Interview with ZACH KATZ, manager of JR Rotem and co-founder of Beluga Heights - May 3, 2010
“The more you have an artist that knows who they are, the easier it is to connect them to the world.”
Our series looking into the engine room of one of the most influential young labels in modern pop – home to Sean Kingston (USA & UK No.1), Iyaz (UK No.1, USA Top 3) and Jason Derülo (USA & UK No.1) - concludes with an interview with co-founder and JR Rotem manager Zach Katz.
Katz reveals the mechanics of clearing samples, the Beluga game plan for breaking artists and stresses the importance of being based in LA right now ...
How did you first meet JR Rotem?
About five years ago a few different people tried to introduce us but for whatever reason it wasn't coming together. Finally after three or four tries somebody gave me his music and I listened to it and saw a lot of potential in it - it was very symphonic, very musical.
So he was the one trying to get your attention by attempting to give you a demo of his work?
Yes, people were giving it to me on his behalf. Evan Bogart (HQ interview) was a mutual friend that eventually reached out to me.
So at this point he already had the cut with Destiny’s Child. Was there any kind of buzz around him?
Not really - he just had an album cut. And I think he co-produced it with D’wayne Wiggins from Tony! Toni! Toné!.
Did you already have experience with managing other producers?
Yes I managed Hi-tek, Denaun Porter, and DJ Khalil.
Given that there wasn’t a buzz around him at this point, what was special about JR that made you take him on?
This was a time where most of the people were beat makers. They didn't really play instruments - everything was based on samples. JR, on the other hand, had a vast musical background - he is a classically trained pianist. So musically there were no limitations as far as what he could bring.
Number two he was very, very focused. He really wanted to win. And number three he was humble. If I gave him any suggestions about his tracks he would literally sit there and take notes. Then he would come back the next day with the changes I had suggested.
What's your own background how did you get involved in the music industry?
I started out as a music attorney about 14 years ago, and I did that for about four years. I liked it but it didn’t feel like it was my final calling. I always wanted to be more creative - I wanted to be in the studio, be part of the marketing process and really help build people's careers. Being a music attorney at that time was primarily about looking at paperwork and people's contracts.
I saw that before Beluga Heights you were working with a German label called Groove Attack …
Yes, I was helping them set up a US operation.
Was that a significant first step towards having a more hands on and creative role?
It was one of my first opportunities to break out of being just a lawyer. I stepped into a kind of general manager position for a few releases that they had.
How did you get the connections to manage other producers before JR?
As music attorney I was already dealing with record labels, publishers and artists. I was representing some producers as their lawyer, so all in all I had access to people on the creative side.
Ultimately it all comes from your vision and your desire. You have to decide where you want to be and take actions based on this decision. It's totally different for everybody - everyone will tell you a different story of what was right for him or her. But the one thing in common is that everybody who found success had help from someone. You have to get the attention of the person that has the connections you may need to succeed and convince them to give you the time and energy to help you progress.
You were working with Dr. Dre as well, how did that happen?
I managed Rakim the whole time he was with Dr. Dre and in doing so spent a lot of time with Dre and the whole Aftermath camp. I spent a lot of time in the studio watching him work. At that particular time, Shady, G-Unit and Aftermath were the pop music of the period. I learned a lot from that time.
What was the point at which you decided to run your own label?
It was about three and a half years ago that JR's brother Tommy (HQ interview) - who is our A&R and partner now - brought us Sean Kingston. We formed Beluga Heights and started shopping him to different labels and Sony did a label deal with us because they liked a lot of stuff JR was doing and they liked Sean Kingston.
What we find very fulfilling and gratifying is taking an artist from obscurity and helping him create a sound and an image, helping him become successful, and then see him get a fan base and tour the world five times over. That's what we fell in love with. We always wanted to be part of a life-changing process for an artist.
What's your actual role at the label?
JR, Tommy and me all have distinctive roles but at the same time they each bleed into one another. JR produces all the music, Tommy is the A&R - he finds all the artists and writers and helps JR cook up ideas in the studio - and I'm the businessman.
I keep the team running together. I'm the guy who puts the game plan together and makes sure all the components come together and stay together to achieve that game plan. I'm also the main communicator. I speak on behalf of the label, JR and Tommy. I communicate with the label, the artist, with everybody. But I'm very hands-on creatively as well.
Within our organisation, no records are made or go out without all three of us having first evaluated them and given our creative feedback. JR and Tommy are mainly the creative guys but they are also very savvy and have great business and marketing ideas.
When you put a game plan together how do you decide what you do? There must be thousands of people who want to work with you, from A-list artists to your own artists on your label ...
The main priority is our own artists. We are most excited, both creatively and from a business point of view, working with our own artists.
When we sign an artist to our label we want to give him/her the best chance to become a worldwide artist - that's the priority. After that comes doing records for other artists in the industry that we naturally connect with and inspire JR. At the end of the day it's JR who makes the music and it comes from his inspiration.
How detailed is your game plan or do you just make decisions as and when they come?
We like to work in a very organised manner. First of all you have to make sure all the artists on your roster are good. That means they all have to be out there in the marketplace with hit records. That means that at any given time we have two or three artists out there touring and promoting what should be their radio singles, and two or three artists that are working in the studio on their next singles.
Based on how soon they need another record in the market place, we then pick one of the artists and go into creative mode for them over the next two weeks. During those weeks the artist, JR, Tommy and maybe some outside writers are in the studio making records.
And for the artists that are out there we make sure with our label partner that they are doing the right things: radio, touring, publicity and viral marketing.
How do you motivate you label partner to do all the right things?
We’re talking about dealing with a huge corporation that has dozens of artists. They are very well staffed but everyone is busy. No one is sitting around waiting for new artists to come in. So the challenge is to first of all go in there with music that gets them excited, because in the end of the day we are all selling music.
Then you have to get them excited, inspired and involved in the project so that they want to be part of it. Whatever their part of the job is, they want to give their 110%. It's a lot of work staying on top of people, keeping them motivated, organised and all working together for one goal.
If you have the finished master of a song in your hands how do you then get your label partner excited?
We have this girl Auburn, for example. She's an artist we’ve had for a couple of years now and we’ve been working very hard and have now finally got the right first single.
When that happens we then ask the head of the label, the head of radio, the product manager, the head of publicity, the people in marketing and maybe someone from the art department to come down to our studio, and we make a presentation for them.
Auburn is there so they can really feel and see her and understand what her point of view is. We then play the record and hopefully get the kind of reaction we want, which is, "Yes, this is ready. We want to move on this - let's get this on the radio immediately."
Two months ago we took her into Warner and luckily for everybody they totally loved the music and now it's a project that is getting going in the system. Everything is set up and hopefully the record will be on the radio in the next few weeks.
To make things a bit clearer, when we brought Jason Derülo into Warner for the first time, for example, we put together a very, very concise team with people from our team and people from Warner Bros. There were five people initially involved. If you walk into a Jason Derülo meeting now there are 50 people in the Warner Bros. LA office, 20 people sitting via videoconference from the New York office, and 15 people in the London office.
With Auburn we are now at the stage where we have the five main people involved, and these are the people that we invite down to the studio. And hopefully soon that five-person team will grow into a 50 person Auburn team.
What already needs to be in place when that first meeting happens?
At the very least you want to have the first single and hopefully the second single ready to go. And ultimately you want to have artists that also know who they are, who their fan base is, and what makes them special. You need an idea as to how to connect with their fan base. You need some creative vision for what it will look like and what the message is. The more you have an artist that knows who they are, the easier it is to connect them to the world.
What do you think about having your new artist featured on a record of a popular artist first and getting a mix tape out?
I think ideally both needs to happen. At the same time, they need to have their own song, which gives them their own distinct identity that makes you realise it's unmistakably them. Then obviously it's good to get your artist on other records because they may reach a fan base they normally wouldn't reach.
From when you started out with JR you were getting an incredible number of cuts with major artists - how did you do it? What's the magic?
It all starts with the music. At the end of the day you can be the most powerful manager in the world, have friendships with all the presidents of the record companies but if you're not giving them the music they want then it won't matter.
Extraordinary music is essential because it's such a competitive environment right now. If you're a producer or writer you have to have someone that is submitting your music for you. There are very few people that don't have representation.
You can find out details about the record companies and the A&Rs quite easily but most of the guys in those buildings work with people they at least know or are working with managers who they trust to bring in great stuff. I wouldn't advise someone who's brand new to submit directly to record labels, but you never know … there could be that young hungry A&R who doesn't care where it comes from. If you get with that guy that just may be your break.
Generally speaking step one for someone new is to find a manager, a publisher or a lawyer who's got the connections. Before JR met me I was managing producers for two or three years. So at that point I already had a lot of connections. Even though he was really talented, without a manager he most likely wouldn’t have secured those placements.
Were you the person that was submitting the material to the label?
How did you find out who was looking for songs?
Over the years you build relationships with all the A&Rs and record labels, and once you have a couple of successful records in the marketplace A&Rs start wanting to share with you what their priorities are, and they want you to submit and contribute.
At the beginning it was more of a challenge and we had to prove ourselves. Later on we just had to think about where to put in our time and energy because by that point people wanted us to work with them.
As an example, how did the song ‘S.O.S.’ come up?
JR was developing a group with one of our writers, Evan Bogart. That was one of the songs on the demo but for whatever reason it didn't come together for the group. We showed the demo to somebody at Def Jam and he just wanted the song.
Did Rihanna come in and contribute to it or was everything already set in place?
Everything was done, it was fully written.
How did it work with the song ‘Better In Time’ recorded by Leona Lewis?
JR has a publishing deal and I got that track along with other tracks over to the publisher. Then the publisher got the instrumental track over to the writer Andrea Martin and she wrote the top-line and everyone liked it. First it was meant to go with Whitney Houston, but then it became a single for Leona Lewis.
So he wrote the playback and then the writer wrote the lyrics and melody to that?
Yes, JR made the music and the writer wrote the lyrics and demoed it out.
Does it always work like that?
Obviously JR always does the music, but then we sometimes have two or three writers write to the track and we just take the best parts and put them together. There are no limitations as long as it comes out great.
Most of the artists we sign are also writers. It's important for us to sign artists that can also write to a certain extent. Jason Derülo, for example, is an artist but also a very strong writer. He wrote for everybody from Sean Kingston, Pitbull to Lil' Wayne. In fact he was a writer before he became an artist.
You use a lot of samples in your productions; can you explain how you get them cleared?
You have to clear the master side if your record embodies the actual master recording of another record. Even if you don't take the master and just interpolate the music you are at least using their musical composition and you have to clear the publishing side. If you take the composition and the actual recording you have to clear both.
The way to do that is you call up the sample clearance house who then approaches the publishers and if you are using the masters they also approach the owners of the masters, which is usually a record label. They then tell them what the use is going to be, when the song is going to come out, what label it's going to come out on, what the plans are for the record and then they come back to you and tell you how much they want for it.
Is it possible that the writers of the original song doesn’t like your take on their song and then denies your usage of it?
Can you quote any numbers to get an idea what it costs to clear a sample in a song?
Generally speaking, and by today's standards, you have to give away anywhere between 25% to 100% of your publishing.
Do you test your records with certain people?
Yeah, we have a circle of people who we trust. Some are just friends of ours, some are people in the business and sometimes your own gut will tell you how strong a record is.
How important is it that you're actually based in Los Angeles, or could you be anywhere else in the world?
Today it's very, very important because the music business is in Los Angeles right now to a large extent. The music business migrates from place to place. 10 years ago it was New York - New York had the studios, had the creativity - and then it moved over to Atlanta. Atlanta was the hotspot. Now it's mostly in LA.
It just feels creative here. There is a creative buzz. It doesn’t make Los Angeles a better place - creativity is constantly moving around and it could be somewhere else tomorrow. Right now it happens to be very strongly in Los Angeles, so for us to be able to work with writers and artists it's very convenient.
To be a successful manager in the music world, what skills do you have to have under your belt?
You have to be able to communicate very well with people. You have to get people to want to do business with you.
There is the kind of people you have to deal with because there's no choice and then there's the kind of people that people want to deal with. It's a huge advantage if people want to deal with you. That means knowing how to befriend people, give to them as much as you want them to give to you, share your resources and be honest with them.
Then you have to understand your client. You have to know who he/she is - what motivates them. You have to understand what environment they can thrive in creatively and you have to know how to create that environment for them on a daily basis.
Did you hit any limits with the people you work with?
Absolutely but between the three of us, one of us will usually sense that we are hitting our limit and then we put in the time and energy to break through and figure out what the next step is. It’s great that we work together that well. There's a lot of respect between us. There are no egos. We all have one goal. I trust that they have my best interests in mind. So when they are pushing me I appreciate it.
It's like with everything else, we are constantly striving to better ourselves, and to improve our organisation. It's an ongoing process and we work together very closely.
What’s next for Beluga Heights?
The next step is solidifying what we started a few years ago - continue having great artists and making music that is very mainstream and international. Nowadays you have to make sure that things work abroad as well. You cannot just look at the US sales - you cannot run a business like that. We want to introduce artists to the world that can be here for 10-15 years from now.
As an experienced producer manager, what do you think is important for an aspiring producer nowadays?
They should think about what makes them unique. What are their unique talents? How can they make music which is a little bit different but still mainstream? It's a gift if you can make music that everybody in any age group and demographic can love, but still make it sound your own and have your own signature on it.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* No.1 producer JR Rotem is first up in the Beluga Heights interview trio
* A&R Tommy Rotem is the focus of the second in the special Beluga Heights series
* Interview with Evan Bogart, songwriter for Rihanna, Leona Lewis and frequent Ryan Tedder collaborator