Music Star Jeff Blue On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry
Be authentic and follow your gut: If you follow what everyone else is saying is great, you will never develop your own instinct to create and facilitate your own vision. I can sleep at night, knowing I followed my heart and failed. But, if I follow the majority opinion and fail, that’s my fault, since my heart knew better. Everyone told me that both Macy Gray and ‘Linkin Park’ were awful and would be ‘career suicide’. I was so moved by the authenticity in each artist that I staked my career on both, followed my heart, and saw both win Grammys and touch the hearts of millions.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jeff Blue.
Jeff Blue is a multi-platinum producer, A&R, author, and songwriter. Blue has many music accomplishments under his belt, ranging from producing, to songwriting, to discovering and signing major music artists, and creating his own entertainment company Jeff Blue Music.
He just released his new book “One Step Closer” (out December 8th) which details his career to date, including finding and creating the world-renowned rock band ‘Linkin Park.’
Blue has developed and signed iconic artists such as Linkin Park, Macy Gray and dozens of multi-platinum acts that has resulted in over 140 million albums sold, 44 signed artists, over 80 publishing deals, and hundreds of film & TV placements. Blue is currently signed as a songwriter to BMG Music Publishing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My father left my mom when I was one years old, and eventually took his own life. An incredible man, Mike Blue, married my mom and adopted me as his own son. My family was middle class, both parents very hard working, and always set the bar high saying, “as long as you do your absolute best, we won’t be disappointed in you.” That left no room for failure, because there is always more you can do. I was a scrawny kid growing up and was bussed to a public school in a pretty bad area, where, before, during, and after school, there were two rival gangs that loved to torment me. Music was the one medium that helped me overcome all the pain, mentally and physically, allowing me to know I wasn’t alone. I immersed myself in all genres of music, staring at the album artwork, and listening to the sounds and textures, over and over. Music spoke to me. I taught myself how to play guitar and drums. At age 17, I got into UCLA pre-med honors kinesiology. During UCLA, I acted in TV and commercials, and interned for Harvey Levin at CBS News. He directed me to law school suggesting I become a legal news reporter. During law school, I played in bands, and started a music magazine, which I used to propel me into a music career. I was very driven, and made a promise to myself at a very young age, that I would try to experience and achieve everything possible before the age of 24. I didn’t want to end up like my biological father. His suicide had a major impact on me. I discovered that owning our story and the ability to respect and love ourselves through the process is one of the bravest things we’ll do growing up.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in law school, I was in a band. My fraternity brother from UCLA suggested I meet his brother who worked at Geffen Records. His brother invited me to his office, told me how amazing my career was going to be as a musician signed to Geffen. It was the best five minutes of my life, until he discovered, I was not the drummer in the band that he was dying to sign. Then it became the worst five minutes. However, in this meeting, I learned that his job was to discover artists. I couldn’t believe a job like that existed. That evening I watched him lecture at UCLA, and immediately my life changed. I wanted to discover and nurture talent. I finished law school at age 24, and passed the bar, but I set my sights on becoming an A&R person. I actually taught that class five years later and discovered a student who would become my intern and change the world.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 1997, I hired a young, talented, and very driven, intern from UCLA named Brad Delson. I signed his band, ‘Xero’, to a development deal after seeing their very first live show at the Whiskey A Go-Go. I could immediately sense that the rapper and guitarist had an authenticity and unique vision that was worth investing my time and energy in. When we found lead vocalist Chester Bennington, the chemistry was undeniable and they eventually became ‘Linkin Park’. Brad’s first job as an intern was to help me with an artist that I was developing named Macy Gray. She had been dropped by her manager, her agent, her publisher, and her record label, Atlantic Records. That didn’t dissuade my belief in her talent, so, Macy, her producer, and I, developed a totally new sound for her. However, because Macy had been turned down so many times, we changed her name to “Mushroom” and I shopped her new demo hoping people would think it was a new artist and give it a chance. It worked. Not knowing it was the same artist, Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary founder of Atlantic Records, called me saying he was so impressed, he wanted to re-sign “Mushroom” and produce her for Atlantic’s 50th Anniversary. She ended up getting 4 offers, from everyone from Jimmy Iovine to Clive Davis, eventually signing to Epic.
‘Xero’ was also rejected 44 times, so we changed the name to ‘Hybrid Theory’. I didn’t let the rejections bother me, and attached the band to my employment deal at Warner Bros. They became ‘Linkin Park’.
Sometimes, you need to just follow your gut, don’t listen to the haters, nurture things, and allow them to grow. Both of these extremely talented artists were rejected countless times, and both overcame the adversity and became iconic Grammy winners.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Always be authentic! I was rejected by every music company from A-Y in the music business. I finally got an interview in New York with Zomba Music Publishing, the last of hundreds of companies in the music directory. I was desperate to get the job and I researched the President and realized that he wore what I considered ugly sweaters and slacks in all his press photos. I went to Nordstrom and bought a similar ugly, yet very expensive sweater for the interview. I paid for my flight to NYC, only to be told by the President, in an interview which lasted no more than ten minutes that I didn’t have enough experience. He said “thanks, but you don’t have what it takes.” After so many rejections, I was heart-broken. This was my last chance, so I decided to come back to his office, unannounced, the following Monday, and waited in the lobby. This time I was dressed comfortably in jeans and a white t-shirt. He said he only had a minute to talk. I thanked him for the opportunity and said, ‘you’re making a huge mistake letting me walk out of here. I may not have the traditional experience, but I have the knowledge and the drive, and I am going to make some company a ton of money. It just takes one person to believe in me.” He replied, “You have a lot of chutzpah kid. Good luck to you.” I left NYC crushed, yet satisfied that I did my best. I spoke my truth, and followed my heart. Three months later my authenticity must have resonated, as several of the artists I told him about were getting major deals. They offered me the job and I went on to sign and develop numerous Grammy winning artists. Thankfully, I kept the tag on the sweater. It was a win-win.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I finished an amazing screenplay. It’s a classic thriller/who done it/slasher with a diverse cast. The story combines elements of BLM, LGBTQ, mental health, and current social commentary, in a fast moving, humorous, character driven, horror pic, with merchandise elements and sequels attached. Kind of like a modern ‘Scream’ x ‘The Breakfast Club’ x ‘Saw’. I’m extremely excited about it, since I feel there are so few good stories in this genre.
I also have a music docuseries in development with my partner from the Twilight sagas and entertainment attorney in Dallas as well as two podcasts. One podcast focuses on the behind the scenes discovery and development of your favorite artists. I host it with a national radio personality who was actually in a band I signed back in the day. The other podcast focuses on the book “One Step Closer: From Xero to #1: Becoming Linkin Park” on Permuted Press/Simon and Schuster. The band’s original manager and I discuss the inspirational lessons the listener can derive from ‘Linkin Park’s’ unrelenting drive and development into one of the most iconic bands in the world.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
The entertainment industry has an incredible responsibility to represent diversity because we are on the front line of what the world sees. That responsibility starts with our top executives. Our content shouldn’t have division, it shouldn’t divide or incite, or represent one side against another. Our content should be thought-provoking, educating while entertaining, and should represent the real world.
Virtually every one of my long-term relationships have been interracial, so without any effort or thought, I’ve been living my truth, naturally, as a diverse thinker. I’ve seen a slow change over the years, but it has been much too slow.
Working in entertainment has been to my advantage. There are so many types of talented people of every race and culture. When I meet someone, I see talent, personality, and their colorful life, soul, and story, no matter the physical color of someone’s skin. It’s shaped who I am as a successful professional and human being.
America is the most diverse country of any, and now we’re seeing how hurtful it is if we aren’t collaborative and in unison. Instead of focusing on appealing to a certain demographic, we should appeal to the common denominators that unite us all in entertainment. Entertainment is a galvanizing force of any industry, and we all have a responsibility to represent the real world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be authentic and follow your gut: If you follow what everyone else is saying is great, you will never develop your own instinct to create and facilitate your own vision. I can sleep at night, knowing I followed my heart and failed. But, if I follow the majority opinion and fail, that’s my fault, since my heart knew better. Everyone told me that both Macy Gray and ‘Linkin Park’ were awful and would be ‘career suicide’. I was so moved by the authenticity in each artist that I staked my career on both, followed my heart, and saw both win Grammys and touch the hearts of millions.
- Sometimes taking the longer more arduous path is the best route: The only way into A&R was by becoming an assistant to an A&R person or as a musician. I was in law school, and every band I was in basically would tell me “you don’t smoke, or get high, you don’t like to sleep in a van, and you think like a business person,” so I always got replaced. Every A&R person thought I was too ambitious and I’d probably take their job, so no one would hire me. So, I decided to become indispensable, and irreplaceable. I finagled my way into becoming a journalist, and was relentless about discovering artists and getting my name into print, so people would have to pay attention. If I was truly talented, it would eventually be recognized. So that’s what I did. I started a cable access tv show about rating new bands, and wrote for Billboard, Music Connection, HITS, BAM and helped start Crossroads in which all my articles focused on unknown talent. I also simultaneously managed, co-wrote, and played in a band that eventually signed to a major, while also working in an entertainment law firm. I figured one of these routes would eventually lead me to A&R. These experiences taught me how to communicate my vision, spot unique, diverse talent from a variety of genres, and bypass ever becoming an assistant, taking me straight into an executive, creative position. It was a much longer journey, but ultimately resulted in a much greater reward for the diverse experience and knowledge I gained along the way.
- It’s called the entertainment “business”, not entertainment “friends”: Those myths about the entertainment business being cutthroat, are all true, but the reality is much worse. I had one boss tell me to my face, “I would love to keep you here, but you’re free to explore options. However, if you take a job at one of two major companies that I don’t like, I’ll make it a point to destroy you!” People in the entertainment business are ruthless, often interested in you only for what you can do for them. I’ve been fortunate to have a handful of true friends, most of whom had been there before I had success. Plus, always get everything in writing! People make promises all the time, and in this business, even if they want to keep the promises, external factors come into play where they change their minds, or can’t keep those promises. Get everything in writing!
- Always add to and improve your skill set: I play a little bit of guitar, but my primary instrument was the drums. Even though I was writing and producing, no one takes the drummer seriously. So, when I was working as Sr. VP A&R and Staff Producer of RCA/J Records under Clive Davis, I decided to take a piano class at a junior college beginning at 8am, twice a week, then was in the office by 10am. The first song I co-wrote a month after the class, “Pictures of You”, was a top hit song in the USA, garnering a BMI award for one of the most played songs of the year, and went to #1 in nine other countries, with film and tv placements around the world. Playing piano in addition to drums and guitar gave me the added ability to compose music, as opposed to just lyric, melody, and beats, and allowed me to communicate ideas in a more concise and credible way. It also allowed me to develop dozens of more new artists and get them signed to major labels.
- Always be open to someone making a second first impression: We had to change both ‘Linkin Park’ and Macy Gray’s names because people were predisposed to not like the artists based on their past performances. We had to fool people into listening under the auspice of a different name before anyone would reconsider them again. I didn’t follow my own advice several years later. I absolutely loved ‘The Killer’s’ demo. I was one of the first A&R people to be interested and they were excited about doing a deal with me at Interscope sight unseen. But upon seeing a very weak, last-minute, performance in a tiny Las Vegas mini-mall bar, in 115 degree heat and 100% humidity, I passed on the band. Although their demo included all their hits, I couldn’t see past the awful setting. I didn’t give them a second chance. ‘The Killers’ became one of the biggest bands and their live show is incredible now.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
In order to keep things flowing, always have projects that complement each other, so that when one slows down, another ancillary project can assist it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Appreciate the interns and assistants around you. They all have dreams and you’ll probably see them on the way up when you’re on the way down. I was fortunate to attract and recognize talent in most of my interns and I included them in all aspects of the music business, from meetings to going to shows, asking their opinions about music and demos, and giving them valuable experience so they could learn and thrive. Most of them went on to be top level music executives, and one even an iconic rock star.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Richard Blackstone, my boss at Zomba Music Publishing, treated our team like a family, instilling a friendly desire to work extremely hard along with the inspiration to follow our gut. He said two things that stuck out and rang true. “It’s your job to tell us the deals we shouldn’t do. Don’t just follow the masses into the overblown bidding wars. Stay true to your heart. He also confided in me, “you’re so passionate. I like telling you ‘no!’ It tests your dedication and belief. If you keep persevering and pushing me on something you believe in, and I can envision you standing on your desk, screaming that you have to sign a particular artist, then I’ll approve it. But if you just accept ‘no’, then it shows you don’t fully believe. Richard believed in my passion, allowing me to sign and develop both Macy Gray and ‘Linkin Park’, which were a million to one long shots, and paid off massively, as well as ‘Korn’, ‘Limp Bizkit’, and others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!” by Wayne Gretsky, combined with “Hesitation killed the warrior.” I still tell myself this every day. I remember trying to get into the music industry, seeing an A&R person at a show, and without any introduction, forcing myself to have the courage to go up and introduce myself and suggest we have a meeting. This principle applies to everything, from business to social settings. If you don’t move quick enough, your potential employer, or even the love of your life, could walk out of the room because you were too slow and too shy to say hello. You’d never forgive yourself. Live this quote!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Currently that would be Jason Blum, founder of Blumhouse Productions. I appreciate his innovative vision, and forward-thinking belief in talent and backing smaller budget films. This is the same philosophy I had when signing musical artists. Focus on what you truly believe in. Spending less means less risk, and higher potential to generate huge rewards. Jason has created an identifiable name brand associated with an ever expanding genre of top quality filmmaking.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!