WENDY GOLDSTEIN: THE HITS INTERVIEW (PART 1)

Wendy Goldstein is one of the architects—along with co-founder/brothers Monte and Avery Lipmanof Republic Records, rising from A&R head at the powerhouse label to co-president with Jim Roppo. Throughout her extraordinary career, she’s navigated an ever-evolving music landscape, helping define what it means to discover, develop, break and sustain artists and nurture their careers.

A lot has changed in A&R over the years. What hasn’t?

I was taught to look at the long game with an artist, not just get through the first hit. We’re on, like, six albums with Ariana Grande; same with The Weeknd. When you’re A&Ring for the long game, the seeds you’re sprinkling throughout the first and second album will set the tone for the rest of the artist’s career.

I was also taught to A&R things with the understanding that every act wanted to be the biggest in the world. And in this market, that’s not necessarily the case. So now, when we are trying to sign an act, I ask them what their intention is. Not in the immediate term—what their intention is for life.

You have to really get a feel for that person because the truth is, life as a pop star is not easy, especially for women. With social media, in particular, it’s very difficult for them to deal with the criticism. They can’t really go anywhere without looking camera-ready. For any artist now, they have to be their own best marketing person. All this messaging via socials allows people to feel like they know them. The artist has to always be “on.” I understand what’s being asked of them. And I think as you get older, you’re better prepared to make sure they’re prepared.

If you look at an artist’s career, there have to be ups and downs; it can’t just be up, up, up. That’s unrealistic and unsustainable. Sometimes you have to allow artists to do things just because they’re feeling it. I remember when The Weeknd was headlining Coachella. He pulled up with an EP he’d just made and wanted it out for that Friday night. There was no expectation other than that he had this music.

I first knew of you when you were at Geffen, when there was no digital-music economy. There was a different ethos about when you put music out, how much you put out at a time, how people obtained it…

The fundamentals of A&R haven’t changed, but how we bring music to market and the tools are different. Back then we’d make videos and hope they got played on MTV or BET.

You’re only gonna build a brand with repetitive impressions in the marketplace, and with digital, the artist is much less likely to go out of cycle, whether it’s their record or they’re featured on something or they’re producing something or they have a television show. Plus, streaming is a real-time business—digital allows us to see what people are doing in real time and respond to it.

Consistency with releasing matters so much now. Because once listeners are into something, they are highly inquisitive. Kids have FOMO, so they’ll go back and see what else is there from this artist. They pull up their page and there are 70 songs, like, “Oh my God, how did I not know about this?” And one of those 70 songs might be a life-changer.

When I was a teenager, I got into David Bowie at the tail end of his pop career. I went back and bought every album. I was amazed by how much music he had. Of course, digital makes the process of discovering all that music exponentially easier.

Tell me about your early life.

I was born in Brooklyn and raised there until I was 12 or 13, when we moved to the city, 80th and First. I went to high school there and attempted to go to college, which really didn’t work out.

What was your home life like?

My parents got divorced pretty early on. My mother wasn’t a great mother in every way, but she was great because she instilled confidence in my sister and me from day one. And my sister, as far back as I can remember, told me, “You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you can do whatever you want to do,” which I didn’t understand was such a gift—until I realized that I was never shy and never felt like I didn’t belong.

When did you start getting into music?

I had an aunt who was a concert promoter in Seattle. When I was 12, I stayed with her for the summer. So the first show I went to was The Rolling Stones, in 1975. And I had a backstage pass! It was unbelievable, the whole lifestyle.

Back then, labels used to send out promotional vinyl with everything they released. No one really listened to those records, but I did. And that’s how I found out about everything; I knew what label the music was on, who wrote it… I’d listen to the B sides…

When I got back to New York, I continued doing that—I had a room full of records. My mom got remarried and was in love and out every night. We were latchkey kids. I had two stepbrothers who took me to Xenon when I was 16 years old. They didn’t card you. I went to the Mudd Club. And I met all these wild people. Then a friend who lived on the Bowery taught me how to DJ, on Technics 1200 turntables, and I got a couple of DJ jobs. I was a terrible student—my high school was the band shelter in Central Park, where all the kids who cut school went to hang out.

What did you play?

It was the early ’80s, so it was everything from new wave to Michael Jackson to pop to “White Lines” to Mantronix.

Hip-hop electro funk. That was an important moment in pop culture.

It was the decline of disco right into the rise of hip-hop, and there was a phenomenal club scene. I was a club kid before it had
a name.

And through that I met an A&R guy at Epic Records, Bruce Harris, a true character. He wore a fedora and tinted glasses and smoked joints nonstop. In the era I came from, A&R people were like rock stars. Bruce and I became friends, and he knew I DJ’d. When his secretary—they weren’t called assistants then—quit, he invited me to lunch. So I went up to Epic, and he said, “You should take this job as my secretary because what else do you have going on?” I was 19 years old, so I said, “All right.”

I was terrified to tell my mother. And when I finally did, she said the thing that has driven me to this day. She said, “So you’re gonna be a secretary,” and I said, “Well, Mom, no, I’m gonna be an assistant, but I’m not gonna stay an assistant very long; I’m gonna be an A&R person.” And then she goes, “I didn’t get the chance to go to college and we can afford to send you, and you’re gonna take a job as a secretary. I hope this works out for you, because you have no plan B.”

She was absolutely right; I had no plan B. And that has always stuck in my head. But my birth sign is Taurus—I am as stubborn as can be. If I set my mind on something, I go for it.

Plan A had to work.

Plan A not working wasn’t an option. And when that is the case, it drives you. It defines you. Fortunately, Bruce was a huge supporter of women—very much ahead of his time. I used to tell anyone who’d listen that I was gonna be the biggest A&R person in the world. Most of them just laughed at me.

But I was out and about and knew the clubs and the hot records, and I could see how out of touch the industry was with street culture. No one knew anything.

We had a first-look deal with Virgin. I came in on a Monday and I’m, like, “We have to sign this Culture Club record; it’s huge in the clubs.” They didn’t even know that Virgin had put it out. And they didn’t really wanna listen to the young people. But it was inevitable. It was another British invasion. And nine times out of 10, those big British acts were on indies. They were available to license for North America, which was very easy for us; finished record—just raise your hand. So I started doing a lot of “Hey, this is big, that’s big… ”

You were the audience for these new wave/budding alternative-rock records.

I very rarely tell people this, but I was actually working for Bruce and Lennie Petze, and Lennie had just signed Cyndi Lauper. It was the first New Music Seminar—1980—and I went to them saying, “We should invest in these acts.” I never got Lennie to put up any money, but the first day of the seminar, he said, “I was thinking you should take Cyndi Lauper.”

Greg Geller, who’d been head of A&R, had gone to RCA and taken Bruce. So it was like the blind leading the blind. Cyndi’s record hadn’t come out yet. No one knew who she was. I’m a kid dragging her around. I don’t even know anyone to introduce her to. It was hilarious, but it was great because that was the beginning of something.

So you parlayed that into…

I stayed in touch with Bruce and Greg, and they brought me over to RCA as an A&R manager. I think going from assistant to any executive title, even if it’s manager, is the toughest jump you’re gonna make in your career. Is someone willing to believe in you enough to promote you from being out there in the bay of desks to being in an office? That was always the thing I was the most scared about: Would I ever get that opportunity? And for me it came very quickly, within two years. I felt very lucky. It was just my dumb perseverance and believing I could do it; I’m, like, “These guys aren’t any smarter than me. I could do this.”

And you actually knew what was going on.

That was my calling card, because I’m, like, “Have you been out?” I literally had New York on lock—I got in anywhere, knew every doorman. I was out.

Greg didn’t last that long at RCA, and they brought in Bob Buziak. Bob and I hit it off instant-ly. He was hilarious and really took care of me. I was there for seven years. I did all their dance mixes and was the point person for Love and Rockets, Peter Murphy, The CharlatansWe’d done a deal with Beggars Banquet.

When Buziak got blown out, I was, like, “This label isn’t growing; I need a change.” I wound up getting a job at a startup through Atlantic, EastWest Records.

Enter Sylvia Rhone.

I got hired as director of A&R in 1991, and Sylvia and I became very close. And it was a little bit of an R&B-leaning label. So given my DJ background and that I played a lot of hip-hop records… I had one huge signing at EastWest, a white rapper from Toronto named Snow. The record was “Informer.” That was the real start of my career.

After “Informer,” I got cold-called by [Geffen A&R exec] Tom Zutaut. He said, “Wendy, we’re looking to expand our A&R department. [President/COO] Eddie Rosenblatt, [A&R] John Kalodner and I are coming to New York in two weeks; would you meet with us?” And I’m, like, “Are you kidding? Of course.” So I had this three-hour meeting with them and they offered me a job on the spot: SVP of A&R, three-year contract, $250,000 a year—more than twice what I was making. And Eddie says, “Who’s your attorney?” I go, “Attorney?” He says, “You don’t have an attorney? Well, by Monday you need to have one.” So I’m playing at another level now.

But it was very white. Coming off two years at EastWest, being totally immersed in the dance scene and hip-hop scene in New
York, my taste had changed a lot—and so had my contact base. They told me I could sign whatever I wanted, that they wanted me to expand the roster.

I found out about this group playing after school on the streets of Philadelphia. For 1,000 people. They were all, like, 17. We drove down to Philly on a Friday, and I signed The Roots right then and there. That was my first signing, my first week on the job.

What was it about them?

They were phenomenal musicians. And they were just about to graduate high school and go on tour. [Hip-hop agent] Cara Lewis was already gonna take them on. And Geffen knew how to break acts that way—here’s your van; don’t talk to us for a year. And they were already getting a ton of press. In some circles, research is a dirty word, but research has been involved in most of my biggest signings. Not the data you think of as research, but if a group that’s put out one independent EP is pulling 1,000 people on the street corner in Philadelphia, it’s sticky—something’s happening. That’s why I signed The Roots.

It’s always been about the ability to draw a crowd.

David Geffen would say, “If we sell 100,000 units on an album in the ‘90s, we’ve broken an act. A hundred thousand people are gonna show up for album number two.” In The Roots’ case, the first album did over a quarter of a million with no hit single. The second album, also with no hit single, did well over gold. And the third album had the big hit on it [“You Got Me”] that won the Grammy.

My second week on the job, I’d gotten a call from RZA; I’d been talking to the Wu-Tang guys about an album that hadn’t come out yet. And we wound up not getting it—[Loud boss] Steve Rifkind signed it. Sylvia had already signed Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Def Jam had already signed Method Man. RZA calls me: “Yo, yo, Wen, I need to come up and see you. Geffen’s a rock label and GZA’s a rock star; you need to sign him.” I’m, like, “Holy shit, you’re right.” Boom. Liquid Swords is one of the best hip-hop records ever. It ultimately went platinum. So the Roots and GZA started that phase of my career.

And Universal Records was in the same building as Geffen. A friend of mine was the VP of Top 40 promotion there. So Monte Lipman’s standing in my office doorway opening and closing a CD. It was by an act he and his brother had on a little imprint called Republic. Bloodhound Gang. It was typical Monte—as he’s playing me the record, he goes, “#2 phones at KROQ.”

Talk about research.

He knew he had to walk in with some heat; something had to be going on. I signed the Bloodhound Gang to Geffen, and Monte and I stayed close.

Coming in Part 2: Life in Hollywood, Ariana, Kim and the biggest challenge of all.

ON THE BMM COVER:
RICO WADE
ATL legend (6/17a)
NEAR TRUTHS: THE HITS KEEP COMING (PART TWO)
Born in 1986 by mad scientists; still lurking. (6/17a)
HITS LIST GOES COUNTRY
Pairs well with grits and gravy. (6/14a)
SUMMERTIME ROLLS: FESTIVAL SEASON IS UPON US
The latest tidbits from the bustling live sector. (6/17a)
IS MCK ABOUT TO
MAKE A BIG MOVE?
This would be a great get. (6/17a)
THE GRAMMY SHORT LIST
Who's already a lock?
COUNTRY'S NEWEST DISRUPTOR
Three chords and some truth you may not be ready for.
AI IS ALREADY EATING YOUR LUNCH
The kids can tell the difference... for now.
INDIE DISTRIBUTION'S RISE TO GLORY
The discovery engine is revving higher.
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