In a well-rounded keynote interview at Canadian Music Week, Republic Records executive vp Wendy Goldstein drilled into how Toronto became a hotbed of global talent, why starting at the bottom is a good way to break into a record label, and why A&R is a little like psychiatry. And in some of the standout moments from her session, Goldstein shared an insider’s perspective on Ariana Grande’s “Bang Bang,” The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness track-listing and Julia Michael’s “Issues.”
Republic has Torontonians Drake and The Weeknd on its roster — and just did a label deal with XO, releasing a mixtape by NAV from the city’s Rexdale neighborhood.
“I think there’s a reason,” Goldstein told Billboard contributor Melinda Newman on stage at CMW Friday (April 22). “Toronto has a melting pot that is unique and unusual to the rest of the world, even more unusual than New York and more unusual than Chicago, than London. It’s its very own thing and artists here grow up and they’re a little freer.
“The Weeknd considers himself a global worldwide artist and, because of that… they go on and make music that’s a little more free and it touches on a lot of different genres, touches people from around the world, more so than someone just coming out of Atlanta doing something very specific to Atlanta.”
Goldstein began her career working as an assistant for $13,500 a year and believes she became a better A&R person because she learned the business from the ground up. She told the roomful of delegates at CMW that Republic has a mandate, “a very extensive college intern program,” and often those interns become assistants and eventually A&R reps, or hired in the marketing and digital departments. “It’s an industry that is not learned in school or in books. It’s learned by experience,” she said.
In her early years at Geffen, she signed the Roots when the label’s big acts at the time included Nirvana, Hole and Sonic Youth, and David Geffen, she said, was “very concerned about getting in with gangsters or bad situations,” so she set about finding an alternative urban act that would fit with the label. She signed The Roots “off seeing them on a street corner in Philly, nothing recorded.” Then the group’s Ahmir Thompson (a.k.a. QuestLove) suggested she sign Common, who in turn suggested his friend Mos Def. “My artists were driving me to sign other people who were like-minded,” she said.
Today, she says she still relies as much on her gut as she does data. In fact, her gut once told her not to sign Kanye West, which he always reminds her.
“I’ve been at Republic since 2009, so there’s a lot of trust in each other and we do take a lot of risks. And if there is something that doesn’t have any research to back it up — and if it has negative research, that’s a different story — but if there’s absolutely no research, Charlie [Walk, Republic president] and I signed Julia Michaels, she was a songwriter. She didn’t even know she wanted to be an artist.”7767603
She then tells the story of Walk picking up on Michaels’ talent when he saw her in the recording studio working with Hailee Steinfeld. “She should be an artist,” he said. It apparently took them eight months to convince her. Her song “Issues” just went platinum in America and sold a further million. “Now she wants to be an artist,” noted Goldstein, adding that sometimes she is still like “a deer in headlights” when she has to perform.
When Newman suggested, “You are as much a psychiatrist as you are a music person,” Goldstein answers “One hundred percent.”
She then moved on to a fascinating story about Ariana Grande and how much convincing it took the young artist to do “Bang Bang” in 2014.
“In the case of Ariana, we had her signed since she was 16 and we tried a lot of different styles of music and the truth is her voice sounded better on urban-ish leaning records — more Mariah Carey than a Katy Perry — but she didn’t necessarily have pop taste in music and always shied away from what were her biggest singles.
“So in the case of ‘Bang Bang,’ she didn’t really want to cut it and I said, ‘You don’t have to cut it.’ In my mind, I knew the record was a smash and as an A&R person, you never let a hit record leave the building, so that record was not going to RCA, it was not going to Epic [laughs]. It was not going anywhere else.
“So I started sending it to other artists. I sent it to Nicki Minaj and she loved it. We sent it to Jessie J; she loved it. So I cut both of them on it and then sent it back to Ariana. I kept her voice on the second verse and all of a sudden she got it. She was like, “Oh my God, you’re right; this is huge.’ So sometimes it’s a little working in the background or behind their back to make it great.”
And if Grande had hated it? asked Newman, “It would’ve come out on Jessie J’s album,” Goldstein says.
“We’re animals,” she explained. “We never let a hit leave and if she really kicked and screamed about being on the second verse, we would have put someone else on the second verse. I think she still regretted it because in the end it became a standalone entity, even thought it was on her second album [My Everything] as a bonus record — and it was on Jesse’s record [Sweet Talker] but we also had Nicki signed through Cash Money — it became its own entity as far as royalties and how it was listed.
“So she never got 100 percent credit for it, had it been Ariana featuring Jessie J. and Nicki. So she learned a little from that.”
The industry has changed in the past couple of years, she said, with the explosion of streaming. As an example, when Republic put out The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness in 2015 — including his first big mainstream single, “Earned It,” which landed the Fifty Shades of Grey sync when Justin Timberlake fell through — the artist Abel Tesfaye wanted 18 songs on the album, but she wanted 12. They compromised with 14. “I felt less is more,” Goldstein said.
“Within a year Spotify took over, Drake put out Views with 20 songs and it was massive and in the streaming world, more is more, so when we started on Starboy, I called Abel and I said, ‘Good news, how about 20 songs?’ and he goes ‘Okay,’ and the truth is in the end it ended up being 18 and he got his 18. So that is one little way that it’s changed a lot for that platform, album-oriented artists.
“It also changed if we sign someone new, if they have music out in the world already. Let’s say they have a mixtape, or they have an EP or they have something, there’s a good shot that we just pick up that EP, put it out, on Spotfiy, on all the streaming platforms, and then start to work on the next piece of product.
“A lot of times — Monte [Lipman, Republic founder, chairman and CEO] says now, ‘The marketing meeting always starts when the music drops,’ versus back in the day we would be out to radio with singles and doing all this big set up. We still do that with a lot of our bigger artists. …but for new artists it’s the best way of discovery. No pressure…and you might get lucky.”