SEated in her third-floor office at Universal Music Group’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Wendy Goldstein is experiencing a welcome bout of deja vu. Last August, Ariana Grande‘s MTV Video Music Awards performance helped launch the singer’s sophomore album, My Everything, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 dated Sept. 13, 2014 and hasn’t left the top 100 since. Now, labelmate The Weeknd is poised for a similar bump when the VMAs return Aug. 30 — the same weekend the rising alternative R&B singer will release his much-anticipated third album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
It has been a hot two years for Republic and Goldstein. In addition to working with Grande and The Weeknd, the Brooklyn native has contributed to hits for Enrique Iglesias, Florida Georgia Line (the top five hit “Cruise” featuring Nelly) and newcomer Natalie La Rose. Her latest A&R project? Actress-singer Hailee Steinfeld‘s debut single, “Love Myself.”
The divorced Goldstein made her industry debut at 19 when the former DJ left college on a whim to become secretary and later talent scout for late Epic Records A&R executive Bruce Harris. That $13,500-per-year gig opened the door to A&R posts with RCA, Atlantic subsidiary East West, Geffen (where she solidified her hip-hop credentials by signing The Roots, Common, GZA and Republic act The Bloodhound Gang) and Priority/Capitol before joining Republic, initially as a consultant, in 2008.
“A&R is half skill and half luck,” says Goldstein. “It’s a job you can only learn hands-on. There’s no school or manual; it’s forever changing. And that’s the fun part.”
The Weeknd was the first performer announced for the MTV VMAs. Was that planned?
It’s just the way it worked out — I’m sure that him having the No. 1 single with “Can’t Feel My Face” probably weighed in. But the VMAs are the perfect vehicle: They’re still edgy, unpredictable, exciting and geared at youth. [Republic executives] Monte Lipman, Charlie Walk and Joseph Carozza had been jockeying for the VMAs since March.
And him not doing many interviews: Was that a strategic plan?
That is very much him. In this world where everyone will talk to anyone at any time, it’s very rare to have someone of his age, 25, be that type of person. He likes to have his music speak for itself. That’s why we’ve done listening sessions: No one has the album. The only people who actually have a copy are The Weeknd; [Republic senior vp A&R] Nate Albert, who signed him; and myself.
And no leaks?
Knock wood, not yet. Even the executives here, who have heard the record, haven’t asked for a copy.
Four of the seven No. 1 radio songs in 2015 so far are on Republic. Why is the company so strong at top 40?
As a company, we’ve become very fine-tuned at understanding what a radio record is — for this moment in time; those things change. But for the run we’re having now, there’s this certain DNA to a hit song that we know how to do. We’re also very strategic with our releases. People always say, “Oh, they’re a radio company,” or, “They’re a research company.” I beg to differ. We’re a very A&R-centric company. All of the successful records we’ve had, for the most part, in the last two years have been made from scratch.
How would you dissect the DNA at this point?
It’s tough to pinpoint. “Can’t Feel My Face” breaks all the rules. He’s talking about drugs, to begin with — and not soft drugs. But I think the DNA is simply things that are really catchy, interesting and stick with you. If you look at the common thread of a lot of our records, they’re catchy and fit the artist. A hit record is just a moment, a 3:30 version of something that stays with you forever.
With consolidation, how do you deal with bidding wars between other UMG labels?
Within the company, there aren’t really bidding wars, so to speak. If a Universal label likes something, it’s whoever puts in the offer first. We can’t pump up the price from inside. But bidding wars still happen outside the company. When something is hot, everyone tends to run after it, and sometimes throws money at it. But the acts are smarter now.
When was the last time you went in hard?
It was a company effort but Tyler Arnold, one of our assistants in the New York A&R department, signed rapper Post Malone. Tyler was there early, and he stayed with Post when he started heating up — we were actually the last label to go in.
Rap is having a moment right now with critically acclaimed albums by Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and others. But why is R&B so challenged?
I don’t think the artists are being as innovative as they should be. Even on the hip-hop side, the records have been dumbed down so that very few really smart records get through, like a J. Cole, Kendrick or a Big Sean. But on the singing side, it has been worse. No one has been able to pull up with a defining record that’s a game-changer. That’s what R&B needs right now. Guys that we were hoping were going to be that have been very slow to get out of the box again, like Frank Ocean and Miguel. And it’s partially radio’s fault. They’re not so open to playing [adventurous] things until they’re big somewhere else.
Urban has a fundamental problem trying to find its place, and it absolutely is the fault of the system: You could cut the exact same songs with a black female singer that I cut with Ariana, and they would be nowhere as big. But I also feel that we have to get a little more adventurous in urban. When you think about groups like The Fugees and Outkast — where are those groups today? Where’s that person who has that voice like Lauryn Hill who can be as f–ing grimy and “hood” as possible, but then come out with a song like “Killing Me Softly” that was No. 1 around the world? The only true R&B that’s out there right now, I hate to say it, are legacy things. But kids know no genre-specific boundaries, so you’re getting more hybrid acts like The Weeknd or Janelle Monae, which wouldn’t necessarily sit at just R&B [radio]. At some point, you’re going to see the hybrid things break out.
What do you think of the term ”urban”? It’s in your title.
It’s an antiquated term that’s not specific enough anymore to reflect the music coming out. Labeling something is functional because you have to be able to explain it, but it’s also limiting.
How challenging has it been to be a woman working in the record industry?
I never felt discriminated against, and never felt like I couldn’t do the job. I come from an era where if someone hit on you, you dealt with it — you didn’t run to HR. And the times I was told that women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, I laughed it off. If anything, it fired me up: “F– you. I’ll show you. I’ll be a boss one day.”
This article first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of Billboard.