Interview with PAUL LISBERG, publisher at EMI for Melanie C, Jennifer Lopez, Victoria Beckham - Oct 2, 2000
“The most common mistake is that we'll get letters saying, ‘… And I've got 200 songs’. Who cares? One good track is better than 100 rubbish ones.”
As A&R at EMI Music Publishing UK, Paul Lisberg looks after the three Spice Girls, Melanie C, Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham. He is the publisher of "I Turn To You" by Melanie C, which reached No.1 in the UK and Top 3 in Germany, and is also working with Cleopatra and a TV-project together with Tim Byrne, manager of Steps.
How did you start out in the music business?
Whilst at university, and through someone I knew, I got an unpaid job answering the phones at RCA. It happened to be in the A&R department, and although I had some notion that I wanted to work at a record company, I wasn't, at that stage, even aware of what an A&R was. I soon realized, however, and that was what I wanted to do.
How do you find new talent, and what sources do you find most effective?
Contacts within the music business that I have acquired over the years. That might be managers, or even the artists themselves are a good source. A few years ago, I used to rely much more on local promoters and local press. With regards to the Internet, I can't say I've ever really found anything on there that has made me want to make a phonecall (yet!).
What are you currently working on and how were you approached by these acts?
Victoria Beckham's solo album, a third of which is recorded. It's not going to be a two-step thing, more like Jennifer Lopez meets Christina Aguilera. Also Baby Spice/Emma Bunton's solo LP, which I can only describe as akin to Janet Jackson. Dane Bowers's solo album too, he was the lead singer in Another Level, and I have just finished Cleopatra's new album. I'm also preparing an S Club-7 type project with Tim Byrne, manager of Steps. It's a mixed 5 piece, 3 girls and 2 boys. Carlton TV actually approached EMI about the possibility of starting something that would include a TV series.
With reference to how I was approached by the other artists, I didn't actually sign either Victoria or Emma, it just came about because EMI took over a company called Windswept. Dane was part of the band Another Level who I signed a few years ago, as they were making their first record. I called their manager after hearing a few things that they were working on that I liked which lead to signing them. Now the band have split and Dane is pursuing a career as a solo act.
Why did you sign them and what are their strengths?
With Dane from Another Level, it was just obvious that they were different to other boy bands, because they had an R&B style. I knew that they had great talent as writers, and therefore believed in Dane's future as a solo artist.
Cleopatra were and are simply brilliant performers, singers and writers and when I signed them, they were already so talented and yet so young, and Cleo, the lead singer, if channelled correctly could have a truly massive future career as a solo artist - she really is the real thing. With them it was just obvious, and I had to fight hard to sign them.
Why did you choose to work as a publisher and not as an A&R?
I did actually work as a record label A&R for many years, originally at Polydor Records and then briefly at Arista. I think being a publisher is much more creative, because the work is much broader.
For instance, last year I put together an album of soundscapes to represent each sign of the zodiac, which is the kind of thing I can sell in card shops and supermarkets. When I was working in A&R, I simply could not do a thing like that.
Also publishing is very basic, in that it is all about songs, and not budgets and schedules, which means that I spend most of my time doing exactly what I want to do and not necessary chores. However, in terms of signing talent, I think the two are very similar.
Do the different jobs require different talents?
I think they require different talents, but I think most publishers could become good A&R people and vice versa. In terms of acquisition the two jobs are very similar, but publishers need to sell their songs and artists to A&R people, because, without releases, it is much harder for publishers to make money, so that is an additional skill they require.
A&R people need to be very good at people management and politics within their company in order to get their artists heard and properly promoted.
What do you listen for in a demo?
I simply look for something that sounds special instantly, it is hard to put a tap on it, but you know when you know. If someone is submitting a tape hoping to be signed as an artist, it is important that the singer has a distinctive - not necessarily pitch-perfect - voice, and with songwriters I look for people who write songs that I think I can get covers on, which in today's market means mostly pop and R&B.
Also with songwriters I look for people who will complement our roster - it’s no use signing a writer who mostly writes on guitars, if I already have several who fulfil that same function, because I can't guarantee constant work in that case. Some songs I know within the first minute that I'm not into them, so I don't listen any further. When listening to a demo, I just want to get a special feeling off it.
For a publisher, how important is the technical recording?
It shouldn't really matter. However, what I always say is, imagine you've got two apples, and one is polished and the other isn't. If you were given the choice, what would you go for? The polished one, no doubt, although you know that if the second, unpolished apple were simply to be polished, it would be exactly the same as the other apple.
At the moment everything in the industry is very much ideas-based. The concept is so important, almost to the point where things are signed without considering the music, so sometimes a strong idea with a half-good demo is enough. Any half-decent A&R man should be able to hear quality through a poor demo.
But in all honesty, I'm not sure if many acts who have really terrible-sounding demos get signed anymore.
Do you mainly work with writers who have potential as artists?
I would say about 50/50, but ultimately it doesn't matter, because I am in the business of exploiting songs, and anyway that I can achieve this is rewarding.
The competition to get slots on records is so great that when one gets covers it is almost a better feeling than looking after a successful artist, because often labels do not involve you with artists as much as you would like, and after all they pay the recording costs, so sometimes if you don't agree with a choice of single they are not willing to entertain that thought.
What would a normal publishing deal include in terms of advance etc. for an unknown writer?
Well, it could be anything from 0 to infinity - there are so many different types of deals and circumstances. It could be about £10,000 as an advance for an unknown writer, or it could go up to £30,000 if other labels are chasing them.
If the writer is already relatively well known, the figure might be as elevated as £50,000. I've known artists signed to record deals who are 100% writers on their album receive £300,000 and more as an advance, although that is unusual. I sign roughly 2-3 deals a year, but would do more or less depending on what opportunities came along.
How much time is spent on song plugging and how do you go about doing this?
I would say I spend about 30% of my time on it. I make it my job to find out who's looking for songs and then I listen to all the available songs and find one that is appropriate for them. Of course I don't pitch every song I have, I choose my favourites. I'd like to have a reputation as someone who sends few songs in numbers, but always quality ones.
When I was in A&R, I felt that some publishers sent too many poor songs which made me less excited about the next package that they sent. Luckily because EMI have about 25% of the total market, if we don't know that an A&R man is looking for a song they will usually let us know that they are looking, because they don't want to miss out on such a large proportion of the best writers’ songs.
How did you go about getting a song for Melanie C? Did you sign her, and if so, how did this happen?
Well, again it's a case of reputation and trust. I didn't sign her, but I knew she was making an album. My role there was more setting up a collaboration. In this case, it was with her, Rick Nowels and Billy Steinberg which lead to the songs 'I Turn To You' and 'Northern Star'.
Do you still accept unsolicited material?
Yes, but I don't promise to reply to everything I receive! I think a large percentage of the public think that record and publishing companies exist as some sort of demo-listening and evaluating service, which is not what it's about.
Do you consider unsigned bands to have a good general knowledge on how to approach the business?
I think bands who are going to make it have a good knowledge on how to approach the industry. In the same way, bands who don't know how the business works are unlikely to make it.
I think unsigned bands would be better off channelling their energies into creating a local buzz around them, getting a reputation in local studios and in the local press. Of course if they can get good management that helps.
Sending off a demo and expecting it all to happen on the strength of that is just not realistic - you have to acquire contacts, and then know how to use them.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material? How important is the format in which they send their material?
I don't think the format is important, and although the presentation is not important either, it should be somewhat professional. I would say, don't send too many tracks, 2-4 is enough.
The most common mistake is that we'll get letters saying, “… And I've got 200 songs”. Who cares? One good track is better than 100 rubbish ones.
Within the company, how much do you cooperate with fellow A&Rs?
One of the things that makes it great to work at EMI is the amount of teamwork. One A&R may obtain information about X artist, convey it to other members of staff, and the next thing you know you've got a song on the new Tom Jones album, for example.
I think this teamwork approach is quite unique in the business - I know many A&Rs who work practically on their own. I would say that here, a large percentage of the information we use comes from within the company itself.
Do you follow what other A&Rs are doing at other record companies?
My answer would be yes and no. Yes, because basically I've got to know what's going on at other labels, in order to get publishing deals. Many acts are already signed to record labels. I also have a good general idea of which are the successful labels at this moment. Polydor, for example, are doing brilliantly.
But I would also say no, because I would never sign anything purely because of the buzz surrounding them at other labels.
How important is the club scene, with respect to keeping up with trends?
I don't find it particularly important for my work, in fact I don't go to clubs much at all. I feel it's more important to be aware of crossover dance material, and in that respect I still would say that I'm only about two months ahead of the public.
How about the Internet?
It’s a very important tool in my work. It's opened up so much. I can now listen to soundbites of songs that are in the charts abroad. I also check out the playlists of radio stations abroad.
So do you work with acts from outside of the UK?
Yes, particularly when it comes to song plugging. I'll get calls from abroad, Europe, the US, asking me to find them a song for an artist."
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music business, what would it be?
I would ask record labels to sign less things but to make them happen. What I mean by that is, why sign something when you're not sure that it's going to be successful, or, in some cases, when you're not even sure that you're going to release it? I certainly wouldn't put out a product if I wasn't 80 or 90% sure that it was going to succeed.
Nowadays, it can cost half a million pounds just to develop an act. Record labels shouldn't be in such a rush, which they can be if other labels want to sign the same act. Often, they find later that the artist can't even handle success.
Radio stations do research before playing something, so why can't record companies do the same before signing an act? I think the whole process should be a lot more scientific.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager is, who the attorney is, who the team is?
Yes, with respect to managers and the team behind an artist. Managers are very important in the young pop world that I work in a lot, and an artist with a manager who has a substantial reputation can give you an indication that you're on to a good thing.
The team is also very important. Some labels are currently so hot that you feel they have a much greater chance of breaking an act than others. Similarly some of the more creative independent and in-house pluggers and press departments can add at least a 20% chance of success to an act's fortunes.
However, I would also like to point out that, in the past, I have gone off a deal because I did not think the manager was great, and then seen the artist sack the manager, get a better one and go on to be a huge success, so I have tried to learn my lesson!
With respect to lawyers, no, I wouldn't say I really pay any attention, because in the UK most lawyers are not terribly discerning when taking on music clients, so any act could end up with any lawyer.
What is your attitude to the whole business of MP3s, Napster, the recent lawsuits and the future of digital downloads?
I download from Napster, but I am also a lover of music. So I use it to find things, like, for example, this song I fell in love with, which was featured in 'The Talented Mr. Ripley'. I went and found out the name of the tune in the chat rooms at Napster, and then downloaded it. But then I went out and bought the soundtrack.
I don't think it's very healthy for music to be free. I mean, you pay to buy or rent a video, don't you? I don't really understand, either, how record companies are entering agreements with MP3 sites - if they are letting the sites have access to their music for free, I certainly hope that these are not the agreements being made.
It is essential for the industry to always appreciate that music has a value, and cheapening it all the time is not good for the future of the industry. If the industry does want to make agreements with the digital download companies, I think a standard fee should be negotiated for each download.
As much as Napster may say so, it is not a file-sharing website, it is access to free music, and I think ultimately the courts, if necessary, will agree.
However, as always, things will change because of new technology and progress, and the industry must move with the times. For example, are albums relevant anymore, if everyone is making their own CDRs of their favourite tracks, and will artists simply make tracks available as and when they are recorded, and not when they have a collection of songs?"
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years time?
Running EMI Music Publishing, hopefully! If not, I would be interested in being part of a successful music-related business, that I owned equity in.
What do you think of HitQuarters, and how much do you value it as a resource for unsigned artists?
I think it has fantastic potential, and will become more and more useful.
Interviewed by Luci Vazquez
Next week: Joel Mark, A&R MCA, USA - A&R for Creed, US No.1
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