Interview with STEVE ALLEN, A&R at Warner UK for Da Muttz, Dario G, Cher - Nov 8, 2001
"Gigging bands can create a buzz locally that gets the A&R pack hunting."
Steve Allen is A&R at Warner Brothers UK. Some of the acts he has signed and had hits with include: Motiv 8, Gina G, Dannii Minogue, Da Muttz, Dario G, Point Break and Espiritu. Other acts he has worked closely with are Cher, The Outhere Brothers, Corona, Eiffel 65 and Black Legend.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route to become an A&R?
I started out in Liverpool as a singer and writer in a "very art school rock band" by the name of Deaf School, which was signed to Warner, together with Clive Langer, who is now a big producer and has such acts as Madness, Elvis Costello under his belt. Then I moved into another rock band called the Original Mirrors in the 80ís with Ian Brouldy, from the Lightning Seeds. We made 2 albums signed to Clive Davis at Arista NY, toured all around Europe and did ok. After that, I went solo signing to Polydor in Italy and had a lot of European pop-hits. I later moved to Paris where I stayed for 4 years and found true love. My singing career was in decline and I decided to try my hand at management since I was kind of managing myself as an artist anyway. So I started to manage my girlfriend who is also a singer/songwriter, she was more talented than me anyway.
We moved back to London and signed a record deal for her under the name of Espiritu with Heavenly records, which had a deal with Sony. It looked very good and was successful, funky, latin, cool pop, which led the original guy who signed me, who had then become the chairman of Warner, Rob Dickins to call me up and ask me if I wanted to work as A&R for them. I said no at first because we were doing ok, but changed my mind later. So, I started working for Warner signing pop acts and had a lot of success straight away. The company really needed some hits at the time, so I wasnít concentrated on album projects.
Which kind of music do you mainly work with?
Pop and dance. When I started around í94, pop was not considered serious at all in the UK and certainly not by Warner Brothers. So I had a lot of difficulties making the company understand what I was doing, since they only wanted to concentrate on R.E.M, Madonna, etc.
Now, I have two labels on Warner. Radar Ė which involves cooler projects like dance and Eternal Ė which is hits. I also work on other WEA projects, like Cher.
I was very involved with the Cher single "Believe". The same guys who did Gina G and Dannii Minogue wrote and produced "Believe," they werenít big guys at the time, but they are now. Thatís part of my A&R. Iíve always tried to develop new writers, give people a chance. When I called Brian Rawlings at Metro and asked; how would you like to work on Cher? They were like "Donít joke around." Since then theyíve been number one in the US with Enrique Iglesias, theyíve worked with Celine Dion, Ricky Martin and Tina Turner. It shows you that just one big hit can change peopleís lives.
Which acts are you currently working on?
Iím working on some crazy funky pop stuff like Da Muttz ("Whatís Up"). Itís an interesting one because itís a UK record but it sold a lot more copies outside the UK, a million singles this year. Sometimes I will license a record just for the UK, like Eiffel 65 because we wanted to have the hit and that one sold a million in the UK. But most of the acts Iím working on like Rainstar are new projects. Also I just signed a French, Nu disco act, American French Machine, which is young and cool, Iím working on Espiritu again & Vanessa Quinones with the guy who wrote "Believe" - Brian Higgins - sheís got a hit out right now with him under the name Mr Joshua Presents Espiritu. Itís a track called "In Praise Of The Sun" and is an album project for the world. Just done a completely silly record for fun. Itís called "SVEN, SVEN, SVEN" and itís all about Sven GŲran Eriksson, the manager of the English football team, who is now a big hero in the UK that went top 10 here.
Which qualities in your opinion are needed to be a successful A&R?
The ability to get into the studio and know what's going on, to have an opinion and the confidence to say, "I donít think this is very good" or "This is the one!" Artists/writers donít always know when theyíve done something great or something poor, you have to help with that. At the same time you canít get too close because then you become less objective, you donít know yourself if youíre doing something great so you have to balance that.
You have to understand the psychology. When youíre working closely with real artists, who are very sensitive and maybe temperamental, you have to be able to deal with that. My experience helps me a lot. I still feel like I am an artist. I donít feel like a guy who works for a big record company. I prefer to feel that Iím more part of the crew and weíre all going for the same thing. Itís very easy for the company and the artists and their management to become Ďusí and Ďthemí. On their side we are sometimes the enemy and I find that very uncomfortable. So I try to break down those walls, but itís difficult, I am working for a major label. Iím very comfortable when they see me as I am and also Iíve got some power, youíre not always popular. How can I avoid those things?
You have to be something of a marketing guy, itís not enough just to be an A&R. Part of the A&R job is to have a good marketing idea of what you will do, how you will break it. Itís also very important to work well with the other company departments; promotion, press, marketing, product management, art and video department. Itís very important to be the central figure for all of those people to drive it through the company. You canít just hand it over and expect them to break it. No way.
How do you find new talent?
Basically through contacts, from people I know, professionals in the business, new people and new contacts, tip offs, scouring European charts, magazines, going to Midem, PopKom etc. Iím using the Internet a lot and Iíve got scouts in other territories.
What do you look for in an artist?
Depends on the kind of act really. Star quality of some kind. Great song writing ability would be nice. Not necessarily the right looks, but a personality and charisma, a Ďstarí quality, definitely performance ability, they should attract attention even in my office, thatís a good sign with a pop star. Ambition and drive is crucial, hard workers not shirkers, forget them. It can be there in many different ways. Something interesting about the voice, unless I was going to do something like Atomic Kitten, Geri Halliwell or HearíSay, where the voices donít really matter that much, you can fix that. There are many people out there with hits who sound like strangled cats!
Iím looking for acts that will sell internationally. Thatís important for me. There are many acts in England who never have a hit outside England. I find that extremely boring. With dance stuff UK records and remixers donít work that well abroad, garage seems limited to the UK right now, if you tailor a record for Radio 1 and they donít like it youíre dead in the water. Thatís no good to me.
If you only do dance and pop, you have to have a lot of hits. If you work with a real artist, with a long term career and an album project, you can have one hit in one year and sell the album. So, thatís a big difference. I would love to do something like the Nina Persson album (A-Camp Ė Ed). It doesnít have to be a million seller. Maybe worldwide it may sell a million, but you know it could be a nice album that grows very slowly - which I think that one will. Because itís a very cool album, youíre going to hear it when you go into a trendy clothing shop, a boutique in Notting Hill, [were I did hear it] Amsterdam or Tokyo. You go in and you hear theyíre playing the A-Camp album. Thatís how something grows. Is that Ďviralí marketing?
Do you need support from people at Warner before signing an act?
No, not really. Iím not the big boss but they wouldnít say no to me if I really believe in it. I want the support of course, if they all hated it but I thought it was a hit, I would go for it, it was like that with Corona and Eiffel 65 to be honest and we know how big they became. Generally people know I wouldnít sign it if it didnít have a great chance of being successful.
What advice would you give an unsigned artist/act on how to approach the music biz, how should they go about it?
Itís tough, really. If you think about how many people are making music and how many people there are like me, itís a huge imbalance. We get a lot of unsolicited material, too much to listen to. For a band, get a manager [a good one with a proven track record or an enthusiastic believer you can trust who may turn into a great manager, have to get lucky there] or an agent who can get you gigs. Itís so much easier to say "Weíre playing at this show tonight, can you come and see it," than sending in a tape with a very bad photograph and a bad quality recording, itís hard because you can only listen to the first 30 seconds of any tape because of the sheer volume. Gigging bands can create a buzz locally that gets the A&R pack hunting.
People who go for TV talent shows and think thatís a way in, well, thatís not the way. Most of those kids donít have a future in the music industry. They need to be in a variety show, a musical, on TV, in a cabaret or in nightclubs. Thatís not the music industry but they donít seem to understand that and I get a lot of that stuff. We have to be looking for the talent like Alanis Morrisette, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk or The Strokes and you donít find them there.
Do you work with acts/producers from outside the UK?
Yes. I just talked to Ben Malťn who manages Larsson and Frisk who have just done the A-Camp/Nina Persson album and we might start working together on one of my projects. Nowadays talent can come from anywhere, itís not like ten years ago when nobody had ever heard of an artist or production team from Finland.
I was always interested in Swedish writers, even before the Cheiron guys became so hot. I worked with Anders Bagge on Gina G and Dannii Minogue when he still wasnít that known. I remember people saying "Why are you always so interested in those Swedish guys?" I said, "Itís because they make great pop!" Everybody is now doing the pilgrimage to Stockholm to meet all those guys, but I was already doing that before.
Even though many UK acts still break in Europe, they seem to be fewer than 10 years ago, if you agree, what do you think itís related to?
I think the Brit-pop-thing was a disaster and it closed a lot of peopleís ears to music because it was so boring. We had two bands in Blur and Oasis and Blur didnít really sell outside the UK. The dance thing exploding didnít help the development of bands either. We can have hits but when it comes to artists, I donít know. Two-step, garage, drum n bass, very big in the UK, but not internationally because the grooves are a bit too difficult maybe and English R&B doesnít compare very well with the American R&B. We have become like France was for years, where there were many artists who were huge in France and nobody had heard of them anywhere else. But other countries have also developed their own domestic artists and thereís less room for English products. Certainly, they donít need bad English pop, although Atomic Kitten seem to be doing alright.
Occasionally, because the artist has got a lot of talent and a lucky start up, they do break out. Like Craig David, heís a very talented kid and had the Artful Dodger record as a Ďpiggy-backí, but he is talented as a singer and a writer, thatís why heís successful. Manic Street Preachers are never going to sell albums outside England; the sound doesnít translate well to foreign ears it seems. I think dance music has peaked, though. Itís mainstream now, which means itís boring for the kids. Now they want something exciting and I think there is a chance now. We donít have a Rod Stewart who can appeal to many different people, not even a Simply Red. Iím sure we will, but they need to be inspired by something better than what weíve had. Record companies will have to have more patience in developing artists and giving them a chance. We expect things to be successful too quickly; pressure at retail doesnít help with that.
Why is the UK singles chart so peculiar with so many new releases going straight into number 1 to 5 and then drop?
The singles chart is too fast and itís a big problem. It means your first week is your best position. In the old days we used to release a record and then start the marketing and it would go up the charts slowly. Nowadays the radio will not play a record very far in advance. So everything we do is built towards getting the most exposure to the public before the release and when the release comes, its BANG! And if it didnít go in high, then itís probably finished. We became too good at marketing the singles that way, we are victims of our own clever success.
The chart is based on singles sales only. It would be better if it were based on singles and radio play. The single sales are quite low at the moment; you can be in the top 10 with only 20,000 sold. But there are some artists who donít need hit singles. Enya never has a hit single but people just buy the album. Our album sales are quite healthy. Big artists like Robbie Williams, Travis, etc are selling over a million albums in the UK.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
There are three boxes with demos outside my door now and I wonít listen to any one this week. People send things in and most of it is rubbish. Some of it is incredibly poor and most of it is from people who shouldnít be trying to be in this business. They just get in the way for the really talented people but we talked about that. I do get e-mails from people and they say, "Iíve sent you a CD", they point me to it and maybe they sound interesting so then I find it and listen to it. Every tape is logged in, listed. Itís not just thrown in a box. Itís organized so I can find any CD and know when it was sent in. My P.A Ann has a log, the name of the record and the artist, the contact number and the day it came in. Again though, there is simply too much to listen to so we have to use other means to find talent.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades?
Iím one of the guys who they have to drag away; itís hard for me to give up. But sometimes youíre just wrong. Yes, majors expect it to happen quicker now, 20 years ago it was easier to get to 3 albums before being successful or being dropped, the business has changed as has the realities of the financial world. Itís a lot tougher now. Itís painful but sometimes you do have to drop artists before they feel theyíve had a chance. That could be because the rest of the company went Ďcoldí on it, or the artist became unhappy and difficult to deal with, lost their confidence or the public just arenít buying it no matter how much we believe in it, what can you do then? Luck is important and timing is crucial.
I actually sat down with someone and we both agreed that this was not the best company for them and I helped them get a deal somewhere else. They were better off on with an Indie label. Iím thinking of one artist right now that Iím working with, which I think this artist should be with an independent before theyíre on a major. And thatís another thing, because an artist can maybe grow with more freedom and less pressure on an independent label, and then move to a major, for the power and the muscle of marketing and that kind of push that you need to break big in all the other territories. Itís very expensive developing acts at a major, especially pop, boy bands, etc, so you better get it right or itís gone quick.
What has been the greatest moment of your career?
There is always a great moment to get the number one. Itís a great buzz and Iíve had six number ones so far. There will be more. That buzz doesnít last long though and then itísÖ "NEXT"!
I hope the best moment of my career is yet to come but one of the greatest moments was probably playing a three set gig at CBGBís in New York with my first band ĎDeaf Schoolí and bringing the house down, they still remember me there, I was swinging on the lights! And probably getting our first record deal.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I might go back to painting, probably living in the south of France. I miss France a lot at the moment. I will probably be involved in the music industry in some way and that could well be still working on my partners project, because sheís writing her best stuff now and thatís exciting. My son is also writing songs now and heís not a teenager yet so what about him for management! That would be my favourite thing, if I could leave the record company and manage my family, be successful and keep us all together. That would be good!
Interviewed by Linda SjŲberg-Thellenius
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