Interview with CHRIS HICKS, record industry executive (Justin Bieber, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige) - Aug 22, 2011
“When Usher showed me a video of Justin singing ‘With You’ on a BlueBerry it was a no-brainer. We started making moves right after I saw that - before I’d even met him.“
When highly respected record industry executive Chris Hicks resigned as Executive Vice-President at Island/Def Jam earlier this month, it was announced that he wouldn’t be severing ties with the label group entirely, but continue to be on hand as consultant for a number of “high-profile projects”. Hicks was clearly loath to abandon Justin Bieber (No.1 US, AUS, CAN, NZ), a pet project Hicks had nurtured from conception to the phenomenon it is today.
In this exclusive interview, the record exec, artist manager, publisher, who has worked with artists including Mary J. Blige, The-Dream, Usher, Aaliyah, Lil Wayne among many others, talks about how he helped turn a “13-year-old white kid from Ontario singing soulful R&B” into a global megastar.
You’ve played a major role in the rise of the pop artist Justin Bieber. How were your first introduced to him?
Scooter [Braun] made contact with Justin and then brought him to Usher's attention, who then introduced him to me. I was managing Usher at the time and with Justin he found an artist that he was interested in doing business with. He brought it to me to help assist him with getting into business with the artist and finding a home for it.
What were your first impressions?
When Usher showed me a video clip of Justin singing ‘With You’ on a BlueBerry it was a no-brainer. We started making moves right after I saw that video - before I’d even met him.
What was the idea behind setting him up as an R&B/hip-hop artist?
First of all the initial idea came from Justin himself. He was already online singing Usher, Ne-Yo and Chris Brown songs. I think that's where the fascination came in - to hear a 13-year-old white kid from Ontario, Canada singing very soulful R&B hits and doing it with credibility. A lot of songs he was singing online I was actually publishing, either personally or through the company I was working for. So I was familiar with it and it just fit. The kid told the story what we had to do creatively and I would just seize it and pour gas on it.
How are you looking for the right songs for him and making sure he's working with the right producers?
I'm a music guy first and foremost and Justin has a very clear understanding of who and where he wants to be. Scooter came into the office and played me four or five new things that Justin Bieber wrote and we immediately jumped on the phone. Usher or Justin Timberlake provide the perfect template of what Justin Bieber can be. It's not necessarily us reinventing the world, it's us keeping it sturdy and guiding him in the right direction creatively.
What was your involvement in developing Justin and what were the key aspects?
I was working with him creatively, bringing a couple of songs to the table, and I was working it at the label side.
I think Justin was very fortunate because he not only had a manager for his manager but also a manager in myself as the label, and so we were able to customise things around the way we saw him as opposed to pigeonholing him into a straight, up-and-down pop success.
Once we figured out essentially what we wanted to do, the biggest part I played was in getting him around the necessary choreographers, coaches and vocal producers to correlate the whole vision. I was making sure that we were turning over every stone creatively, not only from what you hear, also from a presentation point.
How long did it actually take from when Usher showed you the video to a proper release?
I would say about nine months. But there is a longer runway there - once we sent the single to radio it took another seven months to come to fruition. During that period he was out on the road performing all around the nation and his viral presence was growing. It was great for us because as a company we had minimal expectations and so we could afford to keep working and developing him, and allow it to grow little by little.
How much was Usher involved in breaking him?
What Usher provided was credibility. He is one of the few artists in the world to ever sell a diamond album and he is a cornerstone of the elite pop and R&B community, and of pop culture. He also provided light through his fame, and in identifying another old and mature soul talent like Justin in the first place. I think all of that played a big role in where we are today.
When you think back what do you think was the key to Justin's phenomenal YouTube rise?
He was doing something different. He was an attractive white kid singing very soulful R&B hits. That set him apart immediately from anyone in his range because no one was covering or singing these kind of records. But equally important was that you believed in these songs - it was real. And you wanted to hear more.
He is also a multi-talented musician. The kid can also play a number of instruments and he plays by ear without ever having had any practical training. His viral community is aware of all of this and so he became credible to them from the start. We just enhanced it.
So if you have an online phenomenon how as a label can you take advantage of that and, as you say, enhance it?
Exactly the way we did. I think we did some things that were very unconventional - we were not forcing Justin down a regular route.
The first EP we put out was eight songs and we were releasing four songs on iTunes before the album even came out. People thought if you are showing so much of the album no one would buy the album when it comes out - but I think it worked on the converse.
We were able to put out a product and gain credibility in the marketplace and able to do it virally. We didn't have to wait for TV and we weren’t forced to go with the traditional formats. So the moment we put something out we got immediate feedback to where we were from his viral channel. It was almost the equivalent to getting 4,000 hip-hop and R&B spins or 9,000 top 40 spins. We were then able to move on it accordingly.
We were releasing 18 pieces of music over a six-month period. No one did that. I have to give Scooter a lot of credit because he would come into my office and we would have very unconventional conversations and either agree or disagree to do it his or my way but it was all based on things that made sense for the artist.
So what was the idea behind releasing so much music in such a short period of time?
There were several concepts. If you are a new artist you have to see several impressions to gain consumer confidence and have them invest in you - they are buying your album, buying your EP, buying your concert ticket … When I was young I had to wait for the radio or wait for video shows to play my videos. Now everything is play and click on demand and so people consume faster. We want to be able to feed his audience at a pace that they are used to as opposed to a normal traditional pace.
Normally you would think you put everything on one single and try to make that one song a hit ...
That release schedule would have been too slow. Justin Bieber managed to sell about 12 million singles domestically and 6 million albums domestically between all the other products he put out. That includes six or more platinum singles and the second album triple platinum. I don't think we would have reached those numbers if we’d have gone for a traditional route in making a single-centric and focused for a longer period of time.
We might chase that strategy now we have some consumer confidence but initially I think we did it the right way.
If you have an artist like Justin with a big online following, is it enough to put out an iTunes song and expect people to instantly find it and buy it?
He had the early benefit of having viral cache and he was also on the road promoting via radio shows complementing that viral cache and bringing it to life. Then he also had the benefit of us working his record at radio. So we didn't rely on one specific outlet to feed it to the marketplace.
But with radio you would still think of just focusing on one song and trying to get that promoted. Did you hit up the radio every week with new songs as well?
Every week our radio promotions team beat down one time. And they did that over a period of six to seven months. Every week there would be a new indicator because virals were shooting through the roof and that would allow us to get more spins in certain markets.
Would you say that all this suggests that marketing needn’t necessarily follow a traditional path anymore and could benefit from different and more inventive approaches?
It's different for every artist. You really have to put your heads together and figure out which way works specifically for the particular artist. If the artist has a different kind of talent, interest level or demographic you may release differently. Instead of looking for one way to do it, a better way at looking at it is that there is no one way - you have to think outside the box.
As you’ve said, part of Justin’s appeal is that he is different - a 13-year-old white kid from Ontario singing R&B. With that in mind was it initially hard to find a major-label distribution partner for it?
Not when they got to me. We figured out what we wanted to do very quickly and we had all the relationships in the pocket to make it happen.
What kind of relationships do you need for something like this?
Scooter has the talent and is an up-and-coming executive. Everybody recognised his energy. Usher was a household name - he's a superstar - so you can get pretty much any chairman in the world on the phone. And then from an A&R perspective my resources are pretty much limitless.
So between the three of us it wasn't hard to figure out what we wanted to do and allow us to make a deal that we thought would work. The Island/Def Jam solution was the one.
What's the plan for the future with Justin Bieber?
Go back in and make a studio album by the end of the summer. We want to make great music, have hits and sustain him as one of the biggest superstars in the world.
As shown with Justin Bieber one of your chief skills is in bringing the right people together. Can you give us an example of where that ability has had a decisive impact in the careers of those involved?
I was managing [songwriter-producer] Bryan-Michael Cox and [singer-songwriter] Johntá Austin, and they had worked with a lot of people, but never with Mary J. Blige. Today her husband [Kendu Isaacs] is one of my best friends, but then I was just another guy on the phone hounding him to get an audience with him and his wife, to get an opportunity to work on her project. But it wasn't as easy as just calling her up. The relationship was something I pursued long before I ever presented a song to her.
In the end it took two years to build a relationship. When this specific opportunity eventually happened there was some question marks about her and her future. She’d just put out her least successful album and for us we’d had some successes in the music industry but never broken through to the magnitude that the ‘Be Without You’ situation had for all of us. It made Johntá and Bryan much more household as songwriters and producers and Mary J. gave them the credibility by letting them do the song and then acknowledging the contribution to it afterwards.
Mary's album sold 6 or 7 million copies, she won three Grammys and re-established herself. For me as an executive it gave me a clear point of reference for what I do and that is create those opportunities.
I'm a person, and I mean this in the most respectful way, who doesn't believe in no. I try to maintain that outlook even today. Pretty much everything you get you have to work hard for. You've got to really put yourself in position to prove that you are laying it all on the line for them as well.
How do you convince people to follow your vision?
A lot of it is based on faith, on hearing something, believing and seeing five steps ahead when you first make that initial encounter. There are a few principles I live by - I only do what I really believe in and I try to operate from a moral place.
On the other side of the fence, if I'm a young up-and-coming artist and I think I have some great music then how do I attract your attention?
It's persistence. And there's a real quality team of people around me who are doing a great job of letting me know what I should be aware of.
The key to explaining yourself as a young songwriter or a young entrepreneur, or as anybody who is trying to make a connection, is to put yourself in a situation where you might get rejected. It might not always go the way of your initial idea but that level of perseverance will not only teach the person whose attention you're trying to get, it will also teach you a lot about yourself.
You must get a ton of demos and people that want to work with you. Is there enough time to check out new things?
I try to listen to most but again my team helps me to find out what needs the most attention. At this point of my career I want to be a little harder. I want someone to work harder to get my attention to let me know that it's that important.
There’s a real stress on working social media and building a buzz at the moment. Do you think this is obscuring the importance of having great original music to back it up?
I don't want to undermine the importance of social media but nothing is more important than creating great music. Without it you won't prosper. The consumer has too much power in this on-demand society.
Has there been an artist recently that has caught your attention?
Oh yeah, I just signed a 12-year-old girl. Her manager was trying to catch me a month or so. She caught me coming out of the Universal building and we agreed to make a deal right there and then.
I read that when you began working at Warner Chappell publishing a few years back you restructured the whole department and led it to a lot of success. What were the major changes you brought in?
What I did was I applied a very small company mentality to a very large company. They were working in the macro and we worked better in the micro. Instead of buying market share we became confident in side pushing it, trying to dictate it.
When you think about company structure, where are changes needed right now in the major label world?
Big or small company, profit would mean the most to me. I would want to monetize every aspect of what I'm doing for the artists. Not just the records. If I'm making you famous I want to be in the forefront of bringing you a movie deal, a licensing deal and a brand opportunity.
I want to be proactive in the different elements of your career and I want to have everything in place to help you exploit all those aspects in a professional way the same way I take your record to radio and get a play. We have to be more media based as opposed to just record centred.
Some artists might say, ‘We don't need any a label controlling all our revenue streams when we can do everything ourselves now’. As a major label, what are able to do better than anyone else?
What we do right now better than anybody is to get your record on the radio. Radio is still a big measure of success. Radio provides more long-term gratification but all the mediums are changing and evolving everyday.
Where you caught us with our pants down is in watching what TV does in providing immediate gratification - TV puts millions of eyes on you immediately. The Internet put countless amounts of eyes on you over a period of time that can find you over and over again. We have to get smarter about how we do things.
For new artists, would you say a major record label still has an overwhelming influence in being able to take things up to a higher level, or is its significance being undermined by other smaller and more accessible channels?
I think our power is declining. And I think we're not developing in the same pace as we did in the past. So the necessity of a record company becomes smaller and unless we recommit ourselves to other aspects of exploitation - i.e. development, different media outlets - and create new and innovative ways to attach value to what we can do to a specific artist then we are going to be outside of the bubble.
Would that mean that labels have to cut down even more and outsource things?
I think before they get any smaller they are being bought. I see media companies buying record companies making them part of an overall umbrella that accomplishes several different outlets - somebody like News Corp. buying a company like EMI and plugging them into their PR outlets, for example. Or a digital company like Myspace buying a record company and exploiting their catalogue. I just think things will take a different shape. Record companies were always heavy and I'm not sure if that will be the case anymore in the future.
If you think about a normal single-album-tour cycle, how do you see that evolving?
I think a smart company would line up all the artists together and utilise them all early. As well as going to independent touring companies like Live Nation or AEG and giving them an interest in exploiting by providing outlets and a platform for something early on. But it takes person with a lot of credibility to make those deals because how should those companies decide what they should and shouldn't be doing? I think that's where a person like me will become handy in the future.
So a company like Live Nation or AEG would need an A&R department ...
Give me another six months and I’ll talk to you again ...[laughs]
Do you see changes coming there very quickly or do you think it will slowly adapt?
For me personally I see changes coming but overall in the business I see things morphing a bit slower. It's like turning the Titanic compared to a little sea boat.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
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