Interview with RON SHAPIRO, manager and former co-president of Atlantic Records (Matchbox Twenty, Tori Amos, Jewel) - Nov 3, 2004
ďThe less expensively you do things, the longer you can extend the opportunity of creating a career.Ē
Ron Shapiro, who is based in New York, was until recently co-president of Atlantic Records, and he has now started his own management company. At Atlantic, he worked closely with Matchbox Twenty, Tori Amos and Jewel, to mention but a few. As a manager, he now represents Julie Roberts, Ricky Fantť, MaryAnne Marino and Regina Spektor.
Here he describes the traits he looks for in artists and gives his views on why major labels are currently having a hard time and what, in part, lies behind the recent increase in the vitality of independent labels.
How did you get started in the music business and what positions have you held?
I began twenty years ago as an independent publicist in Los Angeles, doing tour publicity for Elton John, Roy Orbison and Bryan Adams in North America.
I then went on to work for BMI, where I worked with songwriters for several years, and after that I held various positions: I was the head of publicity at MCA Records in Los Angeles in the early 90s, the West Coast general manager of Atlantic Records, and in 1995, I moved to New York to become the overall general manager at Atlantic Records.
I rose to executive vice-president and then co-president of the company, until 1 March of this year.
What experiences have been crucial to the development of your music business skills?
Iíve been lucky, but also smart enough to always choose bosses who really wanted to teach me and who wanted me to help them run their businesses. Thereís a whole group of people who were extremely helpful to me: Frances Preston, the long-time CEO of BMI; Al Teller, who was chairman of the MCA Music Entertainment Group in the 90s; and at Atlantic, Doug Morris and also Danny Goldberg, who was the president of Atlantic when I first got there.
They gave me great opportunities to learn and grow and I always tried not to be in too much of a hurry. Along with the executives, there were artists and other people who were important to my coming along. At MCA, I did an enormous amount of work with r&b legends like Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, and at Atlantic, I championed Tori Amos, Matchbox Twenty and Jewel. Iíve worked creatively with Jewel throughout her career and Iíve been involved in the A&R process of every one of her records.
What made you decide to start your own management company?
Time Warner sold the Warner Music Group, which Atlantic Records was part of, to Edgar Bronfman earlier this year and there was a great deal of change. I had some other record label opportunities, but I decided against them, because due to the shrinking of the major label business worldwideóincluding the consolidation, which is well documented, and the financial restraints on global record companies, which are in part due to piracyóthe long-term development of artists and the building of lasting careers, which is what I had done my whole life, had become less and less a part of the day-to-day business of a major record company executive.
At Atlantic, I worked with artists who had huge careers in North America, like P.O.D. , Kid Rock, Jewel and Matchbox Twenty, and so many of those careers were built over a long period of time, primarily on the road. They werenít necessarily played on the radio at first. We toured them, worked on their image, and helped them grow into themselves and their talent, which could take anywhere from nine months to two years.
Nowadays, itís unfortunate that, more often than not, major labels lack patience: quick hits at radio and basing the A&R work on what is happening in a culture right there and then are the primary factors, and that doesnít really interest me. Many people said to me that if I wanted to build careers, management is in many ways the only place to do it right now, and so I decided to give it a shot.
Do you offer services other than management?
Yes, I also have a consulting business; Iím currently consulting AOL Music on all of their music programming and on building their image as a marketing partner for the record industry, and Iím consulting a couple of businesses within Clear Channel Entertainment.
Interestingly enough, several new music ventures and record companies have approached me about how to set up new independent businesses at this moment. An interesting renaissance is taking place in the independent sector, as the music business deals with an ever-shrinking record company population.
What artists are you working with?
Julie Roberts, who is signed to Mercury in Nashville, was the first artist I signed to the management company. She has a beautiful, extraordinary voice and Brent Rowan, a legendary musician and producer in Nashville, produced her album. The record is often referred to as a bluesy, soulful country record with a retro touch.
Itís been an exciting process, much like my involvement in breaking Jewel over a decade ago: slow and steady, lots and lots of critical acclaim and press, lots of touring, lots of promotion, lots of Internet marketing, and after months of that, in this case, country radio and a Top 20 hit. Her album is almost gold and she has been nominated for a CMA Horizon Award, their Best New Artist Award, and she is to perform at the award show, which will be televised nationally on 9 November.
Iíve also just taken on management for the r&b artist Ricky Fantť, who is on Virgin/EMI, and who released his debut album this summer; and for Regina Spektor, who is signed to Sire/Warner Brothers; and I have another artist named MaryAnne Marino, who is a singer/songwriter signed to Lava/Atlantic, and whose album will be released next spring. Apart from those four, we have two unsigned artists for whom we are negotiating record deals.
How did you come across Julie Roberts?
By way of the co-chairman of Universal Music in Nashville, Luke Lewis. He and I had worked together at MCA in the early 90s: he ran MCAís distribution company and I ran the publicity department. When I left Atlantic, he asked me to visit Nashville and to consider managing Julie, who at that point had just finished recording her album.
How would you define her as an artist?
The word that immediately comes to me is ďtimelessĒ. She has one of those voices that leaves you altered when you first hear it. Elton John, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle and Roy Orbison were artists with whom I worked closely in the early stages of my career, and what I learned from them was that the most exciting thing is a voice that you never forget once youíve heard it.
They all had that and thatís what I feel about Julieís voice: she can sing country music like she was born to do it, but she can also sing just about anything, and her voice has a character and texture to it that is truly special.
How did you plan to break her?
She had a unique story in that she had worked as an assistant to Luke Lewis, while at the same time she was secretly recording music at night. Ultimately, her producer Brent Rowan played her music to Luke, who fell in love with it without knowing who the artist was! That made for a wonderful and absolutely true publicity story to begin with.
The goal was to do it the old-fashioned way by hitting the road and visiting every country music radio station in America and presenting her work ethic, beautiful face, great spirit and what is a timeless, classic album. Itís enough to say that, since the beginning of March, sheís only had six days off.
Iíve often found in my career that with the truly unique voices and the albums that donít necessarily fit into national radio from the start, thereís no other way to do it but TV show by TV show, radio station by radio station, or what means the same, hard work, day in, day out.
How do you find new talent?
Mostly from record company colleagues with whom I share mutual respect, and who want my help in developing their new artists.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Itís hard. Itís not that I have an official policy of not doing so, but the business of having five consulting clients and five artist clients fills up 24 hours of each day. If unsolicited material shows up, itís logged in and never lost, but it can take me a couple of months to find a weekend to listen to it.
What types of artists are you looking for?
I tend to be interested in artists who are also songwriters. Artists who have voices that can silence an audience anywhere on the planet, with an extraordinary work ethic and a desire to travel the world relentlessly in an effort to make their careers global.
Some managers and record company executives are more anxious to create artists by taking someone who has some talent and then putting their own mark on them, by A&Ring, writing, producing and imaging them entirely. That interests me less; Iím much more interested in artists who have been given, by God or whatever you believe, some incredible traits and the need to make a difference in the world.
Iím looking for artists who were born to do something with music and just need some help in understanding their own talent, how to channel it, and how to bring that talent to the world. I want to help them with those aspects, which are more interesting to me than any sort of Svengali relationship.
What should aspiring artists learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building long-term careers in the music business?
First of all, anything they can do to meet reality head-on. Most great artistsí careers are based on relentless hard work and sacrifice, beyond what the average person can give. As opposed to praying for a record deal, they should be actively pursuing everything that they can make happen for themselves, from getting involved, as songwriters, in the Performing Rights Society, which can lead to publishing relationships or a publishing deal, to all things local, like talent contests and songwriting opportunities.
If they are songwriters and can produce their own music or if they have young, aspiring, talented producers, they can make their own album or EP. They can make their own T-shirts, find ways to play regularly in their hometowns and sell their music on their own.
Record companies today, and certainly in North America, are much keener to hedge their bet working with artists who have proved that thereís an audience for their music.
How ready-to-go must artists be before they are presented to labels?
If youíre looking for a major label deal, the readier the better: you should ideally have built a following, sold a few thousand of your own records, and written songs the label thinks are hits.
There is, however, a whole world of independents out there, which are interested in the process of artist development, including many former record company executives who are looking for raw talent, with the aim of being a part of the process of creating an artist and an image.
By way of example, two of the biggest hit artists in America this year are Maroon 5 and Los Lonely Boys, and they both come from relatively new independent labels that at some point joined with major labels, which enabled those artist to grow even bigger.
What should artists take into account when they are deciding whether to sign a deal with a record company?
When I had the privilege of running Atlantic Records and sat in an office next to Ahmet Ertegun, which was an honour and a pleasure, many aspiring artists approached us with great respect for what Atlantic Records represented. A record companyís prestige always rests on its history, as artists always consider what the company has achieved.
But, for smart representatives of talent, itís not about the labelís money or fame: itís about looking at a team of people and asking, ďDo they stick with something over a long period? Will they work hard? Have they had success breaking artists and breaking artists who were different from what was going on at the time?Ē
Thatís what Iím considering with one of my unsigned artists who has a bit of a bidding war going on with a couple of record companies. The most important thing to me is not the money, itís which company is really going to contribute to developing their talent and give them time to build a successful career.
To what extent do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?
We had a saying at Atlantic, ďThereís still no better way of selling tons of records than by getting songs on the radio.Ē In most cases, that still holds true, although there are more and more global stories that are not like that at all, like Norah Jones. However, if you want a big career and to sell tons of records around the world, radio still is a very important aspect that should be considered.
Do you agree that it has become too expensive to promote artists to radio stations?
Itís become too expensive to market artists, period. Thatís why independent labels are undergoing a renaissance: all over the world, the major-label system has boxed itself into a very expensive way of promoting artists, from radio to retail to touring, when there are simpler and less expensive ways of doing it.
The same can be said of the A&R process: somewhere along the way, over the past twenty years, records became way too expensive to make. Lots of records that have been incredibly successful were made inexpensively and the music business is taking a long, hard look at that now: from making the record, all the way to radio, how can we do this in a more fiscally prudent way?
After years of being literally tortured about the costs of running a record company, I always say that the less expensively you do things, the longer you can extend the opportunity of creating a career. No matter where you are: major label, independent sector, or on your own, thereís almost always going to be a finite amount of money, so the smarter you are and the harder you work, the more time you have in which to create a success story.
Do you think itís fair that record companies retain ownership of the masters, when the recording costs are deducted from the artistís royalties?
Even though Iím not working for a record company any longer, and I donít have plans to work for one any time soon, I still ultimately believe in a record company business, where you make the investment of time and money, of identification and guidance of talent, and that business model is based on the retention of the masters.
I do, however, think that the terms under which that basic business premise exists need to be reviewed, to make it far more transparent and temper the animosity between artists and companies that is often sparked by this issue.
Why do so many artists get dropped after their first album if itís not successful?
The major label system around the world has been playing high-stakes poker and, for all kinds of reasons, itís having a hard time sustaining itself. In America, over the past twenty years, the costs involved in radio, videos, retail, A&R, the signing of artists and the making of records have escalated to ridiculous levels, although things are getting better now and people are beginning to get a handle on it.
How will the major label mergers affect the music business?
Again, if more and more executives who are good at their jobs are put out onto the streets, a renaissance will inevitably happen. There are too many people who have worked in that system for many years and who are now out of it, like myself, who are interested in creating new businesses and helping great talent. It could be a very exciting time.
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
I would have those who bring music to the people do so with the intention of bettering the planet and educating and inspiring young people all over the world. Music is right up there with food, water and love as part of what human beings need, and, with the world being in the state itís in, it would be exciting if young people were inspired by music to do great things.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The greatest moments have always been whenever I have worked with brand new artists who had nothing but dreams, and theyíve heard their song on the radio for the first time or won a nationally televised award and therefore recognition, and Iíve thought back to a year before, when they were poor but hopeful and willing to work hard.
Every time weíve had a song that radio programmers said they would never play but weíve gotten them to play it, and six months later thereís 10,000 people singing the words to it at a concertóthose are incredible, spine-tingling moments, when you know that youíve had a hand in the process.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
I hope that Iíve helped to create more meaningful careers in music, that Iíve had a part in making some really talented peopleís dreams come true, and that Iíve helped bring music that has made a difference to the world. I would certainly like to be involved in music in such a way that Iím using my position in the business to make a difference in the world beyond the music industry.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman