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Interview with MEL MEDALIE, A&R for Dido, Will Smith and owner and founder of Champion Records - Oct 26, 2001

"Manufactured bands have made it very difficult for people with real talent in the UK"

picture Mel Medalie is the owner and founder of Champion Records (UK) and former owner of Cheeky Records (UK). He originally signed Will Smith (as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince) in the mid-80s and has gained success with such acts as Todd Terry, Salt N Pepa, Faithless (more than 5 million albums sold), Robin S, Kristine W and putting together Dido's debut album, "No Angel", (more than 10 million albums sold worldwide).

How did you get started in the music biz?

Basically, I started working as an agent for bands in the 60s. Like most kids, I enjoyed going to folk clubs and listening to live music. In the 60s there were a lot more ‘real’ artists, playing and recording everything live, which was very interesting. It has never been easy to get into the music business and as a matter of fact, in those days it was harder than it is now. I didn't make much money but I managed.

I started a label called Polo Records in 1978. We had a hit with a song called "Dance Yourself Dizzy" by a band called Liquid Gold, which was a Top 20 hit in the US and No. 1 in the UK, Benelux and many other European territories. We also had lots of hits with another band called Gidea Park, which consisted of great guys.

In 1980, I started Champion Records. We released 12" dance records, selling about 10,000 copies each, which is very good when you're running a small company. After 4 or 5 years we had a huge hit in the UK with "Just Buggin" by Whistle, which went top 5 in the UK. For 6 years, from 1981 to 1987, Paul Oakenfold and I worked as A&Rs at Champion. I showed him how to produce records.

Which experiences have been important for you in developing your A&R skills?

A&R is a matter of opinion. It's just whether your opinion is right, and then following your intuition through. Obviously, when I had the money to start making my first records, the ones I released were in my opinion ‘hit’ records.

Until the late 80s, before people were able to make music in their bedrooms, everything was recorded live with musicians, so you had to be professional since it was all your own money behind the record.

Meeting people and networking at conventions like Midem in Cannes, A2A in Amsterdam, PopKomm in Cologne or the Winter Music Conference in Miami is also invaluable.

Which qualities, in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?

There are a lot of factors involved. You need to be a very good judge of an artist and a song and you need to know what's going to appeal to the public at any given time. Luck plays a big part too. It's important that the artist is self-confident as well as talented. These are the vital ingredients.

How did Dido, Salt N Pepa, Kristine W and Robin S come about?

When I first met Dido she was just a secretary. When she said she wanted to get into the music business, I asked her brother, Rollo from Faithless, if she could sing. He said "No, forget it but she plays the flute and oboe". But she was such a great girl that we all got involved and helped her in every way possible. However, she had one big plus; she could write songs, the most important quality in the music business. She also had an enormous amount of self-confidence. It didn't matter whether I believed it or not, she had enough self-belief for the two of us. Dido's album has now sold 12 million copies and I feel quite proud to have put it together myself over 5 years.

I didn't originally sign Salt N Pepa, I just picked them up for Europe. We had a bit of luck with their major hit, "Push It", since they got to play at the big charity event Live Aid in 1985, which made everything happen.

I saw Kristine W singing in a lounge at the Hilton in Las Vegas. After a lot of persuasion, she came over to England and we recorded some tracks. I found the producer and the song "Feel What You Want" and put it together.

With Robin S I met Allan George and Fred MacFarlane at Midem in 1990. They played me "Show Me Love" and I picked it up. I commissioned 10 different remixes of the song but it was Stonebridge from Swemix, who made it into a hit record.

Which acts are you currently working on and what is the next step?

We are currently working with a wonderful singer/songwriter called Halima and also bands called Desire and Bassboosa. I thoroughly enjoy working with these great kids and the fact that they write their own material makes it even more exciting. It's great to release singles, but it's album artists that have long-term careers.

How do you find songs and producers for your acts?

Having been in the industry for over 25 years, I know many producers and songwriters who send me songs and demos. These guys are the heart of the music business.

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?

I've always worked 24 hours a day in this business. It's more than a job - it's a lifestyle and a hobby and one, which makes me, search the world for our acts.

What do you look for in an artist or an act?

As well as amazing vocal talents, a great personality, with an original look who can write brilliant songs.

What would your advice be to an unsigned artist/act on how to approach the music biz? How should they go about it?

They should make demos and send them to record companies and then try to make an appointment to meet the A&R people or invite them to a live gig. It doesn't matter if the demo is average, as long as it's something that people can listen to and draw their own conclusions from.

What has been the development in music in the UK over the last few years?

At one time the UK used to be a major source of talent in the world but now we are just a breeding ground for manufactured bands. Because of modern technology, there are machines that make you sound as if you can sing, whether you can or not. These manufactured bands have made it very difficult for people with real talent in the UK. You only have to read the tabloid press in England, who constantly write about these bands who can't sing, instead of real news.

Why is the UK singles chart so peculiar with so many new releases going straight into Numbers 1 to 5, and then plunge into oblivion?

Because most records are based on hype. They're in fashion today and gone tomorrow. The chart is based totally on sales and the stores have the right to a 100% return, even though the price to the stores is less than it costs to manufacture them. After the record companies have paid royalties to artists, producers and publishers, they lose money on each single sold. The majors don't really care though as all they need is a prominent market share and acts in the chart.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Absolutely! We receive quite a lot. We signed Bassboosa from a very rough demo that they had sent in. However, you can listen to 500 tapes and find nothing and then listen to two tapes and like them both.

Why did you sell Cheeky Records to BMG?

When we started Cheeky, all our artists were just nice young, hopeful people. But after we had some success and they had money in the bank, their egos became so big. Not only did they want credibility, they wanted to see their faces on billboards, on the back of buses, on TV ads and as an independent, we couldn't afford to massage their egos as major record companies can do quite easily. I didn't want to sell Cheeky Records as we were a very successful company but BMG pursued me for 2 years and in the end I just gave in.

However, I still retain the Cheeky Music publishing company because we learned a long time ago that the income from the music publishing side is very important to sustain a record company. Music publishers don't do anything other than collect money.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

We can't change it, since the 5 major record companies - Sony, EMI, BMG, Warner and Universal - set the rules. They have the distribution and the finances to control the industry.

But we all have a duty to do something about free music on the Internet. It's not good for artists and producers if major or independent record companies are not receiving royalties. If everything is free, what's the point of there being a music industry?

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

There have been several great moments but one I'm really proud of is to have found Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff in a record shop in Philadelphia when they were 17 years old. I heard a white label playing called "Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble" and it turned out to be theirs. I'm really pleased that Paul Oakenfold, who started with me, has turned into one of the top DJs in the world.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?

Hopefully I will still be working at Champion and developing artists. It's quite an achievement to last 5-10 years in the music business.

What do you think of HitQuarters?

We already use this site and recently put an advert on it, which received a good response. I definitely value it as a resource.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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