I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to interview one of Canada’s most well-known music business professionals, Brian Hetherman. It’s no secret that the recording music industry is facing significant challenges due to various disruptive tools and technologies. I asked Brian some pointed questions about the status of labels, management and making it as an artist in an ever-changing world.
Sam Arraj: Could you tell us about yourself and your experiences in the music business?
Brian Hetherman: I’ve been around for a long time in the business. I spent 13 years at Universal Music MCA, then left Universal to run and set up Radio Starmaker Fund. I did that for 2 years. After that I started my own management company and record label [Curve Music]. I’ve been doing that for the last 14 years. In there, I did a sidebar and went to FACTOR and was GM for a year. Also, I have served on a number of boards over the years: MMF [Music Managers Forum], IMMF [International Music Managers Forum], OMDC [Ontario Media Development Corporation], Culture Human Resources, FACTOR [Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Recording]. I work with MROC, but I’ve also worked with CMW, World Vision, Liberty Studios [this interview occurred in October of 2015; on December 7, 2015, Brian was appointed interim Manager of MusicOntario].
Sam: Since you have worked in and currently own and run a record label, I want to ask you a few questions about record labels. First, what is a record label?
Brian: That’s a good question. Truly, I don’t think I’m a label first. I think of myself as a manager first, and a label second and publisher third. I run a label and publishing company because I have to do it to complement the management side of the business. The label has certainly changed a lot over the last 10-15 years. There is no easy answer. A record label takes many forms and could include many parameters. A label is an essential something that works on behalf of the artist. That could mean spending money, not spending money, spiritual, motivational, it could be a lot of different things, but it also depends on the deal. In my case, I like to think it’s a hybrid of everything.
Sam: How does a label make money?
Brian: It’s not what it used to be. You do and you don’t. You do as a rights holder selling music and for the use of your music. It depends on the deal. You make money through multiple layers: publishing, live music, music placement and management.
Sam: Before digital distribution, having a label made sense, because there was a barrier to entry for distribution, and a label’s key function was to help with distribution. Does one need a label in the digital age?
Brian: In the digital age you don’t need anybody, really. It's probably easy for anyone to go to CD Baby, TuneCore, or any other company that provides digital self-distribution, but if you have nothing to back it up, it means nothing. One more album on a digital platform means nothing. But it's the momentum behind one more album on a platform that means something. So if you're signing up to a label you’d better make sure they have a plan to market your record. You know, to be quite frank, if the label you're signed to has no plan and you have no plan then you're better off on your own. But you [should be] hoping that the people that you signed up to or the people you align with have some plan behind the release or marketing of your album. It's not really the same thing any more. I mean, it is and it isn't. In the old days you’d look to someone you signed a record deal with and they’d pay for your record, make videos, and market, all that stuff. Now you can make your own record, but most bands can’t market their own record. Some can, but most can’t.
One has to be careful with self-distribution. Many of the self-distribution deals aren’t great. Record labels still have better distribution deals in place for the most part. I formed my digital relationships many years ago, but as a small company, I don’t want to have direct deals with everyone. I did initially, and then it became a lot of work. Too much work.
Sam: So in a perfect world, how would you build an artist so they become self-sustaining?
Brian: It's very hard to say; every scenario is different. Ultimately, it's to some degree all about how hard the act is going to work on their own behalf. Forget me as a manager. It’s what are they going to do? It's very hard to say on a broad scheme that this is going to work or that's going to work, but my philosophy going forward is if the artist is not working harder than I'm working, then it's not going to happen. Make no mistake, I'm working hard, so if they're not working as hard as I am or harder, then it isn’t going to happen. There are so many artists who feel like, “Oh, great! I found a manager! I found a record deal, my record’s coming out on whatever January one two thousand whatever…”, but there needs to be a lot of momentum to make it happen. The manager will not make it happen without the artist’s hard work.
Sam: That’s interesting that you mention momentum. There's a lot of noise out there. I guess you need a lot of momentum to cut through the noise, right?
Brian: Yes, definitely. But, like, what's the momentum? Why would I buy your record or download or stream your record over somebody else's record? I got to be engaged, and how do I get engaged? I need to know that you're doing something better than somebody else, I need to know that you as an artist are doing something more than the five hundred other artists that are releasing an album this week. As a listener, you're not going to filter through five hundred albums to go “Oh, this is a good album." You know what I mean? What is going to drive me to an artist? What is my momentum to go to that artist?
First and foremost, I mean the number-one thing, is: do you feel the song? Is there a song that connects with you? Are there multiple songs that connect with you? Is there an agenda of the artist? Whether you know the band or not, when someone drags you to a show and you’re like, “Wow, this band just blew my socks off, like, this band is so f*@%ing good it's crushing my soul!” … that’s when you become a fan. You connect with the band, even though you may have never heard of the band before.
Sam: So on the management side … artists are always asking about whether I know a manager who can help them out. Does a manager make a significant difference in an artist’s career?
Brian: No. If you don't have your shit together, all the managers in the world aren't going to help you. I mean, there's probably the occasional sort of distinction, but the truth is that if people aren't talking about you, and you don't have a manager, the manager is not going to help you. The best bands in the world are bands that can have something going on with no manager.
A manager comes in when the band has expended all of its energy or knowledge. I mean, any band can play a show live, any band can write songs, any band can make an independent record. Anybody can do that, right? So how do you strategize how to get to the next level? That’s what makes a difference.
Sam: So someone waiting for a label or a manager to come in and sign them isn’t going to happen without some work on the artists’ side.
Brian: Things have changed. I wouldn't have said this ten years ago or twelve years ago, but I'll say it now. It’s like, if the band is not working harder than I am, I have no interest.
Back in the day when I was an A & R person, before there was a manager, I could find a band that was good, great or better than great, sign them to a big major record deal and put a lot of money into it and it would succeed. Based on that only, that does not work now, for multiple reasons. (A) There's no money (B) most major labels are not signing artists or taking any chances, and (C) you just can’t be mediocre anymore. You can’t be less than f$%*ing great. You can be; there's exceptions to the rule, obviously. In America, there's crappy bands because they still have money in America, but in Canada I can’t think of a band that is mediocre or less and done well. I mean there hasn't been either (A) fan support or (B) money. That's the way it is.
Sam: Are you looking at crowdfunding for any of your artists?
Brian: I've done it recently with an artist. It is the future to some degree, but also it's not. It’s not that simple, you know. It’s funny how you could have a lot of momentum on that, but still no return. It’s not that obvious. It's not like, “Oh well, great, I've got five thousand fans so I'll give ten dollars.” It doesn't work that way. Some will give none, some will give more and it may not add up to what you need.
Sam: So what do you do for an artist as a manager?
Brian: Everything. I mean, whatever needs … you know, I'm not precious. Whatever has to get done. Normally there are parameters in the agreement, but not really. I do whatever it takes, which has included striking gear from the stage and being a driver.
Sam: What about artists who think that radio is going to be key to their success?
Brian: One will go to radio depending on what kind of artist they are, but no one gets radio out of the gate. Radio is like every other business, the car business or the drug business. They have pressures to make money. So don't think. “Oh, radio, don't play me, oh those bastards.” Go and make a story and build it, build it on whatever level, like locally. Sell out a show in your hometown to doing five sold-out shows in your area. Those are stories. Then you can go to radio and go, “Hey man, look what we've done! Look at our story, here's our story.”
Sam: You get radio play for a few of your acts. What does that turn into?
Brian: Yeah! It was hard, and in some cases it made very little difference. It's not that obvious. It’s not like, “Oh great, we'll get on the radio and it'll all be good radio going to play us, and we will sell 100,000 albums.”
Sam: So any other advice you want to share with the world on this crazy world we call the music biz?
Brian: Just do it all on your own. If you do it, good people will find you. People need to realize they need to get off their ass and make shit happen. It’s funny, it's like I did this seminar at Metal Works a few weeks ago, and the first words out of my mouth were, “If you don't do it on your own, it's not going to happen.”