Interview - Oct 23, 2001
"When something is good there's a word of mouth attached to it."Simon Cowell is A&R at BMG UK and his signings include internationally selling acts Five, Westlife and Girl Thing, to name a few. Here he tells us how he finds new talents and why the record companies are in trouble at the moment...
How did you get started in the music business and what has been your route to becoming an A&R?
I started out in music publishing and then after a couple of years I became a song plugger. I promised myself the last job in the world I would do was A&R, since every single A&R man I had met was the rudest Iíve ever met in my life! Then I left and started a very small label in the early 80ís. Because I owned half of the label, I was sort of forced to do A&R. One of the first artists I worked with was a girl named Sinitta, whom we had a lot of success with in the 80ís and 90ís. In 1990, I was approached by BMG and they offered me a label deal, which I accepted. And I have now been with BMG for eleven years. I own part of the label here and I have the freedom to pretty much sign whatever I like. But itís all based in pop music.
Which experiences have been important for you in developing your A&R skills?
The most important thing that ever happened to me in my working life was meeting Pete Waterman. Pete taught me two things; the value of the song and never deviate from the kind of music you understand best. Those two lessons are without question the most important things Iíve ever learned.
Which acts are you currently working on?
Five, Westlife and a new television project, which is the follow-up to Popstars, called Pop Idol. Itís a television show I developed with Simon Fuller, where the object is to find the number one singer in the country, and that person will be signed to my label.
How were you approached by these acts?
Five we decided to put together ourselves, because we felt there was a gap in the market. So I paid the manager to do it. Westlife, I met as a six piece band called IOU and I suggested to the manager he got rid of some of them and replaced others, which he did.
Do you work only with finish productions or do you take part in the development?
I always start from the bottom, and my involvement is mainly choosing the songs and the producers, and sometimes mixing the records as the producer.
How do you find songs for your acts?
What you hope for is to find a talented, new production team, early on in their career, in which case you can form a much stronger bond with them. Sometimes itís a new record I hear, which I love and I phone up the producers to see if they would like to work with us. Sometimes itís more established teams.
I tend mainly to use the producers and writers I know, because we have a mutual understanding. The songs we use are normally songs written by those teams especially for that particular project.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign in comparison with already established?
Looking for new artists probably takes one percent of our time. Because working with an artist like Westlife, is almost a full time job in itself. Timing is important as well. When we feel itís time to find something new, thatís when we will start.
How do you find new talent?
Itís a combination, sometimes we put together stuff ourselves and sometimes weíre offered projects by managers, we know.
There was a time when I would listen to most stuff sent in to us. And to be honest with you, 99 times out of a 100, itís rubbish. This job nowadays, A&R, means you have to be much more proactive in what youíre doing, you are the person who has to instigate your next artist. You canít just wait for someone to walk in who is amazing. Itís too competitive now. You have to be the creator.
Timing is important. You can look at the current state of the market and see where thereís a potential gap. Then you do something a year in advance. You pay someone to put together an artist specifically for your requirement.
The first time I met Five and Westlife, I knew within 30 seconds that both artists would be successful. I signed them on the spot. Itís just a feeling you have.
Do you take risks with your new releases?
100 %. I will never, ever research a record before itís released. Youíll get yourself into massive trouble if you do that. Youíre going to be right and youíre going to be wrong with your releases and the only thing you can trust is your gut instinct. Itís not worth asking other people, you have to trust your own instinct.
I think record companies are in trouble at the moment, because they have lowered their standards too quickly. What you have to strive for is better quality and never become complacent. The market worldwide is potentially massive at the moment, providing you get them what they want. And this is where record companies are in trouble at the moment.
From which people and departments at BMG do you need support before signing an act?
Nobody. Thereís an expression in life: "You can only make one first impression." And that first impression has to be spectacular. So, I wait, and let people see it when itís ready to go. Itís not a set rule, but I think itís the better way of working. People will agree with you because of your track record, but you want people to like it because itís good, not because you found it.
What would your advice be for an unsigned act on how to approach the music business?
I think one thing, which is true in the music business around the world is; when something is good thereís a word of mouth attached to it. There was a buzz around the Spice Girls, months before they signed with Virgin. People were aware that something was coming, because one person tells another who tells another. I think if you got it right, I truly believe there will be a natural word of mouth out. All the people who complain and are not able to get record deals, are normally not very good. Something good will be picked up within seconds in this business. Whether by a lawyer, a manager, a music publisher or an A&R, it will happen.
Do you or would you work with artists and producers from outside the UK?
Yes of course. With acts, itís a bit more difficult to work with an American or European artist for logistical reasons, but I would have absolutely no problems doing it.
I had the privilege to work with Swedish producer Denniz Pop when he was alive. Without question probably the biggest genius of the music industry in the last 25 years. We work with a lot of Swedish writers. I have a lot of respect for them.
Many UK acts still break in Europe, but they seem to be fewer than ten years ago. If you agree, what do you think itís related to?
Because they are not very good, simple as that. Anyone whoís not selling records outside the UK, thereís a good reason for that. And normally itís because itís not very good. It has nothing to do with people not supporting the record overseas.
Has the local competition, which UK acts have to face when they go abroad, gotten stiffer?
Partly, but in pop music, on an average, there are four or five what I would call A-quality pop records in a year. They could be American, European or English it doesnít matter. "Baby One More Time" with Britney Spears, was the best pop record made that year. The reason why it did so well in so many countries was - it was a brilliant, brilliant record. And if you had made it today, it would still be as big a hit all over the world. The competition is totally irrelevant if you make great records. And thatís just a fact of life.
The UK single chart, why is it so peculiar with so many new releases going straight in and then dropping quickly out?
I think it partly has to do with buying habits. The general public here is definitely alerted when thereís a new release, because of the pre-promotion. It makes sense to me that a lot of people would buy in the first week. The English chart is a very healthy chart, you only have to look at the 2-3 first weeks to see if itís a genuine hit or not. Based on sales by people.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We get it, whether I listen to it or not. Itís unlikely I do, because itís just too depressing.
I believe in statistics. If the last thousand tapes you listened to were rubbish, itís unlikely the next one will be much better. The writers, who tend to send us unsolicited material, are usually not good enough to get publishing deals. So I donít feel Iím missing out on much. If somebody is really keen to get something to me, theyíll get it to me.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts, before they break, decreased in the last decade?
Without question, because the development and launch cost have gone up dramatically. You canít do what you used to do before, where youíd give a band two to three years to build a fan base, and then increase your investment accordingly. You are full on, on the first release now. And if the first two singles donít make it, youíve normally got a massive financial hole to deal with.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I wish the American chart wasnít based on airplay. You put the chart in the hands of radio programmers, and not the people. I wish it were a sales chart. I think life would be much easier in America if it were that way around. Why should a chart be determined on what a radio station likes compared to what the people want? I find that astonishing. A number one for me should be one thing and one thing only, the record that sold most that week.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
My first number one single in 1995, which was Robson & Jerome, "Unchained Melody."
What do you think you will be doing in 5-10 years?
I hope I will still be doing this. Iíve always told myself, if I ever stop having hits, then Iíll quit. For the moment Iím enjoying it, still having hits. I take one day at a time.
Interviewed by Stefan SŲrin