Whalley's World Comes to Concord Music Group
After starting in the Warner Bros. mailroom more than three decades ago, Tom Whalley has gone on to have a tremendously successful career as a top music executive. He served as Capitol Records' head of A&R, co-founded Interscope Records — ultimately becoming president of the label — and then returned to Warner Bros. as chairman and CEO. A short list of artists Whalley, 61, has signed or helped develop include Bonnie Raitt, Crowded House, Beastie Boys, Tupac Shakur, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Buble, The White Stripes, My Chemical Romance and Jason Derulo.
He formed Loma Vista Records in 2012, two years after leaving Warner Bros., as a joint venture with Universal Music Group's Republic Records. Last week, it was announced that Loma Vista was shifting to UMG-distributed Concord Music Group in a new multiyear, worldwide pact. Among the acts on Whalley's taste-making roster are St. Vincent, Soundgarden, Rhye, Cut Copy, Little Dragon, Manchester Orchestra and Spoon, whose Aug. 5 set will be the first to go through the new partnership. The notoriously press-shy Whalley, who had nothing but praise for his tenure at Republic, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the move and the current state of Loma Vista.
Why the switch from Republic to Concord?
When you're starting a label from scratch, you're always trying to figure out ways to get your company to the next place. We had tons of support and hard work that came out of the Republic staff and from Monte and Avery Lipman. ... A lot of what I've been doing is signing artists who are coming from more of a touring, artist development place and an independent label place and need more nurturing and marketing support than traditional mainstream radio promotion. Concord was looking to expand their musical sensibilities in the area I was in, so everything just kind of made sense.
Has Concord purchased part of your company?
We're 50/50 partners on the label and they're going to provide the financial support of overhead, A&R, product development, marketing, promotion and staff.
Do you still have complete autonomy over whom you sign?
As a small boutique within a much bigger company, how will you keep Concord's attention when it may have priorities different than yours?
The first thing is you have to live in the reality with enough control to believe you can succeed on your own. I had that at Republic and I have that at Concord. Then beyond that, you have to know or believe that your partners have an understanding of what you're up against every day and also an affinity for the kind of music you're working with. When you get all those things right, you've got 100 percent support for your artists.
What is your philosophy on whom you sign and how has it changed since you started the label two years ago?
My philosophy probably hasn't changed in my entire career. I believe in long-term development. I believe that when you sign an artist you have to have a shared vision with that artist and if you really tie together on those things, then you always have the conviction to continually build and support even in a down period. The style of artist I've always been attracted to are those that have a really strong point of view. And it doesn't really matter what that style is. So far, we have been signing artists who are more self-contained, who are musicians, write their own songs … artists who have a vision about what they're doing. That will continue.
Your biggest seller has been Soundgarden's Animal Kingdom at 227,000 copies in the U.S. Is that a huge win for you? Your economy of scale is very different than when you were at Warners.
[Laughs] It's very different when you have a staff of six people. I think it was a huge win in that we accomplished getting the band back in the forefront of their fans with a new album. They're still an amazing band that has a lot to say. We did well with Rhye, which we got out of the gate and had tremendous critical acclaim. We sold more than a half million of the [Grammy-nominated] Django Unchained soundtrack around the world, most of them in Europe.
St. Vincent has been one of the biggest breakouts of the year. How do you keep her momentum going?
One good thing begets another good thing. Getting out of the gate with an album that was acclaimed led to the opportunity to perform at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (for the Nirvana tribute), which led to Saturday Night Live. The same thing was happening in Europe. Things that had not been offered to her in the past were being offered to her, like the Glastonbury Festival and the Jools Holland show. So these things are adding up all around the world. Our plans with Concord are to take a new song to radio and see if we can keep building the opportunity there.
What has been the biggest wake-up call in terms of trying to start an independent label?
I'm a strong believer in the art form of the album at a time when things are moving to more about the song, so that's been a bit of a wake-up call on a certain level, but it doesn't discourage me from the belief in what an album is intended to be as an art form. That's probably the main thing.
Does that mean you'll continue to make albums, but you have to adjust your expectations for them?
I think you have to adjust your expectations on sales and how far into the album people are listening. The sensibility of the album is still the same. When you can make a statement with multiple songs, it still creates a force and a power that creates longevity that I believe is stronger than the single. That doesn't mean singles aren't important because they incredibly are, but I think the statement of an album is still important.
Nielsen SoundScan's mid-year numbers showed a continuing decline in physical sales and digital downloads and an increase in streaming. How does that affect the development of your label?
One difficulty with [streaming] is what I call the buy-in. When you went out and bought a physical copy, then that commitment to that artist was made very quickly with the purchase of the album. From there, [fans] buy tickets, merchandise and whatever else. I think there's less of a buy-in or believability in the artist with streaming. It's our job as a record company on behalf of the artist to do the things that will help with the buy-in even while streaming is increasingly becoming the way people listen to music.
Your roster includes vets, new artists and developing acts. What's the right mix?
I wake up some days and go, "What should the balance of the roster be right now?"or "What should I do next?" And then I go, "You know what? I shouldn't worry about that." I'm just going toward whatever I believe is great. … Artists I want to work with and who want to work with me. It doesn't matter whether it's a new artist, one in the midstage of their career or an artist who's been around a long time. … As long as they want to do great work, I'm in.