A&R guys. you know the stereotype: sleazy, arrogant, loudmouthed, hairy-chested, medallion-wearing, cocaine-snorting lout behind a giant desk who wouldn’t know his Beck from his Bush. In the old days, A&R executives signed acts and always told them exactly what they needed to do if they wanted to be stars. They were the guys with expense accounts, the guys with the “relationships.”
Nirvana ate their fancy restaurant meals, accepted their embossed business cards and then mocked them by handing out the cards to crummy lounge acts and saying, “Give me a call.” The Clash had a single called “Complete Control” with a verse that went, “They said we’d be artistically free/When we signed that bit of paper/They meant, ‘Let’s make lots of money/And worry about it later.'”
So if Michael Goldstone, the short, trim fellow with the buzz cut and Spock ears who sits glumly at the round wooden table that serves as his desk, looks more like a guy who works in the mail room than one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the record industry, it’s simply a measure of how much the business has changed in the past decade. Ever since independent-minded bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth took control of their careers–and of their dealings with the big labels–the industry has responded by promoting a new breed of executive. These days, the guy who hands out the big checks is as likely to feel your pain as he is to steal your soul.
Surrounded by a half-eaten tuna-fish sandwich and empty cans of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, he is dressed in a blue plaid shirt, faded jeans and big black shoes. His face looks young, but his eyes communicate experience. His reticent smile and weak handshake seem almost like an apology for his whole profession.
“It’s a pretty serious responsibility,” says Goldstone, who, in his late 30s, is the most successful A&R executive of his generation. “You have to be sensitive to the fact that you get to sign more than one band but that they only get to be one band. If the bands don’t succeed, it’s not necessarily your fault, but don’t forget that it’s their dream, and they don’t always have the same latitude you do.”
He speaks in the quiet, carefully modulated voice of a cleric; there’s no discernible accent except for the slightest trace of his native Long Island. He slumps his narrow shoulders forward and depresses a flashing button on his phone console. “Hello.” Long pause. “Yeah. Right. Right.” Now an even longer one. “Well, that’s a very, um, spiritual thing.”
Goldstone closes his eyes and rests his head in his arms on the table in front of him as he patiently listens. Then he opens his eyes and whispers: “Listen, is it possible for me to call you back?”
Early in his career, Goldstone committed himself to working only with bands he loved. During six years at Epic, he signed only six. One was Pearl Jam. Another was Rage Against the Machine. Another was Dirt Merchants (well, he loved them). “I’ve never thought that diversification in A&R made any sense,” he says. “I feel like if I don’t want to listen to the song a thousand times, and I don’t want to go see the show 150 times, that I shouldn’t be doing it simply because I thought it had a commercial value to it.
“As a teenager, I was passionate to the point of obsession about music,” Goldstone says. As a kid, he says that he “would turn over all [his] vinyl records and see it would say, ‘9255 Sunset Blvd.,’ or, ‘9130 Sunset Blvd.'”
After his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 12, he’d hang around at those addresses, trying to score free T-shirts and posters. Goldstone is a compulsive kid trapped in an adult’s body–like Tom Hanks’ character in Big.
In his old New York office at Epic, a full-size basketball hoop on a pole stood in one corner of the room, framed Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees posters hung on one wall, and the poster from the Seattle rock movie Singles, signed by director Cameron Crowe, hung on another. He is intense, emotional and intriguingly tetchy–when asked how old he is, he won’t answer. “The more you ask,” he says, “the more I don’t want to tell you.”
Goldstone comes off more like a member of the bands he signs than an executive of the company doing the signing. “Michael is extremely sensitive to artists,” says Michele Anthony, executive vice president of Sony Music Entertainment, Epic’s parent company, “but he can also see the bigger picture.” Richard Griffiths, president of Epic, explains further: “A&R is no longer just about signing acts and making records, and Michael Goldstone understands that better than most.”
Last winter, Goldstone made entertainment-business headlines when he was recruited by DreamWorks, the massively hyped entertainment concern launched by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The company’s record division had been the buzz of the industry ever since Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker signed on, having just been ousted from Warner Bros. Records in a gruesome corporate feud. Before inviting Goldstone to become their fourth principal (Ostin’s son Michael had also joined the company), the two esteemed executives conducted an exhaustive interview process. Once the deal was done, the press focused on Goldstone’s move as if he himself was a rock star.
Variety reported that Goldstone hadn’t notified his bosses at Epic until his deal with DreamWorks was secured, thus preventing them from making the customary counteroffer. Later bulletins had Epic rebuilding its A&R department in light of Goldstone’s departure (including the hiring of Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien as the label’s senior vice president). Though Ostin and Waronker have no problems getting respect from rockers–they count such acts as Neil Young and R.E.M. as admirers–some in the industry assumed that DreamWorks signed Goldstone because it needed a quick shot of credibility.
Goldstone seemed like someone who could convince younger, hipper bands that DreamWorks was the place to be. At that point, the label’s biggest act was George Michael, the epitome of all that was vapid and overblown, albeit lucrative, in ’80s pop music. His first DreamWorks album, Older, was a commercial disappointment. (Under substantially lower expectations, two other DreamWorks releases–Beautiful Freah, by Eels, and the soundtrack to the Broadway show Rent–have performed modestly well.)
In 1988, when goldstone signed Mother Love Bone, then the reigning kings of the sizzling Seattle scene, it was doubtful that he realized he was at the forefront of a revolution that would change the music business. He was working as an A&R guy at PolyGram records, where he was encouraged to scour the cutting edge for new bands.
“Some of my warmest memories were watching [Mother Love Bone’s] Andy Wood play club shows,” Goldstone says, “because Andy was a rock star even if there were only six people there. He would talk to the balcony even if there wasn’t a balcony in the club.” Three weeks after the band’s first album was finished, Wood, its lead singer, died of a heroin overdose. “His death was one of the most devastating things I’d ever been through personally,” says Goldstone. “I felt like I had lost a little brother, and it took awhile before I could get to an OK place about it.”
By the time he got to that place, later that year, he was working at Epic Records. When Mother Love Bone’s bassist, Jeff Ament, and guitarist Stone Gossard were ready to form a new band, their loyalty was more to Goldstone than to PolyGram, the label that had released their record. “They had told [Poly-Gram], ‘We have nothing,’ ” says Kelly Curtis, who was Mother Love Bone’s manager. ” ‘Singer’s dead; we have nothing. We want to start over. We don’t know what we’re going to do.'”
Meanwhile, as they were considering their options, Ament and Gossard asked Goldstone to pass along a demo tape without vocals to ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons. Irons, in turn, passed the tape on to a surfer buddy of his, who proceeded to sing his own lyrics over the music on the cassette. Ament returned the favor by issuing Goldstone a copy of the result.
“I must have listened to that tape 20 or 30 times, driving in my car,” Goldstone says. “By the time I arrived at my destination, I was pretty much crying–I was just really happy for them. Because I knew at that moment, whether it was with me or not, that they were going to have a career again, and that was really pretty great.” The singer, of course, was Eddie Vedder. And the band, at the time still nameless, became known as Pearl Jam.
Before long, Pearl Jam inked a deal with Epic and began recording their first album, Ten. Suddenly there were two new stars on the music scene: Eddie Vedder and Michael Goldstone. The second most famous story about Michael Goldstone is about a band he failed to sign.
In December 1994, he and Rancid, a Berkeley, Calif., punk band, shook hands on a deal to bring the band to Epic. Goldstone had been wooing the band for months, as had Madonna herself, who wanted the band for her Maverick label. So a celebration was in order. Throughout the negotiations, the band had joked that if it was going to eschew its label, the solidly punk Epitaph, Goldstone in turn would have to do the punk equivalent. “So they came over here and peroxided my hair and dyed it blue,” Goldstone recalls, “and it turned green.”
Once Rancid got back home, the band had a last-minute change of heart and decided to stick with Epitaph. “It was supposed to be celebratory,” Goldstone says of the episode, “but in the end it never came to be, and I looked kind of silly.”
Somehow, though, it only served to add to Goldstone’s credibility. There was no question: He was the bigwig who’d go all the way. Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph’s owner, says that even though Goldstone tried to lure Rancid away from his label, he gives the guy a lot of credit for not pressuring the band into a decision. “The major labels usually don’t get that your bands are your most important customers, not the record-store chains,” Gurewitz says. “But when you’ve got guys like Goldie, there really is no difference between an independent and a major label.”
Six weeks later, as if to prove Gure-witz’s point, Goldstone had Epic’s logo shaved into the back of his head. His commitment to the industry ran as deep as his devotion to the artists in whom he believed. Goldstone had no qualms about being made a fool of by either, as long as the emotions were genuine. Over takeout spaghetti and salad one evening, Goldstone explains his strategy for signing acts.
“If you only get to sign a limited number of bands,” he says, “and you hear a thousand tapes a year, and of the thousand tapes you like 80, and of those 80 you can sign two–or one–why not have it be something that you’re passionate about?”
We’re sitting in his spacious New York apartment. His spare, tastefully nondescript quarters suggest a man who travels a lot. The only hint of the music business is a framed sample of original artwork from Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy album hanging in one dark corner. Perhaps more revealing are two paperbacks propped up on an end table: Connie Bruck’s Master of the Game, a biography of the Time Warner mogul Steve Ross; and Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir of twentysomething neuroses.
Goldstone got his start in the record business in 1976, when he was still in high school, by landing a part-time job as a press assistant in the publicity department at Chrysalis Records. Chrysalis was a small operation at the time, what was then called a boutique label. Distributed by Warner Bros, but free to sign whomever it wished, Chrysalis enjoyed a string of successes that arched from ‘705 rockers such as Jethro Tull, Ian Hunter and Robin Trower to early ‘805 New Wavers like Blondie, Generation X and Fun Boy Three.
Its most successful acts were Pat Benatar, and Huey Lewis and the News. During the next seven years, Goldstone tried his hand at everything, from tour press to marketing to artist development. Along the way he forged relationships with the agents, managers and DJs who make the recording industry hum. But what he enjoyed most of all was rubbing shoulders with the talent.
“Touring with Ian Hunter, in particular, was an incredible thrill for me because I grew up on Mott the Hoople,” he says. Although Goldstone went out to see new music more than anyone else in the office, he claims he could never have conceived of an A&R career. “At the time,” he says, “my perception was that unless you could go into a studio and engineer a record or produce a record or play on a record, that you weren’t really qualified to do A&R.”
That didn’t stop Steve Moir, then an MCA executive (and now Goldstone’s manager), from offering him his first A&R job, in 1984. “A&R is about taste,” says Moir. “With Michael, I just liked his taste. Michael was into the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads when everybody else was listening to Foreigner and Journey.”
Goldstone thought Moir was crazy to hire him. “I even argued with him about how I’d never been in the studio, never made a record, never signed a band, didn’t have a clue,” Goldstone says. Two weeks into his new job, Goldstone was handed a videotape of a teenage guitarist named Charlie Sexton playing and singing onstage with Joe Ely. “It was really striking,” Goldstone says. “And he had an amazingly warm voice.”
Not sure what to do, Goldstone flew down to Austin, Texas, to watch the 15-year-old Sexton perform in front of six people at a teenage girl’s birthday party. Still impressed, Goldstone stuck by the guitar prodigy’s side until the deal was finished. Then Goldstone hunkered down with producer Keith Forsey. The result was “Beat’s So Lonely,” an instant hit for Sexton.
Goldstone’s next find was a Black Crowes-style blues-rock band called Broken Homes. Despite the fact that Goldstone took the same meticulous, hands-on approach he had with Sexton, Broken Homes’ career went nowhere. Characteristically, Goldstone blamed himself for getting too involved and thereby losing his objectivity. But the band members considered him a friend and relied on his advice.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Goldstone met a kind of band he’d never seen before, a fiercely independent group he respected but knew he couldn’t sign to the pop-oriented MCA. “Jane’s Addiction really changed the way bands thought,” he says. “They were the first band that insisted on delivering their own artwork for their first record. They made the relationship between the band and the label more of a partnership.”
When Goldstone moved to PolyGram, in 1988, and detected a similar vibe emanating from a flamboyant Seattle hard-rock quintet named Mother Love Bone, whose music he loved, he knew he was the man to make them happen. Nearly every major label in the country wanted to snare Mother Love Bone, then the biggest band in Seattle. After almost signing with Geffen, the home of Guns n’ Roses, Mother Love Bone instead went with PolyGram and Goldstone, one of the only A&R execs who had bothered to befriend the band. Mother Love Bone brought to Poly-Gram the alternative-rock ethic that was rapidly seeping into the mainstream.
Wary of selling out to other parties’ interests, for example, the band came up with the then-unheard-of idea of starting its own label, Stardog, to control expectations and maintain a home-grown feel within the larger, impersonal corporate environment. Gold-stone’s role at PolyGram was to convince the higher-ups that such ideas were valuable promotional tools, not absurd, rock-star indulgences.
“That’s where Michael’s genius is: He is really loyal to the band, so you never thought he was toeing the company line,” says Kelly Curtis. “I never felt like I had to watch what I said around him when we were plotting to make stuff happen. His job was to sell it to the company in a way so that it didn’t come off as these punk guys telling him what to do.” When Andy Wood died, that loyalty was tested. But by putting his friendship with the band before all business considerations, Goldstone got Pearl Jam, the mother of all alternative bands.
At Epic, Goldstone backed Pearl Jam’s decision to scrap a fully executed video for “Even Flow” on artistic grounds, in 1991, way back before selling 7.7 million copies of Ten had brought the band clout. Pearl Jam also won the right to author their own press kits as well as to approve all final advertising copy. Other Pearl Jam decisions are still controversial: In the course of four platinum albums, the Seattle group has made only three videos. Its alternative U.S. tour route, recently devised in order to plow past an ongoing spat with Ticketmaster, has become the prototype of how major labels might service a band with unique ideas about connecting with its audience.
These experiences prepared Goldstone for his next signing, Rage Against the Machine. An explosive Los Angeles quartet equally enamored with bonesplitting heavy metal, hardcore hip-hop and radical leftist politics, Rage Against the Machine are exactly the kind of act that–only a few short years ago–many major labels would have regarded as more trouble than it was worth. After seeing only one early rehearsal, Goldstone decided the band was brilliant.
In the end, Goldstone was able to turn the band’s potential liabilities–lavishly profane lyrics and a penchant for loudly endorsing controversial causes–into attention-getting publicity gambits. Goldstone proudly defended the “anarchist” reading list that graces the liner notes of Evil Empire and successfully mediated a volatile group dynamic.
“We’re a band that plays great together, works horribly together,” says Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello. “Goldie’s greatest worth has been his passion for the band and his personal relationship with us that has helped us to continue to be a band.”
To date, Rage Against the Machine, the band’s Epic debut, has sold 1.7 million copies in the U.S. and 2.2 million overseas; the 1996 follow-up, Evil Empire, entered the Billboard chart at Number One and has sold 1.6 million.
Months later, deep within the inner sanctum of New York’s Chung King Studios, Michael Goldstone sits in a circle with Craig Wedren, Nathan Larson and Stuart Hill of Shudder to Think, an impossible-to-categorize band he lured to Epic from the legendarily uncompromising Washington, D.C., independent label Dischord, which is headed by Ian MacKaye of Fugazi.
Even though Goldstone is working for DreamWorks, he has specially flown in from L.A. to watch over the band as it puts the finishing touches on its new album, 50,000 B.C. He is here simply because the band trusts his judgment and regards him as a friend rather than as a business associate. In an era when bands like Shudder to Think demand, and are granted, creative control over their music, having an understanding contact within the label can be crucial for a band’s success; when a band chooses to go its own way, the A&R guy has to grasp what it’s doing.
As producer Ted Nicely nervously paces the glass booth like a security pit bull, lush, seductive strains of an uncharacteristic power ballad called “All Eyes Are Different” blare out of the control-room monitors. A radical departure even for a band that prides itself on being able to shift effortlessly between nearly operatic pop melodies and experimental noise jams, often in midsong, the track is working artistically, but it doesn’t exactly scream runaway hit.
Head lowered, Goldstone lightly taps his foot to the beat. “I love that bridge,” he gushes once the tape has played out. And that’s all he says. Then he huddles with Wedren, the band’s bald lead singer, to debate possibilities for the new album’s first single. “He’s a head freak,” Wedren later says admiringly of Goldstone. “He’s very introverted, which I think was something that helped, because our music is sort of that way.” Or as Larson puts it: “He spends a lot of time staring at his shoes.”
Whether music fans are best served by record executives as enigmatic as the rock stars they sign remains to be seen. In the end, Dream Works acts with upcoming releases–like Morphine, Jonathan Fire*Eater and Powerman 5000–will be judged on their musical merits, not on whether their label rep is a cool guy. Some warn that the success of bands like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine can only jeopardize the future for other cutting-edge acts.
“In the MTV era, it’s not unusual for first albums to do really well,” says an A&R executive. “It used to take three or four albums to really get that kind of saturation. Fifteen years ago, labels would sign groups and be happy as long as the sales pattern increased.” Now new acts are expected to break right away. If supposedly noncommercial bands like the ones Goldstone signs can sell boatloads of CDs, the logic goes, why can’t others?
Still, Shudder to Think’s first Epic release, Pony Express Record, sold only 60,000 copies, yet it doesn’t appear that Epic has abandoned the band. “There have been times when we’ve wanted to do some real ‘pop thang,’ and Michael has been like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” says Larson. “Much credit to him that he’s so invested.”
And by playing his cards close to his vest on the business end as well as with artists, Goldstone has been able to develop his creative judgment and accrue the power to use it without stepping on too many heads. Michele Anthony, the person who recommended him for his job at Epic, was Mother Love Bone’s lawyer. Mother Love Bone’s manager, Kelly Curtis, still represents Pearl Jam. Breathing the rarefied air in this virtual vacuum, Goldstone acts as if he hasn’t sold out, even as he’s selling zillions.
After securing the most coveted job in the record industry, Goldstone will be under immense scrutiny. With alternative on the wane, he’ll be expected to discover the Next Big Thing. Still, he says he doesn’t feel any “specific pressure.”
Goldstone is also sanguine about the effect his rise has had on the industry. “It’s a narcissistic job,” he says. “If I thought that only 80 people bought every record in my collection, then maybe I’d change my way of thinking. But I don’t obsess too much about whether people will like something so much as whether I find it compelling. It’s not one of those jobs you can do by consensus.”