Ken Komisar: Vice President, A&R Sony Music - Part 1

Interviewed by Navin Watumull

Sony Music A&R
Where did you grow up?

I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and I was raised in Miami Beach, Florida.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be in the music business?

I actually had always loved the music business and never thought I'd be in it. I had known people had been raised around it. I knew a bunch of people at the studios, but didn't think I'd ever do it. I was studying to get a degree in finance, and was running my own restaurant at the same time. Then I started doing club promotion, then started running records to radio stations, working retail, and just kind of fell into it. The more I did it, the more I loved it.

Who were your favorite acts growing up, and who are some of your more recent favorites?

I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I had the benefit of an older brother, as well as being in Miami and having access to Criteria Recording Studios. The two guys who co-owned the studio were fishing friends. They used to invite me over to check out recording sessions, whether it was Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or to hang out with Stephen Stills, or sit in on an Allman Brothers. session—all kinds of stuff.

I grew up listening to everything from Bad Company and the Stones to Led Zeppelin and Foreigner. I also loved more obscure stuff like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Genesis. I kind of like all kinds of Rock stuff. At the same time, the first record I bought was an Earth, Wind, and Fire album, then a Billy Joel record, then a George Benson album. Those are the things I at least remember. I remember at an early age recording from vinyl onto tape. I just liked messing around with it all, watching how the levels and the meters and all the rest of the stuff worked.

What was your first gig?

Because I used to do so much with running parties and clubs and knew all the DJs — I kind of messed around with that world. It was my sophomore year in college. Somebody gave me a bunch of records to run around Miami and get on the radio. At that time, Miami was a great mix — or is still a great mix — of like Latin... It was back in the freestyle days, so I had a Shannon, and a Brenda Kay Starr, and a System record. I think my first add at radio was a System record called "You Are in My System." Then I got added to Power 96 in Miami — it was Hot 105 at the time.

I had no clue what I was doing. I think all these people that used to see me come to the stations kind of felt bad for me and tried to teach me the ropes. A lot of them have gone on to a bunch of big things. The PD at that station was a guy named Bill Tanner, and his programming assistant was a lady named Colleen Cassidy, who's still in the business. I just picked it up and learned bits and pieces. And it was funny because all my Pop acts and bands got tons of action. But the little label that I worked for had Whitesnake, and a group called Rose Tattoo, and lots other stuff, but I couldn't get arrested with it. I just figured it was because the people at the stations didn't like me. I had no idea what the business was. From there, I actually had a chance to do some promotion for a couple of little labels through a friend of mine, but basically went back and finished college the following year, and opened up an Italian restaurant.

And then how did you end up falling into A&R?

I graduated from college and was invited to come to L.A. for a couple of weeks, and took advantage of it. I'd never been to the West Coast before, and I fell in love with Los Angeles. I just thought it was the most amazing place, even coming from Miami, which was pretty cool at the time. I fought to stay, and it was Doug Morris who actually gave me a chance. Originally, they'd offered me a promotion job, and I held out for an A&R gig. I took some other meetings and he gave me a scout gig in L.A. working for Atlantic.

So who was your first signing?

I was a scout, so my job was to go out and find stuff, search it out and present the facts with the information to the people who were running the company, or the head of A&R, or whoever. So my first day on the job, there was a memo about this girl named Stacy Q, who had a song and a band. The song was called "Two of Hearts," and I remembered it being on the radio in Miami when I left a couple of weeks before. So I called up my friends in radio and they said, "Oh, man, that record's great." Then I called my friends in retail and they said, "Ah, it's huge. It's starting to sell." So I wrote this note to Paul Cooper, or to Doug, and they ended up picking up the record. I don't say that I signed it, but I certainly did help figure it out. And from there... Miami was a really viable, vibrant marketplace that had a lot of records coming out of the streets and out of the clubs, and radio was really receptive, and I took full advantage of it and signed a bunch of different things, which started out as 12-inch deals, and turned into albums and gold records and platinum records. Maybe they got a second record out of it or not. Sometimes they did, and sometimes the artist went on to do big things.

So you were kind of like L.A.'s connection to the Miami music scene?

At the time, but at the same time I was going out, checking out bands, and falling in love. The first thing I fell in love with was a band called Beatnik Beach, which I helped to sign through Atlantic Records. They made one record for the label. I had left the label to go to Sony, and the company didn't really get it as much as I did. It had a bunch of incredibly talented guys from the Bay Area, and they went on to become Jellyfish. Unfortunately, when I tried to bring them to Sony, nobody was really into it. But, that's OK. It was a really great record, and a great group.

For all the readers who want to get into A&R, what kind of career path advice would you give them?

Honestly, you take any opportunity you can to get your foot in the door. I started as a scout, spent a year and a half finding records in the street... records that I loved, because I believed in them. And I heard them and I felt like, "Oh my God, that sounds like a hit record." A lot of times, you have to use your eyes and ears and imagination to try and predict or read the tea leaves to hear what the streets are saying. And respond to that as opposed to being just purely about, you know, the artist being incredible. Because those great artists don't come along that often. The music business is part commerce and it's part artistic. And finding that balance of trade is really hard.

So, I would say, get in there any way you can. I went from being an A&R scout, to running a singles and dance division, to finding records in the street, which lead me to meet all kinds of people. When I worked at Atlantic, I brought the D.O.C. to the label. That was a result of following up on a record by a group called JJ Fad, which I didn't actually get a chance to sign, but a label within the Atlantic system did. As a result of my friendship with the management, Eazy [E] and [Dr.] Dre, they gave me the cassette of the D.O.C. and I brought it in. Unfortunately, that was one of the last things I did before I left, so I never really got all the credit for it because I moved on to Sony.

How long were you at Atlantic?

Three years. Then at Sony for 15 years.

At TAXI we get asked, if A&R people have to be so picky with what they sign, why does so much crap make it to the radio?

I think there's something for everybody out there. It depends upon what you consider crap. One man's trash is another man's treasure, and that's really the way it is. You can't say something's garbage because it may not be — to someone else, it may be something incredible. And fact is, there are all different audiences and all different kinds of music. I think you see that now in the "SoundScan era" and the world of independent labels. Things that you would never think could sell, can sell.

What kind of things do you look for in an artist or an act?

Wow. I think originality is always a great test of an artist's ability to cut through and sound a little different, to be different and stand out on their own. At the same time, there are 15 singer/songwriters out there, and they all are original in their own way. It's not genre specific. You need to really use your imagination.

I worked for Michael Jackson for five years and he taught me a lot about music, about songs, and about songwriting. I think about one of the greatest things he always used to say — I don't know if this is quotable — was that melody is king. I would present him songs when we were making records and he would say, "Kenny, if you can't sing me back the melody, and you're trying to remember it, how's the public gonna do it when their attention span is that much shorter?" All right, Michael — you win. That was a great barometer to learn from. He's a very bright man; he made amazing records.

You have to look for originality, but also creativity and skill, whether it be vocal skills or the ability to deliver on an emotional level. Jennifer Lopez may not be the greatest singer in the world, but she sings with soul and passion and that comes across. You have to take into account all kinds of factors. You have to have your ears and eyes open.

How about if an act has most of the things that you're looking for, but falls slightly short in a couple areas — would you sign them and work to fix what's "broken," or wait for another act that's more along the lines of "perfect"?

I don't know if there is such a thing as a perfect act. I mean, as good as you can get, you still have to win the public's approval and that's not easy. So what makes an act perfect? That's a whole other chapter. But the idea of finding an act and then doing artist development is something that's not as prevalent in today's world due to the high cost of making records, and marketing and promoting them. It's gotten really expensive. Unfortunately, I don't think you get a chance to see that development aspect of it as much as you would like. The long-term career development that brought us such good artists today doesn't really exist as much as it did. You hope for it and you want to believe that it does. It's something that we all strive and aspire to. I don't think an act has to come in with their single ready to go, but I also think that they've got to come in with the concept and the idea and the ability to show you that they have that kind of potential.

That's why the Indies are so cool in some respects — because they're willing to take chances that are a little bit left, a little bit out of the mainstream, that ultimately, in some cases, come around and become that artist or that record that you "want." We see it all the time. Labels have become less about artist development and more about research and exploitation-based, which isn't a bad thing. It's gone to another level and I think that's cool because kids are constantly looking and striving to find something new and whatever is "next." And if the majors aren't giving it to them, but it's coming from the street and it exists out there — then there's your proving ground, there's your farm team, there's your development area. We, as members of major labels, are guilty of that all the time. Some of our biggest acts have come out of that realm. But in history, the same thing has been done over and over again, when you see smaller labels assimilating into others. I think it's a great thing and I think it's a creative time. You look to try and help the act. It's not the end-all if they don't have the record that you think they need. You can build it; you can collaborate with people. That's the job of an A&R person or a producer. That's where passion comes in, and I think passion is the key ingredient.

How do you determine how much raw talent is enough for you to take it to the label?

It's all about levels of satisfaction. Everybody is slightly different in terms of what their tolerance is, what their filter will allow to pass through as acceptable or unacceptable. And you owe it to yourself to open your ears and eyes to as much as you can so that your net and filter are broader. Then you can whittle it down to something that you'll actually believe in, whether it's something to die for or not... You do your job, do as much as you can, but you still have to rely on other people to help complete the work for you. That's the art of it.

Since the majors aren't focused as much on artist development, how much of the development is the responsibility of the artist themselves, or their publishers, or managers?

It's all about your team and organization, you know. If you are part of a good team, they're going to help you to build and grow. What's a cool artist now wasn't a cool artist three years ago. John Legend, originally known as John Stevens, is an example — he came out from that kind of realm to be a public figure, an icon for a new style of music and I think that's awesome.

When you sign an act, are you involved in their choice of producers? Or do the acts you sign tend to have producers in mind that they want to work with, and you just help facilitate getting them together?

It's all a part of an education process for you and the band, to share their ideas and their creativity and try and help find that person. I just worked with a group called The 22's who came equipped with some amazing demos that were basically produced by them and an engineer. The idea for the band to try to go with a different producer wasn't something they were excited about. They were happy with their direction, they were happy with the music, and I think the label was too. It was a matter of finding that right person to go over the record with them — whether it was the original producer or whoever — and then to find a person to mix it, help take it to the next level through the mixing or by doing some additional production before the mixing.

It depends. The Rock world is a little bit different than the Hip-Hop, Pop, R&B world. In the Rock world, a band picks a producer or you mutually decide on a producer. You go and you make the record with a producer and an engineer, and that person either mixes it, or you go to another person to mix it, and that's about the end of it. In the Hip-Hop, Pop world, it's more of a variety. You have multiple producers in most cases, and multiple collaborators. It builds a different kind of record, which isn't necessarily a bad thing — it's kind of exciting. I think that's a great way to make a record too. But it depends upon the artist. Producers hold a huge role and can be incredibly important, and having some of them on your record in certain worlds is an endorsement or co-sign. If you get so-and-so to produce your record then, it's like being co-signed by them.

Is that something that's more important in the urban world?

Most definitely. It's like, if the record is from that label then, "Oh man, that's gotta be cool." Or if it's got his production on it, "That's got to be a hot record." That can come and go as well, but it still has a bearing, it still has an effect on things.

If the production in the urban world is so important, how can an unsigned urban act make it without access to those producers?

Well, that's where creativity comes in and your own ability to create, control, and build your own buzz. And I think that's what a lot of people in the industry are looking for. If you look at a lot of the big Hip-Hop artists today, from Young Jeezy to Lil Flip, they came off of their own label, or an Indy. Think about what it's like out there. There's the use of mix tapes as a vehicle to play that game as well; get your name out there, get some word-of-mouth and build off of that, and you'll end up attracting bigger and better names. It works, doesn't it?

It worked for 50 Cent.

It sure did.

Please be sure to see Part 2 of this interview next month.

Wanna publish this article on your website?  Click here to find out how.

See How TAXI Works

"With help from you guys, the music is pouring out and I'm having such fun! Thanks!"
— Willie McCulloch,
TAXI Member

"I had the drive, and the passion. I just needed help, and you keep supplying it."
— Justin K.,
TAXI Member

"I'm really enjoying being a Taxi member, and appreciate all the critiques . . . especially the nice ones!"
— Carole Nelson,
TAXI Member

"Listen to what the critiquer is saying . . . they're usually on the money. Most important of all: don't give up."
— Jimmy Clark,
TAXI Member

"I have spent my life playing and singing in bands and this is the most real thing I have ever seen."
— Dwight Nichols,
TAXI Member

"I recently got my first deal as a result of a submission to TAXI! I'm very excited to see that this actually works!"
— George Leverett,
TAXI Member

"I've tried others, but they're nowhere near as good as TAXI."
— Firoz Sanullah,
TAXI Member

"The Road Rally was the most productive weekend of my music career."
— Dean Person,
TAXI Member

"You are making an incredible difference in the lives of musicians and artists trying to break into the business!"
— Rob Khurana,
TAXI Member

"My only regret is that I didn't join TAXI years ago — but it's never too late to make up for lost time."
— Richard Scotti,
TAXI Member

"I am enclosing a check for my third year of membership in TAXI. You've got a great thing going, and it's fun being a member."
— Thomas Hipps,
TAXI Member

"I am in awe of the sheer volume of amazing ideas to help musicians that you not only come up with, but make into real opportunities."
— Mara,
TAXI Member

"I have spent my life playing and singing in bands and this is the most real thing I have ever seen."
— Dwight Nichols,
TAXI Member

"TAXI provides opportunities to people who otherwise would have no access to the music industry."
— Tom Wasinger,
TAXI Member