Thursday, January 23, 2014


It’s no secret that record labels have been on the skids ever since mixed tapes, MP3s and iTunes disrupted their musical monopoly. But, why then, do some artists such as Madonna have staying power for decades no matter which way trends blow in the music business?

Seymour Stein, co-founder of Sire Records and vice president of Warner Bros. Records, has seen the ups and downs of the music industry first hand. Stein helped mold the punk and New Wave genres by cultivating artists such as The Smiths, the Ramones, Ice-T, The Cure, and Madonna. But perhaps Stein’s greatest accomplishment is that he’s been able to sustain a label through turbulent music industry headwinds.

Stein’s knack for knowing good music when he hears it and his instinct to sign artists brought about his partnership with Madonna. He was in a New York hospital in 1982 with an infection when he heard her demo for the song “Everybody.” Instantly he wanted to sign her, so he called her producer, a DJ friend of his. Madonna came to the hospital and signed with Sire Records. During a 2009 President’s Lecture at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, Stein said his onetime client, Madonna, illustrates a few key points about marketing success. Here are some takeaways:

1) Don’t lose determination. It still counts for success.

“First of all, Madonna is one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered,” Stein said. “She’s one of the most determined, driven.”

2) Care about the creativity and the craft, not just the cash

Madonna “knows a lot about music,” Stein says. “She’s on the cutting edge of it. She follows it. She always has been, and she continues to be.”

3) Change or die but don’t be redundant

“Every one of her records she makes is different from the last one,” Stein says. “She just reaches in and turns herself inside out like a chameleon. And I think she’ll continue to be able to do so in the future as well…I think that the thing I most admire about her is that she always seems to be ahead of the curve — well ahead of it.”

Stein concedes that labels don’t mean as much as they once did. “… when I was growing up there were labels like Atlantic, and Chess and Vee-Jay and King and Imperial,” he said. “You know when a new Imperial record came out — ‘That’s Fats Domino’s label – I’ve got to hear what it is.’”

Music shoppers used to know labels and trust those labels to bring them good music. A label was a stamp of credibility. But things don’t work that way anymore. Now more than ever musicians are working independently. One of the ways in which a label used to serve the artist is through A&R (Artist and Repertoire). The job of the A&R was to match the artist with songs. But we are now in the age of the “singer/songwriter.” Artists are writing their own songs, and the role of A&R is increasingly irrelevant.

Nevertheless, Stein thinks that a label sends out a signal, and that people respect Sire Records for its ongoing durability. He’s been with the label since it started, which speaks to his commitment to the idea of music labels. But, Stein says, today it’s more about the song.

When asked what makes an artist successful he says, “Singing, musicianship, stage presence — and they’re all very important. Very important. But they mean nothing without a good song.”

Since the song is king, artists must innovate the song over time. He points to Madonna as an example of someone who will survive the ups and downs of the business because of her ability to reboot and update with new sounds and hit songs.

Stein, himself, is an example of serious staying power. He doesn’t question the trends hubristically. He accepts them. Meanwhile, he focuses on enjoying the music rather than just the “music business” and he still goes to rock shows, keeping an ear out for that next hit song.

Source : Forbes

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