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Interview - Jul 19, 2004

"Major labels are looking at indies like me to help them find their acts."

picture Michael Caplan is the president and co-founder of the independent record label Or Music in New York. He was previously a senior vice-president of A&R at Epic/Sony, where he worked with Ginuwine (US Top 5) and the Allman Brothers. He currently works with Los Lonely Boys (US Top 10), and Phil Roy, among others.

Here he tells us about Or Music, what his work with Los Lonely Boys has involved, his view on the current climate for independent labels, and more.

What has been your route in the music business?

I lived in Connecticut and, from the age of sixteen, I worked at Cutler’s Records in New Haven, which is still one of the great mom & pop stores. All through college, I would come home for Thanksgiving and they would say, “Thank God you’re here, no one has ordered jazz for a month.” It was great for me to have that experience.

But you know, I was a nice Jewish boy and I was only allowed to go to law school or medical school, and so, in ’73, I read Clive Davis’s biography and thought to myself, “OK, I can become a lawyer and work in the music business.” I got into law school and I couldn’t stand it. I went to work for Morris Levy at Strawberries Records in Boston. I started off as a clerk and then worked my way up to store manager.

After that, I went to work for Polygram in merchandising and inventory, then I got promoted to sales, and then I went back to Strawberries—this time as the chain’s operation manager. I did that until ’81, when I was asked if I would be interested in working for Epic, which was then CBS Records. I did local promotion in Hartford in ’81 and then I got promoted to associate director of national rock promotion in ’83. I started doing A&R in’84 or ’85.

At Sony, I signed Ginuwine (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), Firehouse, Living Colour, G. Love, Bad Brains, Keb’ Mo’, and more. But in the end I was really frustrated, because the way it used to be at a major label was two strikes and then you’re out, and then it became one strike and you’re out.

The model was breaking down. I felt like we were reaching the end of the Cretaceous period and I was a Brontosaurus wandering around thinking to myself, “Geez, it’s getting really cold and…what’s that hairy thing running around?”

I had a year and a half to go on my deal with Sony, but I knew it was time and asked to be let out. They were very nice about it and they let me go, but they insisted that I come in through Red Music Distribution, with the ability to upstream artists to the Sony mothership, which was cool for me. In 2002, I started Or Music with Larry Miller.

What is Or’s musical direction?

We’re a company based on career-oriented artists. We don’t worry about the artist’s age; we’re looking for artists who have staying power. If Los Lonely Boys stop at two million, then I’d expect them to start at a million and a half next time, as opposed to 3LW, where you sell a million records and start at 30,000 the next time.

I want real artists and that’s our direction. When I was an A&R, everybody used to say “Oh, I’m a song guy.” Well, I’m a band guy. I like great songs, of course, but when I was a kid I would buy the new Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly records because they were my favourite bands.

Are you an independent label?

Yes, we are a fully independently owned and operated label, but we have close ties to Sony. We are distributed by Red in North America, but we’re free for the rest of the world.

Los Lonely Boys is a joint venture with Sony, the first, and it looks like Adam Richmond will be the second. In these joint ventures, we use the best of both our skills, which means that I’ll manage the first 100,000 units, which is the hardest thing for a major label to do.

What artists are signed to you?

Los Lonely Boys are a Tex-Mex rock band; Phil Roy is a great singer/songwriter; Tower of Power are a venerable soul band, thirty-five years old; and we have Pitty Sing, very eighties-sounding and who are fronted by a twenty-year-old singer from Manchester, UK.

Adam Richmond is our new signing and he is like John Mayer meets Dashboard Confessional, and I’m signing a new band in the UK called Pure Reason Revolution, which is like the Mars Volta meets the Beach Boys.

How did you come across Los Lonely Boys?

I had known their manager, Kevin Wommack, for years. He manages Omar & the Howlers and Chris Duarte, and I had always liked him and would always take his call. He brought me the band.

They had a production deal with Willie Nelson and they had done a record, but it wasn’t very good. It was way too polite and whomever they might have played it for must have had a hard time getting past it. I did the deal, then scrapped that record and made a new one with my friend and esteemed colleague John Porter.

Did they have a fan base?

Yes, they already had a fan base. They had been playing Texas for a long time, but the funny thing was that they had no fan base in Dallas or Houston; their audience was based in Corpus Christi and other tiny places.

You recorded the album, “Los Lonely Boys”, at Willie Nelson’s studio Pedernales, with John Porter as the producer?

I had to. The deal I did with Willie Nelson’s production company required me to make the record there. But I wanted to do it where the band felt comfortable, and the previous record, the one that we scrapped, was made there.

I had worked with John before on a couple of occasions. He produced Eye & I, which featured DJ Logic and Melvin Gibbs, and they were a great band way before their time, and he brought me Keb’ Mo’, because I had restarted OKeh, the classic blues and r&b label, while I was at Sony.

Keb’ Mo’ turned out to be a very successful artist for me. John also produced Moe for me, a jam band that I signed seven years ago.

How did you market and promote the record?

What we do here is totally micromanaging. We’re very nimble, we don’t overanalyse things, and we respond immediately. The album was released on 23 August and in June we put out a single, but only in Texas, which ended up charting in the Top 100. That created a bit of a buzz and it helped them get the touring going.

Then we gave Triple A radio a sampler. David Dye at World Cafe picked up on it and started playing “Heaven”, then WFUB started playing it and then KGSR, so it really started to catch on. The great thing was that, wherever it went on the air, it sold records.

There are people that deride Triple A and say that it can’t sell records, but the point is that we had sold 87,000 units off Triple A before it even got to Sony.

How much was spent on marketing and promotion?

Less than most people would spend. We were fortunate in that the retail community was very supportive, but we definitely spent some money, all within budget, naturally.

Has your work with them been any different to how it would have been if you had signed them while working at Sony?

Yes, we’re blazing a new trail that shows the best of the ways in which it might work. It would have been really tough to get Epic to pay attention to what needed to be done at the very beginning, to get those first 75,000 units.

That’s the hard part of being at a major, but once you have done that, their speciality is taking it from 100,000 to all the way.

What was instrumental in breaking them?

Triple A radio, and then, when it really started to blow up, it was the crossover to Hot AC and later the Top 40. Again, the great thing was that, when it went on the air, it sold. If you do a graph of sales versus airplay, it’s right on the money. We also did a video for less than USD15,000, which is played a lot on VH-1.

How do you find new talent?

In the past twenty-five years, every one of the situations I’ve found myself in has been different. You just have to keep your ear to the street. Al Teller, who used to be the head of MCA and Columbia and number two at Sony, once said that anybody who says that this is a science is full of shit.

It really boils down to being able to hear something in the early stages and being able to think about how it might sound later, when it’s done correctly.

The Internet is also a growing source. When I first started doing A&R at Sony, they offered me a computer, and I told them that I didn’t need a computer, as I didn’t even type memos, I listened to music. In the last five years, however, it’s got to the point where I come in the morning and turn my computer on before I turn my stereo on.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes I do, and I did when I as at Sony too. “Solicited” means that it comes from a solicitor, an attorney, and I don’t think it’s fair, because it gives the “haves” an advantage over the “have-nots”, and it shouldn’t be about that.

At Sony, I set up a system for dealing with the CDs and tapes that came in: my assistant would take away all the information that came with them, and I would just get the demo with a number on it. If I liked it, I would ask to see what it was about, because I didn’t want to be especially influenced by where it came from.

Solicited versus unsolicited: I take it all! However, if you don’t hear from me, don’t bother me, because I’m an indie and I don’t even have an assistant.

How many demos do you receive from unsigned acts per week?

On average, I get two or three demos a day now, because people have difficulties figuring out where I am. I go through periods during which I have a hard time getting to listen to them, but then I’ll come in early one day and get to a bunch of them.

What traits must artists have if you are to sign them?

They have to be people who will be around and who will keep going. They have to have “it”, that ephemeral thing that I don’t have, the thing that puts me on my side of the desk as opposed to theirs.

Do they need to release independent albums and develop themselves up to a certain point for you to get involved with them?

No, but it helps. I signed Pitty Sing out of nowhere, although Adam Richmond had toured for a long time. Obviously, I like it if they have a touring thing going.

Do you put in money into your artists’ tour support?

Absolutely, and that’s probably my biggest expense, after retail.

Do you agree with the fact that the return on that investment only comes from an increase in record sales?

I would certainly like to participate in my artists’ touring revenue, but no one has offered it to me yet! The model is changing though, and the business is moving towards a model in which companies and artists will share more in the revenue streams, whether it’s merchandising or touring. For example, I also publish some of my acts.

We’re still in a transitional period, however. We’re still having these major label executives who shall remain nameless going, “OK, we’re already fucking your records, now let’s fuck up the rest of your shit, pay us!”

Reality needs to come into play at some stage, but clearly it’s moving towards more of a shared profit thing.

Can artists be broken without radio support?

Yes, they can, although it depends on what kind of music they make, certainly in the case of pop, r&b, hip-hop and alternative rock. Particle, one of our bands, have a huge touring base and, at this point, they don’t even have vocals yet, and there’s no radio.

We’re quite happy with where they’re going and we’ve shipped over 20,000 units and scanned 10,000. It’s coming along very nicely and, two years from now, it will be 100,000.

Is there a good business climate for independent labels?

It’s really great, and it’s a wonderful thing to be involved in. When I first started doing this, two years ago, I talked to an artist and he had an issue with me because my tastes happen to be a little mainstream. We’re not an indie niche label, and we definitely want world domination.

When I first began talking to acts, and there were apparently major labels talking to them too, I’d say, “Well, look, I’m not a major, but…” Now I say, “Well, the good news is that I’m an indie.”

It’s definitely a great time to be an indie: you just have to make sure that you follow through with your business plans and that you don’t run out of money.

Have the ways in which major labels find talent and develop artists changed in the last few years?

They’re starting to wake up a bit and they’re looking at indies like me to help them find their acts. They realise that they have certain shortcomings and that artist development has become prohibitive for them. I know that Sony looks much more closely at the labels in the Red system than they did in prior incarnations.

Back in the days when I was at Sony, I constantly tried to tell some of the people that I was working for that they should check out what was going on at Red and at indie labels. At the time, they viewed them more as competitors than as great sources.

Red has Coheed and Cambria and they are a good example of bands that came through the Red system and are now at Columbia.

What will bring the music industry out of the rut it’s in?

The ease of digital distribution will break it, and Steve Jobs is a big hero who showed that people will buy downloads as long as you make it easy to understand. Having been in the business as long as I have, I remember when CDs started happening and all of the sudden the business started moving, and everybody in the business thought they were such geniuses, when it was really just about new technology.

I think things are likely to continue as they are for the rest of this year, up to Christmas, and then I think that people are going to be buying more music than ever before, especially when Microsoft jumps in.

The great thing about digital is that you now find people listening to music in more places than they ever have before. When I take the subway to work, I see those iPod headphones everywhere. It’s like a mark of status.

I have an eleven-year-old son and it used to be all about Kazaa before, and his friends would say, “Hey, does Ginuwine have any good songs besides “Pony”? I want to download them.” Now all of them are doing the iTunes thing.

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?

It’s a new era and many of the old assumptions are being challenged. If people are open to new things, things could change. When I was at Sony, they’d say, “You can’t do that, it’s just not done!”

When I started my company and started doing my first contracts, it only took me a minute to figure out that there are lots of things that I thought I knew how to do but I didn’t.

What aspect of the music industry would you change?

I’ve had a lot of people calling me up to congratulate me on Los Lonely Boys and the one thing that keeps coming up is people telling me that it’s great to see that real music can still sell and that if you give it to people they’ll want it.

In recent years, music has become very prefabricated, and not just all the kiddie pop stuff or the Britney types, but also alternative rock, or crap rock as I call it, all those faceless bands that radio has been pushing. The whole thing will come to an end. People want to listen to a different band rather than another “same as”, which there has been too much of lately.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Up until last week, I would have said an older event, like being in a studio in Juniper, Florida, when the Allman brothers got back together, just watching them, a band that I grew up revering, purveying their craft once again.

But I’d have to say that Los Lonely Boys going into the Top 10 this week has to be it, because now it’s my own thing.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

Putting out great music. When I was a kid, I played the saxophone, and I thought I was really good. I could read notes, I could play high notes and I could play fast. But I found that I had nothing to say on the instrument.

I still love the creative process and I love being as close as possible to the creation of music. If I didn’t have to work, and believe me I do, I’d be doing this, I’d be helping artists find their way.

Interviewed by Jean-François Méan