This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Adam Lewis, co-founder, Planetary Group.
Adam Lewis collects air miles the way the rest of us collect pay slips.
The irascible veteran industry player fronts Planetary Group, an artist development and promotions firm, currently headquartered in Los Angeles with a satellite office in Boston.
Planetary Groupís specialty is enabling emerging, mostly independent artists to be discovered by North American music industry gatekeepers.
As a result, the well-traveled Lewis is continually seeking out bands from overseas that may impact in the U.S. and Canada.
Planetary Group offers national campaigns for releases, tour press to alert media to shows, and dedicated campaigns geared toward social media and blogs. It will also devise a national campaign targeting college radio, AAA, non-commercial, and commercial radioís specialty programs.
Over two decades, Lewis has worked with over 2,000 acts, including Courtney Barnett, the Jezabels, the Decemberists, Peter, Bjorn & John, Bloc Party, Apples In Stereo, Kings Of Leon, Fitz & the Tantrums, Orwells, Guided By Voices, and Portugal, The Man.
As well, Lewis handles all publicity, promotion and media buying for Great Northeast Productions throughout New England,
Upon graduating from Franklin Pierce University in southern New Hampshire, the college radio programmer went on to work at Concert Ideas in Woodstock, New York. Then Lewis was appointed the northeast sales and promotion manager for TVT Records before co-founding Planetary Group with Chris Davies in 1996.
Did you really rack up 160,000 air miles for travel in 2015?
Oh yeah, I do that every year. I was at 49 countries in 2015. By the end of the holidays, I was up to 53 countries. Iíve just been to Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and the Falkland Islands.
What type of business adds to that level of travel?
A couple of trips to Australia in a year, and that will add it up. I do come back to Boston pretty regularly (from Los Angeles). But I do travel to a lot of festivals whether they are showcase or consumer festivals around the world. I like to travel, and I like to discover bands, and I like to discover them live. I like to go to places that are a little bit off the beaten track for most of the showcase events.
What do you consider to be off the beaten track?
Well, I go to the Tallinn Music Week in Estonia. I go to the Exit Festival in Serbia. I try to add in something new every year. I love going to festivals in new places. I went to Waves in Austria last year,r which is also in Slovakia which I went to. I am hoping to get to the G! Festival in the Faroe Islands in the next year or so. I have been to Iceland Airwaves probably 7 times. Itís a fantastic event.
Are local organizations or governments bringing you in, or are you going on your own coin?
Both. Some will bring me in; some will split costs; and in some cases I will go on my own coin. It depends on the market, and if I think that I can find some talent that makes sense for the U.S. market. But I think that you have to get out of your office, and see artists perform as much as you can.
Considering all this traveling, I have to ask, are you married?
Were you married?
No. I get asked the question a lot.
What staff works at Planetary Group?
I have 9 people, all in LA.
The field of consulting for bands has exploded greatly in recent years due to international music markets trying to expand, and lay-offs with the major labels in the U.S.
There are definitely a lot of former major label folks who have their own consulting firms. A lot of them donít seem to last that long. As soon as they have the opportunity to go back to a label, most of them do.
Many of the former major label people have difficulty adapting to being a freelancer continually seeking favors.
I am a freelancer. I have to make sure that we are always finding exciting things to work on. Not only to work with great bands, but to keep the lights on, right? That takes a certain type of entrepreneurial person -- a person used to hunting and gathering. I think itís a mentality thing. A lot of major label folks just arenít built for that anymore. They donít have that desire. I live and breathe this. I am working pretty much 24/7. I am always on the look out for exciting new bands.
A decade ago, a band could be discovered at CMJ or South By South West, but the internet, and summer festivals have taken over as the places to discover bands. Has that lessened the impact of conferences? After all, foreign export offices sent 213 international bands from 34 countries to CMJ last year.
I should, however, point out that the Taiwanese delegation estimated that between visas, accommodations and other expenses, it cost about $20,000 to bring three acts to CMJ. IMX, Icelandís music export office, spent an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 for three acts.
I think that a lot of countries and export offices do it the wrong way. The Taiwanese and Iceland showcases would be a prime example of that because the artists hadnít done any legwork prior. The artists that do well at CMJ are artists that have seeded the market ahead of time.
That would be true for South By South West as well.
Sure, of course. But you probably shouldnít be starting any band at South By South West. You should have a story going on beforehand. What people forget about CMJ, especially at the international level and itís something that CMJ could be doing a better job of explaining, is that itís a radio conference. Seventy percent of the people there work in radio. They are college radio music directors and DJs and they are going to see bands showcase that already have their records at the format. They have been playing their records at college radio for six weeks or six months prior.
The bands then already have a relationship at college radio, even itís one starting to build. Itís about people telling their friends about this great band theyíve discovered
Yes. Thatís what you want. College radio is 300 islands across the country spreading the word to their friends. If you can get those people talking about your act ahead of time, then they are going to come to the show, and you are going to play in front of more than 20 people. You create a buzz that way. Most of these export offices fund artists to come here, and they have done nothing in the marketplace ahead of time. Yet, they think that they are going to be able to create a story by playing at that conference, and itís a real mistake. The export offices that are smart are the ones that are investing in the artists prior to them coming over, and they do promotion and marketing ahead of time.
Sounds Australia does that.
Australia does it much better than any other (music marketing) export office for sure. Itís a bigger picture with Australia. They have a grant program that allows funding not only to come over for CMJ, but for promotion and marketing. Those are the smart grants. The artists that have done really well at CMJ are the artists that have done promotion for six or 12 months before they come over to America. Getting those grants, if they can get Australia to do that, thatís really helpful. It really creates a story.
How does Canada, with its significant federal and provincial funding programs, measure up?
Canada can be good. Certain regions are better than others. In some cases, itís better than others. Sometimes if they (the artist) doesnít get the grant then they donít do it (donít come) which is very frustrating. Canada, thereís a weird issue there because being so close to the U.S., thereís an intimidation factor of the U.S. A lot of Canadian artists wait too long to start working on the U.S. Then they think that they can do everything on a shorter notice. We invariably get the call in January that the (Canadian) band is playing South By South West in March, and they think that they can start doing marketing two months prior. That happens a lot with Canada. That said, they are having some new initiatives that are really good. That have been helpful.
The Ontario (provincial) fund is funding labels and a lot of releases right now. Thatís pretty amazing. They are nowóI donít know the technical names of these grantsóbut for a long time, (Canadian) labels and artists werenít able to get any of their money back from promo if it was an American company doing it. Now, I believe that they can get some of it back. Thatís really helpful.
[The Ontario government recently awarded $14 million (Canadian) to 123 music companies in the second round of provincial funding from the Ontario Music Fund for 2014-15.]
I recall you working with bands from Newfoundland and Labrador in the late Ď90s.
Denis Parker (then Music Newfoundland & Labradorís executive dir.), and Barry Snow from the Economic Development office (of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador) called me, and said that there was a long history of trade between Newfoundland and Boston. ďInstead of trying to sell widgets to each other, we think we should sell culture. Sell bands. If we can get the funding to send five bands down to Boston, we will hire you to work the market. To work radio, and to work press for several months prior to them coming. We will then do a huge showcase of all the acts. During the day you can set up meetings with all of the industry [people] in the market.Ē So I set up meetings for them with local labels, and with all the managers. The Boston Globe covered the event. The show was packed because there are so many ex-pats (expatriates) here. These acts were meaningful acts in Newfoundland, but folks didnít know who they were there. But none of the bands came back. None of them followed up on what we had done. ďToo far. Too expensive. We canít do it (tour) without government support.Ē The government got the ball rolling, but it fell through in the end which was frustrating. But it opened my eyes to what could be done, and what could happen if it was done right. That it can be a great thing.
Picking what event to attend can be daunting for a band. CMJ, South By South West, and Americana Music in the U.S.; Liverpool Sound City, and The Great Escape in the UK; Eurosonic Noorderslag in Holland; Music Matters in Singapore; and Canadian Music Week are all sprawling festival/conferences; whereas The New Music Seminar, Musexpo and Folk Alliance in the U.S. are smaller but may be overlooked.
No band will listen to you if you tell them not to come to South By South West. If a band gets accepted to South By they are probably coming because every band dreams of playing South By. Itís the one event that their parents, and their friends have heard of. They want those bragging rights. They know the success stories that have come out of it. They almost cannot help themselves for going.
And it takes place in Austin, Texas. Not such a bad place to be.
Especially in the winter. So I understand it. But a band may realize six months after South By that, ďWe spent twenty grand going to South By, and we have very little to show for it.Ē If a band has a master plan and it ends up at South By, then it is better off. I strongly suggest to our clients that they play CMJ first. If itís a different type of act, then they play Folk Alliance or play Americana and work those before trying to do South By.
Canadian Music Week is a wonderful event, but Iím not 100% convinced that itís always a great market for international acts. Itís a great place for Canadian product and, maybe for U.S. acts, since the (Canadian and American) markets are so close. I donít know how much business Canadian labels are doing with overseas artists that are coming to Canada. I think that it works from the booking level, probably.
Canadian Music Week has become one of the key international meeting events for the business of music, attracting American, British, Japanese, and Australians. The annual music and media conference Musexpo in Los Angeles is another great meeting place for internationals.
With the use of streaming and YouTube, a band no longer needs a recording to be signed. Years ago, they had to have a physical piece of product. At conferences today, industry people donít want to be presented with a CD or a USB flash drive.
(Laughing) No, thatís true. But I think that the conferences are still playing a role in that (artist discovery). A lot artists sound great online but you really do want to see them live. A conference does allow people to see a lot of acts live. We find at CMJ that a lot of our clients will get signed by booking agents, which is really helpful.
Agents and label A&R reps want to see a band live before signing them.
For sure. We have lived through the era too on the internet of a lot of bands being signed very quickly because they were amazing online, but they didnít have the goods to back it up live. As much as the internet sped everything up, we are seeing now a bit of a slow up. People now do want to see a great live band because, ultimately, that is how you are going to break a band these days.
Conferences may be great meeting places for different sectors of the music business community, but Iím unsure of their value to a band without specific targeting of what conference to perform at.
Absolutely. The bands have to be a bit more careful about that (about attending) because their working circle is not that strong. How does a band maximize those type of events? I just think that they have to be careful. They have to think strategically, and take it slow, and not just go to every event because they want you there.
If you are an unsigned band from Israel coming to perform at Canadian Music Week what is the end game for you? A lot of people donít have a strategy on that or itís a strategy that has been far too rushed. Itís a three-month window from once they are accepted to when they are playing, and they are going to try and do everything they can in those three months.
Hey, it may work. It does for some.
We had an artist at a very small event in October called Culture Collide in Los Angeles. We had EMPRA from Australia showcase on our stage, and they got a national tour out of it. They are now working with Epic Proportions Tour, which saw the band play at our showcase, and they are putting the band on a three month U.S. tour of colleges, high schools, and military bases. Thatís the kind of thing that can happen. So never say never. But the bands that we have had the most success with have had an 18 month plan before they came over, and they have had an EP or two in the marketplace, at least at college radio, before they came over. The record doesnít have to be released here. It can be on iTunes but that way when they come over, thereís some demand.
You are one of the pioneers of touring Western bands in Asia. Youíve done what 15 tours to China since 2001?
Yeah, about 15 tours of China, a couple to Singapore, a couple to India, and a couple of tours in Scandinavia.
How did the tours in China come about?
My former assistant Adam Wilkes traveled the world and ended up in China. He called me up one day and said, ďIím in Shanghai, a city of 20 million, and thereís no rock and roll. Letís do some shows.Ē Heís now AEGís point person in Asia (as president, AEG Live Asia, based in Shanghai). So we started doing some small shows together. Bringing over some club bands, basically. We just started bringing shows over. It didnít make a lot of economic sense.
[According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry's 2015 World Ranking report, China ranked #19 in global trade revenues. Many believe that China will rank in the top five or even top three in the world music market in the next five years.]
You selected bands to go to China from submissions?
Yeah. The first six or seven acts that we brought to China we did through sponsorships when the Western companies were really trying to re-engage with China. They wanted to have events. This was 2001 and 2002. So they wanted to sponsor events, and they were willing to do club type events. Eventually that died out because there werenít enough eyeballs for the brands to stay engaged. They wanted to do larger things especially as the market was changing. So we opened it up. We were able to get some trade-in-kind for the lodgings and the airfare stuff. But we would open it up to submissions to helped underwrite it. I donít think that we ever made more than five grand on any tour.
Why did you do it?
At the time, no one was going to China. It was kind of the great unknown. It was a ďSpinal TapĒ adventure that I just couldnít turn down.
Earlier Wham! and Jean Michel Jarre had breakthroughs in China.
Absolutely. Every single time that we would do China we would just have a funny situation that was something that I was not used to by Western standards.
Has it become easier to tour there?
It has definitely become easier. I havenít done an event there (in China) in two years. But I stay in regular touch with Adam. It (Asia) still presents a host of issues but, itís easier to work there than it was 15 years ago.
Why did you stop going to China?
Iíd had enough, you know? I like to see the world, and I like a bit of adventure. So 15 tours, and that was enough. So we moved onto doing shows with Vijay Nair (Only Much Louder) in India
Indiaís live music business is renowned for its mind-boggling restrictions, including enforced curfew hours, and entertainment taxation that varies from state to state. Have you faced such restrictions?
Yes. These are things that you just donít think of anywhere else. We did a show in Hyderabad, India (the capital of southern India's Telangana state) in which we couldnít have any alcohol on stage. The performers couldnít be seen drinking any alcohol. Itís a very Hindu and Muslim part of India. That wasnít something that I was thinking about ahead of time, but you get there and you deal with it.
As well, with Western music being only a small percentage of the local market in India and China, that presents limitations of what acts to send over.
Oh sure, absolutely. So a lot of the early bands that we were bringing over there were bands where the lyrics werenít as important. We would bring a funk band over, and a kind of reggae band over where itís more about the beat. People could get into it musically. That has obviously evolved. Now you are seeing plenty of Indie rock out of China, but that wasnít something that we were doing at first.
We eventually got to that point as the crowds became more and more educated, frankly. As more and more music was coming in. But at first I remember the local promoters instructing the bands. Telling them to jump up and down. Telling them to clap. Telling them things that we would take for granted in the West.
EDM has exploded in China and India. EDM is popular in such main cities as Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, and Hyderabad in India.
Oh sure, and in China, Shanghai is probably driving that. Adam has been doing a lot of larger shows there. The festival business has exploded there. Archie Hamilton (the leading independent music promoter who operates Split Works) is doing a lot of great stuff there. (China) is a wonderful market. It was never my core business. I did it for the adventure and, frankly, it did market Planetary Group quite nicely in terms of letting a lot of people know worldwide who we are that really shouldnít have any reason to know who this small marketing company was. But at the time we were the only ones doing it. Our office was right next door to the Sonicbids office. So we had a wonderful relationship with Panos (Panay) who owned Sonicbids at the time. That helped us market the events there as well.
While traveling to China or India would you go to other countries in the region as well?
My place was Thailand. I would always tack on Thailand. Then I also did Hong Kong. But I did Thailand, and then I did Cambodia. I didnít do Australia until the mid-00s when I was invited to go to the Whammies (Western Australia Music Awards) in Perth. At the time I was living in Boston. The furthest place from Boston that I could possibly go to. That really opened my eyes to Australia. Thatís when I met some of my earliest clients from Australia, and ever since then we have been working with a ton of Australian bands.
Who did you meet back then?
On that trip I met Phil Stevens, who has San Cisco, and Dave Batty, who has the Jezebels. Those were a couple of our early clients. Phil, at the time, also had the John Butler Trio. We were fortunate that the Jezebels wanted to start seeding the U.S. market. We started promoting their EPs about two years before they came over. When they decided to come over they did everything. They did CMJ, Great Escape, Liverpool Sound City, Canadian Music Week, and they did Music Matters in Singapore. They did it all in one big loop there and in doing so they were able to get label deals in each market. And that was great because it all really started at CMJ. That got the ball roll rolling.
Europe is such a meeting place of cultures with so much diverse music available.
For sure. I think itís wonderful what Eurosonic Noorderslag is doing with their EU grants for artists to play at festivals through the Etep, and Ceeteps programs that are supporting artists from central and eastern Europe to tour. To play at different festivals throughout Europe. I think thatís fantastic.
Plus Eurosonic Noorderslag bands having the support of national radio stations in over 20 European countries.
Definitely. We are definitely going to see more bands out of Eastern and central Europe, out of the Baltics and even Russia. The number of (Russian) bands that are applying to Tallinn Music Week in Estonia is really a high number. Warners is really active on whatís happening in Russia, and I think that more labels will become that way. It used to be the majors had branches in these countries just to release their American and the British products, but I think that you really are going to start seeing more of bands coming into the U.S. from those outlets.
Warner Music Group, of course, is owned by Russian Len Blavatnikís Access Industries.
Yes, but Warners is also in South America. They are heavily invested in China. They are definitely out there looking for the next big thing.
Planetary Group seems to cover all aspects of artist development and promotion, including radio, social media, and tour support.
Well, we try to cover a lot, but I am mindful not to try and do everything. Then you end up doing nothing well. So we focus on college radio, specialist radio, and the blogs. I donít get involved in booking tours. A lot of people want me to do sync pitching, but I have stayed away from that.
You donít work much in the commercial radio world.
No. We will go after the new music shows there. Those are the shows that you can start building a story on an artist, and that you are really dealing with folks that are still loving music in the commercial world. So we are not dealing with the consultants and all of the business side of radio. Those are the musical fans that are doing the specialty shows and we will build on that.
To play in the commercial radio game, a band or label needs deep pockets.
Yeah, you have to have deep pockets to find out even if you have a chance before you even know that you have a hit. So we donít play in that arena. It probably would have made more business sense to play in that arena, but I made a business decision long ago that itís about the music. I like dealing with music people. So what we do is really about specialty and college radio, and doing a lot of tour support. Rolling our sleeves up, and really getting our hands dirty on that level.
You must be thrilled with whatís been happening with your client Courtney Barnett, and her manager Nick O'Byrne.
Yeah. Itís not every year that you get to work with an artist that gets nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammys.
Have you been working with her long?
Yeah. Nick introduced me to her probably four years ago. She had just started to get going in Australia. He had me come out to a show there. There were very few people there, and she was great. He hired us to work for a release that they were going to sell as a self-release. The plan was to bring her to CMJ to perform, and showcase. Then everything just got accelerated. Everything sped up because itís one of those amazing cases of lightening in a bottle. A great artist. Great songs at the right time, and the right people taking interest. It has just been a heck of an 18 month journey with her two releases.
A common mistake is that many artists figure they donít need someone like you once they are signed by a label.
Yeah. I never understand why a manager doesnít insist on keeping the team that got them to the point that a major label is interested. Obviously, if a publicist screws up, then of course, move on. But if everything has gone well, and the publicist has done everything that you want, the artist should want to build on that.
Too many artists wonít fight their U.S. or Canadian label to keep their team intact. They donít realize that labels are working with half the staff of a decade ago, and that their label person is probably dealing with 50 other acts. Itís different in the U.K. where the hiring of publicists and radio trackers is entrenched.
Itís definitely true. It is especially true with overseas artists because they donít want to rock the boat. They are so grateful to have an American deal that they are often very afraid. But it makes no sense. The team that got them there knows where the bodies are buried. They know how to pitch the act. They know all of the history. They know where they can go. Also they have ownership. You take ownership in that artist. We will do anything for Courtney. We want to grow with her. For us, itís important that she continues to grow. Labels can be great, but they are often overworked, and personnel also come and go. The turnover is really high. Iím not going anywhere. Iím going to be there the whole time with the artist, and we will try to do everything that we possibly can.
You work with college radio which has never sold music.
Correct, and it still doesnít. Itís the one thing, Larry, that hasnít changed.
The sectorís importance can be like the buzz that used to develop around a music store years ago. Reaching the hardcore music fan who tells their friends, and everyone else about a new band.
Correct. There are still very much great music fans at college radio that are still spreading the word to their friends about bands that they love; whether itís through their social networking or their blog. These are the people that you want to invest in talking about your band. Thatís one thing that hasnít changed about college radio. Obviously, you have large and small stations. Thereís a bit more of a mix now of what were once college stations. That have morphed into more of the non-com stations where you have a mix of students and staff working at the station, or thereís paid volunteers or paid staff. But those stations can still really help move the needle, and we find that their support really helps to support shows.
There are some cities that are incredible for college support. In Boston and Cambridge, thereís WMBR, WHRB, WZBC, and WERS, and WBBS.
You are right. And then there are a bunch of smaller stations. Those are the big ones. Those five stations are fantastic.
Atlanta is another great college town.
I find that every American major city has one really good station. Thatís fantastic for developing and for touring and trying to create the new markets when you are trying to branch out from your home market.
Then thereís great non-commercial stations like KCRW in Santa Monica, and WFDU in New Jersey.
Fantastic non-com stations. KCRW and KEXP (in Seattle) have tremendous on-line listenership, and itís worldwide. No band who has hired me from somewhere else hasnít asked me about either of those stations which is amazing that they can have that type of reach. Those stations report to CMJ. They are part of CMJ, and are really important. Some of the labels are short-sighted these days, and they skip the college market, and they go right to the non-coms, forgetting of course that a large percentage of the non-coms also report to CMJ. If you do college radio work at the same time, as non-com radio, you can get a really nice groundswell which is exactly what they did with Courtney.
I also like WSOU, a non-commercial station at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
Yep, sure fantastic metal programming. And they actually can sell a lot of records.
You are from Boston?
I am. I started Planetary Group originally out of Boston. We were there for 15 years I still have a home office there, but all my staff is in Los Angeles now. For the past five years, we have been in LA. But Boston was a great place to start the business because there are just so many colleges there. A great music scene. A quarter of a million college students. We could book a lot of shows. We could promote a lot of records to college radio. At the time, I was also booking a lot of college shows.
What college did you attend?
I went to Franklin Pierce University in southern New Hampshire. A small Liberal arts school that was close enough to Boston that I could drive down every weekend for shows. It was a small school, only about 1,500 students and I was kind of able to take it over.
You worked at the campus radio station WFPC and you were the arts editor of the schoolís paper, Pierce Arrow.
Thatís right. It was a small radio station on campus. I took that over and ran that.
Around that time, you also produced an EP.
I had band that I managed called Funeral Party. I put that record out, and worked it out of my dorm room. Thatís the first record that I ever got charted at CMJ, and I have been doing it every since.
You then went on the road as tour manager with the Aquanettas.
The Aquenttas were on IRS Records and they were booked by FBI. So we would open up for a lot of the FBI acts including Nine Inch Nails, Meat Beat Manifesto, Squeeze, and the House of Love. I did all that in my junior year of college. My vacation was spent on the road. It was amazing. I got to go all over Canada and the U.S.
What were you majoring in at Franklin Pierce University?
Mass communication and business.
You got your B.A.?
Yep. My parents wouldnít have let me not.
You then went to work with Harris Goldbergís Concert Ideas, the Woodstock, New York-based agency that has been the prime power player in college booking for over four decades.
My first paid gig was working for Harris after college, booking national talent at colleges. The problem with that job was that it was based in Woodstock (New York) which for a 22-year-old just wasnít exciting enough. I went back to Boston, and I started booking shows for Harris out of Boston. But I was really known for doing radio promotion because I had been a college radio music director for three years at Franklin Pierce, and I had also done my internship at Rykodisc for a year. I was at Rykodisc for three days a week doing radio promotion for them because they only had one radio person. So they gave me all of the college stations, and the non-coms. I was calling stations as a 21-year-old that frankly I had no right calling. But thatís how you learned. They just sort of said, ďGo for it.Ē
What did you learn from Harris?
I think that I learned how to sell with Harris, and to be organized, and also how to service the client and the agent for that matter.
Harris often works as a middle agent on bookings
He does. (Doing that) you have to keep everybody happy, and make sure everything works well. Itís a thankless job at the end of the day, but he does it very well. Heís one of the those who has survived in that world. He has always been a straight shooter in an industry full of BS, especially in the middle agent world. Thatís why heís done so well. I certainly learned how to sell and I learned how to take care and service the client and service the agent. The only reason that I left was that it was in Woodstock. But I loved the job working for Harris. He was gracious enough to let me take the clients that I brought in, and let me service them in Boston. Well, at the same time, I was trying to build more Boston clients.
What shows were you then involved in promoting?
I did the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at Northeastern University. I did the Band at Northeastern University. I think we did the Village People at Tufts University. We did Billy Joel out at Worcester Polytechnic. We started doing all kinds of different shows at colleges.
Boston has had a vibrant local music scene for decades.
I am very grateful that I saw Boston in the Ď80s and the Ď90s. All the different labels were there. Big and small. All of the majors were there. There were thriving independents. There was a label scene. A club scene. A lot of managers. And a student population that kept it all humming. In the early Ď90s, labels were signing left and right. Some acts made it, and some didnít. It is what it is. It has always been a great marketplace for music, and it still is. As long as you have a quarter of a million college students, you are always going to have a percentage that are going to drop out make great records. Youíve just got the creative talent there.
Over the years you have handled publicity, promotion and media buying for Great Northeast Productions.
When I started the company in Boston, I was sharing space with Great Northeast Productions. I was doing promotions for all of their shows. They were working with Phish quite early on. So I got to work on all of the large Phish festivals. I learned how to be a promoter. Obviously, that dried up. Being an independent promoter in Boston is not the path to riches, but we did do a lot of great shows.
Promoter Don Law casts quite a shadow in Boston.
Itís not just Don Law. Youíve got major companies fighting with each other there. Youíve got Live Nation, AEG Live and The Bowery Presents. And those folks own property. The promoting game became about being a property owner, and we were nomadic always renting the halls. Ultimately, it got to the point that we were developing acts at the club and ballroom level only to lose them at the theatre and arena level.
You continue to work with Great Northeast Productions?
I still work for Great Northeast doing some shows, but our volume is far lower. We are working with a lot of acts that we have worked with for a long time. Artists like Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Cockburn, and Joan Baez. Artists that Dave Werlin at Great Northeast has worked with for a long time. Iím not out there as much. At one time I was doing a lot of club shows at The Middle East (restaurant and Nightclub), but Iím not doing that anymore. Life is too short.
Prior to Planetary, you were the Northeast sales and promotion manager for TVT Records, working with Sevendust, Guided By Voices, The Black Crowes and Snoop Dogg.
Between doing radio and doing the Phish shows, I was also working for TVT Records. I got hired by accident in 1996 and worked there through to 2003 or 2004. TVT had signed three baby from Boston, Fledging, Birdbrain and Emergency Broadcasting Network. They needed someone to get them Boston shows, set up events for them, and get their record on display at Newbury Comics. That kind of ďget your hands dirtyĒ work with those three bands. I thought that they were hiring me for college radio. I ended up in a meeting with the head of marketing for an hour, and with the A&R guy. I met (TVT owner/founder) Steve Gottlieb, and they offered me a job. I just thought we were just talking.
TVT Records had an amazing string of successes in the Ď80s and í90s.
We had the ďMortal KombatĒ soundtrack, Sevendust, Underworld, and Snoop Dogg. We had some big acts. It was great for me because as a promo guy--jacking records on the chart and playing that kind of chart game--it was really wonderful to learn how hard it was in reality in terms of selling record. You just canít call up an independent record store and say, ďWe are the number one most added. You should take 100 copies.Ē Youíd invariably get the answer back, ďWe will take 10.Ē Theyíve heard it all.
Sevendust exploded with its self-named debut in 1997.
Boston developed into one of their top markets but I remember the initial order from Newbury Comics which--I think was a 25 store chain at the timeóit was for 30 pieces. It wasnít an incredible vote of confidence. That type of music hadnít come in yet. They toured and toured and toured and they toured the northeast a lot. At the time we had WAAF in Worcester, which was a heavy metal station and we had WFNX, and WBCN going head to head, going to war with each other in the alternative world. Both had taken a turn for being more aggressive alternative stations, and they went to war on Sevendust. So we had three major stations playing Sevendust so the record exploded. They played the market a lot. To their credit that band worked really hard and toured very hard. I was so happy to see them getting a Grammy nomination this year because they really deserve it for all of their work. Portland (Maine) also became a major market for them. The whole northeast became Sevendust country.
Then there was Jimmy Page and the Black Crowesí double live album ďLive at the GreekĒ in 2000 on TVT.
Yep, itís hanging up on my wall. It was a great run. It was a great experience for me.
Steve Gottlieb's signings were amazingly diverse: Pitbull, Nine Inch Nails, Lil Jon, Default, Aphex Twin, the Saints, Jurassic Five and so on.
The amount of bands that came through that office he did sign early and didnít have a hit with or could have signed early are amazing. It blows my mind with Jurassic Five that all we had with them was one little EP in 1997. We also had a hip hop band called Cash Money Click which includes Ja Rule. The one thing TVT did well is that if they got behind a record they really got behind it, and never let it go. Either they won or the band quit.
You are a 47-year-old working in what has long been a young personís game. Do you think you can always maintain your ability to spot young music talent?
Yeah, I do. I surround myself...all of my staff are former college radio music directors of stations. All one to four years out of college radio, except for one person. I surround myself with a lot of youth which is really helpful. As well to bounce ideas of off. I think that at the end of the day, we can still all recognize a great band. Iím not too worried about that. My back hurts a little more than it used to when I go to shows, especially after a 12 hour flight. But Iím not too worried. As long as I donít stop listening, I keep going out to shows, and I try to stay as current as I can, I will be fine.
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.
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 ďMusic From Far And Wide.Ē
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 is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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