Justin Timberlake considered partnering with any number of major labels while shopping for a home for his Tennman Records imprint. So why did he ultimately go with Interscope Records and not, for instance, Jive, where Timberlake has been signed as an artist since his teen years in ‘Nsync?
”The thing that ultimately made the decision for him,” Timberlake’s longtime manager Johnny Wright explains to EW.com, ”was the labels that [Interscope] already had and the people who were running them. Timbaland has a label there, Pharrell has a label there, will.i.am has a label there. If [Justin has] a synergy with these producers and writers, why not be there?” (A representative for Jive confirmed that Timberlake is still on their roster but declined further comment.)
Still, with profits from CD sales continuing to plummet industry-wide, there are clear risks for any label that decides to launch a costly new project like Tennman. Wright declined to discuss the deal’s financial terms, but as one top industry insider comments: ”To be in business with Justin Timberlake, one of the biggest stars in the world, isn’t cheap. It puts too much pressure on the deal.”
Tennman president Ken Komisar — former VP of A&R for Sony BMG — concedes that any start-up imprint faces steep challenges, but he believes Timberlake’s successful track record as an artist and, more recently, as a writer and producer for other acts, can bring success to the new label. ”Someone who has the creative vision that he has — it doesn’t take all the risk away, but it certainly helps to make the odds a little better.”
Former *NSync bandmate JC Chasez, who enlisted Timberlake’s production and songwriting skills for several tracks on his forthcoming sophomore album, Kate, points out that Timberlake’s status as an international megastar doesn’t hurt either. ”Obviously, he’s going to bring a lot of heat, because the world is staring at him right now,” Chasez says. ”He brings free press with him wherever he goes.”
But does the 26 year-old have the business acumen to run a label? Nate ”Danjahandz” Hills, Timbaland protégé and co-producer of number-one Timberlake singles ”SexyBack” and ”My Love,” says he witnessed the star’s marketing savvy first-hand. ” ‘SexyBack’, he knew it was risky for him,” Hills says. ”He knew he didn’t sound like himself and he’d been gone for a while.” Nevertheless, Timberlake fought to have the song released as FutureSex/LoveSound‘s first single. As Jive CEO Barry Weiss told EW back in February, ”It was an unusual record, but it was a risk that clearly paid off.”
It remains to be seen whether Timberlake will sign artists that will approach his level of success, and it might be a while before we find out. ”We’re in a short-term business right now,” says the insider. ”He wasn’t walking in with an exciting, brand-new artist. It could be another two years before a record comes out [on Tennman].”
A senior executive at another label is cautiously optimistic about any new venture headed by a recording artist: ”Justin himself is a tremendous musical force, so there’s no better person to get in business with. But it’s tougher than ever now to break an act. The key ends up being, can he pick and identify great talent? We’ve all known superstar artists who’ve gotten labels and not been able to pick talent and others who could.”
Timberlake has yet to announce any signees to Tennman (the name’s a nod to his Tennessee roots). Says Wright, ”He just doesn’t want artists that are sitting around waiting for Justin to come in and write a song or Justin to tell them what direction to go in. He wants artists that he’s proud to do a duet with [or] put on his stage.” Recent Internet speculation suggests his first artist could be Dutch teen and online sensation Esmee Denters. In March, Billboard magazine reported that Denters’ popular YouTube performances had attracted frantic attention from a host of major labels. In her most recent clip, Denters covers Timberlake’s ”What Goes Around… Comes Around” — complete with a surprise cameo from Timberlake himself.
Though no one in Timberlake’s camp would confirm or deny any plans to sign Denters, Wright confirms that the star has talked with the teen and is ”definitely interested” in working with her. Hills recalls, ”[Justin] was like, `She’s crazy! I definitely want to get in the studio.’ ” He was just excited about getting in with her and doing some music.”
Adds Komisar: ”[Denters] is hugely talented. We’ve all seen [her talent] unveil itself on YouTube, and you see the strength and power she has on her own. We’d be very lucky to work with her.”
If Timberlake can bring his Midas touch to Tennman, it’s Denters who’d be the lucky one.