Interview with FRANK CALLARI, manager for Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams - Sept 3, 2007
"If itís a great song, itís going to still sound great no matter what quality your demo is"
Frank Callari started his career as manager to US No.1 rock phenomena Marilyn Manson.
He later on co-founded Lost Highway Records where he signed and broke Ryan Adams (Top 10 US) and triple Grammy Award winner Lucinda Williams (Top 20 US).
Callari talked extensively and critically to HitQuarters about the problems of an industry that doesn't have time to develop artists any more, and about the many outstanding artists that do not get heard in this market of instant hits.
What was your entrťe into the world of artist management?
The first time I managed anybody was a band called The Mavericks, which was a country rock band from Miami Beach. That was back in 1990.
Pretty soon after I started working with Marilyn Manson. I was their first manager. I worked with The Mavericks for about ten years, and with Marilyn Manson for about seven years. Along the way I picked up other acts.
What was important to develop your skills?
I used to be a club DJ in New York in the Ď70s and Ď80s. I was surrounded by the music business and watching a lot of things and learning from being around stuff like Osmosis.
Eventually I used to tour as a DJ with New Order from Manchester, UK. I worked with them for about ten years in pretty much all of the Ď90s. I actually didnít realise it at the time, but I learned a lot of skills just being in the middle of that organisation. I wasnít working in management, but I would watch and listen and learn.
At a certain point I left New York City and moved to Miami Beach. I was tired of New York. I wanted to just try something different. I bumped into The Mavericks and Marilyn Manson. They seemed to be looking for advice. One thing led to another. All of a sudden I was managing two bands. It wasnít a plan. It was by accident.
What was your vision for FCC Management?
I founded FCC Management in 1990. I was focusing on great music. It didnít really matter what kind of music it was, as long as it was good.
Marilyn Manson was totally different than The Mavericks. Through the years I worked with different types of music and different types of artists. From bands to individual artists, singer/songwriters. At one point I started working with Lucinda Williams. That was around 1997. We worked together all the way up until just a couple of months ago.
How did you develop your corporation?
There was Luke Lewis. He was the President of Mercury Records in Nashville. He and I were friends. We were talking always about starting a record label, but we never really did anything.
Then one day in the year of 2000, we said, ĎWhat the hell, letís try!í - We were both going through a divorce. We were two sad sacks leaning on each other. And from that came Lost Highway.
We started discussing it. Then it got more and more serious. Eventually, we put together a business plan. Luke went to Doug Morris at Universal Records and got the Ok. We started with the soundtrack to ĎO Brother, Where Art Thou?í , That was our first release. We followed that with Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, who I was also managing.
When I first started Lost Highway with Luke, I was managing Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, a lady named Tift Merritt, who also ended up signing for Lost Highway, and Kim Richey, who was on Mercury but we switched her over to Lost Highway. I had four acts that I was managing that we brought to the label. I gave up The Mavericks. We had our run together and it was over.
For the next four years, I worked at Lost Highway. Then I got very tired of the corporate side of things. I decided to leave.
What artists are you currently working with?
At the moment Iím working with an actress named Toni Collette. Sheís also a singer/songwriter. Sheís in that movie ĎLittle Miss Sunshineí and in ĎSixth Senseí. Sheís a really great singer. She has her own little record. Iím trying to get us a deal for her.
The other person Iím working with is a guy named Paul Doucette. Heís the drummer of Matchbox Twenty. He has his own record as well. Iím trying to shop a deal for him.
I was working with Lucinda Williams up until a couple of months ago and with Ryan Adams up until last year. Once you stopped working with somebody and then you work with them again, itís different than working with them the first time. But either way, it was good and I wish them well.
How involved are you with the repertoire and production?
It depends on the artist. With some artists youíre very involved in the sense of all the different things that you need to do to make a record. Other times theyíre very self-contained. Ryan Adams is somebody who has no problem walking in doing everything by himself and handing you a record. But he wants you to hear it. He wants to get your opinion.
They all want to get some sort of opinion from you, a certain recognition. Just a kind of a blessing, they want to get it from their friends or their record label. Theyíre not in the business to be disliked. Theyíre in the business to be liked.
With other artists, Iíve been involved with picking the songs. Sometimes there are a lot of songs that are ready to go. Other times you have too many and youíve got to pick the ones that you think are the right ones to go with.
There are different levels of advisory. At a certain point, for me itís easy to give my opinion, just because I like music. It doesnít mean my opinion is the correct opinion.
Where do you look for songs?
I like to work with artists that are pretty self-contained, where they write their own stuff. There are times where theyíll cover another song, but ultimately itís a lot easier for me working with people that have a certain style and a certain way about them that they somehow pull it off on their own.
Whatís the difference between working with established and new artists?
With a new artist there are different dynamics. Theyíre certainly more apt to listen to everything youíre saying.
Usually when youíre working with an established artist, they have certain habits or certain ways. They donít necessarily like to change their ways.
When somebody is a new artist there is a certain naivetť. Theyíre new to the business. Theyíre learning. You try to help them be informed, whether itíd be about publishing or touring.
There are so many different aspects to the business, itís difficult to just expect everybody to know. A lot of the times an artist would say, this is great, letís go on tour. But that encompasses getting a crew, getting a band, getting a bus, paying for hotels.
A lot of the times people donít think about the basic stuff, because theyíre not used to it. Whereas an established artist will know that there has got to be a certain amount of money available just to be able to get off the runway, just to leave, to get out of town.
When it comes to the artistic side, usually an established artist has a certain style and sound that they like to stay with or at least experiment with. There is more of a confidence because theyíve been there before.
A new artist is establishing a sound and a style. Theyíre learning as theyíre going. There is a lot more to learn when youíre starting out then there is once youíve been doing it for 20 years.
There are different aspects of each kind of artist that are good and bad. But ultimately itís always a learning process for anybody.
Do you also get unsolicited material sent to you?
I donít reject it. But I also donít listen to everything, because if I did I wouldnít have time to do anything else.
What does it take for the material to grab your interest?
If itís memorable. If itís something that hits you. That you just kind of go, wow! Let me listen to that again! Or, that was really good! You just hear it and something clicks inside you. The first time I heard ĎSmells Like Teen Spirití, I already heard of Nirvana and was aware of them and thought they were a good band, but when I heard that I just thought, oh my god! They really reached a new level!
When you hear something thatís right, thereís no way to describe what it is. Itís like trying to describe whatís love. You can describe all of these emotions, but there is no way to describe it so that you can pin-point it and put it in a bottle.
What do you most frequently find lacking in artists that you hear but do not sign?
Patience. It used to be that people would work for a number of years in a small circuit. They would hone their craft. They would play little clubs or coffeehouses. They would learn how to be a singer/songwriter. They would learn through experience. It could be two years, five years. But a certain amount of experience under your belt is invaluable. It helps on every level.
The business has changed. You can make a record in somebodyís garage and have a really good sounding record because of the equipment today.
Everything is so fast with YouTube and MySpace. You have independent labels where you can submit a record and all of a sudden you feel like you made it. There is no real time for artist development.
There are always exceptions, but there are many new artists that come out of the box with a hit, a very popular song, and then on their next few records they just canít seem to find it again.
Itís basically because they happen to hit upon one sound for one song, and theyíre expected to be fulltime professionals. But in many cases they havenít arrived there yet. So it just works too fast for their own good.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
I like to hear what their goals are. What they want in six months, in twelve months, in three years, in five years, ten years. Whatís your vision for yourself? Ultimately, a manager represents the artistís career. I want to know what theyíre looking at. And my job is to take their vision and try to make it happen.
How should aspiring artists present their material nowadays?
You want to have it on a CD. I still sometimes get cassettes, which is kind of silly.
Give me two or three songs. Donít give me 20. If you have one great song itís going to make me want to hear more. But if you give me twelve songs and I got to go figure out which one is the best one, I donít have the time for it.
Itís not trying to sound pompous on my end. Itís just that time is money and there is a lot of stuff to do and very little time to do it. It doesnít matter if itís great quality or not. If itís a great song, itís going to still sound great no matter what quality it is.
Youíre willing and able to sign them based on those two songs?
Itís not going to be like you listen to the songs and then all of a sudden itís over. You want to meet them. You want to talk to them.
I like to see them perform live. To me part of the package is you have to be able to sing, you have to be able to hopefully write, you have to be able to perform as well.
Performing the songs is almost as valuable as writing. Nowadays, you can put out a record and not sell a lot of records, so you donít make any money with record sales, but you can make a good living just touring.
Lucinda Williams sells records, it pays her bills with the record label, but she makes all her money in touring and publishing.
I try and set up a career so that somebody can go out and make a living, whether they have a hit or not, whether they have a record in the stores or not. I try to create a fan base for them.
Do you support a band financially so that they can focus on the music?
I donít support them financially. I donít invest my money in them. By investing time and work in somebody in the beginning, it basically means Iím not getting paid.
I invest my efforts and my time and my talents and connections. My investment is that I think youíre going to be popular and youíre going to make money in two years.
Iím willing to invest two, three years in an artistís career before I really start seeing any sort of return.
Youíre based in Nashville. Do you focus on Nashville artists?
Not at all. I moved here originally because The Mavericks were signed to a Nashville label.
The country scene is not my bag. There are certain country artists I love. But most of them I donít really like that much. Thatís just my taste. It doesnít mean itís not good. It just means it doesnít work for me.
Any kinds of artists you would like to see gain more popularity?
Anything thatís great but is not getting heard.
Thatís the hard part these days - thereís a lot of great artists out there that nobody gets to hear.
is radio still the most important tool to break?
Itís the one with the most exposure.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís not pretty. Itís very limited.
If you could change some aspect of the music biz, what would it be?
I would hope that all the record labels would spend more time developing artists. Artist development is gone. It has disappeared.
People make these jokes that Bob Dylan or Neil Young could never have made it today. But itís true. If the Ď60s were based on the climate of todayís music industry and the model for breaking a band today, a lot of these great artists from would never have a chance.
Everything is so instant. Everybody has to do it now. If you donít do it now, then it doesnít work. If you donít do it now, itís not going to be good. Nobody has a chance to grow. Nobody has a chance to make a mistake. Nobody has a chance to try to find their style and sound.
There are some artists that manage emerging right out of the box. Look at Norah Jones. What an amazing first record. Ryan Adams with ĎHeartbreakerí, what a great first solo record.
Some artists can do it the first time out. But most artists need time to develop just like any other person and any other artist. Everybody develops. Itís just part of a process.
Because if you donít give somebody the time to do that, itís almost like saying, here, go out there and dance. And if you donít dance well, youíre fired. You never get to find out if that was the next Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.
There are great artists out there that just never get a chance because if they donít do it the first time out, then the business eats them up and spits them out.
What would your advice be to aspiring artists on how to build a professional career?
The best thing anybody could do is to hone their craft. In other words, get your shit together. Your singing, your songwriting, your presentation.
The way you perform, whether itíd be you on a guitar or solo or you on a piano or if you have a band. Whatever it is, go perform. And go have really bad nights.
A bad night sometimes can be the best medicine for learning because you find out what you did wrong, so you donít do it again.
Or you have a really great show but nobody seems to like it, but you know you were great, and that creates a certain strength inside of you. Itís hard out there. Itís not pretty.
Has your work as a manager changed over the years?
The only thing that changed is just experience.
The best thing I can do for an artist in the sense of me now versus me 20 years ago, is that Iíve had extra amount of years of experience.
So something will happen and itís something Iíve experienced with other artists before, or similar situations where I can relate.
Or even things that have happened to artists that I donít represent but have learned about from either just knowing the artist or knowing the manager of another artist.
Experience helps a lot. It gives you a kind of a road map. It tells you which way to turn when youíre at a crossroad.
The best thing I can do as a manager is to use that experience for the benefit whoever Iím representing at the time.
What are your future plans?
Iíve been thinking about trying to put together a television show about music. I donít really know what it would be called, but itís going to be reporting on music. A kind of a news show, but about music. And an interview show that would include music.
Something where you donít just interview Bono. But if you do interview Bono, you also interview his manager and his producer. A way to educate the masses about the business.
More than just like hereís the artist and where were you when you wrote that song, ĎOh, I was in the South of France.í Thatís interesting for a minute.
Itíd be more interesting to hear how, when he was in the studio, they were trying fifteen different versions of one song, and then one day they decided to try a reggae version for fun and then it clicked.
And you might hear then more from the producer than you would from the artist. Just something to make it more interesting and more in-depth.
Itís in the planning stages at the moment, but I have this dream to do this.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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