Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Rob Chiarelli's story is the kind that dreams are made of. He came to L.A. in 1989 seeking his fortune, and by all accounts, he is succeeding beautifully. In just a few short years he has worked with artists such as Janet Jackson, Coolio, Adina Howard, Ice Cube, The Temptations, L.V., En Vogue, Ray Charles, and Silk, and has started a hot Indie Label. We're featuring Rob in the A&R Insider this month to prove once again, nice guys can finish first.

How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be in the music business?

I was about 12.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up outside of Boston in lovely little town called Waltham.

What brought you from Boston to L.A.?

I came to L.A. because of my love for music. I had to give it a shot. I had to give it a try. I had to know if I could do it. I had to know if I could get into the music business.

Did you have a definite plan about what you wanted to do in the business? Did you want to be a player, or a producer, or an engineer, or didn't you know?

When I got off the plane in L.A. it was May 1st, 1989. I had my bass guitar strapped around my back and my duffel bag, which was full of clothes. All I said was, "Please God, give me a chance to be in the business some way, somehow." I had no idea. I had somewhat of a plan, but I didn't know whether I would get a break or not. I came with the attitude of just being happy if I could somehow be a part of the business. "Thank You God."

Did you have enough money stashed away to live for awhile?

Yeah, well . . . not exactly,[Laughs] but I was still young and stupid.

What was the first job you got in L.A.?

It's funny because the studio menu book lists studios A through Z, and there must be 250 studios in it. When I finally got a place to live and a phone, I called A through P. It was six o'clock and I figured no one was in, so I said, "Screw it. I'll start tomorrow with the P's." Then, something made me pick up the phone and start calling again.

I reached a "live" person at Paramount Recording, and the guy asked me if I knew anything about MIDI. I said yes, but in reality, I knew very little. He said, "Come down tomorrow at four o'clock and we'll do an interview because we need a guy that knows MIDI for our little room." I said okay and hung up the phone, and then went to Goodman Music. I drilled every guy there who knew anything about MIDI or computers and got as much information as I could. Then I went to the next music store. When they got sick of me, I went to Guitar Center, and then Nadine's. I went all over town asking everybody to give me demos on the Macintosh and talk about MIDI and everything so I could speak intelligently about it the next day.

So you headed back for the interview and you did well, I presume?

I did alright. They hired me, so I guess I did alright. I started out as an assistant engineer there.

I know you're modest to the point of near-insanity, but how many gold and platinum records have you racked up since you got off the plane in L.A. in 1989?

Well, Janet Jackson just went gold and then went platinum, so that would make 37.

You've accomplished a lot in a very short amount of time. When you sit down with a new client and a new track and you're going to start mixing, are there rules of thumb that you find apply to virtually all of them, or is each case totally different right from the start?

Some things are the same, and some things are completely different. I think most things are different. When I mix, all of my ideas come through at once. New clients sometimes want me to listen to the album in advance, but that's bad for me because I usually get a lot of inspiration all at once. It might be three hours into the mix, it might be three minutes into the mix, it might be five hours into the mix, when I really get a grip on what the song is all about and what to focus on.

The one thing that is the same with all of the groups that I work with is my approach to their music. I feel like the most important thing is to find what it is that the producer and the artist have worked so hard to get onto tape. It's my job to bring that out on the record. It's not my job to force my opinion or my sound on their record. That's the one thing that stays the same. Things that are different are for example, Ice Cube with rap, the emphasis on the beat, as opposed to Janet Jackson where the emphasis is on the vocals and the harmony. If you take someone like the Temptations, who are a vocal group that has five part harmony, you really have to be sensitive to the way they deliver their vocals and make sure there is continuity within the mix.

Are there any rules of thumb that you could pass along to our readers about what you do that would apply to their mixing in home and project studios?

Think simple. To me, the goal is to do the least to get the most. The object isn't to turn a lot of knobs necessarily, but don't be afraid to if you need to. When you're cutting the lead vocal, it's not that much of a mystery there is a mouth and a microphone. You need to put the proper distance between them. You want to set the preamp at a reasonable level and you want to make sure the needle moves on the tape. If you just do that, you will get a good vocal sound. You may not get an exceptional vocal sound, but you'll get a good vocal sound.

Half the trouble in mixing good records is that during the tracking process people feel compelled to turn a lot of knobs, and they put stuff on tape which causes problems during the mix. When you add a lot of EQ to the vocal, if that vocal is put in before the string section goes on tape, it really may affect it's presence against the strings. This may give give you a false sense of what you should do with the strings. The mixer has to come in and listen to those differences and carve out a little here, and add a little there, in order to make up for the subtleties and perhaps bring more clarity to the mix and more openness or more width or more depth.

Let's look at your career as owner of Metro Beat Records. What made you decide to start an independent label?

It wasn't for the money [laughs] and it wasn't for the ego. I felt like I had done a good project with an artist named Mary Mary. We felt like we could hit a home run with it. I decided that was an area of the business that I was interested in, and I thought I could learn a lot from putting out a record and I actually might enjoy it. If you can believe that I thought that I would enjoy it! I'll tell you honestly, I did, and it's one of the best things I've ever done in my life. I learned an awful lot from it. The record did pretty well. Gloria Estefan picked up on it and then it became a million-selling single, a big record in '95.

Was it harder than you thought it would be to start the label?

It's easy to start but, but career-wise, it's one of the most difficult things I've done.

A lot of our readers would like to put out their own CDs. They have a day job. For $2,000 they can get 1,000 copies of their CD pressed up, and they've got another $2,000 to market it with. Do they have a shot? Is that a realistic way to start a record company?

No. Not in my opinion. It's possible if they are touring acts that have a good following or fan base. They can sell some of those records and generate the money right back to put it into more promotions, or better marketing for their product, and build it very slowly. They can target a specific region. If it's a New England act and they're touring New York and New England, there is a good possibility that they are playing some good shows that they're being recognized anyway by a major. But they could sell records and build up a local following on the tour circuit. That would generate enough money to break out into another region on the next single perhaps, or go national if they get the support of some other independent label or someone who has some financing and wants to put it behind them. I don't believe you can do the promotion on a national release single-handed. I don't even believe you can get it going for less than $20,000.

So it would be hard to have a day job and do that successfully?

To have a day job too? Not unless your day job is a DJ at a radio station. [Laughs]

So basically, is it fair to say that unless you're prepared to cough up a minimum of $20,000 and make this your 12 or 15-hour a day job for a year, you shouldn't even attempt to release an indie record with any expectations of turning it into something national?

Make that a twenty-five hour a day job. $20,000 will let you know whether you have a shot or not. But, if you spend the $20,000 and you're selling some records, that presents a hundred other problems. Now, you have to manufacture enough records to sell, which costs you more money. That means you have to have some sort of credit line available with your manufacturer. If you have the credit line, you have to be concerned ultimately with returns. How many are really being sold? Are you going to be on a 30-day billing or a 60-day billing period? And then what's the return policy? Eighty-percent? One hundred-percent? How many free goods are you giving out? Don't forget, for every record that you manufacture let's say a CD costs you $1.29 fully packaged, full color artwork it's going to cost you shipping charges to get those to all of your distributors. You're going to have use FedEx, and you're going to have start getting into some serious money with the Postal Service to get the record out to all the radio stations, etc. You're going to have to have a staff , and you're going to have to have sales people. So now that you've spent your twenty grand, you'd better be prepared, or have someone else on the back side to kick in another $40,000 if it starts to hit.

And that's just to get it to the next level?

That's right, if you want to be serious. That still doesn't turn it into a #1 Pop record. The only way you can get a #1 record on Billboard is to have coordinated sales and national sales, not just a region. You can be big in Florida in January and then big in Ohio in April, but if you're not getting all of these stations at the same time, it's impossible to chart nationally. You have SoundScan monitoring your sales, and you have BDS monitoring your airplay, and this is what comes together to chart and what ultimately appears in Billboard Magazine as a "charting" record. It takes the sales and the airplay, and it combines them and spits out a number.

You said that in order to get radio airplay you need to hire indie promoters. What does an indie promoter cost you per week, or per add?

Promoters' prices vary. You've got to be careful here, they can spot a rookie ten thousand miles away. You could get some street-level guys that will do it for $600 a month. Some people are thousands a month. You need promoters for each region or each particular market you want to hit. Some get paid by results, not by the week.

What is the competition like for an indie label with an indie promoter competing against the majors? How many slots are available every month? What are the odds of getting an indie record played?

It depends on the record. If you've got a great record, the odds are much better than if you have a shitty record. You really need to have an outstanding record because you don't have a promotion machine behind you that has the contacts. If you have a marginal record, forget it. There are only a couple of spots at radio that you can fill. It depends on each music director or program director at a specific radio station in whatever region you happen to be targeting at the time. There may only be a couple of spots. For their Top-40 playlist, let's say, half of those records are going up the charts and half of those records are going down the charts. They have to make room for new records because people are interested in hearing new music. Otherwise, everything would be oldies stations {laughs}.

Do you accept unsolicited tapes?

Not if we don't get a phone call, or if there is not a letter or something. But if someone calls ahead and they present it professionally, then usually we'll accept it, but it might sit on Teresa or Tony's desk for a while before I listen to it. Basically, we only accept tapes from people we know in the industry.

What's the single largest reason why you think you have succeeded in your career?

Because people have helped me. It's not because of my talent, good or bad. And it isn't because of luck, good or bad. It's because a lot of great people gave me good advice, kept me away from the bad, directed me when I needed direction, and took an interest in helping a young kid get a couple of breaks. But I still feel like I have a long way to go. I don't think that I've "made it" and I don't want anyone to get that idea from reading this, but I just think that for what little success I've had, it's because of other people. It isn't because of me. You always have to do your very best. You always have to give everything you can to every record that you ever do, or any thing that you ever do. That's all a given. It's the people around you that can really make the difference I think. If it weren't for God, my family, and a few very good friends who've helped me alot along the way, I wouldn't be where I am today.

If you had a brother or sister who wanted to have a career in the music business, what advice would you give him or her?

If you are going to commit to it, you have to commit to it. If you're going to half-ass it, don't even bother. If you're going to 99.9-percent try to do it, there is no way, because people are doing 199.9-percent. That's the first thing. Second, don't be afraid of it if it starts to happen. Fear of success I see more of that than I see the fear of failure. This business has a lot of great people in it. The problem is often times, it's hard to find those people. I try to be a good person and pehaps that's made a difference.

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