A&R and the Shifting Major label landscape 2

A&R and the Shifting Major label landscape 2

This is part two of a two part interview with Andy Karp a manager and marketing executive by way of a very successful career in A&R at Atlantic Records (Signed Kid Rock, Simple Plan, Click 5, Porcupine Tree, Skillet and many others).  If you missed part one you can check that out – here.

Music Consultant:

I know after you left Atlantic you could’ve gone back into another label job somewhere but you opted not to.  I know because we have spoken of it in the past that we both find some major flaws in the label system today.  From your vantage point as someone who was enormously successful at major labels – what do you think is the most flawed about the way these labels are operating today?

 

AK:

I don’t know what the most flawed thing is, because there are a lot of flaws. But they are also in a very tough spot. There’s no obvious answer to fix their problems that anybody can give them. I tend to think more philosophically about these things. I think it’s better if you talk more about the major labels in general and not specifically about Atlantic, because Atlantic is one of the major labels that’s doing particularly well. They have a much more pronounced digital strategy than any other major by leaps and bounds. That’s an area where they’re being very forward thinking.

The question is more from an A&R perspective. This may not be fixable. The majors have a huge problem, which is they carry enormous overhead and some of them still have 150-200 employees. It’s a very difficult burden to carry in this kind of environment. Philosophically, my thoughts tend to be that when people are rejecting your product and the vast majority of the music you put out, the thing you should do is go left. And it seems like majors are instead doubling down on mainstream stuff. The problem is not that it’s mainstream. There are not a lot of people out there that are bigger suckers for a good pop song than me. The problem is that happens when you are operating only within very fine-tuned parameters and parameters that are shrinking and whatever Top 40 is playing now – Top 40 is a format that is reflective of its audience and a completely research-driven format and the audience is fickle and changes very quickly and things fall out of favor very quickly.

Right now, Top 40 is incredibly urban focused, whereas a year ago it wasn’t nearly as much. If you’re a major, what you’re doing is focusing on acts that can fit right between those very fine lines. But the problem is that between the time when you find the acts and record the music and find the songs you think are hits, those parameters can change. The creative part of it is very expensive now because it has to fit. If it doesn’t fit, you don’t have a shot. You put your track out and promote it through these big media driver approaches that people have always done – you make a video and work it and spend money on radio promotion and fly the bands around to have appearances at radio stations. What ends up happening is you sell a boatload of singles. It’s a really tough bargain for most labels. The problem is they have conditioned themselves to operate in this fashion, and I don’t know that they have the wherewithal to try a different approach.

They are instead doing 360s, and most of the labels are not capable of exploiting 360 rights. I don’t even have a philosophical problem with 360 deals as a person that is outside of it and manages artists, provided they can exploit the rights with best in class services. Most of the majors haven’t proven they can do that. The truth is, most of the majors should’ve been asking for 360 type deals 25 years ago when they were writing big checks for tour support. Now they are asking for more rights and giving less in return. And the problem is, it’s survival for them. I understand why they are trying to do it, but it makes it all the less likely that any band with a real following will want to do that type of deal without getting a massively front-loaded deal. And truthfully, if you’re asking for 360 deals while focus is on the type of acts that sell singles that nobody is ever going to want to go see in concert, you’re minimizing that chances that those 360 rights, those merch rights, are going to be valuable, because who wants to buy t-shirts for acts that don’t have any real staying power? It’s an odd Faustian bargain. I would think you’d be much more likely to want to spend money to build the live base of things that are left of center. Those are the acts that have real fans.

Music Consultant:

So how is your new company operating given that this is the environment that we all deal with?

Artist Haven is a management branding entity. Our goal is purely focused on fan building. That’s essentially it. We are very much of the belief that the future of the entertainment business – not just the music business – is going to be simply catering to people that care. And this is not rocket science. It’s not like we’re the first people to come across this idea. But if you look at the landscape, we have just been talking about how majors have this problem where they are catering to people that are fans of one song rather than of an artist.  People that are fans of artists spend money on that act. People that are fans of songs only buy those songs.

 

 

Music Consultant:

Is there anything artists can do to make people buy into them as a part of culture vs. a disposable song? Is that something you can manipulate or is just something some people have?

 

AK:

Some people do have it and some people don’t, that’s a fact. That’s one of those things you become hyper aware of doing A&R. If you don’t recognize that, you’re going to be in A&R for about a year and then will be off working at Pluck University (*** This is Andy mocking the fast food chicken job that I had prior to being his intern and then assistant- I was 19…shut up…***). I think it all starts with music. That’s it. If your music is not great, and if people aren’t connecting with it, it won’t matter. In terms of being a creative person trying to figure out how to make your art better and perfect your art, you want to be different and distinctive, but at the same time, you have to be observant and see which songs people react to at your gigs and know why they react to them. If you have a tune that the crowd always goes crazy about, and that song is a legitimate expression of what your band is about then you should write more things like that. Look at these songs and see why they work.  It’s about never taking your audience for granted, treating your fans like investors instead of like customers. They are customers, but I like to think of them more like investors. The reason “investors” is a term that works for me is because people are really passionate about the bands and the artists they love. When the music really represents times in your life and is a soundtrack to you, you have a very emotional investment in the creative output of that artist. That’s why I like to think of it as being more than just a customer. I think in fact using the term investor is less crass and callous than calling someone a customer.

 

Music Consultant:

I never liked the word either-  I agree with you.

 

AK:

What you simply have to do is, always be true to yourself,  because people react to authenticity. In doing that, you also have to be really smart and understand how the relationship between artist and fan works. It’s a weird thing, because fans expect an enormous amount from you and have a lot of impressions built up that may not always be grounded in reality. You have to make sure that you’re never hosing them. If you’re an act and on a major and put out a record, and then your label wants to put out a deluxe version of that record because it finally started to sell, that’s nice that you can jack the price up a couple dollars and get more fans out of people that just bought the single, but you just stuck it to a bunch of fans that bought the first record first by putting that deluxe version out.

 

Music Consultant:

Said by somebody that has clearly been stung by that exact ruse.

 

AK:

Right. I think it’s terrible. It’s an incredibly short-sighted approach. You can certainly say it’s just one thing, but it doesn’t take a lot to make people distrust your motives. That doesn’t mean you can’t make money, or that fans always want the artists they care about to exist in this little vacuum, and nobody else should know about it. It really is more about whether people believe that the music is authentic and is coming from the artist’s heart and is a real expression of what the artist is about, and whether or not the fans feel that the artist is taking them for granted. Are their ticket prices more expensive? Did they pay more to be part of a fan club and were supposed to get the rights to get prime ticketing, and then you went to the show and found out you paid four times what some other guy sitting right next to you paid for the ticket, because he got it late when the broker opened up seats? That’s the kind of stuff that can be hard to prevent but really leaves a bad taste in fans’ mouths. Make your merch better than other people’s merch. If you spend $20 on a shirt, don’t make your t-shirt $45. It’s about understanding little things like that, and that the trust the investor puts in the artist is a sacred contract. If you are dismissive of it, they will leave. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out. Think about the bands you love yourself. How would you like to be treated or rewarded for your consistent patronage and support of their music? That’s really it.

 

Music Consultant:

You’re totally right. Now, you were telling me about how you are building fan bases with Artist Haven. What else is going on with that?

 

AK:

We’re not just doing music. I think if there’s one thing that’s particularly interesting these days is that anyone that creates content, and anyone that creates media is all in the same boat. We’re all floating in the same river, which is trying to get people to pay attention and pay for things.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I knew we (Content creators and the industries surrounding them) were all in trouble when I heard the porn business was struggling too.

 

AK:

I remember reading an article about that, and I was pretty surprised by the number of analogous problems they were having with record companies. If you think about it, they were approaching it the same way. They were policing copyright violations, people using their content without paying for it, creating packages that have additional content. It’s actually kind of fascinating, and somebody should probably write an article about it for Atlantic or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair or something like that. But anyone that produces content is in this boat. The bottom line for us is that nobody can predict exactly what systems are going to be in five or ten years. I tend to think it’s going to be subscription based, where music is going to be a service, and it’s all streamed. That would seem to make a lot of sense, but we’re certainly nowhere near that happening. I can’t envision music being free. We’re trying to take a unique approach to every artist we handle. In some cases it may make a lot of sense to give an artist’s music away. In other cases, it may make sense not to and to focus on very elaborate packaging and content to sell to fans that want vinyl or surround-sound mixes on Blu-Ray. I do think that part of the problem is because those of us at majors – and I include myself in this because I was there, whether I believe in it or not – really devalued music over the last 15 years. As a result, we deserve part of the blame for the mess we’re all in. I think it will ultimately come down to figuring out who your audience is and serving them somehow. If it means giving away music to get more fans, then great, if it will build another area of your business. But we’re not afraid to do whatever it takes to create that audience. At the end of the day, it’s always going to be about finding ways to sell things to people that care. So, if we give things away it’s going to be to build a different area of the business.

Artist Haven is handling a couple different acts. I have a self-help author, a band called Cynic, a guitar player named Justin King. They’re all very different, and none of them are Top 40. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t work with something Top 40, but it means we’re trying to focus on projects where if we do our job right and they do their jobs right we can help our clients find people that are really passionate about what they do.

To learn more about Andy Karp and his new company please visit Artist Haven and check out his Jazz Quartet.