Among the many guest speakers who were present at this year’s Canadian Music Week was Mark Kates, the man responsible for getting the likes of Sonic Youth and Nirvana to sign with Geffen Records in the early ‘90s. He is also American psychedelic band MGMT’s current manager. Between presentations, he sat down with the Concordian to answer a few questions about his extensive experience in the music industry.
Concordian: How did you get started?
Mark Kates: The simple answer is that I followed a passion. I eventually moved to [Los Angeles where I] worked for an independent label, which led to my working at Geffen, which was the most visible stuff I did until recently [with MGMT]. After that, I ran [the] Grand Royal [label] for the Beastie Boys, and then I moved back to [my hometown of] Boston where I started a record label [â€¦] In the process I started managing, and that’s me now.
Former Nirvana manager Danny Goldberg refers to you as the alternative college radio expert at Geffen Records in his book, Bumping Into Geniuses. What did he mean by that?
Basically, I created the alternative radio department [at Geffen]. ‘Alternative radio’ didn’t really have a definition [at Geffen] until I got there. I was hired because the A&R [talent scout] people didn’t think there was anyone at the company who knew how to market the bands they were signing. So I worked with bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees [and] XTC. [I also brought] Sonic Youth to Geffen, which led to Nirvana [being signed].
People say that the ‘90s were a ridiculous time to be working in the music industry. I heard that the A&R guys had a million dollar expense budget. Is this true?
[A million dollars] sounds a little outrageous, but I will tell you that I used to fly first
class to anywhere over four hours [away]. I remember I [once] had a $14,000 round trip to England [just] to go have a meeting with Elastica about the cover of their album. I know that sounds outrageous, but what my bosses would say if they were sitting next to me would be ‘Yeah, and that record was really successful and that plane ticket was cheap in comparison, and back then album covers mattered.’
So my point is that a lot of money was being spent. And every time I would see something that would irritate me, I would go to the head of business affairs [at Geffen] and he would say ‘Look, it’s okay. We sold enough records [â€¦] to cover that and a lot of other things.’ So if you’re signing [bands like] Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses [and] Nirvana, if you’re generating – [with] single albums – $50 to $100 million dollars in profit, you can spend whatever you want.
Does it bother you that what most people want to know about you is what you did with bands like Nirvana?
No. I was so lucky to be able to work with that band. The last few times I saw them play was to go talk to Kurt [Cobain] about making a second video for In Utero, which never happened. [But] either on the way to France or on the phone from France [â€¦] where I got to see one of their last shows, he admitted that he just didn’t think they could make a better video than “Heart-Shaped Box” and they didn’t really want to try.
I know I had a lot to do with why it happened, but I still consider myself lucky and frankly, I’m very glad that I put [in] the time that I did. I’m so lucky that I got to see them play as many times as I did.
What would you tell somebody who wants to work in music now?
They have to do it themselves. Yes, to some degree it’s up to us [managers] to create the opportunities [for the artists], but they [also] have to reach people themselves. And I’m sorry but yes, there’s unfathomable clutter on the Internet involving music and too many artists that aren’t talented that are taking up space. But somehow people get through. That’s where social media really gives you a chance to get going. Because [â€¦] there are people in the media looking for new things all the time. [You have to do] everything you can for your own career and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. You don’t need a manager until you have too much going on to do it yourself.
See Kates’ roster at fenwayrecordings.com