Exclusive interview with Josh Sarubin
Josh Sarubin is one of the most successful A&R executives in the US over the past twenty five years, with stints at Columbia Records, Arista Records Island Def Jam, Virgin Records and Sony/ATV Music Publishing. He’s worked with iconic artists such as Santana, Avril Lavigne and Lionel Richie, as well as signing superstar talent like Lady Gaga. In this exclusive interview, Josh tells us about his early years, talks about the business in general and his transition from Records to Music Publishing. He also happens to be a really, really awesome guy.
The Early Years
Tell us about the early years, including where you were born, early childhood memories,and how you got started in the Entertainment Business?
I was born in Baltimore, MD. I always loved music, but never knew how to get into the "music business." After a freshman year at Cornell, I dropped out for a semester to figure out what I wanted to do. Then, I decided to go to University of Maryland. In high school, I had worked at a record store called Chick's Records & Tapes, and the owner had a good friend who ran the record store in the student union at Maryland. I got a job at the store, which was called The Record Co-op. While working there, I asked the owner about a music business conference in Washington, DC and if I should go to learn about the business. He told me that all the labels had local offices and college internships, and that I would be better served trying to get an internship with one of them. The CBS Records (later Sony) rep was graduating, and he said he would ask her about the gig. I later applied and got the job. This was August 1988. Once I got the job, I did everything in my power to get recognized, including winning CBS Records National College Rep of the Year twice. I was at the local branch every day, and treated it like a full time job. Once I graduated in Dec 1990, I got a full time job at the branch as an Account Service Representative. I knew I wanted to move to New York and work at one of the (now) Sony labels. In March of 1991, a job came up in Columbia Records Metal Marketing Department for a national retail marketing person. I applied and got the job and moved to NYC in April of 1991.
What was the music scene like in NY & do you like NY over LA?
The NYC music scene was fantastic in the 90's. Tons of music. Tons of acts that called NYC home. The record business was incredibly successful. Great time to be in music! I definitely will always choose NYC over LA. There is no place like NYC! There's a story on every block...
What Sports Teams & Athletes did you look up to/follow during your youth?
Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Colts
Who did you look up to growing up (Mentors/Positive Role Models)?
My dad, Eddie Murray, Prince, Jackie Robinson
Did you study music when you were in school or outside of school?
You went to College at the University of Maryland College Park. What did you major in, what was it like to attend that school, and what did you do outside of your regular classes (such as clubs, Frats Houses, parties, hobbies, sports, etc.)?
I was an English Lit major with a minor in sociology. I didn't study music. I learned the music business by being a college rep and asking a lot of questions. I spent most of my free time working for Sony and hanging out in live music clubs.
What Musical Artist did you like/were a fan of when you were a kid & then a teen?
Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Smiths, Cabaret Voltaire, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, New Order, the Cult, Sly and the Family Stone, ACDC, Earth Wind and Fire, and man, many more
Was there anyone in your life who influenced you to pursue a career in music?
Rick Rubin was one of my main influences. I loved every artist he worked with and/or signed to Def American. I wanted to do what he did, and have my own label and sign & work with all of the acts
The Music Biz
You started in A&R in 1992. Tell us about your first Entertainment Job?
While I was working in the Columbia Records Metal Department, I kept taking different bands to David Kahne, the head of A&R at the time. Finally, after a few bands that he liked, he offered me a job in A&R. My dreams had come true!
During your career, the albums that you have responsible for have sold over forty million copies worldwide. That is an incredible record. Please tells us what this means to you?
I have worked with a lot of great artists and also been very lucky
One of your specialties is Identifying and developing talent globally. Did you always have this skill or was it acquired? And tell us the process of identifying talent and what happens after you identify the talent. Run us through the A&R Process.
I have always chosen artists by the feeling in my gut. When I saw an artist perform, I either felt like they were stars or not. I never made decisions based on sales, popularity, fan base, etc. It has always been and always will be about stars and songs for me. For better or worse...
From 1991 to 1999, you were Senior Director Of A&R at Columbia Records! How did you get this job, who hired you? What was it like to work there, What artist did you A&R? What was it like to work with legendary Music Executives like Tommy Mottola & Donny Ienner? What is the best memory you have from the Columbia Days?
Columbia was great. It's the Cadillac of record labels with an incredible catalog and history. I was proud to work there. We had something like 22 A&R people at the company. Every genre was covered. One of my best memories was when the Presidents of the USA cracked the top 5 on the Billboard Top 200 sales chart. I finally felt like I had done what I set out to do.
From 1999 to 2004 you worked at Arista Records and were VP of A&R, having signed Mega-Star Avril Lavigne & worked with the Legendary Clive Davis! Tells us about how you found & signed Avril and what it was like to A&R her project? Also, please tell us what it was like to work with the legendary Clive Davis & what did you learn from him? Also, tell us about being behind the scenes with Clive & the gang and what it was like to work, hang, party, and experience such a wonderful time in the Record Business?
I was only with Clive for a year. I don't think he liked me very much. My time at Arista then was quite unpleasant, to be honest. When he was leaving Arista, I immediately hit up LA Reid and told him that I was going to work my butt off for him. He and I hit it off and I worked for him for the next 9 + years.
Actually, I didn't sign Avril. She was found by another A&R person and signed by LA Reid. A month after signing her, he fired the guy who found her and told me I was her new A&R guy and to go make her album. At the time, she had two country-ish demos that had been written by Peter Zizzo and nothing else. I worked with her to develop her sound, found every songwriter she worked with, and helped her to develop her identity. Before that time, I had never made a straight up pop record with outside writers.
You A&R'd Avril's First & Biggest Hit "Complicated". Tell us how this song came about, the marketing behind it, working with The Matrix, & what it was like when the song Blew Up & became a Huge Hit?
I sent Avril to LA to work with Matthew Gerard. His manager at the time, Sandy Roberton, asked me if she would work with new clients of his, The Matrix. At the time, they didn't have much other than a cut on a Christina Aguilera Spanish Language Christmas album. I agreed to it. A few weeks later, I went out to LA to hear what Avril had been doing with the Matrix. I went to their home studio and the first song they played me was "Complicated." The first time I heard it, I knew it was a smash, and told them to do another 8 songs with her.
I brought the song back to NYC with me and tried to play it in an A&R meeting with LA Reid. He didn't want to deal with it at the time, and I couldn't play it for another two weeks until the next a&r meeting. As soon as everyone heard it, they all knew it was a hit.
You've worked with such artists as Adema, Santana, Pink, & Butch Walker. What can you tell us about working with these incredible artist? Butch went onto become a great writer and producer, so did you see that in him early on and did you help him to transition into that area of the business?
Butch was and is an awesome talent. I signed him to Arista. I wish the album he made had gotten more attention because it is pretty incredible. I introduced him to Avril when I was first working with her, and then hooked him up with her to do demos for her second album. They hit it off and did some great stuff together. I also played his music for Pink and her manager Craig Logan when I was working with her, and played songs of his for them for her "Try This" album. None of his songs made that album, but he went on to do a bunch with her.
Pink was just coming off her gigantic "Mizundastood" album and wanted to do everything herself. She wasn't really interested in outside songs. She had recorded a lot of songs with Tim Armstrong from Rancid in her tour bus and also had a few Linda Perry songs for the album. She wanted to do everything her way and had earned the ability to do so.
Then you left Arista to join Island Def Jam Music Group (as VP of A&R) to work with LA Reid & sign Lady Gaga & Kerli among others. Tell us what is was like to work there? how did you find & sign Kerli? Did you have any interaction with executives like Jay-Z & Rob Stevenson and if yes, what were those relationships like?
When LA Reid was let go from Arista, I called him immediately and told him that I would go wherever he ended up going. He started over at IDJ and I had to wait a few months for things to get settled over there (and to be let go from Arista) before I could start. It was both a great and a difficult time. I signed some great stuff there like Kerli, Jon McLaughlin, Pixie Lott, Lady Gaga, and Debi Nova and worked on some great albums from Fefe Dobson (Still to this day, it is one of the albums of which I am the most proud), Lionel Richie, and Marc Broussard. My stay there ended more abruptly then I would have hoped...
Christian Wahlberg, who ran Murlyn Music at the time, played me a few Kerli songs in a meeting. Her voice was so unique and so incredible, that I had to meet her. I flew to Stockholm a few weeks later and met her and heard her sing, and I knew I had to sign her. She came to the US and sang for LA and me, and we signed her on the spot.
How do you approach new projects & do you get involved in all aspects including the creative & business side of things?
I like to get involved in everything having to do with the creative side of things. The business stuff doesn't interest me at all. However, I love and need to be a part of all the music, fashion, ideas, marketing, etc. Every artist is different. Some need more help than others. I try to do everything to set the table for them, so that they can sit down and eat like a king or queen!
After IDJ, you took a job at Sony/ATV as VP of A&R. Why did you decide to leave Record Companies & jump to Music Publishing Companies?
I was pretty shocked when my time with LA Reid ended. Lady Gaga was skyrocketing up the charts, and someone had to take the blame for her being dropped, so I got let go from IDJ. Rob Stevenson, who had been recently made president of Virgin/EMI, reached out and hired me to do A&R for him. I started working with Tristan Prettyman and made a Christmas EP with A Fine Frenzy, but didn't do too much else. After a few months at Virgin, I was contacted by Danny Strick at Sony ATV. They were looking for a VP of pop, and asked if I was interested. I had never done publishing before and it looked like a great opportunity, so I jumped at it, and left Virgin after only 6 months, to work at Sony ATV.
Was the transition hard? How was working at a Publisher different from working at a Record Company?
The transition wasn't too bad as I was already working with a ton of songwriters and producers and so I easily slid into the role.
Did you work closely with the Sony A&R Staff (Columbia & Epic) regarding placements? What was it like to work for a publisher & have a strategic relationship with the A&R Staffs at Columbia & Epic Associated Labels?
While at Sony, I worked with Anjulie (and even A&R'd her songs for her album), Livvi Franc, Frankie Storm, Andrea Martin, Dave Tozer, Rob Fusari, Rob A and Jeremy Skaller. I also signed production/writing duo Sham & Motesart and Bajan artist Cover Drive , who signed to Polydor in the UK).
I still wanted to develop and find artists and writers early and help them become great. That didn't really jive with the Sony ATV mandate and after two years there, I moved on...
Tell us about your current gig at Secret Road Publishing.
I had met Lynn Grossman during the summer of 2011 and really liked her. When I left Sony, Lynn reached out to me to ask me to come aboard and help run Secret Road's new publishing arm. I loved the way Secret Road did business, and it felt like the future to me, so in June of 2012, I started at Secret Road as head of A&R and Publishing. It has been an incredible run so far! We have a lot of great writers and artists like Arum Rae, Lindsey Ray, Katie Herzig, Garrison Starr, AG, Jules Larson, Amy Stroup, Emery Dobyns, Trent Dabbs, Bess Rogers, Allie Moss and many others. The company is like a family. No artist gets signed unless all employees agree on the signing. No music gets ignored. No artist is treated poorly.
We are truly a music services company and do everything we can to help our artists make money and build their career. We have several cuts about to come out this year and are looking at some new signings. We are coming up to the publishing company's third anniversary and things look fantastic for 2015 and beyond!