Let's play a game. Ready? The Ramones. The Talking Heads. Madonna. The Smiths. Depeche Mode. The Pretenders. Regina Spektor. Echo and the Bunnymen. The Cure. Tegan & Sara.
Now, does the name Seymour Stein ring a bell? It ought to. Madonna would still be a waitress at Dunkin' Donuts, David Byrne just a strange yelping man with a guitar, if not for Mr. Stein. Sure, you could throw around descriptors like grandfather of new wave, founder of Sire Records, a bonafide record man of the highest order with a talent-mining batting average that is off the charts---but of course, even these don't tell the whole story.
Stein, who will be giving the ECMW keynote address this week, has been in the music business since 1958---when he was just 14 years old. "I'm celebrating 45 years of being in the business," he says. "It's frightening, really." Originally from Brooklyn, he was hired on at Billboard while he was still in middle school, but it wasn't long before Syd Nathan, industry legend and founder of King Records, asked Stein to come work for him in Cincinnati. Stein was only 15 at the time and his concerned father asked to speak with Nathan about the job.
"My father said to him, you know, I just have one or two questions for you about the job, and Syd said, I have just one question for you: How much money do you have? My father was shocked. We were not rich---we were lower middle class at best---but we never went without anything, and my father started saying so. Syd interrupted him and said, 'Seymour has shellac in his veins. If you don't let him take this job, you're going to have to get him a newspaper route or something like that, because this is all he's good for,'" Stein says. "Well, my parents went home and started packing my bags."
But what makes Stein such a hero amongst heroes is his absurd, almost inconceivable aptitude for detecting the elusive "it"---whatever "it" is---that shoots musicians to worldwide infamy. Stein co-founded Sire with producer Richard Gottehrer in 1966, and signed The Ramones in the 70s after seeing them play at CBGB in New York. "People thought I was crazy when I signed The Ramones, and it took a long time for them to be recognized," he says. "But I never doubted for a minute that they would be."
Stein didn't stop there. In fact, he signed many of the brightest lights of the new wave genre: The Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure---and that was only in the 70s. The question he's no doubt been asked for decades: "BUT SEYMOUR... HOW?!?" proves fruitless. "I don't know," he says. "I started with nothing. I had nothing to lose, so I wasn't afraid to take chances, and if I believed in something, I would sign it."
In 1978 Stein sold Sire to Warner, but that didn't seem to slow him down. In the 1982, Stein signed Madonna while he was in the hospital after hearing about her from a DJ friend of his. These days, Stein is still on the hunt for the next big thing. "You never know where the next hit can come from. I search the internet and listen---the great thing about it is it's made more music readily available to listen to, so I love it for that," Stein says. "Music is very very powerful. It's a great thing, but it shouldn't be free."
Four decades and innumerable hits later, the charming Stein remains humble. "I just do what I do. I love to discover new music. I've had successes, I've had misses---probably more misses than successes---but it's because I'm not afraid to take chances. Just like a baseball player, if you bat 300 you're pretty good."
25th anniversary keynote address with Seymour Stein, Thursday, March 7, 1pm, Delta Halifax, Bluenose Room, 1990 Barrington, Free