Interview with NEIL JACOBSON, A&R Interscope for LMFAO, Black Eyed Peas, Natalia Kills, Eva Simons - Jun 18, 2012
“If you have a strong song like ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and a band who’ve developed themselves so well like LMFAO then Universal has the facilities to make them worldwide superstars.”
The opportunities for artists to find success and recognition independently seem better now than ever, but it still takes the marketing might of a major to create an international superstar. Powered by the “beautiful machine” of Universal, Interscope Records has introduced the world to the likes of Eminem, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, and the stage is now set for LMFAO (No.1 US, UK, GER, FR, AUS), who have already clocked up two international #1 singles.
For the first in a two part interview, Interscope Records A&R and artist manager Neil Jacobson talks about the development and breakthrough of LMFAO and explains how global success is generated by thinking locally.
How did you first get into the music industry?
I started managing bands when at 15. I knew from that age that I wanted a career in music. I talked my parents in to letting me go to Berklee College of Music where my immersion in music built a foundation and musicality that I draw from to this day. When I finished at Berklee I had a tough time finding a job in the music industry and eventually became a wholesale carpet salesman. The sales skills I learned there and the basics of how to operate in an office environment were incredibly important in my early days at Interscope.
At 24, I realised I still had the music bug and wanted to take one last shot at my dream. I called up a former VP of Arista Records (Tom Corson), whom I was a caddy for at a country club in New York, and mentioned that I was looking to break back into music. He was really nice about it but didn’t have anything available. I thought this would be the case and so in an attempt to differentiate myself from the slew of other people, I built him a website called www.hiremetom.com which had a picture of me on it, music I’d worked on and links like “Top 10 reasons to hire me” etc. It was a terrible site but, this being 2001 when the internet was still semi-young, it showed some ingenuity and eventually I got an internship with Arista. I was old to be an intern but I didn’t care – I knew that if I could put my head down, focus and show an ability to handle responsibility then someone would take notice.
I eventually met Pharrell's assistant in an elevator and hit her up for a job with Star Trak right there. I interned for a short while until an old college buddy mentioned that he was leaving Interscope and thought with my intern experience I might have a shot at replacing him. He introduced me to one of my great mentors and most important people in my professional life, Martin Kierszenbaum (HQ interview), who hired me to Interscope's international department. I started at the very bottom as an assistant and then got my big break and was promoted to being an international publicist.
So what are you responsible for now?
Basically I wear two hats. On the A&R side I am a senior VP working with the Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am, Fergie, LMFAO, Avicii, Cadillacs In Space, Priyanka Chopra, Natalia Kills, Cody Wise, and Eva Simons. I also help out across all acts in the Interscope Family finding songs whenever I can for other artists albums etc.
On the management side, I manage Robin Thicke, Jeff Bhasker, Iggy Azalea, Fernando Garibay, Emile Haynie , Michael Warren, Stix and DJ Eye.
That's a lot of different things! How do you make sure that all of these people get the right amount of attention?
I want to be as transparent with my artists as possible. I always explain to them that it's not about how much direct time I spend on each project, it’s about me making things happen. Whether as a manager or an A&R, my goal beyond everything else is to create and facilitate opportunities for my clients. And the more good projects I have or am involved in, the more that helps everybody else. My reach is one of the best things I have to offer them.
I've a tremendous team behind me – George Robertson runs my A&R side, Nick Groff runs the marketing side and then everybody works together on the management side. I also have an administrative support staff of three additional people who help my clients and A&R projects with their day-to-day needs.
There is a great saying, “If you want something done give it to a busy person.” That’s the premise from which we run our company.
As a manager how do you help break the clients you are developing?
First and foremost are my sales and networking abilities, and I also think I have a pretty good reputation, which I’ve worked hard to maintain. The people I have done business with over the years know what we do and are usually happy to be involved.
When I sign an artist, amplification is one of the key things I provide – I broadcast the music they are making to my contact database. When Jeff Bhasker wrote ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ I was able to get it to Peter Edge (HQ interview) who recognised it immediately and had Alicia Keys cut it. In addition to my own network of A&Rs and managers, I have direct access to Interscope’s artists as well.
How do you go about looking for new talent, new producers, new clients …?
I'm a very diligent worker - I'm all over the blogs and the internet, I work the phones and email all day. I'm trying to communicate as much as possible with as many of my contacts as possible. Often my contacts bring something amazing to me and I hopefully identify the talent early enough to make a move.
Are you looking for songs for you artists as well?
I'm always looking for songs, not just for my artists and not just for artists that I A&R.
How did you first discover LMFAO and did you actually sign them yourself?
Will.i.am grew up with Stefan [Gordy] (Redfoo) – the two have been friends for years. I was the president of will.i.am Music Group at the time and Will said that we needed to meet with Foo because he had some hot records. We heard the album and took them to Jimmy [Iovine]’s house immediately to get them signed to Interscope/Will.i.am. Being my mentor and one of my closest friends, Martin was my first call after Jimmy gave us the green light. I knew Martin and Cherrytree would be the last piece of the puzzle to make sure the guys had a bullet proof team. That proved to be 100% spot on – what Martin has done for the group should be a case study in how to make and break a record.
What in particular was it that attracted your attention?
One thing really important to me is the ability for an artist to write and produce their own music. Jimmy taught me that producers and writers are the people to be around, and to this day surrounds himself with them. Red Foo knows how to conceptualise a record, create a record, and then, most importantly, finish a record. The demos he and Sky[Blu] brought in to Jimmy and I were finished records. This was a turnkey operation.
What kind of following did they already have when you signed them?
There was a buzz but they’d only just got started and were still in the building stages. They had a fantastic manager, Rene Mclean, who’d help them get spins at Mixshow and they were doing quite well in Los Angeles. LA had this little electro-scene with a lot of great DJs and LMFAO knew the circuit and were playing around town. This was the time of DJ AM, Banana Split Sundaes and Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak Tuesdays. Shortly after we signed them they started to catch a buzz on their own through the shows they were doing and the radio plays they were getting.
What was your idea to then take it to the next step?
This is a sound and movement that broke out of the clubs. The most important thing was that they needed to be in every club. We were servicing club DJs all around the country before the first album had really taken off. Club DJs were spinning four or five LMFAO songs in a row - there was literally an LMFAO club set (I’m In Miami Bitch, Lil Hipster Girl, Yes, La La La and a remix they did of Love Lockdown).
Once that started to happen, the Mixshow DJs started to play it and then once they started paying attention, we went to rhythmic crossover and once they started playing it we went to pop radio.
None of the songs were becoming number one hits but all of them were seeding the market to create a sound. Together we had successfully built a platform from which they were able to launch their second album into the stratosphere.
So how did the approach with the second album differ and help contribute to their breakout success?
The first album [‘Party Rock’] was much more about developing the foundation for the LMFAO brand than a traditional song-to-radio launch. The band had built a groundswell on their own and we were fanning the fire. Our two worlds came together organically and by the end of the album cycle for ‘Party Rock’ the group had a tremendous amount of momentum and we as a team were moving in unison.
The key with the second album was the breath we took between the end of Party Rock and the beginning of ‘Sorry for Party Rocking’. That breath allowed our company align and strategize – pull the rubber band back, if you will. We had them go away – there was a four or six month period where they were not doing a ton of promotion. When the new song ‘Party Rock Anthem’ was ready to be released the company was ready to go.
How did you make sure everyone in the company was in-synch to take full advantage this time around?
To me, A&R is more then just finding songs, introducing artists to producers and then handling the album. One of the most important responsibilities is to make sure the company is aligned, aware and moving in unison around the artist and their album cycles. It’s about keeping them informed about the status of the album, playing the music and keeping them excited.
So my primary function in developing and breaking artists is to work them through our building. At times it's like being the annoying cheerleader. I take the music around and sit with our marketing, TV, production, sync, radio departments etc. I engage them in conversations about how to position the band, what their identity is – I ask a million questions about how they see the band and what ideas they have. I am trying to learn from everyone and give inspiration wherever possible.
’Party Rock Anthem’ not only broke LMFAO in the U.S. but internationally. With a record like this do you have different schedules and timetables for different territories - how does that strategy work?
The band tweeted “Party Rock Anthem” out on New Years Eve as a way of announcing that 2011 was going to be the year of LMFAO. The guys have fantastic relationships with some of the most influential DJs around and they shot it to them first to kick start it. We immediately made the song available on iTunes as a net to catch the buzz they were building from their launch. Once the song was out there we were able to track where it was reacting the most. Right off the bat the feedback was amazing.
A lot of this stuff is more organic then you think. A great record takes on a life of its own to a certain degree. Yes, we are watching which radio stations or territories are playing and reacting, but with a record like Party Rock Anthem we knew right away we had a hit on our hands. The UK was the first stand out territory and immediately we were getting plays across their radio stations and the song charted very quickly. Once it hit the UK chart at #1, the rest of the territories started to catch fire as well.
Could they have done the same without a big record company behind them - would you say Interscope was crucial for the success?
You're touching on exactly what Interscope does well. The truth is you don't need a record label to put music out. There's a lot of ways to get from 0 to 35 mph, but what the record label can help you with is to get you from 35 mph to 150mph.
It takes coordination, manpower and an international infrastructure for the message to happen in a unified way so you are able to maximize all of the possibilities on a global scale. I think the business model for the record industry is a tough code to crack right now and there are issues that I don't have any answers for, but in the purest marketing sense the Universal Music Group is a beautiful machine.
If you have a strong song like ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and a band who’ve developed themselves so well like LMFAO then Universal has the facilities to make them worldwide superstars.
There's a lot of people that can put out songs, and get some attention from the blogs, get great reviews and even get a million downloads on their own, but they cannot replicate what this company can do once it aligns itself. It can take a few albums or a few singles, but it's been proven in artists like the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, Eminem etc. With artists like that if they put out a single it's everywhere at once.
There’s a quote I really like – I read it in ‘The World Is Flat’ by Tom Freidman, a must read in my opinion – “Think Global, Act Local”. We may have a global release date, for instance, but locally each one of these media outlets need to be serviced – there’s a magazine running an article about it, there are three radio stations spinning the record, there is a regional MTV playing the video etc. … All this is happening at once. And this takes people locally on the ground working it to coordinate these efforts. That's what a major record label can provide for you.
What kind of reactions do you get from unsigned artists that have built up a buzz on their own and then are approached by you proposing they sign with a major?
The most common thing I hear is, ‘I don't need you guys - I can put that out on my own. I'm not interested in signing with your label unless you pay me a ton of money up front.’ You can definitely do this on your own, and you can continue to build buzz on your own, but to me you have to make sure you are thinking about the timing of how everything will come together.
Nothing should ever happen in a vacuum. You need to plan each step so that one falls into the next and into the next. It's very hard for people to see 15 steps ahead. A lot of artists have gaps in their plan. They get some buzz, sign to a label, and then while they’re making the album, the buzz dies down and they find that when they come back to release the album people’s attentions have waned. Attention spans are fleeting. Real estate in these areas changes hands quickly and if you don’t have a coordinated roll out, you will lose your spot.
There are very, very few cases – if any – where an independent artist releases an album that is top 5 during release but stays in the Top 200 Billboard chart over the course of 40 to 50 weeks like, say, an Adele or a Lady Gaga. I don't know of many that have made it past five weeks to be honest. It’s about long term organised campaigns. 18 month marketing cycles etc.
How are you developing LMFAO at the moment?
After the big success of ‘Party Rock Anthem’ and ‘Sexy And I Know It’ we are focusing on making sure that they are not only successful in America. They’ve really devoted a lot of time internationally – Australia, Asia, Europe and America. That's something Interscope does better than anybody else. Martin Kierszenbaum and Jurgen Grebner have a real feel for identifying opportunities for our artists and then developing and executing the plan.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Interview with president of A&R at Interscope/A&M, Ron Fair
* Martin Kierszenbaum on finding talent as A&R at Interscope
* Robin Thicke manager Jordan Feldstein on stirring up controversy with Blurred Lines