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The A&R Process with Joey Arbagey

The A&R Process with Joey Arbagey
Joey Arbagey on a video call with Xposure's Sydney Hubbard

In an in-depth discussion with Joey Arbagey, former Executive Vice President of A&R at Epic Records, and Xposure Music’s Sydney Hubbard, Joey spoke about studio time with Whitney Houston, being L.A. Reid’s right hand man, his debut management project, and what artists should really be asking when they are in front of an A&R executive.

Joey Arbagey with Britney Spears and her parents.
Joey Arbagey with Britney Spears and her parents.

Joey began his journey into the music industry in the club scene in the ‘90s. During a college semester in Bath, England, Joey was awed by the power DJs had to control the vibe, mood, and sound of the room. Joey returned to the Bay Area and began collecting vinyl, handing out flyers at nightclubs, and interning at KMEL radio. He worked all of the way up to the role of program director, and his talent for recognizing hits and taking risks was encouraged by his boss at the time, Keith Naftaly. Keith played an instrumental part in teaching Joey how to not only hear music, but feel it.

As Joey spent more time in radio, it became clear that the format was becoming too much of a corporate conglomeration for his taste. This motivated Joey to move on from the radio world and embark on a journey as an A&R, where he could focus on recognizing talented artists, hand-picking hits, and going with his gut. 

“It was always about how I was feeling about songs to know if they were hits or not. I would just use my gut and goosebumps.” 

Joey emphasized the importance of finding holistic talent musing, “It's important to understand that, as an A&R, you're not just looking for a hit song, you're looking for a hit artist. When I meet an artist, do I want to be around this artist or am I looking at my watch and seeing how quickly I can get away?”

Joey Arbagey, Whitney Houston, L.A. Reid
Joey Arbagey, Whitney Houston, L.A. Reid

When Joey recalls time spent with massive pop stars, it becomes clear what he means by a hit artist, rather than a formulaically talented singer on any one great track, saying, “Being in the studio with these big pop artists on several occasions when they were cutting their originals, it was another level. You just felt ‘that thing.’ It's really powerful.”

While A&Ring women with "that thing," like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Tony Braxton, Zara Larsson, and Fifth Harmony, he spotted a common trait: keeping their eye on the prize until that prize was in their (well-manicured) hands.  “They were just powerful women that went after what they wanted and didn't stop until they got it, and they got it!”

Dinah Jane, Normani, Joey Arbagey, Ally Brooke, Lauren Jauregui, Camila Cabello
Dinah Jane, Normani, Joey Arbagey, Ally Brooke, Lauren Jauregui, Camila Cabello

Joey is proud of the hits he has unearthed in a cavernous landscape of demos, and is particularly proud of A&Ring  “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony. “That demo came to me and I listened to it and thought, ‘Wow, this is so infectious,’ from the first time I listened to it. I sent it to my boss at the time, cut it in a couple of days, and that went on to be a really big worldwide smash.”

While crushing it with pop queens, Joey is no stranger to the world of hip-hop. Not many music executives can say they’ve reported directly to L.A. Reid and Jay-Z, but Joey reflects on his time at Def Jam humbly. He says he learned a lot from both of them, particularly about the importance of tone, voice, and working hard to achieve success in the industry. He also praised Jay-Z's humility and respectfulness, saying that he was one of the best people he had ever worked with.

“Jay-Z had no ego. He was happy, had his crew, and everybody that sat at that table is still with him to this day. I just respect that so much.”

Joey Arbagey, Busta Rhymes, DJ Khaled, and Benny Pough
Joey Arbagey, Busta Rhymes, DJ Khaled, and Benny Pough
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After L.A. Reid left Epic, Joey worked with Sylvia Rhone (who eventually became the new CEO).  Joey said, “Sylvia was a totally difference experience than L.A.  When I was with L.A., I  oversaw the entire A&R department and all the signed artists' music making processes.  Sylvia supported me signing artists directly to the label, such as John K, AJ Mitchell, Kah-Lo, Eddie Benjamin, and several others where we had  success, and I was much more involved with the fine details of making music. This was amazing and really helped round out who I was as an A&R executive.  My first major hit with Sylvia was Camila Cabello's “Havana” which was also one of the proudest moments of my career.  This song just got bigger and better. To this day it sounds as fresh as the first time I heard a rough demo!”

When it comes to Joey’s current project managing American Idol alum Francisco Martin,  Joey spoke highly of Fransisco's talent. Joey and Martin have already chosen six songs for release this year, and Sydney got an exclusive preview of Martin's video for "Passenger Princess,” not yet out at the time of their conversation. 

Joey's experience and success have made him a sought-after figure in the music industry, with many artists approaching him with questions about how to succeed. Joey shares, “The most important thing to ask an A&R is 'How is my music? How's this song? How's this production?' Instead of 'How do I get signed? How do I get a publishing deal? How do I go viral?' When you have access to a seasoned A&R person, get them to listen to your music, take the critique, and move your music to the next level should it need it. Everyone's like, ‘Hey, can you sign me?’ I'm like, ‘Sign you, for what?!’ It's just not the right question.”

Elissa Felman, Francisco Martin, Joey Arbagey, Noah Hernandez
Elissa Felman, Francisco Martin, Joey Arbagey, Noah Hernandez

Joey's experiences offer valuable lessons for aspiring artists and industry professionals. Success in the music industry requires not just talent, but also a willingness to work hard, take risks, and learn from others. 

It’s not all about the grind, though. From Joey’s Miami hotel room, he tells Sydney, “I will jump in the ocean and I will go to lunch, but I am not on vacation. I like to look at life as if you should always have a little bit of enjoyment every day, no matter what. I learned that from being in several jobs for so long that I couldn't see myself in the mirror anymore. I feel like I see myself clearly and make sure that I'm healthy, that I'm feeling good, and that my head's in the right space, and if it's not, I work on it."

Connect with Joey Arbagey on a 1-1 Video Call or get feedback on your demo via Xposure Music: https://xposuremusic.com/joey-arbagey

Follow Joey on Instagram here.

ABOUT THE GUEST

Joey Arbagey
Former EVP, A&R Epic Records. Joey is an industry titan shaping Pop, R&B, and Hip-Hop, with a legacy of hit-making at Epic Records and a guiding hand in star-studded careers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sydney Hubbard
Ex-CAA artist development team member with management expertise. Contact me for advice on engaging booking agencies, hiring a manager, and establishing a personal brand.

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