Interview with JAMES EICHELBERGER, A&R at Universal/Motown for Lumidee (Top 10 USA) - May 16, 2005
“Motown is a strong brand, and the people who were here before made it such a great label that it’s hard to keep up with what they have done,”
… says James Eichelberger, A&R at Universal/Motown, New York, USA. In 2001 he was working full-time at a bank and helping his sister-in-law’s small record label to promote a new artist, Khia, who went on to have a Top 10 single.
Now in 2005 he has added the worldwide hit “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” by Lumidee to his credits, and is working as an A&R at one of the most prestigious record labels in the history of the music industry. Motown was founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit in the early 60’s, and released such classic artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and many more.
Two years ago Universal and Motown merged to become Universal/Motown. Read about how James discovered Lumidee, and what it means to be an A&R at Motown.
How did you get started in the music business?
Four years ago I was doing promotion for an artist called Khia. She released a single on a small label owned by my sister-in-law. The song was called “Your Neck My Back”. I was doing this while I was working full time at the Bank of America. Whenever I had free time I would be sending her CD out to radio stations and magazines, and calling them on the phone.
How did you know who to contact?
I did my own research online, or I called directory enquiries for phone numbers. I just didn’t give up. Khia became a hit and she started getting calls from the major labels.
I also got a call from a major label, Universal/Motown. They had heard about what I had been doing for Khia and offered me a job as A&R for them on a trial basis. They liked what I was doing, and when they hired me full-time I quit my job at the bank. I’m now in my fourth year at Motown.
How important is the history of Motown?
Motown’s history is very important. It’s a strong name and the people who were here before made it such a great label that it’s hard to keep up with what they have done. So you don’t want the name to go to waste. You have to keep putting out those classic hits that will last for a lifetime.
Does that put a lot of pressure on you?
Well, yeah, there is always pressure. It’s like you’re following a great person, and you have to do 10 times as much just to keep up with them. We have to live up to the name.
Are the artists particularly interested in signing to Motown because of its famous brand?
Yes of course. And obviously unsigned artists are always trying to get with a major label, because they want to have all the work done for them.
With these new labels coming up strong - such as Aftermath, G-Unit and Shady - is Motown taking certain steps to become more competitive?
Motown has a lot of records coming out these days, and we did make a profit last year. But Motown is really stepping up the game – we have to, because there is a lot of competition out there. I hear that all the hip hop artists want to get signed by G-Unit, the label of 50 Cent. But G-Unit, Shady Records and Aftermath are with Interscope, which belongs to Universal just like Motown, so we are all one big happy family…
What does your job involve?
As an A&R guy my job is to find new talent, so I listen to demos, have tracks produced, and try to find the right songs for the artist that I want to get signed. I pick the records that go out. I also look for artists who might already have something going on, even a hit record, to get them signed to the company.
Which artists are you currently working with?
There is Tyra, an R&B newcomer, whose first single “Country Boy” got some good spins, with its Video out on BET. We just came out with the new single "Get No Ooh Wee" last Friday, and we’ve been getting a lot of good feedback.
Then there is Tori Alamaze; she had a record called “Don’t Cha” which was a number one club record in the US. She is also R&B, but she is taking the style back to the 80’s, more like Prince.
I also work with David Banner ("Like A Pimp" feat. Lil' Flip) and Roy Jones Jr & Body Head Bangerz. There is a group called B.A.M.A. who released Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” with a new twist, since they do a combination of hip hop and country. It’s now the number one selling single in the State of Alabama. Then there is a old school hip hop group called Nice And Smooth. And Lumidee of course.
How did you hear Lumidee?
One day Don Muhammad, an A&R colleague of mine, called me from North Carolina and asked me if I had heard of Lumidee, which I hadn’t. He had been tipped off by someone to check it out. When he came back he had a CD which he hadn’t even listened to, so we put it on, and there was “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)”. I said, “Hey, I heard that song before!”
I’d noticed it on Hot 97, which is the biggest hip hop radio station in New York City. They would play it late at night, and I’d thought it was some sort of unofficial remix for Sean Paul! I went straight to the president of the company and played him the song. It was so catchy, everybody could hear that.
We contacted her management and her lawyer and set up a meeting at Motown, and she got signed right away. We caught it early and then we started spreading it, and it became a worldwide hit.
The song was already out there when you signed it?
Yes, DJ Ted Smooth, who is a club DJ in New York, had been playing it at clubs. Him and his production partner Trendsetta had taken “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)” and put these dancehall dwali reggae beats under it, the claps, and that’s why it sounded like a Sean Paul track.
Whenever he had a set, he would always play his own productions. When he played Sean Paul he would mix it in his own track, and that was how he got the song out there. At the time he was just experimenting with it, to see if he could keep the crowd moving.
Did you produce a new version or use what was already out there?
We used that production exactly. The Busta Rhymes remix came after it had become a hit.
How did it get played at Hot 97?
They made some CDs and were handing them out to people. But the buzz really started in the clubs, not so much the hip hop clubs but in the latino and reggae clubs.
How did you promote the single to bring it from the clubs to the mainstream?
We started giving it out to radio and radio was loving it! Our promotion team got it out to the street, the radio and more clubs. It was spreading so rapidly, we had to shoot the video in the matter of a week. When you have a hit record you’ve got to move fast. It’s like you’re running behind your record, chasing it; riding on a wave that’s getting bigger by itself.
Did you get a raise when Lumidee had that smash hit?
What type of music are you looking for at Motown?
Within Motown I do Urban. Though my philosophy is to listen to everything, hip hop, R&B, rock, pop, anything that sounds good in my ears. I’m looking for hits; I’m looking for that record that sounds like it could take off.
What makes a great A&R?
You can’t limit yourself to just one style. You will still have to survive in the A&R world even when the urban style decreases in popularity. If you only specialize in hip hop you are only doing hip hop records. You have to do every type of music; that’s what makes a great A&R!
I’ve been watching the true A&R-people here that have been in the game for 20 or 30 years – they’ve done every type of music. Like the new president for Motown Records, Sylvia Rhone; she’s done everything. I don’t want a sticker on me saying, “he’s the hip hop guy”. I’m looking for longevity in this game.
The A&R guy is in a similar position to the artist. You’ve got to get your name out. You’ve got to find the hits. If you don’t, you get dropped. Just like an artist gets dropped when they stop being successful.
How do you deal with demos?
My office is so full of them, it looks like a junk yard! I try to listen to as much as I can, but if you are getting 200 to 300 demos a day it’s impossible. That’s why I have interns coming over to listen to the stuff for me. If they like something, they bring it back, if they don’t like it, they put it in the pile of the “don’t-like-box”.
What in an artist makes you interested?
First of all, it’s the music. I gotta like your music! Then the second step is trying to find out how you look, so it’s always good to send a bio and a picture with your demo.
The last tracks that made me go “wow” were Toya’s “Don’t Ya” and Tyra’s “Country Boy”. The latter caught my attention because it was different. You hear these whistles and then she’s telling about how she loves all those country boys… it was to the left. I look for “to-the-left” music.
What would you change about the record industry?
There’s too much politics in the industry. It’s very cut-throat. For me as an A&R guy, music comes first, but off and on you end up getting swallowed up in politics.
Interviewed by Monica Rydell
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