Jason Jordan: Vice President, A&R, Hollywood Records

Interviewed by Cathy Genovese

Hollywood Records A&R
How did you get into the music business?

I started my own record company with my twin brother when I was very young, probably about 13 years old. We started putting out punk records, primarily seven-inches. We ended up selling a lot and built our company into a six-figure business by the time I was 18.

How did you even know how to do that at the age of 13?

Trial and error. I was going to punk shows every weekend and seeing bands that I loved and wanted to work with. I definitely had that drive. Some people were into sports and other activities, whereas my brother and I were very into music. So we figured out how to record and make a record, how to manufacture it, advertise and sell it, and how to distribute it. We ended up building a really successful business.

Then, at 17, I decided to go to school—pre-med—which lasted a year and a half, because I realized that I didn't want to be a doctor and I wanted to be in the music business. At that point, I was interning for Rykodisc, which was a huge independent record company—and still is—learning a lot about international licensing, movie synchronization rights, things that I'd never learned before. Everything was constantly about educating myself on how to run a better business.

When I was 19 years old, I went to the corporate offices of Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia and set up their entire music marketing program, which still exists today. I was the catalyst in getting that going.

About a year later, I was still running my label full time and started getting job offers from major labels to do A&R for them because they had tried unsuccessfully to sign my bands. They figured if they couldn't sign my bands, they might as well try to sign me. I went to Columbia Records, thinking I'd only go work there for a year, which turned into four years. I signed on for a year thinking that it would be a continuation of my education process in the music business. And certainly my four years really became my four years of college about the music business. I learned everything I needed to know and more from working at Columbia.

In 1998, I got a phone call from Rob Cavallo, who asked me to come to L.A., and I did. He and his father, Bob Cavallo, saw the potential in me and hired me at Hollywood Records. And I've been here for seven years. So it's been almost 11 years as an A&R person.

Which is a lifetime in the music industry.

Absolutely. Especially when the life expectancy of an A&R person's job is usually that of a fruit fly. Part of that is just really knowing how to do my job well. Part of the job is scouting talent, obviously. That's what most people think A&R is. But really the nuts and bolts of A&R is making great records.

Tell me what being an A&R person at Hollywood Records is really like.

Well, I'm the only person in New York. The rest of the staff is in Los Angeles, so I have an incredible amount of ground to cover. I travel to Los Angeles a couple of times a month to maintain my presence on the West Coast and to check on my projects. I also do a lot of recording in Los Angeles. So, I'm traveling constantly, always looking for talent no matter what, whether it comes across my desk or I see it at a show or someone whispers something in my ear. But pretty much 80% of my day is dealing with the actual construction of records. Anybody can sign a new band and certainly can compete and hopefully close a deal with a band, but what they do with it after they get the band signed is what really counts.

I think a lot of people don't know that your job goes beyond just signing the band, but also encompasses the full production of the record.

If it were just signing the band, that would be easy. I don't like chasing artists. I certainly will do it as is necessary. We have to discover new art; we have to be competitive and be on things early. I really get a thrill after the band is signed by sitting down and talking to them about what kind of record they want to create and then helping to facilitate that process; whether it be working with songwriters or producers, what studio they want to record in and what kind of sound they want.

Do you go into the studio with them and give your opinion?

Absolutely. The producer is the captain, and you like to think the A&R person can help steer the ship. Certainly my job—at least the way I do it—is I am always guarding the artistic vision while maintaining the needs of the company. That's sometimes a really hard thing to do because the two craziest words that go together are "music" and "business." It's like you're making money on art, but you really have to be protective of the art. Personally, I feel very responsible for that. Protecting art and artists is very important to me.

But you still have to deal with the business side of it.

Of course. Somebody has to do it. Suddenly a band's manager is the other partner in that process. It's not always about towing the company line, although certainly the record company writes my paycheck, and I will definitely do what's right for the record company, but I will not sacrifice art to do that. Usually there's always a middle ground to discover where the record company gets to be happy, and the artist can be thrilled. That's my job, finding that balance.

How do you go from liking a band and wanting to hear more music to actually signing them? What takes place in the interim for you?

Sometimes people send me music; sometimes I stumble upon them live; sometimes someone randomly sends me an MP3; sometimes I'll walk into a club to see a band and accidentally catch the one before them. That happened recently. The first band was better than the one that I was actually there to see.

Certainly any record company in this day and age is going to want to completely believe in the band, artist or singer-songwriter to sign it. It's a major monetary commitment from the record company's side; it's a major trust commitment from the artist side; and it's certainly a major time commitment from me, because once the band is signed, then the real work starts.

What goes on is usually if I fall in love with something, I will pursue aggressively—be it going to shows courting the band outside of gigs, certainly connecting on a personal relationship with the bandmembers or the artist directly.

Is it typically love at first sight?

Absolutely. I can tell you within five minutes if it's something I care about.

Is that more so by seeing it live or just hearing the music?

Usually I don't really like listening to demos. I think that the live show is everything. What I intend to do is this: If somebody sends me a demo and says they're playing the next week, I won't listen to the demo, I'll go to the show. Because if I love it, then I'll go back and listen to the demo, or even if I like it, I'll go back and listen to the demo. Because usually one of two scenarios happens—that either they're really, really great on record and they're horrible live, or they're really, really great live and they just have made a bad record or a bad demo.

What's better for you as an A&R person, to see a band live with an audience or to see them in a showcase?

I absolutely hate showcase environments. I avoid them at all costs. Sometimes we have to do them just because of the nature of the business, and the band is only available on a certain day, or they're from a foreign country and they're only here for a couple days. Other record companies split the cost of seeing an artist like that. I don't think that that's ever a good scenario for a band to truly win in, especially when other labels are present, because it's just not a winning situation. Showcase environments are sterile; there's really no vibe. A lot of the instincts that go along with A&R are discovered by seeing thousands of live shows. I definitely like to see what the audience is doing, if the band really has any fans, if they have any fan base whatsoever, how they're interacting with the audience, if they are engaging—all the things that go along with being the real deal.

How important is it to you that an unsigned artist/band has an existing fan base and is selling CDs and touring?

Very important. The day and age of a record company discovering an act and basically doing all the work for them is over. These days a record company generally wants to see some kind of independent record sales, certainly a fan base. These are things that normal artists who want to be successful do anyway. An artist should be out there doing this kind of work regardless because it's what they do. You only go to a record company or get signed to a record company when it's totally necessary to take that step because, to be quite honest, you could have a successful career without having a record deal, by doing it yourself. And there have been plenty of artists who have proven that fact. It's a harder road to go, but I can tell you it's probably more satisfying in the end.

Who are some of the artists you work with on the Hollywood roster? Who have you signed?

It's been a very diverse trip for me so far. The first thing I signed to this company was a band called BBMak, which ended up being a platinum artist for the label. And I've signed other things that have been successful and unsuccessful. The most recent act that has been successful is Breaking Benjamin, which has just gone platinum this past week. And it's their second record, so we've stuck with them and showed a real commitment to them, and they deliver. Those guys work very, very hard.

So what does it take for an artist or band to get past being dropped after the first album?

Honestly, a record company that will believe in them for more than one record, which Hollywood Records does. We are an artist development label, meaning we will stick with an artist for one, two, three records, as needed, because it doesn't always happen for them on their first record. With Breaking Benjamin, they sold 200,000 records on their first album. Their single wasn't as big a hit as we thought, but that was OK. But what it did do, it was a great artist development story, because it set their next album up—200,000 people, plus all the people who downloaded it, illegally traded it, heard it from their friends, burned it, whatever. However they heard about the band or saw it live, the band had a couple million people knowing who it was. That's a great setup. Whereas, if they had been signed at any other label, I believe they probably would've been dropped. So, as a testament to Hollywood Records, and certainly to our work ethic, and the band's work ethic, we went back in the studio and made another record that has had two #1 singles on it, and we're about to release their third single, and the record's platinum.

How much do you listen to new music?

You should see the floor of my office. It's covered with CDs. I listen to at least two dozen new bands a day. I have multi-disc changer, and I just pull five of them out of the pile and put the CD covers by my computer and listen to them while I'm working. The stuff that kind of floats to the top of the pile I take home with me, or I listen to them on the subway or in my car.

Do you ever get dazed from just listening to so much?

I get a little shell-shocked, but I know, again, within a few minutes of listening to something if it's something that's right for the label. I mean there's music that I listen to and I go, "Oh my God, this is really special; this is really different; this is really cool. But is it right for Hollywood Records?" That's really the question. This is the job I've been hired to do. I work for Hollywood, so what's right for Hollywood is what I'm looking for.

Well, what is right for Hollywood? Are you interested in only specific genres?

Absolutely not. We're open to every genre. The only genre that we don't specifically do is Hip-Hop. We do varying degrees of Pop music, whether it be Rock music, slightly urban stuff—like Jeannie Ortega—to total Pop like Jesse McCartney and Hilary Duff. And then, obviously, a lot of the very cool stuff like the Polyphonic Spree, Z-Trip, Elefant, things like that.

Any reason you haven't gone into Hip-Hop?

It's just not really a market that we are set up to do yet. We certainly don't have the promotion or marketing infrastructure. I'm not saying that's not something we will eventually go into. We probably will.

How far into a song do you listen before you know you don't want to go any further? Do you listen all the way through the chorus?

I listen to the whole song. Even if I don't like the first song, I might listen to another one. It's not hard for me to just let a disc stay, unless it's really horrible—then I'll pull it right off. I've heard enough bad music.

I think a lot of people don't understand, for instance, if a company like TAXI sends you something, that you're getting music from everywhere else too, and that you don't immediately listen to everything surrounding you.

Yeah, that's one of the big misconceptions. Somebody will solicit me and ask me if they can send in their music, and I'll accept it, but with the understanding that I'm in the middle of making three records right now and traveling. Certainly, finding new music is a priority for me, but I'm one person, and the flow of materials that come at me is staggering. It can be a little overwhelming at times. Sometimes it may take me a couple weeks to get back to somebody, unless of course it's something that is really happening right away and then I have to jump right on it. But in my own time, I eventually get around to listening to everything. It becomes kind of annoying sometimes when you get a multitude of phone calls and e-mails about the same thing, when they know that I'm going to call them back anyway, because I do.

You're a rare breed.

Yes indeed. Even if I don't like what somebody has given me at that time, at some point in their career they may have something that I do want. I don't want to close any doors early.

How much does radio and commercial viability affect your decision in finding a band?

Personally, a lot. I came into this business as an independent record maker, selling a specific genre of music, which was punk rock and hardcore at the time. That sort of had its own built-in audience. When I started working for major labels, you don't go to a major label and expect to have a career if you don't sell records. So the reality of it is is that I have to love it, I have to want to get up every single day and kill for you, kill for the artist, kill for the music. For me it has to strike a nerve with me, as well as thinking what might strike a nerve with the general audience, the record-buying public. So commercial viability is a 100% part of my decision-making process, especially at a label like Hollywood, where we are a commercial Pop label.

How involved are you in getting your artists placed in film and TV and what significant role does film and TV placement play within the music industry?

Very much so involved, but fortunately for me, Hollywood Records is owned by Disney, so we have great people at Hollywood who are involved in placing music in TV programs, as well as films and soundtracks that are being created at Disney and at other companies. I think that that's certainly a major promotional and marketing tool. It helps, it's exposure. People listen to the radio still of course, but they watch a lot of television and play a lot of video games, and it's great to have music exposed that way.

Do you work with any artists who record outside songs? What is the best way for an upcoming Pop or Rock songwriter to get songs heard?

Most of my artists either 100% write their own material or they collaborate with other writers. I think writing collaboration is probably the best thing to do anyway, regardless of how great your artist is. I find when you have two really incredibly talented people in a room, it's better than having just one in a room. Something special usually happens as a result of it.

What kind of writing discipline do you look for in the artists who you work with?

I want to know that they can write... Everybody who I have signed has written their own songs. Everything that I've ever signed an artist off of has been something that they either had written themselves or had been 80% part of the co-writing. I've definitely never done anything that's been a total puppet show, where somebody covers other people's material 100%.

Do you encourage them to write every day?

Absolutely. I mean, this is what they do for a living. Just like I get up in the morning, I come to my office, I listen to music, I return phone calls, I scour the Internet, I go to see shows. That's my job. Their job is to write great songs.

What are your thoughts on the future of record labels and the music industry?

In a shrinking marketplace, I think music will rebound. I think we will see it packaged in different things, be it DVDs, video games... It's already happening. It's not something new, it's just something that eventually the standard of selling a record or selling a CD or MP3 or whatever is going to become part of some kind of other download source, be it cable delivery or the expansion of iTunes in different ways. The digital marketplace is the frontier for every kind of music, whether it's attached to a movie or a video game or some new product that we haven't heard of yet.

What are your personal goals in regards to your future in the music industry?

I want to be even more successful than I already am. I want to discover something so incredibly groundbreaking that it'll be remembered forever—such as a band being remembered forever, and certainly my place and role in it. And I'd like to continue doing music for the rest of my life. Every morning I get out of bed, it's a blessing to work with music. I'm very lucky.

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