Interviewed by Scot Rubin

Where do your musical influences come from?

I grew up in London, so that has been the basis of how I view music and what I'm into. I first got into music when I was probably ten or eleven years old. The first music I was into was punk and New Wave—the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Bow Wow Wow, the Ruts, and Sham 69. All of that stuff was like regular pop music over there. It was what every kid was into in the late '70s. As I got older, I got into the Two Tone stuff when it came out. I was born in Coventry which is in the middle of England. It's real working class. It's like being from the Midwest in the States. The Two Tone groups like the Specials, and the Selector, and all of those groups came out of Coventry and Birmingham.

We moved to Canada in 1982. When I got over there, I started hearing all of the regular rock bands—classic rock stuff like Rush and Led Zeppelin. We lived in an immigrant neighborhood, so the school was made up of black kids from the Caribbean, Greeks, Italians, kids from India and Pakistan. All of the white kids were for the most part into heavy metal and hard rock. All the black kids were into hip hop.

How did you end up in the States?

I went through high school and was a good student. I ended up getting into Harvard. I wanted to go to school in the States. I was really thinking: I've got to make a lot of money because this is terrible. I've got to go to the best possible school. I applied to Harvard and Yale and I got into both of them. During my time at Harvard, I got more and more into music.

What was the hip hop scene like at Harvard?

It wasn't that big. Harvard has a fairly affluent student body, but mostly the black kids were heavily into hip hop then—except in the late '80s and early '90s when house music was big.

At what point did you realize you were ready to make a living in the music business? For a Harvard-educated man to choose A&R and the record business is quite rare.

I knew I definitely wanted to end up working in music, but I didn't want to go through all of the horseshit of interning and earning no money and all of that. I couldn't afford to do it. I started interviewing for banking and consulting jobs, but quickly realized that wasn't for me. I decided to go for broke and tried to get a paying gig in the music business. I just started researching by getting names out of Billboard and calling the people who were players at that point. I figured I should go talk to people in the black music departments. I sent letters and resumes out. People for the most part were actually pretty cool. I could get through, but if I wasn't getting through to the people I wanted, I started to develop relationships with their assistants or whoever was around. I had some contact with people who said I seemed to have something on the ball, but that I didn't have enough real, direct, practical experience, or that they didn't have anything available right then.

So I ended up having to go back to Toronto, and took a job at a record store. I was basically a lowly retail clerk. They hired me because they didn't have anyone on staff who knew a lot about hip hop and urban music. I learned how retail works.

About six months later, I got a call from the president of Tommy Boy. She said she had gotten my resume, and I seemed like an interesting person. She said if I was coming to New York any time soon, they wanted to talk to me about some opportunities. She called back about a month later and said they had two openings and really wanted me to come down. I couldn't pass that up.

I came down and spoke to Monica Lynch, the president. I thought it went terribly, but I guess it went alright because they called back and said they wanted me to meet with two other people in the company. Monica flipped my wig the first time I met with her. I was like a real head. I was raised on college rap radio stations. They're not about playing the hits and the commercial stuff. They're about the real shit. She told me about what was really selling. That kind of re-oriented my whole thinking about the records that really do well and what really pays the bills for record companies.

So it turns out Tommy Boy was your first and only gig so far.

Yeah, I've been working at Tommy Boy for six years. It's been a journey. As much as you ever read about what A&R is, or what promotion is, it's nothing like doing it. I wasn't really experienced. I knew what the job meant, but I got thrown into the deep end. Here it is, do it.

What is a typical day like for you during the week?

I generally get into the office about 11 am. Our office communication is on e-mail, so I'll check on e-mails from England from the day before. I'll check my voice mails from the day before, and then just make follow-up calls to people who have left me messages. That could be people in the office needing various things for projects in play right now, to just following up on calls I made to people I'm trying to rustle up demos from—foreign labels, attorneys, or whoever. Generally, I'll have at least one or two meetings a day on a heavy day with producers or someone shopping a prospective artist. We have an A&R meeting once a week on Wednesday mornings, which lasts two and a half or three hours. At least once a week I'll have a meeting with an act that we're considering—something that I've checked out from the tapes, or from a live show, that I've played in an A&R meeting and have had some positive feedback on. We might want to take it to the next step by meeting the artist and finding out what they're all about. I catch up with correspondence. I do a lot of e-mails during the day. I follow up on a lot of things that are A&R-specific and even into the marketing field. The A&R people here at Tommy Boy kind of act as the product managers for their projects as well. A lot of my day is spent doing stuff that isn't really traditionally considered A&R duties, but more marketing stuff: making sure an artist gets to where they need to go, or getting information together in preparation for an album release, supervising or following up on remixes that are underway. During the evening, I go out to gigs, showcases, album release parties. A lot of that is to check out groups that we might be into and to network with people that might have a tap into bands we might be interested in.

How much time do you actually get to listen to new music?

It's tough. On the day-to-day, you'd be amazed at how little I actually just listen to demos, which you'd think would be the primary thing I would be doing as an A&R person. I'll try and throw on stuff to listen to sometimes, but in terms of your big stacks of CDs and tapes that come in, where you just want to go through them and see what's good and what's not, it's hard to do that unless I hit a slow day and can just plow through them. Every two or three weeks that happens, and I'll go through 20 or 30 things in several hours. For stuff that I solicited actively, I'll pull that right out of the pile and check it out.

What do you think is going to be the next trend in signings?

Clearly, I think in terms of a lot of urban music, there are a couple of trends. There are definitely more progressive elements being reflected in urban music. I think that is a good thing, because I think a lot of contemporary hip hop and R&B is not groundbreaking, not pioneering, like it used to be. It's not as exciting as it was, although it is way more lucrative than it has ever been. There is more money being made in urban music than ever before, but the music is less adventurous than it has ever been. I think there are signs of that changing. You have artists like Erykah Badu, or Lauryn Hill with her new album, or Timbaland with his production where they are referencing the classic sounds of the black music tradition and mixing them with hip hop production or aesthetic sensibilities.

I think you're also seeing a rise of underground and independent hip hop with artists like Most Def, and Quali Talib, Defari, and the Gig Masters on our own Black Label who are coming with hip hop that embodies what hip hop used to be about—knocking beats, lyrical skills, originality. There is no doubt that the commercial end of what hip hop has been about has been far more successful, but I think you're going to finally see some of those artists break through and have significant sales.

I don't profess to follow or enjoy all facets of what is going on in non-urban music, but clearly you are still seeing people at the tail end of the ska wave, and now swing music is really hot. There are still major labels signing a lot of that stuff as well. I think there is probably a lot of life still left in that. I was at the Warped Tour, and it looked like kids were really digging stuff that was incorporating little bits of everything. There were acts that had a bit of a swing element, a bit of a punk element, a bit of a metal element, a bit of rockabilly. I think there have been some acts out there that have been real safe and calculated like your Matchbox 20's or your Third Eye Blind's, even Harvey Danger. They have great catchy songs, and they're calling it "alternative," but it really is just good classic pop rock music. Metal hybrids—Limp Bizkit, Seven Dust, Korn, Deftones—kids are into that stuff. They live and die for it. It's the energy. It's street. It's real.

Do you have the corporate pressure at Tommy Boy that a lot of majors have?

No, we control our own destiny. The reason we do that is because basically we are almost like our own distribution company. Depending on the releases, between two-thirds and 90-percent of our sales are direct to the major chains. We will solicit directly a buyer at Wherehouse, Camelot, Tower, or HMV. They order direct from us. The other 10-percent we handle through regional one-stops like ADA or Valley. When we release our records, we get to call the shots on how much product we get out there and in what manner, where it's seeded. We're not competing with like fifty other releases that week that are going through WEA or Uni Distribution. It's us doing it. We keep our product flow relatively small as compared to most major labels.

Tommy Boy has been very successful with compilation releases like Jock Jams and Party To Go. Do you think it has reached its peak, or do you see compilations becoming even a bigger part of the marketplace in the next couple of years?

There are so many releases coming out, and specifically compilations, so you have to be smarter about how you reach people. Compilations, I think, in a lot of ways reach passive music buyers who aren't swayed into buying an album because they hear one hit. But maybe if there are ten hits on one record, they will want to buy it. Or if you can package songs that weren't necessarily hits in a way that recontextualizes them, it makes sense. I think we've been really successful at doing that with the Jock Jam series. Monica Lynch identified it as music that was getting played at stadiums and bars. Everybody knows these songs, but could you buy them all together? No. How could we package them in a way that would make them exciting and make sense? She came up with Jock Rock and Jock Jams after that. I think Pure Moods did the same thing for that collection of all of these songs that everybody knows. All these mellow new agey-type tracks were put together and advertised on TV. What we did, and what they did, are both examples of identifying other means of recontextualizing music and marketing it by non-traditional means—be it late night TV, 800 numbers, direct mail, whatever. People are going to have to get smarter and smarter about it. Punk rock labels do that all the time. They do a lot of direct marketing and selling at clubs, all ages concerts, festivals, fanzines, comic books. Electronic acts get their music as the soundtracks to video games. Kids today are doing a lot of other things other than just buying records. Buying a record is not as cool as it used to be. Getting the latest "Tekon 3" is cooler than buying the latest record from Foo Fighters or whoever.

What are Ian Steaman's goals as an A&R executive? Where do you think you have solidified yourself, and where do you want to go?

I've worked on a lot of successful projects. I've had projects from successful soundtracks, to artists who have had gold and platinum singles and albums. But, I'm still waiting for my acts that are going to do the same thing—something that I discovered from the get-go. I think I have a couple of projects that have as good a shot at being successful as anything out there.

I've learned a lot about the A&R game at this point. I've spent more and more time recently getting into other aspects of how a record gets broken. The longer I'm in it, the more I learn about the politics, and the timing, and just how many resources and priority a project is given, and how much that really determines whether a project is going to be successful or not. Making a hit record is the first thing, and then there are a million other things outside of that that are going to determine whether a record is going to happen or not. I'd like to really take those skills at some point and be able to do my own thing. I don't know if I really necessarily want to go work at a big major label, and be a cog in a wheel, and have to learn a whole new set of faces, and a whole new set of procedures, and politics, and all of that. But I would love to pair up with some like-minded people who are young, smart, hungry, still into music, and excited about hanging out and seeing new bands play and do a label where we get to do our thing the way we see it. You sit in a marketing meeting sometimes, and things aren't going your way, and you just feel like you know there must be a smarter way, or a cheaper way, or a more innovative way, or just a less bureaucratic way of doing it. But you know you work at a company, so you're working as part of a team. You have to deal with that. I would love to have my own team of support and have my shot at executing my vision for music.

Did you ever think when you were at Harvard, and studying hard to get good grades in high school, that you would be in an A&R meeting with the likes of Naughty By Nature and De La Soul and thinking you could really make a living at it? How much of a shock is it that you could actually do what you wanted to do?

I'm pretty shocked. Sometimes I'm on the phone talking to De La Soul about the beats I sent them or trying to give them an idea for their record and I think: Who the hell am I to be telling these guys anything? I was in college buying their first album, and now I'm their A&R guy. People like KG and Tretch—what can you tell them? They are geniuses at what they do. If I can throw them an idea like which song they should be focusing on as a single, or beat ideas, or be in the studio helping them out and fixing up the clean versions—if I can do any of that, I feel that I'm blessed that I get to work with them and that they take my ideas seriously. I love this job. I never wake up and wish that I was doing what my friends are doing. It's the opposite.

They all wish they were doing what I'm doing.

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