Vinny Vero is everywhere. I don't mean this in just a literal sense - as of this posting, he's currently in Australia playing several DJ sets - but he's also had a multifaceted career in the music business, be it as a marketer, producer, remixer or writer. "This year is my 25th anniversary in the music business," he told The Second Disc with a laugh. "All of a sudden I feel very experienced!"
Vero parlayed his passion for music into a plum gig as a research manager for prominent New York radio station WHTZ-FM. From there, he spent five fruitful years doing marketing and catalogue work for EMI, working with such artists as Roxette, Blondie, and the Pet Shop Boys. After leaving the company, he continued to hone his marketing skills, but never strayed too far from records, independently producing compilations and "reswizzling" tunes for dance clubs. Last year, Vero began producing reissues for the U.K.'s Cherry Red Group; their first collaboration, a two-disc expansion of Breathe's hit LP All That Jazz, was released in Europe this week.
Last year, as he was putting the finishing touches on All That Jazz, Vero took time out of his busy schedule to talk to The Second Disc about his work and career. I think you'll find it a fascinating and informative read about what it's like to work in an ever-changing industry, all the while working hard and loving what you do - easily the best way to survive in the catalogue music game.
After the jump, we talk to Vinny about all his work, great and small!
Let's start with the basics. How did you get started in the music business?
My father was in the television business, which is initially how I got involved in the music business. In the early '80s, he would get all these music videos from U.K. companies and transfer them from PAL to NTSC for U.S. record companies. So you can imagine all the stuff I was exposed to at a young age! You name it, I saw it through him.
I got involved with catalogue nearly right away. I started at EMI as an intern and within six months I was hired, right as I graduated college. I was immediately put to work in the marketing department as an executive assistant. The environment there was very open to tapping into people's interests. If you showed you really had a passion for hip-hop, they steered you in that direction. If you had a passion for the legal side of things, they steered you in that direction. And they knew that I was passionate about pop music and the history of rock 'n' roll. So they put the two together, and within six months I became a marketing manager. They gave me a roster of acts, and at the same time - which is sort of an unusual situation - they gave me control of their catalogues as well.
It was sort of a "right place, right time" situation, which is usually how it is in the music business. They were getting much more into exploiting their catalogue. And I had a great time doing it - it allowed me to work with some of my favorite artists on the front-line side, as well as some of my favorite artists and albums on the catalogue side.
Your website lists you as one of the developers of the long-running U.S. edition of the NOW That's What I Call Music! compilation series. How did you get involved in that?
I remember buying the very first NOW in 1983. I got introduced to it just by reading about it in Billboard and wanting to know what it was. It's lost in the haze of time - I don't remember how I managed to get a hold of it, but I was able to get my father to help. Fast forward to my time at the record company: at that time I had been collecting every single one, and I said, "You know what? This really should work in the U.S." Despite all the copyright restrictions and pricing restrictions, I thought we should try it. Being at EMI, I was able to have discussions to how we could develop it to the U.S. market. They were very detailed discussions that went on for years.
And it was the year that I left EMI that we were able to negotiate how to put it together; originally, no other label was interested, with no real reason given. But slowly, year after year, we were able to get people to warm up to the idea. Also, this was the part of the '90s where compilations were starting to take foothold in retail. So it was this convergence of ideas and content and great timing that allowed us to have those conversations. Right as I left, the labels involved agreed we would go forward with it. From there, it was just a matter of deciding when the first one would come together - and it took a couple of years after I left for the first one to come out.
Longtime fans know that the U.K. NOW is quite different from the U.S. - all of them are two-disc sets, to name just one change. What were the factors in changing the series for American audiences?
There were two factors. One was slight differences in copyright and pricing tiers between Europe and the States. The other - and it's funny to think about all these years later - was there was a feeling of, "If we put it out on a compilation, it will cut into singles sales." The way I was able to make it an appealing venture was that European sales showed they actually promoted singles and album sales.
What makes a good compilation, for you?
It depends on the kind of compilation you're talking about. If it's a nostalgic compilation, it's getting the tracks that evoke a certain era or feeling. If it's contemporary, you want the best bang for your buck, the biggest hits all on one place - "all killer, no filler." That's why I'm no so crazy about NOW in the U.S., currently.
Because of the inclusion of the "NOW That's What's Next" tracks by up-and-comers instead of established hits?
It's a head scratcher! It doesn't stay true to the brand.
And now you're working with Cherry Red. How did that come about?
It was another case of being in the right place in the right time. After 20 years or more of doing this, my publisher happened to be consulting for Cherry Red. He put me in touch, we agreed to terms and we started work almost immediately.
What's great about the situation is they put it all in my hands. I give them a list of projects I'm interested in exploring and we have lengthy discussions on licensing approval, sales forecasts. One of the downsides is, it used to be labels weren't interested in licensing tracks, but now they do. What used to not be very sexy for a label became very sexy. So sometimes you'll put something in for clearance, and the label will say, "Now we are thinking of doing that." Sometimes things fall into that category, and to get the strike rate you want, you have to put in for a lot of concepts before ones actually get approved.
Are there any such projects you wanted to do that a major label took back for themselves?
I had put in for a license for Swing Out Sister's It's Better to Travel. Thankfully - and this had to do with many bloggers and fans of catalogue - fans were not happy with the first track list, and that energy meant everyone was able to deliver this convincing argument to the band, and they ended up expanding the track list. I don't want to speak for everybody, but I'm sure many are happy to have even a little say in how that turned out.
You seem to realize how important it is to keep those fans happy.
Everybody these days have one shot to get it right now. It's a rare occasion where you can go back and do it again. The packaging was beautiful and very well done, and I'm happy that people were able to have some influence. Again, just my opinion, but someone likely thought "These are the people who would buy this collection. If they don't like it, we're not going to be able to sell it."
What's lost on a lot of people that work at labels is you have three people to speak to. And this is the ethos I've stuck with since the beginning: first, you need to do something for the dedicated fan; you need to do something for the causal fan, and in the same breath, you need to make something for the general consumer. So you need to be able to cover all three bases with one release.
What's it like working with U.K. reissue labels as opposed to U.S. labels?
For the most part, that's what they do: they reissue albums. So their staff is dedicated to that. Here in the U.S., you really don't have as many labels like that. And even at the majors, their resources are stretched.
But the person that holds the torch for catalogue at different labels is not necessarily the person that holds things up. [Fans'] frustration can be misdirected. The legal department at every label needs a lot of time to work things through. And if you don't have enough people who know "where the bodies are buried," so to speak, it can be a very arduous task to get back to a third party. And sometimes you get surprised as to how quickly things are approved. The Breathe project was an example of that. When I initially put in for clearance, I certainly didn't think that'd be the first one cleared.
This is a very interesting album with which you're starting your Cherry Red alliance. "Hands to Heaven" and "How Can I Fall" were major U.S. hits, but they don't get the kind of press you'd think they would, in retrospect.
It's a very strong album that had more success here than in the U.K. Here, of course, it was on A&M - one of the last Siren/Virgin releases licensed to them before Virgin came up as a label in the U.S.
When I started doing research for this one, I realized it was a beast! There were nine different singles issued, altogether, many with their own unique mix or edit as well as a non-album B-side. And what was really unique about the whole arc of that album was every 12" single had a remix or extended version on both sides! So for an 11-track album, we had something like 42 tracks to choose from.
We also didn't realize until we started plucking tracks from the vault - they spent a lot of money on that band! The arc of that album started in 1985, when their deal was signed. The next year, they released their first single, "Don't Tell Me Lies." The last single, a remix of "Don't Tell Me Lies" by Tom Lord-Alge, was out in 1989. So you're looking at a four-year, five-year arc for that album alone. And the label stuck with them. It wasn't until "Hands to Heaven" that they had a real hit.
Did the members of the band participate in any way?
They're sort of an enigma! It's almost as if they never existed. I managed to track down David Glasper, but we haven't been able to contact him directly. Ian "Spike" Spice passed away. I reached out to Marcus Lillington through Facebook, but did not have any luck with a response. However, we did have Chris Porter, the producer. And he provided a plethora of information and interesting recollections about the recording sessions - and he couldn't have been nicer!
Your next project is an expanded edition of Basia's Time and Tide. What can you tell us about that?
That was another one I'm surprised was cleared so quickly, and another one that was more successful in the U.S. than in the U.K. or mainland Europe. We're looking to get both Basia and Danny White involved in the reissue.
What are the toughest or most rewarding aspects of catalogue work?
You just never know what's going to get cleared. The big disappointment is when something is just not available to license. But when you put the effort in, and you get such great feedback from fans, who love the albums or are looking for certain tracks on CD - that's great. A job well done is always the most rewarding.
Can you name some of your favorite reissues or box sets of the past year?
Other than Swing Out Sister? I love the Blur box. Talk about doing it right! Edsel's Suede remasters - I could've thrown up when those came out, they're so good. Same goes for Everything But the Girl. And St. Etienne's ongoing reissue series has been great.
Not only do you work with compilations, but you also are active in the dance music community? How much do you find yourself combining both sides of the equation?
They're all under the same musical umbrella for me. One of the first things I got to work on at EMI was the Blondie catalogue, and I worked very close on Remixed Remade Remodelled and remixed "The Tide is High" for that particular album. Which, in a funny twist of fate, I wanted St. Etienne to do. And they were up for it, but went on tour and they couldn't fit it into their schedule. And now, all these years later, I'm producing a remix for their latest single. It really is funny how things come full circle!
Where do you see the future of catalogue music?
It is all going online. Eventually, it'll be a Spotify world, where everyone will be able to conveniently and inexpensively stream music. I don't know that physical configurations will go away, but the window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller.
I remember wanting to do big lavish sets at EMI, and we just couldn't get it to happen, because they'd be expensive to manufacture. And there was not a belief that an audience was there. Case in point: I remember two projects that I spearheaded but never came to fruition - CD single box sets for Ultravox and Pet Shop Boys. Mock-ups were made, and there would have been several boxes to purchase. But the label felt uncomfortable putting a high price point on those particular items. Now, with the benefit of history behind us, we both know they would have sold extremely well. It was a valiant effort.
What, ultimately, has been most rewarding about living and working in the music business?
It's wonderful to connect with other people who love and are passionate about music. I've had people come up to me who I don't know but who know my work. I've been stopped at Virgin Megastores, at concerts for Heaven 17 and Roxette. It's amazing how that convergence of artists and projects and people and fans has made for a much more enjoyable experience, despite how the business has changed. And it's heartwarming - you've made all these connections without even knowing it.
Many thanks again to Vinny as an interviewee and an inspiration to catalogue fans everywhere! Check out his official site, where he often ruminates on new projects and favorite tunes, and order All That Jazz: Deluxe Edition from Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K.!
Thank you Mike for an enjoyable, enlightening interview. Vinny has my dream job. But being an ardent music fan is even more fun with you guys in the mix.
Richard John says
I wrote a blog entry about Vinny's unreleased Pet Shop Boys remixes and got a nice personal email back. Made my day that did.