Part I of III
In part I (below), Junior talks about his long and winding road into the music ecosystem and what exactly a Head Of Global Artist Relations does. Marc asks about the process involved in him and his team working with artists. Junior explains the “conversation”.
It should be noted that Junior went over and above by being a part of this edition of #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. He was speaking to Marc from the hospital where his son, Oscar, had just been born days earlier, mid-COVID crisis.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Marc Brown: Well, congratulations Junior! And I appreciate your commitment cause this “release” only happened two days ago, correct?
Junior Foster: Yes, it was! If you hear anything, it’s either Oscar or my other child running around.
Marc: No problem! Alright, well, thanks so much for being here. The bad news is, I have three pages of questions and notes, so everybody, let’s get comfortable!
Could we get started with you giving me a brief background on how you got going into music and how you got to where you are now?
Junior: Sure. I was kind of always around music as a teen. My family has always been involved with music from running sound systems in Jamaica to running sound systems in London. They were at the forefront of the Jungle/Drum & Bass scene, so I was always in and around music.
I ended up running into an old high school teacher who gave me a number. Her friend was looking for an assistant. That person was the Head of Marketing at Epic Records at Sony. I didn’t manage to get the job, but they wanted to keep me on as an Intern, and I essentially worked my way up through Sony to be a Product Manager there. I left Columbia Records at the time and went to Universal to work in their Broadcast Department for a little while.
Then I had a massive burnout from the music industry and ended up working in film. I ran the digital & print side of things for a film agency and ended up being Head of Marketing for a film agency, working on a lot of the early Marvel films and a lot of films through Paramount Pictures.
At that point, one of my best friends was like, “We need to get you back into music,” so I came back and started my own creative agency, which is still running. From that point, I joined Deezer four years ago. I’ve been at Deezer for four years! It’s a very colourful background.
Marc: And your title at Deezer is?
Junior: Head of Global Artist Relations.
Marc: The one question I have about your background is that you said you interned, that was what, fifteen years ago?
Junior: Just touching twenty years ago, actually!
Marc: Oh, sorry! Let’s lie and say it was fifteen! Did you get paid to do that?
Junior: No, at the start I didn’t get paid anything at all. And then…
Marc: Did you get travel money back then?
Junior: No, there was no money in it. There was no money whatsoever. What happened was that I worked for Nick Raphael, who’s now at Capital Records. He was the President at that time, and because I had essentially done a lot of stuff in the Dance/Drum & Bass world…
Flyering, postering and Gorilla marketing was a massive thing back then, and so they kind of gave me the keys to the Gorilla marketing for releases. I picked up a couple of hundred quid a month just to help me move around and drive up and down the M25, speaking to various people around the country. I did get a little bit of money for that.
Marc: The reason I highlighted it was because these days, people do not intern for free, which is something… I started the same way, that’s why I wanted to highlight it. At a lot of the talks I’ve done, and when I speak to students, the attitude has changed a lot. I just wanted to highlight the way it used to be. These days, you should get paid at least something. That’s one big change over the last twenty years.
Junior: Big time.
Marc: Artist Relations? Ok, can you tell me, because I’ve never really spoken to anyone who does what you do, what does your job entail?
Junior: Essentially, in our team/my team, we are the contact point for any artist, any distributor, any label, or any manager, who wants to interact with Deezer in terms of getting their music onto Deezer and essentially growing their profile on Deezer. We would be the first point of contact.
There are other people in the background that do the legal chat. They have the big old chats about distribution and the pipeline so that you can get your music ingested into our system. But, when it comes to “Here’s my new music, what should I do with it?” or “Here are my press shots” or “I’m touring on these dates, can you come and see me play?,” my team – Artist Relations, is the team that you speak to about your situation and what you’re doing as an artist or a label.
Marc: Who do you most interact with? Do you interact with individual artists or bands or distributors? How do those sorts of things start?
Junior: Well, I’m slightly unusual to a lot of other people in my team and other DSPs (digital service providers) because I’ve been around for a long time and have many, many friends and have crossed many paths. I would say I speak to a good balance of managers, labels, distributors, and artists directly. I’m not precious about who I’m speaking to as long as the information is correct, and if we’ve got a relationship, then we’re good to go.
Marc: Let’s pick something like a relatively established artist or someone that comes to you through a larger distributor – how does it work? Do they set up a release and then come to you or do you hear about a release and go to them? What’s the system? Or is there a system?
Junior: The loose system for established artists is that they would be working on. Let’s take J Balvin, that’s a massive artist from Columbia. He would be working on an album, and his manager would reach out to me probably earlier than the label knows about the finished product, and he would say, “We want to play you some music”, and I would be like, “Ok”.
Then we will sit down, at which point he would call up the label and then play me some music early to give me an understanding of the flavour of what the new body of work will be like. From that point then we would talk about rough release dates for singles or albums or what’s going on in the world. Is he touring? Is he going to tour this album? What was his thought process in making the music? A really deep dive into what the song and the album are about.
From that point, I would go away and start thinking about how I can best amplify what’s going on in that artist’s world and push them out through Deezer’s platform. That would be with an established artist.
Marc: Ok let’s now go down one, an artist who maybe has a team but isn’t established yet.
Junior: A mid-tier team, when we refer to that type of artist, would be almost a similar path. The manager or label reaches out. Typically, the label would reach out and say, “We’ve got this artist returning again.” This may be their second, third or fourth album release, and we’d have that same conversation again. I’d want that same information; what’s the artist about? What headspace are they in? Where were they when they recorded it? Who’s featured? What production team is on it? I’m really interested in what was going on when you created this album.
Marc: Context is important. I think a lot of artists think, “Oh, I made a record, it sounds like these other records, it should be fine.” But you’re telling me that you want to know as much as possible about the artist, what their world is like and how everything fits together. Is that sort of what influences how you can work with an artist?
Junior: For me, it does. I say it does for me because of this; an artist releases their craft and their artwork, so for me to understand and treat that release properly, I need to understand what the artist was thinking when they were making it and what their faults are. An artist and a manager will know exactly what they want from a release, and a label will also know it.
I need to deep dive and understand what you want from this release. Where are you going with the look of this release so that it can inform me if there are things that I want to do with the artist moving forward that I can go, “Ok, we can do this, this and this, but that’s not going to be right for this artist because it’s just not in sync with what they want.” This music isn’t about happy times, it could be about some trauma that they’ve been through, so you have to treat that correctly and think about ways to amplify their message without treading all over their artwork.
At the end of the day, this is artwork, and I’m fully about an artist and their art, and their artwork and treating them accordingly. Hopefully, we can do some good work. It’s not that we want to get you on because you’re hot right now, and then we move on again. It needs to be done correctly.
Marc: So you interact with either your contacts, or people come to you directly, or labels, etc. So once you get the idea of what’s going on, you take the artist and their music to the rest of your team? One of the things I certainly don’t understand is the stuff that’s going on in the background. I know there are people that do your job. You get the vibe of what’s going on, but what’s the process internally so that we get an idea and understanding of what people at Deezer are thinking about once you know more about the artist?
Junior: Everyone is different. Every DSP is different. They all have their own way of working. At Deezer, as the Global team that also looks after the UK, we would get that music in, get all that information, and get listening links where applicable. It might not be for the whole album. It could just be five or six tracks, maybe three or four tracks. At that point, I would then speak to my team, discuss, and speak to all of my markets globally, and if that artist is at that level, it’s a global conversation we need to have.
There are times when an artist might be doing exceptionally well in the UK and really really well in Bogotá let’s say. My initial conversations will be with my editors here in the UK and with my team over in Bogotá. If we see it start shaping up, I will open that conversation up to other markets around the world. This is the global part of what I do. I talk to every market on our various calls and say, “Alright, I’ve got this artist coming through. Here are the listening links. This is what I’m thinking. What are you thinking?” and have a conversation and put together a plan as to what we might want to do. Then we speak to the label and manager and see if we can land that work and get things moving.
Marc: You use the word “conversation,” I remember you using that word last week when we were chatting. I thought that was super interesting because you mentioned even you view it as a conversation between you, Deezer, the artist, the label, and the manager. Is that the way you view it? As an exchange of information going back and forth? Where the artist comes to you and gives you a load of information, and you go back to your team. Is that how you build things over time?
Junior: Ya, for me, everything is a conversation because (laughs), I might look young, but I’m forty-two years old, and there’s a certain level of manners that you must forward to everyone and conversation is that. We have a conversation, nothing is given, and it’s a conversation. We talk, and we vibe, and I’m a firm believer in talking with people where I can. Obviously, it isn’t easy because there are a lot of people emailing me and trying to get a hold of me, but where I can, I’ll have a conversation because you get so much more information out of a conversation. That’s what I mean by the conversational chat, like what’s going on, you’ve got this guy, ok, and we’ll build backwards. Sometimes an email isn’t enough, and you need to have a chat just to understand what’s going on.
Marc: You also mentioned editors. Are those the people that look after the playlists?
Junior: That’s right.
Marc: We’ll talk about playlists in a little bit, but can you tell me a bit more about the role of playlists at Deezer. Is it feeder playlists?
Marc: That sounds interesting to me. Can you explain the level of playlists?
Junior: Editors, our editorial team, but pretty much most DSPs will work in the same way. The editors essentially program the playlists. Some people don’t do it live as we do, but we have editors programming live in real-time.
Marc: Live? Really? Explain that.
Junior: For argument’s sake, our UK editor will be getting information from me and the rest of my team about these releases happening this week, next week, or next month. He will go, in the same way, that you have a music programmer at a radio station, “So this artist is releasing this, so we’ll put them into certain playlists.” If it’s a development artist that is brand new, we’ll put them into what we call “feeder playlists.” Those are playlists that have good awareness, but you can build attraction.
We have different playlists for any type of release. You could have a slightly alternative release, bedroom pop releases. You could have a heavy thrash metal band. We have a playlist for that, but we build them up through certain ecosystems and if they are working well, and what I mean by working well is the satisfaction rate. If the public is streaming said track, enjoying it, coming back, and putting it into their own playlists, we will feed those tracks into a bigger playlist because we can read all of this data. You then work your way up.
That’s essentially what I mean by feeder playlists and what editorial does. When I’m talking to them, they say, “OK, we’ve got this release from this established artist”, and I know they work well, we’ve got the song, and it works well, I’ll go and put it in these playlists. These conversations are happening all day, every day, between my Artist Relations team and the Editorial Content team around the world—the same conversation every day in real-time, all the time.
Marc: You mentioned radio. If I remember correctly, the way it works on UK radio, for example, at the BBC, they test records to see if the audience likes them, right? And so, is that essentially the way Deezer would see that? You have these experts, people on the editorial team who have a lot of experience with music and blending newer tracks into playlists. Is it a dialogue with the audience? Where your experts would add certain tracks, and when they see that the audience is responding to it, they can increase their profile? So the audience is also defining the popularity of the artist?
Junior: Yes, 100%. We are reading data all the time. There’s never a point where I’m not looking at something and going, “Ok, that’s really working well on our service”, or I look somewhere else and “Ok, that’s picking up a lot of heat somewhere else in a different medium.” The public defines whether a track is hot or not and, in theory, how many playlists that track ends up on because we will test it. On the back of the data, we will move things up or bring things down again because they might not be working.
In the same way in radio, you’ve got your various rotations, playlists A, B, and C, and your spot plays. It’s exactly the same thing. A spot play is a tester, and once they see the public’s reaction, it gets put on a relevant list, and you move forward. It’s almost the same system. The industry hasn’t really changed. It’s just the mediums, how music is distributed and how quickly it can get out now. That is what’s changed a lot.
Want to read on? Head to Part II here.