The following is an interview I did for a song placement service called TAXI. It’s a bit dated in places, but the general information on A&R, songs and music publishing is still relevant.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town outside of Boston called Marblehead. A long way from Los Angeles and the music business.
How did you get started in the music business? Was it something you always wanted to do?
I was one of those guys who saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a little kid. Then when I was in my early teens I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Both of them had a monumental impact on my life.
I was in San Francisco in the mid-seventies writing for Rolling Stone and they were moving to New York and either I had to move to New York or L.A. I was kind of Rolling Stone’s ‘ghetto’ correspondent. I would write about the groups and artists that most white rock critics were afraid of going to see. I was fearless, so I would go anywhere and see anyone.
One of the acts I went to see was George Clinton and Parliament/ Funkadelic, Bootsies Rubber Band and George’s whole funk empire, if you will, in St. Louis and I spent a week on the road with them. At the end of it I got the article out and it was well-received by Rolling Stone. About a month later George called me up and said “Hey, would you be interested in moving to Los Angeles and working for me?”. Faced with New York or L.A. I said okay and moved to L.A. in 1976. I’ve been here ever since.
What was next?
I worked for George from ’76 to ’80. I was kind of Director of Information for George and all his myriad of groups. I did everything from publicity to coordinating album packages to writing bios to running the fan club to doing advance work. Just a general jack of all trades. I was coordinating projects with five different labels so I got to see how different labels operated and got to see the nuts and bolts of making a record, up close and personal.
I did that until 1980 and then went to work at A&M Records as head of West Coast publicity. I did that for about two years, and from there I managed an act or two, still in the George Clinton school of funk, that I was able to get signed to A&M. I worked with these two acts for a couple of years which then parlayed into a job at Almo Irving, which is A&M’s publishing division. To be quite honest, I knew nothing about publishing or what songwriters did or how they got their songs placed or any of that process.
So, I did that from about ’85 to ’88 and learned just an amazing amount about songs and songwriters and song structure and how publishers collect and how songwriters make money. It was a great education.
And from there?
While I was at Almo Irving I got an amazing amount of songs placed. I got over 40 songs placed with artists including Whitney Houston, Taylor Dayne, Nelson, Kix…everything across the board from heavy metal to R&B. I left there in ’88 to go to Capitol Records and do the “R” part of the A&R function. When people talk about A&R they have a tendency to hone in on the “A” side of A&R which stands for ‘Artist’. The “R” stands for ‘Repertoire.’
Capitol had all these artists who needed songs and needed somebody to help coordinate the finding of songs and the placement of songs with these artists. They had been relying on producers to do that, but they wanted to exercise a little bit more control.
So I was brought in and worked there for almost two years, and got cuts with everybody from Tina Turner to Dave Edmunds to Joe Cocker and again, got a ton of songs cut, placed, and performed in everything from hit albums to movies to everything. I did that from ’88 to ’90 until there was a changing of the guard at Capitol. I came to work at Mercury in 1990 and have been here ever since.
What’s your official title?
Senior Director of A&R for Mercury/Parachute Records. My primary function is to find artists for Mercury and to find songs for various Mercury artists. Since I’ve been here the whole song placement thing has kind of taken a back seat just because most artists these days are writing the bulk of their own material. But the biggest hit I have gotten that I have placed here is a song called ‘Love Is’ which was a Number One A/C hit for Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight, and made the Top Five in pop. I also was responsible for finding the song ‘Higher Ground’ which is on the new Vanessa Williams record, “The Sweetest Days”. There is now talk of it eventually becoming a single, so I’m hoping that will happen.
Switching over to your role as it relates to finding new artists. What are the most common ways that unsigned artists come to your attention now?
There are a number ways. First off, I don’t accept unsolicited tapes. I still get a lot of them and unfortunately I have to send them back. Not because I want to, but for legal protection reasons. But the way I hear about artists and get tapes is through attorneys, managers, other artists that I know, producers, or songwriters who are developing acts as vehicles to have their music heard. Sometimes a friend will call me up and say “Hey, I heard a great tape and you should check it out.”
What’s your estimate of how many tapes you get in a month?
I’d say I get an average of between 80 and 100 tapes a week…about 300 to 400 tapes a month.
That’s just you, not the entire A&R Department?
That’s just me. And I try to respond to every tape that comes to me through legitimate channels. I give it a listen, and give some a ‘yes’, some a ‘no.’ The worst thing about being a creative person trying to get heard in this business is …you send in your tape, and it’s like sending something into a black hole in outer space. You don’t know if somebody heard it or they didn’t. So whether it’s a songwriter or a publisher pitching me a song, or a manager or an attorney pitching me an act, I try to get back to everybody and let them know where they stand.
What combination of elements does it take to convince you that a band or artist is worth signing?
There are two types of areas. Kind of a left brain, right brain thing, if you will. One is what I call the intangibles. You can’t put your finger on them, but they are factors that go into the process of signing an act. Is the person charismatic? Do they have a vibe? Do they communicate with the audience? Is the audience, on a visceral level, a musical level , or on a sheer vibrational level attracted to the performer? If they are, that says a lot. That’s an intangible. Do they have a lyrical bent that encompasses a strong point of view that people can relate to? Is there something about the act that just grabs you by the guts and won’t let go? Those are what I call the intangibles.
The tangibles are…..Do they know how to write a great song? All of you people out there reading this: Time and time again you are told that the song is the most important thing. I cannot stress that enough. When you are buying real estate, the real estate agent says “location, location, location”. That’s the clichÃ© about buying real estate. The clichÃ© of having a hit record is having a hit song. If the song is great, then nine times out of ten, the record, if it’s well-produced, well-sung and well-performed, will be great and stand a good chance of becoming a hit. Inversely, if the song is horrible, no matter how many production dollars you spend, or how great a singer you are, or how good a guitar player you’ve got playing on the solo, the song is not going to make it.
You have got to have a killer, killer song. And the problem is… let’s just say if I listen to 100 songs a week, 80 of them are going to be good â€”not bad, not great â€”just good. Another 15 of those are going to be real good. And then another 4 are going to be â€”-“Wow, this is really, really good. This could get cut.” But only 1 out of the 100 is going to be great. A mind-blowing, hit-you-between-the-eyes smash. So my job is to find that one great song. And your job as an artist is to write that one great song. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder than it looks.
What makes a song great?
Number one, a great lyric. One that makes an emotional statement, or statement about the world and the way you are looking at it. That statement needs to be something that a lot of people can relate to.
Number two, structure. Believe it or not, not many beginning, or even real good, songwriters always come up with great structure. You need to have a great chorus. One that is singable, hummable and imprints the brain quickly because that’s the part of the song most listeners gravitate towards. I’m also a firm believer in either a bridge section (a middle eight) after your second chorus, or a pre-chorus section to serve as a departure from the standard melodic scheme that you have set up in the verses.
Last, but not least, the first ten to twenty seconds of the song and the last ten to twenty seconds of the song are also very important. The first ten grab you by the shirt collar and drag you into it, and the last ten or twenty seconds let you down easy, or back into the reality you were living before your ear became attracted to that song. Those are the structural components that I try to look for in a hit song.
You are talking about pretty traditional elements of the songwriting craft. How do you respond to people that say, “Hey man, I don’t live in that world. I’m trying to do something new, something different, I’m writing what’s coming from my heart and my soul. I don’t need your rules” and shun those traditional elements?
Some of those people can, and do have a career based more on what I call the ‘attitude’ aspect of their artistic persona, rather than the melodic aspect.
It seems to me that the artists with staying power are the ones that eventually learn the craft.
Tell me about Parachute Records.
I have this imprint label called Parachute which is geared more towards the adult alternative listener, but like any radio format it can become a ghetto rather than a broad musical palate if that’s all it is, so I try to find artists who can go above and beyond the genre, and get played on commercial alternative as well as adult alternative or get played on adult contemporary or CHR. The groups you see who have been able to do this like Counting Crows or Sheryl Crow or Crash Test Dummies appeal to a younger crowd, but also appeal to an older crowd. That’s what I try to look for. If it’s pigeonholed into this week’s fashion statement, I’m not really interested.
What else is different about the way you approach A&R versus other labels?
Well, I think everybody is always looking for a hit. Let’s face it, this business is hit driven. But more than being hit driven, it’s artist driven because the artists are the people who create the music. But unfortunately, in the past four or five years this business has become taken over more and more by multinational corporations, and less and less by independent record companies. Everybody wants an instant success. It’s no longer common to allow artists to find their audience and grow organically to a point where maybe it’s their second or third album before they have a breakthrough hit. I’m trying to go back to the mentality that it may take more than one album to get an artist heard. So, in the case of Parachute I try to make the records inexpensively so the artist gets more than one shot at success.
If you were doing career counseling for a band in Dryprong, Louisiana, what steps would you advise them to take in order to get signed or at least noticed?
I think the best thing to do is not to move to New York, L.A., or Nashville. That is lesson number one. Because you will come to one of these places and find out that there are ten thousand others like you trying to do the exact same thing. They are bombarding industry people with music and those people just don’t have the time and energy, even though it’s right under their nose, to hear it and sign it.
I think a lot of times you are better off staying wherever you are, and utilizing the resources there. Find the best players in town. If you aren’t a great songwriter find that person in town who is an English Lit major who might be a great lyric writer, who may not even be a musician but has the lyrical gift, to find that person and utilize their talents.
Then play and broaden your touring circle within maybe a hundred to two-hundred mile radius of where you live. And if you can broaden it to a three to five-hundred mile radius that’s even better. And if there are any large metropolitan cities near that radius, go there once a month and play Chicago or St. Louis or Cleveland or Cincinnati or Miami or wherever you’re near.
How important is production when pitching yourself as an artist, and is it different when you are pitching a song?
I’ve had people come in here saying ‘How do you like my demo? I just went into a 48 track studio with a Neve or an SSL board with flying faders with this and that. Doesn’t it sound fantastic?! ‘ And I say ,’Yeah it sounds great… too bad your songs are lacking anything like a hook, but yeah, it sure sounds good.’
The key is that anybody with any talent in this business (A&R) is going to be able to hear through a demo and hear the song. So, I advise people not to spend a ton of money on the sound, but to spend a ton of time on the song. The song is what you are selling, not the sound. The sound is a part of it, but a good eight or sixteen track demo is going to be able to get your sound across, and you’re not going to go bankrupt. One of the songs that I got placed with Whitney Houston was recorded with just one guy on a Fender Rhodes and a click track singing into a lousy little microphone recorded onto a Fostex four-track. He has made over a million and a half dollars off of that song. If the song is great, you don’t need all the bells and whistles.
Any parting wisdom for the up-and-comers out there?
All I can tell you, if you love music and music is in your blood, stay at it, talent will win out, but you have to believe in your talent. You have to believe in yourself. You have to realize that this is probably one of the toughest businesses in the world to break into.
You also have to realize that it is one of the most competitive businesses in terms of not just the volume of material that is put into each A&R guy’s face, but the volume of material that is presented to the listening public every month. As I mentioned, I get hundreds of tapes a month, in an average month over twelve hundred albums are released. Most new artists think, ‘I’ve got to get a record deal. I’ve got to get a record deal.’ The record deal is only the beginning! Once you make that record, it has to sell or else you don’t have a record deal anymore. So realize that this is a long-term commitment, that there are going to be a lot of disappointments, a lot of set-backs, but if you believe in yourself and believe in your music, talent will win.