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Interview with WAYNE WILLIAMS, A&R at Jive for R. Kelly - Sep 8, 2004

"Unsigned artists should know what A&R people work at the labels and know the difference between them"

picture Based in New York, Wayne Williams is a senior vice-president of A&R at Jive/BMG. The artists he works with include R. Kelly, Joe, Syleena Johnson and Eamon. Jive, which was the world’s biggest independent label, was recently bought by BMG.

Here he tells us what kind of buzz makes him sit up and take note, how much it generally costs to make an album and what aspiring artists should know about the music business.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a vice-president of A&R at Jive?

I started off as a dance music DJ and after a while I started making house records. Then I started working for Trax Records, a dance label based in Chicago. We released big records like “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson and “No Way Back” by Adonis, which were pop hits overseas. Representatives of Jive, which was based in the UK, came over to see who was making all this music at this little indie label in Chicago, and that’s how I was discovered. I started working for Jive in 1989.

What experiences have contributed to your skills as an A&R?

Deejaying was a very important experience, because you’re constantly picking new music for your audience to listen and dance to. Then of course there are the projects that I worked on in the early days: Samantha Fox, for example, or Will Smith, when he was in Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. I co-produced “Boom! Shake the Room” and “Ring My Bell” for them, and I also signed the producers who did the “Summertime” record. All these things helped shape my A&R skills.

Jive’s owner, Clive Calder, helped me tremendously, as did Barry Weiss, then president of Jive. Listening to Barry and learning from him was a big part of it. R. Kelly, who’s a phenomenal songwriter, producer and artist, also taught me a lot. Teachers don’t come much better than those three men.

How did the merger between Jive and BMG work out?

It’s been an experience. Obviously, it has brought us many great artists and, although we already had great artists of our own, it’s incredible how much talent there is at the label now.

What difficulties did the merger entail?

There are growing pains with everything, but for the most part it’s been very positive.

What was so particular about Jive that it became the biggest independent label in the world?

Part of the reason is that, financially, we’re very conservative. We also have a great sense of timing and know when to release the right records. We’re very A&R-oriented, we pay close attention to the artists’ needs and we simply pick the right records for them.

How do you explain the fact that urban artists are currently dominating the Billboard charts?

There was a lot of separation in music, racial separation to a degree, and the world coming closer together and losing many of the traditions that shouldn’t have been in place to begin with is opening people up to all kinds of music, which is a very positive thing.

As it becomes mainstream, does urban music risk dilution?

Not at all. Good music is good music—that’s the bottom line. Urban music has never been a watered-down version of anything, and I don’t think it ever will be either, because it’s the soul in urban music that makes it what it is. If there’s no soul, it’s not urban music.

Conversely, might the mainstream audience’s acceptance of urban music open doors for other types of urban music?


Who are you currently working with?

R. Kelly, who has just finished his new album; Syleena Johnson; Joe; Nivea; Eamon; Tony Sunshine; and Raheem Devaughn. I’ve just signed Charlie Wilson, former singer of the r&b group the Gap Band, and a group called Deepside, who are from Miami.

Are you currently looking for songs for any of your artists?

All the time. I’m always looking for songs and I’m very open to hot producers and songwriters.

How did you come across some of the artists you signed, like R. Kelly and Syleena Johnson, for example?

I saw R. Kelly sing with a group at a barbecue in a backyard on the South Side of Chicago, and he was phenomenal. At the time, Eric Payton managed him. I went up to Eric, whom I knew from my high school days, asked him about Robert, and the rest is history.

Syleena Johnson sent a tape in through the mail and when I was going through my demos, her voice just shot through and I thought it was fantastic. She was at Illinois State College at the time, so I called her and asked her to come up for a meeting.

How do you find new talent?

Firstly, you have to keep an open mind; secondly, you have to be out and about; and thirdly, you have to listen to everything. I listen to a lot of music, which people send to me, or I might be out on the street and hear about something. There are many different ways and none in particular.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Company policy dictates that I don’t, but sometimes it gets to me anyway!

What kind of buzz makes you sit up and take note of something?

When a record is being played heavily in a local market, I pay attention, obviously. However, you still have to use your ears when you review the record, because many stations play local records and you have to be able to distinguish between what is really hot and what is just a local record.

When listening to a rap artist’s demo, does the production matter at all or is it just about the rhyming skills?

Nowadays, it helps to have everything. So many of the demos that I receive are well-produced. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the lyrics or a voice can shine through a bad production, but as an artist, you’re up against people who have everything, and it’s an uphill climb.

Must artists have a fan base before you get involved with them?

No, but I would hope they had one. You’d think that they would, especially if they’ve released stuff on their own. If they’ve released stuff on their own and they don’t have a fan base, that’s not a good sign.

What might the process of developing a new artist involve?

That’s a very broad question. It really depends on the artist. If it’s an r&b artist or a hip-hop artist, it could be styling, but also a variety of other things.

What do unsigned artists need to learn more if they are to increase their chances of building successful careers in the music business?

They should do their homework as far as labels are concerned. They should know what A&R people work at the labels and know the difference between them. Often, I find that artists tend to give their projects to just about anybody.

Artists need to understand the business in terms of who can do something for them and who can’t. That’s really important, because if they don’t understand that, they will be wasting their time and energy as well as that of the A&R people. You’d be surprised as to how many artists don’t understand this process.

If the artists themselves are not songwriters and producers, they need to find and work with songwriters and producers. These groups should communicate with each other, because communication helps you grow and it gets your project off the ground.

How much input do you have on the production?

If I don’t like the production, I tell them that they need to improve the track or get a new producer, but it really depends on what it is about the production that I do or don’t like.

How much does it usually cost to record, market and promote an album?

Including the album budget, I’d say a little over USD2,000,000.

Will the major record labels increasingly license the finished product from independent companies rather than develop artists from scratch?

We pretty much do it from scratch. Jive started off as an independent label and that’s how we’ve always done things here, although obviously if there’s something hot and it comes with that type of deal, then we go with it. Generally, though, we do stuff from scratch.

Is urban music too producer-driven and not sufficiently artist-driven?

There are producers who are artists in their own rank and it’s up to the public to decide whether they like them or not. If they like producer-driven music, then that’s one thing, and if they prefer artist-driven music, then that’s something else. What makes artists artists is the fact that they stand out, and in that respect everything is artist-driven. If the producer is the artist then he’s going to stand out as an artist and as a producer.

How do the demands to break with the first album affect your A&R work and the type of artists you’re looking for?

The first thing is that you’re trying to look for a void in the marketplace, where the artists can have their own little niche. If you don’t have that, you just have to do your homework and try to make better records than the competition.

If artists share the costs of making the album, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also have joint ownership of the masters?

Artists should get the best deal they possibly can. If that’s what they want, they have to ask for it. I’ve never owned a label, I’ve always worked for one, so it’s hard for me to answer that question. From a business perspective, you might not want to go that route, but from an artist’s perspective, absolutely.

What aspect of the music industry would you change?

From a business perspective, I would give artists more money than they currently get when it comes to the financial pay-off.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Meeting R. Kelly.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

Living in Miami, Florida and owning a publishing company, but working very sporadically!

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman