Interviewed by Doug Minnick

In late 1997, veteran A&R executive and rock critic Bud Scoppa was appointed VP of A&R at the newly free-standing Sire Records Group by Seymour Stein, the label's legendary founder and president (Stein was responsible for the signings of the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, the Smiths, Madonna, k.d. lang, the Replacements, Seal, Uncle Tupelo and Spacehog, among others). Scoppa, who formerly headed the A&R department at Zoo Entertainment, where he signed and worked with Matthew Sweet and the Odds, joins VP A&R/staff producer Paley and A&R rep Gregg Bell in the Los Angeles office of the New York-based Sire label. Scoppa's initial Sire signings are the bands Jolene and Parlor James.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Brooklyn. My parents, who were from New York, moved to Atlanta when I was four, so I spent my formative years in the South. I moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to go to work for A&M Records.

Was that after college?

After I went to college, I became an English teacher for three years. That was during the Vietnam War, and I preferred the idea of being in the classroom to being in the jungle. Not that it ultimately made any difference, but it held off the draft board for a couple of years, anyway. In the end I got out of it, fortunately.

What is your first recollection of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Oh, I think I wanted to be a football player. [laughs] That was before I realized I was going to wind up at 5' 7" and 155 pounds. But I did play in high school. I guess I realized when I was in the third or fourth grade that I could write, and that was always something that I had in my back pocket. It's been handy to have that facility over the years. The first kind of visibility that I got in the music business was through writing about music—writing reviews and features for Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy!, Creem and the other first-generation rock mags, along with writing a couple of books, the first one about the Byrds.

From the visibility resulting from being in print, I got my first job in the record business in 1972 at Mercury Records in New York. I was writing and working in the publicity department at Mercury in '72 and '73. Basically at that time, it was one rock critic taking other rock critics to lunch. [laughs] I was working alongside my mentor as a writer—a guy named Paul Nelson—who was one of the great original rock critics. Paul had been the East Coast publicity rep and then was given an A&R job. He convinced me to come in and take over the publicity gig, so we kind of worked as a partnership. He signed the New York Dolls, which was a great initiation. Having the first band I ever got involved with being the New York Dolls was a real ordeal by fire. They were goofy but very talented.

How did you end up at A&M?

They were looking for an editorial person to work out of the publicity department. They knew about me from my writing more than the fact that I was working in a record company situation. They flew me out to Los Angeles. A&M was a pretty enlightened place in those days—this was the Camelot era of A&M. So I was totally seduced by the A&M lot, and the people who were working there and the roster. I came to L.A. and spent almost five years at A&M.

How did you make the transition from rock journalist to A&R maven?

It's not a particularly unusual transition. I'm one of a number of people who have done that. Writing about music is a great way to audition for heads of A&R and record company presidents. They can see your taste and your thought processes on paper. So there is the visibility and also the test of one's sensibility. It's a pretty handy way of putting yourself in a position to take an A&R gig.

In my case, the fact that I had extensive record company experience as well, I think, enabled me to get the attention of Clive Davis, who hired me in 1978 to be the West Coast A&R person for Arista. I spent five years there.

So you've worked for record companies, you worked as a well-noted rock journalist, you've edited magazines and worked for ASCAP. Is there any one thing that you have learned that has really stuck out, having seen the industry from these very distinct perspectives?

Well, I can only really talk about my own subjective impressions. The difference in terms of the mental process between writing about music and doing A&R isn't very great. Essentially, in both cases, you're putting yourself in a situation of being able to experience music, react to it, form an opinion about it, and express that opinion. While the ultimate aim might be different between the two, the process itself and the methodology aren't all that different. Basically, you're looking for things of quality and distinctiveness. When you find them, you enthuse about them.

How do you think the A&R process is working today? For the decade of the '90s, do you think that the A&R process has served the industry well, or has it been faulted?

One of the things that has happened in the '90s that has been negative is the proliferation of the buzz band deal. By that I mean the kind of negotiation that results in the record company frontloading the deal to the extent that the band has to sell a lot of records in order to pay back the huge advance that they have been given by the label.

It puts the band in a deep hole to begin with, although individually the band members get some cash to play with and take care of their debts. I think it's easy to forget that this front money is essentially just a loan. The only way that it would not be repaid would be if the band stiffed and consequently got dropped. So in a way, taking a lot of money up front has a certain ironic aspect to it, in that you're almost betting on yourself to fail. That's the only way you're going to be able to keep the money that has been given to you, other than to have a huge success.

The odds of that, while they're not as remote as winning the lottery, are still fairly remote. Very few bands sell albums in the millions. Typically, the only way to recoup a million-dollar advance, plus the recoupable marketing costs which often run in excess of a million dollars as well, is for a record to sell platinum or more.

How much do you think the A&R process is driven by radio these days?

I'd say in a way it's primarily driven by attorneys more than it is by radio. It's difficult to speculate on what kinds of music radio is going to be favoring from moment to moment. Let's say you decide to sign an act that's a clone of whatever is the big radio hit at the moment—ska, let's say. By the time the deal is completed, the album is made and the first track goes out to radio, it's at least a year later and ska is no longer being played on radio stations. That's an expensive misjudgment.

You do hear a rash of similar sounding bands at any point in time. Do you think that is A&R people cloning other signings?

Well, yes, it happens, but I don't think it's smart A&R. It has always happened, but the acts that break big tend to be quite distinct from whatever is fashionable on radio or getting mega-play at any given moment. Like I said, I wonder how intelligent it would be to go after a ska band, but I'm sure that there are ska bands that are getting looked at right now.

How much do you have to adapt your approach to A&R from one label to the next, or do you just get to be Bud Scoppa everywhere you go because that's who they hired?

I don't know who else I could be, really. At the same time, I do think that you have to be aware of the needs and priorities of the person who is running the company.

I must say that the situation I'm in now is somewhat easier for me because I'm working for [Sire president] Seymour Stein, who is an A&R person. It's not necessary to explain nearly what I would have to explain to a label head who came out of sales, or marketing, or law, or accounting, because I'm on the same page as Seymour—he has an extensive knowledge of music as well. I don't have to go through the same kinds of arguments or disclaimers or explanations about why something is interesting or valid or has potential.

There is also in this situation the relative luxury—at least at the moment—of being able to make a case for artistry, and then trying to figure out how to market that particular visionary artistry, rather than starting with the idea of what is marketable in the moment.

If you don't start with the mandate of looking for something that is distinctive or visionary, and give the audience credit for being able to recognize things that are special—if you don't start with that—then you're lowering the ceiling. I'd rather be associated with something that was extremely successful and great, than something that was extremely successful and mediocre.

Would you rather be associated with something that was great and unsuccessful or something mediocre and successful?

I guess my track record would indicate that I've gone for art over commerce, favoring artists who wind up selling very little at the time but then are venerated 15 or 20 years later. Perhaps if I had played it a different way, I would have been responsible for selling a few million more records. But it's still my belief that it is possible for things that are great to be popular, and of course there are lots of examples of that over the decades.

So many people seem to be out looking for what they think will impress other A&R people and not out looking for what they think is great that the public will cling onto.

If you look at the buzz band signings of the last five or six years and their subsequent sales results, that would seem to be the case. It's been the tendency since the fall of 1991, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam moved the mainstream, initiating the era of grunge and indie rock. The real problem, I think, has been the lack of attention and emphasis on those musical elements that are universal and timeless: songcraft, singing, musicianship, the ability to make a competitive, arresting record.

Do you think artist development is a lost art, or will the industry as a whole get tired of what started in 1991 and go back to letting older, wiser, more seasoned A&R veterans find acts and develop them?

I have no idea what the heads of labels in general are going to decide about how they run their A&R departments, or how they mandate their A&R departments to be run, but I do think that the emergence of "songs" on alternative radio again is probably the healthiest aspect of recent months. Although Triple-A hasn't become a truly viable format, at least it has reintroduced the idea of song-based artists as being no longer completely esoteric and marginal.

Do you think we'll ever go back to a time where the labels and A&R people and producers won't just be interested in bands that they see as self-contained?

I don't know. The idea of self-writing artists is so embedded. We've got 30-plus years of self-writing artists, starting with the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan. In terms of rock, it's going to require a real change for the basic set of requirements to change fundamentally. I don't see that, at least within the rock sphere, as very likely to change. Basically, we're so attuned to the idea of a distinctive new songwriting voice to be the basic impulse of A&R interest. What would the alternative be? To find a band that plays really well and has a good singer, but what is the underlying power or authority that makes that band special, if not its ability to create material that is distinctive and compelling?

I'm not only limiting the question to bands. Celine Dion doesn't write her own material. It seems that the door should be more open for artists like that considering they sell huge amounts of records. But the industry doesn't really go out and look for that kind of stuff.

Finding potential hits for non-writing vocalists could be a lost art, with a few exceptions, notably Clive Davis. I think you'll find a parallel problem in the music publishing realm where songwriters per se have traditionally been nurtured. It's not just artist development at the label level that has gotten short-changed in the last few years. It's also the idea of songwriter development at the publishing level.

At what point do you think the industry might wake up? Overall the industry isn't getting a great report card, yet they ignore the fact that the public likes good strong pop material. Maybe masses of people don't just want four-piece bands anymore. Maybe they want the Captain & Tennille.

Considering bottom-line reality, I think anything is possible. But in order for those kinds of changes to happen, they certainly have to happen at the initial level of record company and publisher involvement in the A&R process, so that the appropriate "product" can be fashioned for its potential audience. But you're right in saying most A&R people just aren't attuned to doing that kind of traditional A&R work.

How much do you think the Internet is really going to change the business?

We're talking about a powerful new medium that is in its infancy, but if you just look at our own personal experiences with our home and office computers over the last two or three years, the way that we communicate with each other has undergone a revolution already. These little machines have become a part of our lives. I can't imagine that we're not at the beginning of a greater revolution. How it's going to take shape in any specific way is not for me to predict—I just don't have the expertise to tell you that. But it would seem to level the playing field for artists who may be outside the mainstream record business.

The delivery system surely levels the playing field. You can get your record out to as many people as a major artist can, but if those people don't know you exist and you don't have the dollars to tell them you exist, then is the playing field really level?

The eternal verities still hold true. If you're a young band, you have to develop some kind of visibility for yourself by doing the things that artists have always done, which basically revolves around playing live and allowing people to experience your music first hand. I don't think that we're likely to see band websites having much viability if there isn't the underlying interest in the band to begin with. "Buy our CD" or "Buy our music over the web"—it doesn't make much difference. Fundamentally the basic law of supply and demand has to be satisfied. People need to be interested enough to put their money out for something.

What aspect of the industry do you think is working the best today?

I think the real hot house for the record business right now is in the area of marketing. If you look at some of the most noteworthy success stories of breaking artists over the last few years, you'll see that these breakthroughs are predicated on creative marketing to a significant degree. One example that I think is noteworthy is Atlantic's work in the initial stages of the Jewel project. They had her out doing regional residencies in coffeehouses in various parts of the country over a period of months. They were really patient as a series of scattered small buzzes in various parts of the country eventually coalesced into a snowball effect. Because radio simply doesn't have the best interests of young artists in mind—artist development isn't radio's business—it's necessary for labels to figure out ways of exposing their young artists to audiences without having to rely on radio. Whatever it takes for that to happen, that's really where the most elevated creative thinking is taking place, and that's where the real challenge is. But I'd say we're probably also in the infancy of the creative marketing revolution as well.

What makes Bud Scoppa get out of bed in the morning?

I guess the smell of coffee.

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