Interview with ALAIN HO, A&R for Bob Sinclar, Kid Loco - Aug 13, 2001
"On the internet you cannot lie because the people will be able to listen to your music directly, and if they donít like it, they wonít buy it."
Alain Ho is co-founder together with Christoph Lefriant (aka Bob Sinclar) of Yellow productions, a record label based in Paris, France. He is the A&R for dance act Bob Sinclar, Dimitri from Paris and Kid Loco, amongst others.
How did you get started in the music business and what made you start Yellow Productions?
I started 15 years ago as a DJ. And after 7 years playing Parisís main clubs, I just wanted to make my own record. So I worked on a track with my partner Chris (Christophe Le Friant aka Bob Sinclar). I suppose that was when we started the label, although we werenít really aware that that was what weíd done. 7 years ago there were no independent labels in France, so we didnít have any examples to follow. We just tried to release our first 12", a reworking of Dave Pike Setís track "Mathar" called "Indian Vibes", and we were lucky, because it was a hit in France. Then we decided to reinvest the money weíd made, so we bought a computer and spent a bit of money on the cover of the record, tried to do something nicer. It took us a year to realize weíd started a label, because, at first, it wasnít a label to us, we just released 12" after 12", just to enjoy ourselves; but after a year we started to receive phone calls from people who pushed us to release more stuff. And then we realized that we had created something, not something new, but weíd created an idea. Most important to us were the people who pushed us to continue, and from that point we decided to really work as a label.
As I see it, weíre independent, because we control everything, we work with our own money, all the music and the video clips are created and produced by ourselves. But of course weíre not stupid, we need strong support to distribute our music, so we have a deal with a major company, Warner Music, France. We have a very unusual deal with them, itís half way between distribution and licensing. An independent label today needs major company distribution. Not because you canít do it by yourself, itís just that when you want to get inside the chain stores, you donít have enough power to place your records in the right place. Without major label distribution, it would be impossible for us to sell the amount of records that we sell today. For example, in the case of Bossa TrŤs Jazz, we sold nearly 100.000 copies throughout the world, and thatís a lot for us. Particularly for that kind of record, itís not easy to listen to a double CD, itís not easy to sell, but it did well because we had good distribution.
Could you please tell us a bit about how Yellow Productions works?
The first step was to develop the image and identity of the label. Thatís why we released a lot of 12"s, we just put out a lot of stuff to create something, to create an image and an identity. Today itís a bit different, we now want to work on a long term basis with all our artists. That means we donít want to release 12"s for no reason. This is the second step, when youíve got the image and youíve gained strong credibility in the market, you must offer something deeper and really push the project to its full capabilities. Today we prefer to release fewer records and have more time to think of everything. The most important thing when we sign an artist is just to make sure that itís a little bit fresh. Fresh doesnít necessarily means new, because nothing can be new today, everything is done, all styles of music are here, so we just try to mix different kinds of music and try to create a new vibe. Something thatís also important to us is to make sure that the music is open-minded - meaning that itís easy for people to listen to the record, and that people donít need to come from a particular background to listen to it and enjoy it.
What, in your opinion, do you do differently to other labels?
We donít want to be underground, too many labels are already underground. The main idea behind Yellow Productions is to produce and release records and artists in the underground spirit, but also making sure that theyíre accessible. That really is the difference between us and the rest of the labels. The best example of what we want the label to be is Miles Davisís album "Kind of Blue". That album is very underground, musically, but it has sold 25 million copies worldwide. Imagine, 25 million albums! When you listen to the album for the first time, you canít say itís commercial. Itís very underground, and thatís exactly what we want to do: we want to make music in this spirit, something very fresh and original, but at the same time commercially viable. And with good work behind the project, you can sell it.
How did your acts Bob Sinclar, Kid Loco and Dimitri From Paris join the label?
It was very simple. When we signed them, right at the start, the market was very fragile in France: 6 years ago there were no independent labels, and major companies werenít ready to sign these kinds of projects. The only solution was for these artists to come to us. Dimitri From Paris and Kid Loco were already well-known: they were both big producers in France. Kid Loco is 36 years old and heís like Mirwais (Ahmadzai), Madonnaís producer, by that I mean that heís got the same experience as Mirwais, although in a different scene, the Punk scene. It was very interesting to see what this kind of producer was able to do in the electronic music field.
What was your break for success?
We havenít had a "real" hit on our label, as you do when you sell 2 or 3 million singles. Weíve had some underground hits, and that means selling 200.000 records worldwide. Our first hit was "Sacre Bleu" by Dimitri From Paris ( 1997 ). It was the first record that really sold - 150.000 copies worldwide. Itís a lot for an independent label, although itís practically nothing for a major.
What were the biggest hurdles to overcome?
Actually, those were good years for us, we didnít really have any troubles. We released the Bossa TrŤs Jazz and Silent Poets this year. With Bossa TrŤs Jazz we sold almost 100.000 and with Silent Poets only 20.000, but weíre proud of both projects. Itís not really a question of selling, although of course, when you sell, youíre happy; to my mind itís more important to touch the right person and the right people than to sell a million records to people who donít really enjoy it, who just bought the record for the one single they heard on the radio.
In your opinion, what qualities are needed to be a successful A&R?
Itís really important to know music very well, but when I say music I donít mean House or Hip Hop - you must have a good knowledge of music in general. With that you can really start to think about signing an artist and then devising a marketing plan.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with already established acts in your roster?
How do you find new talent?
Mostly through connections, we meet people who present things to us. Itís very rare for us to receive a demo tape and sign it, because very rarely do you get to hear a good demo. So we make use of the people around us, the connections between the labels. Sometimes some label has a tape but they canít sign it, so the A&R calls me. We try to help each other.
What do you look for in an artist?
When we sign an artist, he must know exactly what he wants to do. He must also be able to listen to somebody else, in order to find the best solutions. We never release an album thatís 100% of what the artist gives us; we always try to work together on each track, and try to find the best solution for each track. The artist must be ready to listen to what I say, and I must be ready to listen what he says. Itís very important to have discussions about each track, and about the project in general.
What advice would you give to someone whoís sitting at home, producing music, and who wants to showcase it, who wants to start contacting the music business?
If your music is really exceptional, you can send your demo and you will find a label quickly, but if your music is not so easily defined, you really have to get a meeting and discuss things with an A&R. That can be quite hard, because A&Rs donít have the time to receive everyone. You must be somebody who really wants something, and you must target those people who you would want to promote your music.
Do you work with acts from outside France?
Of course, we have a Japanese artist, we have a Brazilian, actually we have artists from all around the world. We are not a French label that only wants to sign French artists. We are French because we all are French, but for me the most important thing is the music, before the nationality of the producer. If the music is good, I donít care about the nationality. I just want it, and Iím going to release it. And whether itís black, white, yellow, I donít care! We are open to everyone. We work in the music business, so music is what comes first.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Of course. We receive between 20 and 50 demos per week and we listen to all of them - thatís the first thing we do. But in all of Yellowís history weíve never signed anything because of a demo. Itís not all rubbish we get, itís just that most of the time itís not suited to the label and itís not our style. I respect everyone who tries to do something.
What factors, in your opinion, have been important in the recent emergence of music produced in France?
The French producers donít have a solid French background, other than Serge Gainsbourg and a few others. Our influences were just European, mostly English stuff. What we did was to sample and mix every kind of music, so I guess thatís why our music sounds fresh.
What are the key tools you use in order to break a new artist?
The most important factor today is radio. With media like magazines, newspapers, and even Internet, you can write a lot of things about the artists, but, at the end of the day, what people want to do is hear it. On radio and TV you can listen to the music, and you will be able to soon on Internet. But radio is the most important media for music.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
Change all the people who work for the major companies. Some of them are good at marketing and help the artist on the promotional side, but they donít have any taste. They just push the people to buy shit, because they donít know anything about the music. Itís not that they donít want to sell good music, itís just that they donít have good artists and they donít know how to sell good music, so they just push the shit.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to contracts?
The artist must take care of the deductions. Many labels give the artist a good percentage, but then theyíll put a very small clause in the contract, which the artist doesnít care about, which allows them to take deductions. So money wise itís the deductions that they have to watch. In terms of the music, they must state in the contract their own choice of where they want to work and whom they want to work with from the very beginning.
How do you think the Internet can, or will affect the music business?
Itís going to be the future, as music will be sold via Internet very soon. At the moment nobody is really selling music, but itís going to be huge. The most important thing is to ensure the payment is safe, as people are wary of giving their credit card number. With the internet everything will be possible: if youíre an unknown artist you will be able to sell a million records, you can be an internet superstar. On the internet you cannot lie because the people will be able to listen to your music directly, and if they donít like it, they wonít buy it. The labels will not be able to say in their advertising that their artist is the best and that the consumer must buy it, like all the shit they sell in the chain stores. With the internet itís going to be more difficult for them to lie to people - because they do lie - and with the internet weíll all be closer to the truth. Eventually, the customer will win in this business because they will know exactly what theyíre buying.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
At the moment, there are a lot of good things for us. We are all still DJs, and to play every week is important to us, so perhaps I would say that the greatest moment was the first time we played in Japan. It was in Tokyo at a club called Yellow, and it was just amazing.
What do you see yourself doing in 5 - 10 yearsí time?
Continuing to develop my label, definitely. And now my new passion is cinema. Weíve just started a new film company, and we produce our own videos. When I say produce, itís not only a question of money. All the labels, when they need a video, they just call a company and that company organizes everything for them. Now we organize everything. Itís called Yellow Film, and, perhaps during the next 5 years, weíll be dedicating a lot of time to it. Weíre going to try to do the same for film as we did for music: weíre going to sign young directors and give them the opportunity to produce their first short movie, video clip or maybe even their first full-length movie. Thatís our next thing, because we donít want to work exclusively with music. Of course the music will be very important to us, but itís not all about music.
interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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