Interview with JENNIFER O'NEILL, A&R at J Records for Alicia Keys, Busta Rhymes, O-Town - May 1, 2002
ďA good team around the artist is crucial.Ē
As an A&R at J Records, US, Jennifer OíNeill works with such artists as Monica, Deborah Cox and O-Town.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I always wanted to be in A&R. I started out temping for music businesses like Epic, Mercury, Island, and Columbia. There was a particular temp agency that specialised in the music business. While temping at Arista, I was offered a couple of different job opportunities, and I took the one as national sales assistant, where I stayed for two years. During my time in sales I started going out at night looking for acts. When I found something worthy, I submitted the demo to A&R. Once a position became available in the A&R department, I interviewed and was offered the job.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Networking, being part of the local music scene and checking out bands, getting referrals from people who like music, are in the music business, or who have a track record, and by observing the A&R people I work with, because they have high standards, which has helped me grow. I have learned the value of a hit song, how important it really is, and they have also helped me look for certain things in artists that make them stand out from all the rest. Critiquing and listening to music has also significantly helped me grow.
What motivates you as an A&R?
Discovering that diamond in the rough, hearing something that I can feel in my soul. Itís a feeling unlike anything else and itís exciting. I like being part of the creative process; I enjoy developing songs and artists.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be an A&R?
Itís a very difficult position to obtain. I think the way I did it is the most accessible route for others, unless you have relationships with people who are willing to give you a chance even if you donít have the experience. A&Rs without experience are rarely hired from outside the company. If someone is going to give you a shot, it's because they know you or have seen you around, and have seen that youíre passionate about music. Sometimes the only way to do that is to work at a record label and to develop relationships with the folks in A&R.
What new acts are you currently working on?
Anne Fernando and Medeiros are the developing artists weíre concentrating on right now.
How do you find new talent?
Referrals from people whose opinions I trust or whom I have relationships with, especially managers, attorneys, producers and songwriters.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, I donít.
How useful do you find the Internet when searching for new talent?
I find it very valuable, because when I hear about something, instead of waiting for a demo, I can often look online and see if itís something that I would be interested in.
Do you think unsigned artists have a good knowledge of the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
Itís probably 50-50. I get a lot of phone calls from people who donít know that you need a publisher or an attorney. I usually explain that to them and then they ask whether I can recommend any publishers and attorneys. At that point itís obvious that they donít understand the business. People call Clive Davis (President of J Records Ė Ed.) and think they can get him on the phone just like that. They donít have a relationship with him but they call and say, "Have him call me back right away." Clive Davis is bombarded with hundreds of phone calls a day, and it just doesnít work that way. On one hand, I guess itís worth a shot, but on the other hand itís kind of laughable when people keep calling back asking why he hasn't returned their call. I try to tell them, but they donít really understand.
What do you look for in an artist?
I just look for the music really, those gems, those hip, radio friendly or groundbreaking songs. I love vocals, I love lyrics and I love guitars. I know that image matters, but itís not something that I tend to emphasise.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
To have a good team around the artist is crucial, it can be what makes or breaks an artist. Poor management can often be very detrimental to an artistís career. Artists have to choose wisely and really know that the people they hire are competent and have their best interests at heart. If I want to sign something and they donít have a team in place I will help them build one or if the team is not competent I will try to let the artist know.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business, once they have material?
The most important thing to do is to get an attorney or a publisher who believes in your music and will shop it for you. Contacting them and then sending a demo is probably the best way to approach these people. I wouldnít overwhelm people with too much material; I think a five-song demo is all thatís needed for someone to assess their level of interest. You must be persistent but not annoying. Call and ask if they received the material and how long it may take before someone can listen to it, be professional. Send a CD that is properly marked, and definitely include your contact information - youíd be surprised at the number of people who don't do that! When following up, understand that it can take up to two months or more for a person to listen to your material, so donít take it personally.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
Why do you think there are so few women producers in the business?
This is an old school industry that has always been dominated by men. In my opinion, the business doesnít tend to nurture women. Itís a hard business to break into, so you really have to love it and be tough enough to forge ahead. Nobody is handing out training guides or mentoring sessions, but if they are, itís usually to one of their buddies. I absolutely believe that there should be more women producers in the business.
Do you think itís good that the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart is based on both radio airplay and single sales?
I think artists have a greater chance of obtaining chart positions by using both airplay and single sales to determine chart positions. However, both of these mediums are manipulated and controlled by a relatively small number of people. I personally donít like the fact that the competitive pricing of singles can be used to manipulate the charts. Some singles cost 99 cents versus 3.99, so people go for the less expensive CD. Labels know this and use it to their advantage, to help artists attain higher chart positions. In a sense labels are purchasing chart positions. Airplay figures do help to balance the chart but itís a whole other ball game in radio. So my answer is, because a better business model does not exist, I do think itís a good thing that it's made up of the two combined.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
Big companies tend to consolidate and acquire the smaller companies and, as a result, end up controlling a huge percentage of the market. Thatís always bad for the consumer and artists alike. It limits access to radio for non-label artists and it limits the type of music the consumer can hear. The situation here in the United States seems rather dismal to me. I think there are too few formats and many of them play the same music. There should be increased diversity, but there wonít be because thereís probably not enough money in it.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades?
I donít know if the amount of time has decreased, but I think that the standard that bands have to live up to in order to get a label deal is significantly higher. Whereas before an A&R would see a band, think they had something, sign them and be willing to spend time on developing them. Now everybody wants at least one hit song on the demo. Some labels still give artists a chance to grow, but I think that the overall tendency is to look for the sure thing, to stay with what has worked in the past.
Why do artists pay for promotional costs, like, for example, videos?
You have to think about it this way: with an unknown artist, the record label is the one with the highest financial risk. People forget that itís a big investment and this is a business. These days, record labels practically have to invest a million dollars to release an unknown act. I think itís fair that promotion costs are fifty percent recoupable, because the artists also benefit. Labels donít benefit from artists touring and thatís where a great deal of their money can be made. If an artist is doing really well, then he/she should re-negotiate their contract after the first album, and see if they can get the videos paid for by the label.
With the growth of the Internet and the increasing use of the mp3 format, what will record companies' business model look like in the future?
The Internet is very valuable and I think itís a tool we have to learn to use. All things change, and there may come a day when music is digitally transferred via the Internet, with people buying it online, having it sent to their computers and burning it themselves. That will transform the industry significantly. Then again, people like to go to record stores, they like to look around and thereís something to be said for that, so it remains to be seen.
Imagine if all music ever recorded was to be available as streamed audio, which consumers could access from future hardware with streamed audio capabilities, including mobile phones, discmans, car stereos, hi-fi equipment etc. Consumers would pay a monthly fee for access and would be given a personal code to tap into the devices. Each track played would be accounted and paid for exactly. Would this system work, and do you think it would be desirable from the record label's point of view?
I donít know if streaming audio will work. Itís sounds like this system will be too complicated. Right now, if I want a record, I go out and purchase it. I do like the idea of having my own musical digital library or having access to a digital library of all music ever recorded where I could download whatever I want. I would pay a fee for that.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to see more female colleagues and mentors.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Hearing a hit song from an unsigned artist for the first time. You hear it and you just know that itís a hit, itís exciting, and since that hit song hasnít been released yet, the greatest moment is yet to come!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Probably being a VP of A&R at a label, or maybe doing my own thing, like A&R consulting or artist management.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Mťan