Interview with CHAD JOHNSON, A&R at Solid State/Tooth And Nail Records - Oct 23, 2006
"My number one way of finding bands is through bands I have already signed. So bands will usually establish a relationship with our bands and then it just sort of comes together that way"
Chad Johnson's work with Underoath (Top 10 US) is a fine example of how indie releases can break to the mainstream market.
He sees many similarities in the way independents and majors work, especially in terms of battling music downloads and piracy.
He outlines the most important things for bands in this genre - focusing on playing live and establishing a genuine connection with young audiences (as opposed to seeking radio play) is just one example.
How would you describe your label Tooth and Nail Records?
We work in a niche market thatís a little different to what most labels do in term of our faith and Christianity. Most of the artists that we work with being comprised of similar background in their faith, but we also work with a very diverse group of musicians and artists, anything from a hip hop, to metal, to emo, to rock, and even a little folk.
I think the diversity of it is really unique. Tooth And Nail also has a brand with Solid State, which Underoath came out of. Then we do have a more straight ahead Christian market label called BEC.
So would you say that it all has a religious background?
To a certain extent yes, although I think that thatís something we managed to move away from. Itís definitely more open now than it ever has been, but at the root of it most of our bands do have a faith in Jesus.
At the same time most of them donít agree with an American Christianity that most people see, like a very big church, wealthy, driving nice cars, not really doing the words that Jesus asked us to daily but more living out a real comfortable Christian kind of life.
But this doesnít mean that the song lyrics have to be very religious, or does it?
No, not necessarily. Our bands are all over the place. The majority of at least the bands I work with are regular sort of mainstream bands so itís a very interesting dynamic.
How did you start with/find the label?
I was aware of them for quite a while but they actually found me, I was running a small independent label out of the south and they purchased that label from me and then brought me on as an employee, so that was about 4 and a half years ago.
I am very thankful for it because now I donít live in the hot humid south, instead I live in beautiful Seattle, Washington so it worked out quite well.
What is your background in the scene, have you been a musician?
I've worked more on the business side of it, from starting a little record store, then a record/skateboard shop, then a music venue. A lot of bands came through that venue, that I realised were not signed and I felt like they should be.
They had a lot of potential so I started my own company and started putting out records and going through all the steps to do that and then about 3 years later I was bought out by Tooth and Nail and moved up here.
What was Tooth and Nail records like at that time?
They'd had a couple of bands that broke out much bigger than where I was at, prior to coming over here. Compared to major labels they were a small underground label.
They struck a deal with EMI shortly before they brought me on and that made things much easier in terms of our distribution, accounting and just having that sort of back bone available to us. We're a completely self functioning label so we donít actually take funding from them.
Were there major changes after you joined?
Yes, I think at the time they hired me they were also looking for some fresh blood on the employee side so a few key individuals were hired right around the same time that I started. That brought new light and focus to the label and at the same time we started signing bands that eventually were doing very well.
But you would consider yourself still a niche label?
Yeah, I would because we do operate a sort of different standard in the sense that we mostly work with individuals who believe in Jesus whereas thatís probably not what you would hear from most labels and it isnít the average business model for most record labels.
For the most part of our bands fit into what I would call the current scene of whatís going on in the rock Ďní roll world. The younger demographic thatís taking part in it.
Are the fans mostly out of Christian communities or is it very broad?
It's very broad and itís definitely both. In some cases itís more the Christian community thatís embracing the band but in a lot of cases its more the mainstream culture thatís embracing the bands but itís always a little bit of both there is always a little bit of crossover.
So when you promote bands do you somehow target the Christian community or do you go the usual way of promotion?
We do the normal stuff and we were very heavily promoted online with the likes of PureVolume, MySpace, YouTube, all the places were kids discover new music like key underground websites. Generally we donít do things much differently than what other record companies do.
Is there no different aspect to how you try to get in the business with your bands?
Not necessarily. I mean there is a Christian community that we will market to with some of our bands but the overall focus is very much geared towards the mainstream and we feel that regardless of what you believe you are still online.
Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha you will still be using the Internet and probably still be on Myspace. Regardless of background we can find them all at Myspace and introduce them to the bands.
Have you got examples of sites that cater specifically for the underground scene?
Yeah, Absolutepunk, Decoymusic, Emotionalpunk, and Alternative Press. That are the sites the kids are in tune with.
Is there a special radio for this kind of music too?
No, I mean we do college, commercial specialty, alternative, active rock formats and the regular formats that you'll be hitting.
Is there a special movement involved with your band Underoath? What is so special about this band?
They're definitely at the forefront of the screamo sort of metallic hardcore that became so popular now, and I think they have taken a slightly heavier approach to that, but they are still very much accepted with their tour audience.
What would you say characterised the movement with Underoath?
I think coming out at a time when that sound was becoming very popular and bands like Thursday and Thrice and Taking Back Sunday were doing very well. Underoathís last record was maybe a little closer to those bands and I think it struck a chord with a lot of those fans. But at the same time it had its own thing going on; it was heavier and it was unique in its own way.
Definitely a result of kids that love the screamo hardcore sound and a band that pulls it off very well. They are a very energetic exciting live band and always did very well performing so I think that kids really connect with that they are real and genuine and have written from the heart. Kids see that and get it.
If youíre not authentic in what you do then kids see through that. They have enough bands to choose from, so if you arenít being genuine about what you do then they are going to move on to something else, so itís very important.
What do the fans of this music care about?
There was talk at some point of this band going in a more radio friendly sort of way and on the next record there is a lot of speculation of what direction they would go in. Actually they went back to their roots in a more heavier and less radio friendly sort of vibe.
I think that allowed them to gain a lot more respect from their fans. They've been a band thatís always chosen to be a big to medium sized band that might not ever break into a platinum or double platinum nationwide level. But they are totally content and thankful to be where they are. They donít care if they ever make it big on the radio.
They would rather be a band that can consistently draw kids and have loyal fans that support them and appreciate what they do and have that be the focus. I think they have chosen their path and itís worked out very well for them.
What is the documentary DVD Bastards of the Young about?
Itís about how this sort of scene started with Taking Back Sunday, Underoath and The Fall Out Boy. All these bands were not selling many records earlier on, not anywhere near the level they are at now.
I think that is what they are trying to capture, where all those bands started and where they are at now. It was picked up on MTV2 and Fuse and both stations aired it all the time. We are about to debut the second single next month, so it helped to get some great exposure on TV.
How was the start with Underoath?
Their first records sold under 5000 each. This is actually their fifth album and the third album released on Tooth and Nail/Solid State. Their first album with Tooth and Nail sold 30,000 units before the last record came out, which was really the break out record for them that sold over 357,000 units in the US. So that really allowed them to break out.
So what was the breaking point from a very indie thing to this major success?
Well, the timing, a lot of people were ready for that. The record that they wrote was by far the best work they put out and very accessible to kids. It was right what kids wanted to hear and were ready to hear.
They also did the Warped tour on the first summer the record was out and that really helped them get in front of an audience that was starting to hear their name more and starting to get more familiar with the band. They just toured non stop and have always been a very hardworking band.
Did you have to pay for support slots when touring with bigger bands?
No, not in cash but we do help in marketing.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre? What you would like to sign next on your label?
I think doing something that is melodic and accessible but at the same time unique and distinct. There are a lot of bands that sound similar to other bands out there. To be a band that maybe incorporates elements of these bands, that are out there doing very well but be able to do it in a way that is exclusively their own.
Having a great impressive live show and being able to really move kids is really important. I am always looking for bands that are doing something different and are growing into their own sort of style. Thatís the most important thing a band can do, doing what they want to do and doing it well. A lot of bands donít seem to be doing that but the ones that do really stand out.
Are bands afraid that now that this market is getting so big, the only way to make it is selling out?
To a certain extent thatís a huge concern for these bands because if you write a record thatís going to be a success from the radio perspective, you have to do it again next time, and if you canít keep the momentum up and you canít continually do that over and over again then thatís a problem. Still, I absolutely think that now is probably an amazing time to come out and have your own sound.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, but we get so much of it that unfortunately something thatís unsolicited is unlikely to be listened to. But we definitely donít turn away any demos. Whether we get to listen to them is a completely different story.
Unsolicited demos shoud be sent to mine or to my assistant Jimmy Ryanís attention, then at least the package is going to enter my hands, I am going to open it and probably give it a quick listen. My number one way of finding bands is through bands I have already signed. So bands will usually establish a relationship with our bands and then it just sort of comes together that way.
Would you sign bands from overseas, too?
It doesnít happen that often but we are not opposed to it. We could do it from where they are. Thatís definitely where the buzz starts first so we work it out from there. Everything is so Internet based now that anything could work.
Do you have in this scene certain producers which you always use or do you try out a lot of new people?
There are a lot of producers that work within this world, but a lot of them have crossed over to everything else as well. With Underoath we used some friends of the band to do the record and then we had Chris Lord-Alge mix it.
I want to work with a band and get down the sound they want so we try to get someone who can understand the sort of sound they want and where they are headed and can work well with that. Itís not always a cookie cutter approach but we do use a lot of the same people who do a good job and understand this sound and work with an independent budget.
What else is important to you besides liking a demo?
Seeing the band live, finding out if anyone else has seen them live, seeing if any of my bands are aware of who they are, then looking into them that way. Also, just finding out if there is a connection in terms of individuals.
Finding out if we are going to get along and have good communication together. All that stuff is very important as well. It all sort of comes together in a form of a perfect scenario where it works for everyone.
How important is it for you to work long term with a band?
Itís very important. We have some that are long term committed bands and others that we work with for a couple of records and then they move on.
But I absolutely love working with a band long term because I feel like the longer you work with a band the more connected you are, the more you know them, the more you understand what they want and you can be a part of their lives beyond just music and thatís an aim of mine personally.
To be able to grow in a friendship with the people I work with. So itís a little more significant or substantial than just a business relationship. I feel like growing a friendship will potentially last a lifetime compared to just growing a band and seeing them move onto another label or something.
But the market is not as fast as the pop market where you have one hit and after that you are gone. Do the fans support you for a longer time?
Yes, I think that for a lot of these bands itís very important to connect with kids and really make an effort to build a long term fan base and if they can do that then they are set, they can make life-long fans and they just establish a career for themselves.
So when you sign a band how developed does it have to be?
Not developed at all in a lot of cases. I look for potential more than I look for development. If I find both in the same package then great, but I definitely am trying to measure what a band can result in rather than where they are right now.
Itís definitely always the challenge. Whether a band is going to grow as you think they might, or whether it looks like it could go somewhere but then in the end for whatever reason, it doesnít.
I love being part of a band as close to day one as I can get, because I feel like I am able to watch them grow through the process and develop a trust in them that I probably couldnít have developed half way through their career.
How can you help a band realize their vision?
Understanding what the band wants and enabling them to do it and helping them to find a good management team or helping them to find a booking agent or producer. Whatever piece of the puzzle needs to fit in next I am there to help them grow, not make a decision for them, but be there as someone that can encourage them in what direction to go in.
Do you like it when a band comes to you and already has management?
Thatís the way it normally works. But I have done it both ways and I donít really mind which way. I feel we work well with managers but in the same time we donít really have to have one in the picture early on in order for the band to grow. Underoath is a perfect example. They never had a manager until they sold 50,000 units. So at that point their current manager picked them up and took them on from there.
How much influence do you have on the records, do you sit with the bands in the studio?
No, I work very differently with my bands compared to A&Rs that are very highly involved. Most A&Rs will probably disagree with me, but I prefer not to stick my nose in their business in terms of how they write songs, unless I think they absolutely have to have someone intervene for them.
I think it produces a much more genuine product a band is much more excited to support when itís their vision and not mine. In general I trust my bands, I think they are good in what they do and they donít need my involvement, unless they are very young or they feel it might make sense.
I very rarely spend much time in the studio with my bands helping them write songs or rearranging or changing parts or whatever. That aspect is much more in line with the independent record label A&R role as opposed to the major label one where there would be much more involvement.
Do you look for outside songs for your bands, too?
Most of our bands write their songs on their own and for me itís the exception that I hire outside writers.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am working with Jonezetta, a rock band with a throwback to the 80's. Very much a rock band but very danceable, a little upbeat but very aggressive. A band from Philadelphia called Mewithoutyou comes out this fall.
They are maybe a little bit along the lines of an Interpol kind of thing but certainly have their own style going on. I work with about 20 bands and I always have a record coming out.
Who takes the ultimate decisions if a band is signed or not?
I take everything to either my team or my boss or sometimes both. But ultimately itís a team effort and I feel that if staff doesnít support a band then I would rather not work with them, if I know itís going to be an uphill battle to try to get their support.
What is the time schedule for a new band that has signed to your label?
It generally takes us about year between the point where they are signed and then to have them in the studio, make the record and market the album. Itís between eight months and a year so we're relatively quick compared to the time frame that most majors are probably working under.
We would prefer to put out a record every 12 to 18 months rather than every two to three years but in general it feels like we put out a record for our bands about every two years, sometimes a little shorter depending on how quickly they are able to write.
Do you send them on the road before the record is released?
Yes, on the road is definitely the best way to impact individuals and making new fans. Our bands are always on the road, probably nine to ten months out of the year, touring all the time.
What would you say does it cost your label to put out a band?
It really varies but we are still operating as a self funded independent label. In the end I think probably anywhere from 50 to 200,000$ including making a first record. That would include advances, the budget and everything.
We are still very much an independent label with the way we do things and donít really want to spend money unless we have to and donít want to spend it on a producer thatís going to run up 400,000 when we can find one thatís very close at 50,000.
We definitely have a different approach compared to most of the majors. It seems like they are starting to wise up and spend less too because itís very hard to sell records these days.
I guess everybody is in the same boat. We are competing with free music. How do you compete with that? When a kid can download a record months before it is even released in a store.
I think that iTunes and some of the digital providers are getting better at that but labels are still cracking down on how to protect their investments in each of these records but still most records leak at least a few weeks before they are actually in store.
At what point do you go for producing a music video?
We generally try to shoot a video very early on in a bandís career to build that familiarity with kids and to provide them with a bit of a visual impression of the band. Usually we do at least two videos for each of our releases and send those to all the different networks.
What is the biggest market for your music?
I think the only market we are weak at is the North East. We donít have many bands out of that market and for some reason we have always had a very difficult time touring and selling records in that area.
Is Europe an important place?
Europe and the international territories have recently become much more important. Up until EMI's involvement I donít think we really had much distribution and now we have been working on really establishing that, and it is a much bigger priority than it ever was.
Underoath are doing the Taste of Chaos world tour with Taking Back Sunday and Thursday, and then they will be in the UK and all throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and I feel it should do very well.
How does the deal at your label look like for a band?
Normally there are three to four, sometimes more terms and then we often co-publish our artists. We were very heavily involved in providing them with tour support because touring is a huge factor for us and for them.
Iíd say our deal points are probably pretty standard in terms of royalty points being anywhere from 12-18 depending on where an artist is in terms of their career, and our video budgets are pretty modest.
Most of our bands sell between 30-150,000 records. We are still very much operating in the indie scene and occasionally we have a band break out of that, but we definitely havenít at this point broken a platinum artist yet.
Hopefully at some point that will happen, but we are very excited to be where we are and are very humbled by how far we have grown and our bands are able to make a living for themselves at this stage and are able to put out record after record and do very well.
If our bands are happy and excited about where they are at and we can still make money even without having to have a break through platinum artist then itís great.
Do you get involved in publishing, merchandising, and touring?
Publishing yes, merchandising on a very minor scale at this point, and nothing involved with touring. But all those seem to be changing everywhere else, not just for us.
Itís going to be interesting because I think at some point most record labels will become more focused on the touring aspect, the merchandising retail aspect and the publishing side because all of those revenue streams are where you are not competing with the free music issue and piracy as you are on a physical CD level that can be stolen and downloaded.
Itís a little bit harder to steal a T-shirt and put it online and give it away to billions of people. Itís harder to have millions of people get into a concert for free and itís also hard to steal a song and use it for placement on a video or something. Those are all pretty well guarded areas in which you could be making money.
Do the bands sell a lot of records when they are playing live? Do those sales count for the charts?
Yes, they do, and it is counted but itís counted in a different way. Itís counted as a live venue sale in North America but I donít know if that works the same way internationally.
What is the greatest moment of your music career?
Probably one that happened a few weeks ago, when Underoath almost quit, and see them brought back together and restored and growing with their friendships with each other because they have been working really hard and had lost touch with one another in terms of a very stripped down friendship and had become more of a business so it almost sort of ruined them.
But it was very exciting to see that change and to see them come back to the place where they needed to be. That was very rewarding.
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Clive Black, manager for The Game