Tastemaker and A&R man Bruce Ravid on staying fresh

Bruce Ravid Bio2

Bruce Ravid. // photo courtesy Bruce Ravid

During his stint with Capitol Records as an A&R person in the ’80s, Bruce Ravid helped the label sign The Knack and worked with the likes of Iron Maiden, Duran Duran, Missing Persons, The Motels, Weird Al Yankovic, The Church, Thomas Dolby, Kraftwerk, Delbert McClinton, and The Undertones.

Musically, it’s an embarrassment of riches and demonstrates just how much first-hand knowledge Ravid has regarding artists’ potential.

Currently, Ravid hosts the weekly radio show, Go Deep with Bruce Rave–“a current music show featuring emerging rock”–and the short-form podcast, “Rave’s Indie Radar, wherein he “debuts emerging indie tracks on their release day each Friday.”

We were excited to hop on a Zoom call with Ravid from his home in Sherman Oaks a couple of weeks back to discuss just how to find new music and what still excites him after all these years.

The Pitch: How did your time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison influence your tastes?

Bruce Ravid: The best career move I could have possibly made–and I had no idea was going to be a career move–was remaining music director of the radio station for three years. They kept wanting to promote me to program director and I really didn’t want to be PD. Because I was in that position for three years, I really got to know the labels.

Capitol Records would call me once a week to discuss their albums and to could cover what we were doing for airplay and they said, “Hey, we have a position in Chicago. Would you be interested in coming down and interviewing for it?” I was all set to get an MBA out of USC. My life would’ve been completely different, but of course, arm twisted. Then I went down to Chicago and wound up getting the job.

A&R and discovering music have changed so much. How has discovering bands for your show changed from your time at college radio, where you have this pipeline of albums just showing up–especially given that they were actual albums, as opposed to this flood gate that is Spotify on any given day?

Oh, I know. It’s obviously incredibly different. As a matter of fact, the number of physical CDs sent to me is much fewer than it probably would have been even just a few years ago. We’ve seen how drastically the music business is than it was back then. There was no TikTok back then and metrics rule everything now.

In college radio and in the earlier parts of my doing radio, a lot of it was just the physicals that were sent to me and now, almost everything I get–and I probably got 150 tracks a week to consider for my radio show–all the promotion companies that send me material, it’s mostly files, which is obviously very convenient. If they want to send me a physical CD, I’ll give it that extra listen, but obviously, there’s less and less than that.

I know from the artist management side, it’s pretty expensive to send a physical CD all over the place. You wonder what kind of return on investment you’re going to get for that. I listen to everything. I really pay attention to the focus tracks that are suggested to me just because of time limitations. I have certain places I go to see what’s coming out. I’ve already looked at a couple of places this morning to see that, for example, there’s a new Black Keys song out and a new Bloc Party album is already getting promoted.

I try to do that first thing in the morning. I look around and see what happened overnight and what’s happening first thing today.

Because this is your own project and you have an extraordinary amount of latitude in determining what goes on either the podcast or the radio show, what are the things that make you click away from whatever you’re reading and then just sit there, really listening?

I have a three times a week listening process. In the first two, I’m a fitness fanatic, so the first couple of times I’m going through maybe 50 songs that I’ve set aside, I’m also doing things at the time. I’m listening for things that are going to really hit my ears. Then I have one time where I walk around my neighborhood one evening, Monday or Tuesday, with the good headphones. So I’m really paying attention.

I try to give songs the best possibility, but I have to feel they kind of fit the sound of what I’m doing. Most of what I play both on the podcast and on the radio show are well-known artists, but they’re going to be the less-familiar tunes. I’m not going to play a song that they’re going to hear everywhere else, unless it just came out. It might get one spin.

For example, the new Arcade Fire song that came out this week? I think a lot of people are going to want to hear that. Then, I probably won’t need to keep playing it, ’cause I’ll look for deeper tracks on the album.

Listening to the show, while you’ll feature different tracks–especially on the podcast–what’s interesting to note is that someone can tell when you’ve locked into an artist that you really like. You’ve played a lot of Wet Leg, for instance. It’s fun and we appreciate the fact that listening to your programs, one can tell right away that you’ve found a new favorite.

I think about that. I don’t want to repeat something too much. The podcast, I look at as the tip of the iceberg for someone on a Friday or over a weekend, says, “Hey, I want to see what’s out and what’s new.” If they like the uptempo melodic sound of what I do, I want them to come to me, but I do think about that: “Geez, I’ve played a whole lot of Wet Leg and I don’t want to overburden the listener,” especially when I’m getting four songs a week into a 20-minute episode.

At the same time, I kind of figure Wet Leg’d been on everybody’s lips since their first song last year. They literally came out of nowhere, so I think there’s a lot of curiosity about a band like that.

Going back to that mention of TikTok earlier, especially given that you spent so many years with bands that are now cornerstones of music history, what do you think of TikTok being this place where old songs are being rediscovered?

The example that I give is “Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac, which became huge again for a while. If we’re talking about college radio, it’s interesting that a lot of current college students who have radio shows are playing older music. I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest in all the music. Whether I’m interviewing an artist from England or talking to a college kid here in the United States, they’re heavily influenced by and like their parents’ music.

COVID put a wrench in the plans of many show-going people, but do you try to make it out to see these bands live as much as possible to get another perspective and angle on them?

I was emailing somebody, waiting for our interview to start, about how many more shows they are. One of the promotion people was talking to me about one of their bands that will be coming through town. I can’t possibly go out every night. There’s not enough time, but especially if I’ve never seen a band, I try to go out and see what they’re up to.

I went to South by Southwest, which many people didn’t go to this year, but those that did–I think were glad they went. I probably saw 30 bands, including Wet Leg and other bands that I loved that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about. It gives me a lot more insight into what they’re doing. Of course, sometimes it’s a gamble. If a band isn’t as good as their album, I have to admit maybe the level of enthusiasm drops a little bit, but I think going to shows is an integral part of what we do. I plan to do it on a highly moderate level, let’s say.

Your shows have a mix of bands that we’re maybe only familiar with from PR emails ourselves, but also, there’s some Jack White in there and Superchunk and Johnny Marr, where you’re mixing in what might be called the legacy acts of the indie and alt-rock scenes. Is that seeing if they’re still relevant, for lack of a better term?

I have a specific niche, is I think the best way I can describe that. I look for uptempo and melodic. I have found that my audience is varied in terms of age groups. I go everywhere, from high school kids to boomers. I am probably a little bit influenced by music that I’ve been listening to for decades, including music I worked with back when I was in A&R.

I play a fair amount of electronic stuff that sounds like it could have come from the ’80s. There was this Brooklyn band I loved, Nation of Language, who reminds me of new order. They felt their latest album was more related to the late ’70s, and I listened to it again and go, “Wow. That’s Kraftwerk. That’s right.”

The best way to describe it is that I look for things that will fit a sound, and I want to be what I call the “second stage.” In other words, “Oh, there’s a new Johnny Marr song out. He’s pretty cool. I wonder what it sounds like?”

I try to fill that curiosity.

Bruce Ravid’s radio show and podcast can be found on his website.

Categories: Music