Interview - Nov 7, 2003
“You sign a bunch of talent and hope that one out of ten blows up.”Joe Cerini is A&R manager at Epic/Sony, New York.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I'm a musician, I play the drums, and my family is very much music-oriented; I grew up playing instruments and I always had an ear for music, for the cutting edge of what was coming out at the time. I started interning at Sony, and then I moved up. I now work in A&R under Marvin Peart, VP of A&R, and David McPherson, Executive VP of A&R.
What particular experiences have enhanced your A&R skills?
When I started interning in 1998, I worked for Marvin Peart, who was a regular A&R at the time, and he recognised that I had a certain talent, especially for listening to music and recognising what was good. Because he was really busy, he used to give me the demos that were sent to him; I checked them out, and that’s how I developed a really good ear and learnt to recognise what's hot and what's not. To this day, I always listen to the demos that come in for me. I don't throw them away like a lot of other A&Rs do, and that helps me develop my ear further.
What styles of music do you focus on?
Hip-hop and r&b.
What acts are you currently working on?
Ginuwine (click on artist names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), B2K, Amari, and Baby D and Grafh, two new rap acts.
How do you find new talent?
What I find most effective is going out and looking for it, rather than waiting in the office for something to come to me. Relationships are the key to this business, because when you don't have relationships, you don’t have people who find hot stuff and bring it to you. I do both, I go out and look for it and I try to build up my relationships.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
It's very useful. BDS tracks radio play, so when an independent artist is getting radio play, I try to locate that artist and get more information. I find out what’s going on in different regions and who the popular local artists are. I use all different types of sites, BDS, MediaBase, Down-South.com, and AllHipHop.com.
How frequently do you go out to see artists live?
I go out at least five times a month and I also go to showcases.
On what basis do you decide which live performances to attend?
Word of mouth.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and I get at least fifty demos a month. I do listen to all of them. My approach is to break the record up. If I don't like the artist, there might be something else in there that I like. Maybe the artist has a good voice but the song is bad, or maybe it’s a great track that I might want for another artist. I try to make use of anything that possibly sounds good.
When you’re looking at independent artists’ sales in SoundScan, what kind of figures make you sit up and take note?
SoundScan is useful, but it's not as accurate as BDS. BDS reflects a true number of spins, whereas SoundScan can be faked. They're not true scans, because you might have a mom&pop store where they scan this other, independent artist’s CD every time they sell a Mariah Carey record, to make it look like this independent artist is selling lots of records. I don't really go by those chart numbers; I follow the radio chart.
How important are local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
The song is what matters.
Do you release music that doesn’t fit into the mainstream? Can you be completely uncompromising as long as you love it, or must you consider the market?
I try to stay on the mainstream route, what kids are into right now, because that’s what's selling. I would be more confident signing something that I knew was a sure thing than something a bit left of centre.
What do you look for in an artist?
Star quality, stage performance, vocal ability, songwriting ability...all those things that define a star.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
It’s very important.
How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?
I take it all into account. Radio is very important.
What are the most important factors when listening to a rap artist’s demo?
The flow and the hook. If it's a hot beat, that helps too.
What does the development process for a new artist often include?
They need someone who can help them step up their stage performance. I also find producers for them, if I have to.
How many artists might you sign in a year?
I expect to sign about four a year. The roster could be huge though, as long as they're all hot artists.
How involved are you with the production of a record?
I have a lot of input, because I have to make sure it's hot, so I spend a lot of time in the studio. If I have an idea that I think is going to be hot, then I present it, but we all work together as a team. Producers need to know what we want, so they definitely want our opinion.
Is urban music excessively driven by producers, instead of by artists?
I don't think so.
Do you think there are too many artists signed to record deals?
You sign a bunch of talent and hope that one out of ten blows up, so it's a gamble. Labels sign a bunch of stuff and hope that one becomes the hit that will make up for the other nine they signed. A lot of the artists that are signed don't even release records.
How much does it generally cost to record, market and promote an album?
Anywhere from USD250,000-1,000,000.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
We might do a single deal but not a development deal. We rarely do development deals, because we hope that the artists don't need much development.
How often do the single deals lead to a signing?
It depends on how the record works. If the record is hot and it’s getting a lot of spins then it is possible.
Can you describe a situation in which you would typically do a single deal?
A track that gets a lot of spins and a lot of hype.
What factors prevent A&Rs at major labels from developing artists long term?
The artists have to be totally ready when they come to a major label. I've been doing A&R for three years now and it's a lot tougher now because the music industry has changed. People also want more out of an artist these days, so the bar has definitely been raised as far as that is concerned.
Will record labels increasingly license finished product from production companies rather than develop artists from scratch?
It's a plus when a company develops their artists so that they're ready to go, and yes, I do think it will be done more and more. Other companies, such as production companies and independent labels, will develop artists and bring them to major labels.
What do you think of the radio situation in the US?
If you have a hot record, they're going to play it. It's undeniable.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Just being in the music business and doing what I love every day is the greatest moment.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
Probably moving up the ladder into a higher position, just constantly moving up and finding hits.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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