Loren Israel:
Director of A&R Capitol Records

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

I grew up in Hollywood and moved to the San Fernando Valley, so I'm an L.A. native. One of the very few.

How did you get started in the music business?

I had played in several bands since I was 15. I went on tour and opened for every band from Bad Religion, to the Sugarcubes, to Soul Asylum, Social Distortion, the Damned, and the Smithereens. One of the bands I was in that did pretty well was called One Day. I played guitar, and I wrote songs.

So what happened-why are you not still in a band?

When you get to a place where you get a record deal, and you get a publishing deal-and this is something I think artists should realize-you must assess whether or not it is something you can realistically be the best at. When you get to a place where the music becomes something more than it always was-something to play and drink beer, and go to the rehearsal room-a guy thing-when it becomes something more real, you have to realistically say, "Can I do this? Do I have what it takes to do this?" It took me about six months to realistically assess that.

Did you guys have a deal?

Yes, we had a deal with a major label and a publishing deal. The lead singer of the band had a health issue, though, and so it was a point where I had to decide, am I going to do this? Am I going to be a professional songwriter and musician? I was 24 at the time. Can I really do this? It was the guy who shaped my surfboards who helped me with that decision. He was my roommate at the time. I came to a very discouraging realization that I don't have what it takes.

What was it that you didn't think you could do?

It's that my skill set, my chops, were not as proficient, as strong, as capable, and as fluid as they had to be to be the best musician and songwriter that I could be.

Do you still write and play?

Yeah, I still write. I don't play. I produce a lot of bands, though. But no way, I was never a player. I could barely play. I definitely write, and I definitely help all my bands with writing.

How did you make the transition from musician to executive?

I switched gears, and I went back to college. Throughout college I couldn't not go out and see bands. I could get through college, and I was decent at it, but I couldn't not see bands. As much as I said, okay I'm just going to focus on getting my degree, maybe get a masters degree or whatever, I couldn't do it. Every year I would be asked by other bands, "Hey can you help us?" They knew my band had done well, and we knew how to get people to shows. They knew I had experience booking and promoting. I'd promote shows for all of these bands.

So I put on shows and promoted a lot of benefit concerts. I did several for Project Angel Food, the Surfrider Foundation and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers-you name it. I did so many of those just to keep busy, just because I liked it. I wasn't making any money. I just did it because I loved it, and I wanted to be busy. At the time I was working several jobs and putting myself through college. There was (an A&R person) who saw me out at shows all the time. He would come up to me and say, "Hey have you seen any good bands?" I told this person about a couple of bands. Those couple of bands went on to become huge. Pretty soon, he'd be constantly checking with me. I finally asked this guy, "What does an A&R guy do? What is this?" I said, "Tell me a day in the life of you, a major label A&R guy." He said, "Well, I get in the office around 10 or 11. I listen to music. I call people back. I write some letters. Listen to more music and call more people back. I get out of work about 7 or 8 and go to see a show, and do the whole thing over again." I thought, well where do I sign up? This is the best thing in the whole world. So I ended up doing an internship here at Capitol Records for three years, not getting paid. I did some pretty good work, and that's where it started.

Who are some of the artists that you've signed, or worked with, or found over the years?

Jimmy Eat World. I brought Beck to Capitol. I just signed a girl by the name of Annie Stila here to Capitol that Andy Slater is producing. I've worked with a lot of bands.

Are you attracted to artists that you love personally or that you think will sell records? And is there a difference?

That's a very good question. In order to really work with an artist inside a record company, and outside as a representative, you must love that artist. You must believe in that artist. You do have to love the artist. For me, I have to find some passion. Andy Slater (Capitol president-ed.) has really turned Capitol Records around. His mandate is to have the best artists and create a legacy, and to connect the legacy that Capitol Records has always had with our current roster. I believe that an artist that I sign to Capitol must have the ability to connect in all ways with a wide audience. So the answer to your question is yes and yes. Yes, they must have some sort of commercial potential. I must be able to see it. I must be able to know how long it's going to take to get there and what to do. And I must be passionate about the artist.

What is the first thing that attracts you to an artist? Voice? Songs? Image? Fanbase?

Songs and voice. And a distinctive quality. I must know that this artist has their own distinct voice. I must know that this artist has the ability to be honest and to really connect. I see it far too often where bands mimic other bands. The truth is we learn by mimicking and imitation, but when you get to a level where you're competitive, and you're at a major label, and you're putting out records, you must have your own voice. You must be able to transcend your peers and do something distinctive. I see far too much conformity.

Do you think that distinctive quality is something that is learnable, or do you think it's something that you're born with?

Here's what I believe. I believe learning how to play live and being a great captivating live performer is much more difficult than learning how to write a song. You can learn how to write songs. You can learn how to be distinctive. You may not know how to really perform all that well. You may not have that in you. But you can learn how to write pretty good songs, a lot better than you think.

It's about craft.

Absolutely. It's English. It's high school English 101. It rhyming. It's repetition. It's scansion. It's concise poetry. It's everything I learned in college poetry, how every single word means something. Every single word. Not too many words. Not too few words. Potent verbiage. Form and craft.

Actors, writers, painters go to classes and study their craft. In musicians, I see it less.

I tell them all the time, if you want to be great, find someone who knows more than you and do whatever you can to endear yourself to that person and inspire them to inspire you. I see artists signed to major labels that don't know what a well-crafted song is. They don't have the history of music to know what a great song is. Obviously, great songwriting is subjective, but we do know that "Let It Be" by the Beatles is truly a great song. "Imagine," "Bridge Over Troubled Water"-they're pretty good songs, too (laughter) we can learn by those models. I would much rather learn by the models set forth by Al Green, or Stevie Wonder, or Curtis Mayfield, as opposed to Thursday or Thrice. As you say, artists do not utilize enough things like TAXI or these other workshops. There are people out there that are willing to go through the process of writing with you and go through the process of being a great writer. And that's first and foremost. Artists think the creative process is like, "whenever the spirit moves me". "Hey man I woke up at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I'm kinda burnt out, and I'm going to go to Starbucks and have a latte." That's bullshit. Writers write, and if you're great, you're writing and you're working.

The great songwriters love the process. They love toiling over their emotions and getting them to music and getting them to lyrics. And you have to know who the greats are. The greats don't make a couple of records. They make ten and fifteen. And they have long careers. They've written thousands of songs. And for every one great record, they may have written 50 or 100 songs. The craft of music is sorely lacking. People don't understand that songwriting is a craft. The great songwriters enjoy the craft. They love the craft. It's like any artisan. Any artisan loves feeling, the visceral nature, of toiling over something and getting to it. It's bullshit like, "Hey I wake up and music just comes to me. It's just free-flowing." F$#* you, "it's free-flowing." Great music is not free-flowing. It's not. Every note that's hit on a snare, every note that is hit on a bass or a piano, is specific for a song. The song drives everything. And by the song, I mean the emotional idea, what you're trying to convey.

When you're looking at a new band, how important is it for them to have an established fanbase?

More, and more, and more-with rock bands, that is. Rock bands need to be immersed in the marketplace. In other words, the more a band works, the more a band gets out there and is a band-and is a business-the easier it is for them to sell records. That's just the bottom line. Hip-hop artists are different. Pop artists are different. I would assume other genres of music are different. With rock and roll bands- four guys playing jingle jangly guitars or heavy guitars-you must look at your band like a business, like the guy around the corner with the flower shop, or the Chinese restaurant. Why look at yourself any differently? You must show up. You must have a nice menu that people want to go there and eat. You must have someone greeting you-"Hey, how's it going? Do you want some water?" You must want these people to come back. What makes it different in music? When you get on stage, you have to emotionally connect with me. You have to visually connect with me. You have to connect with me auditorally. You've got to work at it.

A lot musicians think that an A&R person, or a producer, or a manager is going to show up in their lives one day and take their raw talent and shape and mold it to get them ready. Is that an accurate picture anymore?

No. That's why as I said, places like TAXI and other resources are beneficial. There are places that provide that kind of development. There are very, very few people that have the financial means to take a band and help develop them. There is no financial gain in it anymore. Unless you're making a living, how is the person who is developing you making a living? No one is giving out publishing deals like they used to either. A manager can't commission a big publishing deal from a record deal and a publishing deal anymore. There are fewer record deals being made, and it's those bands that have a long term business approach-a two- to five-year business approach-that are the bands that are winning. The bands that are winning look at their career and say, "I'm going to be in this for three to four records." I don't even want to deal with bands that aren't in it for three or four records, that aren't going to say, "We're going to make this commitment." The truth of the matter is, there is not a business there if they're not.

How do you feel about the current focus on artists' age?

Current focus? (laughter) Listen, if you're in my office, or if I see you out on the street, and you're 30-years old, but you look youthful, you look passionate, you look like you're in the thing, that's what's important.

I was at a conference, and a kid asked me a question. This kid had glasses, and he had an Izod shirt on, Dockers jeans, and he said, "I'm a singer-songwriter, and I just can't get people to my shows." Come on, dude. You look like a fucking I.T. guy! You look like you sit far too long behind a computer. So when you ask me that question, you've got to be honest. I think music has got to be honest. You've got to make an emotional connection. If you're making an emotional connection, and you're honest, and you look like you want to be looked at, and it doesn't look weird, then age is age. If you've done too much crystal meth, if you've smoked too many cigarettes, you're going to look old.

How ready does a band have to be? When they make an album, do they generally record material that was written before their deal, or do they write new material after getting signed?

I'm going to give every band or artist who is listening or reading this article my best advice to you: Write one song a week. Period. Seriously, a band should be writing one song a week. They should learn the rigor of that. They should learn to be writers. If bands really are writers, they are going to be set up well for their second record. They're going to be set up for their third record. They're going to be set up for when they sell 300,000 records and some guy from Paramount or any other company says, "We want you to write a song for a Budweiser campaign, and we need 10 versions of a song. And we need it in 2 days. We're going to pay you $40,000 or whatever to do this." They now have the ability to do that. One song a week. If you're not doing that, you're not working hard enough.

How much attention should a new artist pay to radio?

Artists should know what the f!%# is out there. Artists should know who the competition is. Know who is on the radio. Know who the current artists are. Be in love with music. Know what's out there. Know the history of music. Know what's not too cool, but know why it sells. You don't have to know everything, but know what's up.

Where do you get new material from?

All sorts of places. I have friends who are in big bands who tour and tell me about bands. We talk about music. We exchange music. I read fanzines and online e-zines. Every way you get music, I get music. Most A&R people have their small group of people or things that we know can direct us into the ballpark of artists that we should focus on. I go to shows. I see what kind of t-shirts kids are wearing. You name it.

How important is demo quality to you?

For a rock band, if it is recorded on a DAT machine or a ghetto blaster, and I can hear the song, and I can hear the performance, it doesn't really matter to me. If it's untight and the drummer is kicking his kick drum too much and doing stupid time signature changes, or whatever, it just gets annoying. If I can feel it, then I'm there. I can feel it in my gut, and in my heart, not in my ears.

Any thoughts on the future of the music industry?

I think it's good. I think we are in such a difficult place in the music industry now that it's going to force everyone to work harder. It's going to force everyone to be more selective. It's going to force bands to work harder and build better businesses. It's going to force record industry people to make better choices. It's going to force us to spend far less money. The short-term answer to your question is, I think it's a good thing. The long-term answer is that it's bound to get better. I don't think it's going to get better in a year or two years, but maybe in three years it will get better. I just hope that I can continue to do what I love doing as long as I possibly can.

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