Interview - Oct 13, 2004
“The best way to find the next artist is to be in contact with somebody who is affiliated with talent, be it a producer or manager.”Based in New York, Peter Edge is executive vice-president of A&R at J Records. The artists he works with include Alicia Keys, Dido, Angie Stone and Mario.
Here he tells us what his work with Alicia Keys involves, the kind of artist he’d like to see more of, and more.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become the executive vice-president of A&R at J Records?
I started out as a DJ and then I broke into television as the music producer of a TV show for Channel 4. After that, I started a label called Cool Tempo, which was one of the UK’s biggest dance and hip-hop labels at the end of the 80s. We signed Eric B. & Rakim, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, Monie Love, and many other artists. We also released a lot of dance records and early house music like Adeva.
Then I went to America to start working for Warner Brothers and I took Monie Love and the Jungle Brothers with me. After Warner Brothers, I started at Arista and I later made the move to J Records, when Clive Davis, who had also previously started Arista, set it up.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Working with some of the early hip-hop artists like Monie Love and the Jungle Brothers, who made groundbreaking music, definitely changed a lot of things. They paved the way for acts like the Fugees, Arrested Development and OutKast and, had it not been for acts like them, I don’t know whether the artists who came later would have received the recognition they did. It was fun and exciting to work with cutting-edge artists, artists who paved the way.
Looking back, what were the pros and cons of the J Records-RCA/BMG merger?
It was a win-win situation for J Records and for RCA. RCA has one of the strongest rock rosters in America, including the Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews and the Strokes, among others, and J Records has a powerhouse pop and r&b roster that includes Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross, Angie Stone, Monica and great pop artists like Rod Stewart and Maroon 5. The coming together of those two labels made for a very powerful multi-genre major record label.
How did it influence your work?
It gave me access to and the ability to sign acts in every genre, because we now have very effective rock promotion and marketing teams as well.
What type of label do you consider J Records to be?
It defies most categories. It’s something of a boutique label, but it’s way bigger than a boutique label. It’s something of a major label but it doesn’t have the monster roster that Interscope and Columbia Records have, for example. We’re a bit of both and that’s the secret behind J Records’ success: it’s a small roster with a major-label focus.
Clive Davis is now the CEO of the RCA Group. How does that affect J Records and your work?
Many labels came together under Clive in the restructuring, but we all work very closely together; we all get along and we do what we do. I act as A&R to the artists I work with and Clive is very much hands-on with Rod Stewart and the American Idol artists, among others. Things are similar to the way they’ve been since the inception of J Records, but Clive now has a broader range of responsibilities.
What artists are you currently involved with?
Alicia Keys and Dido, both of whom I signed, developed and still work with extensively; Angie Stone, who’s now on what will hopefully be her third platinum record; Mario, with whom we came close to having a platinum record the first time round and whose second album will, I think, be a major hit; and a number of new artists who are going to be popping up in the next year. Shawn Kane, who was brought to us by Alicia Keys, is one of them. He’s a very talented, strong vocalist who sounds a bit like a Sam Cooke for today’s generation.
How did you come across Alicia Keys?
I knew her manager, Jeff Robinson, very well. In 1995, he called me to say that he was working with a girl who was incredible. I helped him develop a showcase and some of the material that they were working on at the time. I was actually at Warner Brothers, but I was leaving to go to Arista.
What did your work with her involve in the three years leading up to the release of her first album in 2001?
Before I started working for Arista, she was snapped up by Sony, who offered her a million-dollar deal. Knowing I was making the move to Arista, I wasn’t about to sign her to Warner Brothers and leave her there. I was caught between the two labels and I wasn’t able to get her to my next home, as it were.
Two years later, however, Sony hadn’t really figured out what to do with her, lots of changes had taken place at the company and Alicia wasn’t happy there. Jeff and Alicia managed to negotiate their way out of the Sony deal and we were reunited at Arista.
It was at that point that we started working on “Songs in A Minor”. We worked closely together on selecting songs from the songs she had written, developing those songs, the arrangements and the production, and starting collaborations with other people.
Alicia Keys has been said to represent a type of artist that has for a long time been missing, that is, a self-contained and sincere r&b artist with a vocation and an individual voice. Do you concur?
Yes, absolutely. She’s today’s version of Stevie Wonder.
At what point did you realise this?
From very early on. I remember that I felt, upon meeting her, that she was completely unique: I had never met a young r&b artist with that level of musicianship. So many people were just singing on top of loops and tracks, but she had the ability, not only to be part of hip-hop, but also to go way beyond that. She’s a very accomplished musician, songwriter and vocalist and a rare and unique talent.
Did you break her the way you had planned to?
Pretty much so, yes. We knew that we needed to do grass-roots marketing and get her out there in terms of performing in front of people in every way possible, because it wasn’t just about listening to her record—to see her was to believe in her. We did a lot of that in the first six months of the project, which culminated in her being on Oprah the week prior to the album release.
We also had a very strong opening video that MTV fell in love with. There was a six-month set-up period that really helped to break her and she debuted at No. 1 on the album chart.
How do you find new talent?
Mainly through contacts. I find that the most useful way of finding the next artist is to be in contact with somebody who is affiliated with talent, be it a producer or manager.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We don’t really, no, not completely cold. We accept material from those who are affiliated with someone who is either a lawyer, manager, agent or someone we know.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
It could be any number of things. We look at independent sales and fan bases, but to be honest, it’s meeting and seeing an artist perform that will tell you what you need to know.
Should artists have released independent albums and developed themselves to a certain point before you will get involved with them?
It can help, especially in rock, but no, there’s no rule. It could be a very simple demo tape by somebody extraordinary, or it could be somebody who’s had a record out before and you just see that they have the potential to go places.
What types of artists are you looking for?
Unique talent—that’s it. I don’t have a list of requisites because it could be anything. If you think of the great artists in history, some of them don’t fit into a box. It’s their artistic vision and who they are that makes them great, and they often differ from the norm.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?
Reggae and roots reggae are definitely interesting genres right now and I think that we’re going to see a return of more of those artists. I’d certainly like to see rootsier singer/songwriters, and reggae musicians having more mainstream success.
And then just real artistry, anything that defies the regular, commercial genre. It’s always exciting when somebody who’s got real artistry emerges and sells a lot of records like OutKast, for instance, or Alicia.
What aspects of the music industry should unsigned artists learn more about if they are to increase their chances of building a successful career for themselves?
Really just focus on being as original and entertaining as possible.
How much input do you have on the production?
I often guide productions by suggesting the direction that things could take, so yes, I’m heavily involved with the way the record sounds and the kind of record that is made.
How do you view the current music business climate?
We’re in a process of reformatting, and the digital format is the way forward. I don’t think we’ll have physical records in the future, because digital is the logical way for people to buy and store music collections.
Record labels have been very cautious since CD sales started to dip and we haven’t fully exploited digital formats yet. When there’s more traction on the digital sales, we’re going to see an upswing in the music business. People are consuming more music than ever, it’s just the way it’s purchased that’s in transition right now.
Do you view independent labels as resources or competitors?
Resources, most definitely. The independents are the farm teams for the majors in one respect. They don’t always intend to be so, but they often take chances when the majors won’t.
Have company demands to break with the first album increased in recent years?
The majors definitely gear up to break with the first album on every artist they release, because they’re tightly controlled by corporate purse strings. For A&Rs, it means that you’re always going for a home run.
Has it become too expensive to launch new artists?
Launching so many new artists has become expensive and labels are definitely more cautious now about how they spend money.
Should labels have a stake in the touring income if they invest in tour support?
It’s a model that EMI are trying out with Robbie Williams and we’re all watching carefully. You can argue for and against it, but it’s certainly something that is being explored.
What do you think the future has in store for so-called 360-degree labels, that is, labels that do everything in-house, including releasing the records, publishing, touring and merchandising? Do you think major labels are considering offering this all-in-one option to artists?
I certainly think there’s a market for those labels, although there are always going to be artists who like to take care of certain elements of their business themselves, such as touring, merchandising and their ability to make and release DVDs. I don’t think the model is for everybody.
What aspects of the music industry would you change?
I’d make radio take chances on new music. As an A&R person, the most frustrating thing is trying to get something new through the door at radio. The “gatekeepers” are often unwilling to let that happen because of their “corporate responsibilities”. It’s extremely frustrating for a music guy when artists don’t get the attention they deserve.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
It was a big thrill to see somebody like Alicia Keys, who’s a little out of the ordinary, be embraced and become one of the world’s superstars. Secondly, Dido selling an enormous amount of records: 22 million albums! I would put Alicia and Dido in the category of, “You wouldn’t have expected it, would you?”
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman