Reprinted without permission from Rip, January
SILVER'S GOLDEN TOUCH
So what's it like to watch a band grow from their seedling stage to mammoth superstardom? Susan Silver knows, and in this month's Idol Chatter we were fortunate to garner an interview with the high profile but low key manager of such acts as Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. A native Seattleite, Susan is one of those rare music business people who is unjaded, patient and just plain nice. In short, there's not a negative adjective that can be applied to her. In a heavily male dominated sector of the industry, she's a savvy, forceful businessperson who has earned the respect of everyone she's worked with - on both the creative and business sides of music. She's also been there from the beginning for her bands. Long before we were crooning Man In The Box or Black Hole Sun, Susan was hearing those songs when they were just riffs in a rehearsal room. Now, thanks in part to her guidance, they can be heard on radios coast to coast, have sold gold and multiplatinum, and because of the many successes from the Emerald City, every eye stays firmly focused on the Seattle scene. Susan speaks about the genesis of her career with the same aplomb, confidence, professionalism and sense of fun that peppers her business dealings.
Early in my life I was inspired by the creative process. Music was definitely an important part of that. I did lots of volunteer work with large organizations and theater groups and things that involved music. I just basically started as a professional volunteer, and then in '80 a couple of friends started a club and I helped out at that. It was an all-ages club in '80,'81 and part of '82 called Metropolis. I learned a lot about all manner of things about putting on a show, the crowds and different people - we had all kinds of music in there, from reggae to punk to jazz to good ol' rock 'n' roll. I didn't have goals of being in the music business - in fact, I was studying Chinese [language] at the time. That was my goal at the time. In the back of my mind,I thought this would be a great thing to know and maybe someday I would be able to bring music to China. But at one point during the summer, one of the partners [in the club] was on vacation and the other ended up in the hospital. I was doing a full-time summer course in Chinese, but someone needed to run the club. That's pretty much the point where rock'n'roll stole my soul.
My parents were not really happy, I'm afraid. Although they were never very strict, they basically couldn't understand where this was going, I think.
After Metropolis was forced to close, I was putting shows on wherever I could find a venue, not working in a particular club. And then on bigger shows I was doing production work, whether it was running or catering, working in the production office - different aspects of working for the biggest promoters in town. The shows that I was putting on were, at the time, very underground. Shows like Soul Asylum, Faith No More, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth. I never worked for any record companies though. The only contact that I had with record companies was in the'70s, being an impressionable teenager and all the promotion people from the different record companies happened to live in this neighbourhood that I lived in. It was an easy call for me to say, "I wouldn't want to do that!" [laughing]. You have to remember the '70s were a strange time in history, let alone in music history.
I started managing in '83. The U-Men were the first, and then a group called The First Thought. A real pivotal moment for me was when a friend was working with one of the early and very influential bands in Seattle in the early '80s, called The Blackouts. They had moved away and had wanted to come back and put on a couple of shows in the area, and asked me to help them. Putting on these shows and working with the Blackouts, who happened to have a deal with Wax Trax!, was really a big moment for me, personally. I know that experience made a big difference in my wanting to pursue a career in the music business: putting on their shows definitely gave me this kind of confidence that I didn't have before - even though one of the shows was riddled with challenges that should probably have dissuaded me from taking one more step towards the music business.
The second of the two shows I helped put together for the band was in Olympia, 60 miles south of Seattle. The guy who booked the club was a classic stoner. He not only remembered very little of our original conversation regarding how the night was planned to unfold, but he was nowhere to be found when we got there the night of the show. There were several 'small' problems to contend with that night. Stoner Man ahd not only added a second opening band to the bill and told them they could play right before the Blackouts, but he had booked [ the LA band] 45 Grave to play after them. So 45 Grave sat outside the club in a Lincoln Continental that'd driven up from LA in, all the while I'm insisting that someone from the club please tell me how to get hold of Stoner Man. I now find out there is a strict curfew at this club because it was an all-ages venue and the place was going to need to be closed in three hours or the police would show up. In the end, all the bands but 45 Grave played and Stoner Man showed up during the show and tried to steal money from the door to pay them off since he personally had a contract with them. At the end of the night, he and I had a rather unpleasant exchange, but at least I felt better having let off some steam. I felt better, that was, until I got about 20 miles out of town and got pulled over for a burnt out tail light and realised I'd forgotten my purse. Ticket in hand, I drove back to the club and everyone was gone and the place locked. I called down to the club the next day and asked Stoner Man to give my purse to a friend from Olympia who was coming up to Seattle. Needless to say, my life savings of eighty-seven bucks wasn't in it when it arrived.
You'd think I'd have been discouraged, but I'm glad I wasn't. Three of the Blackouts went on to play with Al Jourgensen in Ministry. Paul Barker, the bass player, still does. I kept promoting - and always working a straight job, of course; none of this was a way to make a living. Then I met Soundgarden in '85 and started working with them in '86. I also managed Screaming Trees for three years. I met Kelly [Curtis - now manager of Pearl Jam] in '88. He had moved back to Seattle and I knew his friend Ken, with whom he had a production company. I rented office space from them. Ken was actually working with Alice In Chains and I'd been helping them out because I loved the band's music. Kelly, in the meantime, had started managing Mother Love Bone, and Ken decided he didn't want to manage any more, so he asked us if we wanted to co-manage Alice In Chains. That's how that happened.
When the bands and the Seattle scene started taking off, I had been at it for so long that it felt very natural - it was just 'this is another day in the life'. Not having been through it before, there wasn't the perspective to say,' Oh my God, we're in the eye of the hurricane.' It was just, 'This is what we do today. Okay, just one more thing. One more thing to accomplish today'. I guess the part that felt...the only thing that started to feel strange, this could be strange or this could be detrimental to people, was when the press started taking pot shots at people personally. Digging for dirt in the artists' private lives, being exploitative of the artist. That was the hardest part. Suddenly this private world that we had was public. Which was okay, that was exciting, except when the press got...when they looked for sensational avenues to report on. Which there wasn't for a long time. There really wasn't [any]. They had to keep coming back and saying, 'I guess all they know how to do up there is make amazing music'. Which is what continues to happen. The Seattle backlash and highly circulated reports that there was nothing new in Seattle after '93 just keep getting proved wrong again and again. I love that.
Chris [Cornell, Soundgarden's vocalist] and I got married in '90 and we've been together since '85. We learned, luckily, sort of early on, that we needed to make time for business and that I couldn't bring business home every day, as was my inclination. It was such an exciting time time for me in the late-eighties and early-nineties; they were pretty unbelievable. Just to feel things brewing in the late-eighties without having the goal of ' we're gonna make this into an international superstardom'. But just that it was growing and we were all gathering experience and momentum. And those were really exciting times that I wanted to talk about twenty-four hours a day. I needed to learn not to bring business home so I wouldn't strictly represent business every time I walked in the door. [Chris and I] just created boundaries. Our relationship is a little-known secret because it's nobody's fuckin' business [laughing]!
Right now, we [Susan Silver Management] are managing Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. Christine Shaklee, who has worked with me for the last six years, manages Sweet Water for my company [who are on Elektra Entertainment].
We have an unsigned group called Inflatable Soule, who just went on their first west coast tour. After their gig in southern Oregon, they pulled up to a below-reasonably-priced motel, the six folks in the back ducked down and the driver went in and woke up the desk clerk and checks himself and a band member smiling in from the passenger seat, into a double room. Business done, they pull around back and start sleepily unloading and rearranging the room to accomodate them all ( double beds easily hold four if you put the mattress on the floor). As the last band member gets out of the van and starts walking towards the room, he stops suddenly and starts cracking up. There, about four rooms down, is a surveillance camera pointed right towards him and the van, he knows they are flat out busted. By the time he got into the room and everyone else figured out what the hell he was saying between laughs, the night clerk was at the door wanting an explanation. In this particular case, all they had to do was rent another room. It was a classic road experience.
Also, I am in the process of talking with the first band I've considered working with that aren't from Seattle. A band called Sponge, they're from Detroit [on Work/Sony]. Their first record came out in August '94 and they have been on the road non-stop since. I'm finding them incredibly motivated and highly creative, which in turn is motivating for me. Also, the more I listen to their record the more it keeps giving. It's a really beautiful and accomplished piece.
The best part of being a manager is working around amazing artists and watching amazing art get created. Not just watching, but being able to be a part of great art and great history. What's more is being able to help creative people whom I respect reach for their goals - creative goals and then professional goals - there's nothing more satisfying. The hardest part of being a manager is being helpless to other people's self-destruction. But I'm lucky, really, I mean, look at what I do. I get to work with great artists and, for the most part, I've had really good experiences with record companies. I get to bring three of my five beloved dogs with me to my office every day. There's always room to complain, but why? There was a commercial that ran during the baseball playoffs, it showed [LA Dodger catcher] Mike Piazza working with kids with serious and terminal illnesses. In the commercial he says, 'What have I got to complain about? These kids give me a reaon to go out there and do better.' Pretty inspiring. That sums it up for me.