Fiona Apple, I believe, before I got here, had her first radio play. When she came into the studio and did her performance, the guy who was working the record for the label knew that if he could get her on this station, this station's audience would respond. And because of that he could then begin to build a story that he could then take to the rest of the world.
Because that's what it takes. I mean, you've got to build a story. Everybody keeps telling me this. Is that what it is?
Well, you've got to build a story, whether it's a live story, because the band or the artist are out there performing and people are responding and going to the shows all the time, so you've got a fan base from a live performance. Or whether it's a story of local sales, which usually comes along with local shows. Or whether it's a story of radio airplay. You've got to have something that you can then, when you pitch me or pitch another guy on a radio station with this artist you can say, "This artist is selling 10,000 records a week," or "This artist is on ABC radio station," or maybe they're on an MTV or whatever, you take whatever information you have that people will respond to.
We're a little bit different from that because we're usually the people who sort of provide part of the story.
He walks in to somebody and says, "Nic Harcourt loves this."
Apparently it means something. I mean, I'm always embarrassed to sort of say that, but yeah. If we are playing something, then it usually gives it some kind of credibility, I guess.
Who have you broken? Who's happened in here? Who did you hear that you loved and were part of the story?
Well, Coldplay is probably one of the big ones. ... In this room where we're talking right now, this was where Coldplay did their first ever American performance right here. ... Another one would be Dido. Dido is an artist whose manager lives in L.A., who five years ago gave me four songs from what ended up becoming her first album. And we played it.
Dido was [on our station, the] first place anywhere in the world to play the music. And through that airplay here, she ended up having a song picked up as the theme to the television program "Roswell," which obviously goes out nationally, and a lot of people discover music through television these days, especially if you have a theme too. And, you know, on and on it went, and then eventually, of course, Eminem sampled her song on his song "Stan," and the whole thing blew up. So, we were pretty obviously instrumental in helping her to get going. And she acknowledges that, which is nice.
Norah Jones, we were first people to play Norah Jones anywhere. She performed here as well before her record came out. David Gray is an artist who's actually been around a long time, and had a couple of records out before he hit a few years ago. But, at the time that the record White Ladder came out, he didn't actually have a record deal. He made the record at home in the U.K. and released it in Ireland. We got a copy of it from his publishers who started playing it. And all of a sudden people from Los Angeles were buying his record from a Web site in Ireland because it wasn't available here.
So, we had a big part of helping him get a deal. And there's others. There's an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros that a lot of people like who really-- we discovered on our program. That's how they got their record deal. ...
How do you know when you've connected with the audience, that you've picked one and it's going to go?
Well, they call. I mean, the audience calls. They call and let us know, or they ask usually. It's not so much we get calls [praising] stuff. Most of our calls are from [listeners, asking] "Who is that? Can I get it?" Of course, a lot of times they're demos and they can't even get them. So, we get calls.
We also find that if it is something that people can buy, then you will see sales and profit. And if it's somebody who's playing out, then people will go to the shows. So that's your immediate barometer.
When did you start paying attention, if ever, [to] the business side of the music business? When did it enter your consciousness that this was a serious business, and that there were things happening in the business that were really affecting the quality of the music?
Probably when I became music director over at Woodstock station WDST. In my role as music director, I was the guy who had to deal with record labels on a weekly basis as they were attempting to get us to play the records that they were working particularly.
When you see first-hand how a label prioritizes the artists that they have in order to get them on the radio and to get airplay, you start to get a sense of how difficult it is really for an artist to actually make money as an artist, especially in the major label system, where you could get to realize that there are budgets that are put together by labels for getting airplay and how they go about spending those promotional dollars and marketing dollars. This stuff is all coming out of the artist's pocket at some point. This money doesn't just come from nowhere.
When a record label launches a record, and they put together a marketing budget of a hundred thousand dollars, which is nothing, but just to get a single played on alternative radio, which was happening 10 years ago, then you realize that there's some serious money at play here. And for artists, in particular, this is not really a very fair system, you know. Because it's very rare that they're going to be able to make that money back and pay it back. And you end up having artists who owe their labels for years because of the money that they've spent trying to market and promote something.
So that was maybe the first inkling of how sort of twisted the priorities were in that business, because you get to see first-hand when a promotion first and then a record label is offering you an incentive to play a record. And that incentive is usually some kind of promotional support of the station, which is "Well, if you play this record, then we'll cover your t-shirts for your next outdoor event, and we'll put the name of the artist on the back of them, and the station name on the front" kind of thing. You think well, wait a minute, so the artist is actually going to pay indirectly t-shirts for our radio station? Okay."
So that's the new payola?
Well, according to the law, it's not payola, of course. The law says cash has to exchange hands. But, what actually happened after the big payola scandals of 20 years ago was that they found a way around it, which was to make money available through different avenues.
If you're a small market radio station, a thousand dollars expenditure on t-shirts is a big expenditure. So, if somebody is coming to you and saying, "Well, we will buy those t-shirts for you, if you look favorably at our record," then what are you going to do? It's legal. So, people tend to do it. That's just a small scale.
The bigger scale versions of it, and in fact how it developed over the years, was when independent promoters really came along, people who were hired by the record labels to supplement their own promotion staff, and got paid by the labels every time they got a radio station to add a certain record to their playlist. They began to try to really get into exclusive relationships with radio stations, what they called "owning" that station, where an independent promotion can basically lock in a station and claim that station, so nobody else can get in there. If you need access to that station, then you need to come in through that independent promoter, and how they have done that is by paying large sums of money upfront to the station.
So you've got to remember the money is not coming from the record label, so it's not illegal. It's coming from the independent promoter who is then going to make that money back through the next 12 months every time he gets XYZ label's record on the air at that station, and then that label pays him for that. So that's kind of how it all got out of whack in the last 10 years.
That sounds like a game only big labels can play.
Well, sure, of course. If you're the guy down the road and you just made this record with your friends in your garage or your basement, you're not going to put that stuff to get your music played on the air. So consequently, independent labels and independent artists have been squeezed out of the process. And I think everybody knows that. You're not hearing a lot of independent music on the airways, in general anyway, at least in commercial radio.
And when you add the fact that there's Clear Channel, Infinity and Cox basically, it will make it even tighter, the funnel is even tighter.
Well, it's even tighter with Clear Channel, of course. Clear Channel is always referred to, as you know, this great Satan, or the worst example of this. They've done nothing different from what other businesses would do given the state of their industry. The FCC deregulation of the industry has said that you are allowed to own thousands of radio stations if you want to. I mean, it makes sense that a businessman would say, "Well, let's do it. And then let's use our clout to make even more money."
I think it's a bit of a red herring when people say that the music industry is all screwed up, it's Clear Channel and all this kind of thing. It's actually the way business is done in America that's kind of messed up because this is not unique to the music industry. I mean, look at the pharmaceutical industry and how business is done in that industry with free samples and holidays and going to doctors and all this kind -- I mean, this is how business is done in America today. It's not just the music industry. We're talking about the music industry, obviously, but--
So it shouldn't surprise us. So, why are we surprised?
I don't know why we're surprised. I guess most people don't take too much notice of this stuff. You know, we all go about our lives. Everybody has got their lives to lead. We have to worry about paying the bills, the mortgage and getting the kids out of the house in the morning. Now, people are not worried about how the music industry is squeezing independent artists out of getting airplay.
But, it's only when we think back and we say to ourselves, "My God, for 30 years I've been listening to the Rolling Stones and Elton John and Madonna and the Beatles. And 30 years from now what am I going to be listening to, because I can't find anything I like on the radio?" I mean, maybe that's when you suddenly say to yourself, "Maybe this matters."
Well, maybe if you're our age, you're thinking that. But, if you're 20 you're not thinking that, because you weren't there when that golden era of FM radio was there and independent music did get heard, and record labels signed artists that actually expected it to take three albums before they brought them in. We know that because we were perhaps around then. But, the younger generation of music listeners is not aware of that stuff. So this stuff is not a surprise to them.
Does it matter?
Sure, it matters. It matters because in a society where artists are squeezed out of being heard or seen, whether it's in music or any other art form, then you're really not getting a challenge to the status quo. So, if music is being made by an independent artist, but is not being heard, then things are not going to change. There's no challenge to the accepted norm. And that's really what the artists are for, and that's the role that they play throughout history.
So nowadays, Nic, when you sit back and think about the state of play in the music business from Woodstock … to a kind of arc that ends at 2004 in whatever state the business is in, just for argument sake. As you look at that arc, where are we now?
We're at that place where nobody quite knows what's going to happen next. If I could tell you, or if anybody else in this program tells you, then I'm going to follow that person. You don't know.
I think all you can do is look at the history of the music business and how it has gone in cycles. It has always reinvented itself in some way, shape or form. And I think that the music business, or the music industry will continue, and it will still be an important part of how music gets to us. They are the conduit, they are the filter.
But I think that they're going to have to come up with different business models. They still haven't quite figured out not what the model is, but that they actually need to do that. I think that's the interesting thing about the music business right now, is that you've got a lot of executives sitting at the top who are more worried about their golden parachutes than they are about how they can reinvent the music business, and how they can reinvent record labels.
… Are we at a perfect storm moment? And do [the executives] know it?
I don't think they know it. I think that they're aware that it's difficult out there. But I don't think they necessarily get that things have to change. I don't think they get that.
I mentioned the red herring of Clear Channel or whatever. There's another red herring out there which the music business has put out there, which is the Internet download that destroyed the music business. There's no doubt that the digital replication of music, and the distribution of it through the Internet has really affected the way the music business operates. But it hasn't destroyed the music business. What's destroyed the music business is the business itself and its inability to figure out how to move, and how to change and embrace the technology.
You can probably go back and look in records from the '20s, you know, when they shifted from sheet music to records. And all the guys who are making sheet music were like, "It's the end of the business." And, of course, it wasn't the end of the business; it was just like technology moved on and took it into a different place. The same can be said when we moved on to CDs and all that stuff.
There is a way that the music industry can use technology to its benefit; they just haven't figured it out or they don't want to figure it out. And I don't quite know why that is. Except as I said before, I think you'd find that we've got people who are running the business who were really thinking about themselves rather than, you know, getting creative and figuring out how to reinvent their business model.
Is music being made now that we'll listen to elevators in 30 years? Are there a Rolling Stones waiting out there?
… Is there music being made that is going to mean something to people 30 years time? And I think there is, yeah. I think there's a lot of great artists out there who are impacting people's lives, a lot of people who are buying and finding their music outside of the traditional sources. They're not watching MTV. They're not listening to commercial radio. They may be listening to non-commercial radio. They may be finding it on the Internet. Word of mouth is a huge thing, it always has been for breaking music. And there are people who own CDs at home right now who you've not heard of, and I've not heard of, but they will be a touchstone to those people in 20 or 30 years time, in much the same way as the Beatles are to the [previous] generation.
They're just not going to do it the old way, is that what you're saying, up to a label and the usual marketing routes and that's probably not going to be available. Maybe we're always going to need four or five big distribution companies and marketing companies. It's hard to say.
Yeah, I think it's hard to say. I don't think there's a simple answer to that. But I know that there are artists out there making important music and making music that touches people. It's just a very different world than it was 30 years ago. Technology has changed the equation. You have so much more choice, even though we have the consolidation of the music industry and radio, which has limited the obvious choices.
If you're out there and you're searching and you're looking, there's a lot of stuff out there you can find. But you would never have the ability to have done that 30 years ago. You were fed by the machine. Well, now we actually don't really need the machine. You know, there's an alternative way of getting turned on to the music.
Was the machine always in charge? Was top 40 radio always driving the business? … Was it artist driven ever that you know of?
I don't really know. And I don't know that's a question that I can answer, because I really wasn't sort of involved in the business at that time. But I can guess that they have pretty much always been in charge. Although we in the past experienced musicians that were found by the business, and developed by the business. So, the music was sort of happening down here, and it had an opportunity to come up through the business because at that time people who were running the music industry, in particular, would be developing artists. So, they would see somebody playing on a stage at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and think, "God, if I work with that guy for a couple of years, we get a couple of albums out, he could be something." Those guys are not getting signed anymore. So that stuff is just down here now, and it's really staying on the ground.
I think what happened in the past was the underground always was co-opted. You know, every 10 years or so it would be co-opted and it would become the new mainstream, you know, as recently as the Nirvana … grunge days of 10, 12 years ago.
That seems to have changed. We're not seeing that stuff happen as much now. And I think fragmentation is a big part of it. There's so many different demographics, people listening to different types of music, and see different types of -- I mean, just look at the TV channels that we have access to. There's something for everybody. And I think that it's harder for stuff to break through and become a mainstream hit, whether it's television or whether it's a band.
It's true. And when you think about the fact that somebody told me there were 34 different number one albums last year--
I didn't know that. That's unreal. Because the time was when an album would be number one for 16 weeks or something.
So what is the meaning of that?
Short attention span, I don't know. People are moving on pretty quickly.
Or bands don't get traction?
Yeah, maybe. Something comes out, it gets its initial bump and then it doesn't really go any further than that. There's a lot of examples of records that have come out in the last six months, second records from artists who haven't been able to live up to the success of the first one. I think that people move on a lot more quickly than they used to, especially perhaps a younger audience.
The companies do. They just don't stay with it.
Well, everybody's moving around in the company so quick as well. Don't discount that. I've been around this for the last 12 years. And pretty much everybody I know who works at a record label has worked for three or four record labels in that 12 years. So, when people are going, then the projects that they're working on -- I mean, who's working on them now? You don't have that continuity.
So, if you're an artist, you're at a label, somebody loves you, they champion you, bam, they flip over, they're gone. What happens to your record?
You're probably screwed. Most times anyway. That stuff happens over and over again, where artist's careers end up in complete limbo because of those kind of decisions. The A&R guy signs you, he loves you. The executive VP of the company is on board. And then there's a board room coup. The guy who runs it is gone. The new guy comes in, all the A&R guys are gone. And then you're this guy who has just made this record. You probably owe them half a million dollars because that was your deal. And you've got a record that nobody wants to put out anymore, or work or whatever it is. ...
Sarah [Hudson]'s story is an oft-told tale I suspect. What's ahead for Sarah?
Well, at the end of the day it's, does she have a song that can get played on the radio? Because you still have to get played on the radio to break, most of the time. There are other stories, as we talked about; the live story being the big one. Artists like Dave Matthews who toured and toured and toured, had a huge fan base and sold a lot of records on his own before he signed with the record label. There are examples of that. Ani DiFranco is someone who does that independently. Does it very well doing it independently.
But they are not the norm. Usually you have to be able to get airplay on the radio. And if it's somebody like this who doesn't have a touring fan base, and it really does come down to "Can we get somebody to play it on the radio?" Then she's got to have the right song. Does she have the right song that is going to get played on the radio? That's my first guess that that's what she needs.
And it's possible that she might have [it]. It's possible that commercial radio will want it. It's always possible that non-commercial radio might want it and be able to build a story like they did with Norah Jones. So without hearing it, I can't really tell. But at the end of the day, it comes down to, have you got a song that can get played on the radio?
And the odds are?
I don't know. Astronomical. I mean, there's a lot of stuff competing for the attention. What I will say is the record label has a good track record. We're working with a young artist right now called Joss Stone who is beginning to break and they actually sort of started that off here as well.
So, maybe the label has got a plan in place that will involve getting her out there and doing other non-obvious or non-traditional promotion.
Second group. A genetically-engineered band ... Velvet Revolver. Handicap it for me. What's the up and down side? What's going to happen to these guys, do you think?
I haven't heard it. But, my guess is that because of what they've done before and who is in the band -- it's Slash, right, from Guns N' Roses and Duff. I mean, they've got the guys. They've got these guys who have huge recognition. My guess is that it will come out and it will sell very strongly at the beginning. They'll get radio on the first single because they sure got a story of who's in the band.
But where it goes from there is anybody's guess. I don't know if it delivers musically. But these types of groups are usually marriages of convenience, where you are putting together some people who, for whatever reason, are unable to do what they used to do. Scott Weiland has blown it so many times with Stone Temple Pilots because of his addiction problems, then that band is probably cooked.
And, of course, the guys from Guns N' Roses, Axl doesn't want to play with them anymore, so that's never going to happen. So you've got people who want to work, obviously, and want to taste it again who said, "Well, look, we'll get Scott as the singer. We'll get these guys and put it together." You're manufacturing something to a certain extent and whether or not there's any soul underpinning that musically remains to be seen. Maybe there is. But oftentimes [with] those things, there's not.
When they say, "Hey, man, we're leading the revolution back to rock. We're going to break hip-hop. We're the new rock revolution," what do you say?
Too old. The new rock revolution is happening with 20-year-old guys; it's not happening with 40-year-old guys. The new rock revolution is kids in New York and kids in Glasgow and 20-year-old people who are forming bands. Most recently from Australia with the Vines and the Strokes and the White Stripes from Detroit. I mean, these are people in their 20s who are really what's bringing rock back. I don't think the middle-aged guys are going to reinvent rock music. ...
You know, middle-aged guys can go make a good living doing rock 'n' roll. Old age guys. I mean, look at the Stones. You can still make a living doing it, but are you saying anything? Or are you just sort of going through the motions and delivering a show with pomp and ceremony that goes along with that. And there's nothing wrong with that. People want that.
I talk about the Stones, they go out every three or four years and they sell out stadiums around the world. So, there's definitely an audience for that. But, it's not an audience that is looking for something other than the obvious. It's like, "Play the hits for me."
So why does Clive Davis, and why did every label get into this huge bidding war for these guys? What's up with that?
Because it's too obvious. It's too obvious, isn't it? It's like well, Guns N' Roses were huge and Stone Temple Pilots were huge, so let's put those guys together and it's going to be huge. And it may well be.
But that's such an old way of thinking. It's so boring. It's so stale. The thinking is just uninspired. I mean, the inspired thinking would be let's go scour the clubs in various cities and let's find the next Rolling Stones, or the next Guns N' Roses. Let's find a band that is doing that now, that is going to speak to their generation.
I mean, that's what these guys should be doing. And there are A&R executives out there trying to do that, but they're being hampered by the directions from up on top, which is, "Give me something obvious, I want it now. These guys will do it. That's a hit, let's do it." It's a whole mentality of not thinking outside of the box.
That's why the record industry is in trouble, because they haven't been thinking outside of the box for a long time. They've really just been doing the obvious stuff. "Get me a Norah Jones. They got one, I want one. And don't just get me a Norah Jones, get me a guy version of Norah Jones as well." Instead of going and discovering their thing, you know.
The other thing these guys are up against, they go into the studio, and the first thing everybody says is, "We need a single. We need two singles." ... The second thing is they realize, even though they say they've made an album and they're from the generation when albums mattered, that is it had to tell a story ... those days are more or less gone. The third thing is, we've got explicit lyrics here. And they say "Hey, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, they don't want explicit lyrics from you guys." "You mean we've got to make clean versions of the music?" Those are the kind of obstacles they're running into. Right?
Well, yeah, if they want to have the record carried in Wal-Mart or wherever, that only sells sanitized music, sure. It's a business. They're looking at it as a business and I understand that. But usually the best things that happen are things that come from the creative way of thinking rather than trying to predict it, because this is how it works. This is how the business works. This is what you have to do.
I understand we've got to have a single to get played on the radio. But that can also be a debilitating thing for a band to have to deliver. You're trying to make music hopefully because you have to, you know, because it's inside you. You have to get this stuff out, write the songs and record them and perform them. But, if you're focused on writing that song that is going to be played on the radio. There are people who do that for a living. Maybe they should go out and hire one of those writing teams to write the single. Maybe they're doing that, I don't know. But, I mean, it's just such a wrong way of going about art to me. And it's the classic example of art and commerce colliding and nobody wins because it's just a train wreck.
You mentioned it the other night, the fan base, is it 16 year olds or 35 year olds? Who are they going to appeal to? It's a problem for them.
I would think so. Because the people who are listening to Guns N' Roses 10, 15 years ago have moved on. And to be honest with you, they're waiting to see what Axl does, not what Slash does, you know?...
Are very many people going to sell a million records again?
... A million records used to be nothing. Now, 6 million records is astonishing.
Yet, people will sell a million records. It just depends on who they are, and if they get the opportunity to have their music heard. My belief is very simple: If you've made good music -- and it's music that will touch people, or the lyrics will touch people -- if it can get heard, then people will respond. The problem we have is a lot of good artists are not being heard. And they're not being heard because of a number of things. The stars have lined up with deregulation and the radio industry to make it difficult. And with the consolidation in the music business, it's made it difficult for people to actually make records and have them put out there anymore.
So it's probably not going to be as many people as we saw in the past selling millions of records. But, there will still be people who will make good records, and will find a way through it. And there's an example or two of that almost every year, where something just comes from nowhere, because people discovered it. That word of mouth is still the best way for people to discover music.
When I come to you and I say, "Hey listen, man, before you leave L.A., listen to this record, because I think you're going to like it." And if you like it, then you're going to go back to Boston and you're going to tell 10 people there and they'll tell 10. I mean it's that whole thing, word of mouth. If it gets heard, then people will respond.
The problem we have is that we've consolidated our options to such an extent with radio and television and the music business where a lot of stuff doesn't get heard anymore.
What pisses you off about the music business?
Oh gosh! I think what makes me most mad about the music business is that the people who run the music business continue to do the same things over and over again, things that don't work. The people who are in charge of the music business are not thinking outside of the box. They're in the same rut that they've been in for a long, long time. And what that has done is it has really re-juiced the general public's options of what they get to hear. And there's a lot of great artists who never get heard. And that's really what upsets me.
People who need to make music, need to write songs because they're artists, because they have to do it, don't get heard anymore because the music business has long given up on developing artists. ... It just really saddens me that there are people whose careers are basically put on hold because of the way the music business operates, or who never get an opportunity to really develop as artists, because those days are gone.
And to me, when the music business said, "We've been killed by the Internet and by illegal downloading," it's so unfair. Because what's really done them in is their inability to develop talent, and to stick with it. And so that stuff is what pisses me off about the music business.