MAX GOUSSE (VP of A&R, EPIC Records) with B2K (his newly signed upban/pop group).

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

How did you get started in the music business?

I got started in the music business working as a customer service representative at the Video Jukebox Network in Miami, which later became known as The Box.

How did that come about?

When my parents moved to Florida, I had the option of either staying in New York and struggling while going to St. John's, or moving to Florida with them. I chose to go to Florida. When I got there, I saw this video channel that I had never seen before which offered people the opportunity to order their videos. Since I was such a big music fan, I thought it was the most brilliant idea I had ever seen. I made it a point to try to get a job there. I just called consistently, and finally I got an interview. I went in, and after about five tries, I got hired. I started out in customer service, and then I got promoted to technical service. I was a link between the MIS department and the actual consumers who ordered the videos. Basically I was a problem shooter. From there, the original team that had started MTV came on board to manage. I was able to get a shot at working with Les Garland who was the original VP of Programming at MTV.

Where did you work after The Box?

Once The Box started building a buzz amongst the creative people at the labels, a lot of A&R people and video promotion people would take trips to Miami to come see the technology. When they came, I would be the one to give them the tour. One day Irving Azoff (Giant Records President, and all-around big-shot ņed.) and Cassandra Mills came down. I gave them the tour of the facility and had lunch with them. And about two weeks later I got an offer from them to move to New York to work for the reopened Giant Records. This was sometime in 1994.

What took you from Giant to Epic?

From Giant, I did a label deal with Elektra. I signed and produced the Adina Howard album. I had the label for about four years when I sold it to Elektra. Then I took a year off and moved to Los Angeles. I decided that I wanted to learn more about music publishing. I got a position at MCA Publishing with David Renzer. I had worked at MCA for about a year when Polly Anthony and David MacPherson came in for a meeting. I played them a lot of cool material. I talked to David about his big success with Backstreet Boys and about possibly doing a female group. I found a group about two weeks later. I showcased them for him, and I ended up doing a label deal with Epic.

I had an imprint with Epic called Vendetta Entertainment. Then about nine months later, they liked all of the things I was bringing to the table, so they asked me to come inside. I took a position at the company and I've been here for about three years.

How do you find your new artists?

I have a little bit of a different approach to A&R. I look at the market to see where the void is, and then I try to fill the void. For instance with a group like B2K, whose single is dropping next month, basically I thought that there was a lack of young male urban groups in the marketplace, so I really sought to find that. I went out on the road and put together about 25 showcases in different cities around the country last year. I actually ended up finding B2K at a showcase right here in Los Angeles.

How did you decide which cities to go to and which artists to see when you went there?

It was based on relationships. Sometimes I would tap into producers that I had existing relationships with. I would tap into my friends in the publishing community. I would tap into radio people—the Music Directors and Program Directors—who I have relationships with. And also retail. I would do research on the charts and see what singles were working on a regional basis. Then I would go into those markets and reach out to the artists that I wanted to see. But sometimes I would also just do open calls in conjunction with local radio stations.

That is unique.

Yes, very unique. But it works sometimes. You don't always find an artist that you'd sign, but you will sometimes find maybe a songwriter that is really talented that you can then call upon to work on a project. Sometimes you find a vocalist that maybe is not an artist, but you can use them somehow on a project. Through those showcases I've formed relationships with some up-and-coming producers that nobody has ever heard of, which is something that I really pride myself on. I always try to get the newest and the freshest talent on my projects.

So when you say you look for artists with regional sales action, what is a big enough sales figure to get your attention?

I think if it's a rap record, and it's a local market single, if it's doing anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pieces a week, it's something that I like to look at. I really look more so for the consistency. If I see a consistency in the sales pattern that shows that the act is working very well at the local level, and they're putting in the work to sustain the sales.

So that means that any artist with independent product has to get the bar code and get it registered with SoundScan for sales to show up?

Yes. That is a good way to track sales figures.

What about if somebody calls you and says "Hey, I'm selling a lot of records," but they haven't put the bar code on. Is there any way for you to verify those numbers?

Yes, they can get sales reports from the mom & pop stores. Or if they have a distributor, they can get the data from them.

What do you look for in new artists?

Number one, I try to sign artists that I feel are stars. I look for confidence, definitely the talent, and they don't have to come with the image, but they have to have the raw material that I think I can use to really shape the image. They have to have the basic look for the marketplace.

Especially when it comes to rap and hip hop artists, how important is the demo production in that genre?

I think with a rapper, I tend to really look more for the writing ability, hook development, and tone. In hip hop, I think tone is essential.

Can you define "tone?"

Tone is the unique sonic quality of a voice that separates a rapper from all the other rappers. For instance, Jay-Z has a very distinctive tone. Aside from his lyrical abilities, his tone and his cadence makes him Jay-Z. So you look for those unique qualities in any act that you try to sign.

So it's not necessary that they have a whole bunch of studio gear and be able to really show off their production chops as a rapper?

With rappers it's not necessarily about the production. I signed an artist named Big Kano from a showcase that I did in Oklahoma. When I did a series of regional showcases, he won the overall showcase, and I gave him a singles deal. What stood out to me was more his stage presence and his ability to control a crowd. The production was secondary because I knew that I could put him with the proper producers to make a hit record.

What about for vocal artists and singers? How important is it to you that these artists write their own material?

It's not that important to me. Part of being a good A&R person is having relationships with producers that bring your artists to life.

What do you hear on the demo for an artist that doesn't write? What do they usually submit to you?

I've never really signed an artist strictly off of a demo, honestly. I try to sign entertainers more than anything else. Even if you send me a demo and I think the songs are good and the tone is good, the next step for me would be for me to showcase you live. If you don't blow me away live, then I'm not really interested. Live is important in the rock world. I think on the R&B side it needs to be just as important. Without selling tickets and the fans really seeing you, I think you're going to have a real short career. If you can entertain, then that is what breeds the loyalty, and that's how you build an artist. If you can't build a base, what are we really doing?

How does the artist's personality enter into the equation? Will you sign somebody that is difficult to work with?

Yes, I would. As an A&R person, your job is really to manage personalities to get the ultimate end result, which is record sales. It's just like in any industry, you have difficult people, and that doesn't mean they are not worthwhile. Maybe they just don't know. Maybe they don't understand how a label works, and it's your job to make them see how it works. A lot of these cats don't understand corporate structure. They don't understand the politics. They don't understand budgets. It's up to you who signed the act to really be the quarterback of the whole project and to really educate. Sometimes you have to educate the managers as well as the artists. They can get frustrated because they feel the label is not doing what the label should be doing. People tend to be frustrated out of ignorance, more than anything else, but I think once you give everybody the information, they tend to understand.

What is your typical day like?

My typical day includes returning a lot of phone calls from the day before in the morning. Generally, I do a lot of demo listening in my car on my way into the office. I follow up on sessions that I had the day before—getting the reels in, checking out mixes. I do a lot of meetings with producers, and I explain to them the kind of artists that I'm looking for. I, in effect, make the producers A&R extensions of me. In R&B, the genre is so studio-driven, I think some of the best A&R sources are actually producers who run across people in the studio.

For people that are trying to get your attention, or any label's attention, it would be a good idea to hook up with a producer that is already doing it, right?

Yes, definitely. A producer that has an entree to a label is definitely the easiest route. Honestly, it's difficult sometimes to get the attention of A&R guys at major labels. Some of them have five or six projects that they are A&Ring at the same time. Not only do you have the A&R people, but you kind of have to start it off on the marketing guy too a little bit, to build a buzz on your act. A lot of A&R guys have full plates, so it's good to get in with a producer because he can shape your demo, make your demo really presentable, and basically walk it into an A&R guy.

How much time do you think you actually spend listening to new music in a week?

I would say I spend about 35-percent. When I meet with producers, I tend to try to listen to everything that they have. Sometimes I may hear something that they maybe don't hear. I can hear a track and kind of match it up with my artist better than they can because they don't really know my artist. If there is a song that needs work, then I'll suggest to the writer that he go back and rework it to make it make sense to my artist.

How many new artists does the average A&R person get to sign in a year at a major label?

I think it varies based upon what you find. There is no quota. Nobody tells you you have to sign "x" amount of artists. I think you kind of go with the flow and sign artists that really excite you and you really want to make the record. In my time at Epic, I've signed six artists in three years.

Any closing advice for aspiring artists out there?

One is to study the marketplace. Two is to build relationships in the genre of music that you work in. It's building relationships with artist managers and producers—those are key. The game is definitely relationship-driven. The sooner you start on your relationships, the better off you are.


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