Jeff Fenster (top row in sunglasses) with members of the Backstreet Boys and friends.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the upper westside of Manhattan in New York City. My parents
were immigrants from Austria. We went from the lower East side to the
upper West side. I went to Horace Mann, a private school up in the Bronx.
Then I went to Columbia Law School.
How did you get into the music business?
After law school, I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a music lawyer
for Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp ( a major entertainment law firm -ed.)
for three years. I then went to Warner Bros. and worked in business affairs
there for four and a half years. I was also doing a lot of things on the
side. I was a deejay. I played in bands a little. I had my own little
record label. It was a little rap label, and I put out a few records.
I got to be good friends with Rick Rubin, who offered me a job running
Def Jam when he and Russell Simmons were still together in New York
that same time, I had turned labels on to a couple of things. I had turned
Warner Bros. onto this guy, Jay King, who had a group they signed called
Club Nouveau which sold like a million and a half albums. I had kind of
also turned Warner Bros. on to Jane's Addiction and I was very good friends
with all of the A&R people at Geffen, because they were still distributed
through WEA, and Warners was doing all of their business affairs. So I
was thinking about the Def Jam job, and Tom Zutaut (Geffen A&R guy at
that time ed.) said, "You don't want to do that. It's a business job.
I know what you really want to doyou really want to do A&R. You're a
natural." So he offered me an A&R gig at Geffen.
I was at Geffen
for two years, during which time I did a lot of black musicthe first
wave of black music at Geffen. [David Geffen] decided at that point that
he was interested in getting into it. I also worked with some rock stuff.
I co-signed a band called Junkyard, which did pretty well with their one
After two years
at Geffen, I was asked to be co-head of A&R with a guy named Danny Goodwin
at the Charisma label, which Virgin Records was starting in America. So
I went to Charisma and was there a year and a half. During that time I
signed Jellyfish. I A&R'ed the Maxi Priest album "Close To You" which
was a big album. I worked with basically all of the acts on CharismaEnigma
and various other things. At that time, after about a year and a half,
all of the rumors started about Virgin being sold and all of that. I knew
the people at Jive well, and they knew me. When I was at Geffen, I had
signed A Tribe Called Quest to a demo deal. That's when Geffen decided
to get out of black music. So after Geffen passed, they were signed to
Jive. Clive Calder (Jive's owner) and the people at Jive knew me from
that. So they hired me to be the first head of A&R they had ever had at
I've been at
Jive for six years. I'm responsible for acts including the Backstreet
Boys, A Tribe Called QuestI'm A&R'ing them again after I joined Jiveand
some platinum rap acts. I'm also involved in A&R'ing the whole roster
including Too Short, KRS-One and a bunch of other stuff. That's basically
Did you sign the Backstreet Boys?
Basically what happened was there was this guy I had been trying to hire
who was working at another label. He didn't want to leave, but he told
me about this group, the Backstreet Boys, that he had wanted to sign at
this other label, but the label had passed on them. So I went to go see
them in Columbus, Ohio.
They are from
Orlando, Florida, but they had a guy behind them who put them together.
He was a millionaire. He had put together this management team, including
the people who had been road managers for New Kids On the Block. Even
though they were not signed, the management had them doing a lot of live
shows. They hooked them up with Students Against Dangerous Decisions (S.A.D.D.),
which is an outgrowth of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They have a school
tour that covers a lot of the country, including the Midwest.
Boys were doing a thing for S.A.D.D. in Columbus for junior high school
students. I flew out there and saw this huge convention room full of junior
high school kids who had never heard of or seen this group before. The
group came out with a seven-piece live band and did a whole show. They
sang a cappella in the middle of the show. The sang and danced with the
live band. They were really, really impressive. They had kids waiting
around for an hour after the gig. They had merchandise already. They had
posters and 8x10's. Little girls were waiting to get them signed. To be
honest, it had never occurred to me to sign a teen male vocal group in
America. You know, the whole stigma with New Kids and all of that. But
when I saw these kids, I thought: You're never going to find a better
group of this kind than this. They could really sing. They obviously had
a great work ethic. They looked great. Kids loved them. They were very
well developed and already had some choreography and a musical director.
They were very far advanced.
That doesn't sound like the typical route to getting signed for most
bands or artists out there. Is their story atypical?
Yes, it is very atypical. To see a situation where someone has believed
in a group, whatever genre of music or whatever kind of artist, and has
had the ability to provide them with the tools and the training to develop
the group in an artist development sense before they are signed is very
So what is a more typical way, especially in rap and hip-hop and R&B,
that artists come to your attention?
The rap area is pretty much a world unto itself. You usually find out
about things through other artists and through managers. In that sense
it is typical, but you don't have as much of the live performing opportunities
as a rap group. So demos are important, but word of mouth is probably
the most important thing.
rap music can so often be created in a bedroom, people very often put
their own records out. We find a lot of things that are already out there
that may have some kind of regional success. I stay in touch with and
network with retail people around the country. Very often it is mom and
pop stores or one-stop types of distributors. We very actively check SoundScan.
Also, even these smaller companies tend to advertise in the consumer hip-hop
oriented magazines. That's another way.
What kind of SoundScan numbers would get your attention in a market
the size of, say, Columbus, Ohio?
Most rap music tends to be very much a first week phenomenon. It's not
about singles very often, especially in these regional kinds of things.
You will see, for exampleeven in a small market like thatsomebody
sell a thousand to two thousand units in one week. In bigger markets,
like Houston for example, you'll see four thousand units in a week. You'll
see things that actually come in at #1 in the market. One example is an
artist I signed named Mystical, who is from New Orleans, who I found out
about through a local retailer after seeing SoundScan. His album had come
in at #1 in the market, selling several thousand copies the first week.
Then it actually stayed in the Top 5 for a while in that market, just
consistently selling. That's a big story.
And that's for the artists that have it together enough to get a bar
code so that their product can be scanned.
Right. Very often they are on a very small label where somebody has to
again put up the money. Now it has become common to actually do some kind
of deal whether it is a distribution deal or some kind of marketing
or distribution hybrid or whateverwith these local labels. It is common
for the labels to have built up even a higher profile than the individual
artists. Master P and the whole No Limit scenario was obviously the most
successful example of that. So that's one side of the rap scenarioregional
success which you can pick up on in various ways.
like I said, is word of mouth and association. It is very, very common
now in the rap world, and has almost become necessary, that for a new
artist to be successful, that artist must be associated in some way with
other artists that have already been successful. Either that or make guest
appearances on records by artists that are already successful. That's
kind of the artist development. The ground work gets built up in that
way by either being part of a successful camp or just appearing on a lot
You mentioned that there isn't much live performance opportunity. Before
you make a decision to sign something, do you have to see a live show?
Not necessarily in the rap world, which is not the case in any other genre.
You need to see a certain personality, usually live, and a certain charisma
and all of that. But very often rap acts get signed without having much
live experience at all.
Now, in the R&B
areaagain there is a limit on live performing opportunities for those
actsbut I wouldn't sign an R&B act without seeing them perform, at least
in a showcase scenario. In the R&B world, it tends to be a little more
typical in that I get things mostly through managers and lawyers and those
kinds of normal contacts. Again though, word of mouth from other artists
and producers and those kinds of things matter.
Describe how you get involved with your artists in an A&R-intensive
way. How much material do you need to see from an artist before you sign
It goes across a whole range of things. I signed one rock band recently,
a band called "hed pe" (pronounced "head P. E." -ed.) from Southern California.
That's a more typical situation where they write their own material. In
fact, they had put out their own EP and had most of the album written.
It was just a matter of going through material and focusing on accepting
certain songs, putting others to the side, finding a producer and making
it goes all the way from that to... there is a sixteen year old girl,
who was fifteen when I signed her, from New Orleans Louisiana. All I had
on her was one song which she had done herself with a producer. The song
had been sent to her by her lawyer who said, "Here is a pretty good song
that a writer I represent did. Can you put a vocal on this?" She hooked
it up herself with a local producer in the New Orleans area. It wasn't
even in her keyshe just had to use the track that was sent to her. But
I heard something from the voice on this one singlethe delivery on this
one song. Then I got pictures from the lawyer.
I brought her
to New York. I had her come into an A&R meeting and sing for us. She sang
this one song she had put on tape. She did one or two things a cappella,
and I signed her. That was it. She had no material. She didn't write.
She was fifteen. In that case, we did kind of the classical "A and R"
job. We went out and found songs and producers and all of that. In the
pop arena, that is obviously a much more common scenario. Artists don't
always write, or very often they are young and may develop into that.
Tell us about Silvertone Records.
Silvertone is a label that started as kind of a roots rock-oriented label,
signing people like Buddy Guy and John Mayall. We had John Lee Hooker
at one point outside of the U.S. It developed at a point in time into
an alternative label as well, with the Stone Roses and so on. Then Silvertone
went cold for a number of years. Now we've just been in the process of
building Silvertone back up. We have some bands that we've gotten through
our purchase of some Christian labels, Jars of Clay being the most prominent
and most successful. They have now had two platinum albums through Silvertone.
To be honest,
it is difficult to sign rock bands to a label without a track record.
It happens, though. Tool was on Zoo which turned into Volcano. Then we
bought Volcano and went partners on it with the Q-Prime Managerment. That
is one way that we have made serious our intentions to be in the rock
world. We're in business with Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch now.
What is Cliff and Peter's background?
They are the premier rock managers in the world. They manage Metallica,
Queensryche, Smashing Pumpkins, and now they are involved with Madonna.
Clive Calder has had a relationship with them for years. So what better
way when we're going into the rock world, and what better people to be
involved with, than the best managers in the business? They have also
been involved in the label side, so they understand both areas.
What do you get from Zoo/Volcano that you didn't already have at Jive/Silvertone?
A catalog that includes a couple of Tool albums. It's our opinion that
those albums are going to sell extremely well for the next twenty years
at least. I'm convinced, and I know Clive is as well, that Tool is one
of those few rock bands in the second half of the Nineties that is going
to have that brother-passing-down-to-brother longevity that bands like
AC/DC had in the past. I think they are one of the few bands that inspire
that kind of loyalty. And they are only going to get bigger.
Any sage advice for aspiring recording artists out there on the way
to get yours and other people's attention?
It is a good idea to do as much as possible on your own. I for one look
for the "eye of the tiger." That is a very, very key thing. Having talent
is a given. But to me, talent alone is not enough. There must be that
real desire to succeedwhether success means you want to sell a ton of
records or you want to reach a lot of people with your artistic expression.
That desire to succeed, that willingness to do what it takes to succeed,
and not having a fear of that success but embracing it, is essential.
There are various ways that that gets translated.
the fifteen year old girl that I signed had already traveled on her own
with a chaperone to New York to do an off Broadway musical for a year
and a half. She had demonstrated, and has proven to me the more since
I signed her, that she will do whatever is necessary to be successfulthat
she wants it. Not in a bad way. Not like stepping on people, but in terms
of work ethic. Work ethic and a desire to succeed are key. That can be
demonstrated by putting out your own records, by building a touring base
and any number of ways. But that is the key thing for me to see. Not somebody
who just kind of sits back and, at best, gets a demo together and has
somebody shop it. That's fine too, and we do find artists that way, but
you're going to get more of my attention if there is more to the story.
I look basically for the same things as everybody else. Originality, hopefully.
You don't always find true originality, but you look for that. Songs.
Songs are the keyunless it's an artist that I feel could be successful
and they entrust me and my staff to find songs for them. If it's an artist
that does write their own material, then I'm very critical of that material.
Again, that goes for whatever genre it is. I like things that have the
street appeal as well, particularly in the rock area.
How do you define "street appeal?"
In the rock band area, for example, when I lived in L.A. for those years
and was going to all of the clubs on the Strip or wherever, bands would
do these gigs with fifty A&R people and five paying customers in the audience.
That never impressed me very much. I want to see somebody who is going
to get kids in there. Then there is just street appeal that is a certain
excitement and realness that is kind of palpable and tangible. You can't
really define it, but you know it when you see it.
I wanted to sign
Primus at Charisma. When you would go to see Primus back in the Bay Area,
you just felt this energy. There were 1,800 kids all going nutsthat's
street appeal. In a rap artist, again you don't have the opportunity to
see it live as much, but it's something that you just feel. That's something
that is very hard to teach or fake. I found always that the street type
of audience, in whatever genrewhether it was metal back in the day,
or punk, or the rap street audienceprizes genuineness above everything
else. They are very leery of stuff that is contrived. Whereas in other
areas, you can get away with a certain amount of contrivance, like in
the pop area. For example, the band I signed, Hed Pe, have that street
appeal. Now they haven't gotten any great tours up to this point in timethey
didn't make a radio record at allbut they're selling records. Compared
to my other stuff, it's at a very low level. They are now selling 700
or 800 units a week. But the album has been out since last August. They
are selling records without that much going on because they have that
street appeal. One kid says it's real, and then one kid tells another
kid. That's very often how it works in rap and any kind of street music.
Very often that's a good way of building an audience, because then it's
an audience that is going to stay with you.
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