Interview with ROBERT FERNANDEZ, CEO at Famous Artist Music & Management, home of Pitbull - Aug 9, 2011
“[We] build a foundation for the artist, get them on the radio, be ready with a story. That will give us a better negotiating power than simply putting a CD demo on the table and saying, ‘This is the greatest artist in the world.’”
With international #1 single ‘Give Me Everything’ and pop-crossover smash album ‘Planet Pit’, Pitbull (US, UK, CAN No.1) has crossed over into the mainstream with an almighty splash. But Armando Christian Pérez’s breakthrough is no sudden bolt from the blue but rather the crowning of over a decade of foundation and building work. CEO of Famous Artist Music and Management, Robert Fernandez, was there at the beginning and played a key role in the launch and development of the Cuban-American rapper. He now looks after Team Pitbull, the artist’s management team and heads Famous Artist Music & Management, where he manages and develops several new artists and producers.
The Miami native talks to HitQuarters about what’s involved in laying the groundwork for a new artist, details the factors behind Pitbull’s success, and reveals how up and coming artists and producers can catch his attention.
How did you first discover Pitbull?
Pitbull was one of the artists that I signed to my label about 11 years ago. He was the artist that I focused a lot of attention on in developing early on. He was first brought to me by a pair of producers I managed called the Diaz Brothers. They said, "We have a really talented kid we think you should have a listen to." The moment I met with him we hit it off. In addition to the talent, I saw the eagerness and the hunger he had - I was on board.
At what stage was he at as an artist?
At that time he was just getting out of his deal with Luke Records, Luther Campbell's label. He had products, but he didn't actually have anything out, and a lot of the stuff that he did have recorded was very street and non-radio friendly.
How did you first start working with him and how did things develop?
We got him in the studio and started working on some music. At that time his music had a lot of verses and took a long time to get into the hook, and so we took time in getting the songs catchier, and less on the rap side. We recorded many, many songs - by the time of the TVT Records deal we had 50 to 70 songs recorded.
At that time I had a relationship with Lil Jon and he had an album coming out called ‘The Kings of Crunk’. My original intent was to get Pitbull on an intro or something but Jon actually took a liking to him and gave him his own song on the album called ‘Pitbulls Cuban Ride Out’, which was 32 bars of him just spitting. That helped us a lot.
When we came to recording the song ‘Culo’, Lil Jon and Pitbull had become friends and were hanging out together. Pitbull showed him that song and John said, "I think that's a hit - let me get on that song!"
‘Culo’ had already been released as far as the clubs and was already getting some airplay on the radio in Miami but it wasn't that of a big thing until Lil Jon got on it and took it to another level. That led to the deal with TVT Records - the label that Lil Jon was signed to. TVT then blew the song up nationally and internationally. We ended up going on tour with Lil Jon and 50 Cent on the Anger Management Tour. That started opening the doors.
How did you choose the producers and people that work with him in the beginning?
In the beginning Pitbull did most of that. Any producer he felt was his vibe or liked the sound of, he would just jump on. It didn't matter if the producer had a name or no name - he just went after the music.
Even now a lot of collaborations he does are because he has already built a personal relationship. I cannot think of any time that we said we want a collaboration with this person and then cold called them.
Pitbull has become a major artist in the mainstream pop market. What’s been key to building that success since you first started working with him?
People are always saying now, ‘Pitbull is everywhere!’ But the whole thing has been 12 years in the making. His success has mostly grown out of the relationships he has built, the good business he has done and just from being continuously out there making music, shaking hands, signing autographs and evolving.
People still listen to the street music he was making in the beginning, but at the end of the day we have to give people music that they can dance to and that is actually being played on the radio, and it’s by evolving into that he’s really extended.
The whole international travel also helped him a lot. That's where he got a lot of his inspiration and ideas from for some of his biggest records.
Pitbull now regards himself as much an entrepreneur as an artist and partners with various non-music brands. Was this an area that you were developing with Pitbull early on in his career?
That stuff came in later. Pitbull has always been someone that was almost too careful about tying his name into some brand. It’s just been in the last 12 months that he’s started doing any kind of sponsorship deals. It was Dr. Pepper, Kodak and then he has his own vodka called Voli Vodka. Even now he chooses very carefully who he wants to partner up with.
How did you get involved in music management?
Pretty much by default. I also own an independent record label and when you're an independent label you just do everything - marketing, publicity, radio promotions … it all intertwines with each other.
I started on the record label side and as that evolved I realised the money was really being made if you are involved in all kinds of revenues in the circle. And with management being a very important part, not only to the artist, but to the whole picture, that made me decide to steer towards management.
Did you just sign him to your label at the beginning, or management as well?
Unfortunately for me I didn't sign him to management at the time. I have always been very pro-artist. I should have signed him to more of management 360 deal, but it was really more the label situation.
What is your own involvement in the whole Pitbull project at the moment?
On a daily basis, I'm basically overseeing and making sure that the project is heading in the right direction - bringing new business to the table, branding him as a worldwide artist and trying to get him the right partnerships in order to grow this even further.
My actual involvement legally is that he is a recording artist signed to my label and my label furnishes the services over to J Records. Now we are releasing the ‘Planet Pit’ album I am trying to make sure that all the things are in order, that the product is out there and we are getting the proper exposure. I’m also setting up the new singles to make the project as much of a success as possible.
So what is his management set-up now?
It's now an eight people team - that's why we call it Team Pitbull. Dealing with so many people does get hectic sometimes, but it works for us. One person cannot handle all the things that an artist at that level brings.
What are the different people doing in Team Pitbull – do they have their own particular expertise?
There is someone that brings in new opportunities and new business to the table. Then there is another person that handles the radio and marketing aspect of it. Some of the team members handle not only management duties but also label duties. Even the attorneys we consider part of the management team because they are heavily involved.
How do you work online promotions social network etc.?
That is also handled within the management team. Issac and Big Teach control everything that has to do with new media, internet, Planet Pit, Facebook, Twitter … All this is handled in-house. Sony handles their own side, which is Pitbull Music.
What role is the major label, J Records, playing?
They give us support and suggestions on what to do. They come in on the marketing and promotion side and in distributing the record to all the outlets physical at retail, and coming up with digital programs or contests.
We basically work on the music side and give them a ready product. We normally identify the song that Pitbull likes and go with a plan to radio, get the song started to certain level and then the major-label kicks in and gets more radio. In some instances we come in and say, ‘Here's the single ready and we already have 10 to 15 stations on it,’ so they don't have much choice but to say, ‘Let's go with that single then.’
Essentially we make them believers before they jump on and go full force.
How is your label actually set up?
We have a handful of people here. We have a social media person. We have a guy that works radio on the English side and a guy that works it on the Spanish side because Pitbull is doing things bilingual in English and in Spanish, and some of our other artists are also bilingual. We have an artist called El Cata. He also wrote the hook on ‘I Know You Want Me’. Lately he has also written the songs ‘Loca’ and ‘Rabiosa’ for Shakira.
How did the collaboration with Shakira happen?
That happened because Pitbull was in the studio with Shakira and El Cata showed up and a friendship was made. A few weeks later they are in the Dominican Republic recording.
Are you also managing the producers?
Yes, we have a production team that works out of Miami and a production team that works out of New York with studio facilities. This is one of the areas I really like. The producers create a song or an idea and I am able to put that idea to one of the major artists and try to make it a hit record.
How do you choose the producers on your roster?
Besides having a nice unique sound it's about a person that is open to new things. If a producer says, ‘No, this is it. This is my way,’ then I cannot work with that. I might have a client that wants a certain thing done and for it to sound a certain way. At the end of the day it's a business, and if the producer cannot bend his idea a little bit then that means I cannot sell music and that means we cannot make money.
I have a very talented producer now called Motiff. He was Pitbull's keyboard player a couple of years ago and decided to go out his own and go into production. We are currently in negotiations with RedOne for him to become one of the people in his team.
If I think I'm a great producer then how do I approach you?
Sometimes just straight emails. Producers send me stuff and I circulate the beats around the artists that we have. If we like the music and ideas we start a conversation and see if anything leads from there.
I don't know if it makes sense to have a huge amount of producers. We have four production teams and they all have their own unique sound. Shakira wanted us to do a remix for a song so I sent it out to all our producers. Everyone got their remixes in - I sent 14 - and Shakira picked two, one for the English side, one for the Spanish side.
In that way it's good because I can offer a lot of variety to the client and also help the producer land a hit record.
So would you say your hands are pretty full in the moment?
At the end of the day we are always looking for that next record.
What gets you excited about a new artist?
If they have a story, a record playing on the radio somewhere, a video with strong views, or just a strong following … basically something that’s already been built. An artist with just a demo could be a great artist but it takes a lot more time in developing those things.
Something I will pay attention to quick is when someone writes an email to me saying, ‘Hey my songs is top 10 on so and so radio station, I need a manager …’ [laughs]
Is your label mainly focused on Cuban or Spanish urban music?
I wouldn't say that because we have recently signed an artist called Jamie Drastik out of Upstate New York, an American white kid who is super-talented, very lyrical …
Some of the artists we are working with or looking to sign are artists with crossover potential. They can rap and sing in English fluently, but can also do it in Spanish. The Spanish population is growing and the buying power of that population is very heavy. Something like Enrique Iglesias or Jennifer Lopez.
Does your label have a major distribution deal with Sony for all of these artists or is it a artist specific?
It's on an artist-by-artist basis. We have a joint venture with J Records only for Pitbull.
Obviously we have the door open if we bring in other artists but our idea is to build a foundation for the artist, get him on the radio, and be ready with a story. That will give us a better negotiating power than simply putting a CD demo on the table and saying, ‘This is the greatest artist in the world.’
This involves a lot of groundwork. How do you make a plan for a new artist?
We figure it will take about a year and a half of development and groundwork before we get to a level where we feel we are making enough noise. It can be shorter then that with a short cut route if we are able to come up with a single, hire a bunch of radio promoters and lock down a deal within six months. It all depends on the artist.
Normally we will build an internet team around them so people have access to them - build Twitter, a Myspace and any kind of social network community. Then we do some viral videos, and put them in the studio to come up with new music and songs. We get them into a groove to see what kind of artist they are, or what kind of songs they are going after.
Once we identify that one song we feel is the single, we will go and hire four or five different promoters. Normally we will go after the rhythmic charts and stations first - we're not really on the urban side and not really on the pop side. It's a little difficult to come out of the box on the pop side.
If we have 10 or 15 stations on it we will be getting calls from major labels enquiring about the artist and we’ll see if we can do a deal. Then we sit around the table and see what deal they want to make. If it moves forward we do a deal, if not we keep on pushing and the deal will hopefully be a bit better the second single around.
Do you always focus on one track, set a release date and try to push it as hard as you can?
Yes. We obviously support that by various things on the internet but we will have one focus, one track for charting purposes. That's what the major labels understand.
How important is touring to that plan?
It's extremely important. It's another aspect of the ground building.
With this new kid Jamie Drastik, for example, we work strategically. He has the ‘Castles In The Sand’ record with Pitbull and Kelly Rowland on the ‘Planet Pit’ album. He recently did a song with Fat Joe called ‘The 110’. The first single we are actually working at radio at the moment is called ‘Save Me’ featuring Pitbull and has an old Oasis sample. He's a white American artist from Upstate New York so we have been targeting the colleges a lot and have him on the road as much as possible.
Does having Pitbull on your label make a big difference in terms of approaching radio stations, promoters etc. with your other artists?
Absolutely. We drop the Pitbull name as much as possible [laughs]. And sometimes they only talk to us to ask if Pitbull can do this or that.
Pitbull himself is very proactive and really supports any artists he is involved with. If a programme director asks Pitbull to say hello to their daughter, we can get him on the phone in two seconds. He is not one of these artists that are unreachable. He is very good building relationships.
Are you open for new ideas in introducing a new artist? When I talked to Chris Hicks recently, for example, he told me when they launched Justin Bieber they put out a new song every week over a few months, because his online following was eating up things so quickly ...
I half agree with that. The internet and the kids want to hear new music fast, but we have to feed two animals: one is the consumer and other is the actual radio.
It's unrealistic for me to say I'm going to release a record this week and in two weeks release another record to the same radio station when they are still building on the first record. A viral video once every two weeks, yes, but for charting purposes and radio or putting a new artists on the radar, it's much more important to have one song charting top 10 here and build a story on the song till the song gives no more and then we come up with another song.
If you look at the playlist on CHR rhythmic radio or any station in that genre, Pitbull has four or five songs on there and they tell us, ‘Please, not another song - we're still not done with the first one, we can't do it!’ [laughs]
How hard is it to get a spin on a radio station with a new artist?
It's extremely hard. The music has to be good. Sometimes the radio director will give you a shot because of the relationships you’ve built through the years.
Now we have PPM. It's about how the audience reacts to it. You need to have a good song and a team behind the song that really supports the artist and the radio station to bring it all together.
Real machines like Sony or Universal, who have been in the business for many years, can pull so many strings at once to get these artists out there - we are still an independent label. What we do is start a fire, build a story, get a song started and see if we can raise the interests of somebody that can take it to the next level.
What new things are coming out on your label?
Jamie Drastik is the new one we are really focusing on. Another band we are working on are The Parlotones from South Africa, who I'm helping co-manage. They are big in South Africa and quite well known in the UK. We are kind of breaking them into the US market here.
What’s been your the best moment in the music industry so far?
That was actually with Pitbull. He landed the cover of Billboard just a few weeks ago, and we had a number one song in the Hot 100. We currently have the number one song on pop radio and the rhythmic charts and are about to go number one in the Spanish charts.
I think the moment we're living right now is probably the best. Having an artist that you’ve been working with so long and seeing him reaching this success and without really changing the person he is.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Songwriter-producer Chuck Harmony on his breakthrough with Ne-Yo
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