By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"You’re writing about dropping bands, right?" says a major-label president who randomly answered his phone. "But I can’t do it. And you know why."
Later he agrees to a rare interview if his name is forever guarded in anonymity and if none of his bands are examined. Arnold, as I’ll call him, wants the description of a different man, black rectangles to mask his eyes and an underwater TV gurgle attached to his voice. "I’m only doing it because when we drop a band it means that we’ve failed them," he whispers. "And because if I were you, this would be the article I would want to write."
A week later, Arnold’s face is hidden behind an ergonomic throne. Posters of his victory bands decorate the walls. When he barks into the phone, "Yeah, I’ll be happy to call the monster and argue with her — I love her," he sounds momentarily happy, like a dog trying to get a ball out of a tight spot. That the monster in question is extremely well known doesn’t make him sweat: He is expert in diva resolutions. But you get the impression that his sleep is fitful, that his vacations are slightly paranoid.
He has the alluring air of an uncle who has done well for himself but still takes a moment to bounce you on his knee. It would be hard to hate him, easy to hold his hand if he were in pain. You get the feeling he always has a long-winded joke ready to tell and a closet not as spiffy as his title. "Listen," he pronounces, "I have a job to do, but my heart and soul are with the artists." He pauses, allowing a long search in his eyes for sincerity, then continues matter-of-factly. "Besides, it’s just a matter of time for me."
A phone rings on the other side of the wall, and he freezes, leaning forward only when the sound stops. "But if I’m identified," he warns, "the stocks would probably go down an eighth of a point, and they would go fucking insane."
Above all, Arnold is intent on differentiating himself from other record kings — he is a benevolent dictator, a personable ruler who gives out his home number to bands, fights to give a dropped band their master recording back, even drives elderly Democrats to the polls. "You’re getting a very liberal account from me," he explains. "You should go to Tommy Mottola at Sony for the real right-wing corporate point of view. But I almost don’t want to put you through the misery. You see, if we had all the record-company presidents in this room," he says, settling onto the couch, "I guarantee you I would be in the minority."
Such an assembly of record presidents, he says, would be no Michael Moore picnic: "It would be disgusting. Most of them don’t give a shit about artists. Most of them spend more time choosing what cigar they’re gonna smoke than in promoting an artist’s career."
Arnold, and in turn his label, is also in the minority on the pivotal subject of band turnover: Whereas majors typically sign 20 to 30 new acts annually with only the budget to market about six of them effectively, Arnold’s company generally signs fewer bands. "I believe you shouldn’t just throw everything against the wall and see what sticks, and then choose that. On the one hand, it doesn’t usually work very well, and on the other hand, it’s very cruel to the other artists."
He maps a devastating cycle: A&R shark attacks on new talent, he says, create mammoth bidding wars (making it impossible for artists to later recoup royalties); too many acts are signed, whittling away at the precious resources of time, attention and budgets; the labels release too many records on top of each other, and come fourth quarter, everybody is screwed. The labels haven’t recouped their band advances, artist development has been snuffed out, and new talent lands on the corporate chopping block under the mighty budgetary steak knife ready to trim off the fat, their dream. "Without what we call prioritization," he cautions, "the artist has almost no chance. Everybody gets a little, which means that nobody gets enough. Therefore, everybody will fail."
Arnold’s recommendation that bands sniff out how a label is investing their time and look for a label that truly believes in them is only partially helpful: What about the kid straight out of Wichita who hasn’t even broken eight guitar strings yet— doesn’t it sound to him like they all believe? Perhaps Arnold hasn’t been privy to the schmooze dinners where every ingenuous rock fantasy is preyed upon by fast-dancing A&R blokes who were hired by their stepfathers and live in the perpetual Goodfellas fantasy of "I can make ya or break ya."
"Many artists are naive," he concedes. "They don’t know the difference between someone who lies and someone who tells the truth. I’ve seen people who weren’t interested in a band, got a demo, didn’t like it, and as soon as they hear that three other labels want them, poof, they’ve gotta have them. It’s the herd mentality. I can think of a couple record presidents who don’t lie, but under them, that’s an interesting question."