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Interview - Mar 11, 2003

HitQuarters Artist Signed to Major Label

picture Mike Swinford manages Dallas-based rock band SouthFM, who were featured as one of HitQuarters' talents in December 2002, with their track “Dear Claudia”. The band have now signed to MCA. Here he tells us how he and the band worked towards getting a major label deal.

So you manage SouthFM, who have recently signed to MCA?

Yes, we signed them to us a year ago, recorded an album that we released independently, and we have just signed them to MCA. Marc Nathan and Gary Ashley at MCA already loved the songs, especially “Dear Claudia”, which they think might be the single of the year, when they came to Dallas to see one of the band's shows, although they weren't sure that the band could deliver it live. But they were really happy, because it was at that gig that they realised that the band was a package, complete with great songs, vocals and live performance. We’re now getting ready to release the album nationwide in June.

Let's start from the beginning...what are Rainmaker Management and Brando Records?

Rainmaker was started in 1993 by Paul Nugent, Dale Brock and I, and we generally manage bands from northern Texas. We managed a band called Deep Blue Something, who had a hit called “Breakfast At Tiffany's” in 1996. They were signed to Interscope and sold two million records worldwide. Through the years we’ve had bands like the Nixons, Soak, Sugarbomb, for all of whom we got major label deals. We manage five bands at the moment: SouthFM, Blue October, Zayra, Alligator Dave and Sara Overall, who is about to sign to Velvet Hammer, a subsidiary of Atlantic.

Brando Records is our indie record label, previously called Rainmaker Records. We use it as our vehicle for making records with the bands we manage, and then we move the bands on. We’re not like a regular label that signs artists to long-term deals: we sign them to a one-record deal with the goal of making a great record and moving them on to a major label. Both Brando Records and Rainmaker Management are independent companies that are 100% owned by us.

Who are your distributors?

Crystal Clear Sound distributes all of our records in North America. They’ve been around for twenty years and if you’re a band in Texas, they probably distribute your record.

How are Rainmaker and Brando structured?

We have management, A&R, marketing and promotion departments: we wear all those hats and more at the same time. Basically, it’s Paul Nugent, Sam Paulus and I. Paul is our A&R guy, and he and I both go out and bring bands to the table and decide who we’re going to sign. I was the one who came across SouthFM, although signing them was a decision we shared. Paul is the one who goes to the rehearsals and works on songs with them. Then once we've got the record going, I act as the product and marketing manager.

How do you find new talent?

We just search things out in the region. We don’t deal with that many artists who are not from Texas. Dallas has an amazing live music area called Deep Bellum, where there are probably ten live music clubs within a two-block radius. There’s a lot of good music here, but it’s overlooked because it’s not from LA or New York.

What genre of artists do you sign?

Mainly rock and alternative artists, because that’s what we’re best at, although we do have a couple of girls right now who lean more towards pop. We have been approached by country bands, for example, but we can’t work with them because it just doesn't fit in to our area of expertise.

Do you always sign your artists to Rainmaker Management and to Brando Records?

Usually we sign a band to management and, if we can’t get another label involved by shopping demos around, we put it out ourselves and try to get airplay. It’s not necessarily a hand-in-hand deal, but it’s just that things tend to work out that way, because record labels aren’t taking any chances these days.

How do you promote the records?

We target radio. We don’t do deal very much with local and regional press because it doesn’t sell records, whereas radio does. Radio is probably the toughest media of all for an indie label, but we’ve built relationships with people who believe in our vision and believe we’re bringing them good music, so if they love the song they give it a chance.

In what regions do you promote the records?

Mainly in the Southwest: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. We could reach further, but we prefer to target our own region, where we have access to resources and where we have stronger relationships; if we get something going here then a bigger label is going to want to get involved. We would love to be a huge label, but it takes a long time to build up the necessary resources and we can’t hamper an artist’s career when they need a major behind them to make them international.

Are you involved in touring?

We basically handle every aspect of touring, including tour management, budgets and deals.

How did SouthFM come into being?

They are all from Dallas, except one of them, and a couple of them grew up together. Paco Estrada is the singer and the main songwriter. They rehearsed in small rehearsal spaces around town and in the singer’s house, and performed live about twice a month, mainly around Dallas. They got gigs by just calling around and also befriending other bands who would let them open their shows.

They financed an album with their day jobs and shopped it to indie labels and managers, to no avail. I met the singer at Starbucks, where he worked and where I used to go for coffee. We started talking and over the course of a couple of months we got to know each other. One day he handed me their demo and over the next month I listened to the songs and we talked about them. I then let Paul listen to a couple of songs, especially one called “Dear Claudia”; a thirty-second section of the song was great, but the rest of it was actually really bad.

We told the band we wanted to make a record with them. We sent them into the rehearsal studio to work on “Dear Claudia”. What is now their first single was then a thirty-second intro to a five-minute song. We told them that the song as a whole sucked, but that the intro was amazing and that if they could develop that part into a song we thought we could get it on radio. They went into the rehearsal room, tried a couple of different versions and when they played us the final version we thought it was amazing.

We then signed them to Rainmaker and Brando and recorded an album. We’re good at taking bands in at that stage and then moving them up to a major level. When we made this record with SouthFM, we asked them if they were ready to take their shot at a major label and funnily enough they told us they weren’t. We told them that that was cool and that we would just make the record and that if we sold eight hundred copies we would be happy: we would continue to develop them, make another record and then move up.

What made you want to sign them?

I saw evolving musicians. The singer is a star and a poet. In his songs he tells amazing stories. Most people would have looked at them and thought they were really green and too young, but there was just something there. Over the last year they’ve really developed their live show and now they’re seasoned musicians.

Where was the album recorded?

The album was recorded by Alex Gerst in a little town next to Dallas called Krum, and then David Castell mixed it. We spent a total of US$8,000 on the album, but it sounds like a $100,000 record.

Did you arrange tours for them?

No, a booking agency was responsible for that, although the band have never really been on an actual tour. They have generally played one-off dates in the region, because up until two weeks ago they all had full-time jobs.

Who publishes their material?

They have their own publishing company called Just Beyond Sleep Music (ASCAP). They will hold on to their publishing rights until the right offer for a co-publishing deal comes along.

When was “Dear Claudia” released?

It was planned for release on 19 July, but we just weren’t ready to promote the record at that time, so we put it on hold and planned to launch it to radio this January. But just as we were starting to send it out to radio, MCA stepped in.

Does the band have a fan base?

A small fan base in Dallas of around five hundred people and another couple of hundred in a few other markets in Texas. They created their fan base by playing once a month in about eight cities, regular and also acoustic gigs, and by communicating with people on their web site's message board. But as far as getting signed to MCA is concerned, their fan base hasn’t been important.

What were the results of the band's showcases at the Nashville New Music Conference and the North Texas New Music Festival in 2002?

No labels saw them then and fell in love or anything. They were such a young band and they didn’t really have great chops at either of those showcases. A couple of label people saw them at the New Music Festival in Dallas, but nobody went for them.

How were the band spotted by MCA?

Paul was in LA playing our artists' music to A&R people. He met Marc Nathan (VP of A&R - Ed.) at MCA and played “Dear Claudia” to him and, although Marc kept playing it over and over again and obviously loved it, he didn’t show any further interest at the meeting. Paul came back to Dallas on a Friday, and the Monday after, Marc called him and told him that Gary Ashley (Senior VP of A&R at MCA - Ed.) wanted to hold a conference call. Basically, Gary told Paul that they were in love with “Dear Claudia” and that they thought it might be the song of the year. They wanted to sign the band and, by Wednesday, the band had a deal.

What made MCA sign the band?

As I said, they fell in love with “Dear Claudia”, which is a fearful thing for a manager, because you want the label to fall in love with your band and be into artist development. But labels are out there pushing and selling songs, and one song can sell five million albums, so we were honest with the band and told them that the label was signing the song and not really the band.

When MCA wanted to sign the band they hadn’t seen them play live, they didn’t know whether they could play their instruments and hadn’t even seen a picture of them, but at the end of January they flew into Dallas to see a show. The show was amazing, there were about seven hundred people there, and Marc Nathan and Gary Ashley were jumping up and down like giddy schoolgirls, because at that moment they knew that they had a band. There is no doubt that MCA now feels that they got the full package: a great band with great songs.

Are the band now signed directly to MCA?

Yes. We went with how Brando deals are usually set up: we sold the masters to MCA and Brando has no hold on the band now. We manage the band for Rainmaker and deal with all the band’s day-to-day activities.

What are the ins and outs of the deal?

It’s hard to get much commitment from labels, but it’s a six-record deal, with only one record guaranteed: this one. The band have amazing points on it, and MCA have committed to a video and huge amounts of promotional support. Because MCA need a hit, their entire goal is to make this a top alternative crossover to a Top 40 hit. As far as the time periods are concerned, the ad date to radio for “Dear Claudia” is 26 March and the album will follow on 3 June.

What marketing and promotion activities are planned?

They’re a rock band, so MCA expects them to hit the road and start touring, which they’ll do. They’ll be touring with another band we work with called Blue October, who have a really strong fan base. Besides radio we’ll be doing a music video in the next couple of months, although MCA wants to build a radio story before they commit to a video and take it to MTV. At MTV they don't look kindly on artists who don’t have airplay. Then we’ll do the usual things, posters, stickers, street teams, etc.

Who will pay for the marketing and promotion activities?

MCA will cover the marketing and promotion costs, 50% of which will be recouped from the band’s royalties.

Who will own the master recordings?

MCA. We might have been able to negotiate for the masters to come back to the band after a certain period of time, but then we would have had to give up more financial support upfront. We'd rather make sure the label is spending the dollars needed to work radio promotion, touring, etc., to give the record and the band the highest chance of success.

What are the pros and cons of the deal?

MCA is going to try to slam this thing home at radio and if people buy into the song and buy a lot of records, the band is going to be on their way to building a great career. But if that doesn’t happen, the band will get dropped, which is the downside for any band signed to a major label. Major labels don’t know how to spend a little bit of money to develop an artist; they know how to spend a lot of money and make a project hit big, but if it doesn't happen they run away from it.

Why do you think SouthFM have come this far?

The songs. The key to any truly successful act is great songs. There are millions of bands out there who write good songs, but you have to write great songs. I believe SouthFM have great songs and MCA thinks so too. Whether it's a small, acoustic gig or a full gig, people love the songs. I think that’s what MCA heard and that’s why we originally started working with them.

Paco is also an amazing singer. He is full of melody and sings differently to anyone you might hear on the radio.

What are the most important moves they've made to further their career?

The single most determining factor has been their patience. Most bands think that they can do some rehearsals, get signed and be the next big thing by Christmas. When we started working with the band we asked them if they were ready to take their shot and they told us that they weren’t, that they needed time to develop as a band, to become better players and write more songs. As opposed to a lot of bands, who think they’re better than everybody else, this band has both humility and patience. They want to make it as big and as bad as anyone does, but they don’t have to have it right now.

What do you think will break the band?

“Dear Claudia” is a huge hit that people are going to relate to and the song that’s probably going to be the second single, “My Sanity”, is amazing and there’s nothing like it on the radio. People are going to freak out on it because it has depth. People get this band and kids definitely love them. At Starbucks, teenage girls would walk up to Paco and ask him if he was SouthFM's singer. The kids are just really into them.

What aspects of your work with the band are you most proud of?

I’m proud that we spotted some very rough parts of songs and that the band developed them into what we believe are hit songs. They were small players that a year ago no one would have given anything for. I guarantee you that the music community in Dallas will look at this and say, “Whoops, we didn’t see that one coming!”

Interviewed by Jean-François Méan