Interview with JOSH DEUTSCH, A&R for Gnarls Barkley (No.1 UK) - Sep 4, 2006
"Once in a while you hear a record that is so obviously important on so many levels. If I find something I like thereís no bureaucratic process associated with signing it."
... Says Josh Deutsch with reference to his No.1 UK hit, Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy'. Deutsch, who also worked with Lenny Kravitz and A Perfect Circle, has been No.1 on HitQuarters' Top A&R Chart for the last 10 weeks, and it is a special pleasure to feature his story here.
Deutsch talks about combining the strengths of major and independent, the importance of the artists' clear vision, and how to prepare the market for that vision.
How did you first enter the music industry?
I started out as a musician and a songwriter. I came from the studio side of the business working as a programmer and guitarist in New York in various studios on multiple records.
So I got my first publishing deal and then I decided my dream job was to be a staff producer at a record company. I had the great honour of starting out working for Bruce Lundvall , currently the president of Blue Note Records, who at the time was running Capitol.
After a couple of hits there I became the Vice President of A&R at Capitol, moved over to Elektra for seven years, most recently as Executive Vice President of the A&R department. After that I ran the A&R department at Virgin for 3 years. I signed Jet, Jason Mraz, Third Eye Blind and worked with A Perfect Circle, Lenny KravitzÖthose are some of the highlights.
Then I decided to form Downtown Records in the summer of 2005. Itís been a 15-year run along the way, there are so many people that have helped me and many of whom are in my mix today. Our label is now distributed by Warner and we have a joint venture with Atlantic. I have enjoyed a close friendship and a successful relationship with Atlantic CEO Craig Kallman for many years.
How did you manage the switch from musician to businessman?
Actually Iím still active as a songwriter and producer. Although this company and success that we are having at Downtown doesnít allow me to be in the studio as much as I used to be. But while I was at Virgin I was very active as a producer on Virgin acts and for other labels.
Iím a multi published songwriter and I contributed to over a dozen of films either as a writer or a producer or as a music supervisor. I just finished supervising this Hugh Grant movie for Warner Brothers called ĎMusic and Lyrics Byí. While I was working as an A&R person, all of those jobs allowed me to write and produce.
How do you handle being a creative songwriter/producer on the one hand and a successful businessman on the other? Does one affect the other?
The song writing has always provided some relief from the stress that is associated with having a job like this over the last decade. Those things have always been separate to me. Sometimes itís hard to manage the time commitment. It would be great to be in the studio now working as a producer with some of the artists I signed.
But at this point that I have a company to run Iím hiring my friends to produce these records that I would love to produce myself. Other than that, as a writer, and particularly for film where you are not necessarily limited as a writer to a hit song format itís a great way for me to not loose touch with all the things that got me started and that make me successful as an executive.
I think if you really understand music on some basic level, it can be helpful in terms of signing artists and helping deliver their record in a way that is very true to what it is that they are trying to say musically.
So what exactly is it that makes being a musician helpful to you as an A&R?
I definitely can relate to bands and artists in a variety of genres musically. Itís a question of whether or not you can speak the language. No matter if you are making an urban record or a rock record, people can tell if youíre input has meaning.
Some really successful A&R people come out from a different way, they learn through the process of making a record and doing it over the years without actually being musicians. Iím not saying that this is the way to go; itís just the way that it always worked for me. I feel like if you can contribute to the process musically it does definitely allow you to have a kind of a relationship with the artist, either if you are trying to sign them or when helping them making the right records.
Much in the same way that the fact that Jimmy Iovine produced Patti Smith, Tom Petty and U2 gives him a level of credibility. Or I would say the same thing about Clive Davis, who wasnít a musician but has been so active in the A&R process musically that he has tremendous credibility with artists.
How did you first come across Gnarls Barkleyís ĎCrazyí?
When we decided to start our own label it seemed to me that itís an amazing time to be an independent. We sat out on the course of raising money and finding a distribution partner. One of the first things you have after 15 years of doing it is a wide spectrum of relationships in all aspects of the business.
From managers to attorneys, artists, producers, mixers and programmers on the radio. You have to have a certain network. In this particular case I have a long history with Danger Mouseís manager who sent me the song. They were looking for an independent label that has the same resources as a major. I heard the record and signed it after one listen.
I had the same experience with Jet although it took me many trips to Australia to sign them to Elektra. But once in a while you hear a record that is obviously so important on so many levels. The beauty of my position is that it's very direct. If I find something I like thereís no bureaucratic process associated with signing it.
What happened after you signed it?
Well, this song has an interesting life of its own. Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo had such a success for years on other projects with Cee-lo writing the Pussycat Dolls number one record and Danger Mouse with Gorillaz, that there was already a lot of awareness online. The record really began to break in England even before the deals were done.
A lot of significant programmers in the UK like Steve Lamacq, Pete Tong, and Zane Lowe were all playing the demo on Radio One, which fuelled a big online interest in the group. We helped navigate the deal through the Warner system to the rest of the world.
What happened with ĎCrazyí is, it became the most downloaded song ever in the history of the UK music business. It went to number one in the strength of downloads alone. It was driven by early radio interest in the UK and a tremendous online interest. When it came to release the record in America we tried to take full advantage of what was becoming a kind of a phenomenon in a business point of view and also just in terms of the song success in Europe.
Our plan here was making people aware of the record. We didnít work a single for a while. We had an incredible amount of mystery in the press surrounding the group. Itís amazing when you have artists who have a clear creative vision. Danger Mouse and Cee-lo never came out of character. They would do things like only photograph these famous historical duos from a movie.
This is all very endearing to their online audience. We really believed that this record would find a tremendous amount of success in different formats over here. So we got an early look from K-Rock in L.A. and fromHot 97 in New York. And I think that maybe since ĎHeyaí there hadnít been a record that wasnít remixed, yet launched by the biggest rock station and the biggest hip hop station in the country at the same time.
People were saying itís too urban for rock, itís too rock for urban. It is very different than anything else modern rock radio would play. I think in this particular case they took a chance with us and once the record got on the air, it did exactly what it did in England. Now we are charting on nine formats in America. We are the No. 2 song in the country, No.1 on iTunes, Top 10 on over six formats without making any compromises.
We never did a single remix. The record does a lot of the talking. We havenít had to do a lot of the things that major labels do on the spending side of promoting records. This one is very much a word of mouth record. At this time we have a 100 million in audience so itís easy to hear about it. We are only on our first single and are almost platinum.
Itís only three months into the project. This is totally driven by the artist. From an A&R point of view if you have an artist who has a very clear vision itís the biggest gift in the world. We try to develop their own mythology. It was very important to us that itís not only one song or a kind of superstar producer project. So we went to create effort to make sure that it will be perceived as a band and people would buy into it at that level.
Which is why we made the video that we made, the band is on a sold-out American tour right now. Every night they perform in a different costume. Their audience never knows what they are going to look like or play. We wanted to create a community for them. I must also mention Atlantic, who has been an incredible partner to us on this particular project.
Do you think the song would have worked with another group, too?
Itís impossible to separate it from the group. Itís been covered by a ton of artists already. Ray Lamontagne, Nelly Furtado, Billy IdolÖeverybody is covering the song. Itís a classic song. You can play it on piano; you can do it on guitar. It's one of these timeless songs.
But the mix of Danger Mouseís production and Cee-loís vocal gives it a very modern and very timeless quality. I think the song will be around for a long time. Maybe someone could have had success with this song but I think itís the sound of it, how it is produced and presented.
Did you give the song a certain push somewhere in the beginning?
We did what we normally do. We have a number of online promotion partners but there was an incredible amount of organic online interest in the band. Danger Mouse has a very rapid Internet following and Cee-lo is such a pioneer in terms of really defining the whole southern sound.
We were able to build on a very passionate underground interest in the band. What we tried to do is make it possible for people to discover it without hyping it. Before the album came out, the single was streamed over millions of times in Myspace, which is absolutely incredible. We did little posters, trying to mysterious, a little snippet saying ĎGnarls Barkley is crazyí.
No one knew what Gnarls Barkley or even the song was. Then we found the kids on Myspace were making their own versions of the original poster, submitting them. It took on a life of its own. We were trying to feed that interest very carefully, so as not to get in the way of what was building organically.
Where did you put the song the first time?
In America everybody was aware of the success in the UK. Very early all the blogs were on it, from Pitchfork to all the other Internet sites that kids go to in order to find new music. They were on the demo that was floating around. There was a lot of awareness across a number of sites like Yahoo, MySpace, and iTunes.
MTV also gave us a tremendous early look with the video, long before we had much airplay. They just really wanted to be a part of it. They put us on the MTV Movie Awards show one month after the release and that was a big breakthrough moment for us. The first spark really was in the blogs picking up the demo and Radio One in England playing it.
Does this now affect your future work a lot?
In the sense that it is fantastic to come out of the box with a new label with such a significant success. But the reason I signed is some very fundamental things: great songs, amazing production, great vocals, and real artists.
We had a lot of success already with some of our other artists. We shipped almost 100,000 Eagles Of Death Metal records, which is Josh Hommeís side project. We have a lot of new releases to come that we have very high hopes for. It doesnít change my approach at all. It reinforces what my philosophy is as a label and an A&R person.
When you found Jet, how did you make the connection to the popular Vodafone add?
There was a lot of advertising interest in Jet after it was a hit in America. The link was not done by myself.
What do you think is important for an artist to possess?
Iím always interested in unique voices and perspectives whether itís a rock band or an urban artist. We have an urban artist we signed, this 19-year-old kid from Philly called Kevin Michael. He sounds like a young Prince or De Angelo, with a full voice like Stevie Wonder. He has an incredible voice and is an incredible performer. He has a point of view so heís making a record that is very unique urban record.
He is working with all the top producers in the urban community. I look for the same thing in every artist. I donít care what the genre is. Are the songs great? Is s/he a star? Do they have the ability to communicate directly with an audience? We have the band Art Brut which is successful across Europe right now, and just signed a band called Cold War Kids.
That was the first time we really competed with any labels, because generally our goal is to get in earlier and have a different model for our business, mostly in terms of having other revenue streams, other than just record royalties. We have an A&R person on the West Coast in addition to me, who I worked with at Virgin, and a couple of scouts here and there.
I look for the unique combination of song writing and presence and unique voice. Right now itís an exciting time for us because bands want to be here. We have a veteran staff of 11 people. We are actually truly independent and enjoy an unbelievable relationship with Warner and Atlantic.
But we are independently financed so the decision making process is very direct between the artist and us. But you also get the resources and the reach of a major label through our partners.
How do you go through demos?
I listen to music constantly. I listen to everything. Itís hard to do that during the day because we have a business to run. But Iím loading everything into my iPod and spend all my time during the weekends going through demos. Iím out at shows all the time now and I love it.
Technology makes the A&R process much easier then it used to be. Every band has a video up on YouTube, a website, a Myspace page you can check out. So if you hear something you like and someone sends you an MP3, itís very easy to get more material. Itís so easy to get information on artists so quickly that now the process is more efficient than it was 10 years ago.
As usual Iím totally swamped with demos, happily.
Particularly because these kinds of bands that we signed make other bands think that we are a good label to be on.
Do you pre-select stuff somehow?
Not really. Right now the volume of material is very high for us so if thereís stuff coming from somewhere that Iím not aware of I do have a couple of people who I worked with for a while on the A&R side and we go through stuff together just trying to make sure we are able to really handle the volume. But we are still a small label.
Do you listen to unsolicited material, too?
Yes we do. We have a lot of interns doing that. We try to. That was always something I had trouble with at major labels, because itís very difficult to manage the amount of unsolicited material that you get.
At a major label, if you open the doors to unsolicited material, itís almost impossible from a manpower point of view to handle all of it. But we are trying to. Generally you just go to our site, send us material and we try to listen to everything.
Do you go out to certain places to look for bands?
No, I go where the bands are. Working the records, particularly the successful ones, takes a lot of time to maintain. I just randomly go out. Every night there are multiple things to see at multiple clubs. Itís hard to find really important ones that way. The problem is finding artists as compelling as the ones weíve found already. Maintaining our standard of uncompromising artists.
Is the style of music somehow important for you?
No, we are not a niche label, which obviously presents challenges for every label, but if you look at the range of artists on our rosters and soundtracks that we are doing, we have so many different styles. Weíll sign something when we think itís important. For the moment we are not signing any jazz or country artists but who knows. We are definitely interested in having success in pop, rock and urban.
Do you do development deals?
We do, and at major labels I was a big fan of developing new artists in a particular way and had a lot of success that came from development deals. As an independent label itís very easy to make a very inexpensive record with an artist and see if they can develop that way.
So sometimes rather than doing a development deal weíll do an inexpensive album. We have a studio here so weíre able to control the costs. We can make albums and videos for the fraction of the amount that, me included, most people at major labels spend.
Sometimes you can actually try to develop an artist by making a record and putting them on the road and on tour in a way that it would be about the same price as a development deal on a major label. More often than not when we develop an artist we do it that way now.
How much time do you put in it?
Depends on the band and their level of readiness. We had a band from upstate New York called Quintes. They kind of sound like The Grateful Dead meets The Loving Spoonful. They are all young kids and we did an EP with Levon Helm from The Band.
They did about three weeks of pre-production and we cut it in about five days and spent about another five days in our studio mixing it. Costs almost nothing, costs about what it would cost to do demos. Then we put them out on the road, built an audience for them with an EP and then made a full length for them with Tom Rothrock, who did the James Blunt record.
For us thatís a way to develop an artist rather than just making a demo and throwing a ton of money on the first record. No matter how you structure the deal, for any band itís important to have a platform or a context so when they enter the market place there is something to build on.
Itís not just one of 13,000 other bands that are being thrown at radio without a touring base, without some internet community or without some real identity.
For all our bands either itís the Eagles Of Death Metal having the Queens Of The Stone Age fanbase and a successful independent record or Gnarls Barkley with having all this pre-awareness.
Or Art Brut with tons of press and a lot of critical and commercial success in Europe or a young band like Quintes being able to build a context for themselves with someone that is as important as Levon Helm and they became his backing band, stuff like that. We are doing development long before the record hits the streets. All that stuff doesnít replace real artists and great songs but thereís a certain amount of awareness you want to build so that when your record does get on the radio it has meaning.
Do you set up a whole plan for a band then?
Exactly, unless in the case of Cold War Kids, that before they even had a record deal and a publisher they sold out four nights in New York. They are on every blog. They are in Rolling Stone and Spin. With them we tried to build on it rather than help them create it. The first priority of our development is to take an artist and work on the material and hook them up with the right producers.
Without having the right record there is nothing else to do. If it is an urban record weíd try to really help them develop their point of view. With Kevinís record we developed him well over a year before we even went into recording the songs. But once youíve done that thereís a parallel process about developing a platform for them.
So that when the record is done and it comes out people already know about them so that it doesnít come out in a vacuum. Danger Mouse delivered me a finished record and he does not need me to tell him how to make records. Although we have a great dialog on videos and sequencing and all the traditional A&R stuff. But then at the other end of the spectrum there are some artist that need guidance and development.
How could you work such different artists like Lenny Kravitz and Megadeth?
You know, stars are stars and hit songs are hit songs whether or not itís a soul record or some bone crushing metal record. Itís all about how it makes you feel. Iím not saying now Iím going to get everything. Iím sure Iím going to miss something. But on those particular artists it was very obvious to me despite their genre because great songs are great songs across a wide variety of genres.
My taste is very broad. I like the heavy stuff as much as a soul record. After spending most of my life making things sound a certain way. The thing Iím interested in the most is how records make me feel.
Do you look for songs for your artists, too?
Yes, in the same way. We are always looking for songs. People send us material all the time. I have long relationships with different writers and publishers. Iím always interested in hearing songs. We are building a publishing catalogue at the same time. Part of that process is trying to find new writers. You never know when you are going to need a great song.
How important is it that some word of mouth is attached to an artist or songwriter?
To a songwriter itís just about whether or not I love the song. To an artist, well, Iíd sign an artist that no one has ever heard of. I signed this kid Kevin when he was 18 living in his bedroom in Philly with his mom, and I signed an artist that the whole industry is aware of like Cold War Kids or Gnarls Barkley. It really comes down to the music. If an artist doesnít have any awareness, itís our job to help them create it.
Do you test songs somehow?
No, not at this point. Maybe we will if we become so big that we have to do that. Right now itís a small roster so you rely on your ears and your gut. There are some songs that we look how they work in a particular market either through the Atlantic deal or our own promotional staff .
But we donít do like a focus group test thing. I donít believe in that. As an A&R person you have to have your confidence in your opinion, thatís all you have: Your taste. You just better be right more than you are wrong.
How often do you go back to a producer and say something like, ĎI wanna have this hi-hat changedí Ö
I do that whenever I have to do it. Iím not interested in doing it for the sake of doing it. If the record is right Iím the first who would say itís amazing. If the record isnít right Iím the most outspoken person in terms of getting it right. Itís very different from artist to artist.
Itís our label and we take the brand very seriously. If it doesnít feel right to me musically Iím absolutely going to get in the studio and make a change. Most producers are really happy to have input how to make their records better.
Would an overseas signing have to come to the US or would you try it in their own market?
I would try to find whatever situation is best. I donít have a particular way of working with artists, regardless of where they are from. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing and sometimes the best thing is everything.
And that everything can happen anywhere at this point. Itís so easy to get involved in mixes now without having to get on the plane. The beauty is that we are a small company and independent, to be nimble enough to do any particular case.
Whatís changed now that you have your own label?
Itís very empowering to have your own label and to not have to do things by committee. The process is very direct and fast when it needs to be. My relationship to the artist as chairman of the company makes the process much more A&R driven as opposed to if I would have a boss and a bossís boss.
But itís also fundamentally the same in terms of how I relate to artists and the things that Iím looking for and how I approach the process. The economics have changed a bit and we are trying to establish our own economic model. But even in a rapidly changing business climate peopleís interest in music is in an all time high.
I think most bands can tell right now that we care more about our records than people who work at companies that they donít know. Itís definitely the case that when itís your label and itís your economic investment that you cannot afford to not really care.
Iím not trying to sign a band to impress my boss or try to be cool. We have to be successful to keep the company going. Obviously we are off to a good start but we are very humble about what we yet have to achieve. For me, to sign an artist now means much more than it meant to me in the past. If an artist doesnít succeed at a major label, it's Ok; you still probably have your job.
Itís not the case for us. We care deeply about every aspect and every artist. We have a small roster of about six artists and itís growing rapidly. Having my own label, I learned much more about the music business in six months than in 12 years at majors.
How did you set up your label in the beginning?
My partner Terence Lam, who worked at VH1, EMI Music Publishing and Arista before and myself initially raised money in the private sector and picked a distribution partner while we had a very close relation with Atlantic. We just felt that it was time to do something more independent and more as entrepreneurs.
So we took the big leap from the comfortable corporate world and started the long road of trying to raise money, which is a very difficult thing to do in this business climate. I donít recommend it to anyone.
So did you set up a business plan at first?
Sure yeah, we did actually. One of our third partners is a managing director of a company called ĎAllen & Companyí which is a very well known investment bank. He was so helpful to us in putting our business plan together and finding investors who had had success in music and in film.
What do you think convinced the investors?
Most people bet on people. So I think it was a combination of the people we have at our company, my track record as an A&R person and also the way we had structured our business plan which is a little different from the way major labels are structured.
What is different?
We are a very small company, very veteran staff. Our overhead is very minimal. We are very selective about of which artist we sign. We have the ability to compete financially with a major label but we also give artists the time to develop their independent stuff. We are building a publishing company at the same time we are building our artist roster.
I think the main difference is thanks to our strategic relationship with Atlantic and because we are independently capitalized, we have the ability to either function as an independent label or because of the joint venture with Atlantic we have the ability to blow out a record like Gnarls Barkley utilizing the resources of Atlantic. We exist in the space somewhere between an independent and a major.
How is it to work six artists with 11 people?
Itís fine. Look at major labels with 100 people working 100 artists. Think about the bigger records like Eagles Of Death Metal. We are able to get to 100,000 records without much help from anyone. But a record like Gnarls Barkley is a joint venture where we have a lot of great support of the Atlantic staff. I think we are managing it very well.
You were talking about a new business model with other revenue streams. What is this concept about?
We are really interested in requiring other revenue streams: publishing, merchandising, touring. The music business is really the only business were you spend all the money in promoting artists and you donít participate in any of the other revenue streams. In fact most of the great labels all had publishing interest in the beginning like Atlantic, Apco or Wind Up.
How does a deal at your label looks like?
Every deal is different. There are many of the things that are traditional, common to the way most people do. But with some of our deals we are happy to try new things.
Do you provide some sort of a marketing commitment to the artist?
Yeah, sometimes we do. But honestly itís very different for every artist. I canít get into the specific deals. The deal making process at our place is very direct so we are able to make decisions very customised to what an artist is looking for. But we feel like we bring a lot to the table investment-wise, our collective experience and the success that we are having right now and also that we are able to compete financially.
We are looking to have deals that give us more acuity. I think there is an obvious problem with the record business that everybody is depending on the most fragile revenue streams with its sales. So we are trying to change that.
Did it ever happen that you turned an artist down because you didnít get along with the management?
No. I donít think so, not if I wanted to sign the artist. I mean there are deals that we wonít do at this company with bands that we want to sign. If the deal doesnít make sense, we have a business to run.
We will let an artist go to another label rather then do a deal that we donít feel makes economic sense. We feel like it is a great situation we offer artists. But having said that, if there is an artist we really want to sign, generally we are trying to make it work.
What was the greatest moment in your career?
I have to say that this is the most exciting phase of my career. Thereís nothing like having such a unique record like ĎCrazyí, such a unique artist and itís received in such a unique way.
Actually now, owning the company and not just working for somebody else is the most exciting time. There is so much to learn. Although I have to say that each time you sign an artist, whether or not you are on a major label or it's your own company itís really a thrill when it becomes a big hit record.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
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