Interview with STEPHEN FERRERA, VP A&R at J Records for Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, Carrie Underwood - Apr 10, 2006
ďWhen Iím listening to a song, I look at the lyrics and listen to the melody. Iím not focusing on who wrote it. If the song is great then weíre going to record it.Ē
Ö says Stephen Ferrera, VP A&R at J Records USA, voted No.1 most wanted Pop label on the Label Vote 2005.
He is A&R for American Idol Kelly Clarkson (5 x US Platinum), Clay Aiken (US No.1), Carrie Underwood (US No.2), Heather Headley (US No.5), Rod Stewart and Brazilian jazz piano player Eliane Elias. Stephen has been awarded No.3 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart.
Read about the reasons why J Records and Stephen Ferrera is one of the most sought after A&Rs in the world, how he works with new artists and what is usually discussed in the first meetings between an A&R and an unsigned artist.
What was the path you took to becoming an A&R?
Iíve been a musician since childhood. Iíve played in lots of bands, and Iíve been on many records as a session musician and record producer/songwriter. I was an original member of Shakespeareís Sister and I had my own band called Lulabox, which was signed to MCA.
Iíve always been a musician, songwriter and record producer. I was offered a job as a staff producer for Capitol Records, and thatís how I started doing A&R because I was producing and signing artists. It was a logical evolution.
Now, I work for RCA Music Group, which includes J Records, RCA Records and Arista Records. I love it here. Clive Davis is an amazing mentor to me. Working with Clive has taught me so much. The bar is incredibly high. Itís very intense. The level of excellence is second to none.
How do artists know when J Records is the right place for them?
If you look at the charts you can see that weíre having great success right now on all fronts with all of our artists.
Our roster is small, but when we get behind an artist, weíre totally committed and stick with the artist and the song until the success comes. That kind of dedication, hard work and longevity is what any artist would want to have. You donít want to be in a situation where your record comes out and then if it doesnít connect immediately you get dropped. We are very tenacious.
How did you first come to work for American Idol?
I was designated as the American A&R guy to be involved in this new project. Originally with Pop Idol the deal had been made with BMG UK and Simon Cowell, who has been a BMG employee for quite a while. I went to London to talk about the premise of doing an American version of the show.
In America there are no real musical variety shows, no hit parade show, no chart show. Apart from MTV and the cable outlets there is no nationally syndicated music program. The way that they were describing it was that this was going to be a national televised show on a major network thatís going to be on prime time during the week.
The competition would identify artists, we would make the records, and the show would in turn help market the music. The general concept of that sounded like a very interesting process, because television, as a driver, reaches out to a huge amount of people, much more than radio and other avenues.
In what way is it challenging to work for American Idol?
Itís challenging on many levels. The winner is chosen by the public and you donít know who youíre going to end up with. The first record that gets made by the winner has to be done incredibly quickly, because of the nature and timing of the show. Thereís no period to get to know the artist.
They have themed shows, like a Motown night, a movie night or a standards night, which is all about them singing and trying to win this competition. It doesnít have anything to do with what these kids would really want to sing if they were making their own record. Unless by chance, you have know way of knowing what style of music will allow them to really shine.
We try to make the right record and get it out there so that the public can get a taste of the artist. Under any circumstances, thatís a difficult thing to do. But theyíre also doing press and are touring with the show - weíre grabbing these guys on the road, pulling them back into a studio for an hour here and there.
When I sign an artist in a normal way and make a record, I discuss the repertoire, figure out what theyíre going to do, block out a period of time, go in the studio and focus on the record 100%. With this first record of American Idol youíve got all these other distractions going on. Itís tough.
How do you find and end up working with songwriters and producers?
Thereís a team of people that Iíve known over the years who are at the top of their game. When the show gets close to the end, they come up with material that could work. Iím looking for hit songs that could get played on the radio.
Other writers call in or write me to ask what Iím looking for. When these songs come in I have to review them melodically, lyrically and structurally. If some of them are close, Iíll go back to the writers and ask them to change something here and there and get it on board so that we all feel that we have a solid collection of songs that we can record for the album.
When it comes to breaking a new TV act, does it matter that youíre a known songwriter?
No. When Iím listening to a song, I look at the lyrics and listen to the melody. Iím not focusing on who wrote it. If the song is great then weíre going to record it.
I encourage artists to write their own material, but also be mindful that their material is going to be judged next to other great songs that come in. Everybody wants success. The way to get success is to have to have the best ingredients you can get.
Who makes up the team around an artist?
Clive Davis, myself and their management.
What input do you usually have on the productions?
We work very closely with the artists. We choose the producers. We listen to the production as itís evolving and make suggestions all along the way until the record is mastered. We have total input from the incarnation and beginning of the arrangements straight through to the end.
What goes on in the rehearsal rooms and studio?
The songs will come in and weíll listen to them. We get in touch with the writers and say things like; this song is quite strong, but perhaps you might want to do a lyric change at this point because this part of the concept is not as clear. Or maybe the chorus could be stronger if you raise it up a step. Or maybe the intro is a bit too long, or it takes too long to get to the chorus.
All the structural arrangement, the content of the lyrics and melodic ideas are discussed. We talk with the artists and writers and see if we can all get to a point where it all comes together.
How do songwriters and producers work with the artist?
Youíll have a songwriter, and sometimes youíll have a producer who is different to the songwriter. Then sometimes youíll have a producer who is the songwriter as well Ö There are different aspects of it.
The producer, whoever is producing the song, is the person thatís in the studio on a day-to-day basis with the artist. I go down to the studio and check up on things if the records are made in a place where I can be. Sometimes Iíll fly down to wherever they are, spend a day or two, listen to how itís going, make my suggestions and go back.
Whatís the difference between working with an American Idol artist and working with someone else?
I love working with great singers who have star quality. Whether an American Idol contestant, or an artist who I find playing in a club; I expect the same level of excellence from whoever that Iím working with. The nature of making an album under the pressures of the American Idol competition makes the process a bit more difficult.
We were able to make Kelly Clarksonís second album ĎBreakawayí like a normal artist would make it. We were able to sit down together, go over the material, pick the songs that we liked, meet with the producers, discuss the concept we wanted, then book out the time properly and make the record at the pace she was comfortable with.
Whereas when we made her first record she was on the road, touring, doing interviews, doing press, flying all over the place. In between that schedule we were trying to get a day here and there to make the record. The continuity and the flow wasnít there. Thatís the difference.
For how long will you continue to work with an artist on a project?
We work until itís done. If it takes six months, eighteen months or two years, we work until everybody feels we have all the material and the record is exactly the way that we want it to be. Then we put it on the release schedule and off we go.
The only time constraints we have are the ones we put on ourselves until we get the thing right. Thereís no point in putting out a record thatís not exactly the way that itís supposed to be.
What media do you target?
It depends on the artist and the type of music. We have the new and exciting opportunities of the internet, as well as TV, including MTV, VH1 and TRL, and good old fashioned press and touring.
When weíre making a record we start sharing the music with people in all departments of the company. By the time the record is done we have an iron-clad marketing/promotion plan of how weíre going to roll the record out, depending on the music and the target that weíre going for.
How difficult is it to break an artist these days?
The market is crowded. There are fewer labels. The expectations are higher. Itís all about trying to find new and interesting ways to get that music out there for people to hear it. The Internet is a wonderful tool.
Different programs that present new music are able to get people to hear the music at a very early stage and help build up the grassroots sensibility of an artist. As it gets rolled out, hopefully it keeps building and building.
The business has changed. You canít put a record out and expect that something is just going to happen. You need to have different drivers that are going to help you get it out there. Touring is one. Radio and television is another, and the internet is a fantastic driver.
How should aspiring artists think outside the box of traditional approaches?
I donít think that the artist should worry so much about that. They should be focusing on writing the best songs that they can, raising their bar as high as possible, and staying true to themselves as artists.
If theyíre achieving that, than the record company can help take it to the next level.
Whatís your view on the radio situation in the US?
Itís hit driven. Itís urban centric. Thereís not a lot of room for Pop music on Top 40. Most of it is hip hop and rap. Itís tougher for rock or more straight-up pop driven stuff to get on the radio. Thatís not to say that it canít get on the radio. James Blunt is doing fantastically. Kelly Clarkson has had a spectacular run.
How do you offer tour support for your artists?
You have to be out there and have people see you. When we sign an artist and weíre ready to roll out the project, we have to figure out whether itís a small club tour or an opening slot on a bigger stage. And then give the tour support that is appropriate to the right tour thatís going to benefit the artist in the best way possible.
How do you find new talent?
Any way I can. Going to clubs and hearing people play. Other artists will tell me to check out a band. Songwriters or producers will send me CDs or direct me to a website. Through managers and attorneys. Somebodyís recommendation, who I respect very highly, leads me some place and I will go and check it out.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No. Thatís a company policy.
What does the development process for a new artist include?
First, itís all about the material. We work with them very closely and encourage them to keep writing and developing the material, to get better and better as songwriters. Secondly, to sharpen their performance ability so they can deliver that material in a powerful way. The goal is not only for the record to sound great, but when they go out there and play they can give a captivating performance and make people go; Wow! Look at this! This is incredible!
What is usually discussed in the first meetings?
Who are their influences and who inspires them; what they like and donít like to listen to; what artists have been important in the big picture of their life; were there older artists that their parents talked to them about? What new groups they have they been listening to.
I like to know the lineage of how this artist that Iím talking to has got to where they are. What were the exciting things in their life that theyíve listened to, and what have they been inspired by that has led them to land in this meeting with me.
Would you work with acts from outside the US?
Geography doesnít matter to me. Since I work in the US the most important thing is that I need to know that an artist can have success in the United States, first and foremost. The end game, of course, is to have international global success. If Iím going to A&R this artist I have to know that I can get the people in my company excited about it and that I can have a hit in this country first.
It takes total dedication and time to break an act that lives outside of the US. They need to be here to tour, to do press, to do radio. It just doesnít work to come here for two, three weeks and do a couple of things and then go back home. The artist has to be here for the whole time.
Do company demands to break with the first album affect your A&R work?
No. What Iím looking for is a long term artist thatís going to make many records and have a very long career. Iím expecting that each album is going to grow, change, develop and expand upon the last one. The worst thing for me would be if I sign a band and the first album they make is the greatest album they ever make.
The perfect situation is that you want to come out with a great debut album, and then you want an unbelievable follow-up record. Then the third album is a growth on that. And then when you look over a period of ten years, you say; Wow! This group has grown, developed and gotten better and better. Thatís what makes a real artist and gives them longevity.
Every time I enter the studio and weíre ready to make a record itís like this is going to be the best record weíre going to make.
Do you think that record labels will license finished products more and more?
I donít think that thatís a steadfast rule. If somebody walks in here with a finished record and there are hits on it and the production sounds great, I would sign it if itís ready to go.
How involved are you when the time comes to negotiate the record contract?
I like to keep my relationship with an artist on a creative level. I leave the contractual negotiations to the lawyers.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Iím a little frustrated that for the last ten years there has been a great divide between what is successful in the US market and what is successful in the rest of the world. Thereís not much global crossing over.
Itís starting to slightly open up, with the success of James Blunt and a few others, but I wish there wasnít such a humongous cultural divide in music. I wish that a big hit record in Europe could be a great hit here. And vice versa. There needs to be more musical exchange.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Over the years there have been many, but this year it would have to be the success of the Kelly Clarkson record. When we started to make the ĎBreakawayí album it was very difficult to get writers and producers to want to work on this record. Kelly was fighting the stigma of being the winner of a television gameshow. Now she is vindicated. This record is hugely successful and itís selling beyond everyoneís wildest expectations.
The fact is, she won two Grammys - clearly an indication that she has arrived and is accepted by her peers and the public. Sheís an international success story. Weíre presently on our sixth single. Sheís been constantly in the Top 15. Her videos have all been #1 on TRL. This girl is the real deal. I believed in her and told her so since the day that I met her in 2002.
Kelly is proud of her first record, and it has sold almost 3 million copies, but ĎBreakawayí was the record that she wanted to make. And the public has accepted it. These last few months have been a real achievement and a moment that puts a smile on my face. Itís a sweet success story.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Sitting right here doing what I do. Working with great artists, finding amazing songs and helping artists facilitate their dreams. This is what I love to do.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Mark Williams, A&R at Interscope Records - No.1 A&R on the World Top 100 A&R Chart 2005
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