Interview with ROBERT STEVENSON, VP of A&R at Island/Def Jam - Dec 4, 2006
“How is artist development possible if staff turns over every two years? I’ve been here for eight. That’s one of the reasons my artists are successful,”
... so goes Robert Stevenson's call for long-term vision in the music industry.
Stevenson, VP of A&R for Island/Def Jam, currently works with Thrice, Sum 41, and The Killers (Top 10 US) among others.
He talks to HitQuarters about how good songwriting and gradual build-up is forgotten in the current state of the industry, and about the need to look years, not weeks, ahead.
How did you become executive VP of A&R for Island/Def Jam?
I worked for a company called AAM in New York, who does producer management and also had a college radio promotion company. I started my own independent record label called Derailed. Through a very long chain of people I met Steve Greenberg, who was the Head of A&R for Mercury at the time.
He was looking for somebody and we hit it off. The week after I got hired Universal announced that they were taking over Polygram and that there was a signing free at Mercury. For a year I sat there doing nothing. After that year we merged with Universal, and they combined Mercury, Island and Def Jam. And I was just making so little money that they decided to keep me around.
What artists are you currently working with?
Lady Sovereign, The Killers, Saliva, Sum 41, Fall Out Boy, The Bravery, Thrice. And I have some new acts coming up that I’m very excited about like Young Love and PlayRadioPlay!
What do you think is important for an artist in the rock genre?
The same as in any genre - to have great songs. As artists become more multimedia geared, having blogs and shooting their own videos for YouTube, the songwriting is taking a backseat to image. You get artists that are very ‘of the moment’.
While you’re watching them play or watching their video, it’s very enjoyable, but you can’t take anything away from it as a listener. You don’t remember the songs.
You stated that in this day and age, you are starting over with every record. There is no carry over from record one to record two. What does that mean for your work?
The songs have to be that much better. It’s becoming increasingly more and more difficult for artists to stay afloat. They have to be patient and only release records when they’re absolutely ready.
Everyone is so worried over having to release a record every year or year and a half or people are going to leave them, when the truth of the matter is, they always stick around if the songs are good. But if you release a record every year and the songs suck, no one is going to stick around.
What’s your definition of a good song?
That song that makes you want to get up and dance or put your fist in the air or cry. It’s got to make you want to do something. If it doesn’t make you want to do something it’s not going to stick around.
How did you first learn about The Killers?
I was turned on to The Killers by a friend of mine who writes an A&R tip sheet. I was asking him why he kept writing about The Kills. I mistook the band that he was writing about. I’m not a fan of The Kills at all. And he was like, ‘Dude, you got to read my column! It’s The Killers!’
Then he was overnighting me the CD, and while he was doing that I called my friend Sarah Lewitinn AKA Ultragrrrl who has a blog that is very popular. I asked her to find out anything she can about this band online. She called me back and said, ‘You just sign this band right now!’
That forced me to listen to the demo the next morning. I fell in love with it right away and was out to Vegas to try and get them. They released a single on Lizard King Records. But I found out about them through that industry tip sheet.
Their demo consisted of ‘Mr. Brightside’, ‘Somebody Told Me’, ‘On Top’, ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’ and ‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’. I heard it in my car. It was those five songs. The best demo I’ve ever gotten.
How was your first meeting with them?
At the first meeting I just wanted to see if they could play as well as the demo. I flew out to Vegas and they played in the garage of the drummer, Ronnie Vannucci’s house. They had just written 'Midnight Show' and they were working on 'All These Things That I’ve Done'. They just ran through a bunch of songs and they were great.
What’s usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
I typically try to ask the band as many questions as possible. I believe that record labels provide a service to artists, and the only way you can provide that service is to listen to them and to hear what it is that they’re looking for.
The first time I meet with an artist I try to get them to answer as many questions as possible and talk to me as much about their vision as they can so I get a sense of what it is that they want and whether I’m really able to provide that for them.
How can you help to realize their vision?
By listening to what they want, how they want to be represented, how they see their music and how they want to evolve. The more I know how to do that for them, the more I understand what they’re looking for, the better I can represent them and find opportunities while I’m out there.
Why did they choose to sign with Island?
We were actually one of the last labels to get involved. Most labels had seen them and passed on them. We loved them. We thought they were great. We just sort of vibed with them the best as far as what they wanted for themselves and how they wanted to be represented.
What was instrumental in breaking them?
There are a lot of people that revise history when they look back. But that record sold consistently over time, and eventually hit 3 million. There was no one thing that had them come exploding out of the gates.
It was just very consistent. It was a solid record with a lot of good songs. The timing worked. People were looking for something new at the time. The Killers had something that people were looking for.
How did they manage to grow in terms of live performance?
Their early shows were kind of wooden. They could play very well, but instead of doing what a lot of bands do and just try to go on tour, go on tour, go on tour, they decided to just work on their songs, which is the right thing to do.
Now they had this record that was far beyond their capabilities as a live band. They were technically proficient, but they didn’t really have much of a stage show because they didn’t really have very much live experience. Some of their early shows were good, but most of them were pretty stiff.
Now when you see them, where the growth really is, is the confidence. The confidence and ability in what they do that allows them to have a good time and have fun on stage, which in turn means that the people watching them have more fun.
Why did the blogs play an important role in the set up process?
Sarah Lewitinn was the original person that I asked about this band the first time. She started writing about them a lot. And a lot of people read her blogs. So from hers it spread to others. That just helped to spread the word on what was going on with the band.
How does the deal at your label look like for a band?
This is a business of people. Anytime you put people together, it’s like whatever the experience is, it's completely unique to that band because you never going to have those same people together in another arena. It’s always different for every artist.
How important is it for you to work long term with a band?
Very important. I want all my bands to have long careers.
What input do you usually have on the productions?
I really don’t get into the details of the recording as far as that specific drum part or that chord progression. I try to view it overall. Like I try to think of records or books or movies. There has to be chapters that set it up, and then chapters that have conflict resolution. If a record doesn’t have all of those things then I help try to find it.
What does it cost your label to put out a band?
It’s increasingly more and more expensive. It can range anywhere from a more expensive indie release that would be a quarter of a million dollars, or if you’re going on top with the big guns, the big releases, 2 million dollars.
At what point do you go for producing a music video?
If the act is very visual then it makes more sense to have the video upfront. But a lot of the times you want to get something into the clubs and radio first and see what you have before you go shoot a video, because it's so expensive.
How do you find new talent?
I still find my personal network of friends to be the best. Some are industry people, some aren’t.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career?
Just start local. I feel that unsigned artists sometimes try to focus too much on the big picture. If a major record label can barely handle the big picture, an unsigned artist by themselves isn’t going to be able to handle it.
If an artist makes a splash in their home area, record labels will find out about it. It’s inevitable. If they focus on their home area and they just keep playing there and focus on that, record labels will find out. It’ll snowballing. But if they try to spread themselves too thin in too big of an area, they wouldn’t be able to handle it.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
You have your standards like singles and videos, but that’s very specific to each artist. It depends on what their strengths are.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Very very difficult. I just feel like we’re at this crucial time in between the old and the new, where the old ways still work but their effectiveness is decreasing, and the new ways have not really been fleshed out enough.
What kind of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
The record business is focused on creating jingles rather than real songs. Because things need to react so quickly I feel like we’re all trying to put out records that find their audience in three weeks. That stuff might be immediate but it’s not as memorable.
If you would turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
All the major labels right now are pretty much the same. They have the same kind of distribution, the same promotion and marketing strengths. I would look for a label with a staff that has been there for a while, so that there’s loyalty.
I would look for people that understand my vision. Because that’s the one thing that is different about each record label - who gets the artist and what the artist wants to do, and who doesn’t.
What is your vision?
I want artists to have hits. I don’t think that pop is a bad word. I want artists that have hits on their own terms with their own style. I want artists to have long careers. And I want to do true artist development.
How is that possible if the staff turns over every two years? I’ve been here for eight. That’s one of the reasons that my artists have been successful.
I know this place. I know the artists. I know their strengths, their weaknesses. I know what they want to do and what they want to accomplish.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Get rid of radio research. It stops songs that could have been hits.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman