Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Los Angelesin Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley. I came here from Detroit, Michigan with my family when I was eight years old. My mom worked for Motown Records, and we were part of the migration of Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1973.
What did your mom do for Motown?
My mom was actually married to Berry Gordy. She was married to Berry from 1957 to 1965 roughly. She helped found Motown Records. From 1965 through 1973 when we moved, they were split up, but she still worked for Motown. At the time we moved, my mom was in the artist development department.
What was your first job in the music business?
My first job was at Warner Bros. working for Benny Medina (former Sr VP of A&R for WB ñ ed.) . Benny was an old family friend. He worked for Motown. He just called me up one dayand I thank him to this day for itand asked me to work with him as his assistant. I worked right here at Warner Bros. Records back in 1989. It was incredible. I have such fond memories of this place. I did everything for him. I drove him around. I listened to demo tapes. He had a full staff, a secretary and a director of A&R, so I worked with a lot of stuff. Heavy responsibilities. I did it all. You name it.
What a great way to learn.
It was a wonderful way to learn. Actually, by taking him to meetings and such because he didn't drive much, I got to sit in on a lot of high level meetings. I got to travel with him sometimes. I listened to demo tapes. After about a year and a half, he gave me more responsibility and gave me the title of A&R Rep. I was able to do a little bit more then. He got somebody else to be his driver, and I got to expand my horizons.
So you've been at Warner Bros. this whole time?
No, I haven't. I was at Warners from 1989 to about 1996, when I got caught up in the layoffs. They cut the R&B department in half. They weren't selling a lot of records. This was after Benny left. I survived after Benny left in 1995, and a whole new crew came in. They only kept a couple of people. Denise Brown was the lady who lined up the new crew along with Allison Gabriel. I kind of knew the system and could be of help, so they kept me. They gave me the title of Director of A&R. I was there throughout 1995 and 1996. At the end of 1996, unfortunately the Denise regime was not selling a lot of records, so they cut the department in half and that's when I left. Then at the end of 1998, Allison called me. She was still at Warner Bros., even though Denise was long gone. She asked me if I wanted to come back as a director of A&R. It was just a wonderful opportunity. So I started in January of 1999, and I've been here about a year now.
What are your duties here in the A&R department?
Allison brought me in to do a couple of things. One is to sign talent. But my other duties really are to support her. What that means is meeting with writers, publishers, handling remixers and keeping an A&R status report. The status report is something we update almost every other day. It has all of our roster on it, and we go artist by artist in alphabetical order to discuss where we're at. Who's in the studio, what needs to be done, who needs songs. I travel and go to showcases she can't go to. I judge showcases for her, and I sit in on studio sessions. She can't be everywhere. She's the only VP of A&R.
What do you look for when somebody pitches you a demo or somebody is trying to pitch you an artist?
Well, one thing that we look for, and I'm thinking about demos that have caught my attention and my boss' attention, is a concept. We have a kid named Little Johnny who Allison is very excited about. I'm going to work with her on that. He just got signed. He's fourteen or fifteen. He's like Usher, straight urban contemporary. Little Johnny, for example, had this whole attitude in his lyrics. He's a young kid that lives with his parents, but yet wanted to go out and do his own thing too. He has a song called, "Young and Restless." "I'm young, but I'm restless. Tell me where the action is". Another song is called "Hotty Hot," which is about a girl in high school. The term for it was "hotty hot," like a slang thing. Once again, cute and catchy. So mostly with R&B artists, it's the presentation of a concept which is always important. And not just a potpourri or a mish-mash of songsone song in this direction, one song in that direction.
So what really catches our attention first and foremost is concept. Those artists who come with a demo of three or four songs that are kind of interwoven together, as far as the whole vibe. That helps a lot.
R&B music is so youth-driven these days, we really don't want to overlook that. So we're looking for stuff that can appeal to the young listener and consumer. That is different from fifteen or twenty years ago when Atlantic Starr, Lakeside, Marvin Gaye, all those R&B groups were big. It was a little different then. These days though, age sometimes more than the music, has a lot to do with it.
What about artists who don't write? There are a lot of artists out there now who don't write their own material. How important is the songwriting on someone's demo?
Songwriting is very important in the demo, oh my god. Extremely important. It's the hook, the lyric has to grab our attention.
How important is it that the artist actually writes the material? It's not quite as important. Let's face it, usually an artist hooks up with a producer anyway who may write the material. So presentation actually comes before the artist's actual writing. We would rather have an artist that writes great songs, don't get me wrong, but presentation speaks first. We'll worry about who wrote the songs later.
So even if they didn't write them, the songs need to be excellent songs to keep your attention and keep you interested. But would you recommend that they cover hit songs or album cuts in order to demonstrate their voice?
I'll tell you, these artists that don't write, usually they've teamed up with producers and writers and such. The artists that are coming to Warners, or any label, have to do a lot of workhomework, research, and just work. They have to come up with great concepts, great lyrics, great tracks, and then they come to us. The days of somebody just coming in and being a songbird don't exist much.
It doesn't have to actually be finished, no. It doesn't have to be 48-track or 24-track masters, but you better believe there should be some original material that is hot, lyric- and concept-wise, and that the production is contemporary.
So to answer your question, those people who don't write need to be working with other people. You need to collaborate. You need to get in the circuit. A lot of stuff that comes to us is from a pretty small community. We know a lot of the producers out there. A lot of artists that are good, but who don't know people, somehow find a way to gravitate towards people who have a little bit of a track record. A lot of stuff comes to us from people that we're familiar with or people we've heard of.
If you're in St. Louis, Missouri and you're a good R&B singer, it's going to be tough to find somebody necessarily in St. Louis that is going to be able to get to us, in the urban contemporary vein. Urban contemporary is very 'what's-happening-now'. What's the catchy phrase, what's the catchy hook right now. A lot of times it's the producers and the writers that are in the game that know that. But it's important for new artists to really gravitate toward people who have some experience.
Is it possible to hear through bad production?
I'll tell you one thing, if you put on a scale what the tracks need for the listener of demosgood production, good songwriting, and good vocalsproduction is the one we can easily compromise with. I mean it has to have kind of a sound to it. It shouldn't come on sounding like someone did it at home on a Casio. That's just embarrassing. So let's say it's got some play, but it's rough. It's 4-track, but it's still got a little groove to it that's contemporary. The lyrics and melodies and the vocal performance are all good, then yeah, we overlook production quite a bit. Let's say that stuff is really rough and the producer has no experience at all, but he's got a pocket going, a lot of times we put them with another producer or maybe just put him with a good engineer. Let him go for it. But we can get past the production.
Will you do that as part of the development process before you sign them?
Yeah, we probably would. At the major labels, the deals are so expensive. Independent labels have ways of giving people a few dollars and saying take it or leave it. Majors, with album deals though, always spend about a quarter of a million dollars to start up. So if it's got a little groove, it's rough, it's on 4-track, giving that artist a $300,000 deal would be hard. So yeah we would probably start with a development deal, or a demo deal which is usually $5- to $10,000; a development deal is maybe a little bit more money. You need a little bit more money to go buy some clothes and show us some image too. We generally want that first.
How important is live performance when you're looking at an artist?
Live performance isn't really that important in signing an act. In the urban music department at the majors, for example, as far as the kind of artists we look for, a big majority are going to be your solo vocalists or your vocal groups. Another big majority is going to be your rap artists. With all those types of artists, live performance isn't that big of a key. Now when you're looking at an R&B band or musicians, it's a little bit more important. But in urban music, that style is not that big of a seller. So therefore, we get the singer to sing the track, and we can groom them once the record is ready. We can get him or her ready, and get dancers, and put together that live performance. And the same goes with the rappers. Rappers don't do very much except jump around and yell and scream anyway. So unlike with pop artists, or a lot of live bands, and singer-songwriter performers who build their following out there in the clubs, in the urban format that is not really that important. We do have to work on that once the artist is signed and once the record is coming out, but to get signed it's not that important.
So you don't even have to see them do a showcase necessarily to sign them?
Yes, we definitely want to see them, but what we see is usually the artist comes in and performs to a DAT in our office. I'm not talking about some rock band that has a buzz, that's playing on Sunset Strip at the Whisky or something where you can see them in front of their fans and admirers that they've accumulated.
Where do you look for new artists? Do you look on the Internet?
I'm starting to.
Are you finding anything there?
Not really, but I haven't really spent that much time on the Internet. You can find some things there. Not that much, but in due time urban people will look to the Internet.
Most of our acts come in through established or professional sources, like managers who have been around that have found something hot in the street and have taken the time to put together a good presentation. I think that what I'm hitting upon now, as I told you, is that presentation and concept are quite key these days in urban music in getting a deal.
Somebody has to be there to put that together: the manager who has been around, who took somebody from the streets, found a producer that they had a relationship with, put together a demo and shopped it to us; the publisher who has access to a studio and put something together; the attorney who's got money; the producer who's got his own studio and put together a demo. So usually it's publishers, producers, managers, attorneyssemi-established sources is where that stuff comes from, not necessarily from the showcase circuit like with rock music.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Our policy is that we don't. Unsolicited is somebody I didn't request any material from, number one, but also somebody without any track record. The best way for an unsolicited person to get the an A&R person's attention sometimes in the urban world, in my opinion, is to put out records on their own. They might call us and say, "I put my record out in St. Louis, and it's been number one, or in the Top-5, in St. Louis and other parts of Missouri, and I've SoundScanned a couple thousand pieces." So we don't accept unsolicited material but usually the best way for them get me to accept it is when they put it out and get some action.
In terms of sales figures, what would really get your attention? A couple thousand?
What would get my attention? Let's say it's a major city like Chicago or somewhere like that. If an artist sold 5,000 pieces, that would get my attention. No doubt about it. Less would even get me a little interested. In a region, like the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, or something like that, if they did 25- to 50,000 pieces, that would be incredible. 25,000 pieces would get my attention. For example, Cash Money, a rap label out of New Orleans, which got picked up by Universal Records, were selling like a couple hundred thousand records or so on their own from what I hear. Master P, too, before he got his deal. So I gave you my little numbers, but a lot of times what gets majors attention is significantly more in the rap game. If you show me 5,000 pieces sold in a certain market city, that's incredible.
Let's talk about the record-making process with artists on the label. Do you just send them to the studio and tell them to come back when they're done? Or do you work with them on song selection and direction before they go in?
For artists signed to the label, in urban music probably more than in other formats of music, we work with them. We meet with writers, producers and talk about concepts. We even attend the sessions. But yes we work closely with them in the urban format, because a lot of it in urban isn't necessarily self-contained.
With a lot of these rock bands, you just get them a good producer or put them in the studio, and they just do whatever and you see what happens. But in urban a lot of times, we've got to find the songs and producers. There are so many hot producers and so many sounds. That's what makes A&R valuablewhen you know the world. It is our job to call Jermaine Dupri who we know, or maybe some new kid. We definitely get with that artist and do that.
Are the artists happy about it?
Not always. It really depends on how many demos they have and how prolific they are. If an artist comes to us with a catalog of sixty songs, and if he produces and has experience, he might be more opposed to us spending a bunch of money on outside people than an artist who comes in who doesn't have very many songs. It varies. Those artists that come in that only have a few songs and haven't been doing it that long are very excited about it because they want somebody who knows the producers. So they're open.
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