NEW YORK — Think of a pop star like a blockbuster beauty product. Flash, cash and priceless publicity create a buzz, but it’s the behind-the-scenes teams that back up the bling. That’s why superstars from Britney Spears to Snoop Dogg...
NEW YORK — Think of a pop star like a blockbuster beauty product. Flash, cash and priceless publicity create a buzz, but it’s the behind-the-scenes teams that back up the bling. That’s why superstars from Britney Spears to Snoop Dogg turn to top-notch producers to provide everything from developing a sound to overseeing the creation of an entire album. Granted, producers such as Clif Magness, Matthew Gerard and Sean Hosein aren’t household names like their clients, but among music cognoscenti they’re famous for their ability to tap into the groove of teenagers everywhere — despite being a decade or more older. Beauty Biz hit some of L.A.’s most in-demand recording studios to discover the secrets of staying in touch with the teen set.
Locate Your Inner Teen: When the hot production team The Matrix worked with pop star Avril Lavigne on the song “Complicated” (about a split-personality crush), they summoned up their own experiences as teenagers. “Teens have to be able to relate a song to their everyday life,” says The Matrix’s Lauren Christy. “And everyone can remember when they were 16 and the boy they liked acted differently when he was with his friends.”Hosein, of the production team Sean & Dane, goes right to the source for inspiration. “Sometimes I just phone up my nieces and nephews,” he says. “They can always give me the newest kind of slang or tell me how they would say something.” If that doesn’t work, he tries a bit of role playing. “I put myself in the head space of a teenager and remember what I was going through at that age,” he says. Magness, who has worked with Jessica Simpson, has a similar approach. “I have a teenage daughter and son,” he says. “When I worked with Avril, they listened to everything and told me whether it worked or not.” One song in particular made it to Lavigne’s debut album as a result of Magness’ daughter’s friends. “The song ‘Losing Grip’ was their favorite song,” he says. “They were very influential in that process.”
Follow the Underground: Magness not only stays on top of what’s hot now, he’s constantly looking for what’s hot next. “I always go to shows of new signings, even bands that haven’t been signed yet,” he says. “It’s all about the underground—you hear what’s rumbling.” The Matrix credits a combination of staying on top of pop culture and maintaining a network of young friends to their in-the-know standing. “We always stay on top of what the bubbling trends are,” says member Scott Spock. “Like when [rock band] The Strokes came up, after them you saw a bunch of similar bands. Or take Madonna, who goes to the clubs to find the hot underground sound. We’re always in the clubs hanging out, finding new sounds.”Expand Your Horizons: As chief executive of Trans Continental Records, Lou Pearlman is responsible for some of the most popular teen groups of recent memory, from the Backstreet Boys to O-Town. His secret: logging air miles on his credit card. “I’m constantly traveling around the world, to Europe and Asia, seeing what teens like in those markets and bringing it back here,” he says. Pearlman, who works with a team of talent scouts to uncover top (if hidden) talent, found his newest writing team on a trip to Sweden, for example. “In figuring out the next big thing,” he says, “what happens today is not what will happen tomorrow.” Hosein also uses Europe as a testing ground for what’s next. “I like to see what’s happening in other parts of the world,” he says, “because often things happen first in the U.K. or in Europe — you’re able to anticipate and be ahead of the game.” He even cites one of Pearlman’s well-known successes, the Backstreet Boys, who cut their teeth touring Europe before they burst onto the U.S. pop scene in the late Nineties. “When I was in Germany, the Backstreet Boys were in every shop window, on every radio station. And then four months later, they were all over the U.S.”
Don’t Talk Down to Teens: Just as Christina Aguilera has morphed from a sugary Disney grad into a sleek Versace model, today’s teens are passing up the fluff for a little more meat. Successful producers understand that the songs and artists who make the cut are often as appealing to an adult crowd as they are to teens. “There’s no such thing as a teen song,” says The Matrix’s Graham Edwards. “Teens understand good music; even something that might be considered ‘adult’ they understand.” Edwards notes that Jason Mraz, a young singer/songwriter with whom The Matrix is working, touches on such adult themes as 9/11 and religion in his first single, “The Remedy.” A more brooding version of John Mayer, Mraz is gaining popularity with the younger set more for his message than a heartthrob image. “It’s quite an adult song and Jason is not necessarily stylized as a teenager,” says Edwards, “but teens totally get it.” When The Matrix started working with teenage girl band Lillix, their approach was more Aerosmith than S Club 7. “When we wrote with Lillix, we didn’t say, ‘Let’s write a teenybopper song,’” says Scott Spock. “We tried to do a great rock song.” Spock believes that pigeonholing the market limits possibilities and often ends up missing the mark completely. “If we ask ourselves, ‘What would a 13-year old like?’” says Spock, “then we fail.”Add Extra Value:Today’s teens may have money to spend, but they also have limitless opportunities to spend it. The problem lies in exceeding their expectations. “Teens can download a whole CD on [Internet Web site] I-Tunes for $10 these days,” says Magness. “Eighteen dollars for a CD is a lot for a teenager. We need to offer more than just music and lyrics. There have to be other perks like merchandise and Internet access.” Quality is a huge issue for teen consumers as well: In other words, they know the difference between a one-hit wonder and a golden oldie. “Teens want more for their money,” says Hosein. “They want really good songs where they can listen to the whole record and love every song. When you only have one good song on a record, kids figure that out really fast and they don’t want to buy the whole record.” And in the end, the most authentic (and unique) of the bunch is the most likely to seal the deal. “Teens can tell if the artist likes what they’re singing,” says producer Matthew Gerard, who has worked with Hilary Duff, Nick Carter and newcomer Samantha Moore. “So if you’re going to create an artist who will stay around for another record, they’ve gotta be doing something that’s true to themselves; they’ve gotta be able to deliver it from the heart.”
Editor’s Note: Due to a production error, “The Hit Makers” on page 40 of today’s WWD Beauty Biz is difficult to read. Here is the story reprinted in its entirety.