Jonnie "Most" Davis
April 1, 2014
Newly appointed SVP A&R/Head of Label Services for boutique music publisher Round Hill Music, Jonnie "Most" Davis brings with him a wealth of producing, mixing and A&R experience. From working on hits for Keith Sweat, Pink, Outkast and P Diddy to his most recent A&R efforts in discovering Icona Pop's "I Love It" and indie rockers American Authors, Davis offers a clear-eyed perspective on all the ways to find and break new music. Here's how he sees it...
You started out as a songwriter/producer. When did you realize that was the career for you?
Actually I started out as a recording engineer. I grew into mixing, and then producing, followed by songwriting. It was totally a natural evolution; I would sit down at the recording console and give producers really good rough mixes until at one point, they asked me to start mixing the records that I was recording. I started producing vocals; artists liked me because I could tell when their pitch was off and how to better enunciate their words ... and the producers liked me because I would produce the vocals for them and they didn't have to work so hard (laughs). Then I started getting hired to do radio remixes and from there, I went into producing full-time.
At the peak of my mixing career I told a friend of mine that I'd really love to start writing songs and I remember this as if it were yesterday, he said, "Jonnie, everybody's got 2,000 bad songs in them, you might as well start right now." I'll never forget that.
At what point in time did you truly believe that you could be successful - your first hit with the Keith Sweat's "Make You Sweat?"
That's a very good question; actually, I always knew I'd be successful. Since I was seven years old, I always knew I'd do something in music. I never had a back-up plan; failure was never an option. No matter how bad things got, I kept the faith even during times when it wasn't easy.
Could you tell the Sweat record would be a success when you first started working on it?
No, it really didn't happen like that. It took so long to mix that record. We mixed that over the course of three weekends, maybe four weekends, so I never thought about how it would do. I couldn't have planned any of the successes I've had.
Your music has also made it into TV shows and movies. Did you write songs specifically for those projects, or did you bring your songs to them? And is there a difference in writing for another medium and just songwriting for the radio?
I didn't write songs for the TV shows or movies; they were chosen out of a catalog of songs I had. As a mixing engineer, going back in time, I often had to mix different versions of the same song -- one for radio, one for TV and maybe one for surround sound.
Did I do anything different in the writing process at the time to get those songs in films? No, but with that said, things are different now. Now I'm privileged to see the pitches as they come in for certain TV shows, so I often know what direction the music supervisors want the songs to be in and in turn, I pitch my songwriters on those directions.
That was part of the process with American Authors. I was extremely good friends with Shep Goodman; we would often discuss what our sync clients were looking for - they'd want a crowd chant here or what lyrics they were looking for. We'd also have pitches for TV promotions. Shep is so talented that he'd go to the band and they'd just start banging songs out, one after another, with positive uplifting lyrics ... they crushed it with "Best Day Of My Life." I can't take any credit for that. They did it all; I just told them what we were looking for.
Back in the day, it wasn't done like that. Music supervisors would call and ask if you had a song "like this..." We still do that at times, but for an A&R exec to have direct contact with the artists and writers - and be able to tell them exactly what they want. It's like a magnifying glass capturing the sun -- sometimes when you hit that perfect spot, it catches fire.
What made you decide to join Mirrorball Entertainment?
Because Tony Maserati owns the company. We went to college at Berklee College of Music in Boston together and have been best friends ever since. After taking a couple of years off, I decided I wanted to do A&R. I called a couple friends and they all thought it was a great idea, but Rich Christian at Sony/ATV Music Publishing - who's still my publisher - said that while I'd be good at A&R on the records side, I would be better suited doing A&R in music publishing because of my ability to communicate with songwriters - and that would be a better fit for me. Tony, who had a label and a production company, offered me the opportunity to build the infrastructure of Mirrorball's publishing division. Andrew Krents and I drafted all the agreements that were needed to start signing a roster of artists and writers. It turned out that I was pretty successful at that, which is how I wound up at Round Hill.
Was segueing to Round Hill the inevitable next step from there?
Mirrorball's funds were limited at the time. We were more of an incubator for young talent and I wasn't able to sign some of the bigger acts that I loved, so I started consulting for other publishers as well. For example, I found the song, "I Love It," by Icona Pop. I did a ton of research to find out about the writer and discovered that her publishing was available. I wasn't as interested in the band as I was in who wrote the song; it was Charli XCX. I first brought it to Secret Road, but it didn't fit their business model at the time because the master recording was tied up with the independent label, TEN, so I brought it to Richie at Sony/ATV and he freaked out. Over the course of time, he was actually able to sign Charli, but as soon as he heard that song, he was like, "Oh my God!" It was just undeniable.
It's "open mic night" for the world right now. Everyone believes they're a songwriter or a producer because they can make music on their laptop. That has created so much mediocrity in music. Plus, there's such a fine line between really good and greatness. Really good is like the sand on a beach, it's all around us. Greatness is a diamond on that beach that you can see from three miles away: it's so obvious when it appears, it's blinding. We all get burdened with mediocrity every day; when greatness comes along, it's undeniable. Icona Pop's "I Love It" was undeniable greatness.
For the record, I had never met Charli, but I knew it was a great record, so I brought it to someone I knew would share my passion for it, too. However, when you find something that good, you often get bummed because odds are you won't find something that good anytime soon-- and then, bang! American Authors. When we finally got to have a meeting with American Authors, they already had an execution copy from another publisher on the table, but I wouldn't stop. My best and worst quality, as a person and a professional, is the inability to quit at anything I do. It took me a year-and-half to catch a fish while first learning how to fly fish! But I stuck with it every day -- twice a day, morning and night ... man ... that was hard!
So when we were at that American Authors meeting, I told those boys, "You would have to drag me out of this room to keep me from this meeting." I knew that they had greatness and there was no way I was going to let them leave before I gave them my absolute best and most passionate pitch on why Round Hill had to be their home and how much I loved their music. I hate to live with regrets; I gave it all, right then and there at that meeting.
What do you look or in A&R'ing to talent today...and are the qualities you look for different now than they were decades ago?
You look for diamonds in the sand. Considering how competitive this business is, I have to take risks on talent that may still need a bit of development. You try to get them at the earliest stages of their careers and give them time to grow, but you have to get them early or someone else will.
I'm not one to be impressed by how many Facebook "likes" you have or how many views you have on YouTube. The first thing I look for as an A&R person: You absolutely have to have a unique singing voice, a unique tone in your voice where it doesn't matter if you're singing "God Bless America" or a pop song. It's a voice you can recognize as soon as you hear it on the radio - even if it's a song you never heard before. Greats such as Ray Charles and Adele and countless others have that unique quality to their voices.
While it's great to be able to write good, unique songs, I can always help artists write or find good songs by bringing in songwriters to help them develop. You can't teach a voice to be unique. Of course, you also want to pick someone with star quality, a charisma you notice as soon as they walk into a room.
Does the fact that we're in a track/single age and not an album age impact the way you view talent?
What's an album track mean anymore? I ask my own songwriters this all the time: Are you gong to go in and write a hit song or write an album cut? If you don't have a single, how are you going to make money as a songwriter anymore - unless, of course, you get syncs. To me, syncs are the new singles. You need your music to connect with a large audience. Syncs have become so important in doing that.
What's your take in radio in terms of breaking your acts? Is it still the primary goal?
We still depend on radio; it's still very important to be successful on the radio. You're not just successful if you break into the top 10; you are successful when you have a song that's #23 on the Hot 100. Only 22 songs are in front of you in the whole world, so it's still very important to keep that in perspective. The thing is, radio airplay is no longer the only way to judge success. I just signed a band, Bronze Radio Return. You've never heard of them, but you will and that band has earned nearly $500,000 in the last 15 months in sync money from Nissan, Fed Ex and the PGA, among many other placements.
Is A&Ring more competitive these days?
It's so competitive. This is how I look at it: The majors are basically throwing around money as if they're sitting next to the Quantitative Easing printing press at the Federal Reserve; they just seem to print free money out of thin air. For everyone else, it's really very, very competitive. Some deals I've heard of lately have artists' publishing rights reverting back to them before their songs have even peaked on the charts! I'm kidding, but you get my point. We're talking some massive deals.
So how does Round Hill compete against the majors?
You have to get in early. If you hear it on the radio, it's too late. I'm constantly listening to music in other forms of media to find these groups. Not only do you have to go through so much mediocrity to find that one diamond, you've got to find it early, because if you don't, someone else will. It's like hearing P Diddy is throwing a private club party, but by the time you get there, Jay Z and everyone of importance has left. And there's still a line at the door to get in.
Although you're still new to Round Hill, do you still have long-term plans and goals?
In my business, I have the absolute best job that you can have. I couldn't imagine having to start all over again to get here. Being head of A&R is the pinnacle when I'm working with Josh Gruss, Neil Gillis, Richard Rowe, Michael Lau and Jennifer Scher, Tami Lester and the rest of this very special team. These people are the best. Richard Rowe actually signed me as songwriter when he was President of Sony/ATV - and when I sit next to him in these meetings, sometimes I swear I have an out-of-body experience. I can't believe I'm on the same side of the table with him. I've been very lucky.
In terms of personal goals, of course I always have a sense of nervousness. I've never rested on all of the awards and accolades I've received because it's always what you do next that matters. That's just the way this business is. What will you do next? American Authors is huge now, but what's next? Am I going to be known as "the guy who signed American Authors 10 years ago?" I don't want to be that; that's why I always push myself harder. What I do tomorrow is what's most important to me.
But I just got started here. Give me a minute; I just achieved the biggest dream in my life to get here. Let me rest for a second or two and then I'll tell you what I plan to do moving forward. I can tell you this though: Round Hill is the family I've always been looking for.