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HitQuarters' World Top 10 A&Rs of 2006 Speak! - Jan 8, 2007

"Stay Hungry!" HitQuarters' World Top 10 A&Rs Best Advice and Tips!

picture We at HitQuarters decided to help you open 2007 with a collection of the best advice our winners of 2006 World Top 100 A&R Chart have to give to unsigned artists and upcoming talent!

Read what the industry's finest say about breaking it in the business, promoting yourself, and finding the most fruitful ways to work with labels.

No.1 - Linda Perry

A&R at Custard Records USA for James Blunt (Top 10 US, No.1 UK).

What advice would you give to unsigned acts building their careers?

You canít wait for something to happen. You have to make things happen. A lot of bands wait around and put so much on getting a record deal. If you donít care about all that stuff and all you do is focus on making good music, going out and playing shows and having a good time doing it, you will be amazed how many people will start caring!

Thereís something about the energy that is put out there. But I would encourage everybody to be as quirky as he or she wants to be. If you start writing songs thinking about what a hit is, you might as well just end your career right now.

Because those horrible songs that youíre writing to become hits will ruin your career. Be who you are, be risky, and donít give a fuck, because there are no rules in the music business.

For some reason record labels run around and act like there is this golden rule, but there is none. Itís a free-for-all. So go for it. If you have an idea just do it. What makes brilliant music are people who donít give a fuck about what other people are going to think.

If the industry people around a band are pretending to know what is best for the band, then it's very important for the band to go, "You know what? You arenít the right partner for us then. Because this is what weíre going to do, we have a great feeling about it. Weíre good at it, so weíre going to have success with or without you. Either you can jump on board with us and do it our way or forget about it.Ē

And thenÖ you know what happens? They will go: ďWell, theyíre pretty confident! OK, letís take a shot.Ē People will take a risk on confidence. But when they go: ďYou guys should be like thisĒ and the band obeysÖ Well, then you just set it up for them to take advantage of you the whole time. When you try to make a decision, theyíre not going to listen to you. Thatís the relationship that will have been established.

So you have to say: ďFuck you, weíre not going to sign this deal. Weíre better than that.Ē When you go, ďOh, weíll never get offered another deal, we need to take this opportunityÖď Right there is what screws you: fear. Having no faith. You know what, if these guys showed up, somebody else will show up, too. Fear is the mother of them all.

What mistakes are artists making over and over that should be thought about more?

I think mistakes are made drastically on contracts. A lot of bands get screwed because they are starving and donít have any money and life is floating by, and they have this dream of being rock stars. So when a big fancy label comes and starts waving this big contract around and it seems as if theyíre offering a lot of money, a lot of bands go just for the money up front.

I say take less money, because you have to pay it back at the end of the day. Everybody needs to remember that if they make a million dollar video and take a $750.000 contract or take a year to produce the record; they have to pay that money back! Every little dime that is spent is coming out of your pocket. The label is not paying for anything. They are just fronting you the money.

When you make the right record and everything fails, the label doesnít care. They will get it from you somehow. When you break even, and donít make any money, then you have to remember that itís because of the choices you made to make that $600,000 record. If youíre great and make great songs, then it doesnít cost that much money to make a record. People donít need to make those kinds of records!

Bands go off thinking theyíve got the record deal of their lives. Then thatís exactly what happens - that record deal takes over your life! Youíre stuck on that label for 6 records, 10 years, sweating, trying to pay back every dime and working really hard unless you get very successful. In order to be very successful the band has to be in charge.

I work with a lot of people that come to me and say: ďI hated my last record. The label told me I should do thisÖĒ And now they have to rebuild their credibility, without even having sold a lot of records. You lose a lot of credibility on your first records when you start doing doing what the label tells you to do.

That ruins bands. Donít listen to what the labels think, because they donít know. They just make you sound like Lindsay Lohan or whatever the hip boy-rock band is that day.

No.1 - Max Lousada

Head of A&R at Atlantic UK for The Darkness (Top 10 UK), Goldie Lookin Chain (Top 10 UK) and Funeral for a Friend (Top 20 UK).

At what stage is it appropriate to present a new band to a major label?

Thatís a good question. These days, I think the public wants to feel that they have discovered and broken a band. If bands are too marketed and too force-fed, audiences reject them. Bands and artists need to be clear about who they are for me to believe in them. If their sound or their songwriting skills arenít up to par yet, then weíre probably not the company for them.

What should aspiring artists learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building successful careers in the music business?
Songwriting, songwriting, songwriting, and also playing live.

Do you build strategies to raise the publicís and the mediaís awareness of your artists?

Yes, but every act is different and so every strategy has to be tailor-made. Using the same strategy for different acts doesnít work, because they are usually at different stages in their careers. The most important thing is to build confidence and loyalty within their fan base, confidence at retail, and confidence in the media.

What are your major means of breaking new artists?

Live performances, radio and word-of-mouth.

No.2 - Ron Fair

President at A&M Records USA, A&R for Keyshia Cole (Top 10 US) and Pussycat Dolls (Top 10 US/UK).

How do you help artists realize their vision?

If I had a viewpoint of my own as a record maker I would be an artist. But Iím a behind-the-scenes person. My goal is to be as transparent as possible. Leave no footprint on the music. Just try and guide singers and songwriters to do their very best and capture it.

How should aspiring artists present themselves?

Thereís no set way to penetrate this business. This is why itís such an exciting frontier as an industry. Itís the last place where you can come with nothing in your jeans and a year later be a star. Every year thereís another story, like a Norah Jones or a Josh Groban or a James Blunt that just defies everything and goes against every set rule.

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?

It comes down to the people. All the labels that are out there are fine organizations. They all do the same thing. The business model is the same. Whatís going to be different from label to label are the individuals that are there. Whether there are people that understand the musical vision or feel the enthusiasm. Whether itís a stable situation.

No.3 - Josh Deutsch

A&R at Downtown Records USA for Gnarls Barkley (No.1 UK).

Did you give Gnarls Barkleyís ĎCrazyí 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 be mysterious, a little snippet saying ĎGnarls Barkley is crazyí.

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.

No.5 - Simon Cowell

A&R at Syco Music UK for Il Divo (No.1 US/UK), Shayne Ward (No.1 UK), Journey South (No.1 UK).

How do you find new talent?

Itís a combination, sometimes we put together stuff ourselves and sometimes weíre offered projects by managers, we know.

There was a time when I would listen to most stuff sent in to us. And to be honest with you, 99 times out of a 100, itís rubbish. This job nowadays, A&R, means you have to be much more proactive in what youíre doing; you are the person who has to instigate your next artist. You canít just wait for someone to walk in who is amazing. Itís too competitive now. You have to be the creator.

Timing is important. You can look at the current state of the market and see where thereís a potential gap. Then you do something a year in advance. You pay someone to put together an artist specifically for your requirement.

What would your advice be for an unsigned act on how to approach the music business?

I think one thing, which is true in the music business around the world is; when something is good thereís a word of mouth attached to it. There was a buzz around the Spice Girls, months before they signed with Virgin. People were aware that something was coming, because one person tells another who tells another.

I think if you got it right, I truly believe there will be a natural word of mouth out. All the people who complain and are not able to get record deals are normally not very good. Something good will be picked up within seconds in this business. Whether by a lawyer, a manager, a music publisher or an A&R, it will happen.

No.6 - Stephen Ferrera

VP A&R at J Records USA for Carrie Underwood (Top 10 US) and Clay Aiken (No.1 US).

How difficult is it to break an artist these days?

The market is crowded. There are fewer labels. The expectations are higher. Itís all about trying to find new and interesting ways to get that music out there for people to hear it. The Internet is a wonderful tool.

Different programs that present new music are able to get people to hear the music at a very early stage and help build up the grassroots sensibility of an artist. As it gets rolled out, hopefully it keeps building and building.

The business has changed. You canít put a record out and expect that something is just going to happen. You need to have different drivers that are going to help you get it out there. Touring is one. Radio and television is another, and the internet is a fantastic driver.

How should aspiring artists think outside the box of traditional approaches?

I donít think that the artist should worry so much about that. They should be focusing on writing the best songs that they can, raising their bar as high as possible, and staying true to themselves as artists.

If theyíre achieving that, than the record company can help take it to the next level.

No.8 - Robert Stevenson

VP of A&R at Island/Def Jam for Fall Out Boy (Top 10 US), The Killers (Top 10 US, No.1 UK).

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 isnít going to be able to handle it.

If an artist makes a splash in their home area, record labels will find out about it. Itís inevitable. If they focus on their home area and they just keep playing there and focus on that, record labels will find out. Itíll snowballing. But if they try to spread themselves too thin in too big of an area, they wouldnít be able to handle it.

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 thereís loyalty.

I would look for people that understand my vision. Because thatís the one thing that is different about each record label - who gets the artist and what the artist wants to do, and who doesnít.

No.9 - Peter Edge

Executive Vice-President of A&R at J Records USA for Jamie Foxx (Top 10 US/UK).

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, itís 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, thereís no rule. It could be a very simple demo tape by somebody extraordinary, or it could be somebody whoís 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 talentóthatís it. I donít have a list of requisites because it could be anything. If you think of the great artists in history, some of them donít fit into a box. Itís their artistic vision and who they are that makes them great, and they often differ from the norm.

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.

No.11 - Mike Batt

A&R at Dramatico Entertainment UK for Katie Melua (No.1 UK).

Being both an artist and a businessman involves different skills; in what way do these roles benefit from each other?

I think youíre never only either an artist or a businessman; nor are you both and only both. You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit, which comes along with being adventurous. If youíre adventurous creatively, combined with being adventurous in a business sense, to me that is where you can create something special.

Being a good businessman means youíre able to do a good deal, to screw a load of money out of a record company, which Iíve been quite good at doing over the years, I have to admit.

Or youíre able to do a great publishing deal, because you know what the parameters of a publishing deal are, and the best terms you can get. But the entrepreneurial side of it is separate; itís somewhere between the artist and the businessman, and thatís the pea, the missing link you sometimes find in people.

Have you ever experienced any tension between being commercial and creative?

Not exactly tension. Iíve done things more out of feeling, or out of fun, rather than anything else. And some might have turned out to be mistakes, but Iíve never cared too much about image when Iíve been doing commercials, or something for children, which Iíve enjoyed enormously. Some less tolerant people in the music business might view that as being slightly unwise, but I donít regret any of it myself.

No.13 - Mark Pitts

A&R at Jive Records USA for Chris Brown (Top 10 US), Ciara (No.1 US).

So what makes a good artist?

Itís about talent, but they have to have something in their personality that pulls me in too. It always helps if they can dance and if they are young. Iím looking for younger acts. What I look for is: do they have a high in their personality? Do they like to roam up, even if they sit down? Itís their whole attitude, their swagger, their whole movement. A little cocky confidence. Itís a vibe you canít really explain.

What kind of advice would you give unsigned acts at the independent level?

Stay true to yourself. Donít make music for anybody else. What I learned is that the labels donít make stars Ė you walk into the office and are a star or not. You should know your direction and know who you are.

How helpful is when artists already have a little local fan base?

It always helps if they have a local fan base, especially with rap music because itís hard to make rap nowadays.

If Iím a producer and I think I have a really hot record, what would be the best way to get in touch with you?

Call me in my office. It starts there. Or I get emails, too. People get discouraged when they call up and I donít get right back to them. Theyíre hungry. During a day a lot of people may call, but they shouldnít get discouraged. Itís a fast business, and there are a lot of calls that go on during the day. Donít get upset if you call and I donít get right back, stay hungry.