There’s just something extraordinary about East coast people; it’s a vibe and an attitude that of course every state has and what makes us all different give or take pronunciation variances; ‘dog’ versus ‘dawg’ yet there is always something comforting about dealing with someone from that geographical location. They are so honest and straight forward, there is never any question about where you stand with them and in the entertainment industry; specifically rock n’ roll, that’s a very special quality to have in someone promoting you or your band regardless of what you think you know about this business. Tom “Smitty” Smith exemplifies such a person. His current band roster is extensive; Great White, Hardline, American Dog, Auto Man, Tomakazi, Adler’s Appetite, Lynch Mob, Orgy, KIX, Another Lost Year, Pride of Lions and the list goes on.
Smitty, as he’s referred to inside the industry, has been in rock n’ roll longer than most bands breaking on the scene today have even been alive, and that’s not to say he’s old; he just started early–when he was five. All joking aside (for the moment), his background and stories of where he’s been and who he’s been with, really drives home the fact that he knows what he’s talking about. He’s worked with Epic, Sony and a host of other labels. “I’m pretty much known by Korn.” Smitty states with a smile. “I was on the team that first discovered Korn. When Korn was on Immortal Records, which at that time was in California, they had the Foundation’s Forum Conventions. Do you remember those?” Yes; Screamer was very active with Concrete Foundations for many years and most remember it as a very good time.
“I worked the conference,” Smitty continues with excitement in his voice, “It was the first job I had, the third job I had and the fifth job I had. After I got picked up on the label side of things, I was working for Epic and they knew I was going out to California and said, ‘Hey we need you to go and check out this band we just signed, we’re doing a deal with Immortal Records and we’re going to distribute their music.’ Which is basically standard label procedure, you know the big label buys the indie label that they like the music from, and basically absorbs the indie label. We did it with Independiente, which is a European label and they brought us Oasis, Travis, and Skunk Anansie.”
“So, anyway, they said, ‘go back there and introduce yourself to Korn.’ I saw the band play and before they went on we went backstage and introduced ourselves to these guys; you know, I wasn’t used to that look cause I’m a ‘New York’ guy. You know you work for a label you get all sorts…you got nut jobs and skinheads and every type you could imagine, but I go back there and I see these dreadlock lookin’ guys (you know looking the way Jonathon does and Head), so we introduce ourselves and go out front to watch the band play and right from the first song, and it wasn’t just us, but right from the first song, the whole place was kinda like, ‘Whoa! There’s something goin’ on with these guys’ and you couldn’t quite put your finger on but you knew…they were special. We nurtured them over the years until they took off on their own, I mean that’s what happens with most bands; they get to a certain point where either you hand it off to other people at the label where they do their commercial radio thing, or the band just explodes so big that someone could sell seven million copies and you don’t know what’s goin on…but they were always our closest friends and like I said, we started with them from the very beginning.”
As with most people, like attracts like. His love of music kept him in the New York clubs at all hours growing up and his friends worked in the city at some of the hottest venues. “I did try various things in my past as far as career went but I had friends that were in the industry,” explains Smitty. ”And just like everybody else, I went to a lot of rock and metal shows and I met people; L’Amour, here in New York was gigantic. I had friends working there so I was always hanging out there backstage, meeting people, meeting bands and I did that for years until I ran into one of my best friends in the city one time and he was working for Concrete, when Concrete first started and it was only five or six people at that point and for those who don’t know, it’s a management and marketing company. So my friend says, ‘hey come hang out with me at some of the shows’. He invited me I think to see Metal Church who I believe they were managing and they were opening for Metallica at the Felt Forum in New York. So I remember hanging out backstage with Metallica, Metal Church; everyone backstage. So I look and see that everyone here has a job. They’re actually getting paid to be here…one way or another. So I gotta get a job because how cool is this…drinkin’ beer, hanging out with bands backstage and getting paid for that! So I asked Bob Chiappardi for a job; he gave me one and that started me off in my career.”
“That was a great party; Foundations is not around anymore but Concrete’s still around; Bob does strip club marketing. You submit music to him and he makes compilation CD’s that they send out to strip clubs and it’s a pretty good idea; I mean we used that idea with Korn for the song, A.D.I.D.A.S. We sent out CDs to like 500 different strip clubs to try to build a database but back then it didn’t work because unless you know ‘Holly is gonna use the music when she dances’ it’s like sending a CD into a black hole; you don’t know where it’s going to go if at all. But Bob’s been in that industry a long time and he’s got it wired just like Foundations… I mean there was no ‘metal’ marketing back then when Black Sabbath released Eternal Idol, and he figured out how to do it but yeah, Foundations had a great run but there hasn’t been the type of Foundation’s we’re familiar with for quite a while now. And it’s such a shame because it was a great company and there’s still a need for it because now you have these little boutique companies doing little bits and pieces of what Concrete did under one roof.”
Smitty’s background in various avenues of the rock industry has provided the experience he’s been able to give the bands he works with, the luxury of a seasoned professional in so many different aspects of this business. He went to school for audio recording and landed a job with acclaimed metal producer, Max Norman, though he had to get the education and the job, to find out he didn’t want to be a recording engineer. “I was working with Concrete and I met Nick Bowcott, of Grim Reaper and they were recording their Rock You To Hell record and Nick needed a place to crash in New York when he was recording; they had him in from England and I had a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan that belonged to my girlfriend at the time…get this, my rent was $97.50; $97.50, for a gigantic two bedroom apartment on 53rd Street between 2nd and 3rd in Manhattan. So I said, ‘hey come stay with me!’ And he was supposed to stay like three days and he ended up staying like five months and that really put me in the industry I mean it’s one thing to have a job but with Nick around, he was dragging me to recording studios and we were going to people’s houses for parties and I met Max Norman through him. I went to school for audio recording. So I said, ‘hey this is what I went to school for’ and he was kind of like, ‘hey, I need an assistant’ so I became his assistant/engineer for a couple of records but it wasn’t what I thought it would be; you think it’s all fun and partying but when you spend three weeks just laying down drum tracks eighteen hours a day seven days a week, while everyone else is home after 10pm, it gets old; for me anyway.”
It doesn’t matter how many times you hear it, the economy has crippled everything and the record industry has taken a terrible beating over the past fifteen to twenty years; in all areas. When you’re in a specialty business, sometimes the only way to make it work is by opening your own company; that doesn’t mean your problems are over; it just means you get to call the shots so Smitty opened SP-Unlimited. “Yeah this is my company after what happened with Sony,” States Smitty. “You know Sony was the first big company to have lay-offs. I mean there was no way they were going to lay us off, I mean we broke so many bands for them; I mean come on; Korn, Rage, Incubus, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Prong, Suicidal…the list goes on and we had done a great job with all these bands and I was just kind of thinking ‘there’s no way they’re gonna lay us off’ and sure enough I was probably like the third person to get called into the big boss’s office and they hand you your file and what happens is, and this happens to this day; if you get laid off by a company, the bands you’re working on call you and go ‘hey, we’re worried about what’s going to happen to our projects; nobody knows us as well as you do…’ and they hire you on the side! So I created this company because I was getting phone calls from the bands I had handled, asking me to work on the side, plus Sony was going to give me work on the side too; until they figured out what they were going to do.”
“I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like promoting a record. Because when you turn someone on to new music, break a new band… it’s great.. you have street-teams that go out and do like this guerrilla marketing. I mean no one knew how to do that back in the day and back then when we were doing it with Sony, it was all a new process. Nobody knew how to put a team of people together to break a new band. But luckily I knew people who liked Anthrax so I would call my friends and say, ‘hey I got this brand new band and if you like them your friends will like them and I got all these stickers and I’ll send you music you can give to your friends’ and ya know if you’re in high school handing out CD’s like System of a Down or Rage Against the Machine…it’s great cause you send out all the people on your street team with a hundred CD’s and they’d hand it out to all their friends and hopefully when the band came into town you’d set them up and they’d meet the band and then you have people helping to street market your record. You know who is really good at that? Rappers and hip-hop artists are really good at guerrilla marketing. It’s amazing cause Eminem will come out with D-12 and no one in the world will know who D-12 is and then they’ll sell a million copies of the record the first week. And everybody is shrugging their shoulders goin’ ‘who the hell is D-12?’ and it’s ya know, Eminem’s posse from back in the day and the D-12 record has got to be twelve years old at least… but with a band you’ve got to have product. You’ve got to have something tangible to hand out.”
The world today is so different from even a decade ago. Physical copies of anything seems to be a lost world or art; if you will. With every technological advance, we screw ourselves by taking two steps backward, trying to figure out the best way to discard the old and bring in the new but as the old saying goes, if something’s not broke, don’t fix it. There is nothing wrong with advancing technologically but the key is to do is smartly. There is always a way to revamp a business model that worked so well in the past. Labels used to have development departments and Smitty was a big part of that; artist development. He’s a firm believer in giving an artist and/or band what they need to succeed and he wants to know what now? Who’s going to do that now? Where do we go from here? “So what’s gonna happen now; you know that’s the question I’d like to ask those people,” Smitty says with apprehension and sarcasm. “After Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey and all these superstars disappear, WHO’S gonna fill the Garden? Who’s gonna pay $150 after Barbara Streisand leaves… when Adele is an old crusted fruit? Who’s gonna pay $800 a ticket to see her play the Garden and are you even going to be able to fill the room at that point cause nobody is doing development on these artists anymore. Again, a case could be made that people’s attention span isn’t that long…maybe they’ll have twenty bands at a festival playing four songs each.”
“Nobody is sticking with bands or developing these acts anymore and for me, a person who has been involved with music over thirty years, I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next thirty. I’m still in it; I’m in the trenches every day trying to work with new bands or promote existing bands and get them the respect and ultimately it’s money, so you try to get them what they want. The internet has changed newspapers and magazines, I mean look at you, Screamer Magazine for crying out loud you had a circulation! Screamer was everywhere; in all the clubs and the newsstands right, and now you exist as an online magazine and it’s kind of got its advantages; you’re seen worldwide but it’s certainly not the same as going to a newsstand and seeing the magazine in print, picking it up, feeling it and purchasing it. And I know it’s the business side dictating whether you print a magazine or lay it out online. Because of the cost; I mean when I think about what it cost Sony to house all the CD’s and what they manufactured for all the releases I mean… wow… I can’t imagine what it cost them to warehouse all that, from old Tony Bennett records to the metal bands. So it’s cost effective to put everything online.”
“There are not a lot of people left. I mean we’re running on a skeleton crew; our industry. I mean look at the labels; there aren’t a lot of labels and distribution companies left; from when we knew how things were to today. And I don’t want to come off as an old man but that’s the reality.” Being the last of the Mohichans is a sobering realization but hopefully, those who come after us, will look back at history to re-learn what “old-school” means to them, and apply the foundations of what people like Smitty did to pave the roads of marketing and promotion, all in the name of rock n’ roll.