10 Questions with ... Ben Berkman
September 10, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I began my career assisting the CEO of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola. I worked for Tommy for over a year and met everyone at Sony Music. I spent a lot of time reading the trades and studying the industry and saw that many label presidents came from promotion. That seemed like a good place to start so with Tommy's help I ended up working for Jerry Blair at Columbia Records. I started off by assisting Jerry Blair and Charlie Walk and quickly found an opportunity to re-launch Columbia's College Radio initiative. I got promoted quickly and ended up leaving the company to go to LA to be a Marketing Director at Warner Bros. Records. The company was in a state of transition and that job didn't last very long. I moved back across the country and went back to work for Jerry, this time as National Director of Modern Rock. I worked at Columbia till I was 25 at which point I left the label to start Octone with James Diener and David Boxenbaum, where I have been ever since.
1) What led you to a career in "reckidz," as they say in New York?
When I was in college I got very interested in talent buying. I was working for the Campus Activities Board at Hamilton College to bring shows up to the campus. The school had a nice budget to buy shows, but I often found that their faculty advisors to this board were using the wrong metrics to determine which bands we should book. They would see an artist on a chart, assume it was a measure of success and therefore strongly 'suggest' we should deploy 1/2 of our annual budget to pay the act. I disagreed, as my instincts and social networks (which consisted of telephone convos with buddies at other schools, remember this was all in the Internet's infancy and pre-social media) told me my classmates would rather see other artists that were touring the NE, getting no airplay but killing on the road. After the school refused to listen to me and a few of these shows bricked, I decided to go into business on my own. I partnered with a buddy and we began finding talent on our own, paying them out of our pocket, building stages, renting lights, selling tickets, hiring security etc., We made some real money, learned a ton and had a blast doing it. At one of our biggest shows, the proverbial 'light bulb' went off and I started thinking, "What if I could make this my career?"
2) What is your favorite part of the job?
It's hard to answer as there are so many aspects of this job I love. Candidly, when you are lucky enough to get paid to do something you love it really doesn't feel like work, so in many ways this is more my lifestyle than my 'job.' I guess I can answer this by saying that when you feel passionately about an artist, you begin to develop a plan in your mind as to how you might expose them, and turn others on to them and get them this exposure. Having other people you respect, be they radio programmers, artist managers, booking agents, or other label executives tell you they 'get' your project too is probably one of the most rewarding and in turn favorite parts of my job.
3) Brag on the artists that you work with. What's going on in their worlds right now?
Our franchise artist is Maroon 5. I discovered the band, signed them personally and have worked with them for 12 years. They have gone from being the 'little band that could' to becoming one of the biggest, best known pop artists in the whole world! It's incredible to work with an artist that literally everyone knows. They are riding an incredible string of #1 hits and I couldn't be prouder. No one is more deserving of success than M5 as they are the nicest guys and have worked their asses off!
I'm very excited about Kat Graham. Kat is best known as the star of the #1-rated show on The CW, The Vampire Diaries, but she has a burgeoning music career as well. We have been working with Kat for the past year to develop her repertoire. We worked with The Suspex to create Kat's first official radio single, a great track called "Power." We have been at Top 40 radio with it for the past month and we are slowly building traction. With her incredibly popular TV show starting again in early October, Kat's visibility will be at an all-time high, and we think the timing of all of this is perfect. She has a huge profile on social media, and a fan base that is very passionate about her. They want her to succeed, and by harnessing their power (no pun intended) we believe we can accomplish our goals with this project.
Additionally, we just signed two new artists we think are great. The first one is called Hunter Hunted from Los Angeles and they have a nice buzz building. Their first single, "Keep Together," has been licensed by great brands like Lenovo, Netflix and Toyota and is part of international advertising campaigns. They have been on the road non-stop all summer, touring with Fitz & The Tantrums and The Mowglis, and they will be doing dates with Fun and Tegan & Sara this Fall. We just shipped their single to A3 radio and will be launching them at Modern Rock radio this Fall.
The other artist is called We Are Twin and is managed by our old friend Randy Jackson. We Are Twin are a Pop-leaning Modern Rock band fronted by a great female singer who has a soulful, bluesy vibe like Amy Winehouse or Adele. iTunes loves the group and already featured their first single "The Way We Touch" as their Single of the Week in August. The response so far has been strong and we think there is a lot of potential here.
4) What's been the most significant change in the business since you've been in it?
Clearly the Internet and digital distribution has had the most dramatic impact on how we listen and consume music and in turn what we listen to. There are more choices now than ever and it is a great time for music discovery. Radio is still the single most important vehicle for bringing music to the masses, but with all the new distribution networks out there I feel that there is at least a place for artists to get started, get heard and get feedback. If their material is amazing, it may ultimately filter up to radio and get heard by the millions that commercial radio serves. When I first started in this business, it didn't seem this was the case so much. There were very few distribution networks and for the most part, the consumer heard (and in turn bought) what the labels wanted them to. With all of this technology and choice, the consumer is way more empowered and in turn the competition to get their attention is fierce. The net outcome is to win today, you need to offer the best songs, period. Striving toward excellence is only ultimately in the music industry's best interests where its long term health is concerned.
5) What new ways are you coming up with to build stories on songs and artists?
You have to be very resourceful these days. It's no longer about getting a song played, hoping people call, text or tweet the station and tell them they love it. You need to really look at all the various metrics, social media and criteria out there, be it YouTube plays, Real time Shazam, Twitter, Soundcloud etc. You need to see what the audience is saying and find a way to synthesize the information and communicate it simply and cogently to gatekeepers. It's actually more fun now in its own way, since you can be more creative how you go about building your story. But when you do promotion, it is ultimately about sales and communicating a story that is easily understood so you need to keep that in mind. If you lose the plot or don't have a good one, everyone will know and your pitches and efforts to get airplay will fall flat.
6) What's been your most rewarding project to work?
Besides M5, I had a great time breaking Hollywood Undead. Here was a band that had been kicked around the industry, dropped by MySpace Records after being their first signing and developed a huge profile in early social media pre-Twitter, FB, etc. They wore masks and had pretty shocking, in-your-face lyrics. This was not a band many labels wanted to touch let alone build a long-term relationship with. But we heard something exciting and visceral in their music and decided to take a shot. We found a great partner in Director Jonas Akerlund, who shot an outrageous video for the band's first single "Undead." We created a comprehensive marketing plan for the band and got "Undead" on both Active and Modern Rock radio. The song was a bona fide hit and the band's first album went Platinum. It was a lot of fun taking this band that no one wanted and proving that there was a huge audience out there for them.
7) What's been the most frustrating?
Unquestionably Churchill. We took this artist from local success in Denver and put them on the national stage. We got them great airplay, tons of amazing touring and exposure on TV. We made a great album with Brendon O' Brien and we believed the band was poised for major success, but their own interpersonal issues forced them to take a break from working right in the middle of our campaign. It was a major bummer but it happens. We understand they are working out their differences and when they do we will be here to support them.
8) What was your favorite station to listen to when you were a kid?
I grew up in NYC and I loved listening to Z100. As I grew up listening to it, and it had such an influence on what I liked, it was a major thrill to eventually start working with the station years later.
9) Do you have a favorite hobby?
I do ... I love to cook, especially outdoors, and I spend many hours both reading about BBQ and preparing it on my Big Green Egg. My favorite BBQ chef is a guy named Adam Perry Lang who owns Daisy Mae's in NYC, Barbecoa in London with Jaime Oliver and Carnevino with Mario Batali in Vegas. His books and articles are easy to understand and I spent the Summer working on my technique.
10) What advice you would give people new to the business?
Be open-minded, be on time and pay attention to details. Figure out how to make yourself indispensable. In the beginning, no one is interested in your brilliant ideas. We just want to know you aren't a jackass. Prove that, work your ass off and eventually you will get your break. If you stick around long enough and have something to contribute, everyone eventually does. And be nice to those you meet on the way up because you will meet them on the way down. It may be a cliche but there is a reason for that. It's dead right.
The town with the best restaurants is...
I may be biased but I have to say NYC. I travel a LOT and have been all over the country. Many cities have some great restaurants and food but nowhere have I found the sheer variety, the creativity and the talent in the kitchen that is so extensive in New York City.