Interview with BRIAN SLAGEL, A&R for Metal Blade Records for Goo Goo Dolls (US Multi Platinum), Gwar, Six Feet Under - Sep 25, 2002
“There should be at least one guy in your band who is into the business part of it and who does a little bit of research”
Brian Slagel owns and runs California-based rock label Metal Blade Records. Bands he has signed include multi-platinum band The Goo Goo Dolls, Gwar, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, and Six Feet Under, to mention but a few.
How did you get started in the music business and what's the story behind Metal Blade?
I was involved in the local LA scene, promoting heavy metal shows and booking venues for local metal bands, starting the first American heavy metal fanzine, the New Heavy Metal Revue, and working at a record store.
There were so many good heavy metal bands playing in and around L.A. at the time, like Mötley Crüe and Ratt, but no one was really paying them any attention, so I decided to put together a compilation album of local bands.
Through the record store, I knew a lot of the independent distributors around the country, who said they'd be willing to distribute it for me. So I asked the bands to give me songs and I put the record together. Lars Ulrich even said he'd set up a band if they could be on the record, which he did, and that band was, of course, Metallica.
Every last penny I had went into manufacturing 2,500 pieces of vinyl and then, when it was out there, everyone wanted more. I didn't know what to do, I had no money, but this one distributor offered me a deal – if I brought in the records, they would manufacture and distribute them for me. Over the course of about a year or so, from 1981-1982, we put out EPs by Bitch and Armored Saint, and then our first album, by Metal Massacre, in February 1982, and it kind of grew into an actual label.
What obstacles did you have to overcome in order to establish a stable, profitable record label?
The biggest problem at the beginning was not having any money. If I had had 8.000 dollars, we could have done the first Metallica record, but I didn’t, and there are lots of stories like that, of bands I wanted to work with but couldn't.
Later, once we became a little bit more successful and had started to pick up bands, we went through a phase when all of our bands left to join major labels. We understood that we were a small independent label that couldn't give them the push and the backing that a major could, but it was still incredibly frustrating.
Then, in the late 80s, our main distributor went bankrupt. We ended up having to sue them for a lot of the money that they owed us, and they even tried to hold on to the catalogue of the records. After talking to a lot of the major labels, we ended up going to Warner Brothers, who helped us out a lot.
Being an independent label, you’re faced with all sorts of challenges because you don’t have a major label's money and distribution network. But you do have more freedom to do whatever you want and to find things that are a little bit different.
Having previously had a deal with Warner, you are now 100% independent at this time. What experience did you have of them?
It really helped us in a lot of ways, because we were a young, somewhat green independent label for the first eight or nine years of doing business. When we got to Warner Brothers, we were inserted into a structure where we had to do things in a certain way, we had to release a certain number of records and we had to start promoting them three months before the release, we had to get our information together, etc. It has really helped us to this day to be really good about setting release dates and doing pre-promotion. We really did learn so much at Warner Brothers, and we worked with some really awesome people over there.
Why did the deal end?
When we first started at Warner Brothers it was a major, with a great reputation for being an artist-oriented label, which is why we worked with them. But they were bought out by Time Inc. and became Time/Warner Inc., this gigantic corporation. Then, when they released the Ice-T record with “Cop Killer” on it, they had problems with people picketing Time/Warner and dumping off their stock.
All of a sudden, they decided to bring in someone from the major corporate level to inspect the lyrics of all the bands on the label. When we gave them a Gwar record, they told us we'd have to change the lyrics of one song and take another song off the album. We refused, and had to go in and see the top two guys that ran the company, Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, who are legends in the music business here and wonderful people.
I told them that it wouldn't work, that I wasn't going to tell my bands what they could and couldn't say, and that I certainly wasn't going to remove songs or censor them. I offered to part ways before it got any worse. Then Ice-T left, and then Interscope, and then eventually everybody that used to work at Warner Brothers. Unfortunately now it's become a shell of its former self.
We were at Warner Brothers for four years, and it was a good experience for us, but there was so much politics involved in everything, and people telling you what you should or shouldn't do, that the bands had very little freedom to work creatively. Being with an independent allows them complete freedom to do whatever they want.
What are the differences in the way you work compared to a major label?
We can offer bands several things. Firstly, complete freedom, to do whatever they want to do musically, lyrically and in terms of image. We also offer a stability that most major labels, where the turnover of staff is huge, would find hard to match. At a major, you might get signed by an A&R who loves your band but then gets fired or leaves, and then you’re stuck there with nobody who’s really in your corner.
Here, bands know that they’re going to be dealing with the same people, today, tomorrow and five years from now. Mike Faley has been here for 13 years, Tracy has been here for 11 years and I’ve been here for 20 years - and I’m not going anywhere. Another advantage is that we don’t have that many bands, so we can really look after them. It’s definitely more of a family environment here, very small, very close, which is really good for the bands. The only thing we can’t offer them is 10 zillion dollars in advances, but there’s lots of other stuff that makes up for that.
All major labels are now owned by gigantic corporations, and, as a consequence, they're producing homogenised corporate music that just isn't very exciting. For an independent, this is actually quite a good thing, because we’re not really competing with the majors at all anymore. We’re on this whole other level where things are a little more exciting, simply because we have more freedom to find and nurture new acts.
Who distributes your records?
We work with RED in the US. I’ve had a close connection with them from the first day I worked at the record store, because they were able to bring in all the imports that I wanted. They’ve been distributing our records non-exclusively off and on for a very long period of time, and they’ve proved to be the strongest independent distributor out there.
Other than selling records, what other areas of revenue do you have and how important are they?
99% of our revenue comes from record sales around the world, although we also do some merchandising and publishing. We also license songs to movie soundtracks, which, if they’re big movies, tend to pay very well. But we're basically a record company — that's our bread and butter. Trying to go into too many different avenues can be risky. I’ve seen indies make mistakes when they start doing things that they’re not used to, things that are not within their nature. Of course you have to look at different ways to make things happen and to create income, and we try as many avenues as we can, but really our business is based on the records.
How do you find new talent?
In many different ways. We talk to people all across the country, whether at radio stations, record stores, magazines, Internet sites, who recommend local bands that we then check out. We talk to various people within the industry, and our own bands turn us on to bands. Then, of course, we get tons and tons of unsolicited demos and we listen to all of those.
How did you find the Goo Goo Dolls?
We'd been hearing lots of good things about them playing in and around Buffalo when a promoter in Buffalo sent us their first CD, released on a small label called Celluloid. We thought they were awesome, so we signed them.
What were the important factors in the breaking of them?
We went through a long process. They were always the critics’ darlings but it was really difficult to break them out of just being a cool, underground band. People at Warner were very much into the band and in “Superstar Car Wash” (1993), we really had an album that should have been huge. At the time, though, there were a lot of crazy politics going on at Warner.
When the band had recorded their next album, “A Boy Named Goo” (1995), a phenomenal record, we went up to Warner and said, “Look, you have to break this band now or they’re going to get day jobs.” At that point we had supported the band for 8-9 years and we needed it to happen. This time Warner went out there and really worked on the record.
Kevin Whetherly was the program director at one of the most influential radio stations, K-ROQ, in Los Angeles, and when he added the song “Name” to their playlist, they got a huge number of requests for it. Warner was actually working on another track, but when they saw the response that K-ROQ got, they quickly shifted their focus to that song, and that’s when it exploded.
What do you look for in an artist?
I’m just a music fan really, so if I like the music, then I'll want to work with you. But it has to be different. Being an indie, we try to do stuff that the majors aren’t doing now, but will do in 2-3 years, stuff that will be the scene. We don’t sign a copy of the current flavour; we want to find people who are new, different, and fresh.
Which one of your bands did everything right before you signed them and what did they do?
Gwar. They had been around for a while and I finally saw them at a CMJ convention in New York. They had an amazing show, and I thought, “Boy, if these guys are just half way normal, then I definitely want to work with them.” They had it together, the stage show, a plan, a record that was out and another one on its way. So when we signed them, they already had it going on, and that’s pretty important.
Once signed to you, do you support a band financially so that they can focus on the music? How long does the development period usually last?
Every deal is different and every band is different, but certainly, at the very beginning, it’s going to be difficult for any independent band to depend on music as their sole income, and they're going to have to supplement that income in any way they can. We make sure that they have enough money to make a good record and obviously to go out on tour, because that’s the most important thing. After that, if they’re able to sell a lot of records, then it’s viable for them to make this their career.
The development period varies from band to band, but, by the time a band release their third record, at the very latest, they should be making money on the investment we’re making, and they should be making enough money for them to be happy to be doing this. The time span of their first three records could be anywhere from three to four years, although for some bands it will happen much quicker. With some bands, it will really start to take off with their first record and, by the second record, they will have already established themselves. But I would say that, generally, the third record is a good indicator of how well they’re going to do.
How much money usually goes into developing a new band and getting them through their first album release?
I would say that if you start with a brand new underground band, it would cost somewhere between 8 and 10.000 dollars to make an album. Promotion, tour support, etc. might involve a further 10, 15 or 20.000 dollars, so, at the very lowest level, it’s probably somewhere around 30.000 dollars.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, attorney and team are, when considering signing a new act?
Absolutely, yes. At this level, it’s not necessarily important to have a manager, and most of our bands don’t, because, quite honestly, there aren't that many good ones out there. But there has to be at least one person in the band who knows what they’re doing, and it is very important to have a good lawyer and booking agent. If we know that this band is with that lawyer, and he’s a good guy, he knows what’s going on, that obviously means that the band is going to get good advice. That sort of thing is very important.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
No, I don’t think even signed artists are knowledgeable about the industry. It’s extremely important to learn, though, because if you don’t, you're going to get screwed, and that’s a fact.
There should be at least one guy in your band who is into the business part of it and who does a little bit of research. Then you need to surround yourself with good lawyers, managers and record companies. Listen to the professionals and make good use of their input, but ensure that all final decisions come from within the band.
Learn as much as you can about the music business, because if you know how things work, then it’s much easier for you to know what’s going on and whether somebody is doing the right things for you. Many bands get into trouble because they just want to make music and not think about the business side of it.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
We let the bands do their thing, especially very early on. I don’t want to go in and tell them what to do, I just like to oversee things a bit to make sure they're going in the right direction. In most cases, that simply means listening to the final mixes to make sure that the sound quality is good. If it’s not, we might tweak it a bit. But in the end, it’s the band’s art, it’s their vision, and they should be able to do what they want to do.
Is illegal downloading just as big a problem for metal bands as it is for mainstream acts?
Yes, particularly if you’re a smaller band, every single record sold is money that you need to survive. In many ways it's great that music has become so easily accessible, but the problem is figuring out how the artists and everybody else is going to make money. Artists are becoming outspoken on the issue, on how it's getting to the point where they're really having to consider whether making music is profitable enough. If the situation worsens, they'll have to stop making records, and I don't think that's something most kids realise. It's a huge problem, and I estimate that we have probably lost between 20 and 30% of our business over the last couple of years, and it is going to be difficult and costly for us to completely overhaul the way we do business.
How do you think the Internet will affect record companies' business model?
I certainly think that the distribution of music is going to change in the next ten to fifteen years, with everything moving into a more of a digital realm. You may not be buying CDs or DVDs in the future, instead you’ll be downloading them to your computer. I know that some people feel that a band will be able to make their own music and put it on the Internet, and that is certainly a possibility, but they'll still need money, for promotion, touring and making the record, and expertise.
Five or six years ago, many of the independents warned the majors that there were going to be huge problems with downloading. But they screwed up by not getting involved, and it's going to be extremely difficult to do something about it now. The government is taking on a bigger role and they’re trying to introduce legislation that will make it more difficult for people to download or at least make it easier for people to control.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
It’s terrible. Something like 40% of the radio stations in the country are owned by the same company, the Clear Channel, and so they’re all playing the same thing. But radio is changing very much over here as well, and hopefully there's room for some different things. I love Internet radio, you can find anything on there. Certainly, it’s a great avenue for people to listen to good music.
How do you get exposure for your artists?
It’s still a fairly simple formula, the same formula that we’ve always used. We make sure college radio stations have the records, we go to all of the metal and underground press that we can, and, most importantly, the bands go out on tour. They get exposure in every different city they play in, whether from local magazines or local radio stations. The kids come and see the band play, and then they go buy the record from the local record store. It’s really just a matter of getting to all the right people, and developing it from there by getting the band on the road.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would probably make sure that mp3 downloading and CD burning were banned, although it would be a drastic change that a lot of people might not be happy about. But it's like satellite TV, when it first came out, everyone got it for free and then they ended up having to pay for it. I think that’s probably what's going to happen in the music business.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Just be able to celebrate our 20th anniversary is amazing, the fact that we're an independent and we've survived all the stuff we’ve survived. But the most fun thing for me is to find a cool band that nobody's heard of, sign and develop them, and then see them have a long, successful career.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Lying on a beach! No, just kidding, I’m going to do this for as long as I possibly can, because I’m still having a lot of fun doing it. Hopefully, I’ll be sitting in an office or I’ll be running around the country, seeing bands and signing them and developing them.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman