A&R Legend Mike Gitter Talks Wins And Disappointments In The Music Industry
This is part one of a two-part interview with Mike Gitter. Part two is published here.
Mike Gitter is the genuine article. The music industry veteran has been spreading the gospel of underground metal, hardcore, and punk for the better part of four decades. On the strength of his influential xXx hardcore zine in the ‘80s, Gitter became a sought after music journalist in the early ‘90s.
From there, Gitter entered the major label fray as an A&R executive at Atlantic Records. Since then, he’s brought his talents to several other record labels, and currently is the Vice President of A&R at Century Media Records, one of the premier companies in the heavy metal realm.
Throughout his career, Gitter has worked with such seminal punk and metal acts as Killswitch Engage, Bad Religion, Megadeth, and Opeth.
I recently sat down with Gitter to get the story behind his life in the A&R world.
When and how did you get into the A&R world? Did you work your way up the ladder at a label, or did you land the A&R gig at Atlantic Records some other way?
By 1992, I was working full-time as a music journalist, writing for magazines like Kerrang!, Rip, Tower Records’ Pulse!, and many others, covering bands that I had simply been a fan of for years. I was writing about people like Rollins and regularly covering bands that had legit, indie and punk rock roots. When Sub Pop and Seattle started happening, I naturally gravitated to those sounds and artists, including a certain band featuring the drummer of Washington DC’s Scream that would be known to the world as Nirvana!
It was also the era when record companies were flying journalists around to cover bands. Anyway, I was coming back from Los Angeles, where I was doing a piece for Rip on my former New York pals, White Zombie, when I bumped into Jason Flom, the head of A&R at Atlantic Records. On that flight, Jason and I got into a very long conversation about new music, new bands, and a few days later, I got a call from him asking me to come in for a meeting. Jason wanted to hire me as an A&R consultant and scout. It was a classic case of being in the right time and place in the post-Nirvana world when major labels were feverishly looking for that “Next Nirvana.” Eventually, I was bumped up to a full-time A&R position.
One thing people always talk about when they’re discussing the A&R thing is the pressure you guys must feel to sign successful artists. Since you were at a major label, did you feel that kind of pressure right off the bat?
Not really, largely for two reasons. 1. I was coming off being a hardcore kid and operating in the DIY universe and really didn’t know what the expectations were. 2. It was the post-Nirvana gold rush so you already had bands the likes of Helmet, Faith No More, and White Zombie proving that there was an audience for slightly heavier, left field music. I was at a label where Danny Goldberg, the former manager of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, was my boss and encouraging the signings of bands like the Melvins, Surgery, and Daniel Johnston. It’s funny, early on, I went to the UK with Danny to meet with Godflesh.
I was lucky. I had some successful signings early on, particularly Bad Religion, who had their biggest selling record, Stranger Than Fiction, on Atlantic. It became a gold record. As time, records, and different bosses came and went, I did feel a certain amount of pressure, especially seeing the real success of bands like Stone Temple Pilots and Hootie & the Blowfish, but I do have to confess to a certain sort of ignorant bliss on entering the building.
Who was the first band you signed and how did it do, commercially speaking?
With great pride, I can say, none other than Jawbox. I had known [vocalist/guitarst] J. Robbins since he played in Government Issue. I liked Jawbox’s Grippe album a lot and was pretty blown away but their second album, Novelty, which contained a song called “Static.” That remains one of my favorite songs of all time. In fact, I tried to get Jawbox to re-record the song for both Atlantic records.
Sales-wise, Jawbox never lived up to the press, hype and excitement around them. It’s a shame since they were a totally great band, and great, hardworking people. I think the first record, For Your Own Special Sweetheart, only ended up selling about 40K off the bat and its self-titled follow-up, which the label shuttled off to the sub-label, TAG (The Atlantic Group) did half of that. It wasn’t exactly easy music but Sweetheart still endures and songs like “Savory” have been covered by people like the Deftones.
It’s funny, I can still remember the first album’s producer, Ted Nicely, getting in my face at CBGB’s one night, drunkenly haranguing me because Green Day was taking off and Jawbox was still treading water sales-wise. Duh! One band wrote great songs and the other was simply a great band. It’s not a shock how it all ended up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If nothing else, Jawbox was a staggering creative and musical success and that there’s a ton of validity to that. Now, if they only re-recorded “Static”! Gold! Platinum! J. Robbins Superstar! [laughs].
How did you balance the “I love this artist even though most people won’t get them” vs. the “I’m not crazy about this artist but I think they will sell tons of copies” thing?
Bottom line is that you’re there to scout, sign and cultivate artists that will hopefully sell records and make the company money. In addition to that, you’re also cultivating the label’s profile via some of those artists and balancing that with your own tastes. In some regards, there is a push and pull but for the most part, it all works in tandem. There definitely have been bands I’ve signed because I think that they will sell and there are things I’ve signed purely because I think it’s great music and sometimes those bands sell nothing and other times, they surprise the hell out of you.
The common denominator usually is that it’s a rock, metal, punk, post-hardcore, whatever band. Something with very loud guitars and amps in the face! There have been a couple of questionable decisions I’ve made over the years, but usually, those decisions have to do with thinking there’s some pay-off that may or may not happen. Thankfully, gut and instinct can be a great creative (and moral) compass in situations like that.
Who are some of the other artists you signed during your time at Atlantic Records?
Well, the second band I signed to Atlantic was a relatively little known Southern California band called Bad Religion. Just kidding, they’re kinda big. [laughs]. I had been a Bad Religion fan since hearing them on a Smoke 7 Records comp, the Back to the Known EP, and onward. To this day, Generator is one of my favorite records ever and the first record that we ended up putting out was the stone-cold classic, Recipe for Hate, which Atlantic licensed from Epitaph. Working with Bad Religion was an unbelievable experience. The first proper Atlantic record, Stranger Than Fiction, was both their and my first gold record. Recommending Brian Baker as the guy to replace Brett Gurewitz, when Brett left the band to focus on Epitaph was a small feather in my cap as, in my opinion, Brian is hardcore’s first true guitar hero and an old friend.
That said, I also feel like if Bad Religion never left Epitaph, Brett and Epitaph wouldn’t have been freed up to focus on the likes of NOFX, the Offspring and Rancid and there wouldn’t have been a second golden era of California punk.
Samiam came soon afterwards and I’m really proud of the records we did together. Clumsy is a great “early days of emo” classic produced by Lou Giordano. Its follow-up, You Are Freaking Me Out, is just as good.
You Are Freaking Me Out was met with relative indifference when it was delivered to the label. Unfortunately, Atlantic didn’t release it and ended up selling it to a short-lived label called Ignition, who pretty much folded upon the record’s release. It’s a shame as there’s some really great songs on that record; a couple of which felt like the legit radio hits that perhaps Clumsy didn’t have. Oh well. I had been let go at the time and truthfully, that quest for the “Next Nirvana” or Green day was over. Corporate rock kinda sucked on that one!
I was definitely signing within my niche. I signed a very short-lived Rhode Island band called Waterdog that was a baby Green Day that sold very poorly. Thankfully, I did follow that with CIV, who I was handed a cassette of by drummer Sammy Siegler, who I had known from Youth of Today, Judge and countless NYHC bands. It was a tape of the “Can’t Wait One Minute More”/”Et Tu Brute” 7” and it was great. Literally, the CIV Set Your Goals record was the next Gorilla Biscuits record with a monster hit in “Can’t Wait One Minute More,” which you can still hear today in car commercials.
Orange 9MM was the last band I signed to Atlantic and still one of the most exciting and innovative. In many ways, they set the template for the sound of nu metal along with contemporary bands like Handsome and the deftones. Orange 9MM were amazing, particularly that first lineup of the band and the Driver Not Included record but they simply never put it together in a way that would completely translate to the masses.
Another thing a lot of people outside of the music industry think is that A&R people have huge expense accounts and they go out and wine and dine potential artists on a weekly basis.
At one point, that was hardly a myth. I’ve definitely been at more than my share of dinners with executives, artists and managers that ran up a tab into the four-figure range. 10 or 15 years ago, there was more money to throw around and while we were hardly living a Wolf of Wall Street lifestyle, there were records being sold and money was being spent to do so. Times have changed and belts have been tightened, but there are still plenty of fancy, albeit cheaper, dinners to be had for fledgling artists. Like they say: A&R = Artists In Restaurants.
Did you have any artists you wanted to sign that you lost out on after a bidding war ensued?
Sure, there’s always someone out there willing to overpay for an artist and that trend which isn’t really a trend but more of a constant state of affairs and continues till this day. Bidding wars were more prevalent in the ‘90s, and I’m sure for decades before that. I had certainly been out-bid on Rancid, Texas Is the Reason, ALL, and Girls Against Boys back in the Atlantic days. While I was at Roadrunner, we lost HIM to Warners. While I was at Razor & Tie, Nuclear Blast outbid us on Within Temptation. It happens.
Did any of your old friends from the hardcore world give you crap for working at Atlantic?
Naw, but I did get a mention on the cover of Maximum Rock ’N’ Roll when they rechristened the magazine Maximum Greed and Ego for a corporate sell out issue! [Audio engineer] Steve Albini has also mentioned me in the infamous “The Problem With Music” essay that keeps recirculating once every two years. That said, in Albini’s article, I’m mentioned with a lot of prime movers from the underground including Lyle Preslar, Terry Tolkin and Al Smith, who all went on to have successful industry careers, so in a lot of ways, that’s a backhanded high five! [laughs].
Otherwise, most people tend to be pretty supportive of me continuing to make a career in music; be it rock, punk, hardcore or metal. Plus, having that background and my history in it has helped me connect with a great many people over the years. It was a fascinating period in rock (and still is) and is always the topic of endless hours of conversations being it with young bands or my fellow “Age Rage” contemporaries. Bottom line is that I still get to wake up everyday, work with great bands, work on great records and have a job I love. I can’t complain.
How did you go from Atlantic to Roadrunner Records? Was there someone there who championed you?
[Former Roadrunner Records executive] Monte Conner was effectively my “Rabbi” at Roadrunner. He hired me there after a few months being out of work after Atlantic. I had known Monte since my days as a journalist and there’s always been a tight bond there. Not only is he one of the true visionaries of heavy music, having had a career that’s weathered many sea changes within the scene, but he’s also a truly generous, cool soul. He’s a great guy.
My career at Roadrunner definitely had many high and low points and Monte was there with me for all of it, often defending me when the label’s owner, Cees Wessels, was unhappy with how a record I was involved in either underperformed or exploded on the launch pad – and there were quite a few of those.
Who was the first artist you signed at Roadrunner and was it a big adjustment to be at a smaller label? Don’t get me wrong, I know Roadrunner is a big operation, but it must have been a change from being at a behemoth like Atlantic.
The first band I signed at Roadrunner was Both Worlds, a band fronted by one of my favorite human beings to ever walk the face of Terra Firma: John Joseph of the Cro-Mags. It was a band with John, AJ from Leeway (who now actually plays in the Cro-Mags) as well as Sick of It All’s Eddie Cohen and Pokey from Leeway, now of Agnostic Front, on drums. It was an attempt at a post-hardcore sound for those guys. Bands like Orange 9MM and Quicksand were doing really well at the time but legitimately, that’s a sound that those four guys wanted to pursue.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite find an audience and only sold a couple thousand records which is a shame as there are a lot of great songs on their album, Memory Rendered Visible. I think it came down to people knowing it was John and wanting Cro-Mags music, which Both Worlds ultimately wasn’t.
The expectations on being an A&R at Roadrunner weren’t too dissimilar from being at Atlantic. Cees Wessels wanted to sell records and not exist in a metal “box” which is probably why Roadrunner went on to become one of the biggest and best rock labels in history. Sure, there was a little more room to play in the sandbox of the underground, but that was never Cees’ agenda from the minute he started Roadrunner. He wanted more.
I had some success with my second Roadrunner signing, the Misfits, but it was really Ill Niño that secured my longevity there. Ill Niño had some really commercial songs and a very strong, Latin identity, tinged with these almost Quicksand-like riffs. The dreadlocks are what probably got them the “nu-metal” tag, to be honest. There was a lot of dimension and integrity to what Ill Niño were doing. Not bad for a band that started out as Jorge from Merauder’s Latin-metal side-project!
In my twelve years at Roadrunner, there were a lot of high-points. It was an honor to simply have my name on two amazing Opeth records: Ghost Reveries and Watershed. Really, the extent of A&Ring one needs to do on an Opeth record is simply going to the studio in Sweden, listening to the songs and being utterly blown away. Another highlight is helping to galvanize ongoing careers and having veteran bands like Cradle of Filth and Hatebreed delivering landmark records with Nymphetamine and Supremacy, respectively, was pretty amazing. Internationally, there’s songs on that Hatebreed record like “Destroy Everything” that are among the biggest in their repertoire.
Another amazing chapter was working with Megadeth. Having Dave Mustaine as an artist and working very closely with him on the United Abominations and Endgame records was pretty incredible. The guy is a true talent and a great guy with a very open heart. It was a special time for Megadeth and it was an honor to be a part of it.
By the same token it was great to shepard into Roadrunner great debuts from bands like 3 Inches of Blood, Still Remains and The Agony Scene all of whom made really great initial records for the label.
Other high-water marks? Records I worked on including Killswitch, DragonForce and unbelievably enough, Cradle of Filth getting Grammy nominations. Going to the Grammys was something I never expected when I was putting out xXx from my parent’s house! Even signing bands like Nightwish, DragonForce, and Within Temptation and seeing them become successful with sounds that were fairly alien at the time to the American metal mainstream was an accomplishment.
How about your biggest disappointments there? I’m talking about a band that you felt should/could have found a huge audience, but fell flat, commercially.
Probably my final signing at Roadrunner: Mutiny Within. They were a great band from New Jersey with a phenomenal English singer named Chris Clancy. Think Killswitch kids playing Dream Theater’s licks. They are a really great band with really good songs. They just never fully lived up to their potential live but were on their way to becoming something special. I also loved The Agony Scene record I worked on with Rob Caggiano from Volbeat and Anthrax producing. Just a nasty, super-catchy metalcore record that snarled and hissed like Lamb of God’s twisted little brothers. Sadly, The Agony Scene may have been a bit too gnarly for the world of mainstream metal.
Catch part 2 of this incredible interview right here!
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