The truth hurts and vanity kills

In 1999, my life had arrived at a perfectly acceptable, yet utterly untenable place. I was at a high point in my career and had been nominated for a variety of awards. My marriage had also dissolved and my emotional state was questionable. I was living in a small apartment on the Hudson River and trying to make sense of what was happening around me.

Externally, I appeared to be a garden variety, successful, happy newly divorced and well muscled independent record producer/ father to two beautiful children. On the inside, I was a seething mass of emotions- torn and frayed- agitated to distraction and depressed to inertia. I found solace in exercising myself into an endorphin-fueled stupor. If that didn’t get the job done, I’d likewise drink copious amounts of alcohol. When I wasn’t indulging in either of those two activities (and didn’t have my kids), I sat in my apartment and stared off into space.

This state of affairs was not to last. Universal Music Group and Atlantic Records had both been romancing me regarding an executive position. One of these suitors was going to make an honest man out of me and I was close to making a decision between them. UMG were offering much more money, however, whenever we’d meet, Craig Kallman kept repeating the two magic words- artist development.

Kallman must have been some sort of necromancer when he wasn’t a record company president. The way he would utter these two words, created a heavy, seductive atmosphere which made everything modulate ever so slightly and sensually in the space we were occupying. The air around us would lightly mist up, a gentle golden tinge would spread all over everything in sight and Craig would start to resemble Grace Kelly. It wasn’t how he said it; it was the implication- the innuendo he put behind what he said. It felt like everything around us was swimming in Vaseline.

Kallman’s mastery of the oratory black arts also incorporated the power to make large amounts of money appear utterly meaningless. Although Atlantic were offering substantially less cash than UMG, I was ultimately won over by Kallman’s ability as a skilled courtier.

He had me at “artist development”.

I was designated an independent contractor with Atlantic, which meant I could operate outside of their organization. I wasn’t a proper employee, which was fine with me, as I didn’t like structure very much. I also didn’t like being ordered around by someone above me in a corporate hierarchy.

At the same time, I was also made a Vice-President of A&R which sounded prestigious. It appeared to be the best of both worlds- having a corporate title and yet, having no corporate structure.

Gradually, I began to feel that mine was more of a counterfeit title- it meant absolutely nothing. It was as if I was an imaginary sovereign, presiding over an imaginary fiefdom. I had no influence over anyone and no real input regarding what went on at Atlantic.

I did, however, have an office at Atlantic which I probably visited less than 10 times over the entire term of my contract with them. It had a lovely panoramic view of many very tall buildings and, in the distance, Central Park. Once, I went up to my office to change my son’s diaper and left the rest of the diapers behind. They remained there in a desk drawer until my contract ended.

I signed my contract and was officially made a part of the Atlantic Records family. Not long after this, it started occurring to me that I wasn’t really sure what I was doing there. Originally, I had been certain that there would be endless creative meetings with other top-level Atlantic executives. In these meetings, we would plumb the depths of what was going wrong with the recording industry, contrive to find and develop talent on a level previously unheard of and, as a unified team, fix all the remaining broken pieces with brilliance and finality. We were going to completely revamp and overhaul the recording industry- and I would be the primary catalyst behind it all.

There was only one problem. Things just weren’t working out that way. The very instant I signed to Atlantic, I stopped hearing those two magical words which had previously dripped with innuendo and the promise of shameless, unconstrained sex. In fact, I never heard another peep about artist development the rest of the time I was was with Atlantic. It eventually became apparent that no one at Atlantic would have recognized artist development if it had crawled up to them and bit them on the ankles.

I also stopped hearing from Craig Kallman. Once he had acquired his latest concubine, he lost immediate interest. We would occasionally speak, but his attention gradually went elsewhere and he would often be incommunicado for a full month at a time.

I suddenly found myself on the outside of the stream of corporate life at Atlantic, looking in. I was a functionary without a function, a man without an identity. I was receiving a nice paycheck and was doing next to nothing for it. I bounced around the building, unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. I was rootless- some kind of faux-executive tumbleweed. I felt like I could do anything I wanted and yet, I had nothing to do.

In spite of this, I started receiving a steady stream of demo tapes (this was when demos were still presented for consideration on DAT’s and cassette tapes) from various A&R people attempting to get my feedback on their signing prospects. I went to a couple of recording sessions and hung out. I got taken out to a lot of very nice dinners by Craig and other people from Atlantic. I also managed to do a lot of traveling and even more drinking on their dime. I began an inappropriate relationship with a female co-worker. For someone as lost as I was, it all felt kind of entertaining.

I eventually realized that I hadn’t been signed to Atlantic because they wanted my thoughts or my creative input. What they wanted was for me to be there looking pretty for them, whenever they required it. Atlantic didn’t actually have any specific need for me, but somehow, it must have felt more comfortable to have me on their staff than for UMG to have me as a staff producer.

At that time, top level record executives would attempt to acquire real estate- bands, A&R, people like me, just so that no one else would be able to get that real estate first. Their pile had to be the biggest and they’d attempt to grab whatever they were looking at. Just because it was there. Clearly, someone must have thought that I’d look pretty in the midst of their pile.

Sometimes, the truth hurts.

Most of the Atlantic rock roster were signed and A&R’ed through their West Coast office. Whenever there was a new signing prospect, Kallman would contrive for me to be in Los Angeles. A meeting would then be arranged and at the appointed time, I would be trotted out and introduced to the unsuspecting and awestruck prey. This devious ploy helped force the hands of more than a few potential signing candidates.

I had found my special purpose at Atlantic Records. I had become a professional decoy.

One of those potential signings was a band was a called Humanlab. At the time, Humanlab were circulating a demo tape which had generated a lot of interest in the A&R community. The demo eventually made it’s way to the desk of Kevin Williamson (who was also a Vice-President of A&R. The difference between us was, he’d actually signed people to recording contracts). Kevin was referred to by most people as “Yo, dude” due to the way he would casually greet everyone.

A ferocious bidding war had started between Atlantic and Capitol Records over Humanlab. Capitol were offering more money, but Atlantic were making better promises. (I couldn’t help but think that it was eerily similar to the way they’d lassoed me).

The standard issue song and dance they would give to potential signees went a little something like this; Atlantic were the label of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. They had a remarkable pedigree and they were the greatest rock music label in history. They also hadn’t hit with a rock record in years and frankly, they were very, very hungry. They had a lot to prove and were down for the long haul. Atlantic Records needed this. They were ready for it.

And, as further inducement, they could now invoke my name as a highly valuable resource which would be at the disposal of this prospective new Atlantic artist, in order to create a truly great, classic rock record. Nothing specific was ever actually promised, but this addition to the presentation would cause artists to become very excited and helped get the deals done.

That is what happened when Atlantic Records courted Humanlab. While this elaborate game was in play, I was put on a few conference calls with the band and got to know them. Anything for the cause.

Eventually, Humanlab signed with Atlantic.

Over the ensuing weeks, the band sent a few more demos which were generally, mediocre. They appeared to be spinning their wheels creatively. Everyone at the company was waiting for that moment of genius, but that moment appeared more remote as time went by.

Then, something interesting happened. Val Azzoli, who was the CEO of Atlantic Records at the time, heard some of the Humanlab demos. I’m not sure how emphatic his response actually was, but he allegedly said something along the lines of “Hey, this sounds kinda like Pink Floyd”.

Admittedly, this band were marginally interesting. They had a trippy sound, their vocalist sang in a quavering falsetto voice into a distorted microphone and sometimes it all kind of worked. However, there was not one thing about Humanlab which even remotely resembled Pink Floyd.

None of that mattered. Val Azzoli’s comment raced like a raw electrical current through the veins of Atlantic Records and within hours, every single employee had been apprised of this majestic statement which had descended to them from on high. However, as though they had been filtered through some bizarre, corporate game of “telephone”, Val’s words had been disassociated and then, strangely reincorporated. “This sounds kinda like Pink Floyd” had been transmogrified into “These guys are going to be like Pink Floyd”. This was eventually amended to “These guys are going to be our Pink Floyd”.

The difference, although slight at first glance, was actually momentous. It took Val Azzoli’s innocuous and offhanded comment to the level of a mission statement. It was now the official destiny of Humanlab to ascend to the dizzying and hallowed heights which were previously occupied by the likes of Pink Floyd. Furthermore, it was the moral, ethical and fiduciary responsibility of every individual laboring under the aegis of the Atlantic Recording Corporation to ensure and see to this ascension with their very life blood. Val Azzoli’s passing remark had been somehow transformed into a papal bull.

Instantly, there was a swirling human sea of activity around Humanlab at Atlantic Records. Or rather, around the idea of Humanlab. Things appeared to be happening with regard to the band, but no one was really clear as to what they actually were.

Somehow, the Pink Floyd comment had made it’s way to Seal Beach in Orange County (where Humanlab had their recording studio compound) and they had become aware of the power they suddenly wielded. They had become Atlantic’s Great White Hope. They were going to be the first rock artist in many years on Atlantic Records to break, and to break big.

At the label, they started to develop a reputation as being “difficult”.

Before long, I was sent down to Seal Beach to do some work with the band. They were very gracious and attempted to be as open as they could to the outside assistance. Nonetheless, they were gradually allowing themselves to be pulled into the illusory image of their band which had been generated in the wake of Val Azzoli’s distorted comment. They clung, white knuckled to this illusion and had begun using it as an excuse to keep from growing and truly developing musically. Spellbound by the Sirens’ irresistible cry, they were, unknowingly, about to be dragged down into a blind and raging maelstrom.

Vanity had called and Humanlab responded.

I worked with Humanlab and tried my best to help them with their song structures and arrangements. In the end, their music stayed pretty much as it had been on their original demos. Not long afterward, they found a producer and went into A&M Studios (which is now Henson) Studio A. They stayed at A&M for a month or two.

While they were recording at A&M, they managed to blow through most of their recording budget and still be far from finished. Eventually, they needed an alternative to A&M, due to how expensive it had become to work there. At the time, I had a studio in Venice and I was approached about Humanlab finishing the record there. I agreed and they moved to Venice, working there for another 2 or 3 months.

As those allotted 2 or 3 months came to a close, the Humanlab record still wasn’t finished. Time continued to wear on and the dream of becoming Atlantic Records’ Pink Floyd had begun to slowly evaporate.

I was sent board mixes every few months and they continued to be slightly better sounding versions of the band’s original demos. Although things appeared to be happening, nothing really appeared to be changing. Still, Kallman, Kevin and the rest of the brass continued to hold out for their Great White Hope. Even Val Azzoli was in on the action. After having his initial comment about Humanlab repeated back to him in it’s revised form, he decided that he had been right all along.

All of which found me at a meeting in Craig Kallman’s office one very lovely (and indeterminate of season) afternoon in New York. We were discussing random unrelated things when suddenly, Kallman steered the conversation to the topic of Humanlab. Craig had lunched with Mark “Spike” Stent the previous week, while he was in London (on one of his many and legendary record-buying jaunts). Stent was very intent on the idea of producing an American band and Kallman saw the opportunity to bring up Humanlab as potential candidates. This thoroughly piqued Stent’s interest and the two of them resolved to bring the idea to fruition.

Their plan was to send Humanlab to Stent’s studio in London for a month and a half. In that time, Stent would work with the band on tightening up their extant tracks and do some additional production. He would also mix the entire recording and cut Atlantic a really good deal in the process.

It looked appetizing. Stent was (and continues to be) one of the best mix engineers in the world. He hadn’t exactly proven himself as a producer, but the Humanlab record was virtually done. What difference would it really make if he didn’t shine in that one area?

It would be ideal to have the Mark “Spike” Stent imprimateur on this recording- if only to give it a cache and wider exposure. Besides, Stent was the guy Madonna called when she wanted her vocals recorded or her records mixed. That meant something. Anyway, what did I think about all of this?

I stared at Kallman for a long time. His company were the under achievers of the entire Warner Music Group. They were ice-cold and hadn’t had a hit in years. One might have said, they couldn’t even break wind. They were having budgetary issues and had already begun relieving A&R executives of luxuries traditionally afforded them, in an (inevitably futile) attempt to be frugal. More than one of my colleagues had been overheard complaining that they (A&R) were no longer permitted to hire towncars when they had to go out in the evening and see bands perform. Instead, they were forced to call taxis or (shudder) drive themselves (which meant no drinking).

There were also distant rumblings about greater cost-cutting in the future and eventually, lay-offs.

And now, the President of this struggling company, was contriving to fly this band to London- one of the most expensive cities in Christendom- to put them up there and pay all their expenses for nearly two months. He wanted to hire one of the best and most successful mix engineers in the world to shepherd this motley flock- to guide and direct them, to put them back on track, to add extra production to their recording and then to mix it. Kallman was prepared to make an utterly futile (and unbelievably expensive) gesture, in the blind hope that this would somehow rocket this band to the dizzying heights that Val Azzoli had originally (and through no intention of his own) predicted for them. This band, which appeared to all the rest of the sentient world (who knew of them) as a virtually lost cause.

I cleared my throat. Had Craig been taking crazy pills, I wondered- or had I? I began to speak.

I asked Craig if he’d listened to Humanlab’s recordings recently and really paid attention to what was happening with them. It seemed apparent that the band weren’t changing or growing- that each subsequent step they took was much smaller than it appeared. In fact, each new step in their development was identical to their previous steps. What Humanlab had spent all these months recording, sounded pretty much the same as their original demos.

I asked Craig if it had ever occurred to him that with this artist, he had already heard them at their peak. I asked him if he had ever considered that he got what he got with them. This was the indisputable truth and it wasn’t going to change, not with Stent, not with me, not even if someone could have resurrected Tom Dowd from the afterlife and put him together with Humanlab.

With this speculative venture, Craig was looking at spending at least another three quarters of a million dollars. This would be on top of what had already been spent at A&M and in Venice. Did that really make sense, especially given how tenuous things were at Atlantic? Wouldn’t that money be better spent in so many different ways, on other, more worthy things? Did it seem logical to throw the dice on this band whose potential (and future) appeared so cloudy and amorphous?

Craig gave me a thoroughly dejected look, as if he was a small boy and I had just kicked his puppy into oncoming traffic. With his dreams shattered by this indisputable reality check, he muttered something along the lines of, “You’re probably right”. With that, the conversation came to an end.

A week later, I was speaking with Kevin Williamson and he mentioned to me that Humanlab were (at that precise moment) flying to London to work with Mark Stent. I was a bit stunned, but I also knew what was coming next.

Humanlab spent about 2 months in London with Mark Stent at the cost of roughly one million dollars. They finished their record with him and he mixed it in his room at Olympic Studios (which is unfortunately, no more). After the band triumphantly returned to the States, the finished project was sent to Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk, who put his final touches on. When Howie was done with his work, the mastered record was returned to Atlantic and subsequently shelved. It would never be released or heard by anyone.

After the record had been mastered, I was sent a copy. The finished master had Mark Stent’s signature shimmering top end- a full, rich sound and not too heavy in the bass. Parts of the recording actually sounded stunningly beautiful, as only Stent could have done.

In the final analysis, Humanlab’s record was defined by the usage of Stent’s sound as a means of filtering and masking what was once again, their original demos. Nothing had really changed, but it sounded really great. It was all sleight of hand. Anyone who had been paying attention would have seen this coming from miles away.

The Humanlab project had been budgeted for around $300,000 for the band’s first recording with 2 subsequent records to follow. They had eaten up the entire recording budget for their first record even before they got on the plane to work with Mark Stent. By the time the smoke had cleared and the record was completed, Atlantic had shelled out $1.5 million.

Humanlab had fulfilled their entire three record contract with one incredibly over budget and unreleased record. They were dropped from the Atlantic roster not long after this fiasco ended. So much for any distorted flights of fancy about following Pink Floyd’s legacy into the stratosphere.

My eyes were forced wide open by this experience. I came to realize that the guys in Humanlab had been pawns in someone else’s game. They willingly took the bait when it was offered and then, permitted the hegemony at Atlantic Records to lead them blindly down the primrose path (which ultimately led to their being cast back onto the scrap heap). They were railroaded, but they were also complicit in their own downfall. They had allowed narcissism to write their epitaph.

In the end- vanity kills.

6 responses to “The truth hurts and vanity kills”

  1. Might also be titled, “Humanlabrats,” but that’s just me. Commander B, you’ve laid out a very insightful blog into the music/recording business. Has Craig Kallman been by for dinner, lately? Stay thirsty, my friend.
    Commander P

  2. i randomly stumbled across the humanlab album in a dark corner of the internet some years ago. it’s quite fantastic from start to finish but has zero commercial potential of any kind. thanks for this post