Marla McNally-Phillips and Linda Blum-Huntington, Emerald Forest Entertainment.

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

What is your exact title?

I'll speak for Linda Blum as well, because I always have to—we've been partners for years. We are co-CEO's of our own company, Emerald Forest Entertainment.

Where did you grow up?

Johnstown, Pennsylvania—that mecca! People only know it for surviving the Johnstown flood. It's the disaster town!

How did you get into the music business?

I was a music major in college. I was a singer also, and a theater minor. I gave myself six months to make it famous in New York, and when I didn't, I got impatient. I realized I had to work for a living, and I started out as a secretary at Big Three Music Publishing. That was the sheet music division of United Artists.

Then what?

Then I worked for MGM Films for a minute in time there. Then I worked for Chappell out of New York. I headed up what then was called Chappell Intersong. At the time I was hired to be head of international out of the U.S. for Intersong music. That was when there was a Chappell Music and an Intersong Music, even though we were owned by the same people and we sat across from each other. Meanwhile, Linda was at Arista Music this entire time. I became head of Chappell Intersong International, and then VP of talent acquisition at International. That's when I moved out to Los Angeles in the cold, hard winter of January 1985. That is when Linda was hired by Ira Jaffe, and we both were then at Chappell L.A. That was a great time. It's all been a great time, actually. I hesitate to tell everybody that, but it has really been fun.

Who were some of the writers that you had in those days?

Bernie Taupin we had Til Tuesday, which was my first signing years ago. Good old Aimee Mann. Jody Watley. This will date us: we had Ratt, Guns N Roses—which was also a signing of mine for everywhere but the U.S.—Cinderella, Mark Page, Frannie Golde, Sue Shifrin. We also represented bands like U2, which was awesome.

When and how did Emerald Forest come into being?

Okay, then we move into Warner Bros. buying Chappell. I think this was around 1987 or 1988. They were the two biggest companies at that time that merged, and it messed everybody up. At that point, Linda, Ira, Jaffee and the gang all went over to EMI because Irwin Robinson and Ira became the heads of EMI. I stayed at Warner for a year because they didn't have an international person out of the U.S., and I liked a lot of that team.

After a year, I finally went with them over to EMI, and I was there three weeks, because shortly thereafter, Charles (Koppelman) and Marty (Bandier) became the heads of EMI. That was fine—we loved Charlie and Marty. But they had a whole different style. I turned to Linda and I said, "I'm going to start my own company" because I was tired of wasting all of this time being bought by majors. I said to her, "Do you want to start a company with me?" The two of us talked about it and decided to do that. So in 1989, Emerald Forest Entertainment was started, which is a joint venture with the Japanese.

The three highlights of that catalog that people would probably know, of which we have many great copyrights, would certainly be Sophie B. Hawkins, Brownstone and Marilyn Manson, all of which we signed at the beginning of all three of their careers.

Meaning before they had record deals?

Sophie was signed at the same time Columbia was signing her. With Marilyn Manson, we were at the same gig with Trent Reznor, so we actually signed our deal before they signed their record deal. With Brownstone, we got them their first record deal we're proud to say. The Brownstone era kind of started what Linda and I do best and what we love to do. We said this recently and we're saying it with some level of chagrin, just because it takes so damn long, but what we really love in our hearts is—as Brownstone called it from their album—"from the bottom up". We don't like to say we've "developed" artists, because it makes them seem like they were nothing, and then Linda and I came in and made them something. They all have different needs. They are something, but we helped them move that career forward. Whatever that takes. We could have been called "Whatever It Takes" Publishing. That could mean putting a great new team around them, from management, to producers, to the label itself. That could mean starting from singing a cappella and deciding you should be with this producer, to putting the songs down on tape, to like 75 gigs later getting the deal.

What is Children Of The Forest?

A couple of years back, Horipro (Emerald Forest's Japanese investors) decided they didn't want to sign new talent, so Linda and I formed our own publishing company, and it's called Children of the Forest. Children of the Forest has Macy Gray, Holly Palmer, Kathleen Wilhoite, Debbie Holiday, and some Andrew Dorff in it. That's all of the new talent in the last couple of years that Linda and I have signed. And we have a great catalog there as well.

Just this past year, and literally it has only been since the beginning of this year, we did a label imprint deal with London/Sire, with Peter Koepke. They had a bigger need for us than say, Atlantic Records would, who have tons of labels coming out of their ears. We like what Peter is setting up there. He's kind of starting over and setting up sort of a Geffen. So that's kind of fun. So we just started that and we've already taken him a number of people. They are considering one of our artists now—a new guy we have in "development", of course.

How involved do you get creatively with your artists in terms of their writing?

When we're asked, 100 percent. And we're asked a lot. The feedback part of it is, as we always tell writers, look, if you don't want an honest opinion, don't ask. If you're looking for a publisher to just keep saying, "That's great, that's great," and put it on the shelf behind us, then in three months you shouldn't wonder why no one is working it. That will never be us. We will always tell you how we feel. You can disagree with us 100-percent. We're just going to tell you why we will or won't work a song, or why we think it's a hit or we don't.

Is it easy to get cuts?

No. It is not easy to get cuts. The whole industry is so cyclical. One minute you might have more artists looking than not, at any given time. There are always artists looking for the great songs. But it is difficult getting that direct access and then staying on it to make sure you get past, for instance in a film, the director's cut. We love to get people's reaction to playing material in person. We almost always try not to just send the CD or tape or whatever. We'd much rather do the old-fashioned way and play it in person. When we're stuck, then I can sing most of the copyrights. It's pathetic, but true!

Today, for us the most important thing still is, and Linda and I have been partners for over 15 years and worked together for 18, that we love it. I love what I do and so does Linda. We get just as excited about our new artists as we do the most established ones that we have something to do with.

So what is the most exciting part of it?

The most exciting part of it is to be at a Macy Gray concert and to turn around and see those kids mouthing the lyrics to "I Try" four years later.

What is the Macy Gray story?

It's a long story. It's so involved with so many people, so all I would love to say on that behalf is that it has been a privilege to have been part of the early on years with Macy and working with her to help her get where she has gotten today. We were the early part of that story, and I'm really happy to say we were there and we worked with her.

How long before she got her record deal?

Well we got her her first record deal on Atlantic Records for a record that never came out. That's how many years back we go. The record never came out for various reasons, but she was meant to be where she is now at Sony 550. Polly [Anthony] has done an amazing job for her at 550, and it's been a lot of fun. Polly Anthony really did a brilliant job working with Macy and put her butt on the line. She really did. We thanked her for that recently.

What do you look for in a new artist?

Linda and I have three criteria for which we sign people. It hasn't changed in 18 years. That criteria is we have to believe in our gut. That's just Linda's and my gut. Whatever that is. There is no description for whatever the heck that is. Linda and I have to, number one, believe that lead of that band is a star, whatever that means to us.

We have to believe that those songs are hits, or that there is a hit in there. Or that they are good enough that if the promotion person or A&R person leaves the label that week, that we can salvage a career for that artist that we've made promises to.

And the third part is that we have to believe that person or that band is willing to work as hard as we are. If we feel any of those three are lacking, we won't sign a band. And Linda and I will never sign a band that we don't believe in 1,000 percent together, because we're interchangeable.

How do you hear about new artists, generally?

Everywhere. We get them from managers. We get a lot from songwriters, from people that have known us for years. We get them from people that used to work for us. Lawyers. A lot of people. But then we open ourselves up to different companies you, for example. We listen to TAXI music, we've heard ASCAP music. So we're open to lots of things. If somebody wants to create their own story, from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I would love nothing better. Are you kidding?

Do you watch trends, do you think about radio, or do you just sign talent?

Look, we just sign talent. With that said, we're also looking for the person that sees themselves in a big career. We're not looking, as I call it, for the artist that's under the rock. "I just want to play my guitar and keep true to my art,"—not to make light of that. We also want somebody that sees a big picture of a career. We're not looking for small picture. We're looking for a bigger picture career person who wants to go the whole way. Why would we ever bother developing and working with somebody, (which usually takes about five years if not more), than to get to the point where you can have kids singing Holly Palmer lyrics, who is somebody we've worked with for years. We did her first record deal with her. Holly Palmer I'll have to pull my car over when I hear her on the radio. It will be too exciting.

How much time do you spend listening to new material and new writers?

This is where living in Santa Barbara is great. I drive down to L.A. and meet Linda every week. We work out of L.A. I'd say on that trip up and back, that's what I do the whole time. I listen in my car. I love it. I can pretty much say I did that the entire way home last night. So we listen a lot. But that's why we have our own independent company. We sign about three acts a year if we find three brilliant acts. That's it.

If you were teaching a class in songwriting, what would be the three R's, the three most important concepts to keep in mind?

I would say always work with a better tennis player. Always improve your game. Collaborate with a mentor—a better tennis player—if you can. Being honest with yourself and having somebody who believes in you to be able to tell you "Look, your music is definitely strong, but it can definitely use some work on the lyrics."

In so doing that collaboration, part B would be, make sure before you leave that room, you're clear on who wrote what. I said this to a writer yesterday, nobody else can be in that room with you. Make it clear who wrote what and be fair.

And don't let craft rule the song. Write from your own passion. Don't write for the four-minute model. As we always tell people when we ask for a tape, don't send us what you think a publisher wants to hear. Send us three songs that move your heart and your soul, and write from there. Don't write what you think the radio wants. When you asked if we followed trends, we just follow what gives us goosebumps. What moves your soul.

Does that mean that you can ignore craft?

No, you can't ignore craft. But I'm just saying don't let it be a ruling factor. It's like sitting down and doing music theory. That's probably why I hated the music theory part of being a music major. You can't ignore it, just don't let it rule your writing. Let it be there and use your craft, but follow what it is you sat down to say to begin with from your own experiences. And then go through and put the craft in.

What other tips or advice can you give to aspiring songwriters out there who are trying to break into the industry?

A lot of writers out there underestimate BMI and ASCAP. They have so many great programs going and so many wonderful people there to help with writing when you can't get that "publishing deal." But if you're not in a major city, my advice is always the same: Beat your own drum the loudest. Create your own story from there. Especially in today's market. There are so many ways to get to people.

For instance there is some band out of Ohio that is bringing 500 people to their shows. Now you can bet I want to hear who that band is and who got themselves on one of the radio stations in Columbus. I want to hear who that is. That's already fitting our third bill. They are working as hard as we are.

How many new artists does the average A&R person get to sign in a year at a major label?

I think it varies based upon what you find. There is no quota. Nobody tells you you have to sign "x" amount of artists. I think you kind of go with the flow and sign artists that really excite you and you really want to make the record. In my time at Epic, I've signed six artists in three years.

Any closing advice for aspiring artists out there?

One is to study the marketplace. Two is to build relationships in the genre of music that you work in. It's building relationships with artist managers and producers—those are key. The game is definitely relationship-driven. The sooner you start on your relationships, the better off you are.

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