TAXI Road Rally 2005

Michael Laskow, Moderator

Panelists: Marshall Altman, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records; Tony Ferguson, V.P., A&R A&M/Interscope; LeAnn Phelan, Sr. Director, A&R, Sony Nashville; Kawan Prather, Senior V.P., A&R, Sony Urban; Ken Komisar, V.P., A&R, Sony Music

Label people often ask us to find them something that sounds a "little bit like this artist or that." They also ask us to find them something "totally new and fresh." Our members get frustrated by the a la's we reference, and when we do find something new and fresh, the labels often respond by telling us that it's too unique, and not viable at radio! What are our members to do?

Ken Komisar (KK): Stick two things that have never been stuck together before and you've got something new. Put some peanut butter in your chocolate and away you go. The fact is people like familiarity. It's a comforting feeling inside when you hear a song that has some familiarity or a melody or an artist of a particular style. Also, make it different enough so that it's new to people. Everything old is new again. Look at Rock radio. Look at the fact that singer/songwriters are coming back. All this stuff comes around again sooner or later. So there is a cycle. It's something that you've got to feel.

Tony Ferguson (TF): So much of the business is being in the right place at the right time. I'm sure everybody in this room is talented. Also being signed to a major label narrows that focus of that right place at the right time, but you still need a lot of luck on your side. It's just a lot of luck, and after that you still need a lot of luck.

Marshall Altman, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records

Why don't A&R people call artists back after they've heard their music?

Marshall Altman (MA): It's not that we don't want to. I think most A&R people have much more compassion for artists than the average person might believe. But if I listen to 10 artists in a day, and call them back to tell them that I'm passing on them, it becomes a half-hour conversation with each of them. Those calls alone would take at least five hours per day. Professionals in the industry know that, and don't expect the "pass" calls. People who are new to the industry or less experienced, don't always know that, and are offended when we don't call. Please don't be offended. Laskow is one of my closest friends, and I don't call him back when it's a pass!

How important is songwriting to you?

LeAnn Phelan (LP): It really is the most important thing to me. If a song comes in that just blows me away—I don't know how you guys feel, but I will not lose track of that song. I get a lot of songs that are like, "It's good... I don't know. Let me stick that over here." But a song that blows me away, I've got my finger on. If I don't have the right artist for it, it's on my computer in this file called "Favorite Song Drawer." And I go to those things all the time.

Altman, do your thing, buddy. What's the difference between good and great? Give 'em the speech.

MA: I say this everywhere I go. Listen to this. The floor is "bad." Let's be generous and say that the ceiling is "good," 40 feet roughly. The sun is "great." That's the difference. The difference between bad and good is infinitesimal, as compared to the difference between good and great. It really is. Bad to good is 40 feet, but great is 92,999,960 feet.

Are great songwriters born great, or is it an acquired skill or talent?

MA: You know there are people that are born great songwriters, but I don't believe that they come out of the womb writing great songs. They struggle and write songs that people never ever hear, that they will never let be heard. You have to write thousands of songs.

Kawan Prather (KP): I just had a meeting with Diane Warren last week. And, good God, she writes so many songs. I promise you, every time I meet with her she plays me about 30 songs.

KK: She works six days a week, all day long at writing songs. That's her focus.

MA: Start it and finish it, that's it, and move on.

How important is a bio to you panelists?

TF: I could care less.

MA: I think I could care less than Tony cares.

KK: It's all about the music. It's not about anything else.

KP: I've never read a bio before I heard a song that I liked.

LP: If I like the song, I'll look at the pictures.

Kawan Prather, Senior Vice President, A&R, Sony Urban

While we're on the subject of pictures, why are age and beauty the currency of this industry? I'm sure there are some less than gorgeous people out there who are really talented. Why can't they have hit records, you guys?

KP: It's just the likelihood of somebody going, "Ooh, I wanna hear what he has to say," or "Ooh, I wanna hear what she has to say." The problem is if you're not all that attractive, you've got to be that much more talented. If you're not young, you have to be that much more talented and willing to work that much more than a young person who has no bills because he lives with his mom, and can go out and just be where they need to be to tour and build a fan base. The problem is, the older you get, the more responsibilities you get. It's almost like a lot of us who became A&R people because we're not willing to do the work that it takes to be an artist. [laughter]

Well, there's an honest answer. And one last question from me before I get some questions from the audience: How long does the process take from signing an artist until it's a hit?

TF: It can take a year or more from the first time I hear an artist until I sign them, and it often takes two years or more from the time they're signed until the record comes out. On top of that, it can take a year or more after the release before a song starts to break at radio. It's not unusual for the whole process to take three or four years until something becomes a hit. And that plays into the age thing. If you sign a younger artist, then they're not as likely to settle down and not want to tour during those four years. A 30-something artist could turn 40 during that period and may not want to endure the rigors of the road to support the eventual release.

Let's open this up to audience questions!

Question: I know you guys get a lot of CDs, and I'm trying to find out if it's more important to get a CD that has one or two hits, or is it more important to get a CD that has 10 or 15 quality songs?

KP: Honestly, if you have one that's quality just to spark the interest, we'll inquire about the rest of it. I dare say we might only have the time to actually listen to 15 songs in any given day. But if you have one that's great, then we'll go ahead and say, "Can you go ahead and send me more stuff?"

MA: I mean there shouldn't be 15 songs on a record period, no matter who releases it. And that's a full record that we put out.

TF: I've got a question for the audience. Based on old school... Old school, when you buy vinyl, there was an A-side and a B-side. Historically, there were about 10 maybe 12 songs. And Marshall brought up a point that some of these CDs now are like 13, 15 songs. How many people, when they buy an album that they really like, actually listen to it from start to finish? Or do you just cherry pick the songs that you like? So is the big complaint that the major labels and artists are putting out CDs that are a composite of like 10 songs that actually make you feel like you're traveling with the artist, like there's a journey going on... Do people still like that? [applause]

That's interesting, because I came out of a meeting at a record label a few days ago where they were saying that nobody listens to albums anymore. They cherry pick the songs and download them and steal the stuff from the labels.

KP: I think the problem is that if there were 13 great songs, you would listen to the album.

Question: Hi, I'm Mark, and I'm just wondering, we've heard a lot of talk of greatness today, which is a fairly abstract concept. Do you guys believe that greatness is an objective quality, or do you think that greatness always has to be defined within certain demographic and a certain decade, that sort of thing?

MA: Yes.

Question: Hi, my name is Christopher and I'm an artist. I'm about to start pitching to A&R people. I was wondering what's the best road in your opinion to go about doing that? Is it through a company like TAXI—obviously, I'm a member. I've heard that A&R guys won't even listen to stuff unless it's given to them by an entertainment lawyer. What's the best road to follow on that?

KP: I'm less likely to listen to a lawyer. Honestly, there is no correct road. At the end of the day, all roads end at the same place. You've got to figure out who the person is that you want to get to, what they like, how they normally get their music, and you try to just be there. There's no real way. TAXI works if you have a great record; a lawyer works if you have a great record.

MA: They miss just as often as anybody else, lawyers and managers.

KK: They're in the business to represent you. Granted they're taking their input from you and their cue from you, but that doesn't make them the arbiter of good taste.

MA: There are 50 people that each one of us knows that we really trust and respect, and they only send us great music. And when it lands on our desks, when I get a package from somebody, I listen to it. When I get a package from TAXI that I've asked for, I do listen to it. It might not happen right away, but I will eventually listen. TAXI's a great resource. If you wanna use the post office to send us all the records—if they get through—maybe somebody will listen and call you back, maybe not. There is no one way.

Question: Hi, I'm Reagan, flutist, vocalist, songwriter. I know that you're going to have about 500 people stalking you for the rest of the day trying to give you their package. Is there anything that would turn you off, that would make you not listen to somebody's package in his or her approach in trying to get it to you?

TF: I would basically keep it as short and sweet as possible—just a CD with the track listing, the songs, a contact name, and number. That's basically all we need. But being stalked with this whole package of your baby photos and everything else...

KP: The problem is to come up to any one of us after this is futile, because there are tons of people in the room, I gotta get on a plane, and I'm not gonna carry thousands of CDs on a plane. It's not realistic.

KK: And you're part of TAXI. That's why we're here.

KP: The point is, get the songs into the people at TAXI, and it's really just their taste that dictates which ones we get. They know where our ears are at, and we trust them to find the gems.

Question: Eric Roy from 'No Man's Gin,' and I've got a question along the lines of the package. Do you guys now prefer the EMK as opposed to snail mail? Also how important is song order? We've got a CD out now and we're thinkin' we should put the second song first.

KK: Then do it. If you think it should be different, then do it. You know your music better than we do, and you should go with what you feel is your best representation. Obviously, we're all here to try and learn more about you, and so are the people who are screening for TAXI. So go with your best foot forward. All of us are open to however you want to get it to us.

TF: In spite of the song title, do not save the best for last.

Ken Komisar, Vice President, A&R, Sony Music

There's a myth that if you save the best song for last, it'll be the last song they hear and the last one they'll remember. They'll never get to it. Best song first?

KP: Absolutely.

MA: Here's how it works. I put a CD in or I put an MP3 on, and if I can get through the first 15 seconds, I'll listen to another 15 seconds. And then I'm 30 seconds in, and if I'm still feelin' it, I'll keep listening another 30 seconds. And if I'm still feelin' it, I'll listen two minutes. And if I'm still feelin' it, I'll listen all the way to the end of the song and then I'll go to the next song. Normally what happens is, 15 seconds, go to the next song, then it's out of the CD player.

Question: And the EMK, Electronic Media Kit, as opposed to snail mail, so you just shoot the link, then you can open up the Web site, you got all the songs and everything right there?

MA: Sure, that's cool.

KK: I would do both, to be honest. Because we get overwhelmed so you can't really tell the difference between what's good and what's bad.

KP: We're on BlackBerrys, and if we get an e-mail, we look at it. But if it's a bunch of links, I can't do anything about it because it's on my BlackBerry. It just depends on where I am. If I'm at my computer at work, I'll probably check, but if I'm on my BlackBerry, it's not going to get heard.

And how much do you hate it when you click on that link and it says, "Sorry, you need to upgrade your player"?

LP: I don't do it.

KP: That sucks, so it made me stop doin' it.

I find that most of you guys like a CD so you can listen to it in the car or on an airplane.

TF: At the end of the day, we still want a CD right now until the Internet really gets its act together and you don't have all these different players on all of the Web sites that don't always play the music that you're trying to get to us.

LP: I agree with Tony.

KP: Tony's right.

Question: You guys were talking about the different means of distribution, the Internet, etc. How receptive are the major labels to distribution deals? Let's say they work in a partnership with an independent label where all the major label does is distribute. How often does this happen and how receptive are the majors to doing things like that?

Great question. We get that one at TAXI every day. "I've got a finished CD; I just want a distribution deal."

KP: Here's the thing: most of the time—and I'm not saying anything about anybody in this room—when it's a finished CD and you only want distribution, it's usually not that good, so it's not to anybody's benefit to be a partner in it. And the things that are good enough, you kind of want to be more than a partner.

MA: And what are you gonna do... spend the $4 million to market and promote it?

No, because the people who want the distribution deal are sure that if it's in every record store in America, it'll just fly off the shelves with no marketing or promotion money thrown at it.

KP: No.

TF: It doesn't work that way.

KP: If that were the case, all the records we put out would sell.

TF: Major labels do less and less distribution deals than they did before. We're either in the game or we're out of the game.

MA: The margins are so thin that it doesn't make sense.

LP: And then you have no champion at the label. Nobody cares about it. Nobody's looking after it for you.

Tony Ferguson, Vice President, A&R, A&M/Interscope

Question: What does it take to get you guys to come out to see us live?

TF: You've basically got to do the work. You've got to book your own shows, create your own buzz. Eventually, it shows up on our radar, but we can't pick up every stray dog in the street. That's a cruel way of looking at things, but there are so many artists and we get pitched so many times, we're waiting for you to make something happen.

How important is the live show for you guys?

TF: Very important, depending on the artist.

If somebody's got a great CD, with two or three real-life hits on it, but they've got no fan base, and no live show... Will you sign that act?

Collectively: Hell yeah.

KP: I'll do it right now. [laughter]

LP: I think it's important to go see them live, and at least see the potential. I'm not expecting them to have everything down. And every showcase is different, depending on that artist. But I think it's really crucial in the end.

Have you ever been in love with an artist, gone to see the live show, and gone, "Waah, waah, waah" all the way home?

LP: Yeah.

Boy, that sucks for them, doesn't it?

MA: It's also relevant to what genre you're in. If you're a singer/songwriter, you have to have a compelling show. If you're in a Rock band, you have to have a compelling show. If you're a Pop artist, those things can be built.

KP: Just be cute. [laughter]

MA: If you have four hit songs but you don't know how to dance, the label will find somebody to teach you how to dance.

Thanks to our terrific panelists, and to our audience for asking some great questions. See you next year!