The life of a music executive
At West Hollywood’s world-famous Viper Room, it’s another fangless night for unsigned bands. A local quartet is playing to a crowd heavier on thespians (Tori Spelling is holding court at a ringside table) than major-label scouts. The band is sending out mixed messages, with a lead singer in skintight leather britches who’s rolled up her Sex Pistols T-shirt to reveal perfectly tanned and toned abs. She sounds more influenced by Pat Benatar’s alternative phase than anything rotten. ”Touch me in my car,” the pigtailed singer pleads. ”You can learn a lot about me in my car…”
Within minutes, Tripp Walker, an A&R executive with Reprise Records, departs the dance floor and heads for her own car, not needing much more education. ”They were not very deep,” says Walker, reemerging on the quiet side of the velvet rope. (Names of unsigned acts in this article are being withheld to protect the mediocre.) ”I could be wrong, but it felt like an actors’ crowd. My gut tells me the singer is an actress wanting to be in a band. She’s got a gorgeous body, but she was thinking about what she was wearing more than what she was singing. And I think she’s listened to too many No Doubt records. The lyrics were trite; everything rhymed too perfectly. The melodies didn’t stick; I didn’t feel like there were any hooks.”
But other than that, they were great.
Sound harsh? Walker actually has a rep as one of the kinder, more sympathetic people in town doing major-label A&R. If she got into a conversation with the band’s agent or manager, she’d find something positive to say if it killed her. But, over the course of the year, she’ll see 300 to 500 live acts and review roughly 1,100 demos sent to her office. Add these numbers up and it might appear we’re trailing one of the world’s foremost human musical sieves. In this line of work, snap judgments are both a skill and a survival mechanism.
”I listen to every single thing that people send in,” says Walker, who may be more the exception than the rule in accepting unsolicited tapes. ”But I find maybe one demo a month I’m intrigued by. Last year, I signed one thing.” And that one thing was a semi-established act — Esthero, a jazzy-trip-hop singer who inspired a bidding war after her former label, Work, shut down — although Walker’s four other signings have all been so-called baby bands.
A&R stands for ”artists & repertoire.” Listening to these odds, which might send a band packing for Atlantic City instead of Los Angeles, it might as well stand for ”abstention and rejection.” But maybe it’s more about tough love. After all, radio programmers and, ultimately, consumers will be far tougher on a new group than Walker ever will. And she will have to adore whoever she signs enough to want to hear their ditties hundreds of times in the studio, and browbeat an overburdened label promotion team into believing hers is the priority project. ”When you sign a band, it’s a total marriage,” she says. ”And who wants to be in an unhappy marriage?”
But legions of unsigned acts out there might not be thinking of A&R execs as potential spouses who’d fight to the death on their behalf so much as the defensive first flank of hostile corporations determined to keep great artistes from receiving their proper due. So on behalf of all these disenfranchised players, let’s pose the question even Freud might’ve found puzzling — had he lived long enough to get multiple piercings and front an alt-rock band: What do A&R women want?
The following afternoon, we’re about to get another example of what they don’t necessarily need any more of: a so-so hard-rap-rock band (even if that is the going genre, accounting for about 40 percent of the live bands Walker currently sees).
Walker and a half dozen other Reprise staffers are beating the heat by slipping into the cool of a Hollywood rehearsal studio for a quick ”showcase.” In music-biz parlance, that means a private performance put on for a handful of VIPs. It’s usually as awkward as it sounds. ”I’m not a fan of showcases,” Walker declares. ”I like seeing bands in a real setting, seeing how people react. How can they put on their best show in front of a handful of people sitting on a couch?” For whatever reason, that’s the way this group wants it. ”Hey, at least we’ll be playing for more than three people at this one,” the bass player chirps while we file in. The awkward silence is broken by a familiar crinkling as virtually everyone in the room rips open a bag of de rigueur earplugs. Then begins the bellowing.
”There’s nothing left to believe!” shouts the frontman. As rap-rockers go, these guys are worlds more earnest and soul-searching than Limp Bizkit; think Faith No More meets Creed. His eyes closed — signaling either intensity or an understandable desire to avoid eye contact in confined quarters — the white-guy rapper confronts an absentee God, raging against the deus ex machina. ”Never came down…. Come down! Come down! And make us believe!” he yells. ”Please come down and get me the f— out of here!” If the execs settled into the rehearsal room’s couches are thinking much the same thing, they don’t let on. At the conclusion of the five-song set, the lead dude acknowledges the situation’s awkward artifice with a quip: ”Thanks very much. We’ve got T-shirts and CDs in the back. Don’t forget to tip your bartender.”
On the way back to Burbank, Walker waxes unimpressed. ”There was nothing intriguing or daring about what they were doing, and no star presence in the band. And the singer looked old to me.” What’s old in rock & roll these days? ”It depends on the genre, but the rap-rock genre is very youth-oriented. If you’re making a record like that when you’re in your 30s, by the time you get your second record out, you may be in your 40s.” Which, unless you used to be in the Police, isn’t that tantalizing a carrot for major labels these days.
Walker is 27, which could be the median for an A&R person in this young person’s business. Most of her peers are in their 20s and early 30s; after that, they graduate to senior levels or just flame out. Walker’s enthusiasm puts her a good few years away, at least, from burnout. She came to town from Houston with her own band almost a decade ago, but, by the time she was 21, realized she was better suited for the business of music than playing it. She did enjoy a minor revenge that some of those she has to turn down probably wish for: ”I got a ‘pass’ letter back from one guy that I sent my demo to, and a year and a half later I had his job,” she laughs. (Still remembering the sting, she doesn’t send out rejection notes now — ”I think pass letters are old-school and passé” — preferring to break it gently to suitors if they call up wanting to know why they haven’t heard back.)
In a world where rejection is repeated on a minute-by-minute basis, what is an A&R person looking for? That’s easy: love at first sight, though she’s open-minded enough to settle for second sight. ”What I like best is walking into a club and being so drawn to the band you can’t even speak and get goose bumps on your arms, thinking ‘If I don’t get this, I’m gonna die.’ And being able to walk into my boss’ office the next morning with that gleaming look you get when you just fell in love. It sounds so corny. Actually, that’s never happened to me with a guy. But sometimes you watch a band and just know.”
On a more practical level, it’ll help if you have one surefire hit that even Lynne Cheney could spot. And preferably it won’t be a novelty hit. A combination of charisma and hooks is key. You’ll almost certainly need to show you’ve developed a following on your own back in your hometown, be it verifiable reports of sold-out shows or local indie-CD sales. And if you’re much over 35, well, you may be too tall to ride this ride.
Of course, a hit is like pornography — you know it when you see it — whereas it’s far easier for A&R folks to list their turnoffs. Let’s start with derivation and desperation. ”I see a lot of artists that are trying to be Limp Bizkit or Christina Aguilera or No Doubt all over again, and that drives me nuts,” says Walker. ”Because by the time they get the demo to me, even if I loved it and we went in to make a record, it’d be too late — that’s over. And I hate artists who say, ‘Oh, if you don’t like this, I can do that, and what kind of songs are you looking for?’ Just do what you do because you have to do it — you would be doing it whether I existed or not. If you have to ask me, you’re not the real thing.”
Other do’s and don’ts: Gallant gets an attorney or manager to send in a simple, thin envelope of materials. Goofus sends a box with T-shirts and condoms and then shows up in front of the office every day to force a tape on anyone who looks like they do A&R. Gallant keeps the cover letter short and doesn’t waste money laminating press clippings or bothering with overnight delivery. Goofus has to be led away by security after insisting that ”Mr.” Walker said he should come upstairs, and Capitol is ready to jump on this, man, and you’ll be sorry!
One other piece of advice: Don’t assume moving to L.A. will boost your chances. Walker and her kin will gladly use their expense accounts to come to you once you’ve built up a sizable local buzz. ”It’s hard to get a following in L.A.,” says Walker. ”Stay in Boston or wherever and become a great band. If you’re an amazing rock band, and you’re playing live, there’s such a network of promoters and booking agents across the country, you’re gonna get noticed.”
Before heading out to the Viper Room for the evening again, Walker walks across her wood-paneled office in Warner headquarters and picks at a mail crate’s worth of newly arrived packages. It’s demo derby time. First up: an urban/R&B female singer with a remarkably expensive-looking music video in which she seems to be portraying a hooker. ”Standin’ in a doorway/ Hey, you goin’ my way/Leanin’ on a parking meter/Humpin’ on a parking meter/Hey, babe, come inside/I got something wet…” Walker’s jaw drops. ”Oh, my God,” she says. Pass.
Next: a package with a cover letter informing us the lead singer is cousin to a member of one of the world’s foremost rock groups — useful nepotistic information, except these guys sound more like the poor man’s Crash Test Dummies than the cousin’s band. ”If I wear polyester suits/And get caught with a prostitute/Am I holy now?” go the opening lines. Mocking piety isn’t exactly cutting edge, and anyway, sound-wise, says Walker, generously, ”it’s more for coffeehouses.” Pass.
Third is a rockin’ combo whose first track is actually called ”Mr. A&R Man.” Kissing up to the titular gatekeepers? Nope — insulting ’em! ”Called you up to hear you pass again/Five long years, you still don’t get it/You had your chance, now you’re gonna regret it/Mr. A&R man!” Talk about biting the hand that has yet to feed you. Does Walker admire this group’s chutzpah, or find it alienating? ”I would say more the latter,” she laughs. Pass.
It doesn’t look like we’re destined to find the needle in the haystack today. But before we go a-Vipering, we have one question for Walker: Isn’t it downright depressing being barraged with all this detritus and derivation day after day?
”I don’t know why, but no,” says Walker. ”I don’t get depressed listening to a lot of bad demos. It’s part of the job. There’s one A&R guy who makes me laugh because every time I see him, he’s got that look, like he’s in pain. He’s the most negative person I know. That’s not a good place to get to in this job. Whatever it takes, I’m always excited to find the one amazing thing.”
And this may be what separates the true A&R talent from you and me: While the rest of us might mull the idea of sifting through Walker’s 1,500-plus acts a year and conclude that the glass is rather overwhelmingly empty, the A&R executive is the one who can stare down those odds, keep her eye on the prize, and cheerfully determine that the glass is, in fact, one fifteen-hundredth full.