12 March 2008

House Guests 1

This is the man who signed Crowded House. His name is Tom Whalley, and in 1985 he was a junior A&R man with Capitol Records in Hollywood. Gary Stamler, manager of what became Crowded House, brought the demos to Whalley. At the time, Whalley had signed teenage bar-band the Del Fuegos to Slash, and put Neil Finn together with fledgling producer Mitchell Froom, thinking, "Well, if Froom can do such a good job with such unpromising material, what could he do with real songs?"

So the careers of Crowded House and Froom got a major boost. (To be fair, Froom had already produced Richard Thompson's Daring Adventures and went on to do better work with Thompson. And Dan Zanes of the Del Fuegos later put out one of my favourite records, Cool Down Time, also produced by Froom. It stiffed, but Zanes found a new career as a songwriter and performer of children's music. His Rocket Ship Beach is addictive, and so much smarter and less patronising than the Wiggles.)

Whalley went on to have a stellar career himself, at Capitol and then Interscope, signing all sorts of acts such as No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails and Tupac Shakur. When I was writing Something So Strong I played phone tag with his high-camp PA, but an interview never eventuated. I suspect it was one of those cases where they had no intention of doing an interview, but didn't want to be discourteous enough to actually say no. So you keep ringing.

Nevertheless, everything I've read or heard about Whalley makes me like the guy. He isn't the Type-A egomaniac that so often populates the backrooms of the music industry. Yet his career has eclipsed that of his Interscope colleague Jimmy Iovine, or David Tickle, wunderkind producer of 'I Got You'. Whalley is one of a vanishing breed: a music man in the music business. Recently another real music man crucial to the Crowded House story, EMI chief in the UK, Tony Wadsworth was "stepped down" by new EMI owner, investor Guy Hands. It was Wadsworth's support while he was head of Parlophone that helped make Woodface a hit in the UK after it flopped in the States.

These days Whalley is the chief executive of Warner Brothers Records. A rare interview with him just appeared in the
Financial Times. It describes him as looking "like a carefree surfer but is in fact a 54-year-old father of nine", and quotes him actually using the phrase "Holy mackerel!"

Whalley has some interesting points to make about the future of A&R (artist development) in his battered industry. Whereas new EMI owner Hands, with an eye on cashing up assets, sees A&R as irrelevant, Whalley argues that
"the discipline - always more art than science - is essential for music companies if they are to muddle through an unforgiving landscape. "It still comes down to A&R," he explained. "None of this works - mobile doesn't work, downloads don't work, CDs don't work - if A&R isn't good."
I recommend the
Financial Times story for a different take on the woes of the industry (and for good stories about dealing with the heavy metal band Dio, and signing Tupac Shakur in an airport lounge).

Whalley has changed his tune a little from his thoughts a year earlier, when the Los Angeles Times found him
"incredibly upbeat for two reasons. First, the amount of people who want music in their lives is greater than ever. For years, as an industry, we looked at, say, 15- to 25-year-olds as the target of what we do. Now the audience for music has dropped down, for various reasons including the Disney Radio, to where you have 5-year-olds who love popular music. At the same time, people in their 60s are still passionate about music. When you have that breadth of people, it's a very exciting time to me. Then, there's the artistry, which I feel is going through a period of remarkable creativity today."
Apologies for not posting for a while. The new book has been taking up my time, but I have some ideas for things to share in upcoming weeks. This weekend I'm off to Womad NZ to get down among the hackysackers, and a special bonus has just been announced. (Though I was also looking forward to Cesaria Evora, originally part of a strong bill that includes a great selection of New Zealand acts - Age Pryor, SJD, Don McGlashan, as well as visitors Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and Mavis Staples.)

And regular transmission should be back on track soon with the Distractions website: as Paul Hester would say, do not adjust your set.

Meanwhile if you want a copy of Something So Strong, you can email me at: so-strong (AT) xtra.co.nz