Interview with JASON FLOM, president of Lava Records (Jessie J, Black Veil Brides) - Jun 1, 2011
“If you believe in your heart and soul that something is the real thing then you have to be willing to stake your reputation on it.”
Lava Records is back. Having made a formidable first impression in the late 90s when it hit big with the likes of Kid Rock, Matchbox Twenty, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and The Corrs, amongst others, and notched over 100 million worldwide sales in the process, Jason Flom’s Lava is now reborn as a joint venture with Universal Republic.
The period of dormancy has far from dampened its volcanic fire; in the interim Flom’s skills in finding and breaking major artists has been honed to a fine art. While serving as Chairman and CEO at Atlantic, Virgin and Capitol Records he personally signed international superstars including Katy Perry and developed over a dozen new artists including Paramore, 30 Seconds to Mars and KT Tunstall. This expertise is now channelled into a leaner and meaner Lava – modest in size but massive in chart ambition. The early signs are suitably impressive: first Jessie J erupted into 2011, with a US Top 10 debut and #1 in the UK, and the Black Veil Brides are expected to follow suit this summer.
In this exclusive interview, Flom talks about the strategy for turning Jessie J into an international megastar, how Black Veil Brides mark a long overdue return for the “larger than life” rock heroes, and why the record executive originally gave up rock guitar for A&R.
What is the philosophy behind your label Lava Records?
This is the rebirth of Lava. The people at Warner gave me my name back as it has so much history with me - it's my name, my identity. It's a new start with the same philosophy: find great artists in the rock and pop genre, develop them, work with good partners, and make the biggest records in the business.
What’s a day-to-day working life like in the world of Jason Flom?
It's changing all the time. At this point I have only four artists on the label and so I can focus on artist development, meet with marketing people and work the industry to make sure my records get the right amount of attention from all the key places. Then I'm talking to lawyers and managers and in between I'm listening to new artists and spending a lot of time online. Then there are showcases in the evening.
Once you’ve made a record with an artist you’ve said you then ‘work the business’ - what does that actually involve?
There are a lot of talented creative executives that make the record and then just give it to the marketing people. I have always been interested in getting out there and talking to those people myself. I go out to tastemakers - I have regular meetings with key bookers, editors, network executives, etc. I’ve always been outgoing and friendly and it has served me well.
Is there anyone else working in A&R at Lava?
At the moment I have one senior A&R person that I work with. His name is Harinder Rana and he and I work closely together on everything. I don't care if I find something or he finds something. When we hear something exciting we run across the hall and play it to each other.
The other member of the team is A.J. Kasen. He was our intern and he did such good work that we brought him on full time. He’s doing a lot of things for us, admin, assistant work, also helping us with A&R.
How did you find Harinder and what made you believe in him?
I was invited to do a presentation [in 2006] for the Syracuse University Martin Bandier School of Music at MTV I was on a panel with Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and [‘Save The Music’ founder] John Sykes. Only students from Syracuse were allowed to attend, but Harinder snuck in. One of the pieces of advice I gave was that if people want to get a job with somebody they shouldn't just send their resume and hope for the best, they should find out what that person is interested in, maybe do something for their assistant - because the assistant is the gatekeeper - and just try to make themselves stand out.
He was the only one who listened to that - he sent me a golf glove with my name embroidered on it and some golf balls. Clearly, that showed intelligence and drive so when I had an opening, I said to my assistant, “Why don't you find out what he is doing, he seems like an interesting guy.”
Is there time and space for new artists on your label in the moment?
Lava is going to remain a very small label. I want to be laser focused and strive for the highest success rate in the business.
I'm always looking but I'm going very, very slow with the signings. I'm very excited that we have two great artists out right now, Jessie J and Black Veil Brides.
Why did you decide to join forces with Universal Republic?
Monte and Avery [Lipman] (HQ interview) are among the best in the business at breaking new artists so it just seemed to make perfect sense. Over the past 10 years it seemed like every time I was breaking a record they were breaking one too and so we had a friendly rivalry.
Those guys are only interested in one thing: making big hits. They don't focus on who brings it in or where it comes from, they just want to win. To me that's critical - I want to be in a place where when I bring in a great project they will get excited about it regardless of ego.
I've been in this situation before when Lava was with Atlantic – back then Lava was four people, and it’s a sign of the times that four is now three - so I’m familiar with this kind of setup. I am very aggressive about working the company as well as working the industry to make sure that people are excited about Lava’s artists.
How did you find Jessie J?
She was signed to Sony Music Publishing. About two years ago a very talented publisher named Rich Christina sent me a link to her Myspace. Harinder and I both listened to it and loved it!
Soon after that she came to America and showcased. At the time she had different management and they were insisting on a crazy deal. A lot of labels were after her, and the situation was complicated because the management was not letting her speak directly to any labels.
So three Christmases ago, without even telling me Harinder flew over to England on his own money and tracked down Jessie. He then called me from a coffee shop in London and put her on the phone. After speaking to me the first time she was like, ‘this is different than everything I’d thought!’ and was excited about the idea of working with us. Around that time she changed management and we wound up signing her. This was fantastic because we were a brand new label at the time and there were so many established players who were after her.
So was there a bidding war to get her signed?
It was very competitive, but her lawyer, Sarah Stennett, made sure it didn't turn into a circus. It was a very strong deal, especially in today's climate, but I felt like I might never find another artist as gifted as Jessie J.
What then happened after you signed her?
It took quite a long time to complete the album. We wanted to make sure she had a debut record that truly represented her.
It's not common then to spend almost two years from signing to having a first release?
No, usually if it takes this long it's not a good sign. Ideally we want to put a record out in six to nine months.
Can you explain the process you needed to undertake before you were ready to release the debut single?
After we signed her we talked about different producers that she wanted to work with. We tried different people and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. She vibed musically with producers like Toby Gad and of course Dr. Luke. Besides the two songs that are on the record (‘Price Tag’ and ‘Abracadabra’), she wrote ‘Party in the USA’ for Miley Cyrus with him. That was the first song they wrote together. Luke is a genius - he brings out the best in everybody that he works with. Then she wrote ‘Do It Like A Dude’ in London with The Invisible Men.
Jessie wrote or co-wrote every song on the record. She is a gifted writer besides being an unbelievable singer.
She’s been at this for a long time. She recorded an album in England for a label called Gut Records. The label went bankrupt and so the record never came out. She has been performing on stage since she was a child, so she knows what she wants. She knew certain people she really wanted to work with and didn't want to do one session after another, writing with a different person every day. She wanted to focus on a small number of creative people.
How many songs did you record for the album?
She recorded a lot of songs. Some of the songs are songs that were originally recorded for her other album, where we got the clearances or did different versions.
How does it work with the new management?
We work very closely with her managers Sarah Stennett and Nadia Khan to make sure everything runs smoothly. It was Sarah's idea to work with The Invisible Men. They are very pro active and very savvy in deal making.
Jessie J has made an immediate impact in the UK but has yet to really take off in the US. Was there a decision to focus on the UK first?
Before Christmas I met with Jessie's manager Sarah Stennett in New York and we made the decision that it made sense to have the UK take the lead on this project because she lives there and things can happen so quickly over there.
In the UK BBC Radio 1 is dominant nationally and their support gives you a lot of recognition overnight, whereas in the US you have to go one station at a time, and build in many different ways. England is also a much smaller country but still has influence in the US - the tastemakers over there have an impact on what happens over here.
Instead of launching simultaneously and having to split Jessie's time back and forth, it made more sense for her to stay over there for a few months to break the market.
This is not a sprint, it's a marathon - we see her as an important artist in the long-term. I think the US is going to be a huge market for her. We had a top 10 debut in the US, and this is a rare feat for a new artist.
So are you now setting the focus on the US market?
Yes we’re putting a lot of emphasis on the US now.
How does the arrangement with Island UK work?
Basically it works like every other company that has a UK and a US division. There is an internal company arrangement.
Normally wherever the country is that the artist is signed the other countries look to that territory to break the artist first and then they get behind it. But Darcus [Beese] (HQ interview) and Ted [Cockle] at Island were so excited about Jessie from the beginning and have such an incredible hot streak right now with Mumford & Sons and Florence And The Machine that it just made sense to us to have Jessie released there initially. It worked perfectly - they released ‘Do It Like Dude’ and she became a sensation very quickly.
Who is responsible for what in that joint venture? How does that all work together?
Universal Republic does all the promotion, sales, marketing … My job is to find great artists and then make sure they are positioned properly both inside the company and in the industry. Naturally I use my relationships to help my artists.
Are you involved in setting up the media plan? For instance, I’ve seen that Jessie has various social network features ...
Yes, this is quite an unusual project because it has been a big priority from the beginning. Most of the time if you have a joint venture label you have to first go out and prove that the record is a hit before the major label partner really gets behind it. But in this case everyone was totally behind it from the beginning so these initiatives came from all kinds of different places.
When you think about how the record was breaking what aspects do you see as being particularly significant to its success?
It's really hard to say if there was one particular thing, Saturday Night Live was huge thing for us in the States, but there are so many territories breaking and each one is a little different. But the most important thing is Jessie.
How much do you have to compromise nowadays to fit in a certain format (radio, TV etc.) or could you come out with an eight minute long track like a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?
Until someone makes a record as good as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ we will never find out. From what I've been told the record label told Queen to edit it and they refused. So even back then people thought you couldn’t put out a song that was so long.
It is interesting that some of biggest songs in history have no chorus, like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. I had a giant hit with Kid Rock and ‘Only God Knows Why’ with no chorus. I’m not suggesting writing songs without choruses [laughs] – but I do find it fascinating.
Are you already starting to collect new material for Jessie’s next album?
We are certainly thinking about it. It depends on her. She is always writing and there's a lot of material that we couldn't put on this record and could be considered for the next record. She's a creative force of nature and I can't wait to see how the next songs will come out.
What other artists do you have on your label?
The next one coming out in June is a band called Black Veil Brides. Right now they are on the cover of Kerrang! and have recently graced the cover of Alternative Press. They have a crazy touring schedule booked leading up to and beyond the album release on June 14th. The album is finished and will come out on June 14th. I expect it to debut Top 5! It also has a tremendous buzz in England, Australia and Japan. I am super excited! These guys are so driven, so smart and so talented it makes me want to move mountains for them.
There is an artist called Kaile Goh. She’s a 15-year-old girl that reminded me a lot of Hayley [Williams] from Paramore. I signed Hayley when she was 15, after a very talented A&R person, Steve Robertson (HQ interview), brought her to me.
How did you first come across Black Veil Brides and what attracted you to them?
John Kirkpatrick, chief music officer at Hot Topic, told me about the incredible buzz that was building. They had the second best selling t-shirt in the country at Hot Topic, which has over 700 stores.
This was a band that built a tremendous following totally DIY. They made their first video for $2,500 and that now has over 20 million views on YouTube. They spent $10,000 on the second one and that has gotten a huge number of plays as well. The kids responded to it and bought t-shirts and CDs. Hot Topic was a huge part of the plan for them and Hot Topic was smart to get behind them early. They’ve now been the number 1 selling band at Hot Topic through album and t-shirt sales.
When I heard the music and saw the band I thought “wow this is exactly what I've been looking for.” I then met the singer and the bass player and thought, ‘they are total rock stars’. I went to dinner with them – which was an interesting experience because it was at that ‘dinner’ that I learned they don't eat, they just drink whisky and smoke cigarettes.
What is it they have that you have been looking for?
They are bringing back what has been missing for over a decade: they are rock heroes that are truly larger than life. The make-up, the hair, the leather, and most importantly they have great songs, great playing …
How did you sign them over to you?
I made a deal with Neil Sheehan, the founder of StandBy Records, and fortunately he saw the bigger picture. It wasn't easy because you have to make deals separate with the label and with the band but we did it!
What is the strategy with them in terms of placing them in the mainstream market?
The first important decision was using Josh Abraham to produce the album. I introduced the band to Josh and from the moment they met him there was great energy. Josh did a fantastic job.
The album’s going to be called ‘Set The World On Fire’. The first single ‘Fallen Angels’ will go to radio after the album is released, which is very unusual. This is because the album will debut with so many copies that we are going to be able to go to radio and say, “Look at this, we did 30,000 the first week!“ Right now we are doing a lot of press, and we’ve just started booking TV. They have a lot of touring and major social media initiatives coming up.
How do you decide what producer to go with and what makes you take on a new up-and-coming producer that perhaps doesn't have the track record?
Just instinct. Sometimes it's better to take an unknown producer. For example, The Invisible Men, who did ‘Do It Like A Dude’, the first UK Jessie J single, were not known at all. Sometimes it's better to take a big name - Dr. Luke produced ‘Price Tag’ for Jessie and it’s become #1 in 14 countries.
How is your work different now from being a CEO of a major record label?
It's very different. I'm still focused on finding and developing the best artists in the world but now I don't have the same administrative responsibilities. There is less pressure in this job, and fewer corporate commitments. I have more time to listen to music.
How do you build an industry awareness for your artist? How do you get the people excited?
That's a thing my dad taught me. He said, “Just be friendly.” The more personal contact you have the better the people respond.
Is that right that you started out in your music career as a musician?
Yes, not a particularly good one though. I was a guitarist in a band in New York and then I tried it one more time with another band before it finally came to me that I was never going to be good enough to be a big rock star. So I then tried to do something where I could be one of the best. I fell in love with the music business and stopped playing the guitar.
I read you got your first job with Ahmet Ertegun and Doug Morris mentoring you. In what way did they influence you?
It affected me tremendously. To have mentors like those guys, who were some of the greatest record people in the history of the business, is a life experience that is hard to put into words. Ahmet was one of a kind. Just to be able to be around him and be exposed to his wisdom was incredible. It was a wonderful experience.
What experience made you successful in the music industry?
You have to be lucky. Preparation + skill + perseverance = luck.
I learnt that if you do find an artist that you really love, you have to stand up and be counted. If you are a young A&R you cannot just give something to your boss and say ‘sign this’ and assume everything is going to be fine. You have to be prepared that they are going to say ‘no’. Then you have to come back and say ‘something new is happening … listen to this!’ You just cannot give up.
It's hard to find something great but that’s just the beginning of the job - you have to make sure it gets signed by your company and then gets worked. Some of the biggest records that I had took a long, long time to cut through. I signed The Corrs and that took a long time to break but then sold over 35 million records! Kid Rock took a long time as well. Trans-Siberian Orchestra took years to break and now is one of the biggest acts in the music industry. In the beginning I couldn't get anyone to pay attention to them at all.
If you believe in your heart and soul that something is the real thing then you have to be willing to stake your reputation on it.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Songwriter Stefan Örn on writing this year's Eurovision Song Contest winner
Read On ...
* Former EVP of Virgin, Jeff Kempler, on how Katy Perry was signed
* Universal Republic co-president Avery Lipman on 'ready-to-go' artists
* Andy Karp on A&R at Lava the first time around