The Changing Role of A&R

The Changing Role of A&R

Jason Jordan is the Vice President of A&R for Hollywood Records.  Jason started off his career in music in his early teens when he and his brother Joel founded a punk rock label called Watermark.  By the time Jason turned eighteen he and his twin brother had built the label into a six-figure company between record and merch sales and it was not long before his success earned him the attention of the major label A&R community.   Jason founded the music marketing program at Urban outfitters, and also worked for a couple years at the huge indie, RykoDisc, before landing his first A&R job at Columbia Records in New York at the ripe old age of twenty.  Jason was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about his career and the evolving role of A&R executives.

Music Consultant:

Jason, thanks for taking the time to speak today.  Was your first A&R gig was in the early or mid 1990s?

JJ:

I moved to New York in February of 1995. I worked at Columbia Records under David Kahne the first year I was there, and then the second, third and fourth years I had Alan Mintz as my boss who was a pretty well known music attorney (later on he founded the brief lived Starbucks Music), then for Will Botwin, he was also there during my tenure – he was a legendary music manager prior to joining Columbia and is now at Red Light Management – running that company.

Music Consultant:

What was the culture like there at the time?  Was it vastly different than it is today?

JJ:

There were so many A&R people it was ridiculous. It is such a weird dichotomy to what we have now. Fifteen years ago we had 25 A&R people at Columbia Records. So for me to really find my niche, they wanted me to bring in  “alternative music,” whatever that was. And really the reality of it was the people who were former pop people or metal guys or people that had never really focused on what my expertise was were now really focused on that.  So I had what I felt like was a tremendous disadvantage because I wasn’t in the major label music industry for very long. The only advantage I had was that I had a lot of credibility with the bands and the labels that these bands were trying to get signed off of.  In terms of relationships with managers and lawyers, I just didn’t have those. I’d get blown out of the water a lot because I was just so young.   There was so much internal competition, we were all fighting over the same things, not to mention Epic Records, which was a formidable full-standing label at the time with its own president and marketing staff in the same building. We had to compete against each other as well. When you combined the Epic and Columbia A&R staff you probably had about 50 people.

Music Consultant:

Wait, What year was this?

JJ:

1995.  Yeah, there were at least fifty between both coasts. So the reality of it was, I really had a lot of internal competition to deal with as well as the external music business. I found my niche in underground dance music and mined that. Some of the best signing I ever had there were people like Josh Wink and King Britt’s “Ovum Recordings” label which included Josh Wink and King Brit as well as Jamie Myerson (Jamie was one of the first credible American drum and bass artists). I did that deal, and later on Armand Van Helden, the Hardkiss Brothers (including Scott Hardkiss as a solo artist).

Music Consultant:

You signed Armand Van Helden?

JJ:

Yes. Through a deal with Chris Schwartz and Ruffhouse Records. It was very cool actually. I looked after a lot of the Ruffhouse stuff for a while too because there was really no one inside internally that would sign off on Cypress Hill budgets and stuff like that, and I was from Philadelphia. So I got to work with the cream of the crop of dance music while at Columbia and also handled a lot of the UK artists like DJ Rap, Grooverider, Leftfield, etc. The biggest pop thing I ever did at Columbia was The Philosopher Kings. They went on to do major stuff. Two of them became the producers know as Track and Field, who developed, signed and discovered Nelly Furtado for the first two records. The other two became writers, producers and artists as well in their own right with success as well.

Music Consultant:

You were at Columbia for how long?

JJ:

From 1994 to 1998. 4 years total. In 1998 I started getting phone calls for some job interviews for positions available at competing record companies, and they all reeked of the same medicine as Columbia did- which was a big corporation with not a lot, if any, of artist development.  A ton of signings with not a lot of love and care.  Eventually through my friend David Katznelson who did A&R at Warner/Reprise, I was introduced to Bob and Rob Cavallo.  They were the first new people hired to start the “new” Hollywood Records/Disney Music Group. I flew to L.A. to meet them and had zero expectations, but I wanted to meet Rob because he was one of my favorite producers and Bob was a legendary music manager- so I couldn’t go wrong in knowing them at the very least.  When I got to L.A., and they laid out their plan as to what they wanted to do in the next five years and I was completely sold. I was 24 years old, and I’d been in the major music label industry for four years at that point.  I kind of learned trial-by-fire at Columbia which was definitely the biggest grossing and hottest hit driven record labels in the world, but also a pretty hardcore place to learn. So I felt my four years of college were really spent at Columbia Records. Everything I learned there I applied to starting my career at Hollywood Records.  I decided to take the job at Hollywood because there were no A&R people and there was no catalogue.  We literally were writing the book as we were going and I was able to really help to guide the direction of the label from the beginning. So that was and is still kind of cool.  Here we are over a decade later.

Music Consultant:

Remind me of the acts you’ve worked with in your now twelve-year tenure at Hollywood?

JJ:

One of the highlights was Diffuser, still one of the most seminal emo bands of all time, even if we sold only 50,000 records at the time. Their first album “Injury Loves Melody” was and is still a touchstone album for a lot of people I meet to this day.

Music Consultant:

I respect an A&R guy who doesn’t feel the need to bury their signings that weren’t huge commercial successes.   

JJ:

I totally admire the artist. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever signed. I just wish it sold more records! But when you go into interviews with Good Charlotte and bands like that, they always point to Diffuser as an influence, so that’s kind of cool. The second thing I signed almost at the same time was BBMak, which we sold a million album and had a big hit single called “Back Here”.  They were the boy band that didn’t dance and actually took part in the songwriting process.  Also, this was really some of our first real proof that we could use the Disney system as a whole synergistic partner to sell records, and we did it really, really well. That sort of opened the floodgates to carry on with the Disney Channel and develop a great relationship with them which has extended from Hilary Duff up to Miley Cyrus and so on. But for me personally, after BBMak there were a couple things I signed that were brilliant that never saw the light of day, like Alexandra Slate and Tina Sugandh

I have managed to get another hit through the system since BBMak (Breaking Benjamin) and it couldn’t be more different.  I’m excited about Breaking Benjamin.  They have sold over three million records over the last eight years. We’ve had several #1s at this point at Active Rock. They are now on tour with Nickelback direct support until the middle of this summer. That’s going to be very cool.  Their 2nd single is out now and called  “Give Me A Sign”.  It’s climbing at Active Rock pretty steadily and we will finally cross it to pop in the coming weeks!  This is the first time we’ve tried it with this band in the last 8 years so I hope it’s a huge hit.  It’d be great if they picked up and entirely new fan base between pop radio and the Nickelback tour. The next thing I’m insane about is Alpha Rev.  They might actually be the best thing I’ve ever signed.  Mark Pellington shot the video for the debut single which is out now called “New Morning” and it’s climbing at Triple AAA Radio now and then Hot AC and we hope, eventually, pop as well.  It’d be nice to have 2 big rock bands that are polar opposites but still equally devastating in their own right.

Music Consultant:

So Music and A&R has been a career for you now for what 16-18 years?

JJ:

I guess if I started at 13, it would be 23 years. But less if you only include the major label stuff …

Music Consultant:

I don’t even recognize labels when I walk into them anymore, and I’m only gone six years.  In the scheme of things that’s not supposed to be a long time. How has the role of an A&R person changed?

JJ:

It depends on what label you’re working at, but I think we’re signing less as an industry. Obviously some of the bigger music groups have to sign more but it’s still a lot less signings than there were even three to five years ago. Even personally I can use a microcosm example of myself and say that I’m doing well if I’m signing one or two things per year.  Hollywood is the kind of label where we don’t put out so many albums so that we’re able to actually focus on things. I’m absolutely certain when I sign something that it’s going to get at least 100% of the label’s effort. That feels good. Rather than taking a shot gun approach to A&R and signing ten things and hoping one of them succeeds, we really reverse engineered that and decided we’d sign things that were good for the label and things we could actually market and promote properly. I know that’s not a revolutionary idea, but a lot of labels don’t even do that.  It’s that basic – signing the things that are right for your label. That’s basically what I do as an A&R person – I’m always looking for what’s next for Hollywood Records. I’m not looking for what’s right for other labels. I get a lot of phone calls from lawyers or agents or managers, trying to hype me up on what Warner Bros. or Universal or Columbia are signing, and I really don’t care what they’re signing. What they’re signing isn’t necessarily what’s right for us. What’s right for Hollywood Records is what I’m signing.

Music Consultant:

Alpha Rev wasn’t really a band that had made a lot of headway on their own. They were a local act. In general, you liked the music and you signed them, but how much more important in this day and age is an artist doing their own development? Breaking Benjamin on the other hand was an artist that had already started to buzz at radio in their home market. I was still around for that one.  From your vantage point, are there more things getting signed that have their own momentum?

JJ:

Absolutely. I’m not pointing at any specific labels, but I can tell you the larger music groups are all research oriented. If your record is charting and you’re selling any significant amount of product on iTunes or even physical product sound soundscanning, they’re going to call you. We don’t do that. We don’t have the resources, and it doesn’t really work for us. We have very specific needs for what’s right for Hollywood.  The business as a whole though has absolutely become research driven. So most bands that get signed either have a momentum of their own through a touring base and/or selling records.  It’s incredibly easy to put out a digital record these days so I don’t know why more bands don’t do it.

If you sell enough a label is going to come calling. That’s one of the major things I can point to:  There’s a tremendous amount of more research and less passion, whereas I can’t really be that guy. I have to get up every day and want to kill for your music as much as you do. I either have to want to be in your band or be you to sign you, because that’s the kind of A&R person you want working for you – someone that’s going to take your career seriously, nurture it as they would their own, and then take and cheerlead and manage the project through the whole major label system.   

To answer your question about Alpha Rev, they had a tremendous amount of momentum in Texas really, the Southwest. They had some touring base outside Texas, but really their primary market was Austin. They were slowly becoming the biggest band in Austin without a record deal. It’s crazy, because no one was really paying attention. Casey, who is the main guy in Alpha Rev had been through the major labels sniffing his butt with his previous band Endochine. They never got signed and they eventually broke up for a variety of reasons.  Alpha Rev was Casey’s redemptive band.  The name loosely translates in Latin and Greek as “the start of something new.” I had heard the band’s song “Phoenix Burn” on a songwriter demo of Dwight Baker – he is a kickass songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX. I had this unlabeled CD and I had no idea who the band was.  Eventually my assistant Bladimir Jimenez found out and for six months or so we stalked this band online.  Eventually we saw them at CMJ a year later, and six weeks later I was showcasing them in L.A. and we were done.  It was a rather unique story, because their signing had everything to do with the band being incredible live, them having songs that were “commercial,” and it being right for Hollywood. Even though they’d sold no real significant amount of records on their own yet, they were already playing sold out shows in Austin, TX. That alone to me wasn’t starting from zero. They already had a strong foundation, at least in Texas to stand on.

Music Consultant:

What about artist development? How has that changed in the last few years? Are you more involved with that as an A&R person?

JJ:

Yeah. It depends on what you think artist development is. We have to define that.

Music Consultant:

The marketing and promotion everything from brand partnerships to the really basic but hugely important stuff like getting people to gigs.

JJ:

I sometimes feel that I’m as much an internal manager as I am an A&R guy. Yesterday I was at Alpha Rev’s rehearsal (for their show at VH1 the following day) at 9 p.m. just getting them pizza. Sometimes the role of the A&R guy is not as sexy as you think it is.

Music Consultant:

I only ask because there really was such a gigantic separation of labor when I was an A&R guy in the business. Most executives made the record, handed it off and then begged people to do something with it but the legwork on development was rarely done by an A&R executive.

JJ:

I think at a smaller label like Hollywood, you can have a little bit more influence because there’s not as much red tape to cut through. When I was at Columbia Records – and this was ten years ago, so I have no idea how they do it now, but back then there were so many levels of hierarchy I had to go through just to get my singles scheduled, or get my albums scheduled or get the artwork done. It was like pulling teeth for every little thing.  I felt like I went in there every day to do battle and had minor victories when people signed off on stuff that should be standard! Of course, as an A&R person, part of my job is shepherding the record through the system. It’s not about giving up as soon as you deliver the record to the label. It’s now even more important to highlight the reasons that we signed the band in the first place, and to make sure you keep the excitement level at the label at an all-time high. We wouldn’t sign the artist if we didn’t love it anyway.

Music Consultant:

What is the most consistent thing you see that labels in general are providing for artists that they are in this digital age not getting on their own?

JJ:

The only thing in the digital age that a major label can provide that a band can’t do on their own is marketing and promotion.  A record label is a bank with a lot of relationships. I’m boiling it down to the nuts and bolts. We are in the business of music, and we sell music and sometimes deal with music as a product and a commodity and it’s true that it is indeed sometimes dealt with in a very haphazard manner, that’s how this business is.  I certainly try not to contribute to any of that- which is why I think artist development is paramount.  I have to be involved in it and not just hand it off and say, “See you later.”

Music Consultant:

You’re actually one of the few successful A&R people I don’t think is a complete prick.

JJ:

(Laughs) Thank you! Another major thing I do often is to interface very closely with management and the bands themselves to make sure we’re all on the same page and communicating correctly. Generally we don’t have those problems at our label because we are so small. Bob Cavallo, the chairman of our label has said this before, “It’s easier to turn around a speed boat than it is a cruise ship.” That’s absolutely true. We’re able to be a little bit more dynamic, a bit quicker, a little bit easier to maneuver, and a heck of a lot easier when adapting in the changing ever-changing marketplace.

Music Consultant:

What is the best way to get your attention, as you have a “desk where dreams go to die” that is super crowded ?

JJ:

Just e-mail me a link to something if somebody really wants to get my opinion. The worst way to get my attention is to send me an MP3. The irony for most A&R people is that we work for big companies that can’t process large attachments. So, please send links to your music first and foremost and nothing else.

Music Consultant:

It’s probably more likely to get to you if someone’s not coming in cold too, right?

JJ:

If somebody e-mails me or comes in through a manager or a lawyer or nicely e-mails and asks if I can have a quick listen, I generally do. If it’s an MP3, I delete it immediately and will never ever respond to that person ever (Laughs – clearly kidding)

Really, just to get my attention send it once and don’t be too persistent.  Try and come through the proper channels and ask first as we do not accept unsolicited materials.  If I ask for it and listen to it and think that it’s right for Hollywood, then rest assured I’m going to be right on it!

Music Consultant:

What are things you’re seeing a lot of bands out there aren’t doing that you wish they would?

JJ:

I can’t believe more bands aren’t just releasing their own albums first, even digitally. Do it yourself.  It’s way more satisfying, you’ll make more money, and in addition to having physical product to possibly sell as merchandise on the road, they really should drive the digital side as much as they can.  Sales will get a major label’s attention.  It’ll certainly help with me if I think it’s right for our label.  That’s something I’ve seen improving, but it could improve a lot more. It’s bands saying, “Look, let’s not wait around for a label, let’s just do it ourselves”, because it is so simple to do it yourself and so much more gratifying to actually have a role or a greater hand in not just making your music, but selling it.

Music Consultant:

I often say to people if they want to hire someone to do something correctly, they have to go out and fall on their face trying to do it themselves.

JJ:

That’s exactly it. You know what you want only by failing. “I know I don’t want to do it that way again.” And to be honest, I’ve learned a lot through failure. My advice to bands or artists is, “Don’t be afraid to do it. Just try it.” Worse case scenario is you fail, and that’s not so bad.

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Check out Jason’s latest signing Alpha Rev