Interview conducted by Alex. Published on 2/8/2012.
Most hardcore and metal fans probably don't know who Ash Avildsen is. But there's a good chance he put out one of their favorite albums, put on a show they've attended, or manages one of their favorite artists. Avildsen owns or is a key player in such operations as Sumerian Records, the Summer Slaughter Tour, The Pantheon Agency, and Thrash and Burn. Yet Avildsen continues branching out, recently opening a record store in California and currently dabbling in the world of television and film. Why wouldn't we want to interview this guy?
Sumerian Records. The Sphinx is Real. Or so you say. Why Sumer? What's the significance of the name?
The Sphinx is used for the logo, which is Egyptian… but the name, well… Years ago I became completely fascinated with the ancient Sumerians. They were an incredibly advanced BC civilization. They invented the wheel and were the first to discover/understand the 360 degree circle. They knew about all the planets before there was ever a telescope and the double-helix DNA symbol before there was ever a microscope. Most religious people don't know that the book of Genesis was originally written on Sumerian tablets before it was translated in to Hebrew and other languages. Sumer was Mesopotamia. Coincidence? It is said that the Sumerians went from a primitive tribespeople living in huts to an advanced culture with theatre, art, mathematics, dance, clothing, calendars and music... virtually overnight. They credit this advancement to contact from extraterrestrials. Music was a very big part of their culture and was one of the main curriculums in their schools. Ancient Sumerian music.
I recently saw that Sumerian Records has surpassed the 500,000 milestone in sales. Congrats on that. To date, what are the three top-selling Sumerian releases?
Thanks a lot man. We're now over 800,000 and on schedule to break a million in 2012. Top 3 sales-wise:
Asking Alexandria - "Stand Up And Scream" and "Reckless & Relentless"
I See Stars "3D" is third with Born of Osiris and The Faceless very close behind.
Looking back, was there a key moment that ensured Sumerian's future success? A decision you made that could have had drastically different results had you gone the other way?
There hasn't been one isolated incident or decision that guaranteed our success, but having The Faceless be the first release was definitely a crucial move in launching the label. Having Stick To Your Guns be the second release was a key moment too, as it let people know we were dedicated to underground music but immediately diversified Sumerian.
I remember waiting almost a year after that before releasing anything else because I wanted the third Sumerian band to be an act that was totally doing their own thing independent from everything else going on in the scene. That band ended up being Born Of Osiris and the album was "The New Reign" which was a very pivotal and influential record. Kids weren't ready for it as I remember it started off very slow and it wasn't until 9 months after it came out that it truly started to catch and go on to make the serious impact that it did. There is something to be said for not putting out too many records each year to where we're able to give focused energy to each band and album rather than always having several releases come out each month
I know this is a difficult question for any label owner to answer, but what has been the most disappointing Sumerian release for you thus far? Not in the sense that you didn't like it, but in the sense that the public didn't give the album the recognition that you thought it deserved?
Dead Letter Circus, an absolutely incredible rock band. Their song "The Design" is one of my favorite songs of 2011 and their album "This is The Warning" is my favorite record from 2011. They are massive in Australia but are slowly and organically building in North America. For fans of Karnivool, Deftones, Tool.
Does the Sumerian machine generate more income from management, booking, or album sales?
Album sales. The label is not involved in booking. I was an agent for years before I started Sumerian. The Pantheon Agency [the booking agency run by Avildsen] is a completely separate entity from Sumerian Records.
I recently stumbled upon a photo of you on Facebook that had a caption calling you "writer/director"... what's that about? Is there something we should know?
I believe you're talking about a picture of myself and Frankie Nasso. This is referring to me as the writer and him as the director. We've been working on a lot of projects together recently. I created the storyline/wrote the script for the Asking Alexandria "To The Stage" three-part video saga. He is the director I chose to work with on it and I couldn't have asked for a more brilliant person to team up with on the project, as he has truly been able to recreate the vision I had in my head for each scene, on film. We shot the prequel and sequel videos over Halloween weekend and will be releasing them in the new year. Now more than ever, bands need to focus on building their own identities and legacies beyond just being a group of guys who go on tour, play shows and make albums. We will be debuting the full "15 minute short film" that sees all 3 videos played together with an intro and an ending at SXSW this year. AA fans love the video for "To The Stage" and are going to really freak out when they see the prequel and sequel for it that all go together like a mini-movie. Frankie's camera work and editing is some of the best in the business. It's cool to see kids who say even though they don't listen to the band, they still love and respect the cinematography work and quality of the music video. Here's a link.
We've also been working together on a new television show called "The Warrior Show" which is Sports Entertainment Legend, The Ultimate Warrior leading an extreme motivational mind/body/soul work-out combining intensity, passion, comedy and inspiration.
The first two episode previews are:
The Warrior Show / Asking Alexandria
The Warrior Show / I See Stars
So how on Earth did you get Asking Alexandria a recent spot opening for Guns N' Roses?
I submitted them for it and did the best I could convincing the GNR camp that they were worthy of the direct support spot and a good look for the show. The craziest part of it all was I got the call saying they wanted them literally less than 24 hours before doors opened. I was riding my bike along the beach in Venice with my close friend and fellow Pantheon agent Dan Rozenblum. We immediately pulled over, sat down to eat at the Sidewalk Cafe, ordered a couple beers to celebrate the offer coming in and then began the insane grind to figure out how to get the guys from Orlando to NYC in time to make the show, where to rent all their gear from in the city and a lot of other logistical time-sensitive nightmares.
Did Axl have to approve?
Yes, Axl has to approve all openers. GNR is one of my favorite bands of all-time so it was definitely a moment I will remember forever.
Invariably, whenever we post something about you or your label, a handful of people say something like, "this endeavor was funded with Karate Kid money." It's no secret that your father is Oscar winning director John Avildsen. As such, many people are under the impression that you've had the advantage of his connections and money. Please set the record straight.
Many people who see others succeed on a higher level than their own lives want to make excuses for why that person had an "advantage" over them or a specific crutch/reason for their success. I have no relationship whatsoever with my father. There is zero truth to any of his "connections" helping me in my career. Some of his movies are my favorite films of all time like Rocky, Lean on Me and The Power of One - and these films inspired me when I was growing up - but that's it. I remember before I was an agent, before I was touring in a band or had started Sumerian - I was an independent promoter in DC/MD/VA. I started getting bigger bands that wanted me to do their shows in the area because I was doing a good job and kids on local message boards immediately associated this with who my father was saying that was the reason, as if he was somehow getting bigger bands to book through me by being a movie director. LOL!!!!! I've dealt with this for years.
He did pay child support when I was a teenager which funded me going to a military school from 7th-12th grade and my experience there definitely helped my abilities with independence, leadership and determination which would go on to benefit what I was able to do in my career. But he played zero part in any direct way whether it was me graduating as Class President from the military school, getting accepted into good colleges or starting Sumerian in 2006. I graduated high school when I was 17 and went to Georgia Tech from 99-00. He paid for my first year of college but I turned 18 during my freshman year and then the child support stopped, so I could no longer afford to go there. Instead of trying to take out college loans to get in debt and pay for my sophomore year, I decided to drop out of college, follow my heart and pursue music.
I would love to meet my father one day.
Since you had no relationship with your father, I'm guessing that your mother has been a big part of your life and the success you've had?
She has been very supportive throughout my life as I've chased my dreams. She is a true grinder when it comes to working your ass off to accomplish things. I definitely inherited her work ethic. When I first started the label in a tiny Venice Beach apartment and was basically a one man west coast operation, she would help run the mail order. I remember her packing up tons of orders for The Faceless every day and bringing them to the post office. She has also served as a tour mom over the years for Sumerian bands when they are in LA and stayed over at my old houses. Cooking and cleaning for them, all that fun motherly stuff. :)
Has there been a band that Sumerian passed on that in hindsight you really wish you had signed?
Not passed on, specifically. There have been a couple bands that were reaching out to us who we ended up liking but we didn't seriously look in to until it was too late.
On the other sign of the coin, have there been any bands that you really tried to sign that you just couldn't land? Name names!
Yeah, I've been trying to re-issue Poison The Well's "The Opposite of December" and "Tear From The Red" for over a year now as they haven't been available for quite some time ever since they had the big falling out with Trustkill.
Outside of that, time will tell over the next couple months as we go after some of my favorite older bands for new albums.
You have a partner, Jeff Cohen. What role does he play in your organization? Is it strictly on the financial end?
His main role in the organization is to deal with all the legal stuff, accounting, taxes, insurance, healthcare, etc. Basically all the headaches that would take away from my time to focus on the bands and the creative side of the label. He has been my attorney for years before I started Sumerian. I met him in DC where I grew up. He always had my back in the business ever since he started managing my band before we were even signed. I always appreciated knowing that he was the entertainment attorney for big acts like Lamb of God and Van Halen but still made time for me when I was just a little guy. A true team player. I remember one time we were on tour with Strapping Young Lad and Misery Signals and our van broke down in upstate New York. He rented a mini-van and drove it up to NYC where our next show was to make sure we could stay on the tour.
Over the years, we have become very close friends. I started the label in a tiny one bedroom Venice Beach apartment when I was living month to month on not a lot of money. I told him I was starting Sumerian and asked if he would be my
partner. He put up some of his own money along with his credit line so we could support our bands at a real label level from day one without racking up credit card debt to keep them on the road. In a time when labels were going under, he still had complete faith in my vision and talent. I am happy to be able to say his investment in me has truly paid off in a big way. Above all, he has become a dear friend over the years and I value having him in my life
Years ago (circa 2006), I had just signed Lye By Mistake to Lambgoat's record label, but shortly thereafter I found out you were also interested in the band for Sumerian. In retrospect, your ability to get them better tours probably would have made all of the difference for them. How much of your capacity to sign (and keep) bands has to do with their reliance upon you for touring and booking?
My credibility and leverage as an agent when I first started the label definitely helped influence some bands to sign. But these days it's Sumerian's brand power, creative engine and reputation for being incredibly artist friendly that makes bands want to sign to the Sphinx.
Sumerian albums cannot be streamed on Spotify. What would Spotify have to change for you to get back on board?
I like Spotify and I use it from time to time to stream music. I appreciate the company and the convenience of the software. All of our bands will be available to be listened to on Spotify but not their entire albums. A few tracks per record will be the standard for us. The rest will be available on YouTube for free. Spotify would have to treat Sumerian and the other independent labels who have pulled out (Metal Blade, Prosthetic, etc.) with comparable rates to the
The reason why major labels have their catalogues on there is because they got big buy-outs and equity in Spotify in order to play ball. For the rest of us, it's basically "hey, put all your albums on our service, we'll give you some pennies, but because we're embedded in Facebook we'll tell you this is good for your artists' careers and to just take it in the chin." I pride myself on being able to support my bands every step of the way in their career as their record label. Music videos, album budgets, tour support, real marketing, personal advances and much more.
The day I let every Sumerian album be streamed front to back for pennies while a third party charges people subscriptions to exploit my artists' music will be the day when Sumerian and my artists get treated equally to the majors. Otherwise, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That doesn't work for independent musicians and it doesn't work for me.
If one of my bands call me in the middle of El Paso Texas saying their transmission blew and there's no way they can make it to the next show of tour, I'll be damned if I respond with "sorry man, Spotify check was only $28 this month and you need $2,800. I don't know what we're going to do." Listening to an album front to back is a special experience. Fans will support the bands they love and Sumerian will support the bands we love.
How is everything going with your record store, Soundcheck Hollywood? Is the store actually turning a profit?
It's a labor of love that I started with Amanda Fiore and Matt Andersen from Pantheon, and Shawn Keith from Sumerian. The location was just too perfect, being in the heart of the most important street in rock music history. Customers are loving the inside of the store and so are the artists who have been doing appearances, signings and performances there.
We definitely sell more t-shirts than we do CDs but that's just the nature of the biz right now. There are days where we make money and there are days where we lose money. It all depends on how many walk-ins we get, what shows are happening on the Sunset strip that night, etc. Naturally, the best days are when we have events going on inside.
The store hasn't profited yet because of all the start-up expenses to get it properly setup the way we wanted it. I didn't realize how much money it really does cost to open up a retail store and do it right, but we wanted the vibe of the inside to be very special and I think we are capturing that. We had the logo painted on the front of the building, white on black. All the shirts are in epic looking frames hung on the walls. The CDs are displayed in massive road cases. The "backstage" area where the signings take place has some really cool furniture. It's going to be a good while before we fully recoup the investment but that just comes with the territory when you put a lot of heart in to a new venture like a store.
What can we expect from Sumerian in 2012?
New records from: I See Stars, Veil Of Maya, T.R.A.M., Stick To Your Guns, I The Breather, Make Me Famous, Upon A Burning Body, Periphery, The Faceless, After The Burial, Born of Osiris, Asking Alexandria and more. It will be our biggest year ever.
In addition to great new albums, look out for some awesome TV shows and an independent movie that is based on true events. Maybe I'll end up being really successful with film and then people can blame by bloodline for why it happened… which hey - I'm fine with that. I love my dad's work whether he chooses to have me be a part of his life or not. One day…
Do you believe in God?
I believe in Karma, God and Love. I believe in PMA - Positive Mental Attitude. I believe we are spiritual beings having human experiences, not the other way around. These beliefs help me every day and have played a big part in my career.
Any final words or thoughts?
Set goals each year. Chase your dreams. Trust your gut instinct. If you feel strongly about something, don't be afraid to speak your mind, even if that means you have to disagree with what your peers think. Make time to exercise and eat healthy as it will help you in every aspect of your life. Most importantly, make sure you let your family and best friends know that you love them. Don't let the digital world consume you. Life is really short and as you grow older, time goes by a lot faster. Carpe Diem.
Thank you Lambgoat for the interview. A big thank you to everyone in the music community who supports the bands and music they love. If you're still reading this, thank you for your time and attention. Here's a quote for the road:
"If I should ever die, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music." - Kurt Vonnegut
Comments for this interview are disabled. If you have something to say, say it here.