Interview with STEVE ROBERTSON, A&R at Atlantic Records for Paramore and Shinedown - Nov 9, 2009
“I would hope if I found the next Kurt Cobain, it wouldn’t matter if he had all of his ducks in a row on his MySpace page. It’s about identifying a great artist not a great digital designer or savvy marketer.”
Rather than hurl a talented young band into the chart maelstrom in the hope of quick returns, Vice President of A&R at Atlantic Records, Steve ‘Stevo’ Robertson takes a more measured long-term approach to A&R - a focus on genuine artist development that has seen the careers of his charges Paramore (USA Top 3, UK, GER & AUS No.1) and Shinedown (USA Top 10) slowly burst into bloom over a few albums.
This immersive role in his bands’ careers has also shown him to be an champion of the new ‘360 deal’, where the label focuses less on maximising record sales, but investing in all aspects of an artist’s career, including licensing, touring and merchandise.
Stevo talks to HitQuarters about his inspired game plans for Paramore and Shinedown, how to attract his A&R ears, the changing role of A&R in the internet age, and tries to sell us the concept of the 360 deal.
You recently attended the Next BIG Nashville festival to talk at a panel on how scouting and signing process has evolved in recent years. What were the conclusions you came away with?
I got my job with Atlantic records just when the internet was starting to be a bit more commonplace. When people ask me now, "How much easier has the internet made your job as an A&R person?" I tell them that it's a double-edged sword. It is certainly easier to listen to new bands in a short amount of time because it’s instant access, but it’s also made it harder because searching for great bands has always been like finding a needle in the haystack, and it still is - only now that haystack is much larger.
Now it's so much easier and cheaper for new bands to record. So, although there are so many more bands now, the challenge of finding truly great bands is still the same. When you listen to a lot of average bands and then click on something that is actually good, there is the trap of mistaking it for greatness, because everything you just heard was average. So you think, "Wow, this is actually great!” but it turns out many times that it’s only good.
It seems like everyone’s figured out the formula of how to write a pretty decent song, but it's not special any more, it’s not enough - it has to be great. The internet and MySpace make it harder and more time consuming to find true greatness, I would say.
Would you say that it's therefore now more important for you that the material is solicited?
Yes, I would prefer it that way. Everybody does their job differently. I'm down in Orlando and I’ve made a lot of contacts over the past years. I know a lot of managers and lawyers, but it doesn't have to come from there for me.
When someone asked Ahmet Ertegun what he attributes his success to, he said, "You walk around and every once in a while you bump into a genius." Although I’m certainly not comparing myself to Ahmet, I don't stress myself out too much. I stay in contact with people and as long as you are out in clubs and doing your thing, I feel like it's almost a destiny or karma thing. I know that if I keep my work at a steady pace I will find the next U2, for example.
I probably don't hit as many showcases as A&Rs in New York, L.A. or Nashville because there aren’t as many organised showcases here in Orlando, but Orlando has all the great Indie bands and clubs, and tours coming through here. If I'm not travelling, I'm always on the phone and music is always blasting away in my office.
If you look at a MySpace profile, what do you look at? How important are the numbers of clicks, plays and comments for you?
Comments are not so important, but yeah, if I fall in love with something I immediately look at how many plays they had that day. It’s a point of interest, but if they only have 12 plays at five o'clock in the afternoon that doesn't necessarily turn me off.
If it's a band, part of the Warped tour scene, been around for a few years and looks like they are working hard in some ways and they have very few plays on their MySpace, then that actually can be a deal breaker. Because in that scene, for example, the fans are really, really active. I would expect a band that appeals to that demographic to really blow up online if they do everything they need to do.
But if it is an unsigned band that is more mainstream hard rock, like Shinedown for example, their MySpace plays are less relevant for me.
What are the indicators for you to say that a band is hot?
If a band is doing great live business, I have to go check it out. If a band gets thousands of plays on their MySpace per day, and it seems to be an organic word-of-mouth thing then that's exciting. I run into many of these bands on MySpace that for whatever reason are high up in the unsigned band charts, but if I don't like it, I don't like it.
There are some A&R that are more research driven and there are some that are more driven by their ears and their guts. I respect both, but I'm more an ears and gut person.
What would you advise bands to do in the Internet that you take notice?
The typical stuff - trying to light the fuse through MySpace. I don't have anything revolutionary there. You want to see a band that is working hard and is savvy. But I would hope that if I found the next Kurt Cobain, it wouldn’t matter to me if he had all of his ducks in a row on his MySpace page. It’s about identifying a great artist not a great digital designer or savvy marketer.
If you have a typical Fueled by Ramen band, the online thing is different. It seems to be the genre of music that really can move the needle just through kids sending each other links and word-of-mouth. But when it comes to finding the next Kurt Cobain - which we at Atlantic will - none of that would matter. If he is brilliant, he is brilliant.
Just because music is so accessible now, I don't think that anyone can count on the cream rising to the top on its own. It certainly happens a lot more often now and is much easier through all of the social networking sites. The cream really needs to be nurtured and given an opportunity through a professional label.
I’d rather find someone that's so insanely brilliant at writing songs and playing music that they spent all their time doing that. When their art suffers because they are busy adding friends on their MySpace, then that's a problem. But I also think that in this day and age if someone is brilliant and from a small town and has been doing that for a while, then one of their friends would also recognise that and be doing that for them. That's often where the best young managers are coming from.
There’s been a lot of talk about record companies efforts to mitigate the loss of revenue from CD sales by introducing new deals whereby they get a cut of all their artist’s revenue streams. As someone who has signed Shinedown and Paramore to ‘360 deals’, can you explain what is actually involved and outline its benefits?
For as long as record labels have been around it was always our business to sell recorded music, and that alone was our revenue stream. We would sign an artist, do whatever we could to get the best possible songs, put them on radio, get them in magazines, do all of the things that need to be done to break an artist and when the artist blew up, we would get money from the sold records - as the artist would too - but then the artist would make more money on touring, merchandise and their fan club than on the records.
Now we are at a point where music is pretty much freely available, and the music drives everything else. If an artist makes a bad record, they aren’t going to sell as many tickets, t-shirts, etc. We are truly partners with the artist, because we realise it’s all about the songs and the music. We’ve become more like Atlantic Music & Entertainment than Atlantic Records, because we look at the whole picture in order to maximise the artist’s career.
We've been very successful working with Paramore and Shinedown in that way, which is still a building and developing thing. Atlantic Records has always been a great label for developing talent. If I go in a marketing meeting, for example, it's Julie Greenwald and Livia Tortella re-adjusting everyone's head to think about the long-term in everything that goes on around the band. Not just how can we squeeze out the most amount of bucks for shiny discs and downloads. Now it's about how we can set this thing up that we have such a strong foundation that the artist is a true career superstar rather than just one song on the radio.
Both Shinedown and Paramore have found great success in TV, movie and video game licensing – is licensing one of the key alternative sources of revenue since record sales have been in decline?
The licensing part is more important than ever because every other revenue stream besides selling recorded music is more important than ever. It's been a key revenue generator and it can be key to break a band.
How much development can you actually put in an artist?
There has to be the seed of something great. Hayley Williams [Paramore's singer] was 15 years old when we signed Paramore and the drummer was 13. We didn't create Paramore. We recognised a young band that had the potential to be massive worldwide and we simply helped to create opportunities for them.
So if you allow them to develop and the first two albums flop can you still justify a third album? How tight is the situation if the first album flops?
With Paramore's first album we said, “Wouldn't it be great if we could sell 100,000 records without going to radio?” Even though we have one particularly good song called 'Pressure', we just wanted kids to discover the band without it being shoved down their throats. We lit the long fuse to ensure this band has a career.
So we made a relatively inexpensive major label record along with [Indie label] Fueled by Ramen, which was an invaluable partner. We just had a new partnership with John Janick [CEO of Fueled by Ramen] and he got the vision of the band immediately. We brought Hayley and her band to John and said, "We are in no hurry with this and we think it fits with you.“ He instantly loved it. We said we don't want to make a major label record or throw it at radio to see what happens. We want to grow this. So we made a couple of cheap videos and put the band on the Warped tour. You couldn't have started it any smaller. We helped to guide the band through fan discovery.
How did you actually get into that partnership with Fueled by Ramen?
We started our relationship with Fueled by Ramen just when they were about to blow up to the next level. Lyor Cohen, who runs Warner Music Group, identified that label as being a label that we want to be in business with both feet, and he was right.
How did you originally find Paramore?
I originally signed the band with a guy named Tom Storms, who was my A&R partner at the time. When we got the demos we agreed that we heard a great voice and we set up a meeting with our boss. Hayley wanted to make sure we knew exactly who she was from square one, and that her favourite bands were Jimmy Eat World, Underoath, and Sunny Day Real Estate. She wanted to make sure that we didn’t look at her as some straight to Top 40 pop princess. She wanted to make sure that she and her band got the chance to show what they can do as a rock band writing their own songs. Which was great because Tom and I are rock guys and understand that genre and that approach better than anything.
Who gave you the demo in the first place?
The demo was sent to me by Kent Markus. He is the manager of Kings of Leon, among others, in Nashville.
Did they have management at the time?
Yes, but soon after signing their deal they took on a new manager named Jeff Hanson, who was the manager of Creed, and now they are managed by Mark Mercado.
In what way was the music different in the beginning?
It was just poppier. We wanted their creativity presented in the best possible way so gave them creative freedom, and then they just blossomed. It was so much more unique then what was originally presented.
So how did your present the band in the meeting with your people?
Well, the centrepiece was we have this amazing singer who was clearly going to be a superstar. Luckily I work with some very smart people like Julie Greenwald, who runs Atlantic Records with Craig Kallmann and Livia Tortella. Julie and Livia are the marketing heads at Atlantic and they immediately got it and were extremely important in the early planning phases of Paramore’s career.
The amazing thing was that the week that the second album ‘Riot!’ came out was the week when the first album reached the 100,000 mark on SoundScan, which was our goal all along.
The second record was different. It was prime time - the kids have discovered the band. We had a single called ‚Misery Business’ and we said, “Now it's time - we are going to blow this thing up.”
How did the development process unfold with Shinedown?
Craig Kallmann, producer Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden) and I signed Brent Smith, who is the singer and writes all of the songs, as a solo artist after finding him in a band that wasn't, quite frankly, very good - but he was amazing. He had this big giant voice like Robert Plant or Chris Cornell. I come from alternative radio and I certainly recognise that this sound still sells records. We wanted to develop him as a singer and a songwriter. There was not even the word Shinedown at the time.
As a major label, I had the budget to fly him to New York, to L.A., Atlanta, Orlando, and put him with other songwriters. We helped him develop his repertoire and find his band. I knew a producer in Jacksonville, Florida, named Pete Thornton that knew every musician in town. That's where Limp Bizkit and Puddle Of Mudd came from. The straight-ahead rock thing was happening there, and I knew we would find the right people. So we were writing new songs, auditioning drummers and bass players, and found the original band in Jacksonville.
When did you originally sign him?
That was in 2000 and the first album came out in 2003.
How do you work exactly - do you work very close with the marketing people and try to find a demographic and fulfil their needs, or do you leave the artist the total freedom to develop and you just push it as hard as you can?
It happens both ways, but in the case of my artist, it was very clear where Shinedown belonged - on rock and alternative radio. That was our starting point.
Paramore is just a one in a million band that has an incredible chemistry and a superstar singer. Given the kind of bands that they were into and the music that they were starting to write at the very beginning, we had an idea that the Warped tour crowd would love this band and they agreed so we went in that direction.
What are you looking for as an A&R person?
A great singer that is singing great songs. That's why people buy records. That's the start and the end of it. I like singer songwriters and I like super heavy rock, and everything in between.
Was there a key moment or key media involved in breaking these artists?
With Paramore, there was a culture and a scene involved in what happened, and Kevin Lyman that runs the Warped Tour was a key player in identifying them in the beginning as well.
With a mainstream hard rock band like Shinedown, the key is basically the radio here and certainly touring. Before radio there's not really a place for a band like this to go. So when we were working on their record, we wanted to make a record that can go on radio nationwide. Atlantic’s amazing promotion department led by Andrea Ganis, Lea Pisacane and Ron Poore made a plan together with manager Bill McGathy and we just went for it at rock and alternative radio.
Do you do the radio plugging in house?
At Atlantic records we actually have several promotion departments with different specialties.
With record companies increasingly out-sourcing functions like promotion, can you see a time when even the A&R person will be a consultant rather than operating in-house?
It already goes both ways. There are relationships that Atlantic has with some consultants. You always need the people on the ground for special resources that have certain specialities or relationships.
With record labels now actively seeking alternative revenue streams do you think there is a danger this might lead to recorded music simply becoming a marketing tool?
I would like to believe that professionally recorded music will always have value. However in the music business you have to give your product away in order reach the rewards.
We did it for many years by giving a single to radio and they would build formats of our songs and our artists. They would benefit from that and we would hope to sell a record.
Now with the internet you have to give your product away but on a much more mass level it seems. I feel like we are right on the cusp of figuring it out and getting our heads around this new form of promotion. It seems like we are giving everything away but I think that we are going to find a way to monetise all of it including coming with a new digital product that fans, once they sample the music free online, will want to purchase. Much like they used to purchase albums.
What is that digital product?
Unfortunately, we haven’t found that yet ... [laughs] Well, we do have interesting new things happening every day. iTunes has come with their new album format, which is very cool. I’d like to see a new album format as an app where you have the streaming songs, artwork, pictures, and all of this functionality and fan connectivity like Trent Reznor put in his NIN app, but which we present and sell as the album.
Do you think it's possible that there is a band out there that is only touring and not actually releasing their music on record – with the idea that if you want to hear the music you have to go to the live show?
I think that's a great question and I think that a band one day will be able to do that, but it's not going to be the new model. 99% of the time, you need to get your music out first to get the person to the concert. But there's always an exception to the rule, a band could be really good live and word would spread - but kids will record it at the show and it will end up on the internet anyway.
Yes but in an internet forum, for example, people will discuss who has the best version and be talking about it - the less people can have it, the more they want to get it ...
If you look at a band like Tool, they do things their own way. You never see a picture of Tool, they rarely do press and have a huge following. Rules are broken in the music business every day and we all need to keep an open mind to approaches that at first seem counter intuitive.
If an artist like Elvis came out today, did you think he would be as big as when he came out in the late 50s?
Elvis today would be harder to break. For the simple reason that everyone is looking in a different direction now. Nobody is watching Ed Sullivan - there is not a rallying point where one artist can have that one moment. It's way tougher now to reach that critical mass. But I still think he would be a huge star if he came out in 2009. There would just be a whole new approach to breaking him.
In what way is the UK market for you interesting?
I don't watch the UK market as closely as my fellow A&R people. Even though some of my favourite bands in the past have come from there. I was a big fan of Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and the Manchester scene. One of my favourite bands is Oasis and I love Arctic Monkeys but at the moment I don't feel like there is a lot of new music from there that can travel to the US. I am very American centred in my taste. But I do keep an ear and an eye on it.
What about breaking your bands in the UK?
When it comes to my bands, Shinedown first had to break in the US then the rest of the world would care. Paramore was more accepted with open arms internationally. In the music business, you only push so hard before the person you're pushing to has to pull.
We presented Shinedown at the beginning to people over there and they said, ”That's something you have to make big in the US first.” Now they are really successful internationally.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with in-demand Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Cave and Arcade Fire producer and mixer Nick Launay
Read On ...
* Hear the opposing side to 360 deals from Sonicbids' Panos Panay
* Hear another side of the Paramore story from former manager Jeff Hanson
* Fueled By Ramen founder John Janick on setting up the label