Interview with JOEL MARK, A&R at MCA for US No.1 Creed - Oct 9, 2000
“New York has become really expensive and it's hard to get anything done. I would suggest living in a small town where rent is cheap, so you don't have to work as much and you can direct all your efforts to the music.”
Joel Mark is A&R at MCA, California, USA. He used to work for the independent label Wind-Up Records in New York, where he was responsible for signing and developing the US No.1 Creed, the best selling rock band in the world this year. For this, Joel has been awarded Top 10 at the "World Top 20 A&R Chart" at HitQuarters.
What was your first contact with the music business and how did it come about?
I was so into music, so I just called every label in the city to see if I could get an internship for the summer. Eventually I got one day a week at a blues label in Chicago called Alligator Records.
I remember on my first day there they showed me around every department and asked me to choose which one I would like to work in. I said A&R sounded like the best, because you get to work with bands and go to shows, and the person said, "Don’t do it, everyone wants to do A&R and you’ll never make it".
In the end they didn’t give it to me, but I did get to work with the president of the company, and he was brilliant. I was 17 or 18, inexperienced, and that guy really kicked my ass into shape. And that led to where I am now, although it did take me 10 years after that to get an A&R job. But I did it!
I also knew that I wasn't that great a musician, although I did get signed to a small independent label with my band, and we put out a record and toured. The label eventually got taken over and grew pretty big, and they dropped a lot of the bands. We didn't like the direction it was taking, and, when they fired our A&R person, I went in to have a meeting with them, and ended up getting hired to do A&R there! That label went on to become Wind Up Records.
What kind of qualities did you have to display to be appointed as an A&R for the first time?
Knowledge of music and of working in a studio. When I got the job at Wind Up, I was in four different bands, playing all sorts of different music, and I was also running my own small booking agency.
So I knew about all the bands that were touring in the country, and I knew the label, because, as I said, we were on it, so I wasn’t a complete stranger. I think they also liked my easy-going personality, and the fact that I was a music fanatic - most days I would choose to buy records over eating!
Can you describe what an A&R does that no one else in the music business does.
Helps the band make their records. And they understand the music better than anyone else - hopefully they come from a musical background. Sometimes they’re just very intuitive people, but I prefer it if they are musicians themselves.
An A&R should be able to explain to a band what their strong points are, and what they are lacking. Then either direct them to people who can help them with their weaknesses, or offer advice on how to overcome them.
How do you find new talent?
I spend a lot of time searching otherwise, on the Internet and radio, record stores, magazines. I think it's just like when you're a kid, and you're always looking for the newest, best thing. But most of what I have ended up signing has come from lawyers and managers.
What are you currently working on and how and with what were you approached by these acts?
I started this job at MCA just three weeks ago, so I don't actually have any bands that I'm working on, which is a little strange for me.
At Wind Up, I had nine bands. So right now I'm just looking for things, and I've found a couple that I'm interested in. In fact I heard something just this morning.
The manager who sent me it has been sending me stuff every other month for two or three years, and I've never liked any of it, even though the quality was always pretty good, so I was always wishing that I would like it more than I did. But there was just one thing in his latest package that blew me away! So hopefully it will work out.
How did you go about signing Creed?
Bill McGathy, who is a big radio promoter in New York, was the person who brought us Creed. Mark Fisher, who works with Bill, had heard them, they were doing really well on local radio - in fact they were the ‘most requested’ in two cities - so he sent them over to us at Wind Up.
At that time, we signed acts by committee, four people had to agree, the president, the two owners and me. We all heard it and were really excited. We got the tape on a Wednesday, went to see them play on the Friday, and signed them the week after.
The record was almost finished - it was already on the radio and just had to be mixed - so it was perfect for us as a brand new label with no releases.
They were just incredible, it was almost as if they just could not write a bad chorus, and every song was about something interesting, whether or not you agreed with their politics. When I heard their first song, I was in my car, and I thought the radio had come on by mistake - it was that good!
How savvy were Creed about the music business when you met them, such as finding their way to the right persons?
They weren't really that savvy, but then they didn't really need to be. They had got a manager by then, though. They seemed to follow my theory, which is that if you're doing something great, things will just work for you.
They couldn't get gigs in their hometown because no one wanted rock bands, so they set up their own shows at family restaurants and got all their friends to hand out fliers. So people would come to these ridiculous restaurants with ferns and brass fittings to watch them play.
But they wanted to get a real show at a club, so they told the guy (Jeff Hanson), "You know, we can get 200 people in, we've being doing that down at TGI Fridays". He told them that they needed to make a tape, and directed them to a guy (John Kurzweg) who had released a record in the 80s and then had just gone on to record all the local bands.
Together they recorded ‘My Own Prison’, which went on to become their first single. They handed that to the guy, who said, "Shit, this is great! I'll give you a gig, I'll manage you and help you to finish making this record!"
So after that, every time they got some money from a show, they would continue to work on the record. Eventually, when the record was finished, they passed it on to a friend at the local radio station, who played it, and it became the most requested song. From there, it got passed on to another local radio station in another town, where it also became the most requested song.
Six months later, they were on the radio everywhere in America. I think they were just doing something that people wanted to hear, so they really didn't need to know who the right people in the business were, because people in the business were looking for something and found it in Creed.
In what way did you influence the two albums ‘My Own Prison’ and ‘Human Clay’?
My biggest influence was on the mixing. Particularly with the second album, a lot of the record happened during the mixing. There were many, many tracks, and we used ProTools, so a lot of the work was done in the mixing. I helped them to concentrate on the most important songs, and just generally made suggestions. I was just basically another voice in the studio, and they trusted me.
When did you move from Wind-Up in New York to MCA in California?
I think the west coast is a lot more creative. It just feels more musical out here, perhaps because life is easier here, so you can concentrate more on music. New York has become really expensive and ‘Wall Street’, it's just hard to get anything done.
Many people say New York has a real vibe about it, an energy, but, to me, it's negative energy. Everyone is so burnt-out by the time the evening comes, that no one can be bothered to go and see a band play, whereas here people are just in a better mood, and more open to things, and I think that reflects on the music.
I wouldn't necessarily advise a band to move to the west coast, but I would suggest living in a small town where the rent is cheap, so you don't have to work as much and you can direct all your efforts to the music. Also in a big city, it's much harder to get shows and get on the radio.
How many songs do you receive from unsigned acts per week?
About 20 submissions a week, which is quite manageable, so I listen to everything. If I've heard about something and I've asked for it, I'll tear into that package as soon as it comes to me.
Then secondly, the submissions that have come from people whose taste I trust. Thirdly, I'll listen to the stuff that comes from people who I don't care much for. And fourth, the things that came addressed to someone else, but for some reason or other were put in my office anyway.
Do you still accept unsolicited material? If not, what made you change your mind from the time when you did?
No, neither here nor at Wind Up, mainly for legal reasons and not time constraints. You can't trust people. I think at Wind Up we would send a letter saying we couldn't accept the submission, and here at MCA, because there is a bit more money for postage, we send the submissions back.
I've been listening to demos since I was about 18, because I owned a booking agency, and 99.9% of them are worthless. Which is really sad, because I was once one of those unsolicited demos, and I know how bad the band I was in was!
Do you consider unsigned bands to have a good general knowledge on how to approach the business?
In general, I think they don't. My understanding stems from being in a band myself, and I think most bands just have too much drive to get a record deal and be a rock star. They should focus on writing songs, make them better and better, and play as many shows as they can. Once you're doing something that is incredible, people will come to you.
Getting signed, although it's incredibly difficult, is really nothing. This label probably puts out 20 rock bands a year, Atlantic and Columbia each put out another 100, Epic puts out another 50, and Interscope probably another 50 - let's just say there are 1,000 rock bands that get major label releases in this country every year, and maybe ten go gold, two go platinum. So, when you’re signed, your chances are two in a thousand of making it - getting signed is nothing. If you focus on that, then you're really missing the point.
Stop complaining - if you're not getting anywhere, then it's probably because no one likes you, or you're not that good. Listen to people and work on your weaknesses.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material?
The most common mistake is not having great material - that plagues almost everyone. Once you get past that, then anything you do is fine, it doesn't matter how you send it in.
Of course if the songs are really well recorded, that helps, and always put your best song first. Also, send as few songs as possible, although, having said that, the tape we got from Creed had 10 songs on it! There are no real rules, as long as your material is good. It's also extremely important, but not essential, that the submission comes from a reputable source, which doesn't necessarily mean a manager or a lawyer, but just someone that people like dealing with.
Do you work exclusively with rock?
Yes. To me, rock is incredibly broad. That's the music that I love and the music that I understand. I couldn't work with a genre that I didn't understand, even if I liked it, because I would not be able to suggest ways to make it better or more commercial.
Do you follow what other A&Rs are doing at other record companies?
Not generally. I'm just really busy, and I don't really care, I won't get stressed out because some record label signed something that I said no to.
I do care in terms of what producers and studios they're using, what new ProTools plug-ins they've got. If I go to clubs, and there are people there who don't work in the industry, that gets me excited, and the Internet I use constantly, actively seeking bands, and also to get more information about bands that I'm interested in, to see how they present themselves, and what people are writing about them. I do that every day, and I wouldn't do this job without it.
Would you work with acts from outside of USA?
I'd love to. At Wind Up I did. I would prefer it if they weren't signed everywhere but the US, because that makes it more difficult, because the label can't make as much money.
When you sign a band, how are you involved with the choice of producer? What do you look for in a producer?
Their track records are important, but only in the sense of how the records that they've done sound and feel, not in terms of the commercial success that they've had. You have to look for a producer who can bring what the band or artist are lacking. I'm incredibly involved in that, it's one of the most important parts of the job.
What are some of the differences in how a record would be made and marketed for a rock act, like Creed, in comparison to a pop act like Backstreet Boys?
In rock, the band have their own songs, and their own identity, whereas pop bands generally don't, so you have to find songs. I'd quite like to do a project like that at some point, I think it could be lots of fun.
Those pop things are really difficult and really expensive. With a rock band, you can make an amazing record for $100,000-200,000 - which is still an incredible amount of money - whereas for a pop band, you're going to spend a million bucks to make the record, and then a million to launch every single. With rock, you can launch a single for $250,000.
So the process is completely different. For a pop band, you have to hire musicians, and with a rock band it's all there.
Do you believe that anyone can be successful in the music business through hard work or is it the talent that you possess that decides early on?
Well, of course it's a lot of work, but not necessarily hard, because if you're into it it's fun. Talent is clearly important, and luck. I've had a lot of luck, but then I've also put in 100+ hours of work per week for years, but it never really seemed like work.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years? Do you think you will still be an A&R?
Probably. I never really look that far ahead. If I can't do this, then I'd love to produce records, put together my own studio, and if I can't produce successful bands, do demos for local bands. Ideally, I'd like to do both A&R and production at the same time.
What are your favourite records of this year?
Neil Young's new album, ‘Silver And Gold’, The Drowners new album, also new releases by Sigur Ros, an Icelandic band, and Finger Eleven.
Interviewed by Luci Vazquez
Next week: Chris Herbert, manager at Safe Management for Five, Lolly
Read On ...
* Former Creed manager Jeff Hanson on discovering and breaking the band