It’s Great When You Have Hits
New Adventures in A&R, 1994-97
On October 26, 1993, Arista Records released the AIDS benefit compilation album No Alternative. I created the concept and had devoted the previous two years of life to putting it together. It was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, selling about 20K copies a week in the first month after its release. The album eventually raised over one million dollars for HIV/AIDS relief and awareness organizations. Clive Davis, Arista’s founder and president, gave our team a giant, cardboard check for one million dollars. We posed for photos that ran in Billboard Magazine, then rode the subway downtown, carrying the check. We tacked it up on the wall at the Red Hot Organization. All that money was up on the wall, but now that the project was over, I was out of a job. Reading Joshua James Amberson’s essay about No Alternative, 30 years after its release, got me thinking about my life after the album. At the time, I had been so focused on making it happen, I hadn’t really thought about what I would do next. I was burned out from the crazy whirlwind of the whole thing.
In early December of 1993, I hastily moved to Prague, the capital city of what was then Czechoslovakia. Instead of building on the success of No Alternative, I decided to leave town. It was pretty random. In the early ‘90s there was a moment when moving to post-Cold War Prague was a cool, adventurous, and cheap thing to do. There was a love interest, too. I didn't have a plan, besides going to Prague, reconnecting with this woman, and seeing what life was like. By the time I arrived, Czech locals had lost patience with the U.S. grunge-expat thing. And the romance? Let’s just say the whole trip was a disaster. All I really needed was a vacation, not a stressful and uncertain move to an unwelcoming foreign city. I lasted less than two weeks and returned the States in time for Christmas. My family was relieved, to say the least. No one should ever move to Prague in December. Prague Spring happened in springtime for a reason.
I had left my friend to watch my apartment in the East Village. It was a shabby five-floor walk-up with a bathtub in the kitchen. Despite periods of crashing on my floor, my friend didn't really want to live there. He was on his way up in the advertising world and wanted to move somewhere nicer. New York’s East Village was still full of drug users and dealers. All my guitars and bikes had all been stolen in the first year of living there. Still, I loved the place and was glad to be back. My friend moved out as quickly as he could.
There was no staff position waiting for me when I came back. Producers produce. That means you create your own projects. The Red Hot Organization was like an empty shell. It relied on the hustle of independent producers to generate new ideas and opportunities. I got a job at the antiques store I worked at before No Alt happened, and I started putting new ideas together. The mainstream alternative music scene had continued to grow and morph in new directions. Very little of it interested me. I was listening to bands like Built to Spill, The Grifters, and Neutral Milk Hotel—exciting indie bands that might break into the mainstream, or not. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Tons of fantastic independent record labels supported these bands and scenes. Many great zines wrote about them, too, along with a healthy independent and alternative press of newspapers and periodicals.
I wanted to do something fun and sexy, something that was more explicit in its communications about safe sex HIV and AIDS than No Alternative. I came up with Red Hot + Bothered. It was designed to be a two-part music ’zine with vinyl package that would culminate in a CD. When I had enough bands provisionally onboard, I started pitching it to labels. The process was a little less daunting my second time around. We got serious interest from a label called Kinetic that was a sub-label at Reprise Records. The label head, Steve Lau, was a cool guy and former musician who was in the alternative pop band Ocean Blue. Kinetic was focused on developing or licensing massive UK and European DJs and dance producers, but a deal is a deal. We were happy to work with Steve. He agreed to the fanzine/vinyl format, even though the idea of ‘leading with vinyl’ was not nearly as trendy as it is now. In 1994 vinyl was truly dead. A year earlier we didn’t even consider doing vinyl for No Alternative. We released it on cassette and CD, the music formats of the future!
In the midst of producing Bothered, I got a note from Mr. Clive Davis. Clive and I had a warm and cordial relationships from working on No Alternative. When we met, we talked about new bands. I said something that made him ask me if I was a student of the music industry. I thought I was, so I said yes. He said it was a great industry when you have hits.
He then pulled a few CDs out of a drawer and asked me if I knew Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Somewhat stunned, I said I did know them. I had been talking to them about being on Red Hot + Bothered. We talked about many other bands before he got around to asking me to come work at Arista as an A&R person. I told him I wanted to finish making Bothered. He said no problem, I didn’t have to come into the Arista offices. I could work from anywhere; I just needed to send him a certain number of bands over the course of a year. Holy shit, I thought, this was fantastic. Mr. Davis loved rock music and rock artists. He never failed to mention signing Patti Smith and supporting her career, but his genius came with pop music, not rock. Arista had massive pop successes with Whitney Houston, Ace of Base, and many others. Clive wore a suit to work. All his executives did. They were literally ‘the suits’ of the music industry. I imagined I’d sign Built to Spill and all these other great indie bands to Arista, even if it was hard to imagine them fitting in there. Either way, it was an exciting and new challenge.
Doug Martsch, the leader of Built to Spill, and I had a brunch meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street with Clive and two of his top executives. Doug and I were wearing our somewhat ratty winter coats and wool hats while Clive and company were dressed in—what else?—suits. At the end of the meal, Clive asked Doug if he wanted to go back to the office to listen to music. He said he didn’t have the time. When we went downtown together, I learned he had another meeting, this with Craig Kallman, a VP at Atlantic Records. Doug was double-booked. That’s how it went in A&R. If you were interested in an artist, you were likely not the only one. I followed Sebadoh around on their latest tour, seeing them play in NYC, Boston, and Chicago. Singer Lou Barlow was friendly and definitely not interested in coming to Arista.
The freedom and independence I had as a freelance A&R guy cost me an education about how to be an A&R person. When I did speak to fellow A&R people at Arista and other labels, I quickly learned how secretive they could be. Information was a kind of currency. Where and how you learned about a hot new artist was a closely guarded secret. I understood the reasons for secrecy, but it felt foreign to my natural inclination towards openness. When producing a Red Hot album, I would talk to everyone and ask them about bands they liked. It was the best way to find out about exciting new artists. The process was completely different from the gestalt of the major label A&R game.
I sent Mr. Davis demos for other bands over the course of 1994, more than enough to satisfy the terms of my contract. He sent back handwritten notes detailing each band’s strengths or weaknesses. Mostly, he commented on their lack of mainstream potential. I tried my best, but I had completely lost interest in the kind of alternative rock bands he might have expected me to discover. Arista did not renew my contract. Ever optimistic—and friendly—Mr. Davis said his door would always be open if I found any artists with real potential. As he said, it was all about the hits. I would have been better off wearing a suit and looking for new pop artists—screw indie rock.
At Red Hot I was approached by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, two Chicago guys who founded Wax Trax Records, a pioneering label that was a home to punk, new wave, and industrial dance music. They were really nice guys who were interested in possibly doing a Red Hot album. TVT Records had recently purchased Wax Trax, so theoretically they had access to money to do special projects. The timing was fortuitous, since I needed a new project. Red Hot’s founder was involved in creating a CD-ROM (again, mid-90s, so cutting edge technology!) for this Beat Generation exhibit at the Whitney Museum. We came up with an idea to tie the Wax Trax thing to the Beat Generation thing.
We pitched this idea to Steve Gottlieb, the president of TVT Records. The concept was that artists who DJ’d and used samples in a cut and paste collage style were the modern inheritors of the Beat poets’ legacy. We talked up the Whitney exhibition’s marketing power. We got a deal. If nothing else, at this point, I knew how to package, pitch, and sell an idea to get a record deal. The album would be called Offbeat: A Red Hot SoundTrip. If you can’t tell from the title, I was deeply into trip-hop style of music that was percolating in London and elsewhere. I met with James Lavelle at Mo’Wax. His Headz Compilation was a fascinating snapshot of this diverse, wide-ranging scene. I started chasing artists, including DJ Shadow, Tortoise, Tranquility Bass, Attica Blues, Portishead, Laika, and many others. It was all exciting and new. I wanted to move on from No Alternative. I wanted to be post-alternative. I started wearing much baggier clothes. I wish someone had told me not to.
In my memory, barely a week had passed after being let go by Arista that I got a call from the head of A&R for Warner Bros in NYC. He had signed Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Uncle Tupelo and… Built to Spill. Warner seemed like the coolest major label on the planet. He offered me an A&R job. I was stoked! This time I embraced the role completely—no more freelance nonsense. I did ask if I could continue to making the Offbeat album, as it was a great entrée for scouting the emerging artists in this scene. He agreed.
Before we even signed my contract, I flew out to L.A. for a multi-day meeting with the rest of the A&R staff. There were about 12 of us. We met in a massive hotel suite somewhere in L.A. I’d hoped we’d meet in the cool Warner/Reprise ski-lodge style offices in Burbank. These were still the ‘golden years’ of free-flowing spending, so we met in this posh Hollywood hotel. When I introduced myself to one of the West Coast A&R people, he said “Oh you’re the post-rock guy.” I replied, “I am?” In theory I could sign any kind of artist I wanted, but if they considered me the ‘post-rock guy,’ that was fine by me.
WB Records had had a tumultuous couple of years following a leadership shake-up. There was a strong sense of wanting things to return to normal and to get on with business. The new president, Steven Baker, spent the next two days running through WB’s immense roster of artists.
WB distributed David Byrne’s Luaka Bop record label. Luaka Bop was having success with artists like Cornershop and Geggy Tah. Steven Baker turned to me and said, “Paul, you’re friendly with David. Why don’t you act as the liaison to Luaka Bop.” I was friends with David Byrne? David contributed a song to Red Hot + Blue, but that was before my time at Red Hot. He recently recorded vocals on a track for Offbeat, but I had nothing to do with arranging that, either. Calling us ‘friends’ was a massive overstatement, but I was happy to be useful in any context.
Luaka Bop was run like an eccentric indie label that happened to be distributed by a major. The vibe at Luaka Bop felt familiar, as in chaotic, makeshift, and fun. It was always a good day when I went downtown to hang out in their offices. I got to know Mr. Byrne a little bit, too, at least to the point where I wasn’t completely freaked out in his presence.
Warners had so many indie and alternative guitar-based bands on the roster, way beyond the cool ones I’ve already mentioned. It was hard to see how any of them were going to find a larger audience, not to mention even find support from within the company. If you didn’t have a few key people pushing your album, you were toast before it was even released. I decided to embrace my post-rock guy status and search out new sounds and directions. I had an expense account. If the account had a limit, no one ever told me what it was. I started buying tons of records: electronic groups, DJ-driven projects, and older stuff to fill gaps in my knowledge. Once again, I found a new area of music that was fresh and exciting. I freaking loved it. I traveled to London a lot. My clothes got slightly less baggy.
I was co-producing Red Hot + RIO, a tribute to the bossa nova songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, in 1996. My co-producer was this brilliant Brazilian guy Beco Dranoff. We made a great team, except when my natural enthusiasm and intensity clashed with his more laidback approach.
We chased artists who we thought had a love of Brazilian music, bands like Stereolab, Everything But The Girl, Bjork, and Money Mark. We had a record deal with Antilles/GRP, a division within Universal Music Group. We wanted the album to come out on Verve Records and to look like a classic Verve album. Verve was the iconic label that released the original Getz/Gilberto album and many other bossa nova classics. Our label contacts said Verve was just for jazz reissues. They didn’t want to confuse people at retail. It was a structural thing, so stupid. As a reminder, massive chain record stores still existed then, including Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, Sam Goody, and those sales were everything.
I had grown up a tiny bit since my year with Arista. Clive Davis’ words “It’s great when you have hits” still rang in my head. I was a little more dispassionate in my approach to signing bands. I can’t remember how I heard about them, but I went to see a band called Powerman 5000 at Brownies in the East Village. They were from Boston and played a dynamic heavy and funky style with screamed and rapped vocals. I can’t say I loved it, but I GOT it. I thought they had potential. Their dynamic, riff-heavy songs stuck in my head like Clives’ maxim. I traveled to see them perform in Boston and got to know the band members. The lead singer, Spider One, was Rob Zombie’s younger brother. I thought, Shit, forget it, he’s already got an insider connection. But Spider said he hadn’t talked to his brother in years. My boss heard the potential, too, so we reached out to the band’s lawyer. I went to see them up in Northampton, MA. Backstage after the show, Rob Zombie was there with Guy Oseary, VP of Madonna’s Maverick Records. I guess the bros started talking again. PM5K eventually signed to DreamWorks and put out a series of albums that honed their mix of sci-fi lyrics and heavy action rock. They are still going strong today. Respect! I knew they had potential. I still listen to their song “Car Crash” when I need to get aggro.
Despite not signing PM5K I was lauded for being ‘on top of it.’ That was a good thing, even if it was just a happy accident. Being in the know about hot bands is a huge part of being an A&R at major labels. The A&R staff at WB was full of incredibly knowledgeable music fanatics. It wasn’t just their encyclopedic grasp of music, but also their understanding of all the nuances and history of the music industry. I learned a lot when speaking with any of them.
I felt pressure to create the illusion that my fingers were on the pulse of everything that was happening, everywhere. That I was RIGHT THERE when any new and exciting band emerged. Seeming omniscient as a music scout was a big plus in the pre-internet, pre-algorithm pre-data-driven music business. Paradoxically, it was almost better if you didn’t sign a band, because then you weren’t at risk in case the band flopped. It was hard for me to be cautious like that. I wanted to do things my own way, screw the risks.
Warner Bros renewed my contract for another year, with a slight salary bump. That was sweet. Another deal, with a slight monetary bump, was renewed around the same time. REM signed a new five-album deal with WB, worth $80 million dollars. There was a palpable sigh of relief in the office about the deal being completed. REM were a marquee band who were considered ‘real’ artists as well as multiplatinum successes. The band’s staying at the label added to the sense of continuity, that Warners was still the great label that had been built by Mo Ostin. A few months later REM released their album New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It could stay 1996 forever, as far as I was concerned.
‘Electronica’ was the latest hyped catchphrase being thrown around for bands that were making somewhat electronic based music. Groups like Underworld, Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were beginning to break into the mainstream. There was even an Electronica summer tour. (It failed miserably, but still.) I was trying to sign this London-based group called Skylab (not to be confused with Skylab2000). They contributed a bunch of cool interludes to the Offbeat album and I thought they had the potential for writing great songs. I managed to convince my boss and got a provisional greenlight to strike a deal with them. One problem was they were more of collection of producers than anything resembling a band. Two of the producers, Tycoon Tosh and K.U.D.O., were semi-legendary Japanese producers (under the name Major Force). They didn’t want to be signed to an exclusive artist contract. The only name on the deal would be Matt Ducasse, who was the ostensible leader of Skylab. This was fine with me. I just wanted to close the deal. The problem was the business affairs guy at WB—a staff lawyer—rarely fast-tracked any deals, much less finished them. Stacks of contracts sat on his desk, his sofa and the floor. He was a nice guy but seemed to be drowning. I heard he later went back to school for journalism or creative writing. I imagine he’s happier now.
Matty Skylab would often ask me to find rare records for him. Vinyl that was incredibly rare in England might be slightly less so in the U.S. I started scouring shops around the East Village and downtown NYC. While the internet existed, no one was buying and selling records on it yet. Among others, the records I found for him were: Dorothy Ashby’s Afro-Harping, The Silver Apples’ first two albums on Kapp Records and Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information. All of these albums are fantastic, not just for sampling, but for listening. I bought additional copies of each one to keep for myself.
I kept going and tracked down some of the artists. Simeon Coxe, the leader of the Silver Apples, had been living in Alabama and out of the music business for years. He could not have been more thrilled that a new generation was discovering his music. He put together a new band and started gigging again. He would drive up to NYC from Alabama, sleeping in his van on the way. He was the sweetest guy in the world. I introduced Matt to Simeon and they did a remix together on that first night. Simeon re-sang the lyrics to his song “I Have Known Love” in the stairwell of the Red Hot offices. You can find it here. Matt and Simeon were kindred souls.
Warner Bros Records hired a new president. I met him. We shook hands. I was fired a few weeks later. The ‘last one hired first one fired’ rule held true. When I met him, I should have said ‘Don’t frigging fire me, I’m on the pulse of the new shit.’ At least they had to buy out the rest of my contract. Instead of doing something sensible like buying a car or getting hair plugs, I bought some music production gear. The Skylab deal remained incomplete. Another artist I had grown friendly with was Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to sign with a major label, like WB, but we would talk and just hang out. One time I drove him from Athens, Georgia to Orlando, Florida to pick up a van that ran on vegetable oil. Long story.
Karin Berg, all five feet of her, was an A&R legend at WB. New Order, REM and many other artists loved her. She signed blooming Hüsker Dü! I loved working a few offices away from her. She was so wise and so much fun, never any competition, just encouragement. After the layoffs, the remaining A&R staff had a meeting. Someone mentioned going after Neutral Milk Hotel. Karin told them, “If you wanted to sign them, you shouldn’t have fired Paul.” Thank you, Karin! For a few years after she and I would meet in the West Village and walk to Florent, the classic bistro in the meatpacking district. I felt like I was in the presence of an earthly legend. When she passed away in 2006, there was a memorial tribute at St. Marks Church. Many artists attended, some performed, including Phillip Glass, Bob Mould, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, Marshall Crenshaw, and Laurie Anderson. It was a beautiful night. I’m lucky I got to work with Karin for a couple of years.
Red Hot + RIO came out to great acclaim and sold well. I had a feeling it would be well received. One thing we did was add bossa nova flavored interludes between some tracks. It was something I started doing on Offbeat. Despite making compilations, I also kind of hated them and wanted them to be a more cohesive listening experience. Of course, it helped that there were a bunch of fantastic songs on RIO.
One of my favorites was Everything But The Girl’s reinterpretation of “Corcovado.” There was a Goldie remix of a “Maracatu Atomico” a Gilberto Gil cover by the innovative Brazilian band Chico Science & Nação Zumbi. Goldie’s remix sounded exactly how you’d hope a Goldie remix would sound like in 1997—full on drum and bass. It sounded absolutely nothing like the original version. I loved it, but it was too much for Beco. He thought Chico and the band would be let down. He was probably right. Shortly after this Chico was tragically killed in a car accident. A brilliant and innovative artist gone too soon. Goldie ended up releasing the song on his Saturnz Return album in 1998. He called the song “Chico-Death of a Rockstar.” Artists understand.
I was grateful to be able to continue producing Red Hot projects during my desultory run as a major label A&R person. I loved engaging with artists and inviting them to record music for thematic albums that were different from their usual thing. As you can imagine it was amazing to have Tracey Thorn (EBTG) tell us that she taught herself Portuguese at age 13 so she could sing “Corcovado” in the original lyrics. We had a feeling she and Ben Watt were into classic Brazilian music. It’s nice to have your musical instincts confirmed. It’s a thousand times better than pretending to be on the pulse of everything.
In hindsight, getting laid off when I did was a good thing. Over the next two years, more and more people were let go. Friends who still worked there said it turned into a morgue, or even worse, a nearly empty morgue. In 1998 I started work on Red Hot + RIOT, a tribute to the music and spirit of Fela Kuti. It was, by far, the most exciting and challenging record I’ve produced.
RIOT is a 76-minute thematic suite of music that flows from one track to the next. I envisioned it as paying equal homage to Fela’s lyrics and his grooves. It mixed rap and dance music, organic Afrobeat met electronic broken beats. It featured a who’s who of incredible artists: Questlove, D’Angelo, Femi Kuti, Erykah Badu, Nile Rogers, Jorge Ben, Sade, Common, Baaba Maal, Macy Gray, MeShell Ndegeocello, Tony Allen, dead prez, Talib Kweli, Kelis, Manu Dibango, Les Nubians, and many more. I’d come a long way from the kid who ran around downtown NYC working three jobs while trying to get No Alternative off the ground. RIOT was really the culmination of all my producing experience during the ’90s.
Of course, if I had signed a band or two at Arista or WB and watch them grow and succeed, that would have been fantastic, too, but it didn’t work out that way. Had I stayed in Prague and figured out a life there for myself, that might have been cool, too, but I’m glad I didn’t. I love working in music. In my work on the Red Hot series, I got to travel to Brazil, Lagos, Nigeria, Durban, South Africa, and all over Europe. While I stumbled in my early attempts to travel, I made up for that when I got to travel with a sense of purpose through my love of music and producing. Also, most of the people I knew who worked in A&R people in the 1990s moved on from it. It’s a challenging job. It’s great when you have hits, but hits don’t come easy.
Paul Heck is a music producer, known for No Alternative, Red Hot + RIO, Red Hot + RIOT, Dark Was The Night, and compilations for Shuggie Otis, Fela Kuti, and Tim Maia. His debut album with Jujulele came out in February 2023.
It's so wonderful to see this piece published. What an amazing journey!