Soundwerkz Entertainment and Owner Rob Gilmore Interviews Wiley Koepp

From the other side of the interview of A&R rep Wiley Koepp by Soundwerkz Entertainment and Owner, Rob Gilmore.

Rob Gilmore: What does an A&R person do?

Wiley Koepp: Socialize. Plain and simple, A&R people socialize. (half kidding) Sure, there's scouring the clubs for talent, listening to an endless supply of demos, signing artists and helping them put out their albums...but the biggest part of the job is making and maintaining contacts. It's usually through people you know (musicians, managers, producers, record store owners, radio DJs, attorneys, etc.) that you find new talent. Once you have that talent, it definitely helps to have strong relationships with those who will help you put out a solid album.

RG: If someone wanted to get work in the music business today, where should they start?

WK: Just get involved however you can. For me, it was my drumming that evolved into band management--which snowballed into promoting, booking, working in a major label A&R department and doing artist consulting. This is not an easy business to get in to--there are no job applications and interviews, like there are in the business world. You've got to carve out your own little niche and build from there on your own.

RG: How did you get in to the business?

WK: I began playing drums for several bands in Austin, Texas. When it came time to book shows I volunteered to do it and, not long after that, started my own management company. Several years later, my restlessness--with my company, my bands, and just working in the same scene for so long--brought me to New York City. It was through a friend of a friend's former boss (a connection's a connection, right?) that I met the VP of A&R at FarmClub/Universal. After a year of working there, I now find myself working as sort of a "renegade" A&R guy. I may work for another major label at some point, but right now I'm helping develop bands through an artist consulting firm started by several associates of mine...spawned from my old management company.

RG: How do you typically find new artists?

WK: There's no one way to find a new artist. The internet has obviously opened up avenues for finding and listening to new music, but it's really just a tool that supplements the usual routes. I still rely on people I know...and people *they* know.

RG: Are you checking out new talent via the Internet? If so, what do you look for online?

WK: Through, much of the consulting we do is via the Internet. A good website does wonders for what people think of an artist. On the flipside, a great site for a lousy band isn't going to get you much farther than no site at all. I look for good songs and an overall unique presentation. With any band I see or hear, the first thing I ask myself is "What makes this band different from everyone else?"

RG: When you first hear an artist, does their material have to be "radio-friendly" straight out of the box, or do you work with the artist to develop the material further?

WK: It depends on what the band wants and who's signing my paychecks. Though most people want to "succeed," the definition of success varies greatly. One radio friendly song could mean a hit single at some point, but that doesn't necessarily do much for a musician's *career.* If a band's goal is to get radio airplay, they'd better be pretty damn "radio friendly." Airplay, though, is definitely not the only route to supporting yourself as a career musician--ask Phish. There are arguments both ways, but I certainly don't limit myself to working with only "radio friendly" artists--that is, until I'm at a major label again and the boss expects hit singles.

RG: How important is the producer?

WK: Producers, as much as the band members themselves, determine the sound of your record. If you care about your album, the producer is definitely important.

RG: How is a producer different from an engineer or a manager?

WK: Without delving into issues of overlapping roles, discussions of egos, etc., here's my take: Managers manage artists. Producers manage recordings. Engineers make sure the artists' sounds are captured in the best possible way so that the Producer can work their magic.

RG: Does a new, unproven artist have a voice in picking the producer that they would want to work with, or does the label (or A&R staff) select the producer?

WK: The choices made while making a record depend a lot on the artist's (and their management's) relationship with their A&R person...not to mention their A&R person's relationships with others at the label. If all are strong, then the band has a potential say in what goes on with their album. Weak relationships, though, tend to result in bad communication and an artist not getting what they want.

RG: How many tapes on average do you personally listen to each month from new unsigned artists? Do you listen to the entire songs or just the first 30 seconds?

WK: While working at FarmClub/Universal, I listened to anywhere from 50 to 100 songs EVERY DAY. It's slowed down considerably since leaving there, but I still receive and listen to 30-40 demos each month. I prefer to listen to entire songs, unless I'm short on time. Since I'm a musician myself, I know the work that goes into recording demos. I figure the least I can do for someone is listen to their entire recording. The "30-second rule" is helpful when you're considering songs for radio. With today's collective attention span approaching nil, songs on the radio really need something interesting happening almost constantly throughout to keep people's attention. Not many radio station Program Directors will wait for a catchy hook that comes 2-3 minutes into a song. There's actually a great Austin band called 54 Seconds--rumor has it that they named their band after some A&R guy told them they'd need to re-record their songs and make sure the hooks came before the 0:54 mark in each of them.

RG: Do you have any advice that you can give to an unsigned artist wanting to break into the business?

WK: Work very hard. Don't expect and easy, immediate success and don't expect any success without lots of hard work. (am I making my point?) Geez, I could talk for hours about things that do and do not work, as far as getting your music to a level at which it will make an impression on someone. That's what I do now with -- try to help artists prepare themselves and their music for the perils of the music industry.

RG: Does live performance or "look" weigh heavily in your decision to work with an artist?

WK: Live Performance-- To me, yes. Not so much to major labels, in many cases. A good live show is great...but a recording that sells 3 million copies will make you many more friends at a label. LOOK? You've got your John Poppers and your Meat Loafs out there, but again...your Jennifer Lopezes and Mark McGraths tend to 'carry more weight' with their labels.

About a band's look, I think what unsigned artists should consider is that it's not entirely about what you wear, but your appearance IS a factor when people see you perform. Once you've made it big, THEN you can play in whatever clothes you want. Until then, consider that your audience is more likely to face the stage if what is onstage is appealing or interesting.

RG: Are you under pressure to find that one quick hit?

WK: At a major label, yes. Working with, no.

RG: In other industries, a company wouldn't dream of bringing a product to market without product testing. Do you ever survey fans or music consumers to get feedback on records or on the selection of singles?

WK: No. My opinion is all I need. (kidding) These days labels use record sales (tracked through SoundScan) and radio airplay among other things as their "product testing." If an indie band gets into regular rotation on their local radio station and as a result sells 3,000 records in a week, they've pretty much passed the Consumer Feedback Test. When I'm helping a band try and find the right song I'll consult with friends and colleagues whose musical tastes I respect...especially since their tastes may be much different from my own.

RG: What is the most challenging thing about being in A&R?

WK: Telling artists why they're NOT getting signed. From a singer who can't sing to over-the-top drug problems, it's difficult for artists (or any of us) to take constructive criticism without being offended. Artists should try to take both good and bad feedback with a grain of salt, but especially try to take something positive from every comment they received. If your singer sucks...react positively by replacing them! (kidding, sort of)

RG: What trends do you see emerging in popular music?

WK: I think the industry and music listeners in general are desperately waiting for (and seeking out) the next big movement. It'll be interesting to see what sorts of bands get deals as major labels try to find the defining band of the new decade (a la Nirvana in the '90's).

As far as current trends, it's nice to see Dave Matthews doing well. To me, he and his band provide hope for hard-working *musicians.* Artists like Radiohead and Common are a couple more examples of artists succeeding by creating their own unique style and sound. I'd like to see album sales in the future lean toward artists who write and perform their own songs.

Critics frequently talk about how major labels put out awful albums by horrible artists that sells millions of copies (which is certainly arguable). These arguments, however, fail to take the next logical step--that labels just try to put out albums that will financially succeed. I tend to look at it from the viewpoint that millions of PEOPLE buy these awful albums. Maybe if PEOPLE demanded a bit more depth from their music, we wouldn't have such a proliferation of awful music and horrible artists. But that's just me...

Posted on 3/27/01