The Swarm

June 06, 2013

Firsts: Tom Silverman...

Matt Diehl

“I’ve been sleeping three hours a night – it’s pretty full on,” Tom Silverman explains: it’s the final few days before the 2013 edition of the New Music Seminar kicks off on June 9th in New York City, and there’s much to be done. “It’s a million moving parts,” he adds with a tired groan. If anyone can handle it, though, it’s Silverman – the quintessential New York music business hustler, entrepreneur, maverick, theorist, and gadfly if there every was one. Silverman’s was a co-founder of the New Music Seminar back in 1980, which evolved as an outgrowth of Silverman’s activities involved with the influential DJ music tipsheet Dance Music Report. The New Music Seminar would grow into one of the world’s most influential music conferences – a hotbed to discover artists as well as debate the issues facing the music industry. In 1981, Silverman also began his namesake Tommy Boy label, which proved to be one of the most tastemaking and commercially successful imprints of the last three-plus decades: Tommy Boy helped usher in new genres with a relentless futurism – electro, hip-hop, dance music – allowing them to evolve into their most cutting-edge form.

With Tommy Boy, Silverman put out Afrika Bambaataa’s landmark, Kraftwerk-sampling 1982 hip-hop single “Planet Rock” – one of the most influential pieces of music ever released, a “Rite of Spring” for a generation weaned on drum machines, street rhymes, and turntables. Tommy Boy continued to expand minds via their signings of urban music innovators long after “Planet Rock.” De La Soul would help usher in rap’s famed ’80s “golden age” with the group’s unlikely image, sampling, and rhymes; Queen Latifah was nurtured at Tommy Boy into a budding superstar; hits by the likes of Naughty By Nature would incorporate real MC lyricism into dominant pop smashes; electronic dance acts like 808 State and Information Society would prefigure the current EDM phenomenon by decades; and in the ’90s, groups like House of Pain and its frontman Everlast would infuse rock attitude anew into hip-hop; many contemporary artists like Gucci Mane as well got their start via Tommy Boy.

That proves only a partial list of the groundbreaking music Tommy Boy brought to the masses; and while the first edition of New Music Seminar wound down in 2004, Silverman and a revised set of partners revived NMS anew in 2009 to confront the challenges and opportunities facing the music industry. Here Silverman sits down with The Daily Swarm to explicate the many firsts that defined a most singular career that’s touched all corners of music business.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first first record you ever bought?

Tom Silverman: Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky” – a 45 RPM seven-inch on Roulette Records. It was 1966: I was twelve years old, and I got it at a variety store called “Big Top” that sold candy and comics; they didn’t sell albums – only singles. I loved that record – it was great. It was a song on the radio, and I played it over and over. The first album I ever bought was The Young Rascals’ first album. They were such a big party band in New York at the time – just legendary: every local band played their songs at dances. I just saw The Rascals’ reunion in Portchester recently: Little Steven was there, wearing their uniform of knickers and a tie. It was fantastic.

The Daily Swarm: When did you realize you were never going to be a musician yourself?

My parents gave me a Magnatone guitar, and I took some guitar lessons. I’d played violin and piano before, but I actually wanted to play guitar – after I’d heard Clapton and Cream, I was like, “Forget everything else!” Besides, everyone needs to get laid, and I thought playing guitar would help! I’d go to Sam Ash and drool at the Gibsons on the wall; during college, I was really into sustain and fuzz boxes: I had a Fuzz Face and a Big Muff, and of course a Vox Wah-Wah.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first Tommy Boy release?

Tom Silverman: It was a twelve-inch single, “Having Fun” by Cotton Candy, which Tommy Boy put out in 1981. The year figured into the catalog number, which was TBA 811 – if we had more than twelve songs, we were in trouble! Ever since I saw Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” blow out of stores in 1979, I thought, “I should do this, too.” I had a friend, Mike Wilkenson, who had a subscription service that would send compilations of song re-edits to DJs. I was running [legendary DJ tipsheet] Dance Music Report, and helped him set up a label in my spare time; I learned who the distributors were, and things like that. As a test run, I put a record on the Tryon Park label: this kid Eric Neri, who was a Harvard grad, had a rap song called “Let’s Vote.” It was a shitty record – I’m glad I didn’t put it out on Tommy Boy. Anyways, one day Afrika Bambaataa came by the apartment where I lived and worked and put together Dance Music Report. He had brought this “Cotton Candy” record with him and told me to check it out. I think he wanted me to write about it; he was playing it out in his sets. I borrowed and spent $10,000 to put it out, and got $5,000 back. I didn’t make money the first time, but when I put out Tommy Boy’s next release, I had enough to pay back my parents.

The Daily Swarm: How did “Planet Rock” first come about?

Tom Silverman: Around this time, I’d been working with Bambaataa on the eight-track demo that would become “Planet Rock” at a studio called In The Red in Mamaroneck. I played it for Arthur Baker and asked if he could produce it. The rest is history. Actually, the first hit Tommy Boy had was “Jazzy Sensation” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy 5, which came out at the end of ’81; we then released it again with a Shep Pettibone remix. Tommy Boy was based on selling vinyl twelve-inches; they were crossing over from a marketing tool for DJs to the consumer. We got “Jazzy Sensation” played on Mr. Magic’s show on WHBI and sold 5,000 on one spin; it went on to sell 35,000 twelve-inches at $3.98; you don’t get that much for a song today! Bambaataa never connected as an artist, though; he was more about songs, ideas, and tracks. In a way, it was more creative working through the twelve-inch as a medium: you didn’t have to live up to an image, and were free to create whatever you wanted, from release to release. It didn’t bother me, this desire for longevity. My favorite records are one-hit wonders: if an artist has one great song, it creates the most memories – and they’re associated with the song, not the artist.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first Tommy Boy act where you felt like you’d really succeeded?

Tom Silverman: Afrika Bambaataa found Jonzun Crew after “Planet Rock.” Bambaataa liked anything that sounded like a video game, and Jonzun Crew had “Pack Jam.” We sold a couple hundred thousand “Pack Jam” twelve-inches, and the following album sold close to a million. It was a big thing at the time.

The Daily Swarm: How did the New Music Seminar first come together?

Tom Silverman: Since ’77 or ’78, the Billboard Disco Summit had been going, and was very popular – disco was so huge, they did two a year. But in 1980, disco fell off, so my partner Scott Anderson and I got together with Mark Josephson and Danny Heaps to introduce a new thing. We did the first New Music Seminar at S.I.R. Studios as a one-day event to introduce DJ culture as doing something different. We had 200 people, and I don’t even know if 100 people paid, but the buzz was great; Dave Robinson from Stiff Records did the panel the first year. Danny and Scott fell out, so Mark and I did it the second year, in a bigger space. I found a picture of the 1981 panel recently: Ed Steinberg lead it, and Bob Pittman was on it, just before he started MTV, looking very corporate in a button-down shirt. He must’ve been 27 or 28 then.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first New Music Seminar like after relaunching in 2009, after a five-year absence?

Tom Silverman: [Current New Music Seminar partner] Dave Lory asked me to do it. He got me on the right day: I was getting pissed off because no one was asking questions about what was going to replace the old music business and start a new business. I wanted to bring people together to explore what was going to happen, because the record business was not coming back. We’re still asking that question. In 2009, we had all these DIY models, where artists could do it themselves, with things like Tunecore. Chris Anderson’s Long Tail book had come out, but it wasn’t working that way; no superstars were being discovered with the backing of significant labels. With the power of the Internet, why weren’t we finding an Elvis a month? It was easier to break artists with one employee and $50 in my pocket. The tools were there, but nobody wanted to do it themselves – all the artists attending that year wanted to get signed to labels.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first music industry conference you attended?

Tom Silverman: The Billboard Disco Summit, right when we were starting DMR. Drugs were everywhere, and it was a very gay business at the time. Casablanca had one presidential suite at the hotel it was being held at, and TK Records had another. I couldn’t get into the suites, though, because I wasn’t gay.

The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you realized computers and the Internet were changing the music industry?

Tom Silverman: I was a technology freak from the beginning. As soon as I had a hit with “Planet Rock,” I bought a Synclavier [an early digital sampling synthesizer], which at the time were around $100,000. I had the first luggable computer, the Osborne, which came with floppy-disc software; I tried to create my own invoicing program on it. I was always into always into having personal computers and using them to run the business, but they didn’t change what the business was like. What really changed the business was recordable technology like the Walkman and the boombox – they made music portable and personal. I think the Walkman was a more significant development than MP3s or MP3 players. The Internet didn’t become important until there were more tools. We used to go to Central Park to hear what people would play on their boomboxes,
which would be the records that would break over the weekend. Word of mouth would start that way, like jungle drums. Now with the Internet, it’s still the same, but on steroids.

The Daily Swarm: Do you remember the first issue of Dance Music Report?

Tom Silverman: I have it somewhere in storage. DMR started out as a weekly, stapled tip sheet. It was typed; we stapled and folded it ourselves – we licked stamps and stayed up all night to write it before taking it the offset printer. Then we’d bring the issues to record stores. There probably weren’t 10,000 DJs in the world at that time, but we had 4,000 of 'em. They were really influential: radio was stodgy, and DJs opened up music for people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise. The science of how records break hasn’t changed, from 30 DJs playing a song on heavy rotation to a million YouTube views.

The Daily Swarm: What was the first time you heard of hip-hop?

Tom Silverman: Not until ’83 or ’84 – after I’d been releasing hip-hop records for two years. Before then, we called them “rapper hits.” I remember Bambaata mentioning hip-hop in 1980, but mostly they called it break or b-boy music. People don’t realize today that hip-hop back then was beyond counterculture – it was crazy, like hearing Little Richard for the first time after everything was “(How Much Is That) Doggy in the Window?” Hip-hop broke all the rules, and changed the tools; there were new dances, graffiti, scratching – and it all came out of a five-mile radius in the Bronx! What are the odds of that happening?

The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you heard Gucci Mane?

Tom Silverman: A friend of mine in radio promotion, Manny Bella, brought a Gucci Mane record in that was looking for distribution. His song “Black Tee” was making a lot of noise. This label Big Cat Records wanted to make a deal, and Gucci Mane was their main artist. When I heard him the first time, I didn’t know what Southern hip-hop was; there were a lot of subtleties to the post-crunk/trap house scene. That’s the exciting thing about hip-hop: every new artist would play something different and sound different according to their different regions and subcultures.

The Daily Swarm: How did you first discover De La Soul?

Tom Silverman: De La Soul came to us through Prince Paul, who was part of Stetsasonic and producing them. He played it, and it was pretty bizarre. It was so out there, we thought either it’s going to be huge, or nothing. It’s better for music to be that way, I think.

The Daily Swarm: How did you first get the idea to do a Dance Music Hall of Fame?

Tom Silverman: That came from me, Daniel Glass, Eddie O’Loughlin, and Cory Robbins. I was on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they weren’t letting dance music artists in. They didn’t consider dance music rock and roll – it was a threat to the rock elite. I tried to get Kraftwerk in, and they just let Nile Rodgers and Donna Summer in. I thought we should have a place of our own, and then the bottom fell out of the record business. It was a tough time.

The Daily Swarm: When was the first time you conceived of the idea that the music industry could be a $100 billion business?

Tom Silverman: Nine months ago, once I saw what was happening with cell phones and the mobile industry. Stopping piracy didn’t change things that much, but the music industry is still worth $23 billion at retail alone, and I think we can quadruple that if we put music in the six billion phones that are out there in the world. There are 100 million TV subscriptions at $79; there are 25 million paid Sirius subscribers, and eople are spending $120 a year on Spotify subscriptions. As well, 50 million cars are sold each year; imagine the possibilities if we bundled music with automobiles? Why wouldn’t you have music built in with every television? Most of the emerging markets never bought music – they were pirate markets – but now Brazil is exploding, and India and China are starting to break, showing music revenue for the first time. It’s easy to get the active music consumers, but we need to monetize the passives.

The Daily Swarm: Who was your first music-business mentor?

Tom Silverman: Early on, Seymour Stein. He’d come to the first New Music Seminar, and was the first guy on that level we could talk to. Later, it was Morris Levy, Ahmet Ertegun, Chris Blackwell, and Mo Ostin, with whom I did the first Tommy Boy major deal with Warners. I learned so much sitting in the office with Morris Levy. One time when I was in there, a guy called Morris asking to borrow $5,000. Morris said, “Okay, but you have to pay me next week; if you don’t, lose my number and never call me again.” His next call was to get a check ready for this guy to be picked up. It was a firm rule, but it let you know Morris didn’t bullshit. It was what it was: he was a shrewd businessman, and it was impossible to say no to him. Joe Zyncyk, who was the lawyer for Arthur Baker and Sugarhill Records, told me, “When I got leukemia, Morris paid for the whole hospital for me.” He was loved music and was very generous, but also took shots. Morris was very competitive with the Jews that came from the same ghetto he did: he’d say, “Fuck Walter Yetnikoff – I make more money than Walter!” And he was the only honest guy in music. Majors would say they’re paying you eight points, when it was really five; Morris, on the other hand, would say, “I’ll give you eight points, but I’m only going to pay on four.” He leveled the playing field – they said he was a gangster, but Morris was actually honest.

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