BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
PHOTOS BY: SORRELL SCHNEIDER
“Music has the ability, in three minutes, to capture the tenor of the times.” So says Mitch Schneider, founder and president of MSO PR, who has devoted the majority of his life to listening to, writing about and touting talent that make much of the music we’ve grown up with. And as it turns out, the main man at Mitch Schneider Organization is currently creating music of his own with his recent refocus on songwriting.
Schneider and I have known each other for close to 25 years, going back to my days producing the nationally syndicated Rockline program. Since then, I’ve either booked or personally interviewed countless MSO clients, covered numerous festivals and traveling tours MSO has represented, attended myriad MSO client concerts and shared innumerable stimulating conversations with Schneider. I recently spoke with Schneider to mark MSO’s 20th anniversary, discuss the shifting landscape in public relations and the music industry in general, talk about how a powerful earthquake rocked his personal and professional world and how a boy born and bred in the Bronx is now trying to make a name for himself in Nashville.
Let me begin this conversation by getting this out of the way: in the interest of full disclosure, my daughter, Angela, has worked for you at MSO for about eight years. So does the kid stay in the picture? In other words, how’s she doing?
Angela has just evolved, from starting as an assistant to moving up to publicist [and now] account executive. She definitely has really diverse taste that is reflected in her client list, which goes from country to electronic to rock to singer-songwriter to events. She’s able to hopscotch, thoughtfully, between all of those worlds. She keeps it together…and she brings it!
Very cool. So, MSO is celebrating its 20th anniversary – and we will certainly talk much more about that – but let me take you back to your beginning. What was your proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment? What got you turned on to music?
Growing up in New York City you first had WMCA (AM), so you had the radio coming at you and we lived in the Bronx so that means we had a car. So driving around constantly on the radio, whether it’s [Bob] Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” going into “Incense and Peppermints” by Strawberry Alarm Clock to The Beach Boys, which was interesting for me because they sang about California which was just so removed, but little did I know that I would hear the calling of California years later and move there. So I think that’s ground zero, and of course everybody grew up with Ed Sullivan but there was also local shows like [TV’s] The Clay Cole Show. I remember seeing the Stones on there and their swagger just instantly captivated me. It was the whole outlaw thing that they perfected. My tastes were just really varied and a really pivotal moment for me was when I went to the Fillmore East when I was 15 and I got to see an amazing bill. It was Delaney & Bonnie headlining and in the middle was Mott the Hoople and opening up was a Santana-esque band called Mandrill.
So let’s fast-forward and let me ask you what the “X” factor was that made you decide to eventually ditch New York and land in L.A.?
Well, a few things. [While] in college, I went to go see Lou Reed at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ. I was so blown away by the performance…I wrote a review of it. Nobody asked me to. I sent it to a paper called Good Times, which still publishes out of New York. The editor…told me they were starting up a New Jersey paper…and he printed it. He called me up and said, ‘We can send you some albums, would you like to review them?’ The first album I reviewed was Eldorado by Electric Light Orchestra. They offered me a job to become an editor there. This is all happening while I’m going to college and going to shows. Needless to say I did not have a girlfriend during any of that whole period. I threw myself into music. So I graduate college, I take a job in the advertising world…and it occurred to me I don’t wanna go into advertising. So I said maybe I should become a publicist because I worked with publicists as a writer; they gave me my albums, my concert tickets. I could not find a job in New York City in 1978. I sent my resume out west and lo and behold I got a call from Solters/Roskin/Friedman, a very reputable PR firm at the time, I interviewed in their New York office and they said great, move to Los Angeles and you’ll be a junior publicist. Lee Solters taught me so much about publicity. He instilled in my brain how to keep your client relevant is to look around what’s happening currently to see if there’s a way that they can somehow be involved.
Melissa Manchester. She was really morphing her way from that 70s singer-songwriter to more of a pop sound. What I really learned at that time was how important it is to write a great bio.
In 1983 you were hired to head the music division of Michael Levine Public Relations.
After I left Solters/Roskin/Friendman I freelanced; I went back to writing. I wrote for BAM, LA Weekly and Rolling Stone, again, and I also did bios for Epic. I actually did the bio for Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. So then I moved to Michael Levine Public Relations…and slowly we started to build a clientele. And then in a lightning bolt moment in March 1987, I signed, in 30 days, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne and Heart. It was the lightning bolt moment of my life.
It was a very good month. So eventually you guys changed the name, morphed into Levine/Schneider and fast-forwarding to 1994, all of us who were living in L.A. at the time had a massive wakeup call courtesy of the Northridge earthquake. Your career shifted again with your decision to leave Michael and establish MSO in 1995. Why did you feel it was time to leave the duo, as it were, and go solo?
Well, a couple of reasons. Firstly, I gave Michael a year notice so it was done in a very dignified way and I adore Michael. We are best friends to this day. So I felt music was changing. We were signing Bowie, Jane’s Addiction, The Offspring and being attached to a Hollywood firm that handled Charlton Heston and other folks in that world I thought was going to be a hindrance. And I also felt that existing in an office building on Sunset Blvd. next to [Restaurant Brasserie] Le Dome was just too slick of an image, so I decided to move to Sherman Oaks [in the San Fernando Valley] cuz I wanted to have like a different feel, a different look. And Lord knows so many musicians live in the Valley, they were recording in the Valley, they were rehearsing there and I just felt that the music industry is as much in the Valley and in some ways if not more so than on the “quote” other side of the hill. And just so we don’t forget, the Northridge earthquake was on my birthday, so that day was a revelation and a line in the sand for me in many ways. So MSO opened…and I always like to say that Stevie Nicks was the first client to send us the first check. And on our very first day of business, I kid you not, I got a phone call from [Rolling Stone writer/editor] Jim Henke who said we’re ready to put Tom Petty on the cover again, pegged to the success of Wildflowers. That was a very good day!
[My next question, I kid you not, was going to be about festivals and traveling tours, two of the areas of the music business that have grown exponentially in the past two decades, and how in my view MSO got in on the ground floor on this new niche of the business. But I didn’t have to ask the question because in Schneider’s next breathe he said the following.]
Another defining moment for MSO came in 1999, and this all goes back to one of my favorite bands of all-time, X. They had been managed by Skip Paige…and we got to do their album called Unclogged, which was their acoustic album. That was in ’95. So in 1999, Skip Paige is working at Goldenvoice and comes to my office with Paul Tollett about a new festival that they were thinking of called Coachella. So Coachella happens in October 1999. So MSO proudly does Coachella for the first 12 years. So MSO got in on the ground floor of what pretty much is ground zero for a major, modern rock festival; of a destination festival in the modern era. Your antenna has to be up constantly. MSO was always diverse. We were all over, and then MSO opened a Nashville office seven years ago this month.
Let me interrupt you there because I’m gonna ask you about that and then segue into asking about some music that you and I have been exchanging some emails about, but let me ask you kind of an inside baseball question about PR in general. Give us a menu of things you offer a so-called baby band, of which obviously there are a plethora of nowadays, when you’re trying to sign them to MSO. What can you offer a brand new client in terms of what’s out there in the world now: digital, song placement, etc., etc?
I think what we offer bands is – I mean if they have assets, well the first asset would be your music, whether it’s going to be an EP or a full album – we’re gonna look for a premiere with a website that would reflect the musical sound of the artist. For instance, We Were Wolves; if you go onto the MSO site you will see that we had a premiere for them with DIFFUSER.FM, which is a popular alternative music site. So we got the music, now, what about a lyric video? What about a proper video? So we find homes for these assets and every time we find a home for it, it becomes a press release. So it’s a process like that. Obviously print media is key, and if we can get you on television and offer you creative ways to present your music to the media. And bands have to perform – they’ve gotta tour because the weekly’s around America are very pivotal. If you’re a new band and you don’t tour, you can’t really get in those papers. So it really holds you back if you don’t have the proper tour.
We talked about Petty on the cover of Rolling Stone; so what do you say to the client who says to you, “Hey, why aren’t I on the cover of Rolling Stone yet?”
To answer your question, I can tell you what the editors tell us. They have told us that being on the cover of Rolling Stone is a combination of musical taste of the editors and artists whom they feel define a pop culture moment. Also, you can be on the cover without necessarily reflecting the musical taste of the editors if you are having a pop culture moment. So, for clients who ask, it’s a combination of timing, what other moves that client has going on that may be of interest, but mainly it’s a pop culture moment. That’s the secret sauce of getting on the cover of Rolling Stone.
What’s the key to the best client-publicist relationship?
Well I think firstly, the client needs to feel that you not only like their music – it helps if you love it, and they perceive that – but if they feel that you will move a mountain for them. That is really key. And that you are wise enough to offer them the proper advice.
[MSO PR represented the Goldenvoice-produced Stagecoach country music festival for the first five years of the annual event’s existence before Goldenvoice took over the festival PR internally.] Stagecoach, let’s use that as the jumping off point for what you mentioned earlier before I interrupted you. In 2008 you opened up an office in Nashville. What prompted the move to Music City?
We got a phone call about Dolly Parton. This is before MSO even has Nashville. Her new manager at the time – and he’s still her manager – Danny Nozell was a tour manager for Slipknot and he remembered that I got Slipknot on Conan at a time when heavy music was never on late night. Anyway, so Danny Nozell leaves Slipknot and becomes the manager of Dolly Parton and he says, “I wanna give Dolly a new, fresh look, PR-wise.” So we went on to work with Dolly for five years and during that time Lyndie Wenner, a friend and songwriter from the 80s – and she worked at Solters and Roskin too and had moved to Nashville 20 years ago – said, “Mitch, you should open up a country division and I can head it.” And that’s what we did. The city is very relevant in many ways; I mean it’s straight on country, its Americana and its new rock bands.
Yeah, it’s “Music City,” it’s not “Country Music City.” I’ve certainly had the pleasure of speaking to a lot of great rock bands that live in Nashville. So, I think it’s time to ask you about what I bet very few people know about you, Mitch…
(Laugh) Ah…that! Well here’s the thing, I can trace it for you. I’m 15 years old, I go see Poco at Carnegie Hall; I’d heard them on WNEW-FM – God bless his heart, Pete Fornatale, who recently passed away – would play them and I would hear the sound of this particular guitar that I would learn would be a pedal steel. I saw [Poco member] Rusty Young bang the hell out of the pedal steel that night and I went out and bought one at Manny’s [Music] on 48th Street. I was already playing guitar since I was 12. So I took on the very arduous task of trying to play pedal steel. I took it on [because] I just loved country. Again, it was Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Pure Prairie League, The Grateful Dead, Marshall Tucker Band would have some songs with pedal steel. So that’s the beginnings. So then, it was about eight years ago I started to hear modern country and I’m hearing Dierks Bentley and the Eli Young Band and I’m thinking, wow, that sounds like Poco, Burritos mixed up with some Petty, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles. So I began to pick up the guitar, and Lyndie Wenner [and I] wrote songs in the 80s for a bit, so as she and I start up MSO Nashville, I throw her some songs. I said to her I’m starting to write again, so we start writing. So that was about four years ago. So I have 27 songs now that are represented by Randal Wixen of Wixen Music Publishing here in Los Angeles and also Eddie Gomez of Little Brother Publishing in Los Angeles. And then the folks at Carnival Music invited me to come to Nashville and [along with] Matt Chase, who is a Sony/ATV Music Publishing writer and Sony artist in development, we wrote this song “Used.” So my songs are put up for film and TV. There’ve been nibbles but I’ve not had any bites yet.
You were nice enough to share some of your songs with me and I’m gonna mention a couple that stood out for me and then I’m gonna ask you a final question: “Book on Cool,” “In Good Time,” “Can’t Quit Runnin’,” “Sweet Sound of Steel” and you just mentioned it, and I just told you this a couple of weeks ago, that I think “Used” may be your best cut yet. So all of those songs – and more – are out there and they’re yours, so that leads me to my final question for you, Mitch. Why does music matter?
Well, the immediacy of someone picking up a guitar and coming up with a song; you can’t really do that with a film or a book. There is something faster about the music medium. And it’s also the sound of words mixed with the sound of a chord. So music has that immediacy in the actual creation of a song. Music has the ability – in three minutes – to capture the tenor of the times. I mean the song that just popped into my head is “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Within weeks of Kent State there was a song on the radio that made everybody feel something instantly. You didn’t have to wait for a movie…again that’s the immediacy of music…because you’re dealing with the sound of an instrument, you’re dealing with the sound of a voice, you’re dealing with the content of a lyric, and that’s why music matters. My favorite song of all time is “Do You Believe in Magic?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. It talks about the promise of rock and roll. That’s my favorite song of all time because if I’m ever feeling down, that song is my go-to when I need to push the button to feel really happy.
Perfect! Well Mitch, this was a conversation about 25 years in the making.
Well I’m so honored that you even took the time to ask me to do this and to actually do it. So yeah, I’m lit up at all ends, and my wife has accepted songwriting as the mistress of this house, so that’s been great. Alright, so, you’re too cool. Thank you.
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