Survival Tactics: Asylum heads show they know something about running a label
By Beverly Keel
July 15, 1999
They said it couldn't be done. Right after the April 1998 announcement that music publicists/managers Evelyn Shriver and Susan Nadler had been tabbed to head the ailing Asylum Records, the self-righteous snickers began rolling down Music Row. What could two women without any label experience possibly know about music? Gloating competitors already started penning the label's obituary, a supreme irony when you consider the fact that no one ever balks when a male producer with no business experience is promoted to company president.
But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Asylum's death were greatly exaggerated. In less than a year, Shriver and Nadler have turned the label around, producing annual sales almost two times greater than the previous year's totals. And they've done it by putting out projects that they were warned to avoid, like the Trio II album with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt, which has sold 400,000 units, and George Jones' Cold Hard Truth, which sold 50,000 copies its first two weeks out.
"We signed who we wanted to sign," says Nadler, the label's senior vice president of A&R. "No one thought the three old broads, the trio, was going sell; no one would have signed them but us, two old broads. And you know nobody would have signed George Jones.
"It was tough because we had no support from this town. In the beginning, it was like, `You go girls,' and then the moment we started to have success, no one talked to us anymore, except [DreamWorks'] James Stroud. I'm happy when an act on Atlantic or Sony does well because it's good for the business. No one congratulates us on anything."
Asylum President Shriver readily admits that the road to restoring the label has been rocky. "Initially, we had that wonderful euphoric business of `I get to do a label!' There was a wonderful honeymoon period where everyone was shocked in Nashville, but upportive. The first three months I was caught up in, `I was born to do this, but didn't know it.'
"Then in months four through seven, I discovered that this was a nightmare because all of a sudden, reality struck: budgets, forecasts, product, and trying to break a new act. I realized that so much was out of my control, that there was nothing I could do. I became tremendously depressed and emotional."
That dark cloud lifted with the release of the Trio II album, which received national media attention and bookings on morning and late-night talk shows. "The Trio record was a no-brainer," she says. "Since the first Trio album had two big hit singles and I wouldn't be able to get anything on the radio, people thought it would be a prestige thing that wouldn't sell. When the record sold, it was like, `Yes, good music will win out, and I don't have to panic.' "
The project proved another theory of Shriver's that went against conventional country wisdom: Publicity actually sells records. Indeed, going against the grain has become Asylum's standard operating procedure. For instance, the label was criticized for allowing Bryan White to coproduce half of his album. "When artists are young, it's their most fertile, creative time," Nadler responds. "If Bryan was a black artist in New York, he would have his own label."
In fact, the pair have only gone wrong when they've listened to the well-meaning advice of their peers. Initially, Shriver fell into the trap of spending promotional dollars because "that's the way it's always been done," but after these expenditures produced little results, she decided to begin listening to her heart, and to her boss,Sylvia Rhone, chairman/CEO of Elektra Entertainment Group.
"Our biggest mistakes were done out of ignorance, not knowing how the business ran," Nadler says. For instance, they released the Tammy Wynette tribute album without properly securing singles rights from the other labels whose artists were participating in the project. Without the proper permission, Asylum was prohibited from getting radio airplay, which likely would have helped sales.
"One of the best things we've done is learned that Sylvia is almost always right," Nadler says. "She knows what she is talking about."
Shriver and Nadler are leading the next wave of female industry executives, women who represent the antithesis of trailblazers such as Sony/Tree/ATV's Donna Hilley and ASCAP's Connie Bradley. Hilley and Bradley (who happen to be best friends) are truly steel magnolias, beautiful, elegant, feminine women who say "no" in a graceful Southern accent and speak ill of no one publicly.
Asylum's transplanted Northern duo, on the other hand, are more like iron maidens, plainspoken, even blunt, and often profane. When they were appointed to head the label, observers jokingly asked, "Who's going to play the good cop?" Neither suffers fools , and even though they're close friends, the two often argue, which can be disconcerting in public.
"It's a hard business, and it's a really hard business for a woman, but because we have each other, that makes it easier," Nadler says.
Together, the two women cut an interesting pair: Friends and employees alike attest that both are truly pushovers who will do anything for their acts and their employees. Nadler oozes Susan Sarandon's sensuality as she barks on the phone one minute and speaks baby talk to her dog the next. Rather than the standard "y'all," she addresses people as "doll" (which she pronounces "dawl"). Meanwhile, Shriver's monotone, no-nonsense demeanor is reminiscent of Carrie Fisher's.
When it comes to the music industry, Shriver is nothing less than brilliant. "I can be fairly vulgar," she says. "I don't censor my thoughts. I don't have time for bullshit. I'm much more street-level than the other presidents because they've been in their gilded towers while I've been out in the trenches with the real working people who push these things through. I'm very direct, and people appreciate that more in the long run."
Needless to say, these two honchos go about things differently than their male counterparts. They publicly admit to mistakes and even talk about (gasp!) feelings. Rather than delegating details to their minions, Shriver and Nadler are hands-on with every facet of their work, from photo shoots and liner notes to videos and song selection. The office atmosphere is casual, with people streaming in and out of Shriver's office.
Now that Asylum has resumed profitability, the label's next goal is to build a solid, well-rounded roster that's equal parts legend and new country. Since they already had Bryan White and Lila McCann, who appeal to younger, more pop-oriented buyers, Shriver and Nadler's first move was to sign new acts such as Chad Austin and Chalee Tennison who have the traditional, hard-core country sound.
"We need to be prepared for whatever way the business is going to go," Shriver says. "The music industry has a pendulum that swings from pop to traditional. There is nothing new under the sun, and we've just about exhausted the pop side, so there's no other way to go except traditional."
Since its roster has fewer than 10 acts, Asylum will supplement its annual product flow with two or three one-shot projects, such as the Linda Ronstadt-Emmylou Harris duet album in August and a King of the Hill soundtrack later this year.
"All of a sudden, I've become the great white hope for music without a format," Shriver says. "Sylvia doesn't like for me to go crazy on these kinds of projects, because you're not building your roster, you're just building your cash flow."
Even today, the label continues to operate under the vast shadow cast by the late Tammy Wynette. Both women were close to the legendary singer, who had a tremendous influence on their personal and professional lives. Their first day at the label was the day of Wynette's funeral. Wynette, who had been extremely delighted about their appointments, sent them a letter of congratulations.
"I would love to be a fly on the wall," she wrote, "when the good old boys come to Susan's office and she turns them down.... [T]hey are going to abhor her and yet they'll have to like her."
Regardless of whether they're loved or hated, these two women represent the kind of maverick spirit that Music Row needs.
"I don't really care how I've been accepted by the industry," Shriver concludes, "because it makes no difference. Everybody could like me, but if I'm not doing well, I'm shut down. Everybody could not like me, but if I'm doing well, they'll want to know me. My only thought is winning for my artists and my company. How the ripples affect everyone else, only time will tell."