Where did you grow up?
I was born in New Jersey, but I basically grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. I went to school in San Luis Obispo, California which is where I got connected to the business. I went up there because of their college radio station KCPR. I majored in broadcast journalism and immediately, the first day I was on campus, got involved in the radio station. About a year later I became music director of that station. Working at the station helped me get the attention of the record labels. I thought I was going to take the path of being a disc jockey because I really wanted to be on air. I was heading down that route until RCA Records called and said, "We want to hire you to be the head of Alternative Promotion." They hired me with about six months left to go before I graduated. I started working while I was still in college. I would come down to L.A. on Thursdays and Fridays and work records, then go back up. I just had to make sure all of my classes were on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I graduated on a Saturday, and Monday morning, I was in my office on Sunset Boulevard. Needless to say, that last six months of school were quite entertaining, considering there was a steady paycheck from a record company.
And an expense account.
Yeah, but the problem was the pubs where I went didn't take credit cards!
You've been at RCA ever since?
Twelve years. It's the only label I've ever worked for. I started in 1988 in promotion, then moved into marketing, and for the last seven years I've been doing A&R and artist development. I'm fortunate that I'm in a position where I have the ability to do A&R and be very involved in the marketing of my band as well. In my opinion, it's ultimately the only way to do A&R--to have your hands in as many parts of the process as possible. It's the hand-off from A&R to the other departments where a lot of mistakes occur. Because the original vision starts with the A&R person and the group, the more people that get involved, the harder it is to keep that vision intact.
So you'll actually work on specifics of the marketing plan, as opposed to just being a cheerleader to the other departments?
Yes, absolutely. I'll get as detailed as possible--from what the CD single should look like, to when the single is coming out and who is going to direct the video. I do it in association with a bunch of other team members, but I try to stay--and I do remain--involved all the way until the end.
How do you spend your day? I think a lot of people have a vision of an A&R person sitting down and listening to tapes all day long.
That's the smallest part of my job. I could if I wanted to, get inundated and allow myself to do nothing more than just go through my in-box of tapes, listening and looking for that gem. The struggle is you have to, in my opinion, look at that box full of tapes and not feel like the next U2, or Smashing Pumpkins, or Sheryl Crow is in that box. I've got to feel like the next U2, Sheryl Crow, or Smashing Pumpkins already exists on my roster. Instead of spending time listening to those tapes and trying to find one, I'd rather spend time working on the records that I already have in the marketplace. Or spend time developing the talent that I've currently signed. I feel my time is better served focusing on what I have rather than what I'm looking for.
Where do you get those tapes in your in-box?
Those tapes come from all across the country--anywhere from a cousin in Denver, to a lawyer I've never met in Chicago. The tapes that end up on my desk, however, come from a whole different source. Those tapes are the ones from a person that I know. It's a band that I've seen. It's an airplay chart that I've read about. Finding a band to sign is not hard. If I wanted to--say I'm ready to sign a new band--in two weeks I could find something that I could justifiably say, "Yes this is good. I'll sign it." But finding something that is great--finding something that you just have to have--that's difficult.
Do you only sign acts that you're absolutely in love with personally, or do you let the marketplace affect your decision?
That's constantly changing. Up until yesterday, my bar was the passion that I have for the music. If I love it, then my feeling is I should be able to find a million other people that love it too, because I don't think my tastes are that different from everybody else's out there. Unfortunately, quality doesn't mean anything right now in today's marketplace. I believe that the bands that I've signed are quality. I believe that every time I sign a group, I'm looking at a career. Otherwise, I don't want to sign it. Those careers are quickly becoming nonexistent. Not because the artists that I'm working with aren't career quality groups. The marketplace doesn't give a shit about a career. We're training the consumer to only buy a record based on a song, and when they're bored of the song, they're bored of the record. You ask kids at a concert, "Do you have the record?" "Yes." "What's your favorite song?" "I like track 3, and I like track 7." They don't even know the names of the songs. The whole liner note culture doesn't exist anymore.
Why do you think that is? Do you think it's because the albums aren't strong top to bottom?
No. I think part of it is that because music is so portable, the artwork is not travelling with the package. They're getting the disc, and it's being slipped into their little CD case. It's going in their Walkman. It's going in their car. It's not going home, putting it on, dropping the needle on the record, and listening to it once all the way through, and then making a cassette tape. Plus there is no mystique. You used to buy an album, and it was the first time you ever saw what the band looked like. Which was the guy that played bass? Who played guitar? Now you see a video before you even see the album cover.
What are some of your proudest signings?
Well, certainly the Dave Matthews Band. I signed that group in 1993 with a colleague of mine, Pete Robinson. I had seen them play to 500 people at the Wetlands in New York. And two days ago, I gave them a fax that Giants Stadium sold out in two hours for two nights. That is certainly one of the proudest moments.
What is the story of that signing?
It's a great one actually. I had just started doing A&R, and an intern of mine, a kid named John Brodey, brought in this tape of Dave Matthews by himself, acoustic live, and for whatever reason, it struck me. It reminded me of Nick Drake, and I'm a huge Nick Drake fan. So I got on the phone and called my colleague in New York. I said I just heard this tape, and this guy is playing Wetlands. It turns out Pete was on a similar path, hearing about the group. So we joined forces and saw this band--this multi-racial group with a saxophone and a violin player, playing with this amazing singer-guitar player in the front, and one of the world's best drummers banging it out in the back. I still believe that had I been doing this job for a longer period of time, I probably would have talked myself out of signing the group, because on paper it made no sense at all. I think my naivete and my enthusiasm just allowed me to go with it. The thing I give RCA the most credit for is that we took what is a Rock/Jazz band and positioned them as a Modern Rock band in today's marketplace. Ultimately, that is why they sell five million records every time out.
Didn't Dave Matthews do a lot of homework in building his own fanbase?
The fanbase was certainly well on its way. But the misconception with Dave Matthews was that we signed the band after they put out the live record. That's not the case. They put out a live record called Remember Two Things after we got involved with them. One of the reasons why they signed with us is we encouraged them to put out a record on their own first. We set up a marketing fund for that record. We signed the band in April of 1993. The independent live record came out in November of 1993. The RCA record came out in September 1994.
Let's go back to the very beginning when John Brodey brought it to you. How did he get it?
He was going to school at Colgate on the east coast. The taping thing of Dave Matthews shows amongst college kids was happening. That's how this fanbase spread. The band would go play a fraternity. Then these kids would get live tapes of those shows and send it to their buddy who went to school at UMass. That guy would send it to his buddy down in North Carolina. Then they sent it out to Colorado. The college kid trading thing set that fanbase up.
How much of that story did you know when you first heard the band?
Not one iota. I just totally reacted to the music. I only realized how lucky we were the more shows I went to go see. I was working at a label where 90 percent of the acts we had signed couldn't draw what this dude was drawing. All of a sudden I realized that if RCA did everything wrong, we had a gold album under our belt. That was my feeling. If we didn't do anything right, we were going to sell 500,000 copies. The fanbase was so large. It's one of the best artist development stories of the '90s, and what could potentially be one of the last true rock careers built in this business.
You said if you had been doing the job longer, and if you'd known more about the marketplace, you might have talked yourself out of the signing. You did sort of an anti-market signing, in effect. Is it possible that what we're seeing right now is a cycle that will change again? If you continue to sign artists based on talent as opposed to the marketplace, might we see more career artists succeed eventually?
I believe that the Internet, for all the things it's going to do for the business, is going to allow for quality to surface again. People are willing to buy great records if they're exposed to them. The only reason they're not buying them is they're not being exposed to it. The main channels that are feeding us everything we're hearing are not playing great songs by great artists. They're not showing great videos by great artists. They're showing the top 10 videos that the kids request. They're playing the top 20 songs that the kids request. They're not playing anything of substance. Obviously there are always exceptions. There are records on the radio today that are selling really well that many of us passed on because we just didn't feel they were of substance. It's a difficult thing to look at that and say, maybe I should have signed that band because I'm in a business of commerce, and these bands are selling even though I don't think they match the bar of my quality. The quality has gone down, but the consumer is the one ultimately that I have to activate.
Now that there are fewer and fewer labels out there, does that mean that the remaining labels are going to be signing more and more artists?
No, I don't think so. I think it's just going to get harder and harder. There are not only fewer labels for an artist to go to, there are fewer good labels that you want to be on. So you could take however many labels you think are available and slice that by half to the ones you really want to have a hit on. That's the difference I've seen doing A&R at RCA Records from when I started up to now. When I started, I had to chase the Dave Matthews Band around for seven months to get them to sign. Now, we are in a position, because RCA has its shit together and we are functioning as a label, where I know that I don't have to hear that tape first anymore to have a shot. That gives me a little more wait-and-see time. It's a nice position to be in.
Do you look for outside songs much for rock artists?
It's interesting, I've had this conversation a lot lately. I believe more and more that the old school A&R way of developing the material is going to start finding its way into the rock world. The competition is so tough. These artists only have one chance so the songs need to be bulletproof. If the artists can't write them themselves, you're going to have to start finding those songs in other areas.
Especially for that second record, I would think.
Especially for that second record. The consumers, the kids that are buying all these millions and millions of pop records, are growing up with amazing song craft--the first song they ever hear is a Diane Warren song. Those are amazingly crafted songs. They're used to that. I think that kind of A&R is going to start seeping into the rock world. Then that will get overused, and everybody will get pissed off because bands aren't writing their own material. Then Nirvana will come along again, and we'll be back to where we started at ground zero. When is that going to happen? I don't know, but would somebody call me before, so I can be prepared?
Are there components that an artist has to have before you will pursue them or get interested in signing them? For example, do they have to have a fanbase? Do they have to have done some homework in that area?
Every time I've deviated from my mantra--which is that they have to have a piece of product in the marketplace prior to coming to me; they have to have a touring base; and they have to have a great manager in place--I've struggled, almost to the point of losing the act, or to the point where I've invested two million dollars to get to where I should have started from all along, and have made a management change, and, and, and . . . The more self-contained, the better. And the more self-contained, the more power that artist is going to have from the outset--rather than having to become big to gain the power. I love it when my RCA Records has to follow my artist's lead, rather than RCA having to show them where the bread crumbs are.
How much does the Internet mean to you now in looking for bands?
Not at all. At this point today, I still believe all that is is unsolicited material in an MP3 file.
What about someone that has demonstrated an Internet fanbase? Does that mean anything to you?
Yes. But for me it's not that they've been downloaded 50,000 times, but that their website is getting hits. It's that people are going to "X" band.com to find out about the band, not to click on a song.
What's the difference?
I think downloads are people searching for something that's good. In going to the website, I believe there is already a draw of people hearing or knowing that it's good. It's more brand specific. I don't want to downplay the Internet's importance, though. That could be the next revolution. That could be the next Nirvana that we're all looking for--the thing that totally turns the industry on its ear, and certainly it's an advantage to musicians out there. But I don't believe anybody has the answer on where it's going yet. No matter what conference you go to, and I've been to many of them, about where the Web is headed, for every Internet question, there are four different answers. It just hasn't been sorted out yet, but it's obviously coming. And I'm just as excited about satellite radio as I am about the Internet. I love the fact that I could be driving down the road, and I've got a choice to listen to nothing but all male singer-songwriters if I want, and hit a button to order the record. You can seek out quality again.
Any pointers out there for bands that eventually want to get A&R attention?
Here is a pointer: Basically, go under the premise that every single person in this business has a huge ego. If you want to meet them, have them talk about themselves. They will be there for twenty minutes talking to you. Just go up to them and say, "Hey you're so and so. You signed this band, this band and this band. I love those bands." And you will have that guy or girl in the palm of your hand.