Guy Routte, A&R Consultant, Columbia Records, Urban
Tony Ferguson, VP of A&R, A&M/Interscope
Kirk Boyer, Sr. Director of A&R, Lyric Street/Disney, Nashville
Steven Melrose, President, Left Wing/Virgin Records (at time of panel)
People think that A&R guys are a bunch of evil bastards, sitting around in ivory towers just waiting for you guys to destroy their lives by rejecting them. I know that you guys are not a bunch of evil bastards, but why is it that there's such a disconnect between musicians on the street and A&R? What do they need to know about you guys and about your process that would help them understand how hard your job is?
SM: We're all gonna defer to Tony. (laughter)
TF: First of all, people have got to remember—artists, musicians, writers—that we're all after the same thing. There is somewhat of a Holy Grail, and that Holy Grail is to earn a living, be successful and get your music out to the widest possible audience. Even the people who work in the business have that same goal when they sign the artist or they deal with artists or the look at artists or listen to songs. It's the same deal. The difference is that the labels have an agenda and then the artist has an agenda, and that's where the divergence starts to happen. Sometimes the label looks at an artist and decides they need another song and they need other stuff. Then that's where the disparity comes into play because then, although the agenda, the final end game is the same, how you get to that end game can be completely different. Sometimes the label sticks its foot in its mouth by looking at an artist and tries to change that artist. The stakes are very high for the label. They've put a tremendous amount of investment into it.
What's the dollar amount spent by the label on an average act? I know it's different for a Pop act than it would be for a Country act, and so on...
TF: Yeah. For the label, for a Pop act—for which, the real end game is to get on the Billboard charts—it's about $1.5 million to $2 million on the first-single cycle for the first 18 months of the release of that record.
SM: It's a lot of money to spend [on an unknown]. Even with a Rock band, it's a million, probably. Signing a band is the easiest and cheapest part of the process. It's the money you spend on marketing it and developing it that gets expensive. It's music and business kind of coming together, and that's where the disconnect begins, because the business aspect of music has to try to work out a way to sell the songs, and the artist has the songs. That disconnect begins there. It isn't just music, it's not just business, it's the music business. It's difficult. When the artist comes into the process—as Tony was saying—things change dramatically when he's signed to the label, because then they are a lot more scrutinized under the microscope as far as what they're doing or how they look. I think for the artist it makes it more difficult because they expect their songs to be enough, and it isn't always enough, sadly.
TF: You've got to remember with a bold overview that anything artistic that involves commerce is always going to be at loggerheads with each other. I don't care if you're a video production company that's making adverts for Finesse shampoo. You have your creative team that goes in there and develops the concepts and shows it to the guys who have got all the money who own Finesse, and they go, "Nooo, don't really like that." So there's always going to be art versus commerce. It's just not going to go away. So, we on the music side of the business... I don't care if you're running Apple Computers or you're running Universal Music Group or you're running your own little independent label, there comes a point where art versus commerce divides.
Just before we came up to the dais, Tony, you were telling me about how it's frustrating for you guys that as soon as you sign an artist they think, "All right, our work is done. Now we've been signed," and now it's your turn to do their work for them. Explain the fallacy in that.
TF: That's very true. We have on our table right now a small group of artists that have just dropped the ball. They got signed, they got their advance, they got the money and they have access to everything that we can plug them into within reason, and they just stopped working. I mean they don't literally stop working, but their fire and enthusiasm just wanes a little, and they're waiting for the label to do stuff.
Well, unfortunately, that's another reason why this art versus commerce divides, because the label is not as creative as the artist on some level. In which case, if you're waiting for the label to do something, then you're setting yourself up to be disappointed and to be angry at the label, because the label will go, "OK. Well, we'll come in and let's go over here and write this song. Let's go over here and do this record." And you go, "Wait a minute. That's not what you signed us for." And the label says, "We thought that's what you wanted to do." That's when it becomes confusing. If the artist knows its audience, knows its music, knows where it wants to go, all you need to do is to plug the label into that.
SM: We're a conduit for the artist, essentially. Everyone always says that it's a sprint to be signed, then the marathon begins. And, generally, with most of the bands we've all worked with, the problem is about how to get signed. If you sign a band very early in the development stage and no one knows who they are, just because they're signed to a major label doesn't suddenly mean that they're now well-known, they just have more money in their pocket than they had before. But the bands tend to get fat and lazy and assume that the label will do everything for them. They should assume nothing more than to just keep doing what they're doing and help provide us with a backbone or a structure. There is a team of people around them, but the best thing an artist has is itself. What a lot of these artists don't realize is that being signed to the label doesn't really get you anything more than an opportunity, an opportunity that is still in their hands. We're only there to help.
KB: In any profession—whether it's the music business or otherwise—there are different stages in your career development, and that first step many times is getting signed. OK, there's a lot of work, there's a lot of preparation, there's a lot of building relationships to make that happen. But once that happens, then you've got to continue, as Steven and Tony said, to do what you've been doing, but you've got to continue to broaden that base. Hopefully you're going to grow artistically; your songs are going to become stronger. And we spend a lot of time strategically planning with artist management, and then internally with our marketing department and with our radio promotion department to make sure that everybody's on the same page, because it takes, literally, hundreds and hundreds of people to take an artist from zero to superstar. And it takes time. So the thing is, we're in partnership with the artist, it's not like the artist comes to us, we sign them, and then their work is done. No, no, no, no! They have to continue to work and broaden their base and become better professionals as we are learning about them and growing them as an act. And there are going to be different stages in that so you can never let down. You've got to continue to keep pushing forward.
Do you see the same thing in urban, Guy?
GR: Absolutely. The disconnect initially I think comes from [the fact that] every artist thinks they're great. You know, no matter what level they are, every artist thinks they're great. So then you have a group of A&R guys who say, "Maybe you're not so great," or "Maybe you're not ready yet," or "You're just not what we're looking for," or "You're great, but you're just not what we're trying to do." So that's the initial thing. But then what happens is when an artist gets signed—and they've been trying their whole life maybe to get signed—they think they're done when they're signed. And when I say they think they're done, they think that they have the album and they've done the work already. As an A&R person, you're trying to get them to realize that, "OK, I signed you probably because you're very good and you have the potential to be great."
I was just telling my friend earlier today that I have an artist and I told him, "You have a very good album now, and the difference between a very good album and a great album, and a great album and a classic album, is how hard you work right now, because I can't do that for you. I'm not the writer. I'm just a guy that's trying to motivate you to be great, but that has to come from within."
SM: There are certain bands or artists you meet and it feels like it's almost a hobby sometimes. They're into it and they believe in it. But some people you meet have this sort of 'desire'. If they don't do this, there's nothing else in the world they can do but be an artist. If you take their band away from them, or their musicality away, they're nothing. And that's the kind of people you look for. You can look great, but unless you live and die by what you do...
Major labels are certainly flawed, maybe far from perfect, but you do have massive amounts of money, manpower and—and as Tony said to me earlier—the Rolodex, which counts for a lot.
TF: You've also got to remember that everybody's legion. Nobody's an island. This is a networking business.
So, managers, are they important? Yes, if you find the right guy. Whatever instinctually got you to the place that you're at, at the moment, you've got to follow those instincts...and learn. Always learn from people who are better than you. If you're going to sign a manager, make sure the manager knows more than you do. If you are going to do any co-writing, make sure the co-writer knows something that you don't know. If you're going to play a musical instrument and play in a band, find somebody in the band that knows more about music than you do. That's the way you learn. But so many people play it safe in this business. You can't afford to do that because it stops you dead in your tracks. You don't grow. I've been in this business [too long] and I'm still growing. It still blows my mind when an 18-year-old kid comes in and plays a chord sequence that I haven't heard before, or does it in a special way, or it harkens back to another time, and I ask him, "Where did you hear that?" And he says, "I don't know. It just came out." It's still like, "Wow, that's amazing." So I'm still learning.
Hell yeah. When you started in the business people were wearing Mastedon skins and beating on drums with wooden clubs. Actually, I've got to hand it to Tony. I don't think I've know any other A&R guy who has been in the business so long and been as fruitful and productive as you have.
TF: Well, that's a whole different ballgame.
But I don't see you playing the game. I think the reason that you've lasted incredibly long is because you're a good go-to guy. Jimmy Iovine knows he can throw a problem at you and you'll always solve it. You're like a real A&R guy, Tony.
TF: Yes. That's why I'm going bald.
Guy, I've got a question for you. In urban music, especially Rap and Hip-Hop, it relies so much on beats, and the writers are often producers of those beats, and they get anywhere from $50k to $300k for the beats for one song. How do you get that job?
GR: Well, they get paid so little before they make it that they get ridiculous after they make it. So much of what Hip-Hop is about... You think it's about beats, but it's really about personalities. You know, with a guy like 50 Cent, it doesn't matter what beat he's on, really. It helps to be on a Dr. Dre beat, but a lot of 50 Cent records are by producers that you've never heard of. I remember "Magic Stick" was this guy Phantom with a beat who got paid $5,000. So it's not always about the beat. I call it A&Ring with your eyes, saying, "OK, I'm gonna get this person to produce because they had a hit with somebody the other day," not because I heard the track and I thought it was brilliant, or not because I thought it was gonna bring something special to the project just because I want to see if I can chart because this person's name is on it. And that shit costs you a whole bunch of money, you know what I'm sayin'? If you're gonna pimp Pharrell and just want to hire him because you want him to get you on the charts, not because there's a connection or because the talent is there, then, you know, Pharrell is gonna charge you a hundred grand. I don't think it pays off. I think people keep worrying about the state of the music business. It's because it costs so much money to make a record. If you make a record that way, it's gonna cost you a bunch of money.
What does a big time urban record cost to make?
GR: To make a low-end Hip-Hop record that way, it's gonna cost you a half million dollars, then re-forecasting to $750,000. But, I am working on a record right now that I'm going to ring in for under a $150,000.
And that's just for making the record. That doesn't include the videos or marketing.
GR: Yeah. Even the producers that I went to—I went to Premiere and some top-name producers—and I played them the artists and said, "I don't have any money, but if you're into this guy, do it." And they did it. So it's like, I don't want anybody on the record that doesn't want to be there. "And you know how you can prove you want to be there? Don't charge me $50,000 a track. And if you don't really want to be here, forget it." There are a bunch of kids out here (pointing at the audience) that make great beats and are great producers.
What defines a great beat? I am mystified by the whole thing. I bring Hip-Hop things to some of the kids on the staff that listen to it. I think it's good, and they go, "No, it doesn't have that thing." I don't understand yet what that thing is.
GR: Everybody up here will tell you that thing is why I get the big bucks—just being able to recognize what it is. I don't know. Something that makes me feel a certain way. That's such a generic question, so I'll give you a generic answer. I'm sorry.
Particularly in Hip-Hop, you have MCs, you have artists, you have beat-makers and you have producers. The difference is that an MC can rhyme over anything, and so what? That's cool. It's a bunch of cats and battles and fight clubs and all this other nonsense that doesn't really mean anything in terms of making records, or in terms of getting a vision across. An artist gets a vision across no matter what genre they're in. They get a point of view and a perspective across. A beat-maker submits a track that they did and the artist does something to it and it ends up on a mix tape, and a producer brings something else out of that artists. So what makes a great beat to me is what makes a great song. It's not about just a beat, it's about what does this bring to this project and to this vision, and am I gonna care about it next year?
Do they start with the beat?
GR: Depends on who the artist is. I think I guy like Jay-Z, he's so clear about who he is, and he's so clear about his vision, that you send him a bunch of beats and he'll pick the beats that are right for his vision. A kid like Lupe Fiasco, you may want to get in there with him and find out what he's thinkin' about and what he's vibin' on that day, and create something that helps his vision come along. I don't know if he's just sitting around pickin' beats. The thing about Hip-Hop—for people who are not really familiar with Hip-Hop—is it always seems easy. Anybody can rap; anybody can make a beat. No you can't. You know what I'm sayin'? There's a lot more that goes into it, and there's a lot more that goes into the entire making of a record and making of a star and making of a vibe. The minute that people start really respecting it, maybe they'll understand it a little bit more.