Veteran Music Publicist Cary Baker to Retire After 42 Years (EXCLUSIVE)
Cary Baker has had a distinct niche in music publicity for a good portion of the 42 years he’s worked in the field. To skip past the list of the genres and subgenres he championed, starting with his helping establish R.E.M. as a superstar act, and past a recent boutique roster of high-quality clients that always felt as curated as a good playlist, his wheelhouse might most easily be boiled down to this: “I tended to represent artists who were very NPR-able,” he says.
But come March 18, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” will have one less publicist’s pitches to consider. The L.A.-based Baker is hanging up his shingle and shutting down Conqueroo, the independent music PR firm he founded in 2004, and officially retiring.
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“I’ll be done with music publicity,” Baker tells Variety. “I think that I’ve really kind of covered it after 42 years. You know, working for six labels” — prior to going indie, he headed up PR departments for, among others, I.R.S. and Capitol — and representing artists that won “many Grammys, many, many Americana Awards and many, many Blues Music Awards, and attending 30 South by Southwests and 20 AmericanaFests. I just really feel like I’m ready to switch gears.” With a background in rock journalism in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before he shifted into publicity full-time (a muscle he kept active by penning some of his company’s bios and press releases), he’s looking at writing books in his post-PR life, though he hasn’t settled on a specific project yet.
“Conqueroo wasn’t just me,” he emphasizes. Employees Wendy Brynford-Jones, Brian O’Neal and Julie Arkenstone will each be establishing their own indie PR footprints and be taking some clients with them, while others will be going with Missing Piece Group as part of a referral deal. (“I’ve known Michael Krumper, the owner, for 35 years, and he’s a mensch. It’s like a slightly bigger version of Conqueroo.”)
To see his roster disperse almost feels like a very idiosyncratic label with fairly specific tastes coming to an end. Explaining the types of artists he represented, Baker says, “I might be the only person on earth who loves everybody from Billy Joe Shaver to Cheap Trick to Nils Lofgren to the Mavericks to the Muffs, but that’s kind of my skew. It doesn’t make any sense to anyone else, but it does to me: Americana, blues, power pop, classic rock, a little bit of indie-rock, up to a point — if it got too millennial, I had other excellent publicists I would refer to — and a little bit of jazz. Growing up in Chicago, I was immersed in blues, and I did Bobby Rush’s publicity for the last several albums. And representing the Omnivore label for several hundred releases over 10 years kept me on my toes, because they are absolutely omnivorous and there isn’t anything decent they won’t lend an ear to.”
As much of an omnivore as Baker has been musically, he admits that dedication to his work has kept him from experiencing as much of the world as he might have before now.
“I’m 66 and I’ve never been to Europe, and I consider myself kind of under-traveled in general, because I’ve just never really had the time,” he says. “It’s been my trademark to start work every morning at 6:30 a.m. in whatever time zone we’re in. And after working really seven days a week all this time, I’m exhausted. Finally, during the pandemic, as I said, I had a moment of reflection and spoke with my wife, Sharon (Bell), and I think we decided that, yeah, let’s do some math, and I think we can maybe pull this off, oddly enough. So on the spring solstice, March 21, life will be different. I don’t know what it’s like to go to a matinee on a Tuesday, or LACMA on Wednesday.” He’s always had a thing for structure that didn’t allow him, even as the head of a company with several employees, to play hooky on a workday. “So I’m kind of excited and terrified at the same time.”
In the press release he’s drafted to go out next week, Baker says he’ll sleep in, after years of making “Music publicity since 6:30 this morning” Conqueroo’s official slogan. But he admits in conversation that that may not exactly be in the forecast, even if it’s the lazy thought that counts.
“I’m a bit of an insomniac, so I actually wake up quite a bit earlier, anyway,” Baker says, “but I amble out of bed at about 6:20, pour cold brew coffee every day — I’m a cold brew freak — and get to work. I just kind of like starting that early and I work till 6 at night. I kept stringent work hours, and working at home, I closed the door and went to work and never saw the living room until nightfall as I got in there and focused. It’s great work but it has had a little bit of a burnout factor as the only life I’ve known, 42 years’ worth. Whatever lurks beyond, I’m ready for.”
Heading his own company has been his dream job, but there was one so-called corporate gig that came pretty close.
“I would say that the most joyous job I ever had that was a job-job was at I.R.S. Records, and it was a magical time,” he recalls. “I got the offer in the middle of a Chicago winter, which I’m not a huge fan of. They wanted me out there in L.A. immediately, so I gave notice to my landlord. packed two suitcases, put the rest on a slow truck and came on an airplane Feb. 24, 1984, to work the next day on setting up a triumvirate of albums. Those pretty much set the tenor for the next four years: R.E.M.’s ‘Reckoning,’ the Go-Go’s’ ‘Talk Show’ and the Alarm’s ‘Declaration,’ and I think a Let’s Active album, ‘Cypress,’ as well. That was just an amazing time. I was 28 and just really loved and bonded with the bands. I helped get the dB’s signed; not to take away from Michael Plen or Jay Boberg, who also tried to get them on the label, but I was setting roadblocks in front of Jay’s office: ‘Have we signed the dB’s yet?’ So I felt that I had real input.”
Later, in talking with Jefferson Holt, R.E.M.’s manager, he found out that just how much the nascent band had liked him when Baker interviewed the then couch-sleeping group for a local publication in Illinois. He felt sure that he came off as a “blithering idiot.” Turned out they dug the blither: “Jefferson said, ‘You know why you got this job, Cary, don’t you? Because we put in a good word.’” He was able to return the favor by getting them their first “SNL” gig and the covers of Rolling Stone and Spin, which remain framed on his home-office wall. Baker was “heartbroken,” but understood, when the band left that indie label for Warner Bros.
Soon he was taking a corporate turn, too, as head of PR for Capitol, where he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt. “I remember being told one day at Capitol that Tina Turner was as in town and would like to meet me at half past noon — I’ll never forget the ‘half past noon’ — at her cottage at the Sunset Marquis, where she told there’s only one thing she wants to do in her campaign, and that’s an interview with such-and-such writer at Vanity Fair… and that’s it. Well, that’s easy. Cool! I remember a Beastie Boys party that we threw on the rooftop of the Capitol tower. It was all amazing” — except for the office politics that had him headed out the door. Subsequently moving to head up indie label PR departments, he enjoyed his time at the short-lived Morgan Creek music offshoot, and “Enigma and Discovery, not so much, although at Discovery I thought we were really in the middle of making something happen there when there was a regime change and I was out. But by then I was used to that. And I decided I didn’t want to go through that revolving door again.”
His answer to that was starting up the Baker Northrop Media Group with Sheryl Northrop, which lasted for seven years before he decided to go truly solo with Conqueroo. Some of his clients were truly long-term, like singer-songwriter James McMurtry, whom he worked with on 10 albums over a period of the last 18 years. When McMurtry signed a contract with New West Records, he had it written in that Baker would do his publicity and resisted the label’s insistence that they had perfectly good in-house PR with a take-it-or-leave-it response.
Baker is proud of the final round of records he’s working this year. “My last project is an album of rediscovered music by 1930s bluesman Son House that he recorded in the ‘60s, coming out on Dan Auerbach’s label. I decided that would be a very me kind of project to go out with. There’s also an Omnivore release that day, April March, a kind of Franco-American pop sensation, and then the Hoodoo Gurus the week prior, so those are really my last three ever.”
Other clients in recent years have included Chris Hillman, Nils Lofgren, Willie Nile, Janiva Magness, Kinky Friedman, Rodney Crowell, Nils Lofgren, Paul Kelly, Colin Hay, Peter Himmelman, Ruthie Foster, Van Dyke Parks, Dan Penn, Swamp Dogg, Freedy Johnston, Marshall Crenshaw, Tommy Keene and Cidny Bullens, along the Concord/Craft, BMG and Bear Family labels, and the reunion of his old friends from I.R.S. days, the dB’s. Going forward, he says, “I’m keeping one client, and it’s the one client that doesn’t pay me, the Wild Honey Foundation.” That pro bono work is for the autism charity that puts on high-profile benefit/tribute concerts in L.A. annually. “Anything I can do for them, I want to do. It’s my fraternity, my family, my mishpucha, and I’m going to keep my lists up to date just for that reason.”
Talking about changes in his business, Baker — who in pre-publicity days wrote for Billboard, Bomp, the Illinois Entertainer and Creem, among others — admits a lingering fondness for print. “I come from newspapers and magazines. I like blogs because they’re a little like newspapers and magazines. But there there’s been a preponderance, a surfeit, of podcasts of late, and God bless all of them. It’s an interesting medium., I’m besieged with calls from every last podcast, and sometimes when I look them up and they have 13 Twitter followers, I think, is this really worth my artists’ while? But I’ve been a trooper and I’ve incorporated podcasts.”
He continues, “This last month I was offered a chance to premiere and announce an NFT. I know a little — the initials didn’t throw me — but the guy explained it to me: ‘It’s ownership. You can have a JPEG of the Mona Lisa — you buy it and it’s yours.’” Baker said he thinks of ownership as being more like CDs or vinyl, whereas: “How is this really different from an MP3? And he actually had an answer to that. But I thought, first of all, I have to tell him that I’m folding tent in a month, but secondly, maybe I’m doing so at the right time. NFTs are just not a configuration that I will have ever worked, and that’s probably OK.”
As print journalism goes, he says: “They just don’t make the Bob Hilburns, the Joel Selvins, the Jon Pareleses, the Michael McCalls and the Bob Oermanns anymore. Which isn’t to say that the new generation doesn’t rock, and in fact we now have a more diversified representation with obviously more female writers and writers of color, and great ones. Those kinds of changes I applaud. But the evisceration of newspapers, I lament. The conglomeration of daily papers is depressing, which is why I’m grateful to have even a diminished Los Angeles Times. When you have an artist slogging through in an Econoline, going from South Bend to Grand Rapids, when they get to Grand Rapids there used to be a music writer there, John Sinkevics, and he’s long gone. What do you do for those artists ? You look for a little blog or see if there’s morning TV, but it’s really not the same as a newspaper interview. I was in journalism school and came up in newsrooms, and I miss that a bit, especially amid all the podcasts. I really liked the DIY aspect of podcasts and blogs, too — it just isn’t where my heart is.”
Courtesy Cary Baker
On the other hand, as bad as things have gone in some ways for traditional music publicists, he’s seen a huge upswing in the respect for publicists over his career span.
“Once upon a time, publicity used to be a very ancillary function of the record label team or the music marketing team. We were considered Bobbi Flekmans from ‘Spinal Tap.’ I could say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a story in the L.A. Times, and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, Cary. Now, what are we doing on radio? Oh, we got WBCN in Boston? Now we’re talking.’ Even at I.R.S., which placed a value on publicity, radio promotion was always ahead of us. I think I realized that when I pulled my rusted-from-Chicago-winters Nissan Sentra up alongside Charlie Minor’s Rolls Royce in the A&M lot and I thought, ‘I get it.’ Even at Capitol, we were always kind of the bastard stepchild.
“But it’s really kind of come to fruition as now there are senior vice presidents or executive vice presidents of publicity at labels,” he continues. “They’re paid, I have to assume, probably on par with radio, which has kind of come down in the world now that there are so many other means of exposure. But to get a premiere place in Rolling Stone or NPR has some cache and translates directly to people clicking through to YouTube or Spotify. And that directly affects artists’ bottom line and it’s not just ‘impressions.’ I think that a lot of artists hire publicity before they even hire radio. And after being on NPR’s ‘Weekend Edition,’ suddenly an artist that might’ve had an Amazon rank of 27,000 on Friday is suddenly on Saturday morning finding themselves at No. 4 on Amazon. So I’m glad I lived long enough and worked long enough to see publicity glean added respect, and now it’s time to turn it over to the next gen.”
Baker identifies with a certain subset of publicist. “I think I brought something to publicity, having been a journalist myself and being a bit of a music historian. Bob Merlis (of Warner Bros.) comes to mind as another one,” and he reels off a list of names that includes Heidi Robinson, Marilyn Laverty and Mitch Schneider. “I think press respected us because we could write, we were literate, we knew our history, and if you had lunch with us, it wasn’t going to be all surface level — we might be talking about the ‘Nuggets’ collection or something. I think I carved my own niche, though I don’t want to say that I’m alone in that. Bob Merlis was really kind of one of my… I wouldn’t want to say ‘mentors,’ but one of my inspirations. He had his own style and wit. I might not have had the wit. But he was able to sit down and talk about Little Richard’s sessions on Specialty or something, and I was right there with him, you know?”
Baker’s own turn back toward writing as a focus of his retirement came about, he said, as he started to write tributes to artists on social media recently. “I’ve sort of gotten back into it oddly enough, on Facebook, which people might laugh at. But I don’t because if you look at some of the things I write, a lot of them are very long-form and just pour out of me in between things that are happening here. And I thought, ‘I really, really enjoy this and I seem to be writing biographies. What if I wrote a long form biography?’” Of the book projects he’s considering, “maybe it’s a biography, maybe it’s a history of a city’s music scene, maybe it’s a story of a label.”
In the meantime, although he swears he’s given up South by Southwest for good, you can expect to see him at this year’s Blues Music Awards and AmericanaFest, as is his custom — as a civilian.
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