Manager Johnny Wright Sounds Off On The State Of The Music Industry

Johnny Wright, Judy McGrath, Justin Timberlake & Van Toffler - 2008
Bedder/Getty Images for MTV Networks)

More Jonas solo albums on the way? Justin Bieber's perfect transition from teen star to adult artist? The recent executive shake-ups at Sony Music? The man responsible for guiding the career of Justin Timberlake offers his take on today's music business, and how he's planning to find and nurture new talent in the near future.

If the name Johnny Wright has been synonymous with one thing, it’s screaming girls. The Orlando-based music manager has played a key role in the careers of Britney SpearsJonas Brothers, Justin Timberlake (and previously ‘NSync), Backstreet Boys, and Aaron Carter, to name a few of the multi-platinum acts he’s guided, and now he’s putting his talent scouting skills to the test in a new online venture called “Johnny On the Spot.” 

A collaboration between AT&T and the music site Cambio, which is co-owned the Jonas Group, AOL and MGX Labs, the web show will allow singers the chance to audition for the man himself by submitting videos of their performances. From the thousands of submissions, Wright and his team will narrow them down to a group of 20 who will be put through his “Boot Camp,” an intensive workshop of rehearsals, dance choreography, vocal lessons, and media training. At the end of the road is a commitment to release their music, although the means by which they’ll reach market has yet to be determined. It’s all part of the big question mark otherwise known as the music industry. In this Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter, Wright addresses an uncertain future and looks back at his boy band past. 

THR: What was the thinking behind this online experiment? 

Johnny Wright: It’s the future of finding talent. The Idols of the world are great vehicles and millions of people watch them, but when you think about Justin [Timberlake], he’s from a small town outside of Memphis; Britney Spears, she was from Hammond, Louisiana, a small town outside of New Orleans. If those folks didn’t have the means to drive to Florida and audition for the Mickey Mouse Club, or for an American Idol audition, how would they ever be discovered or get to a person like me? But with [Johnny on the Spot], you don’t have to go anywhere. You can do it from your home or even your cell phone camera, so I’m giving those talented people the chance to be seen. You can be discovered anywhere, and because of that, we’re doing it online. 

THR: And you’re planning to be pretty intimately involved…

Wright: On so many other shows, the judges are attached only as long as the season lasts, and when it’s over, their relationship with the artist is, too. That’s not the case here. I’m attached to this from beginning to end. 

THR: Some would argue that there has yet to be a truly successful web series, and it’s not clear whether Idol’s Myspace auditions had all that much of an impact, what makes you think "Johnny on the Spot" will buck that trend?

Wright: I’m doing this because it’s what I do for a career, I’m not looking to get ratings or become a top 10 web series. I’d love to have that, of course, but the mission is to find talented people, so the judgment of success or failure really depends on the finished product ofthe band. If we go on, are able to sell records, build a fanbase and go on tour, then we’ve achieved our goal. 

THR: Who’ll put out the music? Is there a label deal in place?

Wright: Not yet. I don’t know what’s the future of labels, to be honest. There are plenty of bands online that aren’t spending millions of dollars on radio promotion, yet they made a connection to a fanbase and have sold hundreds of thousands of records. Ultimately, if I can find the right label partner who’s really willing to go out and promote the band then we’ll go out and do something. But I might end up giving the music away because at least if people know it, they’ll want to see them and that’s where the group will make their money. 

THR: So the album is a loss leader at this point?

Wright: This is my dilemma with the process. Signing with a record label, what does that really mean for me? Look at Justin Bieber, he’s been successful selling six-song albums, instead of having 12 tracks. So I don’t know what the album means in the future. I just know that singles represent a big part of what the youth is buying. Take “Down” by Jay Sean and Sean Kingston, it was one of the biggest records in the world, sold eight millions singles but you have album sales that are just above 250,000 and you’re like, “What’s happening here?” I can’t begin to tell you the answer.

THR: It was recently announced that Barry Weiss is leaving the RCA Label Group for Universal. You two have worked closely together for over a decade, how are you feeling about his departure? 

Wright: Not knowing what’s going to happen afterwards is always a scary position. I’ve had so much success with Barry there, and I still have artists [signed to Jive] like Justin, Ciara, and David Archuleta, that I need to talk to him about, but if it makes him happy then I’m happy. I believe in him. He’s a passionate person—it’s about music first and everything else is second, that’s what I love about him. I will do something with him wherever he goes, but he will definitely be missed by me and the artists that I represent at Jive.

THR: What will he bring to Universal?

Wright: I need to find out what exactly he’s going to be in charge of over there, but one thing about Barry is he doesn’t overspend, and because of that, he’s a profitable person. We fight all the time about a dime, so he’s frugal in the fact that he will spend money only where he thinks it’s necessary, but at the same time if you can give him a compelling argument as to why you need to do something, he’s not stonewalled about it. He knows how to run a business and promote artists… So I think he’s going to come to Universal and do his damnedest to promote and market acts, but do it in way that makes money for the company. Love him or hate him that’s his strength. It’s always worked for me.

THR: Rumors are running rampant about Doug Morris migrating from Universal to Sony, what do you make of that? 

Wright: Again, it’s just a scary time to start putting artists anywhere. And I don’t think this is the end of the executive shuffles -- we’re going to see more shake-ups and changes, so I’m going to sit back, wait and see how it falls out before I commit myself or any future unsigned artist to a label. As much as it’s about music and funding, it’s also about a belief from the person at the top.

THR: What do you make of Bieber?

Wright: I remember the first time I saw Justin Bieber with Usher at the Kids Choice Awards after-party. He was as cute as everybody had said and just from his image and look, I could see once he got some exposure, girls would fall in love with him. But he also broke a mold. Up until Justin Bieber, the only teen successes were coming from Disney, so this was the first time a major teen artist has come from a traditional record label that didn’t have the Disney platform. That was encouraging to. What does the future hold for him? That’s in his hands. I think the key thing is making a record that’s very credible. He’s got to make the number one chart position, become more than just an image but a real musician. I know he can play, but sometimes our society doesn’t give you that credit until you have a number one song. So I hope he gets that. I’m a champion. The more success he has, the better it is for everybody trying to follow in his path. It reenergizes radio and MTV and everybody else. When Hanson and the Spice Girls came through in the U.S., they opened the doors for the Backstreet Boys, ‘NSync and Britney and it was a great ride

THR: Is the Disney platform weakening or is it just a matter of it cycling through?

Wright: I think they still have the strongest platform in the world, but their alumni has gotten older. The Jonas Brothers are all over 18, so is Miley [Cyrus] and soon Selena [Gomez]. I’m sure they’re creating a pipeline of new TV shows with new musical acts, but until they come out, it seems like there’s been this lull. But I will say this about the difference between Disney and Justin. There’s no restriction on Justin, whereas Disney acts have to be wholesome and family-oriented. I’m not saying Justin is a bad boy, but he can be a little riskier and dress a little different, he can be connected to Chelsea Lately… It’s going to be interesting to see the transition into his next album cycle.

THR: With that in mind, how do the Jonas Brothers transition smoothly into adult artists? Do you have a plan? 

Wright: There are two ways young teen artists can make a push into maturity: some do it by creating great albums that talk about topics that relate to who they are and where they are at that age, and the fans that are growing with them understand and relate to that musical journey and follow them, like Justin Timberlake. Then there are those that feel like they have to do some provocative grandstanding thing, whether it’s moving to the dark side of alcohol and drugs or just declaring, “I’m an adult now.” 

You always find that those who move forward in music actually end up doing better because it’s a career move, it’s not just an image. And that’s where the Jonas Brothers are: over the next seven to 12 months, they’ll start rolling out more mature music. In their collaborations, they will always be the Jonas Brothers, but like Nick started with The Administration, you will also see Joe and Kevin do individual projects to bring their personalities out, growing from teens into men. Then collectively they will bring all those experiences back together to make a Jonas Brothers album, gaining new fans along the way.

THR: So there is a plan.

Wright: It’s just a natural progression but it feels like a plan. It’s always better to do things when you as an artist feel it’s time, not when the public is saying we don’t want you anymore. Then it’s too late.