In any industry, a good recruiter must have a keen ability for digging up raw talent—the uber-valuable diamonds that you have the good sense to snap up before anyone else realizes their value. And in the music industry, where competition is fierce and passionate candidates are many, that ability is especially crucial.
As vice president of artist and repertoire at Shady Records, Riggs Morales has proven he can do just that—over and over. Tasked with turning up the next big thing, in 2002 he brought platinum-selling artist 50 Cent to the attention of label heads Eminem and Paul Rosenberg. But even before his executive role, it’s clear Morales was tuned into talent. As music editor of The Source, he oversaw the Unsigned Hype column, a monthly profile of an unsigned artist who deserved a deal—where in 1997 he featured Eminem, long before anyone in the mainstream press took notice.
Fast Company recently spoke with Morales about his approach to talent scouting, how social media has altered the way the music industry assess talent, and how to find some up-and-coming talent of your own.
FAST COMPANY: As the head of A&R at Shady Records, one of your priorities is finding new talent for the label to sign. What does it take to be good at that?
RIGGS MORALES: At the core of my success is my ability to be a fan. During the early years of spotting talent, it was just me being a fan. And as I moved on and progressed, my mentality changed, where I’ve got to ask, "Can this product that I’m such a big fan of work in the marketplace? What’s the long-term potential on this?" When you sign an artist, it’s not because he’s cool and he’s awesome—it’s because he’s cool and he’s awesome and can make money for the company. At the core of it, this is the music business.
Is there a star quality you’re looking for?
It varies. I’m from the school of artist development, so I do believe in hearing the in potential in something, taking the rust out of it, providing the resources to really take that project to the next level. Sometimes you’ll find an artist that has a tremendous voice, can really say a lot, but doesn’t know how to put it into song structure. It’s no different than, say, a college or high school scout, scouting talent early, and taking it through the process where you develop it into someone that’s gonna be a major athlete. That’s how I look at it with these artists.
And you’re not just looking for amazingly talented artists, but those who fit the Shady Records brand, right?
Yes. We make a particular type of rap music. Our music is rooted in lyrics, emotion, there’s aggression, we can be somber—and it’s rare to find an artist that encompasses all those things. We are fortunate because of who we are and what we do to come across some of the best talent. We’ve had a chance to sign Kid Cudi, Pitbull—artists that have gone on to great, great success, but don’t necessarily work for the brand.
Once you find someone you like, how do you make a successful pitch to the label to sign that artist?
It’s a three step process: It’s my job to filter through this entire world of music and find who’s going to be an artist we can develop into the next household name. If I’m passionate about it, I show it to my boss, [Shady Records cofounder] Paul Rosenberg. If Paul likes it—and he has very high standards—then he shows it to Em. And if Em sees the potential, then we move on. And as you can see from our signings over the last years, guys barely make it past phase one, let alone two. We’re very selective.
Is it a matter of the chain of command saying "yay" or "nay" or is there a discussion?
There’s definitely a discussion, because at the core of the company’s success are smart people who understand the culture from a fan perspective. Paul Rosenberg is an attorney, he’s been Eminem’s manager for the last 15 years, but at the core of it he’s a fan. He can talk rap music with anyone—and that’s who I have discussions with regarding what works and what doesn’t. And as much as I’m an expert in what I do, Paul has a completely different perspective on it. Paul’s gonna give you that bigger picture on why this might not work and why this could work.
So do you prefer raw talent or someone who already has a buzz about them?
Personally, I have the resources to develop talent myself and then bring to the table something everybody sees the vision in. You can’t be the guy who cried "talent!" It has to really sell itself right away. So if I see some raw talent, and I think there’s potential there, I’ll cut two or three records with this artist and say, "Let’s see what you sound like." If I hear that potential enhanced via some of the resources that are provided, then I continue to the point where it’s ready to be presented to the team.
How has social media disrupted the way the music industry finds talent?
Nowadays, there are kids who come complete with Twitter followers and Facebook likes and YouTube hits that get close to the millions, if not more. You’re finding more and more of that, especially during the "post-Soulja Boy era." Those numbers help. It shows the brunt of the work to develop you and give you a following is already taken care of. All [a label] has to do is water the plant, turn it into a beanstalk.
People overlook how tech savvy the rap market is. You look at Mac Miller—he’s been able to develop a following independently. Hip hop was rooted in the sense of independence, and the generation today is definitely fully aware of that. They know the power they have in building a fanbase on their own and walking into a label. That’s a tremendous amount of leverage to have before you sit in that office with an executive. We embrace it. I love watching it unfold. And I have to take heed. The days of going to showcases and just waiting for the right demo to come across—that’s changed.
But you say you still value finding out about an artist by word of mouth over anything else, right?
I value someone who I trust saying "you need to listen to this" more than I value numbers, because those numbers are fluff sometimes. If you have a video with somebody rapping while their chopping the head off a mannequin and there’s blood all over the place, and there’s this "wow" factor, the reason they got three million hits wasn’t because of the music. It was because they were doing something stupid for three minutes and they caught your attention.
[Image: Flickr user Mikhail Teguh Pribadi]