John Weakland on a panel at the TAXI Road Rally 2001.

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

What made you move out to L.A. from the Midwest and get a job in the music industry?

I had always been in metal bands growing up. When I got out of college, I started working at Roadway, the trucking company. I worked in the central office which was very advanced, all satellite-based. At the time, I saw someone in the band Warrant, who is also from Akron, on MTV, and I thought, "Geez, he's huge, and here I am working at a terminal." I just thought, "How do I get into the music business?" I knew I couldn't be a rock star. I never wrote a lot of songs. To me it always seemed like a great hobby, but I was never going to be famous doing that. So I started sending in letters blindly to different music companies. I sent about 400 to New York just trying to get an internship. I sent one to Columbia Records in L.A., and they were the only people that called me.

Who got the letter?

There was a guy here named Ron Oberman. I wrote to him and mentioned that I was from the same town as this guy from Warrant and blah, blah blah. So his secretary called me and left me a message saying there was an internship available if I wanted to come out. But she said, "But I just want to warn you. They don't usually end up being anything. For you to move from Ohio to California, I don't want to give you any false dreams." She was really cool like that. But two weeks later, I quit my job, packed up everything, and drove out here by myself.

Were your parents in shock?

No, because back then I wanted to be great. I wanted to be something. They knew that. A switch went off in my head like you wouldn't believe. I was just sitting around trying to work my way up in this company which was very political, very strict. It was one of those companies where they listen in on your phone calls for quality control stuff. You're constantly in meetings. There's a dress code. If you're five minutes late, you're in trouble. That's how the Midwest is. I just thought, you know, they could make me president of this company, but I wouldn't want to be here. I started formulating a plan. Okay, I want to get into the music business. How do you get into the music business? People told me that a lot of people start out as interns. So I thought, "all right, I'm going to be an intern." And every night I worked on letters. I go back and look at that stuff now and instead of the William Morris Agency, I'd sent a letter to Phillip Morris, the cigarette company! Stupid stuff—I had no idea what I was doing.

But the minute I got here, I loved it. I had just gotten out of college, and I had already worked for a year at a company. I knew things that other interns that were still in college interning here didn't know. They had never worked anywhere in the real world. I had worked at a total bottom line company. So when I got here, I just kicked ass as an intern. I was the first one here and the last one to leave. I didn't make personal calls. I didn't just take home as many free CDs as possible. I made sure I was helping everybody. From an intern, I became an assistant. Actually, I got a band signed when I was an assistant, so they named me Associate Director of A&R. They could have been big, but it didn't happen for one reason or another. Now I'm Director of A&R. The second band I signed, Union Underground, did very well.. I think we earned the respect of the company.

Weren't you kind of brought in here as the rock guy?

Rock is what I do. At the time, I wasn't looking at a lot of R&B and rap. I've kind of switched that up, though. I don't want to pigeonhole myself. I love Rob Zombie and Static X and that kind of music, but I've really broadened it to where if it's quality music, and I feel we can sell it here, then I'm interested. As an A&R guy, as you grow with the job you can't say, "I'm just the rock and metal guy and that's it." Because then they say, "If it's not rock or metal, I'm not going to even tell him about this stuff." That's not even me anymore. Rock is basically what I like, but I'm pretty open to whatever we can do here at Columbia.

It seems as though a lot of A&R people go after a lot of the same bands. Why is it that A&R people don't fan out? You see the herd moving from club to club and everybody is interested in the same band all the time.

Well, what it is—and I agree with you—is people hear about it from the same managers, or attorneys, or producers, or lawyers who have a pretty good track record. They're the ones calling us saying, "Hey come see my band." And you go. There are almost the exact same people at every show. You can kind of suspect who is going to be there.

If a manager who has a fairly big name calls you and says, "Will you come see my new project at the Viper Room?," and if you say, "No, I don't want to go there because all of the other people will be there," he's not going to call you next time. A lot of times, I just go to keep the relationships going. Sometimes I'm curious. But it's not like those A&R people go and they're falling all over the same band. A&R people talk. If the band is lame, we'll look at each other and say, "God these guys are lame!" That's really what that whole mob thing is all about.

It also seems that there is a sense of community, a collective think tank, where everybody has to agree that an act is desirable before somebody in that group has the balls to step forward and sign them.

Hmm, not so much. I'm feeling that changing. Sure there is hype. People get more interested when someone else is interested. But I know at my label in the end, people can hype it up all they want, but when we hear it, we say, "Is this a hit song or not?… Does this band have what it takes?… Do they have star power?… Are they the real deal?" Nowadays I know we're really looking carefully and continuing to do smart deals here at Columbia.

The party line for most A&R people seems to be: build a fanbase by touring, sell 10,000 units out of your trunk, and we'll be interested in signing you. Is that the only way somebody can get signed?

I don't know one band that I work with that has done that, though it would be nice.

So how do you find them?

I call TAXI. [laughter] People who want to succeed badly enough, find a way to get to me. If I hear something that I think we can work with, I'm on it right away. If I hear a demo and I really think it's good, I go to their web site or look at the pictures. If the band looks, you know, young, that's something that we look at. Obviously, if someone sends me a pretty good song and everyone in the band is over 40, that's something else I have to consider.

So as far as the touring base and all of that, we just need some songs. Actually I'd prefer bands that I think no one knows about—a band that I can discover, that are new and just starting. I saw Union Underground with maybe 14 people there at a bar in San Antonio, Texas. They put the show on just for me. They didn't have any fans, but I thought, "Man, this is so on." And we did a deal.

How much does radio play into what you in particular have to do for a living?

Major labels in general are very radio-driven. Bands always think A&R guys are clueless. They say, "If they just give me a chance, and blah blah blah…" But the thing they often don't understand is we've got to have the total package. We've got to have a song that we can go to radio with. It's so competitive nowadays. If you go to radio, and the station starts getting calls, and it's testing well, and everyone is feeling it, and it's getting a lot of spins, the company in turn gets the wheels of promotion moving. More money frees up and all of this stuff gets going. If you've got nothing going at radio, and nobody is responding to your song, it works in reverse

When you hear something that you personally love, and you hear what you think is a hit, do you ever have to temper your thinking with, "Well, I think it's a hit but I don't know if radio will play it? It falls between the cracks."

Exactly. If there is a song that is in a gray area, and you don't know what to do with it, it's hard to be at a major label. We try to get things out to millions of people. If it's an obscure band, or too indie or something like that, they're probably better off with that type of label.

Do you personally do a lot of development? Do you hear acts that you love and don't sign them now but develop them?

Yeah, absolutely. The thing about working at Columbia is if I am interested in somebody, and I say, "Look, let me get you some money, and let's do a developmental thing," most of the time the bands are okay with that. A lot of the bands I've signed were demo deals, basically. They were pretty cool with that.

I can sit down with bands, and I do all the time—I just spent money on a band that we're not doing a deal on—but I go over their material with them, song by song, and let them know, "Hey this is what we need. Let's shorten this. The intro is too long. The bridge doesn't mean anything. The chorus doesn't mean anything. Let's make the song mean something to get it into the position that I need it to be so that I can sell it to my boss." Most musicians are pretty cool with that. They understand.

It seems like there is so much more to it these days. A great record is a good starting point, but what else do you need to have a hit and then sustain an act?

As an A&R guy—and this is all part of the learning process for A&R people—I used to think, okay I've made a great record, now someone else can come in and run with it. It's not like that. If the band has a management that is not good, I have to work with the management to make them good. I have to help them somehow. Or I have to get them help. I have to do something, because bad management will destroy an act. If the product manager (at the label) doesn't really get what we have, I have to help that too. You have to get your act out of your own building before you can even get it to the public. It's got to get to the point, image-wise along with all of the other stuff, to where the promotion people and everyone at the label thinks, "Hey, this is really good. We want to spend our time on this." This is a superstar label. We've got a lot of acts on here. For new bands—and I don't do veteran bands because I haven't been an A&R guy long enough—I know I've got to make them shine in order to get that attention. So I do everything I can possibly do to make that happen for them.

Do you ever pre-test an artist before you sign them with the various departments to get a sense of whether or not the company likes it?

Sometimes. We'll sometimes go to our senior people here and ask what they think. They'll maybe say, "This is great, let's call Will Botwin," who is our president, "and see what he thinks about this." It's all part of a lobbying process. Everybody is really busy, so before you bother people, you'd better make sure it's good.

I think most musicians have the perception that all you have to be is "good".

No, see that's the thing about bands. I've had people yell at me, "You like our band, what's the problem? Why can't you sign us?" They don't understand. If they don't have what it takes to sell—I don't want to keep using that word, but that's really the bottom line—if they don't have that commerciality in them that people will purchase, by the time you record it, and promote it, and all of that other stuff, you're in the hundreds of thousands. That's a lot of money for an A&R guy to lose for his company. My records are great records—whether they caught on or not is another story. That's the thing. If you sign three or four or five bands, you're going to cost your label money. You've got to be sure that it is something that we can advance.

How much does the live show play into it for you?

It plays into it a lot in order to get the deal done. A band may have great songs, but if you go see them live and there is just nothing there—there is no star quality, there is just nothing unique about the band—you might be able to get it on the radio, but to really transcend and be huge, they've got to have that intangible quality that makes your band different from another band.

What are some common mistakes that bands tend to make over and over?

You know what is phenomenal that it still happens? It's people sending in their demo with just a note saying, "Hey it's Tom. Here is the CD I promised you." This could be someone I met at a conference, or someone who called me, or an email. I don't remember any of these things. That's all they send. People send disks with no labels, with no titles, and with no contact information to Columbia Records. Come on! You know what happens? We take all of these CDs out to our cars. I listen to one and throw it on the floor. Grab another one, throw it on the seat. Sometimes you just don't know where it came from. People that send cassettes still kind of bug me. I do a lot of A&R in the car. I drive around and constantly listen to demos. I don't have a cassette player in my car. People also send DATs and stuff. Just send CDs. I even had someone send me their multi-track tapes once, which was so silly. What, am I going to go rent studio time somewhere to go mix their stuff? I don't get it!

Another thing is, I don't want to know what you did four years ago. I don't want your entire catalog. I want to hear what you're working on now —unless the songs are just so amazing, but chances are, if you did them a long time ago, they're dated. I like new cutting edge stuff.

What do you look for in a bio or a press pack?

This is just me, but I want to see a good photo—not a goofy photo where everyone is acting dumb or wearing chicken hats or something. I hate that stuff. The bio should just be a short bio with some contact information. I don't need this whole cute story of who came up with the band name. "Up from the ashes of so-and-so..." and "Hailing from..." I don't need any of that hype crap. I don't need a packet of xeroxes of all of the clubs you played, and I don't need to know who you opened for. I don't care. People don't realize, we throw that stuff away. We listen to the demo. If the demo is good, then we say "Hey what's up with this?"

If your kid brother wanted to be in a band and wanted a record deal, what advice would you give him?

Well, if it was my brother, I guess I'd have to decide if he really had it or not. Some people have got to have it. There are role-players, but you've got to have a star somewhere in the band. I would say it's all about the songs. You can't get anything unless you've got the songs. You can be goofy or cartoon-like or whatever, but it's not going to have any legs. So yeah, it's the songs.

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