Veteran A&R Exec Looks Back on His Cutting-Edge Career

Mark Williams was a 19-year-old kid armed with little more than his impeccable taste when he began a career that spans R.E.M. and Raury—a career that’s still going strong nearly four decades later. Along the way, Mark has worked at I.R.S., A&M, Virgin, Outpost, Interscope and, for the last five years, Columbia. In his present gig, he’s doing what he’s always done spotting talent, connecting with artists, making records and doing his best to enable art and commerce to coexist. Mark is one of the good ones.

To me you’ll always be my first boss, but what is your current title?
Executive Vice President, A&R, Columbia Records.

How did it all begin?
I started in Atlanta, where I grew up. As a music fanatic, I wanted to go to work in music, so I went to Georgia State to work at a well-known college station, WRAS, and that’s how I ended up getting in the music business—by becoming music director there. When A&M/I.R.S. had an internship open, they asked me to be part of their college department. I was also DJing at a club—this was also the time of the rock dance club, like the Danceteria in New York. The Atlanta version was the 688 Club, and that’s where bands used to play.

And you’re one of the few people who can actually say they saw the Sex Pistols on their first tour.
I went to see the Sex Pistols in Atlanta. It was the first show they did in the U.S.—at the Great Southeast Music Hall. I still have my ticket stub. A lot of people claimed they went, and didn’t go, but I actually went. I couldn’t get anyone else to go with me. None of my friends would go. To say it had an impact on me is an understatement. I was always interested in music that was a little different or ahead of the curve—those were the bands that always excited me. I had no idea at the time that there was a career that utilized that interest and skill, but luckily for me, there is/was.

I know you are responsible for I.R.S. signing R.E.M.
That played a role in me getting out to L.A. in 1983. They used to play at the 688 Club and got popular really quickly. I played their independent single “Radio Free Europe” on my radio show, and I was friendly with the band. I didn’t really understand how bands got signed to labels at that time, but I knew that these guys had a really good catalog of songs already and they were really special, so I started sending their music to Jay Boberg. Eventually, he saw them when he was on vacation in New Orleans and called me—and he never called me; I was always calling and bugging him—and said, “You know that band you’ve been telling me about? I saw them. Send me the demo one more time, and this time I’m going to do something about it.” So I think that, along with the other things I was doing in Atlanta with the touring bands that came through—The Go Go’s and Wall of Voodoo, the bands on A&M like Split Enz and Dennis Brown, etc.—they decided that they wanted some kid that understood all this new music, so they offered me the job to come to L.A. and that’s what I did. I moved out here when I was 22. I didn’t know anyone.

And when did they start calling you “Ocean Spray”?
[Laughs] When I showed up and had my hair dyed red and Harold Childs said my hair looked like it was dipped in Ocean Spray cranberry juice. So that was my nickname at the time. That period was a really interesting, exciting time in our business. Labels had been doing very well, selling lots of records, music was changing and evolving, and A&M wisely always wanted to be on the front edge of things. They wanted to have a department that dealt with the music, and frankly, these were young, developing acts that no one paid that much attention to, but they were—for what we were doing in the college world—big deals. There really was no template for this. It was basically like, “Here, just create this department; just do what you do.”

So I simply just took what I had been doing when I was in Atlanta and made it a template for a national level, which was: find people like me in towns where there’s a good college station, some sort of live venue, a good record store and hopefully some local paper that writes about developing new bands. You were one of those people whose names came to me that I should check out. There was no budget for me to go out and meet anyone, so I just started calling people and hiring them on the phone. I don’t know if you remember when I first contacted you, but I remember the first time we met, when I came to Cleveland. You were definitely one of the bright spots of that period. You had taste, you were funny, you understood the music.

And I, too, was friends with R.E.M.
You knew my guys in R.E.M. So that’s how we came together and you came into my life. You quickly became the queen of college radio and they had me working what was, at the time, the beginning of the Alternative radio format.

“I was always interested in music that was a little different or ahead of the curve—those were the bands that excited me.”

Do you remember your first add at KROQ?
I remember the first add that was a completely unknown band and I felt like I really went in there, made the case and made it happen. That was the Hoodoo Gurus’ “I Want You Back.” I remember getting that call from Larry Groves, the music director at that time, telling me to leave a box of “cleans” outside his office, which was “code” that I’d gotten the add. That was a real accomplishment.

We also worked a lot of very bad records.
Yeah. The whole time I was at A&M and throughout that period, I was always turning them onto new bands that I had come across and knew. I remember taking Jordan Harris, who was the head of A&R at that time, to see Hüsker Dü at UCLA and telling him about New Order, and they ended up putting them on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. I was just doing that simply out of passion. When he was asked to start Virgin Records in America, he asked me to come move over and do A&R, which he felt was a natural fit for me, which is how I ended up at Virgin and how you ended up moving to LA to take the slot that I was now leaving. That period of music and executives that worked there was a pretty inspiring and interesting cast of characters, for sure.

Definitely. There will never be another Charlie Minor or David Anderle.
Charlie Minor was all about doing whatever it takes to get the record played. Gil Friesen, who was the president at the time, was someone I really looked up to. He shaped a lot of things that I took with me through a lot of my career. He always talked about culture and how that was such a big part of what we all were doing.

You were at Virgin for a decade, right?
Yeah. I worked with Camper Van Beethoven, which became Cracker, Smashing Pumpkins, Bob Mould and The Divynls. After 10 years, I was getting a little restless.

So you started Outpost Records.
I was close with Scott Litt, the producer of R.E.M., and I had, obviously, a good relationship with Andy Gershon, who was managing the Pumpkins, and they were in similar places in their careers where they were looking for something a little different. Eddie Rosenblatt, who was the chairman of Geffen Records at the time, had been interested in us all independently at one point or another, but together it sort of made sense that we all brought a little something different to it. So we started Outpost, which was a joint venture with Geffen—this was in 1996. The first thing that we got was Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms to Hold You, which became a gold album. We also went on and signed The Crystal Method, which became one of the big electronic groups, and Whiskeytown, which Ryan Adams came out of. Days of the New was one of our biggest successes—they sold around 2 million albums.

What happened to Hayden? That was the biggest bidding war of that era.
There was a terrible bidding war at the time. Unbeknownst to us, once we succeeded in signing him, he didn’t really want to leave the suburbs of Toronto, where he was. The whole thing that was happening around him was completely terrifying for him. He was a talented guy, but he was happy to stay back in Canada playing small coffeehouses and didn’t want to be part of the big record world in the U.S.

Now, is that a question that you’d ask an artist that you’d want to sign now? “How big do you want to be?”
It’s definitely something that has to be taken into account, because there are plenty of talented artists that are viable in what they do and can have some nice careers, but don’t necessarily fit with what a big label could do or would want to do. You have to make sure they understand what they’re getting into, what’s going to be asked of them, and the things they have to do. It definitely isn’t for everybody, and it’s definitely part of the process.

Then Interscope beckoned.
I went to work for Jimmy Iovine, and that was an opportunity, again, to broaden the scope of what I was doing.

Was he at A&M when you were there?
Yeah, I used to see him when I was at the studio. My earliest memory of Jimmy was him seeing me in the parking lot and inviting me into his car to listen to the new mixes of the U2 record he was working on at the time, which would have been Under the Blood Red Sky—that live record he did.

“I think A&R is going to be one of the more stable parts of our business, because what won’t change is people’s hunger, desire and need to listen to and discover new music.”

I had a house in Woodstock when he was making the Simple Minds record Once Upon a Time, so I’d see him every week. He doesn’t remember that.
He hated being up there. “Too much wood,” he would say [laughs]. He wanted something brand new and shiny and had no use for the woods. Working at Interscope with him was an incredible experience, and it’s where I got to work with people like Pharrell. The first thing I worked on was No Doubt’s Rock Steady, subsequently Gwen Stefani’s solo records, Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, M.I.A. It was a really diverse, exciting and inspiring roster, and the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with Jimmy was really another experience that helped me shape how I work.

And then you took a little bit of a hiatus?
Yeah. In 2007, when our business was really going through a particularly rough patch—it felt like the height of downloading, and nobody knew where everything was going. As you just heard, I’d been doing this since I was 19 years old and I thought it was time to take a break to enjoy life for a little bit and see what would happen with the business, let it sort itself out. So that’s what I did. I bought some land in Colorado and spent some time there. I spent some time back in Georgia. I went and did things like see R.E.M.’s last show in Mexico. But then, after about a year, I started getting a bit creatively itchy again. Jimmy called me to ask me to work on M.I.A.’s record and No Doubt, and that got me going again. Ashley Newton called and said that he had gone to Columbia, and they were looking to rebuild the roster here and needed somebody who knew how to make records and could work with a younger staff. Anytime I made a change in my career was when I had the opportunity to build and learn something, and I had known Ashley from Virgin days—he was the head of the U.K. when I was in the L.A. office—so I felt like we were kindred spirits on the same road. I met with Steve Barnett and Rob Stringer and came here in 2010, working with a diverse roster from John Legend and Pharrell to Nine Inch Nails to First Aid Kit to Walk Off the Earth, and currently Leon Bridges, who I work with Justin Eshak on.

Has talent-spotting changed?
Absolutely. The way you find and evaluate talent has definitely changed over the years. It used to be that you’d hear about a band because they were selling out a club somewhere or getting some good press or selling some records at an indie store or something. Nowadays, that all transpires online. But what hasn’t really changed—at least for me—is there still needs to be that magic behind the numbers and the stats, the specialness about who the artist is and what they want to do, what their vision is and what makes them do what they do. All of those things tell a story about who they are and what kind of recording artist they’re going to be. So those evaluations still kick into it, but you definitely have to pay attention to the research that goes into the records these days. If you don’t, it’s at your own peril.

What do you think that the future of A&R is?
I think A&R is going to be one of the more stable parts of our business, because what won’t change is people’s hunger, desire and need to listen to and discover new music. There will always be people who have that skillset and ability to help artists make their records. What obviously is changing is the way people listen, consume, buy and enjoy music. I feel like we’re actually at a new chapter in all of this, which is becoming streaming and Beats 1 radio and how people are listening to, finding and discovering music and how kids are creating music. We have a young artist here named Raury who grew up in Tucker, a town not far from where I was born, and he’s an African-American kid—but he listens to Pink Floyd and Bon Iver as well as OutKast and Kendrick Lamar, and it’s reflected in the music he makes, so you can’t easily categorize what it is.

Of all the records you’ve made or worked, which record emotionally resonates with you the most?
Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac.

That’s the one?
Yeah. That’s the one I would answer with right now. Might be different tomorrow. Shouldn’t we bring it back to you for your 25th anniversary?

Yes, without you, I’d be nothing.
The fact that we started when we did, considering what was happening in music, the opportunities that were given and the people we’ve worked with over the years, and now we’re doing what we do, is amazing. I think we are at the beginning of another whole chapter. I’m really curious to see where it all goes. I’m optimistic about it all, because every day I hear music that’s inspiring and amazing, and that’s not going to ever change or slow down regardless of what else happens in what we do.•