Not often do you get a chance to meet a legendary gentleman who has changaed the lives of many an artist. Seymour Stein is the co-founder and chairman of Sire Records, one of the music industry's most influential record labels and home to some of the most iconic names in modern music. In 1982, he signed Madonna, who became the best-selling female artist of all time. Sire has been a goldmine for cutting-edge music, from popular trailblazers like Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, Echo and The Bunnymen, Erasure, The Cult, Madness, The Replacements, Seal, Wilco, Primal Scream, Aphex Twin and many more.
We met up with 73 year old Seymour Stein sometime back at the the Mix Radio Music Connects 2014, to know more about what went through his mind when he thought of signing on pop diva Madonna way back in the early 80s. We also talk about his love for India and what he feels on Indian music. Excerpts from the interview.
Going back many years you were partly responsible in discovering Madonna and taking her under your wing and making her what she is today. What role did you actually play in her success?
Madonna would have been a star, no matter who found her. She had everything going for her. Ahh, my role primarily, was the fact that I was the first one to see it and believe in her, sign her and get her career rolling. Madonna isn’t comparable to many others. Someone like her doesn’t come along every six months, or six years. You know, she is someone that comes along only once. But then there are others too, but the best part, was that I believed in her, which was very very strong. I helped set her up with Sire Records, through Warner Brothers records, amazing and incredible producers, with publicists, with a woman named Liz Rosenberg. Madonna isn’t one that comes even in a lifetime, Madonna comes along once. There’s one Madonna. You cannot replicate her, even though many people try.
Did you try changing her image by changing her songs or ideas?
Well, I was on the periphery for a while of her choice of songs. Yes I of course had input, but, Madonna is that special, that the major decisions, her instincts, were all hers. I like to tell you if it wasn’t for me, she would be waiting tables in a coffee shop, but that’s not true. Madonna is very very very special.
It’s every record producers dream to produce an artist like Madonna, what potential did you see in her?
When I first saw her there was this one song (she had), and she came to me when I was in a hospital bed, and I was so impressed. The overwhelming thing that impressed me is that she believed in herself, her desire to make it. When I heard the first song ‘Everybody’ I knew it was a great first song. And from there it just kept getting better and better. People foolishly ask me, that when I had that first meeting with her in that hospital, did you know she was going to be the biggest female artist of the 20th century. And I said you must be crazy to think that, for I knew she was special, by the time she had her fourth single, ‘Borderline’, I knew there was no stopping her, she kept growing in strength and popularity. To a large extent she managed her own career. She has a great manager now, whose name is Guy Oseary, they work very closely together, it’s a team, infact U2, very smart musicians, great band, they recently hired Guy Oseary to be their manager after having a manager for 30 years, they took him. What I should be patted on the back for, I did not make Madonna who she is, but I was one of the very first person, to truly believe in her. That’s what it is, it’s her, and it’s her talent. If you want to tell you I’m a genius, you know you not gonna hear that from me, I’ve got my own talent, but it’s different.
What age did you sign her on?
She was 24 when I signed her on.
Are you in touch with Madonna?
Yes, I talk to her manager regularly, we are very good friends, and whenever Madonna is on the road and playing somewhere, I go watch her perform. I have a good relationship with her.
What do you think about today’s artist and management relationship?
I think you need a record label and a manager. Just as there are some artists that aren’t so good and don’t make it, there are managers that aren’t good and there are record companies that are not good. I mean, but when you get an artist who is great with a good manager and a record company that’s great, and have a good manager and a whole team you’re in much better shape, than a great artist that doesn’t have that joint. It takes a team.
Have you heard of any Indian artist that you think would make it big overseas?
Yes, actually I have. There’s a band I really like up in Kohima. They are called Soulmate. They are very good; I think they have music that could travel. It’s very important someone could be a star in this country and sell a million records. And it’s great music. But it’s not music that would do that well necessarily outside of India. Maybe India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, and maybe places like Trinidad and South Africa because there is lots of population there. But there are some artists that would sell a hundred thousand in this country, and maybe a two hundred thousand in England and a million in America. And fifty thousand in Australia, that’s what I’m looking for.
What do you have to say about India?
I love India. The first time I came here was in 1971, a long time ago. I think every person, every country is unique. I personally feel India is especially unique, it has the world’s largest democracy and they accept it. The fact that the people here believe so strongly in education, surprises me. I’ve been to Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mysore and everywhere you cannot drive one or two streets without seeing a school. A school here and a school there, a school everywhere. They believe in education, to extremes in places like Kerala, there have almost a hundred percent literacy there. It’s amazing. I find them to be extremely talented, very good, but what they have to get over is the fact that there’s more music that deservers major exposure, in this country than just Bollywood. The best way to do it is to integrate this new music into Bollywood, so that Bollywood has everyone and it’s a win win for all. Bollywood is no longer one dimensional and it takes in everything. That’s what I feel.
What are your favorite bands?
Well most of them are my own. The bands that are mine are like my children because I have had a lot of fun working with Madonna, The Pretenders, The Cult, Techno and the Bunnymen. So many really great bands, The Placements, KD Lang, yeah….
What about the new crop of bands like Katy Perry, do you like these kinds of new bands?
Yeah I like them. But I don’t find music by watching television shows, I don’t dislike them, I don’t dislike them, but they go against my principles in what I look for in talent, that does not make them wrong. The first thing I listen for are the songs, and in most of these reality shows the songs are handpicked ahead of time and given to the artist beforehand to sing, I like most of the time for the artist to be the creators of their own music. But that’s just me, I mean you know, probably the most successful A & R man in America and by virtue of that in the world is Clive Davis and what he does is he find artists and then finds songs for them. If we all work in the same way it would be very dull. I find the music business even at my age very exciting. And Clive Davis is much older than me and he gets so excited. I don’t think we are doing too much wrong.
MixRadio Music Connects 2014 - Photo by Verus Ferreira
Interviewed by Verus Ferreira