Soundwerkz Exclusive Interview with Atlantic Records A&R Steve Robertson

Steve Robertson - A&R Atlantic Records, Orlando, Florida

What does an A&R person do? Basically, we find and sign artists, work with them to develop the strongest group of songs we can (their repertoire), find the right producer, and record them.

What kinds of artists is your label currently looking for? I never know how to answer that question, and I can only speak for myself. I'm looking for great songs sung by great singers. I'm partial to heavy, melodic rock, Hardcore, some Rap metal, some laid back soul music. So, I tend to react to anything that's great within the STP/Nirvana/Rage Against The Machine/Green Day/Staind/Incubus/Tool/Deftones/Sublime/Soundgarden spectrum. But I've submitted Pop and Hip Hop acts to various people at Atlantic.

Is there an advantage of going through an indie A&R service like Soundwerkz? Do you give these artists a more thorough listen? knowing that they have already been screened from literally hundreds of demos? I have demos sitting in my office that have literally been there for months without being listened to, because I don't know who they're from. Even if they called ahead and asked if they could send a demo, I still don't know who they are so I automatically file it under "Who the hell knows?", but I prioritize the stuff that comes to me from reliable sources like lawyers and managers I know have an ear. I get to it all eventually, but I do make a site like Soundwerkz a priority listen because I know Rob Gilmore finds things that I'm interested in.

When you first hear an artist, does their material have to be "radio-friendly" straight out of the box, or do you work with the artist to develop the material further? I come from radio and the most records are sold, by far, from radio airplay, so I am listening for hit radio songs. I don't care if we're talking about terrestrial radio, satellite radio or internet radio, a hit is a hit and you need them if you're going to sell millions of records. There are, of course exceptions to that rule (Norah Jones), but I am speaking of the majority of records. The band doesn't have to have "the hit" right away for me to be interested in signing them, but I just need to hear that potential. That usually consists of a killer voice with a good sense of melody and/or aggression. The band has to be killer too, but it starts with the singer.

In other industries, a company wouldn't dream of bringing a product to market without product testing. Do you ever survey fans or music consumers to get feedback on records or on the selection of singles? That is an excellent question. In radio, audience testing is standard and VERY useful. But trying to test brand new music can be very tricky. Most people don't really like a song the first time they hear it. It's music, it takes a while before your average listener decides whether they like it or not. So, to sit people down and do a focus group, and play them various new songs to gauge their enthusiasm, is really difficult and futile. There are some new internet based technologies being developed though that would insure that the person has listened to a song 5 or 10 times before they give their feedback. These methods are still new and largely unproven, but very interesting.

What trends do you see emerging in popular music? Well, the last time I answered this question on your site a couple of years ago, I think I did pretty well. Lately, I've been feeling a whole return to rootsy, and/or classic rock n roll with kids. Influences ranging from the Stones to The Who are really prevalent out there. But that's only cool when it's filtered through a band that is young and are coming with something new mixed in.. The next U2 could come from the Emo scene. It won't sound like U2 or anything, but a band will emerge with cred, an aggressive and new sound, and truly great songs that evolves in to something bigger and more meaningful than anyone could predict. There's a shift happening in Metal right now, with bands like Poison The Well, Avenged Sevenfold, and From Autumn To Ashes bringing an Emo ethic to a sound that is as rooted in Iron Maiden as it is The Refused. Hip Hop will continue to be part of the Rock landscape, although not dominate it. Bands that sound like they on the verge of a bright (platinum) future to me right now, on June 30 of 2003, are Brand New, Thrice, Hot Hot Heat, Vendetta Red, Kings Of Leon, Yellowcard, ...how many is that? 6? if 2 of those go platinum, I'll be doing pretty good!

If someone wanted to get work in the music business today, where should they start? The most common, and true answer to that is the mailroom. This is a business where they don't necessarily check your college credits at the door, although that always helps. I came in to A&R from radio. Some get A&R gigs as producers, assistants, music critics, anwhere that you can establish some kind of track record for yourself that shows you have an ear for hits.

How did you get in to the business? I used to program an Alternative station here in Orlando called WJRR. It was the first commercial Alternative station in Florida. We used to get lots of unsigned bands sent to us, along with the major label stuff. I would listen to as much as I could, and one day a song called "Shine" by Collective Soul stood out to me, so I started playing it. It blew up, they got signed to Atlantic, and the rest is history. The following year, the same exact thing happened with Seven Mary Three. By this time, we were already working with a band called Tabitha's Secret that went on to become Matchbox 20. So there was a string of success coming through our radio station that drew attention to me.

How do you typically find new artists? Demos, demos, demos. I don't really spend a lot of random time in clubs, hoping to by chance see the next big thing. You get way burnt out that way. I mean, I catch a ton of random bands just by going out to see one band in particular. I listen to mass quantities of demos that come from lawyers, managers, talent bookers, music critics, musicians I meet at industry functions, etc. Something catches my ear, I give them a call, and find out when and where they are playing.

Are you checking out new talent via the Internet? If so, what do you look for online? I use the internet extensively. I read alot of reviews, articles, and columns on and off line. If the writer says something intriguing, like "...this band has sold 150,000 CD's independently in the Southeast in the past year..." I go check 'em out on line. 95% of bands have some sort of web presence and MP3's or song samples on line.

How important is the producer? Extremely important. They can make or break a project. There are so many factors that go in to the chemistry of making hit records, but you've gotta have a talented producer. There are so many decisions to make every day, and most of them have to go through the producer.

Does a new, unproven artist have a voice in picking the producer that they would want to work with, or does the label (or A&R staff) select the producer? It's my job to present them with their options. I wouldn't really force an artist to work with a producer that they don't want to work with, but if their judgement is clouded by ignorance or just plain stubbornness, I would definitely push the issue if I felt strongly about it.

How many tapes on average do you personally listen to each month from new unsigned artists? Do you listen to the entire songs or just the first 30 seconds? First 30 seconds is pretty much the case. How many demos? That's tough. A shit-load, hows that?

How many acts can you sign each year? There's no real max, but realistically, 2 MAYBE 3.

Do you have any advice that you can give to an unsigned artist wanting to break into the business? Build a story for yourself. Build a mini world of the common sense things you see in the major label world. Build a fanbase through live shows. Develop an email list. Record your best songs with a good local producer. Spend the extra money to put a UPC code on your CD so that when someone buys it in a store, it registers with Soundscan which A&R guys will look at when you tell them that you're selling lots of CDs in your market. Seek out the music director of the local radio station who's format your music fits best, and give them your music. There's a ton of common sense stuff to do. It's great when you've got a friend and fan of the band that is business minded and does a lot of management stuff for you and gets you organized.

When you hear a band that you like what kind of process do you go through at the label to sign it? If they've got a radio and/or sales story, it's easy to get a band signed. If it's just something that I love, it's a little tougher, because I've gotta get a consensus going at the label. It's music, so people don't always hear what you're hearing.

Does live performance or “look” weigh heavily in your decision to work with an artist? Yes and no, in that if they are great looking or are great live, that's even more to get excited about. But, if a band writes and records hit songs, and sucks live, you know what? It's really all about the hit song on the radio for most bands.

Are you under pressure to find that one quick hit? You have no idea.

What is the most challenging thing about being in A&R? The odds of actually finding hits. You'll hear different figures, but in the music biz, only around 5% of records released every year actually make money. I must be an idiot to be in this business, but I have total faith in my ears and my ability to find hits songs from killer bands. Some of it is luck though.

20 years ago, people didn’t think “pay” TV would fly – now cable TV rules the world. Do you think that “pay radio”, i.e. satellite radio, will have a similar impact on the music industry? Why or why not? While I don't think that music and radio are as important to your average consumer as TV is, I do see satellite radio making serious inroads. I see the definite parallel between the success of cable TV and the future of satellite radio. It's the whole "why would people pay for TV when it's already free?" line of thinking that was prevalent then, and the same statement is being made about satellite radio. It will be slower going for satellite, starting with upper class consumers when they buy their new BMW with the satellite receiver in it, and the monthly fee is built in to their car payment. Practical uses for personalized internet radio are still in the distant future, but that will be a player as well.

 

Steve Robertson, A&R, Atlantic Records

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