Interview with BRYAN LEACH, A&R at TVT Records for Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, Ying Yang Twins - Apr 5, 2004
"It's not the A&Rs that artists have to convince, the A&Rs will follow the signs."
As head of urban A&R at TVT Records in New York, Bryan Leach represents artists including Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz (US Top 3) and the Ying Yang Twins (US Top 10).
Here he discusses TVT Records’ musical direction, why self-released artists get much of the music industry’s attention and what kind of buzz makes him take note of an artist.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started in artist management working for Dick Scott, who managed New Kids on the Block, Teddy Riley and Marky Mark. At the time, I also had a production deal with Epic Records. I then met the guy who ran Blunt Records, an urban subsidiary of TVT Records, and he brought me in.
Essentially, I have always been an A&R because, whether as a manager or running a production company, I have always been involved with the creative side. I’ve been at TVT for nine years now.
What experiences have shaped your A&R skills?
Most of the skills I have acquired that help me as an A&R come from my experiences in management. As a manager, you learn every aspect of the music business: retail, marketing, radio, A&R, and promotion. One of the most important skills is understanding the value of relationships, through which you attract artists, managers, attorneys and producers who bring talent to you or who help you find it.
It may sound like a cliché, but I’ve learnt something from every act I’ve worked with. The first time I realised how close I was to success was with Mic Geronimo (click on artist names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), although I did learn later that however close you are to success, you have to make sure that you slam the ball in the basket as opposed to just lining it up.
We had everybody on his 1997 album “Vendetta”, including Puffy, Jay-Z, Monica, Ludacris, DMX and Irv Gotti, and it still wasn’t good enough. The timing wasn’t right and we didn’t choose the right singles. Until all the aces are lined up, victory is not guaranteed, regardless of how many other things you have going on.
What is TVT’s musical direction?
Many people don’t realise that TVT is a real record company that is involved with almost every genre of music from rap to rock to soundtracks; we have had artists like Mic Geronimo and Bounty Killer, from our earlier years, Nine Inch Nails started at TVT, and we currently have Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, the Ying Yang Twins, Default and Sevendust, to mention a few.
We have a successful soundtrack division that has been responsible for the soundtracks to Mortal Kombat, Blade, Scary Movie, Traffic, Miss Congeniality and the current hit Starsky & Hutch. We have poets and spoken-word artists like the great Gil Scott-Heron. We also have a great distribution arm that distributes labels and bands like Vagrant and Dashboard Confessional.
You are the biggest independent label?
Yes. TVT is fully independent and the last of its kind. You could say that TVT is leading the pack, because the major labels are in some ways trying to act as independents in the way that they approach spending on marketing and A&R. People neglect our history, our accomplishments and the impact that we’ve had on the industry. We’re the first independent label to have had six of the Top 10 albums on the independent charts, which was this year.
We also have a successful publishing branch that publishes Lil Jon and Scott Storch, who’s worked with Christina Aguilera, Eve, the Roots, and more. People don’t realise how serious we are, how much of a real label we are and how aggressive we are about what we do.
Are their major differences between the way you work and the type of artists you sign and a major label’s approach?
We all want to sign artists who will have long careers, we’re the same in terms of how we’ve evolved with the changes in the business over the last couple of years, and we try to compete on the same levels. The areas we’re different in are how we approach and market our albums and our artists.
We can move more quickly on certain things. TVT is not a label based on one person’s vision and we’re not trying to just be the “next big thing”. We’ve built a label based on artists who have the ability to be stars and we invest a lot in them being able to have long careers, for example, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, Nine Inch Nails, etc.
What acts are you currently working on?
Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, the Ying Yang Twins, Chyna Whyte, and the r&b artist Teedra Moses, who wrote and co-produced her entire album (the video was shot by Hype Williams). We’ll also be releasing artists from Lil Jon’s label BME Records and a new album with the Eastsiders, which features Snoop Dogg.
We’ve released an album through a joint venture that we have set up with Radio One called “Heat for the Street”, which is the first album in a series, and we’ve just closed a deal with Snoop Dogg for his new super group 213, comprised of Snoop, Warren G and Nate Dogg.
Are you currently looking for songs for any of your artists?
Many of our artists are self-contained, but we’re looking for producers for certain artists, like Pitbull, Oobie and Chyna Whyte.
How did you come across Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz and the Ying Yang Twins?
Jon used to be an A&R at So So Def, and he is a DJ, producer and artisthe does it all. He put out an album in 2000 called “We Still Crunk”, which was selling independently in three to four markets. I looked at the radio playlists, the SoundScans and talked to street-team people in Atlanta, St. Louis, Memphis and Dallas, basically the markets he was selling in. All the feedback was the same: he was the new guy.
I went to one of his shows in Atlanta and the energy there was amazing. It was like early Beastie Boys, when they had the energy of a rock group but they were rapping and it was just so different. Jon and I even referred to Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz as the black Beastie Boys because that energy is what crunk music is all about. Basically, I found John through research.
Straight after finding Lil Jon, I began talks with Michael “DJ Smurf” Crooms, CEO of Atlanta-based Collipark Records and the man behind the Ying Yang Twins. We tried to finalise a deal before they released the “Alley… Return of the Ying Yang Twins” album on Koch, but we weren’t able to close it fast enough, so we lost that album but we stayed in touch.
They were very impressed by the work we had done with Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. Koch had only signed them to a one-album deal; we were lucky that Smurf was smart enough to structure that kind of deal. When they became available again, we quickly started business with them.
They are both Southern acts; do you keep a special eye on the South?
Yes, I think you have to. The South has not been recognised as much as the East and the West have, but it’s a market that deserves an equal amount of attention. Lil Jon, Ludacris, Outkast and many more artists have forced people to pay attention to the South. The South and the Midwest are the two places that are still fresh.
Will the popularity of crunk music continue to spread?
Crunk is no different from so-called gangsta music, which is the title given to West Coast music. It’s a sound and an energy. People who know it know it isn’t new and those who understand what crunk music is realise that it’s not going to go away. It’s rap music and rap music will never lose its energy; it will just keep on developing, getting stronger and overlapping into different areas.
How do you find new talent?
You have to understand how radio and retail works and remember the one thing that doesn’t lie: the streets. You go to a club and see the natural reaction when a song comes on. You talk to the DJs, who are often also radio DJs, and if it works for them in the clubs, particularly in the South, they’ll play it on the radio. That’s the best testing ground, the clubs, that’s where you really see whether the kids like it or not.
You have to get out there; you can’t just sit at your desk and do A&R research. There’s a certain value in analysing BDS and SoundScan, but you have to get out there and go to the artists’ neighbourhoods to make sure that they have a base. The days of artists looking for labels to do everything for them are over.
Many artists think that when A&Rs tell them that they want an artist who can create a following, create a noise or start a record, it’s because A&Rs are lazy. What they don’t realise is that the game has changed. Self-sustained artists have raised the bar, and it’s these self-sustained artists that all artists have to compete with. It’s not the A&Rs that artists have to convince, because the A&Rs will follow the signs. If the streets and your research say that this is the guy, then you sign him.
The buzz has to be real, but generating a buzz can mean different things. It can mean servicing your record to radio and getting some BDS spins, it can mean going out independently and getting SoundScans, or it can mean rhyming and battling every rapper you come across. If an artist can freestyle in a room full of people and everybody’s just going crazy, then you sign him, even if he doesn’t have a demo.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I don’t accept unsolicited material generally, because I feel that artists should be creative when it comes to getting their stuff out there and creating a buzz, and sending a package by mail is not always the best way. I have found producers through unsolicited material, although this material didn’t come through the mail. They found other, more creative ways of getting it to me.
I probably get about 10-12 unsolicited packages a day and I listen to an average of thirty demos a week. I don’t throw anything away: I either listen to it myself or give it to someone whose ears I trust.
What kind of SoundScan figures make you take note of something?
That would be when I see, for example, someone doing a thousand units a week in two or three markets or someone doing six to seven hundred a week in several markets but lasting for five to six weeks. I often think that the figures for an artist aren’t necessarily low because only that number of people want the record, but because these people don’t have many resources or much financial support. Perhaps they just need someone who can release it the way it’s supposed to, and then six hundred units a week turns into six thousand a week.
I consider consistency and the markets they’re coming from. Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, New York, Memphis, and Houston are markets that you need to pay attention to, because it’s hard to sell records in those markets if you’re somebody who doesn’t have resources or experience.
And what about BDS spins?
The same applies: if it comes from certain markets or certain stations that you know are hard to get rotation on, you wonder why it is happening. Nine times out of ten, it’s because the DJ at that station keeps hearing the record in the clubs and decides that they want to be the ones to break it in their market.
Rap artists should therefore first make it big in their region before approaching A&Rs, if they even do so at all?
They don’t necessarily have to make it big, but they have to make people pay attention. If they choose to go the independent route and work a single on their own, it’s important that they establish a base. It’s important that they concentrate on their market and the surrounding markets, wherever you can drive within three to eight hours. They have to keep focused: instead of trying to conquer the world, they should conquer their world.
Do you focus on artists who have released records independently?
We’ve signed artists who hadn’t released any records, although artists are becoming smarter, more aggressive and more educated about the business. Therefore, you tend to pay more attention to the self-started artists, those who have set up their own label, released their own records, learnt about BDS and SoundScan and made an effort to understand retail and how much money they can make by selling a hundred thousand units when they own their own masters versus selling half a million records at the end of a royalty deal.
They’re more aggressive and they make sure that you notice them. In the end, you may find yourself signing more of these artists simply because they don’t take no for an answer.
Does the standard of production matter in a rap demo or is it just about rhyming skills?
It depends on whether or not your thing is the lyrics or whether it’s about a particular style or sound. I get a lot of demos from artists who want to be Lil Jon. They think that all they have to do is to come in with a hard, dark beat and scream on the record, as if that’s what makes Lil Jon successful!
I might find an artist who can rhyme even if the music isn’t there yet; if that were the case, I would try to find a better producer. When you listen to a demo you listen to it as a whole: the music, the artist, the style, the voice, and so on.
How involved are you with the repertoire and production?
I’m pretty good at making artists feel like I’m part of their team, but it all depends on the artists. Lil Jon bounces ideas off me and I give him ideas, but he knows his world and his music better than anyone else does. He’s the King of it!
When it comes to the Ying Yang Twins, Smurf and I continuously bounce things off of each other, but Smurf understands his artists. He and I played a huge role in helping Ying Yang to go from being local to being national artists. We’re encouraging them to branch out, to start working with other artists and to think bigger. I’ve helped Ying Yang a lot in those areas.
Some of the “rookie” acts need a lot more guidance, so I help them in whichever area is needed.
How much does it cost to market and promote an album on a national level?
There are different stages. During the initial stages, you have to be prepared to go after it and turn it up when you start seeing the signs, so basically, by the time you actually release the first video and the album, you might have already spent a million dollars.
Do we need new, more cost-efficient ways of breaking new artists?
I think we have that in the Internet, and we just have to embrace it more creatively. The costs are forcing labels to change the ways they market and promote their albums. It’s like the beginning of hip-hop, when street teams were invented, and people went out there with the old-fashioned hand-to-hand method of handing out flyers and putting up postcards and stickers.
Do you support your artists financially when they are on tour?
Yes, we do, although it does depend on what stage a project is at. We also find cost effective ways to expose our artist and we use a lot of cross-marketing opportunities that help accomplish the same goal.
Is urban music too producer-driven and not sufficiently artist-driven?
No; that was more the case before but artists have been getting very smart lately. Outkast, for example, are not as producer-driven as they were before. It used to be Organized Noize, but now Big Boi and Dre are considered creative artists; it’s not about production as much as about them continuing to expand and express their vision, just like Jon, Missy Elliott and many more artists. I would say that it has balanced out a bit.
Do you agree with the fact that the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is tracking and suing certain file sharing individuals?
The RIAA and other groups are trying to find ways of policing downloading and getting their message out there. People may agree or disagree with their methods, but we’re at a point where we need to ensure that people pay attention to what’s going on.
Are there any aspects of the music industry that you would like to change?
I would change certain aspects of the politics at labels and at radio stations. I would encourage labels and radio stations to allow artists to be creative and to allow their executives to take chances on artists who may not necessarily fit into what’s out there right now but that might work if given the chance.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The greatest moment would probably be the year 2003. As a company and label, TVT has gone through many ups and down but the way we ended the year was incredible.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I see myself continuing to develop as a person and being more in the ownership chair.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan
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