The world owes a great deal to Seymour Stein – the man behind the making of legends such as Madonna, Ramones, The Talking Heads and many more.
From the very beginning, Stein has been all about music. He loves it, he lives it, he can’t imagine a life without it. With the love for good music pulsing through his veins, Stein made his place in the competitive world of music.
In an exclusive interview with Music Plus, 76-year-old Stein, co-founder of Sire Records and the former vice-president of Warner Bros Records, speaks about the business of music, his journey through the glorious age of Rock and Roll and the discovery of great artists.
With an illustrious reputation in his kitty, the ever-enthusiastic Stein has no plans to retire anytime soon. Even though he quit from Sire earlier this year, his love for Indie music keeps him going.
“I want to get back to my roots. My heart and soul have always been in Indie music. My mentors, too, were people from the Indie scene,” said Stein.
He started his journey in the music industry at the age of 15, when he worked for Billboard’s music editor Paul Ackerman and Tom Nooman, the head of charts then. During his stint at Billboard, Stein met with Syd Nathan, founder of King Records, who invited him to Cincinnati to learn about the business. From there on, Stein slowly climbed up the ladder and set off on his enthralling ride in the world of music.
Walking and working alongside the best in the industry, Seymour quickly picked up the tricks of the trade. With mentors such as Jann Wenner (co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone), Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun; his brother Neslie Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (music journalist), the young Seymour received all the training he needed before he launched his career. The climb to the top wasn’t a piece of cake but Stein’s drive and his unwavering love for music sent him on enchanting adventures across the globe.
“I’m just a good record man, I’m no genius. I’ve been trying to impress young people who want to enter the music business, to start early. Get in when you are young like I did and find a mentor as early as you can because that’s really the most important thing,” he said.
In his autobiography, ‘Siren Song’, he maps his career from a boy who compiled Billboard charts to a man who is the president of Sire Records, established in 1966.
Seymour and his Sire Records revolutionised the music industry when he signed the likes of Ramones, the Talking Heads and other such one-off bands whose music was new to the American audience. His label brought in punk rock and new wave music into the music scene, for which Stein has been greatly appreciated.
A die-hard fan of Rock and Roll, Stein expresses his love for The Shake Rattle and Roll, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry- the first of their kinds. According to Stein, the influence of country music in Rock and Roll cannot be ignored.
“Country music played a great role in shaping Rock and Roll. Elvis Presly’s first six records (with Sun Label) only made it on the country charts and not Rock and Roll or Pop charts. When ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’ came out, it was a double-sided number one. It became an instant hit,” recollects Stein.
Seymour staunchly believed that categories, labels, appearances – nothing matters in music.
“In the end, labels mean nothing. Be it Rock and Roll, Country, Rap – whatever it is, all that matters is if it’s a good song, then how good is it. And, if it’s bad, then forget about it. Good songs, they can get you through anything, even wars. John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Marley, the Beatles – all were preachers of peace and that reflected in their songs as well. For most people, the music they listen between the ages of 12- 25 years, stays with them throughout their lives. Look at me, I can hardly move but I’m a Rock and Roller in my heart,” he added.
Speaking of the times when good music could sell by itself, Seymour feels that artists, today, have the gift of technology which makes it easier for them to make a start. But, having technology at their fingertips, doesn’t guarantee a walk in the park for the artists.
As Seymour says “It has never been easy.” With the ease that technology brings, it has become even more difficult to rise to the top, thanks to the massive competition. Though artists can face this competition all by themselves, Seymour advises them “not to venture solo”, at least at the start of their music career.
That said, artists shouldn’t approach just any label.
“Working with record labels will definitely help newer artists to find a place for their voice to be heard above the noise. There are great Indie labels all over the world. You don’t need a major label to rise to the top. Find the one that fits you the best and the rest will follow,” he added.
Throughout his label journey, Seymour ran into talented artists around the world in his search for the exceptional. Signing bands which were one-of-a-kind weren’t easy. Stein had to move heaven and earth to get them on board and get the world to groove to their tunes. Be it the Ramones or the Talking Heads, every band that Stein signed, has a spellbinding tale behind it.
One such story was that of Madonna’s, whom Stein found in the most unexpected manner. While in the hospital undergoing treatment for a rare heart condition, aspiring producer Mark Kamins introduced Madonna to him.
“When I heard Madonna’s Everybody, I knew I had to meet her. I still remember how excited I was to meet this girl. I showered, shaved and dressed up. When she walked in, I could see that she would do anything to make it happen for her. Without a second thought, I believed in her. There are two kinds of music – good or bad and I knew she was pretty good. I never knew she would be this big but I knew there was something good in her. The day I signed Madonna, was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Stein.
Before Stein, a lot of labels turned down Madonna that includes Island Records as well.
“I couldn’t believe that no one wanted to sign her. It was unreal,” he added.
As Stein said, great music can come from anywhere. In this pursuit for the sound that touched his soul, he has travelled the lengths and breadths of the world which brought him to India on many occasions.
With the music industry booming in India, Seymour believes that India could become the powerhouse for music.
“I think the musical talent, here, if directed properly can really become important all over the world. Great music can come anywhere but I think that India is very special and that’s why I keep coming back here. You’ve got some great people in the music biz here. India should be one of the leading countries in the biz. I’ve felt it all my life.”
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