Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up right here in L.A. I never really left except for when I went to college in Boulder, Colorado.

How did you get into the business?

When I was in college, I was studying business and marketing. I went to UCLA Extension to make up some credits, and I took a music publishing class from Alan Melina. The first thing he said was, "It doesn't matter what I'm going to teach you. It matters who you meet in this class." He brought in a guest speaker, and I got an internship that first night with the guest speaker, and I never finished the class. That was with Side One Marketing and Management. I answered their phones and tracked indie records at retail and college radio for a while.

After that, I went back to Alan Melina and interned at his publishing company, which was Famous Music at the time. Then I got into the mailroom here at Virgin and never left. As you can see, I don't really move around. I just stay in L.A. I stayed here at Virgin, and I've been here for 12 years.

That's got to be some kind of record in this business for stability.

Yeah, I've been really lucky. I've gone through three different regimes here, mostly because I just quietly go about my thing, and hopefully I don't lose them too much money. [laughs] You have to be able to stay somewhere if you're really going to develop acts. The kind of music I like takes time. If I jumped around, I would never be able to see the results of what I do.

Who are some of the more well known acts that you've signed?

I imagine the only really well known one at the moment is Ben Harper. I'm just finishing up his fourth record this week. Other than that, I have great claims to fame on very little known artists like Brendan Benson and Kristen Barry, and then I've also worked with a handful of artists that were signed by transitory A&R people. I handled Sam Phillips for awhile. Now I'm helping out Real World Records and Peter Gabriel with a guy named Joseph Arthur who is just amazing. Since Joe doesn't really do World music, we're kind of collaborating with Real World on it. He's making a Rock record. That pretty much keeps me busy at the moment.

What are your favorite ways of finding new talent?

My favorite ways are getting a call from a musician who I respect who saw a band at a club, or a band that opened for them, or a band they opened for, and says, "You've got to get down here and see this." I like live shows, because it means that there is a band out there working already.

Making music your life and your work, and doing it regardless of if you have a record deal or not, is what it is really about to me. That shows that it's out there for the sake of the art, and the deal is secondary. Clubs are the easiest way to see that.

So it's not necessarily a question of someone out there who has done a lot of groundwork in terms of building a fan base, but more a matter of you seeing commitment?

Commitment, yes, and motivation. It's really all about perseverance and making a career out of it. If I'm going to put in that kind of time, I expect at least that much from the person that I'm out there fighting for. Anything that shows that a band is out there just being a band — whether it's releasing indie product or doing Internet stuff. I like to see people out there doing it.

I go out and buy magazines at the newsstand rather than take subscriptions, because I like to see who is on the cover and what the reviews are. Fortunately, there is a lot of coverage of young and unsigned bands out there. I like to go about it as a fan, rather than have it come to me through lawyers and managers. That's not to say that they are not going to bring me great music, but it is certainly not as fun. I like to go to the record store. I like to look at what is on the rack, and do as an A&R guy what I did as a teenager. I always had to find something nobody else had heard yet. I had to have the music first. It just feels comfortable to do it that way, and it saves me from getting caught up in the machinery of the business and the way it tends to run.

Does Virgin have specific field A&R reps around the country?

We just have motivated people who love music everywhere. Plus we bring in the weekly papers from other cities. This is a great tool for knowing what is going on out there—not really just caravaning around looking for the next thing. It would be nice to, but unfortunately I spend more time dealing with the roster than I do actively pursuing new acts.

A lot of people have the perception of an A&R guy sitting in his office listening to tapes for 8 hours a day. How would you estimate you split your time between listening to new unsigned talent versus working on the roster that you already have here?

Well I definitely spend the majority of the time working on the roster. Like I say, I follow new music just as a gigantic music fan. I would rather go to the record store than the bookstore. I'd rather go to the clubs than the movies. It's what I like to do. So I'm out there doing it. I don't sit in here and listen to a bunch of stuff all day. I listen to the stuff that has made it to that small section of things that keep me interested. The rest of the day while I'm here, I'm devoted to my artists. They made the deal here and expect somebody available to them to deal with everything. That keeps me really busy. That is always the first priority.

We've got a large A&R staff so there is always coverage. But it's not competitive in the sense where I've got to run out and find something new this month. I haven't signed anything new in a couple of years.

When you are evaluating your interests, how much development do you find yourself willing to do, and how much of a factor is radio in your thinking?

The first reaction I have to any music has no aspect of business commericality or radio play at all, because that's not where my taste is. I don't really enjoy commercial radio unfortunately. It would probably help my job if I did, but I don't like 90-percent of what they play. If something sounds like it could be on the radio, I might go, "This sounds like it could be a hit," and I'll go hand it to another A&R guy. If I hear something and I'm just blown away by something else about it — the soulfulness, the artistry, the inventiveness, the conviction, which is always really what hits you first — then I get excited about it. Then I try to balance this company's need for me to bring in profitable acts with where my heart is musically, and see if I can come up with a straight line from what the artist does to what this company knows how to do. More often than not, the things I love really aren't appropriate. They might be something that I would love to buy, but I couldn't sign. That's usually what I'm bringing into this company, and I've found a little niche being slightly more eclectic than the rest of them.

Hopefully over the course of six years, like Ben Harper, you build up and you pay back your debts. You don't really see it in your yearly fiscal report, but over the course of time, he is going to be profitable. His catalog is going to sell. Hopefully we're going to hit the big time with this one. What he did was always great in my mind, and it might not always have been accessible, but that wasn't the point. Everybody here can appreciate great music, and they can appreciate accessible music. We've always had a real strong balance. Virgin has always had a reputation of being slightly more aggressively different, I hate to use the word "alternative," but hopefully cutting edge. That allows me the ability to do what I'm talking about and still have it potentially work. If you can see it through and take the time, yeah you can do it. I'll take something from scratch all the way if it seems like it can get there, and the people around the project are willing to put in what I'm going to put in.

I do have one act, Brendan Benson, that basically had a 4-track recorder, wrote some songs, never played out, and I'm doing the long haul with it. And it is a long haul. Sometimes you think these songs are so good, everyone is going to love them. You go out and get some great reviews. You get a small fan base and you realize, boy, we've got a huge mountain ahead of us. If the company is willing to trust that I'm going to stick it out, then they are going to stick it out, and hopefully there is light at the end of the tunnel. The payoff will ultimately be the same to make it worthwhile.

Did you see him live at all?

No. There was something about that tape that just stunned me.

John Wooden, the head coach of the UCLA Bruins for many, many years, had a comment about basketball games and winning and losing that basically said: Don't ever get too high after a victory or too low after a defeat, but rather maintain a certain levelness that you are satisfied that you did the best job that you could do. He promoted that with his players, and they maintained a level of consistency that was kind of unheard of in college sports. It is hard for us in the entertainment business not to get too excited about winning awards. It's great. But you should try to put those same energies back into the next thing and keep a consistency. That's the one thing that's always called for in the entertainment business. Consistently having hits. Consistently having good songs. Diane Warren consistently has great songs. So does Carole King. That consistency is very important, and it's the hardest thing to achieve. It's harder than success. You can always spike and have one hit. But, boy, trying to maintain that consistency is something else.

Wow, how did you get his tape?

That was actually brought in through a friend of mine who knew him who had nothing to do with the business.

It just had a quality about it. It sounded like it was recorded in the house. It was spirited, it just made you smile. It was just charming as all hell. So I went up and met the guy, and he was literally what I expected. Just a guy who looked like he just walked out of his bedroom. He delivered a record, and everybody at the company loved it. The press loved it. Upon release, BAM Magazine put him straight on the cover as like the next superhero. From there we realized it was not going to be that easy. Radio wasn't really ready for what he was doing, as commercial as we thought it was. So he's back in his bedroom on his 4-track taking his time. Hopefully, with no pressure, he can do it again.

So you helped him find a band and get the live show together. Did you have to work with him on songwriting?

No, not at all. He had done some co-writing with Jason Falkner (of Jellyfish and The Grays, etc.). The rest were songs that he had written himself. They were just great. It was really a question of capturing what was on the 4-track and making a record out of them.

How unusual is that scenario—hearing a four track demo and signing an artist without even seeing him play?
It's completely unusual. There is only one other time that I ever sort of randomly got a tape that I fell in love with. This was years ago, and I don't even know what happened to the lady.

If you had to give some advice to people out there whose goal it is to get a major label deal, what would you tell them?

That's really a tough question. I don't imagine that the Clash got together looking for a major label deal. They got together to rock.

I hate to be overly romantic about it, but you make art because you have to. You make art because you have that guitar sitting there, and it's the only thing you're inspired to do all day. You perform it with the conviction that it was inspired by, and you communicate that. If that's the case, a record deal will come, or it won't come. But you do it. And so my advice is do it with no expectations of what is going to come back from it. If that's not good enough, then you probably shouldn't be doing it.

Don't look for a major label deal. It's not the answer. It is one part of an artist's career. Touring and the booking agent is another part. Merchandising is another part. These are the people that will come in and help service a demand for the most part. Yes, people will be helpful in throwing ideas around to create demand, but they are ultimately not really creating a demand. They are servicing one. When it is time to do that, then you bring in the help.

You can be your own publishing company and publish your own music until it gets too hectic, and when you constantly are trying to track down your BMI or ASCAP royalties, then you get a publishing company to do that service for you. That's what these companies ultimately are for. Once you get in and over the hype, once that bidding war is over, you get down to a working relationship and you're in an environment that is a lot bigger than just about you. Don't focus on that deal. Focus on your music. Find ways to get it out there. There are fortunately now so many ways to make music and to make money at making music.

A lot of times I hear from a lot of my artists when they are having trouble coming up with the material for their second record because they don't have their whole life to prepare for it. "Man, it was so much easier to write when I had to go to work all day." Or, they wouldn't go out with their friends because they were so jazzed to go home and play with their toys. Then they are sitting around all day trying to write a song, and they can't do it.

Sometimes it's about having it be something that you do just for you, just for fun. If you can convey that, that is what is going to attract people anyway. I think that the most brilliant people out there probably aren't even thinking about how they can be a professional recording artist. They are just out there doing their thing and having fun with it. That's what inspires people to come around. That's what art is.

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