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Basic instinct

A&R vet Watts-Russell goes with his gut

As she was making the label rounds, the rap on Meredith Brooks was that she was a sassy singer-songwriter in the Alanis Morissette mold — perhaps too much so to make a name for herself. Then there was Everclear, an alternative band out of Portland with a churlish punk bent that seemingly didn’t have a commercial bone in its body.

And yet Brooks’ “Bitch,” from her debut LP “Blurring the Edges,” has been hovering near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart for a good 11 weeks, and Everclear emerged from obscurity to multiplatinum status at a steady gate. Other than their surprising success, the only thing these artists have in common is that they were signed by Perry Watts-Russell when nobody else believed in them.

As an A&R vp for Capitol Records, Perry Watts-Russell likes to keep the process of evaluating talent as simple as possible. Though he’s in the business of signing saleable acts for a major record label, Watts-Russell says he doesn’t allow his judgment to get clouded by marketing concerns such as image, appearance and stylistic trends.

In the end, it’s all about the quality of the music.

“It’s really as simple as that,” claims the Englishman, who joined Capitol four years ago after a long tenure as a rock manager. “(It’s a matter of) does the music appeal to me? (After that) it’s, ‘Do I want to find out more about the people or person who made the music?’ and ‘Can I work out a good working relationship with them?'”

This kind of honesty works for Watts-Russell at the corporate rock level because his musical tastes naturally tend toward the mainstream. If he likes an artist, he assumes there’s a good chance there are a lot of record buyers who will feel the same way. Such is the case with the talent-laden Supergrass, whom he lured to the label and whose “In It for the Money” LP was last spotted in Rolling Stone’s Top 10 alternative album chart.

Unlike many A&R execs, Watts-Russell doesn’t cruise the clubs five nights a week nor does he live his life out of a suitcase. He does do his share of traveling in order to check out hot prospects, but he prefers to evaluate artists through demos or LPs.

“I work for a record company, I don’t work for a (concert) promoter,” he states. “The single most important thing for me is the recorded music. It’s the song, it’s the voice and the recordings. Then it’s your ability to perform live. After that it’s your drive and your commitment to yourself and your career.

Domestic attachments that come from having a wife and two small children is another reason Watts-Russell prefers to limit his cross-country clubbing activity. He says the rock ‘n’ roll road life is better suited to a young A&R person than someone like himself who’s been in the business for nearly 20 years and who has family responsibilities.

“I’m older than the 20-year-old A&R people who should be out on the road,” he says. “I don’t get drunk anymore, I don’t get high anymore, I don’t get laid the whole time, which is part of the whole thing about being in the music business and being young and footloose and fancy free.”

Watts-Russell actually stumbled into the music industry by accident. In 1979 he was pursuing a joint Latin American Studies and Public Health masters degree at UCLA when he was asked to manage a then-unknown band called Berlin. (At the time he had also been hosting an campus punk/new wave radio show called “London’s Burning.”)

It took three years of hard work and rejection before Berlin signed a major record company deal. The band eventually landed a No. 1 hit in 1986 with “Take My Breath Away.” During the ’80s and early ’90s he also managed artists like Grant Lee Buffalo, Toni Childs and Marc Cohn, the latter two releasing well-received groundbreaking discs during his tenure.

For Watts-Russell moving from management to the A&R world has actually been a rather logical transition. (He says there’s no particular blueprint to becoming an A&R person: “Some were musicians, some producers, some just loved music…”) As a rock manager on the lookout for potential clients, part of his job description was evaluating new talent. His knowledge of the business side of the music industry has dovetailed nicely into Capitol president Gary Gersh’s vision of how he wants the A&R department structured. At Geffen Records, where Gersh was a star A&R exec and helped put that label on the map, A&R staffers were more than just talent scouts who sign artists. Gersh has been known to offer that he “likes bands that many people might find unlistenable.”

“I actually do things very similarly to the way I did management because Gary came from a system at Geffen where A&R people were expected to see their artists through the whole system of marketing, promotion, publicity, sales and videos…” he reveals. “They just didn’t sign them and hand them over. They really acted like (a manager). So that’s what Gary wanted to set up at Capitol.”

Variable input

However, Watts-Russell is quick to point out that his level of involvement in regards to everything from artistic to marketing decisions can vary greatly depending on the needs and wishes of the given artist and the other departments at Capitol.

“There’s a perception that record companies can be dictatorial with their artists,” he says. “I don’t think it works out that way very often. It’s all about a relationship. You sign someone who you think is talented and it’s a matter of helping that talent be exposed to the best degree possible.”

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