The Hot Seat: Seymour Stein

Published in The Music Network

 

The co-founder of Sire Records and industry legend talks of developing the Indian and Chinese markets, the art of A&R and recalls signing Madonna from his hospital bed.

What’s keeping you busy?
Sire Records. I’m still doing what I’ve always done, which is look for new talent. Among other things. I’m also trying to develop new markets, which is very important for the future. Particularly India and China. There are 400 million English speakers in India. And it’s also home to the largest English-language daily newspaper, The Times of India. China and India pick up on what’s going on in America, and they’ve got some really good bands bubbling below the surface.

It’s one thing to bring English- language repertoire into China and India, but is the world ready for bands from these countries?
I think they will be, yes. The way Bollywood music is changing, it’s similar to the way Broadway changed after Hair in the ‘60s. Hair was the first rock musical. It was originally shunned by Broadway, and it opened in a discotheque. I was there the night it opened. Many of the songs went on to be hits. Bollywood music is moving also to a mainstream market that could eventually go global.

Do you spend much trawling the net for bands?
I spend time online, but not as much as other people. It’s a very good way to hear new things. The Internet helps whet my appetite but I like to see bands live.

Is A&R still a word-of-mouth game?

Yeah, if I hear about a band from someone who is credible — and fortunately I know a lot of those people — then yes, it will make me want to hear more. Is there too much pressure these days on bands to deliver success on the first album? Artists definitely need a certain amount of time to develop.

Some of the best bands I’ve worked with over the years took quite a long time to happen. The Ramones took a very long time, and now 30 years-on they’re more popular than they’ve ever been. Depeche Mode started doing well in the UK on Daniel Miller’s label Mute, but in America it took longer. Talking Heads grew with every album, but it wasn’t until the third album that they started to happen. Bruce Springsteen’s first album got a lot of attention, but he didn’t really break until later on. It’s a lot harder these days, mainly because record sales are shrinking every year.

Warner is generating all types of news at the moment; digital sales have slowed and there’s talk of it being sold.
There’s a lot going on. True, there’s a chance it might be sold. But there’s a chance – I think a greater chance – that they might wind-up buying EMI.

Apparently Madonna’s back in vogue with a new album and tour in the works?

She’s never to be underestimated. Madonna will just go on and on and on. She stays on top of what’s going on and she’s well-ahead of the curve.

You signed her in a hospital?
Yes. I had a heart murmur at birth, but it didn’t affect me until around when I discovered Madonna. I’d asked her to come to my hospital. My barber came and gave me a haircut and shaved me. (My PA) brought my pyjamas, a bathrobe. I was connected to all these tubes, but I didn’t want to look like I was about to croak. Fortunately for me, Madonna was at least as anxious — perhaps more — to be signed, than I was to sign her. The deal was concluded right there in the hospital.

When are you visiting Australia next?
I’m meant to be speaking at Michael Parisi’s Dream Inc Music Workshops in a few months. I have a great fondness for Australia. Pushbike Song by the Mixtures, produced by David Mackay and Roger Savage, was Sire’s first top 40 single in America and early signings included Australian bands The Saints and Radio Birdman, both ARIA Hall of Famers.

Musexpo 2011 will honour Seymour Stein as the “International Music Person of the Year” for his outstanding contribution to supporting global music and helping with its positive impact on humanity. Stein will also be speaking there. Visit musexpo.net for more details.

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