The prolific producer and newly minted label mogul checks in with Billboard about working with Sean Kingston, the nature of pop songwriting and his place in the music industry.
Few songwriter/producers launch a new label as successfully as J.R. Rotem, whose Beluga Heights joint-venture with Epic Records bowed earlier this year with the chart-topping hit “Beautiful Girls” from Sean Kingston.
Rotem has worked with artists including 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, the Game, Snoop Dogg, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, Natasha Bedingfield, Ashley Tisdale, Fergie, the Cheetah Girls and more.
With a strong work ethic that keeps him constantly busy cranking out hits for a remarkable variety of artists, it’s hardly easy for JR Rotem to find time to talk about himself.
But he did take a break from producing Menudo in Orlando, Fla., to share some of his thoughts on the music industry and his own lofty place in it.
What are your feelings about the music industry in general?
Truthfully, I’m very blessed to be working in it and doing what I’m doing, so I don’t mean to sound negative. But I will say we’re in a very challenging time: Record sales are at an all-time low and get lower and lower every year because of the technology of the Internet and how easy piracy is. It used to be if a consumer liked a single, they had no choice but to spend $15 or $20 for an entire album and acts were selling trillions of albums every week without much drop-off the next week.
But now people are a lot more savvy: They can see something for free on YouTube, or buy a ringtone or one or two songs for a dollar each. You have to be a hardcore fan to buy a whole CD. And piracy is so easy and rampant, so you notice a huge decrease in sales in the second week, because people buy the first week and then share with their friends the next week. It’s affecting every part of the industry: There’s way less artists, way less money for production and promotion budgets.
So where does this leave us now?
With a new business model. Record companies aren’t making money selling CDs so they’re forced to find other sources of income. Obviously artists don’t want to give up publishing and touring income but record companies can’t afford to put a million or two into [developing artists] and not make money back. And there are ringtones now, but they can’t make up for the fact that people aren’t making albums that are selling anymore, with the exception of Justin [Timberlake] or Kanye [West].
So it’s a very transitional time. The business isn’t able to keep pace with the changes in making and purchasing music due to technology, so it’s a difficult time for people. The time when you could build a whole record empire based on a monster artist and diamond album just isn’t possible now.
Where do you fit?
I think I’m always paying dues, but paying dues is something everybody does at every different level. Even in my jazz days, and when I first moved to L.A. Just getting a manager seemed the biggest thing in the world. “When I have a manager, that’s when I’ve made it.” But then you still have to climb the ladder: “Let me get a name in the industry. Let me be known for being a producer. Let me produce my own sessions.” Now I want to be known for making singles and hits. Getting respect is its own challenge.
What kinds of challenges in particular have you had to face in getting that respect?
A lot of times there’s a mind-set that has to be overcome. You get a certain reputation as a producer, so the label sends an artist to you to get singles, say, rather than album cuts. It takes a lot of time to cross those lines. Same with having success in the urban world: You have to struggle to get to produce pop stuff. Then I have to separate myself as not just a beat-maker that only produces tracks, but as someone who can produce vocals and whole records. Instead of taking my track and putting the artist with a vocal producer without me, I need them to trust me to produce vocals. I’m finally crossing those barriers, but it’s just infinite. There are always challenges trying to prove yourself.
Also, there’s a very short memory in this industry. You might have had success a year or two ago, but what about today? What now? I don’t say I’m on top, because once you get to the highest level there’s staying there. You just can’t tread water because music changes so fast that two months later there’s a new sound on the radio. It’s hard to stay current.
So how can you maintain a career?
Everyone has different goals—to be in the game, to be on top. I like to produce records now, but maybe it’s just a cool thing now and I’ll parlay it into something else.
But I see myself [as a] David Foster or Quincy Jones [in that] they’ve had very long careers. For me, music is my life. It’s not my career or job, but it’s been my life as long as I can remember, so I’m not looking to do this a little while and make money and get out. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing and can’t see doing anything else—to go as far as I can and make records and expand.
How did you first get your songs heard?
My first break was Destiny’s Child. I got my beats to somebody who knew somebody who knew [producer and Tony! Toni! Toné! member] Dwayne Wiggins, and things ended up working out and I got my first songs recorded. But I believe in three things: Have faith, send out positive energy, and work relentlessly—and you never know how it will happen. Life doesn’t work by plan, but if you do those things it will work the way it’s supposed to.
How did it work out for you?
I wanted to play keys for Dr. Dre when I moved to L.A. I’m a white Jewish guy but I wanted to be in that world. And I did work for Dre, though it didn’t work out that I’d be his house pianist—but I’m glad it didn’t happen. He’s one of my greatest musical influences, but with the help of my manager I’m able to be my own Dr. Dre and have my own company. So it’s not the way I planned, but with faith, positive energy and hard work, it worked out. I just didn’t know how it would happen.
What are your thoughts on pop songwriting?
I look at it as truly a very deep art. To write a very big pop song one has to be successful on a lot of levels. You have to get a common denominator of people, so there has to be a simplicity to it.
In my own experience, coming from the jazz world and going into hip-hop and then breaking free of that to be as mainstream as possible was a process of learning how to simplify. That’s something I had to learn, and I’m still learning the art of that.
Listen to a song like “Billie Jean” or “Yesterday,” or something contemporary like Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”: There really is a reason when a song goes No. 1. Not to brag, but using the beat from “Stand by Me” in “Beautiful Girls” and a chorus with [the word] “suicidal” in it combines things that sound familiar but have something new and innovative at the same time. It’s very relatable but says what you want to say in a slightly different way than what you’ve heard before.
What can you point to as the best thing about the music business today?
That depends on who you are and what you’re trying to do. For me, the best part is that I’m living my dream—to be working with major label people who are so talented, and to do what I’m doing and be respected and work with other respected people. And then have a very successful song and people responding to it. Doing something that came from my heart and is personal and people connecting with it.
But it’s all about connecting with people at the end of the day—your way of connecting with other humans. So that is the amazing thing about the music industry, and especially today, with the technology and the Internet, you can do something one day and have it heard the next day—or even in an hour—and make a great living. I’m living my life.
And the worst thing?
That depends on how deeply you take it, but like I said, this is my life, and it’s a very stressful kind of thing. Like anything else there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears—and rejection: You’re personally connected to a song and think it’s great and others don’t feel it. You’re dealing with a lot of politics and power of certain people, and you have to play those games, which is the reason why a lot of creative people have to have a manager and lawyer, because there’s no time to create if you’re playing those games.
It’s a very complex power game, but I see myself as not only a producer and songwriter but as an executive in our company [Beluga Heights], so I have a stomach for it. I’m a confrontational person, and have a lot of sides to my personality—and I feel very blessed because it’s so difficult just to be in the industry at this point, and to see where I am now I can’t feel anything but very blessed.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you started out in the business?
I always think like that. Every day I try to refine my ears to recognize what would be a hit in my own music and others’, but hindsight is always 20-20: I had to learn not only what was ultimately a more personal song—which I was good at doing because I come from jazz—but how you make it a hit. How you make it digestible by others. I’m still learning that process, but I wasn’t even thinking about it when I first started in the industry. I just wanted to get [song placements] on albums.
I just signed a new publishing deal with Sony. Not to drag anyone in the mud, but I made certain decisions that I should have known better on my first publishing deal.
What advice would you give to aspiring producers or songwriters or artists?
The universe gives you signs. It’s very important to follow your heart and go with what’s right, even if it’s not the easiest decision, and not take shortcuts, especially with any kind of exclusive relationship.
Like Company A is the biggest and makes more money. Company B is not as big and doesn’t have as many resources, but A might not be the best choice if B believes in you more. I could have signed with other managers with bigger resources, but at the end of the day, me and [manager/business partner] Zach [Katz] had the same work ethic, the same belief in each other. We were in the same positive, humble, honest place, and even if we had to struggle, it made us get this far. He might not be the ideal manager—and I the ideal client—for someone else, but we knew in our hearts that we were right for each other as friends and business partners.
Anything else you want to add?
I mentioned the three things that are important to me, and everyone has their own past. What worked for me was being humble and open, and not being arrogant. I’m not saying take everyone’s advice, but get people around you that you trust. Their ears are very important in constantly trying to make yourself better and better: A hit is only a hit if others agree. It’s not just me saying it’s a hit, but the rest of the world. A hit is defined by other people connecting with it, so I’m always open to other people’s criticism, and then making changes and making it better.
And it’s good to not get too emotionally attached to something. Some people can wait for years, but I like to keep it moving and put everything into it, and if people feel it’s good or not, move on to the next thing. And it’s good to not be greedy: It’s better to have 10% of a hit than 50% of nothing. Be open to collaboration if it makes sense. A small piece of something that’s very successful is worth more than a huge piece of something that’s not successful or mildly successful.