Interview with KEVIN LAW, A&R at Universal for Nelly (USA No.1) - Oct 3, 2002
“Very few people at the record label liked [Nelly] when I signed him. Most of the feedback was extraordinarily negative! That was a lesson for me: you can’t put too much stock in opinions, you have to have faith in your ability and in the artist.”
Kevin Law is A&R for Nelly. Nelly's debut album “Country Grammar” (2000) sold 8 million copies in US, and “Nellyville”, his second album, released in June 2002, has to date sold 3 million. Kevin is also the A&R for St. Lunatics, the group that Nelly is a member of, and which have sold 1 million copies of their 2001 debut album “Free City”.
What were the important factors in Nelly's development?
With Nelly we took our time. He came from an area in the US (St. Louis, Missouri) that is virtually untouched in terms of the hip-hop community. Most of the records at the time were coming from New York, down South or the West Coast, so for me it was an exciting opportunity to brand him as the Midwest star.
We wanted the entire campaign for Nelly to be regional. We wanted to be embraced by St. Louis and by the Midwest. We wanted that region of the country to claim him and feel pride in him. It was also a big family affair, because we had the St. Lunatics, who Nelly and I also signed. We had various resources from that organisation and we always made sure in his development that we kept true to where he came from, and we still do to this day, as you can tell from his songs. The fact that he's believable is one of the reasons why he’s so loved.
You took the very unusual step of releasing the second single ‘Dilemma’ from the album ‘Nellyville’ while the first single ‘Hot In Herre’ was still at No.1. What was the idea behind that?
Actually, we didn’t release “Dilemma”. US radio stations took the song from the clean version of the album and started playing it themselves. We would never have gone for a second single that early. I would have preferred more space between the first and second singles, but it’s hard to determine whether the proximity of the two singles had a negative impact since they were both such massive hits, one replacing the other at the top. It was the first time in Billboard history that songs from the same artist swapped positions between No.1 and 2.
What artists are you currently working on?
Right now we’re making a record with Murphy Lee, one of the members of the St. Lunatics, and I’m also developing a 16-year-old, a very talented girl named Sonna. She's an Indian singer based in London.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
What are the most important factors to consider when listening to a demo by an unsigned rap artist?
I look for vocal quality, the quality of the song, and I like it to be melodic. I look for an artist that says something different in a different style. I do not go for things that are derivative.
It’s common for talented unsigned rappers to have difficulty in creating tracks that match the quality of their vocal delivery. How important is the music when you’re listening to a demo?
When you listen to a piece of music you can’t really separate the parts. The music, the lyrics, the delivery and the style are all reflective of that artist. If they chose to rhyme to a certain beat and submit it to a record label then logic would dictate that they feel it’s representative of the type of music they want to make.
But if there is a particular rapper whom I think is incredible, and the lyrics and the delivery are sensational but the music isn’t up to par, on occasion, I will meet that artist, and see if there is somebody else who would be a better counterpart in terms of production and writing music for him. But in general, I judge it for what it is and try not to separate the elements too much.
Which one of your artists did everything right in order to get noticed by major labels before you signed them and what did they do?
None of them. The artists all have unique backgrounds and for each of them the situation in which they got signed was different. There’s no blueprint on how to get signed or discovered.
One common trait of all the people who have made it is that they are resourceful. Every artist I’ve signed was resourceful enough to get my attention and then make the most of that opportunity. But I don’t think anyone has done it perfectly. If somebody did it perfectly then that would be the blueprint.
Typically, the artists I’ve signed have come to me through very legitimate practices, whether it’s through a manager, an attorney or a producer in the business, or somebody that I know or who knows someone and gets in contact with me.
People have done outrageous things, from sending lunch with a demo in it, to sending provocative pictures or gifts with demos in them. Some of the packages are amusing enough for you to wind up listening to the demo because you admire the person’s resourcefulness and ability to get your attention.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to start building a career at an independent level?
My advice to acts is that it always comes down to one thing: the song. Focus on making the best possible songs, one at the time, and try not to run before you can walk. People make posters and promote material that’s inferior. The material has to be superior before you do anything.
Everyone’s so anxious to promote stuff they’re not really 100% behind. So many people say, “This is not even our good stuff - we haven’t even started to make our best records yet!” When they say that, I have to wonder why they're even promoting something that they don’t feel confident about and don’t even believe is their best work. That’s a waste of both their time and mine. Artists should concentrate on putting their best foot forward, not just some of the time but all of the time, because that’s how you get credibility.
Considering the costs for releasing a new artist, how sure do you need to be that it will sell?
You want your company to be enthusiastic about the acts you bring into the label, but at the end of the day, everybody has their own opinion, and you’re rarely ever going to find 100% consensus about anything, because it’s a business of passion. I’m not overly concerned with what other people think of the acts I sign. If I believe in it then usually that’s enough for me. Obviously, I’m encouraged and happy if other people are as passionate as I am, but you’ll rarely find somebody as passionate about an artist as you are.
Nelly is a perfect example of an artist who very few people at the label liked when I signed him. When we sent out the first vinyl, most of the feedback was extraordinarily negative! That was a lesson for me: you can’t put too much stock in opinions, you have to have faith in your ability and in the artist.
But certainly the climate has changed in the music business, and records aren’t selling as much as they did a few years ago. So, as an industry, we have to be fiscally responsible in the way we promote and develop new artists. Gone are the days when you signed an act and immediately spent $500,000 on a video and $1,000,000 on promoting it. Now we have to find a way to set up our records up in a different way, and make sure that our resources are spent on projects that have the greatest chance of success.
Is it always extremely expensive for a major label to make and release an album and then market and promote it, or are there alternative ways which are more cost-effective and which would allow you to take risks with less commercial artists?
When you release a single you want to promote it, but there isn’t a cheap way of doing it. We’re certainly searching for more cost-effective ways of promoting and marketing, but yes, it’s an expensive process.
Since artists share the costs of making the album and the videos, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
It’s difficult to answer that question because it assumes that artists are paying for half the cost of the video and the record, which isn’t necessarily the case. It depends on the deal the artist strikes with the record company.
Record companies put forth all of the seed money to develop the artist and the only revenue stream we have is record sales, which is embodied in those master performances. Record companies typically do not take anything from merchandising, TV shows, movies or endorsement deals. If we’re putting up all this money to develop young acts so that they can become stars and go and make secondary and tertiary revenue streams, why should we give up our only revenue stream, which is owning the masters and making money on the recorded music? At the end of the day, I think we should retain ownership of the masters.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, the attorney and the team are when considering signing a new act?
No, I don’t.
Are major labels spending less and less time developing artists?
I don’t think the business is taking more or less time to develop acts than before. It’s a process of what the artist needs. I signed this young lady Sonna and we’ve been working together for 6 months. We’re writing, and we have written a bunch of songs. It feels natural and like everything’s going well, that it’s moving along at the right pace for her. Other acts are further along in their development or are more anxious. It depends on what’s right for that act, what environment gets them to their creative zenith.
What do you think about the radio situation?
Programmers have a responsibility towards their companies, certainly if they derive most of, if not all their income from advertising, to play records that are going to keep listeners listening long enough to hear those advertisements. It would be nice if there was more room for new music to develop new bands and to see a little more eclectic programming, absolutely! But I understand why radio stations are programmed the way they are. Media in general is an advertisement-dominated business, and radio is not more or less guilty in the way they choose their content than any other media source, like TV and print publications.
When a major releases a new artist, do you think commercial radio stations are under pressure to play him/her so as to not risk their relationship with the record label?
Major labels release a lot of records, of which most are not hits and don’t get played, and I don’t think they feel pressure to play it based on who the label is. Some promotion people are better than others and have great relationships with their stations and can make a compelling argument for why a station should give a particular record a shot, but I don’t think it’s brand-specific.
Why do you think there are so few foreign acts that break in the US these days?
I think that more foreign acts than ever are breaking in the US, see Shakira, Coldplay, Radiohead, the Vines, the Hives, etc. America is a melting pot, so you always have segments of our population who are going to like different kinds of music. There are different nationalities all over the US charts now, and I think that great music, no matter where it’s from, can sell here.
Do you think that the internet will offer an alternative route for artists, that they could sell their music directly from their site, hire somebody to market them, and thus not need a record label?
The internet already offers an alternative route, and it has broadened the spectrum of the types of music that are getting heard by the masses. Amongst kids, “word of mouth” has become “word of the web”, kids check out sites they think are really cool. The internet is helpful in spreading new and emerging themes within the music business.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
It would be great to have different revenue streams, other than just making money exclusively off record sales. In order to prosper and move forward, we have to find some secondary and tertiary revenue streams. We take all the risk, we spend a lot of money to get things right, to break artists and help them become stars and cultural phenomena, and yet we’re only sharing a small percent of the proceeds when the artist becomes huge. We have to be clever and find new ways to exploit our masters, and, in partnership with the artist, find new ways to develop new businesses where we can make money together.
I also think that the quality of music has to improve overall. It’s very difficult for people in the industry to take big risks, because big risks are often met with big failures. People's jobs and careers are at risk, so they tend to take the safe route. It would be nice if there was a little more security in the business so that we could take those risks to sign and develop acts that are a little left of centre, who are perhaps not the biggest thing right now but in two years could be the next big thing.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
It hasn’t happened yet.
interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan
Read On ...
* In an earlier interview Kevin Law talks about first working with Nelly