Linkin Park remains one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They’ve sold over 100 million records worldwide, are one of the world’s best-selling artists, and have numerous hit singles, but it wasn’t always like this. Before they were selling out stadiums and earning platinum records, they were the fledging Xero, a young band who struggled to get anyone to pay attention to them. A&R executive Jeff Blue remembers these days all too well. He’s the A&R rep who diligently pushed the band and kept believing in them when no one else did. Blue recounts the journey in his new book One Step Closer: From Xero to #1: Becoming Linkin Park. He sat down with GENRE IS DEAD! to talk about overcoming constant rejection, the struggle to record Hybrid Theory, and why he never gave up on Linkin Park.
GENRE IS DEAD!: Your new book talks about the making of Linkin Park and also provides an inside look at the music business. Why was now the right time to write this book?
Jeff Blue: When Chester [Bennington] passed away, their original manager Rob McDermott and I started reminiscing. We realized it was gonna be Hybrid Theory’s 20th anniversary, so I started reconnecting with everybody. After the funeral, I went back into my garage and started pulling stuff out. And I couldn’t believe I saved everything – every fax, napkin, email, CDs, cassettes, and all the journals I kept when I first started in the business back in 1995. I kept up with it judiciously until about 2004 when I started doing so many different things.
As I started going through everything, I realized there was an incredibly inspirational story about this journey which started from passion and went into an amazing series of overcoming adversity and roadblocks. Ironically, I was asked to write a book back in 2006 by Donald Passman’s publisher who did All You Need To Know About the Music Business. He knew my story with Linkin Park and how we had to overcome rejection after rejection and ended up getting a record deal. I tried to write a book about a dozen times and it’s freaking hard, especially when you’re trying to incorporate lessons about the music business and tell a true journey. But I really did this as an ode to the band and to Warner Bros and to myself because it was an amazing story.
When I sat down to write this, I realized everybody has dreams and everybody talks about their dreams, but few set out to achieve them. Almost everyone gives up after a few rejections. The difference is Linkin Park and I had 44 rejections, so imagine being told 44 times you’re not good enough, this has been done before, you’re not a star – it’s torture. This story is about perseverance, being authentic, and listening to your gut. In the end, talent and drive can achieve pretty much anything.
GID: It’s wild to think a band like Linkin Park, who are now one of the biggest rock bands out there, got rejected so many times.
JB: I lived that. I was their publisher. I signed them after their very first show – that’s unheard of. So, my belief was extremely early. I was initially introduced to them while teaching at UCLA; I hired [guitarist] Brad Delson as my intern. That’s an incredible story to begin with about his confidence and faith and his path. That also brings up the concept of the book. You never know when life is going to line up just perfectly enough so you can walk right into your future. This book really goes into how to recognize those moments and be prepared to take advantage of them.
[At that time] I struggled to find the path that would lead me to ultimate happiness and fulfillment. Once I got the job at Zomba Publishing it seemed like things started to click. It was rough to begin with, but I was finding my own path and my own comfort in the music business because I had no experience whatsoever. I taught myself everything and all of a sudden things started to click. I think that’s what life is; when you find your niche and experience happiness, because the truth is money can’t buy that. I found happiness in discovering and developing talent. It didn’t matter how much money I made. It was very fulfilling.
GID: Was it difficult revisiting all that memorabilia you mentioned, especially considering Chester’s death?
JB: As an executive and somebody so invested in the band, it took a toll on me. I chose to go to Warner Bros because the guy who hired me liked the band and nobody else at any other record label liked them. It took me nine months to get out of my contract with Zomba and by the time I arrived at Warner the guy who hired me was replaced with the guy who passed on the band three times and didn’t really care for me. When we started making the record we were almost dropped, and I was almost fired because my boss didn’t believe in the band. That was an extremely stressful time.
So, there was a lot of drama and stress, things nobody really sees behind the scenes. I had to balance the demand and the disappointment from my boss, deal with the band, and save the entire project. A lot of mental anguish went into that. On top of that, I went through my journal and saw stuff my boss did to me that I blacked out. I didn’t include any of that in the book, but it was just a lot of negative politics I dealt with at the label. And then delivering the album and suddenly going from a band nobody really wanted to everybody thinks we have hit singles was an insane roller coaster ride.
GID: The book goes into some of the difficult decisions you made when it came to the band like picking a new singer, changing their name, and even tweaking their stage presence. You also talk about how you repackaged Macy Gray to land her a deal. While it may be necessary, it sounds like with too much interference it could risk being something too manufactured. When making these decisions, how do ensure you retain that spark or that thing that makes an artist special?
JB: First and foremost, the artist has to maintain their own authenticity and integrity. That can never be messed with. In terms of Macy Gray, her sound had evolved, and people associated her name with something nobody liked. Changing her name was a great thing because it made people give her another chance. We changed Linkin Park’s name because Chester came in and they wanted a fresh start. Nobody would listen to the band as Xero because every label had passed. Changing the name helped them, but people still knew it was Xero. We still had a negative stigma attached.
In regard to replacing [original singer] Mark Wakefield, that was a decision that evolved as the band got stronger. We had an offer from Geffen Records. Danny Hayes, Scott Herrington, and I decided we should let the band do what they want. They played this not-so-great show at the Whiskey a Go Go where every iconic name from Clive Davis to Tommy Mottola attended and there was a mass exit midway through the show. After that, it was clear something needed to be done if the band were to move forward because nobody wanted to hear about them anymore. I believed the weakness was the lead vocalist. Mind you, finding a new vocalist is the hardest thing to do in any band because that’s basically the main sound. We had Mike Shinoda who is an amazing rapper, but the chemistry which made this band unique was having two vocalists. That’s what made this special. Finding a vocalist who could elevate Mike’s performance and could sing melody was like finding a needle in a haystack. But it needed to be done because I owed it to everyone involved. If I was gonna be the bad guy, I had to be the bad guy. Somebody’s gotta make those executive decisions. But it turned out to be great because I was able to find Chester.