Warner/Chappell UK’s managing director Mike Smith talked about the future of A&R at today’s FastForward conference in Amsterdam. He was interviewed by journalist Cherie Hu about his career, and his views on the evolution of artist development.
“You’re always looking for what’s different and what’s the same in terms of how you do your job. I still think I’m doing the same thing I did when I really started to connect with music,” he said. “The thing that grabs you is exactly the same thing that grabs you as a teenager… something that connects with something deep inside you, but feels fresh and new and dynamic.”
The thing that is hardest to recognise, though, is “just making sure that the person you’re about to get into business is as ambitious for their talent as you are: the mistakes I’ve made in my career have been falling in love with the music, or the individual or the talent, and turning a blind eye to the fact that they might not get out of bed the next morning.”
“A lot of people think it’s only characters like Geri Halliwell that are super-ambitious. That’s not the case. Picasso was super-ambitious. Bob Dylan was super-ambitious,” he continued. “And everything I’ve just said was as relevant when I got my first job in the business in the 1980s as it is today… I’m looking for songwriters to work with, and they’re exactly the same now as they were then.”
“I want to work with people that will just turn up, with people who will put themselves into every useful situation imaginable… It’s the intangible stuff that’s really hard to spot. That’s where really great A&R comes out.”
Smith said he remembers seeing Chris Martin and Coldplay play London’s Bull &Gate venue and joked: “I have to be honest: I found him quite annoying. A slightly irritating man with a big hairdo! I thought the songs were okay.”
But Smith stressed that looking beyond first impressions quickly revealed Martin’s talent and drive. “I thought his personality left a big impression on you: he was talking at you as much as he was singing. But the thing I took away from it was he had an absolutely sublime voice,” he said.
Smith spent 17-18 years as a music publisher then took a “12-year holiday” working at labels, before returning to publishing with Warner/Chappell. “I realised why people thought we had it so easy. There’s no denying working in records is way tougher than working in publishing,” he said, before talking about the differences today.
“If Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen signed to a major label today, they would be writing with someone from a Britpop band back in the 90s to help them write better songs!” he said. As opposed to the era where those musicians would hone their songwriting skills by releasing records.
“You don’t get the opportunity in the major label sector to develop songs like that any more. It’s very much you’re going in and working with professional songwriters very quickly from the off, and that creates an absolute boom for music publishers.”
He warned that “it’s very tough to get something great when you’ve got a professional songwriter and just a vocalist… and in a situation like that you’ve often got four or five professional songwriters in the room.” But he praised James Bay, Jake Bugg and Rag’n’Bone Man as examples of modern artists who’ve balanced writing their own material with collaborating with professional songwriters.
“If you’d have left Rory Graham [Rag’n’Bone Man] to his own devices, his career wouldn’t have had, I think, the same stratospheric take-off that it has had,” he said.
Hu asked about the impact of the streaming world on albums and their creators. Smith talked about the idea of two businesses – the tracks business and the albums business.
“To go back to Rag’n’Bone Man, one of the great things we’ve seen is he’s an emerging artist, and he’s sold 117,000 albums in the first week of his campaign. That immediately puts a full stop on anybody trying to say the album is dead as a format,” said Smith, pointing out that around 80,000 of those sales were physical sales, and another 25,000-odd were downloads.
“People want to buy a collection of those songs, it’s not just about one track, even though that track has been an enormous success,” he said. “But obviously people are consuming tracks in a very dramatic way. As a new generation comes in and is consuming music, I don’t think many music consumers under the age of 17, 18, 19 necessarily know what an album is. I know that can sound ridiculous.”
Smith talked about his own family members. “They’ve grown up listening to radio, and then with the emergence of streaming, they live on Spotify. They find their music on playlists, and they build their own playlists,” he said.
“For them, they see music as being all about tracks. And in terms of how that affects A&R? It absolutely makes a difference. We’re signing certain artists because we believe they’re going to make great albums… We want to have albums in the market: albums are where we can make a lot of money. But at the same time as having a lot of albums out, what drives our business is that it’s still a hit-driven business. So when we’re looking for people to sign, it’s really searching out the people you feel confident can create hit records.”
What makes a successful A&R in 2017? “To me, you don’t become a talent scout. You either are a talent scout or you aren’t,” said Smith, who said that while research and analytics can help, an A&R person’s key trait remains their passion for music and their drive to discover new music.
“It’s having that incredible thirst for new music and for discovery. That’s vital. I think it’s really important that you like people: that you like musicians… You need to be super-compassionate for them all the time. Creative people will drive you to the distraction, and you need terrific reserves of patience when dealing with them, and a lot of understanding. You have to be an amateur psychologist the whole time.”
“With one of the artists I work with, we desperately need to get another song onto his album. And we think we’ve got the song, but the artist doesn’t like it,” he added. “You have to begin a psychological game of how you persuade the artist that it’s their idea that the song they don’t like is brilliant for radio! I’ve done it many many times… You’re obviously not always right. I think it’s vital that you listen to your artist as much as your artist listens to you.”
Smith said that talent scouts will usually be the first person from a label or publisher that an artist or songwriter will meet, so they have to be able to represent the company – even down to their knowledge of music and pop culture: books, films, the news etc.
“Because the people they’re going to want to get into business with are going to want to talk about all those things. If your interests are limited to going to the pub, going to the gym, going to the odd gig, you’re probably not going to make a good talent scout,” he said. “You need to be a well-rounded individual.”
Smith said that each artist comes with their own unique challenges for an A&R, while issuing a warning about “never going ‘this will do’. Particularly in labels these days there’ a need, a the revenue streams are not what they used to be, you make up for that by releasing more and more records. But there’s a real danger that you dilute the quality… Whenever you hear a song on the radio or stream it and the mix is just not quite right, you know there’s been a lazy A&R.” Or at least, an A&R under too much pressure to push the track out.
Smith was asked about making the decision that someone should focus on songwriting rather than trying to become a star as an artist. “From where I sit, being a songwriter is an amazing job, and being an artist is a bit of a nightmare. You’re having to get up every morning and hawk yourself,” he said.
“It’s obviously very difficult when you’ve got to turn round to somebody and say ‘why don’t we just concentrate on being a songwriter?’ You can’t say ‘because you’re 35 now and it’s really not going to cut it’… They’ll have had this conversation with themselves before you’ve got to have it. An artist knows when their career is not going as it should do probably a lot quicker than the A&R person does.”
Smith was asked about dealing with managers, and especially with inexperienced managers. He said he never looks down on the latter.
“The red flag to me is when somebody walks in and you immediately know they’re bullshitting, pretending they know everything and know everybody, and it’s obvious that they don’t,” he said. Far better to say “I’m new to this” and ask lots of questions.
“I hate it when people are trying to wing it and they won’t admit they’re trying to wing it. I haven’t got any problem with an inexperienced manager if their intentions are good.”