Interview with CHRIS ANOKUTE, A&R for Katy Perry, Joss Stone - Oct 18, 2010
“My first real A&R job is A&Ring a record for Joss Stone with a budget of $1 million.”
After being dropped by two major labels, Katy Perry’s (USA & UK No.1) Teenage Dream of pop stardom looked likely to remain wishful fantasy until she was brought to Virgin/Capitol by chairman Jason Flom. As part of Flom’s team, the then junior A&R Chris Anokute got his career break helping contribute to Perry’s extraordinary rebirth at the label.
In this exclusive interview with HitQuarters, Universal Motown’s new Senior VP of A&R offers his own account of how he contributed to Perry’s pop supernova career, and also reveals that for his first A&R project he was given the label’s biggest star at the time, Joss Stone (UK No.1 & USA No.2), and a $1 million budget.*
How did you first get into the music business?
When I was 17 I was always going to a place in New York owned by Puff Daddy called Justin's Restaurant. On Tuesdays they had a music industry night so everyone would be there. You would run into artists, managers, publishers, A&R people … I wasn't old enough to get in but I was always hanging out in front to see who I would run into. One day I saw Whitney Houston's father, Johnny Houston, in a car. The license plate said ‘Nippy’, Whitney's nickname.
I knocked on the door. I told him I was from [New] Jersey, loved his daughter, believed in her music and that I wanted to be part of the management team. He hired me for an apprenticeship. He said, "I'm not going to be working in the office but come over on the weekend and talk shopping music and have dinner." I used to go to his house every weekend for three months and talk about the music business. He schooled me on everything he knew. I was inspired. He was my first ‘in’ into the music business.
What did that ‘in’ then lead into?
I was so intrigued by him that when I was 18 years old I started my own company with my first business partner, Stephen Chukumba, managing writers and producers in Jersey. At the same time, I also got an internship in A&R admin at Def Jam for an executive by the name of Rob Mitchell. He was my first record label mentor. I interned for him every day from 9 ‘til 7 for over a year.
I think with A&R admin you really understand the business of music. You’re hiring producers and working out recording budgets. As I'm making copies of documents for my boss, I'm reading everything in front of me in attempts to learn. I'm teaching myself recording and publishing contracts and producer agreements.
After paying my dues I eventually became an assistant - assisting the admin for projects like Sum41, Ashanti, Foxy Brown and Jay Z's Blueprint. Kanye West was coming into the office – he would always stop by our side to pick up his producer cheques because at the time he was a producer for Def Jam artists. No one was taking him serious as a rapper but he was relentless. He would play me demos in my ‘cubicle’ and tell me how one day he’d be the biggest artist in the business. That was probably the most memorable part of the internship, because to see Kanye be so successful now, all I remember was ‘the dreamer’ in Kanye. And that alone is inspiring - dreams do come true!
As an assistant, I was using the Def Jam business phone to call other labels. No one on the outside knew that I was just an assistant - they thought I worked for Def Jam. I used that to get clients to work with me. I’d cold-call record labels and as soon as I dropped the Def Jam name people would listen to me and put me on the phone with their boss. I started shopping artists for production and publishing deals.
What writers and producers were you trying to shop?
I discovered this kid called J.U.S and cold-called somebody at BMG [Music Publishing]. That led me through to Deirdre O'Hara - who now runs BMG rights - and Monti Olson - now head of A&R at Universal Publishing - and I secured my client a $150,000 publishing deal. So here I am 19 years old commissioning 20% of a big publishing deal. The artist never got a record deal, but the pub deal out put money in my pocket and gave me the confidence to keep on developing.
I then discovered this writer by the name of Alisha Brooks. I introduced her to one of my next-door neighbours - Vada Nobles, who was responsible for the production on ’The Mis-education of Lauryn Hill’. He gave us a bunch of instrumentals to write to. In my house she wrote a song called ‘Pon de Replay’. I knew the song was a smash.
I had a lawyer at the time called Scott Felcher - who was more like a friend and a mentor to help me set up my company – and Scott calls me and says, "One of my clients, Evan Rogers, met a 16-year-old girl in Barbados called Rihanna and she is developing for demos. Chris, I know you run around town and know a lot of producers and writers so let me know if any good songs come across your desk."
Rihanna was an unsigned girl so nobody really cared. My writer goes to Connecticut where she was working at the time, and cut ‘Pon de Replay’ and two additional tracks. Two weeks later Scott Felcher calls me and tells me he’s about to shop the deal. Literally, as I’m still working at Def Jam, Scott walks Rihanna in to A&R Executive, Jay Brown (HQ interview). They sign Rihanna on the spot. I'm like, wow, it seems like the song we gave her got her a deal! Scott then tells me they love ‘Pon De Replay’ and they want it to be her first single. Three months later, the song is Number 1 single in America.
So here I am now 22 years old, making little money as an assistant at Def Jam. I didn't really know how money is made from the song until the first publishing cheque comes in, and it’s the biggest cheque I’d ever seen at the time - well over 6 figures. I had a publishing/financial interest in the song, because I managed the writer/producer and brokered the song. I quit the assistant job at Def Jam and went full time entrepreneur.
What did you then focus your efforts on?
I started my own independent production company, signing artists up. The first kid I signed was J-Mello. After five weeks of working with him, I walked into Island/Def Jam to see Shakir Stewart (HQ interview) and Karen Kwak and they were so impressed, they put us in front of L.A Reid that day and I got the kid signed on the spot.
Now this is the turning point where I realize I'm not a manager, because once again I'm able to get the artist signed but not able to get them out. Like J.U.S - I got him a publishing deal but he never got a record deal.
With J-Mello, L.A. Reid gave us a big deal and I'm playing the role as executive producer. Two months later everything comes crashing down and Reid drops the project. I don't know what that meant. All I know is, he gave us a deal, gave us the money but then drops the project. Maybe because I wasn't the most seasoned manager or maybe L.A. Reid just stopped believing in the project. I still wonder today!
You say that was a turning point - so how did that change things for you?
It made me change my whole perception of the music business because I realized the power is on the inside. If I worked inside the label I could make sure the project doesn't get dropped. I decided to become an A&R person because I don't want to see the artist not have a shot. It's so important to have an A&R that totally believes in the project to navigate the company, keep the project alive and hopefully get it out one day.
I went to LA for two months and started working with a dear friend of mine, Sundafu, who used to work as a producer for Babyface. He was developing a Latina singer by the name of Angela Via. I said to myself, “I'm going to shop this girl and get a job as an A&R guy”. I knew I had the talent of discovering talent and getting them signed.
When I had Angela Via's demo I started cold-calling everybody. I called Ron Fair (HQ interview), Sylvia Rhone and Jason Flom (HQ interview). I knew Jason was working at Atlantic and had moved over to Virgin to develop their pop/rock roster, and so I cold-called him and for some reason he decided to take a meeting. I played him the music of this girl Angela and he loved it so much he flew her in next day, showcased her and signed her on the spot.
Before I could even negotiate my own situation he said, "Would you ever do A&R?" and I said, "Of course. Actually that is what I was looking to do!" So he calls his head of business affairs Jeff Kempler (HQ interview). Kempler was the head of the department I worked for at Def Jam three years back and he remembered me, and the passion I had for the business and told Jason, "Yes, this guy is great!" So Jason Flom said, "You have to give up management and come work for me." He made me senior director of A&R. I was his right hand guy. Everywhere he went, I went. Any meeting with creative people he took, I took.
What did you say to him on the phone when you cold-called him?
I said my name is Chris Anokute, I used to work for Def Jam, I have a management company, I brokered Rihanna's ‘Pon da Replay’ and just got an artist signed to LA Reid. Basically I was just dropping jewels to his assistant. She communicated that information to her boss and he called me back.
Why do you think he took a chance with you?
I think it was the right place at the right time; he was just building Virgin Records, building the A&R department and looking for someone just like me - somebody young who understands pop music and has an understanding of urban culture. I won him over in the meeting with tons of charm and enthusiasm.
He was a real mentor. He was the first that believed in me unconditionally. I was meeting people like Timbaland, Ahmet Ertegun, Kid Rock, Diane Warren (, Quincy Jones … He put me in his circle. I’m sitting with the most powerful people in the entertainment industry and Jason was referring to me for my opinion of music. He was really validating me as an executive, and my talent of understanding pop music. It was a real honour to work for Jason Flom.
What project did he then give you to work on as senior director of A&R?
Joss Stone was the biggest artist on the label and had sold over 20 million records worldwide and he gave me the project to A&R her second album! He sends me to Barbados for two months to work with her and develop her songs. I hired the producers and introduced her to the songwriters. I had a vision for the record.
I got Lauryn Hill to duet with her. This was the first time after ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ that she’d come back to guest on somebody else's record. I put her with Raphael Saadiq, Novel, Dallas Austin and Common.
So my first real A&R job is A&Ring a record for Joss Stone with a budget of $1 million. I'm collaborating with her manager Marty Maidenberg and Merck Mercuriadis, who are very powerful credible people. Now I have the ability to make things happen because I'm working for a major record label with a major artist and I can pay the people I want to work with. Joss Stone's record turned out a two times platinum record with two hits.
How did you decide what producer or songwriters to go with?
I’ve always had relationships with producers, I’ve always been a fan of certain producers and I know what kind of music I like.
How do you find new producers songwriters etc., people that don't have a name yet but have great creative ideas?
I listen to everything. I have people hitting me up on Facebook, people calling me through their manager or lawyer.
Just send me music! I listen to everything I get. If I don't like it I respond quickly. I mean at the end of the day, you have producers like Tricky Stewart, Rodney Jerkins, Dr. Luke … these people are dear friends of mine and they are hit makers for a reason. They know how to deliver hits. But the truth is, if you are talented and I like the stuff that I hear, that's all it takes.
I'm looking for the next songwriter and the next producer every single day because it's so hard and so expensive to hire some of these bigger names. We need to find smarter ways to make records. I want to be in business with the next generation period. I'm normally up till 3am in the morning and I do most of my listening at night.
How did you discover Katy Perry?
Well then I wanted to develop something myself - do something that wasn't handed to me. Jason Flom invited me to the Grammy Awards in 2006 and he’s introducing me to everybody, "This is my new hot A&R, Chris Anokute." Jason introduces me to Angelica Cob-Baehler, a long time publicity executive at Columbia Records.
She was telling me about this girl Katy Perry that was signed to Columbia. I said, "Who’s Katy Perry?" and she said, "She’s a singer-songwriter. She’s incredible. She used to be a Christian singer and Columbia doesn't really know what to do with her and they are about to drop her.” I said, "Well, send me the music!"
She sent me a DVD and three demos. I put in the DVD. It was an independent low budget video of a song called ‘Simple’ - an early song she did with Glen Ballard. For some reason I thought, oh my god she is a superstar. She reminded me of Alanis Morissette. I listened to two other songs on the demo. One was ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ and when I heard that I thought, this is a number one record!
I took the demo and went to Jason Flom’s office and said, "Oh my god, I’ve found the next Avril Lavigne meets Alanis Morissette." When I played him the demos he wasn't sure if it was good enough. To be honest he didn't really get it. More importantly he had heard about her through the years and this wasn't the first time Katy Perry had been dropped – she’d been dropped before from Island Def Jam. But because I was so passionate about it, Jason decided to come to a showcase in LA at the Viper Room. The showcase wasn't that good to be honest – although I saw the star talent in her.
I'm so passionate about it that every single week I'm beating him up, trying to convince him to sign her, saying, "Jason, we'll find the record, we'll develop her, we’ll figure it out! There is something special about her, I know she is a star. Who cares that she was dropped?” Angelica Cob is helping me fight the good fight because she is about to get hired by Virgin as a senior publicity executive, and Katy was her baby! We were determined to get this deal through
I don't know what happened but one Sunday almost seven weeks later, Jason emails me, "It's great, what are we waiting for? Let's sign the girl." So we talked to Jeff Kempler, who does all our deals at Virgin, and we offered her a deal.
What were the next steps once your signed her?
Jason was then talking to Dr. Luke in a meeting and played him Katy Perry. He’d worked with Katy at Columbia but he’d never finished what he’d started - I guess because she wasn't a priority at Columbia. Jason convinced Dr. Luke to go back into the studio with Katy. They cut ‘I Kissed A Girl’, ‘Hot n Cold’ and she wrote two new songs with Greg Wells (HQ interview) - ‘Ur So Gay’ and ‘Mannequin’. We probably ended up with five new songs for the record and then we picked the six best songs from the record that was on Columbia.
We put out ‘Ur So Gay’ as a single as a kind of introduction because we thought we’d have to build her story all over again. It was kind of a novelty song. We never had plans to go to radio - we just wanted to put it out online and see what the attraction was. We shot a low budget video and the response was great. We didn't expect to sell 50,000 EPs and we sure didn't - we sold only a few thousand. In my opinion it did well in terms of building a press story but because people didn't run to iTunes to buy the EP some executives in the company started backpedalling.
When she was cutting ‘I Kissed A Girl’, she comes into my office and plays me the song on her guitar. I thought, oh my god, if the music is incredible then this is a career record. I couldn't wait to start playing it to people in the office, but for some reason people weren't getting it. One influential senior exec told me it sounded like an international club track. Other people said, "This is never going to get played on the radio. How do we sell this? How’s this going to be played in the bible belt?" I was 24 - I know what young people out there listen to. I’ve partied and hung out socially with Katy and her friends, and I knew how she responded to music, so I kept on fighting.
I convinced one of the radio guys to believe in the record. Dennis Reese saw the vision. So I had to use him to try to convince everyone to give this record a shot. So we have one shot - if this doesn't go Katy is probably going to get dropped. We have to make a statement. Dennis Reese helps me to push the record as a single.
The first station to play Katy’s single was ‘The River’ in Nashville. They took a chance and after playing it for three days, they were getting #1 phones. A star was born.
It certainly wasn’t an overnight success story then?
A lot of people think it happened overnight but it didn't. She was signed multiple times and it took us 14 to 18 month to get her out, develop it and convince people. It wasn’t easy to get her signed, I A&Red the record and spent a year convincing people. I even had her come to the office, and no matter if it were interns, assistants, media people, sales people, I would just have her play acoustic guitar and showcase her songs to anyone that would listen. I had nine people standing around in my small office watching her play. This internal buzz building was happening for a year.
How did the eventual success affect your own career?
It was a real breakthrough. I never knew what it felt like to fail because none the things I’d had had ever come out, and if they don't come out then to me it's not a failure. So one of the first artists I sign as an A&R breaks, has a number one album, four hit records and sells over 5 million albums worldwide.
I tried to sign more talent but the truth is the company was so focused on Katy Perry that it was hard for me to focus on anything else. I signed this girl Pricilla Renea that ended up having a mid charting single. The company could only spend so many resources on other projects considering the fact that Katy was the artist that made the bottom line work.
I moved to Capitol because Virgin merged with Capitol. We moved Katy to Capitol because it just made more sense because she was living in LA. I moved to LA and started work on her new album.
We wanted to try something different, more rhythmic on the dancefloor without losing who Katy Perry was. So I introduced her to new producers like Tricky Stewart, Stargate and Rodney Jerkins. It was cool for her because she’d never worked with an urban producer. But I thought it would give her a different kind of edge, especially since she’s a singer songwriter who brings the main ideas to the table when collaborating with producers.
Tricky Stewart ended up doing four songs for the project. He was the first producer we worked with on the project. I brought in hit songwriter Ester Dean into the Stargate sessions, and she co-wrote two songs on the album. And of course, we spent lots of time with Dr Luke, Max Martin and that camp.
The last songs we did were ‘California Gurls’ and ‘Teenage Dream’. When I went to the studio and heard a rough version of ‘California Gurls’ I was like, "Katy, you’ve done it again!" Katy has incredible instinct.
So how did ‘California Gurls’ come to life?
I remember the first time she spoke about this idea like it was yesterday! At 3 am, on the way back from an Oscar after-party, Katy texts me saying, "Chris, I don't think my record is done - there is one more song I want to write, I feel it in my gut! I want to write a song about California girls." At the time the Jay-Z song ‘Empire State of Mind’ was huge and everyone in LA is singing, “New York …” and she wanted to have a song for California. She had the whole vision.
I heard the demo and I was floored. She had a vision for Snoop [Dogg] to guest on the record. I was close to his camp, so I contacted his manager Ted Chung that same day and say, "I got a smash for Snoop/Katy Perry. It’s called ‘California Gurls’ and it will bring him back to Top 40 radio." He says, "Send me the record." I say, "I can't, she’s just recorded her vocals. You gotta come to the studio and I promise you, you won't be disappointed.” He said, "Let me call you back and see if Snoop is into it."
Then I'm having dinner with my girlfriend and Ted calls me and says, "Snoop is in town, if you’re at the studio we'll come now …" So I say to my girlfriend, “Babe, let me pay for dinner, Snoop is coming to the studio I gotta go …" I get to the studio in a dash and Snoop beats me there. I see Katy Perry, Dr Luke and Max Martin’s faces, and we look at each other like, “Oh my god!"
He listens to ‘California Gurls’ and then rolls up some magic and 30 minutes later we’re listening to ‘California Gurls’ featuring Snoop! To me that was a big moment - I've been listening to Snoop since I was a kid and to be able to play a role in getting one of the biggest rap artists on Katy Perry's single … wow, this is why I do this!
The Katy Perry record is on fire, the album is sounding incredible and I'm telling you right now, every single song she recorded made the record for the most part. We only recorded 14 songs. We didn't waste any time. She only recorded songs that she loved and that she knew she was going to keep, and we only brought in major producers.
Once you’d recorded the album with Perry why did you then decide to leave EMI/Virgin/Capitol?
EMI/Virgin/Capitol was so good to me. Jason Flom was so good to me, but Jason was no longer there. I was working for new people: Nick Gatfield and Rob Stevenson. They are nice people but I didn't have the energy with them that I had with Jason. So it felt like my time was up at EMI I wanted to have new challenges.
I talked to Katy and asked her, "If I decide to leave the company, how would you feel about that?" She said, "You can't do that yet! Stay with me for one more record, and then do whatever you need to do to make you happy”. So I said, "OK, I'm going to A&R your 2nd album but after this album, I'm leaving because there is nowhere else to go for me here at EMI. I need to work for a bigger company with more resources.” She was in full support.
I delivered her record to the company on May 1st. Every song was done minus maybe two mixes. On May 6th ‘California Gurls’ leaked to radio, so we had to go! On May 7th it was the number one record in America on iTunes. I literally left the company the day the first single debuted at number 1. That was a true blessing and a great way to leave a company that was so good to me.
I left the company to work with Universal Motown. I was getting calls from every major executive in the music business. But I chose to work for Sylvia Rhone because she didn't really have a lot of success at Motown in the pop arena. They have a lot of urban success with Lil Wayne, Drake and Akon but they don't have the Katy Perrys or Lady Gagas … so I can reinvent myself and fill that gap. I'm the SVP of West Coast A&R for Sylvia Rhone - her new creative ace. I'm going to help her develop her roster into the best pop label in the music business.
How do you think the role of A&R will develop in the future?
They cannot just be a scout. My approach to A&R comes from a management perspective - I was a manager first - it's about finding the talent, developing it, managing it and helping them through the entire process.
A&R have to embrace technology and new media. They have to be more hands on, more accountable. Success comes from how much you are doing for your artist - finding the right marketing people, PR, media, radio and promotion people that help you get your artist out there. Liaise with the management company, liaise with the touring company, and understand Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Bebo and the applications on your iPhone. Understand the consumers’ understanding of buying music. You have to understand the consumer so you can sell to the consumer.
There is a unique relationship an A&R has with an artist that you can't take away. Great artists have great A&R people that develop their talent. There’s a lot of psychology involved in giving the artist the confidence and educating all the people in the company. Make them understand the artists’ vision so the music can be sold.
And then you are not only selling music. It's 360 - you sell an experience, you sell a brand. Nowadays if I cannot sell 10 million CDs, how do I get 10 million people to watch my artist’s video he/she just put on YouTube? If I have 10 million eyeballs on the YouTube video then I can sell advertising and start making money that way.
It's about connecting the artist with the fan and making that experience so personal that the consumer buys into everything that is attached to the brand.
I'm not in the record business to be a corporate executive suit. I'm in it for the artist. I will fight for every single artist I sign until I lose my job. Music is not like any other career, it's an emotion, a passion. If you put your career in my hands I better work my ass off to give you a shot. That's how I treat my job. All I care about is doing what we said we are going to do for the artist when we sign them. If we drop the ball we’re risking people's livelihoods.
No one gave me anything. I had to fight for it. I was an intern and used my internship and the resources around me and developed a career for myself. Def Jam never wanted to give me a job because it's hard to grow in a company. I had to create my own job by being an entrepreneur and developing my own songwriters, artists and my own personality. It's about believing in yourself, not taking no for an answer and really having an opinion.
If I believe in something and think it's good then it’s good. All you need to do is to convince the people that put out the records to believe in you. No one is ever seeing eye-to-eye with you on your ideology in music or your taste. All I ask is that you trust me!
* The interview introduction was amended on 20 January 2011 to clarify that Chris Anokute was not responsible for discovering Katy Perry and facilitating her breakthrough at Capitol as originally implied. The full details of the circumstances surrounding the signing are revealed in this news feature.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Bad Boy A&R and Diddy right-hand man Daniel 'Skid' Mitchell on signing Janelle Monáe
Read On ...
* Former Ex VP of Virgin, Jeff Kempler, presents a first-hand account of circumstances surrounding the Katy Perry signing
* Former Virgin/Capitol chairman Jason Flom on Jessie J and Lava's rebirth
* Industry mastermind Ron Fair on what he looks for in potential signees
* Jay-Z's right-hand Jay Brown on how Rihanna and Ne-Yo caught his eye
* The late great Shakir Stewart on Atlanta as the hub of urban music