Interview with RON FAIR, president of A&R at A&M/Interscope for Pussycat Dolls (No.1 US) - Jun 19, 2006
"Thereís no set way to penetrate this business. This is why itís such an exciting frontier as an industry. Itís the last place where you can come with nothing in your jeans and a year later be a star,"
... Is the gospel according to Ron Fair, president of A&M/Interscope Records, and recently chairman of Geffen Records. Fair signed Christina Aguilera and was behind her breakthrough single 'Genie In A Bottle', and later on her album 'Stripped'. He is also responsible for breakthrough releases for The Calling, Keyshia Cole, Vanessa Carlton and Pussycat Dolls.
Fair was No.10 on HitQuarters' World Top 100 A&R Chart 2002, and peaked at No.2 on the weekly A&R chart.
Fair talked to HitQuarters about working with no set rules, good music as the central consideration for signing artists , letting the public judge, and keeping up with dramatic technological upheavals.
How did you start producing demos and learning to operate all the gear?
I grew up in a recording studio environment. My grandfather was a broadcaster, who had built a remote facility for the purpose of producing a daily radio broadcast. Ever since I was two years old I was around microphones and consoles.
I had various teachers and learned on the job to do multi-track recording, which in the old days was a drummer, bass and guitar player and a keyboard player, before there were drum machines, synthesizers and sequencers. By the time I was 17, I was already very skilled with microphone technique and able to make a pretty convincing sounding recording.
Iím a piano player and arranger. I arrange, write, produce and play on a lot of the hit records Iíve done. Iíve arranged strings on everything from the Black Eyed Peas to Mary J. Blige to Christina Aguilera.
How long have you been at A&M Records now?
I became President of A&M five years ago, and recently I also became Chairman of Geffen Records.
How do you approach your A&R work?
I donít have a set approach at all, because every situation is totally different. If Iím working on a project like the Pussycat Dolls or Snow Patrol, each requires a different sensibility entirely. The one thing in common to all my projects is that I am a musician and an active producer.
I have a musical dialogue with them thatís based on the actual building blocks of record making, and itís not vague, and itís not a guess. Weíre talking about the actual content of a record; the vocals and the musical arrangements as well as imaging, marketing, the video and photos and everything else that comes with it.
My relationship with my artists is based on musical trust where they know that when it comes to record making I know what Iím doing.
Whatís your musical vision for the label?
There are so many different types of genres that are valid. I donít like to put my own musical judgment on all these different art forms. From Mos Def to Ashlee Simpson. I just want to help facilitate every artist to do their best and make their most powerful statement and best sounding record.
How big is your A&R team?
There are about 12 people on it. But because I just took over Geffen Records Iím re-evaluating it.
Who makes the decisions ultimately?
I report to Jimmy Iovine. Heís one of the all time great producers, having produced everything from U2 to Stevie Nicks, having recorded ĎBorn to Runí with Bruce Springsteen and every Tom Petty record. Our shop is run by people who actually make records.
Does it make sense for anyone to contact a junior if they donít have signing power?
Thatís an antiquated concept. What has the signing power is the music itself. We donít have a Head of A&R per se, but when somebody finds something thatís exciting the word travels fast around the building.
Lots of CDs are circulated, lots of people got a chance to listen and will review it. If itís something thatís compelling itíll get a shot. Thereís never a case of one guy standing out on a ledge saying: ďIím going to do this.Ē We back our people. We have a lot of talent scouts, producers and individuals who bring music to us. I would say everybody has signing power or nobody has signing power.
If you would be interested in a new artist, how would that process be like?
I tend to work in reverse. If itís something I donít like, I donít offer any criticism at all. Because this is not something I want to get involved in. I donít view my role as a musical critic or coach or opinion giver on every piece of music in the universe.
If itís an artist that I feel compelled with and I want to work with, we break it down and start having a conversation about the songs, the structure, and how that artist is going to fit into the world, how we would market it and bring it forward. Thereís no real set process.
How do you help artists realize their vision?
If I had a viewpoint of my own as a record maker I would be an artist. But Iím a behind-the-scenes person. My goal is to be as transparent as possible. Leave no footprint on the music. Just try and guide singers and songwriters to do their very best and capture it.
What input do you have on the productions?
On the records that I produce I have 100% input. When producers work for me, no one respects the covenant between the record and the producer more than I, because I am a producer myself. If somebody is making a record for me that Iíve commissioned they have 100% control over it. I donít believe in committees. I donít believe in backseat driving.
If I see a problem with a record that someone is making for me I will always point out the problem but thereís a number of different solutions. You have to give producers and artists the freedom to be themselves and to find the answers themselves.
What artists are you currently working with?
On my desk are Macy Gray, Enrique Iglesias, the solo album for Fergie, the solo album for Nicole Scherzinger from The Pussycat Dolls, Keyshia Coleís follow up album. I just finished Ashlee Simpson.
Are you looking for songs?
Iím always looking for songs, but throughout the 26 years Iíve been doing it, itís been very rare where somebody submits a song from a third party that ends up being useful. We tend to create material and repertoire by putting collaborations together.
How do you find new talent?
Word-of-mouth. Weíre getting deluged by lawyers, engineers, producers, hairdressers, grandmothers and teachers all the time. Weíre getting music from every possible lane that life has to offer. MySpace is also very powerful. Hundreds of thousands of artists are scrambling to get to the spotlight. There is no one way.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
The music that comes in as a cold demo in the mail never reaches me, but will end up somewhere else in the building. There are 150 artists between Interscope, Geffen and A&M. My first and foremost duty is to take the artists that we have, regardless who signed them, regardless how they got there, and to make sure that they have the best shot at success, making the best possible records we can.
My emphasis is on the ĎRí in ĎA&Rí. The A&R guys, talent scouts and some of the executives are out there signing stuff. There are always so many projects that need oxygen. Thatís what I concentrate on.
How should aspiring artists present themselves?
Some artists got this incredible internet base through MySpace. There can also be a guy whoís sitting in the backseat of a car whoís making rhymes like Eminem. Eminem had nothing. He had a cassette tape with some rhymes on it and he had done some rap battles in Detroit.
Thereís no set way to penetrate this business. This is why itís such an exciting frontier as an industry. Itís the last place where you can come with nothing in your jeans and a year later be a star. Every year thereís another story, like a Norah Jones or a Josh Groban or a James Blunt that just defies everything and goes against every set rule.
What do you look for in an artist?
Having worked with Mary J. Blige and Christina Aguilera, Iím a singer and song person. I want to hear a phenomenal vocal talent. Something god-given. Some incredible tone. A gift. At the same time there are so many other types of artists that maybe donít possess that gift but they get across in other ways with maybe a lyric or an attitude.
Thatís why I donít strictly go by my own judgment. Sometimes itís more about having a nose for it as opposed to an ear for it because itís about whatís going to resonate with the public.
Whether itís a record company, a radio station or television channel, there are too many gatekeepers at every level of life. Our goal is to push through the gatekeepers and get the music to the public and let the public decide. If a record is not a hit once it reaches the public then thatís a fair game. Itís just when the gatekeepers stop it from getting to the public that itís a frustration.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
Iíve done it in every way. Some artists come with a finished video and a finished record. Others literally came with some acapella and took years to develop. I donít have any rules or regulations when it comes to this.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
We have guys at our company who are trained almost like detectives to seek out local bands who have sold records in a marketplace, who have a van and tour their region, who have local airplay. Theyíre guys who are buzz-chasing types of A&R executives. I donít have time to do that. I just listen to it and go with my gut.
What is the secret of success of a good melody and a convincing lyric making a song beautiful?
Weíre in a time where the way music is used in peopleís lives has changed so much. Ten years ago we didnít have ringtones, internet, sound bytes, channel surfing or mobile music on cell phones. When you think about mixing a concert for a cell phone, whereís the bottom end?
Everything is so different now. Mixing music to be played through little ear pods that fit inside your ear, that canít even reproduce the frequencies that the instruments themselves make.
I donít think A&R or record making is about passing judgments on genres. A record like ĎLaffy Taffyí or ĎHollaback Girlí can be just as valid in its own lane as ĎBe Without Youí by Mary J. Blige or ĎYouíre Beautifulí by James Blunt. There are so many different genres of music that appeal to the public.
With ringtones there has been a whole wave of these catchy almost chanted cheerleader songs like ĎLaffy Taffyí, ĎMs New Bootyí, ĎMy Humpsí, ĎHollaback Girlí, ĎDrop It Like Itís Hotí. Records that work well as a five second ringtone whereas theyíre not necessarily pieces of music.
If you do what I do, you have to remain open to everything. Weíre in the business of selling records and we have a customer who buys music that doesnít have a specific profile. There are zillions of different kinds of people each after a specific kind of music.
How should todayís musicians stay honest and think outside the box?
Honesty, thatís an issue of individual integrity. In some cases, integrity and a hit record do not intersect. And the object of a hit record may not be integrity.
In terms of thinking outside the box, itís a god-given talent. Some people have the imagination to paint the Mona Lisa or invent the airplane, and other people donít. The process of talent coming into our world is like a wave. We donít know what the wave is going to bring in as time goes on.
At one point in time, the tide brought in Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, Eric Clapton and Joni Mitchell. A later tide went out and brought in Sting and The Police. Itís just as life goes on.
The influences of society, culture, politics and everything down to the food you eat and the water you drink, bring in individuals into our world that have something to say and have talent, and thatís the beauty of it.
How do you view the current music business climate?
I think itís the Wild West more so than ever. I think itís more of a time of rule breaking, reinvention and surprises than ever before. The whole technology explosion is really exciting and powerful. Anybody who thinks they have the solution, two weeks later somebody else has a better solution. CDs are on the way out. We will see in a very short course here the end of them.
What doesnít change is, something exciting comes along, captures the public, and everybody wants it. This year it was James Blunt. Before it was Norah Jones and Josh Groban. Phenomenal artists that nobody was looking for and all of a sudden they capture the world. And I lived through that with Christina Aguilera.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
Itís very difficult to emphasize them. It used to be that the video was the most important tool. Right now, MTV around the world does not play that many music videos. The videos are on the internet now on sites like Fuse TV.
Everything has to be considered. MySpace, the grassroots type of marketing, mobile technology, mainstream television. Very interesting things like American Idol came up and really changed the rulebook. Itís a very exciting time.
If you would turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
It comes down to the people. All the labels that are out there are fine organizations. They all do the same thing. The business model is the same. Whatís going to be different from label to label is the individuals that are there. Whether there are people that understand the musical vision or feel the enthusiasm. Whether itís a stable situation.
How involved are you with the negotiations regarding contracts?
Once I determine I want to sign something, I 100% delegate it to the legal department. I will give an overview of where I want to go with the deal, but I leave it to the lawyers and I trust them.
What style of music would you like too see gaining more popularity?
I have such a profound love of music. I just want to light a candle and pray that the musical values that come with all the things that inspired me to pursue my lifeís work donít disappear, whether it was Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Beatles, George Gershwin, The Doors or ĎTommyí by The Who.
Thereís so much successful popular music now that doesnít have any musicality at all. Itís more about a beat and a catchy little phrase. Iím very hopeful that the traditional harmonically rich music with incredible voices and big harmonies doesnít become so alien that kids donít even know what that is and donít like it because itís too unfamiliar.
Are you still active in the film area?
Thereís always a song for a movie. I just did a record this week with Sean Paul and Keyshia Cole, which is for a Disney movie called Step Up. And I also did the theme song for the Poseidon movie with Will.i.am.
I donít like doing soundtracks anymore. Itís a very tough business. Too many people to please and the music takes a backseat to the politics.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would that be?.
Thereís a disconnection between the establishment that runs the big corporate record companies and the new young people that want to get in.
Itís an industry that has no history book about it. There are very few books written about who made this industry, compared to the film industry where you can pick up a book on any film mogul from the 30s and 40s. Nobody knows who the great A&R people were throughout time. You can go to any record company around the world and ask who John Hammond is, and they wouldnít know.
John Hammond signed Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. People donít know who Goddard Lieberson. is. Thereís no governing body. Thereís no award that we give out to each other for excellence in the industry. Thereís no real college for it. Thereís no set way of getting in the business. Itís all about who you know and who your dad was or lucky breaks. Itís such a nebulous thing.
I would love to take the freight corners of it and put a real history and tradition in place so that we leave it in better condition for generations to come. That young people who are passionate about it can inherit it and prosper with it.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?.
The first hit record I ever worked on was the Rocky soundtrack in 1976. Bill Conti was my teacher, mentor and friend. I was the recording engineer on the session.
The entire score for the film that broke Sylvester Stallone, and the two singles for the soundtrack album, were recorded and mixed in three hours, including ĎGonna Fly Nowí, a gigantic No.1 record around the world as an instrumental, which was really a feat.
I was recording a jazz session when Bill Conti came in and gave me my first gold record in front of my friends. Nothing has ever come close to that, even with all those records that I made and No.1s Iíve had as a producer.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 yearsí time?.
Iím one of those lucky people who figured out what I wanted to do at a very young age and Iíve been on that path all along. I had very good teachers like Mike Chapman, one of the worldís greatest record producers. He produced all the Blondie records as well as Smokie, The Sweet, Mud, Suzi Quatro, Nick Gilder, Billy Idol, The Knack.
Bill Conti, one of the great song composers of all time, was an incredible teacher. He told me to become a record producer. All the way through currently working with Jimmy Iovine, who has done everything I wanted to do successfully in his life and shares the knowledge with me as time goes on.
In terms of the future I want to keep exploring and pushing through boundaries and finding incredible people to record and making more records.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman