Interview with MICHAEL BLUMSTEIN, manager of T-Pain (US No.1) and Jim Jonsin (US No.1) - May 11, 2009
“First get hot where you’re from. Make sure you have your hood, your town, and then you can expand from there. You got to crawl before you walk, walk before you run.”
Flamboyant R&B megastar and grammy award winner T-Pain may bill himself as the ‘ringleader of the game’, kitting himself out in garish circus regalia, and even turning up to the 2008 MTV awards ceremony on the back of an elephant, but behind the scenes there must be someone keeping the crazy show on the road - that responsibility lies with his manager Michael Blumstein.
HitQuarters talks to the Miami-native about his relationship with his superstar client, from first discovering in car showroom ready blow his first pay cheque on a flash car to balancing a tight tour schedule with dentist visits. He also talks about his other hugely successful charge, the grammy winning producer Jim Jonsin (US No.1), his strategy for building a successful career and his vision of a digital only future.
How did you first get involved in artist management?
I started out in the talent agency business actually, about eleven years ago. And I did that for a couple of years and then worked with Slum Village and Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch. And Mos Def is really the one that took me under his wing and taught me a lot of stuff about management and everything like that. I worked real close with his mother with him.
I lived in New York a little bit with Mos when I worked with him, but I’m in Fort Lauderdale, the Miami area, now - that’s where I was born and grew up, and started with the talent agency.
And then I had a good friend who said he’s got his sister’s boyfriend at that time make some good music and I told him to send it to me when I was in New York. And he sent it and I liked it. And then from there I kind of broke away from Mos little by little. And we placed Pitbull’s record called ‘Dammit Man’. And then from there we placed a record called ‘Lets Go’ with Trick Daddy.
And from there I branched out and discovered a little producer by the name of Jim Jonsin - the rest is history.
What was it that attracted into working with Jim Jonsin?
Just a good dude, good music, good work ethic, and hit records - the same things as with Pain.
T-Pain Management is Rocco Valdes, Michael Blumstein, and David Abram. How did you meet and how do you divide up your tasks?
I’ve known Dave since I was in sixth grade. From the talent agency to everything - he’s been a part of it. He handles mostly the business side of everything. So, when he’s dealing with the accountants and lawyers and the money and everything like that, I’m out there dealing with the music and dealing with the artist on the day-to-day.
I met Rocco right when I started Chase, and I was working at Slip-N-Slide Records - that was the studio where we had Jim’s studio. And just, you know, seeing him in the studio and working with him, he’s just a good musical person. He’s an A&R type of a person. We needed someone around to focus strictly on the music and creativity and looking for new talent and looking for beats and looking for lyrics and songs and so on and so forth - so we brought him in
It was actually me and Rocco who discovered T-Pain, and who went out and found him, and got him.
So how did that T-Pain discovery happen exactly?
I was in a studio with Rocco. We were in Slip-N-Slide studios in Miami and we heard ‘I’m Sprung’ on a mixtape before it hit radio or anything like that and went to find him, listen to the rest of his music, and talk to him.
It’s kind of a crazy story of when we found him. We met him at the Scion dealership the day after he signed with Akon in 2004. He had 15 to 20 grand to his name from getting the deal and was shopping to buy a $30,000 car. So we basically broke it to him, ”It doesn’t really make too much sense right now to spend all your money.” He had no credit or anything, so you’re going to have to buy it out right.
It was an awkward position to be in, but we had to be honest with him if we were going to be his manager. And we just hit it off real well. I wanted to go see him perform. He had a show two days later in Fort Myers. We drove to Fort Myers, saw a show, and sat down at McDonald’s the next day and signed him to management.
Rocco has said that the most successful managers have to be A&Rs first – as you helped discover T-Pain, are you in agreement with that?
Yeah, music comes first. You got to get the music first, get the talent first. Once you have the songs, then from there you can go ahead and market and penetrate a market and move it forward from there. But I have that in my office, you know, in-house marketing, online. We have pretty much someone for every department that a record label has.
What are your responsibilities on tour with T-Pain?
Oh, everything. I mean I have a world manager in place and a production manager in place, and Pain has a personal assistant in place, but at the end of the day, it all still falls on myself and my management company.
Last Friday you had to manage some transport problems on tour – what happened there?
We had our show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then we had to get to Chicago. We had a day off but Pain had to stop at the dental office in San Antonio to have a routine check-up because of his golf-cart accident, which I’m sure you’ve heard about. And then we just hit traffic. And we had to stop in Kansas City to get on a flight to make it to the show in Chicago. If not, he would have missed it.
Who’s currently in your roster besides T-Pain and producer Jim Jonsin?
Ahmad Belvin. He’s an artist that we’ve been developing for about two years now. We just got a record deal with J Records. We have other producers in the business with the publishing entity that we have right now. We have ALLSTAR, he’s a producer, Catalyst, he’s a producer. We have Sophia Fresh, who is a girl group, like a TLC. They’re signed to Nappy Boy/Atlantic Records and we manage them too.
How do you choose your projects?
Talent, just plain talent. The one thing we strive on is that we really don’t deal with fabricated type of stuff. We deal with producers, singer/songwriters - just talented people.
How would you define your “clients as partners” philosophy?
I’m just fortunate that the artists that I’ve surrounded myself with have always just been good people - good partners, good understanding of business.
One thing I’ve always strived on when working with a client, with an artist, producer or a writer, is a hands-on, open book policy - letting them understand the business that I’m doing and how I’m making the decisions and handling their paperwork and dealing with their lawyers and accountants and business managers and things like that. So they understand, nothing is hidden from them.
For example, besides the musical genius side of him, T-Pain is a very intelligent person. And there’s things that he weighs in on now by way of business decisions that actually help me out. Two heads are better than one sometimes.
How do you go about opening up new international music markets?
Touring is the best way to open up international markets in music. Internationally it’s a lot different than here in the States. You know, these people want to see you, talk to you, go on the radio… It’s kind of like starting all over, but a little bit harder because you’re in someone else’s territory.
Can you give an example of your strategies in achieving this?
The best thing is to first get hot where you’re from. You got to crawl before you walk, walk before you run. So, if you’re from Miami, you want to penetrate that market first and make sure you have at least your city, your hood, your town, then your state, and then you can expand from there.
How focused are you on helping build up T-Pain’s digital label Nappy Boy Entertainment?
Very focused - that’s the future.
Nappy Boy took a bold decision in becoming a solely digital label, with no physical releases. What was the reason for this forward-thinking decision and has it proved to be a good one?
I just see that that’s where the market’s going. First it was an albums game – now it’s becoming a singles game. And right now, you see every year the market goes 5 to 10% more digital than physical. You see the physical going down and you see the digital going up. And as we’re always trying to be on the cutting edge and innovative with things that we do, and no one else has took the right foot forward to do it, we went all digital.
We might lose a little by not putting out a physical product now, but we will gain more in the future by being that cutting edge leading company.
So you think physical music – CDs etc – will die out completely in the near future?
Yeah. Music is going to become free. It pretty much is now.
Do you yourself only listen to ‘digital’ music now?
To be honest, I would say 90%. I still go out and buy what I respect and like as a fan. I’ll buy their physical product.
How many albums does T-Pain still have to fulfil for Jive?
He has two more.
Once he fulfils the contract, will he only release records through Nappy Boy?
Not sure. It depends where the market is.
Presumably by then there'll be no physical stores outside of larger chains?
And those are closing too [laughs].
T-Pain is commonly associated with the Auto-Tune – he’s both criticised for relying on it and championed for pioneering its use – do you think it has helped or hindered his career?
It can only help - that’s the one unique thing about him. That is why I signed him. What drew me to him was how different it was and how unique it was. That’s the problem with up and coming artists today - they just sound like everyone else. You got to figure out how to be different, step outside the box and be your own.
But now it doesn’t sound so different because its use has become widespread. Therefore do you think it is something he will now drop and move onto something fresh, or will he carry on using it throughout his career?
I don’t think he will ever stop using it.
What are your hopes for T-Pain’s career?
For him to keep going. You know, it’s hard to see where it’s going to go. I know it’s going to go to the top. He’s a mega-talented person. He’s a genius at what he does - how he records and how he makes beats and records other people, and writes songs for Britney Spears and so on and so forth. You know, he can go into the booth and make himself sound like Britney if he wanted.
You revere him as a mega talent, but with major talents aren’t there difficulties in keeping an ego in check?
He’s a very grounded person. It’s not like I can say it’s more difficult because there’s an ego in the way and there’s more money in the way and thirty more cars in the way, you know, he still walks and talks like the day I met him at the car sales. There’s nothing different about him other than he has seven houses and forty-two cars and yadi yadi yada, you know, but he’s still the same person, he’s still the same Faheem I met the day I met him five years ago.
There’s been rumours about an official collaboration between T-Pain and Lil’ Wayne - is that something that we’ll hear this year?
Of course! The T-Wayne album should be coming out November/December, and that’s him and Lil’ Wayne’s album together.
When you are looking for new talent, what do new artists have to have ready in order for you to start working with them?
It’s different. It depends on the situation and the type of artist it is. I mean, the more natural thing is to hear that someone is already hot in their city and they’ve done all the groundwork. My theory with management is that the artist has to work harder than the manager.
Should young artists look for management that they respect or wait for a manager to spot them?
I’d say, wait for a manager to spot them.
How can they distinct themselves nowadays and remain original in the R&B urban market?
You just got to stay current. Don’t go too far left. Don’t lose your sound that got you to the point that you’re at, but you obviously still have to evolve
What does unsolicited material need to possess in order to grab your interest?
Hit records. I mean, just good music.
You’ll hear that within 30 seconds?
No. Anyone who says that is lying [laughs].
So if you find something interesting you let it grow on you for some while?
Where and how do you find new exciting artists to manage?
Everywhere. The Internet. Ahmad we found off on MySpace. Rocco just searches MySpace at the artist section.
What’s your view on artist development?
The labels don’t do it. You got to do it yourself. I mean, you got to be a diamond in the rough and just be very talented to have someone like myself from my company take you under the wing and develop you ourselves because the labels just don’t do it, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the manpower. There’s very few good A&Rs in the whole industry right now.
What would you like to see change in today’s rap and R&B scene?
I kind of like where the music is going. I like the positive messages and stuff that the people are doing. I like the more up-tempo music that is going on now.
Can you mention some favourite records that are out there right now?
My favourite record right now is the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Boom Boom Pow’.
What’s in store for Chase entertainment in the near future?
Right now just focusing on the Nappy Boy labels - Nappy Boy Digital and Nappy Boy Entertainment - and on Amber, which is T-Pain’s Cell Phone Accessories company that we’re rolling out right now.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Modest Mouse, Shins and Fleet Foxes producer Phil Ek
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