Joseph Burney Explains A&R
Verity Records has grown to become a powerhouse amongst Gospel record labels, with one of the most impressive artist rosters in recent memory ĖHezekiah Walker, John P. Kee, Daryl Coley, Ben Tankard, Fred Hammond, Helen Baylor, The Canton Spirituals and more. Verity A&R Manager, Joseph Burney, took some time out to describe what itís like behind-the-scenes.
GOSPELFLAVA: What is it that you do at Verity? What is your role?
JOSEPH BURNEY: My title is A&R Manager, and in that capacity, I handle the administrative and business aspects of the A&R department. Record companies are broken down into various depts. You have A&R, Promotions, Marketing etc. A&R stands for artist and repertoire, which encompasses the artists that you sign. If you see talent, you think the talent has a lot of potential, you may sign the talent. The repertoire part is getting music or songs for the artist to sing. The final result is a commercial piece of product. Some artists write their own material or have their own repertoire. At times, you have to find songs for an artist and then proceed with recording to make an album. Thatís A&R.
What I do specifically for Verity is to facilitate payments to vendors; be that producers, studios, hotels, venues, etc. when an artist is recording an album. I also pay the bills for my department and report these expenditures to various departments including Accounting, Finance etc. to gauge the status of budgets. I attend to all of the pre-production aspects of getting CDs, cassettes and videos manufactured including mastering sessions, creation of masters and storage of multi- tape masters for future production uses. I service Verity's other departments with these components, which are necessary for radio air play, press reviews, airing videos on television outlets, international servicing etc.
An enjoyable part of being the A&R manager at Verity Records is doing label copy, which is compiling and proofing credits including writer credits, track listings- naming the songs on an album, sequences- giving the order of the songs, lyrics, publishing, production credits, thank you's etc. Once I have completed all of this I pass these elements onto other departments that specialize in a given area, such as the art department, royalties etc.
GOSPELFLAVA: So there is actually a strong management aspect to it?
BURNEY: Yes. You have to have your business intact. You must have strong organizational skills. Things get hairy and you have to balance all of these requirements among various projects. Itís not like I pay the bills for one project and when thatís completed, I proof lyrics, and then I book air travel for the next artist. If you have a full calendar year of releases, you have to balance and juggle the progression of these various aspects among ten, fifteen different projects.
GOSPELFLAVA: What sort of things come into play when you are making day-to-day decisions?
BURNEY: I do not sign artists. Thatís taken care of primarily by our President and Vice President. Generally, talent needs to be original. I do not mean to imply that it has to be something never before conceived, but it should not appear to be a contrived rip-off of someone else's artistry. If you are a evangelical type of artist, do not try and be hip-hop. You need to know who you are and what you do and do it to the best of your ability. There is a market for most, if not all types of music -so you need to make your music and find your market. Don't try to customize [yourself] into something that you aren't to fit the current perception of what the public wants.
Being in the Gospel music business, you have a twofold task. You have to minister the Gospel, to the saving of souls. You have to make a profit, to the saving of job (laughter). It is marrying ministry with industry- I call it "Mindustry". Gospel artists must be anointed to change lives!
GOSPELFLAVA: So youíre not uncomfortable telling people thatís something that comes into play? Well then how much of your decision making is personal preference or impact?
BURNEY: An effective executive has to be able to separate their personal preference from their business decisions. However, executives want viable artists that have a long lasting appeal. The anointing and an impactful ministry will give you longevity moreso than just a great performance. Obviously, it makes sense to sign someone who can deliver the goods over a period of decades, as opposed to someone who has one good album then disappears. For example, what keeps Shirley Caesar, Richard Smallwood and Walter Hawkins, just to name a few, at the top of their niche? Ministry!
Why is it that Reverend Milton Brunson's music ministry with The Thompson Community Singers thrived for more than half a century? How does Thomas Whitfield's repertoire still remain active in churches across America years after his death? It's not just because of performance. There have been [newer artists] who have come along with great talent, but shorter careers.
What keeps some of the earlier artists in the forefront is their ministry is their reach. When people listen to them they not only get good music, but they are also touched, changed, convicted, blessed. They feel the anointing of God, which is a relief for them. That's what people are looking for today.
Ministry will give you longevity. When you come with appealing talent but no ministry, it's only a matter of time before the public perceives you as seasonal. This can cause a turning away for your particular artistry. Ministry equals longevity, which translates into sales. It's a business as well as a ministry. This is why both elements of music and ministry are so important.
GOSPELFLAVA: In terms of the repertoire part, how much does the artist impact the direction?
BURNEY: There are no absolutes; it can go either way. We have artists that write all of their material. We have artists that [only] write some. Some artists do not write songs at all at which point you would have to appoint songs to be performed. Outside material is fine if the artist can perform and interpret that material well. Sometimes people co-write songs. I will say itís easier for a record company when an artist is self-contained; which means they write their own material. When the material is outstanding, it simplifies the album completion process.
GOSPELFLAVA: How difficult does it become when an artist is not self-contained and youíre trying to match up an artist and potential producer?
BURNEY: Thereís always a challenge but there are a slew of producers out, many of whom are excellent. A producer has to understand the artist, their ministry and presentation and bring the best the artist has to offer to the microphone. Also, just because you are a composer does not make you a competent producer, in which case you would still have to pair a producer and the artist.
GOSPELFLAVA: Obviously, Gospel music is changing. What do you feel is your role in the direction it takes?
BURNEY: Well, Gospel is being accepted more in the mainstream arena, that is, outside of just churches. Itís on radio that we have never had access to before. We're on television in prime time slots. Gospel music is much more visible than ever before. The world is more aware of Gospel music and the church's presence within the community and media has been magnified. With that exposure, itís also becoming more diversified and accepted.
Because I donít sign talent at this time, I would not consider myself beating the path that Gospel music would take. I would hope that whatever "subgenre" of Gospel is discovered, although it has just about all been seen and done, the message of Christ would not be compromised for market share.
GOSPELFLAVA: How does ministry come into play as it relates to your job? Or does it come into play? Letís understand, everyone doesnít bring ministry to their job, whether theyíre working in Gospel or not.
BURNEY: My job is a part of my ministry. I don't sign artists so itís not like I'm saying, "Your song is anointed and yours is not," or "you are called and you are not." However, being a born-again Christian, I do realize the anointing when I feel it, and certainly I can identify with a move of God. I believe generally that for most execs, ministry is an integral part of their occupation.
GOSPELFLAVA: Have you ever experienced a situation where an artist was anointed, but had to present another artist or song for another reason? I mean, have you ever been just slain but not been able to do anything with it, for business reasons?
BURNEY: No. Not really. But I do know of cases where someone is tremendously anointed but without a recording contract. Maybe that is not the administration of their calling. Churches provide the greatest wealth of musical talent in the world, but just because you can "tear up" devotion service does not necessarily mean you are supposed to be on a national platform. There are times when someone is anointed to minister within and other times abroad.
I have had the experience of hearing people that don't necessarily sing very well but who have a sincerity and love for the Lord be a blessing.
GOSPELFLAVA: Do you have a musical background?
BURNEY: I have taken some basic music theory and piano classes. I am the youth choir director at my church.
GOSPELFLAVA: How did you end up at Verity?
BURNEY: When people ask me that, I try not to go deep. But (!), I must say my steps were really ordered by the Lord. At times I would ask the Lord "Why me?" There were people more qualified, connected, educated, trained etc. than me. I was attending college at NYU in an accounting class and met a friend named Gessie Jeanty. She got a job at Verity and needed an intern and asked me. I interned for her. By the way, interning is one of the best ways to get into the industry. I interned there for a year and when the opportunity arose I was offered a position. Just through the process of being faithful over a few things, I became ruler over much. My first job title was "Assistant To Verity Records".
My mother would always tell me, "Despise not the day of small beginnings." I got incremental increases as I learned different things eventually leading to my post as A&R Manager. I truly did not know where my path would lead. Sometimes it is still like that.
GOSPELFLAVA: So the moral of the story for someone that wants to be in your position or wants to do what you do is to do what?
BURNEY: The best way to get into the industry is the internship route. Thatís how Verityís Vice-President and General Manager Tara Griggs-Magee got into the industry as well. Many people I know got in by interning. Process everything you learn while interning and use it to your advantage. Interning is a good source of obtaining experience. Be a consciencetious worker and you will reap the rewards.
GOSPELFLAVA: A lot of people consider your job to be a dream job. What are some real things about your job that might make one reconsider?
BURNEY: Even I did not know the extent of what I would have to be doing. People think executives are sitting at a desk all day, feet on the window sill, with headphones on, watching videos with remote control in hand. This is a business. It runs like a business. You have to count, read and write. You have deadlines. Missed deadlines are missed opportunities are missed sales is missed income. There are long days in the office consistently. Because itís a consumer driven business, if nobody buys your product you don't have a business. You experience unpleasant episodes. You are dealing with people and personalities. You are dealing with other industry entities that you need to propel the awareness of your product in the market place, such as magazines, radio stations, promoters, internet, video etc.
People need not think itís all music, or itís all listening. Itís business. I do agree that anyone working in Gospel music has the greatest occupation, but it does take more than a great set of ears to run a music business.
GOSPELFLAVA: How does it feel working for the heavy hitter in Gospel music?
BURNEY: I love my artists and Verity is fortunate to have incredibly gifted artists. Success is always pleasant but not always applauded. Every label's final product is scrutinized. It has to be when a consumer has decided to by this product or that product, or a radio programmer has decided to play this song or that song. Being Verity Records with such a large, successful artist roster is wonderful. But I don't take it for granted, because to everything there is a time and a season. All companies must work while it is day.
GOSPELFLAVA: We at GospelFlava know that people in the industry, even your competitors, perceive you to be this great guy. People speak very highly of you. We said earlier that not all labels, execs and so on bring Jesus to work with them. How is it that you are able to maintain this great reputation in such a competitive industry?
BURNEY: WOW! The path to exaltation is humility. The Lord has told me this explicitly! I have an understanding that God uses the available in His time. Such a glorified post is not to be used as an egotistical platform. At the end of the day, God exalts you. He can open doors that no man can shut, and shut doors that no man can open. I try and please him first. One of my favorite scriptures is "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you."
I try to get a little prayer time in at work; "Lord here we are; use us for your service. Do what You have to do in Verity, in the record company down the block, in the record company across the country, in my artist, other artists. We need You to do a move in our industry. We need You to use Gospel music as an avenue to evangelize the world." Those in Gospel music universally are doing more than just making a living.
I know that if you humble yourself before the mighty hand of God, He will exalt you in due time.
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