Ask a First Entertainment member what they do in the industry, and you might get one of a thousand different responses. Ask John Loken, this issue’s profile, and you might hear all of them. “I’ve been trying to explain what I do to my family and friends for years. It’s kind of diverse.”
As the business partner to a music investor, John is involved in the operations of three companies. First, there’s the punk rock label Fearless Records, whose acclaimed bands – such as Plain White T’s, Rock Kills Kid and Sugarcult – and best-selling punk compilations are the buzz of the industry. There’s the merchandising arm, embodied by the edgy, visually arresting website Smartpunk.com. And then there’s the artist management side, called Ride, where John’s team guides the careers of established alternative rock bands such as Unwritten Law, Cornelius, and The Thrills.
So what does that mean, exactly, involved in the operations? “That’s the beauty of it. It could be anything,” says John. This week, it’s assembling a new compilation release for the band At the Drive In and making a new record with Sugarcult. John gets involved at every stage of the process; negotiating deals, picking producers, selecting material, hiring studios, managing budgets, developing the imaging; it’s a song that never ends.
“We have an incredible amount of talent within our companies, and that make my job a pleasure. I try to bring a fresh perspective to our bands, an objectivity they can trust.”
It’s a trust that’s been hard earned indeed: John began his diverse career writing sell-sheets for an independent folk label that was operated out of a house. He went on to enjoy one promotion after another: From international marketing at Warner Bros. to a gig at Polygram International. From there to Sire Records, Ultimatum Music, and now, the Ride/Fearless/Smartpunk combine. Along the way, he was, among other things, an artist manager, a label manager, a soundtrack supervisor, a producer, a publicist and a A&R representative (A&R folks are responsible for scouting new artists and then helping develop those artists after a recording contract has been signed. The phrase is left over from early in the music industry when the A&R position involved selecting both the musicians (artists) and the music (repertoire) for any given recording. Thanks for asking).
“It’s an incredibly interesting time to be in the business,” John explains excitedly. “We’re way beyond just selling shiny discs. Today, our operation is totally diversified, with interests in touring, ticket sales, TV packages, the web and beyond. There are unprecedented shifts occurring in the music business, and the only way to survive is to embrace them. We actually encourage downloading, and we love to see a lot of chatter about our bands on the peer-to-peer networks. There’s going to be a massive explosion in the places where music is available over the next few years – from cell phones to Happy Meals, and we’re going to be there.”
John spends about half his time scouting for new talent. “The thing that excites me the most is when you find a new artist who’s doing something interesting and special, and you get that butterfly feeling in your stomach. You’ve got this little secret and you can’t wait until the whole world finds out about it.” We asked John if he had any advice for new bands. Yes, in fact he does. Tons of it.
“Don’t delude yourself,” John says, as though he’s explained this a thousand times before. “You might think you’re great, and of course your girlfriends tell you you’re great, and your brother thinks you’re awesome, dude. But really listen to your songs and A/B them. Listen to Linkin Park or The Killers. They write really hard-hitting, immediate, instantly-pleasing songs. Are your songs that good? Are they actually that hooky, or are you just kidding yourself to believe they are? Any good writer woodsheds, and woodsheds, and woodsheds. Don’t accept the mediocre stuff. Really push yourself to only accept one out of five songs. I once had an English teacher who told us, ‘Difficult writing makes for easy reading,’ and this is true of songwriting too. You have to work on something and keep honing and honing until it’s really truly palatable and exciting to the masses.” Good advice for any industry.
It’s no wonder that a guy who runs an alternative music company would like our alternative approach to banking.
John joined First Entertainment in the early 90’s, and his wife, Margie joined at about the same time. Today they have two kids, Jack and Lucy, ages nine and six respectively. “My credit union has been tremendous,” he beams. “I tell everyone about First Entertainment. I’ve done a bunch of home loans and refi’s and car loans and consolidation loans with First Entertainment, and I always get the best rates. In fact, on my last home loan I contacted two highly-recommended mortgage brokers who both came back to me with super-competitive rates. I called First Entertainment and asked them what they could do. In two minutes, they beat them hands-down.” He reiterates, “That’s a true story.” John thinks for a moment, then smiles. “I have to admit; First Entertainment is vaguely cult-like.”
Thanks, John, that’s music to our ears. Next thing you know we’ll be installing mosh pits by the teller windows.