WISDOM: A PORTRAIT SERIES
R O B S T E V E N S O N
EVP OF A&R
NEW YORK CITY
Photograph by Robert Nethery
I. Wisdom is something you know to be right or wrong, not in your head, but in your gut. I believe that a person’s first reaction to a situation or a song is the most honest. Those reactions, if you pay attention to them over time, create wisdom.
II. From my experience, you learn more from failure than you do from success. When you are passionate about something, failure forces you to really take a close look at what you’ve done wrong and what you’ve done right. From that analysis you gain wisdom. I love working with artists that have been signed and dropped. These are people who dealt with the heartache of having their dream ripped away from them and are coming back for more. The learning is on the other side of the heartache. That extreme experience gives them insight and desire that is a huge competitive and creative advantage.
III. The process of A&R is best explained as long periods of frustration punctuated by short bursts of elation and excitement. Luckily, the elation is so strong it carries through the down times.
IV. My first real A&R job was at Island Def Jam working for Lyor Cohen. He was famous for some pretty great quotes, but one that has always stuck with me was: “I will take an artist with bad songs over an artist with bad instincts any day. The one with bad instincts just takes more time and money to get to the same place.” When I first heard him say this I didn’t agree, but over time, that has proven to be a very true statement.
V. Once you have listened to yourself and made a decision, you need to act on it no matter how many people say you are wrong. When I signed The Killers I was one of the last A&R people to hear them. The truth was, a lot of labels had seen them and for one reason or another passed. When I heard their demo I felt like I had won the lottery. Half of their first album was on that demo CD and the songs were just so good! They felt like the band I had been searching years to find.
VI. I make myself available to all of our interns and will do informational interviews with them if they simply ask. It’s amazing how many don’t take me up on it. Before they have even asked, they talk themselves out of it with excuses like “He’s too busy,” “He wouldn’t really meet with me.” Neither of these are the case and we need to show people they need to make their own luck. Lyor Cohen was a big influence. He’d tell this story about when Run-D.M.C first went to London, and it wasn’t just packed, roads were blocked. There was no way they were getting out because the whole place was surrounded by people. As they were about to go on, the tour manager realized he forgot the record bag at the hotel. so Lyor went out on stage and said, “How many of you here have any of the Run-D.M.C. 12 inches?” And all these people raised their hands. He took the first 10 or 15 that were in the front and he said, “Give me the records and they’re going to sign them and give them back to you after.” He took the records back, and they did a live show on the fly off of the records they'd been given. The show was a huge success.
VII. Artist development needs to be re-imagined. We need to deconstruct every process in making and marketing music and examine it under the unforgiving light of day. One strong myth is that if you break the US market you will break the world. In this streaming ecosystem, it has never been harder for a new artist to gain enough momentum in the US to push through to the rest of the world.
VIII. I am for transparency. We are squabbling among ourselves while other industries are taking advantage of the chaos. The more our interests are aligned, the better we can protect the interests of our artists and their partners.