Interview - May 28, 2002
“Approaching people in the business isn’t the tough part, the song is.”Steve Lunt is Vice President of A&R at Jive Records, New York. Acts he works with include ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Aaron Carter, no secrets and JIVEjones.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R executive?
I was the lead singer and songwriter in a UK band called City Boy, who had a couple of hits in the seventies. After I left the group, I moved to New York and became a professional songwriter. I co-wrote 5 songs with Cyndi Lauper including “She Bop” which was a Top 3 hit in the US, and the Top 10 hit “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough”, the theme song from the Steven Spielberg movie “The Goonies”. I wrote a US No.1 r&b hit for Stacy Lattisaw, called “Nail It To The Wall”, as well as many other songs for other artists. I eventually joined Jive Records’ A&R Department in 1997. The first album I worked on was the Britney Spears album “...Baby One More Time”.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R executive?
The fact that I was previously a musician and a songwriter enables me to speak the same language as songwriters and artists. When I was writing and producing, I realized that there was a distinct shortage of A&R people who could speak the musician’s language. Because I come from the same background, I’m able to talk to songwriters and producers and make comments in a way that they hopefully don’t find too offensive! I’ve sat on the other side of the desk from where I am now, so I know what it’s like. City Boy, my first band, were produced by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who later went on to produce Shania Twain, Def Leppard, AC/DC, The Cars, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, The Corrs and many more. I learnt a lot from him about the perfectionism that is needed.
What advice would you give somebody who wants to be in A&R?
Learn to play an instrument and trust your gut instinct.
What are you currently working on?
We’re starting work on a new ‘N Sync album, we’ll be starting a new Britney Spears album shortly, and I’m in the middle of recording an Aaron Carter album and a new Backstreet Boys album. I am also preparing a solo album with Nick Carter.
How do you work with ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears?
A large part of it involves helping them find a direction, as well as finding songs and producers. I help the artists have access to the producers they want to work with, and I then work with the producers to make sure that the productions are as good as we need them to be. Jive Records is very hands-on in that way, myself included. We take a very active role in the A&R process.
How do you find new talent?
Managers, lawyers, and word-of-mouth from other musicians.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
The legal answer is no. People are very quick to sue these days, so you have to be very careful. Some people’s only income comes from suing other people.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
I don’t use it a lot. It’s like going to clubs every single night looking at unknown bands, trying to find that needle in the haystack. The chances are very slim that you’re going to find the next superstar act without hearing about them first. It’s a full-time job and I don’t get the chance to search every channel like that. I have to wait for lawyers, managers, and people whose opinions I respect, to bring it to my attention.
What do you look for in an artist?
The will to win, charisma, and that they excel in one particular thing. Artists who write well needn’t be the best singers, and artists who can really sing don’t necessarily need to know how to write. But they need one skill that makes them rise above the pack.
I’m looking for anything that’s radio-orientated, whether it’s pop, rock, or hiphop. The style doesn’t matter as long as it’s good and it can get on the radio. We’re also always looking for the ever-elusive “diva” kind of singer, like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion or Whitney Houston, but that’s perhaps the hardest thing to find.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
Unfortunately, it’s a learning process. You’re not born with the skill to understand how the twisted music industry works. You have to be exposed to it in order to understand it, and the naivety of not knowing the business will lead you to make a lot of wrong decisions before you actually figure out the right ones. There’s a lot of trial-and-error to go through and the odds are against you. Having said that, true talent has a way of rising to the top and there’s no way of stopping it.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
Yes, because every hit record is a result of teamwork, and the right manager can be a very important team member who helps everybody achieve their goals. The wrong manager can slow down or even stop the process completely.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business, once they have material?
I don’t think that approaching people in the business is the tough part, I think the tough part is the song - it always goes back to the right song you have to write or find. Once you have that, doors open all over the place, it’s easy to find a lawyer or a manager, who in turn find it easy to get to the record company.
If you have the wrong song, you have to keep on explaining that this is a good act and once we find the right song…The doors are only half-open most of the time. The right song opens up every door.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
We have our English branch and we’re an international company, but all the acts I A&R are American. I am of course open to working with an act from outside the US, providing it’s the right act.
Do you think it’s good that the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart is based on both radio airplay and single sales?
It’s a mixed blessing. It’s good because it gives an overall view of the popularity of a song, but it also lays itself open to manipulation.
What do you think about the radio situation in the US?
It’s very rigid. It’s like twenty train tracks running parallel to each other and one train can’t go onto another track. That doesn’t happen in the UK nor in many other countries. But in America you can’t put a train on the wrong track. As for getting airplay, if you have the right song and the right record, nothing is tough.
Are there too few formats?
I think that there are way too many! There should be only two: one for good records and one for bad records. The genre shouldn’t matter, only how good the records are. I could quite easily listen to a great Shania Twain record next to a great hiphop record.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades? If so, why, and do you think it is a problem?
Definitely, and that’s due to the amount of money it takes to break an act these days. There’s so much money needed upfront, that the pressure to sell is on from day one. In some cases it doesn’t allow baby acts to develop. An example is the fact that the Beatles’ and Bob Dylan’s first albums were full of cover songs. Had we made our decisions about their songwriting skills based on their first albums, they would never have had the chance to make second albums. And they are two acts that have gone down in history as being the greatest songwriters of all time!
Artists also have to be realistic and bear in mind the way the world is now: people and businesses want immediate results and are not as patient as they should be.
Do artists pay for promotional costs like video-clips, and also for the making of records?
The record company pays the upfront cost of the video. Usually, a certain percentage of that cost is considered recoupable against artist royalties. As for the record, the record company is, in effect, loaning the artist the money to make the record. When, and if, the record sells, the artists have to pay back the record company from their artist royalties, before putting any money in their own pocket. Just like they would have to do if they went to a bank, except record companies don’t charge interest, and if the record doesn’t sell, the record company, not the artist, has to eat the loss.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
Well, that’s an interesting point, because if you take one act in isolation, I would say no. But if you take the music industry as a whole, whereby every baby act is basically sponsored by a major-selling act, the only way to continue that cycle is for the money to filter down from the acts that do sell. That’s how the business works: the successful end up footing the bill to develop baby acts. When those baby acts become successful, they again sponsor the new baby acts, and so on.
Imagine if all music ever recorded was 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 don’t think it would work, because people don’t want to rent music, they want to own it. They want to be able to walk around with it, and have it in their pocket. If they could burn the music onto a CD and there was a way of regulating the amount of times they could do it, then that would be a good idea. But there has to be some accounting for the royalties involved, because a piece of music is as much a piece of property as your car or your house. If it was free, artists would starve and there would be no more music.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The most significant moment of my music career was when I wrote my first song. I suddenly realized that all doors were open and all possibilities were there.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Pushing up daisies! Everything else seems rather presumptuous, as I could be out of work tomorrow.
Interviewed by Jean-Francois Méan