When Ariana Grande wanted to surprise fans and drop “7 Rings” at the last minute on the weekend, she called Wendy Goldstein. When Nick Jonas wanted a No. 1 track on the Billboard Hot 100 for the Jonas Brothers reunion album, Happiness Begins, he turned to Wendy Goldstein. Goldstein is President of West Coast operations at Republic Records and one of only a few A&R (artists and repertoire) women in the music industry. Since Grande was signed to Republic at 16, ten years ago, she’s been working with Goldstein to develop her career. Goldstein personally signed Joe Jonas and his spinoff band DNCE, who bowed in 2016. When the JoBros management floated the idea of a reunion to the label, she was the first person they called.
Being a successful pop star comes with a lot of work behind the scenes. There’s a whole network of people who make albums happen with an artist, including songwriters and producers. The first stop, however, is with someone like Goldstein on the A&R team to figure out the direction of an album and hook an artist up with the best songwriters and producers.
For the Jonas Brothers, that meant starting from scratch. The guys hadn’t released a new album together since 2010, and a lot had changed — especially in their personal lives, with Joe and Nick in the midst of very public weddings. Goldstein spent her Christmas break last year online looking at their social presence and media coverage, while she thought about how to tap into that zeitgeist on their album. “Celebrity gets people to listen to it and click on it once, but if it doesn’t resonate with them they’re on to the next,” Goldstein tells Refinery29. “I also make sure the narrative of the music aligns with their lives, especially when they’re so public. Given that this is a comeback and they were so beloved, I felt like they owed it to their fans to deliver an amazing album.”
Goldstein mentions the one thing that the siblings wanted going into the album for themselves, as well. “One thing that Nick reminded me of, and that was very important to him, is that the Jonas Brothers, for as big as they were, never had a legitimate Hot 100 single that was a radio hit. So, our sights got set on not only making the album but having a No. 1 single,” Goldstein says. She set out to find their “career-defining monster single,” and they found it in “Sucker.” Thanks to their lead single, the guys managed to land that elusive No. 1 radio hit and the No. 1 album in the country as well — all firsts for the band. The key, Goldstein asserts, was finding the best producer in Ryan Tedder and the best co-writers to work with the trio. “One of the things as an A&R that I always look for is: what's missing in the marketplace,” Goldstein reveals. “What void are you filling? I feel that's such a great approach because there's always room for something slightly different.”
Something different was the name of the game when Grande told Goldstein and the rest of her team that she wanted to stay in the studio to work through one of the toughest times in her life. Following the Manchester bombing, she delivered Sweetener in August 2018 — and a blitz of press attention around her fast engagement and breakup with Pete Davidson and the death of Mac Miller in September 2018. “The truth is, when we went in, we didn’t have any expectations,” Goldstein says. “It was, in my mind, therapy for her.”
The sample [in "7 Rings"] got denied twice, and I made it my personal business to get it cleared. I was not having a no.
That album was followed, on November 3, 2018, by “thank u, next.” It was an unheard of quick turn-around for a new single, and new album of the same title that would come out in February of 2019 (the whole thing was done between October and December of 2018). And Goldstein knew an even bigger song was on deck next. Though “7 Rings” is the stuff of pop music legend now, Goldstein says it almost didn’t happen at all because the Rogers & Hammerstein estate wouldn’t allow her to pair new lyrics with the music. “The sample got denied twice, and I made it my personal business to get it cleared. I was not having a no,” Goldstein says in a tone that’s both amused and weary. In the end, they changed the rules for Grande and, according to Goldstein, today no one is happier about the success of the song than their estate because “they took a big piece” of the publishing royalties.
Back in late January of 2019, Goldstein got a call from Grande, who wanted to give the song to fans early and drop it on the coming weekend, which was less than a week away. The song wasn’t mixed (Goldstein got it done) and the song was in the earbuds of Grande fans everywhere on February 1. Her release plan around thank u, next, the album (which dropped the following week), changed the game for releases. Typically, pop music would demand a year-long album cycle to promote and tour behind. But Grande, Goldstein notes, was releasing songs “like a rapper does it” by being “reactionary to things going on in her life.” It was real, raw, and unwilling to follow the tried-and-true record release model. thank u, next’s first week sales were the best of Grande’s career so far, landing her on top of the Billboard 200 and garnering the most first week streams ever for an album by a woman and all pop albums. What Goldstein and Grande did with that album changed what can work for pop music drops.
For Goldstein, it’s always been about respecting Grande’s vision while helping to shape it. Grande was the youngest artist Goldstein had ever worked with, being only 16 when she signed to Republic ten years ago. “A lot of what we did with her was trial and error,” Goldstein says, remembering that she convinced Grande not to release anything until she was 18 so that the world of available songs was more open to her, and have her material or image be restricted because she was an underaged, wholesome Nickelodeon star. “In 2012 or 13 when[“The Way”] came out you had the big Taylor Swift/Max Martin and Katy Perry/Dr. Luke records, so how was this new young girl going to get noticed?” Goldstein reminisces. “Not by doing the same thing, but by doing something different.”
Goldstein’s big takeaway with Grande was to respect the things that made her different. “When we signed her, we asked who are your favourite artists?” Goldstein remembers. “She said India.Arie and Imogene Heap, very left. She wasn’t necessarily a pop music fan.” Today, we know those left-leaning music preferences are Grande’s hallmark. But for Goldstein, she had to watch it play out to figure out how Grande would find her space in pop music.
“She said something to me when we were out to dinner [during the Sweetener tour.] She told me, ‘you never said, your next album is going to sound like this. You always let me decide and help me execute to the best of my ability,’” Goldstein recalls. And that is precisely her job: listen to what artists want, from a No. 1 single to a career as a pop diva, and help them do it.