Interview - Sep 12, 2001
ďFor three and a half years, I spent every day with Linkin Park...ĒJeff Blue is VP of A&R at Warner California. Linkin Park, Beautiful Creatures and Impur are some of the rock acts for whom he is A&R. He previously worked at Zomba Music Publishing, where he signed Limp Bizkit, Korn, Macy Gray, and Linkin Park. Read about how he finds new talent, what he looks for in an artist and much more.
How did you get started in music biz and what has been the route to becoming an A&R?
I started out as a drummer. I went to UCLA for my undergraduate studies and was in a band there. I was acting and doing commercials, and finally ended up going to law school. I passed the bar but decided that law really wasnít for me. When I got out, I found out what A&R was, and wanted to break into the business. But because I had a law degree and was a lawyer, nobody would give me a chance. So I decided to become a journalist. I started out with small magazines and ended up within about a year doing freelance writing for publications like Billboard, Hits, Entertainment Weekly, and Music Connection, and writing for my own magazine Crossroads. Everything I wrote was about unsigned artists. I wanted to meet A&R people and have something for them. A lot of the unsigned acts I wrote about ended up breaking, and thatís how I got some attention. At the same time I was performing in, managing, writing for and producing a band, and was an attorney working for a law firm. I ended up gaining a little notoriety that way, because I was all over the place. Eventually I landed a job at Zomba Music Publishing mainly because I had broken some acts through journalism.
What qualities got you your first A&R appointment?
I think I was extremely driven and very diverse. I could play instruments, knew my way around the studio and wrote music. I also had a legal background and knew how to negotiate deals. I could express myself because I was a journalist, and used to cover music and critique it. I think the qualities that I gained from being a writer and that I learned from experience helped me communicate to other people what was lacking and what was good in their material. I knew how to play, so I could talk to artists and explain ideas and suggestions.
Which qualities, in your opinion, are necessary to be a successful A&R?
The general experience of getting into a studio and understanding how to write is imperative. I think thatís an experience which is essential in developing the skills for A&R. I guess you could just say, ďHey, I really like or donít like this songĒ, but I think itís really important to have the ability to communicate to an artist what you think is good or not good about it. As an A&R you have to be able to guide an artist, thatís your job, to do that you have to be able to tell them what you recommend and believe works and what doesnít, what exactly, which note, and be able to discuss that area with them.
Which are some of the acts you have worked with?
When I was VP of A&R at Zomba Music Publishing between 1995 and Ď99, I signed and developed Macy Gray. She had given up and gone back to Ohio where I tracked her down and convinced her to get back into the music business. I worked on her demos, worked on creating her entire package as an artist, shopped her to a major record label and got her a deal. I also signed Limp Bizkit, Korn and Linkin Park. This was all around 1996 and 1997. I went to Warner brothers in 2000 and the act that I brought in there was Linkin Park.
Which acts are you currently working on?
I have an act called Impur and theyíre a band of 14, 15, 16 and 20-year-olds, like Metallica meets Incubus meets Linkin Park but heavier. No DJing, no rapping, very melodic and the kids are just phenomenal musicians.
How were you approached by them?
A friend of mine told me about the drummer who was 11 at the time and said how amazing he was. I ended up hearing a demo that wasnít very good but because I was right down the street from where they were playing I went up and saw them and was actually very impressed. I made a development deal and have now been working with them for over a year and a half. Iím with them six hours, six days a week. I have them in a rehearsal room right next to Warner Brothers. I spend a lot of time with every one of my bands. For three and a half years, I spent every day with Linkin Park, also in the development process, and I was able to sign them. So all in all Iíve been with Linkin Park for a total of six years now. Iím a big believer in the spending-time way of developing. I have a band called Beautiful Creatures, just released. They are like an old school rock band in the vein of Guns and Roses and AC/DC. I spent a year and a half, every single day, with them, writing and creating a sound that people havenít heard in a long time and trying to make it special and new. The album just came out and has had a good first week.
How did Linkin Park come about?
Iíve always had interns working for me. When I was at Zomba Music Publishing I had an intern from UCLA named Brad Delson. He saw me signing Macy Gray and Limp Bizkit. He was a very talkative kid, very self-assured. He told me that he was starting a band and that it was going to be bigger than any of my other bands. He was like a kid brother to me. He gave me some early songs, and I gave him a hard time about them. I went to see his band anyway, the first show they ever did, was really impressed, and offered them a publishing/development deal on the spot. We ended up doing the deal but I couldnít get the band signed. I went through two bass players and one singer. Almost three years into the band I found Chester Bennington. I was at a music conference and a friend told me about this singer from Phoenix. I was so desperate I called him up when I was in Texas and told him, ďIím sending you the music and the original songs and I want you to sing over them.Ē It was his birthday, and he said he couldnít do it, so I promised him that this band was going to be huge and asked him if he could please do this for me. He actually left his birthday party, went into a local studio at night, sang the tracks and sent them back to me the next day. When I received them at my house, I listened to them, thought they were really good, and told the band that I had found their singer. It took a while, they auditioned a lot of people, but eventually Chester managed to get into the band. I was adamant about Chester being in the band. I was totally convinced, so I flew him out on my own dime. I just knew this was the kid. Obviously he is one of the most talented vocalists in the music business. He combined with Mike, Brad, Phoenix, Joe and Rob are just pure talent and have, I believe, a very long career ahead of them.
How do you find songs and producers for your acts?
Well, I work with a lot of my acts in terms of developing them so the producer is something that I take very seriously. I never really look for songs for the acts but I look for producers who have good song ability. Some of the producers Iíve hired were because we couldnít get another producer and we were just very lucky. For example with Linkin Park we went through a whole selection of producers and nobody wanted to do it. Don Gilmore was the only one who was really interested, he was the only one available, and he ended up being perfect and doing a phenomenal job on it. So we were very fortunate with some of our decisions, which were made on our gut instinct, and where we didnít go for the ďnameĒ guy.
The most important thing in choosing a producer for me, since Iím a song person, is, I want a producer thatís also a song person so they can check me as well. Iím in the studio every single day and Iím very involved in everything in the record realm and I would like to have somebody as opinionated as I am. Of major importance to me in choosing a producer is their ability to write, play instruments, sing, and consequently their ability to communicate with the artists.
What proportion of your time do you spend looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time you spend dealing with already established acts in your roster?
I spend about seven hours a day with my acts. I spend about an hour in the car or in the office listening to unsigned acts. Sometimes I go out to see shows. I dedicate a lot to the artists I already have, thatís a promise I make to them. When Iím in the studio, itís 16 hours a day. I go to the office in the morning. I may listen to music, take care of business, e-mailsÖ And Iím on the cell phone the rest of the day. Iím in rehearsal or in studio and people can get hold of me there. I spend more time with the existing acts, but I do have my assistant listen to everything and hand me tapes and CDs at the end of the day.
How do you find new talent?
Attorneys, managers and friends. To mention just a few: Nick Ferrara, the attorneys from his office, Dany Hayes, Allan Mintz, Todd Rubenstein, Fred Davis, Peter Lewitt and everyone at their offices, Eric Greenspan, David Mantel and many others. There are also lots of managers that Iím very close with, and talk to every day. I also talk to booking agents, and other A&R people. Iíve never taken a band from another A&R ever, so Iím not really a threat to other A&R people. Usually I get an act before anybodyís ever heard of them. Limp Bizkit and Korn came from managers.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
I look for believability, honesty and integrity. If itís sincere and believable then I love it. It could also be really emotional or have attitude. Iíll see through it and you can usually tell the sincerity through the vocals.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager is, who the attorney is and who the team is when considering signing a new act?
I do pay attention to who the team is and thatís why I like getting in early because you have the ability to put together a stronger team. I definitely pay attention because one weak link could break the entire chain.
How sure do you need to be about the available market-space for an act before signing and releasing them?
Iím usually okay with taking a risk with the marketability. If I feel thereís a niche in the marketplace for that, Iíll take my chances. I know that classic rock bands and metal-edged rock bands arenít in favour right now because of rap/rock, melodic rock and modern rock, but I think the marketplace is looking for something that has traces of the old school of rock in it, so I would be willing to take a chance on that. But I do pay much attention to the marketplace.
Would you release an act where you love the music but are VERY unsure if it would sell?
Well, what is VERY unsure? Iím always unsure if an act is going to sell because there are no guarantees. Letís put it this way, with Beautiful Creatures the marketplace is not demanding that style of music. But I am very sure of the talent of the band and of the record, so I am sure that if the elements are right and we come into the marketplace correctly, this band will have a lot of longevity. Okay, itís a risk and if we miss the marketplace then it could be more difficult, but the band is extremely talented and made a great record. So yes, itís worth the risk.
From which people and departments at Warner do you need support before signing an act?
I think Warner Brothers is a very A&R driven company now, especially with Tom Whally at the helm. In regards to the other departments I totally value their opinion and keep them very close to my projects but it is really the A&R personís vision that must drive the project. I involve everyone at the label in development so they all understand itís the ďlabelsĒ project and that everyone has responsibility and deserves the credit for breaking the act.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach their music?
Just make sure the songs are believable and honest and also make sure to read the marketplace. Treat the music business as a business even if youíre an artist. Itís a business in which you have to do your research and know the trends as well, but work on the songs first and foremost.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
I would be ready to work with acts outside the U.S and producers too. The first band I ever signed when I was at Zomba was called Fat and they were from London, UK, now living in New York. But the record company that signed them didnít let me have any hands-on with the band so that was very difficult and we didnít achieve what I was really looking for. They were a very talented band, I was just a publisher and it was my first signing and the record label wouldnít let me work with them.
What are the differences in how a record would be made and marketed for a rock act like Linkin Park as compared to a pop act like Backstreet Boys?
Thereís the credibility issue. Thereís a different kid, a different age group and thereís a different attitude that youíre looking for in the kid. With Linkin Park itís more about the songs and the live show being real. Youíve got to believe those members on stage and you want to feel the rawness, heaviness and emotion of what theyíre doing. You have to market Linkin Park as an honest band with a lot of integrity in the music. A Backstreet Boys band would be more about the individual members, and the songs would not necessarily be honest, but more candy. Half the success of a pop band is the marketability and image of the artist. I like some of the Backstreet Boysí songs but I would never buy the album. You can tell when the songs have been written by the artist for the most part. Those are the songs I like because theyíre more believable, and thatís what my whole point is about: being believable. I like Macy Gray more than I like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston because I believe it more. Itís songs that let you understand where the artist is coming from.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I used to, but I donít have the time anymore.
Do you think a system modelled after the movie actorsí situation, where acts are free to record for any label, would work?
No. Because I think the label puts millions of dollars into developing a career for an act. Maybe the first record didnít sell and the label spent two million dollars on it and the second record is the one where the act breaks out. So no. I think that our job is to build a career for an act and that we should be rewarded for that.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would want to have albums where the people making them make sure that there are 12 great songs on them and not just the two radio hits.
I would want to have artists that make me feel good, lyrics that have an effect on me, vocalists that are good even though they may be very, very heavy. I donít like hearing songs where I feel cheated all of a sudden. If thereís a great chorus and a great verse, but thereís a bridge that was put there because they couldnít think of anything else, that upsets me very much. I like to hear great songs, and great albums.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Iíd say I had one with each band! Itís very emotional when you achieve something that youíve really worked hard for and all your dreams are realized. The most important thing for me is when you realize that youíre part of a family, and that youíve all worked for something very hard, and you believe youíve achieved a very good product as a team, thatís very rewarding.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Ten years ago I thought I was going to be a miserable attorney. Five years ago, I was dreaming of having a gold album. Three years ago, I didnít think I would be writing and producing and working in such a creative atmosphere. I donít know what the future holds. But what I am focusing on now is: creativity, communication with the artist, learning from the record label, learning from the artist, and being part of a team that creates. If that elevates me to a new segment of my career or to a new arena which I may not have thought of, that is rewarding for me. I just hope Iím happy.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mean