and make connections. It's not the labels' fault. It's not the industry's fault. It's their fault.
MA: I want to add something to what Tony is saying. Don't be so precious about each little song that you're doing, but be precious about your identity as an artist. Find your identity. One of the most annoying things, and sort of the saddest thing, is when somebody comes to me and says, "What do I need to do to get signed? Tell me what to do. You don't like my demo. How should I change it?" We want artists. I'd rather have somebody say, "You don't like it? Well you can kiss my ass when the record goes #1." As an A&R person, that's what I want. At least if you come into my office and you play me something, and I don't like it, I'm going to tell you I don't like it. And if you say to me, "Oh I can change it. I can do this and that. What do you think I should do?" Ahhh! That makes me crazy. If you say, "Well, you know what? Tough luck. I'll see you at the top. I'll be looking down." That... I'll remember you. The next time I see your record lying on my desk, I'm going to put it in. But if it sucks when I put it back in, I'll never take your call again. (laughter)
Shane Barrett: I'd like to add one thing too. I don't know about L.A. or New York, but Nashville has a real community of songwriter nights. Talking about getting off your ass and getting out there, you have these songs--these children that you're birthing--but then you have to give them to the world. I think you should get them out there. Play them for people. Get feedback. The people that you're playing for in clubs are the real hard listeners. They're not your family, or your wife, or your husband who is going to pacify you and say, "That's good, hon." You have to get out there and get some real feedback. Get out there and play them for people--the people that are ultimately going to be buying music. Get feedback from them first.
TAXI: We get that phone call all the time at TAXI. We send somebody back a critique of a song that wasn't forwarded that says it was okay, not great, didn't suck, it could use some improvement, here are some ideas.... And we get back letters or phone calls saying, "I play this out in bars all the time and people love it. You guys don't know what you're talking about." I attribute that mostly to beer. [laughter] But seriously, people go out to a club to have a good time. They want to hear music. They want to tap their foot. It's about the whole experience. It's not about sitting down listening to the song and saying, "I'm going to gamble $1 million on this song. I'm going to gamble my career. I'm going to gamble my label on this song." It's a bunch of people having a good time at a bar. It's not a fair comparison, if that's the scenario. But show up at the Bluebird in Nashville--a songwriter hangout--and the comments you're going to get from other people like yourself has got to be extremely valid commentary.
SB: Right. One more thing I would add, and I think we all probably know this, but if you just use your head about it when you're beginning to write, or developing as a writer, don't make elaborate demos. Don't spend a bunch of money in the beginning on these songs that will probably end up getting passed on anyway. Make simple guitar demos.
TAXI: How important is production in the Urban world on the demos?
Qiana Conley: It's very important. Production is key. With urban music, the music itself and the production has huge weight. You've got artists like the Neptunes and other producers like Timbaland that are stars in their own right from their production alone. My advice is that if you're an artist, rapper, or singer, and you're really trying to find what is going to define you as far as your sound, you have to get a good producer. You have to get someone who understands your music, who understands what you do, and that complements you. Just finding a producer, or just using someone because your boy makes beats, might not be what is best for what you're doing or what your talent is. Maybe you guys can grow together. You help to challenge him, and vice versa. It's got to be the right sound. Production is key.
MA: And if you can't find the right producer, get a JV-2080, or a Triton. Those are basically the tools that make the industry--the 2080, the 3080, and the Triton, for the most part. You can find any sound on those that are on Pop radio right now. You get a tool, like an MPC, which should be within your reach. For the Rock world, granted, you're not going to be able to get an SSL-9000J to mix your demo on. It's not going to happen. Maybe it will, I don't know. For the Rock world, if your songs are good enough, we'll come and see you play live.
TAXI: Tony, are home studios the rule or the exception on demos these days? What is more important to you: songs or production?
TF: Sometimes a little bit of both. Sometimes a song can benefit from good production, obviously. I had a couple of kids in my office the other day that just walked in with a couple of backpacks. I thought they had come straight off the plane, or the boat, or something, but their backpacks were their whole studio. The new generation of ProTools stuff that is coming out I think next month is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. These guys were doing overdubbing and tracking in their hotel room. You can't beat that.
MA: There is a TAXI band that just got a deal on Columbia, Sugardaddy Superstar (now called Crossfade �ed.). These guys made their whole record in their basement I think.
TAXI: Literally on a computer. As a matter of fact, they showcased last year at the Rally.
TAXI: Our members frequently tell us they don't want to be pigeonholed into a single genre. Why is it so important for an artist or band to fit a format?
TF: Because that's the way the industry is set up, unfortunately.
What are some of the elements that a band or an artist needs to have before you'll go forward in pursuing them?
MA: Be pigeonholed into having a hit and shut up. If you have a hit, who cares? If you're doing Country, Rap, and Latin crossover, what the hell am I going to do with that?
SB: I think you have to establish a core audience first, and then you can branch out from there.
TAXI: If it's so hard to get signed, why is there so much crap on the radio?
TF: Radio has got nothing to do with music. Radio has to do with advertising. So a lot of the times when major corporations release records, a lot of input comes from the radio promotion people at those places. Radio tends to follow more like lemmings than A&R people, to some degree. They'll follow whatever sound fits a format that is already currently hot on that radio station. Sometimes an artist gets signed because he is very similar sounding to other artists. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. It tends to give this impression that radio is just one record all the damn time.
MA: There is really not that much crap out there. You can put on any Modern Rock station in the country, and I'd say eight out of ten songs are going to be recurrent. It's either going to be Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sublime, Limp Bizkit, or Korn. Maybe there is some Dave Matthews thrown in. There is not that much crap. You might put on the radio and hear a song that sucks, and maybe it turns into a hit. But most of what radio plays is what is familiar. Radio is comfort food. That's how they get ratings. People turn their radio to a certain station because it's inoffensive and it's not challenging. It sort of spoon feeds you what you should like.
TAXI: Members frequently ask us, "Why can't we send you stuff that you think is pretty darn good, and then you send it to the A&R guys and let them decide if it's good or not? Why do you guys at TAXI hold the bar so darn high?"
SB: Because that's why we keep listening to TAXI submissions. We know your standards are high, just like ours.
MA: If "suck" is the carpet, and "good" is the top of the podium,
then "great" is where the sun is. It's a pretty big difference. There
is not that big of a difference between horrible and good, but there is
a huge difference between good and great. Nobody up here wants pretty
good. We can't do anything with pretty good. We can do something with
great. Same thing with you guys (the audience). You'll go see your friend
play because he or she is your friend and you want to support them. You'll
do that twice, or maybe three times. But you'll plunk down 35 bucks to
go see a band you like, or $100 to go see the Eagles because you know
it's going to be great. That's the difference. Good to great is a really
long, long, long way. That's what TAXI does. TAXI helps us sort of wade
through the good, and hopefully get to the great. They should help you
do that too. That should make everybody's standards high.
Q: We've heard so much conflicting information about submitting demos. Some people will say, "Just give me a good guitar with vocal." Other people say it has to be radio ready. We heard the same thing at the mentoring yesterday. Somebody said you should only have three songs, or only have four songs. Another person said you need a whole demo because record labels are lazy. They don't want to do a lot of work. They want it ready. So is there any information about submitting demos? Is there a standard?
SB: Let me clarify what I said earlier about just getting a good guitar or piano demo. That's mostly for my purposes to listen to a song submission or something.
MA: If I could just throw this in... This is how we view the business. These are just our thoughts. TAXI has a lot of great guidelines and advice to give. But if you're going to be subject to rules, you obviously don't want this bad enough. There are no rules in the business. It's a creative business. You make up your own rules. If you want to send in a 20-song demo, go ahead. Chances are, nobody is going to listen past the third song, but it's your life. It's your creative life. You can do what you want. Don't box yourself in by rules. Nothing changes if you follow the rules, unfortunately. The earth used to be the center of the universe. That was the rule. Obviously we all know the sun is the center... actually, we all know that TAXI is the center of the universe. [laughter]
But look, demos — ,whatever man. Just be great. The first artist I ever signed was a kid named Citizen Cope. He put a boom box in front of him, hooked up his MPC to a speaker behind him, and he sat there on his guitar and played into some crappy little boom box stereo onto a cassette. He didn't write his name on the tape. He didn't follow any of the rules, and he got a record deal. Just be original.
TAXI: Aren't there things you can do that increase your odds of having success?
MA: Yes. Be concise. Get to the chorus quickly. Have a clear, focussed identity as an artist. Have your vocals be great. If your vocals are great and your demo sucks, we're going to think, wow, whoever that is can sing their ass off. At the end of the day, it's the vocal that you take home with you. Be defined. The wider the path you're trying to strike, the less interesting it's going to be. If you're narrow, and focused, and interesting, that's going to help us say "yes" or "no." That's all you want in this business. You want a yes, or you want a no.
TAXI: Can you explain what SoundScan is?
MA: SoundScan is basically the Neilson ratings for record sales. Every time you go into a major record store--Sam Goody, Best Buy, Tower, Virgin--and you buy a record, it gets scanned and it goes to a central database. It registers your market and the sale of the record. In smaller markets, they are weighted. Weighted sales mean that if you buy a record in a small town in Virginia, and there are ten record stores there, but only one is SoundScanned, they basically say, well if somebody bought it in this store, it has probably sold seven copies in the market. They weight your sale in smaller markets. In larger markets it's one-to-one. That's basically what SoundScan is.
TAXI: The question that we get asked all the time by our members is: "You guys forwarded my stuff three times this year. I didn't hear anything from Tony Ferguson. I didn't hear anything from Marshall Altman or Qiana Conley." Tell them the reality.
MA: Michael Laskow is one of my dearest friends. If he sends me something, and I don't like it, I'm not going to call him back. It's that simple. He can send me something, and I will listen to it. I will call back if I think that something is really good but I can't sign it. I will call back and say, "Hey, I really like what you're doing. It's not right for my label, but good luck." That's one out of 300. I do that maybe once a week. There is just too much music coming in to call everybody back.
TAXI: It's an industry standard. Just so you guys know, don't be offended. When TAXI forwards something to one of these guys, or the 150 other labels that we work with, that's the way it is. Just for the sake of our members knowing, do you guys all get stuff from TAXI, and do you actually listen to it?
MA: Absolutely. Look, do you think we'd be here on a Saturday morning? I'm here because this is relevant to what I do. TAXI is a public service to the industry, believe it or not. As A&R people, we will all be fired at one point. It just happens. Thank God for a guy like Michael. It's relevant to all of our existences in the record business. Michael won't say it, but the guy is pretty smart.