There seems to be a trend that’s always been evident in popular music to focus on the main attraction and secondarily consider the people behind the headliner even though those lurking behind the scenes are often just as important. An example of the latter is record executive and owner of Magna Carta Records Peter Morticelli. Peter is something of a legend in the rock music business, having been prevalent now for forty years, managing, producing and helping get rock music out to the people. In his lengthy and impressive career, Peter has worked with the likes of David Lee Roth, Steve Walsh, John Petrucci and so many other great musicians. Currently, he continues to run Magna Carta, promoting original rock artists, making tribute albums to various bands and recently setting up a sister label called Magnitude that focuses on releasing music from jam-band type musical acts. Recently this past summer I had the opportunity to speak with Peter at length about his career in music, the Magna Carta label and what he thinks of the music industry. Peter was by far one of the most generous and voluble individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Here is what he had to say:
You’ve been in the music business now for close to forty years, first as a recording artist then as the head of a record label. How does it feel to still be doing this today in a business that sees artists come and go everyday?
Peter: It’s really unusual and strange because I feel almost as if I’ve kept under the radar long enough to be able to stay in this business. I’ve never had the profile that was so high that I fell too far and I just sort of kept on going in a straight line. And it is true because when I think about it, this is all I’ve ever done so on one hand it’s a really strange concept and I suppose if you were to talk to your high school guidance counselor, he might suggest a different approach to a career but this is what happened you know?
You of course started out in music in the late 1960s as a recording artist before leaving that behind and getting into the business side of things. What made you want to leave behind your own recording career for a career of helping other artists?
Peter: Well whether I was correct about this or not, I guess we’ll never know but at one point I had a real epiphany and decided that I either had not enough talent or not enough good looks or both and I decided I probably couldn’t do what I needed to do in order to really succeed as an artist. And again, when I look back on it, there are times when I think wow that was really a stupid decision you know…. It didn’t occur to me at that point that you could be different and still appeal; I didn’t recognize that until I actually got into this side of the business.
You just mentioned there about looking back on your decision to get into the business side of things, that leads into my next question. In hindsight after all these years, do you at all regret not pursuing your own musical career? Are you fully pleased with the decision you made?
Peter: Yeah it’s really strange because when I am around instruments or musicians or in that particular environment, it never feels like I was on that side of the stage, it’s almost like that never happened. When I walked away from that, I walked away from it so totally and completely, it was almost like I just closed a door. I think the only time I ever regret it is once in a while I feel like picking up an instrument and doing something with it, but it’s been so long that I probably don’t even have the ability to please myself at this stage of the game.
Now of course you’ve moved on from your own career to the business side of things and then that resulted in you being in charge of your own label Magna Carta and you started that about eighteen years ago now. How did you initially get the label off the ground and into operation?
Peter: Well at first you know, it was really, it was guess work and making a lot of mistakes because I had been in this business first as a retailer owning record stores, then I became a booking agent and then a personal manager and then all of a sudden, I began this record label, but it’s a lot different when you do this as opposed to those other things. So I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do. And in addition to the style of music I began to pursue, there weren’t really a lot of people performing that kind of music. I literally put advertisements in music publications trying to seek talent. Once I kind of had an idea of some artists that I was going to pursue, then the next thing was I realized that I needed a lot more money than I originally thought I was going to.
But what did happen was um, we ended up through our relationships with different people, having been a personal manager and all this stuff, we ended up striking a deal with Roadrunner Records in the early days and they made an arrangement with us where we licensed all of our records in return for a particular amount of money they gave us. And that’s what allowed us to start. While the label was beginning, I still had my booking agency and my management company and it took quite a few years really for it to reach, I guess the term would be a critical mass where I could say, alright this is like a real business. Then towards the end of the 1990s, it really began to take off and I was able to leave behind the booking agency and the management company both of which I had done for a long time.
Magna Carta of course specializes in releasing records from not just rock artists but more so, progressive rock and metal artists. What drove you to focus on this more progressive type of rock with your label?
Peter: Well you know, a lot of the acts that I had managed were heavier bands and so that aspect of it always kind of appealed to me, but the one thing I knew for certain was that the bands that had the longest staying power of all the artists I looked around at were essentially what would be considered progressive. I just felt like the concept of having music that was very multi-level and interesting and heavier, that really meant a kind of progressive rock thing so that’s where I felt the most comfortable. I had played that game as a personal manager for a long time and really everything that I did depended upon the whims of the major labels. If the labels liked the band that I managed, they pushed them harder; they gave them more money, they gave them more opportunities and if they didn’t I was out of luck. And of course everyone played the big radio game where the records all lived and died on the strength of what happened on the radio and I didn’t like any of that. So I said I want to do something that’s essentially fan driven where we don’t have to worry about the radio and it’s not a big money game. So that was another thing that really steered me towards the progressive and metal world because at that point it was all still very underground and still just depended upon what people liked. In a way, it wasn’t a matter of trying to convince people that they liked something, it was a matter of trying to locate an audience for a particular band.
Speaking of Magna Carta, one endeavor that the label has recently embarked on is attempting to tap into the European market. Why have you specifically chosen Europe as a place to vigorously promote Magna Carta artists?
Peter: Well you know when we first started back at the beginning being involved with Roadrunner, Europe was a key factor. But even more than Europe at the time, Japan was a big market. A lot of stuff has happened in Japan between then and now particularly from an economic standpoint, but it was our biggest market, it was bigger than Europe and really we could have existed, and we did, solely on Japan for a long time. Then, the European market began to open up for us. Once the whole thing was established and we started to establish and identity and there were people out there that realized that they could find this kind of music, then things started happening for us in Europe. And then finally, things started to pick up in the United States because at the beginning, we didn’t even release our records in the States, we just didn’t think there was a market for it here for a few years. So then the States became our biggest market and Japan really fell off and Europe was there, but we didn’t pay that much attention to it. And finally, you know the last five or six years of course, this business (the music business) has been in real turmoil and so, I thought geez, we’re not really maximizing our possibilities in Europe, let’s see if we can build that up. All of the elements seemed to be there, there was distribution there, there was an audience there and so we said we got to organize our distribution, we got to get people over there to work and spread the word about our stuff and basically reintroduce ourselves to the market. So that’s what we’ve been doing here for the last year and a half or year and it’s been a process that’s slow and difficult, but I think it’s paying off.
Something you mentioned there in your answer was the turmoil of the record industry which leads into my next question. Recently many artists have been critical of the record industry saying it’s a dying industry with a grim future ahead of it. Being in the record business for so long and seeing so many artists come and go, what is your opinion of the current state of the music industry?
Peter: Well I sort of have a different perspective; I think it’s a dying industry with a grim future. [laughs] It’s never ever going to be what it was, it’s going to really change and believe me, I wish I had the answer of how it’s going to change, but I tend to think that the traditional record company won’t exist as it has for a long time. I think there might still be record companies that exist, but I think that they will be essentially looked on as more banks than anything else. I tend to think the new record companies are going to be run by the artists and their managers and what’s going to happen I believe is that there are going to be bands that carve out their own niche and I don’t think anyone will ever be as big as bands once were. I think there will be a lot of very popular bands on a very regional basis. The numbers are going to be lower and the dollars are going to be smaller but I think that there’s going to be just as much demand for music as ever, it’s just going to be done on a more individual and more grassroots kind of level. I could be wrong, I might read this in three years and say wow what an idiot, but that’s kind of the impression I’m getting right now.
A lot of artists are turning to the internet and seeing that as something that could potentially be a way of getting their music out. Do you feel the future of releasing music may lie in doing it over the internet rather than the traditional compact disc?
Peter: Yeah, all the information I’m getting right now that is in a very short period of time, the compact disc is not going to be a factor anymore. You know, I remember when the CD first came in and we were still dealing with vinyl at that point and the CD was there and a few people were aware of it and some people were buying it and then the next thing you know, everyone was buying it. And I tend to think that’s kind of what’s going to happen here. You know, the whole deal with the internet as far as the illegal downloading and all the stuff that’s really killing the industry as it exists now, who knows, maybe it’s possible that once the CD goes away and we’re just dealing with files, maybe that will actually revive the record industry, maybe, we’ll see. There’s a chance that it could work like that. Right now we’re in such an unsettled state; nobody knows really what the next step is going to be. I think that most people know that whatever is around the corner isn’t going to be pretty, but there are going to have to be ways to deal with it. There’s always that chance though that the record business could turn out to be like the railroad business because at one time, the railroads were flourishing and it was all about the railroads and now they’re very much diminished in what they accomplish and their purpose. They still exist, but only on a certain level.
You’ve worked with a wide range of artists over the years including the likes of David Lee Roth, Steve Morse, John Petrucci and Steve Walsh just to name a few. Out of all the amazing artists, is there anyone in particular you’re most proud of working with and why?
Peter: Hmm, boy that’s a good question. You know, I really… I really liked them all and um, I don’t think I have a favorite because I tell you, some of the guys have been tremendous, really great and it’s an honour to know them. And then others you know, it just isn’t the same, but I don’t think I have a favorite. Actually, there’s one guy that we worked with that’s probably the nicest, most intelligent guy that we’ve ever worked with in any one of our bands and ironically, his band probably sold the least CDs that we ever had for an artist so rather than identify him, I’ll just say that we’ve dealt with some really good people and it doesn’t always translate to sales. I’ll mention a couple of guys though who are real gentlemen. Jordan Rudess from Dream Theatre as is Alex Scoldnick and Steve Morse. All three are just great people.
One interesting component of Magna Carta is that in addition to promoting original artists, you have a huge line of tribute albums including tributes to bands like Rush and Yes. How did this idea to promote and release tribute records come about in the first place?
Peter: Well you know, there was kind of multi-level reasons behind it. One was that we felt that, and this was the early days of Magna Carta, if we were able to get some name artists on the same CD with our Magna Carta artists who were at that point unknowns, it would do a lot to cross promote our releases of our bands like Shadow Gallery. And um, we just thought it was a promotional vehicle. The other side of why we decided to release tribute albums was of course that when we were at the very beginning of the company, we needed to generate some income which you know you always have to generate in this business but that was also another reason behind it, I wouldn’t kid you about that. But the thing that we wanted to do with this was that when we did these tributes, we wanted them to make sense from a conceptual point of view and you know, make them for the fans.
When we did a tribute to Jethro Tull, we wanted to deal with only people that had some type of connection with Jethro Tull, either some of the people had been in the band, maybe they had been in a band that was a contemporary of Jethro Tull, maybe they had gone on tour with them and so on. We wanted to make sense from the musical standpoint; we wanted the artwork to tie into it. Like when we did the Yes tribute, and this was the early days of the internet, I kind of put out the word on the internet that I’d like to find an artist that was a Roger Dean style artist. Then I got an email from a guy who said well how about Roger Dean? I’m Roger Dean, can I help you? And I didn’t believe it was Roger Dean but it was Roger Dean and he did the cover for us. I wanted it to all make sense like that so we would labour and struggle with these things and I would always say “I’m never doing one of these tribute albums again” just because I was trying to find the right pieces and fit everything together and still stay within a financial budget that we can live with.
So we put these things out and we had success with them so other people said “wow that’s a good formula.” So they just started paying crazy money to people and doing things that didn’t necessarily make any sense, but they were able to do it just the same as we were. Maybe they didn’t try to take as much care with the details, but they put out these records, they sold a whole bunch of copies you know, they did well for themselves. But what ended up happening was that it killed that approach, too many people started to do it and we then couldn’t do it anymore because everyone else was doing it and it didn’t seem like it was a very good idea anymore for me.
Everything seems to be going strong for Magna Carta right now. Can you let us in on any new and exciting releases that we can expect from Magna Carta for the rest of the year and into 2008?
Peter: Yeah we have, starting in September a pretty solid release schedule that I’m happy about and it’s going to be interesting to see what is really happening in the marketplace at this point because we’ll know whether there’s any kind of future for this business I think once we put these records out. For us, in September we’re going to put an album by Jordan Rudess from Dream Theatre and this is an interesting record because Jordan has kind of gone back to his roots in progressive music and decided that he wanted to re-record some of the classic tracks by Genesis, King Crimson, Yes and Gentle Giant. So he’s gone and done this with a really outstanding cast of characters and he’s got some great people on this record like Neil Morse, Steven Wilson from Porcupine Tree, there’s Kip Winger from Winger singing on this and doing an amazing job. Bumblefoot from Guns N’ Roses playing guitar, Nick D Virgilio is singing on this, um, Ed Wynne playing guitar, Rod Morgenstein who has played drums for Jordan in the past is on here. Then a couple of European guitar players that maybe you do know and maybe you don’t know, an Italian guitarist by the name of Marco Sfogli and a German guitarist by the name of Ricky Garcia who plays with a big band in Germany, but not a metal band or anything like that, but he’s really an outstanding player. So there are a lot of people playing on this record and probably a couple of others that I’ve left off. Oh and the packaging, a great comic book artist by the name of David Mattingly is doing the cover art for this so really it’s a top quality record. From a musical standpoint, Jordan is unbelievable on this. So we feel like on the strength of the record and the fact that you know, Jordan’s association with Dream Theatre, I’m getting the impression that this new Dream Theatre album, maybe it’ll be their most successful album ever. And so I think there will be a lot of momentum and interest in Jordan at that time so that should be a really top notch record for us.
Then also in September, we’re going to put out a solo album by Steve Stevens. Steve is Billy Idol’s guitar player; he’s always been Billy Idol’s guitarist. He’s an incredible player who doesn’t always get an opportunity to show what he can do except in situations like this, Steve’s an amazing player so we’re doing a solo album with him. You know we’ve had Shadow Gallery on this label for four albums and we’re going to put out a compilation of some of the stuff that they had done for us on those four records called Prime Cuts and um, in addition to some of the songs that made up the four albums there’s also a new cut that had never been heard before. And the good part about this is that the band worked with us on this record, they selected all the songs, they sequenced them, they edited them, they contributed this new track and they approved this whole thing so I felt good about that. Then as part of our whole European thing, we signed a band out of Milan, Italy called Derdian. These guys came to our attention via Myspace because they had a site up there, they had a lot of really great music and there seemed to be a lot of interest in this band and so we began to communicate with them. It just so happened that they were in the middle of recording a new record, they had lost their label so we signed them and we’re going to release this album in the fall.
We have another label, an offshoot of Magna Carta, we call it Magnitude and on Magnitude we generally put bands that are not as heavy, not as progressive stuff, but generally have a great deal of musicianship associated with them. And sometimes these bands are sort of jam-band related or they’re sort of jazz/fusion related and that’s what we use the Magnitude label for, more roots, organic kind of sound. And we have a guitar player on that label who has begun to create a lot of interest, his name is Oz Noy. And ah, Oz Noy, he lives in New York City but he’s from Israel and he always has really great people playing with him, usually like Will Lee and Anton Fig, you know great rhythm sections so Oz has got a new record due in September. Then we also have more of a jazz/fusion thing, it’s also on Magnitude, Chic Corea had a band called The Electric Band and the players in that band were Dave Weckl, John Patitucci and Frank Gambale. Well the band that we have is called School of the Arts and this band consists of those three guys from the Chick Corea Electric Band and you know it’s very different because they decided that they would approach it from an acoustic point of view so they tried to use all acoustic instruments on the record. It has real ethnic sounding material on the record and it’s really tremendous playing so that’s School of the Arts. And then maybe a few other things that rear their heads before this is over, but we just felt like hey, we’re going to put our best stuff out that we can possibly put out in the fall and we need to find out what’s left of the record business. [ END ]