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The A&R Report had the opportunity to connect with one of the best A&R Executives in the business, Teresa La Barbera Whites. We talk about her discovery of Beyonce and Destiny’s Child and her recent work on Beyonce’s latest album. In addition, Teresa offers insight on her recent collaboration on Britney Spears’ latest album, tips for aspiring A&R’s and sheds light on her journey as one of the music industry’s top A&R’s.
Describe your current role? What is your outlook for 2014?
I am an independent A&R Executive/Executive Producer. I have been doing A&R for about 24 years. I was with Sony music (working for both Columbia and Jive Records) for about 23 of those years as a full time employee. Last year, in 2013, I went independent and continued working with Columbia as an A&R on Beyonce’s project and Katharine McPhee’s project. I also signed a young group to Columbia named MKTO that my good friends, Emanuel “Eman” Kiriakou and Evan Bogart, had discovered and developed. They just had their first album come out #1 in Australia which is doing really great. Other then that I really work all across the board for different labels and different artists, as well as Film and TV, for anyone who needs help, whether it’s in the creative process of making a record, finding songs or finding the right collaborators; anything and all that speaks to the creative process. I spend the majority of my day with songwriters, producers and artists. I try to help them define the sound of the records that they’re making at the time and what best represents them creatively at that point in their lives.
How has it been growing up in Texas and embarking on a career in the music business?
I am originally from Texas and have managed to continue to live here which means that I’m on a plane frequently to New York and Los Angeles.There are so many different kinds of music here in Texas, especially in the area that I grew up in. In the Dallas area there’s a great urban and rap scene, a great alternative and rock scene, a pop, and singer songwriter scene. Even though I grew up in a really small town in Texas I moved to Dallas when I was young which became a great place to learn all about live music and bands. I managed bands, tried to help them get signed, and in the process I realized that I loved discovering artists and bands, which led to my discovery that I love to find songwriters and producers as well. As I started to make records through my work with Columbia, I realized that not every artist is a prolific songwriter and very rarely are they a producer. As I began to look for songs for pop singers I really began to foster and nurture my relationships with up and coming songwriters and producers, many who are very successful today. I gave them some of their first cuts when no one else would give them a break because they didn’t have an established name.
It’s unfortunate that many people have to fight for their first placement – there are a lot of people in the business that don’t want to give a songwriter or producer a cut because they haven’t had a hit yet. What they don’t realize is that the only thing that separates a unknown songwriter or producer from an established songwriter and producer is one hit song! Once they have one hit song everyone is chasing them to have them on their record. I think for me, because I don’t live in New York or LA my perspective is a little different. I’m still entrenched in the industry 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on a global basis because of the artists I work with, but my home is in the middle of nowhere. I think maintaining my residency in Texas allows me to step outside of the industry and see things from a different perspective. I don’t get so caught up in chasing what everyone else is chasing. I love finding new songwriters and producers. It may take several attempts before they can actually give me something I can use, but they’ll get there as long as I give them the feedback needed to help develop the talent that they have. The same as I would do with a new recording artist.
Most recently you were heavily involved in the creative and recording process on Beyonce’s self- titled album. Can you describe the creative process developing her latest album?
I’ve known Beyonce since she was 9 years old, so we’ve known each other a long time. Destiny’s Child was one of the first acts that I had discovered. B and I have been working together for a very long time and she is an amazing creative force of nature. It is just a joy for me to be in the room with her and watch her process. She is such a talented writer and producer and her vision is so ahead of everyone else’s and that’s what makes her the artist that she is. She is always open to meeting new writers and producers which is what always makes it exciting to work with her. She’s always looking for the next new sound, which I feel has always been a reflection of all her albums. She started her latest record over a year ago and just took her time. We did a writing camp in the Hamptons. We set up studios in-house having some writers and producers live with us which was very helpful in the creative process. She went on tour and continued to work on the album. While on tour she kept saying “when it’s ready I’ll know, and we’ll put it out when it’s ready”.
It was really great! We had Timbaland, Justin (Timberlake), The Dream, Pharell, Sia and Miguel who are all household names, but now there are new names like ‘Boots’ who is an amazing producer and songwriter that people had maybe never heard of. Beyonce had discovered his music, made him a part of the creative process and now everyone wants to know everything they can about him. One thing about her creative process that I love is it’s really all about the music: finding a new way to make great sounds and great songs.
What did you think of Beyonce’s unconventional way of releasing her latest album?
I thought it was great! The music belongs with the fans. We’ve gotten to a place where the industry feels it needs to tell people (the fans) what’s good and what’s not and “this is a song you should listen to because this is the one we think is the best”. Those of us who’ve been doing this a long time have gotten tired of that. There’s a lot of great records that unfortunately fans don’t get to hear because a music executive at a label or radio station made a decision that it wasn’t good enough to be heard, so the label decided not to release it. I think everyone should have the chance to choose their favourite songs on their own- thats the way it was done a long, long time ago.
Although there are many good things in the industry that make it possible for an unknown artist to make a record that can be sold and heard, there are other things about our industry that have sort of taken away the connection from the fans. Beyonce just really wanted to take it back to the fans, where it really belongs. It’s really nice when a fan gets to have the music and gets to experience it and not be told in advance what to like and not like. I admire the bravery and the risk she took for her fans. It was a wonderful and bold move which is why I love her, and why we love her – because she is willing to take those risks and chances for the art. She changed the rules and showed that they could be broken. I’m thrilled for her and all of us that were a part of the process.
For someone who has been in the industry for over 20 years, what do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks to everything being more digitally driven?
The advantage is that anyone can release music now. You can be in your bedroom, on your computer and shoot a video out to the world and have a few million see it in the course of a week; this would be impossible without our advancement in the digital age. It’s great because it gets rid of the barriers that someone may have had getting to a publisher or A&R in the industry. It’s an advantage that didn’t use to exist. Before the digital age you had to get in touch with a record company, lawyer, or radio in order to be discovered. There are so many opportunities that make it easier to make a connection now.
The major drawback is that just as quickly as you can be out there you can be gone. A lot of people expect everything to be an instant hit now, every song to immediately come out a hit. That’s unfair. I think the industry feels like there has to be that instant recognition and gratification because its digital. Sometimes it takes a while to get the music to the right audience. I feel the artists don’t get the right songs (because they’re rushing to put out another single) or an opportunity to develop due to the immediacy of the digital age. I think it really works against the creative process many times.
The ‘Blackout’ Album was a pivotal point in Britney Spears’ career. What are some of the first steps you take in trying to change lanes with an artist who has had previous success?
Working with Britney has been one of my all time career highlights. Working with her was amazing! She really is an incredible artist and another woman I really admire. She puts it all out there and has always tried to lead in that regard. When we met, it was much easier for me to give her a different creative direction because we hadn’t had any prior history with each other. It was easy for us to collab for the first time because I always knew what I wanted to hear her doing. To still be able to make great music and have great songs that become a part of people’s lives is a great feeling. Winning over new fans shows us that we did something right. The thing about Blackout is that it’s such an amazing record for so many different people and so many different types of music fans. We managed to reach a broad and diverse audience. We managed to reach not just Brittney’s loyal fan base, we also managed to garner some new fans. It’s always a good feeling to know and be a part of that for an artist, especially one that has made as many records as she has. That’s exciting.
What difficulties have you had maintaining your role as an executive and an A&R?
Trying to sustain successful careers record after record. Trying to get radio to play a single. There are so many things that are hard, but you can’t really get consumed in that because the minute that you do you’re not thinking about the creative. I don’t read charts. I don’t study media base. That’s what the promotions staff is about. As an A&R and creative person I don’t want to have all that stuff creep inside my head – I wouldn’t have my mind open to a great new song or a great new track. If you’re going to lead, you can’t keep thinking about what you already did. You have to move forward. If everyone is dancing in the club and singing along you know you’ve done your job right.
Teresa, what are some of the barriers that you’ve come across being a female executive in the music industry?
Probably no different than most barriers that most females come across in other industries. I don’t get too caught up in that as I consider it negative energy. But, at the same time, I’m not going to sit back and just take anything either. Unfortunately there are not that many female A&R’s present in the industry now. As men and women, the things that make us different, is what’s great. That’s something that we can use in the creative process. I’m probably more nurturing to an artist because I’m a woman, and I’m probably more patient than most because it’s the nature of who I am. There are a lot of great things that can be taken advantage of by having a female executive because there’s a different opinion in the room. Besides, women are predominately the largest record buying audience in the business.
Describe in your terms what the title A&R means to you today?
I’m going to steal a quote from my mentor Bobby Columby. “I am an artist advocate.” I’m doing whatever it takes to help get the artists’ vision across and help them make the best record they can make. I think that’s what A&R means for me – now.
Lately it’s evident that there are less and less jobs for aspiring A&R’s looking to create a career in the music industry. Do you have any tips for an aspiring A&R looking to make their mark in the industry?
Go out. Find great music. Start to work with that great music. Attach yourself to them and get the music out there. The record companies will find you. Being an A&R is a coveted job, there are not that many jobs which makes it hard to break in and find work. You can waste a lot of time trying to break into a record label. Find the music and attach yourself to the music and the record label, publisher, or company will come and find you. You will be known for the music that you find and the music that people react to.
What elements do you look for in an artist when it comes to signing them?
I’m old fashioned. I don’t want to be able to take my eyes off of a performer. The artist has to have me engaged in their vocal and/or live performance. I want to feel something, an emotion, I don’t care what it is. I want to be drawn in. I want to experience what the person is doing. If I don’t experience it, then it falls short for me.
What new artists are you excited about in 2014?
I’m excited about this new upcoming record from Katharine McPhee. Kat and I have worked really hard to find a great body of work and sound for her… I’m really excited about her fans getting the chance to hear it. I’m also excited about MKTO. Not a lot of people know about them yet. But that’s quickly changing as their US album will be released this spring. I’m excited about working with Judith Hill who’s an amazing talent and beautiful voice.
What are some personal goals that you’ve set for yourself before you retire?
I’m really excited about touring across the country and discovering songwriters, artists and producers with my “Music Moxie Roadshow” Tour that I will be launching this year. I did the first year of XFactor auditions, and although it was a long process, it reminded me that the United States has so much untapped talent. I’m really excited about helping new artists, songwriters and producers launch their careers. I don’t know that I’ll ever retire because I love music. I’m a fan of music and I always will be. I just can’t wait to get a new record and hear it. I got into the music business because I was a fan of music; I’m still a fan. I don’t think that I’ll ever retire. We love music, I think that’s why we all get into this business.
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