Interview - Apr 13, 2004
"Many artists and albums aren't maximised because their record companies give up on them."Ben Berkman is a partner at Octone Records, an independent label based in New York, and the A&R for Maroon 5 (US platinum).
Here he tells us how they worked to break Maroon 5, what the most important factor is when they consider new artists, what differentiates Octone from other labels, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started at Hamilton College in New York State ten years ago; I was working as a promoter for the school, booking bands for the spring fling, the winter concerts, etc. After I while, I realised that the school and I were often at odds when it came to the kind of talent we wanted to attract to the campus. They were only interested in the big bands that were on the charts, whereas in my opinion those bands didn’t mean anything to the campus community.
I did some research and that led me to bands like Guster, Strangefolk, Phish (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and other small bands that were creating a buzz in the Northeast. That was the kind of band that I wanted to book, but as the school didn't see it my way, I left the campus activities board and went into business myself with some friends. We raised money through our fraternity and then we staged small shows, and many were really successful. I realised that it was fun and that I could make a living out if it.
What is Octone Records?
Octone Records is a privately funded, independent label. I was asked to be a part of it in early 2001 by James Diener, whom I'd worked with for several years at Columbia Records. James had raised money in private equity and recruited myself and David Boxenbaum, whom he had gone to college with, to be the management team.
I was hired as head of marketing and promotion and David, who has an MBA and a business background, as general manager of Octone. All three of us do A&R. Octone also has an artist development co-venture deal with Clive Davis at the RCA Music Group.
What does that joint venture mean?
We have our own money here, raised from private equity, so we make our own decisions as to the kinds of artists that we want to sign. We make the records ourselves and we are distributed by BMG. Once a record starts selling, we have the opportunity to lift those records into the joint venture with J Records (J Records is part of the RCA Music Group – Ed.). Essentially, those records become Octone/J Records. Once this happens, we have access to J Records’ vast resources to help us promote the project and we split profits 50/50.
What is Octone’s musical direction?
Artists who have an amazing live show and, through that live show, the potential to build a community around them on the road, and who ultimately have songs that are capable of being played on the radio and exploitable to a mass audience.
Maroon 5 were the perfect first band for us, because in them we found a band who were amazing live. Although they were very raw and lacking in terms of repertoire, we knew that they had the ability to galvanise fans out on the road and were capable of building communities around them in small pockets of the country.
While that was happening, we worked on developing great songs with the band and on delivering something that was the whole package: hit songs, a great live show, and a community, albeit small, of dedicated fans.
As an independent label, are you more open to developing artists over the course of a few albums than major labels are?
We don't look at it that way. We're trying to make home runs here, but we're willing to spend a long time developing individual albums. With Maroon 5, we wouldn't have been satisfied to sell 150,000 albums of their debut release and then move on. We want to sell a million copies of a debut release, even if it takes us two and a half years to do it.
Many artists and albums aren't maximised because their record companies give up on them. They don't have the time or the patience to stick with it. We believe that if you have the right artist with the right repertoire and a great live show, and you spend your money wisely by keeping them on the road and keep pushing, eventually the record will break.
What acts are you currently working on?
Besides Maroon 5, we're currently working with a rock band from New York City called White Light Motorcade, a singer/songwriter named Michael Tolcher from Lovejoy, Georgia, and a new rock act from North Texas called Passerby.
How did you come across Maroon 5?
I found Maroon 5 in February 2001 and I signed them that same month. They used to be a band called Kara's Flowers, who incidentally I was vaguely familiar with when I worked at Warner Brothers. At the time, they were signed to Reprise Records, a Warner imprint, and they were about 17 years old. They didn't last long at Reprise; their album sold about 5,000 copies and they were dropped after six months.
We were looking for talent when we started Octone Records, and the brother of a former colleague of mine at Columbia Records who wanted to do A&R for us gave me a bunch of demos. One of the demos contained a genius song called “Sunday Morning”. It turned out to be by Kara's Flowers, but it was hard to believe that it was the same Kara's Flowers I had known, because they had such a completely different sound.
We flew out to Los Angeles to see them play for about forty kids at the Viper Room and I was just blown away. They were only a four-piece; the singer played the guitar and seemed to be a very shy, shoe-gazing type. I really believed that the band could be many people's favourite band if the right things fell into place: more and better songs, and a fifth member to play the guitar to free up the singer, so he could be the star I perceived him to be.
What set them apart from other bands?
It's rare to find a band as young as they were, at the time around 21 years old, who play drums and guitars but aren't a stereotypical rock band. Maroon 5 are a rock band when you see them live, but not in the bashing away and screaming sense. My thought was that their kind of music was a bit advanced for its time, but that when the album came out it would be exactly where music was going.
Sure enough, it happened. Justin Timberlake left a bubblegum boyband and started to write more serious music influenced by Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and that’s what Maroon 5 were doing but with guitars, which I thought was really interesting. Guitar One magazine even called Maroon 5 “rock's first neo-soul band”, which I thought was a great moniker, because it accurately described what they were doing. I figured that there were so few of these bands that if we were to expose it we would attract a lot of attention.
What made you go for Matt Wallace and Mark Endert as the producers of the album?
When we signed the band, we really were trying to figure out who an appropriate producer might be. A lot of names were mentioned and Nile Rodgers was one of the first. On paper, he looked like the right guy, having worked with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Duran Duran and made his own music with Chic, so he met the band and we had numerous discussions on how we would work with him. As it turned out, he was just out of our price range: he wanted a budget of about USD300-350,000 and we just couldn't afford it. We needed to keep the budget for the album down to about USD 100-150,000.
Matt Wallace had made enduring, amazing rock records, with Faith No More, for example, and he addressed all of our repertoire concerns in a credible and interesting way. He had a bunch of ideas as to what he would do with the band and he was also excited about it because he had never made a record quite like this. We took our chances, Matt started working with the band and within a week of pre-production it was gelling. It was reciprocal love between him and the band and we felt that we were going to have a great record on our hands.
Mark Endert came in later to remix the second single, “This Love”, which ended up on the album and which is the song we're working right now. Mark, who had worked with Madonna and Vertical Horizon, really understood how to give the track a pop sheen. That up-tempo percussive beat was conceived by him. He was then brought in to do some post-production on the album.
How did you promote the lead single “Harder to Breathe” to radio?
We don't have promotion staff here; I'm basically it. I was trained in radio promotion during my time at Columbia Records. We figured that, since we didn’t have field staff and we couldn’t spend a lot of money, we had to rely on the strength of the music, the uniqueness of the band, and stick to our promise to really deliver to the radio stations who gave us a shot.
We picked a sample group of radio stations in the modern rock format, including 91X in San Diego, The Buzz in Houston, The Edge in Dallas, The End in Salt Lake City, WRAX in Birmingham, WLIR in Long Island, and The Peak in Spokane, to form a small focus group of radio stations that I knew—from experience and from research—had the ability to go out of their way for a record that no one else in the country was playing, if they liked it and believed that it was a good band for their market.
The first of the radio stations that supported us were WLIR in Long Island and 91X in San Diego. I visited them, presented a marketing plan to the programme director and said, “This is a really unique band and if you give us a shot, we’ll do shows for you and we'll bring the band in as many times as it takes. I really believe that, on the strength of this band's live show, you’ll ultimately be proud to have a band like this representing your radio station and playing at your events.”
I think they were pleasantly surprised to see how fast listeners reacted to “Harder to Breathe” and by the passion displayed by the fans when the band came in and did events for the stations. We sold live tickets really cheaply in the markets we had airplay in, and we even sold the album for the price of the frequency of the radio station, like 91 cents for 91X.
We also asked programme directors to announce that the album could be bought for 91 cents at a given independent retailer every time they aired the single. We found out very quickly that, by doing so, we were able to get the real trendsetters in these markets to purchase the album, and thus the word spread. And as it spread, we were able to start inching the price up.
At what point did J Records step in and help to sell the track to radio?
We had been promoting the track for six months and we had created a real buzz on radio when, in January 2003, J Records stepped in. We were starting to cross the song from the modern rock format into the adult Top 40 format and it was becoming irresponsible for us to keep promoting the band off our own backs, because the price of airplay goes up when you cross over into pop radio.
At that point, the band had sold about 50,000 albums and we were running out of resources, so J came in with more manpower and access to a wider range of formats and stations.
Did you anticipate that the single would take a long time to take off on radio?
I knew it was going to be a really slow build-up, because it was a song that people wouldn't get sick of and could therefore be played many, many times, and because it didn't sound like anything else out there. Kurt Loder at MTV described the band as being a cross between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Timberlake.
When the song came out people didn't know who they were, so it was always going to take a long time to build up, because half of the battle was making people aware of the band. The plan we had conceived for them was all about building up communities across the country, so we were willing to take our time in promoting the song. The song lasted from July 2002 to December 2003. It was a fifteen or sixteen-month campaign that peaked at No. 4 in the US.
What other marketing and promotion activities did you engage in?
We made a video for “Harder to Breathe” for just USD55,000. Mark Webb, a pretty big commercial video director, made it for us back in the summer of 2002 and we serviced it to local video shows across the country. We also serviced MTV 2, but that didn’t really work. Finally, once the song started to break on radio, Rick Krim at VH-1 stepped up and embraced the project, and we ended up having a No.1 video there.
The marketing was really all about touring. We toured the band out: they played 200 shows in the first year, during which we supported them. We spent more money than a major label would have done on tour support.
Do you put money into tour support for all your artists?
Yes, we spend more money on tour support than on anything else. I think we spend more money on tour support than just about any label in the business, and we certainly spend more than any independent label. Our tour support programs are very aggressive and competitive compared to those of the majors, which is a big selling point for us.
When we find artists, we ask them if they are willing to get into a van and be on the road for a year or even a year and a half, because that’s what it's going to take. And when they ask us if we are willing to pay for it and we say yes, then that’s often the deal-maker right there.
How do you find new talent?
Referrals from people who are credible and whose taste I trust, such as managers, attorneys, programme directors at radio stations, booking agents, producers, and so on. We also get many unsolicited demos, and although we have interns and other staff who listen to them, seldom do we find anything great.
What types of artists and bands are you looking for?
You have to be an excellent live band, because the way that we seek to promote our artists is by selling acts that are great live to radio stations. What we did with Maroon 5 and what we're doing now with Michael Tolcher is to have them play their best songs as part of an acoustic set, and then we take them to radio stations, record stores and our distribution branches across the country to demonstrate their talent.
Secondly, we look for charismatic stars, obviously. It's important to have artists who are identifiable. Many bands out there are really successful, but you wouldn't know who they were if they walked past you. We're not looking for that type of act: we want bands who have distinct and separate personalities.
Do artists need to have released independent albums and developed themselves to a certain point before you become involved?
Not necessarily, but it's certainly an advantage. Maroon 5 already had a small fan base as Kara's Flowers and that really did help us out when we put them on the road. But in the case of White Light Motorcade and Michael Tolcher, they had no fan base, no independent albums—they had nothing really, so we started from scratch. Passerby had already started to build a community around their music in Texas.
Certainly, we are interested in bands who already have a bit of a head start, which gives them a competitive advantage over other projects we're considering, but we're very confident of being able to develop fan bases on our own. Maroon 5 had a fan base of about 1,000 people, which we turned into 500,000.
How involved are you in the choice of repertoire and producer?
We are very involved, but we're also a very artist-friendly label. We have real discussions and we don't patronise our artists. We involve them in every step of the process, but we also let them know that we're also going to be involved in every step too. The artists are always receptive.
There are few labels out there who get as involved and are as detail-oriented as we are, and it has resulted in the massive success of Maroon 5. With that as a badge of credibility, we're able to say to other artists, “We're really going to work with you, we're really going to be involved, not just in making a record, but in everything: in what you call yourself, in your styling, in your image, in who you tour with, and in how you play your shows.”
And the thing is, as long as you're not heavy-handed about it and you engage people in adult conversations that are not patronising and are respectful of what they want to do, artists actually welcome the attention and the time that we give them. They can’t get that anywhere else and they certainly can't get it at a major label.
What role does radio play when you consider a new artist?
It's our goal to provide J Records with artists whose repertoire they can sell to radio. We're not looking for esoteric, strange music that will make the bands critics’ darlings but won’t get them played on radio. Ideally, we want both, but we're more interested in hit songs from hit bands. This doesn't mean that we're not interested if you don't have the songs when we find you: we've learned over time that repertoire can be developed.
Maroon 5, for example, had no singles when we signed them. The singles “This Love”, “Harder to Breathe” and “She Will Be Loved” were all written during the A&R process after the band had been signed. The gut reaction works: when we look at a band and listen to their demos, if the songs are good enough and if we think they might write even better songs with time, then we're confident that we can get them there.
Can you artists break without radio support?
It can be done, but it's difficult. Radio is extremely important and probably more important than ever. Radio is also tightly formatted and they don't take many chances, so if you're going to work radio, you have to have the money to adequately promote your artist.
You can tour and you can build those communities, and that will get you so far, but if you really want to reach the masses you must have radio behind you. Certain artists though can get away with not having that much airplay: take Norah Jones or John Mayer, for example—they don't get much airplay but they are still phenomena.
Will online sales in digital formats give the music industry a much-needed boost?
I think they already have. The digital music revolution is certainly empowering adults and older music buyers by giving them the opportunity to find out about new artists and music that they would have otherwise had no idea about. Perhaps they gave up on music, because it was intimidating to go to retail when they didn't know what to look for, but it's so much easier now, being able to go to the iTunes store to look for artists. They have great staff recommendations and the cross referencing also helps. If you love an artist, they will tell you what other fans of that artist enjoy, and that really does help to expose artists.
Even the illegal downloading is fine; it's just a reality that we have to deal with. I don't think it’s the only reason behind slumping sales in the music industry; I think that has more to do with bad artists and bad promotion plans. To some extent, illegal downloading is just like radio: it gives the music consumer the power to sample an artist without committing to buying the product.
One thing is sure, and it's been proven through extensive polling: if kids get to know an artist through downloads and pirate CDs and they believe in that artist, they'll go out and buy the CD even though it's free online, because it's like owning a piece of the artist.
Do you agree with the fact that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) are tracking and suing file-sharing individuals?
It's never a good idea for an industry to attack and condemn those who are probably some of its biggest customers. It's certainly a controversial issue. A lot of people don’t realise that downloading is illegal, so the RIAA are doing what they must to communicate that message. The music industry has started to present viable alternatives, but until the content of iTunes equals that of Kazaa, consumers won’t switch to paid services.
Having said that, I don't think it is at all unfair for the record industry and the RIAA to engage in spreading virus-contaminated songs on file-sharing sites, because it should be caveat emptor: if you try to burn the record industry by stealing music and you end up getting a virus that corrodes your hard drive, that’s your problem.
If artists share the costs of making the album, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
No, I don't think so. A label like ours might invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into building up a band's touring base and not get a share of the touring profits. Artists always have the opportunity to buy the masters back, but labels build up their touring annuities via tour support, which takes the form of an interest-free loan.
I don't know of any other business in the world that lends people money interest-free for them to build up very lucrative businesses and does not expect a share of the profits. Until artists offer labels equal partnership in everything, including touring and merchandising, they shouldn't be entitled to share ownership of the masters, because they didn't pay for them.
What aspect of the music industry would you change dramatically?
I would eliminate the natural suspicion that artists and managers have of record companies, and I would make creative, qualitative and fair agreements. I’d like to see more deals like the Robbie Williams deal, but on a smaller scale, in which the artist and the label would be partners in everything, from owning the masters to touring and merchandising. That would be more akin to real business.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Seeing Maroon 5 play a sold-out show at Roseland, where there were 3,500 kids singing the words to every single song. It’s a venue in New York City that I grew up going to; I saw Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and some of the most seminal bands in modern music having their Roseland moment. If you’re selling out Roseland, you're really on your way to becoming a star.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I would definitely love to stay involved in the music industry. It's an exciting and rapidly changing industry where there’s money to be made and a lot of fun to be had. I want to be involved in great art and in delivering product that millions of people around the world can enjoy.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman