TAXI Road Rally 2006

Guy Routte, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records, Urban
Tony Ferguson, VP of A&R, A&M/Interscope
Kirk Boyer, Sr. Director of A&R, Lyric Street/Disney, Nashville
Steven Melrose, President, Left Wing/Virgin Records (at time of panel)

OK, Ferguson, I ask you this question every year only because you answer it so well. If you guys are so picky, why is there so much crap on the radio?

TF: Oh, that one. Well, actually, that's a double-edged sword. With all the downloads that are going on right now, and some of the bands and some of the music that's being pushed to the forefront, the general public has a lot more to say than ever before in what gets played on radio. Radio slots are very few and far between, and radio's not the greatest medium at this point. It ain't what it used to be; it ain't the powerhouse it used to be. Marketing is the new keyword.

And the problem with radio is that it has never been about music. Sorry to piss anybody off that's in the radio business right now, but it's never been about music. It's about selling ads. It's ad time. Just to give you an example, we actually slow our records down sometimes. Or, if we feel that the groove of a record after the mix just needs a little bit of a kick, a little bit of a speedup, a little bit of a lock into the groove, we don't even bother doing that now. You know why? Because radio stations take that product, and in most cases—KROQ, for instance—are known to speed records up. So by the end of the day, they get at least three or four more advertising minutes.

Our members get very frustrated because the labels call us and say, "Find me this, find me that," and they always reference something that's currently happening, and our members say, "Why do the labels need us to sound like X, Y and Z? Why can't I just do what I do? Why won't they look for something fresh and new and different?" Other A&R people say, "Find us something fresh and new and different." But when we send fresh and new and different, they call us back—or if we follow up with them—and they say, "It's too fresh and new and different. I don't think radio will play it."

KB: Well, obviously, each artist has their own vision. They're approaching their project in a particular way, and I feel like it's my job to educate the publishers and the writers that are coming to me. I try to give them a target to shoot for. I'm not asking them to be identical, because there's not room for identical in this marketplace any longer. Once upon a time, you could be relatively close and still have strong material and radio would let you through the door. But I don't think that's the case anymore. I'm always looking for something new and different, and sometimes it's just subtle. It's a subtle change; it's a subtle turn; it's a subtle twist in that lyric. The way they set up that story, that perspective that they're breathing into that story, that's what makes it different. It's not some outlandish, melodic context.

Why is Rock dying?

SM: Because, I think, of two things. I think they (record labels) got really fat and lazy. I'm probably wrong, but I think they were spending a lot of money on big producers. They spent a lot of money on videos that couldn't be aired anywhere. MTV has nothing to do with music, at least not Rock.

And you know what? The reason it doesn't is because they checked their audience. Their audience didn't react as well to music, sadly. They reacted to the dumb reality shows.

SM: I don't think the audience really cares. They're lethargic; they'll take what they're given. Sadly, I think that it's the state of the nation a little bit right now, a general lethargy. If radio and TV have gone, and you stop spending money on big videos, and you spend money on radio campaigns, you go back to college, you tour, and the band spends every waking day when it's not rehearsing or sleeping on talking up the band. If the bands can't work really hard, and we can't work our way at the labels to make money for our bands and sell 200,000 records, there's something inherently wrong. There's got to be a way. If we don't do this, it's becoming this ivory tower that's getting higher and higher and higher and further removed from the street. There's got to be a way where major labels—or major independents who are attached to major labels—can sell 200,000 and send a check to the guy in the band. Why are we spending $100,000 on a video that no one sees? Why spend $200,000 on radio when there's no one playing it? It's a waste of money. It's stupid. I know it's not as simple as this, and MySpace isn't the Holy Grail, neither is YouTube. Everybody's got to wake up a little bit, particularly in America right now. If you're a new band, how the hell does anyone know who you are?

Guy, so many of our members get upset at us and at the industry in general when we forward their music to someone in the industry, then our members don't hear anything, and they go, "What's the deal? Why am I not hearing back from them?" I know why. Nobody calls you about something unless they love it. Tell them why that is and help them develop thicker skin on that one, please.

GR: It's because there's so much stuff coming to you, and some people are just not organized I guess. I mean, how many records are you working on now? He's working on six records. He's got to find songs and studio time and managers and baby-sit all of that, and he's dealing with his own life and his own family. If I didn't get back to you. It didn't move me

The members ask, "Why didn't you tell me why you don't like it? Why can't you tell me what to do better?"

GR: Because I don't remember now. Because I listened to 35 records in the last hour and I don't remember why I didn't like yours. But if I liked it, I would've remembered it. And it doesn't mean a record is not great, it just means it wasn't great for me. I just don't remember it. You want me to listen to your record, you want me to write down why I didn't like it, or why I liked it, do a survey for every record I have to listen to, along with the 10 meetings I have to have that day with my bosses, and the other 10 meetings I have to have that day with the artists, then go to the studio and stay up all night and make a record, and then maybe call my girlfriend? No. My girlfriend would say, "He doesn't call me back, either."

TF: You have to remember that pretty much the people on this panel get inundated with a lot of material and we're very accessible, what with the Internet. There used to be this whole solicitation method where if it wasn't coming through a proper channel like an attorney or a manager or someone we do business, basically, it wouldn't get through the mailroom. Now, with computers, we are everywhere. I mean, my office gets close to 200 submissions a week, plus the meetings you've got to do during the day, plus the studio, plus everything else. Quite frankly, and with no disrespect to anyone, we really can't get back to you. There used to be those form letters that were sent, you know, "Thank you very much for your submission, but it's not what we are looking for at this time." But he's right, if we hear something we really like, we will contact you.

Kirk, is it the same in Nashville?

KB: People that I work with the most, understand. I was a publisher for 13 and a half years, so I was plugging songs to people in the position that I'm in right now. It's pretty common that people are not gonna call you back when they pass on something, but you'll definitely hear from them whenever they do like something.

OK, so you live in Peoria, you are one of the hot local bands in a town of 300,000 people, and a guy walks up to you nicely dressed, he drives a Mercedes S500, looks like he's successful, and says, "I'm an attorney and I love you guys. I would love to manage you." And then you find out that the guy is actually a real estate attorney, but he's passionate about music. Maybe he even took a music law course or two while in law school. Now he wants to manage you, and you're so flattered to have someone who looks successful, that's taken an interest in your career, and validates your talent. Should you sign with that manager or not?

SM: Never. I'm sure he's a nice guy, but there are a lot of bottom feeders who exist in the music business. There are a lot of people who circle around to the bottom stuff trying to lock you into something. It's never worth it, believe me. If you give away your rights and no one is paying you money and no one is actually doing anything for you, never do it. You are your best friend for that. A couple of bands that I managed—that I've taken over management for—have had these horrific deals that they signed into. I looked at the deal and I was like, "This guy gave you a $1,000 and he owns three albums and your publishing and your merchandise." And they said, "Oh well, the guy seemed pretty cool." And if there are contracts—in America particularly, which is a very litigious place—you're stuck in that contract, I can't sign you. So, don't sign things. Like what Michael does here, you need conduits, and something like TAXI is a very big help. These people aren't in it just to like scam cash, they are actually here to help.

We get a lot of calls from urban acts—just a hugely disproportionate number of calls from urban acts—saying, "I finished my CD; I pressed it at Disc Makers, I don't need a major label deal, I just need distribution. Can you please tell them why they're wrongheaded about that?

GR: Well, because you made your music, you pressed it, but how are you going to market it and promote it? And that's probably where the majority of the money is spent. So, why would I as a distribution company put out a record with someone who doesn't have the capacity to market or promote it? It just doesn't make any sense. So, I admire the do-it-yourself kind of thing a lot, and if you're great, you'll find your way. The reason there is not an abundance of distribution deals out there is because anybody can put together their own CD. You have Pro Tools in your house, and, basically, for a few thousand dollars you can make an album, and it doesn't have to be very good. Then you can pay Disc Makers to press up a thousand CDs. Everybody thinks they're in the record business. But most stuff, period, is not very good.

"But if I could just get my CD into every record store in America, I'm sure I would sell millions." What's the fallacy in that?

GR: The fallacy is that record stores are businesses. Why would a record store put your record on their shelves if you're not going to sell?

SM: Again, a company should press a thousand copies up, get on the road, sell them on the road, then have your Web site set up so someone can go and buy either online or go to CDBaby. I know you've been told this a million times, but even bands that are doing well or are signed to a label still need to sell records on the road, and still need to sell records online. There is no other way, for any genre of music. To expect a store to get excited about a band that hasn't even played there, it's called cuckoo land. It's not going to work.

"But I think I'm great. Don't they get it? My mom and dad tell me I'm amazing and my fans love me."

SM: Never ask your family or your friends how good you are, because they'll all lie.

KB: Ultimately, you've got to come and rub up against the professional echelon of the business if you're gonna break that wall. You know, Aunt Susie can love you all day long, but the thing is, if she doesn't have a track record of success in the music business, then she's not going to be much help.

Tony, our members always get cranky with us because we don't forward their stuff, even though we tell them, "You know, you're pretty much in the ballpark with this stuff. It's pretty darn good." And the response I've been hearing for 15 years is, "Laskow, why don't you send it to them and let them decide?" Why can't we send you something that's pretty good and let you decide?

TF: Because of the shear amount of hours in a day of what we can apply our time to... How many members do you have in TAXI?

Nearing 12,000.

TF: OK, so at any given time there could be hundreds of submissions for a single listing that you run for me—maybe multiple submissions with some prolific writers. I can't go through all of those. I mean there's no way. You as an organization have to be a gatekeeper to some degree with some of the people that you use, and I know some very experienced people on your team that are some of the A&R executives that aren't working right now. TAXI has to be a gatekeeper to help deliver to us songs that you think that we're looking for.

Why can't we lower the bar?

TF: Don't.

GR: Once you're not trusted, then your...

TF: Your reputation is on the line with us as well.

GR: So, if you send me five things in a row that are horrible, I'm like, "OK, TAXI, don't send me anything else."

KB: And the thing is that the whole organization, all of your members suffer because your credibility is minimized as a result of that. We come to you because you have an expertise in A&R and you have the relationships with people that trust your ears. Do you get them 100% of the time right? No. Do I get it right 100% of the time right? No. Absolutely not. But there has to be a benchmark. There has to be a standard, even though it's subjective. You have to draw the line somewhere, and, hopefully, in the information that we share with you is good, as far as what we're looking for, and that target that we're trying to help you visualize on behalf of your membership.

I think that we're not so much gatekeepers at TAXI as we are door openers for the people who are right for the moment.

KB: Is everybody OK out there? Is everybody hangin' in? Is this helping at all? [applause]

TF: Basically, all of the above. It doesn't really matter. Performers don't get caught up in the production game because—as Steve was talking about attorneys that will take your money and have very little contact with the music industry—there are some engineer/producers out there that will take your money as well, saying, "What your song really needs is my great work as a producer and production." We, hopefully, to some degree, can tell a good song with or without the production.

SM: And I think three tracks are better than 10. Again, time is of the essence for all of us. I would send three tracks in the mail, over-nighted—UPS or FedEx tends to get more attention than something in the regular mail. Send one photo and a link to MySpace. Keep it really simple because I think the more stuff that you send the less attractive it becomes... If I get a big blue shiny package with like 25 pictures and two albums worth of material, I won't even listen to it. It's scary right away.

Let's talk about bios for a minute. What do you want to see in a bio? The answer I usually get from A&R people is that the bio doesn't really mean anything to me unless I hear the music first and love it, then I'm interested in the bio. Is that a true statement?

All: Yes.

So you guys don't open up the bio and go, "Wow, look at that. She was the most successful person in choir class in eighth grade. She's been writing songs for 14 years..." None of that means anything to you? You've got to hear the music.

GR: If a bio is truly impressive, I probably know it already, so I don't need it. Ironically, it really is about the music.

So many people worry about this production versus music issue or versus songwriting. And I see people defaulting toward production. "I'm gonna produce my CD better." They spend all kinds of money on home studio equipment, and they spend months on a single song working on the production as if the production...

SM: One thing that's important on the demos, to me at least... So many times I get a demo and the vocal is really low in the mix, and I don't understand that. The vocals should be up, even if it sounds like more than it should be. It's nice to hear the voice and to hear the lyrics.

I was so gonna jump on that.

SM: I know you were. But people do that a lot. For a demo, please put the vocals up a couple more clicks than you normally would, for me at least, so I can hear it.