While watching the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” future hit maker Devyne Stephens, CEO of UpFront Megatainment Worldwide, had an epiphany — if he could replicate the Motown hit factory formula, he could well become` a modern-day Berry Gordy. Gordy was infamous for his attention to the details related to every aspect of an artist’s sound, look, performance and public image. Gordy and his staff took great pains to ensure that whatever Motown product was released, it stood out in terms of quality and presentation from everything else out. That worked for Gordy — why wouldn’t it work for Stephens?
Cut to the present and we’re in Devyne’s interpretation of Hitsville, USA. It’s called The Complex and it resembles most attractive, business/retail centers in Atlanta. There is a beauty salon and spa, fitness training facility, office space and a dance studio. What is not so typical, or readily apparent, is that all of these enterprises work together as one to groom and develop musical and athletic talent under the watchful eyes of Devyne Stephens.
Those are the same sharp eyes that spotted a young Senagalese man from New Jersey who was looking to make his name as a rapper. Stephens saw so much more for this son of the internationally famous drummer Mor Thiam, and knew he was the one to bring it out. Akon represented what Stephen’s most desires in talent — the almost mythical triple threat of writer, producer and performer. He knew he had a multi-carat diamond in the rough and he was certain that he was the right one to polish it.
Stephens’ skill for identifying raw talent was honed while working with L.A. Reid and Babyface at LaFace Records. where he quickly recognized T-Pain’s potential, having worked with Mary J., Mariah Carey and even Michael Jackson. You get the sense, quite rightly, that this guy can tell you a thing or two about making hits. Here’s what he had to say. –sly
How does an aspiring artist position himself or herself for success?
I think the top three ways to position yourself in the music industry is know somebody, know somebody and, then … know somebody. Nah, I’m only kidding. Relationships are definitely important. I mean you definitely have to have the total package to get a record deal in today’s climate.
What do you look for in an artist? How do you know that artist has something special?
Well, I look for a unique sound and something that’s very marketable about the talent or artist. It’s no so much about the look, but if you want to become a mega-superstar, you would definitely want to be well rounded.
When I say well rounded, what I mean by that is, you have to create your own vehicle. Record companies are now looking at MySpace, they’re looking at your viral … your Internet campaign to see what kind of traffic you’re actually drawing to your site and if the consumer is interested in the product. Record companies now [are] not taking the lead. Right now, online is really leading the way.
Are record companies still relevant?
Record companies are definitely relevant because of distribution. They still have worldwide distribution that you have to go through. So, no, the record labels are not extinct.
How do you recognize a hit?
You recognize a hit by, you know, the melodic sound, the simplicity of the record and how cleverly the record is written and how well produced it is.