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SoulMonster

1991.12.08 - New York Times Magazine - Turning Rock Into Gold

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1991.12.08 - New York Times Magazine - Turning Rock Into Gold

Post by Soulmonster on Sat Apr 14, 2018 7:59 am

At a time when most talent hunters in the record business had tin ears, Tom Zutaut heard the music -- and the millions -- in a bunch of misfits called Guns N' Roses

"Critics don't like this kind of music," Tom Zutaut said to me some years ago, in his Sunset Boulevard office. "But they're going to sell millions and millions of records." Zutaut, then a 26-year-old scout for Geffen Records, sounded boastful at the time -- the band in question hadn't even begun recording its major-label debut. But the judgment of Geffen Records' boy wonder couldn't be easily dismissed.
While in his early 20's, Zutaut had brought two of the most successful heavy-metal bands of the decade, Motley Crue and Metallica, to Elektra Records. And he had lured Kitaro, a new-age composer and synthesist, to Geffen, where his record had platinum sales. Yet nothing compared with his discovery of that band -- Guns N' Roses.
"By the second song, I was completely blown away," Zutaut says, recalling the night, almost five years ago, that he first saw Guns N' Roses play at the Los Angeles rock club the Troubador. Sitting in the kitchen of Conway Recording Studios, where he and a producer, Mike Clink, are mixing songs from the debut album of a Memphis-based band, Roxy Blue, Zutaut still sounds awed by that first encounter. "I'd been to really loud shows, and nothing had ever been too loud for my ears. But this was the loudest, rawest sound I'd ever experienced. It was actually painful."
"Everyone had talked about finding the next Jim Morrison," he continues. "I'd heard these stories for years. But in my mind, this was as close as anyone had come. Axl Rose was the most charismatic performer I'd ever seen. The musicians were amazing. Slash was the best guitar player I'd seen. The two of them were like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Everything about the band was right."
And so Zutaut did what any self-respecting talent hunter would do. He walked out, fearful of betraying any hint of enthusiasm that would lead other scouts to sign the band first. "As I left the club, one guy asked me, 'Don't you like the band?' I said, 'No, man, I'm going home because it's too loud.'"
"When I got home I couldn't sleep, but the next day I called Axl. And he said: 'You didn't even see the whole show. We thought you didn't like it.' But I said: 'You've got yourself a record deal. I don't need to hear or see anything else. I just want to be the guy to help you take this out to the rest of the world.'"
With his long blond hair, cunning blue eyes and round baby face, set atop a bearish body, the 32-year-old Zutaut could play a young Falstaff, except for his soft voice. But his cherubic countenance masks a ferocious competitiveness.
In a secretive business where bands and fads come and go overnight and batting 0 for 20 is no failure if the next band sells a few million CD's, Zutaut is the closest thing to a Ted Williams. Seven of the two dozen or so bands he has signed have earned platinum and multi-platinum records.
The first two Guns N' Roses records, "Appetite for Destruction" and "GN'R Lies," have sold some 20 million copies, generating profits of at least $80 million for Geffen Records. And their latest albums, "Use Your Illusion I" and "Use Your Illusion II," shipped an unprecedented 7.3 million copies worldwide on the first day of release in September.
Zutaut's success has made him powerful, one of the few record executives with the clout to sign any band in the world, and a millionaire, with homes in Malibu, the Hollywood Hills and the Hawaiian island of Kauai. But more important than the big money he makes and the fast, famous company he keeps is the role he and other "A&R" people -- the letters stand for artists and repertoire -- play in shaping American popular culture. By deciding who is worthy and who isn't, Zutaut and his brethren are pop music's gatekeepers.
It's a job that requires a remarkable array of skills. Aside from scouting talent and determining such financial matters as advances, recording budgets and tour support, A&R people must hire producers, conceive marketing strategies and shrewdly oversee every detail of recording and marketing a record. The position demands the wiliness of an impresario, the ears of a studio technician, the attitude of a mentor and the patience of a baby sitter. Few people combine all those talents. And fewer still are willing to deal with the rage and chaos that are the shadow side of rock's creativity and passion.
Zutaut's year-and-a-half struggle to mold Guns N' Roses, a reckless, rebellious tribe of musical misfits, into one of the world's greatest rock acts vividly illustrates the enormous demands placed on the contemporary A&R people. It also sheds considerable light on the process by which an elite group of people at a few powerful companies pick, shape and market raw talent, helping to create the stars and music successive generations of teenagers will grow up calling their own.
It's a process that, in less pressured times, involved the patient, long-term development of talent by people with a broad knowledge of popular music. That's still true today, but the field had been infiltrated by fast-buck operators concerned only with packaging the next microwave-ready pop star. That, as much as anything, explains the deluge of mediocre-ranging-to-awful music that has flooded store racks in recent years. And it underlines the value of a Zutaut and a handful of others in a vanishing breed of A&R people who trace their roots to John Hammond and the other pioneers of American popular music.
If you ask A&R people what they look for in a band, you are likely to hear a familiar litany: Charisma. Great songs. Good looks. Exotic persona. A unique image. Passion.
To Seymour Stein, the president of Sire Records, and the person who signed Talking Heads, the Pretenders and Madonna, these are prerequisites, not guarantees, of success. "I've looked for artists who had drive -- who wanted to make it at any cost," he says. "The songs are everything. But there has to be a very strong desire on the part of the artists to make it -- almost a ruthless desire. I spotted that in Madonna. She wanted it badly, and she had the ability."
Zutaut largely concurs. "I look for someone who can take me on a journey, like the old medicine men could: someone who can mark the rite of passage between youth and adulthood," he says. "I look for a sense of recklessness, that a band is coming from the heart. Their very survival should depend on getting their music out -- whether people like it or not. And you can tell the difference between the bands that are serious and the ones that are sitting in their bedrooms premeditating how they're going to become rock stars and get lots of girls to hang out with them."
Finding a band like that is only the first step, Zutaut says. "In order to be a great A&R person, you have to put yourself on the line for what you believe in, because when you sign a band its record is usually two or three years away from fruition. And you can't follow trends. If the music and artist are great enough, that will become the trend. But having the courage to do that is hard."
Especially with a band like Guns N' Roses, whose music and behavior lent new meaning to rock-and-roll rage.
"When I found Guns N' Roses they were living like wild animals," Zutaut says of those days in 1986. "Once I walked into the house and the toilet was ripped from the floor. There was a big question whether they would ever show up in a studio. Would the band ever get focused enough to make a record? You never really knew."
Adds Slash: "Guns N' Roses was always on the verge of disintegrating -- we're extremists. We were always getting in fights. And there'd be an occasional overdose."
In fact, as confirmed by a Geffen spokesman and widely documented in news reports, every member of Guns N' Roses was a heavy drug user by the time "Appetite for Destruction" was recorded, and the lead singer, W. Axl Rose, and the guitarists, Slash and Izzy Stradlin, had all suffered heroin overdoses (Guns N' Roses is supposedly drug-free now). This year, Rose, who one psychiatrist diagnosed as manic-depressive, acknowledged seeing a therapist daily.
Rose grew up in a small town near Indianapolis, the wild son of Bible-thumping fundamentalists, and his friendship with Izzy Stradlin goes back to their teens. Slash was born in England but grew up in Hollywood, the son of a divorced costume designer and artist. The bass player, Duff McKagan, grew up in Seattle.
The group's explosive, sometimes violent performances have always played a large part in their appeal. In St. Louis this July, for example, Rose stomped off the stage in a fury after seeing that someone was videotaping the performance. This brought on a riot that left 60 people injured. He showed up two hours late for a New York show. Frustrated by the lackadaisical audience, he ended a Salt Lake City show in the middle of an encore.
Impressed with Zutaut's past successes, David Geffen and the company's president, Ed Rosenblatt, agreed to sign Guns N' Roses to a multi-record contract worth about $350,000. When Guns N' Roses chewed through about $150,000 that had been set aside for living expenses -- before setting foot in a recording studio -- Zutaut faced his first crisis with the band. When he pleaded for more support, Geffen and Rosenblatt asked him when the band was going to make a record. He says he could only respond: "They're not ready yet. I don't know when they're going to make a record. But you've got to trust me. This is going to be the biggest band on the label."
"Signing the group was a crapshoot," says Rosenblatt. "I wondered many times if this was going to be one of those super-disasters -- the $100,000 down a rat hole. Tom was just a young guy with a hot track record. But A&R people are the most important people at a record company. He believed in this band so strongly, and it was his confidence in the band that sold us."
Says Slash: "Tom was the only guy behind the Guns N' Roses vision besides the guys in the band. He fought hard for us at the record company, because as far as the industry was concerned, we were vermin. Even now he is behind whatever it is what we want to do when other individuals at the record company aren't.
Guns N' Roses got an extra $100,000. But even Zutaut, as he admits now, had doubts about whether the band would ever summon the self-discipline it would need to make a first-rate album.
A&R people are given to rhapsodizing about producing timeless art, but they are expected by their employers to produce salable music. That inevitably creates frustrations. Musicians need to trust the musical judgment of A&R people, but since A&R people work for the companies, few of them inspire such trust.
"My experience has never been that an A&R person sets out to change someone by force," says John Doe, one of the founders of X, a Los Angeles punk band. "The change is always encouraged by greed and the impulse for fame and fortune. The danger is that if you listen to them and write their kind of songs and your record doesn't do well, then you doubt their wisdom."
A&R people frequently have to make ruthless decisions: firing musicians who don't have the right look or aren't up to the rest of a band's abilities and even, in the case of top vocalists, replacing whole bands with studio musicians. But with Guns N' Roses, Zutaut never felt the need to change personnel. (The band dropped its drummer, Steven Adler, this spring, but Zutaut wasn't involved.) Their biggest problem was impatience.
"Everyone in the band played great," he says. "The chemistry was perfect. But when I signed Guns, they didn't have all the great songs that would end up on 'Appetite for Destruction.' They had to work on that." Nevertheless, Guns N' Roses began pressuring Zutaut to let them record an album soon after they were signed.
"They were broke and frustrated, but I didn't feel like they were ready yet," he says. "Until I felt 100 percent sure that they had enough material to make a great debut record, I wasn't prepared to line up a producer and set up a start date."
Enraged at Zutaut's judgment, the band got into bitter shouting matches with him and eventually got its then-manager, Arnold Stiefel, to try and overrule him. Stiefel was a close friend of David Geffen's, but Geffen backed his A&R prodigy. "I was so upset that they had tried to go around me, that I was ready to drop them," says Zutaut, who didn't speak to the band for many weeks.
Instead of coming down on the band and possibly destroying it, Zutaut adopted a clever plan that has since been imitated widely at other American labels. He had Guns N' Roses make an independent record.
Thousands of bands had put out such records, but rarely an American band already signed to a major label. Besides keeping Guns N' Roses busy, Zutaut says, the "indie" record -- "Live?!* Like a Suicide" -- provided a way to build an underground following for the group before it recorded its first album for Geffen. "The idea," Zutaut says, "was to put out a home-made record that the band would make, something that caught the wildness of the live show, and would get people excited here and in England."
Distributed as an underground record in America and Great Britain, "Live?!* Like a Suicide," released in 1986, was an immediate hit in the metal clubs, selling 40,000 copies.
Slash now concedes that Zutaut was right. "We were a bunch of punks," he says. "We didn't know why it was taking so long to get in the studio. But Tom kept pushing us to keep playing and rehearsing. It was hard to get us to buckle down."
In time, Guns N' Roses wrote more songs and got tighter. When they wrote "Sweet Child O' Mine," a song that has come to be their anthem, Zutaut was at last convinced that they were ready to record. It seems in retrospect that "Appetite For Destruction" was always destined to be a monster hit. But when it came out in 1987, its noisy, aggressive music was anathema to radio. No station would play "Welcome to the Jungle," the first single, and MTV wouldn't touch it. Worse, Zutaut had trouble getting the Geffen promotion staff to work the record at all.
The band was kept on a grueling touring regimen, the traditional way of building a following. And then, about three months after the album was released, something happened: "Appetite for Destruction" suddenly started selling 2,000 to 3,000 records a day without any airplay. For months, says Zutaut, David Geffen himself had begged MTV to play the video, and when the network finally did -- at 3 A.M. -- it became MTV's most-requested clip.
Within a year after its release, the album had gone platinum. By 1988, the band had rocketed to stardom. But for Zutaut, the experience had been an emotional roller coaster. Rose almost killed himself with a drug overdose soon after the album's release; along with band members and friends, Zutaut waited as doctors pumped the singer's stomach, wondering if Guns N' Roses would survive.
When A&R people began scouring the country more than 60 years ago, they were interested in developing talent. In those days, when popular music was driven by songs, not artists, the job was hardly glamorous. The president of Capitol Nashville, Jimmy Bowen, remembers working in A&R for Reprise Records in the early 60's for $100 a week.
Back in the 30's and 40's, John Hammond roamed America, discovering everyone from Billie Holliday to Count Basie. (In later years, he signed Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.) He was looking for the best jazz and blues musicians, not superstars. And music was a regional phenomenon, not a mass market. When rock became a growth industry in the 60's and the darling of Wall Street in the 80's -- a multibillion dollar business predicated on creating and packaging superstars and delivering a quick, huge return on investment -- the A&R profession changed forever.
Scouts who found stars -- whether by luck or skill or both -- were soon themselves courted like stars and paid enormous sums of money for their supposed prescience. By the late 70's, the best A&R men were making $100,000 or more a year. Ten years later, the top salaries, with bonuses or points (profit sharing tied to sales of a record), ranged from $500,000 to $1 million annually. And it's hard to call what they did a job: jetting from New York to London for a weekend to hear a band; rubbing elbows with rock stars and the beautiful women who inevitably swarm around the most promising bands.
And the pressure became enormous: "You can't afford to make too many mistakes, because you won't be an A&R person for very long," says the chairman of Elektra Entertainment, Bob Krasnow. "There's just too much money at stake. By the time our average band releases its second single, $1 million has been spent. I have 144 people working for me. If I start delivering bad records, they won't have jobs."
But delivering bad records is just what A&R people have been doing with increasing frequency in recent years.
"A&R people used to have a broad knowledge of music, and many of the best were musicians," says Tom Moon, The Philadelphia Inquirer's popular music critic. "John Hammond and Quincy Jones did A&R. But now records are put out by specialists in tiny sub-genres."
"Today, the A&R person's primary activity is trend-chasing -- copying the musical style of the moment," Moon continues. "Their secondary activity is championing talent. The few visionary artists who break through are almost an accident. Fully half of the records I get by new artists should not have been made. They're terrible."
Steve Moir, a former A&R man for a number of major labels who now has his own company that manages record producers and artists, says: "The amazing thing is that a lot of people can get into A&R who know absolutely nothing about music. And they can get into positions of incredible power."
Plucked from advertising, marketing and radio, such scouts may be able to spot raw talent. But they know next to nothing about the making of a record, a process that requires sophisticated judgments, many of them musical.
"Most A&R people have ears like feet and no guts," says George Tobin, a manger and producer. "These are tastemakers hired by lawyers and accountants. They know nothing about music."
Though Zutaut began in retail, his near-encyclopedic knowledge of rock-and-roll sets him apart from most of his peers. If you randomly pull out any of the thousands of records in his collection, he can reel off the names of the producers and engineers, and usually recount subtle details in production. While not a producer, he says he learned the technical aspects of record making in a decade of on-the-job training.
Zutaut's family roots go back to the coal-mining regions of West Virginia, where the large, extended clan still gathers every year. His father is a chemist, but Zutaut was drawn to music at a young age.
The instincts that have served him so well were developed as a rock-and-roll-crazed youngster growing up in Park Forest, Illinois, just outside Chicago. There, Zutaut took up the tuba in elementary school, learned to read music and played in the orchestra. But then he got bitten by the rock-and-roll bug. When he was 10, he was buying every new pop and rock record that came out.
"After a couple years of doing that I started noticing that I had this ability to pick the ones that became hits," Zutaut says. "And I was almost always right."
At his high school's 10-watt FM station, he became a disk jockey and convinced major labels to send him records. Instead of going to college, he took a mail-room job in Chicago with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic's distribution division, where he quickly rose through the ranks. But it was Zutaut's uncanny ability to spot hit singles and get them added to the play list of a major Midwestern radio station that attracted the attention of an Elektra vice president, who insisted the label hire him. Based in Los Angeles, Zutaut hit the clubs almost every night, recommending promising bands to Elektra's A&R department. Eventually Joe Smith, then head of Elektra, gave him a shot at A&R.
In 1981 he signed Motley Crue, whose high-heeled shoes and vampy makeup made them the butt of endless jokes. But nobody laughed when the group's first album for Elektra sold three and a half million.
"I always like to eat a donut before a big mix," Zutaut says one afternoon at Skip Saylor Recording, the Hollywood studio where the "Use Your Illusion" albums are being mixed. Zutaut takes a huge bite from a jellyroll as engineer Bill Price, called in at the 11th hour to mix the records, takes a drag on a cigarette and smiles.
With its immense, lit-up, 80-channel console and its wall of samplers, reverb units, equalizers, harmonizers and tape recorders, the room looks like the cockpit of some starship. Zutaut loves recording studios, and he seems like a child here, surrounded by expensive toys. He has spent thousands of hours in rooms like this -- weeks at a stretch if something is going wrong or if he feels a group needs his counsel. He's had to fire producers and remix albums that sounded all wrong. But this visit will be brief, just a check on the sound of a song called "Breakdown."
"Has Slash heard the mix?" Zutaut asks. "Did he like it?"
"He heard it," says Price, who has produced and engineered records by the Clash, the Pretenders and the Sex Pistols. "And he's quite happy with it."
"Well, let's hear what it sounds like," Zutaut says, sitting down at the console.
Piped through the studio's 1,000-watt-per-side playback monitors, an otherwise excellent take is marred by sludgy vocals and a guitar solo that lacks clarity and depth.
"Try punching the vocal up on db," Zutaut says to Price, who nudges the lever up a notch. And a moment later: "I can't really hear Slash's guitar solo -- let's bring that up a couple of db's." The changes are immediately noticeable. The muddy vocals are now clear and the guitar, which had sounded hollow, has bite to it.
Price and Zutaut listen to the song again, with the new levels. Satisfied, Zutaut finishes off the rest of his donut.
"Let's let Slash hear that and see what he thinks," he says to Price, and we take off for a North Hollywood rehearsal studio, where the members of Roxy Blue will play the songs they hope to record for their Geffen debut.
Zutaut is in his element in the studio. He huddles with the producer, Mike Clink, discussing Zutaut's plan to rent a house in Malibu where Roxy Blue will record their album using a remote studio on a truck. Then Zutaut plants himself in front of the stage and listens to the songs, 19 of them.
When the band is finished, Zutaut motions everyone to a bench in front of the stage, where they talk about the songs. A few that are band favorites don't make Zutaut's list, which creates some tense exchanges. Zutaut takes the challenge in stride, pointing out similarities between various songs, stressing the fact that one tune lacks a developed chorus. After some give and take, a workable list is arrived at, but Zutaut has the final say.
"We want to have 10 great songs, but let's record 14," he says. "And the ones that don't get on this album will go on another or be B sides."
"Tom, we have total faith in you," says Todd Poole, the band's lead singer, putting his arm around Zutaut's shoulder.
"Hey, we're going to sell millions of records," says Zutaut.
Corrections: An article in The Times Magazine on Dec. 8 about Tom Zutaut, an artists and repertoire man for Geffen Records, referred incompletely to Elektra Records' signing of the heavy-metal band Metallica. While Mr. Zutaut, who formerly worked for Elektra, claims some credit for bringing the band to the label, it was signed to a contract by Michael Alago.
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