TAXI Road Rally 2007
Bob Baker, Indie music marketing expert.
Brian Howes, Produced Hinder, Skillet, Hedley, Daughtry, Puddle of Mudd, Avril Lavigne, Lifehouse, Chris Cornell, and many more. CEO of Wreck Beach Records/Interscope Records.
Sara Kapachinski, Director of A&R at Chrysalis Music Publishing.
Autumn House, Senior Director of A&R at Capitol Records Nashville.
Michael Laskow, Moderator
Editor's Note: At this point during the panel, we've gone to questions from audience members.
Bob, I've read your book; I've been to your Web site; I have tremendous respect for the marketing advice that you give to independent artists. But, really, how many people in this room can realistically pack up, go on the road, play 250 shows a year, spend 12 hours a day working at the marketing, because you and I both know that it is a very full-time job. These people aren't generally 23 and single. Do they walk away from their day job? Do they walk away from their wife and kids and go, "Honey, I'm going independent. I'm going on the road. I'm gonna sell myself 50,000 CDs this year." How do they do that?
Bob: Before I answer that, I just want to say real quickly that Michael and I first met about 15 years ago. I think it was about the first year that you started TAXI, and you came through St. Louis, where I was born and raised and still live. I actually sponsored an event where you came and spoke and introduced TAXI to the St. Louis market, and we've kept in touch all these years. This is my first time coming to the Road Rally, and I see you've done fairly well with this TAXI thing [laughs]. So congratulations. Let's have another hand for Michael for the incredible job that he's done. I'm impressed. What an incredible event.
Thank you Bob. I really appreciate that acknowledgement. Let it be living proof that working eight to 12 hours a day actually can pan out. So tell me how musicians can do that?
Bob: Now, back about 15 years ago is when I started preaching this message, writing and speaking about independent music marketing. And, remember this is in the heyday when the major labels were at their peak throughout the '90s, when CD sales were going through the roof. And, even then I was preaching this message of taking your career into your own hands. I always think there's a danger when you put the power outside of yourself and you rely on someone else to pull you up and lift you out of obscurity. So how do musicians do that these days? No, you don't quit your day job, especially if you need that to feed yourself. The thing is, we used to live in a black-and-white world where the definition of success was you were either a Grammy Award-winning-Billboard Hot100 artist, or you were a no-one and you were considered a failure. I never look at the world in those black and white terms, especially these days in a world with many shades of gray. We are living in an era where you get to define what success means to you. What do you want that to look like? It doesn't have to be limousines and a major label deal. So you do what you can.
Music is a very personal, passionate thing, so focus on the music, and focus on fans. Instead of trying to focus on getting the attention of the industry, you're best served by creating the best music that you can and connecting with the fans. The more that you can do on your own, the bigger your fan base can get—a fan base that will support you with their time, their attention, and their dollars—then the more opportunities you'll have with the industry. People will be a lot more willing to work with you when you have established a success story on your own. And you can get to the point where you have an option. When you reach a certain level of success, you then you have the option of partnering up with a corporation or major company, like a record label. Or you can remain independent if that suits you.
So you're saying they don't have to pack up and go. They don't have to play 250 shows a year; they don't have to work eight, 10, 12 hours a day working on the Internet to market themselves. How does it happen then?
You can't do that in two hours a day when you get home from work after you eat dinner and put the kids to bed, can you?
Bob: You can chip away at it. If you're truly passionate about music, it's something that you should do regardless of what your level of popularity is. You do what you can. There's a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, "Do what you can with what you have right where you are." That's how I built my career as an author. I had a day job for a while in the early stages. I kept chipping away, getting more out there.
I agree with you on that, but I guess my point is I almost feel like everybody is picking on the major labels. And, yes, they are flawed, but I feel like this whole, "You can be an Indie artist" thing is the selling of a "big lie." Please don't be offended by this. But my point being, how many people in this room make 40 grand a year as an independent artist? [A few hands are raised] You are my heroes. It's almost as small a number in the room signed by a major label. It's a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage. And I agree with you. I'm glad you say chip away at it. I think the lie that's being sold is that you can be this Indie artist who just does music and earns a living. I question that. I guess it can be done, but it can't be done easily. It's about as hard as getting signed to a major label, because you guys all know...
And Brian you're just such an awesome example. Brian was actually a TAXI member. I didn't know this until we met like four months ago at the Kauai songwriters' thing and just kind of took a liking to each other. He walked up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Brian Howes, and I want you to know that I was a TAXI member and I think you're company is cool." I was flattered that you that you thought so. You are such a great example of a guy who was five, six, seven years ago trying to find some success through TAXI. You told me that you didn't actually make any submissions I think.
Brian: I didn't get around to it, but I think it was a great vehicle though. I was in between. I got signed when I was really young to Elektra Records. My first experience with a major, even though it went sour and we didn't do great, it was a good one. I learned a lot about the music industry. I'm like you; I believe in the big machine, I think it can work. I also think the Indie side can work as well. But, for me, it was like College 101. I went in green. I'm from Vancouver, Canada; I toured a bit, but I'd never really been exposed to the industry on that level. I just got thrown into it. Lars Ulrich from Metallica started his own label through Elektra, and we were the first signing. So it was like instantly we were doing interviews in Rolling Stone and Billboard. It was crazy. I just got thrown into it, and I kind of thought to myself either I can just avoid it and plead ignorance, or I can learn everything I can about the music industry and try and be smart as I can about every decision I make. Even if it goes south, then the next time I do it I'll do it right. I definitely know what not to do now as far as that goes.
But I think you can make it work for you. Perseverance is everything. I've had two label deals at majors, then I decided I didn't want to tour anymore because my wife would probably leave me sooner or later—been on the road too long. So I just decided that I really wanted to do the production/writing side, and I just wouldn't take no for an answer. I just kept writing and studying.
You've been a signed musician; you've been an independent musician, and now you own this label. You're a partner with Interscope, which is part of Universal, the largest music machine in the world. What you're doing is kind of the best of both worlds, because the people that sign to you, I'm guessing, are going to be specialized in a genre that you do so well...
Brian: Well, some of them. My first band, believe it or not... I'm a Rock guy, but I was a rapper. It was 1986 and we were doing like the Linkin Park thing before they were doing it. It was pretty weird. We opened for Public Enemy. So I like every genre of music. It's just within those genres it's about having hit songs. It's all about hit songs and a star lead singer. That's the bottom line. It's not brain surgery. If you have a very compelling lead singer and hit songs in any genre, you're going to have something. And that's kind of what I go for.
Sara, you have a relatively new phenomenon I guess—people who are actually called A&R people and doing an A&R job while working at a publisher versus a record label. Why did they create that position, and tell the audience how you do A&R at a publishing company, and how that kind of interfaces to their world.
Sara: Primarily, I go out and I look for bands, I look for artists, I look for singer/songwriters, I look for producers to sign to the company to exploit their copyrights in the best possible sense of the word. I do some creative, meaning song-plugging, but there is that stark difference between one or the other. My company is so small—we are one of the last independents—so we all have to do the many hats kind of thing.
So are you developing a stable of writers like a typical publishing company? Or are you more targeting finding artists who write and getting them to sign to the publishing company so that you can then develop their careers, sell a lot of records for them, and make the publishing money your income that way.
Sara: Ideally, I'd like to look to spend the majority of the budget on finding writers and writer/producers that I can help perpetuate more songs. I think that I can help exploit them in a better way. It doesn't always work out like that. It's just the temperature of the climate that year. But the majority of what I sign... I don't necessarily have a stable. It's different from like 10 or 15 years ago when people did more writer deals, or they had staff writers. You know, all the writers that I have aren't necessarily on staff, they are part of my artists. But I do sign a lot of bands. Most the bands I sign are developing bands. They are on their first record, or they just finished their first record, or they are making their first record and I'm helping to try and have them sell more records.
But selling records isn't the prime consideration anymore, even in the five, six years I've been with the company—it's not necessarily what it used to be. I would love for the bands that I work with, and the artists that I work with, to sell large amount of records. But radio too, it's not in the forefront of my mind. I look to help provide the artists with exposure, getting them out there—whether that means film and television or ringtones or helping them create their videos to put on YouTube—to find alternate resources to provide them with better income, or income period.
So, has the role of the A&R person shifted more toward a marketing role? Sounds to me that what you're doing is being a bit of a publicist, a bit of a marketing advisor, all that stuff.
Sara: Well, two things. It's really difficult to encapsulate what I do—not to make it sound so vague in any way. It's that I do all of that for all of my artists. And it's really guerrilla marketing, it really is, because I don't have a background in marketing. So I'm trying to help connect my artists with the people that I know and spread the good music.
Autumn, let's shift gears here for a minute. Nashville is so different than L.A. and New York. It's very much a song town. I think that people in the audience might be surprised to know that Nashville record companies actually have smaller rosters. It gives you guys a lot of time to concentrate on a very small group of people and put tremendous effort into them. That being said, I know that you guys go through an unbelievable amount of songs. I have heard that for Faith Hill's album—two albums ago—that they listened to 5,200 songs between the producer, the manager, Faith, probably her husband Tim. Five thousand two hundred songs that had come through some sort of filter, not just anything off the street, but through publishers, managers, friends of the band, TAXI.
Autumn: Did you hear the record?
That's my point. 5,200 songs, then whittled it down to listening to 100, then down to 25. They probably cut 20 to 25, then settled on the 12 that were going to be on the record. And, frankly, it was a pretty weak record in my estimation.
Autumn: I think they actually owned part of the publishing on some of those songs. I don't know if we all listened to 5,200 songs... come on! Something on that scale could wreak havoc with the rest of the labels in town, because the best songs are now on hold for months...years actually. And publishers are willing to keep that hold for the mere fact that they may have a Faith Hill cut, although I don't think the record sold that well. Comparatively though, it's better than the other artists in town who aren't selling a million records.
How do you guys find the time to go through that many songs? Do you guys get to just sit in your office all day with a bottle of water or a cup of coffee with your feet up on your desk listening to songs all day? Do you get paid for that?
Autumn: It just looks like water [audience laughs]. I was listening to Sara, and so much of what she was saying is what we do now ourselves... Most of the artists at Capitol are singer/songwriters. We just gravitate more heavily toward that, so other labels in town who have more opportunities and bigger rosters to get outside songs cut, probably listen to more songs than we do at Capitol. I take five meetings a day, on average about six or seven songs each—the MP3s, the MySpace, it's endless. But we do have fewer opportunities for outside songs because most of our artists write their own material.
Is that a conscious decision on Capitol's part, that you decided to differentiate yourself as a label and build your stable of artists that way, versus the pretty face, let's go find a song-model?
Autumn: Yeah. I think now, though, because of the changing times, you know, a new girl out of Oklahoma who is 18 and never written a song... and she comes to town and a publisher will get a hold of her and turn her into a songwriter because she's now got a record deal and the income stream, obviously that happens. So I use the term, "songwriter" loosely. Although most of our artists at Capitol are true songwriters and they came with their bag of songs that they wanted to sing and record.
Given that, how much time do you guys spend in preparation on a singer/songwriter who is writing their own stuff for the record? How many songs might you guys listen to that they've written or co-written before you actually pick the 12 that are gonna hit the record?
Autumn: Well, the bigger they are—the Keith Urbans of the world—they don't come in that often and play us the stuff they're going to record. Dierks Bently still comes in and wants to bounce ideas off. It depends on the artist. I could rattle off a few artists in the history of country that have then become successful and only believe in their own songwriting, negating all the amazing songs that are in Nashville. But then they end in kind of in a rut and continue to write the same song over and over. I don't think Keith is suffering from that, but you gotta mix it up. You've got to raise the bar every time and give your fans something to look forward to. Keith is such an anomaly now; he's kind of off into a whole other world of celebrity. It's been interesting to watch from the inside definitely.