Gary James' Interview With Richard Gottehrer Of
In the early 1960s a group of songwriters out of New York decided to put out some records pretending to be an Australian band. They actually did quite well. Calling themselves The Strangeloves, they enjoyed success with song such as "I Want Candy", "Cara-Lia" and "Night Time". Strangeloves member Richard Gottehrer would go on to produce albums by Blondie, Marshall Crenshaw, The Go-Gos and a host of other acts. Along with Seymore Stein he co-founded Sire Records. These days, along with Scott Cohen, he runs The Orchard, a digital music distribution company. Once a Rock 'n' Roller, always a Rock 'n' Roller. Richard Gottehrer talked with us about his career in the music business.
Q - I was watching Bill Maher recently. He was interviewing a songwriter who was talking about how bad the market is for songwriters today unless your songs are played on TV shows and in the movies. He cited Pharrell as only having made $2700 for "Happy", despite having 63 million downloads. Where then is the money to be made in digital downloads or distribution of music?
A - I don't know about that stuff. I think if you write hit songs you make lots of money still. You gotta remember in the old days we could only reach a certain number of people. Now the world of music reaches tons. I think the new world is better than the old. That's the answer I would give you. It wasn't digital downloads. They were referring to streaming. Downloads are the same as sales. So that didn't change anything. Pharrell made a fortune out of that song, so he'll be the last person to say anything bad about it.
Q - Before you wrote "My Boyfriend's Back", did you have any number one singles?
A - No.
Q - So, when you and Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein put The Strangeloves together, why did you pretend to be from Australia?
A - So, remember we had written and produced "My Boyfriend's Back" and a lot of girl group things. We were part of the Brill Building scene. We were songwriters that wrote to order for people. It was 1965 I guess, and The Beatles had come in, in 1964 and all the British bands were coming. The Brill Building scene sort of writing for people at the time was drying up. So, we had some tracks. We were still young guys. We were in our middle twenties. We became interested in that sort of musical culture instead of sitting in a room writing songs. The British Invasion was happening. Most of the music that was attracting attention was like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals. It was the image bands that were attracting attention. We did a song before "I Want Candy" and in the middle of it, Bob Feldman gave a short narration with a fake English accent. The Strangeloves were born as a foreign act. We didn't think we could get away with being English. So we selected some other part of the former Empire and that was Australia. Most Americans in 1965 had never met an Australian. So it wouldn't have made any difference. That was it.
Q - I thought that would be your reason. Was it easy to write a song like "I Want Candy" and "Hang On Sloopy"?
A - We didn't write "Hang On Sloopy". We produced the record. That was written by Wes Farrell and Bert Berns. Bert Berns was also the fourth songwriter for "I Want Candy". That was based around a rhythm that we learned from Bo Diddley and the beat. It was written the way we had always written songs. You know, you sit down in a room and you pick up an idea and then you actualize the idea with words that suit the title. That was about it. We had the rhythm track first and then we put words to it.
Q - After "I Want Candy" became a hit, The Strangeloves went out on the road, but you didn't like that, did you? What didn't you like, the constant one-nighters? You were uncomfortable in front of an audience?
A - No. We didn't do constant one-nighters. We had a small tour and we did some tours where you could do three or four songs. We really weren't a band and we really weren't very good, which in the end really didn't matter because most people aren't very good. There are great and good. Good isn't good enough anymore today. You have to be great. We were like a novelty, so it was fine. I imagine we could've built a show around it, gotten a band as the band. In retrospect we could've done that, but we were basically songwriters and producers. This was just something we did.
Q - How expensive was it to launch Sire Records?
A - It wasn't expensive at all.
Q - I read if you wanted to start a record company today, it would cost you $250 million.
A - That's not true. It wouldn't cost you anything. It would cost you whatever it would cost you to get that first record. If you're talking about a record company where you hire people and have offices and phones, but you can start off with a recording. It's even easier today than it would've been then because you have infinite distribution facilities or independent labels now, like my Orchard. You have the ability to market and promote through Social Media, through the Internet and then you spend money in other ways. If you wanted to set up a formal structure with a staff and offices, yeah, it would cost money, but otherwise, no. You can become a record company by saying you're one.
Q - Your partner, Seymour Stein signed The Ramones and Madonna at a time when nobody wanted either of those acts. Did you have a say in signing those acts and what did you think of The Ramones and Madonna?
A - Well of course I loved them. I also signed Blondie, Robert Gordon, Richard Hell And The Voidoids. It was during the beginning of what we call the Punk period and then became New Wave. It was a shift in the business that made it musically interesting again. Those are people that pushed the envelope and did things partly in the old way and partly in a new way. So it was an interesting time.
Q - Now, Blondie's music is different from Richard Hell's music. Do you have to like the music of the artist that you're producing in order to get the very best out of that artist?
A - Well, you have to understand the artist. Both of them were unique in different ways. The music essentially wasn't that difficult. They were Soul based. Blondie also added the element of Debbie Harry. That added another ingredient to it and their songs were a bit more Pop driven, where Richard was a bit more Folk artsy and heavier Rock driven, but when you listen to his album it was still based around songs, which is the only thing that matters in the end. You have to have really great songs and then be able to communicate those thoughts to people that are recording. You have to be able to sing, interestingly enough, and then you have to be able to go out and demonstrate that in front of an audience. Those are the people that succeed.
Q - Is it a big leap to go from writing songs to producing songs, especially for other people? Is that difficult?
A - No. I don't think so. If you're really a good songwriter and you have the imagination to hear in your head what it takes to make or fulfill the potential of the song, you're able then to be a producer of it. Some people are not songwriters and are great producers because they know sound and they know how to structure the environment that the song should live in. I think it's easier, especially today with the technology available to songwriters to also produce. A producer today I would think is more technically driven than perhaps they were in the past. The song is the basis of everything. Without that, the artist is nothing. It doesn't mean the songwriter has to write it for the artist, but the artist can write it for him of her self. But it's the song that reaches people and then the artist delivers it. Without the song, it's nothing.
Q - I would imagine then it would've been harder for a guy like Frank Sinatra if he were starting out today to get that special song.
A - Not necessarily. There are a lot of good songwriters around. Once he had the first hit or the second hit, everybody wants to write for him. You see many songwriters that co-write with artists. I don't know if Frank would've wanted to co-write. He would've said, "Give me the song." Elvis Presley was the same way. He didn't really write songs. There are songwriters around that can definitely write great songs. You don't have to be an artist to write the song. There's an example you gave me, Frank Sinatra or Elvis. These are people that when they sang the song it really almost didn't matter any more. They made that song their own. Their recordings were the definitive recordings. Don't let people fool you when they long for the old days in business. The old days in business were good in their day, (laughs) today is better. It's better for everyone. I know some people made a lot of money back then. Today other people make a lot of money. You can reach people. The independents have access to distribution in places like my company, The Orchard. Obviously the present is always better than the past and the future is even better. It's going to be even better. All the rest is nonsense to wake up and go away.
Q - In the 1950s and 1960s if you didn't have a recording contract you couldn't get near a recording studio because the recording time was too expensive because the recording equipment was so very expensive. Today the cost of that equipment has come way, way down.
A - That's one aspect of it. The other was for the most part if you were an independent band you needed a record label and there weren't a lot of them and you didn't have access to getting your music out. Now anybody can write a song, do anything and get their music out. That's the important part of it, access. That's what technology gives you. Technology gives you access. If you have access and you're great, somehow there's a chance you'll be discovered. At least that exists. We lived in a small bubble before. Today, still the major labels are the ones that have the big hits because they have the mechanism to carry it through. But the truth is, even without that, a small label or a small group can survive or get their music in front of people. Once you do that you never know what's gonna happen. So, instead of bemoaning the fate of things as I hear a lot of people who came from my background do, c'mon, (laughs) tape machines are gone. They might as well be dinosaurs. We do things with technology now. Move ahead. If it doesn't sound exactly like you remember it sounding, it sounds good enough for the people that really want to ingest it, that really are engaged with so many other things other than music today. The world is a lot more engaging, a lot more interesting.
Q - Another thing that really sent record companies into a tailspin was you could no longer submit your demo tape to their A&R department. Now, you had to have an attorney usher the tape through the door. And how many bands could afford the services of such an attorney?
A - Well yes, because record companies would not accept, for a variety of reasons, something that wasn't recommended by somebody they knew. Generally the attorney was a trusted thing. Let me just say one more thing about publishing and streaming and when people complained. The issue is true that payment for songwriters through streaming services is not addressed the same way as payment of artist's masters record labels. The songwriter gets slightly short-changed because remember, all the years still to this day performance on traditional radio in the United States, record companies, master owners and artists do not get paid, but songwriters and publishers do. So when you have the definition of streaming, you've got like a bit of a confusion between what's performance and what is a sale. That creates a little confusion. It is true that the songwriter is getting short-changed in comparison to the artist and label in that regard. Sometimes they're not the same person. So, that has to be considered and addressed. When you talk about the streaming services, and I guess digital radio, Pandora, we need to find other ways to address how songwriters get paid more in those situations. The problem is, there's not that much money floating in all that. You're dealing with companies that are not essentially entertainment entities. They're corporate financial entities. The streaming services goal is to make money for themselves and if they have to pay too much out they can't exist because it costs a lot for them to exist. So somehow there's got to be a balance between what everybody gets paid and the profits that might go to shareholders in public corporations that run these things. There is a balance and will eventually be achieved, but it does have to be fair to songwriters. So let me be clear about that. But I also want to say Pharrell has done really great and he deserves to have done great for doing great work. He wasn't the one complaining for sure. I think I know who it was. If you're going to equate play for pay exactly, it doesn't exist quite that way anymore for a songwriter. So, that's it. And unfortunately people now stream. They don't buy. More people go to YouTube. There's got to be better payments for songwriters from Spotify, Sirius, Pandora. The songwriter is the backbone of the industry and they deserve to be fairly compensated. That's all I'll say in the matter.
Q - Gale Rosenberg told me if a band wants to succeed they have to understand Social Media. If they don't, then only one in 25,000 bands will succeed.
A - First of all, the fact that there are 25,000 bands is a staggering statistic. Just because you form a band and make music doesn't entitle you to success. You have to work at it. What Social Media does is it gives the artist a chance to relate directly to a fan and to build a fan base. Now, that said, you have to understand it all and you have to do it the right way. But then when you get down to the bottom line you have to start off with something great, whether it's the song, the recording, the performance, the visual image, trickery, anything that you could come up with that will attract a fan to you if you're a band or an artist. Then you have to fulfill what it is you do, what they expect of you. When you deal with Social Media you see artists go out and promote their shows, promote their music and that's nonsense. Nobody wants to be sold something. You've got an opportunity to have a conversation. The conversation is photos through Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Tumbler, Twitter. Tell people things about you that can engage them in a conversation to want to learn more about you. If you can do that, then you've got someone who then can say "Wow!" "Let me show you what I'm doing now. I'm going to send you a song." That's why you see someone like Taylor Swift, whether she does it all herself or it's done for her, I have a feeling she does a lot of it herself, she has a conversation with her fans and the conversation is not about her music. It's about her and them. Her music comes along with it and it's great music. It really is outstanding. So that's why people continue to relate to her, but they're relating to her, not just her music. So, you do need it all. The person that gave you that insight (Gale Rosenberg) is correct. An artist has an obligation today. It's not an obligation for a record company, a manager. People, fans know the difference if I were to speak directly to them. So, it's about the artist and the fan and that relationship. In addition to that, the record company and management have to do all the other things that go along with it, but it is possible for an unknown band to build a relationship, have a fan base and begin doing well using Social Media. That's true.