Moderated by Michael Laskow
Marshall Altman - Columbia Records
Cliff Audretch, Jr. - Sony Music Nashville
Michael Laskow - TAXI President
Tony Ferguson - Interscope Records
Loren Israel - Capitol Records
Steve Smith - Aware RecordsTAXI: Marshall, every few years, the majors begin to squawk about feeding more music to the adult audience, but they rarely do. Is Norah Jones an anomaly or a wake-up call?
TAXI: Marshall, every few years, the majors begin to squawk about feeding more music to the adult audience, but they rarely do. Is Norah Jones an anomaly or a wake-up call?
Marshall: I don't know if she's either. The best labels—the labels that have consistently done well with catalog—have always figured out a way to sell records to older people. That's why you have big Christmas records. That's why you have cover albums. That's why you have duet records. Labels always need to look at the adult buying market. Right now we're in an unusual situation because the baby boomers—the biggest population group ever in the history of the world—are at this stage where they have a lot of disposable income. Most of their children are done with school, and they want to start being able to relive or at least recapture their love for music. An artist like Norah comes along and sort of captures the wave. But she sold just as many records to kids as she has to adults. She's a big star. I would be looking at Bette Midler's new record, or Rod Stewart's new record saying record companies right now are gearing their sales efforts towards adults. And you want to know why? Adults will buy a full record. Adults don't have the time to go online and download just their favorite songs. That's a good thing. It makes the record companies make better records. That's where we're going. You won't be buying a record with just one hit single. You'll buy a record, and if there is a hit single on it, it's going to be accompanied with nine really strong songs. That's gearing towards the adult audience.
TAXI: One would have to ask the question, why didn't that happen last year or five year ago? Why did it take an industry imploding to make everybody realize that albums should be full of good songs?
Loren: What I'm putting in my deals is that if a band wants tour support, they have to write a song a week. Write a song a week, you get your money. If you don't, sorry, weren't not giving you the tour support. It's essential. It's exactly what we're talking about. Listen, I work with a lot of bands, and it comes time to do a record, and they've been on tour for a year. They have to scramble for a month or two months to make a record that's got to be as good as a No Doubt or a John Mayer record. Or it's like college. If you cram, you're not going to get that A. But if you slowly but surely, methodically, just write or do your work, as the year goes by, you're going to match that catalog. It's just that simple. A song a week. That's your job.
Marshall: And that's something that speaks to everybody here as writers too, just to make a brief musical comment. You have to write a lot of songs. The greatest writers in the world write assloads of bad songs that you will never hear. But you have to be able to write bad material to write great material. Nobody writes great material all the time. And Loren, that's a brilliant idea which I'm going to steal.
Cliff: There are a couple of sayings I think we probably all use when we're getting ready to sign a new act. Everybody wants a record deal and they're getting good, and they've got good response, and they want their deal right now. Then you listen to their repertoire, and it's still a little thin. You tell them, you know, you've got your whole life to write your first record, and you've got six months to write your second record if you're lucky. So take some more time and write. There is no substitute for writing, especially in today's environment. When you get a record out, you're going to work your ass off for a long time before you can take the time to sit down and write again.
The 2003 Road Rally A&R Panel
TAXI: What is the timeline from the date of release of a new artist, until that artist becomes a household name?
Tony: It can be anywhere from two years to three years sometimes.
Steve: At least for us, two to three years. John Mayer's record took forever. He was on the road for well over a year. With the Wheat record, we've had them out on the road working before we released the record. You have to take the time. It doesn't benefit you to make a record and go, go, go instantly and slam it down everybody's throat.
Tony: We took three and a half years for No Doubt to make their second record. We went through 50 songs. We moved songs around. We took a verse from one song and a chorus from another song. They were like, oh you can't do that. It's in a different key or a different time signature. But we did. We drove them nuts. They wanted off the label. Managers were calling me up saying we're a bunch of assholes. We don't know what we're doing. Don't we love the band anymore? What's the matter? It took three and a half years, and it paid off—20 million records later.
TAXI: Probably the single biggest complaint about TAXI is: "Why can't you just forward my stuff to these guys if it's pretty good? Let them decide. I've got a bunch of 8s and 9s on my critique sheet. Why can't you forward me to them and let them decide?" Tell me "them," why can't I do that
Tony: It's nice to have an organization like TAXI that can actually be a filter, that can give us what they consider the best.
Tony: It's nice to have an organization like TAXI that can actually be a filter, that can give us what they consider the best.
Cliff: I was responsible for finding the material for the first two Dixie Chicks albums, and my assistant estimated that I listened to somewhere in the neighborhood of 12- to 15,000 songs. There was a compression, because that second record came pretty close on the heels of the first record. So you can imagine what that was like. There are 35- to 40,000 songwriters in Nashville. Nashville is a publishing town. Everybody wanted to be on that second record, because the first record was obviously huge. The flip side is, I had to sit down with the Dixie Chicks and play the songs. It's one thing to listen to songs coming from TAXI, or a publisher, or a writer friend. It's another thing for me to sit with these three girls and one of the producers and start playing them songs that I think they ought to cut. It's a whole different bag. If you think that you get rejection a lot as songwriters, think about the A&R people that have to sit with the producers and the artists and play songs for them. We get every bit as much rejection as you guys do.
Marshall: The weird thing is, the distance from a zero to a 9.8 is from the floor to the ceiling. The distance from a 9.8 to a 10 is from the ceiling to the farthest reaches of space. Honest to god, that's the truth. I'd be willing to venture there is a lot of outstanding music in this room. There are a lot of outstanding artists. I listened to a lot of great music when I was a screener at TAXI. But it's the smallest portion of the top that we have to be able to present to the people who pay us. Everybody in this room has just as good a chance as Diane Warren of writing that song. But the truth is, a lot of times you're not going to write it. TAXI sends me 9s, and occasionally there will be a 10 in there, that I want to get after. But the truth of the matter is, I don't want anything below a 9. The distance is so great between 9 and 10. Cliff said it the best. When I have to sit and play an act that I want to sign to my boss—to the guy that gets me paid—or his boss, that's when you really know if you have something. That's why TAXI is good. They're somebody who is objective who can tell you the truth. If you were to play your song in here, it's going to sound a lot different to you than it sounds at home when you play it for your wife or your friends. It really does. It's the weirdest thing. I could listen to something in my car a thousand times and be sure it's a hit when I started in the business as an A&R person. But when I'd walk in and play it in the A&R meeting, I would hear everything that was wrong with it.
Steve: It also goes this way. Between us at this table, Marshall can think a song is a 10, and I can think it's an 8. There are so many different personalities. I'm sure we can all talk about whatever we know, but it's such an opinion-driven business. You have to go in believing 1,000-percent in what you're doing or what you want to work with. You can't go in and be like, "I think I like this song. If you guys like it, let's do it. But if not, then we won't do it." You have to believe in it. You have to absolutely be willing to fight for that. It just won't work otherwise.
Cliff: I think also it's a matter of numbers. If you think about it, every year there are 30- or 40,000 albums made and stuff getting played on the radio all over the world. You go on down the road in a couple of years, there were probably only be a handful of songs that made a difference. That will tell you about the difference between 9 and 10.
Sony A&R executive, Marshall Altman (left) making a point while Cliff Audretch and Tony Ferguson listen intently.
TAXI: People frequently complain to us at TAXI that they don't hear back from the labels after we forward our stuff to these guys. Give the room a little education why they don't hear back from you guys after we forward it to you?
Cliff: Didn't I just tell you how many songs I listened to? (laughs)
TAXI: How many do you listen to in a day?
Cliff: It can be as few as five, or as many as 500. It depends on what I have to do. Do I have time to get back to people? No. Why? If I find something that I can use and that I want, you won't be able to get rid of me. I'll be all over you. I've got thousands and thousands of people coming at me every week and every month, whether they're artists, or songwriters, or publishers, or whatever.
Audience Question: If you're looking for those "10's", why is there so much crap on the radio?
Marshall: It's your fault. It's the people that listen to the radio. If you don't like it, don't listen. Listen to something else, and they'll make a change. Listen to Sirius, listen to XM, listen to music without commercials. They will have to pander to you.
Loren: I've got to say something. If there is a song that is inundating you on the radio, it's inundating you because it's f*%#$@* catchy! There is something to be learned about those artists that are in the Top 40 of the Billboard radio charts, even if you don't like it. Even if it's empty and vapid and obnoxious, there is something to be learned. And instead of that attitude, what I'd like to hear from you is "Wow, they didn't do this weird pre-chorus, and the bridge wasn't in a 7/8, and they didn't stop the party." Learn, instead of having this better-than-thou attitude.
Steve: I think a lot of us would probably agree that there are a lot of songs on the radio that we think are crap, but at the same time, they're played on the radio because they research well and people love them. There is no denying that. Radio is so research-driven. It's because the public loves the songs. That's it. We can't do anything about that.
Loren: I may not like the songs, but that doesn't mean they're not resonating with people. That's the difficulty. The artist is on the radio for whatever reason. It's not my thing. It's not your thing, whatever. It's connecting with people. Again, we're all songwriters here. We want to connect.
Q: My music is like vintage rock music. Can you imagine that this is something that could crossover from the pop audience to the adult contemporary kind of audience?
Marshall: It's impossible for us to tell. None of us has heard your music. Anything is possible. If you have a hit song, you could be on the Now That's What I Call Music 11. There are no rules in this business. If you've got hit songs, you're going to have A&R people so far up your ass, you're not going to know what to do. Genre, format, blah, blah, blah. I understand your question, but do what satisfies you. That's all you really have, whether you sell 10 million records or if you sell 10. If we love it, great. If your sole goal is to have commercial success, then you need to gear what you're doing towards what is on the radio—or even better, towards what you think is going to be on the radio.
Tony: That depends on whether you're going to be an artist or whether you're a songwriter. Sometimes songwriters as individuals can also be little cottage industries amongst themselves. If Britney Spears needs some material, and she's a certain style of music, you probably would write stuff that would fit Britney Spears. If you're an artist, then Marshall's reading of that is right. Just be yourself, if you're an artist. If you're a songwriter, that could mean different things.
Capitol A&R executvie Loren Israel says, "Am I right?" while Aware V.P., Steve Smith (right) appears to be giving him reassurance.
Q: I'm curious what percentage of artists that you sign and albums you record do you not release because of timing or other issues?
Tony: That's a hard one to answer, because it can vary at any given time. Sometimes demos come in, and you sign an artist based on the demo because the demo is so damn good. Then you spend the next year or two trying to chase the sound and the feel of that demo. Sometimes you can pay hundred of thousands of dollars trying to develop that sound, and you can still never beat the demo. Norah Jones was a demo. They tried to re-record that record and couldn't beat the demo. What you heard, the big hit, was the demo.
Marshall: I would say at a minimum, one out of every four artists that gets signed will have an album that gets made and never released. Not necessarily their first record, but maybe their second, or their third, or their fourth. I'd say there is a 25-percent attrition rate.
Cliff: In Nashville, it may be even more that than.
Marshall: The expensive part isn't making the record. A half a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when you compare half a million dollars to $3.5 million (to market it), it's not that much.
Q: How receptive are you to artists who write their own material, and are funding their own albums, for, say, taking them on for wider-reaching distribution or promotion that I couldn't handle on my own with the small network that I've created.
Marshall: If you build it, they will come. If you're making something happen, everybody will be so far up your butt, like I say, it will make your head spin.
Cliff: Some of the labels have people with the title A&R Research. I was on a panel like this not too long ago, and there was a guy from Sony New York. His job is to look at SoundScan, and BDS, and local college newspapers, and alternative newspapers across the country and see if there is some act that is doing it on its own. Just like you're doing, bubbling under. If they are, he wants to check it out or get somebody else to check it out. Like I just said, we're as desperate to find something as you are to get to us.
Marshall: If you're going to sell your own record, make sure you have a UPC code on it and you're SoundScanning it. Figure out how to do it. Don't ask us how to do it. You should be able to figure out how to do it.
Q: I understand the business of a major record label does have to get above that 9.8. Can you guys offer some hope for those of us below the 9.8 level? Maybe we're willing to lower expectations and say I'm not going get a major record deal or be a famous guy. What are some ideas that we can do to become at least partially successful with our music?
Loren: That's a good question. Why don't you find a mentor? Continue the process of songwriting.
Steve: There are a million options. Mind you, none of this is ever easy. You talk about things like movie and TV placement - those are other avenues. There are a million different avenues to have your music heard and pitched. Things like TAXI definitely help make it easier, but none of it is ever easy. It's all the same process of filtering to find things. The only thing you can do is continue to write and research and find different avenues to get it out there.
Marshall: Take the Aware model. Find some bands that are in your neck of the woods that are doing what you're doing. Put together a little compilation and book yourself a small 10-city tour with four bands on it. Go out and start doing it. Start your own thing. With the biggest success stories, everybody's like, "I should have done that." Well, you can do it. That's the easy part.