Interview with BRANDON CREED, A&R for Sean Kingston, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez, Pearl Jam - Jan 20, 2009
"The artists that succeed and last are the ones that really know who they are"
Epic Records A&R Brandon Creed has a stellar track record, from his early work at J Records with Pearl Jam (Top 10 US), Dido (Top 10 US) and Santana (No.1 US and Grammy Award winner), to his Epic journey (!) with Sean Kingston (No.1 US), Grammy Award winner Brandy (Top 10 US), and Jennifer Lopez (No.1 US).
He shares with HitQuarters the experience of working with some of the above names (as well as breakthrough Top 40 artist Kat DeLuna), and talks about the way his high-profile involvement in each project comes not from a position of dictating, but of understanding of the artist's vision and striving to fulfil it.
When did you start interning in LA?
I started at a record company that was a division of Jersey Films called Jersey Records after my junior year of college. It was Danny DeVito’s production company, which had a movie deal with Universal and a music deal with MCA.
I interned for about a week and then they ended up offering me an employee’s position but they knew I was going back to school. I took that job for about three months.
So it was straight from college into the industry?
They offered me a job before I left to go back to school. I went back to finish my last year of college and I came right back to the same company.
I worked there for about six months before realising that I wanted to be in New York. I had always wanted to live there and work at a major label. I started at Arista Records as an assistant to the SVP of marketing.
You work between LA and New York?
Over the last couple of years I’ve been spending so much time in LA because it just felt like creatively there was shifting and a lot of the writers, producers and artists that I work with were out here.
I find my time most productive in the recording studio. Just being able to go talk to and see the writers, producers and artists directly.
I just didn’t feel like there was much of that going on in New York anymore, or it definitely minimised over the last few years. I feel much more productive in Los Angeles.
How was it to product-manage acts like Pearl Jam, Dido and Santana at J Records back then?
It was an incredible experience for me. I started at J as the assistant to the Head of Worldwide Marketing & Sales shortly after the Jersey experience and really considered it my first real job.
It was at the very beginning of the company when there weren’t any product managers, international staff, or video commissioners and I was thrown into a lot of these situations, doing things that were well beyond my experience level.
I grew up in the company and was exposed to so many amazing parts of the industry that allowed me to understand how it all works. They let me learn, but I consider myself a quick learner so I rose to the occasion as the opportunities were thrown at me. I took them on and hopefully I was continuously proving myself.
In my last year there I was product-managing for Dido, Santana and Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam was my favourite group growing up so it was an unbelievable experience. And I couldn’t have had a better teacher, someone to learn from and watch, than Clive Davis.
How did you end up at Epic?
After six years at J I was sort of at a crossroad. I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do. I took about a month off before realising that I wanted to be back in music.
Then I met Charlie Walk. I was out at a restaurant in New York. He was the newly appointed president of Epic Records, and he was looking for somebody to come in and work with him on the pop, R&B and urban projects. That was definitely something I wanted to be a part of, and I started in A&R at the end of July 2006.
Why did Charlie Walk want to add more pop, R&B and hip-hop to the Epic roster?
When he had taken over Epic, they were largely a pop and rock label. He wanted to continue that legacy but expand and break new artists and make sure that we had a full service label.
What was your vision for Epic?
It was an amazing opportunity that he gave me. He’s definitely a visionary. I wanted to be able to sign and work with great talent. I didn’t really come in thinking I needed to definitely sign a certain rapper or anything too specific.
The first two things that we did were Kat DeLuna and Sean Kingston. Sean came as a label deal with J.R. Rotem (HQ interview) which was a great experience.
As somebody who looks to sign acts to the label, how do you find yourself sharing a vision and a creative process of an act you respect?
It’s very important to share the vision with the act. Especially in the current climate, you really have to believe in your artist.
As an A&R you’re the closest person to the talent and you have to share the vision, carry the vision through the company and make sure that everything goes according to plan, which rarely happens but you have to do everything you can to make that happen.
It’s like any relationship. You have to click with the artist to understand them and to know what it is that they want to do and hope that they have faith in you and in your abilities to help them understand certain things they may not know and need to in order to make it work.
What’s usually discussed in first meetings?
On a macro level, what the artist’s vision is, where they want to start, where they want to get to, and what their creative process is. Depending on the act: is it a writer, player, producer or a performer.
With Brandy for example, we spent a lot of time going over what she had done and where she wanted to go, what kind of songs she wanted to sing, and how much she wanted to contribute. She’s an incredible vehicle for writers and producers because of her vocal abilities and emotional power.
She was open to hearing songs, and then we knew right away in most cases if it was a song she wanted to cut. Sometimes she would get into the booth and they wouldn’t connect so she would stop and we wouldn’t finish the song.
Someone like Sean Kingston, he’s open to trying almost anything and then hearing how he sounds on it. He’s also an amazingly gifted writer for his age and experience. It’s a pleasure to work with someone that knows himself, knows his sound, knows what he wanted to say and how to carry that through.
How quick can a signing be nowadays?
That’s dependent on the particular situation. I don’t like to rush into anything. We try not to get involved in competitive bidding wars here. I like to spend time with the act and understand what it is that they want to do and make sure that I feel like I can carry that through for them and that our company is suited to do that.
There really isn’t a time frame. It just depends. Everything has to align. I can know pretty quickly if it’s something I want to sign, but then obviously as far as the process goes on the legal level and all of the deal making, that can take a minute.
What needs to be ready in order for you to start working with an act?
The act has to be signed before I can start working with them officially. You can hopefully tell right away when you feel like it’s an artist you want to work with. I want to feel like I’m working with a star who has the ability to reach a worldwide audience.
Once I know that, and I know that it’s an artist whose vision we can support, then we start the creative process. Financially, we don’t start to spend any money until the deal is done.
I definitely take a very personal, creative and emotional approach to working with artists. I try to be in as many sessions as possible and work with the talent as closely as possible.
Do you receive unsolicited material?
I do. I’m not supposed to as a company rule, but I do.
What does it take for a demo to grab your interest?
I try not to judge anything by its covers or photos. I put the music on and hope that there is a voice that emotes and carries out a sentiment of a hit record. No matter what the genre is, that’s what you hope for: the ability and the songs.
Breaking artists and records can be accomplished with the artist's vision intact, provided everybody has the same goal. How do you make sure everyone looking in the same direction?
You have a plan and a vision, and you try and stick to that obviously with many moving targets, obstacles and opportunities that come.
In my position what I have to do is speak to every department, every person that’s involved in the project from the product manager to the publicity person to the online marketing person, upper management, promotion and management of the act and the act itself.
It’s all about communication and making sure that everyone is on the same page, and then everyone has got to go and fight for the opportunities for the act and get as much exposure as possible. You hope that the artist and the material is compelling enough to open some doors. And with each opportunity that comes your way you want to continue to grow and be heard more and expand.
Do you construct the team around an act?
I’m involved in choosing writers and producers to work with the artists where necessary, going through all the material and choosing the songs.
How do the deals look like nowadays?
The record deal is intact and it’s now about adding the ancillary component, which helps us generate additional revenue when we’re investing in an artist as music sales continue to take a hit.
A label’s investment has largely remained the same but the revenue generated from CD sales is shrinking.
Where do you source the writers and producers that you’re pairing with the artists?
I’m a big fan of working with up-and-coming talent but it’s also great to work with veteran producers. I’m always open to hearing new writers and producers. I’m always open to meeting people. You never know where a hit’s going to come from.
I met RedOne, who produced the Kat DeLuna album, in my first two months working at Epic. He currently has the No.1 single ‘Just Dance’ with Lady Gaga.
Our relationship started with a meeting that led to him trying to do a Jennifer Lopez remix. From there he did a couple of demos for Menudo, which we were working on at that time. They were great. Then we put him in with Kat DeLuna and from there they ended up doing the whole record together. We had a big hit with ‘Whine Up’.
How come the classic albums of our time are usually created by one producer or production team?
There’s that intangible chemistry and energy that ends up coming out of the studio when that happens. It rarely happens nowadays, but when it does there’s something special and that’s when an album gets recognised beyond just being a hit record.
It’s definitely more of a rarity now. Especially considering the growth and success of iTunes and single sales, the appreciation of a body of work or an album is dwindling.
But when you get a team, a partnership or something that really works and connects, you feel it through the whole body of work. And that’s what connects with people.
You step in once the skeleton of a song is there. You help shortening a song so it can be considered a single for radio. How involved are you in these matters?
I’m very involved in all of that. Whether it’s radio, a single or an album cut, I definitely take pride in the opportunity that my job provides.
I try to get as involved as possible as far as shaping the album, the sequence, whether a chorus needs to be expanded on or shortened, or if we need to make sure for a single that the call out hook is clear and evident.
Almost all songs on the albums are under four minutes. Are these strict radio demands?
A pop song in general is usually under four minutes. For radio it’s almost always under four minutes.
As an A&R you have to remain as diplomatic as possible and maintain everyone's trust. Sometimes you have to compromise. How do you deal with these difficulties?
Most people would agree that the foundation of this job is your relationships. I try to operate above board and be ethical. Operate with integrity and just communicate and be honest with the artist, the producer, the company and with myself.
It’s definitely a challenge juggling egos and personalities. My personality type is fairly level-headed. I’m usually very calm. I think that lends itself to being able to balance a lot of the bigger personalities, often found in the creative field.
Does the fact that a lot of modern artists are more capable of managing their own professional development make your job harder?
No, in fact that makes it easier for me. I love an artist that knows exactly who they are and what their vision is and sticks to it. Their confidence in themselves and their direction makes my job easier provided, obviously, that I agree and understand it and we have that connection.
I think the artists that succeed and last are the ones that really know who they are They operate with confidence. They don’t compromise as far as what their creative vision is. That’s especially what I look for in an artist.
What artists are you currently working with?
Right now, we’re doing Sean Kingston’s follow up album. We just put out the Brandy album and she’s working hard. As an A&R, you don’t just finish the album, deliver it and move on. I stay very involved in the full campaign of the album and the artist.
We have a new act coming out, a west coast rapper named Nipsey Hussle. He’s got a lot of buzz going at the moment. We’re in the final stages of that.
How did you work with giants like J Lo and Brandy?
Jennifer has been signed to Epic for her music career. It was one of the first projects that I got involved in when I first started. I brought in a demo called ‘Hold It, Don’t Drop It’ that was on the last album that she completely identified with and loved and it helped shape the sound of her project.
We connected and she trusted me. I was working with Keith Naftaly, who was EVP of A&R at Epic at that time. He was working closely with her and he also helped shepherd the relationship. She was a pleasure to work with. She would hear a song and know right away if it was something that she would want to cut or if it wasn’t right for her.
Brandy and I met a year and a half ago. We instantly connected. I met her in March for the first time and then again in August/September. It was at that point that it was like ‘Ok we really need to do this’.
She came to New York, met with Rob Stringer and Charlie Walk, and then we did the deal in November/December. Then we started working in January of last year.
What’s the difference between working with Kat DeLuna and Sean Kingston?
Kat DeLuna came in through Andy Hilfiger. He had her come in to Charlie’s office to do an audition. She had a couple of Spanglish records. She came in and did this dance routine and an acapella version of ‘I Will Always Love You’.
She had this huge personality. She would walk into a room and you just look at her and she commanded the attention. We saw the potential in creating a unique sound, which we did on the album. And it worked with ‘Whine Up’.
We met Sean Kingston when Charlie and I did an LA trip about a month after I started. We set up a bunch of meetings with different writers and producers. One of them was J.R. Rotem and his partner Zach Katz (HQ interview).
J.R. started working with one of our other acts at that time and then through that Zach told me they had this new artist named Sean Kingston. He was 16 years old, Jamaican and a rapper. At that time he was really trying to be a street rapper. I mentioned it to Charlie. They sent us demos and we liked what we heard. Back in LA he was there and we went to see J.R. and Zach in the studio. Sean just had a light around him and he commanded the room.
He did some freestyle for us. His sound was still not fully realised at that time, because he wanted to be a rapper. Through the recording process we pushed him to sing and write his melodic rap singing sound. And from there ‘Beautiful Girls’ was born.
Did Sean agree with your pushing?
Sean is very agreeable. He has great ideas. He was learning about himself and what he could do. He didn’t really fully know his own abilities at that time, until he started to sing hooks.
It actually started with the song ‘Take You There’. It was actually called ‘Jamaica, Jamaica’ initially. That was something where we pushed him to change it a little bit so that it could be more universally appealing. That was the first song that came in where he sung. And one of the last songs was ‘Beautiful Girls’.
What will be in store for you and Epic in 2009?
Hopefully hit songs and albums! We’re just getting started on the Brandy album, the Sean Kingston follow up that will hopefully be a big one, and hope to sign some new exciting talent that is something a little different, and break some new artists.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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