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Interview with BOB CELESTIN, manager for City High (US Top 10) - Feb 18, 2003

“It's unfair that recoupable costs are taken exclusively from the artists' share...”

picture Based in New York, Bob Celestin co-manages City High, the r&b trio who have gone gold in the US with their 2001 eponymously titled debut album, with his partner, Ken Joseph. Here he tells us about the most recent developments in the City High camp and the conditions facing artists who are new to the industry.

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

I did radio while I was at Yale University, I deejayed at local clubs and I took some black culture courses that really opened my eyes to the contribution of black people to popular music and culture in America. Of the things that we create as black people, popular music is one of the few that we are recognised for and that is seen as a commodity, and it was when I realised this that I decided I wanted to go into the music business.

I got a job in the Arista legal department. At that time, a cultural explosion, a black renaissance was happening. Spike Lee had just finished shooting 'She’s Gotta Have It', Def Jam Records was starting to happen, and Andre Harrel, who was a rapper in a group called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was setting up his company, Uptown Records and Management. We developed a relationship and he brought me into the company, which was, at the time, a record label as well as a management company. We signed Heavy D and the Boyz, Al B. Sure!, Guy, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and by my last year there Puffy had just come in as an intern.

When I left, I started working for a company called Untouchables Entertainment. At Uptown I had helped with artist management and then at Untouchables we managed producers. I learned a lot from both experiences and went on to do consultant and legal work for several independent labels and ended up with my own practice. I represented artists like Ginuwine, the 3LW production company Nine-Lives Entertainment, and presently represent Petey Pablo.

As to how I became involved with City High, it began when I negotiated a deal between my partner Ken Joseph 's production company and Booga Basement, which is Jerry Wonder 's joint venture with Interscope. Ken Joseph is a client whom I had represented in the past and Jerry Wonder is Wyclef Jean’s cousin, who co-produces a lot of Wyclef's albums and songs.

Ken managed an artist called Robby Pardlo, who took a liking to me and who asked me to manage him in partnership with Ken, which I agreed to. One day, Robby was in the studio with two of his friends, Ryan Toby and Claudette Ortiz, recording this song called ‘What Would You Do?’ When Wyclef heard them he had a Fugees flashback and suggested they become a group eventually called ‘City High’, and Ken and I ended up managing all three of them.

What experiences have helped develop your skills as a manager?

Working at Uptown Records and Untouchables Entertainment, and being a lawyer, because that helped me understand the business side, which is very important. Working with Heavy D and the Boyz, Mary J. Blige, Guy and Al B. Sure! whilst I was at Uptown, and being the executive producer on Jodeci's first album.

What kind of networking skills and business contacts must a manager possess in order to be successful?

Just being around the business, making sure you network and that you are where the action is and you know what’s going on in the record industry. It’s certainly not only about listening to new artists.

What is good and what could be better in today’s urban scene?

I think that, in a lot of ways, rap is slowly losing its edge. The artists all sound the same and they all talk about the same topics. It’s harder for great artists to get noticed because major labels are settling for more of the same. I think it’s a bit stagnant, but r&b is alive and well, although it can tend to be a bit formulaic. I think something is going to change in both genres soon.

How have City High developed since the album?

They’re more mature now. Claudette was 17 when she recorded the first album and she’s now 21. During the first album, they weren’t on the road and they weren’t really doing what they’re doing now. They had a number of growing pains to deal with. They now have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful in the recording industry and that newfound maturity will express itself in their music.

What was it about City High that the audience reacted to? What makes them different to other r&b groups?

I think it was the configuration of the group that was refreshing. Visually, the group looks great, and musically, I think that the first song was a breath of fresh air because it wasn’t the same old ‘ I love you, you love me’-type song. Theirs was a positive message; they had something important to say, and they didn't do it in a preachy way. That’s why I think that the first single really caught people’s attention, because of what they were saying, and the great thing is that their whole album is like that.

As a manager, do you develop strategies for your artists in terms of what areas they should develop and how they should strengthen their brand name?

Yes, Ken and I try to think of ways in which we can increase their revenue stream. We do that by diversifying what they’re doing. We're trying to find acting opportunities for all three members of the group, as well as looking at endorsement opportunities and more songwriting and production opportunities.

Who are you currently managing apart from City High?

Right now, I’m working with a female artist called Tessa and a rapper from Kentucky called Mark Lane. They’re signed to and are being developed by my production company, Intelligent Music Inc.

How do you find new talent?

In many different ways, by going to showcases, and often the client is referred to me. It’s also a question of finding somebody that I feel will fill a niche in the marketplace. I even found an interesting artist singing on the subway here in New York.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes I do. I try to listen to as many things as possible because you never know who the next artist or superstar is going to be. I get ten to fifteen packages a week, and every once in a while, on the weekend, I like to spend a whole day listening to everything. Right now, I’ve got a couple of demos that I want to follow up on and that I may end up working with.

What are the most important considerations when listening to a demo by an unsigned artist?

The first thing you look for is of course talent, whether the artist can sing or rap. The next thing you want to make sure is that they have great music, that they have songs that are commercially viable and accessible and that you feel are hit records. You also want to feel that they’re filling a void in the market place, whether visually or with the sound of their voice, that they have a unique vibe or presence.

Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?

I think that any kind of knowledge is important, but on a business level make sure you have the right kind of professionals behind you, because you’ll never know as much as a lawyer knows. If you hire a good lawyer and business manager then you can focus on doing what you do best, which is creating new art.

How can they learn about the business?

By reading: there are many worthwhile books out there, with titles like ‘All You Need to Know About the Music Business’. Subscribe to HitQuarters and exploit any information sources you might have. Go to showcases and seminars sponsored by Billboard magazine and that kind of thing.

Once signed to you, do you support artists financially so that they can focus on the music?

Sometimes it's a case of whether I really believe in the artist. Supporting an artist financially used to be the record label’s job but nowadays, record labels are looking for artists who already have hit records. They want artist packages, complete with pictures and with songs for their first and the second single. There’s very little artist development going on, which is why production companies set recording deals. Labels are expecting production companies to do the work that they used to do. If you’re a rap artist, for example, you’ll put a record out independently to get a buzz going. If you’re in r&b, it’s a little more difficult because you need radio. Really what artists should do is invest in themselves in every way they can, and get together with teams that will help them to develop.

Should major labels commit to new artists for a longer period than they in practice do?

Yes, because the contract will say that they want seven or eight albums, but, in reality, if your first album doesn’t do well, you’ll probably get dropped. I have clients who wave their contracts at me and say, ‘Hey, they promised me seven albums!’ I tell them, ‘You'll be lucky if you ever get those seven albums'.

The important thing should be working to develop the artist, and if the artist doesn’t do well the first time round, they should try to tweak it, find out what’s wrong and come back a second time. If you came out and sold two hundred thousand copies of your first album ten to twenty years ago, that was considered great. It gave you something to build on and you would continue to build from album to album. Today, if you come out and don't go gold (500.000 copies in the US – Ed.), then you’re a failure.

What do you think about the way radio works in the US?

It’s terrible, because two major corporations control the majority of the radio stations. The problem seems to be that when the US Government passed a bill allowing major corporations to own more than a certain number of radio stations in their regions, and as a result of that consolidation, it has become very, very difficult for new artists and new music to get to the listener.

What could be changed and how?

That, my friend, is a good question, and I don’t really know what the answer is, although perhaps alternative radio webcasts, with different radio stations playing a variety of music, might be an idea.

Do you think commercial radio stations are under pressure to play certain artists in order to safeguard their relationships with record labels?

There's no question about it. Labels pay independent promotion people to force a record down the radio station’s throat, and they are frequently very successful.

Do you think it’s fair that artists pay for promotional costs like videos and the making of the album?

What’s fair or not is a matter of perspective. The argument can be made that it’s the cost of doing business and that the artist shouldn’t have to pay for it. But if you’re a label and your proceeds aren’t making you any money—which is plausible, because 98 records out of 100 end up being shelved—you’re going to try to get as much of your money back as possible. So yes, I think it’s unfair, but it also depends on whose side you're on.

If artists and record labels share the costs of making albums and videos, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?

Again, if I’m the one paying to create the masters and I’m going to foot the bill, then I think that it’s only fair that I get to keep them and revert to some sort of co-ownership situation once the label has recouped their money. Again, it depends on whose viewpoint you’re looking at it from.

Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?

No, I think they should get bigger slices of the pie. I also think it's unfair that recoupable costs are taken exclusively from the artists' share of the royalties.

Do you think that the Internet will offer an alternative route for artists and that they will be able to sell their music directly from their site?

Yes, I totally believe that. All that is needed is some sort of secure website.

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

I would change the record label’s short-term perspective to a long-term one. I would try to ensure that the artist gets a fair share of the royalties and that the labels are a little fairer with artists in general. I would like to see radio being more open to new artists.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Hearing City High’s record ‘What Would You Do?’ on the radio, after having heard it as a demo.

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

Having my own record label and working with great artists on great music.

For a Success Story of City High, please click here.

Interviewed by Jean-François Méan