Interview with AARON BAY-SCHUCK, A&R at Atlantic for Bruno Mars, B.o.B, Travie McCoy, Flo Rida - Dec 13, 2010
“Just The Way You Are had a massive chorus, an instantly memorable melody and lyric, and was a natural transition from the B.o.B and Travie McCoy songs. It had everything we could want in a first single for Bruno”
Three of 2010’s most infectious crossover pop hits - B.o.B’s ‘Nothin’ On You’, Travie McCoy’s ‘Billionaire’ and Bruno Mars’ ‘Just the Way You Are’ – not only share a common thread in Mars, the artist, songwriter, producer himself, but in the A&R that signed and developed the Hawaiian wunderkind, Aaron Bay-Schuck. After having taken a career defining turn A&Ring Flo Rida’s 2009 smash ‘Right Round’, the Atlantic executive has helped facilitate and fashion an extraordinary run of genre-bending singles culminating in the dramatic break out of Bruno Mars.
In this exclusive interview with HitQuarters, Bay-Schuck explains how he signed, developed and broke Mars, talks about the contribution of the A&R in the studio, and details the type of artists he is looking for next.
How did you first get into the music industry and what was your first big break as an A&R?
I got into the music business when I finished college in 2003. Major labels were beginning to downsize and it was difficult to find a full-time position so I interned and joined a temp agency to get my foot in the door. I landed a temp gig at Interscope Records, which I turned into a full-time assistant position working for Martin Kierszenbaum (HQ interview). After a year I left for an A&R assistant position working for Mike Caren (interview) at Atlantic Records. In 2006 I was promoted to my first real A&R position. I was really fortunate to work for two incredibly successful and knowledgeable record executives so early in my career.
The first hit I had as an A&R was Plies feat. T-Pain ‘Shawty’ but I consider Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ as the real turning point in my A&R career.
Were there particular people that had a significant influence on the direction you took?
For me the biggest influence was going to Columbia University in New York. It opened my eyes to urban music beyond what was playing on the radio - specifically hip-hop – and also the process of making records. During my senior year of college I met Diane Mayer - then vice president of video promotion at Capitol Records. She told me a little bit more of what she did and how the record labels operate and the next day I applied for an internship at Interscope in New York. It was not until I actually started working at a record label full-time that I discovered my passion for A&R.
What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?
I usually get in the office early. I spend a lot of time doing meetings and going through emails, listening to records - hundreds of tracks, hooks and songs get submitted every week and I have to go through them. I hit the phones all day making sure I stay connected with producers and songwriters.
My day at the studio usually begins in the afternoon and often goes into the early morning hours. I am a very hands-on A&R so I spend most of my time in the studio working closely with songwriters, producers, and artists. I crave being part of the creative process.
The search for great music and new talent never stops. Everywhere I go I'm always going through emails, searching for new music online or making calls. I also trust in my relationships with songwriters, producers, managers, lawyers etc. to put me on to new and emerging talent. My eyes and ears are always open no matter what I'm doing.
You say you crave being part of the creative process, so what would you say your input is in the songwriting process?
It varies, sometimes it's just identifying an instrumental that I think is a hit, and if we’re lucky we get with a songwriter that knocks it out of the park. Other times we are very involved in the melody, lyric, and arrangement of the songs.
You're not getting a hit just by sitting in the office and making some phone calls and praying a smash pops up in your email. It really takes a lot of collaboration with producers, songwriters and the artist to make sure that the song is as good as possible.
Do you think it's a good working combination to be in the studio with the producer, the artist and songwriter? There isn’t any clash of opinions?
You do have to deal with a lot of opinions and personalities. I'm very careful not to overstep my boundaries - at the end of the day I know I'm not the producer and I'm not the songwriter, but I have had the experience of coming in and taking records to a whole other level. As long as I'm respectful with everybody's opinions in there I think it's best that it's a collaborative process.
How exactly does it work then in the studio?
I like to go in and start the session off by going through priority tracks and talking about the direction of the song or artist we are working on. I love to bring concepts to the table to kick off the creative process so that the writer is not shooting in the dark when writing for an artist that isn't present. I think this really increases the chances of getting what I or the artist needs out of a session; it gives the songwriter or producer as much of a leg up as possible so nobody’s time is wasted.
I also like to give the creative people a chance to work without me in the room. I don't think it's effective to be sitting there the entire time. You have to let people flush out their ideas before you start critiquing them otherwise it sucks the fun out of the process.
How many acts are you working on in the moment?
This year alone I A&Red or co-A&Red six albums, which in my four years was by far the most I’ve had to deal with – it was quite a workload. Bruno Mars, Travie McCoy, B.o.B, Tank, Toni Braxton, and Flo Rida all came out this year.
The A&R department at Atlantic is also extremely collaborative. I am always looking for tracks, hooks, and songs for artists that are not necessarily my own and I get the same effort from my peers.
It is important though to never spread yourself too thin as an A&R. I could easily work day and night on just one act so I never want to overload myself otherwise things can fall to the side that shouldn’t. That’s one reason we do not sign too many acts; we want to make sure that every act we work with is incredibly special.
Are these artists you initially signed?
Bruno Mars was my big signing this year and was the first artist I signed on my own. The rest of the artists mentioned were ‘inherited’, so to speak.
How does a co-A&R partnership work?
It's mainly about having two sets of eyes and ears out on the street looking for the best records for the artist. We will sit down every week and go over the songs and hooks that each of us have found and talk about the best ones and ways to improve them. We may split up the list of producers and songwriters that we speak to so that there are not too many people calling one person. Efficiency is key. We don't expect that our tastes will be aligned all the time but sometimes that's the best thing because you actually look at things from all angles.
What artists are you looking to sign?
It varies. But I think through the Bruno Mars success a few things are clear to me. First, my personal taste plays a big roll in what I want to sign. Early in my career I was so eager to say I had ‘signed’ something that I brought in a few acts that I thought fit an open lane at the label, but were not necessarily acts I would fall on the sword for. A&R can be an unforgiving and thankless job so you have to love the artist you’re working with to get the most out of it.
Second, I want to sign artists that have a strong identity and really understand what kind of artist they want to be. I am not saying they should have all the answers, but it’s my job to cultivate and nurture their vision, not necessarily create or force them into a certain direction.
Third, it is icing on the cake if the artist is also a talented producer and songwriter in their own right. It’s not a requirement but it certainly adds a very special quality to the record making process when the artist can deliver on his/her own.
Last, I want artists that are opinionated but not close-minded. I am not always right but neither is the artist so it’s necessary to find an artist that listens and is willing to try new things.
When you look at your roster it has gone from the urban hip-hop thing to a very pop thing, is that where you want to take things?
I didn't plan for my taste to become more and more pop. I started in the urban department because I wanted to make rap and R&B records, but as time went on my ears changed a little bit. I became more inspired by making records that leaned a bit more crossover and pop. But that certainly doesn't mean that I have turned a blind eye to the rap/R&B records that I was making when I first started.
I think there is a lot of genre bending going on right now so I try to bring my crossover sensibility to all the rap and R&B projects I still A&R. Artists and songs don’t have to fit in a box anymore.
With regards to Bruno Mars, can you explain how the signing process worked and what exactly you did before the release?
It was a long process. His songwriting partner Philip Lawrence first introduced me to him in 2006. The first time Bruno played the guitar and sang a couple of the songs he had written for himself I was blown away. I wanted to sign him immediately but it took a few years to get Atlantic excited about him. I used him as a songwriter and producer for all of those years but as an artist it took some time to get everyone to see our vision.
In the summer of 2009 I booked him and The Smeezingtons (Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine) for a week of writing sessions for Lupe Fiasco, B.o.B and Travie McCoy. We walked out of there with ‘Nothin’ On You’ and ‘Billionaire’. We were already in the process of signing him but that definitely sweetened the deal [laughs].
Did you see him as a solo artist right away when you first met him?
Yes. Bruno made it clear from the beginning that being an artist was always his biggest goal, but that he was also willing to write and produce and do anything that it took to be recognised as an artist.
I wanted to sign him instantly but it was a long-term process. He had to spend a lot of time improving his songwriting and trying to find out exactly who he wanted to be as an artist.
If Atlantic had let me sign him four years ago who knows if the outcome would have been the same. He always had the talent but he definitely went through some self-discovery over the past few years that contributed in a big way to his recent success.
Can you explain in a bit more detail what involved because I think a lot of artists have the same problem?
I just had him writing, writing, writing … it just never stopped. Phil and Bruno were willing to write for anything, from Flo Rida to Plies to Trey Songz. He couldn’t help but improve as a songwriter and a producer. The more you write, the more you find out what works for you and what works for other artists. We were always exchanging tracks and ideas. It was a monthly process that never stopped and still hasn’t even after he was signed. Bruno is always creating.
Was there a plan behind how you wanted to break him?
Yes. We wanted to set him up with some big feature looks to create some major visibility for him before dropping a solo single. The timing was perfect with B.o.B’s ‘Nothin’ On You’ and Travie McCoy’s ‘Billionaire’. These two songs served a great dual purpose because we also wanted the public to know from the outset that there was more to Bruno than just the voice. He was also producing and writing these hits – an extremely rare quality amongst many of today’s top artists.
While Bruno is more than just a pop artist, we couldn’t deny that Top 40 was going to be the main radio format for his songs. There is nothing more difficult than breaking an artist at pop radio right from the start so we were careful to make sure he had some big looks at urban, crossover, and rhythm formats to help solidify a real fan base.
The final piece of the puzzle was not neglecting artist development. Bruno’s biggest passion is performing and it’s where he feels most at home. We knew hitting the road and touring underneath these big Top 40 hits was going to be crucial to breaking Bruno as a ‘real’ artist. It gave fans a chance to see that there was a real star here and it was not just about the songs they were hearing on the radio.
How did the song ‘Nothin’ On You’ come together?
Bruno and Phil are always humming great original melodies even when they are not trying to write a song, so one of my biggest jobs as their A&R is to identify the best of these melodies to put words to. When I got that week with the guys to work on B.o.B and Travie McCoy, it was my chance to have them flush out a couple ideas they had been singing for sometime.
We started with that inspiration and they took it took a whole other level. I remember that particular week started slowly so I let them be for a couple days to let them find their groove. When I came back later in the week they played me scratch chorus-only demos of ‘Nothin’ On You’ and ‘Billionaire’. It was just Bruno singing on a guitar track but I could tell instantly that these were going to be career defining songs. It was an A&R’s dream come true.
How long did it take to get from the idea to the finished song?
Bruno and The Smeezingtons finished the production for ‘Nothin’ On You’ quickly. They knew exactly where they wanted to take it. The overall process took a few months though. Bruno and B.o.B spent a nice amount of time together working on the full song to get it perfect and we played with a few different arrangements.
How many songs did you record before you chose which one to go for Bruno’s debut single and what made you go for it?
We had about half of the album done when ‘Just the Way You Are’ was created but as soon as Bruno finished it we knew we had the first single. I had never felt the way I did when I first heard that song. I just knew. It was so special. It had everything we could want in a first single for Bruno.
The track had a bit of left of centre, hip cool organic hip-hop drum break, a vibe that Bruno loved and had touched on with ‘Nothin’ On You’. It didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. It was a song written for females but one that every guy who ever had a girlfriend could relate to. It had a massive chorus, an instantly memorable melody and lyric - it just really stuck out compared to all the records on the album and was a natural transition from the B.o.B and Travie McCoy songs.
It was also a multi-format song. What makes him so special is that he can live on a lot of different radio formats. You don't want to let radio dictate who you want to be as an artist but it's a very important thing to consider. Bruno is an act that was breaking on pop radio and it's very hard to be considered a genuine and real artist when people are first hearing your song on Top 40 radio when they don't know anything about you. Sometimes it is good to be on the other radio formats before because they have a bit more loyalty to the artists they are breaking and really secure a fan base before crossing over to pop radio.
Bruno is a special artist because he is such an incredible live performer so it's been a blessing to have these big pop records but at the same time he's touring organically underneath all of them to really build that fan base and really being considered and seen as legitimate artist - that he's not just a guy that is featured on a couple of big songs. There’s some real depth to him.
What kind of touring did he do before he was breaking with the big songs? What was his audience like?
He only played local clubs in LA and it was always a mixed audience. Now he is headlining tours and playing in arenas for radio shows. As you would expect the audience is so far predominantly female but you see people of all ages – 8 to 80.
When the song ‘Just the Way You Are’ was finished what were the next steps?
Once we knew we had the first single, we first took a breath [laughs]. One of the first things I learned about breaking an artist is that you first have to break him within your own building. You need to make sure the people that are going to be working this project really understand who the artist is and what the direction is. I wanted them to be as passionate about Bruno as I was. So I’d say the real first step was playing this song for everyone in the Atlantic building, and they in turn, played it for all the important radio, television, media outlets etc. to wet people’s appetite and create a buzz and anticipation about Bruno as a solo artist.
We firmed up a release date immediately and aggressively started to plan Bruno’s rollout from marketing to promotion to publicity to video. Once we had the plans in place and knew we had adequate time to finish the album, we went right to radio with the song.
If you have a new artist coming in, how do you find the right producer or the right people for them to work with?
It depends on the project. I don’t just jump to put the artist in with the hottest producer and songwriter. I try to put the artist with creative people that will bring the best out of the artist. Creative people that understand the artist’s comfort zone but also encourage and push them to take risks. With Flo Rida for instance, who is an urban and pop artist, we try to find great rap lyric songwriters and put them with writers that are great with melodies.
Has it happened whereby you puzzle together a song, take a chorus from here and verse from another song?
Yes, that happens all the time. I may get a song submission where I love the lyric or melody of only one line and readdress it with another track. Or I may love a concept but not the track or song so we try flushing it out a different way. We may bring in additional songwriting or production collaborators to bring a fresh perspective. It’s always done, of course, with the original writers participation and permission. ‘Just the Way You Are’ started this way.
How do you find new producers and writers? Especially in this day and age where everyone can submit a song with a mouse click ...
I meet songwriters and producers in all kinds of different ways - sometimes it's emails; sometimes it's managers or lawyers that put me onto somebody. I make sure my relationships with the publishers are great so that they can introduce me to new talent.
Sometimes the artist brings in stuff - they are in their hometown and meet someone that is talented and then tell me about it. A recording studio can be a very social place too. I meet a lot of new talented people just by being in the studio and roaming the hallways and popping into other sessions.
Do you have a special way of going through the submitted music?
I'm very email based. I accept mp3s - I a get a ton of them every week. Sometimes I put my favourite beats of the week or the month on a CD or iPod and listen to them for weeks – just straight instrumentals. If I am not tired of it after a few weeks, that’s a major indication that it’s something with hit potential. If I get tired of a hook quickly, that’s usually an indicator it may not be too special.
Flo Rida’s ‘Right Round’ actually came about that way. I had a shuffle beat produced by DJ Frank E in my car on a beat CD. I kept hearing in my head the melody off the Dead or Alive ‘You Spin Me Round’ record on top of it. I just knew we had to find a way to update the lyrics and make it relevant. That was where that idea was given birth.
If I'm a writer and I want to get in touch because I have something that I think fits your artist, what's the best approach?
Just email it to me - it's firstname.lastname@example.org. I get to everything that comes in eventually. We have a whole team of A&R people that are ready to listen to things. I am also careful to listen to someone’s entire submission. I may get a CD where beats 1-20 are not strong but lo and behold track 21 is incredible. I am paranoid about missing out on a hit so I listen to everything.
How do you work out a fee for a beat or an idea?
It's rare these days that we buy just an instrumental. Our recording budgets are shrinking and it’s really important to us to have a great chorus or a great song before we buy it. We may negotiate directly with the producer or the songwriter or we may deal with their manager or lawyer or whomever they want us to speak to. It’s case by case.
Do you have to do that personally or do you have another person that's dealing with the business side?
I always deal with the fee because I'm very budget conscious. I try to deliver all the records we do on or under budget so I'm very involved in the rate negotiation process. Our business and legal staff is responsible for all of the formal contracts and agreements.
Do you normally start negotiating quite early?
We wait till we have a product we love before we start the negotiation but we do ask producers or songwriters for the courtesy of putting something on ‘hold’ for us if we like it but it’s still a work in progress.
What makes a good pop song in your eyes?
It's about a great melody - melody is king for me. Obviously the lyric is crucial but you need that melody to have it stick with you. It's about instant gratification - something that is immediately memorable and very catchy. Most of the great pop songs have a concept that's very relatable to the mass public - they can either identify with the sentiment or the song is about a widely shared experience. The best pop songs are not disposable either, they stick with you forever.
Do you actually go out to clubs and check out new artists live?
Yes, more and more now that I'm involved in things outside of rap music. Acts that are more band oriented I definitely go out and see.
When you think about the A&R process now, how does that differ from when you first started doing it?
One of the most important things I developed is just patience. You need to recognise that it takes a long time to find that special artist. It takes a long time to put the biggest hits together. They don't come together overnight and they don't get emailed to you.
It’s very important to always incorporate your personal taste into the acts you A&R because it becomes very difficult over the time to A&R a project that you're not excited about creatively.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Hotly-tipped post-punk/rock band The Rassle are featured in Making Waves
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