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interviews: joanna ifrah
She's up against a lot and the odds are very slim.  But you know, I believe that she's got it.    This is what I do, and I truly believe that she's got a hit song, I think she's got an unbelievable look, I think she's got crazy star quality.

So tell me Sarah Hudson's story.

So actually, over two years ago, I was working at a different record company, which I signed her to. We started the process of wanting to write the songs -- [the] record company closed. I didn't work until I went to this new record company, maybe five months. So I worked with her the entire time, knowing of course that I was going to get a job somewhere, and made her trust me that she should wait for me, because I was the one who was going to make this record with her, and we really used the time.

And I called everybody I knew, all these great writers and these producers. I'm like, "Look, just do it for me. I don't know where I'm going to end up, I don't know where Sarah's going to end up, but I promise you, she's going to be amazing and it's going to be a great label." So just on our own, we started working.

Finally, I started working at S-Curve Records, EMI Music. I signed her there, and made her write for another year and a half, until we got the record that we have now. So she has been very, very patient.

Tell me what it is you saw in Sarah at the very beginning.

Well, you know, it's a funny story because her dad, writer/producer Mark Hudson -- years ago I was working at Columbia Records and I spent the day with Aerosmith doing something. He was the producer and he gave me the CD and he's like, "This is my daughter, and you should check her out." And I was like, "Alright." And at the time her name was Star. So they give me this CD, and it's like a cheesy looking, you know, it's like Star with this picture.

And I bring it back home and I listen, and I'm like, "Oh no this is just bad news, what am I going to say?" You know he's like my friend and da da da and I wasn't into it at all. Then, I don't know maybe seven months later, her managers brought her to me. I'm like, "I've heard her before, I'm not into it, I'm not interested, I don't get it." They're like, "Please do me the favor, just meet with her." I'm like, "Alright."

So then she had all these new songs and I was like, "Wow, there's something really cool. There's something very cool about her." So finally I met her, and she was like in one of her weird stages, she had just like shaved her head, and she had on funky clothes, like she was definitely in an awkward moment physically, so I was like, aw, you know, I don't know if I'm sold yet.

photo of ifrah

Joanna Ifrah is the vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) for S-Curve Records. Here, she tells why she's confident Sarah will make it in the music business. "There was something so inviting about Sarah to me," she says. "[She] was, I thought, the everygirl." Ifrah explains the importance of getting radio exposure for a new artist and how her team worked to develop a radio-friendly single for Sarah. She also says that in the current environment of the music industry, developing artist loyalty is critical and describes why she believes Sarah's image will set her apart from other female singer/songwriters. "She's up against a lot and the odds are very slim," Ifrah tells FRONTLINE. " But you know, I believe that she's got it. … This is what I do, and I truly believe that she's got a hit song, I think she's got an unbelievable look, I think she's got crazy star quality." This interview was conducted on March 1, 2004.

And then I went to see her perform live in L.A., and that was it. I knew, "This is so rough, I don't know exactly what I'm going to do with her, but there is something that's so endearing and inviting about her and I'm going to figure out what it is, and I'm going to make a record." And I did, I signed her.

We had no idea what we were going to do. Nothing. There weren't songs, there wasn't a direction, there wasn't a look. I mean seriously. But there was something so inviting about Sarah to me. [She] was, I thought, the everygirl. Do you know what I mean? I thought she was like, as opposed to, you know, Britney Spears is perfect and beautiful. And Jessica Simpson is perfect. You know all these girls, and I just thought to myself, like, "Where are the cool chicks who look strange, dress strange, like didn't really get all the guys and, you know, had all this parental problems and whatever?" I thought Sarah was that girl. So we worked, and we did it.

You know, we changed her look. She grew up. We worked for all that time and she wrote and she wrote and she wrote, and she grew up while we did it. And I think she wrote an amazing album. And she took a lot from me, seriously. I mean I put her through hell. Everyday she'd hand me like five songs I'd be like, "They suck, they suck, they suck, keep going, keep going." I mean, you know, the boyfriend and "I'm crying" -- I'm like, "Nobody wants to hear it." Every girl writes the same song: You broke my heart, you broke my heart, don't break my heart, blah, blah, blah. You know what I mean?

So we sort of got this like teen angsty angle, which of course isn't something different, there's a ton of teenagers who do the teenage thing. But I think what she did is she just says it better. Lyrically she says it better. And the whole, you know, dealing with your parents, which I think is like a big thing for anybody, you know -- I'm 33 years old and it's still a big thing for me to deal with my parents everyday. It's a major like emotional thing that you don't really hear anybody talk about. So I figure at 22 years old, there's probably so many people who have that in common with her. So that's kind of the Reader's Digest version.

So you get to S-Curve, there she is, you're working with her. When do you know that you have something that you hope is going to play?

The single that's the first single now is not what I thought it was. At the time she had written another song called "Naked Truth" which is the title of the album. And I thought, for sure, this was the single. We got it. We know what this record is. The second she wrote that record we could write the rest of the record because that was going to be the blueprint, you know?

But as it turns out, she had written something way after that. Basically we finished up the record and I thought to myself, "You know what, we need like a Cyndi Lauper 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun.'" This is what we need, this is what this record is missing. It's kind of deep, it's kind of heavy, you know, I need something that shows like that fun side of her.

So I called up Desmond Child, and I told him, "I need Cyndi Lauper 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun.' I need Sarah to do her version of it." So she got together with Desmond and Eric Bazilian and they wrote the single "Girl On The Verge." And then we knew. I mean we knew. We heard it, it came in, I was like, "That's it, we're done, this is the record."

I mean I've heard it a hundred times now. What is it about that song as opposed to "Naked Truth"?

Well here's the thing. I mean, you know, now you're going to play like the music business game, right? Do you actually listen to "Naked Truth" and think that it's a better song? Yeah, probably. It's a better lyric, it's a better melody, it's a better production, it's a better all those things.

The thing about "Girl On The Verge" is, it's I guess what you're going to call a commercial record. It's a radio-friendly record. It's an attention-getting record. The first time you hear it, you either love it and think it's amazing, or you hate it and you have to make some derogatory comment about it.

Which I think says something about that record, you know. It's very immediate, it's very much her personality, and I just think it's like a teenage anthem. And you know, not only teenage, I mean once again, you know, people my age and my friends too. What girl hasn't felt like she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown? Whether it's because of work, because of your husband, because of your friends, it's because of who knows what, you know. I think it was kind of like a universal theme.

As somebody in the music business, how do you know? Is it you that decides, or do you test it?

We did. I mean, you've got to know what you've got. And I find that to be very dangerous, but my boss said, "Joanna we are researching the records." And I said, "Why? I know this is the hit. I don't care what the research says, I know it." And he was like, "No we're going to research the record." I said okay. …

Not to say that I don't believe in research because that came out the wrong way, but what I don't think is that if you do this, you know, one week of research on the Internet, and it doesn't research as a number one record, that you don't have a number one record. Because I know plenty of records that researched as number one records and never even sold anything.

What do you mean researched on the Internet?

So what they do is, they do this program where they go to specific kids and they put little snippets of like five songs by an artist. So I picked -- I think I only did three songs with Sarah. And I did like 20-[second] snippets, and they ask you to rate your opinions. And they play the 20-second snippet, and then the kid has to log on and say "I love it" and why. Or "I hated it" and why. And then they take all of that together and they send that as research. They put it together and they send it to us. And basically what came back was that Sarah Hudson was a top 10 alternative record.

Now, having said that, they don't even play females at alternative radio. So I just thought to myself, like, "Who are these kids?" Do you know what I mean? Great that it was that high, but like, it's not an alternative record. It's a pop record. So it automatically made me think like, this is why I'm not so, so into the research, you know except once the official record is out. I'm just not into research to pick what you think should be the lead song. …

[What are the next steps?]

Tomorrow morning at five a.m. we are going to start her promo tour. It will be three weeks. Basically she does a week in the East Coast, a week in the Midwest, and week on the West Coast. And she goes every single day to like two or three radio stations, and she goes in and she sings two of her songs with an acoustic guitar player, and she talks to them, and, you know, blah, blah, blah.

Basically, this is it. This is our setup of meeting the artist. This is meeting Sarah Hudson. You've heard the record now, let's put a face with it. So hopefully the next step is to start to get airplay. In the meantime, like this, we need to continue to do as much press as we possibly can. …

We're just going to have to try and get consumer awareness on her by doing all the things we can do besides MTV and radio. And the thing that's so great about Sarah is, she's not like any of those other girls. She's really not. You're never going to see her in jeans and a t-shirt, the guitar slung over her back, you know, the same hair-do. I mean you look at the pictures, or you look at the images that we've done with her, and you sort of go, "Wow, she's so different." I mean there's something a little Cyndi Lauper about her. You know something like a little over the top crazy in that way.

But I think that one thing that is going to set her apart is the imaging, which, by the way, is as important as the sound of that record.

What do you mean?

Avril Lavigne is a perfect example. Right? Avril Lavigne she came out, she was like this great video, this really cool skater kid, like when was the last time you saw a chick doing the whole skater thing? The whole punk skater thing. Even though it's faux punk, but nevertheless. And she had the tie. Before you knew it, everybody was out buying the tie, dressing the way she dresses, because kids wanted to be who she was. They identified with her and they wanted to go out and emulate her.

Well this is what we want to do with Sarah. I feel like Sarah has this crazy fashion sense. Whether it's those nutty stockings that she wears, or the cool braid thing that she does. If we can get kids to sort of buy into her image, and her look, and her vibe, as a lifestyle, then they're going to love her. It's going to make them love the music all the more. They buy into her as an artist.

Because, you know, who wants to play the singles game? Right? It's too hard. They'll download it, who cares, and it's over. You have to do the artist development now. You've got to play with what we are given now. And now what it is, is that it's too easy to download a single, it doesn't make kids go out and buy a record. What you have to do is, you do artist development. You have to make kids fall in love with the artist, make them loyal to the artist. Make them want to buy everything from the artist whether it's a t-shirt, it's an album, it's the pictures. Otherwise, you know, all you've got to do is you're going to play the radio game and you're going to lose.

So when you say artist development you mean development of her story?

Development of her story. And you have to be patient, and you have to wait. Let's just say for example, everybody downloads "Girl On The Verge." We put the album out and we find that it's selling, but we also find out that it's downloading like crazy. Which means that kids obviously are not buying the record, they're just getting the single.

I think what we need to do as a record company is instead of do what we're used to doing, which is, "Oh it's not selling, it's not working, we're done we're over it let's move on, what do we got next up on deck?" I think what we need to do is go, "Great, we have this amazing base. All these people downloaded it because obviously they liked the song. Hopefully there will be all this marketing, and all this imaging, and press, and all these other things that we could do. We move on to a second single, hopefully that song can be as big as the first one." And before you know it kids are buying into an artist. They're buying into being loyal to her, and what she's about, and wanting to hear the whole record, and wanting to read about her in In Touch Magazine, and wanting to know who she's dating, and you know then she becomes truly a celebrity. …

What does it mean to Sarah to get [a photo shoot for a magazine]?

It means a lot. This is all setup. … Every publicist goes out there with all these new artists and they pitch everyone. I mean even Sarah's publicist pitches like, you know, 20 people a day to the same thing. So it's hard. It's really hard to get something, and you've got to hope that you do something that makes them respond. More than I think just the music.

How do you push the song to the radio? How does that happen?

Well the promotion people from the record company do that.

And what are they saying about Sarah? We talked to Nic Harcourt at KCRW in Los Angeles. And I said, "What's Sarah up against?" And he said, "She's got to have a really good story." I want to hear a story, everybody in radio wants to hear a story.

Well listen, she's got a good story. You know? Her dad is Mark Hudson, the whole Hudson Brothers thing. She grows up with Steven Tyler, Cher, these are people who used to hang out in her house. Kate Hudson's her cousin. She's wild and crazy, she's seen a lot, she's done a lot. So she has a good story. …

How will you know whether she's hot?

Well, I mean, on a daily basis I will be getting updates [laughs]. For good or for bad.

Starting when?

Well you know, we just actually found out this morning that a bunch of radio stations are starting to spin it, although we weren't even ready to go. But that people are reacting so amazingly well to the song that they just want to go. Which is the best, you know. Obviously you want that.

So listen, as soon as it starts to play anywhere, you start to, you know, few weeks, you start to get some response.

[What is your relationship with Sarah?]

You know it's everything. It's like partner in crime, mentor, sister, best friend. The lines are all very blurred. But you know, we bonded because we were up against a lot of odds. I signed her to a record company, the record company closes. I have to go through like trying to figure out what I'm going to do and not lose her in the meantime. We did all that work in between. And then I signed her to a label where, you know in the beginning people weren't that excited about. And it was hard and it was kind of like, always just her and me, you know. She didn't really have anybody else. So I sort of became her everything. And it's great. And, you know, I hope she does it.

… What are the odds? What's she up against?

Well, I mean, she's up against a lot and the odds are very slim. But you know, I believe that she's got it. I mean what am I going to say? This is what I do, and I truly believe that she's got a hit song, I think she's got an unbelievable look, I think she's got crazy star quality. And look, to be honest, a lot of luck would help us also. It's not solely about whether or not the music is deserving and she is deserving.

Everything else has to be correct, you know what I mean? She has to be a priority and she has to be lucky, and certain things have to happen. Listen, I can't say it's going to happen. Who knows? Nobody knows. None of us know anything. But what I can say is we've definitely got the goods to get a fair shot.

And when you said the odds are astronomical, why are they astronomical? For anybody, I'm not just talking about Sarah now.

Because there are so many artists. I mean, I think we as an industry have just made artists disposable. It's not even about being talented anymore. It's like anybody who can come up with a radio-friendly song, for some reason feels the need to be making a record, and for some reason thinks that they should be an artist.

So, you know, tons and tons and tons of artists get signed. Millions of records get made. And it's hard. It becomes about relationships at the radio stations, with the record company. And look, you know, I work for a really small label. I don't work for like one of the big major labels who can say, "Listen, you know what, I'll give you Aerosmith for this, and you can give me whatever." You know, it's a different game that we're playing. So it's probably even harder for us.

Having said that, I still think we have a hit record, and we have a hit artist. That's what I think. …

How much of an investment for you guys is Sarah?

Listen, everyone is different. We could find out tomorrow that we're going to have a hit from Sarah and we've only spent very little money so far. Way less than you would ever have expected us to. And it could just take off. And if it just took off, you know, it wouldn't be such a huge investment.

But a lot of times they'll say that you need to spend $800,000 to a million dollars just to find out if it is a hit. Just to find out that, okay, all of a sudden it is, you know, we found out that it's doing great at radio, and getting press, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to sell millions and millions of copies. …

[How important is MTV for Sarah?]

Very. … Getting MTV play on a video is a key thing for her.

Why?

Because that's the whole sell on Sarah. She's this mainstream artist. And MTV is crazy exposure. If your video is on MTV a few times a day, I mean, imagine all those kids who watch it everyday. It suddenly becomes cool. It becomes the thing to have that everybody has to know about, the record you have to go buy. So of course, we need for that to happen.

So how do you make it happen?

How do you make it happen? You can't make it happen. What you do is you hope that you make this unbelievable video, you hope that you get a story, there's radio, there's press, there could be early sales. And, you know, you just stay on it until hopefully MTV is into it.

You cross your fingers.

Yeah you gotta cross your fingers. And look, it's hard. You spend a lot of money to make a video and unlike a record, you never know what you're going to get. A video you can spend a ton of money, two full days shooting a video, look at that video, and having nothing. ...

What's the release moment like? Is it literally nail-biting time? Is it fun, is it interesting? What is it?

No, of course it is. I mean, the thing is that you don't know which way it's going to go. The sales could be low, sales could be every week just sort of trotting in and doing what they're doing, and all of a sudden she does like a Leno, or she does, you know, an Ellen, she does whatever, she starts to do some television. Before you know it, you know, there starts to be more and more sales. And then the radio starts to play it more and more, then you get more and more sales. So it's not all about coming out of the box huge, you know. But you always hope to.

What would make you happy in the first month of sales, or two months of sales?

A million!

Ten thousand?

Yeah, you know, something like that. I mean it's hard to tell the first month, I don't really know what that means. Although I will say this, you know, by June she will have been at radio for three months almost. So I would probably hope that she could do a little bit better than that after her first month.

What's the idea with radio? … What are you trying to get out of Sarah going into a radio station?

Oh we're trying to make people remember her. You know, once again, just like kids, you know, these programmers get tons and tons of records every single day. And it's all about, you know, we want them to remember her and have something about her personality stick out, and have them be floored by either her voice or her personality. And not only just love the record that we've given them on CD, but to also feel like, "I really want to get behind her." You know there's like a human contact, do you know what I mean? It almost makes you feel vested in it. So we'll kind of go out to shake the hands, kiss the babies, and, you know, hope for the best. …

 

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posted may 27, 2004

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