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Interview with TIM COOK, manager for P.O.D. (US multi-platinum) - May 3, 2004

"Artists need to stop thinking that a record company is going to change their lives, because it isn't."

picture TBased in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Tim Cook manages rock bands P.O.D. (US multi-platinum) and Stockholm Sweden's, Blindside (US Top 40).

In this interview, he tells us what the key to the bandsí success was and offers advice to artists seeking a record deal.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

I grew up in Boston and at fifteen I started at a small production company, where I helped with concert promotions. In my senior year in high school, my family moved to Oklahoma, where I later went to college. At seventeen, I started booking shows, primarily because I wanted to bring my favorite punk and alternative bands to Oklahoma and, at eighteen, I started a club called The Where-House, which I ran for ten years and which is still going strong.

During that time at The Where-House, I started to manage small bands who came in and wanted help with their business, and later one of those bands was P.O.D. They played at the club and I stood at the back of the venue with tears in my eyesóit was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

They wanted to go to the next level, and I, as a young businessperson, wanted to grow, so together, with literally no money, we went out shopping for a record deal. We eventually signed to Atlantic and went on to sell six million records.

What experiences have shaped your managerial skills?

I always say that you've got to bag groceries before you can run Wal-Mart. The best managers are the ones who understand what itís like to "bag groceries;" to promote and book concerts, haul gear, hire a crew, etc. Fortunately, I was able to experience all of those things before I became a manager.

Which genres do you focus on?

Iíve focused on rock music, but I love all kinds of music and would certainly like to manage all kinds of artists. The first groups I managed were Christian artists signed to gospel labels, but Iím not doing that anymore. Although P.O.D. are very vocal about their faith, theyíre known as a mainstream act.

Has the Christian music scene undergone any changes in recent years?

Many have copied what P.O.D. have done, and they have given a lot of artists the confidence to raise levels of quality and sincerity in what theyíre doing.

How would you explain the fact that it seems easier now than it was ten years ago for Christian artists to break into the mainstream?

I donít agree that itís any easier, or more difficult. This business is a business of songs and if you have great songs youíll eventually win. Thereís certainly not a Christian rock movement happening; it just so happens that more and more artists in gospel music are raising the level of what they do and theyíre following the examples of P.O.D. and Blindside.

How did you come to manage P.O.D.?

I was running my club and a lot of kids were talking about P.O.D., so I brought them in to open for a band called Living Sacrifice. Their show moved me like nothing has ever moved me in rock 'n' roll. The drummerís dad was managing the group at the time and I think he wanted someone to help take their career further. Thankfully, he put his confidence in me to do that.

They had two independent releases on their own label, which were sort of demos, but distributed nationally. The guys had done a few national tours and their shows connected with fans across the country. When I came in, they had a small national fan base and I was able to help them take what was happening on a small scale and make it bigger.

And Swedish rockers Blindside?

I saw them at a festival about 5 years ago and became a fan of the band. I felt very much the same way about them as I had felt about P.O.D., that if they had a chance to record a record properly, that is, if they the right kind of career nurturing and the right business associates around them, they would have the opportunity to do very well. Like P.O.D., they were rough around the edges, but they had tremendous heart and soul and great ability.

Did they have a US fan base before signing to Elektra?

Yes, they had toured in the US so they had a fan base, and Elektra signed them because they had a huge connection with kids and a remarkable live show. Take the new album ďAbout a Burning FireĒ: Warner Music, which is part of Elektra, was being restructured, we had no radio, no videos, just our street teams, and it was a Billboard Top 40 debut!

What were the most important events in the breaking of Blindside?

Blindside are starting to break. Itís been about touring, about constantly being connected with their fans. Every show they play brings in more and more people. Kids are very emotional about them.

How do you market and promote your artists?

We do everything we possibly can to involve the kids and we have street teams all over the country. Our websites are also very popular: of all the acts at Warner Music, the P.O.D. website has the second or third longest e-mail list, and Blindside are on their way to that level of popularity.

Weíre a boutique company and we spend a lot of time making sure weíre really connecting with the fans. We always joke that we take the stairs, not the elevator, because itís a slow, intimate relationship we have with our artists and their fans. It's real, though and we want to build lasting and important brands.

How do you find new talent?

Itís usually a case of seeing a band live, but not only is it important for us to find amazing talent that will move us emotionally and spiritually, but also to find good people who we want to serve and partner with every day. Itís not easy to find people like that and Iím not the right manager for everyone. It's a family here.

Lots of bands also send us stuff through the mail. Weíre selective though, because we want to make sure that the relationship we have with our artists is really special. Paul McGuiness, U2ís manager, is my all-time hero and I model myself after him. Heís built the U2 brand and has stood by them for twenty-five years, and thatís what we want to do for our artists: we want to stand by them and build the band on their terms, in a way that makes the fans feel close to the project.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes, of course. I love listening to new bands. Iíd say we receive ten CDs a week and I listen to all of them, even stuff youíd think was not very good. Itís just fun to listen to stuff; I am a music fan after all.

Having said that, I havenít found anything through demos that Iíve come to work with. It doesnít happen very often that you get a CD in the mail and that translates to a live show, to a meeting with the band and a working relationship; itís usually a case of seeing a band live or getting to know them through one of the bands that we currently have.

What traits must artists have for you to sign them?

The traits that P.O.D. and Blindside have are passion and a kamikaze attitude in what they do. Itís all or nothing, and I love to see artists that have dedicated their whole lives to rock 'n' roll. It all boils down to passion.

How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?

I love it when artists write their own music, although sometimes a collaboration might also pull those emotions out of them, so thatís fine too. I just want artists to give it their best, whether that means they do it themselves or somebody comes in to help.

Would you expect a record label to help a newly signed artist by giving them tour support?

Absolutely. It's your money anyway.

What should unsigned artists learn more about to stand a better chance of building a solid career in the music business?

They need to stop thinking that a record company is going to change their lives, because it isnít. A record company is a partner who can help them take what theyíve done to another level.

Artists, and rock bands in particular, should follow the example of P.O.D. and Blindside and build solid national fan bases before they sign a record deal, because it puts them in control of their careers. I would even go as far as to encourage artists to hold out as long as they possibly can before they sign to a record company, so that theyíre not as dependent on them.

How involved with the repertoire and production are you?

Iím not the creative guy, I leave that to the artists. I give my opinion because Iím a fan, but Iím not involved in the writing process and I never will be. Iím involved in the production, in that we all have discussions together.

How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?

I donít take radio into consideration at all, but once you sign to a major label you have to take it into consideration to some degree. Blindside havenít had much airplay, but theyíve had tremendous success on the road, and they own their merchandise, their publishing and their first two albums. Theyíre really in control of their careers and I would like to see them get radio play because they offer something so unique to radio.

P.O.D.ís first album on Atlantic had virtually no radio at all, but it managed to go platinum through our street teams, touring, word of mouth, and significant video play. It was unprecedented in our business: there arenít that many artists who go platinum without a big story at radio. Weíre really proud of reaching that level without having played any politics.

Considering record labels are less and less concerned with developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, who do you think will be primarily responsible for developing new artists in the future?

Itís what we are doing as managers. We have very close and intimate relationships with our artists and our job is to sit and listen to their vision for the band and to help them find opportunities to fulfill that vision.

Managers are in the best position to help develop artists, but thatís not to say that we donít need help from the label, because we do. John Rubeli, who A&Rs P.O.D. and Blindside, is amazing and a part of the team that we need.

If artists share the costs, which are recoupable from their royalties, of recording an album, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?

Any situation that allows artists to have control over their business is a positive thing, but you also have to know what youíre signing. Thatís not a reality for us right now, but we know what we signed and weíre not hanging our heads.

Will online sales in digital formats provide a much-needed boost for the music industry?

Yes. The music business is the only business that has recently had an adversarial relation with the consumer. The only way to win is to offer music in a way thatís convenient and fun. Clearly, itís a lot more convenient to have 5,000 songs on your iPod than 50 CDs in your car.

Do you agree with the fact that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is tracking and suing certain file-sharing individuals?

Itís a complicated matter and I think that the RIAA is certainly within in its rights to do that, but I am more concerned about a solution than I am about such actions. Music consumption is at an all-time high, so the music business needs to work towards solutions that serve the consumer.

Kids would be happy to pay for it if it was easily available, and the Apple iTunes and Wal-Mart stores are now really starting to get out there and become important to kids.

What aspects of the music industry would you change?

Labels should sign fewer artists and return to artist development. Take a few gems, make them great and let the rest stay in the minor leagues.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Meeting Billy Graham, the legendary evangelist. Heís a man of vision who has successfully pursued his cause for fifty years. He reminded me of the importance of being inspired and to continue to dream.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?

The same thing, but when Iím sixty I'll be managing jazz artists.

Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan

Read On ...

* Atlantic A&R John Rubeli on signing P.O.D.