Interview Transcript

Can we take a step back, maybe to the early 2000s, when you joined Island, back in the UK and you signed artists such as Amy Winehouse? What exactly is the process of scouting that talent and dealing with the artist?

Back in 2001, it was still largely down to the fact, as an A&R person, an A&R team, you have a network of relationships for managers, lawyers, agents and promoters. That network would largely be feeding stuff to you and it was about keeping your ear to the ground. In Amy Winehouse’s case, she was repped by 19, which was Simon Fuller’s company and Simon Fuller was a real rainmaker and a very successful manager, although he wasn’t really involved with her on a day-to-day basis; that was a guy called Nick Shymansksy. It came to our attention and we were blown away by her. The interesting thing is – and trust me, I have plenty of mistakes as well as the good ones, as well – one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Some people thought that she was a marginal jazz singer; we just happened to be passionate about her.

The process was, we heard music, we loved it, we put her in the studio to record some more music, to demo her. We then had several meetings with her; enough to convince us that we wanted to invest in her. Interestingly, the deal with Amy, when we actually did it, at the time, was a relatively lucrative deal. It was not a bargain. I can tell you that Blur, who at the time were known as Seymour, was signed on two singles, for probably about £3,000. History will tell you that the biggest breakout artists are, invariably, not the ones that create the biggest signings. Ed Sheeran was dropped by many companies and passed on by most companies, at some point in his career. But the public will tell you otherwise.

At the same time, we’d have scouts out on the roads, literally driving up and down the country, checking out clubs, going to colleges. Just checking out the local talent. There was a constant flow of unsolicited music that would just come in through the door. There was music submitted through known contacts, such as managers, lawyers and people who had had a relationship with the business before. I always estimated that, around that time, we were probably looking at 3,000 to 4,000 submissions a year. Interestingly, I have never signed anything that has come through on an unsolicited recording. If someone just sends something in, it’s never been signed.

Obviously, there has been a real shift towards data, as data now exists that is useful. It’s far less about schlepping up and down the motorway and checking out gigs; it’s much more about looking at data, looking at social media stats, looking at early streaming and looking at the connection between an audience and an artist. That’s a really useful tool, but you have to use it in context with lots of other things. The outliers of the world – and Amy Winehouse was an outlier – would not necessarily test very well from a data point of view. People tend to react to stuff they feel familiar with. They don’t react very well, initially, to stuff that they are unfamiliar with. But the unfamiliar tends to be the ground breaking, the interesting, the ones that really create new trends.

I always look at data being a very useful tool, but it’s not the only tool. You still have to look at that unknown factor, which is star quality, charisma or someone who is just doing something which is really fresh and unique. Far be it from me to think that we are all Steve Jobs in rainmaking, but sometimes, you build it and they will come. Data won’t give you all the answers. This may be unique to me, but I do think there is fundamental problem, now, with certain A&R where it becomes over data led. Data will pop up songs like Old Town Road, with Lil Nas X, which it did; it will pop up tracks like Roxanne, by Arizona Zervas and create enormous bidding wars. But it doesn’t break a career. These will prove to be one-off anomalies. Yes, they pay the bills, to a degree, but I think the job, certainly of an A&R person and the job of a record company is, firstly, it’s a business. It’s there to generate profit. But it’s also to grow the catalogue and you grow catalogue by finding new talent. There’s an old music business phrase, which is, you find a genius and you hang on. A lot of that is actually true. Unfortunately, geniuses are very few and far between. In between geniuses, you use data.

Do you think the record labels have an advantage in finding geniuses?

Yes, I do, just because of the network effect. This is where I’ll talk about some of the dark arts of A&R. I’m always very defensive about the A&R skillset because even people within companies themselves are not quite sure what A&R executives do. It’s a high-risk job; three strikes and you’re definitely out. You need to have to prove your worth. But there is something where you have to have an instinct for it; you have to have a feel for it. You have to have a feel where someone walks into a room and you go, okay, why would I want to invest in that particular person? I probably have this conversation on a weekly basis where people say, I could be an A&R guy. I heard that song on the radio and I knew that was a smash. I’ll say, okay, hear that song when it’s played to you on a piano or a guitar or it’s on a really crappy demo; that’s the thing. That’s when you know you can take it beyond that kind of level.

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