Wednesday, November 5, 2008

James Mormile: Interscope Records A&R

You know you’re in an A&R office at a major record label when there’s not even a desk in the room. Mormile’s office is surprisingly relaxing to be in; there is no desk, there are leather couches, and his computer sits on his coffee table. Then there’s the killer audio system that features JBL Studio Monitor 4412s! There’s also the 50 Cent platinum record that Fitty signed “James, tell the DJ to blow me up or I’ll kill you!” Even I gotta admit, that’s pretty rad.

James Mormile works in A&R at Interscope Records here in Los Angeles. He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and graduated from Seton Hall University. At Seton Hall, he was a radio DJ back when DJ’s had more control over what they played. He then interned at Universal Music Group [UMG] NY in video promo, which means he took music videos every Monday morning from 57th and Broadway and ran them down to MTV at 42nd and Broadway to make sure they got there by 10AM. In the summer it was so awful he’d have to bring a change of clothes with him to work! He was the person making sure videos were getting played and he’s been with UMG ever since, almost ten years!

I asked James what an A&R person does:

To an artist on a label, I’m the record label. Aside from signing talent, which is a major duty, I’m the liason between the artist and the company. Anything they have to do with the label goes through me. I’m the only person my artists really need to know. There are so many different departments, with hundreds of employees. So for an artist, that’s not their job. It’s their job go make records and go play gigs and do that the best that they can. I make sure that everything happens on time, that everyone gets paid. And it’s my job to champion the project through development. These are my passion projects, so I make sure that the higher ups in the building knows what’s going on - that Jimmy Iovine knows who this new artist is. It’s my job to make it important to him. After artists have made a few records, they’ll get to know a few more people at the label, they’ll know who their marketing director is, the head of sales. But at the beginning, it can be confusing.


James signs his own projects, but because Interscope has an abundance of projects he also gets projects assigned. Most of his are projects that he has found and has shepherded from the very beginning. He doesn’t have to go to clubs all the time anymore, and he doesn’t get that many demos in the mail. Three years ago he would have had a stack of demos, but now he gets emails from artists asking to look at their myspace page. They’ll have four or five songs up, maybe a video from a gig and a bunch of photos. And with comments, you can see what people are reacting to. It’s more interactive than only getting a piece of paper. Plus, it makes things much more informal when he can just email an artist back.

James is still excited about making career artists, but sees a real problem because there’s no place to go buy CDs anymore. I definitely agree with this, I miss Tower Records. No one gets excited to go to Best Buy to buy music. You go to Best Buy to buy a washing machine and you happen to see a 50 Cent CD. And that does not excite James in the least. He feels that iTunes is great, and also feels that it is not the end-all. People cherry pick songs off the album, but most don’t comprehend the amount of work and effort that goes into making an album.

Jimmy Iovine wakes up every day thinking about distribution - how are they going to change distribution? Because right now, creating and printing CDs is dying and iTunes is creating a singles market where they don’t make enough money to keep going in the way their artists deserve. It’s difficult to break an act, to make something big enough that millions and millions of people will want to buy it. Record companies serve a purpose.

To get to that arena level, t just takes time cultivating your audience and to keep giving them something new and giving them a reason to come back. There’s nothing like seeing all that energy in an arena, people really care. Everyone should go to a U2 show at some point in their life and understand that’s what music should do to people and that it’s a sort of a religious experience. There’s nothing more poignant than seeing someone who can command and audience like that. That was the point of their Elevation tour, that all you needed was U2, a stage, some lights, and a couple of video screens so the folks in the back can see too. Just them and an audience.

For a band, in the old sense of being a band, when you want to live on a major label a lot of the groundwork has to be laid by the band already. Like if they’re from Tulsa, Oklahoma; before you get to Interscope you have to be the biggest band in Tulsa. There has to be no question, everyone in Tulsa has to be jumping up and down about your band. If we go to Tulsa to see you play, there better be 1000 people there - there'd better be a line around the block. And if not, there’s nothing wrong with that, you’re just not ready for what it is that Interscope does. I don’t have the time or the staff to make sure that you can play your guitar or make sure your drummer can play in time. A lot of artists have hit records and they’re not ready. You can’t put them out on the road because it’s just that hard. Wherever you’re from, whatever city or state that is, you need to be the Rockstar of your hometown so Interscope can go there and be excited. Don’t just come to LA immediately because you’re gonna play the Roxy and four people are going to show up and two are gonna be your parents. A band needs to be able to get on a local tour. If you’re from New York you need to get on a tour that takes you to NY, NJ, Connecticut, Philly, you know, go up and down the Northeast and have people show up. If you can do that and have people show up then you’ve now taken a step towards being ready for what Interscope can do for you. Otherwise, there’s no real benefit to being here if you don’t already have a fan base.


James is someone who clearly loves his job, and is very excited about music. Which is good because he travels all the time. If one of his projects are recording a record, he spends as little time in the office as possible, he likes to be as hands on as his artist wants him to be. Some artists feel like the label guy is breathing down their neck and some are excited that he’s interested.

You know the kind of people who don’t want you there and if they don’t want you there, it’s not because they don’t like you it’s because they want to work. They don’t want to feel like I'm there to keep them in check.


James is there for support. He might have an idea every once in a while, but he’s not a producer or musician – he’s not someone who toils in what goes on. Most of his day consists of marketing meetings, meeting with artists, producers and managers. He likes to be with his artists doing what they’re doing, whether they’re in the studio or if they’re on promo. Whatever would make them feel excited that the label is there, that the label is excited about them, that’s his job to help them feel that love. So if they go do Good Morning America, he goes for the artist but also to meet the music show’s music supervisor to ask if there’s anything he can do for them and let that person know that he’s this artist’s guy.

He also spends a lot of his day walking the building. He goes to his marketing guy, or the new media people. He wants to know what they're doing for his band. At the end of the day the project is his, out of all the people in the company his name is on it somewhere. Making sure his projects' records sell ultimately comes down to him.

And that’s a good thing, no? Many people pretend that they don’t want to sell records. But if that were true, then they wouldn’t even try to sell their records! If that were true, they really could just write in a journal and play their music in their garage and they would be satisfied. Besides, how else would we ever be able to go see a concert with 40,000 other fans and have that experience without a label laying the groundwork for that possibility?!

I will leave you with his words:

I can only speak for myself, I think I'm someone who is excited about what I do. My artists are my friends and I have to believe in all of them. I want to see every one of them succeed, and not just for the money. I love to be able to put my name on a great body of work and know that I helped make it great. We are all working towards the same goal, we are building this thing together.


[©MMVIII MD TOTAL all rights reserved]

6 comments:

DR said...

HEY JAMES I LIKE YOUR ARTICALE YOU WROTE I AM A ARTIST THAT WILL BE THE NEXT BEST THING EVER I PROMISS YOU ONE DAY WE WILL SET DOWN IN DO LUNCH IN TALK BUSINESS GOD BLESS YOU THANKS AGAIN D.R.
WWW.DRMUSICNOW.COM

Asterios said...

this is a pretty fantastic article. I hope you send it around, its a great look at the modern music business.

Anonymous said...

i wonder when DJ will actually get his job right...what a joke. keep those number 1's comin dj!

Anonymous said...

THE NEXT BIG ARTIST IZ ME SKEEMZ"THE-MONEY"PLOTS..... I KNOW U GET ALOT OF MESSAGES FROM PPLZ THAT THINK THEY THE BEST BUT THE DIF WITH ME IZ IM NOT A THINKER I SPEAK ONLY WHAT I KNOW AND I KNOW IM THE NEXT BEST
CHECK ME OUT AT www.betarecords.com/skeemz.the.money.plots

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[soccerboy] said...

@Asterios: Thank you SO MUCH for the positive feedback. James and I are thinking about doing a follow up piece. Would you be interested in that?

@mikebnelson said...

Good info, I felt like takin notes! I'd be interested in readin a follow-up piece.