Interview with JOHN RUBELI, A&R at Atlantic for P.O.D. - Apr 7, 2003
“Before we got involved, P.O.D. had created an enormous foundation that we were able to build on.”
As VP of A&R at Atlantic Records in Los Angeles, John Rubeli signed and currently works with P.O.D., the US multi-platinum rock band. In this interview, he tells us about the environment that enabled P.O.D. to grow before they signed to Atlantic. He also considers the importance of the team behind an artist.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I grew up in a Phoenix suburb and didn’t really have a lot to do, so I started going to punk rock shows when I was thirteen years old. I ended up befriending bands and soon started to realise that some of them needed help with what they were doing. I was never a musician and never aspired to be one, but I was always around musicians. When I went to college, I started off as a DJ and then worked for Capitol Records as a college rep. I booked a show on campus every Friday during the last two years of college, free shows held in the afternoon right after classes that were open to both the students and the public.
I booked everybody from Nirvana to The Flaming Lips to Primus to Nine Inch Nails; this was all in the 80s when those bands were around five hundred dollars a piece to book. I got really familiar with that end of things and befriended a number of agents. When I left college I moved to Los Angeles, where I was employed in an agent training program at a talent agency called Triad. It was a program similar to the classic "mailroom" at the William Morris Agency, who eventually bought Triad.
I started off in the mailroom, worked my way up to being an assistant and was en route to becoming an agent; Triad was booking Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Jane’s Addiction and the Lollapalooza Festival at the time. A couple of years later, I left to manage bands. I co-managed The Verve, the Boo Radleys and an L.A. band called The Geraldine Fibbers. I also booked the second stage at Lollapalooza for four years, picking every single band that played and touring with it for four years. Then, eight years ago, I got hired to do A&R at Atlantic and I've been here ever since.
What experiences have helped you to develop your skills as an A&R?
First and foremost, getting to know artists, learning what their concerns are and how to best serve their needs. I’m conditioned to be sensitive to and aware of all of the things that help generate and maintain the artist’s foundations—-the things that all of us on the business side should be aware of.
What acts are you currently working with?
The biggest act I work with is P.O.D. The other artists I work with are more of the up-and-coming type, like Project 86, The Emergency, Kill Hannah and The Peak Show. I used to A&R the punk rock band Bad Religion and the rock singer/songwriter Poe, although they’re not signed to us anymore.
What genres of music do you focus on?
I really enjoy working with different types of artists and different types of music, whether it be solo artists or bands, singer/songwriters or hard rock. I like good songwriting and talented artists, and it doesn’t matter to me what genre it is as long as the talent excites me. I don't limit what I look for; in fact, I probably go out of my way to diversify my work.
How did you find out about P.O.D.?
I had always tried to sign things that I personally thought were cool and innovative, and that would help change the face of music as we know it. The only problem was that I soon found that I was twenty years older than the music-buying kids, who go through that cultural awakening, at age eleven or twelve, when they decide that they’re going to listen to whatever music they want, see whatever movies they want and read whatever books they want.
After my first three years of doing A&R, I started thinking about all the things I'd done: the shows, the touring with Lollapalooza, and being a manager, and I realised that what had made those things significant were the kids supporting and sustaining the acts. The growth of Nirvana and Pearl Jam was a huge thing to witness, and I came to the conclusion that, instead of focusing purely on the music, I had to be more aware of the cultural changes that had occurred and what the kids were gravitating towards.
It was at that time that I happened to stumble upon a demo of P.O.D.’s and, to be honest, I didn’t quite get it. However, I understood it all when I went to one of their shows and saw this unknown band play to five hundred kids who knew every word to every song. Twenty years later, these kids were feeling exactly what I had felt when I was at the punk rock shows. It was their own scene and they had their own skate and snowboarding-inspired look. I saw signs of a movement and that’s what impressed me most.
Did you worry that non-religious listeners would be alienated by the fact that the band members are Christians?
When I went to shows in the 80s, most of the bands I liked were political: it was the Reagan era and that inspired them lyrically. The punk and emo kids who went to shows in the late 90s focused on “positive” bands, whose lyrical content was in fact very similar to the political uprising and consciousness that I experienced at punk rock shows. When P.O.D. were signed, it was the Clinton era, the economy was amazing and everything was good. It felt refreshing to find a band that actually embraced positivity and questioned things around them in a unique way. The thing that struck me early on was that I never considered P.O.D. a Christian band: I knew there were Christians in the band, but their vision is larger than any label anyone might want to pin on them.
P.O.D. got labelled Christian simply because they were able to build a following and make a living by playing largely Christian-sponsored shows. An infrastructure existed for them to grow in: shows were put on in church basements, and many kids who went to these shows weren’t necessarily Christian kids but suburban kids, who were able to go these shows because their parents thought it was a safe environment. This had a greater impact than anyone realised at the time, and a whole scene of bands developed.
Did you take releasing P.O.D. in the Christian market into account when you considered signing them?
The Christian market was considered in one way and in one way only: the parents of a number of their fans only let them buy music from Christian music stores. The band decided to put the fans, who had stood by them over the years, above any personal feelings that they might have about that market, and simply made their music available.
Were there things the band needed to improve before recording their debut album, “The Fundamental Elements of Southtown”?
Every song of theirs that we’ve released was written after we signed them. The most exciting thing about P.O.D. is that their growth has been consistent and long-term, and the smartest thing that we’ve done as a record company is that we've always listened to what they've had to say, whether it concerned singles, tour ideas or packaging. The band have been deferred to every step of the way, they have guided us in the right direction and we have been able to build on the sense of history that they’ve created.
What were the most important factors in the breaking of P.O.D?
First and foremost, their fans calling radio stations and MTV. Secondly, keeping the band on the road: they did their first high-profile national tour with Primus, and it really helped put them on the map. The band were really committed and said yes to every possibility that was presented to them, and their charisma and the fact that they are personable and friendly with people also helped to sell them.
How do you find new talent?
There’s not just one way that's effective. I spend a lot of time going to record stores, reading magazines and shopping at Amazon.com, and over the years I’ve befriended lots of great managers, attorneys and bands who have sent me music. It’s fun to pursue and find new music, and to be in the position where you’re hearing The Rapture, Sigur Ros or Interpol for the first time. That’s why I do this. I don’t know if certain avenues are better than others, but I certainly don’t believe that any of them are closed to me.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I get an average of forty to fifty artist submissions a week. I open every single package and I probably listen to half of them. Generally speaking, you can tell by the package whether it’s something that’s going to be relevant to you or not.
What do you think of the quality of the material you receive?
An interesting statistic is that instrument sales keep going up year after year, so that means that more and more people are making music. The plus side of the digital debate is the proliferation of home recordings. It’s not really a question of whether a band can record themselves now, because somebody in the neighbourhood will have Pro Tools and the software that will provide a decent snapshot of what that particular band is about. I’d say that quality is better than ever and that demos are an excellent way of gauging whether an artist is really talented or not.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
Essential! If I'm interested in an artist, I'll immediately go on the Internet and find out whether there’s a history, whether they’re a part of a scene that I don't know about, whether they've got a discussion board going and how many posts are on there. It enables me to plug into scenes and movements. I do it every day, throughout the day. It gives me a sense of perspective and it’s a matter of finding things that are culturally relevant, that go beyond the music and have a place in our culture.
How important are local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
As important as the songs. But part of the problem with the local scene these days is that local record stores, local promoters and local radio stations are all owned by national conglomerates, so their hands are tied by national interests. If you can’t make something happen in your own back yard because it’s controlled from half a country away, with a web site you can become part of a larger community. Your mp3s and the photos and mpegs of your live show can really show people what your band’s about. It often has a greater impact than doing things locally, because it enables you to create a national scene.
Having said that, there are still markets with strong local scenes, where there is the mom & pop record store, the local radio station and the alternative weekly publications that feature new music, although there are a lot less of those than there used to be and definitely a lot less than there should be.
What do you look for in an artist?
Talent, which you either have or you don’t. Real artists radiate it and it’s something that you can digest instantly. I also like to find artists who generate their own material.
So it’s important that the artists you work with also write songs?
Yes, it’s essential. Songwriting is a measure of talent; I feed off that talent and get inspired and challenged by it. I prefer to find and work with the whole package.
Which of your artists made all the right moves?
P.O.D. Before we got involved, they had created an enormous foundation that we were able to build on, something which they continue to do. The problem with any new artist is breaking anonymity and becoming a brand. P.O.D. created that brand themselves and we helped them to reach a much broader landscape.
Do you think unsigned artists know enough about the music industry?
I would say that they know more than ever, particularly because of the litigation with Napster and the RIAA and all the issues surrounding technology and music. They are reading up on it all and digging deeper into what the music industry is all about, and it is the Internet that is making this possible. There is far more information available than when I was going to punk rock shows twenty years ago, when all we had were fanzines like Maximum Rock & Roll and Flipside that were passed on from person to person. News travelled slowly and it was often hard to understand—now you can spend a couple of minutes on the Internet and get immediate clarity.
Do you attach any importance to the manager, attorney and team behind an act, when you consider signing them?
Yes. Helping to build and maintain an artist’s career involves teamwork and every person involved, whether it’s the artist, the record label, the manager or the booking agent, has a specific role. Everybody brings something different to the table and, if somebody’s not bringing anything, it really affects that artist's chances of building a solid foundation for a music career. Most successful projects are ones where there are no weak links.
I enjoy being challenged by great managers and great attorneys and learning from business managers and booking agents. My feeling has always been that we’re in it together.
How much does it usually cost to record an album?
I don’t have an exact answer to that question. There’s David Gray’s album, which was recorded in his bedroom and went on to sell millions, and there’s Korn’s album, which cost four million dollars and only sold a fraction of that.
I’m of the opinion that the expenses should grow as the project develops. In the long run, building on what you've already got makes sense because you’re building on the returns of your investment. Success begets success and the more successful you are, the more you can achieve. There’s something to be said for flying under the radar and then showing up as a giant blip.
How much support do you need from the other departments at Atlantic?
When it comes to working with a new artist, it’s essential that the other people here are supportive and aware of the things I’m looking at because once the artist is signed we’re all in it together. We’re a team and feedback is healthy and necessary to build enthusiasm and support within a label. I make sure I involve publicists, product managers, sales people and anybody who will have anything to do with the development of the act, and ask them it’s something they want to work on and are willing to champion. If the answer is no, then you’re doing the artists a disservice if you continue to want to try and sign them.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
Most artists who are looking to get signed have the wherewithal to generate demos that are representative of where they're at, although a demo deal is useful in the case of a band who just don’t have the resources to get the sound they’re looking for. In fact, P.O.D.'s demo was paid for by another label, as was Kill Hannah's.
What do you think of US radio?
There are signs that changes might be on the horizon with increased airplay for groups like the White Stripes, Queens Of The Stone Age and Interpol. I do think that there is a lot more room for new music, but the problem is that when that new music gets formatted, it becomes redundant because it’s locked in and limited. Luckily, there are alternatives like satellite radio, digital cable stations and the radio tuner in iTunes that are becoming more convenient and integrated.
What aspects of the music industry need to change?
Artists' work needs to be protected and they need to get paid for their work.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The greatest moment of my music career was when all of the guys in P.O.D. were able to go out and buy homes for themselves!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
I’m still learning, still growing, and still being challenged by this. Artists still seem to respond to the input that I give them, and I’ll hopefully be finding a lot more ways to help their cause.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan
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