Tom Carolan
Vice President of A&R, Lava Records

Interview by Doug Minnick
Edited by Cathy Genovese
VP A&R Lava Records
Where did you grow up?

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which is a town of about 100,000 in the eastern part of Iowa. I went to school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

How did you get involved in the music business?

I always knew I wanted to be in music. At Iowa - a Big Ten school—I started to get involved in it. I became the music director at the college radio station. I also became a concert promoter. I was in charge of bringing in shows to fill our 1,000-seat union hall, as well as a 2,500 acoustically well-built theater—and even the Carver Arena which was a 10,000 seat arena where they housed the basketball and wrestling tournaments.

All of that work got me out here to Los Angeles and got me a temp job in the mailroom at Atlantic Records. I started with fifty bucks and two suitcases on a Thursday. I was in Friedman Temp Agency on a Monday, and I started at Atlantic on a Tuesday. I guess that was around 1987. I just came in and started temping and filling in when people took vacations. I was able to move around and started answering phones for Paul Cooper, who was the General Manager at the time, and he eventually hired me on to be his full-time assistant.

It was also a fabulous time on the West Coast musically. There was actually a music scene. Coming from a college radio background, my tastes weren't in tune with what was happening on radio and MTV at the time. What Atlantic was famous for, and good at during that time, was the metal, big hair, glam rock that was going on in the Eighties. I kind of always ran in the alternative circuits. My idea of West Coast rock was Green on Red, the Plimsouls, and X. A friend of mine got involved with Jane's Addiction, and I had the opportunity to side-saddle with him in going to see those shows. I saw Soundgarden and other bands coming out of the Seattle area. I started to see a real good change in music.

Why do you think certain geographical areas breed music scenes at any given time?

I always identified musical movements with territories, the Athens scene, Minneapolis scene, etc. Growing up in the Midwest, I had the great opportunity of booking shows with Husker Du, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, the whole Minneapolis Twin/Tone thing. I think those scenes had a real opportunity to incubate themselves because they had communities that would nurture them. They had the proper press, radio, and clubs to create the culture that created the scene indigenous to the area.

And they did it outside the influence of the industry.

That's correct. That strictly comes from an artist-to-consumer connection. But they have to have the infrastructure in order to support that.

Usually, they're not even doing it to get a record deal.

They're doing it because they strictly love the art. They have an emotional connection with who they are as individuals, and they express it through their music.

So were you able to bring your taste for more alternative music into Atlantic during this transition out of the big hair Eighties rock?

I'll never forget, after about two or three years of working there, I finally said to Doug Morris ( then Atlantic president -ed.), "I think you've got a real movement out here. We need to get involved with it" and Doug gave me an opportunity to do it. He said, "Alright, you've worked hard," and he gave me a shot. Based on my taste, he put me in a department that at the time was called the "Progressive Music department." It was outside the realm of the actual Atlantic Records. It was almost a label within a label. We had our own product manager, radio person and A&R people within the infrastructure of the Progressive Music department. It was kind of like an independent label, but in a sense we were ghettoized. In theory that was great, but we were really treated more like an incubator.

One of my first assignments was taking over A&R for the Lemonheads when they made It's a Shame About Ray. During the time when I had just finished that record, Doug brought in Danny Goldberg. Danny totally eliminated the ghettoizing of the Progressive Music department. He said, "Let's not ghettoize that department. Let's embrace it. We're not here to make this separate from what Atlantic is. We're going to make it who we are." To me, that was alright. I was riding a wave. Right after he came over is when I signed Mighty Joe Young, which went on to be Stone Temple Pilots. After my initial success, I was able to jump out and do a lot of different work. I signed Macy Gray, Jim Lauderdale, and an Aboriginal tribal band called Red Sands Dreaming.

Where did you go after Atlantic?

I left Atlantic and went to Sony. I was offered a wonderful opportunity by Polly Anthony—who at the time was running 550 Music—to help open the West Coast office. It was a good theory for a label, because one of the difficulties that began to happen in the Nineties that I think we're still seeing today, is the influence of the corporation into the creative side of town. It becomes more about quarterly releases, quarterly reports, and I wanted to get into a smaller organization where the left hand knew what the right hand was doing, but yet still had the same platforms of a major label. That was 550 at the time. I went there, and six months into my working there, Polly got elevated to the President of Epic Records. It's like with any organization, without true leadership, it became kind of like a ship without a rudder. Within four years it shuttered.

After that I left for a little while—took a deep breath and took a couple of years off. I stayed in contact with Jason Flom because I grew up with him. We were very familiar with each other's work, coming from the Atlantic system. Jason opened up Lava Records through Atlantic, and he offered me a position. I feel very lucky and fortunate, especially to be working in an organization that by theory I still firmly believe in. Not very many places do artist development any more, but I think we here at Lava have to stick with stuff because we need hits!

Who are some of the artists on Lava?

The familiar ones that Jason has signed over the years have been Kid Rock, matchbox twenty, Sugar Ray, and Uncle Kracker, who is part of the Kid Rock camp. Currently right now we have a set of new artists coming out. I just picked up Unwritten Law who had a release on Interscope. I've got a band called Grade 8 who are currently out on the Ozzfest tour.

What do you look for in potential signings?

I'll be honest with you, my mantra is very simple: I like to sign interesting people who have something interesting to say, and say it in an interesting way. Creatively, if you look over the history of music, the true winners over time have always been left-of-center. Their careers haven't always been on a steady incline. In fact, if you look over the career of an artist based on sales, it will look like a mountain range—highs, lows, plateaus, rises. But they are diversified—from Elvis Costello, to Neil Young, to Nirvana. At the time, they were doing something different. They offered a flavor that hadn't quite been tasted by the consumer yet. Sometimes that's very difficult to get through the machine. A well-oiled machine doesn't know how to take something new.

When you think of the most successful labels in the history of the business-you'd have to say A&M, Arista, Warner Bros., Geffen, and Atlantic—all of those labels had something in common. In their heyday, they would take chances on artists, and develop artists, and had stability in their management. It seems that none of these things exist anymore at the other labels. Is it getting harder then to do A&R?

When I first got my job in A&R, I flew to New York for my first A&R meeting and met with Ahmet Ertegun. I went into Mr. Ertegun's office and thanked him because I thought Atlantic was one of the greatest labels ever. I said, "I accomplished the first step of what I hope is going to be the long path of my career in A&R, and you are truly one of the greats. You and others have built these companies. You found this incredible wealth of talent. Is there anything you can bestow on me as I begin my journey and my career as an A&R man?" I'll never forget his response. He's an impeccably dressed man, staring out the window, and in his Turkish accent, he says, "Tom, sign the best bands. They write the best songs." And that was it. And at the time, I'm going, "That's it?!" Now I look back and I think how prolific that statement was. You know what he did? He explained to me exactly what my business card says. It says "artists and repertoire." That's what this business was. It was built on artists and repertoire-not repertoire and artists. They both play an integral part in success, but I think that the industry has shifted so much, that it's become repertoire and then artists now. Everybody wants to hear a hit, and they don't care who it comes from.

But if (major labels) are batting 10 percent, that's kind of difficult. I'm going to hitch my wagon up to a thoroughbred-not a quarter horse. I'm going to go for a mile and a sixteenth. This is the derby. I'm an A&R man, not an R&A guy.

How do you spend your day?

Every day is different. My day is 24 hours long. Every day I just show up and try to work as hard as I possibly can to move that boulder a little farther up the hill. I try to reach out to the artists that I'm working with. I try to listen to a few more demo tapes. I try to reply more, because I think this is a business of saying no, not a business of saying yes. I try to call people back. If I don't, I apologize. When you're on the sidelines, you really learn a lot about life, I was on the sidelines for a couple of years. You learn a lot about respect, calling people back, and you find out what all this really means. Don't get me wrong, I'm driven by the same things that drive everybody. I like to make money, and live a nice life, and supply my family with nice things but I also want to do it in a good, meaningful, heartfelt way. I was brought up with those types of values. So I want to spend my day doing the job of an A&R guy—going to clubs in the evening, checking out new talent, trying to listen to new material, getting back to people, connecting with people in my organization, and overall just trying to reach out and be available.

How often do you go out to clubs?

I still do it, but it gets harder and harder. I'm not a 24-year old scout, but that's okay. I'm still excited by the fact that maybe I'm going to stumble across the next thing. They're out there somewhere. There has got to be an emotional connection. Someday I'm going to walk through that door and go, "Wow, holy cow!" But you could still have a heck of a record label, probably, just based on what every A&R person has passed on!

Are labels signing fewer acts these days?

Yes. I think what's really at issue is that the economic models have to change. We need to sign fewer million-dollar deals. That's an educational process that has to be set to everybody. When there is a band that is attracting some industry attention, everybody gets so caught up in the fever of it—we've gotta have it! That's the game. That's the wild part of this business.

The law of physics has always said that for every contraction there is expansion. So fear not people, because there will be new opportunities out there. As we consolidate, and merge, and figure out our economics, and squeeze harder, the hyperbole says that there will be something else going on out there that is going to create new platforms for artists. We just don't know what those are yet.

Would you, or have you, released artists' independent records that they have gotten to a certain level on their own?

Not from an independent level, but I did pick up Unwritten Law whose last record went gold. For whatever reasons, Interscope dropped them, but they already have an established fanbase. I know that based on 500,000 units sold previously, I've probably got a guaranteed minimum of 100,000 fanbase out there. One of the recent examples of an independent record being finished and in-the-can was the record by the All-American Rejects. The record was done and shopped around. The deal was done with Doghouse which got a maximum cap I think of around 40- or 50,000 units, and then it was upstreamed to DreamWorks, and the rest is history. You're seeing that take place more and more. With the invention of ProTools and the ability to make records cheaper, yeah, there is a lot of upstreaming going on right now.

What is making it more difficult to have a successful record on a major label than in the past?

All the structures, the economics, the barriers to entry. There is only so much you can put into a small hole. So that's why I say for every contraction there is expansion. It all depends on where you fit. These smaller labels like Rounder and Vanguard, they're profitable. Smaller labels have their economics in check, and they're not carrying the weight that the majors are either, that in turn need to sell millions of records. Their economics are such that 30,000 units puts them in the black. The hardest part today is just getting things in play—forget if it connects. You've got a load of records you can't even get out of the building.

Do you mean they don't get released?

No, they get released, but I call it getting them in play—getting at least the proper exposure at radio, making a video for MTV, and getting on the right tour. You have to have everything working in your favor to at least allow the consumer to make the determination whether they want to purchase it or not. There are a lot of records that you don't even hear. That's just a life-is-hard kind of thing. It's one thing to get a record deal, but it's another to get it in play. That's what I try to tell managers so often. The whole key to this job is getting an act in play.

Has the success of somewhat left-of-center artists like Norah Jones and John Mayer taken the major labels by surprise?

Absolutely. Major labels have been skewing their target demographic down lower and lower. If you notice, ten years ago our target audience was college kids—18 and above. Then it was 16 and above—the people buying the Backstreet Boys. Then it was like 13 and above. Soon, we're going to start crossing the line between Barney and pop records here. Then all of a sudden, you've got a Norah Jones record or a Coldplay record, that start selling to adults.

I wonder if labels will react by trying to sign more artists who sound exactly like Norah Jones?

You know what, the basic reaction from the major labels is, "oh that's an anomaly". They'd have to retool their entire marketing departments. They're not built for that. They're built for speed. That's why labels take on certain cultures of their own. Certain labels are known for strengths and weaknesses because they build their promotion and marketing around those types of artists. That can be good initially, and bad in the long run. When you're carrying around a roster of the exact same type of artist, you can almost succumb to your own weight.

In the same way that you asked for career advice from Ahmet Ertegun, what advice would you give to an unsigned artist?

A lot of artists try to skip a couple of steps. I think they first have to look at themselves in the mirror and make sure before they start down that path, do they have the bases covered? Are they asking to be in the place where they should be? Do they have strong beliefs that they should be there? And then they have to persevere. You spend a lot of time hearing why you shouldn't be doing something. You first hear it from your family—people you care most about—and it's almost like you put up a wall. Growing up in Iowa, I constantly heard, "That's for those (other) people." Then when I got out here, people said, "You'll never make it into A&R. Everybody wants to do A&R." As hard as it was to try to brush those kind of comments off, I got up every day and worked hard. I stuck with it. I persevered. I got on the right path. I got lucky, too. I put myself in the position of luck. Be realistic with yourself and keep pushing forward. We all have to have realistic judgements of who we are and where we're at in our lives. As much as I want to believe I'm somebody more important than I am, I get reminded everyday where I'm actually at (laughter).

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