For those of you who don’t know John Ehmann, he is the Vice President of A&R for Interscope Records. John is credited for the development of some very well known artists such as Aloe Blacc, Lana Del Rey, and Carly Rae Jepsen. I wanted to interview John purely on his story of how he came to be a powerhouse in the business and how his hard work has paved his path in the crazy music industry. John was very kind enough to answer some questions regarding A&R, the state of the industry, and a bit about what got him where he is today.
A&R Radar: How did you get started in this crazy music business and when did you find out this is what you wanted to do for a living?
John Ehmann: Music was always a passion for me growing up. I never considered an opportunity in the music business because it wasn’t something I felt was realistic. I’m from Albany, NY and there isn’t really a music industry scene up there so just being an avid fan and listener, I was always trying to be on the cusp of what’s new and what’s happening and exposing that to my friends. Outside of me not being an artist, I didn’t really think of the music business as a business to go into with not having any relationships or knowing anyone in the industry for me to understand. When I was in college, a buddy of mine in school introduced me to someone at J Records, a record label run by Clive Davis, and he suggested that he could maybe help me get an internship. I ended up getting my resume in there and they accepted me for an internship the summer before my senior year. I packed up and moved to Brooklyn for the summer and interned all summer. That was the opening for me to be like “Wow this is a job? People actually do this for a living? This is amazing!”. Being an avid hip hop fan, I went into urban promotions because someone told me that was probably a great place to start my internship. When I was interning in urban promotions, I asked one of the executives, “If you weren’t doing promotions, what other department would you want to be in?” and almost everyone of them said A&R. I was like “Cool, what’s that?” I spoke to some people in the A&R department and learned a little bit more. I ended up transferring to the A&R department when I started school again. I bunched up my classes so that I could commute to the city three days a week to intern in the A&R department my senior year and that kind of gave me a start of what A&R was and how to incorporate it. In retrospect, being such a fan of music and being on the cusp of it (DJing house parties and making mix tapes), I was already doing the footwork of what A&R was on a smaller scale.
A&R Radar: How has A&R changed since you started, and how do you see the future of A&R going forward?
JE: The position has certainly evolved over the years. In the early days, a lot of the A&R’s were probably writers and producers who developed talent in that respect. Since the birth of the Internet, artists have way more accessibility than they have ever had. What I like to say is that we are in this new era, where you or I could write a song over night and a million people could see it which is amazing. The issue with that is that when that happens, you now have the publics attention and they are always going to want more and they are going to want to digest who the act is and what’s happening. Sometimes these artists are not prepared for that, and they are not prepared for what comes behind that. That is when you start running into these one hit wonders if you will, who were not prepared to come out and display all of their music. These artists kind of just have this one moment, and it takes time to really build a craft. Where I see A&R evolving now is that we have to assess these situations and get in there and develop talent when they are not prepared. Certainly there are examples where they are prepared, but we have seen our fair share of artists who have one song get exposure and they are not ready for it. Even on the back end of that, we have seen artists get a recording contract from one song because there is so much momentum and heat behind that one song that labels want to invest in it. We have to really look behind it and say “what is happening here and how does it progress from here” by being strategic and selective in our process now. As far as nurturing talent and developing talent, it’s still very similar to how it’s always been and continues to build upon that similar path going forward.
A&R Radar: When scouting and/or developing a new artists, what are some of the traits you look for?
JE: First I want to hear what’s unique about it and how it stands up to the rest of the marketplace and competition. Then I want to see what is behind the creativity as in did the artist write these songs, did they not write these songs. I like to asses the strengths and weaknesses of the artist and look to what can be improved. Lastly, is this artist a star? Do they captivate a room when they walk in? Does the artist carry everyones attention because truthfully, there are amazing singers out there are amazing rappers that can freestyle for like 10 hours, but can’t write a hit record. There are singers who can sing just as good as Whitney Houston, but they never get the light of day because they don’t have the star power, the will or the work ethic to get behind it and really showcase it. you see a lot of amazing talent, but there is just so much more that goes into it to deliver the home run artist that you look for. The public is also consumed by so much more. They are into video games, sports, and other extra curricular activities so where do you draw their attention and keep them engaged? A star does that. Most importantly, I like to know what the artist’s vision is, where do they see themselves and what do they want to establish. When you hear and engage in those areas, you kind of see what the person is built for and that helps you decide.
A&R Radar: What advice would you give to someone who’s is aspiring to have an A&R job?
JE: What’s great is that, in this day and age, anyone can really start the A&R process. With the internet, you are being exposed to all the acts already and anyone who could sit on blogs all day long and shuffle through them to see what’s out there, can really start identifying talent that way. Anyone can discover acts, but it’s a matter of nurturing them and developing them. I think a great gateway into A&R would be to first try to discover an artist whether it’s being around studios or the writers and producers you associate with. You want to start tapping into the creative community where you can, and start using your resources where you can. Getting close with an artist is really the best route and when you are with them, help them by finding out what they are looking for and what they need. In the A&R craft when I sit with an artist we sit there and say “Okay you’re a great writer but you don’t producer and we need to find you a producer and what’s the sound you’re looking for?”. Or the artist might not be a writer and say they are just a vocalist. As an A&R, I have to figure out what style they are going for and go out and find the songs. Basically be the resource for that artist and do your homework by researching some writers and producers and what you think might be the best pairing. Even if that’s on the smallest scale possible, it’s really what the job is and you’re already ten steps ahead in learning that process. If it’s on a bigger scale, and that artist you develop all of a sudden takes off and explodes, then you are well on your way. I think that’s typically the best route, but you could alway do it like how I did it by getting an internship at a record label and just learn the ropes. It is a longer grind and takes years, but at least you get to learn the aspect of the business on this side and things that we are looking for so you can incorporate that yourself. It’s really about being out there and networking and establishing strong relationships. There are so many A&R’s who will take a meeting and close the door after if the meeting wasn’t good. For me, I’m a guy who always keeps the door open because sometimes it’s the sixth, seventh, or eighth time in a meeting for something fruitful to come out of it. It’s about putting time in because you never know where something might come from. At the end of the day, follow your instincts. If it feels right, it feels right. You’re not going to make your shot every time. It’s impossible, but try to deliver what you can.
A&R Radar: Are there any artists that you are currently nurturing that we should keep an eye or ear out for that you can speak of?
JE: I have a band called Young Rising Sons out of New Jersey that we have been developing over the past year. They have been touring non-stop and they put out an EP recently. They are definitely a very exciting band trying to establish themselves and make a name for themselves and we are excited about. I have another artist named Pia Mia and we just released her first single a couple weeks ago. She’s been developing and it’s very exciting with a bunch of international pickup on her as well. We have big expectations for her. I also have some established acts who all will be rolling out some new music soon, which is really exciting.
A&R Radar: How many artists are you all signing a year as a label group (Interscope, Geffen, A&M)?
JE: There is no quota or number to fulfill. We definitely want to be strategic and specific with what we sign. Ultimately if it’s an act that inspires us and we feel like it’s a good fit for the company, then we are in and we are going to sign you. There really are no restrictions, but we can’t walk in and sign two thousand artists because we just don’t have the bandwidth for it. Believe me, there really are two thousand talented artists out there, but we have to be more specific of what artists we take on with the resources that we have.
A&R Radar: Thank you so much for your time and your insight. I really appreciate it!