Andy Karp is a manager and marketing executive by way of a nineteen-year career at Atlantic Records. He is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist (and one of the few people who can play a Chapman Stick). At Atlantic, Andy started in the Radio Promotion department and moved into A&R where he eventually became The Executive Vice President / head of A&R. During his tenure, Andy signed Kid Rock, Simple Plan, Skillet, The Click Five, Porcupine Tree, and David Garza.
Rick Goetz: Tell me about how you got started in the music business, and how you got started playing music.
Andy Karp: I started playing music as a little kid. I took piano lessons from age 7 to 18, started playing bass when I was 14 or 15, and drums a year later. I just loved music, and wasn’t particularly good at it, although by the time I stopped taking piano lessons, I was a fairly decent piano player. I was studying music and theory in college, and engineering. I knew I really wanted to play. That was my biggest goal.
I had done an internship at MCA in their A&R and publishing divisions when I was a junior, and as I was playing in bands, I thought, “Maybe I can get a job at a label” so I could move out of my mom’s while I was looking for the perfect musical situation. I managed to get a job in the mail room of Profile Records and spent six weeks there hauling giant mail bags. Then I got a job as a gopher in the promotion department of Atlantic Records. I started there in September of 1989, and I stayed at Atlantic for 19 years. That’s really the story.
Obviously there are a few little details missing. You don’t become head of A&R just hanging around for 19 years, at least not in my recollection.
(Laughs) Back in the old days, if you stayed there long enough, they eventually just gave you a department to run. But, no, I spent about a year as a gopher and then another 5 ½ years as the assistant to the head of the promotions department – Andrea Ganis – who is still there and was a great mentor and friend to me, and still is. When Lava Records started in 1995, Jason Flom hired me to do A&R for him, simply because I was fortunate enough to have an encyclopedic knowledge of bands and producers and engineers. I don’t know quite why that was, my brain just decided it was going to remember something, and that’s what it was. It might have been better if it was quantum mechanics, but unfortunately, it was engineers of Scorpions Records.
But Flom hired me because I was somebody that knew all these bands and figured I would eventually run into something that was pretty good. I didn’t sign anything for a year and a half. I was very fortunate that Lava had acts. The first artist I signed was David Garza, who you and I both think is brilliant. And the second act was Kid Rock. And when Kid Rock broke, it went from there. It was a good second act to sign. It worked out well for everyone.
When you sign a successful act like Kid Rock, they tend to be more lenient about letting you sign more.
That’s true. But I never took a lot of swings. There are two very definitive schools of thoughts in terms of how you approach A&R, whether at a label or at a management company.
A&R is such a broad term now. It really is essentially quality control in the modern context, and creative direction. One school of thought is that you can’t have hits if you don’t put records out, therefore you should sign as many things that are good as you can. Because, at least in the context of major labels at that time, if you have big success at one thing, people won’t remember the failures. But that was never my school of thought, and part of it was because I didn’t like enough stuff to do it that way.
So of the guys in the last 20-30 years that have sold a sizable chunk of records, I’d bet I’ve signed fewer acts than almost all of them. And that’s not saying I’m so good, it’s just saying I had a different approach.
One of the things that held me back in the music business was the fact that I couldn’t approach acts and tell them things I didn’t sincerely believe, like “You’re going to be hugely successful, and here’s what we’re going to do.” If I tell that to 10 bands, there’s a very good chance I’m just bullshitting 10 different acts. It’s so hard to have anything that’s successful, and truthfully, most A&R people don’t even have one thing that’s successful. That’s just empirical. I never felt comfortable going and talking up nonsense to close deals. For me, it was more like, “Look, I really believe in this, and we’re going to do everything we can do. You know what the chances of success are. What I can promise you is that I’m going to do everything I can possibly do, give you the best advice I can possibly give you, and do everything to steer you through the label and give you the best shot humanly possible.” That was an approach I felt was the morally right thing to do, and it worked for me because it was consistent with my personality.
Things are very different now because I’ve been out of the major label system for two years, and happily so. But this is the first time in my memory where signing to a major is not necessarily one of the top goals for most artists. That’s a fairly unusual place for labels to be.
In my experience, people searching “how to get a record deal” is off the charts, and “how to market and sell my music” is not. That’s not a representative sample, but I think most musicians feel about the majors like most men feel about Tila Tequila. “She’s disgusting, but I don’t think I’d turn down a date with her.”
That’s a fair point. But I would simply ask whether that is an accurate predictor. If you took that kind of a poll of the acts that are best positioned to be offered deals and have followings and can sustain some kind of independent business, whether it’s small or large, and have empirical proof that people care about their music feel the same way. That might be a better gauge.
No question. But I do think it’s funny that the prevailing mindset is, “Please save me. Please escalate me to stardom.”
It’s interesting, because there probably has never been a time when that kind of “please hand it to me” attitude was a guarantee of failure, and now it is. Fifteen years ago it probably wasn’t that way.
The point is, I’ve seen it so distinctly, that the people who work the hardest get the luckiest. It’s never been clearer. The big drivers of media become less influential. MTV has whatever audience it has, but it certainly isn’t a music audience. Commercial radio is losing influence every year as it loses listeners. Young people don’t consume music through those big drivers any more. As you start to see those things shift, it’s become super clear that nobody’s guaranteed to have a career. We used to be able to take people if they were really good and turn them into stars if you had the right material and the right look. Now, if that stuff succeeds, it’s almost anomalous.
I found that even during my tenure it started to switch. It was less about A&R and more about Mergers and Acquisitions. It started to be about labels looking for existing businesses to acquire and fund. Is that apt?
I think that’s a fair point, if you look at your band as a business. We didn’t sit around in a meeting and say, “We’re only signing bands that have followings and can sell 75,000 records independently or make at least $200,000 per year independently.” No one sat around and figured that out. But if you talk about mergers and acquisitions, there’s a philosophical shift that happened, where the big euphemism became branding. Sometime in the mid-2000s, branding became a business and an approach. It became a noun and a verb. When that shift happened, bands started to think of themselves as businesses, and labels started to look at bands as businesses just as they were looking into buying smaller labels that had a niche and could provide them acts that had a sales base and a fan base and could give them credibility with an audience that you can’t have as a major label because you serve every kind of consumer. They were also looking into buying into acts the same way they would buy into labels. That was a change philosophically. But now you see record sales continue to dwindle, and there’s logic to that approach, even if it wasn’t spoken and intentional.
Does that mean the shift on the labels’ side had become less about early grassroots development? Did it become about taking bands that are self-sustaining to the next level, rather than taking bands from nowhere, to self-sustaining and then upwards?
People love to say there’s no grassroots marketing or band development at labels. But I don’t think that’s really fair. That stuff does happen. It just is a question of whether or not they are good at it. In majors, there are some people that are very conscientious and incredibly hard working and very dedicated to their acts. I think those general dismissive comments that are frequently made about majors are not true. I spent enough time there to know there are people who are very conscientious. There are also people whose job is to not to worry about that stuff, and who are all about the balance sheet. That’s the tension. Don’t think it doesn’t exist at indie labels too. Indie labels have to sell records and keep their lights on, unless they are funded by someone that is independently wealthy and it’s a pure passion play. Those are businesses. It’s just that the tension is much more glaring in a major label system.
The grassroots thing and long-term marketing does work, but it has to be really under the radar. If you take a band like Porcupine Tree. Porcupine Tree is a band where we did three records on Atlantic and Lava Atlantic. The band just played Radio City Music Hall. Now they are licensed to Roadrunner. If you talked to them, I think they would tell you that the labels never really did much for them. I think we definitely contributed in some ways and not in others. In terms of a grassroots story, that’s a pretty distinct grassroots success. You’re talking about a band that had a large catalog and a small following in Europe, and no following in the U.S., and now they can draw 5,500 people in New York and have a business where if you had a 360 deal with them, you’d be very happy.
I think the problem is that you take things like that that are left of center, and very often there is a lot of pressure to get those things out of the system because they don’t make sense. They don’t want you to waste people’s time on things that are in left field. And I tend to think the opposite way. When you’re trying to build something long term, the stuff that is most likely to find an audience is the stuff that’s a little skewed and not the stuff that’s right down the middle. If you can take a pop act and build it, if the songs are good enough, I think that’s great and you can do that. But I think you’re more likely to find success with stuff that’s quirkier. And I think it’s too bad, because Porcupine Tree’s success could have been something Atlantic trumpeted and taken a great deal of pride in, but there were really never a lot of supporters.
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Rick Goetz is a music consultant and musician coach by way of a fifteen year career at major record labels and various online and television projects. For more articles like this you can visit his site, musiciancoaching.com.