Wanna make it in music? These industry vets have plenty of advice.
They Are the World
To local musicians, WXPN-FM 88.5’s Bruce Warren and David Dye are omni-potent. Catching their attention is considered an epic feat, holding it akin to climbing Mount Everest. The pied pipers of Triple A, their reach extends far beyond the city limits thanks to a sweet syndication deal with NPR that distributes the popular World Café program to more than 185 stations across the country. Assistant general manager of programming at XPN and executive producer for World Café, Warren has won numerous music industry awards, including programmer of the year. Every Monday-Friday at 2 p.m., a half-million listeners tune in to the Dye-hosted Café for an eclectic mix of music, live performances and conversation from internationally renowned and almost-famous artists. Warren’s new book, Wisdom for a Young Musician, combines quotes, interviews and Q&A’s featuring successful musicians and top industry executives with his own hard-earned insights.
Not to be outdone by his co-worker, Dye has a book due out from the same publisher, Running Press, in October. The Best of World Café is an in-depth retrospective of the show, with highlights of its greatest interviews, quotes, moments and memories. The book also includes a DVD that offers an inside look at the show’s history and daily operation, with behind-the-scenes footage and select performances and interviews.
On the assurance that we would plug the station’s countdown of the 885 all-time greatest artists (which starts on Oct. 2), Warren and Dye sat down for an interview via speakerphone from XPN’s offices in University City. Here are the highlights:
MLT: What does it take for an artist to catch the attention of WXPN programmers and get airplay?
BW/DD: It always starts with the music, but there’s definitely a subjective element. We have to personally like it and have a sense that our listeners will, too. And we gravitate toward music that doesn’t sound like what we’ve heard before. Wilco is a great example; their music harkens back to the ’60s, but they’re sound musicians with the ability to come up with unique variations. Everyone is influenced by someone. But how creative is their take?
MLT: There are some local artists out there who misunderstand the mutually exclusive relationship between WXPN and World Café Live. Do you think it was a mistake for the venue and the station to be physically intertwined when they’re two separate entities with slightly different missions?
BW/DD: That’s an odd question to us because we think it’s been great. In terms of airplay, we can only speak to the station. When WXPN gets behind an artist, we have a huge impact on that artist’s future. We can’t play everything, so our goal is to pick the best of the best. We think we do a pretty good job of that.
MLT: How many CDs do you get a week, and how many interest you?
BW/DD: It’s around 100-125 a week. Only about five or six really capture our attention and very few wind up being discussed at our meetings.
BW: We also scour the Internet to see what’s out there.
MLT: What is the harsh reality of music programming at WXPN? Who are you more beholden to: the station, the listeners or the artists?
BW/DD: It’s definitely a complicated relationship, but our strongest ties are to the listeners. One of our primary missions is to connect audiences to artists.
MLT: Who are some of the artists out there right now capturing your attention?
BW/DD: Nationally? Spoon from Austin, Texas, and the Arcade Fire from Montreal. The A-Sides are a great rock band locally, and Dr. Dog is a new band that’s been getting national attention. Brian McTear of Bitter, Bitter Weeks—he’s a great singer/songwriter. And we’ve been playing Hoots and Hellmouth; their essence is rock but they’re also folky—listeners have been responding very positively.
MLT: Where do you envision the station heading in the next five years—and the music industry in general?
BW: The music industry is going to s–t, but WXPN will continue to thrive and prosper. It’s not that we’re not impacted by what’s happening around us, but we have incredible support through our loyal listeners and great relationships with musicians. We have an amazing staff and we’re financially sound. I don’t really think about the fate of the station when I come to work every day.
DD: What’s going on (labels consolidating, Internet exploding, diminished CD sales) isn’t hurting music. It’s hurting the music industry. There are more creative bands getting out there—more excitement about music—than ever.
MLT: How different is the audience you’re targeting today from the one you were targeting four years ago?
DD: We primarily have the same audience, but the creativity is happening with younger artists. Heritage artists like the CSN guys, Jackson Browne and John Hiatt—they’re not turning out as exciting music. Everyone’s driven by what’s happening musically—us, the station, the listeners. We’re looking for music and artists with mass appeal. Our listeners haven’t really changed.
MLT: Of all the musicians you’ve ever met, who left the most profound impression?
DD: The one who surprised me was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. A great guy who has a number of the same musical interests I do. I’ve felt most simpatico with Rosanne Cash.
MLT: Both of you are parents; what do your kids listen to?
DD: My son (13) is a huge White Stripes fan. He also really likes the Arcade Fire—I was pleased about that. And he’s into Jimi Hendrix—he’s got a big poster on his door—and Neil Young.
BW: As a family, we listen to Q102. [Laughs.]
MLT: How hard were the books to crank out? Were they a labor of love?
BW/DD: The publisher came up with the ideas, which gave us direction. But we had to go out, find the stories and get the interviews.
DD: Transcribing those was a huge process. We recruited numerous volunteers and interns. There was a lot of work involved.
MLT: Any defining moment in your career where you thought to yourself, “This is the coolest thing in the world”?
DD: For me, the absolutely coolest moment was being at David Letterman’s production office in New York City back in the late ’90s taking a meeting with his producer and CBS about turning World Café into a TV show. And having Letterman walk in, sing the praises of the show—at the time he was a nightly listener on our affiliate in New York as he sped home—and walk out. Sorry to say the TV show never came to pass.
Learn more about Word Café and WXPN at xpn.org. —Dawn E. Warden
There are six degrees of separation or less between production mastermind Phil Nicolo and more than half the musicians in Philly. Yet Nicolo’s list of credits transcends such local mainstays as the Hooters to include Taj Mahal, Billy Joel, Sting, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Santana, Luscious Jackson, the Pretenders, Jon Bon Jovi, Cypress Hill, Train and more. Owner/president of Studio 4 Recording in Conshohocken and chair of the Producers & Engineers wing of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Nicolo has been nominated for four Grammys, taking one home. In 1997, his Ruffhouse label accounted for 12 of Columbia Records’ 39 nominations.
Creativity reigns in Nicolo’s studio, with its top-of-the-line equipment and smattering of gold and platinum discs and other memorabilia. But the place is wholly unpretentious. “My job is to make artists feel comfortable, get them to let their hair down, take some risks,” he says. “You don’t have to be somebody for me to work with you. You just have to be willing to work.”
While a large sector of the music industry is either in flux or simply jaded, Nicolo sees ingenuity and revenue streams all around him. His pet project is a live concert website that will provide artists and venues greater access to audiences. “Independent labels are the mainstay of what’s really happening—and the Web,” he says. “It’s cool because you never know where the next best thing will come from.”
But why stay in Pennsylvania?
“I’ve found what I wanted here,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of this business comes from contacts; I have them. There’s not a lot of serious recording going on here, but we sizzle enough to stink.” Learn more about Phil Nicolo at myspace.com/philnicolo. —D.E.W.
On the Beat
For a guy who didn’t have a day job until he was 36, John Robertson’s accomplishments are pretty impressive. A former professional musician and recording artist, Robertson has achieved success in nearly every corner of the industry.
In 2005, the spotlight was on Libertad Records, his Wynnewood-based label, when the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (featuring Rubén Blades) won the Grammy for Salsa/Merengue Album of the Year.
Entertainment law is his bread and butter, but Robertson thrives on outsmarting the industry’s changing climate with innovative business models such as the recently reactivated PowerHouse Entertainment Group. PowerHouse’s multi-marketing concept merges artists with causes such as gun violence, autism and breast cancer. The goal is to promote awareness on every level for consumers and artists, while reaping percentage-based profits.
The current timetable for PowerHouse’s inaugural event is April 2008. Robertson envisions it as a three-day Bahamas weekend featuring a concert, live broadcast and lots of networking opportunities. Recently he launched Karma 33, a label supporting Dylanesque singer/songwriter Dean Davidson, whose buzz-worthy new CD, Drive My Karma, was co-produced by Phil Nicolo and features former John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff and the Hooters’ Rob Hyman.
And while Robertson would never argue that marketing comes second to the exceptional talent of someone like Davidson, he also knows you can’t sell the former short. “Artists don’t think about the business end. They don’t save for business affairs and whine about the lack of venues,” he says. “I tell my artists, ‘People will go out and see you. Create your own thing. And don’t worry about age—it brings a credibility and passion younger artists don’t have.” Learn more about John Robertson at www.myspace.com/powerhouse52. —D.E.W.
By his own admission, Mark Schulz possesses no real musical talent. But he has a high appreciation for those who do. Throw in good business sense and a résumé that includes executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, president and founder of Darkmark Management, a project and consulting firm serving the music and entertainment industry; COO of Same World Entertainment, a company that develops and produces live music properties, seats on the board of the Philadelphia Songwriter’s Project and the Philadelphia Music Alliance, an A-list of music industry contacts and a global vision, and you’ve got all the resources you need to create a music festival to rival Woodstock, Live Aid, Live Eight and Live Earth.
The project is called the Mismo Mundo Festival, a four-day cross-cultural music and arts celebration intertwined with a myriad of activities and workshops, including health and wellness programming and roundtable discussions with religious leaders. Mismo mundo translates into “same world” in Spanish, and reflects the festival’s mission to unite people of all ethnicities and socio-economic status.
Schulz and partner Ron Doroba aimed for a May 2007 debut here in Philly, with future events in L.A. and Chicago, but the project has yet to hit its stride. Naysayers may sum it up as an impossible dream, but there’s no denying the unifying power of music. A mega-event like this could be sound medicine for a troubled city.
“Philadelphia is such a large market, we should have a significant cultural event—Seattle has Bumbershoot, New Orleans has the Jazz & Heritage Festival, and Chicago has the Blues Festival,” says Schulz. “This is such a music and arts town; we should have an event. It gives us an opportunity to present music people know and love with music people will love but might not know—both regionally and globally.” —D.E.W.
Sprawled across Tommy Joyner’s Myspace page is a giant black-and-white graphic that depicts pallbearers carrying a coffin. Across the top, bold capital letters spell it out for all to see: “THE RECORD DEAL IS DEAD.”
While not technically true, you could argue that the recording industry as we know it is indeed dying. As major labels continue to eat up large chunks of their artists’ profits, independent musicians are making their own way through more accessible means such as iTunes, Napster and self-produced CDs. But even the most resourceful new artists still need help when it comes to the business side—which is where Joyner’s Unlabel Records comes in.
“The only thing independent artists needs now are resources and contacts,” says Joyner. And as the owner of Ardmore’s Milkboy Studios and coffeehouses, he has plenty.
Buffeted by Joyner’s years of expertise in the local music scene, Unlabel provides the guidance and resources musicians need to self-produce and market their own records, from production, booking/performance info and digital distribution to graphic design, Web development and legal services. Now more than ever, the industry is “rapidly changing and very confusing,” says Joyner, who describes what he has to offer as “a powerful asset to musicians looking for an audience.”
While Unlabel’s future is still uncertain, the success Joyner has enjoyed with his growing Milkboy enterprise bodes well for his latest venture. And these days, local artists could use all the help they can get. Learn more about Tommy Joyner at myspace.com/tommyjoyner. —B.B.