Interview with SUE BUSCH, A&R for Fleet Foxes (UK Top 5 & US Top 40) and the Go! Team (UK Indie No.1) - May 4, 2009
“I really respect people who put the work in and make an honest go of it and don’t try to sneak in the back door”
In signing Fleet Foxes (UK Top 5, US Top 40, Sweden Top 20), one of the most critically and commercially prized bands of recent years – their debut album topped 2008 lists by Pitchfork, Mojo and Billboard’s Critic’s Choice and crashed into the UK Top 5 – Sub Pop’s Sue Busch has certainly proved her A&R mettle.
Besides revealing how she coaxed the sought-after Foxes into the legendary Sub Pop stable, the Texan native talks festival scouting and promotion, how not to impress an A&R rep, and, as Director of Radio Promotions, about the role of radio in today’s music market.
Let’s begin by talking about how you first got involved in the music industry?
I started at my college radio station actually, in Austin, Texas. I was the music director there and then just took on a bunch of industry-related internships.
Since I worked there it was easy to get on board with some promotions teams and stuff like that, if they needed help around town. And then I ended up being music director at the station and as a result of that I got a job with BMG straight away after school.
And how did you get to get to Seattle and get involved with Sub Pop?
I kept in touch with a girl that I talked to when I was music director at school. When I moved on after school and she was leaving her job, she just called me out of the blue one day and asked if I would be interested [in an A&R job at Sub Pop], and of course I said, “Yes please!”
I’ve read that your role is Director of Radio Promotion as well as A&R. Is that still the case?
Yes. Most of us pull double-duty here. There’s only one person who doesn’t, so yes I still do both.
Can you describe what this role involves?
Well I only take care of the commercial radio side now and the non-commercial triple-A stations. We have a girl that does college radio, but I kind of oversee the department. We don’t get a ton of commercial radio airplay but it’s still good to try! I try to make sure everything runs smoothly.
With people now being able to access new music over the internet very easily, how important would you say radio is for promoting bands?
I think it’s important for bands that are really interested in getting played on commercial radio, but we don’t get a lot of bands that have a sense for that sort of thing. It goes in waves here. Sometimes it’s really good and you’ll have a year where it’s all The Shins and Arcade Fire and Band of Horses, then you’ll have a year where it’s all Feeder and Puddle of Mudd, and we are in one of those years right now.
So it’s a downturn, but it hasn’t really affected us at all in terms of sales or anything like that. We’re still doing well so I think that it’s just a bonus for us. It’s not something that we spend too much money or time on, because there’s other ways to focus our energy that are more useful to us.
Can you talk about how you would actually go about trying to get bands on your roster played?
With some bands there is just a good fit. Right now we have Flight of the Conchords, that’s a cross-genre, appeals to everybody kind of thing, which is great ‘cos it’s not something that we normally are able to take advantage of. So it’s nice to have a band like that who does appeal to the masses, and who can catch people’s ears who wouldn’t normally even know who Sub Pop is.
It’s great because we’ve got their HBO show and they’re on tour right now, so we’re able to cover a much larger spread than we normally would be able to.
But then we have a band like The Shins who weren’t a break-out success story, they had been around for quite a while, but all it took was a song being placed in a movie to get that attention from the general public.
Would you say there were any particular stations that were better for your artists than any others?
Yeah, absolutely, a station like Live 105 in San Francisco, up until recently has been really good for us. Unfortunately Indie 103, that was in Los Angeles, that went away, they were really supportive, so that was a real bummer to lose that station.
Some of the bigger non-commercial stations like XPN in Philadelphia, KCRW [in Los Angeles] and KEXP in Seattle are really supportive and actually sell a lot of records for us, so it’s pretty great.
I’ve read that in the US bands don’t get paid for radio play, where in most other countries they do.
Everywhere else except for here I think!
Do you know how the bands feel about that? Do they see that as being fair?
Well you know it’s funny, it’s not something that was talked about that much and recently it’s been something that’s been stirred up over here and something bands are educating themselves about and starting to talk about more.
We don’t have that many bands that get played on radio a ton, so not that many are super-aware of it, but I’m sure if they were played and did stand to see some money from it, it would be something that they would definitely want to get more involved in. I imagine that’ll change eventually. Who knows, it’s such a bureaucratic thing.
Moving on to your role in A&R, besides going to gigs what other ways would you go about looking for new bands?
One thing that’s nice about our roster is that our bands are still super-involved in their communities and are people that are just genuinely really interested in music. So a lot of times I’ve found that it’s that they’ve either played a show with another band that we’ve caught or it’s a case of, “You’ve gotta check out my friend’s band, they’re awesome.”
And we’ve mostly found, at least recently, it’s been a lot of friends of friends, or 7-inches or CDs that’ve been passed on to our bands and they’ll like it and they’ll pass it on to us. That’s been a really positive and interesting way to circumvent finding bands that are typical.
Are social networking sites like MySpace playing an active role in your search?
Yeah, that’s a great way to check something out quickly. It’s not awesome quality or anything like that, but when I was thinking about talking to No Age, a friend of mine had heard of them and was like, “Check out their MySpace” and that’s totally the first time I ever heard them. You couldn’t buy their 7-inches here - there was no way to get their stuff. So it’s a pretty good way to go.
And how much time do you spend going to gigs?
It all depends - it goes in waves. We do travel pretty frequently but not a ton. In a good week we’ll catch several shows, but if you’re in New York or LA or somewhere like that you’ll just try to ram as many as possible in – a couple in a night if you can. We’ve all just got back from SXSW and that was just like... I don’t even know how many! It was really fun though!
How does your game plan work at events like SXSW? Do you work out in advance which bands you’re going to see?
Yeah, we’ll start perusing the list of who’s going to be there a few weeks in advance and try to plot our course. We’ll sit down in a meeting and if a few of us want to see the same band we’ll try to go. If we can’t all be in the same place at the same time we’ll try to spread it around amongst each other. I definitely had a long-running list of people that I wanted to see and just tried to check it off.
SXSW features established acts as well, do you go to look at those as well or just focus on those that are unsigned?
Well a lot of times if it’s somebody that we’re looking at, it’s either somebody that’s completely unsigned or somebody that’s smaller and looking to move on to a bigger place. I mean we’re not a huge company, but with a lot of the bands, if they’re moving on, it’s from a really tiny label.
And also we use it as a place to showcase our bands to journalists and any sort of media outlet. If we’re actually looking at somebody it’s usually not somebody that’s super-well-established. We’ve not really picked up anybody in recent years that’s already been around for a long time.
And Fleet Foxes have played there - is that correct?
They only went last year, they didn’t play this year. And that was their first tour ever – down to SXSW. They only played last year and I don’t think they’ll ever play again!
Can you tell the story about how you found them and how they got to Sub Pop?
Well I have actually known the lead singer’s sister for a long time. I had known that she had a kid brother and she was like, “Hey come and see my little brother’s band play!” This was years ago – maybe four years ago, and they sounded nothing like they do now. They were teenagers, little kids, but you could tell that there was something super-interesting about them. They were way more sophisticated songwriters even at that time than kids their age normally would be.
Over the course of the next couple of years just watched them grow. Then I hadn’t seen them in maybe six months or so and saw them at Capitol Hill Block Party, which is a festival here, and they had just completely developed into a whole new thing and it was like, “Yeah, we need to do this!”
From a fan’s viewpoint I find them refreshing - their harmonies, for example.
Yeah it’s nice that they can actually sing and play their instruments [laughs]. There’s no computers or anything behind it – they’re just super-talented kids.
When you discover a band like Fleet Foxes and realise you have to sign them, how do you go about it?
Luckily because they’re from here and we all had seen them before and interacted with them in the ways that they work – a couple of them were in other bands previously that we had known – I had known them for a while.
It was pretty easy to get the wheel turning on that one, just got the boss down and he saw them and was blown away. But they didn’t have a manager, they didn’t have a lawyer, all that stuff had to develop as the deal was starting to get put together. We were like, “Err, you kinda need those things!” Now they have a proper lawyer, but they’re managed by their sister and it’s still a pretty home grown affair.
It is actually, it’s different. It’s not like dealing with somebody that you don’t know. It’s pretty open dialogue. The deal went relatively quickly. They had finished the record ages ago, so they were definitely ready to get something set in place so they could start touring.
Although actually recorded after the main album, ‘Sun Giant’ EP was their first release - is that right?
Yeah, they had finished the record and still had more material that was ready to go, so they went ahead and did that. They had nothing to sell on tour, so we just pressed those up super-quickly. It was originally just going to be something for them to sell on the road - we’d done that for Band of Horses, when they went on their first tour - so we did that and as the tour went on, it was like, people really really wanted it, so we eventually put it out as a proper release.
What’s your involvement when the deal’s done? Do you work with them on the album at all?
We’re kind of a smaller company and so on whole we’re pretty involved, especially with them, as they didn’t really have much guidance and they didn’t have a ton of experience. We’re not heavy-handed in our process. We don’t go in and give them notes like, “You should tweak this,” or, “The level should be different here.” That’s not our vibe at all.
But anything they do need, luckily we do have those contacts and those resources so we can point them in the right direction. But once they’re off they’re free to find their own way as they please.
And was the producer Phil Ek (read the HitQuarters interview with Phil here) one of these contacts?
Yeah, he’s an old family friend. It’s sort of a charmed existence here - we have this wealth of great people to record with and great studios. He had just known them forever and he’d produced their demo tape, so it kind of just worked out that way.
He’s also produced a number of other bands on your label as well.
Yeah, Band of Horses and The Shins. We don’t work with Modest Mouse but we worked with Isaac (Brock) on Ugly Casanova and he did that and he’s kind of all over the place up here.
You’re off to the Coachella Festival tomorrow. Is that for work?
It is, but I seriously doubt anybody goes to Coachella to look to sign bands. It’s all such big artists... I’m going down because we have radio stuff happening. I have Fleet Foxes, and No Age, Blitzen Trapper and Band of Horses are playing. It’s sort of a big Sub Pop year; we don’t normally have that many bands play. It’s just a big industry-fest in the desert so it’s nice to go and say, “Hello”.
Are there any other major festivals in the US that you’d look to promote your bands through?
Around here we’ve got Sasquatch which is really great – that’s in May - and then Lollapalooza and there’s a few more that have popped up over the past couple of years - Treasure Island in San Francisco and All Tomorrow’s Parties. I went to [ATP] in England last year which was fantastic, but we have one here as well now. That’s more our scene I think. It’s all indie bands and we just sort of take over a holiday resort and have a good time. In so as far as promotion, the bigger ones are Lollapalooza, Coachella, SXSW and Sasquatch is developing into a pretty big one. All Points West, that’s a good one too.
Are there any other media forms that you would look to use for band promotion?
Yeah, journalists come out to see us – there’s always people from Rolling Stone, Billboard... But the thing here is that print media is in such a shambles at this point I don’t even know who would be around.
Blender was one, but they’re gone. Spin is still around and they’re finding creative ways to make themselves present - they’ll set up these little lounges where bands can come in and they’ll get some online content and film the interview and maybe a song being performed. They’re just finding ways to integrate themselves into these festivals and make their content a little bit more interesting and more relevant to the times. At SXSW they always have a little booth set up that’s got photographers and they’ll do a little thing for MySpace, and they just really find a way just to cram as much in as possible and make it as useful to the artists as they can.
Sub Pop is based in Seattle and you do have a lot of bands from the Pacific Northwest on the label. Do you have any geographical limits when looking at new bands?
No, I mean I think we try to do as much for our local community as humanly possible. We do have Blitzen Trapper from Portland and The Thermals, who used to be on Sub Pop, are from Portland, Helio Sequence are from Portland, Mudhoney’s from here. We do have quite a few bands from the Pacific Northwest on the roster, but Flight of the Conchords are from New Zealand and The Ruby Suns are from New Zealand, it’s not something that is northwest-centric. We definitely try to spread our wings!
When the label first started I think it was definitely a concerted effort to make it be that way. I just think that as the years have gone on there’s an evolution and you have better resources to travel. Now you can find a band anywhere in the world on the internet, so there’s really no limit to that.
Similarly with regards to genres of music, does Sub Pop have any limits in that respect?
I don’t think that there’s any sort of genre-limitation. I think that if something is good and is interesting to you and you can see the potential in it, it’s definitely worth looking into if not pursuing.
There’s some things that we probably can’t do as well as other labels, like there’s probably not going to be a whole lot of hip-hop or rap music on Sub Pop any time soon, that’s just not what we excel at..
What would you advise an up-and-coming band to do in order to get your attention?
I’m always impressed with bands that just work hard... that get on the road, tour, find a proper booking agent, follow the necessary steps. You’ll get these super-overblown press kits in the mail with fancy pictures and a DVD! And it’s like, “You don’t really need all that crap right away!” Just focus on your music and get your live show put together, play out as much as possible. If you can put out a 7-inch or get a decent-sounding CD put together.
All the flashy stuff is a turn-off for me actually. I really respect people who put the work in and make an honest go of it and don’t try to sneak in the back door.
I guess there’s not much need for all the overblown extras if you can’t actually play as a band!
Yeah, it’s kind of missing the point.
What’s going on for the rest of the year?
We have quite a lot of records coming out! It’s an exciting year we’ve got a few reissues coming out and the Flight of the Conchords record, and a lot of radio stuff. And towards the end of the year Fleet Foxes will go back into the studio and start recording again.
Any new bands to keep an eye on?
None that I can talk about yet!
Interview by Bob Noble
Next week: T-Pain manager Michael Blumstein
Read On ...
* Producer Phil Ek on recording Fleet Foxes in the rain and Band of Horses in the sun