Interview with RICHARD REINES, A&R for New Found Glory (US Top 5) at independent label Drive-Thru Records - Aug 13, 2002
“Working with a major label is like taking out a bank loan.”
Richard Reines owns and runs California-based Drive-Thru Records with his sister Stefanie. Bands signed to the label include New Found Glory, Fenix TX, Midtown, Something Corporate, Allister, Finch and The Starting Line amongst others.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R and owner of Drive-Thru?
Me and my sister have been music fans since we were very young and used to make zines to get to meet bands. While in college, I managed a band called Eve’s Plum and they got signed to a major label. As soon as they got signed they tried to fire me as their manager - that was my introduction to being screwed over in the music business - but we eventually ended up becoming really good friends.
I moved from New Jersey to California after I finished college. Eve’s Plum was touring out there at the time, and they told to us they did video shows all over the country on public access TV. They would have bands on and play music videos and they had really cool shows and, since there was nothing like that in LA, I thought we could do something similar.
We started a public access video show called ‘Sideshow’. It was a half-hour show and we did one episode a week. We’d have bands on the show, do really funny, straightforward interviews, and nothing was ever serious. We showed videos that MTV never played and didn’t even know about, and if the band didn’t have a video we’d record the show live and play that. We did something like a hundred and thirty episodes and featured bands like Radiohead, Duran Duran, The Ramones, NoFX, Blink 182, tons of bands. Most of them were small at the time and winded up getting big.
A&R people used to call us up and say, ‘We watch your show all the time, you have really good taste in music, would you guys like to come in here, we’ll take you to lunch and give you some free CDs if you play us some bands.” We were really poor, we had no money, and it was exciting to us that people wanted to hear our music, so we did it. We told them about plenty of bands like Goldfinger who were unsigned at the time, we even told them about Blink 182. But no one was ever interested! It was frustrating for us, because we kept discovering these bands on our show, but people weren’t signing them because they just didn’t get it!
We then decided to do something on our own: a Duran Duran tribute album. We were big fans back in the 80s and we thought it would be funny to put together a tribute album with modern bands. We started doing it, and this label called Mojo, who had signed Goldfinger, heard about it and asked us if they could be involved. Since we were planning to start our own label we weren’t sure, but when they proposed to pay for all these fees we’d never even heard of because we’d never run a label, we decided to go with them.
It’s through our experience with Mojo that we realised everything that we hated about record labels and how not to treat your employees, people in general, and your bands. It inspired us to start a label and never be like that, which is exactly what we did.
What was the first bands you offered deals to?
The first band we offered a deal to were the Get Up Kids. We got a demo from them and thought they were amazing. We called them up and they said they were unsure about signing to a label who hadn’t released anything yet. At the time that was upsetting, but they were totally right, because really no one knew whether we were going to come through as a label.
The second band we contacted were River Fenix (later Fenix TX). We loved their demo, and we admitted to them that we were beginners. They accepted and even asked us if we were sure that we wanted to sign them. When we asked why, they told us they didn't really have any fans and hadn’t really done anything. “I don't give a shit,” I said, “I think you're amazing so let's do it!” There was a mutual trust and it ended up working out really well.
They grew; it took a while, but we worked hard and so did they, and eventually it took off. That helped establish our label, and helped us get the deal with MCA. Years later, New Found Glory really made our label, because everything they did was just amazing and helped us so much.
What were the crucial factors in establishing Drive-Thru?
The fact that we had no money when we first started was a huge obstacle. We would put out CDs using credit we didn’t have, but we'd beg them to let us do it. They wouldn't let us take out the whole order because we didn't pay them so we'd take out half the order, sell them very quickly and then pay them as fast as we could. Either that or we'd be late on the payment and the place would never work with us again. We couldn't afford to do posters, we could hardly afford to do anything. It was a huge hurdle but we worked hard to get around it.
At one point a big radio station started playing Fenix TX. We asked them what we could do, and they told us to make sure the CD was in stores and that it had a sticker on it that said “As heard on KROQ.” We got the stickers, stuck them on the CDs ourselves, called our independent distributors and told them about how the band was getting airplay and asked them if they could help get the CD in chain stores like Tower and Best Buy. When they said they couldn't, me and Stephanie loaded a bunch of CDs in our car and went from store to store and asked them if they could take CDs and everyone said no. Two Tower Records stores took three CDs each and that's it.
That was a huge obstacle because all these independent distributors, they're nice, they do great for certain people, but for us they really didn't care and didn't think that we were significant enough as a label. Our bands weren't big enough at the time and for us it was very frustrating. That's why when MCA came along, the idea of having Universal distribution and actually getting our CD in stores was the best thing we could have hoped for.
What kind of deal do you have with MCA and what are the pros and cons?
We were running for three years before MCA came along. We ran out of money, credit, everything, and we couldn't do anything. We actually had to go on welfare for a few months: it was the most embarrassing time of my entire life. We had food stamps, so we'd go to the supermarket at three in the morning, when nobody was there, because we were so embarrassed. When all of that happens, when everything starts to fall apart, it’s amazing when a label comes along and says, “Hey, do this and we'll give you money.”
Part of the deal we negotiated with them is really crappy but they were negotiating from a take it or leave it position. We couldn't afford to leave it, obviously, we had nothing and it was an opportunity to get a salary doing what we love. The salary is half of what the lowest paid secretary gets at MCA, but we could actually afford to keep our apartment and operate our label.
The deal is basically the following: they leave us alone, we get a twenty percent cut on the distribution price, and we can sign whoever we want to. Their job is to get the CD in stores and to give us money to run a label. In the beginning the money was pretty ridiculous: they gave us $30.000 per band to cover everything, recording, marketing and tours. At the time we were really excited because we were only spending $5.000 but we had no idea how low that was. Their benefit is that if they want to pick up one of our bands, they can do so whenever they want to.
We thought they wouldn't want to pick up any of our bands anyway, that we wouldn't have major label material. Little did we know, they've been picking up so many bands that it's become a whole different situation. But they definitely gave us a great opportunity and some of the people at MCA are great and real music fans, but there are also plenty of corporate people who are completely clueless, who don't know how to do anything and who drive us completely crazy.
Do you run the risk of losing credibility with your fans when releasing through a major?
I don't think so because we're running our label the same way we always have. Nothing's changed: we're still signing the same kind of bands that we were in the beginning and we haven't lost any integrity.
Is it necessary for an independent label to team up with a major if it wants its bands to get national exposure?
I don't think so, but it definitely makes it easier as it is expensive to promote nationally.
We can get the CD into more stores, we can give tour support to bands so they don't have to work. It's like taking out a bank loan, which is basically what working with a major label is.
Other than selling records, what other sources of revenue do you have?
We have a mail order company, a merchandise company, and I direct music videos, although I often do that for free if it's a band I really like.
How do you find new talent?
Our friends tell us about bands, our bands play with other bands, and we try to listen to as many demos as possible. When there's a band that's really good, people tend to talk about it. When a lot of kids are talking about a band, then you know they're worth checking out. It's not hype, it's not some lawyer or manager calling us saying this band sold out this club. We get calls like that all the time and we don't even respond to them because I hate that. We're not about bullshit, that's major label stuff and we're completely the opposite. We hang out with the bands from our label and with their fans, and we just hear about stuff naturally.
What styles of music do you concentrate on?
Everyone tries to classify our label as a pop/punk label but I don't think it is. Allister are the only pop/punk band on our label. Fenix TX are a punk band, and RX Bandits have punk, ska and hardcore influences but they do their own thing. Something Corporate are piano/bass and nothing like our other bands. Finch is harder, and The Benjamins are pop.
Which one of your bands did everything right before you signed them and what was it that they did?
New Found Glory definitely did, because they played a lot of shows on their own. They did a tour, it was a small tour but they showed that they could do it. They put out an EP on their friend's label. Lots of bands sit around and wait for someone to come to them, but they didn't. They just did stuff and we came to them. They sent out CDs to tons of labels and everyone turned them down. I'm sure every independent label you could think of has turned them down.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We do. We shouldn't, but we do. Some of the bands are great and some are terrible. Unfortunately we don't get to listen to all of them, I wish we did, but we're going to try to find somebody who has a taste similar to ours who can listen to them and play the best ones for us. It's either that or not accept anything at all and it's lame not to give people a chance.
What do you look for in a band?
Mostly just songs that we love. You know, when you get a CD, you put it on and it has a song that you want to hear again and end up playing four times in a row. To get moved by a band or a song, that's the feeling we want to get before we sign them. Loads of good bands who have sold tons of records have contacted us, made us listen to their new stuff and because it wasn't that good we haven’t wanted to work with them. We try to keep quality control tight, and we have to have that special feeling before we sign anyone. We've passed up a lot of bands that people would be surprised at.
Once signed to you, do you support a band financially so that they can focus on the music? How long is this development period?
Yes, we do, we think it's really important. The development period depends on the band. We don't let them go into the studio until they have enough songs for a really solid album. We give them just enough money to pay their bills, because that's all we can afford. We don't get that much money from MCA. Everyone thinks we do, I wish we did, but we don't.
How sure do you need to be about the market space available to an act before signing and releasing them?
We don't care about any of that, we don't play major label games. We put it out, make sure they can tour and that's it, we don't care about market space at all.
How do you find producers for your acts?
Usually a band picks a couple of producers that they would love to work with and no matter how big they are we always contact them, because you never know, sometimes some big producer might love the band. We start with that and then we also have a list of people who we think are great.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
Before the band go into the studio, me and Stephanie listen to the songs, help choose the best ones, and give our opinions on everything. We don't force anything, we just make suggestions and if the band likes them they try them and if they don't, they don't, and that's fine with us because it's their music. We make sure that they're ready and have 10-15 songs.
Once we and the band think everything is great, we pick a producer together, and from then on, me and Stephanie try to let them do everything on their own because at that point we're confident, they're confident and we just want to let them do their thing.
How important is the Internet for you in your work and how do you use it?
It's extremely important. We always put up mp3s of bands a month or two before the album comes out, try to get on mp3.com and let the fans hear it. We do e-cards so the fans can hear it without downloading it. But I rarely use the Internet to discover new bands, just because I don't have the time.
How do you think the Internet will affect record companies' business model?
I think it's going to change everything completely because everyone's going to be burning CDs. Record companies won’t be able to operate and the indie labels will close first because they cater to high school and college kids - who are the kids that burn CDs the most. Very few will buy CDs, so all those labels will go out of business.
Bands will have to record on their own and since they’re not going to be able to spend a lot of money, it’s not going to sound that great. They’ll put it on the Internet and hope that people will discover them amongst the thousands of bands that are out there and they’ll hopefully tour, if they can raise the money. But labels won’t be around to promote and market bands, so people are not going to know about the shows, or the bands won’t know how to book tours at all.
What do you think about the radio situation?
As far as what? Playing horrible music on the radio? We don’t really get involved. We send our stuff out to college radio and specialty radio, but we don’t send it out to commercial radio because it’s a whole different ball game and it takes a hundred thousand dollars to even start that. We have our bands tour and do everything grassroots and build a fanbase. If a band really wants to be on the radio, that’s when MCA would step in. That’s a major label game and we don’t really play it.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break, decreased in the last decades? If so, why and is it a problem?
By major labels, yes, but also by a lot of the independent labels. It’s amazing how some indies work like major labels now. They all say that major labels are evil and I tend to agree, but then I look at indie labels and I won’t name any names but you’d be shocked, they take a percentage of publishing! 25-50% of the band’s publishing, which basically means taking the songs they wrote and owning part of them, which I think is really disgusting if you’re not paying the band for it. They tell the bands that they won’t sign them unless they do it and the bands do it, and this is creepier than all the things that major labels do.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I’d love to get bands more royalties, but we have such a high overhead that we can’t afford to. It isn’t fair when it comes down to it but there are so many costs that it’s difficult. I wish that we could change that.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
New Found Glory debuting at No.4 in the Billboard 200 Album Chart, with 91,000 copies sold in one week. That was the coolest thing ever. The first time we saw that band they were playing two shows, one was a pool party for their friend with ten kids there, the other was one hundred kids at a skate park. It’s cool to see that little band reaching so many people.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan
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