The Miller's Tale
Mute Records | Daniel Miller
Daniel Miller, the force behind Mute, Depeche Mode and Yazoo, discloses the secret life of an A and R man.
There have been plenty of attempts to put words behind the initials A and R. Artists and Repertoire is the official line. Accept and Reject is the more cynical option, and anyone who can't come up with a ruder alternative has led a remarkably sheltered life.
The A and R man's door is the first that any hopeful band has to wedge a foot in if they're aiming to snare a recording deal. Daniel Miller is head of the Mute record company. Each week about 30 tapes arrive through the post, and after his staff have screened out the obvious non-Mute material, it's down to the boss to expose his ears and wait to be amazed.
As a producer, a home recorder in his own right and a discovering force behind Yazoo and Depeche Mode, he seemed the ideal bloke to discuss the do's and don'ts of submitting a demo.
What do you look for in a demo tape?
"I can't say that I'm looking for anything in particular, just something that's original and excites me, it could be anything. I think I'm different from other A and R people because I don't look for a commercial aspect and I don't feel answerable to someone upstairs to sign one top ten act a week."
How much are you influenced by good production?
"Well, I think I'm almost looking for badly recorded tapes. If you're a group that's based on songs, then the songs should be there whatever the production is like. They could be done on an acoustic guitar or a little Casio.
"The ones that put me off are the bands who say 'Sorry about the quality, it was only recorded on a Portastudio'. I mean, blimey, 'ONLY'... you can get really good results on a Portastudio. That puts me off right away, people starting by making excuses. The other one I hate is 'Oh, this is our tape, but it's nothing like we sound now'... so why bother to play it to me?"
What sort of tapes do you get?
"We get so many different styles sent in. There's the type of thing sent to us as Mute which tends to be electronic, and there's the tape where someone's got a list of record companies and they've sent copies everywhere... it could be another Barry Manilow, anything.
"People think that because we have Depeche and Yazoo that we're looking for another one — 'We thought we'd come to you because we sound just like them' — but however good the band is, there's no point in Mute taking on a 'copy' of what we already have.
"It's a terrible thing to say, but the number of tapes that have come through the post and have really excited me... well... I don't think there have been any.
That's the one I'm really looking forward to — when you open the mail in the morning, shove something in the cassette player, and it's brilliant."
So how DO you find new acts?
"It's really through chance more than anything. I much prefer to see people with tapes rather than getting them blind through the post. It's only fair to talk to the band about their music. It's a pretty unpleasant sort of thing to do, sending tapes to strangers; I have a lot of sympathy for them. And for the kind of people I want to deal with as artists, those tapes are very personal things."
What mistakes do bands make when they record their demos?
"The classic is that quite often, it may be their first time in a studio and they tend to throw everything in — the song is smothered by string machines, overdubs, whatever it happens to be. Some of the production is very good, people have spent time and money on it, but I personally think it's money wasted.
"They would have been better going into a rehearsal room with a Portastudio and spent longer working on the structure of the songs, rather than paying for an eight or 16 track.
"It's often in the structure of the song where the weakness lies: it rambles or there's no dynamics, it's one level all the way through and that tends to happen in larger studios.
"Inevitably, a demo is not going to be as good as a master, so what's the point in spending the money on something that's not really saying any more about your material than a four track and isn't good enough to be a master? And sometimes bands have to save up to go into a studio and delay the demos, so the songs are not so fresh."
Then you don't really expect a high degree of professionalism from the demos that come to you?
"Obviously they should carry the basic information like the names of the artists, possibly the names of the songs, though even that's not too important, and a place where they can be contacted, but I'm not really taken by fancy packaging. If I get a photo of the band I never look at it, it's the tape I'm interested in.
"It's a rough sort of guide, but it's almost as if the more professional a package is, the less interesting the music turns out to be. They are the ones that tend to be more contrived, the ones that sound like Depeche or Yazoo, the ones where the manager comes in instead of the group.
"It's the guy who walks in with a cassette and has to write his address on it before he goes... they're the ones that have something... a spirit."
So how should a band go about putting their demo together?
"A good number of songs is three or four and they should definitely start the tape with what they feel is their best song — not the one they think is the most commercial, but the one they're most happy with because that's an indication of the direction they want to move in, not what some record company or producer is telling them.
"Keep the vocals clear and don't put on too much reverb or other such stuff to muddy them up.
"And be original. In Mute there's no space for any superfluous acts of which I'm only 98 per cent sure, it has to be 100 per cent. If you've got a group that, say, sounds like JoBoxers, then by the time you've got them into the studio that whole sound will have gone out of fashion.
"You have to rely on your own taste and hope other people will agree."