Interview with BRUCE FLOHR, A&R at ATO Records for Dave Matthews Band (No.1 US) - Oct 16, 2005
“When you sign with us, you know you’re going to get a fair shake. Every single one of our artists has had some level of success. Nothing has ever come and gone,”
… says Bruce Flohr, A&R at ATO Records, commenting on why the unsigned artist community has chosen his record label as the No.2 most wanted Alternative Pop label in Label Vote 2005.
Bruce has breakthrough A&R credits for Dave Matthews Band and is one of the few successful American A&Rs who is not working in N.Y or California. ATO is in Virginia and has a unique approach to dealing with their artists. Read the interview to find out how.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become an A&R?
One of the reasons why I choose California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, was because they had an amazing college radio station, KCPR. When I got to campus I immediately put my foot in the door over there. I became music director and program director of the radio station. This was from 1985 to 1989. Bands like R.E.M. and U2 started to break off college radio.
That allowed me to interact with the record business by having record companies call me and pitch me to play their bands. And that put me in touch with a lot of labels. RCA Records reached out and asked me if I wanted to come and work for them as their head of Alternative Promotion. I took the job and moved to L.A. I did promotion to marketing, and A&R for the last twelve years of my career at RCA Records.
What key experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Interacting with bands at the college radio level. And being able to hone my experience by promoting records to radio, and then by marketing records to radio. It gave me a better understanding of the business as I headed to the creative side, which was A&R.
I believe my promotion and marketing background was a huge asset for me as I entered the studio to help my bands make records.
What is ATO Records?
It is a label that is owned in part by Dave Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw. It is run out of Charlottesville, Virginia and New York. Eight people work here. It’s one of the few artist development friendly labels left in the business.
It was founded in 1999 by Coran Capshaw and two associates, Michael McDonald and Chris Tetzeli. David Gray was the first signing to ATO Records.
The musical direction is anything that’s real musically, and any band or artist that has the potential for a career. ATO Records is not a place that you would sign an act that is all about radio and hit singles. It’s more about an artist that’s selfcontained and can have a career on the road. And then any radio success on top of that would be an added bonus.
When did you start working for ATO?
I’ve been associated with ATO Records from the beginning because I had been involved with the Dave Matthews Band since 1992.
You are based in Virginia. Why not in N.Y., L.A. or Nashville?
I lived in L.A. for the first sixteen years of my career. I spend a lot of time up there, also in New York. But our feeling is that being in Charlottesville, Virginia allows us to remain focused. We’re more productive and more creative here. People in the record business can get caught up in their own egos, waiting in line for valet parking. We spend more time doing our job than we do parking our cars.
How come you’ve managed to grow as a label?
We grew naturally and organically. The more success we had, the more we added prominent pieces to the puzzle, little by little. We’ve maintained it to the point where everyone is working at full capacity. Every artist feels like they’re the only artist on the label.
When did you start doing management?
Management is a new hat for me since I left RCA Records two years ago to join Dave Matthews Band’s management company called Red Light Management. We manage acts like Dave Matthews Band, Trey Anastasio (formerly of Fish), Robert Randolph & The Family Band, O.A.R.. We have a roster of seventeen different artists under the management. We have a roster of nine different artists on ATO Records.
ATO has a distribution deal with RCA/BMG. How does it work?
They give us promotion support when we need it. When a record gets to a certain level they step in and help us take it over the top. The best example is the recent artist named Jem that has sold over 500.000 records in the UK and over 300.000 records in the US. RCA has been involved in helping us take that to the next level.
ATO Records ended surprisingly at No.2 at HitQuarters Top 20 Alternative Pop Label Vote 2005. What kind of a reputation do you think ATO has?
It’s for signing artists that speak to a lot of people; to the consumer, obviously, but also from a musician’s standpoint. We sign a lot of artists that many musicians respect. There are a lot of artists out there that have become much smarter about the ways of the world and the ways of this business, and they recognize that in the way we do business.
ATO is very small, but very defined. When you sign with us, you know you’re going to get a fair shake. Every single one of our artists has had some level of success. Nothing has ever come and gone. We’ve always managed to be able to put our artists at least on first base. We’ve haven’t always hit homeruns, but they always end up getting a second chance.
ATO is one of the rare examples of a label that actually carries some weight in terms of its identity. In the old days we all talked about Elektra/Asylum, Reprise, and Geffen Records. When you bought a record on one of those labels, you had a sense you knew what you were getting. That has disappeared in this business. However, ATO is one of the exceptions. There’s a symbol of quality that comes with the ATO label.
People respect us because we don’t bullshit them. They’re used to getting honest answers from us, and answers that make sense.
Do artists really care about the label or do they only care about the personal relationship with the A&R?
People come to us because they’re attracted to the label. They sign with us because they’re attracted to the people. The people at ATO are as hardworking as you’ll find, and as honest as you’ll find. The difference with this label and other labels I’ve worked at is everybody here is on the exact same page. If you asked all of us what’s happening with each one of our records, we can tell you almost to a tee what’s going on. And that’s rare.
In what way does ATO market themselves towards artists they want to sign?
We don’t market ourselves to the artist. We let each artist we’ve already signed do the marketing for us. Our best promoters of the label are the artists that are already signed to us.
How much money do artists get?
It varies. We have limitations for sure. We’ll only go to a certain level. But it varies based on where the artist is at the time we get attracted to them.
How does the hierarchy within your label work?
There are no job titles at ATO. Everyone does A&R. Everyone does marketing. There’s no delegation of jobs. We’re all in one big soup, and we all do it together.
There are four people at the top that make the ultimate decision. What we try to strive for is all four of those having the consensus that yes, we are going to work with this band, or no, we’re not. Very rarely do we have two out of the four agree. And when it’s a consensus we know we’ve got something.
Does it actually make sense for anyone to contact a junior if they don’t have signing power?
If they contact a junior A&R person it will make its way up the ladder if it’s great.
If you’re interested in a new artist, what is the process like?
If we were interested in a new artist, they would be receiving inquiries from myself or someone else on the staff requesting more information and more music. We’re pretty good about hearing about most things. We’re not the type of label that does multiple signings. We most recently signed one act. We may sign one or two things a year max.
Why is it important to see the artist perform live?
You need to realize whether or not the artist can translate in a live setting. Because more and more that’s the only setting that is untarnished, and more and more that’s the only setting that anybody can make any money. If the artist can’t draw people live, it’s going to be very difficult for them to be able to promote their record. All the other avenues are becoming more and more difficult, whereas the live avenue is only getting more important.
How would you work with them?
From an A&R standpoint, the most important thing is to put them in an environment where they cannot fail. Whether it’s the studio, the producer, the co-writers, the band, the engineer, the mixer - whatever it is that they need to take them to the finishline. To make sure that the marriage that I bring to them from a creative standpoint is the right one. Some artists need more than others, but it’s my job and our jobs to determine what the weakness is of the artist and fill that in with the strengths.
Once noticing a weakness in an artist, how do you work on that?
Once I notice a weakness I try to supplement that with bringing in somebody who’s strong in that area. Whether that’s a writer, whether that’s a producer, it depends on what the band or artist need. Everybody needs good coaches, but not every coach can coach the same player.
When things go wrong, how long will you be patient with the project?
It definitely can go wrong, but I try to eliminate that process by making sure the artist is ready before they even go into the studio. I don’t like to have songs evolve in the studio. It’s way too risky and too expensive.
What input do you have on the productions?
I have a tremendous amount of influence. I’m a very hands-on A&R person that gets involved in every aspect of the record making process.
Can you give an example where things went smoothly and where it went wrong?
It went smoothly on the latest Dave Matthews Band record. We had a conversation about what kind of record they wanted to make. They wanted to take some chances. They wanted to pursue a funkier side of their music. I was able to locate a very talented musician/songwriter/producer named Mark Batson. When the band and him got together it was instant creative karma. Things took off like a bat out of hell. We made one of the bands’ best records in the new album ‘Stand Up’.
It didn’t go well in a situation with an artist that I recently worked with where I was desperate for a producer in a very short amount of time. I was not able to get my first, second and third choice. So, I took a chance on someone. That someone ended up doing really well in the beginning, but then quickly got distracted, and the record imploded at the end. I had to scrap the entire project. The good news is, the artist went on to find somebody who was one of my first choices and turned in a career defining album.
Did the funkier approach of Dave Matthews Band imply a change of musical direction?
The band, as they’ve been doing this for a long time, constantly need to be challenged in order to stay excited and engaged. And the funky side of the band had never really been explored before. It seemed like a natural evolution. It was one that the band embraced.
It was done with new songs and a new producer. And with a new way of writing, where a lot of the writing took place individually as opposed to collectively as a group.
What artists are you currently working with?
On the management side: Dave Matthews Band, Trey Anastasio, Robert Randolph & The Family Band. On the label side: Jem, Gomez, David Gray, Ben Kweller.
How did you find your new bands?
Jem I found by listening to KCRW in Los Angeles and heard a demo that I fell in love with. She’s signed in the US and she was released on BMG in the UK.
Gomez I’ve been a fan for a long time. I was made aware that they would let go of their old label Virgin.
Good music finds good people.
What are the future plans for Jem?
She’ll be touring the States in October. Doing a tour in the UK in November. Releasing a fourth single from her record in December/January.
How did you first come in contact with Dave Matthews Band?
I had an intern named John Brodey who worked for me. He was one of those college fans. He went to Colgate University at the east coast, and he brought me a demotape of Dave playing live acoustically. It was something that really resonated with me.
Pete Robinson and I chased Dave Matthews Band all around the country for seven months until they finally agreed to sign with us at RCA Records in 1992.
The success story is one that has been tried to be copied for years. It’s taken it directly to the people and bypassing the gatekeepers.
Why did you want to work with them?
There was something in the band that just stood out. It had the power of Nirvana. It had the soul of Stevie Wonder. It had the musicianship of Return to Forever.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We get probably forty or fifty a week. I listen to barely any of them. I do find demos, and sometimes they’ll make my way on to my desk and I listen to them, but the least amount of my time is spent listening to demos. Nine times out of ten, I only listen to stuff that I’m seeking out. Very rarely will I just pick something up and put it on.
What do you look for in an artist?
An emotional connection with me and the audience.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
Right on the launching pad. They need to be right there. They need to be right on the cusp.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
It gets me very excited to see ticket counts, tour dates, local press, and great management. To see a band that no matter what I think believes they are the best band in the world.
How much does it typically cost to record an album and then market it?
You could do it for 100.000 US dollars. You could do it for 50.000 US dollars. Realistically, it’s between 250.000 and 500.000 US dollars to record and market a record.
If you turned into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
I’d look for five people inside the label that are in jobs that are secure. I’d make sure those five people are going to be around for the next five years, and that all of them had a belief in me and my band. I would attach myself to those five people and not let go.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like too see gain more popularity?
I don’t think there’s room in today’s narrow casting for the next Tom Petty, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin. There are elements of each one of those bands, but I’m not sure they can ever become mainstream anymore. And that’s disturbing. Good strong rock’n roll with a bit of an attitude which doesn’t happen to be young and adolescent it’s hard to find on mainstream. It’s out there, but it’s hard to sell 5 million copies of a young Tom Petty record anymore.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would take research away from radio as a tool. I would have labels go back to work on a record for two years as opposed to six weeks. I would have bands record more often, and have the album cycle shorten between albums.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Summer of 2001. Three nights Giants stadium sold out: Dave Matthews Band.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Erik Wernquist, inventor of Crazy Frog (No.1 UK)