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Interview with Music Industry Executive Marc Ratner

by Alex Cosper

Conducted June 4, 2015 on Facebook



Alex: Ladies and gentlemen, with me today is music industry leader Marc Ratner, who runs his own label, Mishara Music .. In the past he's worked at labels such as Island, RSO, Elektra, Warner, Reprise and Dreamworks. We'll talk about his career and what he does for indie artists. It's for my website Playlist Research.

Marc: Hi Alex.

Alex: Marc, let's begin with how you started out as a musician.

Marc: I starting playing recorder duets with my mother when I was maybe 6. Then started taking violin lessons and ended up playing in the Minneapolis Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Alex: So it sounds like you had goals to make music at a young age.

Marc: We moved to Boston when my father was offered a professorship at Boston University - he taught painting and drawing - all the artwork on the Mishara Music site is his work. And I switched from violin to classical guitar. And then this thing called "The Beatles" happened. Pretty soon my classical guitar teacher suggested that I might discontinue the classical lessons because all I was doing was asking him how to play chords and Beatle songs.

Alex: I understand your first concert was the Beatles in 1966.

Marc: August 18th, 1966 - my mother was kind enough to take two young kids my sister and myself. She like them also of course. Isn't that what happens in the music business - the mom's adapt the music their kids are listening to. Until the kids hit about 17 or 18 and get edgier. My first concert performance was an assembly in jr. high school - I played the guitar while a friend of mine sang. We did one song and I believe it was "Sounds Of Silence."

Alex: The Beatles of course changed so many lives .. What was it about them that inspired you to pursue music?

Marc: I was already in music - the Beatles though were my music. But some of my favorite albums are still the one's my parent's listened to. They had some great stuff. "Sketches Of Spain" by Miles Davis comes to mind. Before records there was radio and retail.

Alex: How did you get your first record label job?

Marc: I was playing in clubs and colleges all around Boston and New England. And met the PD of a local Top 40 station - WMEX. He was looking for a new hire that was really into music and I fit the bill. He was a trendsetter in so many ways - John Garabedian. He hired me and said "It's sort of being my assistant." he first day on the job he went out to lunch and said he's be back in while - I was working on distributing playlists into packages to send out to record stores. He came back with four people with him and came over and said "I'd like you all to meet our new music director." First time I'd heard that term.

Alex: And then you started talking to record people.

Marc: He then introduced me to the local Columbia rep, a photographer for the Boston Globe and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. I was shellshocked. Roger was sayin' "Good to meet you" and I was thinking - wow, I'd seen him in concert a couple of times and now here he was chatting me up. I thought - "I don't know what just happened to my life - but I'm not in Kansas anymore."

Alex: So you got to do radio in its heyday .. The Byrds, of course, heavily influenced pop and underground music in the sixties.

Marc: Stayed at the station for quite a while after John left to program his next station but eventually moved on because I wasn't playing music as much as I wanted to. Moved to Calif -got to know a bunch of the record people that I'd talked to. Went back to Boston - worked in retail for a while - at Discount Records in Harvard Square. then back to Calif and ended up talking a gentleman named Harvey Cooper into letting me work with him at his newly formed independent promotion company. He'd just left the presidency of Bell Records I believe.

We merged a year later with Haven Records - a label by producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter distributed by Capitol. My work there was noticed by Al Coury. After a quick year at Island Records trying to get Bob Marley played on Top 40 radio.

Alex: Al Coury was one of the core music biz guys for decades.

Marc: Al hired me at RSO Records. And we had the run of a lifetime - with the BeeGees, Sat Night Fever, Grease, Eric Clapton and don't forget Rick Dees "Disco Duck."

Alex: RSO dominated the pop charts in the late 70s. That must have been a fun time for you.

Marc: After four years there I was hired by Burt Stein at Elektra and spent two years there and then went to Warner Bros where I stayed for 15 years - split between WB and the newly reactivated Reprise where I ended up as VP Promotion. At one time at RSO - we actually were on the phones asking radio NOT to play our records. They kept jumping to the next track on Sat Night Fever. At one point we had something like 7 singles out and every one of them went to number one. From SNF, Andy Gibb, Clapton etc.

But Warners was amazing. People always wondered why no one ever left the company. Because it was artist oriented and they treated the people working there better than any other place I've ever seen or experienced.

Alex: So those were some amazing years for Warner in the 80s with Madonna, Prince, Dire Straits. What were some of your favorite highlights of that era?

Marc: At one point we had 24 acts that sold Platinium or better. It was all about artist development and even as strong as Warners was it was hard - very hard. I remember one act that waited for a long time to have a single released. Finally we put one out and got about 50% of the radio stations to play. 2nd single got about 75%. And the stations that weren't playing would say "Stop talking to me about this artist. If you keep it up I'll start dropping your other records. We're not interested." Third single got about 90% of the stations - but it was a fight every single day. That took about a year. Finally the first single came out from the 2nd album and everyone added it the first day - like they'd never complained before. It just goes to show that no matter who it is - it's a long struggle to develop an artist. O h yeah - that 1st single from the 2nd album? It was called "Like A Virgin." Madonna. Her career was so tenuous for that first year.

And here's a Prince story. The first single from 1999 was the title track - "1999." No one remembers now that radio didn't like Prince and wouldn't play it. So it wasn't a hit - that time. We then released "Little Red Corvette" and that broke him.

Alex: Sometimes it takes radio awhile to catch on.

Marc: "1999" was re-released a second time and that's when it blew up.

Alex: It seemed like Warners gave artists autonomy and let several artists have their own label, like Prince's Paisley Park label.

Marc: The mindset at Warners was always support the artist. I miss that in the business now where it's one single - one month and if that doesn't hit you're gone.

Alex: The artist development era worked. Then the music industry went through lots of consolidation and everything changed. How did you decide to make the decision to leave the major labels and start your own independent music company?

Marc: It was an easy decision. After 15 years at Warner Bros I ended up following Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker to DreamWorks for another 6 years. As it was a smaller label I got to work even closer with the artists.

Alex: Who were some of the artists you worked with at DreamWorks?

Marc: I spent months on the road with Nelly Furtado, Citizen Cope, Rufus Wainwright, eastmountainsouth etc. After David Geffen made a business decision to get out of the music business and closed the label and sold the name to Interscope with a few of the artists. I decided that after 20+ years with Mo and Lenny and the respect that they gave to both their artists and employees.

I would go out on my own. I partnered with the manager of eastmountainsouth - Hugo Vereker and we formed bigHelium entertainment - records and management. We knew that the music business was changing and that the internet was both the game changer and the future.

Alex: What is your goal with indie music? Are you interested in helping certain types of artists?

Marc: We put out some great music by Peter Bradley Adams of eastmountainsouth, Glen Phillips of Toad The Wet Sprocket, Michael Brook with the score to "An Inconvienent Truth" the Al Gore film, etc. But we were actually too early to make the most of what we saw. And we wanted to leave Los Angeles. So Hugo left for London and I went to Maine. I was planning on starting a completely different business outside of music with another partner. But he went through some life changes and that plan went away so I dived back into music.

Alex: And now your project is Mishara Music .. www.misharamusic.com.

Marc: First off I helped a friend Jonathan Kochmer with his label out of Seattle - Sarathan Records. and learned a lot. Jonathan was one of the original employees (the 10th) of a small outfit named Amazon.com. And we worked together finding new ways of developing artists. Jonathan then went back to science - his first love - he now helps the earth deal with global warming etc and I started Mishara Music.

Alex: What is an example of how you might develop an artist differently than the norm?

Marc: Because I'd been a singer - songwriter and loved the art of the song. That's what I built the label around - along with my business partner Linda Baker.

Alex: How do you determine which artists end up on your roster?

Marc: The major music world these days - both radio and records - are interested in artists that already have a sizeable audience. hey're not in the development business anymore. So we find artists we love. In the beginning - we started with artists we already knew and loved. Now as we've built a brand - artists reach out to us. And it comes down to - what is sort of our motto "Music we love - people we like."

Alex: How do you define the brand? Are there certain qualities you look for in music?

Marc: Two things are very very important. One - artist development takes a long time and Two - don't focus on selling cds, selling downloads, getting streams, selling merch or tickets. all of that will happen if you concentrate on "building your audience. It's a three word business plan. Build Your Audience. I like to tell everyone that we're very much a direct to consumer company.

The key to our brand - is the song. One lesson I leared a long time ago - music attracts and lyrics sell. There has to be an emotional connection with the audience. The classic phrase that we veterans of the business know - "Turntable hit." It's a song with great music and lyrics that don't work. No emotional connection.

Alex: So you believe in the traditional route of building a live following, which will then take care of itself in terms of merchandising. But it still all begins with the song.

Marc: It doesn't necessarily need to be a live following - although live performance is do important. it's finding an audience that identifies with the song. We call the label a home for singer - songwriters but it's really about the songwriting that's key. Always has been.

Alex: Is it possible for indie artists to build careers by writing songs that connect with niche audiences?

Marc: I think it is - I hope it is. The hardest part of all of this is connecting with the right audience. The people that love what we do because they don't find it in the bigger commercial world very often. But it's hard to reach them because music delivery is so diverse.

Alex: Thinking back on the Beatles and how they had so many great universal songs .. does that model apply for today's indie artists? Is it more about writing niche songs these days or do universal songs still matter?

Marc: I think the right song will work both ways. A niche performance but it can go universal. The best example of all of this is the success of Adele. Heartfelt songs and a great performance that found it's way into the general public.

If I can share one example - the first song by our act Barnaby Bright from their upcoming new album. It's called "Just The Same" and has the best adult relationship lyrics I've come across in a very long time. And Becky's - the female lead in this husband - wife duo is just about the best singer I've ever heard.

Alex: So looking ahead, Marc, tell us how you envision the indie music world playing out in the next decade. Indie music sales represents about a third of all sales, which implies a lot of music can sell without airplay.

Marc: What I've always said about the business is that the delivery model has changed - 45, LP, 8 track, cassette, cd, mp3 and now streaming music is as popular as ever. Just don't get caught up in the method of delivery. On the Mishara Music page there's a post that links to a video of "Just The Same" by Barnaby Bright and also to a free download of the song on Amazon. I invite everyone to listen to the song and download it for free. That's artist development at it's best.

Alex: Marc, once again here's your label, Mishara Music .. www.Misharamusic.com .. Any closing thoughts?

Marc: I write a blog about our company that somehow has become almost more about life in Maine - with a lot of photos. You can read that at www.marcrescue.wordpress.com at www.marcrescue.wordpress.com. Thanks for asking about our music. That's much appreciated, Alex Cosper. Thank you, Marc .. I've enjoyed this interview.

See the rest of the interview here later today.

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