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

Tony, I get this question all the time from our members, so I'm passing it on to you. If TAXI's on the fence about a song or an artist, why can't we just send it over to you or any A&R person and let you decide? Why do we have to be the gatekeeper for you guys?

TF: Because of the sheer volume of artistry that's out there. I think Tim Devine (Columbia Records, West Coast V.P./G.M.), who's a great guy for statistics, figures that on any given day there are 180,000 artists in the United States looking for some kind of deal or some kind of outlet for their music and their talent. So when you consider there are only four major label groups left, then there has to be a series of gatekeepers out there otherwise our A&R office would become overwhelmed with submissions. So we really look for people outside of the label groups to start gate keeping some of the stuff.

MA: In general, it's not an on-the-fence business. You have to know that. Michael (Laskow) built his company on the fact that he forwards music that he believes in. Whether or not I like it, or Ken likes it or KP likes it, Michael and his staff sent it because they believed in it, and at a certain point that has some currency, and we've all grown to understand that. If somebody walks into my office and says, "Man, I'm not really sure what I think about this, but let me waste three and a half minutes of your life with it"— that's not how the business works, and that's not how we like to spend our time. We want to feel the passion and enthusiasm for an act or a song or an artist or idea from whoever is bringing it to us—whether it's TAXI, a manager, a lawyer, another musician, another A&R person. That's really the long and short of it.

Marshall Altman, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records

Several years ago, Marshall took a year off between labels, and he worked at TAXI as part of our A&R team. Being a pro songwriter, A&R person, major label-level producer, you've heard the material that comes in from the people in this audience. What mistakes are they commonly making that they can improve to increase their probability of success?

MA: Well, it's a good idea to take the advice that you're given. Working at TAXI really made me a better A&R person and a better producer because I had to listen to music in a different way. I wasn't listening to music in a yes/no way, I was listening to music in the context of how to help the members make it better. The frustrating thing was when I put a lot of effort into saying not just one way that I thought you might be able to improve on a track, but several—and then six months later I would get the same exact demo on the same sort of pitch. And I understand that it's tough to record a demo. A lot of people sink a lot of dough into recording their songs. If I could say that there's one mistake you all are making, you're spending too much money recording your demo. Figure out how to work on a digital audio workstation—whether it's Pro Tools, Logic, GarageBand... they make great demos.

KK: When I worked for Michael Jackson—I used to bring him songs when we were working on records together—he would say, "Okay, if you love that song so much, sing me back the melody," and I'm like, "It kinda goes like... " Then he goes, "See, you're trying to do it and you can't." So imagine the public who's got 15 seconds of attention on the radio. You've got to have something that's gonna stick in their head.

MA: The business has its really big paradigm shifts when we don't predict, but when we define. The business really turns when a Nirvana happens, when an Elvis happens, when an OutKast happens. Even watch what happens with an artist like John Legend. My desk has been full of white kids, black kids, guys, girls that are all trying to make records like John Legend. That to me is a record that made the record business shift a little bit, probably more than any of us realize right now. In the next five years, we are gonna see a huge resurgence of singer/songwriter/soul musicians. Bruce Ard's in that pocket. There are tons of people doing that stuff. That's because somebody inside a label nutted up and did the tough thing and said, "I'm gonna sign this. I'm gonna fight with my promotion department." You know, it's not an easy thing to do... what KP (Kawan Prather) did in signing him. I know what the guy went through. I know him, I know the company, and I know what he went through.

Hey Marsh, at Thanksgiving dinner, when my parents are there, can we define what "nutting up" means? (laughter)

KP: I know what that one is. Nutting up is if you just really feel like, "Okay, fuck it. I'm going in on this one." You go in and you argue with the powers that be, and most of the time those powers have very strong personalities, and you have to state your case really well. And sometimes you have to put everything on the line. I call it a blackout.

LP: It's a little harder for me to nut up. It's easier to do when you guys agree and you feel like you have a true artist on your hands. It's kind of a no-brainer. You will go balls to the wall.

KK: It's like what you do at TAXI because you're sort of a gatekeeper for us. You set a bar and your defenses or your gate is up high enough so that we know that what comes in is gonna be something that we can either get with or not. But we know at least that it's at a level that it's competitive.

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

It seems that urban music has become more about beats than anything else. I see these young kids who are called "producers." Are they truly producers?

KP: And they send in the beat, they don't come to the studio. Alright, I'm gonna call this the Puff Daddy era. Puff Daddy, contrary to what most might think, is actually a producer. What he did was, he found a bunch of beat guys; he found a bunch of people who could write; and he put all of them in a room and said, "More of this, less of that. I don't know why it doesn't sound right, but it doesn't sound right. Give me more." So the people in those rooms say, "Shit, if you can do that, then I'm a producer too. I actually sit down and do the beats." So they kind of discredit what Puff did. So these people, after their records start getting big, start going to other labels and labels, being the followers they are sometimes, say, "Damn Puff Daddy. I'll use Stevie Jay myself, and he'll make me a record and it'll be as big as Biggie or whatever. So based on not knowing the process a lot of times, people title themselves—you can call yourself whatever you want: I'm a writer, I'm an actor, I'm an artist. I feel like I can say that. It just depends on if anybody believes me. If somebody believes me and cuts me a check, that made me a "producer" that day. [laughter]

So the thing is we—the A&R people, the gatekeepers—we have to just stand by our knowledge and knowing what these things really are and say, "As much as I like that beat you did, I'm gonna need it produced. Can you produce a vocal? Do you know what key this is?" You have to find out who can make the records happen. A lot of times, those beats get on the radio because they do sound good and energetic, and in that 15-second test they'll get your attention. But they don't sustain and they don't necessarily sell records. So we try to find people like the Timbalands, the Pharrells, people who actually know music enough to produce and get the right energy out of the artist on those beats. You have to know the difference. The problem is a lot of people don't, but a lot of people are in positions to let those people through. That's the dark side.

If they're calling themselves producers, shouldn't they be able to manage a budget, and show up on time, and do the whole production job?

KP: I don't care if they know how to do a budget if they can make the song right. I know how to do a budget. I'm more interested if they know how to make a song, write a melody, and keep the singer on key—the song part. I don't care if Quincy Jones knows how to do a budget. Look at Thriller.

MA: Budgets only matter in records that aren't hits. Seriously. If you have a hit record, nobody's going to ever ask what you spent on it.

LeAnn Phelan, Senior Director, A&R, Sony Nashville

LeAnn, Country music used to follow a formula finding great singers, finding them hit songs from the tremendous pool of writers you guys have in Nashville. Has the formula changed and become more like the Pop side of the business in the sense that it's important for you guys to find artists that are also writers?

LP: You know, actually as you said in the introduction, I was a publisher for 10 years, so that's my passion—songwriters. So when I made the move over to Sony, I was really nervous about it because of that. My job for 10 years was to go pitch songs to people like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Kenny Chesney, and those acts weren't writers. But at Sony right now, the acts that I'm working with are songwriters, and it's been such a great experience for me because I know how to work with those people. And it's not that they wouldn't cut an outside song. We still spend our days looking for hit songs for those acts because a lot of the people that I'm talking about are new acts.

I don't know if you guys have ever heard of Miranda Lambert or a new artist coming out, Ashley Monroe. Miranda's awesome. I think there's one song on her record that she did write and she's kickin' ass and it's great. People are already trying to pitch songs for her next record, but what she writes will dictate what this next record will be. Not saying there wouldn't be an outside song on there... But the answer to the question is yes—I feel like it's changed, and I really didn't know that until this year because of these people that are coming up like Trent Willman, a songwriter... Susan Haynes, Ashley Monroe, and Jesse Alexander, all of them are relatively new people in the format. But they're not people that are just calling themselves songwriters either, that are just in the room with two other hit writers that'll get a third of the song. That's how we do it in Nashville, by the way. If you're in the room and there's another person, you get half. You're a big jerk if you ask for more of a percentage of the song. You're run out of town basically.

I want to switch gears for a second. I think that a lot of people see the Internet as this panacea—if I put my music out there, these guys will find me. Do you go on MySpace and some of the other sites and just cruise around looking for artists? Or do you use it for stealthy research when you hear about something to check them out before you make the phone call to find out how old they are or what they look like? Do you use it for research after the fact or before the fact?

TF: Usually after the fact, because there are so many artists that are on all those Internet sites that you could be there until hell freezes over before you find something that you really like. So basically we get tips, and we have research departments in all the labels that spend a lot of time browsing through, getting on tips, on retail sales, watching chart positions (Billboard, Radio and Records, etc.) around the country on acts that aren't signed to major labels to see how a record's performing. And then we get the tips. Someone comes into my office and says, "Have you checked this out? Have you heard of this band?" We go online and we take a look at it. It saves the company a flight; it saves three or four days out of my life, getting on a plane going to some place across the country or around the world to take a look at an artist. You just go online. So the Internet is great for that. The problem for so many people who have put their stuff on the Internet is, how do they get attention?

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

How do they get your attention?

TF: I'm glad you asked that question. One thing that came up that I thought was very interesting was during a panel that I was on in the beginning of this year. It was with a lot of Webmasters—people who have made a lot of money putting these sites up—and not one of them could mention any artist by name that they had on their sites, but the average top seller was around 6,000 to 9,000 units over a period of a year or so, which is very good for a nondescript artist. But the reason people were finding this artist and were buying the record was through cover songs; they were covering songs that had already been established in the marketplace. So it proved to me that a lot of this browsing and a lot of this stuff is basically song-driven. I thought that was very interesting because when I was in the business during the '70s and the '80s, getting an artist to do a cover song was like trying to extract blood out of your urine—it was impossible. [laughter]

At TAXI, we sometimes hear, "We got an Honorable Mention by the Billboard Song Contest, or the John Lennon Contest, yet none of the labels you forwarded us to haven't called yet." How important are song contest winners? Have any of them ever gotten a deal and had a hit?

MA: To the best of my knowledge, Anastacia was probably about the only one who won a contest, and it had turned into something. She came in second.

Altman, because we've got new people in the audience every year, I've got to ask you this question: If you guys are so picky, why is there so much crap on the radio?

MA: I always get this question.

I just ask this to get audience applause. I know you guys will clap for that one every year. [laughter]

KP: Because the crappy artists work really hard. [laughter]

MA: The truth is, if the song wasn't working on the radio, it wouldn't get played.

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

Tell the audience how radio stations know that it's working.

MA: They play a song enough times. There's a quotient, whether it's 60 times or 250 times, then they call-out. They do call-out research to their audience and see how familiar something is, and based on that—with Pop music anyway—they'll continue playing it more or less, depending upon the reaction they get, whether a song is reactive.

KK: But it also works on the request lines as well. Radio is not there to play the music that they really want. They are there to sell advertising. So for them that means people are listening if they get calls and requests, or if a song is familiar—it's researched-based. That's kind of a sad way to do it because it's the least common denominator. How many people actually call a radio station and request their favorite song?

Okay... how many people in the audience have called a radio station in the last 30 days to request something? I see two hands from an audience of 2,000 musicians...

I'll take that as my cue to move on to finding out how you find new acts...

LP: Gosh, some of them seem to find us. I was very surprised at the amount of artists that actually get to the label meeting. I've signed artists to publishing deals before that we ended up getting record deals for—The Kings of Leon, or one of those groups—and it was a whole process. That was something extraordinary, but there are people coming through the doors that I don't know if they're friends of friends or... So there is that—someone with a connection to the label will bring them in. Mostly the exciting things, it's almost like an underground buzz that happens. They get into the Nashville music scene. They've honed their craft to a point. People say there's not much development these days. I think at Sony, there's half and half going on. I don't think that we would miss the potential of something just because the songs weren't there. So it's partly buzz in the town, and partly just on the street and knowing what's going on.

KP: I think it's like two different qualities that make great artists. It's the hustle—someone like 50 Cent who will not go to sleep until he does whatever his goal is. Then there are some people who'll sit in their room, i.e., the Prince type of people who do music, and that's all they care about. And if you're great at one of those things, you can get through. People will hear about you. You'll create a buzz. So you have to be great at something one way or another. To be found, somebody has to think you're great.