I realized the other day that it has been more than ten years since I was at Interscope Geffen A & M Records. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday, but for the most part, it is another life. However, the most important things about the job that have lasted me the longest are two-fold: the friends and connections I made, and the way that the on-the-job, in-the-trenches training has lasted me a life time.
I learned things while driving around, WITHOUT SAT NAV, mind you, the greater United States, with a band in the back of a rented van or when having to ask a contact AGAIN for a favour, that you just cannot get from any books, or even be told about. You just have to get in and DO IT. The most shocking thing is that I just absorbed and DID while on the road, or out at a gig, or on the end of a phone.
Marketing became the way that I saw the world, became a part of me. It is bizarre now because things that I just take for granted, that I assume are obvious and EVERYONE KNOWS, mostly had their roots in the time I was at that particular job.
Its hard to explain to people what that label was like at that time. It was right after Death Row had gone big time in the press. Time Magazine had just featured the label on their cover, saying it was the ‘most dangerous record label in the world.’ This made it even more appealing, naturally. Interscope was still partially independent, and shot from the hip in that way that only an indie can do. This attitude came through in everything it did, from the artists that got signed to the marketing plans to the tours. A lot of friends have recently watched the series The Defiant Ones, which is about my old boss – Jimmy Iovine – and Dr. Dre, and suddenly seem to get it a bit, the way that being a part of this maverick machine was so aspirational. They were cool, they were different and they were not afraid to do things in an unheard of way. I wanted in.
So how does an early 20s kid get noticed by a very tight knit group of industry insiders? The way forward, and I have stuck to this since, is simple: put yourself out there. I know that sounds easy, and incredibly un-British, but it is true. It is so so so important to map the course of your own career- and LIFE! I know, this sounds super Californian, but it is true. Why be dictated to what job you get by what is available on some random website you log onto? The times I have been laid off- yes, even I have known what it is like to be on the fricking dole. But I am getting ahead of myself; back in the mid 1990s, I knew I wanted to work at Interscope, and I was going to do an all out campaign to make it happen.
I had an entry level job with ‘Uni Distribution’ (this would later go on to be called Universal Music and Video Distribution, and be the largest record distributor in the world). The company had just signed a deal to put Interscope Records in stores across the US. ‘All’ I had to do was to figure out how to let the industry big wigs somehow know who I was, and convince them that I was a mandatory part to the labels ongoing success. HA.
It all started at a conference when VP Steve Berman – yes, that dude that Eminem always raps about – was giving a talk about a new artist the label was working with called Marilyn Manson. The way that Berman so passionately and articulately talked about the project, the artist, the vision- I got goose bumps, as cliché as that was. After he came off the stage and was surrounded with well-wishers, cool looking label types and other executives, I busted up to him. I will never forget it, I had on a short black pleated skirt and some tube socks that went over my knees, a hold over to my riot grrrl chic. I did not know what I was going to say, or how I was going to get his attention in the crush, so I just grabbed his arm. When he turned to look at me, I said, ‘My name is Jennifer Otter, and I want to work for you.’ He smiled, laughed and said, ‘Thank you,’ before getting pulled away by the growing entourage.
By the time the evening meal came around, I had figured out who the other main players from Interscope were that were also in attendance. I made it a point to go and introduce myself to them, and let my desires to join their team be known. This was just the beginning of the whole thing. As soon as you put yourself forward, raise your head above the pulpit, you then need to deliver. People will be looking for your name, or at least more aware of it, for good reasons – you are kicking ass and doing an outstanding job – or on the flip side, if you slip up or do nothing at all, it will be noticed. Its always a risk to put yourself out there. I had made myself known, and now had to deliver on why I was so special, so extraordinary, so deserving of being a part of the maverick team.
I began by making regular contact with the folks – not always Berman – but his team. Keeping them abreast of what I was doing, the triumphs and the moments at my job at Uni that showed I went beyond what was expected. This is also an important lesson- its almost more important to impress the people that the executives at the top depend upon. They are the gatekeepers. I now use this myself. If one of my assistants or someone that works for me says that another applicant or potential colleague is good, I listen. I always say be gracious, kind and thankful to everyone you meet. Many of my past interns and assistants have gone on to have insane, amazing jobs in the industry; the guy that is now head of Marketing at MTV Europe used to be sent with my corporate card to Victoria’s Secret to buy me underwear before a tour, pick up lunch and do copying for hours. Now he commands a team of dozens of people.
My obsessive work ethic goes back, I think, to my days spent training as a swimmer. We would have brutal, brutal work outs – but as it was just a ‘way of life,’ I did not think anything of it. The alarm would go off at 5am, and I needed to be in the water by 5:45am. Practice would go until 8am, when I would shower quickly and race to first period at school for 8:30am. The afternoons usually started with two hours of what we called ‘dryland,’ which basically means weights, running or other various strength training / cardio work outs, followed by ANOTHER two hours in the pool. Just writing this now it seems insane; I think of a half hour dawdle around the block with our dog my ‘work out’ now. But I was used to putting literally everything I had into my goal. The whole idea of the music industry not being a job, but being a ‘lifestyle,’ similar to that of swimming, is so true. I never really thought about the pay, the hours, etc. It was just my life.
I guess this showed through, for a year after my initial stalking of Berman, I got the call: how would I like to come and join Interscope? There was no interview; there was just the call from my soon to be boss, a tall, blonde, glamorous woman named Christina who I would later learn worked just as intensely as I did.
I literally could not believe it. It was Christmas time, and I had just been given the best gift ever. I felt like I did not even have to ‘try’ for it; I knew that other people were saying behind my back that it ‘wasn’t fair’ that I ‘just’ got the job. But it was such an important lesson: by putting myself out there, then following it up with hard work and determination, AND being nice to people, I had already proved myself long before I was thrown into a van with a band or confronted with a marketing budget. The thing is, someone can always say NO to what you are asking – and they will. But they can always say yes – and you are not going to get a yes if you don’t go for it in the first place.
There is this famous blog post that went around a couple years ago- it was called something like, ‘My 100 rejection letters.’ It was all about this woman wanting to get 100 rejection letters in a year. As mad as that sounds, it is so brilliant, because to get 100 letters saying NO, you have to write at least that many in the first place. Statistically speaking, you WILL get some yes replies. So for 100 passes, there will most likely be 30 acceptances. Which is more than you would have if you hadn’t done anything. The lessons in all this? Put yourself out there, work hard and for all that is holy, BE NICE.
Jen developed the BA (Hons) Commercial Music course at Plymouth Marjon University.
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