Industry Bigwigs Get to the Nitty Gritty

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Tony Ferguson, A&R, A&M Records
Marshall Altman, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records
Michael Laskow, Moderator
Larry Willoughby, Vice-President of A&R, Capitol Records, Nashville
Louis Posen, Founder and President of Hopeless Records and Sub-City Records
Steve Smith, Vice-President of A&R, Aware Records, Manager, A-Squared

I'm looking around the room at the demographics of the people. How many of you could pack up tomorrow and go on the road for seven or eight months if you had to? Maybe 10 to 20 percent of the room? So I'm always trying to find solutions for the other 80 or 90 percent of the people in this room, because a lot of them are really good.

Marshall Altman: I think it's an incremental situation. I went to college and music school, then started a brilliant career as a pizza delivery boy. Then I got one job, and I was still delivering pizza. I got another job, and I was still delivering pizza. I got a third job, and since I had two jobs going at the same time, I cut back on my days delivering pizza. It took me about three years before I wasn't a pizza delivery boy anymore. Nobody starts at 150 miles an hour. You've got to get to five miles an hour. For instance, if you live in Peoria, Ill., and you're in a smokin' band that's a jazz band with a great singer, start booking shows on the weekends in your town. And when you're making enough money to put an investment in the band, book another town on the weekends. Then, pretty soon, if things are going well for you, you're going to need to take Fridays off as a travel day. Then a year in, when you've sold 10,000 records and you've got the money sitting in your hand and you want to make another record and you want to push out the radius in which you're touring, you might have to cut down to three days a week, or look at taking a part-time job and give up your full-time job. It's incremental. There's a risk/reward ratio: the bigger the risk you take, the bigger the potential reward, but also the bigger potential failure. If what you believe in is going and playing, do it one day a week. And when it's making sense, do it two days a week. When it's making more sense, do it three, four and five days. It's a fairly simple paradigm that you have to deal with.

Tony, do you look for acts that are just great, or acts that are great and fit within a stylistic range of what your label normally does?

Tony Ferguson: Always looking for acts that are great, obviously. And what's great? That's an open question. Being at a major label, the focus is what the label can handle. Some labels are better at certain genres of music than others. Arista, for instance, in their heyday with Clive Davis, who is one of the best song guys, best A&R executives, best company-run president, couldn't break a rock band. So it's not about the subjective talent so much as what the label is really good at. We're really good at rap and R&B, but we're struggling right now in breaking rock acts, which surprises me because Jimmy Iovine, who runs the label, is one of the best rock producers in the world for many years. It's an odd paradigm now. So we try and look for stuff that's just great, and the bigger the story that has developed around the act, the better it is for us to plug into that story. The more the act can do for itself, the better. The misconception is that once you've signed to a major label, the label will pick up the ball and run with it and take care of everything. Usually that's a recipe for disaster for an act because the label, in dealing with a multiple roster of acts, cannot on a day-to-day basis just work on one single act at a time. So that work ethic that the acts develop to get themselves to that stage of being signed to a major label needs to continue through. Their relationship with the label is paramount. So many acts rely on the manager to have the relationship with the label, and that's true as far as a conduit with dealing with one person instead of dealing with five people in an artist situation. But the relationship of the artist with the different people of the label is extremely important—from the secretaries to the guys who deliver the mail. We have artists that, when they visit the label and come in for a meeting with an executive, will spend the next 40 minutes getting out of the building, going around shaking hands and meeting people. Very important.

Autumn, we get a lot of demos that come into TAXI where people think they're submitting country. A lot of people who don't take country music very seriously think that you guys deal in just cheatin', drinkin' and trailer songs. We get stuff in all the time that sounds just like a pop song with an acoustic guitar and a pedal steel thrown on it. Does that throw you guys?

Autumn House: Never. It would never fool us. There's this notion that when Faith Hill popularized country music in the country/pop format because she was kind of crossing over, that it watered down traditional or really great country songs. So I think people started writing toward that, and now we're getting back to the stronger fundamentals of country music and country songwriting. You know, it's just got to be a good song. I don't care if it's overly countrified, as long as it's good and you say great things and it's unique and it fits my artist. That's all that matters.

Larry Willoughby: Let me just touch on the demo situation. I would rather you send me a guitar vocal of a great lyric, with a vocal performance, than I would for you to try to make a country record out of your demo.

How do the rest of you guys feel about that? People always ask us how produced their demos have to be? Let's start with Marshall.

MA: I agree with Larry. Send me a great song, as simply produced as possible. Really, all I want is to be able to hear the lyric and the melody. I want the shrink-wrap off the CD, please, because I don't want a huge package with all your local press. I don't need a glossy 8x10. I just need a CD, and if you want to have your picture in the sleeve, great. Make sure your contact information is on the disk itself because we need jewel cases all the time.

If you're in a rock band, it has to sound like a rock hit. But if you're sending a song to me and you're a songwriter, I just want the song simply produced. It does help to have something sound current, but honestly, the songwriting community—the 15 or 20 people that I reach out to consistently—sometimes they give me crap demos of great songs, and we'll hear that. Feel confident in the strength of your song. You don't need to invest two weeks in cutting your demo. You really don't.

Tony, your take on it?

TF: Basically, all I want is a CD with a telephone number and name of the band. Then, if I really like the band or the artist, I'll inquire about it and try to get a photograph. I get packages all the time with videos, the latest little appearance on some kids TV show or something. I usually toss it in the trash and just keep the CD. It's irrelevant. So many people spend so much money and so much time and effort putting those packages together, and I apologize for throwing them in the trash, but really, all I'm interested in is the music.

MA: And put a Web site address on there, too. That's very helpful.

People always say to me, "I don't want to send it to you yet because it's not mastered." Does mastering mean anything to any of you guys at all?

TF: Some of the best "mastered" records sound like sh*t, so it doesn't really matter.

I don't know what people think mastering is going to accomplish. All mastering really does is EQ the record so that one song sounds kind of like the next, that it has a linear sound and that the compression is about the same on the whole record, so it all sounds kind of punchy, with a nice silky top end. But people think that paying somebody a thousand dollars to master their demo is going to up their chances of getting signed by a label.

TF: One thing I've noticed is that with Pro Tools and all this home computer stuff, people are getting more caught up in the production techniques and the workings of computers than they are about writing songs. I've got a band at the moment, and we're trying to finish up and master the record, and they are so mind-set on nitpicking the production. We're saying that this hook doesn't come out here and stuff like that, and they're just talking in Pro Tools language, and it's like, "F*ck you. Get back in the studio, finish the damn song and let's put the record out and see if you've got a hit or not." And they just won't do it!

Louis Posen: Michael, can I just answer the submission question? Ours is a bit different, I think, than the guys who are looking for songs. Since we're looking for bands, the better the package, the more we know that they understand what they need to do to make it themselves. We're looking for bands that treat their band like a business as well as being artists; so we look at everything.

MA: That reminds me that, of everything we say, use what makes sense to you. There are no hard and fast rules, you guys. You should take what you can work out of this situation. Obviously, there are different perspectives up here. You all have your own perspectives. If you're willing to play this by the rules, you really don't want it that badly. The rules are meant to sort of keep you out. Louis completely contradicted everything that Tony and I just said, so that should be some sort of indication. They both can work.

[Michael opens it up for questions from the audience.]

Q: This question is for Steve Smith. You were talking about selling your own CDs and kind of building a story about the band, and I'm wondering, for your label, what kind of number of CDs sales usually starts to impress you? I've got a band that sold over 3,000 in the past year. Is that a number that would be impressive to you

Steve Smith: It would show me that you guys are out doing things on your own, for sure. Would that number cause me to track you down and find you? Probably not. I don't honestly, personally, pay a lot of attention to sales until I get past the songs. It might show me that they're working hard and maybe I'll pay a little more attention to it. But I don't know if there is a magic number because I can tell you that there are bands that have sold hundreds of thousands of records that I can't believe they've sold 10 records. It just depends.

Q: Autumn House, you reference getting back to the fundamentals of country music. Would tell us what are the fundamentals of country music?

AH: You know, I think the fundamentals are just what's true to country music, those lyrics that are true to the country audience, the country fan. "Breed," for instance, for Faith Hill was not as exclusive to a country audience because of what it said.

ML: A lot of country songs are stories. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. They're not just about a thing. Is that still true?

LW: Absolutely. I think maybe to help with that last question is that the country audience out there is a listener and a buyer that likes a story song, a song that hits them in the heart. It could be about death, love. The biggest songs that we've had in our format talk about those situations, and I think country music got away from that for a while, when some companies gravitated toward following the pop, more production-type songs with not really much to say. I think we're going back to the way it was.

Q: How do you guys feel about the trend these days of artist development by producers? How would that impact your decision to sign an artist if they already have an artist development deal with a particular producer?

SS: I don't think producers are doing artist development deals. I think they're doing production deals, like they've done for years. I don't think they're out there developing the artist and helping them tour and acting as a manager. I think they're helping them get their songs down and cut more flushed out then they would by themselves. That's an artist's choice, because typically in that situation the artist has to give up a percentage of something they might earn in the future. I don't think we're very particular about how we find music. If we find something great, it doesn't bother us how it was done.

Q: I'm an independent artist and I want to know, what's a good way to break into the international scene?

SS: Move.

MA: It's tough. It's hard enough to break in the States. I would really focus on starting in your local market and expand from there. Just keep building the circle of influence that you have.

ML: That's a myth. I hear that every week. Somebody calls me up and says, "Shall I try and break internationally because it's easier to get a deal over there, easier to have a hit over there. And if I do that, will I get recognized in the States?" Everything that I've ever seen tells me that that's a myth.

TF: Basically, there are different tastes in music around the world. You could actually send music to American companies and get rejected, and the first one you send to a British or a Denmark gets accepted. It's because they're looking for something which you have, and you're just in the right place at the right time. But to actually put it down to a science of doing that, and trying to find out a way to break the international market, it doesn't work that way. You've got to try every avenue you can. You've got to beat on every door you can.

ML: I've got one last question for the panel. Every year I have to ask. I know the answer; you know the answer; I don't think the public knows the answer. That is, if you guys work so hard, and labels have to work so hard in general to find and break artists, why is there so much crap on the radio? I ask this every year. I'm not saying it's your fault, but why is it? Let's start with Steve.

SS: I would say because it sells. I mean a lot of it does. Often the things that people think are the worst bands sell the most records. If you go across the entire country. All of us on the business side or artist/musicians probably have a lot higher standard for what we deem good. But it's the way it works. And there are people at labels that have terrible taste in music none of them here, obviously.

ML: Louis, any different perspective from where you sit?

LP: I hear a lot of great songs on the radio. I'm always the contradicting person here. I have no idea how commercial radio works. There's a lot of money involved in it, much more than we have to spend. So it's an economic game, I guess, and I don't know why that drives music that's stereotypically not good. I really don't have the answer. I hear good stuff and not-so-good stuff. I'm just one subjective person.

ML: Larry, how about the country market?

LW: I just think we've been dumbed-down. We're Wal-mart, you know? I hate that.

ML: Are we the enemy? Are we the reason it's dumbed-down?

LW: I'm not speaking for anybody else on this panel or anybody at our label, but I just think personally with the conglomerations and the smaller amount of outlets that we have, the people that are in control have just dumbed it all down to a common denominator, "This is what you're gonna hear. This is what you're gonna buy." And sometimes something really cool will break out of that and excite everybody to go out and buy something that doesn't fit that mold.

TF: Yeah. I think part of it is the dumbing down of the industry, because the industry is consolidating so much. Some good people got let go over the years that had very creative legitimate reasons for being in the industry. But corporations don't always look at it that way. It's all about commerce. It's the arts versus commerce question. I think there's good stuff on the radio. I hear bad stuff. But the interesting thing about the conversation we had earlier on about rock music is that rock music has been in the doldrums for some time. I was recently out at the Troubadour seeing four very high-profile, wanna-be-signed acts, and there was no sex, no rock & roll; there was no anything with these bands. I mean, they could have been changing the oil in my car. They had zero f**king charisma and they were a waste of time. But I think that's why rock music right now can barely break a million units. The business model that the industry has at the moment is obsolete, and I think things will start to change. But it won't happen overnight.

MA: I agree in whole or in part with everything that's been said, but you can look at this situation in one of two ways. You can look at it and bi*ch and whine, or you can look at it and see an opportunity. That's what it comes down to. You can look at it and see an opportunity for a career as an independent artist that doesn't want Clear Channel to play your music and doesn't feel like you need Clear Channel to play your music. You can look at it and say, "Yes the country's dumbed-down musically right now. I'm gonna make a record that has emotional currency and life to it, and there are going to be people that want it, and I'm gonna figure out a way to sell it." That's where the rubber meets the road. That's my perspective. Our job is to look for opportunities, really—for new opportunities for where music is going. It's your job, too. So good luck with that.

(Michael thanks the panel.)