Interview with TOMMY ROTEM, A&R at Beluga Heights for Jason Derülo, Iyaz, Sean Kingston - Apr 19, 2010
“Our main priority is breaking artists and changing people's lives.”
A tight three man team punching well above its weight, the small but formidable label Beluga Heights has carved out an enviable track record in discovering and developing artists and helping turn their raw talent into chart gold. Sean Kingston (USA & UK No.1), Iyaz (UK No.1, USA Top 3) and Jason Derülo (USA & UK No.1) are three artists that had have their lives changed by Beluga, and the future looks bright for new artists Auburn and Mann.
Continuing a special interview series where we talk to each of the LA label’s three heads in an attempt to get to its heart, we turn to A&R Tommy Rotem, who talks about Sean Kingston finding his singing voice and stresses the major role MySpace plays in his artist search.
Have you been involved with Beluga Heights from the very beginning?
It has been a three-person partnership from the very start - JR being the producer, Zach the business guy/CEO and me the A&R. The beginning was around 2005.
When my brother JR moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to get into the industry, I decided I also wanted to get involved in music, and so after college I started interning at Atlantic Records and then moved over to a job at an indie label.
It was when I was working for the indie that MySpace was just taking off. I was creating a MySpace page for JR and so many artists where checking it out and hitting on it.
Meanwhile my brother and his manager Zach Katz were getting more and more placements and were looking for artists. That's when I started hunting on MySpace for an artist that JR would like and that we could develop together.
I wouldn't even be an A&R if it wasn't for the internet and MySpace. That gave me access to artists. It was via MySpace that I found Sean Kingston.
So what happened once you found Sean and became interested in him?
In the beginning he was just a 15-year-old rapper that was hitting up JR's MySpace. He didn't sing at all. I sent him some of JR's beats and talked to him on the phone, because he was based in Miami at the time. Just listening to him on the phone I could tell he was not just a freestyler. He came up with amazing choruses, concepts and good songs.
When he was in LA he called me to meet up. He came 4 hours late because he didn't know LA very well and I was just about to leave. At the time I thought he was good but wasn't convinced he was amazing - just another rapper that was pretty good and had some good ideas. But when he eventually showed up and I played him some beats in the car he started freestyling right away and put hooks together. I was blown away and I thought, "This is incredible!”
I sent him some more stuff and presented it to JR and Zach and we started working on the album.
So what did you start working on with him?
At that time he didn't even go by his name Sean, he had his rap thing going on but I could tell he had this amazing Jamaican heritage and we started to explore more melodic things.
So we started with songs where he was rapping in the verses and singing on the hooks.
Then when you realised the potential you had you started trying to attract label interest. What got Epic excited about your new project?
They were excited about our label because of JR as a producer. He worked with people at Epic before and had a hit with the song ‘S.O.S.’. So they were particularly excited about getting involved with us when they saw that we had a great artist as well.
Was it a label deal he got with Epic Records or did they offer Sean an artist deal?
Sean was signed to Beluga Heights and we did a joint venture label deal with Epic Records.
How does the partnership actually work with Epic Records? Do they just offer you their distribution clout …
It's a collaboration - it's not like we say, "This is the first single, put it out!" With any label they’re never going to green light everything you want to do. It's always going to be a collaborative process. The label has to love it too - everyone has to be excited about it. They give us freedom to explore stuff but they also help us out and guide us.
So what did you then set to work on with Sean?
Being signed to a label doesn't guarantee you to come out right away. You have to come up with the amazing first single. So we spent the next six or seven months just working on records.
Sean was in the kitchen and heard ‘Stand By Me’ on the radio and he instantly ran in the room and told us to flip the song. It probably then took us two hours to come up with ‘Beautiful Girls’. When we sent it to Epic Records they said, “Yep, that's the single!”
That totally flipped Sean's direction because it was the first song where he actually just sang. So we got back and reworked the entire album so that it matched the style and direction of ‘Beautiful Girls’ and showed that he can actually sing. This is what's special and unique about him.
How does the songwriting process work with the artists at Beluga - are you creating the songs from scratch in the studio or do you send beats to the singer and they write a concept and lyrics to the track?
It happens in a lot of different ways. A lot of time it’s from scratch, other times JR just makes the track and he thinks, "Oh, this track would fit amazing with Jason." So then we’d bring Jason into the studio and all sit there and write it together with him. Alternatively, we have a writing room which the singer can go in to lay down ideas.
Do you look for outside beats and songs too?
I'm always looking for samples or for producers to send in some stuff and sometimes we will use it, but the majority of the time JR is doing everything. He has a classical background and is super versatile - he can tackle every genre.
But I'm always interacting with other producers, and writers do send us ideas or rough outlines of stuff. For example we had a song called ‘Everybody In Love’ that was a big hit in the UK (for JLS). The drum loop from that song came from a producer we worked with.
Are you involved in the writing process as well?
I spend a lot of time in the studio being a second set of ears for JR, coming up with hook ideas and giving feedback. When JR is making a track I'm usually in the room with him and he’ll bounce ideas off me. When we have an artist or writer in, I'll be in with them.
JR, Zach and me are all creatively involved and hands-on with all our projects.
Are you trying to place any of the songs with outside artists?
We started off writing a lot of songs for outside artists but in the last couple of years it's all been about our own label.
Zach still shops songs to outside artists but recently we've been focused on just working with our own artists. We’ve found the most success from doing everything in-house and building it from the ground up.
I would say JR spends 90% of his time on our label. We have a joint venture deal with Warner that we are really happy with. Our main priority is breaking artists and changing people's lives.
So what kind of artists are you looking for at Beluga?
We are looking for artists that fit in with JR as a producer. We all have to be connected with it musically.
We are not limited by genre. We started off doing hip-hop and then we got into more pop stuff and now at the moment all the artists on our roster are in the R&B pop world, but we’ve signed a couple of new artists that are a bit more organic. We're also looking at some stuff that is almost punk.
We are definitely looking for something that can be big worldwide. I want to find something that special and unique. I grew up listening to all kinds of music from the Beatles to Snoop Dog - I like everything! [laughs]
You’ve said you found Sean Kingston through MySpace. Is it still good source and where else do you look for new talent?
MySpace is still a huge one. I'm always looking for artists and writers virally whether it's MySpace, Twitter, Facebook ... anything.
I've been doing it for five years now so you build with managers and you network. By connecting with people they will show you if they come across something new. People submit me stuff and I go through that too. But still, I find most of the artists on MySpace.
What about live performance? Do you go to any clubs to check out new talent?
Recently I was just at SXSW (HitQuarters interview), the big music festival in Austin, Texas. I do love watching shows but I must say I'm very much a fan of recorded music so I want to hear how the recorded music sounds.
With a thing like MySpace in 10 seconds I can see a picture of the artist and listen to their music. I can evaluate quite efficiently how I feel about them.
I want to hear the recorded music first and then the live stuff. If a band is great live but the recorded music doesn't sound really good then it's not going to work for us. Ultimately we are making Top 40 music.
So you’ve signed artists that you’ve never seen live?
[Laughs] Pretty much everything we signed that we found on MySpace! I mean we met up with them and heard them perform live but never actually saw a live show.
Have any of the artists you’ve signed already had any kind of street buzz or local following in place when you’ve snapped them up?
With Sean he had nothing, he was super raw and didn't have a fan base - he just put up some stuff on MySpace. It was the same thing with Jason Derulo and Iyaz. Auburn actually had a little bit of fan base and MySpace activity, and that does help.
We just believe in talent and the right record and if we can create that special record it can change everything.
So how did you find Auburn?
On MySpace as well. She didn't have a million hits or anything but you could tell she was interacting with her fans and she had things going on.
How did it work - did she send something to you or was she recommended to you?
No, I literally just went on MySpace browsed around and found her.
Usually if I see something interesting I hit them up directly off MySpace and say, "I'm an A&R from Beluga Heights and I love your music. I want to hear some more - send some stuff to my e-mail."
Then I have my brother's stuff and I send them some beats and say, "I like what you did there but maybe this could be stronger. Try this and send it back to me." I do that till I get to a certain level where I feel comfortable to present it to JR and Zach.
The quality of the recording doesn't matter so much. Someone can show me something that he recorded on GarageBand, and if it's good it will shine through. It's not so much about the production and how polished something is to me, it's more about the magic of the artist and the song.
Are you checking out certain blogs?
I don't actually go to a lot of blogs. I mean there are a few like coolfer.com, and I've been to hitsdailydouble.com but I haven't really found that much use for them.
Beluga is heavily focused on artist development. How long would you say it takes from taking on an artist to actually having a product that you can shop?
There's no time limit to it. It can happen really quickly, in a couple of months, and with others it can take years.
Nowadays it is very much about finding that special introductory record, the first single that launches the artist. That can’t be planned like, "Next month we are going to write his hit record." Music is such an organic process so there are no rules or time limits and no mathematical formula.
Most records on the radio are not going to be about weird topics they are mainly going to be about a guy being in love with a girl. However, although it is always the same kind of topic for Top 40 radio, anything goes, you just have to be able to try new things and explore.
Can you explain how the process works in finding the right sound and idea or for one of your artists?
Well exactly, it's a process. Most of the time it's a journey. Our job is to take the style of the artist up to the next level. Often you don't have a direct vision where you can say, do this or that. It's not so mathematical. It's very much about getting in the studio with them and vibing and creating music. In that process you explore the musical territory.
With someone like Jason, he is typically from an R&B background but at the same time someone who has always had a very strong pop sensibility. We always knew he had that in him. We thought, "What would happen if we mixed a euro dance sound with urban beats." We all had that vibe in the studio and it just happened while we were creating the songs.
What do you think is needed to break an artist nowadays?
You need a first single. You’ve got to have a ‘10’. There are so many things out there where you think, "Oh yeah, that's a good song," and it could be good as a second or third single. Unless you have an insane amount of street buzz and activity, to break an artist you need that first single. We are focused on making the best possible record and that's our expertise.
Do you do mix tapes for your artists to help create some kind of buzz?
Sean did a couple of mix tapes and we have an artist called Mann who has done a mix tape. Mix tapes seemed to be bigger a couple of years ago. We are more focused on making big hits.
What do you think of the idea of releasing an introductory record first and then following it up with the big hit single?
There was introductory record with Sean Kingston. He had a street song called ‘Colors’ and then we came with ‘Beautiful Girls’. ‘Beautiful Girls’ was so big that no one knew about ‘Colors’ and so most people thought ‘Beautiful Girls’ was his first record.
For most part you want to go with your biggest record first. You need something that instantly grabs people, something that instantly makes an impression.
What advice can you give unsigned artists?
Technology nowadays means you can basically create really good music at home and instantly put it up on MySpace or put up a YouTube video and start interacting with people. You can do things virally you can start building fan bases, update your page, put up new pics, put up a new song every week, maybe cover something …
It's so easy to engage with an audience and get instant feedback on what you are doing. Obviously your friends around you will all be supportive and say, “Yes!” but you want to get some real feedback, and the easiest way is to put up things on the internet. That way you can perfect your sound and build a fan base.
It's not enough to be a talented singer. You have to build a whole thing from your image to your music, to what you put up on YouTube, to your style, everything … People want to see things quickly and they want content.
If you were an artist then by what criteria would you judge an A&R or a label?
For me the most important thing is that you want people to be excited about your music. Getting signed is one thing but you want the radio department to be excited and the president of the label to be into it.
With our label we can sit down with the artist and focus with them and do a lot of artistic development. It's great when you have a team behind you. Getting signed is just the very first step - in the end it's just one opportunity for you to get out there, and not a guarantee of success.
What kind of deals are you offering your artists?
Nowadays all the labels are doing 360 deals. If you just look how low record sales are it's tough even having a business. No one buys albums, just singles. From an economic point of view it doesn't make sense if you sign something and don't participate in every aspect.
What are the future plans for Beluga Heights?
We have a couple of new acts that we are developing. We want to break more artists and change more people's lives.
It's great to work with major established acts but ultimately there's no greater feeling than taking someone undiscovered from a humble background and seeing them rise to fame. That is the most gratifying part of the process.
When we are working with a new artist they are just so open, so creative, so humble, just up for trying anything. You lose that when you are an artist on your third or fourth album. In some cases people grow and go on to do greater things but for me there is a certain magic if someone is working on their first album and they are totally raw.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* No.1 producer JR Rotem is first part of the Beluga Heights interview trio
* Interview with Rotem manager and Beluga Heights co-founder Zach Katz