A&R Legend Mike Gitter To Young Music Fans: Go For It
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. You can read the first part of the interview here.
You parted ways with Roadrunner in 2009 and then spent some time at Century Media. Why didn’t it work out with Century Media at that time?
It was a different time for Century Media. It was a different time for Mike Gitter. We had different expectations of each other that neither party could fully meet at the time. No big deal. I learned a lot about myself and my strengths and weaknesses at that time. I won’t bullshit you, my job at Roadrunner was “cushy” in a lot of ways and I probably needed to toughen up in some regards. If you don’t have hard times, you don’t know what good times are.
You also moved from NYC to Los Angeles. Did it take you long to get used to being out here?
I’m an East Coaster, dude. Never forget the struggle or the streets but fuck the cold weather!
After that, you worked with Scott Koenig at King Artist Management, working with bands like Prong and Thrown Into Exile. I’m sure having an A&R background helped you bring a valuable perspective to the gig.
I’ve known Scott since probably 1988 and he’s been one of my best friends since then. We met actually when he was working for Rick Rubin and I went to the Def Jam offices of Elizabeth Street to interview Glenn Danzig for Rip magazine. When I parted ways with Century Media, management was something that was exciting to me and Scott was happy to help me out. Now, one thing I will emphatically point out is that management takes a very different skill-set than A&R and it’s a mistake to immediately think that if you’re a good record company guy, you’re going to be a good manager.
Having an A&R background was both good and bad. For starters, as a manager, you need to be realistic and blunt with artists in a way that you don’t have to be as an A&R guy. You also have to be willing to be the bearer of bad news more often than not. It’s not easy and the pay can be sporadic and lower than you’d think unless you have an artist that becomes fairly successful. There’s a reason why certain guys become very successful managers. There’s a definite mentality in management that is different from being an A&R guy.
Working with Prong was a lot of fun and I think Scott and I helped turn that band’s career in the right direction. They made a brilliant record with Carved Into Stone that helped lay the foundation for the next phase in their career. It was a lot of fun. Plus, I’ve known [Prong vocalist/guitarist] Tommy Victor since ’87 or ’88 when I put on the first Prong show in Boston. He’s such a good, funny, and smart dude.
Your next big move was becoming Senior Director of A&R at Razor & Tie. The label is based in NYC, but you stayed in Los Angeles. Did that prove to be an issue once you started?
Razor & Tie was a great experience. I had been there since 2012, initially starting as a consultant under [Head of A&R] Pete Giberga and [Head of Marketing] John Franck. They are great, very, talented guys. Eventually, those guys split the label, which allowed me to really carve my own niche there. The thing that became a bit problematic was that that as my responsibilities grew, I really missed the buzz of physically working at a record label complete with all the people, problems, and little victories that come with that.
We discussed me moving back to NYC but the timing never quite worked out. The disconnect between me being in LA and Razor & Tie being in NYC became a bit more pronounced, but truthfully, it was a great experience and I have many great friends there including the labels’ owners, Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, not to mention the product managers, promo people, etc. It’s a great label and I’m glad to have been a part of it.
Tell me about some of the artists you signed at Razor & Tie. I know you got HIM on the label, which was a big catch for them.
It was great to finally sign HIM after being a fan and wanting to sign them to Roadrunner. The record they gave us: Tears on Tape is a really good record. I was involved with the signing and A&R of Chiodos’ Devil record, which is a really good record and [Chiodos singer] Craig Owens is a true star and creative force. I signed Starset, a great radio rock band with a definite science fact and fiction twist and some truly great songs that defied chart-gravity!
There was a totally under appreciated record from Finch called Back to Oblivion that eluded most people who wrote them off as a Warped Tour heritage band. I also signed a great Irish punk band called Wounds, who are an amazing live band that never completely found an audience. They do their own thing which is a pretty awesome cross between Every Time I Die, Black Flag, and the riffier aspects of Nine Inch Nails.
Plus, there are some great upcoming records from the likes of Wilson, Failure Anthem, Crossfaith, and Red Sun Rising. In a lot of ways, they’re some of the best records I’ve ever worked on in terms of the actual craft of making records.
Did the label give you full autonomy on who you signed?
You can’t sign everything you bring through the door, but they were very supportive of me.
You left Razor & Tie and went back to Century Media in 2015. What brought that change on? The move surprised some people in the industry since you had been at the label before.
The bottom line is that whether or not I worked for Century Media, the label’s owner, Robert Kampf, and the president at the time, Don Robertson, as well as many other people there, have always remained very close friends of mine. Robert reached out to me to rejoin the team in a slightly different capacity, basically, playing to my strengths as an A&R guy: solely signing bands and making records, which was instantly appealing to me. Century is a great company and Robert is a lifer. He has a complete big-picture vision without losing sight of the foundation that CM is built on.
Did you feel bad leaving behind some of the newer acts you signed at Razor & Tie? That has to be a strange feeling.
Of course. I had signed some really great bands there: Wilson, Red Sun Rising, Crossfaith, Failure Anthem, and started the deal for While She Sleeps in my last few months at Razor & Tie, but at a certain point, I really had to come to terms with my “True North”: make a decision based on my needs as a person and a professional.
Tell me about your role at Century Media. Have you signed any new bands yet?
I’ve come back as Vice President of A&R for the Century Family and I can sign bands to the entire Century Media Family of labels which includes Century Media and Another Century as well as having the ability to work with Inside Out and Superball if a band is appropriate for them. I’m also involved with a few outside projects and artists signed with Street Smart Marketing and Management.
I’ve signed my first few bands which include AEGES, a great Los Angeles band that has released two fantastic records on the Mylene Sheath label. There’s guys in the band who I’ve known for quite some time coming up through bands like 16 and The Rise, who were on Ferret and who I tried to sign at Roadrunner. There’s The Black Moods, a fantastic, straight up rock ’n’ roll trio who play relentlessly and write great songs. I’m also in the process of finishing up deals on a few bands: some known, some relatively unknown. It’s an exciting time to put it mildly.
In the heavy metal world, the biggest labels are Roadrunner, Century Media, Metal Blade, and Nuclear Blast. Why do you think a newer label hasn’t come close to penetrating that group? Okay, Sumerian Records has had a lot of success, but the bigger records they’ve done over there would fall into the “screamo” category, for a lack of a better term.
These are labels that have a lot of history that came together during a much healthier (sales-wise) time in the music business. They were helmed by some very dynamic, driven and visionary and ambitious personalities. In the case of Roadrunner, Cees Wessels had a drive and a big-picture vision that no one has been able to replicate that had a very successful, multi-platinum endgame with Slipknot and Nickelback.
Metal Blade and Nuclear have doubled-down with metal and cultivated that as their brand while Century Media also did something similar while trying to develop a radio picture that has been somewhat successful with bands like Lacuna Coil, In This Moment and Otherwise. That “bigger picture” mentality is something that Robert Kampf has also shared and that will carry his business forward in a tricky time in the music business.
Why hasn’t another label made an impact like Roadrunner, CM, Nuclear and Metal Blade? Time. History. Personalities involved. Sumerian has definitely made a ton of noise and had some big signings including Circa Survive, Dillinger as well as cultivating the likes of Asking Alexandria and selling hundreds of thousands of records in the process. Victory has made a sizable dent over the course of a couple decades as well. Don’t completely discount them! Part of the reason why these over-arcing labels have endured as long as they have has a lot to do with their breadth of artists, even within a genre. As well as their willingness to invest and take chances.
What can we expect from you and Century Media in the next year or so?
It’s only been a couple months I’ve been with the label now, but in that time, a lot has happened and the Century Media deck is definitely being reshuffled in a very exciting and positive way.
I’ve often said that A&R is a dying art. The patience labels have these days seems so short. Artists aren’t developed like they used to be when I was growing up. Forget about getting 2-3 albums to find an audience. From where you’re standing, looking at the rest of the music industry, is A&R a dying art?
A dying art? There are certainly guys out there who know how to make records and I do count myself amongst them. I think quite often the record side of rock, metal, punk, whatnot, is often a fast-food business and not given to the actual crafting of records. There are plenty of exceptions to that and plenty of labels and executives that do care about delivering great songs and albums especially as records need to be better to survive in a harsher sales and radio climate.
That said, satellite radio has opened up a lot of promotional possibilities and then created a radio format for which you need do need the much-vetted single.
Do I see a lot of young, song-oriented gunslingers coming up in the business? In a pop sense, sure. In rock? Great songs never go out of style and as long as there’s traditional record companies, there will more than likely be people chasing down the best songs possible.
What would you say to someone who is reading this and wants to get into the A&R thing?
Go for it! Know that there isn’t one set career path and the job changes with the climate, the economy and the landscape of music itself. Like I would say to anyone who wants to do anything in music in general, just simply make sure you’re doing it out of passion for the music itself, find an entry point, champion an unsigned band that you love or find a way of offering great insight to a person in the business and simply go for it.
Plus, you really need to learn to listen. Learn to listen to bands, records and people in a way you never have before. Make an effort. Show your hardware. Leave your ego at the door and always be cool to everyone you meet. You never know where it will end up.
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