Q&A With Virgin Records A&R Ken Blaustein
Q&A WITH KEN BLAUSTEIN:
DIRECTOR OF A&R, VIRGIN RECORDS
Copyright Bobby Borg 2007, 2008
Ken Blaustein spent the past four years at Warner Bros. Records where he signed the band Mastodon, brought in Avenged Sevenfold and worked as A&R with Craig Aaronson for My Chemical Romance, The Used, Hot Hot Heat, Glassjaw, Head Automatica, Rancid, The Distillers etc. As of this writing, Blaustein had been hired by A&R legend Jason Flom to head up the West Coast A&R duties where Ken has recently signed a band called Daughters Of Mara and will soon take over the duties for Korn.
Q: Given the current state of the music industry and where it may be in three years, what are three "must do" tips you can offer new artists on pursuing a successful career in music?
KB: Here’s my top three tips:
1) Write great songs that will stand the test of time. This, obviously, is no easy task! To be a truly great songwriter, it takes god given talent, hard work developing your skills, a wealth of experiences from which to draw from, and a stroke of luck. There are a lot of talented songwriters and a lot of very good songs floating around at any given moment, but when a song is truly GREAT, it makes everything else seem totally insignificant. Think about the songs that you still hear on your favorite radio station that are now 10, 15, 20, 30 years old that still hold up. Now this is great songwriting.
2) Pursue your career as if there are never going to be any record labels to sign you. In other words, run your band like its own Indie record label first to establish your identity and generate a buzz. Think creatively about how to sell and distribute your merch, act as your own booking agent to get yourself on National tours, and serve as your own publicist to get into magazines and newspapers. The DIY mentality is alive and well as it’s always been, but now it’s even more important because labels are looking for both songs they can market and established “brands” they can help accentuate. Your band is a business, and a brand at the core, and you must start thinking like one.
3) Developing low cost, high concept grassroots viral marketing campaigns is the current trend that will certainly become more important during the next several years. Word-of-mouth advertising is the only method that I can think of that’s truly effective and with You tube, Google video and the like, people are looking for something that’s clever that makes the act stand out.
The even playing field of these services makes the marketing feel less forced and it challenges the band to step up to the creative plate. Labels are further scrambling to become content companies as CD’s continue to show a decline, so these campaigns are integral in getting out the word without being overbearing to help sell records and they look to the artist to come up with ideas that fit within their context.
Q: What are three "don't does’ to pursuing a successful career in music you can offer new artists?
KB: Once again, I have three tips to offer:
1) Don’t…wait for a label to tell you that you're signed before you start acting like a band. Your band starts at day one rehearsal one. Treat your career it like you are the band and the label.
2) Don’t…spend all your money on fancy press kits and waste your time and resources. Spend your time crafting your songs and your live show. If the CD is worthwhile, I don’t care if the letter attached is on a piece of loose-leaf paper.
3) Don’t…get frustrated. Do what you do and if you are fortunate enough to have a career playing music, understand that it’s a lot of work and it’s more than getting on a big tour bus with adoring fans screaming your names. Work together with your label and let them do their job, but help direct the ship. Don’t hand over your dirty laundry and expect them to fluff and fold. It just doesn’t work like that
Q: What methods do you personally use to discover new talent?
KB: An important part of my job is to do research online (in blogs, chat rooms, and forums; however, if the songs don't connect with me and the band isn't bringing something new to the artistic table, I'm not going to allow myself to be influenced by online data, no matter how strong it is. I also get a lot of feedback from talking to club promoters and with bands that spend a lot of time out on the road, and I read every magazine that I can get my hands on. I spend a lot time trying to understand and being part of the artist culture so that I can better understand them and who the standouts might be.
Q: Any “specific ingredients” you feel make up for a “great” song?
KB: Speaking for myself, a great song is when it has an interesting story and doesn’t follow the same formula, drum pattern or guitar riffs that I’ve heard a thousand times prior. I’m a huge fan of multiple choruses within a song and the verse and bridge being as huge as the chorus. A band that can master unusual timings and use of various arrangements always makes me excited. From start to finish, I have to feel that I like to take the journey with the band. Ultimately, each band that I fall in love with has their own unique sound with all the small nuances that influence their direction. You know it the second that you hear it. The more you listen to it and the better it gets.
Q: What is best advised for new artists: 1) Follow current trends in music/fashion? 2) Forge new paths and hope it catches on?
KB: I’d say don’t get caught up in “scenes” and chase what has already happened. YOU need to be the standout and be artistically and musically challenging. The goal is to make your mark, even if that means forgoing a short-term plan of exploding onto the scene and risking the idea of selling a million records. The world of art and commerce don’t traditionally belong in the same sentence, but because you decided to shill your product, do your best to make your mark in the pop culture.
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