Interview - Apr 23, 2002
ďFirst make it excellent, build up a following and become a real band, which will make it a lot more appealing to us.ĒRon Burman is VP of A&R at Roadrunner Records, New York. He is responsible for signing Canadian rock band Nickelback, who have sold gold with their debut album, ďThe StateĒ, and four times platinum, just in the US, with their sophomore album, ďSilver Side UpĒ.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
When I was in high school, I organized and promoted parties where I had friendsí bands and DJs playing. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do. I later attended the Florida State University in Tallahassee, and I started booking bands for them. I brought in bands that I liked, Black Flag, Minutemen, HŁsker DŁ, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I also did the bookings for a nightclub and worked for college radio.
Then I moved to New York and was a booking agent for 3 years at ABC (Associated Booking Club). I booked mainly black reggae, blues and jazz acts like B.B. King, Yellowman, The Wailers, Black Uhuru, Albert King and Dr. John. After that I started my own management company, where I managed punk rock bands for about 5 years. I did a lot of tour managing in Europe, Japan and North America.
Then all the bands I worked with broke up around 1995, so I had to get a real job. I started booking the CMJ music festival in New York as the showcase director for a few years and doubled the size of the ďmusic marathon" from 400 to 1.000 bands. I brought Rammstein to America for the first time, and we had Limp Bizkit before anyone had ever heard of them.
Iíd always wanted to work at a record label, but I didnít have any ins at labels, so I couldnít get a job as an A&R. Then I heard that Roadrunner was looking to expand from metal to mainstream and alternative rock, and were looking for somebody who was not a metal person. I was interviewed by the head of A&R, Monte Conner, and the owner, Cees Wessels, and they decided to hire me. That was 4 years ago.
Since then Iíve be onto a lot of bands that we didnít sign in the end; it was hard at first to sign non-metal bands, people were like, ďWhy sign to Roadrunner when weíre a mainstream rock band?Ē But then I found Nickelback, and the whole promise was that they were a priority, and we delivered. From that point on, Iíve been able to bring in other bands, and Iíve signed three other bands that will come out down the road.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Having been a manager, roadmanager and promotor, Iíve experienced a lot of what bands go through. Iíve slept on floors in sleeping bags, in shitty hotels, played in squats in Europe - the whole 9 yards. So Iíve got an understanding what they go through, and I can identify with them.
What goals motivate you as an A&R?
I want to sell a lot of records, and discover bands that I think can be humonguous. Itís the biggest rush to be somewhere in the world and hear a song by a band that you discovered. Nickelback are now successful all over the world; their album is No.1 in South Africa, which just blows me away. I could see it being successful in North America, maybe Australia, maybe even in Germany, but I was stunned that it did so well in England, where they tend to be a lot more highbrow and egocentric about the kind of music they like.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to be an A&R?
Donít do it! Itís a really hard job. Itís as competitive to be an A&R person as it is to be a band, if not more. You have to be well equipped with tenacity and perseverance, because hits donít come your way that often. There are thousands of bands, but thereís only a handful that actually make it big. A lot of it is luck and timing, but you need good songs to start off with.
How did you sign Nickelback?
One of my scouts on the West Coast sent me their self-released record, ďThe StateĒ. It was great, so I went to Vancouver to see them. Nobody else in the business was aware of them at this point, but the place was packed and I immediately got the chills! I thought their song, "Leader of Men", which is on their last record, was a smash hit, and it was eventually a Top 5 Rock Single. Their talent was obvious when I later heard them on the radio in Vancouver, but I still had to convince my bosses, which took three months. Nickelback was our first real mainstream rock band. Weíve worked with them for three years, and theyíre now pretty huge.
What did you see in them that made you sign them?
Initially, I thought the songs had hit potential, and then seeing them live pushed me over the edge. These guys are really smart; theyíve done a lot of it themselves. I always respect a band who have made it happen on their own, without the help of a record label. Theyíre very industrious, and they already had a Top 20 single in Canada on their own, and were touring the whole country. Theyíre professional and serious about their careers, and that makes my job easier.
How "ready to go" were they?
They were pretty damn close to where they needed to be; we just had to step up the whole presentation. When we first met them they were just four guys on a stage, with no lights, no special effects. It was pretty impressive even then, but when they became successful, we had more money to put into the stage show, which took it to the next level.
What new acts are you working on, and how did you find them?
Iím working with a band called Theory of a Deadman, also from Vancouver, Canada. Chad from Nickelback discovered and signed them to his production company, and produced them with a guy named Joey Moy. I heard them and just flipped out. Theyíre Nickelback-esque, Nickelback meets Soundgarden, definitely hard rock, but with a Southern feel to them. Basically, theyíve got big rock radio songs that will appeal to people all over the world.
Iím also working with Double Drive, a very different radio rock band, more emotional and with a singer that doesnít sound like anybody else on radio right now. And then Iíve got another band for next year called Going Blind. Their music is beautiful and heartfelt, but not wimpy, itís got heavy guitars and stuff.
Chad also wrote a song called "Hero" which is a priority for us right now, as itís the main single for the upcoming motion picture Spiderman.
How do you find new talent?
I have been in the music business for years and I have all kinds of contacts all over the world. People I know and respect send me packages, I probably have 200 now, waiting to be opened. Itís hard to get to the unsolicited ones, because Iím so busy. Generally, entertainment lawyers will weed out a lot of the uninteresting stuff.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I prefer not to.
How useful is the Internet to you when it comes to finding new talent?
I use it, although I donít have as much time as I used to have. But I do visit websites, and people I know send me links. It takes me three minutes to check out the song and, if I like it, I get back to them and ask for the package.
What do you look for in an act?
Great songs, star potential, the determination and will to become huge, and a strong vision of who they are and where they want to go with their art. Lots of people just fantasize, and donít take the necessary steps to actually make it happen.
Weíre pretty critical when we find bands. I see bands live probably four nights a week, I listen to music almost every day, and I only have one band right now thatís out. I bring in stuff all the time, but you donít want to come out with a record that sounds like everything else and just have it do ok.
A rock band should ideally have great vocals, great band performance and great songwriting. What do you most find lacking in the bands you hear but do not sign?
Good songs. Even bands with a strong frontman, I donít think they often understand the art of crafting a good song. If Iím going to work with a band, then theyíve got to have great songs, the kind that you find yourself singing in the shower and that you are going to remember, whether you hate the band or not.
Iím not saying you should spend all your time worrying about writing a hit song, but I think you ought to understand how to craft a good song. Otherwise youíre going to have an album with just cool music that isnít going to catch on, that radio wonít play and people wonít buy.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
Absolutely. I work directly with some people here; our tour guy at Roadrunner, Halan Fry, is amazing. He and I will tag teams together and discuss who we need to send it to. We want to get strong managers, agents and publishers. A strong team is essential for a bandís success, because there are more people fighting for the bandís career, as opposed to just me. Nickelback have a great manager, Bryan Coleman, and we have great agents in North America and Europe. Roadrunner also has partnerships with Island/DefJam in North America and with Universal worldwide.
Even if I was to find a band who had a young, naive manager who didnít have the connections, I would try to team them up with perhaps a bigger management company, to help make it happen.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business once they have material?
Before you approach us, make sure that your music is ready to be heard. So many bands only want to get signed, and they come to us when their music is not really as good as it could be. We donít have enough time to listen to every new demo they make.
If they come to me with songs that arenít fully developed, and theyíre obviously not ready as a band, then they should go to a decent producer or somebody who can help them with the arrangements and song structures. First make it excellent, build up a following and become a real band, which will make it a lot more appealing to us. And donít spend too much time on packaging, to me that usually means that the music sucks.
Do you or would you work with acts from outside the US?
It doesnít really matter, but itís harder to break a band from Europe in the US, because theyíre not here, and the cost of bringing a band here is so big. We tried it a couple of years ago and it was so difficult. But weíre not averse to it, in fact thereís an excellent European band that Chad is trying to sign to his production company.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
It depends on the band, but I have no aspirations to be a producer. If I hear something I think can be improved, Iíll tell them, but Iím not going to dissect every song. I want to help them make their music as good as it can be, but I wonít tell them what to do, because I want them to feel that their art and integrity are intact. I listen to the demo, we discuss it, and when they get into the studio they know what they want, they record it and itís done.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
It sucks. Itís been going on for a very long time, and itís only getting more and more difficult. Weíre really fortunate, because we have one of the best rock radio promo departments, headed by Dave Lonko, in the US. But itís hard if youíre an unknown band. Basically, if you donít have money behind you, itís not going to happen.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent years? If so, why, and do you consider it a problem?
I think itís pretty obvious that thatís the truth, but I donít know for sure, because I wasnít at a label years ago. Kids in the past were a lot more loyal and people bought records because they liked the bands, and the labels stuck with things more. But now, if the public is not immediately turned on to something, then they move on to the next thing, whether it is a DVD, or a video game, and I donít think labels have the time to just dig around.
We spent two years bringing Nickelback to the second album, because we wanted to establish them as a real rock band. We put out the first album, we had three singles out, and none of them blew up. The record went gold, but only after the second album came out. We had the band touring for a year and a half, and I think that was the platform needed, because when the second album came out and they had a hit, it just blew up. I believe that if we hadnít spent all that time, it would have been big, but never that big.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
If I were a manager or an artist, Iíd say no. But itís tough for labels, they spend so much money breaking bands. It doesnít happen overnight, millions are spent along the way, and you've got to recoup your money.
The bottom line is that if an artist has a really good lawyer, and a really good manager, they can strike a better deal. You need to be as educated as you can, with the best team you can get working for you to get the best deal.
With the growth of the Internet and the increasing use of mp3s, what role do you think record labels will assume in the future? What will their business model look like?
Iím no guru, but my answer would be that labels are always going to be around. We may morph into a different medium, but somebody is going to have to be the vehicle to find talent, develop it, market and promote it, even if itís purely online. The average kid is not going to find it unless itís marketed to him, and marketing costs money.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would try to find a way to weed out a lot of the garbage music that is shoved down everyoneís throat! There are so many things that could be changed, and a lot of them involve politics, which I donít want to get into.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Probably driving around with my family in Florida and hearing 'How You Remind Me' on the radio, and having my nephew, whoís 2 years old, singing it. Thatís when you know that your band has reached a certain level.
This year, every couple of weeks something bigger happens. We had all these goals set for Nickelback, and every time a goal is surpassed, it just keeps growing. Every time I think it canít get any better than this, it gets better! The first time I heard 'How You Remind Me' I thought it was a hit, and when people asked, ďHow big do you think the album will be?Ē I said, ďAt least platinum.Ē Then the week after, when we got the Sound Scan report and I saw it did 180.000 records in its first weekÖ We sold 1.000 copies of the first album in its first week! So, when that happened, I thought, ďThis is the biggest day of my life.Ē And we went on to sell 2 million, 3 million, then we passed 4 million!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I love my job, and I work with some great people. When I was 15 years old, I was going out to see bands every single weekend, and now Iím paid to do that. I love all kinds of music, and I would love to be doing what Iím doing now, although perhaps a little higher up the ladder, and with the ability to sign different kinds of music. But if I can continue to do what I do, I'll be a really happy man.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman