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
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 musicwriting 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 writera guy named Paul Nelsonwho
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 daysthis 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 momentska,
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 Seymourhe 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 luxuryat least at the momentof 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 specialif you don't start with thatthen 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
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
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
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.
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 predictI 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 mindartist
development isn't radio's businessit'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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