Interviewed by Michael Laskow
I think you may be the only person
I've ever interviewed twice for the Insider. I thought you
might offer a really unique perspective in that you've had
three major label A&R jobs, and did a stint at TAXI between
a couple of those gigs.
That being said, would you please give us the short course on your background again, and tell us how you ended up in the music business?
I grew up in New York, in and around Manhattan. I ended up getting into the music business peripherally. I left college, where I was studying business economics and minoring in music, and I ended up going to music school and studying composition and arrangement. That led to a career as a programmer � drum programming, arrangements, and stuff like that. That eventually led me to buy a studio. From the studio, I ended up meeting some people in the EMI family and working on the development team for some software projects for them while still running my studio. I became really intrigued with the record business at that point. I quit my job designing software, closed down my studio and took a job at Capitol Records in the sales and marketing department. I got signed to a record deal with Aware Records for my band Farmer while I was working at Capitol.
So you were signed to one label but working at another?
Correct. I signed a publishing deal, as well, with EMI Music Publishing while I was still working at Capitol. That led to making a record and touring. While I was on tour, I was working as a scout for Capitol. That led to a job offer from Gary Gersh (former Capitol president) to do A&R. So that's the story of how I got into the business.
And from there you went to Hollywood Records. You were there for two and a half years, and now you're at Columbia. Is there an "A&R culture," if you will, from one department to the next?
Oh, there is definitely an A&R culture; it sort of comes from the top down. The head of A&R sets the tone for the A&R department, as the president of the company sets the tone for the whole company. At the end of the day, everybody wants to consider themselves an old-school A&R person � meaning that they're doing development and having direct involvement with their artists. A&R is so broadly defined that I just don't know if any two A&R people do the job the same way. The culture of an A&R department definitely stems from the person who is running the department.
In the case of Columbia, it's Tim Devine who is Senior Vice President and General Manager for the West Coast. A lot of what he does with his A&R job and team touches on marketing as well. What have you learned from Tim in the short amount of time you've been there?
Oh, tenacity and immense concentration on detail, delivery, and follow-through. In the two months I've been working here, he has been so focused on not just the short-term rewards of any move he makes, but he also looks at the long-term rewards of every move he makes with regards to his artists. It's inspiring, actually.
You've been on every side of the fence—you were in a band that was signed; you're currently signed to a writer deal with EMI; you're doing A&R at what is arguably the most desirable label to do A&R at; and you worked on TAXI's A&R staff for several months while you were working as an independent writer and producer.
And I was honored to.
What wisdom do you have for our readers, having such an incredibly rich and varied background in the music business and seeing it from all of those different sides?
I think the first thing that I would say is write—just write. Write as much as you can. In my experience in the business—on the creative side, the label side, the artist side—I'd say just write as much as you can. You'll know when you hit something great. I think the exercise of writing is without fail the most important part of being an artist and being a writer. You think of the greatest songwriters in the world—from Elvis Costello, to Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach, or contemporarily, you look at Ryan Adams or Pete Yorn, who are great writers—they write a lot of songs. The songs that reach the public maybe represent 10-percent of what their actual output is. That's obviously just a guess, but if I could sit down with any of your members, I'd say, "Write." And be very, very self-critical. Finish your songs and then try and address them as impartially as you can. If you're trying to write a Country song, then it needs to sound like a Country song. You can't write a Country song that sounds like a Pop song and say, well when you produce it "Country" it's going to be great. Be very thorough and direct in the presentation of your music. It doesn't need to be produced by George Martin with the Royal Philharmonic. It just needs to be a direct representation of what the song is and what the song sounds like. Write your song, record your song, and move on to the next one.
How do people learn how to be better writers? Some people, I'm afraid, might have outmoded writing habits they need to lose. How do they improve?
Obviously, without plugging TAXI too overtly, I think TAXI is a great way for writers to get better. The resources that are available to them as members are great. If they listen and pay attention and really take to heart what is written, I think that is a big way to step forward as a writer. I think another good thing to do as a writer is to listen to a hit song. Dissect the hit song. Listen to the changes that are taking place. Whether it's a Pop song, or a Country song, or an R&B song, or a Rock song, try to understand and really analyze what's going on in the song—from the changes between the verse and the pre-chorus and the chorus, to how the arrangement changes, to how the melody changes sectionally. And then listen to the lyrics. If a song affects you—if you hear a song on the radio and it moves you to one emotion or another—they are doing something right. As a developing writer, or even as an established writer, I think it's important to try and understand the song beyond your own emotional response to it. Writing, like anything else, is an interesting process. You crack a code every now and then. For instance, there is the Beatles trick of resolving to the minor four before going back to the one, in turning around the chorus. That's a key that you have. That's a trick that you can add to your repertoire. If you're a skateboarder, you add new tricks to your repertoire, and then you have different things to pull from. Each time you crack a code, in terms of writing, you automatically start at a higher level.
Are there any shortcuts to cracking the code? Are there any books that have compiled any kind of a hit-list of favorite tricks or codes?
I think Songwriters On Songwriting is one of the best books a songwriter could read. It's not really full of codes, though. I don't think that you can find Songwriting For Dummies out there. In its essence, songwriting is an emotional art. The mechanical metaphor of cracking a code is really just an emotional shortcut. If you want something to feel sad, you're going to use a minor or diminished chord. You know that. You have that in your bag of tricks. You don't say, we'll make this feel sad by just being sad. Being sad is not something that people can hear on the radio. You have to evoke that response using melody, lyric and arrangement. Those are tools that you have to discover on your own. A lot of that comes from listening to the radio and music in general. In my experience, there is no book out there that can sort of help you make the leap of cracking the code. Obviously, there are a bunch of great books that you guys recommend at TAXI, but it's like when somebody tells you something in theory, it's never quite as true until you experience it for yourself.
You once told me that you enjoyed screening tapes and CD's at TAXI because it helped you sharpen your skills as an A&R person and as a writer.
As an A&R person, I try to give as much attention to everything that comes in front of me as possible. I feel as though I've been honing my skills over quite a long time where I can tell very quickly, usually by the end of the first chorus, if a song or an artist is something that I'd be interested in listening to more of. Basically, at TAXI I was so refreshed to hear so much music and to be able to actually write down my thoughts with regard to that music. When something was great, I was able to say, "This is great." When something was flawed, I was able to say, "This is flawed and here's why, but this is why it's good too." As an A&R person, we don't get those opportunities for the vast majority of music that we listen to because most of the time, we just say, "This is a pass." We don't have the time to sit and say, "This is a pass, and here's why, and here's what I think you need to do to help better this song." TAXI was great for me because I just love to listen to new music and to be able to actually take my experience as a writer, and as an A&R person, and sort of help things along.
Did you ever see a situation where you saw a song come back redone, and it had dramatically improved because of the feedback?
Definitely, and it was really refreshing. Truth be told, that doesn't happen as often as I would have liked to have seen it happen. I don't know if the members of TAXI are utilizing the service to its fullest potential. Granted, making demos is expensive, but hell, the first act I ever signed was signed off of a demo where the kid sat in front of a boom box and played his guitar. At TAXI, if a screener suggests some changes, and then you send the same CD back and another screener suggests the same changes and then another, then maybe you should go in and try and make those changes. As a writer myself, it took a long time for me to understand that sometimes—and you have to pick who you trust—but there are people who can help you with your songs.
It seems like a lot of A&R people have started taking more chances lately, maybe less signings, but signing stuff that would be considered risky three years ago. How far are the successes of people like John Mayer going toward getting radio to also be a little more adventurous in the future?
The radio situation right now is stagnant. I think anybody who listens to the radio realizes that. But like anything else, we're in a cyclical business. There is an ebb and a flow. In the late 70's, everybody hated disco. That's all that was being played on the airwaves because it was selling. The early 80's were a great time for independent music, for new music. The late 80's tended to get a little stagnant. The early 90's were a great time for independent, fresh music. Radio was playing new things. The late 90's and early 2000's has been a little stagnant. I think everybody knows it. But bands and artists like Pete Yorn, and John Mayer, and the Strokes and the Hives, and Ryan Adams all getting played on the air at the same time with Limp Bizkit, and Korn, and P.O.D. I think things are probably fresher than they've been in a long time in the record business, and hopefully radio will follow suit.
Once you find somebody you're interested in, what is the process that you go through before you sign or decide not to sign? How long does that process take?
That process can sometimes take three years if you're following an artist and waiting for them to develop. Or sometimes it can take ten minutes. It's sort of difficult to define.
If you find an artist, and it takes three years before you finally sign them, is it because you're typically a) waiting for them to write better songs, b) waiting for the market to come around to their kind of music, c) getting to know them better to make sure they're an artist that you want to be in bed with for a possible long-term career, or d) all of the above?
Oh, definitely all of the above. There are times when you meet artists and you know immediately that you want to work with them, but they may not be at the point where a full-scale record deal is imminent. Often times, getting a record deal before an artist is ready is pretty destructive. That's a fine line to cross. You may risk losing an artist because you don't sign them early enough, but you also risk derailing an artist's career by giving them a deal too soon sometimes if they're not prepared emotionally or artistically. Sometimes you give somebody a record deal and it completely changes their way of life. We can't look into the future and say if we give this person a record deal, it will completely change his work ethos and how he approaches things, but sometimes those are the risks we take. If there is a perceived kernel of talent there, and to say we're just going to get it and hope it develops—that's not necessarily how the business is being run today. Obviously, margins are a lot tighter. The corporate culture that we were talking about earlier doesn't really allow so much of that. It is a rare circumstance when you can make a decision like that. If you're the president of the label, or you own your own label, you can say, "Wow, I see Pete Yorn and he has a tremendous amount of talent. I'm going to take the time to develop him because I've got enough other artists to concentrate on and sell-through in addition to developing this artist." That's a great situation to be in. We're very fortunate to be able to do that at Columbia.
One hears so much chatter these days about how major labels "suck". What does a major label bring to the party that smaller labels cannot?
First of all, major labels don't really suck. At this point, major labels obviously bring more marketing and promotion dollars, and they bring the weight of their established artists to the party when trying to break a new artist. That's the most obvious thing. The things that people don't really look at are the years and years of experience that the people inside major labels have—from the marketing director, to the head of marketing, to the head of promotion, to all of the promotion people, to the A&R people, to the heads of A&R, to the president of the company. That's a tremendous amount of experience that didn't just start at the top. Nobody comes into this business and starts at the top. Everybody comes in and starts at the bottom. That's one of the wonderful things about the record business. There are very few people who haven't held a mop in one sense or another—whether it's working a desk as an assistant, or starting in the mailroom, or being a studio assistant and sweeping floors at night. You add up that tremendous amount of experience, and if you have the right management philosophy, that experience can make a huge difference in breaking an artist.
Indie labels obviously have less money. They are independent and don't have the same network and access to marketing and promotion that a major label has. But they are also a bit more of a fertile breeding ground, and they have the opportunity to take more risks than major labels might on the surface.
Interestingly, I think larger labels are now tending to function more like indies as we move forward. It's a bit more pragmatic. Smaller deals, faster deals. I think what is exciting about the record business now is that risk-taking mentality appears to be making a comeback. People are willing to shoot from the hip a little bit more readily now. It makes the entire artistic community more exciting and the business more exciting. I think it's a really exciting time for the record business. It's a time of dramatic change, but it's an exciting time nonetheless.