Jeff Fenster (top row in sunglasses) with members of the Backstreet Boys and friends.

Interviewed by Doug Minnick

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

Right around 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 do—you 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 music—the 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 album.

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 Charisma—Enigma 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 Jive.

I've been at Jive for six years. I'm responsible for acts including the Backstreet Boys, A Tribe Called Quest—I'm A&R'ing them again after I joined Jive—and 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 my history.

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.

The Backstreet 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 atypical.

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.

Also, because 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 example—even in a small market like that—somebody 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 whatever—with 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 scenario—regional success which you can pick up on in various ways.

Another way, 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 of records.

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 area—again there is a limit on live performing opportunities for those acts—but 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 them?

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 the album.

But 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 key—she just had to use the track that was sent to her. But I heard something from the voice on this one single—the 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 succeed—whether 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.

For example, 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 successful—that 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.

Beyond that, 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 key—unless 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 nuts—that'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 genre—whether it was metal back in the day, or punk, or the rap street audience—prizes 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 time—they didn't make a radio record at all—but 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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