Industry Profile: Steven Schnur
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Steven Schnur, worldwide executive and president, EA Music Group for Electronic Arts.
Games are one of the most effective paths for emerging music acts to establish and increase their audience.
At the forefront of the video game music industry for over a decade is Steven Schnur who joined Electronic Arts in 2001.
Today, as worldwide executive and president, EA Music Group in West Los Angeles, Schnur is responsible for the creation and development of music for EA.
EA develops and publishes games under several imprints, including EA Sports titles, Madden NFL, FIFA Soccer, NHL, NCAA Football, SSX and NBA Jam.
Other EA labels produce such celebrated franchises as Battlefield, Need for Speed, The Sims, Medal of Honor, Command & Conquer, Dead Space, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Army of Two.
Schnur is renowned for championing independent, and unsigned artists to include in EA’s games.
He was one of the earliest champions of 30 Seconds to Mars, Franz Ferdinand, Jet, Ozomatli, , Bloc Party, Avenged Sevenfold, Damian Marley, Arctic Monkeys, Kings Of Leon, K'naan, Yonderboi, MGMT, and the Ting Tings.
Schnur also brought such celebrated film and TV composers as Mike Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, Mark Mothersbaugh, Paul Oakenfold, Bill Conti (Rocky), Chris Lennertz, Sean Callery, Christopher Young, Tyler Bates, Steve Jablonsky, John Debney, Inon Zur, and Ramin Djawadi into the gaming music fold.
In 2005, Schnur launched EA Recordings, a digital record label focused on the distribution of EA's scores and compositions.
As president of Artwerk Music Group, in which EA has partnered with Nettwerk Music Group since 2008, Schnur has overseen the breakthroughs of Matt And Kim, Junkie XL, Airbourne, Datarock, Ladytron, and Chromeo.
Schnur is also the creator and executive producer of the E! Global network show "Opening Act" that currently appears in over 90 countries around the world.
On May, 6th, 2013, Electronic Arts was named as the exclusive provider of games based on the Star Wars series.
Electronic Arts releases about 30 video game titles per year?
If I had to guess, yeah, that’s about right. Thirty titles a year. Many of which are completely score-driven; many of which, particularly the sports titles, are more licensed music-driven. We use those in a much different fashion. That’s the other side of my love (of music). It gives me the ability to have millions of kids to play FIFA, NHL or Madden Football (games) to turn them onto 20, 30 or 40 bands that they have never heard of and which will change their lives.
How are you gearing up for the production of the Star Wars series?
I need a composer for Star Wars (laughing). How wonderful and challenging is that? You don’t shop that (job). You take it very seriously. That’s how I am dealing with it.
Are there in-house teams competing to develop a Star Wars game?
That’s a great question. The answer is no. We pretty well know who makes the best games for particular genres in the organization based on success. If it’s a driving game, you certainly go to Criterion (Games) in the UK, who make Need for Speed and Burnout. If it’s an action game, you go to DICE (EA Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment) in Sweden, which makes Battlefield. We have had multiple teams making multiple games for the same genre. One team always ends up becoming superior because of the talent. So now, the answer becomes pretty obvious.
John Williams’ music for the “Star Wars” film series is iconic. How can you move or stretch it in a new game?
You don’t stretch it. We are also involved in the “Star Wars” multi-player game (Star Wars MMO The Old Republic). We didn’t do it. It was Lucas (LucasArts game development division) who did it, but we were involved with it. They had an in-house doing the music. But at the end of the day, it’s the film (music). I called Michael Giacchino, a friend of mine, when Disney did the deal (last year) with LucasArts. Knowing his relationship with (“Star Wars” director) J.J. Abrams, I asked, “So are you going to be the new composer for ‘Star Wars,’” and we laughed about it.
The answer is how can anybody be the new composer for Star Wars? (For such a game) you have to be very respectful of what’s in there. Will John William score the whole game? I doubt that, but we will emphasize his theme, and make sure everything pays homage to him. Of course, you can’t do anything else. You can’t bring in some newbie who does some action thing on TV as the Star Wars composer. We have something here that is permanently ingrained in all our musical minds for decades, and we have to pay homage to it.
Most people don’t understand the quantity of music in a game today.
It’s a 100+ minutes for the average score. The composer comes on (the project) usually a year in advance. Usually, the composer is part of the production crew as opposed to coming in post (production). Right now, I have a guy starting this month (July) for a game that will come out at the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015.
Generally, the composer must come up with music that drives the game while enhancing the gaming experience. They have to come up with music that creates greater game play, and reminds players how great their gaming experience was.
Well, yes. I use the word emotion, but let’s call it great game play. Whether it’s an action film, where you have an adrenaline-driven environment in which you are shooting up an entire enemy troop; or whether you are a paratrooper (military parachutist) dropping out (of a plane), and you call your family back in America, and it’s the last time you are going to see them.
There are these two different emotions. Both occur (in games).
When most people think of games, they think of shooters, Call of Duty, and Battlefield shoot-ups. But how about when you are scoring The Sims where you are creating life? You are creating people getting up, going to work and this and that. That’s a little more quirky. It’s a little more intelligent at times. What about Medal of Honor? That’s Stephen Spielberg. That goes back to his “Saving Private Ryan” (1998 film). It’s a very emotional environment. So all of above (for the emotions). I’m agreeing with you, but your perspective on it might be different than mine (as players). Therefore that composer has the ability to write it all. The biggest composers of the world who have worked with us love that freedom.
Since you started working at EA in 2001, you have created a home not only for indie bands, but also for film and television composers. The Hollywood guys. Game companies used to have staffers doing the music. Was there any trepidation from the Hollywood composers about being involved with games?
There was trepidation on both sides of the fence. There was trepidation from the Hollywood film and television composer community for sure. But there was also a significant hesitation on the part of the game companies.
I have been at EA for 12 years now, and I can tell you that initially I was told by Don Mattrick (President of Worldwide Studios for Electronic Arts), one of the guys who hired me, that I’d know I had succeeded at EA when all of the in-house audio guys hated my guts.
[Zynga has confirmed in a press release that former Microsoft Entertainment and Devices boss Don Mattrick has been named Chief Executive Officer of the PC software company. He will also sit on Zynga's Board of Directors.]
What was going on then was that there was a slew of audio guys that were employees in charge of what the soundscape was of the game. Music was such an afterthought in the process. For the most part. There were some exceptions but, for the most part, it was such an afterthought that a lot of guys would say, “Nobody’s looking. I’m a guy who’s a musician and didn’t end up becoming a professional musician, I’m just going to put my own musicianship here.”
So there was a bunch of employee-created scores that over decades, previous to me ever getting there, created the “sound” of video games; that Casio/Good Humor truck music of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Even when there was an attempt to go bigger and bigger (with music scores), there were a slew of guys--audio employees--who used the real estate to exhibit their talent or, sometimes, their lack of talent. Because music was such an afterthought in the process, it was okay. It was good enough so to speak.
When I first got here, I used to equate it (the scoring practice in games) to the absurd example of, “Could you imagine if you worked at Paramount Pictures, and we finished shooting ‘Mission Impossible’ or whatever movie, and 6 or 8 weeks before release, we looked at each other and said, “Larry, holy shit. We didn’t put any music in the game, yet. Let’s go, and get John the gaffer. He plays guitar. Let’s just see if he can put something together.”
The film industry went down a similar pathway. First with in-house composers followed by studios picking up cheap master recordings. For decades, soundtracks were thrown together.
Let’s then compare them both (music in film and games) being in their relative infancy stages. Fair enough. But at the end of the day, the concept (of music in games) was at the beginning; and, besides the licensing, the soundtrack concept was also in its infancy.
When we see a film, we acknowledge the fact that if we remove the music from the film, if it’s a good underscore, that a lot of the emotional impact of that film will go away. Could you do that with a computer-generated game while sitting at home on your living room couch? Myself and other people were convinced that the answer was “absolutely yes.” That proves true today.
Game soundtracks have grown from rudimentary beeps delivered by home computers and consoles. Today's video game scores match the quality of Hollywood films and feature music from popular and emerging new artists. A considerable evolution over two decades.
There were also these other slew of guys out there--who still remain by the way--who consider themselves video game composers. I cannot understand that concept. What makes somebody a good video game composer? They are just a good, average, or a bad composer. I think what they separated themselves with is their ability to understand the technology, and to write against the technology. Some of them are excellent. The other half, fail to remember the fact that a great theme or an amazing emotional underscore can change your entire experience. Technology cannot be the driving factor (in a game). The music, the theme, and the orchestration are the driving factor. Then you have to have the technology, the understanding of the technology, to drive that.
A good composer for games has to have an understanding of what they are composing is not linear.
Well, this is what finally got that Hollywood community. One of the first guys that we started working with was Michael Giacchino. This was pre-TV, “Lost,” “Alias,” pre-Pixar Films etc. and with a bunch of other guys that I felt like that I was A&Ring, but for composers. At first, the concept, you alluded to, was to go and hire Brian Tyler who works for me now all of the time.
Composer/orchestrator Hans Zimmer would have been another obvious choice at the time.
He would have been an obvious one for sure, but the attitude (from the gaming industry) was, “Why do we need somebody like that? Why do we need to pay someone like that?”
Non-linear scores are challenging, but also provide a composer with tremendous creative freedom.
That is the key. When we finally started getting the guys who were doing film and TV—composers—not video game composers—but great composers period, the key was that they understood that the freedom to write against a story board and possibilities, multiple possibilities—versus to write and compose in post against something that has already been shot. To them that was an enormous musical freedom.
Can you imagine—and you can—the fact that of instead of having the lead character, Brad Pitt or whoever on the screen as you are writing your music running in an action film with a gun in their hands, that you have to compose against what you and everybody else will see?
You have to take into account that the first person (the composer)--in many cases--is one of 10 million individuals who are going to be sitting on their couch (viewing a game). They don’t even know what the character is or how they think or what they feel. They don’t know what they are going to do. Whether they are going to go left, right or straight. They don’t know. So they have to write in a non-linear fashion but with every possibility they have to come up with the emotional soundscape against that possibility.
Meanwhile, as head of EA Music Group, you are able to revisit your past skills as a record label A&R head and MTV programmer.
I took it (music placement) from those MTV days because, frankly, this job was a defiant reaction toward the frustration that I had working at Capitol Records in 2001. I was signing bands, and I was making records--good records--and it was up to one or two radio programmers to decide whether or not anybody was going to hear them or not. The rest of the country looked to one or two guys. It frustrated the living hell out of me.
It was up to a promo guy to decide whether it was going to be a priority.
This job came to me through Terry McBride (co-founder/CEO, Nettwerk Music Group). At the time we were very close with Sarah McLachlan and other things at Capitol. This (job) was my ability to say, “Fuck all that! I am going to find 30 bands a year that I say are going to change a 14 or 16–year-olds life. I don’t have to be involved with making those records. I’m just going to go find these acts. If it (the track) ends up like KROQ or Z100 or whatever those radio stations may be then kids say, “I heard it on Madden six months ago.”
Madden NFL 2006 featured Avenged Sevenfold, Fall Out Boy and the All American Rejects and the tracks that went to iTunes. You bypassed the traditional label/radio system.
Yes, It’s done really well. There’s not an event that I ever been to or spoken at where there are college or high school kids, and I’m speaking to them asking, “How many of you play games?” that not every hand goes up. “How many of you ever discovered a band through a game?” And every one of those hands goes up and they start throwing out the names of games: FIFA 2006, and NHL 2009. It’s unbelievable. They start throwing the bands at me. That’s really what matters at the end of the day. It took many of the record companies a long, long long time to understand the value of that placement.
Labels likely considered music placement in games as being background. However, play a game 150 to 250 times, you get to know the music.
You get to know the music really, really well. Until it’s practically tattooed in your brain. Our win (as a game developer) is that it’s forever, and it’s (the experience) associated with that title. Also when radio plays it (the track) no matter how many months later, we win from the association. Radio also wins.
Did radio programmers embrace the concept of early placement of music in games?
Radio was a little defiant to me at first, but we have become partners with radio over the years. They acknowledge that we are not competitors. That we warm up the market pretty damn well. Lenny Beer (Editor in Chief Hits Magazine) says it all the time about 30 Seconds to Mars. That because of the placement we gave them it (their music) was testing almost 100% familiar even before KROQ played the band.
Katy Perry being featured in The Sims as well.
Katy Perry too. I think that a lot of radio guys, a lot of radio consultants, including Fred Jacobs (pres. Jacobs Media) Jeff Pollock (CEO of Global Media & Entertainment, Pollack Media Group) started coming around, and going, “How do we partner with you? How do we understand what you are going to put in games this year so we can kind of keep an eye. That those are the songs and artists that we will start seeing call-out on, research on, requests on?” We’ve created quite a bond with them (radio programmers) by now. The first couple of years were rough. They did look at us as competitors. That really stemmed from the record labels because they sort of viewed us as competitors. “How can we give a record to you early-- even if nobody has ever heard of the band--before we send to a radio station?”
Record companies then would prefer to give you a hit or an established track. Anything that would drive up their licensing fee.
Correct. We license music.
Better to come back to you with Franz Ferdinand once the band has broken.
Did you dig that up about Franz Ferdinand because I was about to tell you a story about Franz Ferdinand?
That’s weird because I was about to tell you a story about Franz Ferdinand. A true story. I heard Franz Ferdinand, and I loved it. I don’t know how many years ago it was, We licensed them for FIFA or Madden. Nobody had ever heard of them. We put the license request in, and the guy from the label group called us up, and said, “How can we take this?” Well, we then had a basic new “baby band” fee that all of the label groups and publishers are sort of using. I said, “Well it’s a new baby band.” But he said, “Yeah, but this is going to be a hit.” I said, “Anyone is going to charge me more because it’s going to be a hit, you’ve got balls the size of China. I am willing to be here at the beginning, and pay you money. You now want to charge me triple (the licensing) because it’s going to be a hit? Wow, that’s weird.”
By that time, labels were seeing the erosion of music sales at retail and were seeking additional revenue. I remain a fan of record labels but many are handicapped because they are operating with one-quarter of the staff they had a decade ago.
The truth, further to what you are saying, is that the pressure is now on the (label) sync department. Unfortunately, as many people who run sync departments for labels will tell you, film and television syncs are starting to go down. The pressure is tremendous on them (label sync departments) because they were expected over the last X amount of years to make up for the fall of revenue derived from record sales. Yet there are less films and licenses and when they are they (film companies) are paying a little less. TV has been noted for continually wanting to pay zero (for licensing music).
So there’s tremendous pressure there, and you are right (about labels operating) with a quarter of the staff, and there’s that level of pressure on these people. It’s just seems to be getting worse before it gets better again. That said, I agree with you 110%. I am also a fan of the record companies because the record companies provide a service for a certain type of artists that nobody can. It’s beyond being the cynicism of people saying “They provide the bank.” It’s beyond that. They do have the ability to expose things.
And the majors still have the ability to break acts internationally.
Yes. On a global level as well. There are certain bands that I would advise to immediately sign to a major label and, obviously, there are some that don’t need it. There are heroes of mine right now—and they are also friends—Daniel Glass (CEO/Founder Glassnote Records) and (Big Machine Label Group president/CEO) Scott Borchetta—who are proving that you don’t have to go through that (traditional) system and be equally as successful.
I remain fans of them (record companies) and, yet, I’m happy every time I see sparks of newfound revenue and success coming because I truly hope that we are on the upswing again. However, the (music) business is looking considerably different. I think that the next step, frankly, is not just what everybody is talking about with streaming and the potential revenue that could come from that hopefully, but also from the fact that we’ve have got to finally come to the realization that we have to put out music as often as possible, and not get stuck to this album configuration.
In 2008, EA partnered with Nettwerk One Music in the publishing venture Artwerk Music Group which developed Matt And Kim, Airbourne, Junkie XL, Datarock, Ladytron, and Chromeo.
Yes, we are still tied in with Nettwerk, and we have Chromeo, Ladytron, and Airbourne, which just put out a new album. Yes Nettwerk is still my partner. Terry McBride has been there for me for 20 years. He’s been my friend and whether he has been in music or yoga or whatever, I’m a loyal motherfucker. We still have that with him, and we still have other businesses with him. They distribute all of our soundtracks. It’s all digital. We’ve grown quite a business with them. I can’t tell you completely that Electronic Arts understands what it means to be in those businesses. These are not core businesses to a video game company.
People still don’t understand what music publishing is, let alone the fact that the assets between Nettwerk and us have grown considerably. Lord knows where they are going to end up, knock on wood, in five years.
In essence, was the attitude that the music publishing is available from new bands, why not be in the publishing business as well?
What happened was that we were consistently finding young bands. We were licensing it (music) from their publishers or (direct) from those who didn’t have publishing. A year later, we’d come back to license the same band that broke-- and we had a lot to do with it--and we’d pay triple or quadruple for the license. I thought to myself, “Wait a second, we should still pay them, but we should be looking at the publishing.”
There were then accusations flying around (the music industry) that, “This is way of getting free music.”
The truth is that I have never done that. The truth is that we paid them (acts) an “equal/considerable” amount of an EMI, Warner Chappell or Sony at the time would pay them. We found bands that we thought would reach gamers and go across our entire portfolio of games. We’d get that if we gave the band a considerable advance, and paid them the sync rights—the publishing right to sync them into a game. I think it’s smart, frankly. If it (the music) had the reach, and the impact that we saw with so many other bands, then advertising, television and film would come along and the value of the copyright would be considerably more.
We found that from Airbourne who had been dropped from Capitol Records because they sounded too much like AC/DC. My reaction was, “My gawd that is the reason that I should sign them to a publishing deal.” A 14 year-old-kid doesn’t know AC/DC from Airbourne. He just loves the sound ,and he’s going to play Madden Football, and if he hears it later in “Monday Night Football” or hears it in a “Hangover 2” type of film, it’s rock to them.
Guess what? It all came true (the value of the copyrights) because we put them so many game across the portfolio. The first thing that happened was that all of the sports television networks started licensing (them) from us. Then we started getting all of those films that didn’t want to pay them the money they would have had to pay AC/DC. That’s the reason why. Airbourne is still a staple in the WWF.
Within months with Matt And Kim, we had a massive Bacardi commercial (a Bacardi Mojito commercial featuring "Daylight"). It paid back the advance three or four times over.
So I just consider that (music publishing) to be smart business. We invested in some of the bands that we put in games. Instead of licensing other bands we said, “Let’s just see once or twice or three times a year that we can invest.” That’s what we did. The bands made money. We made money. Everybody went home happy.
Speaking about developing acts, your E! Global network show "Opening Act" is now seen in over 90 countries.
Pretty good, right? This is my sandbox. My personal sandbox. I work for a gigantic corporation. The truth is that anyone who works for a giant corporation—not just EA—understands the politics and the environment of red tape where sometimes it takes time to get things done.
All of us who are creative people, we need to get our jollies off in some shape or form.
I constantly produce records, and write songs. I had this top band Blush from Asia (a 5-member pop music girl group comprised members from the Philippines, India, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea. That was my jollies, and we did that. I produced the first couple of tracks. I laughed with my production partner Darrell Brown because we had two #1 dance club hits and I said to him, “Darrell I don’t think I have ever been to gay club, and I’m #1 there. Go get ‘em.”
So I have all these sandboxes.
(“Opening Act" partner) Nigel Lythgoe is a friend of mine. We had this (talent program) idea. If you notice there’s a commonality between all of that. The commonality is my obsession with the fact that I wanted to give these young bands the opportunity to be in front of a big audience. I was sick and tired of these reality shows where it was all about, “You suck!” I have never experienced that (type of reaction). I have always experienced people who believe in young artists, and get off when they all of a sudden see an artist play a big stage, and see how the audience responds. I wanted to see if we could turn that into a show.
In the midst of America’s debate on gun violence following the Newtown shooting last year, the National Rifle Assn. took aim at video games to explain gun violence. EA became the first gaming company to sever ties with gun manufacturers. Is there a case to be made that gaming manufacturers should dial back game violence a bit?
Is there a case to be made? I have never been asked this question before because it’s not my ground (jurisdiction at EA).
[One week after 20 schoolchildren and 6 adults were killed in the Newtown shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, the National Rifle Association’s Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre called the video game industry "a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people."]
But you do provide music for action games.
I’m not disagreeing with you. My feeling, frankly thinking out loud, is that for every horrific story that we hear where the blame gets laid on some interactive product that there is millions of other situations where that doesn’t happen. How many Call of Duty, Battlefield etc. games have been sold and, if one or two horrific events happen, they blame it on the game? The most important thing is—and I don’t mean to skirt the issue—but if we look back historically all of the forms of entertainment that have been blamed, including Elvis Presley shaking his damned pelvis…
You can go back further with classical music, and even books inciting riots.
Books are a great example. I think that when anything is new, and absorbs the time and the obsession of the younger generation, it is the first thing that older generations will blame when something dysfunctional or horrific event occurs. I think that video games are blamed for much bigger problems going on. It’s the easiest thing to blame now. The last thing you talk about is guns in the house. The last thing you talk about is parenting. The last thing you talk about is the state of the world and parents not being at home and kids being left alone. The first things you do is, “My gawd, it’s because of the video games that they are playing.” By the way, maybe, there is one kid that got the idea. There is, maybe, one kid that has the idea she’s going to be looser than she normally would because she watched Elvis shake his pelvis. But at the end of the day I think that we are blaming games because that’s the trendiest thing to do now. What are we going to blame in 10 years from now. I don’t know. Maybe, it will be something else.
I’m going to take a stab and say that you are Jewish.
A wild stab. Go for it.
You have taken strong issue with Roger Waters’ call for a cultural boycott of Israel.
Three years ago, I went to Israel, and Elton John came out onstage, and said, “They are not going to stop me from coming here, baby…. Musicians should not cherry pick their conscience.” This was two or three weeks after the Pixies, Elvis Costello etc. canceled because of the “flotilla Incident.”
[In 2010, Elton John performed in Tel Aviv despite pressure from pro-Palestinian activists, and fellow artists to boycott Israel following the flotilla debacle off the coast of Gaza. The British icon swiped at those artists, including Elvis Costello, Santana, the Pixies, and Devendra Banhart, who had bailed on concerts In Israel in previous weeks.
“Shalom, we are so happy to be back here. Ain't nothing gonna stop us from coming, baby," John told the audience, raising his fist in the air.]
I literally said to myself that night, “Why is music being used by hundreds of organizations out there—mostly socially driven—and very intelligent people are using music and musicians and their social media fan bases to turn their fans into becoming voices when the artist announces that he or she is going to play Israel? Why don’t we take the opposite approach?
I still laugh at Elvis Costello. There must not be a lot of pillow talk at his house because I loved how (his wife) Diana Krall played in Israel a month or two later. I’m just saying. I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan, but I just found that funny.
[On Aug. 4, 2010, Diana Krall performed in Israel, despite the fact that her husband, performer Elvis Costello, had chosen not to do so two month earlier “for reasons of conscience.”]
Lady Gaga, Will.I.Am, Paul McCartney, Linkin Park, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Macy Gray, Alicia Keys and others have since performed in Israel.
We have done it (touring in Israel) with success. The Red Hot Chili Peppers last year played Beirut, and then they played Tel Aviv. We have been working with this concept for quite some time. Hopefully, it will come true with Perry Farrell and other doing the same.
[Former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters is among a number of voices urging artists to boycott Israel.
In a Facebook post, he wrote, "Please join me in a cultural boycott of Israel until such time as the Israeli Government ceases its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and reverses its Illegal program of settlement building, both of which, it is widely agreed, constitute insurmountable impediments to any peaceful solution for either the Palestinian or the Israeli people. Peace for them both is our goal. Not to talk is not an option."
Schnur is an advisory board member and co-founder of Creative Community For Peace, a group of international music and film executives, agents, attorneys and artists seeking to use a wide range of measures to bolster the resolve of artists to perform in or travel to Israel.
The organization’s mission statement says, in part, "We may not all share the same politics or the same opinion on the best path to peace in the Middle East. But we do agree that singling out Israel, the only democracy in the region, as a target of cultural boycotts while ignoring the now-recognized human rights issues of her neighbors will not further peace."]
Roger Waters has asserted that Israel is an apartheid state.
The only thing I get pretty emotional about is the word that has been chosen to be used online to the fans of various acts, including Roger Waters, which is apartheid. If you are a black musician hearing the word apartheid, and you have never been to Israel, and if you are Alicia Keys or some musician like that, and you hear that and you have never been there, and you don’t understand what happening in Israel, and your natural reaction is “Apartheid, I can’t be a part of that.”
I have been to Israel dozens of times. There’s no line to the left for Arabs, and line to the right for Israelis. There are Arabs in the government. I’ll tell you the thing that surprises artists is that people we have worked with to work with their plan and insure that they go there, Linkin Park to the Chili Peppers, to Macy Gray to Alicia Keys on and on—when they get there they realize the equality between men and women. They realize gay rights. This year Miss Israel is a black woman (21-year-old Yityish Aynaw) from Ethiopia.
You studied music and played in bands in high school and then worked as an intern at MTV while at university?
I was an intern at MTV from NYU (New York University) where I was studying music business and technology. I grew up in Scotch Plains, New Jersey which is about 20 miles west of New York City. From when I was 7-years-old to graduating high school, I was studying to be a composer, and a conductor. I play guitar, but I also self-taught myself some piano.
I used to study in Carnegie Hall every week with this little old man. He must have been in his ‘80s back then, (professor) Rudolph Schramm ( a radio pioneer, co-founder of the National Symphony Orchestra, and the former head of the NBC staff orchestra.)
[Legendary guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who has played with Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Bryan Ferry and Jackson Browne, gives much credit for his early training on guitar to professor Rudolph Schramm. Interestingly, Schramm tried to talk Wachtel into taking piano lessons instead, but Wachtel was intent on playing guitar. So Schramm agreed to give him guitar lessons three times a week.]
You played in several rock bands.
High school rock bands. I was the 12-year-old who was in rock bands with 17-year-olds. I wasn’t like a normal kid who went out and you played ball. I didn’t understand—and I still don’t understand—the fun behind that. I would take songs, particularly bands that had elements of jazz instrumentation and blues instrumentation, like Three Dog Night, and Chicago, and I would take their songs apart and put them back together, and re-arrange them. To me, that was the greatest thing in the world. Blood, Sweat & Tears. Holy crap! I never heard that element in rock and roll.
What happened to your music career aspirations?
My Jewish grandparents pulled me aside when I was 17 and graduating high school saying, “This is a nice hobby you have. Now you have two choices.” And you know what they are. Be a doctor or a lawyer, right? I went to USC (University of Southern California in Los Angeles) where I lied (about what I wanted to do). I was really studying music but and told them I was getting ready for a law degree some day. I hated California at the time. I think I had met the notorious “Biffy and Skippy” (beach nerds featured in the local TV soap opera "The Adventures of Biff & Skippy"). I thought it was a stereotype. I didn’t think that people like that existed.
Your break in the music industry came by landing a job at MTV working alongside Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha….
Martha Quinn. She and I are still friends. So much came out of that (job). It was one of the last internships available. Nobody wanted us. It was early. My internship was in the research department, where I was supposed to do call-outs. I showed up at 9 A.M. But 12’oclock I had met Les Garland who ran programming. By 1 o’clock, I was his intern in programming. By day two, he was bringing me into the program meetings. I became the kid with the opinion. It was great. That’s where I started getting my (music industry) relationships
Inevitably, the MTV job got me to Elektra Records and then to Chrysalis Records in 1990. I returned to Elektra in 1991. I got a call from Cliff Burnstein (at Q Prime Management), Lars Ulrich from Metallica and Bob Krasnow, who ran Elektra then. I had worked on every Metallica record since 1985. It was tough working Metallica. Nobody wanted to hear from Metallica except for, maybe, 7 radio stations in the country. They played me the “Black” album. I quit Chrysalis, and went back to Elektra because of that album. They said, “You worked your ass off for five years. Do you really want to miss this album?” I went back because of the one album.
You worked for several labels afterwards.
I went to work for Arista New York from ’92 to ’96. Then Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan hired me for Arista Nashville in 1996. That’s when I started Arista Austin but I based that in Nashville. In ’99, I got a call asking if I wanted to be one of the people running A&R at Capitol Records in L.A. Growing up, and seeing that logo…..well.
What buzz did you first get going into the Capitol Studios in Hollywood?
Holy shit. It’s the same buzz I get when I go into it now. We cut stuff there all of the time. I get the same feeling. It’s not like it’s a museum because “museum” implies that you are looking at something. I feel it (the history) in the place. It’s incredible how the place resonates.
Before EA, you worked briefly as music supervisor at actress Sandra Bullock's production company, Fortis Films. How did that come about?
When I was at Capitol, I was getting a bit frustrated. Basically, they shut down the A&R department. We were told to stop signing. That’s when they put out the Beatles’ “1” album. It was the most profitable year in Capitol Record’s history because we didn’t spend money, and we made money on something that didn’t cost a lot to pull together. Not a good long term move in my opinion but that was the thinking.
You were friends with Sandra Bullock?
She had reached out to me previously because she was obsessed with a musician called Bob Schneider. She asked me to see him in Austin, Texas. Once we got close, and talked about Bob, and this and that, she said, “I just did a movie—she started producing movies for Fortis. The first one there was “Gun Shy” (2000). She said, “Will you look at the music?” I did. Then I went to Roy Lott, who ran Capitol at the time, and said, “I’m going to do this (music supervision job) with her.” I lucked out because we had “Miss Congeniality” that year. I wrote a ton of cues for that movie.
The combination of (experience in) A&R, music producer, orchestration, conductor stuff, and the music supervision stuff I got from her is the reason that EA hired me. Sandra and I remain the greatest of friends.
The entertainment business is about building such relationships.
Honesty, integrity and relationships. You and I have the well-earned reputations of being honest and having integrity. I would never ever think about setting out to screw or hurt somebody. I believe that relationships are long-term, and they are honest. That’s the key to longevity in this business. I have seen a lot of guys come and go—as you have---because they come in thinking that they are going to fix it all, and they think that they are smarter than the rest of us. The truth is that we are all in this together. And we are all smart. The arrogance is what kills you. I have worked for the best of them, and I’ve learned. And I’ve learned that integrity is what will drive everything.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide”