Ken Komisar: Vice President, A&R Sony Music - Part 2

Interviewed by Navin Watumull

How would you define the role of a producer?

It depends upon who it is and what they do. Some people are producers who write songs and collaborate, whether it be Rock producers like a Don Gilmore — people like that who can actually write and collaborate with the band — or a Howard Benson, who's incredible at arrangements. There are all different kinds of folks who do different things. In the R&B/Hip-Hop world, some producers just make beats. Scott Storch — not many people know it, but he's an amazing piano/keyboard player. That's what he grew up doing, yet his beats, his sounds are bananas. Here's a guy who works 24/7, he lives in the studio — but that's how he stays on his game, he's driven that way. Cool and Dre are the same way. They live it. That's what they're all about. Will I. Am, an incredible artist who's amazingly talented, cannot only create and develop and build his own records, but can do it for other people as well, with incredible vision, and can make them sound like something unique. That's a threat — that's real. You got to respect that. And yet, there are those producers who don't want to be artists, who are in the R&B and Pop world that are incredibly talented, who can also write a record as well. They are threats in that game too.

What do you look for in a producer? Are there any tangibles that you look for? Are you only looking for someone who has X amount of hits?

No, I think you've got to be open. You've got to open your ears. That's how people come up. Some of the best music is coming from kids who don't have the equipment that half these people do, but they have the imagination and the ingenuity to turn a beat, or use sounds that nobody else is messing with. And that plays off your ears like, "Whoa, what was that?" I think that's a big part of the equation. You don't have to be classically trained, but being a musical person allows you to go into a whole other range of possibilities. If you're an artist and you have that musical talent and capability, when you're able to work with a producer who can challenge you to take it to that next level, the results can be unbelievable. It's like growing your skills.

I think it depends upon the artist. I have the luxury and the ability to be able to work in all different worlds that way, whether it be Rock or Hip-Hop or Pop. To me, that's a big bonus, and it helps to know all different kinds of players. It's important to have knowledge of all of it, to know who's cool and who's next and what's exciting.

In the urban world, it seems that a lot of the producers are just guys who come up with cool beats. Isn't that just the drummer or a co-writer at best, and not a producer?

In today's day and age because of the value of the "music" and "the beats" ... Some guys are just "programmers" or "beatmakers." But the way things are, that holds a huge value in today's Hip-Hop society, especially since the artist in most cases in that world is a rapper or a writer. They collaborate and come up with their material on top of the beat. That's the inspiration for the record, and that's the canvas for it. But there are those writers who should be considered producers as well, because of their incredible skills for arrangement, like Sean Garrett. His visual ideas and his delivery through working off of a record or its arrangement are huge and it's proven successful. But ultimately some of these people grow into producers just like that.

The guys who make beats, listen, we all need 'em. That's a huge part of it. I think it's a collaborative effort no matter how you look at it — in most cases — because words and music go together. The more people realize that, the easier it'll be.

At TAXI we get a lot of phone calls from people who say, "I just need distribution." Is that true, or do they not understand the industry or really know what they need?

Think about it — in today's world, you can get distribution on the Internet. So, what is distribution? Awareness is what you're really looking for. And in some areas, selling records out of the trunk of cars is no crime — it's considered a cool thing. The fact that you're selling them is what matters. That's your proof positive. There are a million ways to do that. If that's the case, and you're less concerned about SoundScan and you're more about getting awareness and selling your records, well, then go to 107th Street, or whatever. You can see plenty of records that are for sale that don't have distribution, but they certainly do have a network. "Distribution" doesn't really matter.

How about if an act says to you, "Our music covers a wide-range of genres." How would you feel about that?

I think that's cool if you're looking to do that, if you're trying to be an artist, or grow an audience. In some cases, you can't be too wide because then nobody knows what they're looking at. It depends upon what your style is. Once you become an artist and you have built that identification, then you can expand, experiment and cross and blend genres. That's the great freedom in creativity that you look for in an artist's follow-up record.

How are important are songs to you?

Hugely. That's the truth. Working for Michael Jackson, I learned a lot about it. People come in to me and say, "Play me a hit song." I love carrying a great song around in my pocket or in my head and go into someone's office and saying, "Check this s**t out. This is a big record." I think a song is as powerful as it gets. It can change somebody's life; it can change their impression; it can change the course of a career. When you know you've got a hit song, or a new song you think can be a hit song, that's exciting. Songs are hugely important. And great songs are incredibly hard to find.

How do you go about looking for new artists?

I'm a big believer in the saying, "You never know where your next hit's gonna come from" — so you kind of have to keep your ears and eyes open in all directions, depending upon what kind of music you like and what you get excited about and what you feel personally. I keep my ears open and talk to a lot of folks, and keep an open-door policy so that people feel comfortable enough to say when they're excited about something, "I want you to check this out" — and I encourage that. That's a big part of it. In today's world, it can be a lawyer shopping a record or whatever, but you also need to look in other places to find records. They can come from different places and different people. It could be anybody who has a hot record.

A lot of musicians are trying to get discovered on the Internet. How often do you surf the Internet looking for new artists, if at all? And do you think that's a feasible way of getting discovered?

I think people are looking for reaction, whether it's off the Internet, off a local radio station, in the clubs, or in the press... any place that you can start showing signs of having excitement around you. Look at the people who scour MySpace to check out the unsigned stuff.

There's this band that I met with, probably two months ago in my office, that was the #1 most-downloaded band last week on MySpace. Three of the nicest guys you'd ever meet just making good music, really musical and melodic songs. And for whatever reason, I don't know what happened, but now all these people are chasing them and setting up showcases. That's a result of the Internet — and obviously someone's paying attention.

How did you come across them?

I had an intern over the summer who knew the group and was friends with them. He booked the band through his college at Notre Dame. Not the easiest place to get to, but a great school and a big university, and people want to play there. So, he met them through there, and he put me on to them. All summer long I had him listen to all kinds of demos and, sure enough, he said, "You gotta check this out — it's great."

Do you use the Internet much?

Of course. People send you e-mails all day long, to check out this, to download a song available for licensing. Or you may hear about a record on a radio station that's blowing up and you do a little research online and figure it out. That's part of the magic. That's part of the excitement too because I think A&R is still the art of discovery. I still listen to all my own demos and I still carry around tons of music. I get a thrill out of it because you just never know. The art of discovery is probably the greatest part of it. That's what keeps you going because you never know what you're going to find.

How much of your job is hooking acts up with great songs and/or co-writers?

I'd say it's a mixture of both. It's all about what you like to do. Personally, I love that. I get a thrill out of it because I think the creative part is the exciting part of what we do. So if there's a way to make an introduction or if I know some great songwriters that I have relationships with and say, "You need to get on this record," or "You need to submit some songs for this project" and it works... I think that's amazing. That's part of the fun of what A&R is — being able to put your hands on things and know where the bodies are buried before anybody else, or even once they are established. That's what I get off on; that's what makes me excited about this, making those kinds of connections.

Where do you think the music industry is going? Where do you see it being in the next five years?

Wow. God I wish I knew. If I had a crystal ball... I gotta believe that there are all genres, all styles of music, and there's a value to them all. It's about watching and feeling what's going on. Watching it all grow is a big part of the equation. Clearly, styles change and what's cool and hot now, in six months will not be. It'll be on to something different or some hybrid or incarnation thereof. For example, there's Reggaeton, to me that's something new, fresh and exciting that blends Hip-Hop and Reggae. Even though it's a different language, people in all different parts around the country are vibing on it big-time. That's exciting. Who knows how long it'll last.

It's got to be open to the artists, and to the labels to pick the real artists to develop and build so that they can have some legs, some longevity and room for growth. That could be interesting.

I still believe in the art of songs, and in songwriters... if you have an amazing song, it doesn't matter what style or what you are, it'll find the ground that it needs. I think television has become an incredible vehicle for all the labels, for artists. But sometimes the popularity from being on TV has taken the place of credibility and quality. But that's very much a product of our times. Maybe in the future that will balance itself out, so we're not so much about that kind of world. Even though the idea of having someone who's a double or triple threat, where they can do film and television, or be a singer and an actress — that's cool, but is that the end-all? I don't know. I think you've got to be adept and adjustable, and willing to accept all different stuff. Celebrity doesn't necessarily equate.

What do you think the biggest mistake is that unsigned artists make in their quest to get signed?

The biggest thing that you have to do as an unsigned artist — or even a signed artist — is be your own worst critic, be your own best editor. Because in reality, you're not just competing against yourself, you're competing against hundreds and thousands of other people trying to get that same coveted spot, to get a contract with a record company. And even then, that's just the beginning, that's not the end. When you get a contract, to be honest, that's when the hard work begins.

So I think people need to be more honest with themselves. By that, I mean they need to listen to what they do, and hear through their own imagination or through their own friends and be objective, to be able to say, "Is that record really that good?" or "Is my vocal really that good?" And that's not easy. We all love our own stuff. But the fact remains, that's the hardest thing to do for people, for all of us. That's the biggest stumbling block. In most cases you may get one or two shots at getting signed. And if it ain't right, it ain't right. You have to be objective enough to say, "Let me perfect my skill a little more."

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