Mom + Pop Music Founder Michael Goldstone on Discovering Pearl Jam and Courtney Barnett Giving His Company Its First Grammy Nod

Dustin Cohen
Michael Goldstone, Founder of Mom + Pop Music, photographed on Jan. 5, 2016 at Mom + Pop's New York offices.

During the 1990s, Michael “Goldie” Goldstone was the A&R guy whom everyone wanted to be. He began working at Chrysalis Records as a teenager, gradually found his way into A&R and his first signing -- Texas guitar ace-turned-heartthrob Charlie Sexton -- reached No. 15 on the Billboard 200 in 1986. But he soon immersed himself in the late-’80s alt-rock scene and signed the ill-fated Seattle quintet Mother Love Bone -- whose singer, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose in March of 1990, just weeks before the release of the band’s highly touted debut album, Apple. Yet that group morphed into Pearl Jam (which has sold 32.5 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen Music), and during the next 18 years -- at Epic, DreamWorks and Sire -- Goldstone signed Rage Against the Machine (11.7 million copies), Buckcherry (3 million), Regina Spektor (1.5 million) and Tegan & Sara (963,000), and A&R’d the 1992 Singles soundtrack (1.7 million).

But the married father of two daughters (Riley, 14, and Payton, 11) grew tired of the major-label game and in 2008 started Mom + Pop with Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch of Q Prime Management; Goldstone and co-president Thaddeus Rudd now own the company. The New York-based, RED-distributed label is at 50-plus releases and 10 employees, and in December the label got its first-ever Grammy nomination when Courtney Barnett was nominated for Best New Artist.

 

And with new music on the way from alternative rockers Lucius, Polica, Mutual Benefit, Hinds, Bayonne, the DMAs and Jagwar Ma as well as electronic artist Flume, 2016 is shaping up to be the label’s biggest year to date.

You picked just about the worst year to start a record company: 2008. What made you want to do that to yourself?

[Laughs.] It’s funny -- maybe a year after we started, [Columbia Records chairman/CEO] Rob Stringer said, “What an amazing time to start a label; what a horrible time to start a label.” A lot of it was driven by scale. I had been building a boutique roster within Warner’s at Sire without really having the autonomy to do it as a true indie, and I remember somebody at Warners saying something to the effect of, “We don’t really consider Tegan & Sara selling 200,000 records a success.” Shortly thereafter, [indie Epitaph Records founder] Brett Gurewitz playfully said, “Those people can’t be happy with the numbers that you’re selling, but I’d be thrilled -- and you'd be buying a house if you were doing it on your own.” I just wanted to be in a situation that gave me more control.

How did things change once you went indie?

The first deal I brought in was an artist named Joshua Radin, who had sold “only 90,000 records” on Columbia. I remember feeling a little timid walking into Cliff’s office with this two-page proposal that I’d pretty much written up myself -- which I felt was commensurate with the major-label deals I had been doing -- thinking I’m going to get thrown out for being so generous. But Cliff pulled out a Sharpie, marking this and marking that, and handed it back to me, saying, “It’s not generous enough to the artist.”

Things have changed so much in the past 15 years, what do you think record company should be in 2016?

There's an arc to answering that question because it's not necessarily the same for each artist. A lot of times you're signing [relatively established] artists who have a finished record they want you to release, so the A&R process may be, on the front end of it, may be none or minimal. As you get deeper into the relationship in terms of second and third records, some artists want and encourage your involvement in terms of finding a producer or how you would approach this record. [On the other hand], some artists have gravitated to labels like this because of the creative control and the freedom to not have that part of it interfered with or over-analyzed.

We bring the ability to provide opportunities and the ability to execute the mechanics of actually getting records profiled and promoted, in addition to some of the conventional marketing and promotion things. And [since Mom + Pop] is not taking [income from] touring and merch and ancillaries, to be a recorded-music partner and to be able to bring value to those other aspects of their business and their career -- that’s something we feel is a great value to them.

 

You have been a top A&R guy for so long, what do you think artists like about you?

[Laughs] I've never been asked that question. I’d like to believe that my longevity has been based on a level of transparency and of trying to respect the fact that artists have one career. 'Cause you can't guarantee that people will respond, but you do want to try to guarantee that you'll put them in a position to be heard. I learned some valuable lessons in terms of what my value to a record company, especially a big record company, could be: If there’s an imaginary fence and you’re sitting ever so slightly on the artist side of that fence, you’ll be of greater value to the label.

Why is that?

Because then the artists trust that you will protect them, and they believe you when you say, “This or that is the right thing to do.” It’s a nuance that played out with a number of artists earlier in my career. And yes, there would be frustrating moments telling [then-Epic executives] Dave Glew or Richard Griffiths that “We need to scrap 100,000 CDs because the color is wrong,” or whatever. But that was of great value in terms of the artists’ overall relationship with the company.

It's easier said than done and it's not always the easiest thing to navigate. There are things that we had to negotiate in that first Sony contract with Pearl Jam that [are standard now], such as the ability to deliver their own art as opposed to working with an in-house art direction person. It taught me incredibly valuable lessons about trying to not do things by consensus. When you work at big companies and you sit in A&R meetings with six, 10, 14 people or whatever, it's easy to either get talked out of -- or into -- things that maybe you shouldn't.

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What was it like working with Seymour Stein at Sire?

I learned a lot from Seymour really fast. I wouldn't say he was a mentor but he was like the most awesome crazy uncle you could ever have. We were sort of thrown together and it was like a weird version of Twins because we didn't really know each other. I’d really wanted to start my own label but I got this phone call from [then-Warner Bros. CEO] Tom Whalley, saying “I want you to meet Seymour, I want you to re-launch Sire.” So we had a couple dinners and then decided to take our first business trip. Seymour says, “The first thing you need to learn is to get the f--- out of America” -- which is the opposite of what I’d heard at other labels. So we flew to Paris to see a band, then we were going to London. We're on the train from Paris and he asks, “So what are you listening to?” I said, “This girl, Regina Spektor,” and I pulled out my iPod and he said, “What the hell is that?!” [Laughter] They were still relatively new. Anyway, I played him a couple songs, and he goes, “Where is she?” I said, “Actually she’s opening up for Kings Of Leon in Brussels.” He says, “What the f--- are we going to London for?” So we got to London, went straight to the airport, flew to Brussels, and eight hours later we’re backstage and he's serenading her and they're singing showtunes from the '30s and '40s together, and I'm going “This is the most amazing job I've ever had.” He was so inspiring to be around.

A lot of major and bigger indie labels were courting Courtney Barnett. What made her decide on Mom + Pop?

One of the most fulfilling aspects of being able to run your own label is simply that it’s your label. Marathon Artists [in the U.K.] had signed Courtney worldwide and were seeking a U.S. licensor. It was extremely competitive and, to be frank, we were a little late. But Thaddeus and I spent a couple of days with the Marathon people and, by not having to ask anyone else what we could or couldn’t do, we were able to adjust the proposal in real time. And we jumped on the phone with Courtney and her manager and did a Skype call and everyone introduced themselves and, one at a time, articulated who we were and what we did. We came to learn that she really has an indie mindset, from having started her own label and curating it, and she was really aware of the kind of environment and company that we were building.

 

She’s gone from playing CMJ showcases to a Grammy nomination in two years -- how did you as a label help to make that happen?

A lot of it, though, is because she’s toured here so much. But [part of the success] is to put the right amount of time and energy into the gatekeepers that were most appreciative of what she did artistically: The WFUVs and NPRs and Pitchforks. And also, we really tried to make sure we weren't trying to run too fast to the next level of gatekeepers. We were trying to build a relationship with radio as opposed to trying to run records up and down charts, trying to work closely with [booking agency] Windish and our PR people at Grandstand to make the right choices in terms of how her time was spent when she went through different cities. We wanted to be sure that we were air-traffic controlling it and inspiring a …  I won't say methodical but a thoughtful pace to it, and creating a foundation for her building a long-term relationship with her American audience.

Some labels have come to base a huge amount of their A&R on research. How important is it to you?

We'll probably never have a research department but it's valuable information to have, whether it be SoundCloud, social, level of engagement, the amount of tickets that an act can sell. But also, there was a record we put out last year called Lady Lamb and she had sold 5,000-6,000 records basically out of the back of her truck. And for us that's research in the sense that, without having significant resources behind her, she can reach that many people.

Also, [A&R VP] Julia [Willinger] started a singles label called Mermaid, and Hinds and the DMAs are two bands that came [to Mom + Pop] from her doing singles with them and building a relationship with them. Of course, you run the risk that other labels will come along and sign some of those artists, which has happened, but it’s one of the luxuries that we have as an independent label.

How big is your A&R department?

Three of us oversee it, but “A&R department” is a little bit of an antiquated term when you’re running a small company -- it really doesn’t matter who is bringing in these artists. For me, more times than not, A&R had always been a solo sport. And you're bobbing and weaving and trying to survive within these bigger institutions, and your livelihood is based on “What did you sign? How much did it sell? What did you break?” And now, whether it’s Thaddeus with Flume or Julia with Jagwar Ma and Hinds or Suzanna [Slavin, who Goldstone describes as his “right arm”] with Mutual Benefit, when you’re in a small company, it doesn’t really matter whose acts are making it rain because we’re all going to participate in the success.

You don’t do 360 deals. Do you make enough money from streaming and sales to be sustainable?

I believe it’s more than sustainable. Masters have incredible value, almost like a publishing catalog, and if we continue to find records that people want to sync, stream, download or consume, and we make smart decisions about where and how to spend money, we'll continue to run a strong business.

 

Do your daughters love music as much as you?

Yes, although my 11-year-old, Payton, is the left-brain kid who says things like, “You're not signing enough pop stuff. How come you didn't sign Diplo? How come you didn't sign Disclosure? How come you didn't sign Fetty Wap?” She is also the kid who, when I drove her to a playdate when she was 5, was like, “So Dad, can you tell me how they make it sound like there's 20 Lady Gagas singing at the same time on that record?” She's the one who says, “Don't screw it up because I wanna run your label.” I would never encourage my kids to do anything other than what they want to do, but she's got that thing in her.

You had early mainstream success with Charlie Sexton, but your career afterward was completely different. What changed?

I’d had a meeting with Perry Farrell when I was looking to sign Jane’s Addiction. That might have been the first time I ever sat down with somebody who had such a vision of how the relationship between labels and artists could be in terms of creative control, artwork, how to make records and deliver them. It was completely antithetical to the way I had approached the job before -- you know, getting things pitched from attorneys and going to showcases organized by managers. And that prepared me for the meetings I had with Mother Love Bone and later Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine -- artists who wanted to change the paradigm of the relationship with the label. It changed everything for me.

And [Mother Love Bone singer] Andy [Wood] was like the greatest Axl Rose that nobody knew -- this hilarious, sort of prototypical kid that had played a tennis racquet in his bedroom and wanted to headline arenas. When we lost him … I mean, it almost couldn't have been worse, the way it all played out. It was literally that 3 a.m. phone call you never wanna get. I was at South By Southwest, and I had to get through the next 36 hours before I could fly to Seattle with people saying, “The [Mother Love Bone] record's amazing, they're gonna be so big, this is gonna be your moment.” And instead, we were left with a broken band and I was this close to being fired. But thankfully Michele Anthony hired me at Sony.

Mother Love Bone was signed to PolyGram. Why didn’t the label pick up the option for Pearl Jam?

There was no Pearl Jam yet -- it was only Jeff [Ament] and Stone [Gossard]. There were some demos. In fairness to PolyGram, the band really wanted a fresh start, and [PolyGram] were really gracious about it. I think they felt like the band had been through so much that they really supported them starting fresh, so it wasn't a reflection of Polygram not wanting to continue. So we all dusted ourselves off and started over, and ... you’ve got to believe there’s some kind of higher force when the first singer that they stumbled onto was some security guard in San Diego named Eddie Vedder.

A version of this article was originally published in the Feb. 13 issue of Billboard.

2016 Grammys