Monsters Of Rock

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This article appeared on the earliest iteration of in 1996.

Monsters of Rock
by Jamie Lincoln Kitman
TMBG Manager

As you've probably heard, you meet a lot of great people in the music industry. In fact, some of my all-time favorites introduced themselves to me shortly after I got into the business, in 1987, when KROQ, the powerful Los Angeles modern rock station, started to play "Don't Let's Start" off the band's first album (They Might Be Giants). It became a minor hit in the City of Angels and They Might Be Giants, who'd been toiling in the relative obscurity of New York's East Village, were suddenly deemed by the industry at large to have some glimmer of hope for wider commercial success.

As the band's manager, I'd been trying to make this very point to anyone who'd listen in New York for a couple of years, but suddenly it seemed like the moguls of Los Angeles were the ones who wanted to talk.

It would take a book (or at least a very dull monograph) to fully describe the world of record company A&R. Short for "artists and repertoire," A&R people find bands to sign recording contracts with their labels. Though occasionally perfectly nice individuals, major label A&R types more often tend to grave personality dysfunction on account of acute job insecurity. Approximately 85% of all new bands fail -- that is, fail to sell enough records to justify renew-ing their recording contracts, i.e, lose money -- which means there is more than enough shame and blame to go around.

There's also a lot of money circling overhead. The 85% failure statistic should, for instance, give the casual student of the industry some insight into how much money the very profitable major labels make on their most successful acts. It also explains why A&R types -- their individualistically hefty salaries aside -- often travel in packs, loving bands or hating them, when and as the roving community of record company and music publishing interests expresses its will. There's safety in numbers.

In TMBG's case, it was like somebody hit the light switch. A week earlier, nobody returned our phone calls. Then, for a week or two after the KROQ success, we were the hot band, which meant that everybody needed to make an offer for the band's future records, whether they wanted them or not. In the alternative, they'd have to compose an articulable opinion as to why the band they declined to sign was no good. We were hoping we'd see more of the former than the latter.

For the A&R person, life is a delicate balancing act, complicated by the fact that one can lose one's job in two ways, inaction (i.e, "What are we paying you for when you told Pearl Jam not to quit their day jobs?") and action (i.e, "What were you smoking when you decided to sign [insert loser band name here] to an ironclad 18-record deal?") As in so many professions, the trick is to simultaneously position yourself to claim complete deniability for failure and complete personal responsibility for success. This makes for some curious behaviors and improbable locutions, such as the time someone said to me of the Giants: "I loved your guys even when I was hating them, but now I hate them again."

A minor chieftain at Columbia Records persuaded me that his office should be my first stop when I accompanied the band on their first post-"Don't Let's Start" visit to L.A. When I arrived, he greeted me wearing a flowing muslin kaftan and dark shades. As if it was what I'd actually come to talk about, we spent 20 minutes examining slides of his abstract watercolors. "I just need to express this part of my personality," he explained. "I'm just not into that corporate thing."

"Awesome," I said, unbuttoning my suit jacket and loosening my tie as if to say, `My kaftan's at the cleaners, but I am mellow, dude-lican, so let's relate in a most profound and sincere way.'

"Wow, man," said the A&R guy in the shades and the kaftan. "Where can I begin? I've been listening to this tape every day in my Porsche. On the way into work and on the way home to the Canyon -- They Might Be Giants. Sounds great in the Canyon. I know everything there is to know about They Might Be Giants. I'm going to make you an offer. You'll love it here. Just one question. How's this guy do so many voices?"

The venue that night was Los Angeles' Club Lingerie, a popular spot for indie bands making their SoCal debuts and perhaps the most elemental of LA's rock sewers. Opening for the Giants were the Del Rubio triplets, three singing sisters in their fifties who made an in-delible impression on us. There was the gals' substantial height and unnaturally ample pulchritude to consider, along with their identical platinum bouffant wigs and identical thirsts for off-brand gin and 110mm menthol cigarettes. But these only served to amplify the sisters' primary attribute -- their voices. Underway, the trio revealed an astonishing facility for atonality as it raced through a wide range of popular classics. I think I speak for John and John when I say their rave-up version of Jim Croce's immortal "Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown" was a show-stopper we'll never forget. (Not that we haven't tried.)

No one ever got fired for not signing a band that no one else wanted. But how to make that decision and when? The premier A&R honcho in attendance that night at the Lingerie was a senior VP from Columbia -- the boss of the free spirit in the kaftan (who, incidentally, turned up late, in civilian clothing.)

Midway through John & John's rave-up set, the eminent one got up and walked towards the front door exit. I watched with alarm as A&R persons from six different labels got up to follow him. At the last moment, making his final approach to the door, the senior VP turned into the bar and ordered a ginger ale, stopping the first guy who was following him in his tracks. Which set up a chain reaction as departing A&R folks, like dominoes, crashed into one another. Putting a brave face on, they headed, one by one, to the bar, feigning thirst, or to their seats, feigning suave.

It was an amusing, but distressing development. TMBG were not taking L.A. by storm. After the show, several nutcases crashed the scene in the dressing room, joining a couple of friends of the Del Rubio triplets, Weird Al and Dr. Demento. The guy who made a fortune off the singing California Raisins was there, too. Seemed he'd set up his own record label and wanted the Giants as his first integrity signing. The major label people didn't; they'd already gone home to their kaftans, watercolors and Porsches.

Undaunted, I met the next morning with a music publisher from EMI. I'd sent her some of the advance songs from Lincoln, the Giants' second album which we were, in the parlance of the music business, "shopping." She said she was really digging the song "They'll Need a Crane." "It's s-o-o-o funny."

"Actually, I think it's about a marriage falling apart. Kind of sad."

"That's what I mean! Funny and sad! These guys are so smart they're funny and sad."

She never did make an offer for the Giants publishing. Funny. But sad.

The depressing truth was, the L.A. people loved "Don't Let's Start" but they figured it was a fluke. Lincoln, which I was extremely partial to, didn't excite them very much. "It needs to sound more like, I don't know..." said an operative of Island's music publishing division.

"You mean `Don't Let's Start'?" I said.

"Yeah, Don't Let's Stop. They Must Be Giants. Why aren't they?"

When I hadn't heard from him a week after the show at the Club Lingerie, I called the guy in the kaftan. "I love you guys," he began. "But we decided you're too smart."

Back in New York, the then head of EMI records, a 40ish bald guy with an unlikely ponytail, welcomed me and John Linnell into his opulent tower office. Also in attendance was an enthusiastic junior A&R guy, Rob, who'd been trying to arrange a meeting between his boss and the Giants for a year. The band's success in LA and the perceived threat that one of those LA companies might sign the Giants out from under him made calendaring a meeting possible overnight.

Guy with ponytail: "I've seen you guys' shows. They're brilliant and I don't think that's too strong a word. Your videos!?! I've seen them on MTV, over and over again. They're the most innovative thing on television today! I love your tunes. And you, my friend (pointing to me) are a motherfucker guitarist!"

Jamie: "Thank you. But I'm the manager, actually."

Guy with ponytail: Manager? Guitarist? It doesn't surprise me. Rob, can you believe this? The guy's the manager and he's a motherfucker guitarist. You guys are fucking smart, I'm tellin' ya. I always said so."

Rob: (gasping sounds.)

Linnell: "Er, my partner John Flansburgh couldn't make it today. He plays the guitar."

Guy with ponytail: "I knew that." (Meeting over.)

Author's note: Lincoln was released on Bar/None Records in the fall of 1988. The first single, "Ana Ng," went to No. 1 on the "alternative" chart. With two "hits" under the Giants' belt, it would be only a matter of time before the A&R community came around again. Or would it?