Interview with STEVE SMITH, A&R at Aware for Five For Fighting (US gold) - Oct 29, 2003
ďThe internet hurts singles rather than albums.Ē
VP of A&R at Aware Records in Chicago, Steve Smith is responsible for overseeing Five of Fighting (US Gold). The label is also home to multi-platinum artists John Mayer and Train.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I was a music journalist for the newspaper at college and during that time I formed lots of relationships with record labels. Right out of school, I was lucky enough to get a job at Aware as a publicist, which turned out not to be my thing, so I started getting my hands dirty in A&R.
What experiences have been important in developing your A&R skills?
We do everything very hands-on here and we learn from experience. Iíve spent a lot of time in the studio and with bands in general, which helps me understand where a band comes from, and the process of making records. The very first band I signed were Five For Fighting (click on artist names to listen to Real Audio files Ė Ed.), and the experience with them in the studio really set things off. Iíve made two records with producer John Fields, who has participated in many of the things weíve done at Aware, and we have just made the Wheat record with Dave Fridmann. Working with these people has been instrumental for me.
My journalistic background helped, because it allowed me to spend a lot of time listening to good music that I hadnít listened to in the past, which broadened my musical tastes. As a college student, you sometimes get herded into one genre of music and youíre not really motivated to go out and discover new stuff. By becoming a writer and having to review, I had to listen to different styles of music and that really gave me an idea of what was out there.
Are you also a manager at Asquared Management, owned by Aware?
Yes. In terms of staff, Greg Latterman and I mingle between the two companies and then we have another person who works on the management side full-time. The artists we manage, which include Liz Phair, Motion City Soundtrack, Glen Phillips, The Working Title, Jackopierce and a band from Chicago called Rockets Over Sweden, are signed to other labels. It would really have to be the right situation for signing an artist to both Aware Records and Asquared Management to make sense; we generally avoid it because it tends to create a conflict of interest.
Is Aware fully independent?
Yes, we are, and we have a joint-venture deal with Columbia.
Is that a distribution deal?
Itís a bit more than just a distribution deal but that is the simplest way to state it. We do have a lot of options though on how we want to set up and work an album, but almost everything we do sign does jump up at Columbia and gets distribution and the whole works. If we want to distribute the record on our own, we can always go through independent distribution. If we want to slowly build a record that we donít think fits the Sony system, we do so.
What are the differences between the way you work and the way major labels work?
We have a much smaller staff to start with. The genre of music is no differentóthe difference lies in how we handle our records. We only sign as many bands as we can handle. Weíre not in it to sign thirty bands to see who sticks. We choose certain bands and work very hard with them, because if the bands donít get a break, we canít survive. Weíre very much in the same situation as the band: we need it to happen in order to survive.
Weíre more oriented towards touring as opposed to singles. Touring is an incredible thing, because the people out in the crowd are the core level of the fans and if you reach those people and can have them go out there and spread the word genuinely, then itís the best form of marketing that you can possibly have.
How did you establish your street team?
It has just progressed very naturally from Greg starting the company and looking for some young kids to spread the word. It has slowly grown from twenty kids to over fifteen hundred.
How did you first hear about Five For Fighting?
John Ondrasik, who basically is Five For Fighting, had a deal with EMI/Capitol; Mark in our office was a big fan of his record and made contact with John. Mark also had some demos from John, which he gave to me when I started to do A&R. I fell in love with them, Greg and I discussed it, we met John and the right thing to do after that was to set up a deal.
Because he had previously released an album on EMI/Capitol, did he already have a fan base?
There was a bit of a fan base and this incredible buzz just before the album was about to come out, but the record never got the promotion it deserved.
What was the key to breaking Five For Fighting?
The key to breaking Five For Fighting was that we had the songs. They did a lot of live shows, the street team helped, and it was timed perfectly with what was happening at radio at the time.
What acts are you currently working on?
Our most recent record, which came out a few months ago, was by Bleu. Then we have a record coming out on 4 November by Wheat, which is our next long-term project.
How do you find new talent?
Itís a matter of your friends in the business: they have something that they want to send to you and you just go from there. You listen to the songs and, if you like them, you check the band out live. Itís a very standard process; we definitely donít do anything special. My most effective sources are relationships in the business.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We donít accept unsolicited material anymore, because it became overwhelming. We take everybodyís phone calls though, and if we have the time and we havenít had much to listen to recently, we accept it. When we were accepting unsolicited material, we received well over a hundred demos a week and we couldnít listen to them all. We felt guilty about accepting unsolicited stuff and not being able to get back to the artists.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
I donít use the internet for that purpose at all.
How important are local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
One of the things that we look for in a band is that theyíve made an effort to be self-sufficient. Bands often tell you that theyíre going to wait to get signed to do anything and thatís the worst thing you can ever say to an A&R. I want to know that youíve been out there working, that you have built a local following, that youíve gone out and tried to make your way, so that if you donít get a record deal you can still survive as a band.
How much research do you do on new artists and what resources do you use?
It varies. You often get calls from bands who say that they can do six hundred people, when in reality it might be two hundred. You never know, so you have to check your sources and do a lot of fact-checking and find out what people have seen and what people know about the band, and go in and try to discover things for yourself as well.
Do you look at BDS and SoundScan?
A little bit, but itís kind of irrelevant to us because the bands weíre considering will probably not have a lot of BDS spins and SoundScan sales. A band might sound more appealing if they have gone out and sold twenty thousand records, but I donít think that should be the ultimate reason for signing them. What it really comes down to is whether they have the songs and you believe in the band, and if thatís the case and you have the tools to do it, you can make anything work.
How much do you take radio into account when you are weighing up a new artist?
Itís a factor and it would be wrong to say that itís not important. If youíre truly going to break a band and sell millions of records, radio is the key ingredient but itís certainly not the only one. So many things are important, like going out and playing live and winning fans. Radio is definitely part of the mix, but the point is that you need songs that you can take to radio. Iím not sure that the artist has to fit directly into a format; I think that the best things are often those that donít fit. At the end of the day, you have to believe that itís going to work and that radio will support it when you see the live show.
What do you look for in an artist?
The songs have to be there, they have to be exciting and then thereís what theyíve done with themselves, what theyíve done to become self-sufficient, the effort that they have put into it. You sign a band to have them be what they are and not so you can change them, so they definitely have to have what it takes from the start.
How important is it that the artists also write songs?
I definitely want to work with bands who write their own songs. Itís not as interesting to work with artists who donít.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, the attorney and the team are when you are deciding whether to sign a new act?
Thatís part of what I pay attention to, but what is most important is the bands having the songs that we believe will attract a good team.
Once they are signed to you, do you support a band financially so that they can focus on the music? If so, how long does this development period usually last?
Yes, and hopefully, thanks to the support we give them, theyíll be able to quit their day jobs and focus on the music.
How involved are you with the production?
I work very closely with the band when theyíre recording and mixing, but typically I try to leave the producers and the band to come up with the ideas, because thatís why I signed the band and hired the producers. I just try to let them do their thing, go through their process, and do my best to try and let it become whatever they want it to.
How much does it generally cost to record, market and promote an album?
It really depends on the band and what youíre doing. All I can say is that we cut records very inexpensively.
Do you do demo and development deals?
Weíve never done a demo or development deal, although in certain situations theyíre great, because they give bands the opportunity to develop their potential. Itís just something that weíre not really into doing and I canít think of a situation where we would do one. Thereís nothing special about our deals; they probably involve less money than most major-label deals, but we provide better backing for the band.
If artists share the costs of making the album, because these costs are recouped from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
In theory that makes sense, but you have to remember that itís the record label thatís putting up the risk at first. Theyíre fronting all the money, accepting all the risk, and thatís the trade off. It does happen that you share the ownership when you license a record to a label, or on some of the smaller deals. The labelís ownership can also be for a shorter period of time than normal. Different deals make sense at different levels.
How do you view the impact that the Internet has had on the music business?
Record labels will definitely have to adapt to the Internet. The reality is that the Internet is not going away and weíll have to find a way to sell over the Internet through a reliable source. Thereís Appleís iTunes and a few other things that are leaning that way, but we donít have the solution yet. Labels will have to downsize, but they will probably grow again once they figure out new ways of doing business.
When cassettes first came out, they thought that that was the downfall, but the labels came back. Weíll always have a role either way. Times are not good for independent labels, but the Internet does help balance things out a little bit. The reality is that the Internet hurts singles rather than albums. People donít necessarily download albums, they download songs, songs from a record that may not be that solid. This is an important issue, because solid records arenít that easy to come by these days. The Internet wonít be the downfall of a solid record. For an artist like John Mayer, the Internet was a great help, even in the promotion of his record. As always, there are pros and cons.
What aspects of the music industry would you most like to change?
I wish breaking a band wasnít such an expensive process. Iíd change radio, as would most people; it has become very stale, itís always the same, thereís no originality or colour.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
It was exciting for us as a company when Train and John Mayer won their first Grammy Awards. Itís a very big deal for a small company like us to get one of our artist recognised; it feels like the work that weíve put in was worthwhile.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
If all continues to go well, I see myself pursuing what Iím doing now.
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
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