Interview with JEFF FENSTER, A&R for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys - February 19, 2007
"No matter what goes on with Britney in her personal life, she will always be able to be a big artist because she is a superstar. And thereís a limited number of those,"
... perhaps not a surprising statement coming from the man who signed Britney Spears and A&Rs Backstreet Boys, Nick Lachey and many others at Jive Records.
However, Jeff Fenster backs his view with a sharp understanding of today's music industry.
He talks to HitQuarters in detail about how people spend money on music these days, and how to prosper in this climate, down to the level of how many songs to put on your demo.
How did you manage to build strong relationships in the industry?
I started as a music attorney in private practice in LA in the Ď80s. I represented a bunch of cool bands back then, like Devo. I got my first gig in business affairs at Warner Brothers Records in LA for about four and a half years. I did a lot of interesting recording deals.
I did all the Geffen work, like the Guns ĎNí Roses deal, the Aerosmith deal. I did some work for Syre back in their glory days. I also played some tracks for Guns ĎNí Rosesí first album. Because of the fact that I was very in the music scene and finding out about things, I got offered an A&R job at Geffen.
How come you started out with rap music in LA?
Iíve always liked all kinds of music. Rap was a very exciting thing to me. There was a great radio station in LA, which is back again now, called KDAY, an AM station, that was an all rap station back then.
I really got into the culture and Iíve always loved urban music. I grew up on Stax and Motown, and funk in the Ď70s. At that time it was all James Brown samples. James Brown was my favorite artist.
I became friends with some people on the LA scene back then. Ice-T brought me my first rap group, which I signed to a little independent label that I had. DJ Muggs was in that group. I got to know the N.W.A. guys at that time. I wanted to sign them at Geffen, but Mr. Geffen thought they were kind of extreme for the label.
I developed a friendship with Rick Rubin. Musically, in terms of taste, I looked up to him, because he loved rock music and then he loved this new hip hop type of music. I was in the same kind of way. I was raised on the Motown and Stax stuff, and then Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
What artists are you currently working with?
Iím working on Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys together with Teresa La Barbera. Iím working with Raheem Devon. Iím working with an amazing girl from Ireland that I signed, named Lesley Roy.
Iím working with a rap artist signed to us called Papoose, whoís an amazing New York rapper who build up an unbelievable street following and buzz.
The other good part of the job for me is that I am also encouraged to try to find songs for every project on the roster. I worked on the new Joe record thatís coming. And I got some songs on the next Usher record.
Why did you choose those projects to work on?
I signed Britney. I think sheís amazing and still a totally unique artist in the marketplace. Despite any media issues I think sheís poised to have a huge record if the music is right. Weíre well into making the record and itís going to be great.
I also was involved in signing Backstreet Boys. I never thought of myself strictly as a pop music guy. Itís something that I kind of discovered about myself, and I do love it as much as I love the other kinds of music that I get to work with.
Papoose is a great rapper. Itís always exciting to work on a new rap project with an artist thatís totally credible and just amazing at what he does.
How do you work with those artists?
Papoose has a couple of people involved in his project who bring a lot of the things so that my job is relatively easier. Heís got Kay Slay, a big New York DJ, whoís got relationships with everyone and gets a lot of the tracks like that. Heís also affiliated with Busta Rhymes.
My job is to just make sure that everything comes together. To some degree I also find tracks for him, but mostly make sure the record comes together, that we shape a coherent album, and to help find singles.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
This girl Lesley Roy, whoís a 19 year old artist from Ireland, whoís a rock chick, who had and has her own band, also does very melodic music at the same time that she rocks. My first meetings with Lesley were my chance to hear from her where she saw herself, whatís important to her, what ideas she has about how to make the album.
Every artist is different. Some of them, like Lesley, know something about producers and individual people and are able to give me ideas about whoís work they like and who they might potentially want to work with.
Itís always very important for an A&R person at the start of a process to let the artist set the parameters by telling you who they are and what they want, and not assume that you know what they should be. Some artists have a very clear idea and some artists need help in coming to those conclusions.
Whatís the time schedule to show some success for a new artist?
Unfortunately, the way that the business is now, you really donít have many ways to go when youíre in major label world. One of which is you intentionally release something independently at first, you build up a buzz, maybe you even do it through an independent label or in a low key way.
You try to build a constituency, which is always a good thing to do. But if you are going to make the big push at whatever point, even when itís after a period of development of the artist, itís very hard because youíre expected to have success on the first album.
Itís a very different world from the time when Prince could make four albums before he really started to have success.
That sometimes means for the artist and the A&R person that you really have to be very creative if youíre going to try to create a scenario where you donít need to expect that from the first record. That, or telescope the development process artistically and so on to try to achieve success on the first record.
Making the big push means selling platinum or more?
What is considered success really varies on the circumstance even still to this day, and especially whereas we donít make as many platinum and multi-platinum albums as there once were.
Iím working on Raheem Devonís second album. Heís an absolutely amazing artist. He made his first album almost all by himself. He had some A&R help from Wayne Williams near the end of the record, but he wrote everything, he found most of the music and the producers himself.
We scanned 200,000 albums of that album on Raheem very quietly. And a lot of it has been built up by word-of-mouth and people seeing him perform live.
Itís unusual in the urban world for someone to build themselves up through their live show. It doesnít happen that often. We all at the label are totally thrilled with where we are with Raheem at 200,000 albums.
Thatís because weíve been letting it build organically and it was absolutely the right thing to do for this artist, and itís showing result. So itís not always about what the exact number is. Itís more about where youíre getting and whether you have momentum.
Very often rap acts get signed without having much live experience. Could that be a problem?
It may be one of the reasons why rap has slowed down sales-wise. Why there are only a couple of platinum rap albums this year. The tours are few and far between. Tours are certainly a driver for continuing sales of the record as we see with rock bands very regularly, and sometimes with pop acts.
That syndrome you have with rap acts; they build up the excitement for the first week and then sales take a sharp drop the second week, and then kind of dwindle. If there was more of a healthy rap touring scene, albums could probably last longer.
I donít necessarily think that the lack of touring means you canít make good records, because rap is for the most part a studio creation, with a few exceptions like The Roots. The greatest live rap artists were not always the most successful.
I worked with KRS-One back in the day here at Jive. He was the most amazing live artist as a rapper Iíve ever seen, but not necessarily the biggest seller. And the same can be true in rock as well.
How can unsigned acts in the rap game associate with successful artists?
Itís almost like an act that wants to be signed or any form of human endeavor, you want people to come to you and be asking about you rather than vice versa. I realize that itís a little bit of a chicken and egg. But when somebody is really good, the word starts to get out there and people approach them.
I know one artist right now who had a certain big producer, and this artistís camp approached them a few months ago and for whatever reason didnít hear back right away, and then the artistís buzz started to build and lo and behold, I got a phone call from the producerís camp saying; get them in the studio, and they went in the studio right away.
If youíre building up as a rapper and youíre not getting to do those features with big name artists, there are other things you can do. Do drops for the local radio station. Mixtapes are hugely important as they were for 50 Cent for example, and they are for us with Papoose.
Now Papoose has a name in addition to his affiliation with Kay Slay and Busta Rhymes. He made his bones by doing this great work on mixtapes where people know about him and actually want him on records.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
If there was a magic formula for a good demo then Iíd probably be a signed artist. There are a couple of things that make it easier for someoneís music to be heard. One is to donít give someone a CD with 15 songs on it. When you initially approach someone, 4 to 5 songs is the right number of songs. Think about the sequence of songs, as we listen to a lot of stuff. Try to put the strongest material upfront.
Every A&R person likes different things, but weíre all looking for great songs. If you hear a demo you probably havenít met the artist. You donít know if theyíre a star or what they add to the picture.
Unless itís a band that youíve seen before you get the demo, you might not know how they are live or whatís the frontman like. You have to assume usually that the demo might be the first thing the person hears and that means that songs are going to be crucial.
Every once in a while I get one of those demos and Iíll go and listen down to song 7, and all of a sudden song 7 is like the best song on the demo. And Iím like; well, clearly, if I ever did anything with this artist they couldnít sequence their own record, they donít know how to do it.
The demo should sound professional at this point. It doesnít have to sound like a record, but the technology is there and so widely available now that weíve come to expect a certain level of professionalism in the sound.
Somebody might give you something thatís raw intentionally, which is fine, but at least make sure youíre not forcing the person to listen to something thatís unintentionally painful.
What is it you want to hear in the first 10, 20, 30 seconds of a demo?
I donít want to hear a minute long intro on the first song. Not that there canít be an intro. But donít put the first song on a demo to start with a minute and a half of intro. Itís going to be very hard to keep somebodyís attention.
I know a lot of other people say they look for certain things in the first 10 to 20 seconds. Especially on the first song on a demo, I usually listen to at least two and a half minutes, three minutes of it, if not the whole song. Because I donít think that you could always know everything from the first 20 seconds.
I donít only want to see if it starts out with a bang, but also how it develops and whether this artist knows how to put a song together.
If I had to wish for one thing in the first 20, 30 seconds of a song it would be a voice that I think is absolutely amazing and something that moves me in some way and that makes me want to listen more. But I generally am not the type of person to cut something off after 30 seconds of a first song on a demo.
Where do you get the demos from?
I still get a lot of stuff directly. Most of the demos, unless another A&R person gives them to me, are from people I know. It still comes from lawyers, managers, sometimes from studio people, from the promoter of a venue, occasionally from an agent.
They usually come from people in the business that either I know or that I know are reputable. In that respect it hasnít change that much.
What has changed is that a lot of the times I donít necessarily find an artist through getting a CD. We find the music by going to the MySpace page or other sites like PureVolume.
Very often somebody will mention something and Iíll note it down and then Iíll go and check out their MySpace page or theyíre playing with some other band that I already like.
Thereís some very frustrating thing about it, like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The great thing about having all that music available is for example when someone tells me, such and such a band is playing tonight, and I donít have time to contact the artist or the manager and get music to see if I think I would like it and if I should go to the show.
But now I can just jump on wherever the music is, whether itís on their website or PureVolume or MySpace and I can actually hear some music, and then form a judgement on whether I should go see the artist.
Where do you look for outside songs?
I generally go directly to songwriters that I think would be right for a particular project. Publishers often help me to either get to people that Iím trying to get to or they help me with ideas to put together certain writers with other writers or writers with producers to come up with songs.
From doing this over a substantial period of time, I know a lot of the people. I know most of the writers. The most effective way for me is just to go to them directly. If itís a project for an established artist like Britney, I donít have to do much explaining. With a new artist I approach somebody, Iíll get the music or Iíll ask them to meet the artist.
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?
When Iím talking to an artist I always recommend that if they want to talk to other artists that I currently work with or have previously worked with that I will arrange that for them. Itís hard to know until you work with somebody how youíre going to work with them.
But one thing I would try to do as an artist is to have a conversation, if possible, with somebody that that person has worked with. Iíd look at the artists that theyíve worked with and if I think that those are good artists that would influence me.
You canít always know what a person will be like to work with just from the other artists theyíve worked with. I would expect some kind of a track record. If I had my choice between somebody who had a track record of success and somebody who didnít, Iíd probably likely to take that person with success.
Artists should go to the label and they should spend some time in the building. And itís not even necessarily about meeting all the individual people because you get confused and forget exactly who is who afterwards, but you at least get a sense of what the vibe and the energy is like in the building.
You can almost feel on an instinctual level if that feels like the right energy and environment for you as an artist. Weíre in our own little building that weíve been in for years on 25th Street. Itís not a big corporate building, and I think thatís part of the vibe.
How does an aspiring artist get a work ethic and desire to succeed in an effective way?
I discovered years ago that the work ethic and desire to succeed is almost as important as talent is. Itís very hard to succeed even with talent. Britney is a perfect example of that, as were the Backstreet Boys back in the day. A lot of those acts started out doing things when they were younger.
The discipline they got at a young age to show up for work early in the morning. TV for example is much more rigorous and precise schedule-wise than the music business. That training really ends up in being very meaningful for those artists because theyíve learned that work ethic from a young age.
Itís very hard to teach work ethic and desire to succeed. I really look for it in the artist coming in the door, and if the artist doesnít have those things, thatís a big negative balance against whatever talent they might have.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Anyone thatís honest would say itís uncertain. What I do know is that people still want music, which is a big part of the reason for Appleís current success, for example. There are so many brands associating themselves with music. Music is more prominent in commercials than ever before.
It certainly is more prominent in TV shows than ever before. People still want music, itís how people want to pay for it that is changing. How you make a business out of it is changing. Itís very challenging for the world I work in, which is the major label record company world, which is certainly going to have to do more adapting if itís going to survive, let alone prosper.
I think people tend to only talk about the business side of things a lot. On the music side weíre probably in the middle of the album as an art form evolving in some kind of way. Not being the same kind of static thing that it has been and that an artist puts out every year and a half or two or three years.
People are picking and choosing what they want. Thereís a lot more a la carte attitude then there was when I was growing up. In one way thatís a very good thing because people should be entitled to customize their own music, or Ďthe soundtrack of their lifeí to use a wonderful clichť.
When I was young I used to have this dream that I would have my own radio station. That I would be driving around in a car, which I still think is the best place to listen to music, and somehow I could pick up a phone and call the radio station which was mine, and say; I feel like hearing X and Y song next. That was just a crazy dream, but now itís basically what people can do.
On the other hand it also made us get back to a ringtone singles mentality. One song at the time and no real loyalty to an artist over the course of a career, and thatís not good.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
Iím kind of going against the trend. I would like to see more artists who actually have enough to say musically to make great albums. Even though Iím a guy who loves a catchy song and has done very well with a catchy song, I myself and people in general want more than that from an artist if theyíre going to actually invest in that artist over a long period of time.
Itís hard to define. In some cases like Dylan, itís lyrics more than anything else. In other cases, whether itís Pink Floyd or pick your poison, itís more of a musical or combination of the two. Again, Raheem Devon is a real artist to me, and I donít even know how to define that as precisely as possible in words. Itís just someone who brings individuality to their artistry.
Working with him on his new album, Raheem has this amazing, very topical song called ĎCocaine Dreamsí and itís stunning to me. Itís an amazing piece of work. Maybe itís an artist whoís willing to take risks or has the ability to think and look at something differently than other people do, whether itís musically or lyrically or both.
I donít think we need more artists in any particular genre or male or female necessarily. We need more stars. There is a general feeling out there, and this is no dissing of the successful artists that are out there right now, but a feeling that there are not a lot of what we thought of over the course of years are real stars.
No matter what goes on with Britney in her personal life, she will always be able to be a big artist around the world because she is a superstar. And thereís a limited number of those.
Itís one reason why people who are superstars earlier in their career are able to come back, whether itís a Britney or a Mariah Carey or Lionel Richie. It doesnít feel like that there are that many young potential superstars that the public knows about right now. There isnít a ton of Alicia Keys out there.
Will you be doing A&R in 5-10 years from now?
Iím certain that I would be happy doing it for as long as people could put up with me. You can ask anyone that knows me; I havenít really changed my behavior that much, even though Iíve been doing it for a while.
I still go out and see a lot of shows. I still go in the studio. I was in the studio last night until four in the morning, then I went to my hotel and packed my stuff and went to the airport and got on the plane. I do love it and I would continue to do it.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Britney's A&R executive Teresa La Barbera-Whites on how she finds new talent