Max Gousse: The Anatomy of an A&R Executive

Artistry CEO Max Gousse with the company's premier artist Saweetie

As CEO and founder of the Los Angeles-based Artistry Group Inc., Max Gousse is firmly
associated with another successful hit record and artist. Saweetie, who has been on the
Artistry roster for a couple of years now has been making her mark with the Platinum single “Icy Grl,” and the monster double Platinum single, “My Type,” (and its utilization of the famous Petey Pablo sample of “Freek A Leek”). Max and the Artistry team are gearing up for her third EP and debut album releases by Saweetie in addition to an international tour scheduled for the spring.

Max’s resume in the A&R arena runs long and deep—dating back to the mid-90s, having
worked with Adina Howard on the now-classic, “Freak Like Me.” Another milestone was his A&R work with Beyonce on the B’ Day and I Am…Sasha Fierce albums, along with the Dreamgirls soundtrack. Max has also worked with B2k, Solange, Kelly Rowland, and Sunshine Anderson…while working at a litany of music companies along the way: East West, Epic, Universal Music Publishing, Mathew Knowles’ Music World, and Island Def Jam, where he signed rapper Y.G. (Toot It & Boot It).

Over the Christmas holidays, MIQ sat with Max to discuss an array of topics: from building his new entertainment group, to discovering and signing one of the hottest new female rap artists currently on the charts.

[l-r]: Monee Perry, Co-President; Adam Small, Head of A&R, Co-President; Monica Payne, EVP, Artist Development and President & Partner, Artistry Creative Services
What divisions or arms are part of Artistry Group Inc.?

The company consists of a record label called Artistry Records, which is partnered
with Warner Music. We have a music publishing division, partnered with Sony/ATV. We have a film and television arm that is branded with Curated by Media, and we have Artistry Creative Services, a division where we manage below the line talent like photographers, creative directors, music video directors, etc.

How challenging was it to break an artist in today’s climate?

Breaking an artist from scratch is always a challenge. You just have to be aware of the
new and different marketing/promotional avenues at your disposal. Phase one for me
was getting the industry to become familiar with Saweetie. When I discovered her, we
started recording songs with plans to release an EP.

We shot a video for “Icy Grl,” and put it up on You Tube and proceeded with a hand to
hand type of marketing, where we would send it to key influencers. We sent the video
to the Top 100 models in the business. We sent it to all of the label heads, EVPs, the
SVPs and the VPs. We made a real effort to get that name recognition. The video started
picking up slowly but surely, which then we started to shop for a label partner. Things
were starting to ramp up so fast that I didn’t want to get caught out there without a label partner, because at that point we were ready to go to Urban radio. I wasn’t equipped to take it all the way to Urban radio. We were courted by five different labels, and we eventually landed at Warner. [Co-Chairman] Tom Corson made a convincing pitch that he was going to support both Artistry and Saweetie 100%. And he has kept his word.

We released “Icy Grl” as a single. High Maintenance was the EP that followed shortly thereafter. We basically kept working. Saweetie never stopped. We kept recording, where she established a substantial body of work. She started doing shows. We rolled in from one project into the next without any pauses.

How important was it for you to align with a major label partner? Could you have gone the independent route?

I’m a big believer in building teams. What I saw at the time was a potential star in the
making. I know from working inside the industry as an executive for many years, and as a manager outside of the industry, in order to break an artist, it’s really about the working relationship between the manager and the label together…along with the label’s  and sometimes the manager’s capital. Although I love the independent approach, it is very difficult to take someone that is unknown to global super-stardom without the backing and global power of a multinational label.

Some artists have to go independent because they have no access to global power. Speak to the power of building long-term relationships today; which is something that gets lost in today’s social media landscape.

The key for me has been about relationships. I knew that at any time if I found something that makes sense, I could get an artist signed. But I have to ask, “Is it the right partner for the right artist?” and “Is it the right deal for both artist and myself?”
We were fortunate enough that Warner saw vision and they were able to negotiate a
deal that made sense.

What do you look for in artists today,compared to in the past?

To be honest, some of what I look for is the same as I did in the past. But as times change you add to the list. I always look for marketability, because I’m in the commercial music business. There are no apologies. I’m in the business of making
music and selling records. I also look for artists who understand how to connect to
their fan-bases. That’s really key.

I also look for artists who are going to be as invested in marketing themselves as I am in pushing them. I look at the artist as a partner. They are part of my team. They are
in my meetings. We are brainstorming together. My artist is not walled off somewhere – with only the executive team running the show. The artist is very much a partner in what we are doing.

Today’s artist needs to be social media savvy. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. If you are not actively engaging in social media, then you are at a real disadvantage. Even when we partner with a major, the major is still going to use the artist’s social platform as the No. 1 driver for the project. For all of those not engaged, start getting engaged now. Whether you are indie or major, your social channels are key.

Talk about some of the branding opportunities, appearances or benchmarks Saweetie has been able to generate.

Spotify’s Rap Caviar was always a real target for us early on. Notice that [rap] playlists were very much male-heavy, major label heavy, and major artist heavy. It took us a while to break through, but once we did, Saweetie’s following took off. Apple Music was very instrumental and embraced her early on. Some big synch opportunities helped a lot, too, for instance, HBO’s Insecure. A couple of weeks after we
recorded “Icy Grl,” I sent the record to Issa Rae and her business partner. They loved
the record and were looking for the right time to put it on the show. TNT’s Claws
was a very big look for us on the single, “My Type.” Her first big TV look was her
performance on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee’s Correspondent’s Dinner Show. We’ve
been very open to a lot of opportunities. When you’re breaking an artist, you don’t
turn down a lot of things; unless the opportunity goes against the brand.

How did you land Saweetie’s performance on the BET Hip-Hop Awards?

That was actually a creative decision we made as a team. Saweetie was always
looking for the right way to show Petey Pablo respect and appreciation, and when you’re
in a position to sample a record, the original artist doesn’t have to grant permission of
its usage or clear the sample. Naturally, if you have a hit that borrows from a hit, it’s
incumbent on the artist to show some kind of love. We thought this was the best and
biggest platform where we could salute Petey. He was very thankful to us reaching
out. His team showed up and they were all very professional. [Producer] Lil Jon came
and turned it out. Everyone had a good time.

Where do you see things going forward?

Saweetie is currently in the studio. We’re scheduled to drop an album in March.
Saweetie is very much into fashion. She has a cosmetic’s deal with Morphe which is
launching in March as well. It’s a Morphe-Coachella collection, where Saweetie is the face of that campaign. We have a lot of things happening in March and throughout the rest of the year.

Who are some of the other artists signed to Artistry Records?

Aside from Saweetie, we have another artist that we discovered via Instagram, by the
name of Nevaeh Jolie. She is signed to Def Jam. She’s up next. We’ve recently dropped
a single on her, with an EP in coming February. We also work with singer, songwriter and actress V. Bozeman (from Empire), who’s co-starring on BET Plus’ Sacrifice with Paula Patton. V. Bozeman drops a single in January. We have some other developing acts that we just started working with. Our roster is very robust and very youthful. Everything is
mobile-friendly, and we work around the clock to drive streams.

Behind every great executive, is a great team. Talk about some of the staff working alongside you.

Monee Perry was my general manager, and she has been elevated to Co-President of
the label. Adam Small, who was an A&R intern of mine, has progressed to the position, Head of A&R, and is also a Co-President of the label. Monica Payne is our Monica Payne EVP, Management & Artist Development and President & Partner, Artistry Creative Services. Asia Gousse, my daughter, handles Talent Relationships and Digital Marketing. That’s the core team. I’m definitely adding more staff. I have various partnerships, and each deal is different. I want everyone to work to the best of their ability, and for them to be happy. I don’t pigeon-hole what our executives do. For example, Monee is phenomenal at running the label, but she also has aspirations of being a manager. So, I’m mentoring her as a manager. The same with Adam. Part of my mission as an exec, as I build this company, is to mold the next generation of executives. Instill those old school values while being able to change with the times.

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