Interview with ANDY KARP, A&R at Lava/Atlantic for Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker - Sep 21, 2001
"People usually think: How can I get a record deal? The proper question is: How can I make a career for myself as a musician?"
Andy Karp is Vice President of A&R at Lava/Atlantic in New York. Among the acts he is A&R for are Kid Rock (10 million copies sold in the US of his first Lava release "Devil Without A Cause" in 1998, and Uncle Kracker (US Double Platinum Debut in 2001).
How did you get started in the music industry and what has been your route to become an A&R?
Iíve been a musician all my life. When I was in college, I did an internship in the A&R department of MCA Records. After I graduated, I was looking to figure out a way to make a living while I was playing in bands. I figured that maybe I could get a job at a record company. So I got a job in the mailroom of Profile Records in New York, and spent about six weeks there until I managed to get a job as a "gofer" in the promotion department here at Atlantic, where I spent about five and a half years gradually moving up, until I finally got my A&R gig at Lava in 1995.
Which qualities did you have to display to be appointed as an A&R for the first time?
The most important thing was that Iím very fortunate to have a good memory. I usually remember what the b-side was in Japan, who produced the record, who the engineer was, and so on. I always had that somewhat odd ability long before it was relevant to my career. That quality came in very handy in impressing Jason Flom (HQ interview), who is our president here.
His logic has always been that if somebody seems to be in touch with whatís going on, is in the clubs all the time or has a wealth of knowledge that most people donít have, then it probably increases his/her chances of recognising something thatís great if they hear it somewhere.
Which qualities, in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?
There are several. Being able to spot hit records in many cases before they are produced like hit records is obviously critical.
Beyond that you have to be very patient and remember youíre dealing with artists who can be very temperamental - understandably so. You have to be able to listen well if you want to relate to your artist. Iíve often found myself being sort of a dime store psychiatrist.
It also helps in my case to be a musician. I donít think itís a necessary skill to be a good A&R, but itís important for me. If you are able to display that you know what youíre talking about and that you understand the creative process, it helps you build credibility with your artists. I can empathise with most of the artistís feelings and I think theyíre more inclined to pay attention when I have something to say.
Can you tell us how you were approached by or came to know about the acts youíre currently working with?
I got to know Uncle Kracker through Kid Rock since heís Kid Rockís DJ. He just struck me as being a very talented person. He did a lot of writing on Kid Rockís ĎDevil Without A Causeí record, which is something that not a lot of people know.
David Garza I first heard of through his current manager, Christopher Sabec, who at the time was his lawyer. I had just developed a relationship with Christopher and took Jason down to see him, and he was fantastic. Heís just an amazingly talented writer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Heís actually the first artist I ever signed.
What happened with Simple Plan and Hot Action Cop?
With Simple Plan, the drummer called me up about three years ago pretending to be his manager. He sent me some demos and we started to talk and developed a little bit of a relationship. The songs were good, although not what they are now. Over the span of time they eventually hooked up with friends of mine who are managers and producers in Canada, Arnold and Rob Lanni, and Eric Lawrence. I went out to go see them and the whole thing just went from there.
Hot Action Cop came to me through their lawyer, David Chidekel. He called me up and said the manager was coming to town with this project and that I would like it. They played it and I thought it was great. We brought the artist, Rob Werthner, up and found out that he had this catalogue of amazing songs.
Outspoken was the same thing. We met through a friend of mine who was shopping them.
As for Bif Naked, Jason first heard her at a live show and because sheís an amazing live performer he was blown away. I had the record here, he came back raving about it and we met her. Sheís got this electricity about her. Sheís got this wonderful, exciting and vibrant personality and is an incredibly interesting and decent person. As soon as we had lunch with her, we knew we wanted to work with her.
How did you first come in contact with Kid Rock?
Kid Rock wasnít a secret. He had put out three records. His first came out in 1990 when he was 18, on Jive and it sold about 100,000 copies. His second came out on a label called Continuum in Ď93, which then went bankrupt. He put out his third himself and his manager at the time was a fellow named Steve Hutton.
Steve and I had developed a friendship when we first met at a Nashville extravaganza showcase in Ď95 or Ď96. We were both young guys who hadnít really established ourselves yet. He was a manager in Chicago, who was just starting to build a roster. At the time I think I may have been one of the only people who took his calls.
He kept telling me how great the live show was. So I went out to see a Kid Rock show in Cleveland, and Ö he was fantastic! He was playing in front of sixty people and you could tell right then and there that he had the charisma to play arenas. The funny thing was that people knew about him. He was selling a lot of tickets and a lot of merchandise in Detroit, [his home city]. A&Rs were aware of who he was, but they just thought he was a joke. I took Jason to see Kid Rock play in front of about 1,200 people in Detroit. Kid Rock invited people from most of the major labels, but nobody came except for Jason and myself!
I remember telling people that Iíd signed this artist named Kid Rock and they would say, "Oh my god! Isnít he old?!" Iíd say "No, heís 25" "Oh well, good luck!" theyíd reply in a very disparaging tone of voice.
Heíd been thrown to the mat a couple of times and so people had started to see him as an Ďold artistí, but he went onto prove them wrong spectacularly Ö
I think itís one of those great music business stories that will and should be an inspiration to a lot of bands out there. Since the vast majority of records released donít sell, most artists eventually get dropped. Hereís a guy who actually got dropped, not once but twice - and came back to be one of the biggest artists in the world.
Every artist that has gone on to have commercial success has stories like this to tell. No matter how many people tell you that youíre not good enough, itís just an opinion and they might be wrong. It illustrates what is interesting about the A&R process, which is that it is so subjective. Itís really just a guessing game. Youíre just using your taste and your knowledge of how to make records properly and trying to put something together thatís great. There are other A&Rs out there that have made great records with bands that I didnít think had it in them. They surprised me, just like Iím sure Kid Rock surprised them.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
It depends on the circumstances and on how clear the artistís vision is. Some artists need more direction than others. Sometimes the best job an A&R can do is get out of the way and not screw it up, while other times it really needs hands on direction, production, editing and arrangement ideas. But in order to be able to do that you have to build some credibility with your artist. Most artists feel they have some sort of clear vision and very often the A&Rís job is just to help them figure out what that is. Each experience is different. You have to approach it with an open mind.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with already established acts in your rooster?
I do a lot of both. The funny thing is as you start to have records that do well, those projects become more important and less manageable in some ways. More people become involved, the artist has far less time on his hands and in some ways they become much more high maintenance. Those things require more of your time, but at the same time the music industry has always been fuelled by new artists. So thereís always a focus on finding new things - thatís just the nature of our business.
The one thing thatís hard is that there really is not enough time to listen to music as one would think. I find myself being on the phone all the time. I do a lot of listening to demos at home, on the weekend or when Iím driving.
How do you normally find new talent?
The first thing I like to keep in mind is that youíre never going to know where youíre going to find something great. One thing I have learned is that you have to be open to meeting new people, to take meetings with and phone calls from people you donít know. I always try to return everybodyís calls regardless of whether I know them or not.
Research is something all the major labels do now. Sometimes you find things by just being in touch with regional music scenes. You try to build a network of contacts you trust; lawyers, managers, agentsÖ You canít hear everything. Youíre not always going to know whatís going on in Lawrence, Kansas, but I know people who are going to know and if thereís something that I should be aware of, I know theyíre going to make me aware of it. Thatís a big part of it - building a network of people.
What is it you look for in an artist or an act?
Great songs are always the key. You can sell a great song even if the artist doesnít play that well or if he or she isnít that great looking. The song is what everybody responds to - you canít see what a band looks like through the radio.
Beyond that, if an artist has star quality, thatís a very big plus. Thatís one of the things that helped us tremendously with Kid Rock. If a band is great live then that really helps but itís not necessarily critical. I know a lot of A&Rs who wouldnít sign a band if they werenít good live, but Iím not one of those people. I think that if the songs are good enough, I would do it - I have done it Ö
Do you find it important that the act be creatively involved in the selection of the songs?
Absolutely! No question! At the end of the day it is their record. The artist has to go out and promote the record and autograph copies of it for the next year, so they have to believe in it. People can sense phoniness, especially the younger people. Teenagers have incredible bullshit detectors - it has to be real.
There have been instances where I have had disagreements with artists over songs, but Iíve never thrown down the gauntlet to an artist and said, "It has to be this way!" My approach has been much more along the lines of trying to advocate my position and convince him of what I think is the right way to go. Like I said, at the end of the day they have one career. Iíll make lots of other records in mine but in most cases this is their one shot. So, I will usually let them make the final call.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager is, who the attorney is, who the team is, when considering signing a new act?
Yes. The attorney is less of a concern because attorneys donít get involved with the day to day handling of the artistís career. There are situations where I havenít pursued a band because I had trouble dealing with the manager. I like to think that I can get along with pretty much everybody and that Iím a pretty laid back guy. So if I have a very negative reaction to a manager, Iíll trust my instinct on that one.
How sure about the available market-space for an act do you need to be before signing and releasing them?
It depends very much on the type of music, and the degree of clutter out there. Iím sort of harping on about Kid Rock but when we put that record out, we had no idea if we could sell it. The radio wasnít playing that kind of music in 1998, we just thought the record was great. So, certainly there was an opening in the marketplace, but a void in the marketplace doesnít mean that you are just going to be able to fill it. The time has to be right.
If you take the flip side of that, just because a style or genre of music is packed with artists, doesnít mean that you canít sell it. What it all comes down to is the strength of your songs and the believability of your act. If youíre looking at the pop artists right now, youíve got: NíSync, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. In the rap/metal thing youíve got: Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Korn and until recently, Rage Against the Machine. Three or four break through and the other ones are sort of perceived as being the Ďimitatorsí of those four. Not necessarily less valid, but it seems like the second wave of acts donít have songs that are as good as the first ones.
If you come with equally strong songs, you could absolutely have another pop act that does very well. Thereís always going to be young kids who want their own music.
From which people and departments at Lava/Atlantic do you need support before signing an act?
At Lava we sign it because we like it. I donít care too much what people think, thatís one thing that Jason Flom definitely instilled in me early on in my A&R career. Heís made it very clear to me that most of the successful acts that he signed over the years were acts that nobody else wanted. I learned something from that and can say that my experience with Kid Rock was exactly that. So the only thing I can trust is my own gut.
Iím a firm believer in the concept that nobody in A&R really knows anything, itís all just our opinions. If you accept the truthful premise that everybody in A&R is wrong more than they are right, then thereís no reason to let people, who are probably wrong anyway, convince you not to sign somebody you believe in.
The greatest A&R people in history, Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, Clive Davis Ö have all signed many more stiffs than hits. Iím concerned with what Jason has to think, and what our primary core of people here at Lava think. And even if those people really didnít like something, if I believed in it, Iíd want to sign it anyway. Iíll make a record thatís good enough so that everybody else gets it.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach the music industry?
I would say that the best thing any unsigned act can do is to prepare for the likelihood that they will be dropped. I donít mean to sound cynical, but in a more practical sense the logic is that so much of this business is based on luck and timing. Iíve always found that the smarter you are and the harder you work, the better your luck is. So control the things that youíre able to control: your song writing; your performance; the way in which you do your business. Do those things intelligently and with as much passion as you possibly can.
Secondly, building a following before you get your record deal will put you in a stronger position when youíre negotiating your deal and youíll be much better off should you actually get into a situation where youíre dropped.
People often donít ask themselves the right questions. People usually think, ĎHow can I get a record deal?í. The proper question is, ĎHow can I make a career for myself as a musician?í. Record deals come and go. There are plenty of artists out there who can make a decent living on the road but havenít been with a major label in ten years. The only way you can do that is by being real with your audience, work hard and build a following. Thatís how you get real fans. You donít get them through MTV or radio play, you get them by much more grassroots means.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
Sure! Weíve done that before. Iím signing something right now thatís from outside the U.S. I signed an act from Norway a few years ago called Midnight Sons and Lava also has The Corrs, who are massive in Europe. There are certain practical limitations that one has when dealing with bands that are not stateside, but ultimately you go where the music is!
What are some of the differences in how a record would be made and marketed for a rap/rock act, like Kid Rock, in comparison to a pop act like Backstreet Boys?
Most rock records are generally done by a single producer and the band usually writes their own songs. Sometimes youíll have a radio mix which is not as aggressive as the album mix, but for pop records you often have to do a club mix, a dance mix and a mix thatís more appropriate for crossover stations. Most pop acts these days tend to not write their own songs, so you have to find producers who usually bring the songs with them. Itís often quite expensive, A-level pop producers can make over a hundred thousand dollars a track.
Many pop records will cost three-to-four times what the average rock record will cost to make. Pop is also much more expensive to break as far as independent promotion is concerned and also marketing expenditures, including videos. In general pop tends to be a much more expensive proposition, but in many cases with a bigger upside if you can actually break the acts.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No. There are legal reasons why the business affairs department tells us not to do that. Nobody wants to take the chance that somebody sues us if they believe an artist has a song that sounds similar to theirs. We limit that possibility by simply not accepting material like that.
Has the amount of time given by labels to develop new acts reduced?
Thereís far less artist development than there used to be at major labels. The unfortunate thing is that marketing costs have sky rocketed since the video age entered, while live revenues have gone down, ticket prices increased and record-making become more expensive.
You have fewer outlets due to the consolidation of radio, which is still a primary way of exposing your records, and people are less inclined to stick with acts through multiple records. Part of it is that thereís a perception that music is more disposable now than it was twenty years ago. Thereís a lot of blame to go around on that one. A lot of it is MTVís fault, some of it is certainly the major labelsí and radioís fault and some of it I think, is simply a cultural shift. There are many more things competing for consumerís dollars, thereís a new blockbuster movie opening every weekend, the internet, video games, everybody has a hundred channels on their televisions. All these things combine to make music less important to people these days, although hit records now sell more than they used to and have a longer life span.
The unfortunate downside is that there are a lot of great classic bands that would have trouble getting a record deal now. Like the Doors or others who didnít have their first hit record until their second or third album.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would really like it if MTV played more videos and if radio play lists werenít as tight as they are now. As far as the practicality of breaking some of our artists, that would help a lot. Itís been a frustrating thing in the last couple of years because MTV is such a cultural force. They used to program like a radio station and now they program like a televison network.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Probably watching Kid Rock perform at the MTV awards two years ago and then the first time he headlined a show at a hockey arena. The MTV awards was the sign that we were really going to penetrate the American consciousness. That very first Arena show was the resultÖ it was a very satisfying feeling to hear 18,000 people sing along to the songs that I used to listen to in my office .
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I know that I very much enjoy making records, writing music and playing music, and I hope I can continue to do that. I donít know what my business situation will be like in a couple of years. Iím enjoying what Iím doing now, have been really fortunate to have done well with it and I just want to keep on doing it, live a good life and do the right thing.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean
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