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Republic Records Co-President Wendy Goldstein Talks Ariana Grande, the Weeknd, and the Art of A&R

Wendy Goldstein Republic Records
Michael Buckner at the Kimpton La Peer Hot

Wendy Goldstein, the newly minted co-president of Republic Records and A&R executive for the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, the Jonas Brothers and now John Legend, received some strong, backhanded inspiration when she was starting out as a 19-year-old assistant in Epic Records’ A&R department.

“I was constantly told, ‘Women can’t be A&R people — what’s wrong with you?’” she says now. “I was like, ‘Oh yes I can!’ And I figured it out.”

Did she ever: Goldstein is among the longest-running and most successful A&Rs in the business. Over the course of a career that reaches back to that assistant job in the 1980s, she’s signed and/or A&R’ed classic records by the above as well as the Roots, GZA, Mos Def, Common, Chingy and many more — and she’s run Republic Records’ A&R department since she joined Monte and Avery Lipman’s label in 2008. It’s a career that has seen her move from working primarily with rock acts during her early days at RCA Records, to hip-hop during a long 1990s run at Geffen Records, to some of the world’s biggest pop acts at Republic.

Goldstein’s formidable music smarts stretch back to her teens. A New York City native, she and longtime friend/ Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman would go clubbing together in Manhattan as teenagers. “At 18 I was somewhat going to college but not really, DJ-ing at [legendary nightclub] Danceteria on off nights,” she recalls. “I met an A&R guy there, we stayed in touch, and one day he called: ‘My secretary is leaving — do you want a job?’”

Her New York toughness helped her to weather the deep sexism she encountered. “At that time, you had to take it like a joke,” she says. “The number of times people said ‘Nice rack!,’” she rolls her eyes. “I’d just move on. Nothing was going to keep me down, and my drive to be successful far outweighed my emotions.”

There was another major early inspiration. “My mother said the greatest thing to me when I finally admitted I’d stopped going to NYU and took the job at Epic,” she recalls. “She said, ‘I never got the opportunity to go to college and I’m very disappointed you’re taking a job as a secretary.’ I said, ‘It won’t be forever — I’m gonna be a big A&R person!’ And she looked at me with all the guilt that only a Jewish mother can give, and said, ‘I hope this works out for you, because you have no Plan B.’ That stayed with me in the best way possible — failing wasn’t an option.”

What follows is an edited version of an hour-long conversation spanning Goldstein’s entire career, a casual primer on the art of A&R. Rather than presenting it as a formal Q&A, we’ll just let her talk.

As a record executive, you can love one genre more than another, but you should be able to A&R any type of music. [Trends] come and go, but the fundamentals are the same: Are there real songs here? What’s the dynamic? What’s the singer or rapper about? I started off signing rock bands but was able to reinvent myself as a hip-hop A&R and then as a pop A&R person — the genre I knew the least about — because I was already skilled at making records.

In the early ‘90s there was this whole hip-hop/ neo-soul movement happening outside of the mainstream — the Roots, D’angelo, the Fugees. At Geffen I was allowed to dig in and throw major-label money behind it, and it really paid off. It was the beginning of something really special and smart and cultural and new and fresh — those acts were the first to play festivals and I think that allowed hip-hop to go into the alternative/ mainstream [genre]. The Roots were such pioneers: They were forward-thinking, they were a band, and working with them taught me so much about A&Ring and making records.

I still go back to that time — I used a lot of it on Ariana’s first hit “The Way,” which sampled Big Pun’s [1998 hit] “Still Not a Player.” When we signed her in 2012, [the big hits] were Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and all these big Max Martin records that were perfect, but those girls had swag in their delivery. Ariana had the voice, but she was young and didn’t have the swag that she has now. After a couple of shitty pop sessions, I just said, “When in doubt, go different.” I always pay attention to the market, and I noticed that E-Man on [L.A. hip-hop radio station] Power 106 was playing a lot of New York late-‘90s/early ‘00s hip-hop — Ashanti and Ja Rule, Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma,” “Still Not a Player.” I called him and said “What’s up with these ten-year-old New York records?” And he said, “One day I was bored and I just threw on a couple to see the reaction, and they researched better than current records.”

So I called a couple of producers and said, “Can you try some crossover hip-hop records?,” and Harmony Samuels sent me a song called “The Way.” I sent it to Ariana and she said, “Oh my God, can I cut it tonight?” That broke the mold — it gave her the swag and the foundation, and it was two things you would never think would go together. Even when you’re doing straight pop, you’ve gotta give it a little something underneath — it’s a fickle format and you have to infuse it with something so it has a little more depth.

When we were making [the Weeknd’s 2013 Republic debut] “Beauty Behind the Madness,” Abel told me that in high school he was obsessed with “Liquid Swords” [the 1995 debut solo album by Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA, which was produced by RZA and which Goldstein A&R’ed]. There were a lot of times during the making of that record that Abel would say, “What would RZA do now?,” and I would laugh because a lot of the brilliance of that album was stumbled upon — things were out of phase, out of tune, but it worked. If you listen to those old Wu-Tang records there was a lot that sonically was technically wrong, but it was also so right. There’s an organized chaos to it.

I loved working on the Jonas Brothers’ comeback because nobody saw it coming. We already had two of them [at Republic and sister label Island], and when they said they wanted to get back together, Monte called me and asked what I thought. I always trust my first instinct: “Massive! All we need is to get them the right record.” And a lot of producers didn’t want to work on it, but Ryan Tedder had been sitting on the song “Sucker,” and was perfect for them — the first lyric is “We go together.” We put [drummer Homer Steinweiss] from the Dap Kings on the track, we had their amazing wives in the video directed by the great Anthony Mandler, and boom — number one. That shit is fun.

A lot of A&R is good instincts, having a serious rolodex and a little luck. What you do socially counts for a lot: I got to be friends with Max Martin [the most successful songwriter of the past 25 years] long before I asked him to make records for us, because he’s amazing. And when I connected him and [the Weeknd], I didn’t have to do anything else! [laughter] My contribution to ‘Blinding Lights’ happened in 2014! The rest has taken its own course.

Artists have to trust you and your taste and expertise, and that trust has be earned over time: When you’re a young A&R and you don’t have a wall of plaques in your office, it’s very hard to say, “Listen to me, I know what I’m doing.” But those records I made with the Roots and Common and GZA and Slum Village and Mos Def gave me the credibility to sit in the room with the likes of Abel.

I was taught by phenomenal record executives: [former Geffen Records president] Eddie Rosenblatt, obviously David Geffen, and early on, Bruce Harris and Greg Geller at Epic. They’re amazing A&R guys who made a point to bring me to mixing and mastering sessions and show me how to listen. They made me do the work to understand the job from the ground up, every aspect of it: technical, creative, cultural. Talk about cultural — Bruce was the [U.S.] A&R guy for Culture Club and the Clash —he would run around the office screaming, “You guys don’t get it! This is happening now!”

I think that’s part of the reason [for her long career]: I’m interested in culture, not just music. I like gossip, movies, who’s in the fashion section of the Daily Mail. It’s multifaceted: You see it with celebrity couples, why are some hot and some not? Nick Jonas and Priyanka Chopra are hot! Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner: hot! It’s the chemistry of what fans feel.

It also comes down to who you align yourself with: Monte, Avery and I met in the ‘90s and I signed their act, the Bloodhound Gang, to Geffen. I came here in 2008 and we built something basically from scratch. Now they’re my brothers, but they respect me as an A&R person — they’re like, “If you think it’s great, do it.” And that freedom brings even more success — I think Craig [Kallman] has enjoyed that too in his many chapters at Atlantic. The music isn’t second-guessed; they know these records are as perfect as they’re gonna be, even though of course not everything is a success. And some songs raise their hands — “Sucker,” [Grande’s] “Thank U Next,” [the Weeknd’s] “Blinding Lights” all raised their hands. Is everything in the right place, does the intro keep you interested, is there any downtime, is the chorus working with the verse? Those are the things that separate unicorns.

I always tell the A&R staff, especially the younger ones, “I don’t want you at the studio every night — you don’t have to be their best friend. You have to be able to walk into that room when you listen for the first time and be objective.”

But if I interview an A&R guy or woman and they say, “I could have signed this but my boss wouldn’t let me,” or “I was first on this,” I’m not impressed. If you were so good you would have fuckin’ figured out a way to get it signed.

Coming up, there’s a girl I co-signed with Virgin U.K. named Hope Tala, she’s brilliant; an amazing Jamaican singer named Jada Kingdom; and John Legend. I think I have a vision for him: uptempo, fun, early Motown records, you’ve gotta sing in your falsetto. I’m also super-excited about Kim Petras, she’s a superstar in the making, and with Island in the U.K. I signed Billy Porter — another cultural moment, just make a soulful, funky disco record.

An A&R star doesn’t become one because you signed one act. You can make it a lifelong career — stay relevant, be nice to people, learn from your mistakes. It’s about the reinvention not only of our acts but ourselves.