Scott Austin
A&R Maverick Records

Interview by Doug Minnick
A&R Maverick Records
Where did you grow up?

Orange County, California.

How did you get started in the music business?

I was a singer-songwriter trying to get a record deal. I built my own recording studio in Orange County. I started to record myself and a couple of other local bands. I took a recording class at a community college near my house. Someone in the class had mentioned that there were summer internships available at Capitol Records. They said it was a marketing job for the summer—unpaid—which meant I’d get to drive 100 miles a day round trip to work for free. So like a sucker, I did it.

I was doing ticket buys and tour marketing stuff which was really unexciting and not a lot of fun. I had basically done three months in marketing—my tour of duty—when I went up to the A&R department and met one of the assistants. She said, “Why don’t you just come work up here?” So somehow I slipped completely under the radar, made my own destiny, and started interning up in A&R. No one ever questioned it. I just slipped through the cracks and managed to intern there for another six months or so.

After nine months of interning at Capitol, the assistant that had brought me in as an intern quit. She emailed me one day and said, “I quit. Do you want my job?” Being that I had had no record company experience—I was a little shocked and overwhelmed that I would be offered the job, so I took it. I just fell into it.

I worked for my first boss for three months. He left to go to another company, as A&R people sometimes do (laughter). I asked the head of the department at that time, Perry Watts Russell, if I could stay on. He took me under his wing and let me continue to work for the company. I did that until he left in 2001. At that point, Andy Slater came on board as president of Capitol. We built a great relationship, and he let me do what I did, which was the more commercial-leaning music, the more mainstream stuff that the label didn’t really have a strong presence in. They’re really good at defining indie music and cool rock bands, and that sort of thing, but they didn’t really have anyone that was really interested in mainstream, teen, young, exciting, fresh music. I love all sorts of stuff, but that was the one thing I thought was missing from that place, so that’s what I focused my time and energy on.

What artists and bands did you bring to Capitol?

During that time, I brought in a lot of great acts. Some of them ended up getting signed elsewhere, but I earned my stripes, even though it wasn’t on the company’s dime. It showed, I guess, that I had good ears.

The first act that I brought in, where I was the first-guy-on-it type of thing, was Michelle Branch. I thought she was great. At that time there were no young, exciting female singer-songwriters. You had Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge, and then you had Britney and Christina and Mandy Moore. You didn’t have someone who was as young as those girls doing what the older girls were doing.

At the time, though, we just had too many singer-songwriter girls on the label that we hadn’t broken, and they weren’t that dissimilar from Michelle. To me, Michelle was very pop at her core. Her writing is very pop, and she’s a solid songwriter. You don’t find that too often, especially in a girl that is 16 or 17.

Right before I left Capitol, I brought in a band called the All-American Rejects. That was a weird grass-roots discovery. For any artist that thinks that banging phones doesn’t ever work, here is an example of the contrary: I was getting phone calls from this girl I had never heard of who was supposedly their manager from Stillwater, Oklahoma. She kept calling me, and calling me, being so persistent about this band. This was three years ago. Eventually I cracked and I just called her back. I said, “Look, you’re calling me and you’re persistent, and that’s great, but nine times out of ten, the band sucks after all of this persistency. If you want to send it to me, I’ll be glad to check it out.” The first demo I got was not so good. The voice wasn’t so great. The songs were pretty good, they had some hooks, but they weren’t quite there yet. Six months later, I got another disk, and for every two or three months after that, I got more CD’s, and newer CD’s and more songs—still not there yet. Finally, I got this record that they cut for $25,000, and it was killer. It was ready to go. I’d say it only needed a couple of remixes, and it was there. I was the first label to bring the band out and to get excited. I introduced them to a lot of people. Then it kind of took on a life of its own. Long story short, they blew out the little manager, and got a big fat record deal on DreamWorks. They’re doing really well right now. Those were kind of the two big success stories. There were other artists that went on to get signed other places, but they’re not people you would necessarily know.

When and how did you make the transition to Maverick Records?

I had built my industry relationships while at Capitol. I met everyone and talked to everyone. I got to the point where I knew enough people and I had earned some respect, and eventually Maverick called me. I loved Andy, and I loved Capitol, but I was at the point where I’d hit the glass ceiling—it can happen at any corporation. I hit that ceiling, and I had an opportunity to come to a place where I was going to be able to sign and produce. So that’s what I chose to do.

What are your daily responsibilities here? How do you spend your day?

Since I started here in July 2002, I’ve signed three artists. Basically, from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep, I’m dealing with issues related to those three artists. In addition to that, obviously I have to keep an eye and an ear on what’s going on out there and make sure we’re not missing out on any new acts.

In this job I’m responsible for everything from the discovery of the artist, to the signing of the artist, to the making of the record, to finding the right producer, the mixers, engineers, the mastering guy and musicians. Beyond that, once the record is delivered, I go into a marketing mode. I have to start figuring out how we’re going to break it. There is no right answer that works all the time. You have to look at the record, and the artist, and the climate, and figure out what the smartest way is to go about breaking the band.

Who are the artists that you’ve signed?

I signed an 18-year old singer-songwriter named Tyler Hilton—no relation to the Hilton sisters. I signed a band called The Shore, which is a band from the Silverlake area. They’re very cool. They’re like The Verve, meets Oasis, meets Black Crowes, or something. They’re like early Rolling Stones at times. They’re just an amazing band. I also just signed a girl named MoZella.

Where do you usually hear about new artists?

Most of the things that I end up interested in come from people I know. Very rarely are they just random submissions. They usually have some sort of affiliation with someone I trust.

Do you guys accept unsolicited material?

No, we don’t.

When you do hear something that you like, what gets you to the next level? What makes you go see something live?

It always, always, always starts with the voice. If the voice is captivating, if it’s screaming out at you and you can’t deny it, then that’s the starting point. Then, to me, it goes to the songs. If the songs are well-crafted, and they’re smart, and they seem to tell a story and have direction, then you start looking into what the artist is about. What does the artist look like? What kind of vibe do they put off? What audience would want to buy this record? If you can kind of make a decision by looking at those factors, and you’re interested in it enough, then the next level would be to see it live—to either go to a show or to have the artist come to the office and play.

How important is it to you that an artist you’re looking at have an existing fanbase and existing indie CD sales?

It’s becoming increasingly important for us. It’s definitely a factor I look at. It’s definitely something that, in the future, is going to play more and more of a role in the decision-making process. That said, the three things I’ve signed essentially have no fanbase, and no real history, and no real indie sales. It came down to me falling in love with the artists, and falling in love with their voices, and with what they were trying to say, and wanting to be the guy that got it out there. So, is it important? Absolutely, it can definitely bolster an argument for signing a band. It’s not a direct guarantee of success either, but I definitely feel like I’m trying to play catch-up sometimes. Once a record’s done, you have to try to catch up to the level that these people were able to achieve on an indie level. I just haven’t come across a band or an artist that I’ve fallen in love with that has had that in place.

Why is an artist’s age such an important factor for a major label? The first question out of everybody’s mouth seems to be, “Oh, this is great. How old is he?”

It’s one of my first questions, too. I’m guilty. Let’s be honest, it’s a youth-driven market. It’s the youths that are buying the records for the most part. That said, it’s important to not neglect the older segment because because you won’t find a whole lot of moms and dads spending their days downloading music on I think the goal is to define great artists, regardless of age. Although age is one of my early considerations, it isn’t necessarily a make-or-break point. If the artistry is great and amazing, then you’ll make exceptions regardless of age.

How important is radio in your decision to sign an artist?

In my decision? Probably not as important as my bosses would like me to say it is (laughter). The honest truth is that, as an A&R person, my philosophy is to make great records. If that means signing a band that doesn’t have that radio smash already, but that does have every other element, and they have something that the world needs to hear, then I’m going to (sign them), or push to (sign them). That said, radio is very important, and I want to have successful records like anyone else. I would never sign a band that I felt couldn’t eventually translate to radio.

There are too many anomalies—where an artist seemingly comes out of nowhere and has a huge hit—to have tunnel-vision and not think outside of the box sometimes. Some of the biggest artists of the past ten years were artists that no one would probably have thought twice about on first listen. Take Alanis Morissette, for example. That came out of nowhere. She really tapped into something. I was still a teenager when that record came out, and I can tell you it was the biggest thing ever. I had never seen anything like it. Macy Gray did it, too, in the late 90s. Here was a record that sounded like it was coming from the soulful 60’s or something, and it made a huge splash. My point is that I think that those records are where I’d rather be—records that don’t sound like other records.

Certain records just lead the way. Look at Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind ‘– that just happened—nobody expected it to explode like it did.

I do not believe that you can chase trends. I don’t think that you can see something on a TV and actively seek out one of “those,” and try and copy what has already been done. I think that occasionally those kinds of bands will get through, just because maybe there is room for two or three of those. But for me as an A&R person, the way the business is, and as difficult as it is to survive, and as competitive as it is, I would much rather be the executive that has a roster with really diverse unique artists that come from nowhere. And before you know it, you’ve got two- or three million sold on an album that no one would have thought twice about. Those are the kind of records I like.

If you just played John Mayer’s music to most people in the industry three years ago, without mentioning his fan base, they probably wouldn’t have been interested. It would have been a tough sell. That’s a perfect example of something that is very organic and seemingly maybe too indie for the mainstream, but yet it connected on some sort of level. It was the everyman’s music. Everyone can relate to what he’s talking about—whether he’s singing about high school, or love, of whatever it is. To me, my favorite artists have always been those types of artists: Tom Petty, or John Cougar Mellencamp, or whoever. It always comes down to good old fashioned rock and roll—good old fashioned songs about love, and good times. To me, that’s what people are going to relate to the most.

On the average, how long is the period of time from when you hear something that you’re interested in to signing them to the label?

With Tyler, it was 24 hours. Guy Oseary (Maverick CEO) heard it the day I came in to meet with him. He fell in love with it, and 24 hours later we were doing business. The Shore was about the same kind of story. I heard the music. I saw it. I loved it. I brought the staff out, and we signed them the next week.

MoZella was the kind of thing where I had to live with it. I heard it initially in October, and I really spent a lot of time listening to it and living with it. I came back to the demos and listened some more, and listened some more. Eventually, it took me seeing her live. She actually came into my office and played. She had such a charisma and such a persona live that it was undeniable. I think every time it comes down to seeing the artist live. We get busy, though, based on our priorities, and sometimes it’s difficult to see everything right when you should. Sometimes it takes some time to digest and really get excited about it. Generally for me, it’s pretty immediate. When you hear that voice, you know it, and you have to be willing to commit.

How long is the period of time from when you sign something to when the record actually comes out?

It varies. I’ve been here a year, and my first two signings were finished in May of this year. There are still a lot of things that need to happen in order to figure out when the records should come out. You have to look at a number of factors. You have to look at the overall climate of the business, and you also have to look internally at what your roster is and what your priorities are. At any label, there is a backlog of artists that have records finished that are sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting to come out. I think ultimately what makes the determination time-wise is an overwhelming sense internally of when the right time is. You’ll know it. You’ll know it because people will start to feel it. You can make a plan for October, and lightening in a bottle can happen—maybe there is a touring opportunity, or maybe there is some sort of advertising campaign, or who knows. There could be some opportunity that forces you to move that date up or to push it back. The timing varies anywhere from six months from the delivery of a record to a year or more.

What is the best advice you can give an aspiring band that is looking to get your attention and everybody else’s in the industry?

Write hit songs. Practice your instrument, and make your music as good as it can be. That sounds very vague, but I think it comes down to songwriting. Listen to records that are great records that are considered classics. Listen to why those records work. You’ll find that there is a universal thread running through any record that is commercially successful: great songwriting, emotional lyrics, and a good voice.

I think that at the end of the day, if you don’t have those elements, you won’t have anything that is timeless. You’ll end up with a fluke, a flash in the pan. No one wants to be that one-hit wonder. If you’re interested in being a career artist, I think you have to do as much as you can before you even get to me. It starts with the songs. If you have the songs, then it comes to your live show. Make your live show as good as it can be. Build a local fanbase. Play your asses off, and get good representation. I think at that point, if we see it, you’ll have your shot. If it’s something that one of us feels is important and needs to be brought into the major label fold, then we’ll do that.

I think it also comes down to passion. I was a singer-songwriter, and I realized at some point that I didn’t have the passion that some other people do to really want to be an artist. Being an artist is the hardest thing on the planet. It’s something that I certainly am glad I did not end up doing. I can say that because I’m on this side of the fence, and I’m still involved. I love my job, and I think that I’m much more effective at what I’m doing here than I would have been as an artist. I have tremendous respect for people that make their art their life. I think that I would encourage anyone who believes in their music to persevere and to do everything they can to not just look for a record deal. I think that too many people confuse the record deal as being the holy grail of what music is about. It really isn’t. If you’re not making music for the right reasons, you shouldn’t be making music, in my opinion. It kind of comes down to a core philosophy. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, I think everything else will fall into place. If you’re meant to be in this business, play your music and that will happen.

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