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Seymour Stein on the Future of the Music Biz: India and China are ‘Going to Explode’

During a panel discussion at Canadian Music Week, Stein called the TV show Vinyl "horrible," challenged the other execs about not signing acts with poor social media and digital numbers, reminisced…

Sire Records chairman and VP of Warner Bros/ Records/Warner Music International Seymour Stein was enjoying “the best Chinese food outside of Hong Kong” when he was redirected back to Toronto’s Sheridan Centre for his Canadian Music Week panel on A&R for which he was given the wrong time. 

The A&R panel, which had already started, then got more interesting with input from the man who is celebrating Sire Records 50th anniversary this year. Stein called the TV show Vinyl “horrible,” challenged the other panelists about not signing acts with poor social media and digital numbers, reminisced about starting his career at age 14 at Billboard, and directed our attention to India and China as the next place to do business.

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“I would advise, if there are any record people in the audience, look at Asia,” said Stein, who was just in Beijing for a festival put on by Modern Sky (whose t-shirt he was sporting) and visits India every year.

“There’s a conference there and these people in Bollywood they don’t like the music they’re writing; they’re writing it because movies are paying them to write it and they’re being told what to write,” he told the CMW audience. “These people, if they have guts, they would get it up; they’re capable of being stars.”

He added, “India’s going to explode. China’s going to explode. There are some great great bands there. Martin Sky have most of them. There’s a company called Maybe Mars and there are others and the major labels haven’t got entrenched there yet; they’re interested in selling a few copies of their American or English (acts) or whatever they put out; it’s less about local product. 

“I think that’s the future. If you take India and you put it together with the rest of what was India, — Bangladesh and Pakistan — and you take China, you’ve got 40 percent of the world’s population and two of the fastest growing economies in the world.  Look, people are no different. Everybody loves music.”

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This piece of advice came at the end of the panel titled The New Roads to A&R and Artist Development.  Intended to explore questions such as “Where do A&R managers spot talent nowadays?” and “Does data help inform A&R decisions?” Stein immediately jumped in when fellow panelists, such as Ron Burman, the A&R exec who signed Nickelback to Roadrunner and is now the North American president of Mascot Label Group, said that he probably wouldn’t sign an act with poor socials.  “If data doesn’t back it up and there’s not necessary a following, I’m going to be reticent to pursue it even if I love the song.” 

Stein — who likely has people in his company looking at the bottom line, Burman pointed out — stressed that the song is “the main ingredient,” which Burman, and the other A&R panelists, Atlas Music Publishing’s Jennifer Blakeman, and Last Gang Records VP, A&R/marketing James Trauzzi agreed.

“Your job is to make it happen,” Stein argued, insisted and repeated. “What do you think our job is? We have a responsibility.”

Stein, who sprinkled his answers with stories about signing Madonna, the Ramones and Ice-T, also veered off course slightly into a critique of Vinyl after Burman mentioned that Mascot is Dutch. Vinyl has been using 1971’s “Hocus Pocus” from Dutch group Focus released on Sire.
“They’re using it a lot in that horrible Vinyl show. Everyone that’s in the room that was around during those days, I mean if they did as much blow as they did on TV nobody would be alive today. It’s so unbelievable. It’s preposterous,” said Stein.

“What percentage was real?” asks Burman. “I would say 15 percent. That’s all.”

Stein, however, is optimistic about the business, which seemed to be a theme at CMW. As soon as he sat down, he gave a short history lesson.

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“The carrier has changed,” he said of music. “Let me just tell you how I met most of the people who influenced my life in the early days at Billboard. They were indie record labels who would come up to try to play their records to Billboard to get a good review.  And Why? Because a good review would automatically mean the sale of 75,000 records to jukebox operators. You all know what a jukebox is? [laughter from audience]. That’s just one example of how the music business has changed.

“But it was always about songs. Before there were records, there was sheet music and pianos, so the music business I don’t think is any danger of slipping away. It has its ups and downs. It had a big down period when the Victrola came in because people were actually throwing their pianos away — they were throwing them in the street. I wasn’t there but it’s true. And with sheet music, you had another down period when radio came in and that was in the 20s, and then radio started being a help to music and help selling it. 

“We’ll get through this,” he said. “Everybody needs their own soundtrack so I think that the music business, it may not be at its healthiest period right now but there’s no danger of it ever going away — and I’ve been around a long time.”