When the opportunity came to interview John Dexter, someone associated with one of the most impactful hits of the past few years, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the time I walked into the Brill Building and met with Paul Leka ("Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye").
Paul was looking for a band to cover a song he’d written and had already recorded a bed track for "Green Tambourine" with New York session band, the Tradewinds.
We walked away with an acetate of the song but roadwork took us far away for nearly a month. During that time Leka found his band in Cincinnatti, the Lemon Pipers, and the rest is near-miss history.
Leka was a songwriter/producer in a building deep in songwriting teams. The same thing happened when I dropped in on A&M Records in Hollywood and met the writing team of Boyce & Hart. This to me was what A&R was about. It all starts with a great song then moves up the pipe.
Dexter co-managed Carly Rae Jepsen during the massively successful, “Call Me Maybe” single. Most hit songs wear quickly but Jepsen scored with a song that had much more depth than most quantized tracks – it had a great arrangement that supported the hook – one you never tired of hearing.
Dexter has bundled all of his experiences and successes and poured them into A&R Lab – “a collaborative environment where hit songs are being written and placed with major artists.” Here’s that conversation.
How did the idea for A&R Lab come about?
It is all about collaboration. A&R Lab is a music production company that works with labels, management companies and artists to write, produce and A&R hit singles. A&R Lab came about because our writer/producer collaborators just do not have enough time to make “rare” hit singles in the studio and do business development, placing those records with the right artists internationally. We also noticed that our writer/producer clients all want positive feedback about song structure, melodies, lyrics, arrangement, and production to take a song to the next level and make it a potential hit. Experienced A&R, which is lacking at the labels these days. So, we help A&R our writer’s singles, as well as develop their business by connecting them with clients worldwide.
What is the biggest hurdle for songwriters to cross?
Confidence. Making hits is all about confidence. Is this idea exceptional? If not, throw it out and move on. Great is the enemy of rare, and you need rare to move the needle.
Examining hits by artists like Bruno Mars you see a number of co-writing names attached. What’s the benefit in community engagement?
There’s so much pressure on an artist to deliver a song that connects. Having multiple ears on a single gives your perspective. Even though they can become “Franken-songs” with so many writers.
Have we left the singer/songwriter era?
This week’s Spotify Global Top 50 has Ed Sheeran, Charlie Puth and Shawn Mendes all in the top 10. The singer/songwriter era just looks different than before.
Production plays a key role in bringing life to a writer’s statement. What kind of guidance do would-be producers find at A&R Lab in getting the most from an artist and song?
The #1 priority is The Song, The Song, The Song. We are always pushing, “Can we make this better?”. The production is there to support a great vocal. If you marry the two correctly, you have something special.
Is the focus mainly on scripting hits?
Our mission at A&R Lab is provide the most creative, nurturing environment for the next generation of songwriters, producers, and A&R executives. From that hit songs can emerge.
What tools are in place at A&R Lab?
Experienced A&R from a talented and proven team, and international music marketing for our writer/producers.
How many on staff?
Five A&R, music marketing and admin staff, plus our songwriter/producer partners.
How long does a mentoring session run? Weeks – months?
We are in the business of creating hit songs. We only do mentoring sessions if it is a special event for the Songwriters Association of Canada or other’s associations.
Placement is the key to success. How far does your reach extend?
I am in Europe right now taking meetings in London and Paris and am going to Cannes this week for MIDEM.
Internationally, our team directly focuses on label and management relationships in the five largest territories, UK, US, Germany, France and Japan. In secondary markets. we have a team of creative executives who represent us in Latin America, SE Asia, The Netherlands, and other territories. In Canada, we facilitate releases directly for our writer/producers through our in-house imprint Reliant/Warner, and our wholly owned national radio promotion company, Pitbull Radio Promotions.
A song like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” comes along once in a lifetime. When you first heard it were you convinced this was a hit?
Carly sent it to myself and my co-management partner the night she finished mixing it at Warehouse Studios in Vancouver. It was a one listen smash.
“Call Me Maybe” is about the grand marriage of a glorious arrangement, production, and spot-on vocals. Do you feel if one or another didn’t carry the same weight the single would have quietly exited?
For a song to be a global smash there are so many elements that have to come together creatively and on the marketing side…and contrary to that, monster singles seem have a mind of their own, you just hold on to the tail of the rocket. Some people call it luck, others call it “help from the Universe”. You just have to keep your head down, make the best music you can, stay grounded, grateful and feeling confident.
What has been the most unexpected hit you’ve been involved with? Why do you think it cut through?
Honestly, Carly Rae Jepsen’s first gold single, “Tug Of War”. Ryan Stewart produced a stunning single. But you never 100% know how something will react. That song and “Bucket” both went gold from her debut album.
The early years of popular song writing was about building teams – that’s why the Brill Building rumbled with excitement and A&M Records underwrote a number of promising song-writers with publishing contracts. How does this work in the modern era?
Funny you mention A&M. My first publishing deal was with A&M Los Angeles. It was an amazing, life changing and incredibly nurturing environment. It works exactly the same way in the modern era, except those kinds of environments are found more with successful writer/producers signing their own writers, building their own camps and funneling the work to them.
How do you maintain enthusiasm for an industry that’s shrinking from all sides?
Great question. I think it’s been very tough for everyone psychologically. Small is the new big. But streaming looks positive, the majors and indie majors are finding the money to buy mid-size indie labels and publishers, and their investment in global A&R in increasing. There’s a long way to go, but I feel extremely excited and positive about the possibilities for entrepreneurs.
It’s far easier and cheaper to record and drive the end results out the door but much more difficult getting people’s attention. How do you address this with those who attend?
We always try to place our songs and productions with the biggest artists. They have fan bases and receive the biggest marketing pushes, usually.
What’s your advice to those just entering the business?
Hustle. Know who you are. Know your strengths. Ruthlessly learn your craft. Be humble. Treat people with respect. Be loyal, the grass is not always greener. And don’t be an asshole, there’s enough of those to go around!
What do you enjoy doing downtime to rejuvenate?
I find meditating extremely helpful. But I’m probably a workaholic because I love the music industry.