Interview with PETE GANBARG, head of Pure Tone Music & former A&R at Epic and Arista for Santana, Run DMC, Kenny G, Vanilla Ice - Oct 13, 2004
“We’re looking to identify talent that’s under the radar of the majors.”
Based in New York, Pete Ganbarg was a senior director of A&R at Arista and a senior vice-president of A&R at Epic before he started his own publishing and record label, Pure Tone Music. The artists he has worked with include Santana, Adema, Run DMC, Kenny G, Keb’ Mo’ and Vanilla Ice.
Pure Tone recently held ten regional new artist showcases and further showcases are planned. Here he discusses Pure Tone’s direction, how their regional new artist showcases are organised, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a Senior Vice President of A&R at Epic?
I’ve done major-label A&R in New York for the last fifteen years. I first got a job right out of college, promoting records for the independent label TVT. I did that for a year and during that time I was introduced to Charles Koppelman, who was about to start a new instant major label called SBK Records at the end of the 80s.
We had similar tastes and ideas when it came to analysing music and what we were looking for in the music that we heard. He hired me as an A&R rep in 1989 and I worked for him at SBK, which in 1993 merged with EMI Records in America, until 1997, when EMI Records US was shut down.
I then worked at Arista as senior director of A&R from 1997 to 2001 and after the management change at Arista in late 2000, I received calls from several different labels and ended up moving on to Epic in early 2001, where I worked as senior vice-president of A&R until late 2003.
Who are some of the most well-known artists you’ve worked with?
The biggest success I’ve had to date is Santana’s “Supernatural” album, which I A&Red for Clive Davis a few years back. It has sold close to thirty million records worldwide and won nine Grammy Awards in 2000. I’ve worked with a whole range of artists in the past fifteen years, from Run DMC to Kenny G, whose new album I’m A&Ring for Clive. I’m also currently working with Clive on Santana’s new album.
What is Pure Tone Music?
Pure Tone Music, which was started earlier this year, is a publishing, production and record company. After leaving Sony late last year, I decided that, in addition to the A&R work that I continue to do for major labels, I was going to start developing my own talent and look for artists to sign to my own company. My publishing company now has a catalogue of about seventy-five copyrights and it has a dedicated staff songwriter signed to it as well; we’re also just about to sign our first two artists to the record company.
What is the vision behind Pure Tone?
I want to be able to not only be creatively responsible for making the record, but also for how the artist is marketed, visually presented, promoted and so on, which will come directly from me, working in tandem with each artist.
Are you an independent label?
The label’s primary focus is to go out and find amazing new artists and then, when the record is made, we’ll decide whether we want another label partner or if we want to release the music independently. Right now, I’m more focused on getting the music right.
What is the focus of your publishing company?
By way of example, we’re currently working with an eighteen-year-old songwriter from Cleveland, with whom we have a publishing deal. We’re taking songs and pitching them for film and television; we’re also doing one-off copyright deals. We’ve already placed a song in the film “Catwoman” and we have a bunch of things coming up in the near future. The idea is to control the content in a way that I wasn’t able to do while working for other companies.
How many people work at Pure Tone?
I employ four or five members of staff and everybody does a bit of everything, including working the copyrights to film and television, helping me work out the deals with the artists, coordinating mailings and helping me out with the projects that I’m doing for the outside label clients.
What is Pure Tone’s musical direction?
To find great artists, songwriters and copyrights, regardless of genre.
How do you find new talent?
We did an interesting thing this year: a talent search that spanned ten American cities. In each city, we approached every record store, venue and local journalist to let them know that we were coming to town to scout the best local artists. We encouraged everyone in those ten cities to send us their music, either conventionally, through the mail, or by uploading it to our website.
We listened to well over fifteen hundred submissions and we invited fifteen artists per city to perform for us during a one-day private showcase at a local club. The artists and bands each performed three songs and we spent six hours in each city watching fifteen of the best artists each city had to offer. Within a few weeks, we had done all ten cities and a lot of the talent that I’m signing came out of that talent search.
What kinds of artists and music were you looking for at the auditions?
What we look for is something that can compete on a national, as well as an international level with the best artists in the world. We’re not looking to go beneath the talent level of the majors; we’re looking to be as creatively vital as anybody else in the business.
What should the artists who go to the auditions consider?
Aspiring artists going to these auditions should think about how to best present their material in a live setting. It always comes down to the singer and the material and if you’ve figured out a way to bring that across in a live setting, then we’re probably going to want to talk to you.
Did you find anything at the auditions?
Yes, we found a young artist who is very much in the Chris Martin/Coldplay vein. His music is very melodic, very accessible, and his voice is terrific. The other artist is a lo-fi three-piece rock band in the spirit of Modest Mouse.
Are you planning to hold other artist showcases?
We will hold a new talent search next spring and we’re currently deciding which cities to go to. We will have updated information about it on our website.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
If there is enough time, absolutely. We’re getting a lot of demos each week and I try to listen to as many as I can. Again, I’m A&Ring two multi-platinum records right now and obviously have to focus on making sure that those records are absolutely great.
What do you think of the overall quality of the material you receive?
Finding something good through unsolicited demos doesn’t happen that often. Usually, something’s already in the works and we hear about it. Nine times out of ten, a blind demo in the mail is not going to be anything worth listening to, but you never know.
Do artists need to have released independent albums and developed themselves up to a certain point before you will get involved with them?
Great music should speak for itself. If it’s already being embraced by loads of people, great, but if not, we can help them to achieve that, if the music is really special.
Do you support artists financially so that they can focus on the music?
Yes, absolutely. They can quit their jobs.
Do you build strategies to raise the public’s and the media’s awareness of your artists?
I’ve always done it for the big companies I’ve worked for and, once these artists are signed, we will absolutely do that. You always have to do what’s best for each specific artist and we will do it on a case-by-case basis.
Do you put in money into tour support for your artists?
Should labels that offer tour support get a return from the touring income?
It depends on the situation. Obviously, if it makes sense for the artist and the label, it should be considered.
What is the current music business climate for independent labels?
There are companies like the Warner Music Group who are looking to get into the business of supporting independent labels, which means that major labels do have upstreaming capabilities. You could call it a farm system; it’s a system that makes a lot of sense for people at the independent level.
But we are not a traditional independent label, like, for example, Sub Pop Records, which has a very firm grasp on a niche market. We’re looking to identify amazing talent that’s under the radar of the majors, make the best records possible and then figure out what to do with them.
What is the difference between being an A&R at a major label and being an A&R at your own label?
When you work for yourself, you obviously don’t have to get approvals. You can do everything you want based on your gut instinct. Financially, the support system is clearly greater with a major corporation, but that is also how you sometimes lose your creative independence.
In recent years, have there been significant changes in the ways in which major labels find talent and develop artists?
I think so. Everybody’s more concerned than ever with the bottom line. In the past, you had regional A&R scouts and a whole network of people looking under every rock to find the best music, but a lot of cutbacks have been made on that.
Will major record labels increasingly license the finished product from independent labels rather than develop artists from scratch?
It has already started and we’re going to see more of that. Labels are always looking for new talent sources and so production, management and publishing companies will continue to be one of those sources.
If artists share the costs of recording an album, which are recoupable from their royalties, should they also share ownership of the masters?
Ask artists and they’ll say yes; ask labels and they’ll say no. But we are seeing more and more non-traditional deals being made between labels and artists. Anything is possible when you have labels who want to be in business with these artists badly enough.
Are you ready to tell the world that you A&Red Vanilla Ice’s debut album “To The Extreme”?
Yes! It’s so far in the past and I’ve done my best to move on. But you know, the eight million records at the time were not “chopped liver” either.
Would you change any aspect of the music industry?
I’d try to make it more about the music. It’s amazing how many people in the music business are not really motivated as much as they should be by the music. Major corporations have to make sure that new generations of music lovers come in. They have to help infuse creative blood back into the business.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
My experience with Clive Davis and Santana: to be able to work with and learn from these two very special people and come out on the other side with a history-making album was an amazing experience. It was one of those rare occasions where we thought outside the box from concept to execution, and got it right. It’s an experience of which I am very proud.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Signing great music. The one thing that keeps everyone who works in the music business going is the prospect that the next package you open may be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan
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