Abbey Konowitch
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
part two  |   part one

What are the other functions of a major label besides just signing new talent? How are they necessary to having a hit record?

Basically, our job is to take the vision of an artist and bring it to the consumer. What that means in reality is you've got to get them on the radio. If you make a video, you have to make the right video which captures the right image for the artist. Then you get that video exposed in some way. You work with creative services so they can visually present your record to the market place. You come up with sales campaigns, and retail campaigns, and advertising and the look of the point of purchase displays and you have to make all of that work for the consumer. It's not easy. It's not easy on a lot of levels.

What if you do all that and the record lays there like a lox?

If an act doesn't break right away, some record companies will say, "Well, that's it. See ya." Other labels—and I hope we're one of them—say maybe this isn't a radio-driven project. Maybe what we should be doing is to image this group better. Let's tour them and do campaigns in every city. We can work with the local newspapers, and local independent retailers and local independent video show. Let's have them perform in clubs. Let's build their fan base over the next six to nine months before we go to radio. Then when this record does go on the radio, and you're getting 22 plays because everybody is really into it, something is going to happen. That works in building a story. That also works in building bands, and building futures, and building careers.

We're in a business right now that is struggling terribly with blockbuster artists. You've got to have a hit single. You've got to have one that goes to the top of the charts. You've got to sell a million or you're over. So what's happening is we've become song-driven. Labels will sign a band because they have one great song. You need more than that.

Can you give me an example of what that "more" might be?

We signed this great group recently called Bobgoblin (a TAXI band—Ed.). We think they're great. But we're not thinking about a hit single at the moment. It doesn't matter yet. What matters right now is they have a look. They have an image. They have style. People are going to see them and they are going to react to them. And when they do have a great song on the radio, people are going to buy it because they have a whole package that works.

Doesn't it take more than great marketing?

The cliche that I alluded to earlier is, hit records aren't made in marketing meetings. They're made in the studio. For example, I think Fiona Apple made a great record in the studio, but, Jeff Ayeroff (Co-president , Sony/Workgroup Records) made a great marketing campaign that broke her. Alanis Morissette made a great record in the studio. But at another label, she might have had a different career path. Maybe just a little bit, but she would have had a different career path.

I really believe that great record people can make one or two decisions in the career of an artist that can make the difference between them becoming big, or becoming very big. The thing that I think MTV and great decisions can do is accelerate a group. Great artists are always going to break. I'm not under the belief ever that Bob Dylan, or Bono, or Bruce Springsteen, or Kurt Cobain, or Eddie Vedder, and on and on and on would have bombed on meaningful records. I don't believe it. They would happen on any label because they're great artists. They had something to say, and people wanted to hear it. All we do is accelerate that.

It's our job to bring their vision to the marketplace. It's a tough job, because we don't always agree. We have arguments constantly—artists and record executives. They could think track #3 should be the single. Oh no, we think track #1 says it all. We know about marketing. They don't know about promotion. They know when they are good. That's what makes the connection. What we don't control—and it's the most frustrating part of the record business—is getting 30 plays on KROQ and 50 plays on Z100 in New York, and no one will buy the record. You can get three plays on a radio station and not be able to keep the records in the stores. Some records are hits, and some aren't. Some make the connection, and some don't.

Can all the gears turn properly at a record company and still not produce a hit? Conversely, can any one of the gears not turn and a hit still results?

I would say in the last year, maybe there were ten or twenty artists who had all of the "gears," all of the hype and sold nothing. So the answer to that is, all we can do is that. We can't make the consumer make the connection, but a great song can.

I've certainly seen it personally in "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morissette, "Loser" by Beck, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, and "Alive" by Pearl Jam. One song, one spin. We "hate" radio because they say they "know" after one spin. We go, "no way, you can't tell." But you know what? You can tell, when it's the right one. You never know for sure though.

So some records break big just because they're great...

I'll give you two examples of records that nobody expected ever to break the way they broke in the last year. It's because they were great. One was "One Of Us" by Joan Osborne. It didn't matter that it got played on a 10-watt radio station when nobody was listening. It broke. The other was the Tracy Chapman single "Gimme One Reason." It absolutely didn't matter, any of the bullshit. They're hit records. Period. There is some magic to what we do. We should never lose that magic. That's why we do it.

Do you think tastes in music are catered to or created by the industry?

I think we clearly try to fill the pipeline and then decide who it's for with no real knowledge of what it will do. No one can predict the future. Years ago someone said to Rick Rubin, "How do you know? You must go out every night. You're always right." He said, "I can tell what I like." There are those people that know what they like, and what they like, the public likes. We don't create any demand anywhere else. We fill the demand.

Is it really possible for an indie group to compete with the big boys for those precious few slots on radio playlists?

Today? It's a snap. It keeps happening where an independent record that comes out—whether it's "Firestarter" by Prodigy or whether it's "Loser" by Beck-and today radio stations are looking for things to separate themselves from their competition. They are out there looking for hit records. However, they're not going to be able to sell the same millions of records as an act on Columbia, because of the infrastructure of how records are sold. But, if they made the record, it could get in the hands of one or two or three people like Brian Phillips when he found Silverchair, or when he found Roxette. Both were on no label in America. I think the chances are as good as ever, probably better than ever.

But how are these kids in Beaver Lake, Wisconsin going to get to that program director?

There are a thousand guys that are trying to get that program director their CDs that year. They're probably going to hire some independent promotion guy to get to one or two Program Directors.

How are they going to know when they've got the right guy because there are so many independent radio promoters that will take your money and not get results?

They may not. If it's great, it will find an audience. It's not going to find 20 or 40 radio stations on its own. It's going to find two. But word spreads fast. Then Jimmy Iovine, or Jay Boberg, or Daniel Glass or Donny Einer is going to hear about it. Hootie and the Blowfish. Goldfinger. The list is long. Record companies all, so you know, have in-house research departments. They call all of the local retailers in Beaver Lake, Wisconsin and say, "What's selling?" Their infrastructure is now based on the success of the last few to find those records.

Is it a trend or a phase they are going through because of Hootie and the Blowfish being discovered that way, or do they really believe that's the right way to find new talent?

It continues to happen, because what used to happen is people would sit in their houses and make tapes and play them for their friends. Now, since the advent of the CD, you make a tape in your house, press a CD, and sell it to your friends. So it can come to the attention of a guy at a record store or at a local radio station. It was hard to press up records. It's very easy to make a CD now, and it's cheap. There is an entire business now of finding these bands. They are already theoretically proven when labels sign them. I say "theoretically" because our 40-year history of rock 'n' roll is filled with groups that are breaking quickly, and not necessarily big in America. That's controversial. There are people that say if you can be big in Cleveland, you can be big in America. America's market is now about 30% of the world. So you can be big in America and still be missing two-thirds of the world.

That's an important issue now because of the Internet. Not only is it going to allow somebody in Tokyo to buy an American release for $13 versus $25 over there. They are going to find out about an American group that they won't be playing on the radio there.

It's easier today for the kid and his band to get discovered—probably easier than ever before—because of Hootie and the Blowfish.

How do you think the Internet is going to change the way major labels will work in the future?

No one knows. The addendum to that is I can either talk for twenty minutes, or I can say no one knows. There are so many ways it might work.

Do you think that major labels will be decimated by the Internet, as some have predicted, or will they simply adapt to the technology, remain dominant and change the way they work?

We are completely enamored by the Internet. We are, with reason, using every facet of the Internet we can. We believe it could be part of the future. I think fortunately we're not looking at it as a panacea for the ills of our industry, which I think people did when MTV first time out. But we don't know how it's really going to affect anything. It's like when people turn on their television. They're not putting on their televisions to listen to music. They're putting on their television to watch "Seinfeld" reruns or old movies. When they log onto the Internet, I don't know if they are looking to download videos or if they're looking for music. They have a life, and music is a part of it. Unfortunately, music may become less a part of their lives.

Because of the Internet?

Yes, because there is so much to do besides listening to music. They're not watching TV anymore. They're not listening to the radio anymore or CDs. Right now, these kids are on the Internet 20-30 hours a week.

So, it's not the future, it's the present. But, do you think it will be the delivery system of choice for music buyers in the future?

We don't know exactly where it's all going, but this time, the industry is completely prepared for it to be part of our business. Everyone said when CD came out, and then DAT came out, that everybody is going to bootleg stuff. But it didn't happen to any great degree. People want ownership. There are people who want copies and there are people who want ownership of original product. They don't want it because it's legitimate. They want it because there is a connection to the artist. Like classic album covers of the '60s. That's why I think 1-800 MusicNow didn't work. I think that's why downloading music from satellites doesn't work. That's a connection to corporate America. It's not a connection to the artists.

What's right with the music industry today?

It's a sophisticated, mature business that isn't naive about the fact that it changes everyday. We, the senior people in the record industry, don't know everything anymore. I think that's important. I think we went through a real period of time in the '80s where we thought we knew everything and we really didn't know anything. The reality is that those who have survived, who are in their 40's or 50's or 60's, understand that we don't know it all. But we can glean from those people around us how to bring music to the marketplace. We can use their experience to better take the vision of the young people to a wider audience.

We're getting really good at marketing music by our standards. What I mean by that is, we can sell a million or two million records really well. But, by the standards of consumer products, we're not even on the radar screen. When you ship 22 million copies of "Independence Day," or how ever many "101 Dalmatians," or how many people see a movie, we're (the music business) not even on the radar screen. But we're getting better at it, and I think we're recognizing two things: art and commerce. We're recognizing on the art side that we need to associate ourselves with young entrepreneurs who are on the cutting edge, who have always been trendsetters in the industry. And on the commerce side, we're learning better ways to communicate to the consumer about our product. We're still just getting started.

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing in the music industry today, is there anything you would change?

I think music isn't perceived as important anymore by a huge generation of people who consume it. Baby boomers, if you will. They've come to the conclusion that they don't buy records, but they do love music. Whether they're still listening to the radio or listening to music at a friend's house, what we do in taking an artist's life experiences and putting them together into a song, onto a music video, or into a live performance, is still magic. I would love to see people remember that, and then regain the interest and passion they used to have for it.

What's your favorite part about what you do for a living?

I love working with artists. I love watching them. I've always loved it—from the first time I watched it happen, until today. I love it when a young kid who works in the office says, "I found this great group and I have an idea..." To watch it grow from that moment and then eventually see them on stage at the Grammys or at the American Music Awards or listening to them on the radio... That's still magical to me.

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