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Tom Mullen

Podcaster, Broadcaster, Producer
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Tom Mullen

Multi award-winning marketer, producer and broadcaster Tom Mullen drives the creative marketing behind Atlantic Records biggest current artists, and still finds time to run his own website and the popular, long-running Washed Up Emo podcast. His book ‘Anthology of Emo: Volume 1’, featuring interviews from the podcast, sold out fast and he is currently working on the second volume. Many of his recordings take place in his NYC office, where an Aston Origin and Halo are permanently hooked up ready for action…

Atlantic Records, Washed Up Emo
What isn’t on the radio?

"It all started with my staring at a Nirvana video on MTV and thinking ‘I HAVE to do this. I need a guitar, I need to play.” I’d always loved music, my dad had all these records and I would just devour whatever stuff he had. Nirvana came from a punk, DIY scene, so I started digging and I found that the underground was a little more exciting than the radio.

I grew up in a really small town in Vermont. It’s the second least populous state in the United States. There are more cows than people, so there’s not a lot going on. But I found a club in the biggest city, Burlington, where I saw my first punk rock shows and hardcore touring bands. There was DIY, distros, zines, all these things I was just devouring because in the 90’s there was no Wikipedia to tell me what was going on.

I think because I was in a small town I wasn’t susceptible to a lot of mainstream media. I had a few TV channels and the radio. There was a college radio station for the University of Vermont called WRUV that played independent stuff. It was almost like I was turning the dial to try and find what wasn’t on the radio. So that was my first real leap into music, and when I realised that this is something I have to do.

I’ve been playing guitar in bands since high school and through college. Early in the 2000’s I had a solo career and I played in New York City with a bunch of artists, and then I realised I needed to do the business side more. I had a decision to make; do I want to do the band full-time, get signed and tour, or do I want to have a job in the music industry."

Jumping into digital

"I had a short time at Cornerstone [publishers of The Fader music mag] really early on in their digital department but my first real gig was college radio and speciality promo at TVT Records in NYC. Their claim to fame was their TeeVee Toons, CD compilations of all the TV theme songs – that’s how they made their money. They also signed artist like Nine Inch Nails, Sevendust, and Lil’ Jon.

So I was in my office, or rather my cubicle, and they were saying ‘you either have to do your band or do the industry’ and I chose to do the industry. I love music, I still play - I have my stuff right behind me here in my apartment in New York - and I love that I did play because I had a deeper understanding with artists which was helpful.

All the commercial, alternative, and most of the mainstream stations had a Saturday or Sunday speciality show for stuff that wasn’t on the radio but they wanted to test out, so that’s where we could get the newer bands on. K-Rock in LA or 91x in San Diego, they all had these 1-2 hour shows that we would pitch records for.

I was a 21-22 years old being a pain in the ass. It was fun! And each time I did something that wasn’t asked of me, it led me to my next job. At TVT I realised that the digital world was becoming huge and at that time (2002-2003) the digital team for these labels was usually one person! I said: ‘I think that’s the future, I’m going to go do that.’ So I asked, and my boss said ‘You have to do your [promo] job, so if you want to do that [digital], you have to do both, for the same amount of money.’ So I said, ‘Sure, whatever.’ I knew I wasn’t going to do radio forever, so I jumped into digital."

Following Bob Dylan in a rental car

"I went back to Cornerstone for a year or so doing digital product management, and then my favourite label ever, Equal Vision Records, asked me to be their Head of Marketing. I did everything at that label; radio promotion, video promotion, licensing, tour marketing, coffee making - you do everything at an indie label with maybe 10-12 people. And we were breaking records; I was cold-calling MTV and getting videos on there, getting stuff synced, we were selling out tours, it was an awesome time. After three and a half years I went to Vagrant in a product manager/marketing role, then I went to EMI, doing digital – that was before Universal bought it – and then Sony, and that was a leap too, they had a job in their catalogue department, and I’d never done catalogue, I’d always done frontline, new artists, breaking artists, and this was about how people remember Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis.

There was a meeting coming up with Bob Dylan’s manager, and that’s pretty much like meeting Bob, because nobody talks to Bob, nobody sees him, he doesn’t do anything, he doesn’t have to, he’s Bob Dylan! I had a video idea for his next box set that was coming out. I sat on my hands the whole meeting, I was so nervous, there were all these A&R guys and catalogue people who’d been there for years, but I finally just blurted out the idea. The manager turns to me and says; ‘I LOVE that idea - make the video’.

I basically wanted to recreate Bob Dylan’s ride up to Big Pink, from the West Village, that he did before he recorded with The Band. So I put a Go-Pro on a rental car, I had my girlfriend write a script, and I’d worked with Jeff Bridges at Blue Note, I knew he was a huge Dylan fan so I asked him to do this voiceover for me, and he did it for free!"

Jeff Buckley’s record collection

"The video ended up doing really well, people still talk about it. So that led me to this next job where I started doing creative ideas with these huge artists. I did more stuff with Dylan, won at Cannes, won a bunch of Clios, did stuff with Miles Davis, The Clash, and I did Jeff Buckley’s ‘Record Collection’ where you could listen to his actual record collection off a shelf. This was taking different ideas and making something new. It was an amazing time. You just can’t f*** that up with those artists, they are legendary.

Atlantic Records saw that and said they wanted to do this for the newer artists. Not the Led Zepplins, Aretha Franklins or the Bob Dylans, but creative marketing ideas and catalogue for on-roster artists; Ed Sheeran’s catalogue, Bruno Mars, anyone who’s currently on Atlantic. In the streaming world it’s not like there’s only so many records at HMV or Best Buy, there’s an unlimited amount. So that’s my job now, I do marketing for the on-roster artists at Atlantic, one of the first people to do it at a front-line label.

One of the heads at Atlantic, Craig Kallman, the A&R legend who started Big Beat Records, hit me up because he found out I had a podcast. He said he wanted to get Atlantic into podcasts. I said ‘That’s great but I don’t just want to do one series, I want to do a lot, I want to make this scalable’ and he said ‘Cool. Go!’ So on top of my catalogue marketing job I’ve been doing podcasting. I’ve also been an educator in the building, for the lawyers and the staff, because no one’s really been doing podcasting for long. That’s led to us now looking for a bigger solution for the whole company. There are going to be more connections, sharing things that other labels and teams can utilise to make their podcasts better. We’ve got the artists, the great stories, and we have to capture them."

Washed Up Emo

"We started really easy for the first podcast at Atlantic, ‘What’d I Say?’ I wanted to interview anyone who walked into the building, and also educate the publicists and the marketers who thought podcasts just ‘happened’ and then came out tomorrow. I had to explain it actually takes weeks; there’s editing, mastering and production to do. Then ‘Inside the Album’ was a little more advanced. We had 5-7 interviews edited like an audio documentary. It’s fun - and getting more advanced as we go.

I still do my own show, the Washed Up Emo podcast. Some people who listen to it don’t think I have another job, it’s really funny when they find out I’m somewhere for nine hours a day! I remember going on the internet on my dad’s computer and saying ‘where the hell are the interviews with my legends, the people I love?’ That was the catalyst for me starting Washed Up. It’s like a second life. I’m hugely into the archiving and the history. Things need to be remembered. Everything’s on our phones and we think it will be there forever and it’s not true - remember MySpace? They lost all our photos. Our hard drives crash and we lose things. I have my music collection backed up three times, and I still have a VHS player so I can rip videos people find in their basements.

A lot of people started doing podcasts and realised it wasn’t hard. Things like Anchor came out and made it real easy to do it from your phone, editing became easier, more people were coming on board and realising ‘I need to tell the story a new way’. And it was cheaper than video. Remember everyone hiring all those firms, all those crews with the pivot to video? I think people realised sitting in a room with a microphone was easier!

My show is a very specific genre, its niche, people love that. It’s not an ‘American Idol’ or a huge idea. I noticed when podcasting became popular everyone was trying to take these big swings, but if you come up with something creative and different, then you’re going to have your audience. We’re still struggling with people just wanting to make a bunch of money, but the great idea still needs to happen."

'What IS that?'

"For my mobile rig I use a Zoom H6 [digital recorder] with an expander so we can do 6 people if we want. We can go anywhere, a hotel room, a studio, a venue. I also have a Zoom L12 [mixer] so we can do a live event or Skype in somebody to talk to an artist. We do a lot of this in my office, which has sound panels up and where I have everything hooked up for when an artist walks in.

I have a stereo and a pair of nice Paradigm speakers, but the Aston Origin and Halo are the first things people see when they walk in the office. I have them set up in the middle near the window so as they walk in they have to see them. Every artist who comes in, every meeting I’ve had, everyone asks ‘What IS that?!’ That doesn’t happen with Shures, with other microphones. The way it’s shaped, the way it looks, the presentation, says ‘something different’. I kinda love that. And it’s been a really fun thing to explain that we do voice overs with them, we have artists in, recording, performing.

Also my office is noisy, so to have that Halo, to be able to isolate, has been amazing in this music industry-crazy, busy setting. I also use the Atlantic Studios which is a professional recording studio in the office. It’s a spot they recorded the Hamilton cast recording in, and artists will stop by to cut a record. When they have time open and there’s an artist coming in we’ll do it in there, we’re not going to get disturbed and it’s quieter.

But the thing about podcasting is that it’s ok if you hear someone in the background, it brings it life, it doesn’t need to be pristine. I did an interview for Washed Up Emo where the guy had to go to the laundromat. It’s hilarious because you hear women complaining about the driers, you hear the jingle of the door opening and closing. I’m talking to him about his band but he’s trying to do his laundry because his baby’s asleep upstairs with his wife! It made a cool environment versus, say, Terry Gross doing an interview on NPR where it’s ‘don’t make any noises.’ "

Respecting the listener

"We have producers who come in and host for a few weeks and we use people from around the company to do some of the voiceovers, which is great because it invests them in it, they tell all their friends! We use the Origin whenever we can and it’s been great. It’s about having options; some people just want an SM58, it’s what they’re used to, but then you’ll get someone who says ‘this doesn’t really sound good, can I try something else?’

The sound of the Origin, especially with the Halo, has given it a more professional feel. Having something that was a step up for us makes the artist see that this is an operation that’s thinking about this further than ‘oh we really like podcasting’. That perception has been really helpful, but in use it’s a great option for the artists, engineers and producers.

For Washed Up Emo I’ll sometimes do interviews after hours in the office using the Origin. I used to have this really crappy USB mic because I didn’t know, there weren’t websites telling you how to do this the equipment was confusing. But over the years I’ve gotten really good at editing, making it sound good, and it’s been from the community, figuring it out with other people who are doing this.

I use Garageband because I’ve used Macs my whole life. I can edit really fast, and I edit like crazy! Every ‘um’, ‘ah’, every pause. I had a band say ‘you took out every ‘y’know’?’ and I said ‘Yes, because you don’t sound good when you do that!’ It’s my show so I make it sound good, with the microphones, with my conversation – I’m able to get stories out of these people because I have a history and I understand them – and on top of that I edit it because I’m a listener too, and I want to make sure when someone’s listening they’re not bored. I think when someone does a two hour interview and just puts it up, that’s disrespectful to the listener."

Out-takes

Q. Who are your favourite artists
A. Jimmy Eat World, Helmet, a band from NYC, and definitely Nirvana, they started it all.

Q. If you weren’t working in music what would you be doing?
A. I’d be pretty sad! This is all I do. I can’t sell shoes or insurance. I HAVE to do music.
But if not, it would probably be something to do with video games or sports.

Q. What would your fantasy mic be?
A. I’d love a microphone that would stay close to someone’s mouth but wasn’t on a boom, so floating, and at the right distance. And one that would automatically take out all the ‘y’know’s.

Q. What are the 4 words you’d chose to describe Aston, or your experience with the brand?
A. Classy, open-sounding, direct, eye-catching

Q. What is the first song that made you cry?
A. In the sixth grade I had a tape cassette with one speaker, and I think ka girl didn’t; want to take my valentine or something, and I listened to Boyz2Men ‘It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday’ on repeat for three hours. It’s still a great song.

People think emo is a lot about crying, it’s not, it’s more about euphoria. There’s a general perception from mainstream media that emo is My Chemical Romance, Fallout Boy, all those sort of bands, but there was actually a scene before that and a scene after it. People think it’s about being sad, with eyeliner, but that’s not true. My podcast is the antithesis of that feeling.

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