I started interning in L.A. over my college summers — first working at a talent agency, which led to a film production company and small label, which led to a job offer when I graduated as an assistant in L.A., which eventually led me to New York where I started at Arista Records as an assistant to the SVP of marketing. After a few months, J Records was formed with BMG, and I was a first-generation employee. That was the best experience for me, as it was a very lean staff in the early months, and I was involved in almost every aspect of marketing, sales, international, video and A&R. I spent six years at J working my way up from an assistant to an associate director of marketing, where I product-managed acts like Pearl Jam, Dido and Santana. I was also involved in A&R, being exposed to the methods and practice of Clive Davis, one of the most legendary A&R men in the business.
After six years in one place, I felt like it was time for a change and decided to quit to take some time off. I had always wanted to be more involved in A&R, and at the time it didn't seem like it was going to be my path. Then I met Charlie Walk, who was the newly appointed president of Epic Records, and we connected instantly. He wanted to take Epic from its predominantly rock-leaning roster and add some more pop, R&B and hip-hop. That was a challenge I wanted to be a part of and started in the summer of 2006 in A&R, a role I've been in since.
Artists are often afraid that labels will interfere with their creative process. What's your perspective?
I think the two most important relationships for artists in their professional careers are with their management and their label. The us-against-them relationship that has existed over the years has to stop for everyone to survive. As somebody who looks to sign acts to the label, I wouldn't push to sign anyone whose vision I didn't share and whose creative process I didn't respect. Every artist is different, and every process is different. Obviously, a label's objective is to break artists and records, which will hopefully result in revenue, but I think this can be accomplished with the artist's vision intact, provided everybody has the same goal.
How do you guide an artist's creative vision?
A label acts as the middleman to carry out the artist's vision to the world. It's about pairing the artist with the right writers and producers and then honing in on the material they come up with and perfecting the sound for each artist. Kat DeLuna had a very specific goal for her 9 Lives album. She is a Spanish-speaking Dominican girl and wanted to incorporate her country's classic sounds like bacciata into contemporary pop and R&B. It wasn't easy to find the right team, and it took a few tries with different producers, but once she got in the room with RedOne, it came together instantly. They did three songs together initially. After we heard those, we told them do the whole album together, and they created a consistent sound that incorporates everything she wanted. The classic albums of our time are usually created by one producer or production team.
How different is the process for a newbie artist such as Sean Kingston versus seasoned artists such as Duran Duran, or producers such as Timbaland or Jazze Pha?
Every artist's process is different, whether it's his or her first or tenth album. Some are very collaborative and open to discussion, and others are more reserved and protective. This goes for the producer process, as well. With A&R, I try not to interfere too much in the initial creative process and the birth of a song, and generally like to get involved once there is a skeleton. This can mean shortening a song so it can be considered a single; radio generally won't play a song that is longer than four minutes. Sean Kingston's “Beautiful Girls” was initially almost four-and-a-half minutes, and we had to have them shorten it to 3:45 for the radio. Recently a demo came in for Jennifer Lopez that had potential but needed to be tweaked, like make the track hit harder, tease the hook up front and edit some of the chorus so it wasn't as repetitive. It was the last song that came in that she recorded, and is now cut #2 on the album.
With all the egos and opinions involved in the studio, how can you manage that and keep everyone happy?
The hardest part about doing A&R is managing everyone's process, vision and emotions so that the result makes everyone happy. That's why it's so important for the artist and label to be on the same page creatively with the vision so we can share the same objective, and then it's about bringing the right songwriters and producers into the mix and making sure they share the vision and can contribute positively. You usually know when it's right, as everything just connects. When it doesn't, you know right away, as the process is very emotional for the artists and the producers. I try to remain as diplomatic as possible and maintain everyone's trust. The best thing to do when it's not right is to call it before pushing anyone too far. And sometimes you have to compromise. If I feel strongly about a song that the artist doesn't, you ask them to cut it and then make an informed decision after.
What are some mistakes you've seen artists and producers make in the studio that have affected the progress of a would-be stellar album?
I've seen a lot of things happen and decisions made that could have potentially hurt an artist's career, but because the nature of this business is so subjective, you really never know. A lot of it relies on instinct and gut feeling, and if you follow that, you'll usually end up with the right result. A common mistake for many artists is to think they need to write every song on their album, even if it means not cutting an outside record that could really help further their career. As my boss always says, a hit song cures everything.