Sony Music VP A&R Jim Catino has risen through the ranks in record time. “My first mentor was my Dad,” he says. “He instilled in me a love for music and the business.” (Bill Catino is well known in Music City as a hard-charging, can-do promotion executive who was instrumental in the development of many of the format’s superstars and legends.)
Jim landed at Belmont University’s music program and quickly began interning at MCA Music Publishing with Jerry Crutchfield, Lynn Gann and Mike Sebastian. “They were big influences on my early career,” Catino remembers. “Publishing was a good fit for my personality, I enjoyed the creative side.”
After graduation Jim got chosen by James Stroud for an entry level spot at newly formed Giant Records where he got to work with Stroud, Producer/A&R head Richard Landis and Publishing head Rob Hendon. A few years later Stroud moved to Dreamworks and took Catino with him, but this time to head the publishing company. “It was an honor especially considering I was still in my mid-twenties,” says Catino. “I got to sign writers including Chris Lindsey who had great success.” Several years later when Catino got tapped by Renee Bell and Joe Galante to join the RCA A&R department Stroud told him, “It’s a great opportunity, you need to go.”
“Publishing and A&R are sort of the flip side of each other,” observes Catino. “But even while I was doing the publishing role, I got to see the A&R path and its subtleties close up. Working for Galante was like going to graduate school. He teaches you a lot, especially about the numbers and finances behind all of this. Finally, working with SonyMusic Nashville Chairman/CEO Gary Overton has equally been a blessing. He’s allowed me to blossom as an A&R executive and given me the rope to sign acts and produce music which has always been a dream and a goal.”
NEKST caught Catino in his brightly lit Sony office on Music Row and discussed how today’s A&R challenge has evolved from artists and songs into building brands that can engage with fans across multiple channels…
NEKST: Your Tyler Farr signing is showing great promise. Walk us through the strategy?
Jim Catino: Tyler’s a good example of an act where we tried to share a vision with the artist and capture it by finding a unique sound and identity. We tried to go with true development/A&R principles. The people I’ve met over my 20+ years in the business—publishers, writers, managers, booking agents—that help each other out and have each other’s backs, helped us find what we needed to move the process from discovery to the development stage. We got Tyler out on the road, experimenting with music and songs so we could see what the fans were reacting to in real time, plus recorded an EP to support his live efforts. At the same time we began developing a fan base, building a story and grabbing some iTunes sales along the way. I co-produce Tyler with Julian King with whom I’ve had a long standing relationship. Julian engineered and mixed a lot of Stroud’s records over the years which is how we met. Tyler had an identifiable vocal, but to further separate him from the rest of the pack we wanted to build a sound around those vocals that would be identifiable as well.
NEKST: What about Farr’s writing partners?
Jim Catino: We didn’t choose co-writers based upon chart success, it was way more focused and strategic than that. We honed in and started sharing our visions for what we wanted the record to sound like and targeted those songwriters we felt could help us collaborate that sound.
NEKST: Are today’s songwriters more like artists?
Jim Catino: Publishing and writing are like the flip side of record labels and artists. You can see an artist-type pattern inside the songwriting community. The guys that become superstar writers stay at the top of the charts for a while and then slowly some younger ones come in and gain ground. The writers around town that start having success are like the artists, only the identity they present applies to what they do from a songwriting standpoint. We are always looking for something fresh which feels new, like it’s the next phase of where the format is going. As an A&R person you want to be on that wave or ahead of it.
NEKST: How do you find new songs?
Jim Catino: We’re petty open to discovering music any way we can. There are some legal limitations, so we can’t accept unsolicited material that comes through the door. But you’d be surprised. If it gets to my desk I listen and those channels are always open, even for students from Universities around town and/or people referred to us from NSAI or ASCAP/BMI/SESAC and more. We never know where a hit is going to come from. Director A&R, Taylor Lindsey is my partner here and we are always searching.
NEKST: Has the A&R department changed under your tenure?
Jim Catino: When I started here 14 years ago we could sign a lot more acts and roles were more segmented. Renee Bell, Carole Ann Mobley and I were each point people for our own roster of artists. But a lot has changed in the format since those days. When Sony Music Nashville Chairman/CEO Gary Overton arrived, he and I felt that involving everyone in each signing would help spread the vision for where the company is going and I wanted Taylor and Gary to be as vested in every signing as I was. So the three of us look at everything together, get behind things and have a group vision. It’s been effective and successful, the new signings are starting to show some momentum.
NEKST: I see CDs on your desk. How do you like to get stuff for pitches?
Jim Catino: If you asked 10 different A&R people you’d probably get 10 different answers. I prefer a CD or MP3 for the initial phase. I guess it’s about how you like to organize things, but I get MP3s, links and CDs. Even when I get a link or MP3 I typically have it transferred to a CD so I can organize them into different piles like you can see on my desk. Links are great, but then you have extra clickthroughs that take time, especially if you get 80-90 a day. CDs don’t load up my inbox or lock up my phone, because sometimes those files can take up a lot of space.
NEKST: So I might come here to pitch with my phone or ipad and you’d give me a cord to plug in then the songs you liked I’d send over later in the day on CD…
Jim Catino: Yes. I’d say it is still about 50/50 sitting face-to-face with a publisher in terms of bringing a CD or working off a device. Ultimately, I go back through the music I liked and put it on hold before I send it to an artist. Then I have to figure how the artist likes to hear the music. Some want a CD compilation, others just like to get MP3s song-by-song on their phone while on the road.
NEKST: Master marketer Mike Martinovich once joked to me in an interview, “A hit song solves a lot of marketing problems.” That power remains strong, but does it translate differently today?
Jim Catino: It isn’t only about having a hit, it’s about having a hit that fits the artist brand. There’s a lot of hit songs out there, but they don’t all break artists. You have to develop a sustainable identity. When we find an artist we want to sign we must evaluate how can we develop that talent into somebody that will be here for a long time not just sell some downloads and disappear. That also means an artist who can monetize a career over a broad spectrum of ancillary channels.
NEKST: How do you feel about the future?
Jim Catino: There’s a lot of people fearful about where the music industry is right now, a lot of stressed out minds, but I look at it as a real opportunity. People are listening to more music in more ways than ever before. So it is up to my generation and those below me to be innovative. Labels take a lot of risk because we believe in our artists, but we must keep challenging our staffs to come up with new ways to monetize it all. Obviously our partnerships look a lot different today than they did 10-12 years ago. We are all blessed to be here working on something we are really passionate about and dedicated to—music. As a fairly young executive I hope to do this for a long time to come…