Andrew McMillen gets to know Jason Bentley [pictured below left], Music Director of influential Santa Monica, California-based public radio station KCRW, ahead of his appearance at Perth’s One Movement For Music as panellist and DJ.
Jason Bentley is a man of many talents. He’s equally at home supervising music for film – as evidenced by The Matrix trilogy – or serving in an A&R capacity, which he has done for both Madonna’s Maverick label as well as his own Quango Music Group. Most notably, he’s been KCRW’s Music Director since November 2008.
Jason, what does the role of KCRW Music Director mean to you?
It’s a dream job for me, since I’ve really grown up at KCRW. I started as a phone volunteer in the front office the summer after high school, more than 20 years ago. But apart from my own personal journey, the position holds a key tastemaker profile that has been developed by the three Music Directors before me. KCRW has a rarefied position in the world of arts and culture in the US, and so there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that.
The two separate aspects of the job are hosting/producing the morning show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, on a daily basis, and then managing the music department. The latter includes coordinating on-air staff and our music initiatives in the community.
Have you found that KCRW’s role within the music community has changed since you took on the role?
I think our role has been consistent in serving the community. We’re listener-supported, so it’s about delivering compelling radio and looking to grow that support base. I am hoping that the work we do in the music department and overall at the station can grow our audience, both to our terrestrial radio audience in Southern California, and online to a global listenership.
As Music Director, you must get a lot of bands approaching you. Speaking broadly, how do you prefer that bands go about doing this?
Ideally, a band will just focus on their art, and I’ll ultimately find them. Because I’m a DJ in the sense of someone who seeks exciting new music, you can be sure that if a band is doing the right things and creating their own buzz, then I’ll pick up on that. I’m truly passionate about what I do, and I’m never very interested in things that are being pushed on me. It’s a turn-off.
Which are you more likely to pay attention to: a band who’re backed by a large marketing budget, or a band who becomes known in indie and niche communities?
It always starts with the music first, no matter if it’s an indie or major label. The music has to be great. If I hear something that I think will work for us, I’ll start with some airplay and get a sense of how it sounds. I’ll pay some attention to listener feedback, via phone inquiries and online chatter. Once we have a bit of airplay established for an artist, I do look for other elements to kick in, whether that’s buzz online, touring, CD sales, remixes, and so on.
But essentially, it’s important to be able to connect the dots with other parts of the market. If I start to feel like I’m the only one supporting a band, then it’s only a matter of time before I will move away from that record. This is one of the dangers of getting music too early, because I may be playing a record six months before anything else is lined up for the artist. Having said that, some bands want to use the early support from KCRW to actually get a record deal or touring opportunities. Early airplay may not be a bad thing in those cases.
Are you a fan of any Australian bands that you’d like to mention? How did you discover these bands?
Two examples: I was recently pointed to The Middle East by their US manager, who I have known for years. He sent me a couple of songs and a video in an email. I thought the music was great, and I played them on the air the next morning.
Also, The Boat People had performed in-studio at KCRW prior to my tenure as Music Director, and they had already been green-lit to play our KCRW SXSW music festival showcase, so once I was in the MD position I checked them out and thought they were terrific. Their show at SXSW was really solid and they’re a great group.
How do you prefer to be approached by unfamiliar artists?
There are many ways for me to find new bands, but my favourite way is through the sense of discovery that I can trace back to being a teenager looking through vinyl stacks at local record shops. As a fan and collector, it’s the passion and personal interest that still gives me the greatest sense of reward. If you can feed my insatiable hunger for exciting new music, then you’ve got the best chance at winning me over as a supporter.
What do Australian bands need to have in place before they attempt to ‘break’ the American market?
It’s about talent, and a lot of hard work on the road. I think that right now is a very good time for independent artists, but it takes time and dedication. Don’t expect to skip any steps and become an overnight sensation; you’ve got the same chance at winning the lottery. Instead, work on building your own fanbase and surrounding yourself with talented people in various capacities. You can’t do it all on your own, so find like-minded people that have talents in complementary areas.
You’re heading to Perth next week for One Movement. How do you prefer to be approached by bands and managers in this situation?
When I attend music conferences, I inevitably come away with a massive stack of CDs, and I actually try to sift through a lot of it and convert it to digital before I even leave town so I don’t have to pack the CDs on the flight. The music is going to end up on a hard drive anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether that happens in the hotel room or in my office back home.
I can usually eliminate a certain amount of material just based on the most obvious indicators. If it looks like plastic pop drivel, it usually is just that. After all these years, and with hundreds of music pitches coming my way each week, I’m pretty good at calling it like I see it.
I do look at a variety of indicators that may be a simple as cover art – or lack thereof; band name, label, where it’s coming from, descriptions included, or if I’ve heard of the band before. The reality is that I simply cannot listen to every single submission, so there is always going to be an initial pass of weeding out things that do not seem like they’re in the realm of what we do at KCRW.
Jason Bentley is the Music Director of Santa Monica-based public radio station KCRW. His signature music show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, can be streamed online 24/7.