- Dec 11, 2000
Markus WenzelMarkus Wenzel is part-owner of the German record company Superstar Recordings, who mainly release dance music. He previously worked for Sony Dancepool, where he was the A&R for successful acts Storm, Space Frog, Kai Tracid, Taucher and Ghetto People, amongst others.
HQ: How did you end up in the music business?
I think itís a very typical story. I liked listening to music as a little boy, and then I started DJing when I was 15 and played in the towns that I grew up in. And, just by accident, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a job at BMG, so I applied and apprenticed there for one and a half years. After that I started as a junior A&R and worked in that position, dealing specifically with dance music, for 3 years. Then I got an offer from Sony in Frankfurt to be label manager at Dancepool, which was their dance department at that time. I did this for almost 5 years and in 1998 I started Superstar Recordings.
HQ: How does Superstar Recordings work?
Superstar Recordings is a dance/club-oriented label, so we try to maintain credibility with people in clubs. But of course whatís credible depends on whoís listening! Some people might find what we release totally cheesy. So we try to follow our own guidelines on credibility. What we donít work with is dance pop like the Vengaboys.
HQ: I went to your web site (www.superstar-recordings.de) and listened to some of your music and found many of the songs quite commercial.
Actually our biggest hit was Blue Nature where the melody to ĎTitanicí was put onto a trance record. That was a record where we were just looking to make a hit. On the other hand we have acts like Silent Breed, a.k.a. Thomas Heckman, who is a techno pioneer. Heís not the kind of person who you tell to come up with a follow-up single - he tells you when he has something. Because we are not a small indie 12-inch label, because we are a commercial label, we have to be able to work with many different types of people.
With Blue Nature, the first record started in the clubs, then we got this girl who sung over the tracks and we tried to develop it into a teeny pop act. What we didnít do, which was a mistake, was to switch labels - we still put the records out on Superstar, even though we have another label called Popstar Recordings for this kind of pop stuff. But now weíve learnt we want to focus on making club music for Superstar and pop music for Popstar.
HQ: What are you currently working on?
Angelic, sheís a UK trance act. Sheís Judge Julesís wife, I met them in January this year. Then thereís Olav Basoski, a house producer from the Netherlands who is working on his new single. Thereís Yves De Ruyter, heís a trance DJ and producer from Belgium. His new single will be out soon. A couple of other records, the Horrorist, a techno producer from New York, who tells a story throughout the record and ďKaltes Klares WasserĒ by Malaria which are both blowing up right now in Germany. Really cool tracks.
HQ: What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as an A&R?
I think whatís most important is to have time to develop, to grow, which simply takes time. You also have to listen to new music, new styles, new trends. You have to be interested in music and in other areas, and even if you personally donít like something, you have to try to understand it. And then you obviously need to have a certain feeling about what people want, what people would like to buy. And I donít think you can train that. You also have to analyze a lot of figures, target groups etc. To summarise, you have to be interested in music, in understanding what works and why.
HQ: What qualities, in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?
First of all, you need people to come to you to play their music. You have to be a guy that people want to talk to and people want to see. Itís also very important how you speak to people; you have to be a nice guy. Itís just a certain sensibility of how to treat people, because itís a peopleís business, and people go to the people they like first. And then you have to make the right decisions, and sometimes itís hard to say no. I think you should only sign a record if you really believe in it. Majors, because they are under pressure, sometimes sign bands because they are making music that sounds like a hit. You should not disregard your own feelings and just think, ďHereís a guy whoís made a song that sounds like all the other Top Ten hits.Ē
HQ: How do you market your music?
There are two guys who run the company, and then there are 4 employees. We have a label deal with Universal Records: itís a worldwide label deal, so they do the distribution and we can also use their promotion department, but we do the marketing ourselves. Itís a bit strange because normally if you have a label deal like that there is a marketing guy who works for Universal who is responsible for your repertoire. We donít want that; we like to do all that ourselves. We have certain budgets that we can work with, and if we want to do a promotion campaign or some radio promotion, we speak to the promotion department at Universal. So there is not somebody at Universal responsible for our repertoire as a product manager, instead we are our own product managers, which means that all marketing campaigns and concepts are generated by us.
HQ: What, in your opinion, do you do differently to other labels?
Itís hard to say, because there are a number of independent labels that work in a very similar way to us. They sign the same records, have label deals with major companies, and they also have 5-8 people working for their label. Then you have the dance departments at the major companies who also do the same things, signing the same records, the same styles. Many of them are doing club music that they then try to cross over to the pop charts. So I don't know if we really do anything differently. We try to do our best. As a label, we choose the music we like and try to be a good home to artists and producers. We always try to return calls, which is unusual at many record labels. We send first prints of CDs to their producers. We operate a sort of service idea, which I think is in great shortage throughout the industry.
HQ: So you are basically trying to take care of people.
But sometimes you are not always able to return a call as you have so many other things to do. Thatís normal, but to a certain degree we try to do our best. And having worked for a major label, the reality is frustrating if you are a producer Ė it was for me.
I speak to other labels, for instance in the UK, not only Universal. If you want to speak to A&R guys there, itís sometimes very hard. That is the difference between us and the majors, that weíre not in marketing and promotion meetings everyday, which gives us more flexibility. When we started the label, we sat down and thought about what we could do that majors couldnít, because when it comes to signing a record the majors can obviously give higher royalty rates and advances. We found those areas and use them accordingly.
HQ: Which factors were important in establishing Superstar?
My partner Peter worked at Sony Music before, he was the A&R and I was the head of Dancepool. We decided to start our own label. When we started we already had a label deal, which means money. The MD at Intercord ( EMI ) knew me, because weíd worked at Sony Music together. He was looking for successful dance labels and he trusted us, so he said, ďOK, letís do it.Ē We signed a contract, a label deal for a certain time period, and then it was easier for us to start, as we could work on a professional level and didnít have to think about paying our telephone bills every month. Since January 2000 we have a deal with Universal.
HQ: What is a label deal exactly?
A label deal is a bit like a first option deal. The major company that you do the deal with has the CD and Compilation rights on all your recordings, and they pay you a certain royalty. They take care of the marketing and promotion costs. The other possibility is a distribution deal, which means you use the majorís distribution, but the rest is up to you, you pay for the marketing and promotion. That can be very expensive but on the other hand you get a much higher share per CD. You donít get a royalty but receive a certain amount of money for each CD sold.
HQ: What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with acts in your roster?
Not much time anymore, because there are two A&Rs working for us who look for new acts. If you run a company, a larger percentage of time is spent taking care of business, which means making deals, talking to lawyers, talking to Universal. But of course we are still involved. We have meetings with our talent scouts, where they play us music and we listen to it. Maybe 15-20% of our time is spent listening to new music.
HQ: How do you find new talent?
I would say that a lot of stuff we get comes from people who know us, who are mainly located in our region, and who only need to take a 40-minute drive to get to our office. And then we get a lot of stuff from other labels in Germany, 12-inch only labels, or also from other countries. And I guess thatís it. The Internet might be a new source, there are many sites where artists can place their MP3s for record companies to listen to, but where do you start? But what I find cool with the MP3 thing is that when people want to send their record to us they donít need to send a package which later needs to be opened Ė itís immediate.
HQ: So you accept MP3s now?
Sure, a lot of people send me e-mails with MP3s of new songs they just made.
HQ: What do you look for in an artist?
The perfect artistÖthe perfect artist is dependent on what we are talking about, whether they be a Ďrealí band or Britney Spears or DJs. And we mainly work with DJs, as there arenít many artists in electronic music, although you might call DJs artists. The person needs to have the right personality, be a cool guy. Itís no good if heís a total asshole and tries to fuck everyone over. But thatís applicable to everything, I guess. What is hard to find in the whole dance-producer field is people who are dedicated to one project. There are a lot of producers doing 10 projects on 8 different labels. It can be hard for the people who buy the records to follow the artist, so we try to work with people dedicated to one project. I think itís always easier to promote a guy called ĎMarkusí who puts out a record called ĎMarkusí and find him a club tour than someone with 7 aliases. The big stars in the techno/trance/dance community are usually the ones that stick to one name. Paul van Dyk has one DJ name, one producer name, and itís the name his records come out on, but itís hard to find people like this.
HQ: How long is the process of signing an act?
It depends, the song is very important, but so is the background. So if youíre talking about an artist, obviously you have to meet them to find out whether theyíre cool or not. But sometimes, if itís a record that totally blows you away, then you donít give a fuck about the artist, you just want the song. But as I said, we try to find people who are great producers and who are also able to give interviews and concentrate. Itís hard if you have people doing many projects because it doesnít give you any continuity. When it comes to most hit records, if the follow up single takes ages to come out then the whole thing is over, and so continuity is precisely what a person working on many projects cannot provide.
HQ: What advice would you give to someone sitting at home, producing music, who wants to start making contacts in the music biz to showcase it?
Find out all the addresses of all the record labels that fit the music you are making and then send the demos. You shouldnít give up too early, a label might not listen to your demo, they may lose your demo or they might not call back. You can get very frustrated and think of the labels as being full of assholes, but thatís wrong. As an A&R you are talking to so many people that itís almost impossible to reply to everything. If you are a young producer, the most important thing is not to give up. Call and call again. One day the A&R will call back. And if you have the e-mail of the A&R then just send him an MP3. All he needs to do is double-click and the music starts.
We have DSL, a high-speed connection. Most of the people working in record companies have this sort of connection. From an A&R point of view, it takes too much time to open all these packages and then rewind tapes. MP3 is so much faster, especially if Iím writing e-mails all day.
HQ: Do you accept unsolicited material?
As far as quality goes it is not very often that we get stuff from people who weíve never heard of and we think itís great, and we listen to all the stuff we get. More and more people have all the equipment you need, so, on one hand, the quality is much higher than maybe 10 years ago, but on the other hand you get all of this Music Maker crap. There are loads of PC programs that make music that just doesnít sound professional.
HQ: So what kind of quality are you looking for? Do you work only with finished productions or do you take part in their development?
It doesnít have to be a finished production. Sometimes it can be very simple, a good idea. And then you call the producer and tell him you like it but that you can hear that he doesnít have the equipment, so you offer to find a studio where it can be produced properly, but that doesnít happen that often. Or I might bring different people together to work on a common project.
HQ: Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to contracts?
Yes, you should not just sign a contract. If you canít afford a lawyer, then I think itís important to get an overview of the different parts of the contract. But itís the same if you buy a car, you should never sign anything without knowing what you are signing. Perhaps there are books you could read or you could find someone who has experience with contracts.
HQ: If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Tough question. I think there are too many records put out every week, which is a problem for us all. Every country is different and in Germany if you want a hit, you need Viva TV to play your video and they only accept a certain amount of videos a week. So that means that the more videos they get, the less chances everyone has to get the video on rotation. And itís the same with radio; they have a certain amount of records they play each week. The more records put out, the tougher it is to find the slots you need.
HQ: What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I donít know, I think there are so many great moments. Whenever I think of it I am happy to have this job, because itís my hobby and there arenít that many people who get to work at their hobby. The best moments are the moments when you think of that. Many times you complain, and that you have so much work, but if you sit back and think about what you are doing and about other people not doing what they would like to be doing, then those are great moments.
HQ: What do you think of HitQuarters? How much do you value it as a resource for unsigned artists?
To be honest, Iíve looked up some A&R colleagues, but I havenít really checked it out properly.
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