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Interview with DEBBIE FONTAINE, manager at Fontaine Music - Apr 8, 2002

“We look for artists who are willing to work very hard and be patient, because success rarely happens overnight”

picture Debbie Fontaine is Vice President of Fontaine Music, a Los Angeles-based music production and management company that specialises in finding young new talent. Upcoming artists she has signed include Natasha, Allison Paige, and r&b duo Matt & Da’Jon.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

I started from scratch, not knowing anybody. I wasn’t even aware that there were directories out there, I operated using a phone book for a while. I am a law school graduate, and my first job was an entry-level position at a record company called Windham Hill, a subsidiary of BMG that works mostly with adult contemporary and new age music. I learned a lot there. Then for a short time I worked as an A&R assistant at RCA, but eventually decided that I wanted to work for myself. I’ve been managing now for a little over five years.

What experiences have been important to you in developing your management skills?

I just used my instinct. I learnt most from the first act we signed, a female pop trio called Risquée that we signed to EMI Records. They were my project, and there was a lot of experimentation involved, as well as a lot of hard work. We weren't nearly as well connected as we are today, so we had to knock on a lot of doors, although we did manage to get them signed to a worldwide recording contract. Because they were the first, it was really like learning how to ride a bicycle.

How many people work at Fontaine Music and in what positions?

At the moment, we’re a small company. We have four people working here right now. We like to keep it small, because we’re very hands-on and therefore very selective about whom we take on. We put up all the money, so it’s an investment for us.

Can you explain a bit about how Fontaine Music works?

We scout for young, raw talent in several ways: through word-of-mouth, where people are recommended to us; we get talent through vocal coaches; and we judge a lot of talent competitions. A lot of people also submit material to us via our website Fontaine Talent. Once we find talent, we make sure that we are willing to work with them and that they want to work with us.

If they want to work hard, we sign them to our company and we develop them. This means that we pay for the production of a demo and we also do a photo shoot. If necessary, we bring in a vocal coach, and if any other training is required, we’ll provide that. When we have the final product, meaning a demo and a photo, we shop it to major labels.

We never promise that we can get a deal, and we put a time limit on how long it will take to shop them. Usually, if we can’t get them a deal within six months, we let them go and suggest that someone else might be better able to help them. Sometimes we’re successful; sometimes we’re not. We have a very good track record though, and we only work with major labels.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

We definitely listen to unsolicited material. We’ll listen to recommended material first, but at the moment we are listening to unsolicited material.

How useful is the Internet to you in your search for talent?

The Internet has definitely changed things, and a lot of our submissions now come via e-mail, in the form of mp3s. I actually don’t like this, because the sound system on a computer is not usually as good as on a regular stereo system, making it difficult to pick up on the quality of the submission. I also like to get a second opinion on something, if it's good, and it’s hard to do that if someone sends you an mp3.

An additional problem is that people send these massive forty-minute downloads, and we get way too many submissions to sit there and download material. So we do prefer to get CDs via mail, but I will sit down and listen to mp3s if it’s one or two songs. Most people now have websites and a lot of them e-mail me and say, “Please check out our web site and if you’re interested we’ll submit a demo.” So I think it’s certainly making it faster and easier for the person who wants to submit material.

What genres of music do you work with?

At the moment I’m looking for a really strong, young rock band, but we're open to all genres of music. We have a rapper, Natasha, who is signed to Universal and will release her first single in April. We formed the group Dream, which is signed to Bad Boy Entertainment. We think it’s important that the artist is creatively involved in the selection of the songs. They have to believe in the music they’re doing, and we definitely make sure that they’re involved throughout the entire process.

What do you look for in an artist?

We look for talent, drive, motivation and loyalty. We look for artists who are willing to work very hard and be patient, because success rarely happens overnight. Development is usually a process that takes some time, particularly as we are dealing with such young talent, and we never present an act to a record company unless it’s one hundred percent polished and ready to go. So patience and hard work are important factors.

We don’t pick artists up at any specific age, but we usually go for artists who are in their teens or early twenties. It’s easier to get them a deal when they’re young. Right now we’re working with a fourteen-year-old singer, Allison Paige, and we started working with her when she was eleven.

Musical ability is just as important as image, and we look for the whole package. We want people who are really talented and have a great image.

Would you work with a non-US artist?

We haven’t yet. It’s difficult for us to work with acts that aren’t local, but only because we like to have the talent right at our fingertips. Allison Paige is actually from Alabama, but we moved her to L.A. We prefer to work with local acts or acts that are willing to relocate here. It’s very difficult and costly when you have to fly people to LA, and put them up in a hotel, every time you want to take them to a meeting with a record company. Nevertheless, we do get submissions from all over the place, from people in the US and abroad.

Do you work with the artist’s image and how important is it?

Image is definitely fifty percent. We help them develop an image and a style. Of course, the style has to be their own, but we're there for the photo shoot, we help with the styling and we hire a make up artist and a hair person. Everything is done very professionally.

Why do you concentrate on young artists?

They’re easier to sell to record companies. It’s a very youth-orientated business, probably because the record-buying population is very young. We’re talking between the ages of ten to twenty-five - those are the demographics. People who buy records are very young, so that’s probably why the majority of the record companies sign young artists. Also, signing a young artist allows the artist to grow, to have the time to develop, without having to worry about getting too old for the business.

How involved with the production are you?

We're very involved because we sign our artists to a production deal as well as a management contract with us. We help to pick the producer and are involved throughout the entire recording process.

What are your experiences working with major labels?

We have very good relationships with most of the majors. It’s nice, because they will listen to what we bring to them because they know we’ll bring them good talent. That’s really important, because if you keep presenting quality talent, you’ll always be able to go back with new talent.

What is the procedure you follow when presenting an artist to a label?

We contact the label, we submit a demo and a picture, and, if they’re interested, we bring the act to the record company. Solo artists audition at the label; with bands, we usually invite the label to come to a showcase. We have good relationships with some record companies, where they’ll just take us on our word, without seeing a demo or a picture, and they’ll offer to look at something in their office.

How long does this process usually take?

Six months.

Has the amount of time given by record labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades?

Yes. I think most artists need to go back to artist development, which doesn’t even exist at record companies. Managers today are doing what A&R people should be doing, which is artist development. Nowadays record companies want everything on a silver platter. They want an artist that looks good and a hit to go. There is very little or no development involved. That’s why it’s so important for us to do that work, because we know it’s not going to happen at the record company.

Why did you stop working with Dream, or First Warning, as they were originally called?

We found the girls, we put them together, introduced them to one another, but we parted ways because, unfortunately, things did not work out. They hired another manager, and I think they let that manager go and hired yet another manager after that. But we did form them, working with them and polishing them for almost a year, before they were sold to Sean “Puffy” Combs' label Bad Boy Entertainment.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

If I had a record company, I’d hire more experienced A&R people, people who have a background in music or people who have worked within the music industry for a while and understand it. There are so many newcomers who don’t know what they’re doing; I don’t think it’s enough to have good ears, you really have to be a good business person too. I have a long list, but that’s the first and most important thing I would do.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

I think that my greatest moments are still ahead of me. I enjoy working with our artists. We only work with people who are nice and are willing to work hard. We can afford to be selective because there is a huge pool of talent out there that’s just waiting to be tapped into. I think it’s fun to work with young acts because they’re still learning, still impressionable and open to ideas.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

I hope to be heading a major label.

Interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan