David Boxenbaum: General Manager, Octone Records
Interview by Cathy Genovese

What's your background, where are you from?

I grew up in Westchester, New York, in Larchmont. I went to Johns Hopkins undergrad and got a BA in Political Science and that's where I met James Diener, my current business partner. I also have an MBA from Columbia.

How did you get into the music business?

I basically entered the business very differently than most people. I was a management consultant at Price Waterhouse for two years, doing consulting for many companies such as Universal Music, EMI, Disney, and a bunch of others. I had really always been very music passionate, but never took the industry very seriously.

Did you see something as a consultant that made you say, "This isn't working the way it is; I can do a better job"?

Partly. Having consulted, I realized that the music business, at the end of the day, isn't that complicated. You've got to pick good talent and you've got to execute. There are a lot of functional aspects in the business that are like any other business. You've got to make a product, get it on the shelf and expose it to the right people. And if you have really good artists, it's easier. It's really about getting them in front of the right people.

How do you do that? As an indie you don't have the machine and the money that a major does. Is it more about touring than radio for you guys?

Oh, yeah. Like with signings we don't compete with major labels, with radio we don't compete with major labels, because we can't. Instead we heavily focus on touring. That's why I need a great live act that you can get in front of people, in front of the right audience. People are going to see the show and go and buy the record right away.

How do you compete with the majors on touring? How do you guys in the Indies get your artists on a cool tour where they can get in front of the right people?

First off, everybody pitches in—the agent, the manager, the label. We surround the tour. We find out every key decision-maker. We reach out to them. We create a custom marketing plan for every tour asking "What are we going to do to help put asses in seats? What are we going to do to make this tour meaningful? Why is our artist going to make this tour better?"

Is that how your MBA pays off for you, more so than somebody who just decides to start an indie label?

I think that where the MBA is handy is that at the end of the day this is a business where every decision you make has implications for different areas of the business—whether it's sale price, whether it's radio adds, whether it's trying to get into new markets. There's a chain reaction that hits other areas of your business. You tend to think about how one thing affects all the other things. That's really critical. Also, we're an entrepreneurial company. We have to watch our P's and Q's, and that's where I can be very effective. I always ask if this is going to help us ship records, sell records and find fans. Is it really meaningful, or is it just something done out of tradition. That's part of the reason that we're competitive because we spend our money smartly.

How is that going to play for you guys when you're five, ten years down the road and you're no longer a company of four, five or six people, and you can't be the cool indie label anymore because success forces you into maturity?

My growth targets are very small because part of our whole business model is quality over quantity in terms of volumes of releases. Fewer releases have a higher batting average and make our money that way. Our goal is never to start with one band and then become a major label. Our goal is to be more like Aware, where we keep our roster relatively lean. We have a different business than Aware, but in terms of the size of the roster, keep it reasonable and really able to focus on every artist. Then potentially down the road if I grow, it's going to be horizontally, not vertically.

What's the relationship that you have with J? Did they fund any of the start up of this label?

We are technically a marketing co-venture partner with the RCA music group. We are a fully independent label. We have outside investors, our own staff and offices. Basically how it works is that we sign a band directly with our money and based on our discretion. Then what we do is we make the record here, develop them musically and artistically, and release it through BMG directly. We have sales, promotion, street marketing and a product manager in house. We'll do the early stages of radio. Our goal is to find a half dozen stations that are really going to get behind the record, play it, be committed to it, then we're going to market the hell out of it in those markets. But we're not trying to impact the band nationally. We don't have the staff for it; we don't have the where-with-all to do it; we're just not interested in doing that. Because if we can get those six to twelve stations to play the record, and follow with really good touring, we're going to get to that hundred thousand mark. At that point, there's enough big dots spread out, then J/RCA comes in and they connect the dots—they fill in all the wholes. They take what we've done, build off of it, and expand it nationally and internationally.

Was that what happened with Maroon 5?

Exactly. We toured them nonstop; we actually charted them on Modern Rock ourselves, and Triple A. And then when it came time for the pop formats, that's when the record went into the joint venture. We'd sold about seventy-five thousand records, but more importantly, it really was a logical break when they were ready to cross the record over to pop. We don't have a field staff; we don't want to have a field staff, and J/RCA are really good at that. They're really good at handling those kinds of records, so when it came time for that really big push, that's when it's the natural time to do it.

How did you find Maroon 5?

A musician we knew wanted to do some scouting for us and he gave us a blind reel of twelve bands—Band A through whatever. We liked one demo which turned out to be Maroon 5, and it turns out his manager managed the band, and we checked it out. We really dug it, and the rest is history.

It's interesting because... Talk about being early; we were as late as you could be on that band. Everybody had passed on them. Every major label had passed on them. At that point, we were a new label and nobody wanted to sign with us. So we were a hungry label looking for a hungry band, and they were a hungry band looking for a label. So it was kind of a match made in desperation.

When we signed them, we saw the talent, we heard the sound, but they hadn't quite all the songs yet, so they wrote for six months. We had to get this right because it was our first project, and if we break the band, we break the label.

What if after six months they'd come up with nothing better than what they had before?

Then we'd jump off that bridge when we came to it.

You can hear it when a band has within them to write those songs. When I listen to a demo, I say, "OK, what would happen if someone actually A&R'd this band?" So I always think to myself within the construct of what I'm working with, just being a critical voice with the band, saying, "OK, you've written these five songs. If you write 12 songs, out of those 12 songs maybe three are keepers. You've just got to keep writing." At the end of the day, I want to say, "Hey, you guys wrote a great record." Maybe with some prodding from me, but at the end of the day, it's got to be their record, something that they believe in because they're staking their career and their lives on it.

How important is it for you that the artist has good management?

It's important that they have it or will have it. Life is too short for me to teach a manager how to manage, and I've been in that situation. I think good management is critical.

I hear every unsigned artist point out how hard they're working. They have a day job, etc., but it's nothing compared to how hard they will work after they get signed. I can't tell you how many artists I have where they'll drive overnight, play at a radio station in the morning, play at some other thing in the afternoon, then play a show that night. And we expect them to do that on a regular basis. They work their ass off, and part of the manager's job is to keep them motivated, focused and keep that operation running. I need the manager to make the schedule work. I often run into new artists where the manager is basically a friend of the band who wants to go into management, and my advice to him is: get a co-manager. If you have amateur management, you're f*#ked now and I'm not going to sign you.

In our line of work, we get 9,400 bands and artists who are members, and so many of them come to us and say, "I met an attorney in Milwaukee last night that's been following us around from club to club. He's not a music attorney, he does insurance law, but he's only 42, he smokes a little pot, he's a very cool guy and he drives a Mercedes. Should we do a deal with him?" Should they do that deal with them, or are they screwing themselves?

You're screwing yourself because at the end of the day, all he is "dumb money." Dumb money is just money with nothing around it. Broke bands always think that everything is about more money, which is not necessarily the case. The important thing is to have a manager who is obviously committed, but someone who is going to kind of be the "pre-label." When I say the demos need to be A&R'd, that's what the manager should be doing. He should be saying, "This is not ready to be presented to the labels yet. The music isn't or the show isn't, but I'm gonna help you get there." Once you get there, I can present you to the labels and they'll take my call and do what I need. What a manager or a lawyer can do—the best ones—is get you the opportunity to be seen.

A lot of our members will say, "I've been forwarded to seven labels by TAXI and I still haven't gotten a deal yet". What's up with that? What would you say to that?

I've received solicited demos from friends of mine in the industry who I still haven't gotten to. It just takes time. Regardless if there's a little bow on it from my mom saying, "Please listen to it," getting to demo listening is always a bain of my existence because I just have so much. Eventually every CD is eventually going to be listened to by somebody. That's kind of our thing. The only time something doesn't get listened to is when it's presented so unprofessionally it just spooks us, or I've gotten demos that didn't have any contact information on them.

You know, I'm a hopeless idealist. I want to believe that at the bottom of that stack is that great band that no one knew about and didn't have the connections to get directly to me. I still go to showcases of bands I'm not really sure about. I want to believe, "Wow. This is gonna be great." I love the discovery. I love walking into a club where there's five people and seeing someone who's like, "Holy sh*t. These guys rock. Who would've thought it?" That's part of the thrill of why I do it. It's not about going to SIR where there are 20 labels lined up watching a showcase. I want to go where the music is. I want to see the band in its home element.

So it's important to check out bands in their own region?

Well, a lot of these local bands may be the best band in their region, but that isn't going to make them a platinum act. The band has to have the potential to be competitive nationally and internationally, which is why you have to be careful when you look at bands regionally.

Do you ever see a band that's got it going on in a region and before you sign the deal with them, try to extend the region to see if it'll play outside of Topeka?

More informally. I'll have my "panel," who are just friends of mine who I trust, industry people, literally just friends in different parts of the country. I'll send them a track or two and ask them what they think of something and if they think it'll play in Tallahassee. There are the ones that are amazing and that I care about, then there are the ones that I'm not sure of. To me, I'm a 35 year-old white guy who grew up in New York, and never really left New York. I coincidentally am not a big indie rock guy; I am more of a mainstream rock guy. With that being said, I don't necessarily know what the kids are really into, so it's very important for me to get a sense of them if I'm not sure—to go see them in their own home market, to see what kind of fans are showing up, to see what the fan reaction is. I don't have to love the band; I just have to believe in it very strongly so that I can be successful and proud to market it.

Strange comment. I've never met anybody that will actually admit that they'll sign something that they see a profit in without loving it. Most A&R guys go, "I gotta love 'em."

When I say "I," it's a little more "we." There can be stuff that someone on staff here brings in and I'm not a fan of it, but I can see why it would work. I think loving them is almost dangerous because you sometimes get a little blinded. If you're too in awe of the band, you kind of just want to leave it as is. A band can always be better. All great bands—even U2—are always improving and changing, and that comes from within, and sometimes from being pushed from the outside.

Some things, when you love it on that musical/emotional level is when you'd actually get in trouble. When you sign something that you really feel relates to you in some dark weird place, it's not going to relate to the rest of the country. Same thing actually with songwriting. Very often the songwriter likes songs that are only really relevant to him, because they mean something to him in some way, but it just doesn't translate to the rest of world. Then the songs that were the biggest hits were the little ditties that he threw out in three minutes which are simple and straightforward.

That's why artists don't usually get sole right to sequence their records and often don't get the final say what songs are on the record. If you gave every artist sole right to choose the songs and sequence their records, it would be very different records than you're getting. A lot of head scratching would be going on because they just don't have the perspective. That's my job.

A lot of bands come up to me and say that they've done their record in their home studio and did a respectable job. Maybe they've got a baby version of Pro Tools, they go to Discmakers and press up a hundred or a thousand copies, and their biggest desire in life is to meet you and get a distribution deal. They think that they are totally ready to go. Is that possible?

It's theoretically possible. There are very few bands that wouldn't benefit from some A&Ring though - I'm saying generically. For me, from someone as an outsider being a critical voice, you can make it better.

Then they say "but it's art, man".

At the end of the day, I run a business, I have investors. It would be irresponsible of me to sign an artist solely on the belief in the art with no belief in its commercial viability because then I'm just pissing money away. We're not a little label. We spend a respectable amount of money on projects. I have to believe that it has the potential to do something commercially, because if I don't, then I'm doing a disservice to everybody and really not working within what the label's goals are. If you're making very abstract esoteric music, you should be on a label that could afford to put out abstract esoteric music and still make money, or they're just patrons of the arts and they want to support weird abstract music.

So then do you have any specific genres that you only look at?

I call ourselves a "rock label," but if someone brought along, like... Do you know Jamie Cullum? He's a British pop jazz artist. I would have signed him. He's a genius. He's just a really great talent. I'm always hoping to run into something really odd, really different, something that has that spark.

Need a Record Deal, Publishing Deal, or Film and TV placement for you music? Then check out TAXI: The World's Leading Independent A&R Company.