Major Label Q&A Panel, Part 2

TAXI Road Rally 2007

record label artist capitol records

From left to right: TAXI CEO Michael Laskow, Bob Baker, Brian Howes, Sara Kapachinski, and Autumn House.


Bob Baker, Indie music marketing expert.

Brian Howes, Produced Hinder, Skillet, Hedley, Daughtry, Puddle of Mudd, Avril Lavigne, Lifehouse, Chris Cornell, and many more. CEO of Wreck Beach Records/Interscope Records.

Sara Kapachinski, Director of A&R at Chrysalis Music Publishing.

Autumn House, Senior Director of A&R at Capitol Records Nashville.

Michael Laskow, Moderator

Artists love to bash the majors because they take such a large percentage of the money from CD sales. Let's give the audience a rundown of how much money the label spends or invests in a band in the typical first year.

Brian: My experience with my first breakthrough thing was Hinder. We signed a deal, they got a modest deal, it didn't make anybody rich-30, 40 grand in each band member's pocket to live on for probably a year and a half or two years. And they still live at home with their parents, so they're laughing. Now they all have houses. They've moved from their parents' houses to these mansions in Oklahoma. A mansion in Oklahoma is like a 100 grand...

Let's move to Oklahoma.

Brian: Yeah, exactly-except for tornadoes. Then they went on the road and just developed and toured and toured. They played every shithole club in America like seven or eight times. We released the first single "Get Stoned," it took a year of selling probably 3,000 to 5,000 copies a week to get up to about 120,000 copies of that record. And then they released "Lips," and that's the crossover single. Which in Rock these days is the only way to sell a lot of records is to have a cross-over single from Rock to Pop. Then that came out and sales started to go through the roof. But just now-and that was three years ago-they're just starting to see some money. They did well, and each company I find pays differently in different royalties. It depends on what kind of deal you make with the company. But what I saw the way Universal treated these guys was very fair. They invested the money, they let them go on the road, they gave them more money when we weren't making any money. Then, when it started happening, they were very fair with the royalties. I don't know the exact math of how it breaks down. I know in my case having the two deals, I didn't see anything, but I didn't sell any records. So you can't blame the record company.

I think there's a connection there.

Brian: Exactly. There's a connection. You do well, you make money. If you don't, you don't. It depends on the label and the people involved. If you're really close with your label I think it's easier to get checks and do better with royalty rates and stuff like that.

I have sat down and done the math with several of my A&R friends, and typically I think the baby band numbers add up to about $1.2 million, as much as maybe $1.7 million, between tour support, radio promotion money, advances to the band, money to make the record, plane flights, hotel rooms, outside PR help, whatever. You add it all up; it's over a million bucks. So if the band gets, what, 15% of retail...?

Brian: That's about right. It's about a $1.10 or $1.20 a record.

So, you've got to sell a million records for the record company to break even on its investment. The band has to go platinum the first time out of the gate in order for the record label to recoup the money that they invested in the band. So how many people can actually do that? Not a whole lot would be my guess.

Brian: These days it's really hard.

Illegal downloading isn't helping.

Brian: I think the problem also with that is that bands and artists were getting signed on one single and the rest of the record was crap.

Why is that? We all know that to be the case. Why is that with all the great songwriters in the world, and all the great communication we have to find them...? And at TAXI-if I may pat this company on the back a little bit-we've got somewhere between 11,000 or 12,000 members now, and we sit there scratching our heads everyday going, "This stuff's amazingly good. Can't believe we're forwarding it to these companies and they're going, 'Eh, not so much.'" So, why is it with all the great music that is out there-and I'm not talking about the people who think they're great, but people we actually find that are great-why are there still 11 crappy songs on every record?

Brian: You know, I think it's because people are delusional. I agree with Sara about being self-aware. As the artist you have to make sure-make it your responsibility to make sure that every song is great... Never say it's good enough, keep digging on the song-dig on it until it's perfect.

One of my good friends, Chad Kroeger from Nickelback, whose album is at seven million copies, with nine singles off the record, he's like that. I've worked with him on a lot of projects, and we'll sit there and dig for months on a song and just keep tweaking it and tweaking it until everyone in the room is going, "Oh my God." Because when it's a hit and everyone in the room knows it. When we wrote "Lips of an Angel," there were a bunch of people... we were having a house party and we were all hammered writing the song. There were a couple of girls in the room, and we figured we had kind of got the rough idea, and we played it for them. They started crying, and I said, "We got something here." You just know when you know. You know what I mean?

They just felt sorry for you, Brian. [audience laughs]

Brian: Whatever works. I mean, you can't stop digging. You have to make it your own responsibility to make sure there are 11 smash hits, and the singer has to be a star. Then, once the fans get into the band instead of just the song, they'll start loving the band and they'll want to buy the record to help support the band.

Sara, it's funny that you're at a publishing company, but a lot of your job is developing a relationship between the artists you sign and their fans. Didn't publishers used to sign writers and plug songs?

Sara: I didn't mean for it to be like that. It would be a lot easier, I think, if it weren't. If I could develop a band and work with the label A&R person, the product manager, the marketing department and the manager, it would be fantastic. But these things don't exist, you know. There are a lot of managers out there who are what I like to call fanagers. They aren't necessarily at the source of the problem, but they are that guy or that girl, or somebody you know, or your cousin Joe, who said, "I really like your songs and I'll put you out on the road and I can book shows." Anyway, I'm going off on a tangent.

Stick with that. Don't worry about that. Let's address that for a second.

Sara: Oh, it's a bottomless pit of resentment for me to get into. Managers, managers.

I want to hang out on fanagers for a second, because I get that call all the time from people: "We were playing at a club last week, and we met a guy in really great clothes who drives a Mercedes S500. He's a real estate attorney here in Peoria, he loves our music and he wants to manage us." Even with the best intentions, is that a deal an artist should do?

Sara: I don't mean to cast stones. I'm not saying that that guy can't do an amazing job. You know, people aren't born into these positions. Nobody is. You learn and you study and you struggle, and you get to the place where you are through all of that, I'd like to think. Or you're born into it. Just to tackle that one subject, in that particular position I find that a lot of people are very short-sighted in that position. It seems like there's been a trend-especially in the last few years-where that guy, that real estate agent, who wants to do right by somebody, doesn't learn enough about what he is up against in terms of the industry, because the real estate industry is not the same as the music industry. I've bumped into my share of managers who think, "I can do marketing. I can do this, so I'm just gonna book my band, put them out on the road, and just kind of wing it."

So, the bottom line is to be very careful, even if somebody comes to you as a fanager with the very best of intentions. Even if they have a law degree, but they aren't...

Sara: What's their track record? Have they ever developed an artist before? What's their background? And, again, people can get their starts. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a red flag. But learn more about that person. That person is representing you; that person is your spokesperson. Decide what you want from that person who is going to be looking after your career. It's your baby; it's your life, and you want a decent representative for that.

Autumn, do the top guns get more cuts because it's political or because their songs are the best?

Autumn: Well, I guess some people could consider it political, but you have to earn those top spots. Obviously, you can't just plop into town. It's just like any occupation. I always find that... I guess the music business still has this sort of romanticism about it that we're still plucked out of... "I was pumping gas, and I was discovered." It's a job! You work at it, and you find those people who can believe in you, who can get in to see the A&R girl at RCA, and hope that that is your best pitch, your best song that represents you when it's played. And will that song will beat Bob DiPiero and Craig Wiseman's best songs?

That's their competition. The best songwriters in the world are camped out in Nashville. You're right.

Autumn: Well, and they have a long history of amazing songs--#1 songs, hits. So, you want to go to those wells first. You do as an A&R person. But I want to find the Elliott Parks too and the Josh Kears, who just wrote "Before He Cheats" for Carrie Underwood. That changed his life.

Sara: I feel like I'm the queen of "Can I add something, Michael?" But--please correct me if I'm wrong--what I was going to say was that one of the cool things about Nashville--speaking as somebody who lives and works in Los Angeles--is that in Nashville anybody can write with anybody, which is so different from Los Angeles. Los Angeles is so much more political. And, Brian, tell me if you agree with me. You have to be like, "What have they done? What cuts have they had?" It's really just a comparison of the resume and what they've done recently, what you've done in the last six months, what cuts you've had in the last year, not 10 years ago. But in Nashville, you know, I find I can send my writers there--our newer, developing writers--and I can get them to write--obviously with connections, making phone calls with relationships. But, you know, Nashville is so much more open to sitting down with newer songwriters and developing songwriters if the chemistry is there.

Autumn: There's still such a quest for the discovery. You want to discover those new writers... even the Craig Wisemans want to... I took a writer over to Craig a year ago. I had just heard a few demos and thought he had some cool stuff, took him to Craig, and Craig signed him. He's been working with him for a year, which, of course, now Craig's going to own his publishing. But he wants to support these young guys. I think he wants to continue to build that underground of young songwriters.

Yeah, there has definitely got to be another tier to come up, because someday Craig won't have it--whatever it is. All songwriters know that there's an arc, and generally you go through it, and at some point you're on the downside, and you either have to buck up and figure out where to go next--what Brian was talking about before--or just say, "OK, I've had my run." So, it's pretty cool that Craig's doing that to develop the new young bucks to be the next generation.

What is your favorite thing about your job? I've never asked anybody this question on an A&R panel all the years I've done these. What makes you want to go to work every day?

Autumn: Wow. I love music. I come from a musical family. My dad has been working in the music business for 35, 40 years. I love the discoveries of Dierks Bentley and working with Keith Urban-just amazing talents and musicians. I love what they do, and we get an opportunity to make their dreams come true. That sounds sort of hokey, but it's true. That's what we do.
I was gonna say something earlier, back to how much it costs for the major labels-the big bad major labels. It is kind of a rule of thumb that it's a million dollars to get an artist out the door. I just went through this thing called EMI Academy. It was three days of finance. I was the only A&R person in there, and I was sweating bullets the entire time. It was all finance people from all over the country and the world.

And how many of them gave you a CD from their daughter or son?

Autumn: Oh, I think I got two. No. But it was really fascinating to see how much money is spent in marketing. I mean I'm not in those meetings, but it's like anything. You want to spend as much money as necessary to make money, but as little as possible so that the artist does make money, that we make money. You know, we are a big machine, and we are taking what we can in order to recoup. It is a business after all. This is my soapbox now, but... I sound like a company girl, and I guess I am. But I don't know how to convince independent dreamers that we're not bad guys, you know?

So you guys are fans of music, you want to help musicians.

Autumn: Well, when my boss came over... I was there about six months with kind of a crazy boss that was fired--and we know his name--then the new guy came in and we had a meeting about our philosophies about working together. Coming into Capitol Records where we have the pictures of the Beatles and the Bee Gees and The Band and Merle Haggard--I mean, they're all over the office, and it's pretty overwhelming. We never lose sight of the fact that these are people's dreams when they come into the lobby, and it's in our hands and we make them come true. Boy, I sound so Pollyanna, don't I?

Sara, do you want to add something?

Sara: I was just going to say, well, I don't think anyone up here ever forgets that we need you guys in the audience in order to do our job. That may sound hokey, but it's so very true. It starts with the songwriter. It starts with you guys. If we didn't have you, then I'd be selling shoes at Dillard's.

OK. We've covered a lot of ground already. You know what? I've got five minutes left, should I do some audience questions?

Audience Member: Does ageism play a role in the music business?

Why don't record labels sign "old" people?

Autumn: Yeah, like the 60-year-old guy that everybody applauded. I mean, yeah, the heart is there. A lot of times nobody gets there until they're ripe and ready at age 55 or something.

All right, so why don't record companies sign 40-, 50-, and 60-year-olds? A good question. Who wants to take that one?

Brian: Throw me to the lions on that one. My problem is that I'm too outspoken. I don't think the age matters. It matters on the image or the look. You don't have to be a great looking person, you can be 45, but if you look 25 and you have an interesting look... Like look at Steven Tyler, he's not the best physically looking person, but he's interesting and cool. You have to have something special about you. You can't be 400 pounds and 70 with gray hair. That's just the way it is, you just can't do it; it's not going to happen. You have to have something compelling about you and your look. You don't have to be the best looking, but as long as you look good and you stay in shape, you have a shot. A friend of mine's band from Vancouver--I hope there is nobody in the room from the record company--he's 36- years-old, never had a record deal before, and he lied about his age, and he just got signed to a label in New York, a major.

I never met an artist who lied about their age. Ever. At least since I woke up this morning.

There's another reason I've been told by several A&R people that they don't sign people who are 30, 40, 50, 60, and that is because it takes so long to get an artist developed that if you sign a 30- year-old artist, by the time the record is made and released and you've gone through the whole process, that artist is gonna be 33 or 34 years old. Sheryl Crow's "All I Want to Do" was released for a year and a half before any of us heard it on a radio station. She had been signed for four years before that. She made a record, turned it in, label said, "It sucks, make another one." She made another one, turned it in, label said, "It sucks, make another one." She made the third one, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was actually just her hangin' out doing demos with some other local writers, and it turned out to be the right record. So that was a three- or four-year process. Then "All I Want to Do" was released and nobody would touch it. Finally, a year and a half later... So, five-and-a half years--or somewhere around there--before we heard about her in the public space.

So now, let's say you sign a 30-year-old and you have a four-year arc, and now you tell that artist to make a second record. Well, they're still touring maybe to support the first record; they come off the road; they do the year of songwriting and turning stuff into Sara and their label, and they're going, "Nah, not quite there yet. Let's tweak this, let's get you writing with some cowriters, let's bring in Brian Howes, let's bring in Kara DioGuardi." So, you go through this whole process, so it's another two, three, four years before the second record comes out. Now that artist is all of a sudden 38-years-old. By the time you get to the third record, which should probably be the clincher in the whole career arc, where you really step up and have the big sales, this person is ready to start a family, and they decide, "You know what? I want to be a mom. I don't want to be touring 300 days a year," and they decide to walk away from their career, and the record company is left holding the bag on this huge investment. Is that part of it, you guys?


All panelists in unison: Yes

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