10 Questions with ... Barry Lyons
November 27, 2012
1. What made you want to get into the music business? Early mentors? First job?
My first job was taking 45rpm singles - you remember those, little record with a big hole? - taking one each from nine piles of crap and making sure that the one from a pile of good stuff was on top - and putting them in what was called a "grab bag." Ten singles, bundled and sold for 99 cents. One good song you knew that made you buy the bag, nine pieces of crap you'd never heard of. I was maybe nine or 10 at the time.
My father had a chain of music stores in upstate New York, he'd take me in to work on Saturdays and let me do odd jobs. Surrounded by every kind of music imaginable, all in one warehouse - I was in heaven. He always gave me two options for salary - $2 an hour, I could take it in cash or in records. I always took records! When I was around seven or eight, he'd take me to shows with some of the acts he distributed - the McGuire Sisters, the Everly Brothers, I'd get to meet them - I thought it was the coolest thing IN THE WORLD. Somewhere I still have an original cast album, I think, for the show OKLAHOMA, autographed by the star of the show, John Raitt. Many years later I met his daughter - Bonnie.
2. Give us a run down of the labels and positions you've held over the years...
My first label was one of the independents that dotted the landscape in the '70s, Amherst Records, based in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I started in sales, not promotion; that experience always helped me have a wider understanding that there was more to the business than just radio promotion. My first promotion job was at Elektra Records, when it was one of the coolest, most respected labels on the planet. The talent that went through there could fill a hall of fame all its own - The Eagles, Queen, The Cars, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Hank Williams Jr., Linda Ronstadt, X, Metallica, Motley Crue, Dokken, The Cure, Grovee Washinton Jr., Joni Mitchell. And the executive talent -- to learn from greats like Joe Smith, Jerry Sharrell, Dave Urso, Burt Stein, Mike Bone, Bruce Lundvall, Bob Krasnow, Denny Nowak, Lou Maglia -- was an education that could never be duplicated. The nine years I spent there were unforgettable.
In 1987 I was whisked off to I.R.S. Records as VP/Promotion, following in the very large shoes left behind by Michael Plen. Proud to say I was there for the zenith of that company - REM, Fine Young Cannibals, The Alarm, Concrete Blonde, Dada. I went to NY in 1993 for what turned out to be an abbreviated run at Chameleon Records, where I learned an important lesson -- never work for a company where the owner is in one of your bands. Tends to screw up your priorities. I then had a couple of years with Irving Azoff at Giant Records, followed by around four years in Polygram running rock departments for Polydor, and then Island. That's when Polygram got swallowed by Universal, and not long after, I struck out on my own, starting RENT A LABEL in January of 2000.
3. During your years in the label world, give us a few records close to your heart that for one reason or another never broke through. What is your "One That Got Away" -- and what did you learn from that record?
Oh, jeez, there's been plenty, too many to list. The lesson from all of them? One of the most valuable I ever learned, from Denny Nowak. He taught me that "They're all hits - it's just that some of them are bigger than others."
4. How long ago did you launch Rent A Label and tell us about how your business model for this company works?
I came back from watching the millennium sunrise on top of Haleakala crater on Maui to find that Sire-London, the label I thought I was going to after Polygram was swallowed by Universal, was instead going to be, basically, dismantled. I'd been at four different labels or companies in less than eight years, only to see each either get swallowed by a bigger fish, or get de-assembled by forces beyond my control. And I resolved I wasn't going to do that again. So I started RENT A LABEL with a very basic principle: that artists or managers or independent labels operating outside the major-label plantation system should have access to services of the quality that was once the exclusive domain of the majors. I wanted to be involved in ALL aspects of the careers of the artists I was working with - touring, press, radio, video, sales - just as I had been at Island or Polydor or I.R.S. The details have changed dramatically in the past 12 years as virtually all dynamics of the marketplace have undergone radical change. But the guiding principle remains unchanged.
5. After working for years at labels, what are the advantages and also the challenges of running your own company?
The biggest advantage is, I don't have to listen to idiots of the type who began to over-run most labels in the late '90s and early 2000s. Even better, I don't have to do corporate meetings and listen to idiots. Working with independent clients we are free to turn on a dime, to experiment. The biggest challenge, of course, is that most independent clients can't just throw silly money at a project, we're usually in a range that runs from under-funded to severely under-funded. So, we learn to be nimble.
6. Give us a rundown of some of the artists and bands you're currently working with and how they are doing at Rock Radio?
I've got a couple of artists that are competing in the radio arena, Black Oxygen and Surrender The Fall. Both are setting up new singles for January. I've got a handful of what I call "developmental projects." These are acts where we're working to establish a foundation, get them touring, get the basics lined up so that when we finally DO go to radio, we'll have a story that goes beyond 'here's a great new song from a band you haven't heard of yet.' Those include 3 Years Hollow (from Iowa), Vajra (from NYC), and Mighty Sideshow, from Chattanooga TN. I'm also consulting on some projects that fall well outside the basic Rock format - Alternative act Locksley, where we are using a Christmas song, "Holiday," to set up a killer new track "Let It Ride" for January; a labor of love TripleA project, 7Horse; and a TripleA-Pop songwriter and performer, Alexander Cardinale. Finally, it wouldn't be Christmas time if I wasn't working on a couple of Christmas projects. This year, it's a single from Northern Light Orchestra, "The Night Before Christmas;" and a Christmas charity CD called A ROCK BY THE SEA CHRISTMAS.
7. What are the most important tools/resources you use to stay on top of the Rock formats' growth and constant daily changes?
You mean, aside from having All Access wired via direct wi-fi input into my frontal lobe?
8. Let's talk about the Rock format as a whole. What's your take on the State of Rock Radio today?
To a large extent, its problems mirror those of radio in general; and for that matter many other "old media." Whereas 25 years ago it was one of a very small handful of portals into the cultural landscape; today it is but one of many. A "hit record" on the charts today is a guarantee of very little. It doesn't mean you're assured of selling product, or filling seats, or anything. Rock radio has tended to compound its problems by painting itself into an ever-narrower corner - this is the sound we play, and anything that doesn't sound like that, we can't play. Which, of course, makes everything tend to sound the same. Which, in turn, tends to make things boring. And in a culture that is now inundated with choices, boring rarely wins out. Mind you, many of those doing Rock radio are acutely aware of the problem. If I had a dollar for every PD or MD who has said they wish there was more variety in what they have to pick from, I could put on a nice convention. But it's one thing to see the problem, another to be willing, or empowered, to do something about it.
9. You're known as the Doctor in many circles, yet I don't think you have an actual license to practice medicine. What is the origin of Dr, Lyons?
It goes back to a Christmas party in Rochester, NY back around 1980 that included 12 local promotion people; 11 well-endowed Rock radio station cheerleaders; 10 bags of Don & Bob's White hots; nine bags of blow; eight decapitated rodents; seven boxes of cleans; six locked bathroom doors; five cases of bourbon; four calls to the cops; three mob lawyers; two eventual trade-magazine editors; and one very large peace pipe full of loco weed. The rest, like much of the early '80s, is lost to the murky mists of time.
10. Around this time of the year, you're also known for your extensive collection of holiday songs. What are some of Dr. Lyons Hi-Fi Holiday favorites?
Boy, that's a looooong list. Ron Wood's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day," Wall Of Voodoo's "Shouldn't Have Given Him A Gun For Christmas," The Bloody Stools "Santa Is Dead," Dave Philip's entire Christmas album THE LAST NOEL. If you aren't signed up for the DR. LYONS HI-FI HOLIDAY downloads, send a note over to firstname.lastname@example.org - it's never to late.
When you're not rockin' out what other music do you enjoy outside your "format"?
The Beach Boys, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Ravi Shankar - I'm all over the place.
What was the first album or single you purchased on your own?
Chuck Berry's "Back In The U.S.A." b/w "Memphis," 1959. I still have it. I was eight.
Are you still a Chicago Cubs fan and why?
Of course I am. They are family and family is forever. As they say around Clark & Addison, "just wait til next decade!" Of course, they also like to say, "It gets late mighty early" around there.