The playa has worked with many artists, many executives, and many labels. One of the most interesting periods of a long and creative experience was the time I spent as a young A&R executive on the staff of the EMI Records Group. It was a time immediately after I’d experienced creative success on a world wide basis, when I’d led Giant/Warner Brothers Records into the Urban Music market by playing a significant role in compiling the soundtrack for the crack opera, “New Jack City.” For my efforts, I was rewarded by being shown the door. A former label mate provided an opportunity for me to continue practicing my craft, and I joined the EMI staff in early ’92.
Debbie Southwood-Smith was another young A&R executive at the label with taste, wit and style. We have been friends ever since we worked together. Please find below her brief first person account of her time spent in records, and her most recent career developments. Even though I know the story, I found it to be riveting. I hope that you’ll agree.
I was an A&R executive for about twenty years. I started directly after graduating from Emerson College in Boston, when I landed a starter-kit job with MCA’s regional branch in Woburn, MA. I worked as a promotional assistant, gathering data on radio adds, drops and specialty show plays. I could also be found packing up vinyl to be shipped out to Oedipus’ WBCN or Sunny Jo White’s KISS 108 as well as occasionally driving out to Amherst or Providence to deliver a record personally. After watching REM climb the top 40 charts with “Losing My Religion, I recalled that just a few years earlier I had watched them perform T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” at The Rathskellar. Michael Stipe’s back was to the audience – which had been scant at best -almost the entire set. I decided I wanted to help bands journey the path from almost complete obscurity to crossover and mainstream acceptance.
MICHAEL ALAGO LITTLE STEVEN VAN ZANDT & DEBBIE SOUTHWOOD-SMITH (THE AUTHOR)
I’m a Jersey Girl, having moved from Queens to Hackensack where I spent most of my formative years. In 1989, I went back to Queens and got an apartment that I shared with three boys, all of whom were upstarts in the music business. I got a job working for an independent label called Rockville Records. I signed a band called Uncle Tupelo, now considered pioneers of the alterna/ country movement. They later split up and Wilco was born from one of their branches. I caught the attention of Brian Koppelman and Fred Davis. (“Who is this girl who is everywhere, every night?”) Brian took me to see The Black Crowes right before Shake Your Money Maker was released, gave me Fred’s number and told me to call him directly. Fred was hiring for the newly consolidated EMI/ Chrysalis/ SBK label group and needed a street kid. My lucky number had been pulled. I did some stuff. I signed a crazy rock band from New York City named DGeneration, who were destined for greatness, but shit happens – and that’s another story for another blog. I signed Blessid Union Of Souls who had the #2 song in the country. I was 29 years old. That was cool. I left EMI and went to A&M Records. Fred said, “People in the business like you, but now you need to have some success,” so I made a gold record with Monster Magnet who tore up rock’s airwaves and created mayhem on every tour stop. A&M was my family until it was kinda torn apart, and the remains absorbed by Interscope Records. Many reading this will remember it as Black Thursday- my ass landed at Interscope. Dazed and confused, I got up off the deck, ignoring the horrible things people were saying about “girls being kept on because we were paid less” – a fact, yes, a reasonable one, no.
I got busy. It was 1999 and I had places to go, things to do and bands to sign. I signed Queens of the Stone Age who had gold records followed by a platinum record. I signed The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who had a gold record and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. I got a new boss. We didn’t see eye-to-eye and things got tough. But I still remember Interscope marketing overlord, Steve Berman referring to me as their golden girl. (“What are you going to do next? Everything you touch turns to gold.”)
THE YEAH YEAH YEAHS
Eventually Interscope cut my position in 2005. I had a deal on the table for TV on the Radio, but I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to me. I had gone from golden girl to lost and confused girl. An antiquated business model that had everyone running on fear threatened all the record companies. There were a whole lot of people out in LA trying to decapitate each other; the whole situation had changed into some sick joke that had something to do with Machiavellian laws, which frankly, I don’t play by. I couldn’t survive in that environment. I did yoga everyday, for crying out loud, I was like all “Om” and shit. In 2005 I was unemployed and completely lost. My identity as “Debbie from Interscope” gone. I did some totally dumb things like giving up my Greenwich Village apartment on Christopher Street, where I had lived for 16 years and moving to the Massachusetts countryside and trying to work at Long View Studios, thinking about many possibilities, none of which worked out. I ended up in Jersey City contemplating my next move while the music business, as I had known it from 1986-2005 was laid to rest. I believe in survival of the fittest, yet even so, I can’t help but feel a tad bitter about being dismissed from a life that I poured my heart and soul into. There will always be a part of me that cries out, “Why me?”
Here, the story takes a turn. I decided to teach. I’d taught a class on A&R for Baruch College on and off for five years. During that experience I had learned that no matter what subject you are teaching, what you are really doing is trying to help people make sense out of life, and in turn those people helped me understand my life, little by little. It was the only time in my life, since I had started working in the music business that I was doing something selflessly, because believe me honey – no matter what your federal or state government is telling you – teaching is never about the money.
I enrolled in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Master of Education program. I graduated (with a 3.89- ahem) in 2009 and was hired by the school in which I completed my student teaching internship. The high school where I am currently employed as an English teacher is James J. Ferris High School in Jersey City. It is located under the NJ Turnpike overpass in the center of the Montgomery Projects. It is truly what in PC terms is referred to as “an inner city school.” These are the schools placed in minority districts. No matter what your property tax is, I can guarantee that these schools are not receiving your tax dollars in any significant way. These are the buildings in which our black, Dominican, Pakistani, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Haitian and any other economically challenged minorities are placed. Why am I there? Because you go where you are needed.
My students love music. They all have mp3 players of some make or model. They have sneakers and most have cell phones. What they do not have is a future unless they are the few who are determined against all odds to create one. My students are mostly 16-18 year olds who are in their sophomore year. In the record industry we had a term for the second record “the sophomore slump.” This applies to high school as well. The students read and write on a grade level ranging from third to sixth grade. Rare are the kids who are “on track.” Even my honors levels classes are filled with young people who have never been taught how to properly conjugate a verb, capitalize a proper noun, or insert a paragraph. They do not understand the definition of simple words, such as refute, contagious or sinister. They don’t know that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are related. They are completely unaware that there is an enormous oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico that will somehow affect their lives in years to come. What they know is the ghetto in Jersey City.
Many of my students don’t live with their parents, or perhaps they live with one parent. They have been handed off to guardians because their parents are still in the DR or Haiti or wherever, or their parents are on the streets, or dead. There might be a myriad of other reasons for the lack of adult guidance in their lives. Every kid has a story and most of them are very sad. Many of my students are gang members, or their blocks are under the control of a gang. An enormous majority of the girls will not graduate before becoming mothers. The kids who make it to college usually attend the community college, an extension of the “inner city schools” they are a product of, and drop out after a year or maybe two. My students live with very little hope for a future that doesn’t involve government assistance.
THE AUTHOR SURROUNDED BY THE STUDENTS OF FERRIS HIGH SCHOOL
When I worked in the music business I always had a bag packed in my living room. I had frequent flyer points on almost every airline. I traveled to and did business in almost every state in the union. I spent time in the UK, and considered myself “bi-coastal.” I wasn’t a girl from Hackensack, NJ anymore. I was exposed to so much, and my life in the Big Apple was filled with art, adventure and people from every walk of life. I knew arty hipsters like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I knew important, wealthy men like Rick Wake, Jimmy Iovine and David Anderle. I rubbed up against artists who were nuts and fun and forever creating – such as Josh Homme, Michael Alago, and Ryan Adams. I had friends who were traveling, working, and on the cutting edge of everything, like Marilyn Manson, Natasha Schneider (RIP), Jesse Malin, Ken Friedman…and the list goes on and on. The point that I am making is that many of you, who are reading this, have had experiences very similar to mine and the call I am making to you is to please, go where you are needed and share what you have been blessed with.
I bring to my students, a BIG, juicy life. I bring color, personality, the lesson behind every fire I have walked through and all that has brought me joy in life. In turn they give me love. These children from our ghettos are not to be feared. They live in fear and vulnerability and seclusion. Our at risk kids, living in shelters, living in public housing, living with their uncle the block’s crack dealer, or a tragically addicted mother, or grandparents who are tired, and they need to see us. If they don’t know that people outside the Montgomery Housing Projects exist, they will have nothing in their lives to aspire to. The messages of Albee Al and Joe Buddens are all they will know and it is not enough. I certainly am not asking all of you to drop what you are doing and become teachers in the ghetto. I am asking you to find a place where you are needed, a place where there are children, and do one thing every year to help them. Come speak to the kids in my school. Donate books, technology, or money to a community center, but more importantly donate your time. Spend one hour a year sharing your experience, strength and hope.
I miss the music business. I miss the rewards of hearing a record I worked on being played on the radio; I miss the constant travel and the shimmer of the offices, the free tickets and glamorous parties. Of course, I do, I’m human. However, teaching at James J. Ferris High School is the most fulfilling job I have ever held. Much like the rock & roll that I grew up on, it is filled with chaos, drama, and stresses that I never imagined, but mostly it is filled with love. These children, are our future, and they need us. What we get in return is almost more then my heart can hold. Please share it with me. It’s an hour out of your life. They need you.