Interviewed by Michael Laskow
part one  |  part two

I've known Al Smith for years. He was one of the first people from the record industry to pick up the phone, call TAXI, and run a listing with us. Al and I recently spent some time together in Memphis. While there, we did this interview in my hotel room. I've decided to print the entire interview, and run it in two parts. The first part of the interview deals mostly with Al's career path. I found it to be exemplary in showing how much effort it takes to get what you want in the music business. Kudos to Al for being relentless. -Ed.

What made you decide to get into the music business?

It was really important to me at a very young age to do something that I really loved to do. Once I figured out that I wasn't going to be a professional athlete, the music business was the only other choice.

How did you get yourself out of Michigan and into New York and get your first job?

I went to Michigan State and majored in communications because I thought it was the closest area to the music business. I was a deejay at the college radio station for four years there. I thought that radio was where I wanted to go, but once I figured out what professional radio was all about, I wasn't really excited about spending the next ten years of my life going from station to station, from one small town to another. And also deejays don't get to pick the music they play, and I wasn't really the "personality" type. I just liked to get on the radio and talk about the records. There is really no forum for that unless you want to work at some NPR station for the rest of your life. After all, I kind of wanted to make a little money as well. [laughs] So once the radio thing didn't work out, A&R was the only other choice, because I really wanted to get as close to the artist as possible. That was my goal. Once I figured out that that position was A&R, then that was it. I was obsessed from age seventeen on.

What were some bands or artists that you listened to a lot when you were in high school and college?

Growing up, my father turned me on to things like the Chi-lites and Curtis Mayfield and the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire. So that was sort of like my base, and that was what I grew up on. I was into funk and soul. In high school, I went through a big rock phase—AC/DC, Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Bob Seger, and that kind of stuff. Then when I went to college, my college career was spent smoking pot and listening to my friends' album collection. That's what I did in college, and I'm proud to say that that really expanded my whole musical vocabulary. I got heavy into the new wave scene and got into the Cure and Bauhaus and Joy Division and Section 25 and early Chili Peppers. But then I got into new age and jazz and singer songwriters. I remember falling in love with Suzanne Vega in college. It just really opened me up to music. I expanded my base to the nth degree.

I graduated from college in 1987, and I went to Europe for ten months. I lived and worked in London for six months. I saw all of my heroes live. I saw Love & Rockets in concert in London, and the Cure, and Depeche Mode. I went to see all of the bands I used to play on my college radio show. After London, I traveled all around Europe with a Eurail pass and a backpack, and stayed in hostels, and hung out and played a lot of chess. While I was in Europe, everybody asked me about New York. Everybody I met who found out I was American wanted to know what New York was like. I had never been there. I thought the music business was in L.A. I didn't know. So I was so curious about New York when I came back from Europe. I came to New York for a weekend to visit a friend of mine and instantly fell in love with it. I went home and told my mom I was moving to New York. She said, "When?" I said, "Tomorrow," and left. That was May of 1988, and I've been here ever since.

Were your parents supportive of your pursuit?

No! They thought I was crazy nuts.

What was your first job in New York?

I got my first job two days after I walked into town. I started working at Tower Records. Five bucks an hour. I was a clerk. I loved it! While I was in London working, I was waiting tables at a restaurant. But during the day, I was always calling A&R people at record companies trying to get a job. I had a few interviews. I went to EMI and looked over the balcony that the Beatles looked over. I walked Abbey Road. I remember calling Nick Gatfield who was in London working at EMI. I just said "How do I get in? What do I have to do?" And he said, "You have to pay your dues." Well, what does that mean? Where do I go? Where is the dues store? I didn't understand. Now I understand, but at the time I didn't.

So when I came to New York, I figured I had to pay my dues. As long as I was working in a place that had something to do with music, I was happy. Getting a job at Tower Records was brilliant because, for one, everybody there wanted to be in the music business, so every day all we talked about was how to get in. Second, we had access to everything that was coming out. It was the biggest record store that I had ever seen in my life. As a kid from Michigan, going to Tower Records in 1988 was amazing. Two floors of vinyl heaven! Everybody came into that store. A lot of people went to performances at Lincoln Center, and a lot of celebrities lived in that neighborhood. I met Axl Rose. I met Stevie Wonder. We had in-stores. I met Pat Metheny. I thought: This store is the bomb! I loved it. It was a good education. For every single area of the store there was a specialist. There was the reggae guy, and the classical person, the new age person, the world music person. They loved their little areas. It just opened me up. I would go to the world music person and say, "I want three new records tonight. Just give me something cool." So it was great.

So how did you make the transition from record clerk to record labels?

I went through a series of jobs. Every single night, no matter what I was doing, I was going out and seeing bands. I figured an A&R person has to know how to evaluate talent. I also had to find out who the players were. I had to find out who the A&R people were. And I did. In 1988, you went to the Cat Club if you wanted to be in the rock world. So I went there every night. I saw bands. I met people. I met the Jason Floms of the world. I met the Tom Whalleys and Tom Zutauts of the world (all industry power hitters -Ed.) and just went up to them. I was just that persistent nutty kid: "Hi, I want to be one of you. What do I have to do?"

Were they helpful?

Oh, some were totally like, "Get away from me!" at first. Then they saw that I wasn't going away, and eventually people warmed to me. I went to New York in May of 1988 and in July of 1988, I went to the New Music Seminar in New York. I had a suit on. I had my resume in my pocket. I made up these business cards that said: "Al Smith, Tower Records, Music Consultant." I handed them out to everybody. I had to get my name out there.

What happened next?

Six months after I moved there, I got a break. My roommate, who was working at Macy's, worked with this woman whose husband worked at this little new age label called Aware Records (not to be confused with Aware Records in Chicago-Ed.). They were the U.S. satellite office for Kitaro. So I went to go see him. We hung out for three hours. He liked my energy. He said he didn't really have anything for me. It was a one-man operation and all they had was Kitaro, but he said if he heard of something he would let me know. Three months later, he called me up at Tower Records. He had had lunch with this guy who was working at Bill Graham Management. That guy was Jeb Hart, who was a manager, and he eventually hired me. So that was it. I was working at Bill Graham Management which was like a total A-list management company. I got all of the trades, and I got to talk to all of the big agents and promoters and A&R people. Everybody would take Bill Graham's calls. Jeb basically took me under his wing and showed me how the industry worked. He showed me how the trades worked. He talked to me about radio and promotion and A&R and marketing. I sat there everyday and talked on the phone, and I figured out who was who. I read the trades. I was still working at Tower doing both jobs. I did that for a year and a half.

And then...

Then from there I went to HMV—back to retail. From there I went to the Record Plant recording studio. It was in its last days, and they turned it into 321 Studios. I was helping this guy named Gary Salzman run the studio. He was also managing some dance artists and dance producers. I helped him out with management, and I was also a tour manager for his dance acts. I got a quick education in the whole dance world. Then I left there and went to CBGB's and became a sound man. I did that for a year. Then I was also working at Billboard Magazine in the chart department. All of those jobs took place in a three year period. Meanwhile, I was still going out every night and still meeting all of these people.

It sounds like you were paying serious dues. What came next?

I befriended Derek Oliver who was working at Atco Records at the time. I worked on him for a year, literally. We would go out once a week. He took me to dinner. We'd go to the Cat Club. I would turn him on to bands. Every week I would have two or three new bands for him. And after a year, he finally said, "Okay, dude. You are wearing me out. I'll hire you as my assistant." So he hired me at Atco Records, and I worked there for nine months. Then the label went out of business. Atco and Atlantic were in the same building and I used to go down to Atlantic every day just to hang out. We'd have lunch, and I knew everybody down there. So when they pulled the plug on Atco, I went down there and tried to get in with Jason Flom. I couldn't not have a job. I was so close!

I went and had a meeting with Jason, and said, "You don't know it, but this whole indie rock thing is going to happen." I had been working at CB's and was doing sound for bands like Helmet and the Afghan Whigs and Sebadoh. I knew this was going to happen. I knew producers like Steve Albini. All of these producers were going to start doing big records. Jason was just dumbfounded. He had no idea what I was talking about. But I seemed to know what I was talking about, so he hired me. That's how I got my job at Atlantic. That was in November of 1991. I was an A&R rep.

Any profound lessons or observations about the industry that you learned while you were at Atlantic for five years?

I don't know if this is specifically a music industry thing, but I think as an A&R person you really have to understand where you work. What I mean by that is you have to understand the type of company that you work at. It took me almost two years to realize that Atlantic Records was never ever going to be serious about alternative music. It just wasn't the strength of the company. If I had realized that earlier, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache and possibly a few artists' careers. The type of bands that I was signing and making records with weren't the type of bands that Atlantic was really going to promote and make into household names. Danny Goldberg came into the company six months after I started and told me to sign cool bands because we were the uncoolest label in the business. So that was great for me. I could easily find those types of bands. I think that goes hand in hand with just learning how to play your politics right. Before you can do anything at a record company, especially as an A&R person, you really have to keep your politics in check. I know so many A&R people who lost their jobs because they just didn't know who to align themselves with inside the company.

Doesn't playing the political game at a label somewhat hinder you creatively if that person isn't in line with the way you think?

No, I don't think so. If you're not in the right camp, you can't be creative at all. You have to be liked. You have to have some freedom. The only way that you can do that is to make sure that your politics are in check. At Atlantic, I stepped on quite a few landmines. By the time I really understood the landscape, it was too late. That really was the downfall of my career at Atlantic. Before you can scout bands, and make records, and set them up, and try to market and promote them, if you're not liked in your company, none of that will happen. There are A&R people out there today who have zero juice inside their company and zero power.

How do you get yourself liked? How do you make those political affiliations?

A lot of it is, I think, not developing an ego—not believing your own bullshit. A lot of A&R people are like that. They're like artists themselves. They are very temperamental and very opinionated, of course. They have huge egos. But I learned that doesn't work for you. I'm just one guy with one opinion who is just trying to get a shot—just like an artist. Jason Flom once told me, "You're going to be a great A&R person in this business, but you've got to learn how to stay out of your own way." I never really understood what that meant until just recently. Now I get it—because I trip my own self up, and that's what I mean by learning to operate inside a company. You just have to keep your head down and be humble and just be a team player. That's the key. Michael Goldstone (at Dreamworks -Ed.) is amazing at that. You hardly know he's there. He's just the guy behind the guy. He's not the star. He doesn't act like he is the star. But in the A&R community, he's a god. But he's got this sort of demeanor that is very mellow and low key. That's the way he survived for so long. He hasn't been the guy screaming at the top of his lungs. He is just quietly going about his business. That's what I'm trying to do now. I'm lucky. I've got a great job.

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