Interview with JIMMY GRECO, producer for Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lopez, Carlos Santana - June 9, 2008
"No one can promote you as much as yourself."Jimmy Greco started his career as a 12-year-old DJ sneaking into clubs and made a name for himself as a producer on the New York scene as early as age 20.
His self-built network of contacts led him to production gigs with Jennifer Lopez (Top 10 US), Carlos Santana (Top 10 US) and most recently Miley Cyrus (No.1 US).
Greco talks to HitQuarters about his switch from working directly with majors to setting up his own label, about using social musical networks online, about the kind of artists he is looking for, and about his experience as a songwriter.
How did you find your way in the music business?
I started as a drummer when I was 8 years old. By the age of 10 I became a DJ and I actually got to play in a club when I was 12 years old. Even I wasnít supposed to be there, I would sneak in because I had some friends that worked in clubs in New York and they got me to DJ.
When I was 16 I became the DJ for a local hip hop group in New York and we actually managed to sign a deal with a company called Fever Records. From there I started to do some drum programming, continued to DJ and had a home studio. I did whatever I could to stay in the business. I started to record some local artist that I knew and made my own demos.
I made a transition from being an artist to being an engineer/programmer. In the mid Ď90s I started programming for TV commercials for Coca Cola and Pepsi. I did all the hip hop beats at the time. They were looking for people who have had access to all the loops back when there werenít that many samples available.
I was in New York and young, so my name pretty much spread around as a drum programmer/engineer back then. I wound up getting on some big records as a drum programmer, which led me to a talented group of writers.
After a while I started collaborating with various writers that were originally hiring me. That led to me starting my own production company and starting to provide the artists that I was working with full songs. By the age of 20 I knew I wanted to be a producer.
Were there any milestones that had a big impact for you making the transition?
For a few years I had done a bunch of independent records that never saw much of the light of day. The main record that made the transition for me was the Celine Dion record. I was the drum programmer for the song Ďmisledí. That credit created a great opportunity for me.
Were there any key people that helped you?
Yeah, at that time Jeff Kent , a writer and producer, took on the responsibility to manage me. He really was the one to introduce me to the jingle world. Also, Bob Celeston who was another influential person who took me under his wing introduced me to a lot of other people in the industry, believed in me and gave me a shot. He was a music attorney and also a manager.
How did you get the co-writing sessions with J-Lo and Santana?
Back in 1997 I started a production company with my partner Ray Contreras . He was an artist that I was going to be producing and we ended up co-producing his album. He was of Latin descent and could write in Spanish and English. I know English only so I was more involved in the production side and he was more a lyric/melody person.
So we started writing for other artists as well. A cut that we did with an artist called Frankie Negron opened up an opportunity in the Latin market. The song was called ĎEnamorado de Tií and it was a big Latin hit. After that I have been offered a co-publishing deal from Warner Chapel. They were able to open many doors for me.
Now that I had a hit song on the charts it led to a lot of other production work. Ray and I had two No.1 Latin songs with Jerry Riveraís ĎQuieroí and Indiaís ĎSeduce Meí. So we became the Latin crossover pop guys. We were able to call pretty much every A&R or label person at the time that were doing this kind of stuff because we were building a track record.
The opportunity came along to present some music for J-Lo. She loved our song ĎSi Ya se Acoboí which we ended up recording and producing. Pretty soon after that we heard that Carlos Santana was looking so we sent it over to his manager. He loved a song we wrote called ĎCome Into My Worldí.
They originally intended to record the song with a live band and we just get a cut as songwriters but Carlos liked the way the demos sounded so much that he said: ďCan you guys send the track out so that I can record over it?Ē So we asked: ďAre you open to us producing it?Ē And he said: ďAbsolutely!Ē So we flew to San Francisco and were able to work with Carlos Santana, which for us was one of the biggest opportunities ever.
How was the process of the writing with J-Lo and Santana? Did they change a lot to the song?
We did do the vocals for the Santana song and we also did record the vocals for her. They didnít change the melody. We had a scratch vocal done for them to follow. They pretty much stuck to the original demo vocal. On those two projects they didnít involve themselves in the writing process.
How did the original contacts come up?
The contact to J-Lo came through a guy called Manny Benito, who was working at Sony at the time. We knew him, sent him the track and he presented it to her. To Carlos we had a contact to his manager directly. Those two cuts did not happen through Warner Chapel.
Would you say it was of major importance that you were signed to a publishing company?
At the time it was a really great opportunity to be with Warner. Theyíve done amazing things for me. But even when we had a publisher who plugged our songs, it came to me or Ray making the calls. We are very proactive with our own catalogue because no one can promote you as much as yourself.
I didnít totally rely on Warner. It was more like if I needed a contact or I could use Warner as a credit. Because I was a credible signed Warner Chapel writer I was able to make a lot of calls but once I started to develop my own track record I could also do it from my own contacts.
So do you have your own publishing company right now?
Yes I do. It is administered by Kobalt Music. But it still comes down to me getting my own songs placed. More for film and TV at the moment because the record business is really different then it used to be. My main focus though is developing the artist on my own web-based label Airgo Music.
Because of the state of the industry I made the shift of wanting to go and get the artist signed on a major label and potentially have the majors drop the ball. Because someone always gets fired or held up through politics so I wanted to really do my own thing, take the bull by the horns, use the web as an amazing vehicle to promote and market my whole team of writers, producers and artists.
How much percentage would you say you invest on working your label and new artists, and writing for commercials?
Iím working about 10 % on music for other artists and 90 % for Airgo music. I just found out that I have a nice cut with Miley Cyrus. We did a remix of ĎSee You Againí which is a big hit for her and itís going to be released on her new album.
But I lost a lot of faith in the major market in terms of what they can do for new artists and artist development. So I try to base my company on the artist development side of things and get them to a place where we can use a major for the distribution.
How did you get the Miley Cyrus cut?
Through a friend and co-producer, John Suraci. He is a DJ in New York. He works for a company called Promo Only. They do a lot of radio promotion nationwide in the US. I think Disney contacted him about producers who can do some remixes. So he suggested that we both do a remix for them.
So we presented it along with a few other versions that they had from different producers and Miley and her managers picked ours. So we are really excited and we know itís a great opportunity to be on her next album. Itís rare to have a remix on an album.
Did you have to do that on spec?
Yeah, unfortunately we had to do the remix on spec and I only would do it that way for a major artist. In this case I really loved the song and we did it on spec which we are getting paid for now. But I really donít do anything on spec anymore, because there are so many artists that need remixes.
I could be doing that everyday, if I would have the time. I only do it here and there if I like the artist and the artist is credible and big enough where itís worth my time to do it on spec.
Can one get points in the publishing when doing a remix?
You can sometimes, but I havenít in this case, unfortunately. This is a buy out situation.
Do you have a manager or attorney that handles all your business affairs?
I just have an attorney who takes on that responsibility. I donít have a manager at the moment.
Which artists are you currently working on?
I have two girls out of Utah that are called Faces Without Names. Super talented, very young - 16 and 17 years old, singer/songwriters. Iím really excited about working on their project. They have a pop/rock sensibility, kind of like Kelly Clarkson/Avril Lavigne. Disney could be an interesting partner for them.
How did you find them?
I found them through a songwriter I collaborate with, Marjorie Maye. She presented the girls to me and I thought they are great from day one so I took them on. We are doing a lot of online promotion as well as finishing the productions for their record thatís coming out next month through Airgo.
When it gets to a point where they have a solid fan base, enough Youtube/Myspace hits and the development is done, Iíll go to Disney and say, ďEverything is set up for you. Now plug it into your machine and bring it to the next level.Ē Thatís what I like to do.
The other artist Iím really excited about is Frankie Negron, who is a Latin/salsa star. He has left the majors to join Airgo. He got to see what we do here on an independent level and realised that in order to have the attention paid to the artist these days you really got to find a small group of people who can give you very specific attention. The album should be done by the end of the summer.
We also have Michael Makai who is a really talented pop/R&B singer that Iíve known for many years. He used to be in a boyband that was signed to DreamWorks a few years ago and now he is doing his own solo record. Itís doing really great in the States but even better in Japan of all places.
We have worldwide access via the web. People are ordering downloads and CDs and we just did a deal in Poland. Itís accepted internationally.
Another artist Iím very excited about is Ray Rodriguez. He has been on several TV shows. Starting with the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He is one of the cast members. He has been the host on several other shows and performed on celebrity duets. Weíre just getting started with his album and just released his first single, ĎBrokení and that is doing really well.
There are other artists on the label but these are the main focus. You can find all of these artists on the Airgo site, iTunes and their individual Myspace pages, which we manage, update and provide all the content for.
What would you say are the most important marketing tools you use online?
Word of mouthÖyou have to be on all the social sites like Myspace, Facebook, Youtube and in addition, I encourage my artists to do a lot of live performing. We also do paid banners on very key specific sites that generate a lot of traffic and sales. Those are the main three focuses.
What are the key sites?
We use Purevolume, Myspace, LastFM are some sites I like. We use all the social sites and a couple of things that are industry secrets. We did a lot of experimenting with brand marketing and non-conventional marketing to get people to associate these artists with different brand names. We are working on film and TV placements as well as video game placements, which is a huge vehicle to promote artists.
Can everyone make a deal with iTunes?
Everyone can make a deal with iTunes through third party chains for example like Orchid or CDbaby. Thatís not the hard part. The hard part is getting the marketing and the promotion behind you. We start with No.1 - the songs have to be hit songs. Then making sure our productions are competitive and then focus on marketing and promotion.
Do you look for songs for your artists?
Yes. The song is the first and most important thing for every artist. The song is the most important factor before anyone knows who the artist is. You only get people by connecting with them through the song. So I have a really great network with publishers and songwriters that I always reach out to submit material to my artists. I certainly do not write everything, I focus on getting the best content first.
How much time do you spend on production and songwriting?
I try to spend at least a day a week. Even though that doesnít seem like much because Iím managing so many different things. In terms of production I feel like Iím always producing at some point of the day. Usually 90% hands-on producing.
But a lot of artists Iím working with are able to bring in some finished masters and I reach out to my other production team who is doing a lot of physical work that needs to be done.
How do you write songs?
I think there is no set method. I usually start with some kind of inspired musical piece and then I start hearing melodies and write here and there. But Iím not really a great lyricist so thatís normally when I use my network and call a lyricist. I love to bring them in on music that Iíve started on.
Do you do that over the Internet?
It depends. If they live in New York they normally come round the studio but I have long distance writing sessions via Hi Chat or even if we want to see each other we can create a kind of in the room feeling of collaboration.
When you think about the hit songs you wrote, how did they come up?
There was no system or magic formula that I found when I did those. Itís funny because I feel like I did the same process in terms of the amount of work, detail, attention and inspiration that I did with 200 of the other songs that I wrote. Some just happened to be hits.
How does it work with the artists on your roster?
I try to be hands-on and involved initially when Iím working with my artist because I really want to understand where they are coming from. I think the only way to do that is going in the studio and working with them, hanging out with them.
Find out why they are here as artists. What do they want to contribute to the world? Because then when Iím not writing with them and Iím looking for great songs then I can get a better idea of what is needed.
How long does it take you to write a song?
The writing varies because sometimes you have a great flow of inspiration and it comes out very naturally. Production usually takes between three to four days to get the music clear plus one day of recording the vocals and one day of mixing. So generally it takes about a week for a great representation of the song.
Do you write your songs in front of the computer or just on guitar?
I do both, but mostly in front of the computer because if I have an inspiration I can hum it right into the microphone, or I have a little digital recorder that I can hum it into. Then itís almost as if Iím producing right from the writing session. Usually I produce as Iím writing.
Do you play the instruments yourself?
Usually I play the keyboards and drums initially and then depending on the production I can hire great guitar players and amazing drummers. Most of the time I play the keyboards myself but I even hired keyboard players to come in who are much better musicians then I am and can take what I have written and embellish on it.
How often do you go back on a track and change it?
I only change it if it doesnít feel right. If I record vocals for example and the first or second take feels great I just go with it. There are so many songs I listen back to after a while that I could have done differently, but pretty much when Iím done with the song and the production I move on to the next thing.
I keep looking forward. I know that I am a perfectionist and I can get so stuck in fixing and making things perfect that I would never finish.
What makes a producer special nowadays?
No.1: A producer that doesnít try to impose his or her style on an artist and that can get the most out of the artist they are producing. No.2: A producer that gets the artist to try some new things and think outside the box.
I try not to chase trends. I donít turn on the radio and say, let me produce that, because thatís whatís playing. I try to create great music and songs and have the style and the genre come more organically to me as opposed to chasing a trend. Because everything is six months behind anyway.
What music software do you mainly use?
ProTools and Reason.
What advice would you give upcoming producers and writers entering the market?
I would say education. Go listen and study hit songs. What made them hits? In terms of producers, study hit productions. Listen to Quincy Jones. Listen for what people were doing that really made the difference. What made some hit records back in the day?
Even now there are great producers out there. I also tell every songwriter: ďWrite a thousand songs, before you think the song that you wrote is going to be great!Ē Just produce by producing and write by writing all the time.
What is lacking when you listen to productions that are sent to you?
Songs are missing a really quality hook or chorus. Itís usually the hardest thing to write. But itís also the subject matter of the song. The lyric needs to connect. Even if itís a fun club track. If it doesnít connect it doesnít have hit potential. If the main melody line of the chorus doesnít connect to me then it doesnít inspire me. Melody and message are the most fundamental missing parts.
Are you looking for artists at the moment?
>Always. Iím looking for artists who are dedicated to make music their life and are not looking to become a celebrity or want to be on MTV. Iím looking for the artist that wakes up every day and think about being an artist. Artists that go and play the smallest little venues.
Someone who is a truly dedicated artist who doesnít think they have all the answers but knows that with a lot of hard work, dedication and time they can achieve whatever they want. They should be doing it for the right reasons. I have to believe that that is where the artist is coming from or itís not really worth my time.
Where do you look for new artists?
I donít have to look as hard as I used to because I have got so many people that are sending me stuff. I always have my ear out on Myspace or whenever IĎm in a local club in Manhattan. If people send me links to their website or demos I try to give everyone a listen. Even if itís just five seconds. I know if there is something that I can latch onto.
How does a contract with your label look like?
Contracts vary. I donít have one set contract. It varies because it depends on what the artist is bringing to the table. If they are looking for us to do everything from beginning to end itís different to when they have a finished record and a fan base.
What would you say was the greatest moment in your career?
Producing and hanging out with Carlos Santana.
For more information check Jimmy Grecoís website.
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Interview by Jan Blumenrath
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