Interview with MATT HARRIS, A&R for Plain White T's - March 31, 2008
"I'm on Myspace everyday!"Matt Harris, who signed and broke Plain White T's (Top 10 US) on the strength of their indie releases and high Myspace profile, talks to HitQuarters about just how crucial it is for bands to do a lot of ground work before breaking through on a major.
From building a local following, to touring both clubs and radio shows, and up to genre niche strategies - Harris outlines Plain White T's road to success, a model for all aspiring artists out there.
How did you get started in the music business?
Iíve been a musician and songwriter my whole life and being in my own band kind of brought me to California.
When did you decide to go on the business side?
Well, I never felt that I made a complete transition. My band got signed and for whatever reasons didnít work out and I was basically out of money. I had to get in the business just to survive.
I had friends that worked for Capitol over here in Hollywood and I worked my way up, got some opportune situations. Next thing I found myself signing bands and making records again.
Was there something that made a major impact on your career?
Yeah, when I signed the Plain White Tís. I broke them with a song called ĎHate, I Really Donít Like Youí and it was a big summer modern rock song. They have been on an indie label for years and they have never been on the radio. The 2nd single ĎHey there Delilahí was No.1 on the Hot 100 in the US, and had worldwide No.1ís in different countries.
They were nominated for two Grammies. That definitely justified my position a bit. It was something I put a lot of effort and work into. I took a big gamble on. No one else really wanted to sign them. I love the guys and it was kind of a favour of love and it paid off. Iím in the middle of doing the next album that is going to be released in the middle of fall.
How did you convince the people around you - marketing department, your boss -. to let you sign them?
I found out that Bob Becker was the boss of their indie label Fearless Records and he had them signed; I found out they wanted to move on to bigger things and he knew he could only push them so far on his label. He wanted me to come see them play at a Myspace record release party in Hollywood, that was late 2005, they were the number one indie band on Myspace at the time.
A lot of people didnít understand what that meant as far as how much marketing value that was because Myspace just started to really matter. I knew it was a big deal. I thought they are a really good band, they are really good live. They have been a band for a while with two albums out and a third one that wasnít commercially released.
Iím from the Midwest. They are from Chicago and people from there tend to work a bit harder. They are very blue collar. I just thought these guys deserve a chance. I heard ĎDelilahí and when they played it live the kids were going bananas over it.
It took me a long time to convince them to let me do the deal. But then the group got the Warped tour and we were heading towards the summer. I said let me do the album before they go on the Warped tour, and then if we release the single during the summer, during the tour and go into September, I knew we could move some records.
We did a really standard deal. Not a huge thing. They kind of just gave me a chance. I had the marketing guy on my side because they understood their Myspace Internet fans, how big they were on the Internet and he backed me up a lot.
What importance would you give Myspace nowadays?
Itís still very important. Before Myspace if you were a band out there selling 5000 copies a month, thatís how people judged it. They go onto Soundscan and see, wow this band sells 75 copies everytime they go some place to play. It shows that there are people that care. Myspace is another reflection of that. It shows the draw of people to the band and music.
Someone is getting 5000 hits per day on their Myspace page - usually it means that something is going on. That being said, a lot of people are finding ways to manipulate those numbers and there are ways to link other sites to their Myspace but usually if you are smart enough you can feel if itís organic.
Iím on Myspace every day just for music. I donít even have my own page; I just go on to see whatís going on all the time. It works well for me because I donít have to ask someone for their CD. You get a quick glance of everything thatís going on.
How did Plain white Tís transition from Fearless Records to your label go?
I bought them out of their contract when they had one album left. They still had a little interest in the last record that was part of the deal.
What where the further steps after you signed them?
We had to make a record pretty fast, and the legal process took a while and they were going on the Warped tour, which is an important tour. So the record had to be finished before they go on tour.
Tom Higgenson is the lead singer and the main songwriter. We had about two weeks before we looked at the tracks on the album.
We had a lot of mid-tempo tracks and ballads and we needed a couple of more up-tempo songs. So in two weeks he wrote four songs that went on the record (some are co-writes). He arranges everything on GarageBand so there were a couple of pre-productions that took life.
We worked on them as we went along and got a little lucky, squeezed out a couple of hits. But we had a good team with Tom, the band, the producer Johnny K and myself. We are doing it all over again right now. When you pick the right horse itís easy to win the race.
How important was the producer?
We had some people who wanted to do the record and Johnny K raised his hand. His manager called me and he is also from Chicago like the band. He had done bands like Disturbed, 3 Doors Down and a couple of more heavy rock acts. He was so passionately working on it, he showed the most confidence, interest and eagerness to do what you gotta do to make it happen.
Thatís what we needed. He turned out not only very knowledgeable about what he does but also a very strong, calming character. He knows how to handle the pressure, still gets it done but also makes sure people like me donít snap. I think he is one of the best.
Did the sound of the band change a lot after you and Johnny K went in?
Sonically it sounds a bit bigger then the past records. But I still think it sounds like the Plain White Tís. They have a very distinct sound. For this next record we are doing right now we want to do a little more stripped down version. Not as many layered guitars, and just trying to make it that everyone has their own little part. We want a bit more of a timeless vibe, a bit more mature.
What happened after the recording was done?
Once the album was finished we didnít have a lot of time for publicity, and publicity people did not really know about this band. So it was about feeding the online interest that we already had and getting the next track on the radio. So we went after radio and KROQ in LA was the first station that added the record.
We went straight after modern rock stations nationwide for the first single. So the band was on the road, the radio played it and we were gearing up towards the September album release. They rolled into LA and the day they arrived was the day KROQ started playing the record. The guys never heard themselves on the radio before and here they are on the biggest modern rock station in the country!
How important do you think are live radio sessions?
Very important. One thing with the Plain white Tís is that they can play their songs acoustically or live, come in just with a couple of guitars and still represent what they do. That relationship with the radio station is always helpful.
Now we make a new album in the middle of the summer starting all over again. So all those stations that they visited numerous times, that they came through with every single and played it there, are remembering that, and they love those guys.
Were there any other aspects of working with the band that you consider having major importance?
Well, you gotta have a song. We have an excellent radio promotion department working throughout the country. We have the ability to set up that situation. Have a hit song that radio wants to play, then go to the station and come through to support that radio airplay; thatís what the stations love and itís good for everybody.
Without the right song, no one is going to play it, you can tour forever and it wonít matter. A hit song is 90% of the success with big radio airplay. But there is no one thing without the other.
How do you think they got this big following in the first place, before you stepped in?
They took it from a smaller level where they toured and toured and toured and sold records at the venue and word of mouth; letting people know what good band they are. That was important for us at Hollywood Records because we knew 75,000 people bought the album before they were even on the indie label and that there are millions of online fans.
That helped us take it further. When the song was on the radio there were kids out there that were excited that their band went to the next step and they felt part of it. I think starting with an indie label is very good, doing all the touring and establishing your fan base. When we released the first album for them it then sold 1.5 million.
What other artists are you working with at the moment?
Iím working with a female fronted rock band called Valora. She just did a tour with the Jonas Brothers, which is like a stadium tour we put her on. When I signed her a couple of months ago, I heard her songs first and her voice was amazing. Itís taking off that fast. So we work on an album there, too.
How did you find her in the first place?
Myspace. I normally wouldnít have signed it because they never put an album out. But the songs
were just so good and she was so talented that I knew these songs would react on the air. During her tour her Myspace hits just went crazy.
Did you see her live before you signed her?
No I didnít. She played acoustic guitar for me so I knew she could sing and play. It was one of these things, as a musician you can smell if it's phoney or not. I played a video that she had to the chairman of our company and he was instantly impressed and I brought her in and tried to sign her the next day.
If I tell that story to some friends in the business they wanna put a gun to their head. I mean she gets signed and a month later she is on a stadium tour. Itís only so many times something hits you and you instantly know itís right.
Do you go out and watch bands live?
Yeah, I do that all the time. Itís a lot easier nowadays because you can scout it out online or you can hear what you are going to see and figure out if it could be interesting.
How much time do you spend for working with artists on your roster compared to looking for new bands?
At this stage of my career right now Iím about to sign a new band and make two records, Iíve got my hands full. When Iím not working on a record Iím more aggressive with scouting and trying to find something.
What should an upcoming band focus on?
I would say itís not too different to what itís always been. See if you can get on some tours. Make a CD. Get your Myspace profile going. Try to sell records. Because, when youíre with a major label you will do the same thing. We probably have more marketing budget or more radio promotion activity.
But in the end of the day itís about making your music and bringing it to the people. If you go out there and show that people care about your band. Labels can see that easily through Myspace hits and they see the sales on Soundscan. If you are doing the right thing, theyíll find out. Itís a good time for bands now in that sense.
Would you sign an artist from another country as well?
I donít care if they are from Mars, if they have good songs. Thatís all that matters.
Would you work it in their home territory?
I think you should always start locally and then if you can get on a tour of any kind, thatís always good. I tell American bands that they donít have to move to LA in order to be successful. Sometimes I think itís better not to live here. There is so much competition here that itís hard to build your own thing.
Itís hard to have fans here because everybody is in the industry. I think bands are way better off working out of another city and trying to build a name for themselves, build that story and get real fans.
What would you do if you are an unknown upcoming artist and you think Hollywood Records is the right place for you?
I think people get confused with our label because they sometimes hear one artist and think, oh, Iím like that artist, so thatís what that label likes. Thatís not the case. After the success with Plain White Tís I started getting male rock bands everyday and that was the last thing I was looking for. I donít want to sign another band like the band I have.
I think we are like every other label. We are a full service label and we donít stick to one genre. If itís something great we get behind it. We donít sign a lot of acts, have a small roster and are successful because we can focus. For us itís important that you come with a story. People call up often wanting to play a demo but that very rarely happens.
Do you look for songs for any of your acts?
I've never been involved in looking for songs. I like an artist that writes his or her own songs. There are times where I hook them up with co-writers when they get stuck in the same way of writing and they need somebody to bounce some ideas off.
The Plain White Tís go for a rock/punk band image but their biggest success was a Beatles style pop ballad Ė ĎHey There Delilahí, how do you explain that?
Itís funny because as much as the bandís other songs donít really sound like that, it still is a big segment of what they do sound like. They are very Beatles-influenced and the songs are just played more like a rock band. The new album is more stripped down. If you listen to the demos I have now you can hear itís all acoustic guitar and vocals first.
Do think itís a clever strategy to go in a kind of niche genre and then come with a very pop hit?
You mean to build up fan credibility first? I mean yeah, even if the Plain White Tís wouldnít have ĎHey there Delilahí they would still be a successful band because they toured for 10 years. They are about ready to make their fourth album so they have a solid fan base. To go where they went with ĎDelilahí was huge but not everyone is waiting for the new ĎDelilahí song now.
People know what they are about and they can always go back to their fans. I think it is important to establish your fan base before you go too Ďone hit wonderí. Otherwise people just remember the song and donít know that the band really exists.
Who are the typical Plain White Tís fans?
Probably teenage girls aged 14 to 22, some guys in there, too. After ĎDelilahí theyíve attracted a much broader fan base.
When you sign a new artist, what in general does the agreement include?
I canít really talk about that. Every deal is different. We have pretty standard record deals.
How much advance is possible nowadays?
Itís not what it used to be. Labels arenít frontloading these big deals anymore. Itís a different time. It wasnít uncommon before for somebody to sell two million records in the first week. That doesnít happen anymore.
Can major labels still allow for a band they sign to concentrate 100% on the musicfor one year? Do the labels still have budget for tour support?
To sign a whole band and give them enough money to live and spend a year making an album is not very realistic. Thatís why I advise bands to do stuff themselves. Then a record label can jump on it and maybe re-release it or make it better and put it out again. Artist development is not what it used to be. You have to come in with most of your game together.
I wish I could sign bands that still need development. There are a lot of bands I would love to do but they are just not there yet. Maybe they are one song away. A lot of the bands are afraid to go on tour, make an EP and sell it. It doesnít help waiting for a label to fix everything. Thatís not the right idea.
I was in bands myself. I was always ready to do anything. I set up tours sometimes and one member would complain about having to quit his job. Iíd say, ďdude, your job is to unload boxes out of a truck. Is that what you want it to be?Ē Youíve got to give it everything you have. Youíve got to take the risk.
Go out on the road. Eat bread and peanut butter for a while. It takes a lot of sacrifice. Some people sit around, keep playing the same clubs in LA, and think they are getting discovered. Labels are impressed with what you can do on your own.
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Interview by Jan Blumenrath
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