Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Washington, D.C., but I was raised in Philadelphia. I attended Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, and went to Chaney State College.

Who were some of your favorite artists while you were growing up?

I listened to all types of music. I have over 2,000 albums in my record collection that I don't know what to do with now. Some of my favorite artists then were Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, the O'Jays, Smokey Robinson, The Isley Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and Gladys Knight—and I still love all of them.

Did you have to go out and buy them all on CD now?

Yes, you're about right.

At what age did you know that you wanted to be in the music business?

I don't really remember having a desire to be in the business actually. I always wanted to teach school and work with children, so I took sociology in school. I just kind of fell into the record business, although recently a high school friend of mine reminded me that in our yearbook, I listed one of my greatest interests as music. So I must have loved it back then. I just wasn't really thinking about being in the business so much.

Was your family musical at all?

No, not really.

When did you move out of Philadelphia, and where did you move?

I stayed in Philadelphia where I started working for a record company. A local deejay that I was dating introduced me to the owner of a record company, and I was hired as a secretary/receptionist for this small label called Philly Groove Records. It was small, but it was pretty successful at the time. Because it was so small, I was able to interact with the different departments at the company and I really learned fast. Within a year I moved up to a local promotions position. I stayed at that label for three years.

Then I moved to California. I landed a secretarial position at United Artist Records working for the vice president and the general manager of promotions. I then went to Capitol Records as an executive assistant for the vice president of A&R.

I think it was there that I realized: I can do this! I can do A&R. I stayed at Capitol for almost five years, and then I secured a job at MCA Records as Manager of Administration. But as soon as I got there, I quickly began finding songs for various MCA acts. I was promoted after six months to Director of A&R, and then I went on to become Senior Director of A&R. After five years at MCA, I moved on to Epic Records as Vice President of A&R for another five years. After that, I was downsized out of that job and after a very long vacation, I was offered the position at BMI. I've been here for two years now.

Tell me about your job at BMI. What goes on in your daily life? What are your responsibilities and duties?

My title is Senior Director of Writer-Publisher Relations. I assist songwriters and publishers in the administration of their musical works as well as sign new affiliates to the company. I speak at colleges and schools about BMI as well as other aspects of the industry. I hold seminars to educate new writers and artists about the music business. I showcase unsigned talent. Whenever possible I will alert writers as to which acts are looking for songs as well as try to set up collaborations. I also try to make them aware of when music is needed for TV and films.

Can you tell me some of the differences between BMI, ASCAP and SESAC? Is there anything that you do at BMI that the other organizations don't do?

We're all designed basically to do the same thing and that is to license music. We acquire the rights from our writers and publishers for the music that they write. In turn, we grant licenses for our entire repertoire to users of music, such as TV, radio, hotels—anywhere that they play music. We collect the license fees from these users of music and distribute that money to the writers and publishers, other than what is kept for operating expenses for BMI.

But to put it quite simply, BMI is the organization that makes sure you're paid when your music is played on radio, TV, nightclubs, hotels, amusements parks and the hundreds of thousands of establishments where music is publicly performed. It would be virtually impossible for a writer to monitor all of these places themselves.

To be honest, to me the biggest difference between say ASCAP and BMI is that I believe that we are more hands-on. We try to really cater to our writers and take care of all their needs. We don't pass them around from one department to another when they need something. We generally try to keep them with one person at the company. If a writer or a publisher needs something, that person at BMI will go around and find out the answer and give it to that person instead of transferring them around to a million places. I think we just tend to be a little more hands-on, but we both do the same job. We collect money and distribute it to the writers and publishers.

At what point does a writer need to be hooked up with a performance rights organization?

Really, you're eligible to become a BMI writer if you've written a musical composition alone, or if you've collaborated with other writers, and that work is either ready to be commercially published or recorded, or otherwise likely to be performed somewhere. It's free to sign up as a writer with BMI.

Back when you did A&R for record labels, where did you find the artists that you signed? Did you go out to clubs or listen to tapes that came to you?

Well, music comes from various places. Oftentimes the artists come from producers that actually develop these acts and put these acts together. Sometimes they come from entertainment attorneys that represent these acts or shop deals for them. It can be from the manager of the group, or publishers often have writers that are signed to them that are members of groups or artists themselves. Of course there are always showcases and the unsolicited tapes that come in the mail. I think it's basically the same for all types of music. I'm sure it depends on what city or state you're in. Here, in Los Angeles, I do believe that there are more venues available for rock and alternative acts to perform and showcase than there would be for R&B material. If you go to another city, it might be just the opposite. Like if you go to Nashville, country music is predominant there.

Are there any cities that are strong with R&B showcases?

I think all of them attempt to do it. I don't know if there are any that are stronger than others. I think maybe the Southern states are a little more intent about it than we are. But on the whole, I can't say that there is really any particular place that has more R&B music or showcases it more than others. I'm not sure what the reason is, but I do feel that with the alternative and the rock groups, they are mostly bands, so it is a lot easier to showcase a band at a club. A lot of the R&B acts don't play instruments. A lot of them are singers or rappers or whatever. To try to rent a club out like that, usually you'd have to have a lot of acts on the bill, and they just sing to tracks as opposed to setting up a full band. A lot of times money is the issue, and renting these clubs to showcase is so expensive.

I guess that means that R&B acts have a luxury that a lot of rock and alternative acts don't have anymore, which is they can sell themselves by just sending a tape. It sounds like with R&B, as opposed to rock and alternative, they don't have to build a fanbase or a following.

Well, I guess the following doesn't matter if you don't have one, but I do think that it's always better to see an act live. You get tapes in the mail, and a lot of times the person could be a great singer but maybe that great singer doesn't have the money to go into a quality studio to make the best tape. So oftentimes what you're hearing doesn't really represent the artists as well as it should, for financial reasons or whatever.

There aren't a lot of venues for R&B acts, and I wish that there were, but I still feel that the rock and alternative acts have the advantage because they do get to perform and they do get the buzz in their local cities. Word gets around because they are able to perform from venue to venue in that particular city and create a buzz, whereas the R&B acts don't really have that luxury. They'll send their tapes in and hope for the best. First, you've got to hope somebody is even going to listen to it. If you're performing at a club, you know that through word of mouth, someone will see you.

I think it's ironic that urban acts dominate the charts so many months out of the year, yet they don't have that ability to go out and showcase themselves like the rock and alternative acts. Still, they get deals signed, they make it on the charts and they succeed.

Because they go out and get their little home studios. They save their money and get the equipment and have their home studios and just create their music right at home. Then it's just a matter of getting it to the right people after that.

You mentioned earlier that you listened to unsolicited tapes in the past. Is that something that most people in the industry do?

I think they do it less and less now. I've always been a big believer in the old adage, "You never know where your next hit is going to come from," so you should try to listen to everything that you get, regardless of whether it's from someone in Mississippi as opposed to someone from Beverly Hills. You just never know.

But the tapes pile up so much that it is very difficult for an A&R person to stay on top of them. When I did A&R, I sometimes got thirty tapes a day. Because sitting and listening to tapes all day is not your only job, they can pile up so quickly.

What are some steps that you would recommend for younger developing writers that could help them hone their craft?

I would suggest that a writer go to the public library or local bookstore and ask for books on how to write, publish and market a song. There are so many available. There are also organizations such as the National Academy of Songwriters (NAS) the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA), the Country Music Association and NARAS. All of these associations greatly benefit new writers because they hold workshops and pitch-a-thons and seminars and conferences. They have all kinds of valuable information available to new writers. Whenever possible, it's good for writers to try to collaborate with other writers. Even just studying the formulas of hit songs is a good idea.

Is anybody ever born that just comes out of the womb a great writer, or are they born with the seed of a great writer, but they need to hone their craft?

I believe there is room for both. I think that there are some great writers that are born that way. They just have that knack. Then there are others that study and perfect their craft so that they do become good writers as well.

I read an article recently in Billboard where somebody was saying that rap and hip-hop copyrights might not be as valuable ten or twenty years down the road as more traditional R&B songs will be. How do you feel about that?

My first thought is I tend to agree with that. I just can't imagine bands and artists twenty years from now covering some of the material that is out right now. But who knows. Stranger things have happened in this business.

Is there a different set of rules for urban songwriters than other genres?

I don't know about a structure, but I will say that R&B writers usually write about love and sex, and with the rappers they write about their daily lives. No, I don't think that there is any difference or any set thing that they write about. I think it's kind of open. Especially now, the way music has expanded, there are not too many subjects that can't be touched. I will say that I do notice that as much as I would like to hear more music that has a message to it, it seems to only go over big when it's done by an established act. I don't tend to see new acts come out with message songs. When they do, it doesn't seem to go over very well.

In the rock and alternative world, it seems acts have gotten away from negative music. It seems to be back on a trend toward happier and more upbeat songs—things that make you want to tap your foot and sing along rather than go out and kill your family. Have you noticed any trends like that in urban music as well?

Yes, I definitely do, especially where rap is concerned. I think that the record labels have taken a lot of flak from different organizations about some of the lyrics in some of the songs, so they're pulling back. The same is true with BET and MTV. There is a certain standard that you have to meet now, and they just don't put anything on that doesn't meet it. MTV was always like that actually, but BET has become a lot more strict with their videos. They will edit them for you or make you edit them if they're not correct. I'm glad that music is becoming a lot happier now too, because I think that kids take it to heart too much and they try to follow too many of these people that might be leading them down the wrong path. I'm very happy that music is taking a turn for the better lyrically.

Any predictions on where you think urban music might go in general? Some people have said that they think that rap and hip-hop may subside a little bit and that we're going to see a resurgence of classic R&B. Are you getting any indications of that, or do you have any long-term predictions of where it might go?

Honestly, I don't see rap or hip-hop fading anytime soon. There are new rap labels being formed every day. All the major labels are very much into the rap game and have hired street teams, and directors of rap at their labels, and there is more Grammy recognition. Everybody is into it, so no, I don't see rap or hip-hop fading anytime soon.

I'm seeing more on the alternative side than with the classic R&B. It seems like there is more alternative type R&B music coming out now. To me, Maxwell is not typical R&B. He's a little to the left. And then there is Me'Shell NdegeOcello

What is your favorite part about what you do for a living?

I think my favorite part is working with new writers and producers—watching them grow and helping them learn the ropes of what to do and what not to do—just being a part of their growth, period. I think that's the best part.

So it's probably similar to the feelings you had as an A&R person. You're still getting to do what you love the best.

That's exactly right. I'm getting to do what I love the best without the stress of making deadlines and having to have a hit. But I still get to work with writers and producers, which to me is the most gratifying.

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