Interview with JAIME FELDMAN, rock A&R at EMI/Capitol and A&R for Bonnie Raitt - Mar 15, 2004
"An artist who doesnít have a web site has lost me."
Jaime Feldman is a rock A&R representative at EMI/Capitol in Los Angeles and the A&R for Bonnie Raitt (US multi-platinum).
Here he discusses Capitolís focus as far as artists are concerned, what the process of finding and working with artists involves, why itís hard to get airplay, and more.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I was an intern at several major labels whilst I was college and I was in the marketing department at our college radio station. I also wrote music reviews for the college paper.
I graduated with a Degree in Business, and I wound up as an assistant to Arthur Spivak at Spivak Entertainment, where I dealt with the music market on a day-to-day basis. I worked for them for four years and, by the end of my time there, I was doing marketing, promotion and setting up all of their tours, as well as being the day-to-day manager of Tori Amos and Collective Soul.
From that job, I springboarded into a position in which I dealt with promotion independently. I was hired by artists or their national promoters to help put concerts on the market by setting up the radio advertising and all the other aspects of getting tickets sold. I worked on several tours, from the Dixie Chicks and Nine Inch Nails to Mariah Carey.
After that, I wasnít particularly active for a while. One night, I ran into Andrew Slater (president of Capitol Ė Ed.), whom I knew from when I worked in management, and I told him that I was looking for a new direction. He took me on as an assistant and after about two months he noticed that, not only did I have a good ear, I could also figure out what was worth pursuing for the label. I had talent that he thought would best be used in A&R.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
My background in management is incredibly valuable. Four years of day-to-day management, of dealing with all the departments at major record labels teaches you how to plan the development of an artist and his or her record.
When I became an A&R rep myself, I knew exactly what needed to be done, what format to go to radio with, how to roll out sales programs, and so on. My background had given me an understanding of the process that needs to take place at a major label to support an actís success.
What is unique about Capitolís approach?
We know what our strengths are and there arenít any limitations as far as format is concerned. We do things a little bit differently and you could say that Capitol is the biggest independent label out there. We release less records than major record labels, about twenty-five to thirty per year, although that doesnít mean that our scope is limited; the spectrum of music that we offer is as wide as that of other majors.
As president, Andyís focus has not necessarily been to just go for the flavour of the month but rather to look for artists who will last, who will release more than two records and who will be perceived by people as icons and true expressions of art and musical ability. If you look at our roster, nothing is disposable because they are all true artists.
We donít sign anything that we donít think will last and that may have been the key to our success. In an industry whose scope is shrinking every day, for us, more than ever, itís about artistic integrity and musical expression. Thatís the right way to go, because itís going to win out.
What acts are you currently working on?
I have a band called Borialis whose record is coming out in March. Iím also the A&R rep for Bonnie Raitt. In addition to that Iím in charge of international acquisitions for Capitol US from other EMI sources.
That basically means that I help evaluate what releases from EMI companies in other territories are suitable for release here in the US. Other than that, I fill in on projects for which Iím not necessarily responsible as A&R.
Do you focus on any particular styles of music?
Iím primarily into the rock genre, but I also have great respect for and an ability to help channel hip-hop and r&b. I like to think of myself as a guy on the rock staff who is capable of building bridges from rock to other genres. Still, seventy-five to eighty percent of what I do is alternative rock.
How do you find new talent?
By listening to Internet or radio sources; music is also passed on to me by word of mouth, through managers, agents and lawyers, and I have friends in touring who tip me off. Sometimes, it might be as simple as showing up early to see a live band and catching the band thatís performing before them.
I also find things on the international charts, things that work in other territories. There are many different sources, so you have to be open-minded.
I would say that fifty percent of the things that are worth signing come from a manager, agent or lawyer you might know. The fact that artists have representatives shows that they are professional and are at a certain level.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Iím not supposed to, but you never know where the next great thing is going to come from. I try to get through everything and eventually I do. I did sign something which originally came in as an unsolicited demo, but unfortunately it didnít work out.
What do you think of the general quality of the submissions?
Itís not always about the demoís quality; more often, itís about the quality of the song itself. A true A&R person should have the ability to recognise that the lyrics, melody, verse and chorus are all there but that, if the recording is not professional, it doesnít matter at that stage.
All you need to know is that the song is there and that the artist is ready to work to promote it. If there are another two or three great songs, or if youíre lucky enough, an album of them, then that is something you pursue.
The majority of the songs that I listen to are missing something. It may have something to do with the standard of quality of major record labels or perhaps the artists in question just need more development, which can be hard to discern.
There certainly have been artists who have interested me and in whom I saw potential, although the demo itself is only one aspect of it. I also need to talk to the artists and see them perform, I want to know what their vision is, what kind of records they want to make and what type of career path they want to follow.
Do you carry out research on new artists?
An artist who doesnít have a web site with pictures, live dates, lyrics, MP3s and so on has lost me. The first thing I do when I find an act that I like is go to the web site or do an Internet search to find as much material as I can on them, live reviews, fan sites and such.
I pay attention to artists who are selling ten thousand records in their territories and to whether reputable radio stations are putting themselves on the line by playing their singles and are getting requests for them.
You need this information because, although we all like to think we have golden ears and we know what music is right for people, you shouldnít necessarily take that approach; even if something may not seem cool and happening, there may still be an audience for it.
Itís hard to decide what music people want to hear. You do have to take the figures with a pinch of salt, however, because it may just mean that the band have ardent supporters in their hometowns, which might not translate to other cities.
What figures on SoundScan would make you sit up and take note?
I donít necessarily put a cap on any of that stuff. I donít want to say that if itís only scanning five thousand then itís not something that we want here. Iíd rather see how people react to the bandís touring. I match up tour dates with the SoundScan numbers, and these days, itís easy for a band to record SoundScan sales from a live venue; you just fax the numbers in.
If the sound is there and I like the elements, then I donít need the SoundScans. Just look at recent years: labels who pick up bands with high SoundScan numbers donít necessarily get that extra level out of them. ďIím going to take this band and turn their twenty thousand records into a million recordsĒówell it just doesnít work that way.
Some bands can only interest people at that level. Then there have also been bands who have scanned next to nothing but whose record was so solid that it exploded. Thereís no rhyme or reason to how this works.
What other factors do you consider?
A fan base has always been incredibly important to me. Granted, the songs have to be there in order to put a record out, because as a record label we arenít involved in the touring aspect. However, when your artist needs to go, you donít want to wait on a radio hit so that you can get them out on tour.
If thereís a fan base, bands can play two to three hundred shows a year in a van. If Iím putting out a record with my band and they donít have a touring fan base, and radio doesnít react to the songs, then they canít tour. Having a live fan base is therefore a big deal.
Local airplay is also very important, but it has to be airplay of a certain quality. Local airplay on a Sunday show that supports local talent doesnít really make a big difference to me, whereas local airplay on a radio station that is really getting ratings on the market and getting requests for the song shows me that people are interested.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
Itís not a necessity, but itís very important. A big part of signing an artist to Capitol is that weíre not just signing a performer. We have a stable of artists who have the ability to create music. When you sign somebody who doesnít write their own stuff, theyíre only as good as the material they funnel in from other sources.
You want to find someone who has the creative ability to move forward, although you might sometimes need a song or two to finish the record or the artist might be in a creative slump and be open to working with someone else.
What input do you have on the production?
Iím very hands-on, but at the same time hands-off at a certain point. I do my best to help everybody get to where I think they should be and, once thatís done, I feel that itís time to let the artists do their job. Let the band work with the producer, let them share their creative ideas and when theyíve reached a point that constitutes an album, then I like to listen to the material and offer my ideas and suggestions.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
Very common. I recently worked with an act I had signed to a development deal. They were big overseas but they had never promoted a record in the US. We signed a deal with an option to make the record. As it turned out, we didnít make the record, but on the whole I think that developing artists this way is a philosophy that more labels should follow these days.
Labels are spending millions of dollars on advances and recordings that they may never make a profit on. Considering the current state of the record industry, you shouldnít put that much money up front. We should be able to tell artists that we believe in them, that we can give them money to get going and then see if weíre right.
If weíre right, weíll want to make a record and spend a lot of money, but not so much money that we wonít have the adequate means to market and promote it. Ultimately, if a record sells, the artists end up seeing royalties earlier than if they had chosen a huge advance and an expensive recording studio.
How often do these deals lead to a signing?
Based on what Iíve experienced, sixty percent of the time you move on and make a record, and forty percent of the time what you took a chance on and made an investment in doesnít quite become what you were hoping for.
How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?
Youíd be lying to yourself if you said that you wouldnít like to have a radio hit. You donít make the record with that in mind, but you do hope, once the record is made, that it is something that radio will want to play. Itís a very powerful tool to have on your side, but I donít necessarily sign a band because they have a song I believe is a radio hit.
I sign a band because thereís depth to them, because of their creativity, and because they have a certain something that makes you want to be their partner in the long run.
Itís hard to work a project if thereís nothing that might be suitable for radio. If that was the case, you would push the marketing, let them tour and develop a fan base, and rely on word of mouth to get people to start buying the record. Thatís a really long, hard road, so radio does have its appeal.
What is your opinion of radio stations and playlists?
The playlists here are narrow and repetitive. The unfortunate reality is that stations exist to sell advertising more than they do to expose people to new music. Iím sure that the programme directors would like to play new music but they have to get ratings, so they have to play music thatís guaranteed to get them that.
In a world of Clear Channel and Infinity, hometown radio stations almost donít exist anymore. Playlists are generated from an office building and all the stations of a certain format play the same twenty songs, with slight variations. Itís sad, because many records donít find their way into potential fansí laps, because they donít get that valuable exposure.
Due to the streamlining of radio playlists by media corporations, donít you think it is very hard for new acts and virtually impossible for independent acts to break into the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart (which is based almost entirely on airplay)?
Yes, I would definitely say that, but I donít think that every act should be measured by their ability to break into the Hot 100. Thereís also the long, hard road of grassroots marketing and building a fan base on the basis of touring, which increases your chances of being on the Hot 100; not getting airplay, however, still limits the mainstream publicís exposure to your music.
How does that affect your work with new artists?
As said, I donít believe that you have to break a hit song or be on the radio. I like to let the artists do their job, which is to create new material and see where it goes. I do have some sort of ability to guess what will or will not be played on the radio, so sometimes I have to say, ďWeíve made a great record, but we donít really have a radio single, so maybe we should spend a little time seeing what else we can come up with.Ē
Itís never a case of encouraging the artists to mimic what is then popular on the radio, because what you hear on the radio at the time is not a good indication of what youíll be hearing by the time you release the record, which is usually a year or a year and a half after the recording took place.
When youíve signed something thatís really exciting and that has a fan base, you are also moved to think that you can help change things, that the artist youíve signed is different to what you hear on the radio and that if people like it then that will mean some sort of change.
We would all have been signing acts mirroring Korn and Creed for the last few years if we had believed that people were only willing to buy what was happening on radio. Then the Vines, the White Stripes and the Strokes came along and radio reacted to them. There were requests to alternative stations, recognition in terms of sales, and now theyíre ready to make the transition from alternative radio into something more mainstream.
How does the demand for artists who break with their first album affect your work?
I was entrusted with various responsibilities because my bosses felt that I could spot talent that is worth signing to a major label, but I have never been told that the label only signs acts who are going to be a hit on radio and that it has to be a success from day one. The meaning in a bandís lyrics, how they perform, their fan base and how devoted they are to their fans are all significant aspects to consider.
It doesnít have to be a slam dunkówe have to help make it a slam dunk, thatís how we look at it. Weíre in the business of artist development and we believe that we shouldnít put constraints on ourselves, the raw talent or the music.
Once online sales have been up and running for a few years, do you think that people will prefer that option to peer-to-peer file-sharing programs?
I do, but the offer needs to be more attractive than it is today. Price is a big issue: file-sharing is free, but if the product is reasonably priced and has an added incentive, the public will go for it.
An incentive might be that, when you buy music online, you can buy six concert tickets, for example, or receive e-mail updates on the artists. If we work along those lines, people will come to realise that, by downloading, theyíre cheating the artists out of money that is rightfully theirs.
Do you agree with the fact the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is tracking and suing certain file-sharing individuals?
I canít say if what the RIAA is doing is right, because Iím not aware of all the details; in any case, anyone who distributes recordings that they donít own the rights to, on a massive scale, are doing wrong.
Drastic steps must be taken to get the message through to people that what theyíre doing is wrong and that, if they continue, artists wonít have the capital and therefore the ability to create the music theyíre so excited about sharing. The music business wonít be able to function and get exposure for its artists and lack of exposure could see the collapse of any number of major labels.
To what factors do you attribute the fact that, compared to ten years ago, fewer foreign artists are successful in the US?
Some say, and thereís a degree of truth in it, that foreign artists are creating music that isnít necessarily tailored to what the US market wants. You listen to what overseas artists are producing and then you listen to US radio stations and it may not correspond at all to their playlists.
It also comes down to being unable to spend the money needed to promote foreign artists in the US. It costs a lot of money to promote an artist in a territory that the artist isnít from. Any band from the United States can get into a van and travel around the US and play but, if youíre from Australia or the UK, you canít just send a single over and do a week or two of promotion and then see major success.
Bands who have tried that have hit a glass ceiling. They think that, because theyíre huge in Europe, theyíll release a single in the US, play New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and thatíll be it, but doesnít work that way.
Another aspect, although perhaps a less important one, is that audiences are inspired by seeing something of themselves reflected in the artist. I donít know whether music listeners in the US can only identify with US bands or whether touring has something to do with it. Perhaps if artists are willing to spend a huge amount of time in the US, getting to know their fans, then the US audience will identify with them.
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
I would love to go back to a world in which radio had a broader range of formats and the priority of radio stations wasnít creating revenue by selling commercial time to sponsors. The Top 40 is more like a Top 5. Itís a shame that those hanging around on the fringe of the Top 40 donít get the exposure that they often deserve.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Itís not necessarily a moment but a dream coming to fruition. I grew up in a suburb and I worked part-time at a record store, which was my first job in the music business. I was fifteen years old and I sold records that I didnít believe in, whilst talented artists whom I knew werenít selling at all.
I thought to myself how great it would be to work at a record label, where I could help plot what I thought the general public should hear. A few years later, I actually get to live that dream every day.
Interviewed by Jean-FranÁois Mťan
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