Producer Tommy Ekman is based in Stockholm, Sweden, and together with his partners, runs Sprinkler Records, a joint venture with Universal Sweden. He is known for his work (together with Per Adebratt) producing hit releases for Inner Circle, Ace Of Base, Aqua, Aaliyah, and many more.
Interview with TOMMY EKMAN, producer for Ace Of Base, Aaliyah, Aqua - Jan 29, 2001
HQ: How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?
I started out as an artist in a Swedish pop group called Freestyle ( 1 million records sold in Sweden Ė Ed. ) and after that me and my partner Christer ( Sandelin ) started producing. That was in the early 90s, and it seemed a natural development. After that I did a couple of records as a solo artist and then I hooked up with my present partners and we started producing together. The first thing we did was Inner Circle.
HQ: What was your break as a producer and what have been Sprinklerís most important productions?
Our break was definitely Inner Circle ( "Sweat, A La La Long", European No.1 in 1990 ), we worked with them for 2 albums. Then we started working with Ace of Base, we did songs on their first three albums, then we worked with Aqua, and it just carried on from there.
HQ: Can you please explain how Sprinkler Records functions?
Itís a label and also a joint venture with Universal in Sweden. How it basically works is this: the company is ours and Universal licenses all our material throughout Europe and they do all the marketing and exportation outside Sweden. We do all the A&R work and the promotion.
HQ: Do you have your own publishing company?
We have our own publishing company called Contemporary, which has links with Universal, and through which we release other peopleís material. I publish my own work through BMG in Sweden, and Crister is published by Universal.
HQ: Which kind of artists are you looking for?
Self-sufficient, and I think the singer/songwriter combination is also important. The artist has to have a future, and they must be involved in the whole process. Itís important to believe that they are going to stay in this business for a while.
HQ: Do they need to come from Sweden?
HQ: Can you give examples of recent signings?
Sure, we have a band called Place 2 Go, two guys from Finland. We're releasing their first album in January, which will definitely be exciting. And we have a Swedish band called Granada and a Swiss girl called Candie. We want to give her some time to develop, so sheís working with a lot of different people in Stockholm.
HQ: How did you find the artists?
With Place 2 Go, their manager is an old friend of mine, so just through a natural connection. Candie was through a production team called Blue Motion, who approached us. Stockholmís a small city but thereís a lot going on.
HQ: Who is in charge of signing?
We always sit down, the four of us, when we make these kinds of decisions. And we have a rule that everybody must be involved and into the project, otherwise we donít do it.
HQ: What makes you take on a production as a production company?
Youíve got to really like the artists and their music. You need to feel a connection, and you need to get the feeling that itís something you really want to do. But also itís important to see the whole picture and to think that this is something somebody has put a lot of effort into, so it has to be handled in a way that will ensure its success. I think itís really important that the people around the artist know what theyíre doing.
HQ: How does work come to you?
In different ways. Usually one thing leads to another, you get a phone call from a record label and you do the work for them, which leads to the next opportunity. It also has a lot to do with personal contacts. Itís a good time to be in Stockholm at the moment, because there are a lot of people bringing work here.
HQ: What is the usual procedure with regards to meeting the artist?
The first meeting usually means sitting down in the studio and listening to what theyíve done before, for instance, demos theyíve made with other people, and also listening to records made by other people that they like. I also play music weíve made, to give them a taste of what we like and where weíre coming from. After that itís about personal chemistry. If somethingís going to happen then it will happen.
HQ: How much input do the A&Rs and managers generally have on the productions?
Theyíre creative people as well and you need to have some faith in them too. Good managers are talented people, although it depends on the depth of their knowledge. I need to translate their ideas into making a great track.
HQ: Are there any differences working with artists, managers and A&Rs in different territories, with specific reference to Sweden, the UK, Germany and the US?
I think thereís definitely a big difference between Europe and the US. We use the expression ĎBig Timeí. There are always more people involved in the American companies and what it usually comes down to is one major guy behind everything. Itís a bit more flexible in Europe. The US companies know so well whom they want to target, for example boys aged 12-16. And so they have to make music for that group. I like working for both European and US companies, because itís great to work with and be around people with talent. From an A&R point of view, itís great to see how other people do things so that we can learn from it.
HQ: How much do you typically charge for a production?
Somewhere in the neighbourhood of US$12,000 per track.
HQ: Do you accept unsolicited material?
Definitely. I really like to listen to something that has a big publishing company behind it. Or big management if we come in early in the process. I think itís harder when the artist is unsigned and he or she doesnít have a manager or a publisher, because itís going to be a longer journey.
HQ: Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for unsigned aspiring artists/songwriters?
Yes I do, because every A&R or publisher wants somebody else to be involved. Then they can see the connection and see the whole picture. For the artist itís a bit of a Catch 22.
HQ: What characteristics do you think a producer should have?
You have to be able to take care of all the details, you have to be good with people and you must be able to see the end goal, what you are actually trying to achieve. Working well with people is very important, to guide the artist so that they make the record that they want to make. The producer is the connection between the record company and the artist. The producer is the one who is going to translate the music into a track, into something tangible. The most important thing by far, though, is to never give up.
HQ: What are your strengths?
I think Iím a good team-leader and good with people. What I enjoy most is working with the singers. I want to come to work and have a great day and a good laugh and that happens often, because we have a great team that really works together.
HQ: How long does a production usually take and how much is spent on recording, mixing, adjusting sounds, making new sounds?
About a week for each track but it depends.
HQ: When working in the studio, how do things happen?
I play the keyboards and do the vocal coaching, but weíre all part of the whole process. I donít like to stay in the room all the time but sometimes like to leave and walk around for a while and then come back refreshed.
HQ: What advice would you give an aspiring producer who wants to get into the music business?
Do a lot of remixes, because theyíre still something you can do with a minimal amount of equipment, and itís a great way to get into the record business.
HQ: Stockholm is very ŗ la mode in the music business, why?
I think itís because thereís talent here. I think in the early 90s a lot of people were working but didnít have the experience to get out of Sweden, but now you can see that a lot of them have achieved international success. Of course weíve had incredible bands like ABBA, who started things off in the first place. We also jumped on new technology train as soon as it appeared, which was great timing.
HQ: Does it help you to say you are Swedish?
Definitely. Itís not something that I hold back on.
HQ: Why do think Swedes have become so good at writing and producing?
Itís a very multicultural society, and weíve also been through a media revolution in the last 10 years. 15 years ago we didnít have many media channels, but now that situation is very different. Just look at the Internet: weíre No.1 in the world. We were hungry for these kinds of developments.
HQ: What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
Playing with my old band this last summer in front of 20,000 people in Stockholm. Some of the band members are still in the music business like me. It was great to be with the others, who hadnít been on stage in years. It was great.
HQ: What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 yearsí time? Do you think youíll still be producing? If so, in what direction do you think youíll move stylistically?
I think weíll be more into contemporary rock, pop-rock.
HQ: In what way do you think the music business will be affected and/or changed by the Internet?
In the long run it will become a completely Internet-based business. I donít really have any fears about the changes, in fact Iím excited. The only thing is that the music industry has a responsibility to make sure that people can still make a living from the work that they do.
HQ: Do you use the Internet for work purposes? How useful do you find it?
I use it everyday, because we work with a lot of people all over the world. We send Logic files (Logic, like Cubase, is a sequencer program used in studios) to each other whilst working on tracks.
HQ: If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I find the radio situation ridiculous. There is less and less music available on the radio for everybody, and itís got to the point where even the radio stations donít care about taste any more. Everything is so formatted.
For more information about Sprinkler: http://www.sprinkler.nu
Interviewed by James Burke
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* Universal A&R Niclas Anker on discovering Aqua
* Interview with Kazi Whispers, A&R for Aaliya, Timbaland and Magoo