Multi-platinum A&R executive, songwriter, music publisher, attorney, journalist, producer, and author Jeff Blue tells an inspirational, true story of perseverance, young musical visionaries’ rise to fame, and what it takes to build a dream while confronting his own truths and showing readers how to work hard and show up for what they want in his new music novel One Step Closer.
Released December 8, 2020, One Step Closer details his career to date and the journey of finding and creating world-renowned rock band Linkin Park, giving personal details about his relationship with lead singer Chester Bennington, his own feelings of isolation and not belonging, and his family’s history of mental illness. In addition to this book, Blue has many music accomplishments in his career. Ranging from producing and songwriting, working as a music journalist for Billboard, HITS, and Entertainment Weekly, to publishing his own music magazine Crossroads which focused on unsigned artists, Blue is the perfect person to tell the story of what it takes to make it as a young musician in the sometimes brutal music industry. Regarding artist discovery and development, he has discovered, developed, and signed iconic artists such as Macy Gray and dozens of multi-platinum acts that have resulted in over 140 million albums sold, over 80 publishing deals, and hundreds of film and TV deals. Blue clearly has a knack for discovering raw talent, has changed many lives and continues to be a force in the music industry.
Between his new book, an upcoming podcast with iHeart Radio, and an upcoming six-part docuseries, there’s much to discuss with the multi-hyphenate.
We sat down with Blue to discuss the new book One Step Closer, discovering Linkin Park, destigmatizing mental illness, and more.
You’ve had such a storied career in the music industry. What made you want to write One Step Closer?
Well, its premise on the concept that everyone has dreams and I find that most people talk about them, but very few set out to achieve them, and of the people that set out to achieve them, 99% give up. The book is a testament to the fact that a young group of musicians with a singular vision persevered and followed their instincts, and overcame endless roadblocks and adversity to go on and sell the biggest debut album of the 20th century. This story should serve as an inspiration to anyone who wants to achieve their dreams.
One Step Closer details your close relationship with Chester Bennington and the discovery of the world-renowned rock band Linkin Park. What was your relationship like with the other band members?
Chester and I had a close relationship. Brad started as my intern, and he was at my bachelor party, my wedding, and all of my poker games. He was like a younger brother to me. I really took him under my wing, and he was just a great student of life, and he absorbed everything, literally from how to play poker to how to run a business. In terms of relationships with the other guys in the band, I hung out with Rob, and we would go surf. But those were the three guys I hung out with the most — Chester, Brad, and Rob. So, Mike was there in the beginning, along with Mark Wakefield, Rob Bourdon, Dave Farrell, and Joe Hahn. I met them all at the first show that the band ever played, which was at the Whiskey a Go Go. I offered them a deal immediately after just based on the fact that I loved the guys. I didn’t necessarily think the songs, and definitely, the performance, were there yet but I believed in the individuals that comprised the band and saw something there. It had a lot to do with Brad and my relationship with him. I wholeheartedly believed in Brad. I stood by my conviction that they were going to be something extremely important even though it was three years out in the future.
You’ve said that you related to Chester Bennington’s feelings of not belonging and isolation. Which conversations with him around this topic stuck out to you?
I think that any great song or great artist succeeds in the ability to engage the listener and make you feel like you belong because we’re all outsiders, and at the end of the day, great artists make us feel like we’re not alone. In the relationship between Chester and I, we were similar in many facets in that we had a lot going on in our youth and childhood. I want to clarify that they were very different issues. Mine dealt with family suicide, and he had his own demons with family. I think that inner trauma gives rise to emotive qualities that people can relate to in the lyrics and the music. The presence of the vocalist comes across in the voice. A lot of that has to do with capturing that emotion, so everyone else can hear it in the world.
Among other things in the book, you’re incredibly candid about your family’s history with mental illness and your own struggles. What made you want to be open about something that can be so personal?
It’s become a much more open topic, and it was something that haunted me my entire life and still does. The fact that a person with similar or the same DNA — it was also my great grandmother — can have depression. So, that’s something that can haunt a young person. It’s something that I felt more comfortable [with] as time went on because I was able to essentially battle that and focus on positivity and moving forward rather than turning to substances. I think it’s important for people to know that a lot of people deal with depression, but the way through and around it is to be productive, at least for me, and do things that are positive. There’s a lot of medication that can help but at the end of the day, looking back on my story about how I battled depression was by setting goals and achieving them and making a future about something I felt passionate about rather than feeling locked into an unhappy life. To clarify, that was just for me. Medication can be extremely helpful for many people.
Even when I set out to write the book, that was an extremely daunting exercise because I don’t think anybody can understand how difficult it is to write a factual based book in a chronological fashion. It is extremely difficult, and that in and of itself caused a lot of stress. But setting a goal with a positive, inspirational message in mind got me through that hurdle. Not only did writing the book bring up a lot of mental anguish because it brought up all the ups and downs of the entire process of getting this band launched and all the rejections because I received the rejections before the band did. When the band got passed on, the rejection was directed towards me. I had to express it to the band, so I was on the frontline, but in writing the book, it became apparent to me that the entire focus should be on inspiration and what can be learned from perseverance and dedication. Towards the end, the book guided itself towards that message of inspiration.
Writing the book in itself was a journey that taught me the lessons to get me through the next hard part of my life. People think, “oh, once I’m done with this, life is going to be easy,” and that’s just a fallacy. There’s always going to be something that’s waiting right around the corner because that’s what life is, and it’s a rollercoaster ride. You gotta constantly exercise the concept of perseverance for the greater good and look towards the future, not towards the past.
At its heart, your book One Step Closer is about young musicians achieving their dreams and overcoming roadblocks that they’ll encounter along the way. What’ roadblocks should aspiring young musicians look out for?
In any endeavor, all of us as human beings are gonna be rejected. It’s almost an inevitable fact of life that whenever you set out to achieve anything that you’re gonna get rejected at least once. In the case of Linkin Park, they were rejected 44 times, and then when we actually had our record label, we were rejected once again and almost lost our record deal. Artists and artisans are always going to have judgment thrown on them. So, there’s no way to really avoid rejection because no matter what you do, somebody’s going to like one thing and not another, and then the next person is going to judge you, is going to like the exact opposite. So, you’ve got to set your goals and follow your own vision, instinct, and faith because that’s what bred into authenticity. If you’re doing music or any type of art to please others and do what other people think is popular, then you’ll never achieve that authentic sound, which creates superstars. You may be successful, but you won’t be that unique artist to break barriers down.
The other roadblock is that as an artist in this era, so much is predicated on social media. It sometimes serves as a roadblock to focusing on the actual art as opposed to your marketing, and that’s unfortunate. In this era, you’ve gotta be able to balance both. You gotta have faith in yourself and the ability to persevere and speak your truth because it’s way too easy to give up. That’s, unfortunately, what a lot of talented individuals do. The difference between the superstars and everyone else is that there may be a lot more talented people than the superstars, but the superstars are the ones that don’t give up and push through the roadblocks.
You’ve discovered such great talents in your career, like Macy Gray, and have sold over 140 million albums, among other things. In your opinion, what constitutes raw talent?
I would start off with an iconic voice or sound that’s unique and identifiable, and that could be a voice or a guitar tone. Then authenticity where the artist speaks their truth, and it’s believable. The believability factor is the highest on my qualifications on what I look for. You have to believe that the artist is directly speaking to you as if they’re a friend. Then, on top of that, you need star power and the ability to engage with the listener, a sense of urgency, what I call goosebumps, hit songs, and then, as I stated before, the ability of the artist to make you feel like you belong and that you’re not an outsider. That could depend on their performance and/or lyrics and the ability to communicate that in a believable way or deliver a believable message that you really connect with. That’s what I look for.
You’re currently producing a six-part docuseries and are gearing up for a new iHeart Radio podcast. Can you tell us more about these projects?
I’m doing a 10-part video accompaniment along with Linkin Park Live, which is a fan site, for the book, along with the band’s original manager, Rob McDermott. Then I have the docuseries which is a history of A&R from the ’60s to the present day and how socioeconomic factors play into the signings of our favorite artists and how they shaped the culture of that time. I also have a psychological thriller that I wrote that is in the process of finding a home. It’s a screenplay. Then I have the podcast with a radio personality on iHeart Radio, and ironically he was the first vocalist I ever signed to Zomba outside of my own band. I discovered him when he was 17 in London, and he became a really big radio personality in the United States, and we’re doing this together. So, we discuss everything music-related. It’s really interesting, and it’s fun because we’ve known each other since 1996. I believe he’s the head rock guy for iHeart Radio.
With many new projects on the horizon, Jeff Blue continues to be a game-changer in the music industry. As for One Step Closer, the first half of the book, according to Jeff Blue, is “puppies and ice cream,” while the second half is darker and dramatic. To find more of Jeff’s work, you can find him on his website and on Instagram.