Interview with VOLKER NEUMUELLER, A&R at BMG Berlin for ATC, Christian, Zlatko - Mar 5, 2001
“You don't need to sing like Mariah Carey but you need a voice you will remember. Emila sounds like a frog on helium, but you will always be able to distinguish her voice.”
As A&R at BMG Berlin, Volker Neumüller looks after ATC, Christian, Zlatko and Walter. His acts spent together 20 weeks topping the German Singles Chart in 2000, an achievment unsurpassed by any other A&R. He currently holds position No. 7 at the World Top 20 A&R Chart (peak position No. 5).
How did you get started in the music business and what route did you take to become an A&R?
When I was 18 years old I started as a freelancer in the music business. I had my own booking agency in Hildesheim, but after three and a half years I went bankrupt and started as a junior A&R at Polygram Publishing. After two and a half years at Polygram, I became the A&R Director. Then the owner of Mega Records in Denmark, Kjeld Wennick, contacted me to run a joint venture between MEGA and WEA in Germany. Mega had Ace of Base and Leila K at the time, although the idea was also to have our own roster. I've been at BMG Berlin now for 2 years.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as an A&R?
Most important was my time as a publisher. It's far more difficult than working at a record label. You need to find a good song and get it recorded. It's hard, because a release is never ever guaranteed the way it is when you work at a record label. Working at Polygram Publishing has made me think about the quality of music.
In your opinion, what qualities are needed to be a successful A&R?
You work for the market, the consumers, not for your own personal taste. You have to understand what the consumers want, and I would say that 80% of consumers want to be entertained. Look at Madonna, the reason why she is so big and still going is because, above all, she is an entertainer. Furthermore, if you are working on domestic stuff, you need to know your own territory. Don't try to create a copy of Puff Daddy, if your market likes Rollergirl.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment we’re working on a lot of stuff: the 4th single for ATC, the 1st single of the new album for Rollergirl. We have a new group from Sweden called Shebang. We have signed Right Said Fred, which will be very exciting I think. A new Modern Talking single will be released in March, and so on.
How do you find songs and producers for your acts?
I've got my own people working for me. In Germany publishers are much less aggressive than in the United States. Therefore I don’t often get offers from German publishers for my acts. So I've set up my own producer-units. In that way I can guarantee the quality of the material I will get from them. BMG Berlin doesn't have an international share - it's purely domestic, which means that we don't have a big American act like Whitney Houston to save our sales when our domestic acts aren't doing that well.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign in comparison with the time spent dealing with the established acts in your roster?
I would say 80%. I am constantly looking for new acts. We need to be constantly productive, because we don't have that safeguard I explained in the previous question.
How do you find new talent?
I have several sources, but I don't regularly attend showcases or surf the Internet. I supply my producer-units with a description of what exactly it is I’m looking for. And then the producers, because they want to work with me, have a look around. They come up with an act and some songs and then I pick the ones that I like.
Walter, Christian, and Zlatko are all Big Brother stars - how did the idea to work with so many Big Brother stars come up?
BMG has a deal with Endemol, who own all the Big Brother stuff. The deal basically means that we have first option on everything. Of course when you have an artist who comes from a show like Big Brother there's a big chance that they’ll become successful, although you still need to find the right track and the right angle.
If the artist has enough talent in them to have a longer career then of course we will try to plan it that way. Christian was No.1 for 9 weeks and has sold 3x Gold. We have [1 week after release] sold 150,000 copies of the album, which is a good base for a longer career.
What do you look for in an artist?
There are two things an artist needs: one is charisma. The difficulty with charisma is that you can't really put your finger on what makes a person charismatic. It just means that they can't help walking into a room without everybody noticing their presence.
The second thing an artist needs is good colour of voice. You don't need to sing like Mariah Carey but you need to have a recognisable voice, an extraordinary voice that you will remember. Like for instance Lene from Aqua, she's not a great singer, but she's very recognisable. Or Emila, she sounds like a frog on helium, but you will always be able to distinguish her voice from others.
How long is the process of signing and releasing an act?
It depends, sometimes you’ve got everything done within two months, and sometimes it takes more than a year. You need to have the right track, the right styling and also the right timing in the market. So sometimes we wait for the environment to be right.
If you don't have VIVA or a TV premiere for instance, it's going to be rather difficult in Germany. So you need to make sure you have the right platform to launch the act, otherwise you can lose before you’ve even had a chance to compete.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager is, who the attorney is, who the team is, when considering signing a new act?
It’s not really of any interest to me. All these things are not an argument to not sign an act. If the artist has the two things I think an artist needs, I'll sign them. It's as simple as that. Manager, no manager, it doesn't make any difference.
And it really is a big plus if they walk in with a hit in the baggage, that makes it easier to sign them, of course. But if not, then I'll find the hits for them!
What do you think are the most important factors an unsigned act should consider, when approaching the music business?
It’s very important that they make a conscious decision. Do I want to live as a professional musician, or do I want music as my hobby? People need to realise that you are an entertainer.
For example, let’s take Tom Jones who one day is in Las Vegas with old women throwing their undies at him, and the next day in a cool club in Berlin doing a dance track with Mouse T.
You have to be willing to do what it takes, and that is the main difference between German and American artists - the Americans know how to be entertainers. I’ve had German musicians in my office and I’ve had to explain to them that it’s sometimes a good idea to simply change the [English] lyrics of a track into German ones to help sell it and that they would make millions by doing so. And most of them are unwilling to make any compromises. Their egos are too big.
You need to understand that as an artist, if you want to be successful, you have to supply the market with what it’s asking for.
Do you work with acts from outside Germany?
I do. Eiffel 65 are from Italy, Shebang are from Sweden, and so on. I don't care where people come from. We live in a cosmopolitan world and besides, a hit is a hit.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I receive about 50 to 60 tapes per week. And I must say that I try to listen to them, but I never end up listening to all of them. I simply don't have the time. Deciding which ones to listen to is really a random process. I just stick a couple of CDs in my CD box. A good-looking girl on the cover doesn't make any difference but the music industry doesn’t mind a nice figure neither.
Do you also work with finished productions?
I have to admit Eiffel 65 was finished. We had a hit with ‘Blue’. And then working on new material you have to explain to them that the audience wants the same shit. Because that's what the people liked to begin with! The danger is that acts try to change things. You can't be successful sounding like Depeche Mode on your second album if you are Eiffel 65. You have to take your time to develop and change your style, this is what I advise them
What developments have taken place in the German market during the last few years?
Except for the worldwide problems with the Internet, the media system has changed. There are only two music channels, and there are less opportunities to develop artists through prime time TV. A lot of shows on television are cancelling their music time on air. They say that people change channel when they are watching a game show and an artist comes on. And our biggest show in Germany, ‘Wetten Dass’, only takes big stars like Madonna. Lou Bega broke through a programme called ‘Glueckspirale’.
It's different in America where you’ve got so many different channels. In Germany the channels are in a monopoly position. We would need more platforms, more private radio and TV stations. Now it’s got to the point where the radio people tell you, "We don't make hits, we play hits." So breaking new acts is becoming more and more difficult in Germany.
If you could dramatically change an aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to sit down with kids and explain to them what it is they are doing when they burn CDs. I don't think they fully realise the consequences CD burning has. I think we need to educate people better on this issue.
How do you think the Internet can or will affect the music business? Can it become an important tool to break new artists?
In my opinion, the only thing that can change is the format or way of distribution. But there will still be a need for creative staff, the A&R, the marketing and the promotion departments, although I think that, on average, there will be less people working at a record label in the future. But I really couldn't say what the Internet future will look like exactly.
What has been the greatest moment in your music career?
Starting my booking agency, because that was the first time I could say to myself, "I am part of this business."
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
The same as I am doing right now. I enjoy what I do immensely.
What do you think of HitQuarters? How much do you value it for unsigned artists?
I think the site is very good, and it's well made. I went to the site and everything I searched on, I found. So it should be a good source of information for unsigned artists.
Interviewed by Marlene Smits
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