How did you get started in the music business?
I was a drummer in several bands. The first one that I guess you could call "professional" was called The Promise. We had a publishing deal, but we never got a record deal. I think I left that in 1991.
In 1992, I formed a band called El Magnifico. We signed to RCA Records in 1992. In 1993, we put out our RCA record. I left the band at the end of 1993 after just a little bit of touring because of friction with the internal band members.
Then I immediately formed a band called Campfire Girls. Campfire Girls started in early 1994, and by the middle of the year, we found ourselves signed to Interscope amongst a bidding war with several different labels.
In mid-1995, Campfire Girls split up, and by early 1996, I started doing A&R at Interscope. The reason that came about was because Campfire Girls were not managed, and I was sort of the guy that took care of the business stuff. With Campfire, I had a lot of dealings with Interscope.
I visited the label on a several times a week basis for several months, and I had a good relationship with the people there. Tom Whalley and Ted Field (Interscope heads – ed.) said, "We're sorry the Campfire Girls broke up, but we like you a lot, so why don't you try and do a little A&R for us. We'll start you as a scout/consultant."
I think they looked at me as a talent resource because all along, from 1989 on, I had been a recording engineer also. I had an 8-track studio in my garage, and I did a lot of demos for all the bands around Hollywood. One of the bands that I recorded in the summer of 1992 was Weezer. Others were Plexi and Black Market Flowers. All of these bands started to get record deals. As that started to happen, I think that increased the A&R community's perception of what my value was as a talent resource. I wasn't just the drummer of the bands I was in. I was also known to be a quick, cheap, efficient recording engineer/producer that started to have a bunch of bands getting deals.
How has your perception of doing the job of A&R changed since when you were an artist to being on this side of the desk?
180 degrees. It has completely changed.
How did you used to view it as an artist?
I used to think that the bands that had the most intense live energy, and just blew you away were the ones that deserved to get record deals. Those were the ones that should be successful. I always thought that the bands that I was in fit into that category. I didn't focus so much on the songs and the importance of the songs being great. It seems like it would be the most obvious thing, but it didn't get ingrained in my head I think until I formed Campfire Girls. It took time to learn that that was the most important thing.
When I started doing A&R, I really started honing in on the importance of the song. It's a learning experience. You bring music to your superior enough times and you start to realize what it is they are looking for. Interscope had a lot of indie rock bands at the time. They had Silverlake bands like Lifter and Possum Dixon. I thought that they wanted more of that type of music. But as I started to bring in more and more things like that, I started to realize that people like Tom Whalley were looking for were bigger rock bands. Bigger sounding and more focused on amazing songwriting. That's when I started to hone my taste to find artists like that – artists that were great live, that looked and sounded great, but in addition, had songs that were memorable with I guess what you'd call hooks. That's just what it comes down to now. You have to have all of those things.
Because there are so many artists and bands out there, and only the top 1-percent are the ones that are going to be appealing to us at major labels.
How much does radio affect your decisions?
It factors in a lot because part of the A&R evaluation process is to determine whether the songs that you're hearing are good enough to get on the radio. When I listen to a demo, I don't need to hear if the production is great. That's part of my job to place that artist with the right producer. What I'm looking for is the potential of eventual radio airplay. I think that's extremely important. Any A&R person that told you it wasn't would be lying through their teeth. What kind of radio airplay, though, is a whole other discussion. For certain artists, as you know, you might want to start them on college radio and then graduate them to modern rock. Maybe a band like Crazytown didn't need to start at college radio. They could start at modern rock and then eventually cross over to commercial hit radio.
How many signings does an average A&R guy get in a year?
My experience has been about two per year. Some years you might have one, and some years you might have three. I think the average is two, but a lot of times you only get one chance. Then your superiors might tell you to go elsewhere if you didn't do well on your first outing. I know as I was developing my taste and developing as an A&R person during my time at Interscope, I don't think I chose in the most careful way the projects that I worked on, and I eventually ended up being asked to leave. I totally understand why now. At the time I was still growing and developing my taste. Even at Columbia, there have been successes and there have been failures. Luckily enough, I have what I consider to be the greatest boss around (Tim Devine, Sr. VP and GM of Columbia – ed.) because he is tolerant of that, and he tries to calm me down when I get excited about something. He tries to make me really convince him before we start working with anyone that I bring in. I guess I'm fortunate in that way.
What are the success stories?
Crazytown would definitely be one of those. They are a band that came to my attention by a combination of things. I found their demo in Tim Devine's demo submissionshis mailwhich, at the time and still to a certain extent, I sift through to find the good things to make him focus on.
Also, during a 1998 reunion of Campfire Girls I ran into my former bass player, Johnny Lonely, He said he was rehearsing with a band called Crazytown. I said, "Crazytown… that sounds familiar. I've never heard them, but I think I saw their demo come in." I came back to work and listened to their demo. We didn't have the song "Butterfly" on this first demo. We had a song called "Revolving Door," that we thought was a hit.
That prompted Tim to ask me to set up a showcase once I played that for him. Six months or so went by, though, between the first time I played it for him and the time that we actually set up the showcase. The reason was that we have a very methodical way of pursuing bands. Once we feel that we like something, we watch itwe go see it live time and time again. Or at least I do. I constantly have to bring it back to Tim's attention if it's something that I'm really passionate about. I think he gauges how passionate I am by how many times I tell him about it, and how many times he tells me no, we can't sign it. With Crazytown, it was probably three or four times of saying this is pretty good. We kept coming back to it. By the time six months had gone by, we had gotten a demo in from them of the song "Butterfly." We thought, "Wow, we've got two singles here, this is pretty cool." We should probably see them live.
You talked about the six month period when you first waited for Tim and when you finally set up the showcase. Was the band aware during that six months that you were interested and talking to Tim about it?
They were aware that we were interested, but interest doesn't always mean that you're going to eventually make an offer. We were definitely interested. We were interested when we liked one song on their first demo, and that interest grew.
We hear a lot these days that bands need to develop a big regional fanbase, a good touring circle, and sell a certain amount of CDs on their own before labels would really be interested. At the same time, the Crazytown story goes against that. I know a couple of other recent signings of artists who aren't following that blueprint. What's your feeling about that? What's the real story?
Coming from an indie label background, I feel that bands should take the initiative and put their own music out on their own label or a friend's independent label and build organically. Become a big fish in your home pond before trying to get the attention of A&R people. I think it goes against healthy artist development when too much of it falls to the responsibility of the record label to start from scratch.
Now in the case of Crazytown, it can work both ways. It can work all different ways. My standard answer to that question is I prefer if something comes to me a little bit more developed. I saw a keynote address at a music conference in England recently, that was given by Lyor Cohen of Island/Def Jam. It was extremely inspiring, and he was very well spoken. He described that when an artist finds their audience, it sometimes doesn't matter what the A&R person thinks. It's just up to us to recognize that an artist has found their audience and that they have success for their fanbase. To use that with what we're talking about, you look for artists that are already doing wellthat are already selling CDs at their shows and are drawing several hundred people in their hometown. It becomes pretty easy to focus on them because they stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the bands that you're just getting pitched or shopped.
But it doesn't have to happen that way.
It doesn't have to, but then what happens when a band hasn't built an audience, the record label has to start from zero and hire a street team to hand out two-song CD samplers, and stickers, and start a website for the band, etc. We can do all of that, we have departments to do that, or we can outsource it. It works better, though, when we are just picking up a ball that is already rolling, however, we can start the ball rolling if we need to.
Labels used to plan on it taking three albums for an artist to break. It was routine, but we don't see that happening much anymore. Do artists need to be better on their first album than they used to have to?
I think so. There are certain examples of bands whose first album didn't do very well at all, but we liked the band so much and kept them. Maybe we have them signed to a "two records firm" deal so that we can go ahead and make the second album and hope for better results with the second album. Endo is one of those bands that I work with. I think obviously with the shrinking number of record labels that are all owned by five major conglomerates, the pressure is on to have a better performance sales-wise more on your first record. Absolutely. Artist development absolutely still exists, but the window of time that it's supposed to happen in has shrunk.
Do you guys do development deals here?
We do do development deals, and we also do demo deals. Demo deals are the smaller of the two. Those range from $1,500 for three songs in a tiny indie studio to… I just did one recently for $5,000 for three songs with a more known producer who wanted to take a chance on an unknown artist. For those, it might be anywhere from a handshake to a 60-day decision period with a six month matching right. Those are demo deals.
Development deals are less common, fewer and farther between. Those might be anywhere from $10,000 to $35,000 to develop someone over a six month period. We'd place them with different name producers and really see if we have something there after six months. They're not as common. I haven't done one of those yet. Some people here have. Usually those end up in a signing, whereas with demo deals, it's anyone's guess. We try not to piss money away on demo deals, but sometimes if you have a hunch, you can throw $2,000 at something to see if it's what you think it is with better recording or whatever. If it isn't, then you move on. You let the band keep their demo and shop it elsewhere, maybe release it as an indie release.
How much listening to new artists do you do? What percentage of your day is spent listening to new material?
That's an interesting question. I have new music on in the background all the time. I'm constantly listening to new submissions all the time. I have to listen to half of Tim's submissions and all of the things that come to me. There is not enough time in the day to listen to it all, so a lot of that listening spills over into my car on the drive to and from the office and when I'm driving around between clubs at night. Obviously, if I'm on a phone call with somebody really important, I turn the music off. Often times I'll eat lunch at my desk listening to new stuff. Because there is such an influx of music to listen to, oftentimes things only get a quick listen before they're dismissed. I want to say 95-percent of my time is spent listening to new music. I'm fanatical about not missing anything. I don't want to be held accountable for missing something and not having known about it. I prefer to give it a quick listen for three minutes than to have not known about it at all. That's the logic that I use. I'm fanatical about buying new music off of Amazon or whenever I go into Virgin Megastore or Amoeba. It's a discovery. It's a research experience for me. I recently went to England for a week. Part of what I do when I travel abroad is I buy things that I haven't heard of. Or if I've read about it in Kerrang or NME, I'll go buy it because ten dollars is a small price to pay if it turns out to be great. I've gotten so many great things that way.
Do you pay attention to press kits and bios?
Not much. The most important thing is the music. The second most important is image. Third is any additional material that might come in with a submission. So first things first, as an A&R person, you listen to the music. If you like what you hear, then you see what the photograph looks like to see what they look like. If there is any video, devour that. And then, if those things are good, you might also while you're listening, take a glance at the additional materials to see what kind of press they've been getting. If I like something, I'll log onto that artist's website. The web is of course an incredible resource. You just pop on there and see what's going on. I can pull SoundScan. If it looks like there is a regional story, I can see if there are any sales. "Oh, there's 1,700 sales that week in that city." That's great. If there are only 800 sales for six months, well, they're not as big as they're saying they are in their press kit. You can find out exactly what is going on very quickly.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see bands making?
Shopping your demo to A&R people before you have a local fanbase, before you have great songs, before your material is fully developed. Those are big mistakesmistakes I made in bands that I was in. What I realized was that it's better to ignore the major labels if you're in a band. Make your art as great as it can be, and they will find you.
Hopefully you have a manager or someone in the band who has some sense of how the music business works. If not, then you should read the Don Passman book All You Need To Know About The Music Business. That will explain it pretty quickly and easily. Once you understand the major labels, it's wise to ignore them, I think, and just do your thing. Hone your craft. It doesn't just happen overnight. It takes months or years of your own self development probably before you're ready to approach a major label.
The most important thing is just try to be as great an artist as you can possibly be, and make your music as meaningful and as memorable as possible and then people like me will eventually find your music.
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