When The Going Gets Tough
Recording your own music is only the first step to getting it heard; to do that, you need to deal with A&R people at record companies. Paul Tingen meets them, and discovers why so few bands succeed in impressing them.
To get a record contract, you need to deal with some of the toughest people in the music business - the A&R managers. What makes A&R people tick, and what's the best way of approaching them?
YOU'RE AN AMBITIOUS musician. You know that, to have your ambition realised, you're going to have to deal with people. Lots of them. From musical instrument retailers, studio engineers and pub landlords, to managers, agents, publishers, and... record company executives. Of the last group, the most important person you'll be dealing with is the A&R manager.
For the uneducated, A&R (it stands for "Artist & Repertoire") managers are the people who sign new acts, who decide which music is profitable and which is unprofitable, who screen your attitude more thoroughly than anyone else, and who are likely to interfere with your music more than anyone else.
It's on A&R people that good communication - any communication - between you and your company depends.
Ask any A&R manager which qualities an artist should have, and chances are you'll hear a similar story.
"The right combination of music and image, that's what I'm looking for", says Mark Dean, who has his own record label, working under the auspices of Virgin. He's only 25, but already he's discovered ABC, Wham! and Soft Cell. "The whole thing has to be packaged. Take for example Chris Rea. His songs are as good as George Michael's, but he has neither his style or his attitude."
To A&R people, music, image and attitude are the three qualities, and each is equally important as any other. Dean explains:
"I like good songs. I like songs with style. But if a band has no idea about the image they want to project, if they don't know what to tell the press, then they can forget it. It's all a question of attitude; I believe in arrogance and attitude. An artist should believe in what he's doing."
So, "Can they handle chat shows?", and "Will they make a great photograph?" are some of the questions A&R managers will ask themselves of you as soon as you approach them.
Or, as Tracy Bennett of London Records puts it: "There's no point in making a great record and being a fool on TV."
Of course, image and attitude form only part of what's under scrutiny here. Refreshingly - at a time when the two above qualities seem to be more crucial than ever — all the A&R people I interviewed had something (usually a number of things) to say on the subject of music. And all of them, curiously, made some comment about music having to be "properly meant". Leaving aside those bands put together purely for commercial reasons — and assuming that relatively few of MT's readers fall into that category — I'll leave it to the A&R managers to stress the important points. The two most important? "Talent" and "ambition".
Take Muff Winwood, Britain's most renowned A&R person. He was a musician with brother Steve in the Spencer Davis Group, became an A&R man for Island, and later had a successful career as an independent record producer, producing Dire Straits and Sparks, among others. Since 1978 he's been Head of A&R of CBS London, one of the most prestigious posts in the business.
Having been a musician himself (like, again refreshingly, many of his colleagues), he says he doesn't believe in the idea of talented songwriters failing to make it as artists because of the toughness of the business, or because they haven't had the required looks.
"If you have to write music here (points at his chest), and you have to make your music heard, then there is nothing that can stop you. You just have to do it, just like a sex maniac. You can't control yourself.
"If you're a genius, then you're playing in local bands long before you've left school. You'll do anything to get your music out.
"Compare it with what runners go through. They'll run as many races as they can possibly attend. They don't stay at home. If you're staying at home you aren't a genius, because genius comes out and forces its way through. Greatness rises to the surface. That's why nothing remains hidden."
Food for thought, perhaps, if you're spending a lot of time daydreaming at home with your Portastudio.
As far as Winwood is concerned, "greatness" might be any kind of artistic quality. Since CBS is a big multinational company that sells and distributes records worldwide, they can also keep great instrumentalists like Wynton Marsalis and composers like Philip Glass under contract. They make what Winwood calls "minority music", and with CBS handling them, they can sell millions of records worldwide — gradually.
"If you are head and shoulders above the rest", Winwood asserts, "your records are always saleable, whether you're a guitarist, a saxophonist or a rock singer. It's like writing or painting. There's always a market for art. The only thing which counts for us is finding artists who last long and who sell millions of records worldwide. And with records I mean albums, because only albums make money."
BUT FOR SMALLER companies, unless they specialise in "minority music", this approach is simply not feasible. At London Records, a smaller company set up by Tracy Bennet and Roger Amer, formerly of Phonogram, maintaining an impressive track record is of great importance. Every record London release has to sell, and that's that.
Bennett, the man who discovered Bronski Beat, explains why: "A track record is the ratio of the number of singles you've released to the number that have charted. A&R people live and die with their track record, because if it's too low, you're finished. Mine is one of the highest in the business, and it has to be, because as a relatively small company we just can't afford to dump the market with several singles and then see which one of them happens. Making a single and promoting it is too expensive for that."
But regardless of what a specific company is after, be it worldwide album sales or instant hit singles, "talent" or "arrogance", how do they find the artists they want? Through what procedures do they contact the people who are going to bring them fame and fortune? In other words, how do they find you?
To begin with, you should know something about them. The heads of A&R at CBS and London Records each have four people working under them in their department, despite the difference in their companies' size. Winwood calls his team "A&R men", Bennet "talent scouts". But Mark Dean works alone, and John Hollingsworth of WEA calls himself an A&R Manager, working together with four colleagues under Head of A&R, Matt Hole.
At CBS and WEA, both large multinational companies, Winwood and Hole are in charge, and every major decision has to go through them. Most of the fieldwork is done by their subordinates.
Winwood: "They scan the hundreds of tapes we receive every week, and make appointments with bands. When they find a group particularly interesting they come and talk with me and play me the tape." Record companies have contacts all over the country. They pick up tips from lawyers, publishers or managers, and have their informants in various places to keep an eye on local scenes.
For Tracy Bennet, it's his talent scouts which provide him with a lot of ground-level information: "They go out and spend their time in clubs in London, Belfast or Manchester and get to know everyone. So when something does evolve, hopefully we are there. A kid lately wrote to me from Manchester asking me for a job, and he listed 22 local bands. I went down to Steve's office and said 'Manchester' and read out those 22 names. He knew 20 of them. That's pretty good considering they were very local bands."
Winwood: "Normally, if a band is of any importance, we are aware of its existence long before their demo-tape reaches us."
If all this sounds to you as if Britain's aspiring pop industry is trapped in a web of record company spies and informants, then you're probably right. Remember that this is big business, and that record companies are dependent on you to make their millions. So when you start to spread your wings and/or display a commercially viable talent, each label wants to be the first to get hold of you, before any of the other companies can get a slice of the action.
IF YOU HAVEN'T, as yet, got the hounds of the major record labels sniffing round your feet, you still need to know how to get your name, your act, and your music noticed.
"The obvious thing is to put four songs on a demo-tape, make a presentable biography, and send it to a record company. That's the usual way, and sometimes it works: Tears For Fears came through the post."
Tracy Bennet, London
Let's say you've just finished your demo-tape on your Portastudio in your front room (whatever Muff Winwood might say). What do you do? How do you make the record companies find you?
Tracy Bennet sighs when I put the question to him and answers: "There are a million and one routes. I mean, how do you become President of the United States? Do you become a film star or do you first try to win the local elections? There are so many ways of doing it. The obvious answer is: put four reasonably recorded songs on a demo-tape, make a biography that's presentable, send it to a record company and try to get appointments with them. That's the usual way, and sometimes it works. It worked for Tears For Fears. They came through the post."
Muff Winwood, however, doesn't bother with biographies or photographs in the first instance.
"I only listen to the demo, and if I like it I go and see the band. Yesterday I was with a band, at their home in a street, and they played for me in their garage."
A demo-tape can be recorded on four-, eight-, 16- or 24-track. Usually a reasonable eight- or 16-track recording, which gives a good idea of the atmosphere and potential of your music, is sufficient. A four-track recording that gets the bare bones of a song across might do as well, but if it's very basic, beware, because you end up relying on A&R managers' skill to listen for the content of a song, not its form.
And Tracy Bennet warns: "I wouldn't rely on any A&R manager's abilities, purely because there are 150 singles released a week and only four or five happen. Therefore the people who're signing groups are not exactly good at their job."
Which only goes to illustrate one basic rule about the record business: there are no rules. In the end, getting a record contract could end up like reinventing the wheel.
It does help, though, to stick some background information about yourself with your tape, plus a photograph or three and some reasonably tasteful packaging, if only to give the label some clue as to your attitude and possible image.
After you've sent your stuff (including a phone number, of course), don't just sit and wait — phone to make an appointment.
Be confident, cocky, arrogant — whatever it takes. John Hollingsworth's scouts see everybody who phones. Having your tape played and listened to while you sit there with an A&R person in an A&R office obviously increases your chances of having your music understood, if nothing else.
Before you go, make sure you and your band have a clear vision of what you want. Which producers do you want to work with? What are you trying to convey with your music? Do you want to be a political band, or the next A-Ha?
It also helps to sift out which record companies suit you and which ones don't, because they all work differently and deal with different kinds of artists and markets. Have a look at the charts and compare the different labels and their artists.
Tracy Bennet, for example, claims he's into "genuine music", and with Bronski Beat, The Communards, Blancmange and the Fine Young Cannibals under his wing, you get an idea of what he's talking about.
John Hollingsworth wants "to present more controversial music to a wider audience than it could get through an independent"; to prove his point, he's signed semi-political band Red Box and Dutch feminist singer Mathilde Santing.
You might even try the same record company more than once, sorting out the different people who work there.
It's handy, of course, if you manage to get straight to the top and see someone like Winwood at CBS. But unless they've heard of you and have an interest in you, it's unlikely you'll get to talk to them straight away. And these people employ secretaries who tend to be pretty tough, especially after they've discovered you're offering a tape. But you can always try.
Another method is not to send your tape first, but start with phoning and make an appointment to present your tape and yourself face to face. Or do it the way an American salesman would: phone to get yourself noticed, send your tape, and phone again.
IN REALITY, THOUGH, all these approaches are relatively unimportant compared with the music you're presenting, and the buzz which you've created. Tracy Bennet hits the nail on the head:
"The thing is to force the attention of the record companies on you. The best way of doing that is to get a great demo and then not to rely just on that, because we get hundreds of tapes sent to us a week. You've got to have something else. You can do it like Sigue Sigue Sputnik — get the image together and the friends, create a hype. Or get the local club scene happening and create a live following. Or get a good manager. They help a lot, but I don't think there are a lot of good managers in this country. If I get a call from a good manager, I'll go and see him and listen to the bands he wants me to get interested in."
OK. So you've taken one of the routes suggested above — perhaps a combination of several - and been in one A&R office and stirred some interest from one record company. They've even bothered to phone you back, which is rare and always a good sign.
What happens next? As ever, there are various options. Your record company might show interest, yet still be unsure whether they actually want to sign you up. A common procedure at this stage is that you may get given a couple of thousand pounds and told to come back with a better demo. Usually the label will take an option on that recording (it in fact becomes their property), though they are of course aware of the risk that you can make a copy and play it to a rival company.
This kind of "second demo" recording gives the label an idea of what working with you will be like. With luck, it will also give them more insight into the potential of your music. Naturally, it should also teach you a lot about the record company as well, and you might decide, suddenly, that you don't like the atmosphere of the label, or that you wouldn't trust the A&R manager to buy you a quarter-pounder.
If, on the other hand, your initial demo gives the company sufficient idea of what your music is about, the first meeting is followed by several others, again to explore what both sides want, and to see whether you can work with each other. Sometimes a record company and an act fall out because the label can't work with the group's manager. A&M Records, for example, dropped the Sex Pistols because they didn't think that they could work with Malcolm McLaren.
As soon as it starts to look as if a contract may be looming, a record company will usually give you the names of various independent lawyers to help you with negotiating. This is an expensive thing to do, and if for some reason the contract doesn't happen, you can end up facing some pretty fat legal fees that need to be paid.
But whatever you may face if things go wrong, it's better than being fleeced by a record company into signing your life away for a pittance. And in any case, most record labels these days simply don't attempt to blind new signings with solicitors' jargonese and endless quantities of small print. They know contracts have a profound impact on an artist's life, and they want to make sure you understand what you're signing, rather than risk a judge ruling the contract null and void because you clearly had no idea what the contract was about.
Most long-term contracts sign you for a period of between five and eight years, or at least give the record company an option on your work for that period. But they can still drop you after releasing three singles and not put out anything else. A long-term deal is almost always preferable to a short-term one, so it's important that a company believes in you enough to stick with you, even if success is taking its time.
"I don't like signing a band for a few singles; I'd rather sign a band which I think will last a long time... If the first album doesn't happen, we keep on supporting the group."
Muff Winwood, CBS
Muff Winwood says that staying with a band is part of his policy in general.
"I don't like signing a band for just a few singles. I'd rather sign a band which I think will last a long time. Anyone who signs with us always signs for an option of 10 albums. If the first album doesn't happen, then we keep on supporting a group.
"Take Prefab Sprout. When they came here a couple of years ago, I knew that success was a long-term matter. But I loved them and had them make a very cheap first album, so that they didn't lose too much money. Then came the second album, Steve McQueen, produced by Thomas Dolby, and again we were very careful with our budget. That sold well over 100,000 copies, but we still didn't really break through. Now the point is to get Prefab Sprout a Top 5 hit single, and then sell a million albums a year. And I will stick with them until we've achieved that."
Tracy Bennet tells a similar story.
"We sign an act for eight years, with options all down the line. Usually we start with releasing a couple of singles or a minialbum, just to see how it's going. Then we have options to release more, so we're roughly in control of the act's career all the time. We can pull out at any stage, though so far we haven't actually dropped anybody."
THE OTHER THING about a contract is that, unless you hand the company a finished recording which they can then simply release and market, it'll get you advances for recording, equipment and often day-to-day living. These advances will be deducted from your royalties once they start coming in, so you won't see any money from your records until they've been paid off. Advances can add up to very large sums indeed.
Winwood: "From the moment we sign a group, it means an investment for us of a quarter of a million pounds. Count it out: the livelihood of a band and its manager, some decent equipment, and organising a tour together will cost us at least £100,000. Recording an album requires the same figure, and that's not to mention the video clip and all kinds of other expenses."
All this is usually counted as part of an advance, apart from the promo video, the cost of which is usually shared between label and band.
London Records have a slightly different policy from CBS.
Bennett: "Our advances aren't too wonderful. We don't go around throwing lots of money like CBS. But our royalties are the highest in the business. Depending on what act, we usually give the top-rate Phonogram royalty, which is about 10-12% of the retail price."
The actual amount of your advance and the budgeting for recording, marketing and publicity relate directly to the number of records a company expects your act to sell. And all kinds of factors make their presence felt here. What kind of market will the label aim you at? Teenagers? The clubs? A "serious" audience in the 25-30 age group? What kind of producer will be engaged, and which video director? The list goes on.
Few aspiring musicians realise this, but it's at this "post-contract" stage that the A&R person who signed you starts to play an even more crucial role than before.
But the A&R managers' position here is an ambiguous one. On the one hand, they represent the record company to you and will bother you with commercial considerations at moments when you least want to hear them. On the other hand, they're your representatives within the company, lobbying for you, trying to get the budget as high as possible and, if they respect you, defending your artistic freedom.
John Hollingsworth of WEA is part of a new generation of A&R managers. He's 25 and, after a history of working for independent labels like Cherry Red, he started working for WEA two years ago. As part of the A&R team working under Matt Hole, he's well aware of his delicate position:
"As an A&R manager, I'm responsible if things go wrong. One of the paradoxes of working in a large multinational company is that when a group is successful, everybody wants to be part of the success, so you have to make sure that everybody knows a band is yours and that you did the work on them and that the credit comes to you, because the people above often try to steal the credit. On the other hand, if things go wrong, they always end up on your shoulders, even if they weren't your idea. It's part of the apprenticeship that you have to learn to take shit all the time.
"The system at WEA is that when you sign a band, you're personally responsible for everything to do with them. You're the label manager, you're the artistic director, you're everything the band needs."
So even if you're lucky enough to have stumbled across an A&R manager who really believes in you, and even if they've managed to persuade the whole A&R staff to give them a bonus for signing you, they've only won a battle, not the war. So have you.
John Hollingsworth again: "I have to consult lots of people, because I have to get money out of them. No A&R man gets a blanco budget. Only the A&R department has an overall budget over which its director has control. If I find the three best bands in Britain and I need a million pounds to sign them all, then I get that million and nobody else will get anything.
If I come up with vague plans for a vague band then the money will be accordingly vague. When I sign a band I really have to think of the structure of the company: unless I think that by the time I'm going to put out records I can win all the people over, it's not a very good idea. The promotion and marketing department, the sales department, sales representatives and area managers, they all have to believe in it, otherwise it's not going to work, unless you've got phenomenal support from the press and TV. And that, as with The Smiths and ABC, will only happen once or twice in your career if you're lucky.
"My job is to represent the artist in the building and defend their artistic vision and wishes, because sometimes other people here don't realise the uniqueness of a certain artist and try to mould them into something they're not. That's an aspect of the job which artists seldom see."
One aspect of an A&R manager's job which artists always see, and which often results in conflict, is the meddling with a band's music and career. If you get signed up, your A&R person will assume the responsibility of a second manager (some A&R people, like Hollingsworth, don't even accept a manager working next to them because they don't want any sharing of responsibility), someone who deals with publicity, maps out a strategy, suggests photographers, helps create the image, gets you on TV and in magazines, and most important of all, has a big say in the direction your music is to take.
Muff Winwood: "A&R people are like executive producers. They're involved in finding the right producer and finding the right studio. They listen to the songs while they're being built up in the studio. They choose the material which gets on the records and give their opinion on the various mixes and arrangements of songs. Really you're like a producer, only you don't do all the work!"
This is why it's so important for a band and their A&R manager to understand each other, and to be able to work together. A certain amount of mutual trust is essential, and it's vital that you and your A&R manager have similar goals.
Hollingsworth: "Artists also want to be successful and sell lots of records. It's only the artistic price they're willing to pay that varies. So be prepared for a hard struggle all along the way.
"As a little boy I always wondered what it would be like to be involved in the record industry and have hit records. Now I'm having hit records and I'm involved in the music industry and I'm a key person for certain people in a large company. And it's not that great. It's a lot of hard work and I don't even earn a lot of money, but I love doing it. I love success. I love working with creative people. I love artists. I'm not very creative myself, so I like to be surrounded by stylists, singers and musicians.
"But the only way to survive in this industry is to be ruthless. I'll tread on as many people's heads as I think is necessary to succeed. That's within the record company - artists are different. Without the artists' trust and support I'll never get anywhere, but the record company respects only ruthlessness, loyalty and money."
Or, as Muff Winwood would put it: "It's a very tough business."
Feature by Paul Tingen
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