April 14, 2015
The mainstream music industry has seen its struggles adapting to the New Tech age, coming to grips with a changing and, as yet, a far less lucrative digital business model. Yet underneath all that lies a small yet dedicated hardcore rock and metal business, led by indie labels such as Sumerian Records. By developing talent that satiates the demands of the passionate, if not Platinum-sized audience, Sumerian Founder Ash Avildsen has not only carved out a successful business, but Sumerian bands Asking Alexandria and Night Riots are now getting significant spins at Active Rock and Alternative radio, respectively. What's more, Avildsen (the son of Rocky and Karate Kid director John Avildsen) has started a Sumerian film division and just put out its first release, What Now, with another in the works. Ash Avildsen talks about all that and how he has succeeded between rock and a hard place.
Was Pantheon your first entrance in the business? If not what was?
No, I was playing in a band called Reflux and started booking metal/hardcore shows as a promoter in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia. I was also booking my own DIY tours for my band and others. We ended up getting signed to Prosthetic Records and I moved to Venice
Beach, CA to work out of a small one bedroom apartment around the same time I decided to start Sumerian. I had built up a roster for booking and got offered an agent job at TKO in the 9200 Sunset Building, where I worked for over three years before I left TKO to start Pantheon. (The Pantheon Music Agency. There is a Pantheon Talent Agency that was around before, which is still alive and well.)
Sumerian Records and Pantheon both grew tremendously to the point in 2014 where I couldn't handle running both companies. I don't think there has ever been one CEO running a label and a booking agency the size at Sumerian and Pantheon at the same time. I quickly got overwhelmed and realized I needed to focus on what I loved the most and thrived the best in, which was the creative side of the business. I decided to merge my booking roster with The Agency Group. That way, I wouldn't have to do all the day-to-day booking and could focus on being creative and building on my Sumerian endeavors while still identifying new talent for booking to bring to TAG as an A&R. It was a huge relief not having to worry about booking tours while still knowing all my artists were in an amazing place to be taken care of. This transition allowed me to truly have enough time and focus to launch Sumerian Films and to continue to grow Sumerian Records.
There has always been a slew of indie hard rock labels. Why did you want to start your own -- and how would you separate Sumerian from the pack?
I was booking tours for unsigned bands that were already drawing hundreds of kids. The offers I was getting them from other labels were either very artist-unfriendly or the labels didn't understand the new wave in heavy music. I also saw the disconnect between many labels and the bands on a personal and creative level, so I decided to start Sumerian with the focus of having a family spirit between our bands and the label, as well as being truly tapped in to what was going on musically at the time. As far as separating from the pack ... one thing we do take pride in is the actual A&R process. A lot of labels take a more passive approach to their artists making records and music videos, their artwork and imagery, etc. At Sumerian, we help write the treatments for our bands' videos; we're in the studios with a lot of our artists, helping to craft their songs. You can look in the liner notes of many Sumerian albums and see the credits to get an idea of the history here.
We've also really focused on the Sumerian brand to get it to the point where when we announce a new artist, there's a core group of label fans that will immediately check them out and give their music the time of day. It doesn't mean they're guaranteed to get new fans, but it's definitely a great springboard to open the door.
It also reflects on how we treat artists. We want all of our bands to have careers. It's one thing to just put out one record and send them out on tour. It's another to build a career -- and that's something we know how to do, because myself and other people at Sumerian used to play in bands. We come from that culture; we can identify with that lifestyle and we know what we have to do to achieve each band's goals. At the end of the day, though, it still starts and ends with the music. If you don't have the right songs, then no label, manager or agent can save you.
Are the new bands you consider signing today any more realistic about what it takes to succeed than in the past?
One of the first things I tell a band after they get signed is that now the real struggle begins. A lot of new bands still have the perception that once they get signed, everything will fall into place - and that couldn't be further from the truth. Once you're actually signed, the label puts money into the band ... you now have a label investing money in to you, and most likely a manager, an agent and other professionals who work with you. But chances are if your band doesn't succeed, it's more due to your music and/or your live performance than anything else.
It's funny how a lot of the bands that don't do well end up placing the blame on their label, their manager, their publicists, their agents, anyone but themselves. When in fact, it was probably their lukewarm album(s). Obviously some bands may not get all the opportunities they deserve, but it's a fallacy to use that as an excuse. We tell new artists all the time, "Don't spend all your time and energy getting signed. Spend that time growing your band and building up your own brand. Invest in yourself so when the day comes that a label does approach, you've already established, to a certain degree, yourself." Not to mention it helps you get on the labels' radar ... and gives you more negotiating leverage when that happens.
These days, are you ever in bidding wars over talent?
We do get into them every now and then. Once in a while, a band will have multiple labels after them, and a bidding war potentially could happen. But I try to focus on artists who don't just take the money on the front end and instead look at the financial big picture where the money could be spent promoting and growing their band and vision, rather than putting in their pocket for a quick cash grab.
Other indie hard rock labels such as Metal Blade, Century and Victory ... do you consider them rivals -- or part of a an indie hard rock family?
I look at labels like Metal Blade, Fearless and Epitaph ... and I want them to do well, too. Because if any of their bands or our bands break through, we're all winning to some degree. We're all putting out underground, original music and we're hoping to break this music through to the biggest audience we can attract. Naturally when you have peers, there's always some level of competitiveness because we go after the same type of bands, but no matter who gets them, to me, we're always excited when artists on any of our peer labels have success. It means we're all winning together with this scene. I've also built relationships with these other labels during the years I was a booking agent representing their bands, so I'm constantly enjoying seeing them succeed as they are friends and people who I've had the pleasure of working with for many years.
How significant have video games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero helped expose and break your bands?
We've had some bands on Guitar Hero, and it has definitely helped to a point, but it was a situation of timing. When we got our music on Rock Band, the game was already passed its peak. It wasn't in every single copy of the game as when Dragonforce got on the original Guitar
Hero, which was huge. If it was on the original version of the game, everyone who bought the game got a physical copy of the song. Our songs were downloadable content, which didn't have the impact but was still helpful.
Asking Alexandria has broken onto Rock radio. What was the key to getting your music played on-air?
It always all starts with the music. You can have the best publicist, the best tour, the best radio team and all, but at the end of day it comes back to the music. We put money into songs that we feel can get played and to some degree how the song is reacting. We always thought Asking
Alexandria could cross over into Mainstream Rock; we felt there were three singles on their latest album (From Death To Destiny) that could do that. But at the same time, we worked hard to keep the band's underground roots. We have to walk a fine line. It's not easy for a band like AA to cross into Mainstream Rock radio without losing its core audience.
We're doing much the same thing right now at Alternative with Night Riots, which is #2 at Sirius
Alt Nation. The single is selling 1,500-2,000 a week and getting great opportunities week after week. We just got the beginning of a Vampire Diaries episode and have landed several high-profile Alternative Radio festivals with Hozier, AWOLNATION, Cage The Elephant and more.
Kevin Lyman (Warped Tour Owner) also went out and took a chance on the band, which we are very grateful for, simply out of his love for the band's music. I played the EP for him in his office and he ended up sending the band an offer for the entire Warped Tour this summer, which is really inspiring, as it shows major players like Kevin still hold music dear to their hearts and are willing to help break new bands and take chances on them.
You mentioned Night Riots getting a boost from Sirius Alt Nation play. What about the other platforms, such as Pandora, Spotify and YouTube channel?
SiriusXM radio has been great because they offer nationwide exposure through very specific brand channels. Getting heavy Alt Nation play has spiked single sales; Alt Nation and Octane can definite move the needle, but obviously you still need terrestrial radio to take that next step. With that said, Alt-Nation has been integral to Night Riots' single sales success. We've been the #1 song with the single "Contagious" on the Top 18 Alt-Nation countdown two weeks in a row. Satellite radio without a doubt sells units if the song is engaging to the listeners.
Is it just as difficult to break an indie rock band on terrestrial radio today as it was 10 and 20 years ago?
I think so. We're constantly up against the fact we're an indie label and we don't have the major label brand development that can be a necessary evil to break through certain clutter. I do think we're starting to make a name for ourselves, though. Our first Alt single was Crosses' "Epilogue."
Night Riots "Contagious" has been our second big single that has taken us even further. We're hoping that station PDs will start to realize that Sumerian puts out quality records and that our brand will start to build within their minds and playlists.
At the same time, we are continuing to push our cutting edge, progressive metal bands, which are different beasts entirely. Bands like Animals As Leaders, Born Of Osiris, The Faceless and
Veil of Maya speak to the core demographic of Sumerian. We'll always strive to keep that part of the label alive and fresh. Every now and then, a band that comes from that world can cross over at radio, too, which we are starting to see happen with Periphery. I never want Sumerian to be known for only one style of music or type of listener, so we will continue to diversify and put out music we love, regardless of genre or image.
Speaking of diversifying, Sumerian has launched a film division, which is releasing What Now, which you wrote, directed and star in. What made you decide to do that?
I've always wanted to do film and felt like now was a good time to start. This is my first feature and I felt the premise would be a fun first film to do. It's the first movie to tap into online dating apps like Tinder, particularly on how those first meet-ups/dates happen and the conversations and situations that come from them. The guys quickly get judged by the girls in L.A. for what they do for a living and get convinced to start lying about their jobs by a buddy so that they'll have better chances with the females. There's a lot of funny awkward moments that I think people will relate to, especially single people who are still trying to meet a special someone.
We wanted to bring more of a positive human spirit to the ending of the movie, which would make the audience feel hopeful when they leave the theatre. It's a funny dating comedy that ends with a good message on human interaction and what matters most when it comes to friendship and love.
There seems to be several celebrity cameos in the film, including stars of pro wrestling and rap.
WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross plays a fictional character, a more evil Southern-drawl boss a bit like Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, while Jake The Snake Roberts and Diamond Dallas Page play themselves. Bone Thugs N Harmony play fictional characters, while Ice T, Coco and DJ Quik play themselves. Guns N Roses' Steven Adler plays an '80s fictional rocker guy at the
We're already working on our next feature film -- a rock drama of a young band who starts as 18-year-olds, move to L.A., get signed and all the things that occur after that ... exploding egos, drugs, industry politics. Hopefully, it will be the first film to truly bring the modern-day journey of a band in the rock business to life. A lot of scenes are inspired by real scenes that happened in my career or bands that I've worked with, but it will be a fictional script.
How difficult was getting distribution for What Now?
I went to AFM last year and used my DIY ethics to make contacts and set up meetings. What
Now got picked up by Gravitas Ventures, a cutting-edge distributor that specializes in Video On
Demand. A lot of future film business is going that way. It's interesting because as much as streaming has hurt the music business in terms of Spotify payouts, streaming has done wonders for independent films. No longer do you have to hope and pray that one day a major studio will pick up your film or your independent film will maybe end up on a shelf at Blockbuster as the biggest form of distribution. We have been able to get on all the major Internet and cable VOD platforms, including on Time Warner, Charter, DirecTV, Comcast, Verizon, Cox, Dish Network and more.
Although you didn't grow up with him, do you feel your film talents can somewhat be attributed to your birth father, director John Avildsen?
People say it's in my DNA, but who knows. I guess only time will tell as I make more films and see how the world responds to them.
There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding streaming services such as Spotify in terms of the content creators getting a fair share of the revenue. Where do you and Sumerian stand on this?
Eventually, as content creators, we will have to hire our own tech people and in the words of
Rage Against The Machine, take the power back. The film world wasn't as stupid as the music world was in allowing offline streaming. That's a complete oxymoron. HBO won't let you stream a film offline, but if you pay a premium on Spotify, you can offline stream and download music to your phone or computer. That's like taking food home from an "all-you-can-eat" buffet.
There's a reason restaurants won't let you do that - it's not a workable business model. It wasn't a workable business model for the major labels either until they cut equity deals with Spotify and became owners in the company; now they're protected.
But the indie labels don't have equity and I don't care what Daniel Ek says -- the money does not add up for artists. If he is so gracious with pay, how is he worth more than what Mick Jagger and Eminem combined? I've seen their numbers and it's fiction to think artists can make sustainable money on this. I fully back Taylor Swift and any other artist who takes a stand against the business model and demand change. !
Now for us, most of our music is currently on Spotify because at this point, it's a necessary evil.
We want to get our artists out there until the music biz creates its own version of this. It's not rocket science. Programming a Call of Duty video game is much harder than programming an answer to Spotify. There's no reason why content creators can't get together and hire own their own fucking programmers to make their own software and stream their own music. It would be far better than what's going on now, where the techies take the lion's share and the artists are left with crumbs.
So who's going to take the first step to make that happen? And what's your take on what Apple is trying to do to launch a pay service?
I don't know who's already taken their first steps, but I'm about to take mine by hiring a 10-year NASA programmer to launch Sumerian's software/technology division.
Where do you see Sumerian going in the future? Could you see the label becoming part of a major label group, like Geffen, Elektra and Slash Records did, or could you survive and prosper like hard rock 21st Century SST Records?
Only time will tell.