A Cosmik Conversation by Shaun Dale
Starting out as the founder of a punk rock indie 25 years ago, Bob
Biggs began a climb up the music business mountain that culminated in a slot as a Vice President of London Records. These days he's back down at ground zero with a new perspective on the peaks and valleys of the biz (the view from up top, he reports, isn't all it's cracked up to be) and a plan for a new assault on the scene.
That's right, 25 years after the founding of Slash Records, the LA based
label that introduced the world to acts like the Germs, X, the Blasters, Los Lobos, Violent Femmes, Faith No More and Rammstein, Biggs is back, and so is the imprint that he used to make his first impression on the music world. This time around, it's Slash/Bigg Massive, the new moniker referring to his partnership with artist/producer Will Fulton, the driving force behind the new label's first two acts, the rock-rap band Shiner Massive and their reggae offshoot, Shiner Massive Sound System.
As the publisher of the punk magazine Slash from 1977 to 1980 Biggs was
exposed to a lot of music that wasn't getting the attention he thought it
deserved, which led to the founding of Slash Records in 1978, debuting with the Germs' Lexicon Devil EP. From there, the label began signing the cream of the LA scene, which soon enough attracted the attention of Warner Records, beginning a mutually profitable distribution deal that left Biggs in control of his label while allowing Warner to pick up acts that they thought needed the clout of a national label, beginning with the Blasters Blasters self-titled first album in 1981. Meanwhile, a Slash subsidiary, Ruby Records, released the debut albums by the Misfits, the Dream Syndicate and the Gun Club, along with albums by Lydia Lunch, Green On Red and the Flesh Eaters.
Operating under the slogan "small enough to know the score, big enough to
settle it," Slash expanded its horizons far beyond LA, releasing debut
albums by the Del Fuegos (from Boston) and the BoDeans (Wisconsin), along
with one-offs by Australia's Hunters & Collectors, English
psychedelectrician Robyn Hitchcock and reggae legend Burning Spear.
That kind of catalog, and the success the scrappy indie and their
high-powered distro partners achieved with it, couldn't go unnoticed forever in a merger-mad music business, and in 1996, London records finally offered Biggs a deal that sounded good enough to go for, buying the Slash Records name (Warner retained much of the roster and catalog) and giving him a job as a Vice-President. He relocated to New York and tried his hand at rebuilding Slash in the context of corporate rock. The London Records deal put Slash under the Polygram umbrella, where it thrived on releases by Imperial Teen, Harvey Danger, Grand Mal, Asian Dub Foundation, and Rammstein.
That chapter of the Slash story came to an end in 2000, when Universal
bought PolyGram's worldwide record operation. Which brings us to Bob Biggs temporary departure from the music business, and his promising re-entry, the subject of this Cosmic Conversation.
Cosmik: So Slash basically disappeared in the Universal merger. Lots of things basically disappeared with the Universal merger.
Bob Biggs: Yeah, I guess so. What happened, the Slash catalog had been
coupled to the London catalog and sold to Universal at one point. It was
actually sold to Polygram, and then sold to Universal and then ended up
being sold back to Warner, so all my Slash stuff was then put on Rhino.
Cosmik: Which left you in the position of licensing back material you helped
create in the first place for your first new Slash compilation.
Bob: Yes. I feel a lot more comfortable with it than they did, I think. All the guys at Rhino had grown up with the music coming from LA, and I think they were a little embarrassed by it, but whatever. It's what I had to do, so that's what I did.
Cosmik: Which brings us to what you're doing now. You were out of the business for a couple years, right?
Bob: I was out for two years.
Cosmik: Were you looking for a way back in, or not thinking about it, or what?
Bob: What happened was I was out and I was spending most of my time in the
mountains out in the desert, in a place called Tehachapi, California,
building a house. I got that pretty much done, used up a lot of money, and said "Well, now what?" Because my family didn't want to move to the house, and I have a kid, he's only eight, and I didn't want to drag him... Anyway, it wasn't working out the way I had it planned so I thought, well, shit, I'll just go back and do this again. Mainly because I'm pretty stupid and kind of fearless, as it turns out, which is not probably the best mix. But I thought I'd just do it because maybe there's a need for me. Maybe I can do something here. Certainly the backdrop of bad music pushed down the throat by non-caring corporations has been fairly well set up, and if I did something against that backdrop maybe I could be seen and hopefully be a benefit to everything.
Cosmik: And Shiner Massive was one of the last bands you had signed.
Bob: Right. I had signed Shiner back in New York. They were a Long Island band. I left New York and came back here, but I was still on the payroll so I had to make that record. I was going back and forth to make that record, but I was dealing with people who really didn't want the record, because they were trying to move more toward some other kinds of music. That was funny, because we finished and they refused to put it out, and I thought this is hogwash. I can't ever remember refusing to put out a record once it was all done and mastered and ready to go. You make that decision way earlier than that. I think a lot of those kinds of practices just pushed me into doing it again. I realized I was going to have to do it with my own money, that I wasn't going to get money from anyone, and I didn't. I realized it was going to be painful, because I would be pretty much marginalized as a has-been or someone who did something but not relevant or all the other things they can say in the music business to keep you from getting where you want to go to. But that was pretty much what I thought, let's just go do it. I hate to make this heroic in any sense, because it's not. It's just going through the moves, but in some ways it was, like, let's do something cultural, not just some ear candy kind of crap.
Cosmik: And you came back with Will Fulton as a partner. [Ed. Note: Outside his role with Shiner Massive, Fulton is best known as an A&R wizard for Profile Records, where he produced, mixed, and remixed tracks for rap giants Run-DMC, Slick Rick, Ja Rule, and Jay-Z.]
Bob: Yeah, Will and I get along really well. Will's much younger than I, but he and I probably run on the same kind of energy level. He had a studio in his house, so we decided to re-record the Shiner record, make the kind of record we really wanted to without a bunch of goons trying to get their finger in it, so we went back and we made the record. He had this other band that he was working with at the time called Shiner Massive Sound System, which was Shiner Massive plus three girls who do vocals and are in the old school kind of reggae groove. So those are the first two records on Slash/Bigg Massive. The Bigg/Massive part was a name we had before I got the Slash name back, but we liked that one anyway. So he made the Shiner record, and the Shiner Sound System record, those are the first two full records, and the first release is a compilation called Salute This, which has eleven tracks from the old Slash stuff and two new tracks, one from Shiner, one from Shiner Sound System. Then the Shiner records come, then the next compilation, then the next full record, and we'll kind of go down the road like that, I think.
Cosmik: I've been playing the compilation a lot. It's real fun.
Bob: Oh yeah? Good. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won't like it,
but the thing that I was completely dumbfounded by was, I get back in the
business and I'm a generation away, a full-on cultural generation. Many
didn't know about the label, or the bands. Still a little bit here and there, but it's kind of a history lesson in a way. The people I have working on the record at retail and stuff, that's how they view it. It's like teaching people where some of this stuff came from. But there's value beyond its historical value, I think. It has great spirit and great heart.
Cosmik: And it's a real good record! What fascinates me is that it spans the
full history, from the first Germs record, through X, Gun Club, L7 and all the way up to what's next, and yet there's a cohesiveness to it. It could be a compilation from the last six months releases of some label.
Bob: Yeah, when we put it together, you should have heard it before we
leveled it out. A recording in 1978 for $600...even next time, we signed
this band Rammstein from Germany, and they're like super high-tech rock 'n roll, insanely precise but also with a great deal of energy, heart and
anger. I can't imagine next go around, which I think we'll have a cut from them on, what it's going to be like trying to get the levels right. It's a little crazy.
Cosmik: So right now the roster is Shiner Massive and Shiner Massive Sound
Bob: Right now those two bands. We're about, I believe, to sign one other, but I don't want to tell you what that is because it may put a fly in the ointment, but between the two Shiner records and the next full record by a band, we'll probably put out another compilation which will have stuff we didn't get to like Los Lobos and Rammstein. That will have a cut from the new record, and then we'll put the new one out.
Cosmik: I'm looking forward to the new albums. I'll be honest, before I
listened to the new tracks, I was a little apprehensive. I'd heard it was
going to be a rap-rock band, and my experience with rap-rock bands is that
the rappers can't rap and the rockers don't.
Bob: (laughter) I'm with you! Yet, in some ways we were instrumental in
making that genre popular, if you could call Faith No More a kind of rappy
rocky band, but I never quite find it that way. In Shiner, the guys that
rap can. Will had worked with Run-DMC, Jay-Z, all those guys.
Cosmik: Yeah, he has a real rap background.
Bob: He has a background, and it's Brooklyn, and he would not get away with
something that was totally whack, because he's been around it so much. He's
into diversity, and he's into synthesis, and he's into all these different
things that for such a long time have been taboo.
Cosmik: Well, from the first notes you know it's of a different quality. It's
like Run-DMC meets Jimi Hendrix.
Bob: Yeah, exactly.
Cosmik: Not some guys trying to sound like Run-DMC working with some guys trying
to sound like Hendrix, there's just that level of quality to the music.
Bob: I think you're right on. It makes authentic sense, whatever that means.
It sounds like it's supposed to be there. The records will come with DVDs,
which are stuff we shot in clubs, not high polished stuff, but it will give
you a really good idea what they're about. You can see that this is not
manufactured rock music, these guys can play this and they play this well.
Cosmik: And on the Shiner Massive Sound System track, they show great reggae
chops, too. I wouldn't pick the music on one track as being played by the
guys on the other.
Bob: I wouldn't either. It doesn't sound like it, really. But you'll see on
these Sound System tracks, they're very steeped in an old reggae groove, but
they do it just a little bit whacky. All these people live within two
blocks of each other, in Brooklyn.
Cosmik: Some of the things Will has said indicate that this label will start out
a little Brooklyn-centric, in the way the old Slash started out LA-centric.
Bob: I think so. I told him, I'm almost 60, I'm not sure I want to be in a
club every night, and the delivery part of it, like I said before, is the
part that I really get excited about. I wanted Will to take some of the
lead on the thing for the first couple records, and that's why the first
couple records are from Brooklyn. I think a geographic place is a very good
thing for any art form, to make it authentic and for people to get centered.
I think that's a good deal. And in the meantime, Brooklyn has become a sort
of cliche for rock centers, but it's still where he comes from and it's the
truth, so we just went ahead and used Brooklyn.
Cosmik: It's true, though, that there's always a moveable feast of where's hot
and where's not, although by a time a place is hot, it's often over.
Bob: Sure. For instance, when LA was all of a sudden hot, we were out past
Fear and past Gun Club and everything that was ever here, when people
started realizing that LA might be a legitimate center for music. The first
inclination seems to be to say, that can't happen there, or that can't be
Cosmik: Sure. I spent a decade in LA, but I've spent most of my life in Seattle.
People talk about the 'Seattle sound.' I've seen five of them come and go.
By the time the Kingsmen got a national hit with "Louie, Louie" it had been
a number one for the Wailers and a hit three times here, and all the bands
were already breaking up. The market's a little faster than that now, I
Bob: It's fast and it's cynical.
Cosmik: So going forward, when will we see the new records?
Bob: The next release of those two records is September 23. Then depending
on where we're at with Salute This, because that's turned out to be a sort
of tutorial for people in record stores and stuff, if we're further along,
we'll probably drop another Salute This before Christmas, which will be the
compilation with the new band that we're going to sign, and then the record
with the new band will be after the first of the year. That's as far as
we've really looked out at this point.
Cosmik: That's a lot to put together in a short time, though.
Bob: It is. It's difficult, and we're not very many people. We're two of us
here, for the most part, and then Will back there. But we've done it
before, and we know what the essential parts are. We don't, like, spend our
wad on getting the guy from Albany to go down to Atlanta to see something.
We're a little more reasonable than that. And I think after ten years of
cynicism and throwing money around and everything else, in some ways it's
working to our advantage, because we're people. At some labels, they'll pay
$6500 an ad for a radio station. We're saying, look, we'll get them up
there if we can, you can go see them, listen to them. It's a different kind
of a relationship, and I don't think we're getting snubbed, at least not
Before, we started everything basically in press, for Slash. Then we went to
radio or retail or wherever we needed to go, but we had some sort of
foundation in press. Now, I'm finding the press is one of the most
reactionary, as a group anyway, people toward Slash. They don't trust my
motives, they think I'm doing it for some other reason, they think it's old
news, whatever reason. So I have more problem at the press level, but radio
guys remember Faith No More, and they remember Lobos and Rammstein and all
those things. So radio guys now are coming sooner to the party than the
press people, so I'm trying to figure out a new methodology for the new
Cosmik: The press is pretty ossified, I'm afraid. I write about music,
but sometimes I'm not real proud of that...(laugh)
Bob: (Laughs) Well, we sort of promote something diverse, that's an
undercurrent of what we do, and the press seems to be as segmented as radio.
Cosmik: At least as segmented. At Cosmik Debris, we try to write about
everything, but we also tend to be people over 40, so we grew up at a time
when we were allowed to like almost everything. Now it seems like people
aren't allowed to like three kinds of music.
Bob: Yeah, it's a sign of weakness. I'm just kind of dumbfounded, you know.
That's kind of a sad thing, but I guess it's the product of what's going on.
Cosmik: One difference is the lack of old-style AM radio, where the local
top 20 would have the Stones and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the
Yardbirds, all competing on the same station during the same hour. The
market hadn't really segmented yet.
Bob: Well, it's segmented now. I think we'll be able to break some of that
down, particularly as the personality for the label becomes stronger again,
the personality of the label as a mark for a certain quality, at least to
ourselves. I don't know what your reality will be or other peoples'
reality, but I think we'll be able to break that down as we go down the road
and there's an interest in the label based on those things, based on
diversity, on different kinds of stuff stuck together.
Cosmik: The economics are different now, too. People get dumped if their first
album isn't platinum and their second album isn't stronger. I'm assuming
you don't need that kind of performance to call an album a successful
Bob: I never even thought about what would be the criteria for a successful
release. I'll tell you one thing they've done, as they've priced the margin
out of the records, as a manufactured product, the amount of money that
would come back to the label is infinitesimal, if at all. One has to look at
that and think how do I keep the margin? That's one of the reasons for
putting DVDs in records, to keep the margins up. Maybe what you do is put
the record out at the real stores and you sell it online, through
downloading, and preserve your margin. Or you sell other sort of cultural
products that go along with the band, and that's where you get the margin.
We're going to try to push the margin. It's a cultural product, it's not a
goddam can opener. People treat it like it's a can opener and they can just
keep marking it down and marking it down. I'm finding that that part of the
business has changed a great deal in the last two or three years.
Cosmik: And you probably saw it at London, in a corporate environment, the
pressure to get a hit out of this guy or drop him and go find the next guy.
I was reading something about how much Springsteen is netting on his latest
tour, and they pointed out that he didn't have a profitable album until his
fourth. If he was coming up today, he wouldn't exist.
Bob: Well, part of that is the amount of money you make per record. They've
priced down initial artist releases to $10.99. You can't hardly get a first
artist release in a store for more than $10.99 and there's no profit in
there for the record company. They have to lose so much money on that first
record, there's no profit and they have to spend so much on promotion, that
by the time you get to the second record, say there's a jump to $500,000 on
the second record, well, you say fuck, I can't lose 500 on the first record
and throw good money after bad. Part of it is an attitude that all
corporate music is the same, therefore it all can be sold at the same rate,
and they just kept dropping and dropping and dropping it, like it was a can
opener, until they just fucked up the complete pricing quality of it. I'm
not saying it has to be $13.99 or whatever it has to be, I'm saying that
those things have a definite effect. As a smaller label you can find little
ways around it. The next (Slash) records are coming out at $16.98. Now
maybe that's too high, but I'd rather try to preserve the margins in the
records so that we can pay the bands full royalties and we can preserve some
kind of margin in there to make the next record. I'd rather do that than
drop it to $10.98 and make it worthless.
Basically, you give it away, so what's the worth.
Cosmik: I think the Slash name, and being an indie again, will help. I
think a lot of people will pay the premium for the indie album...
Bob: Because they see more value to it from a cultural point of view. The
thing is, you try to take care of the people that are your constituency and
you try to make the whole thing work for everyone, rather than try to price
someone else out of the marketplace.
Cosmik: When you look at markets with a strong indie tradition, there's a
kind of loyalty. Back in the day, a jazz fan would go to the store and just
buy all the Blue Note albums. You didn't have to hear them first. They
were on Blue Note, you knew they were good.
Bob: And that used to happen with Slash in the early days. We knew how many
records we were going to ship to Boston or someplace based on the fact that
it was a Slash record, and I think we can get back to that. I think that's
possible again. But we have to buck the trend of what's going on in retail
and these other places.
Cosmik: Well, what else does the world really know about Slash and what's going
Bob: (laughs) If the world can't go out and buy a Slash record after this
interview, then fuck off!
Better yet, go out and buy a Slash Record! Salute This Vol. 1 is a great
place to start, and should be available everywhere digitally encoded,
aluminum coated plastic products are sold.