Sherrill Blackman – Music Row Magazine's Song plugger of the Year for 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Tony Ferguson – VP, A&R, A&M/Geffen/Interscope. Discovered and signed No Doubt. 25 million CDs sold.
Brian Howes – Award-winning songwriter, Grammy-nominated producer, record label executive and publisher who has produced hits for Hinder, Daughtry, David Cook, and more.
Darius Jones – Senior director of A&R, Capitol Records, Los Angeles. He's worked with the likes of Ice Cube, T.I., Chris Brown, Snoop Dog, Fabolous, Ne-Yo and Faith Evans, among many others.
Sherrill, you're one of the most well-connected people in Nashville. You know every artist who's signed, who is about to cut a record and when they're going to cut it. You also know who would cut what kind of song, what topics they will or won't touch, styles that they do or don't like, and so on. You know that, the other pluggers in town know, the A&R people know, the artists' managers know, the pro songwriters know and the producers in Nashville know. How can our members become better informed when they see a TAXI listings asking for songs for an artist like X, Y, or Z?
Sherrill: Not only am I pitching songs, but I spend a tremendous amount of time doing research—studying where the artist is in their life cycle, what's goin' on in their life — did they just get married, did they just get divorced, did they just have a kid? Because that's going to affect the way they're screening songs, and I've got to be aware of that. So I do a tremendous amount of research. It's easier to do on an established artist. Some of the newer artists—thank God for MySpace and Web sites, because you can research that way and listen to some clips—but you're still trying to hit a moving target, because on any given day you're not quite sure exactly where that artist is or where their mind is.
We had a song called "Ordinary Girl" from our members Jen and Scott Smith that to this day I think is a hit for somebody. We got it to Paul Worley (president of Warner Bros., Nashville at the time), through a TAXI forward to Danny Kee, who was Director of A&R there at that time. Danny called me up and said, "Laskow, this song is a hit for somebody. I think Faith Hill will cut it." Paul Worley called and said, "I'm putting together a CD with my suggestions for Faith's next record, and your song is the #1 song on my compilation to her." Faith heard it, fell in love with the song. The title was "Ordinary Girl." Faith was pregnant at the time. Faith had the baby, went back to work at some point, then decided, "You know what? I don't think I can't cut that song because I can't really be an ordinary girl at this stage of my career." Am I exaggerating to say that those kinds of things can throw something off the rails?
Sherrill: Anything. [laughter] It's amazing, I mean, just getting everybody on the same page, and I'm sure the other guys on this panel go through similar things. Getting the artist, the producer, the manager and the label all on the same page is virtually impossible. It's got to jump through so many hoops. I've had songs that the producer called me and said he loved the song, then he calls back and says the artist doesn't like it. I've had songs where the artist and the producer loved the song, are planning on going in the studio, and the label people come in and say they aren't gonna get behind it. Any number of the people who are part of the puzzle like it, but one link in the chain doesn't like it, it all falls apart, and it's all out of our control.
And you're working with the best of the best!
Sherrill: One more comment. A friend of mine had a song passed on because the listener said that artist would never sing that song because it's in the wrong key! There's also something else that a lot of writers tend to overlook. When they are aiming their material at a certain artist, they may be basing it on what the artist has already done, and if the artist is moving forward—like I said earlier-they don't want to duplicate what they've already done because their career is moving forward. So if you're aiming it at what they've done on their other previous albums, you're going to miss the target.
We get the information based on what the labels tell us or what the producers tell us. How do they latch on and stay with the moving target, moving forward? How do they know where Faith Hill is going be on her next record?
Sherrill: I tell my writers, and all writers, don't aim at a specific artist. Just write a great song that'll fit 15 or 20 different artists, that way it will have a better chance of landing somewhere.
Tony, during conversations you and I have had you've said, "I don't know if A&R is even relevant anymore." You said, "With all the tools there are for artists these days, they can build their own careers." There are 3 million artists at least on MySpace alone, and yet, I haven't really seen a Madonna, a Faith Hill or a Tim McGraw. No huge career artists yet have really emerged. We've had some flashes in the pan that, for one reason or another—maybe a TV commercial combined with their MySpace following—turned into them having a hit, but then they kind of disappear. If it's next to impossible to get a deal on a major, and it's really not likely that selling tracks on the Internet is going to make an artist rich—using the definition of what rich was before-have we seen the end of megastars?
Tony: Um, probably not. I just don't think you're going to see them so frequently. You've got to remember when the major labels were at their height—arguably from the 1940s to about the mid-'80s, before the all the stuff hit the fan—you basically had a handful of people dictating what the public listened to. They had control of radio to some degree; it became a business of egos. We have great people in the music industry who have been around—David Anderle at A&M, John Kolodner at Geffen, Gary Gersh, Jimmy Iovine, Clive Davis. I mean, there are some great mega-people who have been involved in the music industry, and they controlled a lot of what the people listened to. They went through the system and had the instincts to pick stars. Now, you have a situation where everyone is picking stars. The trouble is, this is not an objective business; this is a subjective business, meaning that whatever you think is a hit is a hit. The next person might not agree, but he'd go along with it if he changed the chorus. Somebody else might say, "Not on God's green earth." It's a subjective business, so when you've got so much fragmentation and so many more tastemakers in charge of what we want to hear, it dilutes the whole system, and that's what you've got going on now. So it's very hard for a great artist to stand out in that sea full of artists. It's very hard to notice and get noticed in the music industry now, and there isn't as much money as there used to be to pluck artists out and take a shot with them. That's part of the problem.
We've also gone through a whole couple of generations where people think music's for free. It's become the backdrop of our lives. It's very, very tough to get some of these artists and songs out there. The best thing you could say to all these artists and songwriters in this room today is that you've just got to keep trying.
That's always been the case. Can't we give them anything better than, "You've just got to keep trying"? There's got to be...
Tony: Yeah, because there's more of a platform out there to get it done. It's not just phoning up trying to get through to an A&R guy as your only conduit to get into the music industry. The music industry is everywhere now, you know? I teach at UCLA and we had a guy who's earning $150,000 a year just writing kind of retro/disco dance music for local jingles in a local Minnesota area. He earns a ton of money and he has built his little thing up. He may not be the rock star playing at the local arena down the street, but he's earning money. And anyone earning money in this business gets my vote. It's tough to earn money in this business.
So you gotta go out there and basically find your niche on what you want to do. If you're intent on just being the next Faith Hill or the Gwen Stefani or the next Justin Timberlake or Creed—or whatever band you want to bring in—you've got a narrow field. You're in the business of No. Everybody tells you, "No, I don't like that," or "No, you can't do that," or "No, you're not going to record today," or "No, you need a vocal coach." It's the business of No. So if you're narrowing your field, then you are doing yourself a disservice. If you're a songwriter or you're a performer, you should try and get your music out everywhere you can—anywhere you can get it out there. And the big deals today are done in branding—branding with Kirkland water, Mountain Dew. Like I said before, just go out there and you find the deals.
So the answer to the first part of your question is that A&R has become more about marketing than ever before. When I look at an act now—an act that we really want to sign, with all the money that we will spend, which is going up and up and up—I'd better have a two-year or three-year plan on what that artist is gonna do; otherwise he's not going to get signed.
How does this relate to independent artists like the folks sitting behind me here in the audience today? How are they going to get Mountain Dew? Why would Mountain Dew be interested in having their face...?
Tony: Why would I choose to be interested in picking stuff off of MySpace and catching these little tunes and then putting them on as advertising for their thing? They don't pick name artists. They don't come to us and say, "Has Gwen Stefani got a song, because we've got a new ad campaign coming out for a new iPhone?" They go out there and they find things, because they are looking for music in their mind that they can brand with their product. And that's the way you've got to think today as writers.
So songwriters and artists should try to create music that actually works for a product or branding more than just standing on its own two feet, simply as music?
Tony: In the glamour business, like shoes, perfumes and stuff like that, that's why some of the female artists are earning far more than some of the male counterparts. The marketing and the branding and the sponsorships with women are far outweighing… With a boy it's probably going to be a jockstrap or a pair of dirty sneakers that they branded with, you know, some of these bands. But with the Pussycat Dolls or some of the others, the sky's the limit.
As an inside kind of piece of information, Nicole in the Pussycat Dolls wanted to make a solo record after the first Dolls' record hit; it was part of her contract. We didn't think it was a good idea, but we said, "Okay," and she made the record. No one really thought it was strong enough to come out as a powerful first solo record, so we shelved it, and everyone panicked. That means we had to start all over again with another Dolls record, which has just been released. But it's two-and-a-half years later, and the public is very fickle when it comes to pop music. They forget about people like that. So the Dolls are having a tough time selling records after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. But it wasn't a hiatus; it was just that we went down the wrong road. But the thing that saved her life and saved our ass was that she landed a $40 million L'Oreal deal. And part of these new deals—which we haven't gotten into yet—in these 360 deals, we have 20% of everything that the Pussycat Dolls do in their career, whether it's acting, merchandise—every aspect of their career. It saved our ass. We got 20% of $40 million without selling a record. Who needs to sell records?
I've got to say as a male, I'm thinking about calling the ACLU, because if we're being underpaid compared to the women, I've got an issue with that. [laughter and applause]
OK, Brian, you're a hit songwriter, multi-platinum producer, and the CEO of a record label with an imprint under Interscope. You've experienced every side of the music business and done incredibly well, and you're very qualified to answer this question we get from our members all the time. "Why can't I just do what I do, create what I create, and let the industry figure out what to do with me? Why is it so important for me to write songs with commercial appeal that fit in a radio format?"
Brian: Well, it's exactly what Tony said. With my label at Interscope I've only signed one band in two years. Right from the start, we do a 360 deal, where you've got to build brands and everything. That's just one aspect of it, so if you don't even have that right... You have to have music that at least gets played on the radio, because the radio still drives whatever sales are left. It still does drive that aspect of it and kind of gets the ball rolling. And, from my experience, it always starts with the song. If you have a great song, then everything else builds around that. You have to start with a great song. But it's very subjective, so as long as it's very catchy and hooky, and it's not like prog rock with 7/8 time signatures. There are certain math parts of it that you have to get right. There's the creative part, then there's the math part. And the math part is that the majority of people will like it. You have to play a little bit by the rules some of the time. You can always break the rules on some things, but for pop music for sure, you've got to give the audience what they want.
Be more specific. What's the math?
Brian: The math... Like it can't be 10 minutes before the chorus hits, and some big long intro with no hooks in it. You know, I love that kind of stuff too. It's like Radiohead. They had "Creep," which they hated, and they don't even play it live, but that's the song that broke that band, and that was a pop song. You take out the crunchy guitars and you could play it on an acoustic or something. The Pussycat Dolls could do it, you know what I mean? You always have to have those kinds of songs. And they don't have to be cheesy. You don't have to sell out what you want to be as an artists, but you have to tailor it enough in the direction where at least the mainstream—the listeners, the people that listen to radio, and the people that will actually go and buy CDs—like that kind of stuff.
Michael says in his best Rock Star voice; "But duuuude, that feels like I'm selling out. Why can't I just do what I feel and hope that the world loves it?"
Brian: That's never gonna happen. The reality of it is that it's just never gonna happen. And if you to do that, it's cool, but maybe it's best to go in an Indie direction. Go to a foreign country where they like that kind of stuff, you know? Make some polka music in Germany...
Tony: How much of that is the writer thinking that they're selling out by crafting a hit song versus the songwriter doesn't know how to craft one? When we started with No Doubt way back when, they were writing songs that were like fifteen minutes long. They'd start with a guitar solo, they'd go into a verse, then they'd go into another juxtaposition kind of piece of music. It was convoluted, and we told them that they'd have to be more concise if they were going to transfer from the first record to Tragic Kingdom—which sold 25 million—and that they were going to have to make some changes. And they went kicking and screaming. We brought in a very seasoned, qualified songwriter, Matthew Wilder, who went through hell to get these guys to change their way of thinking. He would just say, "Just try it. You don't have to marry it. Just try it." And they tried it, and they thought, "Oh, that sounds kinda cool," and they got a hit. They could do whatever they like after that.
Brian: That's it. You need the first hit to open the door.