John Loken

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, about an hour south of San Francisco in a town called Saratoga, right next to San Jose. I went to school at UC Berkeley for a couple of years. I studied engineering — which was a big mistake! — and then switched to the University of the Pacific in Stockton for a couple of years to be in a program that was focused on the business of music. It was classes in entertainment law, and marketing, and all kinds of good stuff.

How did you get started in the music business?

Right out of college, I moved down here to Los Angeles. I just packed up a U-Haul. I got a job as an assistant to Keith Holzman, who was starting up an independent folk label out of his guest house in Brentwood. I wrote sales sheets for him and called college radio. I was there for about a year.

Where did you go from there?

By luck or by coincidence, I got a job doing international marketing at Warner Bros. in Burbank. I was there for about five years. I got promoted a couple of times, all in the international arena. That was boot camp. I really learned how the business works and watched the legends of the business—people like Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker—do their thing.

Then in 1994, I went over to work for Polygram International, overseeing Motown's international stuff. I was there for three years. By 1996, I was kind of sick of the international thing. It was difficult because I'd go to an Radio & Records Convention (in the U.S.) and I wouldn't know anybody, whereas I'd go to an MTV Europe awards show, and I'd know everybody. I just started thinking that unless I wanted to live overseas, the only way to move up the ladder domestically was to get into the domestic side of the company. So I decided to cross over. I met the guy who was the founder of China Records, which was an independent label based in England. He was looking for a general manager for this company in America, so I took that job. We were distributed through Discovery Records, which later became Sire Records. I did that for a couple of years. Then I left for a brief while to be an artist manager, and a soundtrack supervisor, and I worked at TAXI. In 1999, John Perenchio hired me to be the general manger at Ultimatum Music.

It's been a good ride. I've gotten to see and get my hands dirty in all facets of the business. The cool thing about the international years was I got to work with the upper echelons of the company. I dealt with the heads of Warner Music International—or at the time Polygram International. I really got the big picture of how the whole thing works. Then I kind of applied that on a more micro level with the domestic general manager job, where again, you're a generalist. You're dealing with all facets of the business. Everything from financial planning and royalties and accounting, to the creative stuff—remixing, choosing producers, seeing bands in the clubs, signing artists—the whole thing.

Tell us about Ultimatum Music.

Ultimatum is an independently financed company owned by John Perenchio. John was an agent at William Morris. He headed up their business affairs division. He's also a lawyer and a real estate developer. He wanted to start a company, and he modeled it after the early days of A&M, focusing on artist development. The idea was to sign a few things and really work them. It wasn't just to take the major label approach, which was to try something at radio for two weeks and if you're not 'most added', bail on it. If you look back at the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties, you'll find a lot of artists that didn't happen until records three, four, or five. John felt that that was missing in the marketplace. That has been the philosophy here, which has most recently yielded the Sugarcult success story, where we charted the record on the Billboard Top 200 no less than 62 weeks after street date, well into our third single. We simply refuse to give up on things. There has also been a conscious decision not to be a niche label. In many ways it would be easier to be a Rawkus or a Vagrant or a Victory, where you're primarily known for doing one kind of music. Then you get the economies of scale with advertising. You're not really chasing radio necessarily and you're not chasing MTV, which are incredibly expensive. You're focusing your niche. John said, "I want to be a full service record company and do all kinds of music." Having said that, we focus mainly on alternative rock. We haven't done any hip-hop. We have one country band, sort of an outlaw country rock band, The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. It's difficult, though. You're competing with the majors at their game. You can have all of the financial resources in the world, but you if you don't have artists that you can leverage to get on radio, to get on MTV, to get into the big retail programs, it's incredibly difficult. You have to make sure you sign absolutely the best talent, and you have to wait for your lucky number to come up.

I think some artists think that it's easier to get signed to an independent label than it is to a major. Is that true?

It probably depends on the label. There are a lot of companies out there that are basically two guys in a garage. They'll spend maybe $5,000 signing something, pressing up copies, and sending it out to local papers for reviews. I would imagine that that kind of label is fairly easy to get signed to. But music is so subjective. You could have five different A&R people at all different levels listen to something, and some of them are going to feel it and relate to it, and some of them aren't. I don't know if it really depends a whole lot on where they work. I do know that at the major labels, it's very hit-driven, especially at the presidential level. If you're Will Botwin (Columbia) or Matt Serletic (Virgin), you're looking for hits. If you're Lyor Cohen ( Island/Def Jam), you know that hits drive the business. Yeah, if you find some completely unique, exotic artist out of left field, say like a Bj–rk, who is a genius, or like Beck for example, that doesn't necessarily come packed with massive radio hits, you might do that as well. But by and large, those guys are looking for big hits. The independent sector can maybe take its time and sign some stuff that's left of center.

Are there other advantages to being on an indie label?

I don't think you have the same pressures that you have with a major where if your record doesn't perform out of the gate, you're going to get put on the back burner, though it happens with independents as well. Independents don't have millions to waste on things. They should be making decisions very thoughtfully and pragmatically. I think you may have a little more time, though, with a smaller company than you would with a major.

What are some of the elements that a band or an artist needs to have before you'll go forward in pursuing them?

They need to write great songs. For me coming from a background as a musician and a songwriter and producer, it has to be a great song. They have to perform really well. You need to see them in front of an audience, and you need to see that audience reacting. Whether it's in the hard rock world where the mosh pit is going bananas, or in a club like Highland Grounds with a folk singer, where you could hear a pin drop because everybody is so completely focused and overwhelmed by this talent on stage. So you need to have great songs. You need to connect with an audience, and have an amazing presence. And then I think something that is really important is you have to have the drive. You have to have the ambition and the ego to want it so badly that you're willing to sacrifice a lot to get it. Whether it means delivering pizzas for a living so that you can pay your way through the Guitar Institute, or as a punk band, being willing to cram into a van and tour out there with $10 a day per diems and four guys crammed into a motel room for six months. Those are sacrifices, and there are plenty of people that are really talented that don't want to make those sacrifices. In my experience, it's a whole lot harder to break a band or an artist if they're not willing to do that. Even on the pop side. If you have a really attractive female pop singer, she needs to be willing to go out to radio stations and take lots of pictures, and go out to lunch and be charming. It's a game. You have to want it very, very badly if you're going to win it.

Where do you look for new artists?

We kind of get them from all over. I don't think we've signed anything yet that just sort of showed up anonymously in the mail. I think for the most part it's been through friends of people at the label, and managers who we did business with on other fronts. I don't think we've had anything brought to us by an attorney that we've signed either. I don't want to make any disparaging remarks about attorneys shopping things. I think there are people who are good, and who know good music, and are passionate about it, and then I think there are people that just want to make a fast buck on something. I think just about everything that has come to us has been through a friend of a friend, or somebody we were already in business with who had another project that they wanted us to look at.

How many artists do you sign in a year?

Our average over the last two years has actually only been one new thing a year. This year we signed this band Buchanan out of Orange County. In 2001, we signed Sugarcult out of Santa Barbara. In 2000 we signed 6gig out of Portland, Maine. But then along the way, deals come up. Like Dave Pirner's solo deal was being shopped. I don't know if it's a one-off for him or not, but it's almost sort of a side project for him away from the Soul Asylum stuff. That was a deal where we could make it pretty fast, get the record out, and there is already an awareness of the artist. Same thing with J Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr. -ed.). We also did the soundtrack deal for National Lampoon's Van Wilder. It came down the turnpike pretty fast. That came with a lot of great stuff on it—there was Sum 41 and Jimmy Eat World. But for us, the real upside was plugging Sugarcult into it and having the stars from the movie appear in Sugarcult's video, which got us onto TRL. There were a lot of opportunities there to propel one of our artists forward.

At the Taxi Road Rally, you talked a little bit about playing music for radio programmers. Can you tell us more about that process? It sounds like radio programmers are to labels what A&R people are to the musicians. They're kind of your gatekeepers. Is that true?

Yeah, they're gatekeepers. Those guys have a tough job because they have something like 30 to 40 records a week that they're looking at. I've sat in on a few of those meetings, and there is a lot of pressure. There is a lot of money on the line. The labels throw a lot of enticements into the mix to become attractive to radio stations.

What sort of enticements?

They say, "We'll give you superstar artist A to play at your Christmas show, if you will add developing artist B." It's not as simple as, "I'll give you thousands of dollars if you add my record." It doesn't work like that. You can go through indie promoters and all of that, but these program directors are driven entirely by research. What works in terms of what records they play are those that are going to keep people listening to the station. For them, the bottom line is about selling advertising. The more people that listen to the station, the higher price they can command for their advertising slots. They want instant hits. They want quick bang for the bucks. If you're sitting with this guy and his stereo, and he's blasting your record, if he doesn't hear cash registers in the first 60 seconds, it's over. You're out the door, bye bye. Let's try it next time. What sometimes works is if something is not an immediate out-of-the-box smash, then you have to keep working them. You keep coming back every week saying, "Hey, look at all of these other radio stations we managed to pull in. It's already getting great research on these stations. Why don't you try it out and see if it works for you?" It's brutal.

How do you marry your own personal musical taste with the needs of the marketplace and radio?

It's a little bit tough. You kind of have to divorce yourself. I have to say that there is not a lot of stuff that I listen to at home that you would hear on the big commercial stations. Occasionally, I think there is some great stuff that breaks through that radio and MTV play, like maybe a Norah Jones. I'm a huge fan of the new Foo Fighters record too. But by and large, you kind of have to separate what you personally get into from what you think a 15-year old kid is going to get into, or a 45-year old soccer mom is going to get into. Having said that, I don't think I could sign something that I couldn't personally tolerate. I think if you're a successful A&R person, you have to have really, really broad taste in music. You have to like a lot of different things, and you have to know why you like them. You have to know why other people like them and what makes them work or what doesn't make them work.

You mentioned earlier about Ultimatum wanting to be one of the few labels left to be in the business of developing artists. Do you guys do development deals with artists?

We haven't yet. It's funny because the really expensive part of the business is not making the record, it's marketing the record. So it would make sense to say to an artist, "Hey let's go in and spend $5,000 on demos, and I'll play it for some programmers and see if we have something." If we do, we've got the first right on the contract, or matching rights, or whatever. For whatever reason, we haven't done it that way. We've chosen instead to be very, very deliberate about actually getting into a contract with the right people. We drag it out a bit. We'll go see a band play five times in front of five different types of audiences, and we push our artists really hard. We want them to make the best records they can. I'm really intensive in the studio with these people, showing up a lot, listening to mixes, making suggestions, talking about arrangements, talking about sequences, talking about what songs work and what songs don't. I think the difference is we just spend a lot of time choosing the one thing a year that we do, making sure it's the right thing, and then going for it.

What are some common mistakes that you see unsigned bands making?

I don't see a lot of mistakes. I think a lot of bands maybe delude themselves. They become a little bit delusional about how good they are or how competitive they are. Listen to KROQ if you're a young aggro band or a young hard rock band. You might think you're great, and of course your girlfriends tell you your great, and your brother thinks you're awesome, dude. But really listen to your songs and A/B them. Listen to Papa Roach's "Infest," or listen to that TRUSTCompany single. Listen to Alien Ant Farm. Those are really hard hitting, immediate, instantly-pleasing songs. Are your songs that good? Are they actually that hooky, or are you just kidding yourself to believe they are? I think people need to work really hard at that. Any good writer woodsheds, and woodsheds, and woodsheds. Don't accept the mediocre stuff. Really push yourself to only accept one out of five songs. I forget who said this, and they were talking about writing as in books, but the line was basically: "Difficult writing makes for easy reading." It's really true. You have to work on something and keep honing and honing until it's really truly palatable and exciting to the masses.

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