The magic words of A&R: storytelling and market knowledge


The final morning of the Midem conference included a panel on how to sign and develop artists, as digital’s impact grows on both discovery and consumption.

Speakers were Vidhi Gandhi (A&R at Ninja Tune); Patrik Larsson (A&R at Playground Scandinavia); Daniel Miller (founder and chairman of Mute; and Thaddeus Rudd (co-president and co-founder, Mom+Pop). The panel was moderated by freelance journalist Rhian Jones.

How is digital affecting artist discovery?

Vidhi Gandhi: “It has made it very interesting and it’s a lot more competitive. There’s a lot more music out there. But it’s made it harder to find talent that will have a successful career.”

Patrik Larsson: “In Sweden, physical is dead and downloads have never worked. It’s all about streaming. Spotify is about 99.9% of our market. At the core of A&R is goosebumps, heart, stomach, a little bit of brain and a little bit of facts and data.”

Daniel Miller: “We have always been international. [Digital] lets you hear international music on a much broader level. In terms of using data in decision-making, that doesn’t come into for it for us. We don’t ignore it but it’s not a major part of the decision-making process. Gut reaction and emotional feeling are the most important things and you take it from there. When you find a new artist, there usually is no data – it’s only 10 people at a gig.”

Thaddeus Rudd: “Our process is music first. We would never sign artists because the numbers are exciting. We factor in what stage the artist’s career is at. We would sign an act with no data if they were playing shows and people were coming to them.”

How do you ensure you get ROI when signing an act?

Thaddeus Rudd: “We would be reluctant to get involved in acts where we didn’t think we could get them to a meaningful level of a career. We are careful. We usually sign them for several records and so we try and ensure they don’t get poached by a major label.”

Patrik Larsson: “We stay away from bidding wars. We are not about that one song. We are about those 12 songs and where they will be 12 or 24 months from now […] We take our time and we have a long dating period before we get married to an artist […] We are not about big advances – because we usually get there early […] It’s about a sane investment over a long period of time. That makes it scalable for us.”

Daniel Miller: “It is not about protecting ourselves against major labels […] You can go very wrong, not matter how great the music is, if all the other stars are not aligned.”

How is streaming changing things for breaking acts?

Patrik Larsson: “The good thing about Spotify is that it is a distribution model and radio in one […] They really take a chance on new music all the time. They often take a lot of new music and put it in the system to give it a chance. They check the skip rate and if it is doing well they will give it a chance […] It is a great system – when it works.”

Daniel Miller: “If you have one track that is doing well, it doesn’t mean the artist is doing well. It just means the track is doing well.”

Thaddeus Rudd: “When one song becomes a big deal on Spotify, it’s a great opportunity but it’s also a huge pressure.”

Patrik Larsson: “One thing about Spotify is that it is very faceless and very artist-less. There are a lot of tracks on top of each other and lots of covers included in playlists. You can have a hit with a song with millions of streams, but no one knows who the artists is.”

Vidhi Gandhi: “That one hit is just one part of that story […] Long and successful careers take a lot of time and they take a lot of slog […] That is the only way acts and labels can protect themselves from short-termism.”

Do you sign acts for singles or albums?

Daniel Miller: “We have been in the track business with Nova Mute as it was a techno label. But because of who we are, the way we are and the way we work that turned into album deals […] They started off as one-off 12-inches […] If you think they have the potential to become album acts, you work on that.”

Working locally and globally

Patrik Larsson: “For stuff that is in English, even if it is a local artist, it is a combination of local efforts and international efforts. If we release something in Sweden that is sung in English and has international potential, we always release it globally. We make it available globally. When we pitch it locally and internationally through the ecosystems of Spotify and Apple Music, all the initiatives are based on a global availability – so we have to do that. Then we combine social media with that and we always attach online PR on a global level […] A local release needs to be treated as an international release.”

Daniel Miller: “I have never thought of Mute as a UK label. Culturally I don’t think it’s very British – which is a good thing. It is very European in its outlook. Our approach to developing acts outside of the UK has always been very strong […] Spotify gives you a new dimension to do that. The British market is very fickle so if you want to develop a long-term act you have to do it internationally. And Spotify is very powerful for that.”

Importance of data

Patrik Larsson: “Radio is more data-driven that we are so we have to provide them with data. That is why we have to care about data. If they don’t see the data, they won’t play the track.”

Is there such a thing to ‘too soon’ with an act?

Patrik Larsson: “I love ‘too soon’.”

DM: “I love ‘too soon’ too.”

Patrik Larsson: “We are both in the business of saying yes to ‘too soon’. Because then we avoid a bidding war which puts the artists and the manager on this crazy pedestal. ‘Yeah, ten labels want me!’ But it’s still not proven. It’s just that everyone is expecting this to be a hit – but that’s because everyone [in a small circle] is talking about it. It is not proven. We would rather step back and say we are not in that business. We want to sit down and have a proper meeting to develop a long-term plan. I love ‘too soon’ because then we establish a close relationship [with the act] because we believed in them and we saw something before anyone else jumped on it.”

Daniel Miller: “There was one act in particular I signed on the basis on two songs. No live career. They had just written two songs. They have gone on and continue to have a very successful career 15 years later. That’s about as soon as it gets.”

Emerging markets

Daniel Miller: “It would be very difficult for us to predict what could or couldn’t work in those countries. But it is something we are very conscious of.”

Vidhi Gandhi: “We have definitely have started putting more effort into doing bespoke stuff with Apple Music [in India] around Bonobo releases as we know he can sell 4,000 tickets in India. It is definitely something we are looking at a bit more seriously whereas probably even four years ago it was not even a thing as no one knew what was happening there. These guys are going there and playing these festivals. That is not something we can ignore. And there are streaming services coming up there. Spotify has been reluctant to [launch there]. But there are local streaming services like Saavn [that have reach].”

Music Ally’s Midem 2017 coverage is supported this year by Music is GREAT, the British government’s campaign to promote UK music exports.

The UK and British Music are represented through the British Music at Midem stand, with the Department for International Trade joining forces with music industry associations AIM (Association of Independent Music), BPI (British Phonographic Industry), MPA (Music Publishers Association), PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) and PRS for Music.

Together, they will support over 150 UK music businesses and member delegates as they seek to pick up on the latest trends, connect with international companies, sign deals and develop trading and export opportunities.

Eamonn Forde

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