Tell Martin Kierszenbaum that he has a knack for signing acts of the moment and the chairman of Cherrytree Records lets the comment marinate before issuing a considered clarification: "I don't sign things of the moment, I sign things of the moment to come."
Whether it's Los Angeles' own electro-hop acts Far East Movement and LMFAO, rising British chanteuse Ellie Goulding, Swedish dance sensation Robyn, English dance popsters La Roux or the label's very first signing, Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, Kierszenbaum's talent is spotting acts that are a bit ahead of the musical curve but still appeal to current mainstream taste.
"You got to use the information today to predict where it's going," Kierszenbaum says, sitting in his office at Interscope Records' headquarters in Santa Monica. He cites Goulding as an example: Though she's only now appearing on the U.S. radar following her royal wedding reception performance and her May spot on "Saturday Night Live," Kierszenbaum has been pushing the "Lights" singer for more than a year.
For the record: A profile of Cherrytree Records founder Martin Kierszenbaum in Wednesday's Calendar section provided the wrong Web address for the label. It is cherrytreerecords.com, not cherrytree.com.
Six years ago, Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman Jimmy Iovine offered Kierszenbaum his own imprint. Kierszenbaum, who is also Interscope president of A&R, pop/rock, and head of international operations for Interscope Geffen A&M, dubbed the label Cherrytree (the English translation of his German name) with the tagline "your pop alternative."
Kierszenbaum's biggest success has been Momma Monster herself, Lady Gaga. He developed her with producer Vincent Herbert, who brought her to Interscope via his Streamline imprint and then approached Kierszenbaum.
The team oversaw the artistic direction of her first two albums, with Kierszenbaum producing and co-writing four songs on her premiere set, "The Fame," under the pseudonym Cherry Cherry Boom Boom.
"She definitely harnessed the Cherrytree network to break. That's why she was on Cherrytree. [It was] not only my A&R, but [our] lifestyle marketing," Kierszenbaum says, citing "Transmission Gagavision," a 40-part, weekly Internet series that bowed in June 2008 to introduce Lady Gaga to a still-unsuspecting world.
If a crystal ball is one of the tools of Kierszenbaum's trade, the other more tangible one is the globe. As head of international, he's able to view the planet like one big chessboard, parlaying his worldwide connections into global success for Cherrytree. For example, he sent Lady Gaga's first single, "Just Dance," to his Universal Music Group International colleagues in Sweden, then Canada, and then Australia: "I [said], 'I really believe in this track, guys. What do you think?'" He followed by sending Lady Gaga herself. By the time "Just Dance" broke in the U.S., it had already gone No. 1 in Sweden.
Similarly, the duo LMFAO, whom Kierszenbaum signed to a worldwide joint deal with Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, is No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with "Party Rock Anthem." The tune spent four weeks at No. 1 in the U.K. this spring, as well as topping the charts in eight other countries. Kierszenbaum continues to work with Lady Gaga as Interscope's head of international but was not creatively part of "Born This Way," which came out May 23. "She's a real artist," Kierszenbaum says. "She's going to make different kinds of music and is working with different people now."
Lady Gaga's manager Troy Carter declined to address the departure from Cherrytree, saying only via email: "We continue to still work closely with Martin and his team on international strategy for Gaga. We've done a lot of great things together and will continue to do more."
Kierszenbaum's office, which abuts Iovine's, includes a mini-recording studio as well as a fully loaded stage from which he webcasts artist performances onto cherrytree.com. He keeps a talisman, his first Peavey amplifier, in his office. "I stare at it every day and I remember what it was like and where it came from," he says, pointing to the amp.
Where Kierszenbaum comes from is a bit more complicated. He was born 44 years ago in La Jolla while his Argentinean parents, both scientists, worked at the University of San Diego.
Kierszenbaum came to Los Angeles in 1988, after attending the University of Michigan, to pursue a career as a keyboardist and a master's degree at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. He also found work in the mailroom at PolyGram Records, but his musical training has never left him.
"While Martin is clearly one of the most successful A&R guys in the business … it is his knowledge of music as a player that sets him apart," says Sting, who has released his last three albums via Cherrytree (in conjunction with A&M or Deutsche Grammophon). "His advice and mentoring come from being a musician, and not purely from a business standpoint."
Far East Movement co-founder Kevin Nishimura (a.k.a. Kev Nish) first learned of Kierszenbaum when he interned for Interscope in 2002: "He [was] high up on the fifth floor. We had no reason to be on [that] floor." But several years later, as Kierszenbaum began wooing Far East Movement, Nishimura found Kierszenbaum exceedingly down to earth. Unlike other label talent execs, Kierszenbaum "saw the cultural relevance" of not only Far East Movement's connections to the Asian American community, but also to the downtown scene. He encouraged the group members to capture their daily lives in the video for "Like a G6."
Kierszenbaum's musical ability appealed to Far East Movement, but Nishimura says it was Kierszenbaum's savvy marketing sense too. "I'd never met an executive at that level who goes into the chat rooms [on Cherrytree.com] and talks to [the fans]," he says. It was that interaction that led to "Like a G6" becoming the first single. Nishimura gave a mix tape to Kierszenbaum, who began playing the song on the label's Internet station, Cherrytree Radio. "Like a G6" ultimately became the first song by an Asian American group to top the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S.
Although much of the music industry chases trends, Kierszenbaum prides himself that none of Cherrytree's acts sound like anyone else. "I never let market conditions dictate what I sign," he says. "I sign quality and then figure out a way to get the market to see it and get into it."