Gary Ashley, Sr. VP of A&R for MCA, set aside some time for us to give our artists a taste of life from the other side of the demo.
BEHIND THE DEMOS, WITH GARY ASHLEY OF MCA
-interview by Jianda Johnson
MP3.com: So tell us what’s on the horizon for MCA.
GARY ASHLEY: It’s pretty straight ahead. Jimmy Iovine is the chairman—the head of MCA now, and he’s currently reviewing the roster. He’ll be appointed president within three months, and MCA will remain a standalone label. Will it be the same? Probably not quite.
MP3.com: What has this change involved for you?
GA: Sitting with Jimmy and playing music, and making him aware of the music that’s good. And that’s official. And there’s nothing really confidential about that.
MP3.com: How long have you been in the business?
GA: Far too many years! (LOL) Decades. I started with my own label in Australia in the 70s, called Mushroom Records. I did that until 1996, and then I was off at the position of Head of A&R at MCA Records, and started Mushroom in England.
MP3.com: What are some of your favorite success stories?
GA: Kylie Minogue, in her first run in the 80s. Also, we signed Garbage in the 80s, so we had a variety of successes.
MP3.com: What attracted you to the business?
GA: I started doing business not so much doing “deals,” but more on the marketing side of things. There came a time in our history where I decided, if someone doesn’t to A&R, we will be out of business. So, I started signing, and learning about A&R, and the process. From observing others, artists, people who made records, etc., I became aware of marketing and promo. It became second nature to me.
MP3.com: What makes a good A&R person?
GA: In the indie music world, you have to make records to survive. You have to have a musical opinion. You can’t just hire people. It’s more of a natural thing to me. I’m in the “A&R box,” so to speak, so I’m a little more restricted. I have an opinion and a sway, but it’s really up to me to deliver the records to feed the system.
MP3.com: What’s your take on file-sharing?
GA: The business is better. There are glimmers of hope. I feel more positive. The downloading businesses are finally starting to grow, and finally beginning. December was a good month.
(We are then serendipitously interrupted by Gary’s taking another phone call, softly enthusing to another party, “Yes, I talked to Shaggy. He’s in a good frame of mind. I’ll call you later.”)
GA: As for downloads, consumers’ awareness of the abilities to download through us is beginning. The Verizon lawsuit is something I’m excited about. I’m hoping the ability to track the ISPs of people who are dealing in copyright infringement occurs, and on a positive note, think about how many CD burners have been sold in the last year, and our business has only gone down 10 percent!
Pricing issues have to be addressed, there is business to
be had, and it’ll take many years I’m sure…we haven’t hit bottom, yet, there are glimmers of hope. I feel more positive than I was even 2 years ago.
MP3.com: Tell us more about Garbage, and international
GA: The Garbage signing came about through Butch Vig’s manager in England. I knew them, and Butch at that stage was godlike as a producer, and I met with him. He told me he spent all his time in the studio taking people’s music and then turning them into pop songs. What he wanted to do was write an album of simplistic pop songs, and then turn them into rock songs. And he did. If you listen to that first Garbage album, it was seminal. It really did change music.
I got a lot of satisfaction from that. As far as more commercial success and knowledge of international business, again, with Kylie Minogue, we sold 15 million albums worldwide. So that made a pretty big impact on me…five albums. This, when she was 21!
In America, I got a lot of Satisfaction out of Blink 182, and also watching New Found Glory and Something Corporate, because I would actually call these bands my friends. They just call to say “Hi.” They are just good people. Hard workers with a solid creative direction. You couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
MP3.com: How does a band submit their demo tapes to you?
GA: My favorite bands, if they have a good demo…it’s someone who is actually out working, and drawing people–who has some kind of base. My least favorite band is the one that maybe has a decent demo, but only plays the Hollywood Strip. I don’t’ want to know them…my favorite band is anyone in the country who has a local following, who is selling records, and who draws people. They are the ones I love, who we look for, and who we really want.
MP3.com: How important is it to have a live show together before getting signed?
GA: Very. VERY. You must have a great live show. And I have no interest in bands who look at their shoes! (LOL) In New Zealand, we call them “sand shoe bands.”
MP3.com: Ah…shoegazers… ?
GA: Yes. So, it’s very important…a band needs a live base. At MCA, we call it “crossing the road.” If they can’t cross the road, we don’t want them. Bands must go out and build their base. Not just for my purposes, but for theirs. With a band like Blink 182, only 25 percent of their income is from record royalties. Bands earn more money from merch, live shows and sponsorships…much more than from record royalties. Bands like New Found Glory were successful before I came along. So that is the key to a band’s success.
I have bands on my label who will play to 500 kids and they will take in $300k in merchandising. So there is a business out there. If you just wanna be about the record deal, then please don’t waste our time. If you are going to build your business as a band, and the deal is part of it, then I’m interested. The challenge is to FIND those people.
MP3.com: What are your primary responsibilities, job wise?
GA: Primarily, our responsibility is to deliver the product on time, and on budget, and really, that is a major part of it. Obviously I have to deliver the right acts, sign the right things. That is the business bottom line. I can’t just deliver all my records in January and then check in later for the rest of the year. I have to space the releases out evenly, throughout the rest of the year. It’s all about timing. The right balance. All my decisions have an impact on the band, the company, and all else—or I get fired! (LOL) It’s really that simple.
MP3.com: Do you use the Internet to discover new music?
GA: We always use the Net. We are always looking at your site too, actually.
MP3.com: Good to know! Another question: when emailing a rep, what’s the best way to go about approaching them?
GA: Please use your best judgment, however. I can speak for all A&R people when I say, nobody minds getting an email, but people can be obnoxious—emailing everyday, and such. Driving people crazy is not productive. You’ve got to be patient. “Check us out.” We will do so.
People are happy to communicate with other people. If you
send an email saying, “Hi, I’m in this band,” or, “we’re in Omaha doing demos and we’d love to send you one, we play once a week and we’ll keep you up to date,” sending information, not even looking for a response, just sending information, that is great. Somewhere along the line, I will pay attention and ask someone to check it out. Or, I will check it out myself. That is the best way of communicating, and you can do that with anyone in the business.
For example: “here we are, this is what we do, we did five shoes last months, we now draw 300 people at this club, we wrote some new songs,” that’s great.
Oh—also, don’t send your materials to everyone in the company! We all talk! Don’t think we don’t all talk when you send things to everyone! (LOL) Just send things to me. Cut out the middleman.
MP3.com: Thanks so much. Any parting words of wisdom for indie artists and promoters out there?
GA: Well, aside from your mailings, etc., get on support slots with happening bands. This is BIG. New Found Glory, Something Corporate, Good Charlotte, those Drive-Thru Records bands, most especially punk rock/pop bands, they all support each other, and look for good people. If they play in local bands, that’s great. It’s better to get on those shows. We find out about a lot of bands, from other bands. If you’re just that good, don’t worry; we will find you.
Visit MCA Records @ http://mcarecords.com.
MCA’s not just about that “indie” sound. Their roster’s quite diverse, including: Lyle Lovett, Common, Sigur Ros, The Roots and many others. Go aural-surfing. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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