Interview with MARK PITTS, A&R at Jive Records for Ciara (US No.1), Chris Brown (US No.1) - Apr 24, 2006
"Itís their whole attitude, their swagger, their whole movement Ö a little cocky confidence,"
Ö says Mark Pitts, A&R at Jive Records N.Y. USA. He is credited for signing and breaking the US No.1 debut artists Ciara and Chris Brown, for which he was awarded No.8 on the 2005 World Top 100 A&R Chart.
Mark also co-founded Bad Boy Entertainment together with Puff Daddy and has worked as a manager. The first artist he managed was Notorious B.I.G., before adding Faith Evans and Changing Faces.
Find out about how Mark listens to unsolicited material and read his opinions on renewing an artistís situation and why he thinks everybody should take vocal lessons, no matter how good they think they are.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started Bad Boy with Puff Daddy. I was his assistant. We went to school together. When he left school he worked at Uptown Records, where I was an intern, and from there we started Bad Boy.
Then I went on to management. Notorious B.I.G was my first artist. Managing him led me to starting my own management company. After B.I.G, I managed Faith Evans (his wife at the time) and Changing Faces.
After that I got my first production deal through Universal and started as an A&R. From there I went to La Face where I met L.A. Reid, and that was where my career really changed because I became an executive and made records.
Have you been an artist yourself?
I always wanted to be one but no, I wasnít.
What does your work involve?
I find records and tracks, put artists with writers and give them direction and a style which connects who they are with the music. You can have a hit record, but that doesnít mean that you are a hit artist.
I call the work the art of slapping and hugging. Sometimes you have to know how to renew a situation. You can have a great record and the artist may not go for it. To me A&R is not only about finding good records, you have to convince artistís to make them, and they should know why theyíre making them.
Because of my management background Iím good with artists. I can make them feel comfortable enough to do something, or to try it. Iím like an artist in my own life. I live through them and I challenge them all the time. Iím very animated and try to get them pumped up.
How did you find Ciara and Chris Brown?
Ciara was brought to Arista by the producer and artist Jazze Pha. When she came over to Jive I helped her with the single and with finishing the album.
Chris Brown was brought to me by his manager Tina Davis, who is a long time friend of mine. When I saw him, I knew immediately that it was right.
How was Chris Brown presented to you?
They had a little cheap video that was shot a while ago and I saw the potential, his smile, his voiceÖ I knew I wanted to be in the Chris Brown business. I didnít love all the records, but I loved his voice. It wasnít a problem because I knew that he could sing, and I knew how to make records.
How do you develop an artist?
Every artist is different. My first step is to go into the style of the music. I spend time with them. I want to get into their head to feel the artist and find out who they are, away from the office. Then we start playing with some ideas to see where weíre going.
What needed to be done with artists such as Ciara or Chris before they were put on the market?
We had vocal lessons, and a lot of rehearsals. They all had raw talent, but you always want to improve. Everybody should have vocal lessons, no matter how good they think they are. Then you have to go to studios to work on your songs. Or maybe go to the gym to work out and improve your performance. But you always have little different blueprints for each artist based on what they may need.
The main focus is the record, because if you donít have the right record, you have nothing to perform to. Once you get out of the A&R stage with studio, studio, studio work you have to get to the dancing stage to get the performance, and you do rehearsals, rehearsals and rehearsals.
Do you have new artists coming through now?
The artists I have right now are Kelis, Joe, and Donell Jones, and Iím about to start another Usher album.
Do you work new fresh and upcoming artists, too?
Chris Brown was the last new artist I worked on. I donít have a new artist yet.
How many new artists do you put out per year?
Iíve been in his company now for 2 years and Chris Brown and Ciara were the only ones.
I have to keep up with demos though because I get so many of them. They have to come to the right place at the right time, or by word of mouth. There is so much popping up at my office all of the time.
Do you listen to unsolicited material?
How much time do you spend listening to new stuff per day?
About 30% of my time.
So what makes a good artist?
Itís about talent, but they have to have something in their personality that pulls me in too. It always helps if they can dance and if they are young. Iím looking for younger acts. What I look for is: do they have a high in their personality? Do they like to roam up, even if they sit down? Itís their whole attitude, their swagger, their whole movement. A little cocky confidence. Itís a vibe you canít really explain.
What kind of advice would you give unsigned acts at the independent level?
Stay true to yourself. Donít make music for anybody else. What I learned is that the labels donít make stars Ė you walk into the office and are a star or not. You should know your direction and know who you are.
How helpful is when artists already have a little local fan base?
It always helps if they have a local fan base, especially with rap music because itís hard to make rap nowadays.
How would you work an artist from outside the US?
I would try to build it in Europe first and then bring it over.
Have you ever turned down a project at first and then signed it afterwards?
Not really. There have been artists that Iíve turned down who have come back improved, but I still havenít signed them.
Do you work with a lot of unknown outside producers for your acts?
Yeah, a hot record is a hot record no matter who it comes from. It happens a lot. If I get something from a new producer that is hot, I get him in the studio with the artist. Unless it needs to be fixed, then Iíll maybe get somebody help co-produce it with him, if it is a lot of work. But for the most part I try to get that producer. At least itís cheaper and less headache.
Whatís important for a demo?
I would prefer a track ready with vocals on, but it doesnít always happen that way. If itís just a track it depends who itís coming from. I may have some of my 2 assistants or the A&Rs under me or even some interns go through demos and tracks, and they may pick out a few hot records that Iíll listen to.
Whatís important for a good beat?
A hot beat. I like big, big drums, and a lot of bottom.
If Iím a producer and I think I have a really hot record, what would be the best way to get in touch with you?
Call me in my office. It starts there. Or I get emails, too. People get discouraged when they call up and I donít get right back to them. Theyíre hungry. During a day a lot of people may call, but they shouldnít get discouraged. Itís a fast business, and there are a lot of calls that go on during the day. Donít get upset if you call and I donít get right back, stay hungry.
How much do people like Usher or Kelis trust your opinion in putting together an album?
Iím involved 100%. How much do they trust me? I think a great deal. I donít know if itís a 100% because they have their own opinion. But they definitely believe in me.
Have you ever come up with something that an artist hasnít liked, where youíve convinced them to record it anyway and itís turned out to be a big hit?
Oh yeah, definitely. 50% of the time is the struggle with the artist.
How do you handle a situation when your artist comes up with his or her own material, something theyíve recorded with somebody, but you think itís not good enough?
I just tell them my thing. If they really want to do it I say: ďOk, lets try it.Ē Iím just real about it. If I think the record is wack, theyíre going to hear my opinion. Sometimes I convince them not to do it; sometimes theyíre going to do it anyway.
Do you test songs somehow?
I play songs to people whose ears I trust, to see the reaction. Or even my family, my kids who are going to consume it.
How many tracks are normally recorded for an album?
We pick out the best ones out of 30-35 songs.
How big is the pressure to land a hit with the first single?
Itís a whole lot of pressure, but nobody is perfect. Thatís when you become a businessman. You have to know when you stop spending. If you keep on spending on something that is not working, youíre being a bad A&R. So something has to kick in. When time runs out, and the record may have been right, but isnít, you have to know when to move on.
Are there songs youíre really proud of that have worked out right against all opinions?
Yeah, like the Chris Brown record ďRun itĒ. Nobody was a 100% on that record, and I knew that it would be the one. And it turned out to be a big number one hit.
What does an artist development deal with Jive look like?
I honestly donít know, since Iíve never done that before. Itís funny you said that, because that came up yesterday in a meeting and no one had done that before. No one really knew what that wasÖ
Are you still doing your management company?
Yeah, Iím still running it with a partner. Right now I only have one artist, thatís NAS.
Would you say itís good if the A&R is also the manager?
It helps to have that type of skill as well when it comes to dealing with artists.
Where do you see Hip-hop and R&B going in the future?
It feels like itís coming back around. The southern artists are having a moment and itís coming back to East coast Rap with MCís. Thatís going to be the next wave.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Professional Demo Review