Tommy Marolda is a respected songwriter, musician, record producer, engineer and music publisher who has appeared on more than 50 albums either as an artist, producer or composer. He has been nominated for a Gammy Award and has worked on gold and platimun albums with artists such as Cher, Bee Gees, The Killers, Rod Stewart, Kurupt, DR. Dre and Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi.
Working in the music business for more than 30 years, Tommy and his two bands, THE TOMS and HORIZONTAL LADIES CLUB, continue to record and release alternative and independent music.
Besides writing and recording songs for all the major TV shows from Americas Next Top Model to the Theme Song for the CBS INSIDER show and Smallville, Marolda also has songs in many major films including “STAYIN’ ALIVE” starring John Travolta, “DAYS OF THUNDER” starring Tom Cruise, “ONCE IN THE LIFE” starring Lawrance Fishburn, “CARMEN” starring Beyonce Knowles, “O” starring Josh Hartman, “ROCKY BALBOA” starring Sylvester Stallone and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Songs from the HORIZONTAL LADIES CLUB latest album are featured in “The City” on MTV.
I was especially excited to talk with Tommy as some of the songs he’s been involved in are part of the soundtrack of my life! In fact, the more we talked, the more songs I realized he was the writer of. It’s not often that you tell someone about one of your favorite songs and it turns out they co-wrote it! Tommy has done it all, from recording legendary albums and being nominated for a Grammy, introducing Jon Bon Jovi and Ritchie Sambora, to writing with The Killers, Rod Stewart and Cher to name a few! Because of the length of Tommy’s career he’s able to share a ton of relevant insight and prove that in this business, you need to know how to wear more than one hat. Thanks again Tommy and I look forward to our next conversation. Aaron Bethune.
Tommy Marolda Interview
PILM: How did you get into the music and entertainment industry?
Tommy: I loved music as a kid! Growing up in the 50’s, once I heard The Beatles I was just knocked out. I decided that my friday nights weren’t going out anymore, it was learning the guitar, and eventually I joined some bands. I could barely ever get in as a guitar player, but everyone always needed a bass player, so I switched over, and soon after found myself playing with Bruce Springsteen before he got signed, same with the Bon Jovi boys before they got signed. I just loved the excitement of playing with all this mess of people. Then I decided to start up my own recording studio and learn all the instruments. I wanted to start recording original music since at that time there weren’t many people recording all their own original material without outside players.The studio went well and I continued on to put out other peoples albums as well as a lot of my own stuff. I was singing, playing, arranging and producing my own material. Once word spread out, I became popular with certain big name people, and that led me to do what I do today.
PILM: How did you go about getting your first clients on board?
Tommy: Not many people were doing albums where they played everything by themselves in around the mid 70’s. Stevie Wonder, McCartney, Emitt Rhodes had done their own solo records, but not a lot else. After the word got out that I had started my own home studio, people started coming. It wasn’t like today, where almost anyone has access to professional recording gear. So I’d get these singer-songwriter types coming in. Ritchie Sambora is an example, he was from Jersey which is where I was located and he’d come in and we started working, then became friends. One day someone from the Power Station had heard some of my things on the radio and invited me to come in, and here’s Jon Bon Jovi in another room and he’s looking for a guitar player. So I tell him “I know a kid called Ritchie, might be a good match” one thing leads to another, it’s a networking thing, and the rest is history.
When you’re young and put out your own record, people might not be expecting much, and then I put out The Tom’s record, and people were in awe of that. It wasn’t much for me, I did it in a weekend in my studio on some downtime. All of a sudden things started happening. At that time I didn’t know the business of music, it was this mysterious world to me. I had all these people start calling me… I had the Beach Boys telling me they loved the album, Stallone asking me to do stuff and all after that record. So the business came to me you could say. I got lucky being in the right place at the right time as a young person.
PILM: Networking really helped you in this situation then?
Tommy: For sure. Where I was living was a great place for it. There were a few music scenes happening, but the New York, New Jersey, Philly area was really happening with a lot of young talent. Today, it seems to be more difficult to make the same kind of real world networking; there isn’t as much of a ‘scene’ like there was in Seattle for Grunge, or Las Vegas 10 years ago to a degree. When I first moved to Vegas there was a little scene happening with The Killers, Panic at the disco, a few other rap artists that I started working with as well. I’m not sure if it’s just the new technology, but bands just don’t network as much as they should. Who would’ve known that introducing Bon Jovi and Ritchie Sambora would make this amazing partnership, they’re still some of the biggest concert grocers in the world today! It seems like it should be even easier to network now with the internet, but there is just so much out there that you have to weed through. You don’t know whats good, whats bad, and who is just out for the money.
PILM: How do YOU weed through it?
Tommy: I don’t really get involved, I have my own people who run that side of things. The only thing I use the internet for is to communicate with fans of The Toms, Horizontal Ladies Club (my alter-ego group if you will) and also to send tracks back and forth with artists I’m working with, and listening to music online through itunes, or other streaming sites.
PILM: From when you got those first calls from big name people, like Stallone for Rocky, to now with your accumulated experience of years licensing, what are some of the biggest changes you see?
Tommy: Back then you made more money, for one thing. Films don’t pay much for music now, because so many artists out there are willing to just about give away their music. Music has become very devalued over the last 10-15 years. Some of the major artists are still getting 6 figures for a commercial spot or for a single in a big movie placement, but in tv there is nothing. Tv is more about exposure for up and coming bands; they pretty much just give away their music for free. I find that because I can supply a tv music supervisor with music that replaces a temporary song that they are using, I still get a lot of placements… although now I am competing against free music. I’ve had to lower my fee’s to stay competitive, but I am still getting the work. Usually now a tv show will spend a fortune on licensing big name artists for the pilot, then come to someone like me for the rest of the episodes and say “Can you make something that sounds like Sinatra? Or the Beatles? Or the Bee-Gees?”. A lot of shows blow a lot of their licensing budget on the pilot by trying to hook in the audiences with recognizable music from well known artists. This gives credibility to the show but little do the audience realize that after that they’re going to be hearing mostly unknown independent artists the rest of the season. Overall the money in licensing has depleted. Now, for up and coming writers in America, you don’t get paid royalties on theatrical, unless it is foreign in which case you may see a few pennies. The ASCAP, BMI payments have gone down too, they collect less money now from the licensors.
PILM: You spoke of giving music away for free. Why do you think most bands are taking this approach?
Tommy: To get their foot in the door.
PILM: Does that work?
Tommy: 9 times out of 10, nope. They can tell their friends, family, cousins that “Hey! We’ve got a song on Gossip Girl!” but it doesn’t really help. Rarely will you get a huge hit song that sticks and gets you somewhere. Take “Somebody told me” by the Killers, everyone wanted a piece of that when it first came out. Unless you can get that sort of a hit, you’re dead in the water.
PILM: Do you think its the songs of The Killers that set them apart?
Tommy: Definitely, their ‘song craft’ was really, really good, and all of a sudden, despite being regurgitated 80’s pop material, sound wise it was something new and fresh to people of this generation, and had good energy with good performers. All the links in the chain were strong enough to make it all happen.
PILM: With so many people illegally downloading music, coupled with bands giving away their material for free, where is the money now?
Tommy: Great question! (laughs) The real money is in the the top 1% of artists in the charts. These are the ones who tour heavy, because no one really buys their music anymore. They make good money on those big tours. But as an example, Lil Wayne came out with his latest record not long ago, and ALMOST sold a million copies (first week maybe?) but 10 years ago it would’ve been 10 million. The ratio of what artists sell today compared to ‘before’, is very low. The money in this business is made by a few of the major labels that are still in business who have major acts, and can then earn it back through merchandising, performance, premiums and publishing, the well known ‘360’ deal. But thats really it, the upper tier of artist. I don’t know how the other 99% make money to be honest, I just see too much of a gap.
PILM: Talking of this 1%, how would an emerging artist or group get their material to the right people, and in what format? Do the songs have to be the best they can be in terms of recording, producing, mastering etc, or is there still a chance if you just take your acoustic in front of a webcam, and hit record?
Tommy: There are many variables in that question. For instance, where is the artist located? If you are near one of the big metropolis cities, NYC, LA, Philly, Nashville, Chicago, Detroit, etc, where you have a chance to network and get ‘noticed’. When you go to send anything to music publishers, A&R reps and the like, don’t send a product with a wrinkled suit and scruffy hair. The market is so competitive, you better have the best sounding product you can, that can compete quality-wise with anything else released recently. Also, you need to have a good vocalist in the band; when you have someone who can sing in just the right range, not to extreme or over the top (Christina Aguilera), or a bit low down (Madonna), it hits a chord with the public. It also makes it easy to pitch to other artists to cover. Adele and her song “Rolling in the deep” is a perfect example. It boils down to have great production, a great vocalist, and a decent song that you believe in. From there, you send it out. The information and contacts is easily available online, but sending it to publishers directly is more effective to reach people who are looking for new music. Let your publisher sift through material and hopefully he will need something. A lot of major artists and labels will go to publishers when they need a new song, because they know the stuff has already been quality checked.
PILM: Just switching gears a bit, when we spoke earlier today we talked about co-writing. What are some of the benefits of co-writing for bands?
Tommy: First, it lets you bounce ideas off of someone else. Even if you are an experienced song writer, show someone you respect your song ideas, and collaborate with them to get the best ideas you can. It can help get that one really great song. From there again, its about building that network, getting the word and your product out to as many people as you can, so your name keeps popping up.
PILM: For the legal aspect of co-writing, with getting paid and how things get split up, how does that work?
Tommy: Its a simple equation; if you and two other people are there when the song is written, you each get 1/3, if its two people, then 50/50. If its 20 people, say for a big rap collective, 1/20th each. The legal ramifications are pretty easy; everyone there is part owner and everyone gets a piece of the publishing. Now, when the time comes where there is a placement in a major film or tv spot, you may have to give up a portion of those publishing rights to get the placement. But you have to also be contributing to the creation of the song to get in on it, you can’t just sit there, say and do nothing, and expect to get publishing credits and part ownership.
PILM: So lets say you’re in a band with 4 people, and someone approaches you with a non-exclusive licensing agreement (you don’t have to give away any rights on your material). Do you need to get everyone’s signature involved?
Tommy: Oh yeah. Everyone needs to be involved when a song is getting placed, everyone. They all own a piece, you have to do it.
PILM: Now and then you hear a story of a band member signing an agreement on behalf of the rest of the group and later shit hits the fan when the others disagree with the placement!
Tommy: Ahhh thats what the attorney’s are for.
PILM: Fair enough. Lets talk about how you started your own company, SongGram, which started out as a part of your studio.
Tommy: The word SongGram came out of the idea that I had where you send out a “song-gram” instead of a tele-gram to your loved ones or family. I made a few bucks with it, but didn’t want to do it after too long. So I kept the name, made it Song-Gram studios, then Song-Gram music (publishing), and then 15 years ago Song-Gram records, and I have 15 artist on there. So thats how song-gram started, the opposite of a tele-gram (laughs).
PILM: What is your main focus today with Song-gram?
Tommy: Since selling Cd’s has dried up, I focus on writing music for film and television. I also get a lot of young bands coming to me to record and produce.
PILM: What is the best way to get in contact with you with regards to recording and producing?
Tommy: My website is the best, www.mysonggram.com. There’s a contact there and I get back to everybody
PILM: One last question. What is a good song?
Tommy: First part is easy; it has to hook you right away. Either the beat, or something in the production,when the melody hits and you get chills up and down your spine thats when I know for sure. There is always that “something” in the music that can hit like that, and its my drug of choice (laughs). The first time I heard “I wanna hold your hand” by the Beatles, it just struck a chord with me and knocked me out. When a song hits you emotionally and just stays with you, thats a good song!
PILM: How do you go about creating music that you are requested and given parameters for?
Tommy: I am a vinyl collector and have a huge resource of music to pool from so as to re-create certain sounds for a project I am working on. I don’t want to say I steal or borrow, but if I need a feel for something I know where to find it. It has become such an easy process that I can have a song recorded in 45mins and have it on the sound stage for dubbing in an hour. That’s why they keep calling me. 99% of what I get doesn’t exactly ring my bell (laughs). But as for stuff that I have done, maybe of the 5000 songs that I’ve written in my career, 20-ish I would say I’m very proud of.
PILM: It seems today that there are many musicians who have a hard time separating their ‘musical, creative ego’ and their ability to create music as business…
Tommy: Oh man, are you right about that!! They just don’t get it until its too late. The main thing in this business is to wear a whole bunch of hats. You can’t survive with just one hat anymore, too many people are out there. One of those hats is the business hat, it can set you apart from the crowd.
PILM: One last thing, anything that an artist should avoid?
Tommy: Don’t think your first song is going to get you millions. It doesn’t matter what your wife, or family, or close friends say, it takes a lot of hard work and time. There is no substitute for that, and pretty much everyone who has made it will say the exact same thing. It’s a long road and just enjoy the journey!
If you would like to learn more about Tommy or contact him you can do so via his websites. There you will also find the music of his two bands, Horizontal Ladies Club and the remastered re-release of The Toms (now available digitally).