Interview with DAVID BENDETH, SVP of A&R at RCA for SR-71, Vertical Horizon, Crash Test Dummies, Cowboy Junkies - Apr 18, 2002
“Don't send your demo out to a hundred people and expect an answer back from all of them. Target the people you really want to get to.”
As Senior Vice President of A&R at RCA New York, David Bendeth's signings include SR-71, Vertical Horizon, Crash Test Dummies, and the Cowboy Junkies, all with gold or platinum albums under their belt.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started out as an artist, signed by Roger Ames to EMI UK. I released an instrumental album with one vocal song on it, and that song, “Feel the Real”, went to No.1 on the dance charts in the UK in 1979. So I have a background as an artist, guitar player and songwriter. At that point, I worked with Billy Cobham and Lenny White, two pretty famous drummers. I was on the road for a long time and when I was about 30, I was offered a position as staff producer with Sony/CBS. So I went on board, and signed a number of artists to the label. Then I got transferred to New York to do international A&R for a year, and after that I went back to Canada. I was born in London, but moved to Canada when I was 10 years old. After Sony/CBS, I switched to BMG, where I signed the Cowboy Junkies in 1988 and Crash Test Dummies in 1990, and, in 1995, I left to work for RCA in New York.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
The biggest learning experience has been going back and forth, not doing the same thing all the time. Producing records and writing songs has helped me as in A&R, in that I understand both sides of every situation. In other words, I understand when I call a producer what it's like to make a record, and I understand songwriters, In the past I have written songs for Jeff Beck and Joe Cocker. So, both creatively and from the business perspective as an A&R person, the variety of these experiences has helped me.
But I don't think the skills of a producer/writer are a prerequisite to being an A&R person, although I do think it's a prerequisite for an A&R person to have a knowledge of music that goes beyond his or her record collection.
What goals motivate you as an A&R?
Finding that rough diamond, someone who is extremely talented and totally original. When you look at the artists I've signed and are currently working with, they're all a little left of centre, but they've become mainstream. I don't really go where the traffic goes, so to speak; I try to stay off the main road and instead take the side streets. And that’s where I find really incredible things.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to be an A&R?
To listen to different kinds of music is very important. Don't limit yourself to rock or rap. Try to gain an understanding of jazz, country, hiphop, reggae, etc. It's always useful to understand where other music comes from, and to find out why it comes from there. Music is indigenous, it reflects the social, political and economic environment, and it's good to study the reasons why artists like Dave Matthews and The Strokes are so succesful. There are a lot of reasons why different music happens in different places, and I think that an A&R needs to understand what it is that turns people on from a worldwide standpoint.
What new acts are you currently working on and how did you find them?
I have a new rock band called Headstrong, and I'm in negotiations right now with two new artists. I found them through friends who are themselves musicians. Most of my contacts are artist based.
So that’s how you find new talent?
Yes, people call me all the time with great music. Some of the artists don't fit RCA though. I listen to a lot of music here, and I'd say that, most of the time, I'm going to hear about an act before it finds me. Booking agents are also an effective resource.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, we don't.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
Fantastic! I go to the artist's website, download mp3s and videos, and look at their pictures. Websites don't give me the complete story, because they're not updated every day, but it gives me an idea of what I'm looking at and listening to. I go to Amazon, All Music Guide, Artist Direct, Music Information Systems, R&R, SoundScan, AOL New Music, College Music Guide, and Ebay. Sometimes when there's a record I can't find, I find it on Ebay.
What do you look for in an artist?
Originality, melody and lyrics.
Do you think unsigned artists have a good knowledge of the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
I think they need to learn more about the industry, because it’s important for them to be as proactive as they can when it comes to their career. They're the record company's partners, and not their property . It's important for them to really appreciate their own singularity and their own independence, and to treat their careers as something separate from the record company.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, attorney, and team are, when considering signing a new act?
Yes, there's no question about it. The manager has to be somebody; whether they're famous or not is unimportant, what's important is whether they have the background and the knowledge. I always say that a good manager in America needs to have contacts in different areas like agents, radio and press.
The team is of utmost importance, and there are six people involved: the manager, the agent, the artist’s lawyer, the A&R person, the publisher and the business manager.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business?
Be tenacious and learn to listen. Find out who the people are that might sympathize with your kind of music, and seek them out. Stop doing cattle calls. In other words, don't send your demo out to a hundred people and expect an answer back from all of them. Target the people you really want to get to. If you're a band that say sounds like Creed, don't send it to the A&R for Creed, send it to an A&R that needs Creed.
Would you work with acts from outside North America?
Why do you think there are so few women producers in the business?
Great question! As far as few women being producers, it's a shame. I guess it's always been considered a male thing, although there are probably many women who are very capable of making great records. Yes, there should definitely be more.
How much input do you usually have on the productions and what does it involve?
Usually, I'm very involved, meaning I'm part of the team, picking the songs, and helping with the sound. I have produced tracks or mixed records for most of my artists. So I'm very involved with the creative side, I don't just come in and say, "Nice snaredrum" and then walk out of the studio. But with some acts I do nothing. If the artist needs help, then I'll try and help them, and if they don't, then I'll stay away. With Headstrong, I A&Red the project, but I had nothing to do with the production, and then with Bruce Hornsby, I produced the whole album, and played bass and guitar. So every one is different for me. I am extremely comfortable in any situation, and I always have a great deal of respect for whom my artists choose to create with.
Do you think it’s good that the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart is based on both radio airplay and single sales?
No, it should only be based on radio airplay. Single sales are irrelevant when everyone is downloading the single off the Internet.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
Radio has been driven pretty hard by the labels to do what they think is right, and I think radio is, to a certain degree, being dictated what to play, but I don't necessarily think that radio likes the idea of having to play Johnny Mayer or Norah Jones, because it doesn't sound like their radio station. They want to be considered as something like Holiday Inn, where you know exactly what the room is going to look like. So they're very insecure about trying different things. Right now music is changing, and radio stations will have to read the tea leaves and adjust to what kids want to hear. I hope that happens.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades?
Yes, and I think the reason is that most record companies only want to be involved with acts that have made their own way. If you see a band and there are 40 people in the club, then they haven't really done much work, but if there are a hundreds of kids there, it makes you think totally differently about signing them. Labels now expect artists to sell records and sell out clubs on their own, before they step in. The development time has changed, because artists are now doing it on their own.
Why do artists pay for promotional costs like, for example, video clips?
The record company promotes the artist. If the record company has to pay for the video clip to get on to MTV, and everybody in America sees it, when the artist does a concert, they don't give the record company any money, and when they sell a T-shirt, the same thing. We're promoting their career, and their business benefits from that.
Are recording artists' royalties from record sales adequate?
It depends on the artist; record contracts are all relative. If an act signs to a label for low points, and they sell 9000 records, then there are no royalties to be earned. But if they sell a million records, the first thing they do is to re-negotiate their contract. It's all a question of success. Do I think that artists get a fair royalty rate? The answer is no. But the failure rate is 85%, and that affects new artists' royalties.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would immediately raise the level of musicianship/songmanship. It's interesting because people say that you don't need great musicianship, but I think everything else is relative. I'm one of those people who thinks that Nirvana were great musicians. When their records came out, they weren't considered to be very good, but in retrospect they were fantastic. And I think that’s the one thing missing right now, but hopefully that’s going to change over the next few years, hopefully people will invest time in learning their craft.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Crash Test Dummies had a lot of No.1s around the world at the same time with "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm". That was pretty exciting! This little band from Winnipeg, Canada - I was just blown away! The fact that it could actually happen, that music could reach that many people. But every time we have a gold or a platinum record with a band that nobody had ever heard of before, it just blows my mind. It’s fantastic when people react in a certain way and appreciate the work.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
The same thing, but I will probably move a little more into producing. I've been doing A&R for a long time! I love and understand the job, but I think the way A&R is done is going to change. I think it has to change, so that the music will benefit more.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouman
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