Interview - Apr 2, 2003
ďIíve never found anything through unsolicited demos, but I keep looking...ĒJoshua Sarubin, VP of A&R at Arista in New York, works with Avril Lavigne (US multi-platinum) and Adema (US gold). Here he talks about Avril Lavigne's development, the importance of local presence for unsigned artists and why it is so difficult to break new acts through US radio.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
Originally, I worked at various record stores, and then I got a job as a college rep at CBS Records, before it became Sony. I did that for about two and a half years and when I graduated I got a job with the local Sony branch in Washington DC, as an account representative. I went to stores to make sure they had stock, I put up posters, things like that, for about four months, and then a job opened up in retail marketing at Columbia, New York. I moved up here, did that for a year and during that time I started bringing bands to David Kahne, then head of A&R at Columbia, until he finally offered me a full-time job, in 1992.
What experiences have helped you develop your A&R skills?
Having been in retail, I know how it works, what people see when they come into the store. When I was a college rep, I did press and radio, so I know how promotion works. All my positions combined have helped me understand the whole process.
What are the differences between working for Columbia and Arista?
Arista is a smaller company, which makes it a bit easier to sign bands. Bands know that if they come here they're going to get attention, because we have seven and not fifty rock bands. When I first came to Arista, Clive Davis was the president and then LA Reid took over, and LA has been amazing. From Don Ienner, the CEO of Columbia to Clive, LA has certainly given me the greatest scope and the most respect for what I want to do.
What direction is Arista taking now?
We cover all genres. Pop is definitely our strength, and we're trying to get more done in the hip-hop area and certainly more done in the rock area. The Adema record, which I worked on and which came out in 2001, is close to US platinum, with about 700,000 units sold, which is a good start in rock. We also have about five new bands coming out this year, so weíre trying to build up those areas and still continue with the pop, with the Avrils and the Pinks.
What new acts are you currently working on?
I have a record coming out by a band called From Zero; I have a band called GOB; Pacifier have just released a record; I have another band called Wakefield; and yet another called Orange who are releasing their record this summer. I've been working with a girl called Ana Victoria, an eighteen-year-old Argentinian/Mexican girl along the lines of Sade, and Iím getting ready to start on the new Pink record.
How did Arista come across Avril Lavigne?
An A&R rep named Ken Krongard brought her to LAís attention. LA signed her and asked me to make the record.
What was her development period like?
When we started she was a sixteen-year-old girl with a voice and someone elseís songs and it took a while. We worked for several months in New York with different co-writers just trying to find her sound. She wrote some great stuff with Sabelle Breer and Curt Frasca and also worked with Peter Zizzo. Then she went to Los Angeles and worked with Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock, who make up the songwriter/producer team The Matrix. They came up with two songs, one of which was "Complicated", and it was then that we felt we had locked in on something.
From that point it just exploded, she did more stuff with them and also hooked up with songwriter/producer Clif Magness, with whom she wrote and recorded. It was that trip to Los Angeles in May 2001 that really fired everything up. We finished in early January 2002.
Were there things you tried during her development that didnít work out?
It wasn't about what style of music it should be; it was more about finding the right sound for her. That was the only thing that didn't work out initially. She wrote with a couple of people and their songs were good, but they just weren't right for her and her voice.
I knew she was a star and that she had an incredible voice, and I knew what we wanted to do. It was just the song that never seemed to happen. She had been writing here in New York with Curt and Sabelle prior to going to Los Angeles, and the songs they wrote, two of which ended up on the album, pointed in the right direction, but it was when "Complicated" came into the fold that everything fell into place.
How do you find new talent?
Everything from reading reviews in magazines, to the Internet, to going out to clubs and to talking to friends who are musicians. There are endless ways to find it. You just have to make the effort.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. I probably get fifty demos per week and although I listen to all of them, it might take me a month or two to get to them. Obviously, the solicited material always takes precedence over the unsolicited, but I accept it all because you just never know. The sound quality of demos has definitely improved, but often it isnít a case of it being bad, it's just something that doesn't really hit me or it's just not something Iím looking for. Iíve never found anything through unsolicited demos, but I keep looking. If you listen to a hundred things and it is that hundred and first thing which is amazing, then it makes it all worthwhile.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
I don't visit sites like MP3.com and I usually only visit band sites when Iíve found out about them elsewhere. In that case itís very useful, because I can go to a band's web site and check out photos and hear music, which is fantastic. I couldn't live without it.
How important are local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
Live performance plays a huge role and local presence definitely helps, but ultimately it's the songs that really matter, and whether the artist has that certain star quality.
What do you look for in an artist?
That thing that makes people want to hear what they have to say and the ability to pull it off live. Nobody is re-inventing the wheel, but people themselves are unique, so if somebody's got that unique feature and songs that are catchy and exciting, and even if they're doing the same type of music as fifteen other bands, thatís all that matters. Songs and stars!
How important is it that the artists you work with also write their own songs?
Not that important. I know tons of songwriters and I don't think it's bad or embarrassing if somebody needs help with songs. If they do write, then thatís ideal, but if they need help, then I can help them. I don't think it makes them less of an artist: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra never wrote anything. Even Norah Jones didn't write some of the songs on her records. If they can perform the songs with conviction, thatís all that matters.
Can you advise unsigned artists on how to start building their careers?
Local presence helps considerably, because it means that you end up getting heard. People will read a review, catch a show, come across something on the Internet, or one of my bands will have played in town and tell me about that local band that opened up the bill. If an artist makes a name on the local scene, A&R people end up finding out about it. Artists often don't think that A&R people know, but they do. Therefore, work on playing live and on your songwriting, and when itís time, get yourself a good attorney.
Do you take into account who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
It's more important to the artist than it is to me, although an intelligent manager who has good relationships and is willing to learn and to work with the record company is obviously important. An attorney whom you can trust, who can explain things, and who also takes the time to explain, is also useful, but to get a deal, all you need is a smart attorney. You donít need a publisher, a manager, or a booking agent.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
A great deal. I look at myself as a movie director making sure that everything comes out right. If something doesn't sound right, I'll try to fix it. If somebody is not doing a good job producing or mixing, Iíll get somebody else. But I try to hire people I don't have to watch over, people whose work I know or who I've worked with in the past and can trust. The records have my name on them and it's up to me to make sure they're right. If I don't, then I lose my job, so I'm definitely very hands-on.
How much does it usually cost to record, market and promote an album?
You can make a good record for US$200,000, with pre-production, tracking, mixing and mastering included. For the promotion and marketing, you're looking at possibly a million dollars or more. Videos, radio promotion and touring are all very costly and it does add up in the end.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
I've done a lot of those. They allow me to get the artist to record some more material and work on things I think they need to work on, or else I hook them up with a suitable producer and see how it turns out. These deals make a lot of sense and maybe one out of five leads to a signing.
In what situations would you typically do a demo deal?
Generally, with artists whose demos aren't very good or who haven't recorded one at all, or if I feel that they need help in shaping the songs so that I have a better demo to present to LA. Perhaps Iíve seen something deep in there that I want to bring out. We usually have first right of refusal and a period of time to make a decision, usually a couple of months, although it never takes that long. Then in the event that LA doesnít like it, theyíre free to take the demo and go elsewhere with it. I've almost always kept my word on that, because it's not fair to hold somebody up.
Do your artists share the costs for the videos and the making of the album, and are these then recoupable from the artistsí royalties?
Yes, and I believe it's fifty-fifty, which is pretty common, although I'm sure everybody's got different deals.
Do you think artists should also share ownership of the masters?
Yes, I do and I believe this will change over time.
Do you think record companies are taking too long to develop an online sales model?
Yes. They knew about the effect of the Internet, but ignored it. Now they're lagging behind and they need to figure out something like a subscription service or a way to charge the Internet providers. The industry has a lot of catching up to do, and something needs to be done now, because most people under twenty are probably downloading most of their music.
What's your opinion on US radio?
Itís terrible. Far too few artists break through radio, because all the stations play the same records and it's just not interesting. It also costs too much money to break stuff through radio, because a lot of these people won't play it unless they get paidóthey probably wouldn't admit to this, but I know it's true: to break through radio you need to pay these people off. It's garbage and people should play music just because they like it. Eventually, the monopoly will be broken.
What aspect of the music industry is in need of drastic change?
Iíd put out less music. There's just too much out there and it all starts to get watered down. It isn't true that there aren't stars and great records around: you can go to the store right now and buy five brand new albums by amazing artists you've never heard of, but you also risk drowning in the flood. I wish every company would pick fifty artists and only work on them for the next year. That would be it, no new signings. Everybody would benefit from that.
I would also break the consolidation of radio: itís all crooked.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
When the Presidents of the United States of America cracked the Top 5 in sales in the US. It was my first big success and I was very proud.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
I'm pretty happy doing this and I'm definitely happy working for LA at Arista. I think I will do this until I can't do it anymore. Then Iíll probably do something completely different, like teaching high-school English or something. But Iíd like to stick to this, work on some more big records and help more people to have big careers.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman