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Michael Laskow, Moderator

TAXI member Russell Landwehr knows how to make the best of a great community and contributes a lot to it as well.
TAXI member Russell Landwehr knows how to make the best of a great community and contributes a lot to it as well.

Antonina Armato looks on as Tim James talks about the future and how songwriters will get paid.

Let’s talk about the corporate stuff: the fact that you are a corporation now and you’re the man. [But] you’re not the man, and I’m sure you don’t want to think about yourselves as “the man” or a corporation. But people want to separate; they want to compartmentalize business and creativity, and you guys seem to be masterful at both. You can’t have accomplished and built this team of people around you in a physical place where that team shows up and creativity flows; you can’t do that if the business is stifling your creativity. Yet so many of the young, starting out, independent, not massively successful yet songwriters and artists that I know feel like, “Oh crap, I have to learn the business side too?”

Antonina: Do you guys feel that way too? I was just wondering.

I hear this from our members a lot. “I just want to create; I just want to put my heart and soul into this piece of music and let the world love it.” Everybody wants their music to be loved; they want to share it and get it out there. And when it’s time to be more businesslike, I have to beg them to do it. In my opinion, you could be the greatest songwriter in the world, but if you don’t have your act together on a business level, you’re gonna miss some, if not many, opportunities. But you guys seem to be masterful at both of those things. How did you transition from being la-di-da creatives to la-di-da mega-hit writers that have this business?
Tim: First of all, we’ve been growing since like 2006, so it’s pretty cool. And most of the bigger music companies [have] taken a pretty big hit. Two things for our business model are: 1) When there’s a challenge, love it more, and 2) If millions of people like what you do, don’t worry about the money, it will find a way, so focus on that. So the business focus is on those two pillars. Now, we have accountants for the other stuff, even a handyman to make sure the place is lit, you know. But for our focus, that’s how we’ve been able to build Rock Mafia into where we’re dealing with people and how we approach anything, whether it’s a huge artist or a new artist or a brand.

“You have to be nimble enough to change. It’s like anything else; everyone starts off in a different place.”

-Antonia Armato

A: But also, you have to be nimble enough to change. It’s like anything else; everyone starts off in a different place. Like in the beginning when I was 17 years old, it was like you just wrote a song and if your publisher thought it was good you were just so happy, and if you got what they called a hold (asking you to not pitch it to anybody else because they were seriously interested in the song), it was like these little moments of excitement for each little thing. But then you have to change. I realized at a young age that, “Wow, I have to start producing as well, because that’s sort of the new way.” You have to just keep morphing and changing. I mean, I started producing by myself as a female. You ask me, “Do I know how to use that stuff (recording gear)?” Well, no, but I knew how to hire musicians; I knew how to hire Pro Tools engineers; I knew how to do all that stuff so that I could produce it on my own. And it wasn’t until I met Tim that I realized, wow, this is the person that I… You know, we were friends first. He was signed to Columbia Records as an artist, I was a hit songwriter girl, that’s how we got together.

And Larry (Tollin) introduced you guys on that basis, right?
T: Yes, Larry introduced us.

A: So I think that that was the big catalyst for us was that we realized we could do more and better together. But you have to change. A record company used to be able to [figuratively] push a button and make things happen. Well, with the Internet now and everything being stolen or shared or whatever, record companies didn’t have that power anymore, so you have to become a mini-record company, you have to be more than a songwriter. It’s like what you said, you either have to know people like us that can take your genius and plug it in to an infrastructure that we’ve already been working on for years and years—it takes a while to get that foundation and those roots—or you have to do it yourself and become your own little record company and develop your own artists and figure out how to get out there so that the big guys will go, “Oh, wow, look at what they’ve done. OK, well, here’s the money.” They don’t develop things anymore like they used to.

But you do.
T: But that’s the opportunity. I mean, the fact that they don’t do that is why we’ve been successful.

Rock Mafia
Rock Mafia's Tim James, spent some quality with TAXI members after his interview was over. He also took home a ton of music!

So that dovetails beautifully into my next question, which is, how do you find talent? Is it all in-house referrals that you’re working with and they hear somebody and bring it to you and you like it or you don’t?
T: Talent finds us. We don’t find it.

A: Oh, God.

T: OK, what I mean by that… No, but it’s true. Every week on Monday at 11:30 a.m. at Rock Mafia, we sit down. We’re not allowed to play what we’re doing, we have to play what’s going on, and we go deep on SoundCloud; we’ll go deep on YouTube finding voices and then watching that voice get signed. We’re seeing everything from a pretty cool point. We make a point every week to look at it. If your stuff is resonating, we’re gonna hear about it. I can’t tell you how many times new artists have walked into the studio who have just a little bit of a buzz and they think they’re meeting and they’re going to tell me [what they’re doing], and I already know what they’re doing. That’s why they are there.

A: Well, I’m going to answer that a little bit differently, because…

T: Of course, because we are totally different. [laughter]

“You have to become a mini-record company, you have to be more than a songwriter.”

-Tim James

A:  Sometimes I feel like… OK, like all of you guys out there, maybe there’s like four or five like frickin’ geniuses out there that we would love to meet that are super-talented. But we can meet you, because luckily you have TAXI, and TAXI’s creating this beautiful bridge. But the truth is that I’m always thinking that, God, it’s such a shame, because there are people everywhere that probably have this… I mean, I know that talent is rare, but I know that there are people that we don’t know about and we can’t get to, that we would be privileged and grateful to hear and to know and to see. And that’s why TAXI and… I don’t know of any other….

T: I actually don’t know really many [companies] that do this. [TAXI] is pretty awesome, if you think about it! It’s true. And then a lot of the peeps that you have at TAXI are people I know, or have known, and I’m gonna take that call way quicker than I’m gonna take one from somebody else.

You mentioned vocals before, and I want to get into that because so much of a hit record is the performance. The day after we had lunch together, I was in the car with my 14-year-old daughter, and she said, “Dad, you need to listen to 104.3 (a radio station in Los Angeles). I haven’t turned it off since. Yes, there’s a fair amount of homogeneity, but in my personal opinion, I think that radio is going through a bit of a renaissance period right now—it’s better than it’s been for a while. But on a vocal performance level, people are so reliant on effects and compressing the hell out of everything, that it’s pretty obvious that the vocal performance is lacking. Where’s the next Neil Young?
T: It’s coming. Listen, we go through cycles. This is so 1950s you can’t even stand it. It’s “Splish splash, I’m takin’ a bath,” or whatever. There are parallels to that era in this. And Spotify, and why I embrace streaming so much, guys, because it changes the conversation in music. It becomes about, “Did you hear that? Did you hear this cool song?” It’s a little different. That’s going to be good for artists; it’s going to be good for music...

A: They just have to pay artists more then.

T: That will happen, guys. It’ll scale, I have no doubt. But this is where we’re different too. When piracy started happening I said, “Great, music’s for free, we’ll figure it out.” I just embrace it. I embrace the reality and try and turn something into it. But I think Spotify will pay more. I guarantee you in three years they will pay 25% more. After that there will be a multiple attached; there will be renegotiations. We’ve got good people at ASCAP and BMI, and Irving’s (Azoff) new thing (Global Music Rights). There are just great minds out there fighting for our rights.

A: Aloe Blacc just blogged this really great thing about how everyone is working on trying to get everyone paid more. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous. Just a basic songwriter used to be able to make a living and now they can’t, blah, blah, blah. But seriously, they are now implementing changes that will affect everyone in this room in a really substantial way in the next couple years. I think the worst is definitely over, and I think there is going to be a renaissance, not only creatively, but financially.

T: For independent artists who have an audience that really cares, streaming is the best thing that could ever happen to you. I mean, if you look at it like, yes, as songwriters we’re going to increase, but we own masters too, and it’s amazing what they’re paying every month. It’s just growing every month. Songs that are four years old are up 30% every month in royalties from Spotify. So it’s happening; it’s slow. I get where Aloe [Blacc] is coming from; I know what it’s like to be able to buy pizza with 100 million views. I know what that’s like. But I think it’s changing, and we have to be patient and just let business do what it’s gonna do.

Rock Mafia
Nobody will ever accuse Rock Mafia's Antonina Armato of being dull while being interviewed. She was passionate and more than enthusiastic, to say the least!

Going back to vocal performance, what is the best advice you can give?
What advice can you give these guys about being 30% better than good?
T: No Auto-Tune. Don’t use it; throw it away. That’s the first thing you should do.

Years ago, one of our regulars here at the Road Rally, a friend of mine named Marshall Altman, who was an A&R person, stood right there on that floor and said, “The floor is bad, the ceiling is good, and the sun is great. You need to be on the sun.” I hear a lot of stuff that’s really good, it’s competent. The singers are competent, but they’re missing that special thing that makes the hair on your arms stand up. How do you guys get that performance out of an artist in the studio?
A: I can tell you that, I think…maybe not. OK, I produce the vocals, and I would do whatever it takes to get a great vocal. We started off working with all the young guys. They kind of enlisted us because we’re sort of the newbies to come in and make the Disney artists sound legit. Because Disney used to have Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera: a whole bunch of people, then they lost them to Jive Records, so then we had this whole thing. We had Vanessa Hudgens, we had Miley Cyrus, and we had Selena Gomez. We had all these different artists that we had to figure out what they were like and how to make them sing. So you’re taking young artists and trying to make them sing was an interesting process. But I think I have a really strong talent with it, because I make them feel comfortable and secure. I think that’s a really big part.

But what I was going to say is that there are a lot of great voices, and there are very few great singers—people that make you feel something. And it’s not necessarily how many notes you hit, it’s about communicating the text of the song and making you feel something. One of the best I’ve ever heard is him [Tim]. And the reason why I’m saying that—I’m not saying this for any other reason—it’s like when you hear Sia sing. And that’s the reason why Tim’s voice is now going to be out (on their current single), when it’s not so important to be 18, or be a star, or have a social network. People care more about the music. If you, as a young producer, or a middle-aged or older producer/writer, whatever, a songwriter, if you can find a singer—and this goes back to the old days in the ’60s or whatever with Motown…

T: Think about Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye; these guys they were writers as well, but they were singers. There are these multi-tracks that [are all over the Internet] and somebody showed up [at the studio] and I heard “What’s Goin’ On” a cappella. I just wanted to quit! It was so insanely good, and so effortless. So it’s great to look at those legends; we can learn a lot from those guys.

A: If you’re a great director and you find an amazing actor and you stuck with him, like Scorsese did with De Niro, and you found that great singer, it would hugely impact your song. I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I could give you. When I first started out there was this session singer—her name was Sue Ann Carwell—and she sang on everybody’s record. She was the voice of T-Boz on TLC. She had that low-octave thing. She was singing on everybody’s records, and we kind of became friends. And once I started having her sing on my records it made a huge difference. I mean, that’s so important.

T: I learned so much from her, because I watched her come in, and we’d be listening to the artist’s performance—and it was a good performance—but Sue would know when to double it and when not to, when to harmonize, when to just do a breath off of something. I mean, this girl had a high intelligence in vocal arrangement. I learned so much from her.

“There are a lot of great voices, and there are very few great singers—people that make you feel something.”

-Antonia Armato

A: Yeah, and Tim has the same thing. I always say he’s like bacon—everything he does is just better. It sounds better, it tastes better… everything! So I think that’s really an important thing, and it doesn’t have to be like the greatest voice in the world, it just does something to make me feel something when I hear it? And if you find someone like that…

T: More than technique, feeling something is the most important thing in a vocal performance.

Read part 4 in next month’s Transmitter!