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Interview with NICLAS ANKER, A&R at Universal for Aqua - Sep 25, 2000

“A lot of people think that Aqua is just a marketing invention of the record company, but that's not true.”

picture As A&R at Universal Music Denmark, Niclas Anker signed Aqua, the Scandinavian band that broke worldwide in 1997 with the dance pop smash-hit "Barbie Girl". They have sold a total of 17 million albums, been No.1 in more than 35 countries and received more than 250 platinum and gold discs. Niclas is also working with Barcode Brothers, which is platinum in Denmark, Glam Babes, Mintman etc.

How did you find Aqua?

I had a meeting with them in my office. Universal Denmark wasn't allowed to sign anything at that time, but we wanted to take the risk.

It's funny because a lot of people think that Aqua is just a marketing invention of the record company, but that's not true. Everything about them was magic - the songs, the concept, their appearance … it gave me goose bumps. That's when I knew I wanted to be involved in Aqua.

Do you work with finished productions or do you take part in their development?

When I work with acts, I really want to see it through on all levels. I don't want to just deliver an album and just let someone else take care of it from there. I am involved with the songs, the videos, marketing, promotion, the artwork, the whole process. As an A&R, you need to make sure that you surround your act with the best possible people. It's like playing football, you have to get the best players in the right positions.

I think what makes me different from other A&Rs is that I don't want to work with people that don't write their own material. Anybody can put a singer together with a big producer. I only want to work with new people.

Another difference is that I want to be involved in everything. A lot of people are not able to work like that, especially in bigger companies.

What impact do you think the Aqua videos had?

With the songs but also with the videos we did something that was new and fresh, in a way that nobody has done before. We had a cartoonish idea for the video and we managed to find a Danish production company to do that for us. And it worked out great.

According to you, what are Aqua’s strengths?

Aqua's first album sold 14 million copies. That has to do with their songs, the way that they perform, the whole concept. With their first release outside Denmark, ‘Barbie Girl’, they really came up with something new, something different, something magic.

How did you first get into A&R?

I started doing radio-programming at a radio station in Denmark, then, up until 1994, I was doing Radio Promotion at EMI. From there, I went to work for Mega in Sweden for 6 months and eventually, in 1994, helped set up the Universal office in Denmark. It wasn't really the idea to have an A&R department, only to market the established acts from Universal. But then I stumbled upon Aqua and that's how I became A&R.'

What is your average day like as an A&R?

I travel a lot, whether it's with Aqua, or trying to get to the other Universal offices to release my acts. I spend a lot of time on Aqua, and there are seven people at my office only working on Aqua.

In total, I am working on five acts, pop and R&B, which I am very committed to all the way, so that really takes up a lot of my time. I don't really spend a lot of time looking for new acts. Either producers, managers or lawyers recommend artists and then I'll take the time to listen to their material or have a meeting.'

Do you use the Internet much as part of your job?

We use the Internet mainly for marketing and promotion purposes, and not for A&R as such. There is a system for other Universal offices to download, for instance, biographies, tracks etc. But we also have presentations for radio or other media on the net.'

What is your opinion about the whole business with Napster, MP3s and the recent lawsuits?

Of course it is bad that the music business is not able to protect their copyrights because of Napster and MP3 files. But don't forget we always had this problem in the past, with bootlegs, for example. But I think the way people buy music will change. The music business has to adjust and focus itself even more on the consumers. How often do you buy albums of artists where there's just one song you like? People would want to choose more in the future. Take only the songs they really like. Have songs on trial for a couple of days before actually purchasing it. Or maybe even subscribing to a website to receive a new track every month from an artist, instead of buying an album. There are a lot of possibilities.'

How many songs do you get per week?

I receive about 50 demos per day and I don't really listen to any. The reason for that is that 99 percent is shit, and it is too time-consuming for me to sit down and chew through the whole lot. And besides, there are still people sending cassettes, with 96 tracks on them or a hundred-page biography. It's mostly so unprofessional.

Can you offer some advice to unsigned artists, with regards to submitting material? How important is the format?

Don't send cassettes, be to the point, send your five best tracks on CD, two good pictures and maybe a video of a live performance. The acts that are really dedicated to what they do, can find their way to a good producer, manager, lawyer or a radio station. And then you have a much better chance of being taken seriously by a record label.

How long is the process of signing an act?

It really depends on the artist, sometimes the legal aspects take up to five months, and then you still need to get started. Then you'll look at two years of work before a release. And with others it's done within a month.

What has changed your view of A&R representation, with respect to your views before you became A&R?

I never really thought about becoming an A&R, I just wanted to do radio. But then when Aqua came along, I all of a sudden was one. I just fell into it. So I never really had time to think about this.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years from now?

Hopefully have my own label or production company, but I don't want to grow old in the music business. I think that it's very sad to see 45-year old people that are completely out of touch with what's happening around them. You have to have a plan for yourself not to become like that.

It seems easy to stay for the fun and concerts and people don't want a so called "normal office job" after having been in the music business. But it's sad to try and stick around like that, unless you still are doing amazingly well.

Do you have a favourite album of the last year?

Professionally, I would say Bomfunk MCs from Finland - they came with a new breed of sound, just like Aqua did with their first album. And personally, when I get home at ten or eleven in the evening after a whole day of music I am happy not to hear any. When I do, I listen to the radio.

How do you value HitQuarters as a resource for unsigned artists?

I heard about HitQuarters through a Norwegian newspaper. It's a unique initiative. There is no directory like this, as long it's as well updated as it is right now, it's one of the most useful resources around. Even the Midem guide and the German Chart Report don't offer such an amount of background information.

Interviewed by Marlene Smits

Next week: Paul Lisberg, Publisher at EMI Publishing for Melanie C etc.

Read On ...

* Interview with Tommy Ekman, producer for Ace Of Base, Aaliyah and Aqua