Interview: David Ellefson Talks Megadeth’s Early Days & New Record Label

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Alternative Nation guest reporter Charlotte Haynes recently conducted an interview with Megadeth bassist /EMP Label Group president David Ellefson and his label partner Thom Hazaert (A&R /Operations Manager). We can write a forced intro here, but Ellefson’s passion for the label and its roster really speaks for itself. Read the full chat below!

First, let me thank you for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview. EMP is an exciting record label on the rise. Can you tell us a little about what sparked the decision to start a fully functioning label?

David Ellefson:  For years artists and fans have encouraged me to get into artist management and even form a record label, but I always saw it as something on the ‘other side’ of the business, something too drastic from the artist community. That was mostly form my major label perspective of how much time, money, staff and energy it would take to pull it off. But, times are changing in our business and we are all thinking in new and innovative ways now to keep our music alive.

Last year I produced this terrific young group from Phoenix called Doll Skin and they needed a label home. After running it up the flagpole with a few friends at record labels, I was encouraged by my friend (and now label partner), Thom Hazaert, to just form our own label and get the ball rolling ourselves. Rather than have to shop my productions to other labels, I now had my own label to release my work. That led to us securing our own global distribution and putting out feelers for more artists to join the team. Suddenly, we had our own momentum and here we are just a few months later with this incredible machine in motion.

You have a roster of almost 20 bands. For somewhat of a new label how did this come together so quickly? Did you have a number of bands in mind to sign before forming EMP?

David Ellefson:  I have to give props to Thom, as he has incredible ears for great music and knows what works with fans and music listeners.  He really hit the ground running with getting some great records signed to the label. We are both music fanatics and each day is a day we carry forth the mission of helping artists get their music out to the masses.

Thom Hazaert:  I had run a few labels before, and worked for major labels and managed bands for decades, and everybody loves David, so I think there was just kind of a magic to the combination of what I’ve done, and the amazing legacy of David and everything he has done in, and out of, Megadeth. He truly is one of the greatest people and gentlemen in this business, and that shows in how artists have gravitated to our label. I have sort of a reputation for being able to get things done in sort of my own against the grain F U sort of way, and David is truly just a legend in the highest regard.  I think we have a great chemistry, coupled with a realistic business model that works, we’re upfront with artists, and give them a realistic expectation. To me that is THE most important thing.

Thom, as a seasoned veteran in the A&R department: Do you believe major labels have become more hesitant to sign up and coming bands? Does this give independent labels like EMP the upper-hand in discovering new talent?

Thom Hazaert:  Absolutely. Well, especially Rock and Metal bands. Major labels at this point in time, essentially, sign pop artists. Even the “Rock” artists they sign are kind of a far cry from what I consider Rock bands. There’s a few legacy holdovers like Disturbed, Godsmack, Shinedown, etc., but, really there is a crazy power vacuum in the major label business model when it comes to Rock acts. It essentially came down to a period maybe a decade ago, late 2000’s when every A&R guy was scared to death to sign anything that didn’t happen, because all their jobs were on the line. So the signings got “safer” and safer, and moved away from the heavier genres. There’s a few that snuck by, like In This Moment, but, again, that was developed for years by an amazing independent label before it got picked up by a major.

I have always maintained that paradigm shift away from signing Rock and Metal acts is part of the decline in sales the major labels have talked about for years. I mean, to me, that should be so obvious. For decades, literally, as long as Rock N’ Roll has existed, a large swath of major label income came from Rock, and later, Metal bands. So if you essentially stop signing the thing that brought in a significant portion of your income, how are you confused when you don’t sell as much? It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I still don’t get it. But thankfully it creates so much opportunity for a label like us.

Are you currently looking for new bands to sign to expand the roster even further?

David Ellefson:  Yes, we are always scouting new talent and diverse artists to work with. To this point, we have created a unique business model that has its own niche, but we are also expanding on it for 2017.  To date, most of the artists have brought us their finished goods that we then put into our pipeline of distribution, radio promotion and publicity. Those are vital tools and are so effective for awareness and selling records, yet out of reach for most artists not on labels. Our tools, along with the artist’s ambitions, for have created a nice caveat for success.

The name “EMP Label Group” seems to imply that we may see different sub-labels. Are we going to see a Country, Blues, or Pop sub-label under the EMP umbrella anytime soon? Or, are you going to strictly stay focused on Metal and Hard Rock?

David Ellefson:  Yes, and that is exactly why I called it a label group.  I like the idea of a parent company allowing its sub brands to specialize and thrive in their respective genres. I saw Warner Bros. labels like Sire discovering cutting edge artists like The Ramones and Madonna, while Rhino became a catalog label. At Capitol I saw Blue Note was as synonymous with jazz as a culture as it was for its artists. So a label group allows for that type of expansion and genre association.

Now, with that said, Thom and I are huge metal/rock guys so our first intentions were to stay close to home with what we know and build that as our flagship. We are developing music and lifestyle as one by incorporating music, merchandise, clothing lines, web stores, social media, beverages and even more new endeavors for 2017.

Thom Hazaert:  Absolutely. Like David said, we’re Rock and Metal guys. I mean we have our sub-labels, EMP Underground, which caters to the more extreme side. We’re also signing some more traditional Rock and Hard Rock, some more legacy 80’s type stuff some of which is off on my THC Music imprint. I guess, as the A&R guy that more falls in line with some of my tastes and ideas. But really, in the spectrum of Rock and Metal, there IS so much diversity in and of itself.

The record industry has changed drastically in the last 20 years. Many music consumers download albums as opposed to buying them in retail stores. But, many people still prefer owning a physical CD. Is EMP more focused on putting albums on shelves or making albums available for download?

David Ellefson:  I think there is a place for all of it so we have to have all formats available to all the different age groups, because they all access music differently and listen to it on a variety of devices these days. It isn’t just car and home stereos anymore. Today, music is everywhere. It’s integrated into film, TV, gaming, radio, sports, shopping malls & advertising so it must available on a variety of formats and devices.

We’ve witnessed the interest of physical product like vinyl really take off again, even cassettes are back as well as a significant boost in CD sales. Rock fans want to hold the package, read the lyrics and see the photos so retail record stores are an important part of that equation, as is live CD sales at a band’s merchandise booth. Rock bands can’t expect retailers to do all the heavy lifting any longer. A big part of sales now comes from the live show merchandise sales. That’s a recent trend for all artists, big or small.

Conversely, young music fans never knew those physical formats before so as a label its important that we have our artist’s music available for delivery in whatever means the listeners may choose to hear it.

The label’s bands are already seeing some quick success. Doll Skin toured with Otep. Another Lost Year made it on the Billboard charts. What other successes should we be expecting to see in the near future from bands on EMP?

David Ellefson:  The new Helstar record is being hailed as one of the very best in their career. As a result, they are now on tour now with Flotsam & Jetsam and heading to Europe in the New Year to support that album. We have several really exciting new signings for release in 2017 from some iconic artists who have made stellar new records. Rather than chase down the labels that will require traditional methods from them, they came to EMP for a new approach. It’s exciting because our goal was always to be artist friendly, largely because I am an artist myself, and as a label we feel it’s important to let the artists have control of their music.

Thom Hazaert:  Yeah, we are absolutely thrilled with the success we’ve had with EMP and our artists, and the way the industry, and fans, have embraced us. I mean really, ALL of our artists have all found some level of success, radio, touring… Semblant, Another Lost Year, Doll Skin, Helstar, Ancient, Green Death, Even The Dead Love A Parade, Arise in Chaos, Dead By Wednesday. The list goes on…They are all out there doing their thing, and have all kind of found a niche, in a similar fashion that EMP has.

We have signed, and put out, some of the most amazing records I’ve heard in a long time, and I really think we’re going to carry that on into 2017 with releases from A Killer’s Confession, Motograter, Dangerous Toys, Broken Teeth, Your Chance to Die, Co-op (f/ Alice Cooper’s son Dash Cooper), Dopesick, as well as new releases from current EMP artists like Doll Skin, Green Death.. It’s a really exciting time for us as a label I think. Generally, I’d say it’s an exciting time to be in the music business, as there are so many opportunities out there to move the ball forward.

Megadeth has always been a driving force in metal music and clearly isn’t slowing down any. Congratulations on the overwhelmingly positive reception of your latest album “Dystopia.” Is it hard to manage your time between touring with Megadeth and your new roles with EMP? 

David Ellefson:  We started the band with a work ethic of ‘it’s us against the world’ and that is something that our fans aligned with, too. Together, we speak a common language. I think that motto has helped us keep the creative force alive all these years while the fans have kept the fire burning for us to always be excited to create new music for them. Without the fans, we are a band without a home.

Fortunately, Thom is a workhorse and he has the same work ethic that drives the label, even when I’m across the world on tour. Technology is a beautiful thing and we talk every day about our day to day ongoings. Regardless of my time zone on any given day, most days it feels like we are right down the hall from each other just cranking away doing what we love with bands and their records.

Did you have any specific positive or negative experiences with record labels while putting out albums with Megadeth that influenced the way you want to conduct business with your own label?

David Ellefson:  I’ve had mostly good experiences at the major labels but my first independent label experience with Megadeth’s “Killing Is My Business…” was less than stellar. There was very little money and promotion from the label and back in those days, without money it was tough to get the ball rolling.  The label even went so far as to tell us to go home from tour and get jobs to make money, all the while we were on tour supporting an album for them!

That experience definitely inspires us at EMP to be very clear with our artists of what we will do (and not do!) for a record. We also express what we expect from them as an artist as well. Rock stardom is hard work and it takes a team to make it happen. Also, communication is important because too often inexperienced artists have delusions of what a label is supposed to do for them. The truth is, being in the record business is hard work and requires focus and calculated moves to achieve success.  Thom’s and my professional experiences at labels has been a valuable asset for us in this area of the business.

How hands on are you with the bands on your label? Do you take the role of a mentor or more of a businessman?

David Ellefson:  I’d say it’s a little of both. Sometimes I can let the team do their day to day activities and just oversee the bigger aspects. Other times, I will get on conference calls to advise and mentor. Because I’m still very active as an artist and touring musician myself, I’m on the pulse of everything we have to do to be successful in our industry. I never ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do, or haven’t had to do myself.  My attitude to our artists is “if I still have to do it to be successful, then there is no reason anyone on our roster is above doing it either”.

You have a diverse roster of bands…some hard rock, metal, alternative, and punk. Was this something you chose to do consciously instead of sticking to one sub-genre? Did EMP set out to be diverse?

David Ellefson:  As a company we all love music and I think it important to feel a connection with the records we work, otherwise it’s just another widget on an assembly line. There are so many great artists out there, some new and some legacy acts, and our mission is to put out great music regardless of age or genre.

Thom Hazaert:  Essentially, I find something, bring it to David, he gives it the nod and we move forward. And he really is the absolute greatest as far as supporting me and my vision as an A&R guy. David just gets it. He is a genuine musical soul, and I think we both come from a similar place in that regard. But no, we absolutely didn’t set out to specifically be as diverse as we are, but, that said, we also did set out to sign the best bands we could regardless of genre. I mean, again, everything has sort of a general Rock and Metal bent, but we are open to anything that makes sense. Generally, we just gravitate towards artists who are self-sufficient, understand the hard work starts when you get signed, and have some stuff going on their own. Then we just kind of plug it into our system and see what we can make happen together.

Is there something you are doing with EMP that separates it from other independent labels?

David Ellefson:  Music is a creative endeavor so I feel the business around it should be creative, too. One size doesn’t have to fit all. Our artists appreciate that we tailor deals to fit their records and their needs in today’s climate.

The old model of the industry was founded largely upon business folk trying to make money off artists.  At EMP, we let the music make the money, not the other way around.  We have flipped the model to make the artistry be at the forefront of everything we do.  Music makes the business and that’s what makes it work.

What can we expect from EMP Label Group in 2017?

David Ellefson:  Our very first act Doll Skin will have a new album next year and we have several terrific records by well-known artists coming in the door now, too. The pipeline is always humming with new records, which just shows there is no shortage of great music out there. It’s the mission of our team to get that music into the hands of their fans for them to enjoy. It’s what makes the mission rewarding for us.

Thom Hazaert:  Yes, as I said, it’s a really exciting time for us as a label. There’s so much amazing stuff coming down the pike, really, we’re just getting started. But definitely highlights will be A Killer’s Confession, Motograter, Behind the Fallen, new Doll Skin, Green Death. We have some really amazing stuff coming. Literally, every day I wake up and wonder who I’ll end up signing today. (Laughs)

Well, thank you again for taking the time for this interview. EMP Label Group has already caught our attention and I personally look forward to seeing what is coming next. Do you have any last thoughts?

David Ellefson: Thank you for your support of our endeavors to help artists get their music out to their public… I’d like to think we are doing our part to help make that happen for them.

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  • dakotablue

    Extensive story, good job. Saw Megadeth on Seth Meyers’ show the other night and they TORE IT UP.