Interview with CHRIS MORRIS, A&R at Atlantic Records for T.I. and Nappy Roots - Oct 13, 2003
“Steady sales in the region of more than fifty records a week, would definitely catch my eye.”
Based in Los Angeles, Chris Morris is an A&R coordinator for urban and rock music at Atlantic Records. The artists he works with include T.I. and Nappy Roots (US platinum).
Here he tells us about the basic difference between working with hip-hop and rock, how important it is for artists to have their own websites, why major label releases are increasingly consumer-oriented, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become involved in A&R?
I studied music and recording in college. During my undergraduate studies, I worked as a second engineer and assistant at a studio where I gained a strong understanding of analogue equipment and signal flow. I felt that recording would be a good way to get into A&R and I believed that a comprehensive knowledge of the process of making and recording music would give me an upper hand if and when I could find work in the record business.
I decided that getting into any department at a record company would be the best way to get closer to my goal of working in A&R. Then, a friend of mine, who was working at a record company at that time, said I could intern there for school credits. I worked in the new media department for a few months, and then I interned in the president’s office.At the end of the semester, my internship was over and I was without a job in the music industry: I didn't know what I was going to do. Then a contact at a film company got me an internship in the music licensing department, but after four or five months, no opportunities had presented themselves, so again I was without work.
That’s when I realized I had to put all my time and energy into focusing on getting a job in A&R. Fortunately, I had another contact at Atlantic Records, whom I begged for any work at all. When he allowed me to come in and intern for the A&R department, I realized that I would have to work harder than anyone else and make myself indispensable to the company. This meant arriving at the office before anybody else and leaving the office later than anybody else, as well as putting in quality work. It was very important for me to ask questions and be on a first-name basis with the executives, without getting in the way of their daily activities. I made it a point for everyone to like me and trust that I was capable. After six months of devoting all of my time and energy, a job did eventually open up for me at Atlantic.
What makes up the larger portion of your work?
I do research and scout for both urban and rock artists, and I am constantly looking for producers and songwriters for our urban artists. I also handle the day-to-day tasks for the artists I work for: administration, travel, studio booking, and anything else that is required. Much of my work is creative.
What is the difference between working with a hip-hop artist and a rock artist?
In hip-hop, you don’t have to deal with artist development as much, because the artist writes the lyrics and then the producers put the music together. It's usually a case of figuring out the kind of track you want and the producer who you think will be able to handle that genre of music.
It's a little different with rock bands: typically, the band writes the songs and then you have to find a producer who’s going to be able to develop the band and who’s going to fit in personality-wise. I've learned that you have to take every project as it comes, because every album has its own particular needs. Although the differences that I have observed between hip-hop and rock tend to be generally true, each artist needs to be looked at as an individual, no matter the genre.
What acts are you working on?
The artists that I work most closely with are Nappy Roots, T.I., Apathy, Whitestarr, and Twista.
We’ve just finished albums with T.I. (click on artist names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and Nappy Roots, two hip-hop artists. Whitestarr, a rock group, are in production. Twista, a rapper, has almost finished his album. Apathy is a very promising underground rapper from Connecticut. I am most involved with the Apathy project and it appears to be very promising.
How do you find new talent?
I get it from any source I can. As far as producers are concerned, if they're any good at all they’ll have a particular style, so you basically need to be able to match artists to producers that they might work well with.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and I get a lot! I can't respond to everything, but I do listen to it all. I've really liked several demos in the past and have helped to advise the artists, but deals don’t regularly come from unsolicited material. Demo submission is tough, but the emergence and improvement of programs such as Cubase and Pro Tools has meant that the quality of submissions is much higher than it was a few years ago.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
If you're an unsigned band that are currently shopping for a deal and you don't have a website, start one immediately! A website is the best way for anyone to access information on your band. Most importantly, the site should include all possible contact information, including a phone number.
What studio equipment would you expect a new producer to have?
If you’re a hip-hop producer, you can set up a fully functional home studio for a relatively cheap price. I would suggest any type of Akai MPC sampler, a host of soft synths and a midi controller to access your synth sounds, as well as a reasonable pair of powered speakers. You will definitely need a competent computer, I would suggest a G4 Mac with at least 800mhz of processing power; dual drives is a plus.
Pro-Tools is the industry standard recording program; you can get an LE system and interface for a relatively small amount of money. I would suggest a Mackie 1604 VLZ mixer if you plan on using multiple microphones for tracking. This should be more than enough to get started on making quality productions.
Do you generally work with new producers who have already released a record?
Some of them have released albums, but a lot of them haven't. It all depends on the quality of the tracks they are currently producing.
Can you tell us about a producer you have found who has gone on to work with your artists?
I got this telephone call out of the blue from a guy who said, "I've got this great producer, really professional. We haven't done much, but I want you to hear his material." I said, "Well, that’s great. Why don't you just send it in?", as I normally say, and he replied, "No, I feel that that would be an amateur move. I really need to get this into your hands, and I can guarantee that you'll really feel what we're doing." After ten minutes of going back and forth, I finally said, "You know what, I don't normally do this, but you can drop it off."
I picked up his material, and put it in the CD player directly after he had left, and it blew me away. It was fabulous! I gave it to my boss who agreed with me and called the guy, and now we have a really good relationship with that producer. He's been doing some really great stuff with Nappy Roots and he did a song for Apathy. He's going to do very well.
How often do you catch artists live?
Two or three times a week, and usually they’re bands whose demos I’ve heard or who I’ve heard through word-of-mouth. Sometimes I'll check out bands that I’ve read about and seem interesting.
Do you use BDS to research artists?
Yes. BDS is pretty good, but the only thing is that, once it’s published, everyone has access to it, so it’s hard to be the first to reach anything. BDS is a great research tool but it should be used in conjunction with other types of research.
When you’re looking at independent artists’ sales in SoundScan, what kind of figures make you sit up and take note?
It depends on the number of sales within a city. I might see five or six sales a week in a few small cities and not look twice, but a big jump in units from the previous week, or steady sales in the region of more than fifty records a week, would definitely catch my eye. The sales must be backed up by something solid, however. (SoundScan)
You mean local airplay, live performance experience, a solid fan base...?
Yes, those are all very important. If a record is selling well, if it's got local airplay, if people like it, then it's probably going to do well in other areas.
All the factors have to be right, because current economic conditions mean that signing a group requires a little more discretion than it did a few years back. In the end, it's either the VP or the president who decides. So you say, "I've got a hunch about these guys; they're great. Look at the numbers. Look how well they’re doing in other cities. Look who they're working with." But I've also seen acts that didn't have any local support being signed because someone really wanted to develop them, so you never really know.
Independent labels are able to sign artists who, for various reasons, might not fit into the mainstream. Can you do that too? Can you be completely uncompromising as long as you love the music, or must you consider the market?
Yes, you can, but it doesn't happen that often in the record industry. There’s a lot of mimicry in the record industry. There are huge risks involved and the trend is that one record company takes a huge risk of signing something different, which goes on to become very successful, and then other record companies follow.
When you sign something that is completely original, you have to consider whether it will fit the market or whether it’s completely off the wall and just won’t work. People at radio generally won't take risks, because they don't want to lose their listeners, so it definitely has to fit into certain formats. Therefore, I would say that it has to bear some resemblance to what people are used to hearing but it also has to be totally original.
Potential airplay is an important factor then?
It’s the medium where most people will first hear the act, and if it doesn't fit on radio, it's not going to work. You listen to your artist’s music and you ask yourself whether it’s something that could be huge on radio. If you think so, that’s when you move forward.
What do you look for in an artist’s music?
Everything. Songs that catch my attention have to have original melodies and they have to be undeniably proficient songwriters. They don't have to be all the way there yet, but they need to have something that sparks your attention, that differentiates them from everyone else and that makes you want to become involved with them.
In terms of style, the current trend is throwbacks, to 70s r&b, 60s rock, etc. New bands are drawing on influences that go further and further back. I recently heard a band that sounded like the early Beatles.
How important is the team around the artist?
Very important. A manager is a very important person because they serve as the liaison between the artist and the recording company and help to negotiate all aspects of the artist’s deal. Once the band is on a label, then it becomes very important to have a great team in all departments.
Are too many artists signed to record deals?
I don’t think so. I’d love to see many more groups signed to record labels. It's too bad that the current state of the economy is not in an agreeable position. Meaning that it is difficult for record companies to sign as many groups as they have before. The record industry has a lot to do with creating music, but in the end it does come down to money.
People want to make money from a project, so they have to go for huge hits, which means that the music has to be very pop-oriented and very consumer-oriented. Personally, I'm not happy with it, because I want to hear music from bands that have complete freedom to do what they want. That’s the type of music that goes the furthest.
Do you do demo and development deals?
These days you get high-quality demos from groups, so demo deals, in my experience, have not been necessary. They’re more common with rock groups but, in r&b and hip-hop, you can produce a quality demo with a good Pro Tools system and a nice microphone.
What aspect of the music industry do you think is in need of drastic change?
Although it’s a somewhat unrealistic idea, I would love to see the record companies turn out a lot more signings. I believe that more signed artists with the monetary backing to do what they want, artistically, would yield better music.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Just trying my best and being involved in the process is a total reward for me.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
Hopefully, being in an elevated position in the business. Eventually, I’d like to become heavily involved in production.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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