Heart of Steel: Interviews

Interview With Steve Brownlee
of Front Row Seat Media

Interview By Keith McDonald

Another Metal label hits the market with metal record sales actually climbing in a time when overall record sales are slipping, it’s probably a good time to have a record label that specializes in this genre. That’s exactly what Front Row Seat Media is trying to do. With a veteran like Steve Brownlee running the show, this label has a ton of potential. After working for so many years at the legendary Enigma Records, Steve is looking to make a mark on his own. I recently had the opportunity to speak with him about this new venture. You can check out their website at frontrowseatmedia.com.


How did you get started in the music business?

All by accident really. I was 19 years old and in college studying theater, but needed to find a job, any job. So was going through industrial business parks going in every business asking for a job, I came into this little office with a tiny warehouse of a business call Greenworld Distribution. They distributed import vinyl, mostly German Prog-rock and Japanese pressings…. however Greenworld formed Enigma Records and the rest was history…probably the best independent label of all time. My first day at Greenworld was spent taking shrink-wrap off of returned records (mostly from Tower Records). Under guidance from my music business mentor, Alan Niven (who left Greenworld to manage Great White, Guns n Roses, Angel City), I worked my way up the ranks very fast becoming Sales & Marketing Manager and was heavily involved in A&R and promotion.




How did the label start?

I've been promoting and distributing independent recordings for 23 years. I helped line the pockets of many a wealthy label / distributor owners. After my last employer, M&K Sound, laid off 25 or so people, I said that's enough, I'm taking matters into my own hands. Originally I was forming a company with Paul Sabu, but as it turned out, he didn't have everything in order on his side. As I had already rounded up the initial releases and was ready to go, I set up shop myself and Front Row Seat Media was formed.



I see you worked at Enigma Records. How was that experience?

When I say I worked at Enigma, in the same breath I include Greenworld Records, as they were pretty much one in the same. Without a doubt, most of my fondest memories in this crazy business are from those years (1981-1990). I was fortunate to have made many lifelong friends and shared some wild experiences and worked with some of the best bands of that era. I was the original "heavy metal guy" at the label and was influential with the label widening its scope (originally the label was releasing synth-pop, new wave, and punk.). I really believe that Enigma Records was responsible for the whole 80s metal-mania. I mean we'd released the debut albums by Motley Crue, Great White, Ratt, Queensryche, Poison, Stryper, King Diamond, W.A.S.P.……and we had a P&D deal with Metal Blade Records so we also were putting out there stuff like Armored Saint, The Goo Goo Dolls…. there so many other great bands on the label. Best I ever worked for.



I see you specialize in marketing and promotion. How important is that in developing an artist's career?

Extremely important…. every band that is serious about making music their livelihood needs a firm business plan. You could have the most brilliant new album in the can, the next Sgt. Pepper, let's say, but if Joe Public doesn't know that it even exists, you can pretty much limit your CD sales to the handful you sell at a local gig. You need to create demand. An aggressive press (print & e-zines) and radio campaign backed with constant gigging and grassroots marketing can be very effective at the indie level.


Who is currently on your roster?

We kicked off distribution with the Vixen CD with Marty Friedman. Now I'll admit, this is a 20-year-old album, but it's the first time ever on CD with 7 unreleased tracks added. And yes, the CD sounds dated (it's old NWOBHM style), but many Marty Friedman and Megadeth fans have contacted me and thanked us for getting it out on CD. It's a great historical piece and there really is some amazing fretwork.

We have also released the CD by Tower called Turn the Page. Jerry's and old friend of mine through my work with Joshua Perahia (who Jerry also sings for). This has been getting rave reviews…I knew it would…Jerry's just that great of a singer. I'm also currently offering the Jesse Damon solo CD (Silent Rage singer) and The Alchemist (with Glenn Hughes) which I had released independently before at M&K, but these artists left M&K to work with me. We have a limited edition series of Takara CDs that are hand signed and numbered.

Later this month we're releasing the debut CD by Sick Trigger (one of the best crowd drawing metal bands in LA)…these guys are the needles in the haystack, but I found 'em…. think of Alice in Chain like harmonies over Zeppelin-esque melodies, backed by a freight train rhythm section, kinda Rush like. We have several other deals we're putting together and will be announcing shortly.



I see you have a Marty Friedman project (Vixen). How did that land at your label and how old is that album?

This is another one of those examples of everything coming full circle. The original EP Made in Hawaii was released on Azra Records in 1983. I was a good friend with Dave Reynolds who owned the label, so in turn we distributed his label through Greenworld Records, so I had sold thousands of those records back in the 80s.

The way it came back was when I booked Joshua Perahia at Stryper Expo. The band's regular keyboardist was off touring with Eric Burden & the new Animals, so I needed to hire a keyboardist as well as two female back-up singers. This turned out easier than I thought when I met up with Jim DeCicco (who has worked with Tower as well) and we hired him on to play keys, it just so happened that his wife and a good friend of hers were professional back-up singers and they worked out great! Well, months had passed and I get a call out of the blue from Jim and he tells me about the Vixen recordings. It turns out his wife is none other than Kim LaChance (Vixen singer). well, she owns the master recordings and has made arrangements with Marty for his royalties. They asked if I could do anything with these songs…plus they had 7 never before heard songs. Of course I jumped at the chance to distribute this; I knew that there are many collectors and guitar fans that would eat this up.



How extensive is your back catalog? How important is the catalog in the label's growth?

As we just commenced business in October 2003, right now I'm developing back catalogue so I'm only representing a dozen or so releases at the moment. However, as we grow, so will our back catalog. I'm a firm believer that back catalog should be the bulk of your sales…. new releases are icing on the cake.



How do you find new artists?

For the most part, artists approach me. A lot of it comes from referrals from bands I work with presently or in the past. I don't go out to as many live shows like I used to (in excess), so when I do get out, it's rare I see a band that I'd approach for signing. The music scene in LA…well, it's just not like it used to be…but once, in a while I do see something with that certain something extra…such is the case with Sick Trigger, a band I found in of all places, Bakersfield, CA. This is home to Korn and Adema (in fact, Sick Trigger guitarist Rick Trigger is the brother to the lead guitarist for Adema)….but who thought there would be this fantastic power metal band in the middle of nowhere? As I later found out, they're one of the current top draws on the Sunset Strip and have amassed quite a following.



Is metal the only genre you will sign or all genres?

Of course, I will consider all genres (except hip-hop/rap), but it seems it's the metal and hard rock where I've carved a niche. I do well with the prog-rockers too, having built up good relationships with many of the top prog rock distributors, mail orders, and shops. I mean. My roots are in the prog rock market (Greenworld were specialists in Prog Rock, distributing releases by the likes of Van Der Graf Generator, PFM, Banco, Sky, Can, and all that good stuff.



I see you have worked with some major artists (Crue, Stryper, RHCP). How was that and how does that help you with your label?

Well working with these "major artists" was rewarding because when I was involved with a lot of these artists, they were nobodies. The great publicity and promotion machine at Enigma Records changed all that for so many artists that went on to become multi-platinum artists (Enigma had more than our own share of multi-platinum releases too). In the heyday, these were the people that I was hanging out with (who else can say Great White played in their living room for their 23rd birthday), honestly, every single night of the week my comrades and I would know where some band was playing or where the "in" party was. Well, those were "a few" years ago and I've seemed to mellow with age, but I still keep in contact with lots of folks from "the day". Of course my experience and contacts developed over the years helps me a great deal, both in finding releases and getting them out to the public. I'm fairly well known in certain hard rock/metal circles, so that adds credibility when I put out a release.



How hard is it to run an independent rock label?

To get things off the ground was tedious and time consuming (business licenses, business plan, office equipment, phones. The day to day is actually fun as I'm always in contact with people I consider friends. I've been doing this so long that it's almost second nature.



What are your day-to-day events?

Everyday is different really. Sometimes I work all day long, sometimes I start working after dinner and work until 4-5 in the morning, it all depends on what task need attending to. I handle most press, marketing and sales duties. I'm also getting everything together for the Sick Trigger release. On top of that, I also own a local music publication, so some time gets devoted to that (selling advertising, layouts, writing, etc.).



Are you looking to develop artists for the long term or hope that they graduate to a bigger label and own their previous recordings?

Of course, I root for the success of the artist. At the level Front Row Seat Media is at the moment, we're somewhat of a "stepping stone", we'll get the band to the next plateau. I do not have bands sign the recording rights over to me, so they always own their recordings; I license the recordings for exclusive distribution. I'm also old school in that I believe in developing a band instead of dropping them if their debut album doesn't go platinum, so I welcome to develop the right artist for the long term. As the label grows, I would hope that many of are deals become long-term relationships.



Is it difficult to compete with the bigger rock labels like Sanctuary and Spitfire that have unlimited resources?

Actually, it's easy…I'm not in competition with them. Many of the releases we put out, while are of equal quality of any major label release, I call "for the collector." These are by artists who have had some sort of notoriety in the past and either has a buried gem or a great new release and are being ignored by the corporate giants who used to cater to their every whim and now deny their existence. I know my particular niche market. Then again, when it comes to newer acts, hopefully they will do well enough for Sanctuary or Spitfire to come knocking on my door and buy out a contract.



What's the future for your label?

The immediate future is to build up the catalog and widen our worldwide distribution network. I am in negotiations with several notable artists who should come aboard soon. I hope to have signed distribution deals with other indie labels to distribute they're titles through my channels. So by years end I'd like to have 20 new releases out through Front Row Seat Media and as many other sub-distributed titles as possible. If I have one-tenth the success with Front Row Seat as we did with Enigma, then I'll be a very happy man.

Label Website: www.frontrowseatmedia.com