Interview with MONTE CONNER, A&R for Sepultura, Type O Negative, Slipknot and Trivium - Mar 30, 2009
“The most fulfilling part of my job is the thrill of finding completely unknown bands that are under everyone’s radar.”
A rare breed in the music industry, Monte Conner is an A&R with over 20 years of successful service under his belt, and all for one label, the legendary rock magnet Roadrunner Records. His secret? A fierce work ethic, passion for music and an ear for rock talent that has retained its unerring knack for picking out gems despite years of battering from the likes of Sepultura (US Gold, UK Silver), Type O Negative (US Platinum), Slipknot (US & UK No.1) and Trivium (UK Top 10 & US Top 30).
HitQuarters tracked Conner down at his Manhattan hideout to hear his methods for signing and breaking bands, the importance of being an A&R innovator rather than lemming, and about the heavy industry involved in unleashing Brazilian metal on the world.
Let’s start with the beginning of the A&R process, how do you normally begin your band search?
It's all about your contacts - a major part of being a successful A&R guy is having a good network of contacts. This network can include all types of people from random scouts to radio DJs in various cities and towns, to managers, lawyers, club owners, booking agents, fanzine editors, and people who run websites that cover unsigned bands.
One thing I have found is that no matter where a band is from, no matter how small or remote the town, there is someone in that town with connections to someone in the music industry.
A perfect example is Slipknot - my biggest signing. That came in through Roadrunner’s local Chicago radio rep. He knew of the band because one of his program director contacts based in Iowa was managing them and convinced him to fly out and see the band live. He was blown away and quickly got in touch with me.
At the same time I also surf the internet, go on sites like MySpace. The most fulfilling part of my job is the thrill of finding completely unknown bands that are under everyone’s radar - that’s my real joy and my true value to the company.
What about the stuff that’s sent to you from beyond your network - do you listen to unsolicited material?
I listen to everything that comes in. I much prefer solicited material from one of my contacts because that means it has already passed through some sort of screening filter. If I have signed 50 bands over the years maybe one or two have been unsolicited. But still I have to listen to the unsolicited stuff otherwise I fear I will miss something.
Do you have an assistant that filters the stuff that gets sent to you?
No. I wouldn't trust anyone to do that. I like to listen to it all myself. Any package that comes in and any link that is sent to me I will listen to. That can mean simply playing the first 30 seconds of the first track - because it is often obvious that quickly - but every submission is looked at for sure and anything that sounds even remotely interesting is put aside so I can give it a more extensive and focused listen.
So if you find something that sparks your interest, what’s the next stage?
You contact the band. You want to learn more about them. Do they have a following? Do they have management? Do they tour? Do they have any visuals I can see? A video? Maybe I go out and see a gig…
And what would you have to discover for you to then say, "we want to sign this band"?
These days with the downturn in the music business and the issues with the economy, a band needs to be ready on the first record. It's really difficult if a band doesn't happen on the first record to do a second one because you are so financially in a hole. Breaking bands today is harder than it has ever been.
So the more a band has going for them when we sign them, the better. I have signed bands in the past that toured the U.S. repeatedly, but at the same time some of the biggest bands I have signed had never played a show outside their state - like Sepultura, Fear Factory, Coal Chamber, Machine Head, Trivium and Type O Negative.
If I hear a band that didn’t have much live experience but I felt total passion for their music, I would sign them anyway because any band can eventually get it together on stage – it just takes a good 6 months or so of getting out there and doing it night after night.
Taking one of your major recent successes Trivium as an example, how did you discover and go about signing them?
My wife and kids had gone to Long Island for the weekend and I was alone in the apartment with a stack of fanzines. One came with a CD sampler of signed and unsigned bands. One caught my interest - Trivium. I went on their MySpace page, and then got in touch with their management saying, "what's the deal with you guys?"
They hadn't had much live experience outside of Orlando. The singer’s father was managing them. Their debut record was already out as a one-off with a small German-based indie and had sold maybe 3,000 worldwide. This was a band with not much going on. But I instantly heard the bigger picture potential, mainly in the vocalist, who was 17 at the time.
We hooked them up with more experienced management and before the debut Roadrunner record came out we put them on road for about 4 to 5 months worth of national dates. Essentially we launched them from ground zero as you do with any baby band.
How long is the process from finding a band till they are signed normally?
It varies. It can be a month - it can be a year or longer. It all depends. For example, I don't have actual signing power here. I've got the owner of the label and the president to answer to. It can sometimes take me 6 months just to convince my bosses. If they turn me down on something and I back down easily, it's a sign to them that I'm not passionate about it. It's basically the same at any record label - the guys that are OK-ing the signings want to see and feel the passion. So they often challenge you.
Other times they get it right away. They will hear it in an A&R meeting the first time and will go, "this is fucking amazing! We must have them.”
Would you sign a band from another country – and what other things do you have to consider if you do?
Let's put it this way, it’s a disadvantage on a logistic and financial level, but that wouldn't stop me. If I like something, I ultimately don't care where it's based.
In fact one of my earlier successes was a band from Brazil called Sepultura. That was really difficult. The guys didn't speak any English, so I had to find someone in Brazil who could act as translator so I could speak to them on the phone. And when we signed them not all the band members were over 18 years old. So I had all this extra work to do to make sure the Sepultura deal was a legally binding deal. I even had to involve the Brazilian Consulate here in New York. And there were extra expenses to be able to tour them here but we really believed in them, so we just dealt with it.
But being from Brazil hugely worked in their favour. Now it's common to hear metal bands from just about anywhere, but back then, signing a band from Brazil was this crazy, exotic, unheard of thing. And I can't tell you how many doors that opened in magazines and in the media. That said, it doesn't mean the band would have happened just because they were from Brazil. They had the goods musically to back it up.
Do you ever look over and see what other A&Rs are up to and try to muscle in on their targets?
The A&R guys who are doing stuff like that are not true A&R guys – they are the lemmings. Anybody can infiltrate a scene and figure out what's hot by watching what other people are doing. That doesn't take skill - the skill is to be there first, to have your own convictions and to be the innovator, not the follower.
I can tell you that 95% of the bands I have signed over the years didn't have other offers at the time I offered them a deal and got no offers after my offer. This is especially illustrated by the period between ‘92 and ‘95. I had three really happening bands at the time all from Brooklyn - Type O Negative, Life Of Agony and Biohazard. This is when the Grunge scene was exploding. So while everyone had their eyes on Seattle, I had my own Seattle here in my backyard. All three of these bands were signed without any competition. Even with bands like Trivium and Slipknot there was no bidding war, no hype, and no competition. And those are the best type of signings for the label because it allows you to strike a more favourable deal.
After Slipknot blew up labels started flying out to Des Moines, Iowa and saying, "what else is out here?" I greatly enjoyed that [laughs].
How pop do you plan to go with your roster? For example, Nickelback is quite pop for Roadrunner…
Roadrunner lives anywhere between Nickelback and Slipknot - everything from commercial hard rock to extreme Heavy Metal. Occasionally we go a bit more avant-garde and alternative, something totally different like Dresden Dolls for example. A lot of people think that we are a metal label that one day decided to go for a Nickelback type band and got lucky. But that's not the case at all. We've been trying to find Nickelback ever since I have been here - since 1987 - and it took us until 2001 to succeed.
Prior to Nickelback, we were a metal label by default because we were known only for our successes within the metal genre as opposed to our failures outside of metal. The success of Nickelback opened up a lot of doors here and changed the world’s view of Roadrunner. Mainstream rock bands were approaching us suddenly and therefore more opportunities to continue to branch out came to us.
How much do involve yourself in the music of the bands?
In a perfect world, I want to sign bands that have it 100% musically together. I want to let the magic happen from the artist. I was not too involved creatively with a band like Slipknot other than at the mix/mastering/sequencing stage. When a band is as together and dialed in as Slipknot was, you just sign them, hook them up with a producer, get the hell out of the way and let the magic happen!
With other bands you have to get in there, hold their hands and really work with them. Hook them up with a producer and really push and challenge them on the songwriting side.
So some of your bands don’t always write their own songs?
Most of what I sign is metal and metal bands must write their own material to have any credibility. I can hook them up with producers who can try and pull it out of them but ultimately it has to come from them. Bottom line.
How much would you be forking out for a first record?
It depends on the priority of the artist. On a debut record we spend anything from $25,000 to $250,000 - it just depends on the commercial upside of the band and its priority within the label.
Sepultura was a death metal band and we spent $16,000 making their debut Roadrunner record in 1988. Bear in mind, we were a much smaller label back then and $16,000 was a lot of money to us. With the baby metal bands you are hoping they will break and become big but it is very risky, so you don't want to spend a quarter of a million on an album off the bat.
With something like Nickelback, you can see its potential to reach millions of people so it's not such a risk to spend a lot of money on a record like that, even on a debut. So while we try and be financially responsible, the money has always there for a band that needed to make a certain kind of record.
How do you pick a single?
There is no art to that. You just listen to a record and you pick the song that you think has the biggest possibility to reach the most people, or simply the one that inspires and moves you the most. At Roadrunner the single is picked by the president in consultation with the A&R person and the owner.
Do you think the single is still important in the modern rock market?
A great single will break a band. It all comes down to having a great song no matter how much the industry has changed.
When it comes to breaking a band then, what steps are taken between the signing and the release?
It depends - everything is tailored per band. With some lifestyle type bands the plan is to put them out on the road and tour them for a year before making the debut record. For others touring doesn't matter and it's about having a hit single and working it at radio.
So what happened with Trivium for example?
They are not a band that you are going to break on commercial radio. They are a lifestyle metal band. We didn't even take a single to radio. It was all about building those guys up as a credible street metal band. They basically won their fans over one by one by sweating it out in the clubs. And then once you've got a metal band like that selling 100,000 or so records to real fans and you have built a rock solid base, you can then consider radio for them as way to help take it quicker to the next level. But even if the radio fails, you still have something real that you have developed.
Is committing to tour support part of your contracts?
We usually don't put it in our contracts. It's very rarely guaranteed. But bands know that when they are signed to Roadrunner, we are obviously going to tour them because they see all our bands constantly on the road. That's how we sell records.
Are there any key festivals in the States for helping break an artist?
It is rare to put a band on a festival and see them break from it - and there are not many festivals here to begin with, unlike overseas. But festivals like Ozzfest and Mayhem have been really influential in getting our new bands in front of people. Ozzfest definitely helped Slipknot break in 1999.
...what about important magazines?
Here in the US it's not like the UK where you have influential print media like Metal Hammer and Kerrang! that really help to break bands. You could be on the front page of a major rock magazine here and the scans will just go up maybe 500 units the week the magazine hits - if even that.
’Roadrunner United was an audacious project (to celebrate 25 years of Roadrunner, 57 artists from 45 Roadrunner bands past and present were united to create an ‘All Star Sessions’ album of metal supergroups), how did that come about, and was it worth the effort?
I learnt to be careful what you wish for! The owner of the label, Cees Wessels, came to me about 6 months before our anniversary and said, “I want to do something really special for our 25th anniversary, something unique that other labels haven't done before. Think of an idea.”
I remember when I told him the idea for Roadrunner United, and he said, "great, let's do this!" I wanted to throw up because it's one thing to satisfy your boss and impress him with a cool idea and dodge the immediate bullet, but it's a whole other thing to actually plan it out and make it happen afterwards! So I had 9 months to do it and I thought, “How the hell am I going to pull this off that quickly?!”
I spent a whole year of my life working on Roadrunner United. Luckily it turned out fantastic. I think people were impressed that we could actually pull it off. I was a little nervous ‘til the first songs came in. I had no idea if these different teams and permutations would gel together - if it would produce some weird Frankenstein concoctions or actually legitimate metal songs.
In your 21 years of A&R, are there any decisions you really regret, and have you learnt from them?
Having failed at signing Pantera is a biggie. They were the first significant band I lost. I flew out to see them in the Fall of 1988, a year before other labels started sniffing around. I was really young and inexperienced at the time. I remember seeing them and being just blown away with their show, and I reported back to the owner and we tried to do the deal. But Pantera wanted guaranteed tour support written into their contract because they were road warriors and knew the key to their success was bringing their live show to the masses. Guaranteed tour support was not something Roadrunner did back then. Because of that, the deal didn't happen.
What I have learned over the years is you have to be super aggressive about it - don't ever give up. If I’d had the experience then that I have now I would have gone to my boss, pleaded, begged and sent him on a plane to see them live and would have not given up until the band was signed. That was a tough one to watch later on when they blew up – it just killed me. But the band sent me a Gold record for ‘Cowboys From Hell’ as recognition that I was the first one there and that was very touching and really meant a lot to me.
For a view of the rock scene on the other side of the Atlantic check out our interview with Visible Noise founder and chief Julie Weir and for a cross-Atlantic perspective have a gander at our illuminating talk with Apocalyptica mastermind Ulysses Hüppauf
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Songwriter, producer and ex-boy band star Jon O'Mahony
Read On ...
* Roadrunner A&R Ron Burnam on signing Nickelback