Geoffrey, you come from a marketing background, having been a product
manager at WB and A&M. At what point when you're looking at an unsigned
act does your marketing sensibility click in? Is that a positive or a
negative if that happens too early?
To me, it's all unified. I always tell people that I've done exactly the
same thing with my life ever since I learned how to talk, which is yelling
at people about records. There are really only two kinds of recordsbad
records and good records. If a record is goodwhether it's a very commercial
record or a very uncommercial recordif I love it, then there are other
people out there who are going to love it. It may be enough to make money,
and it may not be. If I love it enough that I have to work with it, then
it's my job to just get it to the maximum amount of people I can get it
to. I always figure if you make the right creative decision, then it's
the right marketing decision. Sometimes that's naive, and sometimes that's
smart, but, at least where I work, it's a good rule of thumb.
One way of resolving the dichotomy between art and commerce is to ignore
it, I suppose.
I think Warner Bros. has been pretty good at that. We sign artists that
we really like, and we work them really hard. Some of them sell millions
of records, and some of them don't, like Randy Newman or Van Dyke Parks
or Mark Eitzel [former leader of American Music Club]hopefully Mark
will sell records. But if Mark doesn't sell records, that doesn't make
him less of an artist. I will fight just as hard for him if he sells 50,000
records as if he sells 500,000 records, because he makes what I think
are important records for the ages. Until somebody in a suit tells me
I can't, he's every bit as important as a platinum artist, because he's
The most succinct
encapsulation of the Warner's attitude, in my experience, was interviewing
Lenny Waronker five or six years ago. We were talking about the Chris
Isaak album that later broke off of "Wicked Game," but at this point people
were going, "What's wrong with the approach to recording this guy? He's
made the same record three times, and all of them have stiffed." Waronker
just said, "You never get hurt making a good record." In that case, a
dramatic proof of that statement occurred later on. I think that's an
extremely valid rule of thumb: Make the best record you can and hope that
fate, circumstances and, in some cases, hard work eventually will get
the record the recognition it deserves.
If you look at
history, all you see are the bands that were ongoing. People don't look
back and remember that the Count Five came and went, or that the Strawberry
Alarm Clock came and went. They look back at the '60s and they see the
Byrds, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But there were thousands of
groupssome of them great and some of them terriblethat were one-hit
wonders or never got a hit. That's part of the business. That's a good
part of the business. One of the things I like about the emergence of
alternative rock radio, for all of its drawbacks, is that it has made
it possible for bands who have one good song to get heard. That's a good
thing. A lot of bands only have one good song. I like the fact that whether
Bush are any good or not, they've got a couple of catchy songs and they're
on the radio. To me, it is Journey, but it's better than Journey because
You may say that, but I'll bet you wouldn't sign a band that had just
one good song.
Not on purpose! Another thing that's kind of exciting about the emergence
of alternative radio is that some of these bands are getting on the radio
and getting well known, when they don't really know what they're doing.
What that means is that you are seeing people learn in public. Some of
these bands may not have any "credibility" or respect right now. But the
Rolling Stones started out as a cover band doing mediocre covers of American
So did the Beatles.
I would argue all day that the early Beatles records, however crass they
were, were every bit as good, if not better, than the later ones. It's
amazing that they progressed the way they did. It's also amazing to me
that they emerged from Hamburg and the Merseybeat scene making those early
records. Those records have so much energythey're magnificent records.
They may be ignorant of a lot of things, but they're magic.
I agree. But let's move ahead 30 years. What is the basic set of prerequisites
that have to be present for you to seriously start considering an act?
Any band that you're going to look at has problems. Everybody wants to
go into a club and see something that is spectacular. Usually that happens
after a band has been doing it for a little while, and they've had some
support from publishing money or record money. Once in a great while I'm
sure it happens where you walk into a club and see something incredible.
That has never happened to methat I walked into club and saw somebody
who was amazing that I didn't know about. The question I always ask myself
is: Is there one thing this band does that is extraordinary? It's like
a songwriter who just has a unique perspective, or a guitar player or
a singer who's special. There has got to be something about the band that
makes me go, "Wow, nobody else can do that!" I figure that if everything
else about the band is okay, they'll get better. But there's got to be
one thing about it that nobody else can do. That's my criterion. It can
even be a chemistry. In a great rock band, it can be four unexceptional
musicians doing something extraordinary. But there's got to be one thing
about the band that makes me take a step back and go, "Oh my God!"
So it's some kind of personal encounter that leaves you excited.
It could be a tapesometimes it happens with a tape too. They can have
lousy management, a lousy attorney, a lousy rhythm section, but there's
gotta be something about the band that is unique. Which isn't necessarily
the same thing as wanting to hear something on the radio. I love "Comedown"
by Bush, but I don't think they are an extraordinary band at all. It's
a disposable pop song, and it's great on the radio. When it comes on,
I turn it up. But there's a very big difference between being a consumer
in terms of what you want to hear on the radio, and what our job is, which
is to try to build careers with immense investments from our employers.
We're being paid for our taste, and no one knows. The marketplace is always
careening about, smashing into things.
It's a crap-shoot. That's why you go for what's real, instead of today's
Guessing what is actually going to sell is a very dangerous game. Some
things are valid for whatever speaks to us, and then you hope that the
record and the market have some overlap. Sometimes great records fall
through the cracks, and sometimes great records that you thought were
going to flop sell 5-million copies. When we put out Green Day's Dookie,
we had modest expectationseverybody did. Everybody wanted them, but
if you had said to me that we were going to sell a quarter of a million
records, I would have said, "Fantastic!" The band told me that they would
have been happy selling half a million records. They had a base of 40,000,
and I thought we could get them to well beyond that. But I was looking
at them, like, these guys are pretty ambitious. I didn't want to give
them a lecture about the record business or anything, and say, "That's
not going to happen." Happily, I was wrong.
Are A&R people trying to track down "the next Pearl Jam"?
I think the bigger problem with the current state of A&R is A&R people
listening to each other too much, and having this sort of conventional
wisdom and group-think about everything. There is almost a generic A&R
perspective now on what's cool, what's not cool, and what works.
And it's not helpful, I don't think.
Well, it probably was helpful. There was a moment in time when there was
a generation of music fans and of A&R people who were disenfranchised
because the record companies were out of touch. They went out and they
hired a bunch of smart young people who all came up through similar channels,
and now there are too many of those people thinking too similar of thoughts.
What that means is that when a pretty good band makes a pretty good tape
and plays a few pretty good shows, they get offered crazy amounts of money
by six record companies who all have A&R people thinking identically.
Hopefully some of those bands will be really successful and those A&R
people will keep their jobs.
Some of them will fall apart from the pressure that is imposed upon
them from the crazy money and being signed too soon.
It is amazing to me how narrowcast the A&R perspective has become. It
has probably always been true, I'm sure; we just haven't been around to
see it in previous decades, but A&R people are not taking risks.
I think it's
really important that A&R people be encouraged to take risks. I have A&R
people working for me, and one of the things I'm always stressing to them
is: "You have to make the decision. I don't want to have to supervise
every decision you make. Tell me what you love. Tell me what you really
believe. Don't tell me 'This is pretty cool,' or 'This is getting reviews,'
or 'This is 'buzzing,' or that some publishing company is after it. I
don't care. Is this the one you want to do? As an A&R person, you have
a few years to prove yourself. If you take one of your shots to sign this
band, then that's your decision. It may benefit you in some way, and it
may benefit the company in some way. If you're right, then you're a good
A&R person. If you're wrong, you should go do something else." It's the
A&R person's obligation to know, not necessarily what people want, but
how far you can take something.
Warners has dramatically trimmed its roster in recent years. What was
the rationale for dropping all those acts?
We've been really careful over the last few years to cut back the roster
to a point where we feel very strongly about every artist on the label.
There was a time when Warner Bros. had so much product flowing into it
from so many disparate sources. We had international, we had all these
label deals, we had all of these different A&R fiefdoms all over the world,
and they were all just feeding product into this pipeline. It got to the
point a few years ago where it was just overwhelming. What was happening
was it was fine for the records at the top of the pile, because they were
getting what they needed. It was a real war for the records that weren't
at the top of the pile to distinguish between the good ones and the favored,
politically placed records. We've gotten rid of most of those, and it's
made a huge difference. The clarity of the operation is so much greater.
We go into a marketing meeting now, and there's a reason for every record
there. We're proud of every record there. We feel like we all understand
the point of every record there.
As a result,
the Goo Goo Dolls recently went to #1 [commercial alternative]. "Name"
was #1 most-added Pop, and it was #1 Heatseekers. This band has been around
foreverthis is their fifth album and their third for usand there was
nothing going on, but we had promotion people that were able to focus
on this record and really deliver it. Now this is a career record for
them. This is going to be a smash.
Speaking of obscure bands getting a shot, what do you think of the
chances of the Wilco [on Reprise] and the Son Volt [on Warner Bros.] records
to make any kind of impression beyond getting good reviews?
They both already have. Wilco and Son Volt are exactly the kinds of artists
that we feel the strongest about. They're not necessarily the flashiest,
and they're not necessarily the kinds of artists who have a built-in format,
although they certainly can get played on many formats. They're songwriters,
they're singers, they're real artists who are going to get better and
bigger. No one is going to buy these records for any reason other than
loving the music. Hopefully we'll get the Son Volt record on the radio
and some new people will be exposed to it. I think the chances that those
artists will be important artists for the label is 100 percent. There's
a good chance that they'll be profitable.
I believe there
is definitely a demand for that kind of music, and it's not currently
being met very well by any of the radio formats. I think that will change.
Melodic pop/rock is a somewhat disenfranchised form of music, and it doesn't
really work on commercial alternative radio, usually. But a lot of people
like that kind of music. Wilco and Son Volt play a darker, more country-tinged
version of melodic pop/rock, but it's still the same problem. There's
a lot of kinds of music that don't really have media outlets. If one artist
sneaks through because of a clever video, or an incredible song sneaks
into the mainstream, all of a sudden the rules can change.
By that token, Matthew Sweet had no business selling 500,000 copies
of Girlfriend or 100% Fun.
And the Gin Blossoms had no business selling 2-million copies of their
Last question: Where do you look to find new bands?
I think listening to unsolicited material is probably the biggest waste
of time in the record business. I've listened to tens of thousands of
unsolicited tapes in my life, and I've never signed a band off one. I
know there are people who have, and there are even people who have signed
good bands off of them. I think part of the problem is that the kind of
people that are sending their unsolicited tapes to Warner Bros. are probably
mostly not the kind of people I want to sign.
For me, the most
important thing by far is having a network of people I trust. It's people
in bands, it's producers, it's people in record stores, it's booking agents,
it's fanzines. It's just talking to people who you really respect, and
finding out who they're seeing and what they're liking. The most important
thing, though, is just talking to people who are big fans in local communities
around the world. I have friends who work in record stores or are booking
clubs in 50 different cities who I just call up and I talk to. When I'm
in town, I take them out and talk to them and see what's going on where
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