The Recording Artist

debra scherer

Joey Arbagey and the Art of A&R

Have you ever heard someone say they’re in A&R and wonder what exactly that meant? As Executive Vice President of A&R at Epic Records, Joey Arbagey can certainly help us pinpoint the true meaning of that title. While the letters stand for artists and repertoire, the significance can’t be overstated. From scouting new talent to producing some of the greatest vocal recordings of our time, Joey’s dedication to his artists is only “outplayed” by his dedication to music in general.

Debra Scherer: So when did you know that music would be your everything?

Joey Arbagey: I was studying in university and decided to do a semester abroad in Bath, England, and for the first time I felt free. I started hanging out at all of the local pubs, and there was always a live DJ. Everytime I went, I noticed more and more that they controlled the club or the pub. You know what I mean? They controlled the music, they controlled the energy, they controlled the vibe, they controlled the entire crowd. I fell into the music and I became obsessed with the DJs. So by the time I came back home to San Francisco, I knew it was going to be music for me. That’s what did it. 

DS: So what was your first job in music?

JA: I came back and finished school, and started interning for Geffen Records. It was the time of Guns N’ Roses, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and then eventually I started interning at KMEL radio for the musical director, stacking CDs, getting him coffee – you know, everything you do as an intern. Then the programming director had an opening for an assistant, and I got it. It was at the time one of the most important radio stations in the country, back in the ’90’s. 

Anyone from San Francisco would remember The Camel! It was 106 KMEL classic rock, and that camel was the logo; it was really dope, really cool. So working for him, he was such an important programming director that all of the heads of the music labels, all of the promo people and many of the artists called him, and he had a policy of not taking anyone’s calls, ever. 

DS: What was his name?

JA: Keith Naftaly, he’s now at RCA Records. But he changed music. He flipped that station to hip hop and freestyling and soul. It became a phenomenon, it became a barometer for the entire country for what was hot in music and pop culture.

DS: So that was still in the ’90’s?

JA: Yes. I started as an intern, and by the time I left, I was program director. So I worked my way up every step of the way.

DS: All at that one station.

JA: I know, that’s highly unusual! And though I wasn’t on air on as a regular, I was on air for some music features. When I left, we were #1 across the board in the market.

DS: Then why did you make the move from San Francisco to New York and into the labels?

JA: I left because I had become a little too corporate. I came to New York and interviewed with every label and saw everyone I knew, and finally Doug Davis, Clive Davis’s son called, and said, “L.A. Reid wants to see you.” He was just about to start at Arista as Clive was starting another venture, J Records. So I went and sat down with L.A. and we had a great discussion. He said he wanted someone to listen to music with and discuss music with and to go out and find the best music. The next day, I had the job and I moved to New York.

DS: And you two have been working together on and off ever since then! You have a musical kismet! What is that like?

JA: Well, he is the biggest mentor of my life. Keith Naftaly was too; he taught me so much about music and about hip hop.

DS: I know you and L.A. do a lot of business together as well?

JA: But with L.A. Reid, even the business we do is always creative. It all comes down to the music. Nothing is more important than the music, nothing moves us like the music – that’s what its all about. One hundred percent. Finding the next hit, finding the trend in music, or what the next sound could be, or which genre is about to become popular? It’s always changing. Right now you listen to hip hop on pop radio!

DS: It’s almost all music that has been touched by hip hop!

JA: Hip hop now is just anything that is a combination of talking and singing.

DS: It has influenced almost everything. It’s storytelling.

JA: Yeah, just the flavor, the coolness of it. Storytelling of course is just very big in all of pop culture!

DS: Ah! Don’t we know it! That’s all we do.

JA: That’s right, the Culture Crush!

DS: So tell us about L.A. and what he taught you about music.

JA: He teaches me everyday. He teaches me to listen to the mix and to listen to the vocal. He taught me what a real voice sounds like and what a special voice sounds like. You know, you can find singers all over the place and in every church, but is it special? Do they have a gift?

DS: Who are some of the artists you have worked on that taught you about that kind of voice?

JA: Well it was L.A. who put me with Whitney [Houston], and there is no voice like that.  That’s what I mean by a gift. 

DS: Which years?

JA: Around 2001-2004. When you hear voices like that – I mean the first people we worked on were the clearness and the brightness of Whitney Houston, the power of Aretha Franklin, and the duel tone of Toni Braxton, with the little hiss under it, so those three are the best. At that point, when one of them would call me and tell me how they were feeling, I could already tell just from listening to them talk how the night would go in the studio as far as their voice, whether or not it was going to be a good night or not.

DS: Wow, so you really knew how to get the best recordings from those voices!

JA: Yeah, sometimes you want that raspiness but sometimes it’s too much. So I learned that from L.A. because he put me with the greats. When you work for a record label it’s about finding the balance between the creative and the business. It is still a business, you know what I mean? We still have to make money.

DS: So he taught you to find the greatness, and as you mentioned, you have worked with some true legends and some serious music moments.

JA: Yeah, true artists and real singers. There are many artists who can’t sing like that, but they know how to work the business, which is great. But those three women are also gifted singers, unique and special, they give you goosebumps every time they open their mouths. They are much more than just entertainers.

DS: Yes, that’s just another skill altogether!

JA: I know, but I just love the singers; come on, I work with Mariah Carey! That is the best singer in the world. It’s hard to describe something so magical.

DS: So in the context of this issue, what is the connector, the passion that runs through all of the genres? You have worked at a few labels with different kinds of artists, from hip hop at Def Jam to West Coast indie pop – what do they all have in common? What’s the universal connector?

JA: Well that’s why I have this job now, as head of A&R. I can change tracks and get just as excited about listening to a rock record or listening to a hard core rap album. The common thread to me is the art and the greatness. If you make great music, nothing motivates me more in life, and we are looking for hits all the time, but I like a hit that’s also incredible in other ways. What makes it cool? What makes you groove? Or what gives you a certain emotion, deep in the crates? And I like copyrights. Records that don’t go away, that people rerecord and rerecord. Some of it might be super cheesy, like The Carpenters, but I love it. I love the simple rhythms, the harmonies, I love the voice...

DS: Explain what you mean by copyrights?

JA: A copyright is something that doesn’t go away. Its a real record that you hear for years to come and always refer back to. Like Mariah’s Christmas song that people still buy every year. That’s a copyright. Or Aretha’s Respect. You know what I mean? 

DS: So what about your passion for music?

JA: Nothing feeds my soul more than music. It’s my main driver in life. It’s what I feel in my heart, it’s what I feel in my soul, it’s what makes some tick, it’s what makes some get up every day, it’s what makes some dance, it’s what makes some live. It chooses my mood; it’s everything.