Congratulations on Breaking Benjamin. Certified gold and still going strong.
Jason: Thank you. It’s always exciting to watch a band have success after they have worked incredibly hard for years. We’re close to platinum now which, in this day and age, is incredible for any act, especially a rock band.
KOAR: What was your first job in the music industry and how did you get to your position at Hollywood Records.
I started my own record company when I was a child – only 13 years old. It was with my twin brother, Joel, and was called ‘Street Level’ — we put out a couple 7″ records and then merged our efforts with Redemption Records. The label was started by Ryan Kuper out of Omaha, Nebraska. I partnered with Ryan and signed some cool, seminal hardcore and punk bands to that label. After a couple years we went our seperate ways and my brother and I started a label called Watermark, which really put us on the map in the hardcore and punk world (and what would later be considered the ’emo’ world, a term we used back then as a joke). We sold a lot of records and I was able to pay my way through college with some of the proceeds. During school I worked 2 jobs, ran my label, and was pre-med. It was crazy, but I was pretty motivated. One of the best records we put out was a homeless benefit compilation (featuring bands like Rancid, Avail, Lifetime, etc) which was also the start of Trustkill Records, as it was a split release with them and their first record ever. Some cool history. After ‘alternative’ music (punk rock and indie bands in the early 90’s) I had my fair share of label attention for my bands. In typical fashion, most of those bands imploded before they could ever get signed off to major. As a result, I was courted by a few different labels to come work for them as an A&R executive. I quit school to pursue the music business full-time. At 20 years old, I folded my label and accepted a job with Columbia Records in NY and moved my life from Philadelphia. I wasn’t even old enough to get into bars, but it didn’t hold me back — I learned a ton working there and it was an incredible experience. I had always planned to return to running my punk label, but ended up just sticking around. I left Sony Music in 1998 to be one of the first members of the “new” Hollywood Records’ A&R department (them allowing me to stay based in NY and travel to LA constantly). Since getting to Hollywood, I applied everything I learned from years of running my own label and my time at Sony to a totally new environment. I’ve made the best out of this great opportunity. It’s been 6 years with Hollywood now and it’s been awesome so far.
KOAR:Â What does your normal day consist of…
Jason: There really is no normal day for me. Every single day is totally different. After drinking tea and getting my head together in the morning, I check my email and field dozens of phone calls and check my schedule, which is usually filled about 2 weeks in advance as I’m a freak about using my time correctly. Usually I’m in the middle of at least one to two records being made. I travel constantly as usually one of those projects is being made in LA or elsewhere. I stop by the studio and check on what progress has been made and make comments as needed. The rest of the time is spent having meetings all day with artists, managers, producers, writers, lawyers and anyone else I am connected to. In my car in NY or California, I will listen to demos when the phone isn’t ringing– I throw the ones I don’t like over my shoulder into the back seat and the ones I do like on the front floor, making it easier to reply later when I separate them into different piles. At night I attend about 4 to 6 shows or showcases on any given night. When I get home I’ll listen to more music in my stereo and online, then pass out pretty late. That’s about several different kinds of days mutated into one — and was certainly a typical day for me at least a few times last week.
KOAR: Please tell us about how you found Breaking Benjamin…
Jason: We have an incredible promotion staff who are not only great at getting our artists on the radio, but are pretty connected to what is actually happening in the markets they cover. David Perl who is our NY based promotion exec told me about the band and that it was happening in central PA (where they are from). He gave me their demo CD which became their first commercial EP they released on their own (selling 2000 copies in a week or two in PA alone). It blew me away and I drove down to their show that weekend. By that weekend the buzz was out and about 6 other labels attended. I didn’t think I stood a chance but they were great and I was passionate. One week later we signed the band and it was probably one of the quickest deals I was ever involved in from finding out the band to seeing them to signing them.
KOAR: Were you surprised they took off? You have to be honest, its not easy breaking new bands, especially trying to break an artist among tons of releases.
Jason: Not at all. I thought it should’ve happened sooner. I was surprised that their first album wasn’t platinum. I thought their album was full of amazing songs and other potential singles. The problem is that we chased what was the commercial hit in their home market, a song called ‘Polyamorous’. It was a top 20 single at radio, we marketed them well, and after over a year of touring we cracked around 200,000 in sales. I am totally realistic about the difficulties of breaking new bands, but I really believed their debut album, “Saturate” should have done a lot better than it did. We released a second single which might not have been the right choice at the time, but who knows. The bottomline is that they got to make a second record, which in this climate is rare especially as they weren’t hugely ‘successful’ as far as sales go. I credit Hollywood Records being a label that artists can actually develop for more than one album to their success. I think any other label would have dropped them, but we stuck with them and believed in them. They worked so hard on their second album and connected with their producer, David Bendeth, who they crafted an amazing follow up with. We had a great fan base to stand on, a touring base, and them being a known name to radio programmers. It also helped that their first single “So Cold” from their second album, “We Are Not Alone” turned out to be a hit. It was a number one single at rock radio and has propelled them into a totally new arena. Hopefully we can maintain it through the next single and the rest of their career. We want them making music for as long as they want to do this.
KOAR:Â How much time do you put in looking for new artists..
Jason: A lot of time. I consume music like food. I buy records, listen to demos, scour websites, listen to mp3s, and get the obligatory submissions from lawyers and managers. I find a few things a year that I think are special enough to consider signing to record deals. Of course, once you express interest in some of these artists then the whole industry reacts and I usually have some competition to deal with. I am fierce about chasing something if I really want it and I think my genuine passion for music is usually the key to being successful in a competitive signing situation. So to answer the question, I am always looking because if you aren’t someone else will find it.
KOAR: I hear from 14 year olds all the way to 50 year olds that “radio sucks”. Even though radio is treating Breaking Benjamin nicely what is your opinion of the current artist on rock radio?
Jason: radio doesn’t suck, maybe some of the programming does. I think there is a lot of research driven radio programming which tends to take the passion out of people really believing in records and giving them a shot. There have been plenty of bands that have been successful without radio only to be embraced by them later. Radio is probably the most powerful tool in breaking a new artist and unfortunately there are only so many slots at stations. If a record doesn’t perform they can replace it fairly quickly with something else as there are too many artists and not enough airtime. I’m thrilled that Breaking Benjamin is the type of act that radio has embraced, of course, because it has had a lot to do with them getting fans. Of course word of mouth, video, internet, and just about every other type of marketing cannot be discounted either. I can’t say that I like a lot of what I hear on rock radio. The cookie cutter rock stuff drives me a little nutty but I also understand it. People love things that are familiar to them and a lot of times it’s hard to tell one band from the other. You could end up being a totally faceless band with a platinum record. I don’t think Breaking Benjamin is one of those bands. They are clearly influenced by their musical heroes, but have totally made music that I believe to be unique and groundbreaking and completely their own. If people don’t like what they hear on the radio, they can always listen online to streaming stations or satellite as well. Or do what I do and go buy some records and explore the whole spectrum of music available off the dial.
KOAR: For the last 2 years I have noticed labels are signing these indie bands.Â For instance, many Indie labels sign these art-rock bands dressed up in wedding tuxedos and then they go out of business because no one will pay for the record. Why is everyone anti-mainstream?
Jason: I don’t think that any label goes into the business of signing bands that they believe will fail. That would be a suicidal business model. If anything, when working in A&R you are constantly seeing a lot of the same derivative music. When something comes around that may be exciting and different and outside the box — it’s attractive. I know when I see something completely unique, I am not scared by it. I usually try to figure out what it is that I find exciting and then ask myself if I think it will translate to the rest of the world and record buying public. If it’s too cool for middle America, then it might not be the right kind of band to sign. I also must say that if it’s compelling and exciting then it should totally be worth signing — it really depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to sign fringe artists that you and 12 other people will love, then sign it, but your career won’t last when their records don’t sell. If your goal is to sell records, then sign artists that can translate to a much bigger audience. I also believe that label people know that you must create a vibe around your label to attract other artists. This is true for any label. I wouldn’t want to work at a company that didn’t have totally progressive music like The Polyphonic Spree – it wouldn’t be exciting to me. I think with anything, balance is key. If you can sell a million records of one thing and also have something totally groundbreaking and mind-blowing that is the model for a great record company. Ultimately, it would be thrilling to break something that isn’t ‘mainstream’ which is also a motivating factor in running a record company — discovering great art and pushing the boundaries!
KOAR: What are the future plans for Breaking Benjamin?
Jason: They are about to go back on tour again forever. Their second single “Sooner or Later” is top 10 at rock radio right now and they just shot a video for it. Hopefully sometime later this year they will go in to make their third album — but if this continues to sell like it is they may be on the road for another year or so until that happens. We shall see – so keep your fingers crossed.
KOAR: Any new artists you would like to talk about? any recent signings?
Jason: I’m a pretty diverse A&R person and work with everything from rock bands to pop artists. I am very excited about Tina Sugandh, which I spent a year and a half working on. She is an incredibly talented Indian woman who plays the tablas (Indian drums) and guitar with a stunning voice and beautiful lyrics. She has recorded what I believe to be the most unique album that you will hear in a long time. Jeannie Ortega is an 18 year old urban pop artist from Bushwick, Brooklyn that I am nearing completion of her debut album. It’s also incredibly exciting for me and I can’t wait for people to hear it. I’m also working on the debut solo effort from Christian Burns (who was a member of the plantinum selling band, BBMak – which I brought to Hollywood) which is a totally left-of-center pop effort. I can’t wait for all this music to be heard! Thanks for the interview and keep doing what you do!