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interviews: michael 'blue' williams
We have accountants running two of the four majors right now and they don't get it.  It's a numbers game.  And music has always been a feelings game.

When did you first fall in love with music?

1981, '82. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York. Hip-hop was starting. I'd say that was when I first started going out, going to block parties, seeing Afrika Bambaataa, the original DJ's, Full Force, and Cold Crush Brothers. I was in the streets when it was swelling. Before it became what it is now, a worldwide phenomenon, I was in the Bronx when it was all swelling. So my love for the music started then. So it just has grown.

What did it mean to you?

It was something different. It was ours too. I can understand how my mother and them felt when rock 'n' roll was around. It was something that their parents didn't get, and it was theirs. This is something that was ours. People didn't get it. It wasn't mainstream yet. It was exciting. There was energy there. It was fresh. It was just a real fresh feeling.

Is that the nature of what music is? You just said it's like a kind of soundtrack for your particular generation.

It is. I think that music is each generation identifying what makes it their own and grabbing ahold of it. And I think that some of what the problem is today is that it hasn't changed enough lately for the next generation to come up and identify it as its own. So they're having to jump on what was the generation before, or the generation before there, skip past those and like older music or whatever. I don't think that anything fresh has been given, in the last 10 years, to really give the next generation their own flavor. …

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Michael "Blue" Williams is the manager of OutKast. Here, he recounts the steps he and the band took that led to their enormous success. He also describes the explosive growth of rap and hip-hop during the 1990s and how that drove the industry to the point that "… everyone was just trying to throw out so much quantity and no one was putting out quality." Williams tells FRONTLINE, "I think that if the labels adjusted the game again, started putting out good records, quality records, the public will buy." This interview was conducted on Feb. 11, 2004.

So how do you find yourself connected to OutKast? When and how has that happened?

1996, yeah, 1995-96, I just started working for Queen Latifah and Flavor Unit Management. Shakim, who is Latifah's manager and my boss, we took a trip to Atlanta. We were going after an artist called Monica. While we were down there, L.A. Reid called Shakim and says he has this group called OutKast starting to blow up, would you take a meeting with them? Shakim and I took a meeting with them, liked them, and we started managing them. And they were my responsibility on a day-to-day basis.

And that was '96, this is 2004, we've been together eight years. Around '98, I left Flavor Unit to start my own company, and they left with me because I'd been doing everything with them day to day. It's just been me and them since then continuing to grow, dropping records, sticking with our plan, and building a loyal fan base, touring, just rolling them on out. The guys make the records; I make sure we sell them. …

So you walk into this room and here's these two guys. How long does it take you to know they're hot stuff?

It probably took me about a month or two to really get what they were and to see the glimmer, the potential to really be as big as they have become. Because coming from New York, they were from Atlanta, they had a different type of music. It was a different type of hip-hop than I was used to. It had a Southern feel to it, there was more funk to it. New York radio wasn't playing it, so I had to spend time with them and get familiar with the music first. And then I had to go on the road and see the reactions they were getting, get the vibe for them, realize that these guys really had some good talent. We needed to work in the same direction, to get the label and everybody on the same page, and it could really be something big.

Had they cut a record yet, by then?

Yeah by the time we met them their first album had already been dropped. So they were in the middle of working their first record.

And how were they doing?

They were going well. They were already gold, they were on their way to platinum. We stepped in to help get it, like, right to platinum. And then we went in and started on the second album.

… What do you do to get them to the next step? What can you do for them?

It starts with a plan. You really have to assess what you have here. I try and tell our people that ask me, "What's the secret to good management?" And I tell them that you've got to know your personnel. You have to know your artists and what they're capable of, what they will and won't do. You have to know what the label is willing and not willing to do. And you have to have a good assessment of where the music industry is and things like that.

So I had to put a plan together. We sold a million records on the first album. So we had a base. LaFace Records wasn't really known for rap, so they sort of stumbled onto that platinum record. So we had it going with a plan to get everyone at LaFace onboard. Then we had to figure out how to get them from being just an Atlanta and a Southern-based group, up into the Northeast, break into New York and those areas, and out West, and start getting more areas to understand what OutKast was.

Then we had to build them as a touring band. We had to get them on the road so they could make money, and not only make money from the label. While the guys were working on music, I was working on the plan to figure out how do you do those things. Which magazine covers do you need? What TV do we need to get onto? Where would a good tour be? What size tour? Some of the visuals, things like that, that we needed to do to get people to take them seriously.

I'm a music director at a New York radio station, or Chicago, or Denver. How do you pitch OutKast to me in those days?

I try to sell on the excitement of what they're bringing. A new sound. Something that's not coming from the East, something not coming from the West. Because at the time, East had had a great run, and the West Coast was coming up, you had Death Row, you had Dre, Snoop, all of that. But here was something different. This was a new sound. Like, "I'm trying to get you take a chance on this, take a listen to it." Because you may not normally take a listen, you're like, "It's not New York or L.A., mmm, it's not important." So I'm trying to get you to take a chance on it, take a listen to these guys. …

And as those chances started to come in, the guys always provided the quality music. Nothing that I set up, nothing that I thought of, works without quality music. It's always about the music.

And how are they to work with? Do they give it over to you? Are they the kind of guys that say, "You go do that, we'll take care of business with the music."

On the first album it was a lot of, "How come we don't get these opportunities that these rappers get up North?" Or, "How come we don't get the opportunities that they get?" And the reality was because we were there to break down doors for Southern artists. So it was a lot of fighting to get things done, and a lot of me trying to get them to understand that we're going to get there, we're going to get there, just give us a minute. We're working on that, we're working on the doors.

So for them it was like, your job is to just keep rocking shows, keep making good music, and I'll get this door down, this is my next pitch. Alright we're going to get a cover of a Source Magazine, because that's important. Hip-hop needs to embrace you. We're going to get you on Hot 97. As I was able to get those things done, along with the label, their confidence grew in trusting me and in trusting that, "Hey, we are making good music, let's just keep going with what we do."

And I think over the next two or three albums that's how our relationship became. It became: They made really good music, and they really were great performers, and I really made sure that the world knew that they made great music and great performances.

Let me ask you a question, were you guys making money in those first two or three records? Or was their recoupment not?

Actually it was funny because we've always made money, but we always had our eyes on the bigger money. Like we always made money. We were able to get the things that at 23, 24 you want. You got a new car, you can get your mother a house, you know, you always have money in your pocket to eat. Uncle Sam wasn't kicking your door taking everything back. We were okay right there, but, you know, we wanted rock star money.

We wanted to see the real money. You always had somebody like, your Suge [Knight]s, and your Puffys, and the big guys, that always had the newest car, the newest this. So, we were striving to get to that level. But financially, naw, we weren't starving. But we weren't rolling in bed naked with our money. We were good.

And you had a goal for how much? What's good money?

I don't know, it changed. The '90s was like the golden era where everybody was just making -- you had your first $20 million movie guy and you had your first $100 million record deal. So the bar kept going up. I think that's what happened. You know we used to want a million-dollar deal. Then you got a million-dollar deal and you heard somebody got a $10 million deal. So you tried to figure out, well, what do you got to do to get that $10 million dollar deal?

Then you see the cover of Forbes and you see Master P, the $30 million man. So now you're trying to figure out, well, alright what's that $30 million do? Then you look up and you see Russell [Simmons] had Phat Farm, and Def Jam, and all this, and he was the $100 million man. So I think for me the bar kept raising to keep trying to get the guys to keep them in that stratosphere, in that level of playing field.

So the deals were always pushing the envelope. The guys own a studio in Atlanta. They own their own record label, started their own clothing line. Anything that could create wealth for them, we tried to find a way to do. So I don't know if there's a "Once we get $20 million in the bank we'll be happy" type of number like that. It's just that, you know, there's always more we can push the envelope to.

And then I'm always comparing OutKast to like U2 and the Rolling Stones, stuff like that. My goal has always been for OutKast to be the biggest rap bands of all time and eventually one of the all-time great rock bands. Because there's a difference between a rap band and a rock band, and I think at the phase that we are right now, we've become a rock band. And that's where I wanted us to go.

When you're a rock band, your numbers are different. When you're a rock band you can make a million dollars a night, to do a show. When you're a rap band, you can make $100,000 a night. That might be the top you'll make. And so that's the difference.

Because what, you'll fill auditoriums, arenas, speedways, whatever it is?

You can get stadiums, you can fill multiple nights in arenas. Mainstream has embraced you. You can get sponsorships. It's just a bigger pot.

When did you know that it was monster time for these guys?

I think "Ms. Jackson." The guys' fourth album, called Stankonia, they had a song on there called "Ms. Jackson" and it went to radio, and it just [grew] so fast. It was everywhere, on every chart, just, spins were crazy, the audience grew so quickly, and it was just, wham. Like, we're here. This is mainstream. Everyone knows who we are now, the guys are recognized. …

Step out of OutKast for a minute, or least look at the business. … Give me a sense of the business when you started, and where the business is now.

I think when I started, R&B and hip-hop was just starting to cross over to mainstream. Everything started to have a hip-hop beat under it. So we had attracted the mainstream crowds, and the mainstream audience. [M.C.] Hammer opened up the door. When Hammer sells 15-20 million records, people are paying attention to you. So the hip-hop numbers changed. Artists used to make five, $10,000 a night in the rap game. We're now making $50, $70, $100,000 a night.

In the grander scheme, everyone started trying to find their hip-hop and their R&B and their urban divisions. Every label had to have one. So every label had to have a rapper, or they had to have a rap group. They had to have a female rapper, they had to have an R&B boy band.

So these urban divisions in each label grew and they started to swell. Well when they grew, they also started spending more. Because it became, who could make the better video? Who could look flyer in their video? Who's going to spend $500,000? Who's going to spend a million dollars?

Urban music is driven by the producers just as much, or if not more than rock bands. So you had to pay this producer $40,000 for a track, $50,000, $100,000 dollars. "Well I want his best track, I'll give $250,000." It became this numbers game, and because everyone was selling, and everyone was wanting double and triple platinum, like that. In the '90s, it was like the golden era. It was like money was an object. Everyone could make money. As Puff would say, "Money ain't a thing." Money was just flowing through. The numbers became ridiculous. Budgets weren't making sense. You were selling three, four million records and weren't making any money.

So that's when the game changed, because everyone was just trying to throw out so much quantity and no one was putting out quality. Because everybody was hoping that, well if I can throw out two, three, four, five, a quarter, and one hits each quarter that sells me four million, it will justify everything else.

But in the meantime, the public is buying all this. They're buying all five each quarter. And they're liking one. Now that's in '94, '95. By '98 the public's buying 25-30 records a year and liking maybe two complete projects. They're really just getting one single off each of those. So they're starting to feel jaded and tricked. Why are they spending all this money and then not getting the record they want?

So around '98, '99, start getting things like Napster. Start getting ways for people just to get music, one single at a time, just what they want, and not be bothered with the rest of the CD. And the game starts to change. And people start to say, "Hey, we're losing money. People are just buying one single; they're not buying the albums. Our sales are going down."

In the grander scheme of things, I think what happened was the '90s was a high, like on a graph, and I think that where we are now is we're leveling back down. I think that if you realistically take a look at the music industry before say '92, '93, you'll probably find the album sales now are probably back where they were before then.

People say the music industry's down, it's coming to an end and everything, but we're coming off a high. … So the numbers are going to go back down to a leveled out thing, but everyone at the same time is seeing the result of downloading, and everyone's blaming it on downloading. In my opinion it's not downloading that's killing us, it's [that] we stopped putting out quality music. We stopped giving the public something to believe in. We started just giving them, "Here take this, take this, take this." And the public caught up to us and was like, "Hey, we don't want to take it no more, and we get it someplace else."

I think that if labels adjusted the game again, started putting out good records, quality records, the public will buy. Our OutKast is at eight million records right now. Eminem just sold eight million. 50 Cent sold six. Norah Jones sold six. The public will buy good music when you give them good music to buy. And that's what it should be about. We should get back to putting out good music.

So tell me why good music isn't being made. Or enough good music anyway.

I think one problem was the invention of the CD. With the CD, from vinyl to the CD, all of a sudden you had 80 minutes of space on a disk. Artistic people, if you give them 80 minutes of space, they going to try and fill 80 minutes of music. You can't always make 80 good minutes of music. Sometimes you're going to make 45 minutes of good music. "But now I got 80 minutes, I need to do interludes, I need to do another track, or I need to do outtakes, or I need to do skits." People just start filling up CDs just to fill them up. And A&Rs weren't strong enough to say, "Mmm, I only want these 10 songs for your records. Do whatever you want for the other ones." …

So I think that, along with computers, and people's attention spans and everything getting shorter, along with us making longer music, you found a perfect storm.

I tell people now all the time, young kids, when I was 15-16, if you gave me a $100, I would go buy a bunch of music, some comic books, maybe something to eat, and stretch out. I'd be okay. I might even be able to get some jeans and stuff. If you give the kids $100, he can buy one pair of jeans, maybe an outfit, or he can pay his two-way, or his cellphone or his pager bill that his parents gave him, or he can buy a video game, or he can do something.

But the last thing he thinks about with the $100 right away is buy music. That's the last thing that he thinks about. It used to be that was the first thing we thought about. We have to get that kid back into thinking, "I got some money, I should go purchase a CD." We got to start making it quality. …

Can the accountants and the lawyers and whoever runs these companies, actually recognize good music when they hear it? Especially hip-hop, or understand anything about it?

No. We're run by corporations now. We have accountants running two of the four majors right now and they don't get it. It's a numbers game. And music has always been a feelings game. And I think until they get back to a place where they're like, "Yeah I'll run it on the feelings again, but don't go over the top, keep the numbers under control," it's going to be hard.

You can't tell an accountant that, "This record feels good to me. I need to stay after it for a minute until it breaks." He doesn't get it. Because he's looking, "Well the charts say, or the numbers say it just doesn't make any sense. We're going to lose money. It's going to be diminished returns." And he definitely doesn't get it when you go, "You know what, we didn't get it on this record, but it feels good, I need another $600,000 to go make another one. Because I'm telling you I think we're going to have it on the next one."

There's so many bands that have become successful in their second, third or fourth project that would never get to that point. And that's the problem we're having right now, is that labels are being run in such an accounting firm way, there's going to be a lot of bands that never get to the opportunity to have a second, or to get on the road, or to shoot a video, get a visual, get that one crack that they need at it. And, it's not, it's not good for the game. So I'm happy that a company like we are right now has, has somebody like an Edgar Bronfman running it, who's a music person at heart, who's going to allow the company to take some swings. …

I think another problem was, everyone's looking at the numbers going down in the income on the labels, but the catalog business that carried the music industry for so long, it was a very finite business. Eventually everyone was going to have everything they wanted. You reach the point. There's only so many times you can re-package, re-master, digitally re-do, the Beatles. You brought it out, every year you put out a Beatles package. Eventually everyone's going to have that copy of the Beatles package or people are going to realize, "I just bought the same CD again," and they're going to stop buying it. So that year you're not going to have that extra two, $300 million off the Beatles, because people stop buying it. I think people didn't anticipate that. …

But how bad are things [in the music industry]? Really bad?

It is the perfect storm out there. But I think we're starting to get past the perfect storm. I think that these changes are going to lead us through it. I think that the public doesn't care about anybody right now, any of the artists right now. I think we've all become, like, the artist of the moment. I think the public is ready to move on to the next hot thing as soon it happens.

Even your guys?

I think especially my guys, in the sense of, I watched No Doubt. They matter still, but unless they have a hot record out, unless you have something the public wants, sort of slide over to the side, and then the next hot thing comes on. I don't think it's a bad thing. I don't think you can be hot all the time, otherwise it makes your fall so much harder, and it's hard, it's grabbing your artist. So I think it's good, but at the same time we need to get this next generation of kids to care about the artists. We got to get some artists that these kids want to grow up with, and that they care about and they care what their story is.

And you know, I think there's too much access to us now. I think reality TV and things of those shows, "American Idol", I think it's taking away the luster and the mystery and the excitement of the music industry. I just sat around with my cousin, who works in a paint factory, and he can tell me about the music industry because he saw it on TV. He heard this or he read this somewhere. There's nothing mysterious about it anymore, everyone thinks they know what it takes. …

What happened to radio? … Can groups break in now? It's like three kinds of radio stations everywhere in America.

Radio is so horrible right now. I don't even understand what the FCC was trying to accomplish. I just am like, what was the goal of this again? I thought you were supposed to be creating opportunity. You gave monopolies. You basically created monopolies. The richest and the strongest took over.

It's such a complicated game that it's hard to maneuver. If you've got a record that's working and you're on there, you love the system. If you have a song like a "Hey Ya" that all thousand Clear Channel stations are playing, you're in heaven.

But if you have a record that none of the Clear Channel stations are playing, you're out. What do I do? Like, who do I have to pay? It's not good. There's no competition, there's no originality, the playlists don't entertain new artists. There's no new energy. …

What does OutKast represent? … Is it that they had a chance to develop? Are they one of the few great positive stories of the business? And can another group ever possibly be like them?

I think that OutKast is a unique mixture of talent and intelligence coming together, and having vision. … OutKast has found a way to become a rap band, a pop band, and a rock band. And exist in all three realms, and be respected by their peers in all three realms.

I think that musically it would take a lot for another band to do that, because you need the personalities as well. 'Dre's a rock star, all day everyday, like there's no if ands or buts about it. But Big Boi's the personality that keeps it in the streets for them. And that balance is what worked. And I think, you know, that combination, with the sensibilities of L.A. [Reid], with me managing, I think all those things together have allowed us to create what we have now. I think you'd have to find another combination similar to that. Really talented group, with management that guide it, with a label that believed in them, and get to that area that you're in. …

One of the people we're following on this show is a young singer. How does she do it, how does she break in, what's the formula? What's it going to take to get new artists? Because there's not a lot of new artists poking through out there.

There's not a lot of new artists. I think that you can either go the big label route, which is find a hit record and get on the radio, and then hope your press and everything you do connects the public to you, and you break out that way. Or you don't have the big label, you don't have the money behind your project, you got to go the rock 'n' roll route. You either get back out on the road, and do performances, and do morning shows, and do everything that nobody else wants to do, and build a groundswell, build a reputation that people like you, and do that. That takes more time, but at the same time I think it's more rewarding when you win.

So as a new artist that's what I would do, is ground up. You can't get a superstar artist to do a morning show for radio. You can't get a superstar artist to do morning show TV. You can't get a superstar artist to do small publications. New artists should be flooding those. And that should be where the public knows that they can go to, to find new artists. And I think that that will start to nurture. Before you know it those artists will become afternoon artists because they'll be bigger and they'll want to do the afternoon show. …

But you're talking about people making decisions like that in record companies that are accountants and lawyers, not music people right?

They got to get more music people back in. They got to get more music people back in, they got to get better A&Rs back in, and people have to stop being scared.

What's it going to take for that to happen?

… I think these labels have an opportunity right now to clear out some of the blood that got tainted, and get some new fresh blood in there, some fresh energy.

And everyone became a follower, also. Everyone got into, " OutKast is working, we need an OutKast." Or "Evanesence is working, we need an Evanesence."

Where's the new Norah Jones?

You can't do that. If you find it, perfect, cool. But find something original. Or find something that isn't out there, do something.

You've got to have skill to do that.

You've got to find people that have hunger. The skill you can teach somebody. You can teach somebody how to make a record and how to do that stuff. You can't teach someone to have an ear. So I'm running a label, I'm going to hire somebody with an ear. I can teach them everything else.

But if you're running a label you're running it from Germany or a bank or someplace, right?

You know, they send the money from over there, but we still run the labels from here. You got to do it creatively. …

Some of the models and some of the ways that we've done things have to change. If they don't, the storm's going to continue, we're going to be stuck in there. Music's not going anyplace. Even if you download it for free, same things you going to need. You always going to need new music, public's always going to need to hear it somehow. You're going to need artists, you're not going to be able to get artists to do it for free.

It's always the artist that hasn't broken, that is just out there trying to get a deal, that says, "I'll do it for free." As soon as they taste some money, they're going stop wanting to do it for free. There's going to be changes. I think that this is a good time for music, because the changes are starting to take place.

One of the bands we're following is a new band called Velvet Revolver that's being made out of the old Guns N' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots guys who are saying, it's time for a revolution. Rock is back, we're going to blast through hip-hop and we're going to be back… Could rock really come back, or did rock already have its day and it's time for something else?

Comes back to the music. If you put out some music that people can feel, they can run through. Hip-hop's stale right now. What makes OutKast look so good is that hip-hop is also so stale. If people don't jump on the OutKast bandwagon, and see this as an opportunity to push the envelope, people just go back into their regular routine. Hip-hop's stale, if rock came through with some new energy or something, yeah.

It's going to be up and down. The question's going to be, who jumps back on that pop wave first, around 2006, 2007? To me whoever finds that next boy band first, that next Britney first, that next wave of artists first. That's when the labels are going to see the money they're looking for again.

But until then, I think we just keep putting out good records, we're steady as a ship, we'll be good. But yeah, rock can make a comeback. It's got to be good, it's got to be real good. It's got to be really good.

And who's the audience? Are they going after their fans from before, or are they going after new kids? I mean you talk about those two groups, what, who are they trying to get? You've got to figure that out. The problem with hip-hop is at 35 in hip-hop you're over, you're old. Hip-hop's a completely young type of genre. You've got to be young and fresh. Rock you can be older. You can be the Eagles going out now, and still have your fans.

But what they're talking about doing is something new. So are they going after their old fans or are they trying to get 13, 14, 15-year-old kids to like them? That's what they got to figure out, how you going to market it? …


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posted may 27, 2004

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