David “Beno” Benveniste didn’t exactly break himself into the music industry; he more accurately shaped the music industry around him. After building a relationship with the then nationally unknown local LA band System Of A Down in the mid-90s, Benveniste took what is still considered a novel approach to marketing by giving away the band’s music for free, using the still-burgeoning internet to scout out potential fans. The risk paid off, and soon Benveniste found himself the owner of a successful marketing company built around his innovative strategies and with a clientele that included everyone from Radiohead to Coca-Cola.
The creation of Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group followed in 1997, and since then, the full-service music management company/record label has worked with a litany of great acts—including Deftones, Cypress Hill, Coheed and Cambria, Alice in Chains, and Sparta—and is still home to the band that started it all, System Of A Down. LA Music Blog recently had chance to talk with Benveniste about the current state of the industry, his first thoughts upon hearing System Of A Down, and what artists need to be aware of to make it in music in the 21st century. His answers just might reshape the way you think about music.
How did you actually break into working in the music industry?
I was always such a fervent fan. The love of music and its effect on society just came naturally to me. One day a friend of mine called and said, “You’ve got to come to rehearsal and see this band. I want to introduce them to you.” The band consisted of four Armenian guys playing hard rock, which was completely unorthodox, yet spectacular. It was original, powerful, melodic, and frenetic. It was probably the most astounding thing I’d seen up to that point. That band was System Of A Down.
After I met the band, I started hanging out with them and going to their rehearsals. I spent a year-and-a-half developing and working with them. They had a following built up in LA, so I wanted to take that following, make it grow, and put a business behind it. I didn’t really have any experience previously, but System Of A Down was the first band I got signed to a label.
Do you feel like there was anything in particular that pushed you towards the management side of the industry or was it just something that came naturally to you?
I just wanted to get involved in the most intimate way I could. If someone had asked me to explain what a manager did, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I just did what I had to do. I’m naturally a very passionate, hands-on person. Each day, I figured out what to do and how to do it, and then I just did it. That’s how it started.
When did you start working with System Of A Down?
How did that lead to you starting your company, Velvet Hammer?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision to start a company and populate it with bands. Everything I did was based on organic growth and necessity. I started a marketing company around System Of A Down because we had a record deal and a really impressive fan base in LA—this microcosm of crazy fans that just kept growing—and my job was to figure out how to replicate that across the country.
I went to Rick Rubin and Donnie Ienner, who was CEO of Columbia Records at the time, and said, “Listen, I want to give away free music. I want to duplicate this demo that we got signed with, find kids on the internet to give it to, and create these pockets of fans all around the country.” Most people at Columbia thought I was crazy for wanting to give away free music, but Rick and Don really backed the vision.
We made 100,000 copies of this three-song demo, and my friend and I started going into chat rooms and asking kids if they had heard of System Of A Down. They’d say, “No,” so we’d package demos all day, send them out, and write the address down. That’s how I started my marketing company, StreetWise. We marketed everything from Linkin Park to Radiohead to Rage [Against the Machine] and all of the newer metal bands at the time. I didn’t do it because I wanted to start a company. I did it because I had to figure out a way to break the band.
So you were giving away music for free before the internet even really took off and people were downloading music all the time? Do you think that giving away music for free is a good way to break yourself as an artist?
Absolutely. It’s 2011, and we live in a society built on quick fixes. It isn’t a long-term plan, but if the music is quality, then I believe that by giving a consumer that little taste of what you have to offer, you can convert them into a life-long fan. I think there is a fine line between what is stolen and what’s given, but that is something that has to be worked out through time, and I believe it will.
Do you feel that the digital age has made it easier or harder for bands to get noticed considering there’s almost an over-saturation within the market?
It’s not just an over-saturation of the market; it’s a matter of bands that lack quality to be honest. There isn’t as much quality as there was back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Where’s the next Fleetwood Mac? Where’s the next Bruce Springsteen? Where’s the next Pink Floyd? These are tough questions, but this is the time we’re in. I think that the new artists have to have the right premise, the right objective, and I think the quality of the music needs to increase.
Do you think this lack of quality bands is because people try to rush to put out a product or is it the quality of musicianship?
People do rush to put out a product, but in terms of musicianship, you can find musical prodigies all over the world. It’s not about musicianship; it’s about songs. Where are the band’s music and lyrics coming from? What are they seeing on the streets of some tertiary market in Texas, Europe, LA, or wherever? What is the impetus for these musicians and where is their music coming from?
I think this translates to record labels, too. Only a handful of the executives left understand the importance of artist development. Now the focus is on getting the band signed, finding a radio hit, and putting out the album. Record labels themselves are in demise, and the problem is that the major label itself has lost its soul and spine. The majors don’t have the money anymore to put 200 or 300 thousand dollars into a band for artist development and then support that band until they sell a record.
Could you tell us a little more about what Velvet Hammer does for artists?
We are a full-service music entertainment company. We manage bands, and in some cases, we are their record label. We A&R, produce, develop, and manage the brand worldwide. We do everything from making logos, records, deals, and tour budgets to putting bands on the road, publishing (in some cases), merchandising, marketing, and helping to decide what singles go out first. We finance the records and put them together here before creating the best partnership possible with the labels. It really is running the life of the brand.
Some bands are more open to creative input and some prefer less creative help and more assistance with the business side of things. If you look at the last Deftones’ record, they are incorporated but they hired my staff to run the corporation. We are very hands-on, but some bands just want a business outfit that will protect them in the business world and leave the creating to them. On the other hand, for instance, Chino and I A&R’ed this latest Deftones record together, and it was a tremendous experience and great success.
We recently did an interview with Afghan Raiders, one of your newer bands. What do you look for in an act when you do sign one?
They need to have something that’s real. I need to be able to look at the band and know that it has the potential to be something great. If I see something and feel it, I don’t care if it’s one person that needs to be built around or a moving unit, I’ll go after it, develop it, and support it. It takes financial support, time, relationships, and energy to break a band. If I’m going to put my name on it, assign my staff to it, and we’re going to embrace it, then it has to be something we’re really passionate about.
We’ve been developing Afghan Raiders for about a year and a half and just finished making their EP. When I look at them, I know that Mikey is a star. He’s a frontman that can really galvanize, and what I saw in the band was the willingness of Mikey and Beans to create a subculture. Initially they were creating hard electronic stuff, but my goal was to take the hardcore Justice, DJ Shadow, Crystal Castles, Daft Punk, or Depeche Mode fans and make a band that meets in the middle, that has an electronic vibe, but creates songs that have real parts: intro, verse, chorus, hooks. My intention is to galvanize both the Depeche Mode and the hardcore fans to create a mainstream version of what we want.
Do you have anything big planned for anyone at Velvet Hammer that you can talk about at this point?
We recently announced a handful of U.S. tour dates for System Of A Down, and we have more announcements coming in the next couple of weeks. The band has been off for five years, so there’s been a huge excitement factor on the web. The kids are going nuts.
Alice in Chains will start writing a record this year. Putting out the EP for Afghan Raiders is a hugely exciting thing for us here. We have a new band called Instant People and a fourteen-year-old singer/songwriter named Jackson Guthy that we’re developing. He’s a prodigy, and we’re building a band around him. Cypress [Hill] is doing an EP right now with Rusko, so we’re very excited about them coming together because you’ve got the hardcore underground mixed with the seminal rap voice of Cypress Hill. Finally, Deftones are touring. We’re just really excited about everything.
What advice do you have for musicians who want to break into the industry at this point in time?
First and foremost is persistence. I’m a firm believer that the cream eventually rises to the top. Nothing comes easy. I don’t believe in free lunches. I believe that if it’s good, someone’s going to hear it and want to jump in. Another piece of advice I like to give is that you shouldn’t follow trends. You should aim to create trends. Be the person that throws the rock and ripples the water, not the person who is affected by the ripple in the water. Go out there with vision and don’t be scared to do it. Just be who you are because that’s the most important thing. If it’s real, it’s going to rise.
For more info on David “Beno” Benveniste and Velvet Hammer: