A&R and the Shifting Major label landscape

A&R and the Shifting Major label landscape

Andy Karp is a manager and marketing executive by way of a nineteen-year career at Atlantic Records.  He is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist and one of the few people I know who can play a Chapman Stick.  Andy started in the Radio Promotion department and moved into A&R where he eventually became The Executive Vice President / head of A&R.  During his tenure Andy signed Kid Rock, Simple Plan, Skillet, The Click Five, Porcupine Tree, Skillet and David Garza.  My first real job in the industry was as Andy’s assistant at Lava / Atlantic.  Andy was kind enough to take the time to share with me his perspective on the ever-changing business and catch me up with what he is up to at his new company Artist Haven.  This is part one of a two part interview.

 

Music Consultant:

Tell me about how you got started in the music business, and how you got started playing music.

 

AK:

I started playing music as a little kid. I took piano lessons from age 7 to 18. I probably didn’t practice until I was about 13, but my mom was very patient and tolerant, and I kept playing anyway. I started playing bass when I was 14 or 15 and drums a year later. I played sax for a few years in the school orchestra, and all sorts of other odd things. I played the vibra-harp for a year. I just loved music, and wasn’t particularly good at it, although by the time I stopped taking piano lessons, I was a fairly decent piano player. But I was going to college at that point, and I felt you could only play so many instruments, so I focused on bass. I never really took myself seriously s a drummer until the last couple years. I was studying music and theory in college and some pretty avant-garde music, and engineering and all these kinds of things. I knew I really wanted to play. That was my biggest goal.

Once I graduated, I started playing in bands and had the misfortune of not being a really great singer. If you’re not a singer, you’re always going to be reliant on finding the right band at the right time and the right vehicle for you to do what you want to do. And that adds a lot more variables to it – as if there weren’t enough already. I had done an internship at MCA in their A&R and publishing divisions when I was a junior, and as I was playing in bands, I thought, “Maybe I can get a job at a label” so I could move out of my mom’s while I was looking for the perfect musical situation. I managed to get a job in the mail room of Profile Records and spent six weeks there hauling giant mail bags a couple blocks a few times a day filled with hip hop records. I managed to get a job as a gopher in the promotion department of Atlantic Records. I started there in September of 1989, and I stayed at Atlantic for 19 years. That’s really the story.

 

Music Consultant:

Obviously there are a few little details missing. You don’t become head of A&R just hanging around for 19 years, at least not in my recollection.

 

AK:

(Laughs) Back in the old days, if you stayed there long enough, they eventually just gave you a department to run. But, no, I spent about a year as a gopher and then another 5 ½ years as the assistant to the head of the promotions department – Andrea Ganis – who is still there and was a great mentor and friend to me and still is. When Lava Records started in 1995, Jason Flom hired me to do A&R for him. The reason he hired me was simply because I was fortunate enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge of bands and producers and engineers and all kinds of stuff. I don’t know quite why that was, but I think my brain just decided it was going to remember something, and that’s what it was. It might have been better if it was quantum mechanics, but unfortunately it was engineers of Scorpions Records.

 

Music Consultant:

The editorial note here is that I’ve actually seen you engaged in a dialogue with Matt Pinfield, and I was terrified.

 

AK:

Matt’s pretty good. He’s a good guy, and we always have a lot of fun talking about obscure alt rock or punk bands. He is kooky like me in that same way. But Flom hired me because I was somebody that knows all these bands and figured I would eventually run into something that was pretty good. He gave me a shot. I didn’t sign anything for a year and a half. I was very fortunate that Lava had acts. And you were there then, Rick, so you know how it worked. The first artist I signed was David Garza, who you and I both think is brilliant. And the second act was Kid Rock. And when Kid Rock broke, it went from there. It was a good second act to sign. It worked out well for everyone.

 

Music Consultant:

Clearly that gave you more chances to sign more artists as an A&R guy. When you sign a successful act like Kid Rock, they tend to be more lenient about letting you sign more.

 

AK:

That’s true. But I never took a lot of swings. There are two very definitive schools of thoughts in terms of how you approach A&R, whether at a label or at a management company. A&R is such a broad term now. It really is essentially quality control in the modern context and creative direction. That is applicable in a lot of different areas. One school of thought is that you can’t have hits if you don’t put records out, so therefore you should sign as many things that are good as you can, because at least in the context of major labels at that time, if you have big success at anything, people don’t remember the failures. If you have one success out of eight things you put out, people don’t remember the other seven. But that was never my school of thought, and part of it was because I didn’t like enough stuff to do it that way.

So of the guys in the last 20-30 years that have sold a sizable chunk of records, I’d be willing to bet I’ve signed fewer things than almost all of them. And it’s not saying I’m so good or have such a good batting average. It’s just saying that I had a different approach. One of the things that held me back in the music business was the fact that I couldn’t approach acts inherently dishonestly and tell them things I didn’t sincerely believe, like, “You’re going to be hugely successful, and here’s what we’re going to do.” If I tell that to 10 bands, you know there could be a very good shot that you’re just bullshitting to 10 different acts. It’s so hard to have anything that’s successful, and truthfully, most A&R people don’t even have one thing that’s successful. That’s just empirical. But I never felt comfortable going and talking up nonsense to close deals. I was more from the “Look, I really believe in this, and we’re going to do everything we can do. You know what the chances of success are. What I can promise you is that I’m going to do everything I can possibly do, give you the best advice I can possibly give you and do everything to steer you through the label and give you the best shot humanly possible.” That was an approach that I felt was the morally right thing to do, and it worked for me because it was consistent with my personality. And I never wanted to be one of those clichés.

 

Music Consultant:

It was certainly not the pervasive methodology of the trade.

 

AK:

Certainly not at the time. Things are very different now because I’ve been out of the major label system for two years, and happily so. But this is the first time in my memory where signing to a major is not necessarily one of the top goals for most artists. That’s a fairly unusual place for labels to be.

 

Music Consultant:

What’s funny is, I kind of feel like – and I do have some statistics to back this up in terms of keyword search volume, and I can’t say whether these are real musicians or not – but people searching online, “how to get a record deal” is off the charts whereas “how to market and sell my music” is much less. I realize that’s not a representative sample, but I think most musicians feel about the labels like most men feel about Tila Tequila. “Oh my God She’s disgusting, but I don’t think I’d turn down a date with her if it was offered.”

 

AK:

That’s a fair point. But I would simply ask whether that is an accurate predictor. I wonder if you took that kind of a poll of the acts that are best positioned to be offered deals and have followings and can sustain some kind of independent business, whether it’s small or large, and have empirical proof that people care about their music feel the same way. That might be a better gauge.

 

Music Consultant:

No question. I was not basing it on a representative sample. But I do think it’s funny that the prevailing mindset still is, “Please save me. Please escalate me to stardom.”

 

AK:

It’s interesting, because there probably has never been a time when that kind of “please hand it to me” attitude was a guarantee of failure, and now it is. Fifteen years ago it probably wasn’t that way. At least you could get to a certain level. The point is, I’ve seen it so distinctly that the people that work the hardest get the luckiest. It’s never been clearer. The big drivers of media become less influential. MTV has whatever audience it has, but it certainly isn’t a music audience. Commercial radio is losing influence every year as loses listeners. Young people don’t consume music through those big drivers anymore. As you start to see those things shift, it’s become super clear that nobody’s guaranteed to have a career. We used to be able to take people if they were really good and turn them into stars if you had the right material and the right look. Now, if that stuff succeeds it’s almost anomalous.

 

Music Consultant:

My take on the business, and mind you, I was out long before you were, and I definitely want to talk about what you saw changing. I was really out of the real system by 2004. But I found that even during my tenure it started to switch. It was less about A&R and more about M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions). It started to be about labels looking for existing businesses to acquire and fund. Is that apt?

 

AK:

I think that’s a fair point, if you look at your band as a business. We didn’t sit around in a meeting and say, “We’re only signing bands that have followings and can sell 75,000 records independently or make at least $200,000 per year independently.” No one sat around and figured that out. But if you talk about mergers and acquisitions, there’s a philosophical shift that happened, where the big euphemism became branding. Sometime in the mid-2000s branding became a business and an approach. It became a noun and a verb. When that shift happened, bands started to think of themselves as businesses, and labels started to look at bands as businesses just as they were looking into buying smaller labels that had a niche and could provide them acts that had a sales base and a fan base and could give them credibility with an audience that you can’t have as a major label because you serve every kind of consumer. They were also looking into buying into acts the same way they would buy into labels. That was a change philosophically. But now you see record sales continue to dwindle, and there’s logic to that approach, even if it wasn’t spoken and intentional.

 

Music Consultant:

Does that mean the shift on the labels side had become less about early grassroots development? Did it become about taking bands that are self sustaining to the next level, rather than taking bands from nowhere, to self sustaining and then upwards?

 

AK:

People love to say there’s no grassroots marketing or band development at labels. But I don’t think that’s really fair. That stuff does happen. It just is a question of whether or not they are good at it. In majors, there are some people that are very conscientious and incredibly hard working and very dedicated to their acts. I think those general dismissive comments that are frequently made about majors are not true. I spent enough time there to know there are people who are very conscientious about stuff like that. There are also people whose jobs are not to worry about that stuff and are about how to make the trains run on time and make the balance sheet. That’s the tension. Don’t think it doesn’t exist at indie labels too. Indie labels have to sell records and keep their lights on unless they are funded by someone that is independently wealthy and it’s a pure passion play. Those are businesses. It’s just that the tension is much more glaring in a major label system.

The grassroots thing and long-term marketing does work, but it has to be really under the radar. If you take a band like Porcupine Tree. Porcupine Tree is a band where we did three records on Atlantic and Lava Atlantic. The band just played Radio City Music Hall. Now they are licensed to Roadrunner. If you talked to them, I think they would tell you that the labels never really did much for them. I think we definitely contributed in some ways and not in others. In terms of a grassroots story, that’s a pretty distinct grassroots success. You’re talking about a band that had a large catalog and a small following in Europe and no following in the U.S., and now they can draw 5500 people in New York and have a business where if you had a 360 deal with them, you’d be very happy. I think the problem is that you take things like that that are left of center, and very often there is a lot of pressure to get those things out of the system because they don’t make sense. They don’t want you to waste people’s time on things that are in left field. And I tend to think the opposite way. When you’re trying to build something long term, the stuff that is most likely to find an audience is the stuff that’s a little skewed and not the stuff that’s right down the middle.  If you can take a pop act and build an act, if the songs are good enough, I think that’s great and you can do that. But I think you’re more likely to find success with stuff that’s quirkier. And I think it’s too bad, because Porcupine Tree’s success could’ve been something that Atlantic could’ve trumpeted and taken a great deal of pride in, but there were really never a lot of supporters.

You can read the 2nd part of the article HERE.

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Check out more information on Andy’s company here or follow Artist Haven on Twitter.