Interviewed by Michael Laskow

What got you in to music?

I was born in 1955, so when I was about nine years old, the Beatles came to our shores. I sensed something very special in my life. My father was in a band when I was very, very young and my mom and grandmother were both singers at various points in their lives. So music was part of my family history.

Very early on in my life I started reading trade magazines like Record World and Billboard. I went to the local department store and purchased 45s on a weekly basis. I fell in love with b-sides and started keeping track of my own personal "Top 40." I pretended I was a deejay and sat in my room and intro-ed and outro-ed records.

How did you get your first gig?

When I was fifteen, I wrote a fan letter to Todd Rundgren. Todd had been in a band I loved called Nazz. Then he went solo and put out an album called Runt. I had bought the Runt album, and on the label copy it said that there were six songs on side A and four songs on side B. But my record had seven songs on side A and five on side B. So I wrote a letter to Todd asking what these two extra songs were. About two weeks later, I received a package in the mail with a correct copy of the album and a letter from an executive at the record company. The letter explained how the copy I had was a rejected master that had been accidentally pressed and that it was a collectors item and I should put it away. Enclosed was also a copy of the album the way it was intended to be. The label was Ampex Records, and the person who wrote the letter was Paul Fishkin. Paul was a promotion person for the label in addition to being Todd's roommate.

So I took the subway into Manhattan and went in search of Paul Fishkin, who happened to be on the road that day. But there were some people at the record company who said "hello" to me and talked to me for a couple of minutes. Then I asked if they ever needed any help because I would really love to just hang out there and do something. That day there was a stack of envelopes, and a stack of corrugated cardboard, and a stack of albums in the office. They said, "Well, you can pack these albums." Then I came back the next day and typed up the labels for them. By the third day, one of the people that worked there said in essence, "Kid you never shut up. Here is a list of radio stations. We want you to call them and ask them if they've received the new Todd Rundgren single and what they think of it." So I didn't necessarily know what it was I was doing, but I did it anyway. My third day into hanging out at Ampex Records, I became a promotion man.

Didn't the radio stations find it funny that a kid who had barely reached puberty was calling them?

Well, let's not talk about at what age I reached puberty! [laughs] The fact is, my age didn't really enter into it. I was basically calling saying, "Hi this is Marc from Ampex, and I wonder if you got the new Todd Rundgren record." It only came into play when I was seventeen and Director of Promotion for the label. I wasn't old enough to go to a bar or rent a car. Eventually, Ampex Records folded, and Bearsville—which was part of Ampex—went to Warner Bros. I went with them. I graduated high school in 1972, and enrolled in New York University. About five days into it, I realized that every time I had a 45 minute break from class, I was running to a pay phone and calling radio stations in Fargo, North Dakota, asking if they had added my records. I came to a fork in the road. People always ask a child, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The fact was, I was doing it. I knew I wanted to be in the record business, and I was in the record business. I was devoting fifty percent of my time to being a student at NYU and the other fifty percent being the national promotion director at Bearsville Records. I made the decision to drop out of school and join Bearsville full time.

Give me the short version of the rest of your career path. I want to move on to the hard stuff (laughs).

In terms of a timeline, I worked for Bearsville through the middle of 1975, when I was offered a job to move out West and work for Casablanca Records right when we broke KISS and Donna Summer. After Casablanca Records, I went to work for Playboy who had a record company. They had a subsidiary called Beserkley Records. Beserkley was on the forefront of "New Wave." Because of that, Seymour Stein became interested in me. I was Vice President of Promotion and West Coast Operations for Sire right at the time we were breaking the Ramones and the Talking Heads. I left Sire and had my own independent company for a little while. I worked for RCA and IRS for a little while. I was involved in the first Go Go's record. In 1983, after living in Los Angeles for about eight years, I really had a desire to move back to New York City. Doug Morris (now CEO of Universal Music Group - he's a big deal. -Ed.) took a shot and gave me a job at Atco Records. I moved back to New York in October of 1983 and worked for Atco. I was subsequently promoted and worked for Atlantic and did pop radio promotion all the way up to, I would say, sometime in the beginning of 1989. That's when I got my first A&R gig.

How did you make the transition from promo weasel to A&R weasel?

I was on vacation in Toronto, and I went into a record store and bought a few local import records. That night, I was at a dance club and a record came on that I honestly believed that five seconds into it there was like a metabolic change in my physical being. My heart started pounding. I went up to the deejay booth and I yelled up there, "What is this record?" He yelled something back down to me. I didn't understand him, and I asked him to write it down. He wrote on a piece of paper: Kon Kan "I Beg Your Pardon." It turned out that it had been one of the records I had bought in the record store earlier in the day without knowing what it was. But it also turned out that the deejay at the club was actually the producer and the artist of said record. We became friends, and the next day I went back to the record store and I bought all seven copies that were in the store. I came back to New York and gave a copy to the head of A&R at the time, and I gave a copy to Doug Morris. The other five copies I mailed out to five different U.S. radio stations. Two radio stations in Houston both added the record. Within two weeks, it was Top 10. We signed the record. I was a promotion person at the time, but because I had signed a hit record like that, they basically put me in charge of dance music A&R.

You left the record industry and shifted gears, working for Alesis for a couple of years. How did that come about?

After a lengthy stay with Atlantic, we agreed to disagree and I set out on my own doing management for a couple of years. I learned a simple mathematical equation, that 20% of nothing is nothing, and was forced to reconsider job opportunities. A very dear friend of mine for many years, Russell Palmer had made the transition from the record business to heading up this burgeoning equipment company (Alesis) that virtually every musician knows about. He offered me a job selling the product line into Canada. Ten months later I was moved to Los Angeles to head up the company's promotional efforts. Promoting the ADAT was no different than promoting a hit record. I was not a gear head, but I sure learned a lot while I was there. Two years into it, I received a call from Doug Morris to come "home." I went to work at Universal as it was being formed.

What you do now is very different from what most other A&R people do. Can you explain it?

Essentially, I do research for the company. I'm blessed with twenty six years worth of experience in the business that has involved extensive radio promotion and a very solid knowledge of sales and of marketing. What I do for Universal is scour local markets at both radio and retail for research-oriented bands—bands that have pressed up their own CD, pressed up a cassette, sell their records at shows, sell them on consignment in record stores, put them out through small distribution avenues and that may be looking to graduate to the major leagues. I'm looking for things that are basically—in baseball terms—in the minor league farm system looking to be promoted to the majors. I don't mean to sound cold about it, but in my job, my ears don't really matter—it's my eyes and my instinct.

Doug Morris was a leader in that area at Atlantic when he found All 4 One in Southern California, when he found Collective Soul down in Florida, and of course, the biggest example was the Hootie and the Blowfish story. There are probably multiple versions of the Hootie story, but the facts as I know them to be—as told to me by Doug himself—were that A&R had essentially passed on Hootie and the Blowfish, dismissing them really as just a bar band. But a research assistant who basically does the job that my assistant and I do here, kept coming up with this band named Hootie and the Blowfish that was selling 50 to 100 pieces in virtually every store in the Carolinas. When the retail sheets were brought to Doug Morris, and Doug said "What is this band Hootie and the Blowfish?" A&R said, "Oh it's a bar band, and we passed on them." Doug essentially said, "Well get someone to un-pass right away because this is the real deal."

When a Hootie record in the Carolinas was out performing other records that were national hits at the time, it becomes a no-brainer. When we picked up Sister Hazel out of Gainesville, Florida, their album was selling as big as the Wallflowers album was selling in that market at the time. That means that there are people buying that record that don't even know that a member of the band might be their next door neighbor. They are buying it because they heard it on the radio and they like the record. We're three quarters of a millions albums sold on Sister Hazel. The first track "All For You," was Top 10 at three different formats of radio. That was because it was a hit. If it was a hit in Gainesville, it could be a hit anywhere else.

How hard is it to get something from an unsigned, unknown artist on a major radio station?

It's very, very difficult, but there are stations within a market that will run specialty shows or local music programming. When I was a kid I wanted to be a disc jockey before I wanted to be in the record business. But I grew up in New York City and I knew that I couldn't just walk into WABC and snag the all night job. Later on I became a promotion person and began calling radio stations all over the United States where in the course of my phone calls, I found many sixteen and seventeen and eighteen year old kids that did end up being the all night jock at a local station when they worked in small markets like Montana and Mississippi. Just as there is always a way for someone to get into a door at radio and in the record business, if you're an artist there is always an alternative method to get your music heard. By playing live, developing a fan base, by having that fan base call the radio stations asking to play the record, by bringing the record up to the radio station and explaining what your fan base is and how you're trying to create some national awareness, you can take it to the next level. It's not going to be easy and radio stations have "x" amount of hours in the day and "x" amount of slots on their playlist, but if it's a special record it's going to break through. It has happened time and time again.

It would have to be a really special record because as you mentioned, there are only so many slots on any given radio station, and all the majors and all of the strong indies are competing for those slots which in any given week may only be one or two or three slots available, but yet hundreds of singles are being pitched at the program directors.

But there could be as I said before a local new music show, or a specialty show, or a radio station could start to get requests for a record that they don't have because there is a local fan base. There are ways to get airplay. And there could be college radio in the market that has a broader based playlist. It's not always going to be easy to compete at the Top 40 level with the Celine Dions of the world, but depending on the format, there are ways to get your record on the air. I don't want to mislead the public and make them believe that anyone can get a record on, it's got to be a very special record.

Is it feasible that a band who knows about you or somebody like you at one of the other labels and was savvy enough to put a SoundScan barcode on their product and have sold 3,000 CDs but haven't been contacted by an A&R person like yourself, could fax you the information and attract your attention that way?

Oh I would be interested, sure. I would immediately call retailers and find out what the deal was.

There are some A&R people who dismiss research and say that it takes the creative process out of A&R. Do you think that there is the possibility that labels will come to rely more and more on research and less and less on the normal A&R process?

Probably not, but more and more record companies are doing research. We see that in the number of calls that are being made to the retailers. A few years ago it was really just Atlantic and us. Now there are plenty of other labels who have people calling retail stores looking for records.

What would you change about the music industry?

I think there is a tremendous amount of waste in our business. I think there is a tremendous amount of waste in the world. But I see an awful lot of money being spent on ancillary things that get charged back to the artist. The artist has a slimmer chance of recouping. Perhaps I'm being a little bit old and antiquated, but I still believe you put a record on the radio and if it's magic, someone walks into a store and wants to buy it. You could also say you put a video on television, and if someone sees it they go into a store and want to buy it. My point is that there are still a lot of artists that we spend far too much money on and cut our profits down. When we know something is a huge hit, it's okay to spend money to advertise it and market it, but when we see that something is not a huge hit, we really need to cut our losses. If we still have a belief in the act, have them go into the studio, make another record and try again. But to continue to throw good money after bad only puts us in financial jeopardy. We can't exist as companies continuing to lose money on non-hit records. It's very easy for Universal to sell three million Chumbawamba and three million Erykah Badu records and look like we're a very successful company. In many ways we are a very successful record company. But we have to be very careful that our marketing costs on the records that aren't three million sellers are kept in check so that we can continue to pay salaries and have creative people working here.

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