Interview with TERESA LA BARBERA-WHITES, A&R at Columbia for Destiny’s Child, Jessica Simpson - Feb 6, 2002
“The excitement is still discovering a new artist or hearing a great song for the first time”
Occupying Columbia Records' Texan outpost is esteemed A&R Teresa La Barbera-Whites. Her signings to date include Destiny’s Child and Jessica Simpson, to name a few.
How did you first get started in the music industry and what has been your route to become an A&R?
I owned an entertainment promotion and artist management company, and I also directed a music conference for ten years, showcasing bands for record labels. I came to work at Sony Music as a scout in 1990 and my responsibilities were to scout the South-West States of the US for both Columbia and Epic records.
Which qualities, in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?
I think you need passion and the ability to be honest with an artist.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with already established acts in your rooster?
As acts become successful, which is what you always hope for, as an A&R person you then have to spend a lot of time maintaining the daily activities of a superstar act. That cuts into the time I get to spend searching for new talent, but for me the excitement is still discovering a new artist or hearing a great song for the first time.
How did the signing of Jessica Simpson come about?
A studio owner in Dallas called and told me about Jessica. He brought over a tape of a song she had and I knew the minute I heard her voice that she was the real deal, a true singer. I flew to San Antonio to meet her and she sang for me in a hotel room. That was all I needed. I set up a showcase for Tommy Mottola, Don Ienner and Will Botwin (Exec’s at Sony/Columbia NY – Ed.). She sang one song for the room and that was it. She was signed to Columbia and we spent the next two years making the record, looking for songs, developing her image, etc.
For the full story of Destiny’s Child, click here
What acts are you currently working on?
A 17-year-old girl named Devin Vasquez from California. Devin has a beautiful voice and is a great dancer. Her record will come out in the spring of 2002. Another artist is Rose Falcon, a 17-year-old girl from Nashville. Rose is a great songwriter and singer, with her whole album written by herself and her dad. Her record is also slated for a spring release.
How were you approached by these acts?
Devin was actually brought into the label by Tone and Poke from Trackmasters. They asked me to make Devin’s record, and that’s how I got involved with her. The first time I heard her sing I fell in love with her voice. As far as Rose Falcon, Jim Del Balzo from the Promotion Department brought her to the NY office. I just happened to be in NY when she was there to showcase her act to the GM of Columbia, Will Botwin. I immediately fell in love with everything about her and I begged Will everyday to sign her and when he did, I got to make the record. I have been blessed to work with some extremely talented young women.
How do you find new talent?
Every way that I can. Shows, contacts, press, radio just however it comes. Sometimes they find me and sometimes I find them. I can’t say that one way works better than the other. I am a very spiritual person and believe in divine intervention. So I keep my eyes peeled and I believe that the projects that I’m meant to work on just have a way of finding me and vice versa.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
What draws me to want to work with an artist is to be moved by them. Either by their voice or by their songwriting, or even their charisma, but something has to affect me inside. To move me so much that I will dedicate the next year of my life, away from my family usually, to help them achieve their dreams.
How self-contained are your acts when it comes to songwriting?
I think it’s very important for an act to write. Many of my artists have been so young, that their experience as a writer wasn’t yet a factor, but I always try to encourage them to write and I’m always looking for co-writing possibilities and other people that they can learn from and hone their craft. I always try to have them write for their records, even if it’s only one song on their first record, in hopes that with each record they write more and more. And that’s usually what happens. As they grow as artists, they also grow as writers.
Which producer teams do you work with and how did you come in contact with them?
I work with a lot of different producers, some are well known and some are unknowns. I don’t pay attention to the name as much as what they’re working on. I listen for the producers or track guys that are going to be the next big name, because those are usually the ones creating the new sounds. That’s what we’ve done on the Destiny’s Child records. A lot of the co-producers and producers were fairly unknown until the singles and records started hitting. Then after the records release, these producers became the next big thing. Just remember the only thing that separates an “A” producer or writer from a “B” producer is one hit song.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
As much as I need to. I try to hire people that know what they’re doing and let them do their thing. I’m not a producer, so I don’t try to be one, but sometimes a project or song might be going in the wrong direction and I have to step in to get it back on track. It doesn’t happen often though.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, attorney or who the team are, when considering signing a new act?
It always helps if an act has a manager that can make things happen for them. It’s not a deal breaker if they don’t. As far as lawyers go, I don’t care if they have a lawyer or not.
What would your advice be to an unsigned artist/act on how to approach the music biz, how should they go about it?
They should try to contact anyone and everyone that will call them back. They should have some good material, or at least be clear about what they’re trying to do, but an artist should try to meet as many reputable people as possible. You never know who’s going to help you get to the next step.
Do you have any advice for unsigned artists with regards to record label contracts?
They do have to get an experienced entertainment lawyer. No artist should try to understand or negotiate a contract on his or her own. On the other hand, an artist should understand the contract, at least the terms and expectations of the label.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We no longer accept unsolicited packages, but when we did, we would get about 25 a week and yes, we listened to them all. The quality on most is great, while others are very bad. Some people don’t have the means or ways to produce a good demo, so they do the best they can. I don’t fault them for that. And remember, Destiny’s Child’s original and first demo I received was unsolicited.
How sure about the available market-space for an act do you need to be before signing and releasing an act?
You have to consider the marketability of an act. It’s not fair to sign an artist without having thought through the marketing side of things. I don’t mean you have to have your strategy complete, but an A&R person needs to look at their label staff and make sure that the marketing and promotion staff will “get” the artist, therefore insuring the artist’s hopes for success with a record.
Which are the important tools for you to break a new act?
Radio, video-clips, press and touring are all crucial in breaking a new act. It all works together hand in hand. When all departments of a record label are working hand in hand (with an artist’s management making opportunities happen with touring, etc.), then you can really do an incredible job breaking an artist worldwide.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades?
That depends on the act. If the label feels the act has massive appeal and the possibility of selling a lot of records, you will probably see a big push by the label to develop that act. A lot of time is depends on the type of act. A pop act may not be given the opportunity to develop over 2-3 records, whereas a rock group or singer/songwriter will be given the opportunity to develop over a few records and a few years of touring. Most of the time, it will take more money up front to break a pop act than a rock act.
Do you think that a system for artists, modelled after the actor’s situation where acts would be free to record for any label they would wish, do you think that is desirable and do you think it would work?
I wouldn’t want to work with someone like that. I can’t really see that working, unless you’re dealing with a singles driven act (one hit wonder type situation). It takes a lot of marketing, publicity and A&R development to break an act, which is usually years in the making. I can’t see that working with an artist that is moving around from label to label.
The Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, do you think it’s good that it’s based on both radio airplay and single sales?
I personally like to see a breakdown between radio and sales.
What do you think about the radio-situation in the US?
We have an incredible promotion department at Columbia, so I leave the airplay problems to the promotion department. I try not to get too worked up about what radio stations are doing. I really try to focus my energy on finding hit songs that hopefully radio can’t deny.
How useful is the Internet to you?
It’s nice to be able to receive songs from songwriters in other countries and not having to wait two days to get it. Also, we use it a lot for research for finding new artists and it’s absolutely crucial in breaking new artists signed to the label.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would want people to be honest with each other and actually care about the person they’re dealing with, not just because they’re making money from the person. It would make it all so easier if there were less bullshit and more compassion.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Watching my girls (artists – Ed.) grow up, all of them. Some to achieve notoriety (millions sold and magazine covers) and the highest awards (grammies, etc.) available and for others, just to be there when they find themselves. To know that I’ve had some little part to do with that is awesome.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Still enjoying life … I hope.
Interviewed by Victor Bassey