Interview - Apr 4, 2002
"Don't overdo it and send ten songs. If I get a tape with three or four good songs, I just ask for more."George Glueck, founder and owner of Berlin-based label X-cell Records, has been an influential force in the German music business for over two decades. Acts he has worked with include Rio Reiser, Falco, Tic Tac Toe, Melanie Thornton and Die Prinzen. Current acts on X-cell he has signed include band ohne namen (bon), Sarah Connor and H-Blockx.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become an A&R?
I grew up in the US, and as a teenager I played bass and managed and produced my own band, so it was a natural step to start working in production. I recorded music in studios, working with producers who were in some way connected to people like Frank Farian and Giorgio Moroder. I picked songs for Boney M, for example, and I brought in information about a guy called Bob Marley, who was virtually unknown at the time.
Then in 1975, I got a job as a professional manager in Berlin, at a company called the Meisel Group, owners of a publishing company. They had a record label called Hansa, and I went to London to work for Hansa UK. I lived there for 5 years, and signed artists like the Thompson Twins, Japan, and Sarah Brightman. We signed and dropped a band called Easy Cure, later known as The Cure. My boss at the time didn't like them. Then I got involved with management and had artists like Trio, who had a hit with "DaDaDa"; I managed a very influential German artist called Rio Reiser; I had The Rainbirds, Annette and Inga Humpe, Marianne Rosenberg; and in the 90s I discovered a group from Leipzig called Die Prinzen. Their first 3 albums sold over 1 million each, and they were produced by one of my clients, Annette Humpe, whom I developed into a major producer.
In 1993, I started a very successful label with BMG, called Sing Sing, to which we signed H Blockx, Lucilectric, Sin With Sebastian, and two guys called Die Doofen, who sold over a million albums. Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding with BMG, who then bought the label, and in 1998 I started X-cell, a joint venture with Sony.
What factors made you decide to start your own label?
If you want control of your own destiny, you don't want to have to rely on somebody else to do the marketing, the promotion, getting TV and radio. Of course, you need a distribution network, and Sony has a very good one. But at the same time, in a place like Germany, 5 outlets create about 80% of the sales. Sony press and distribute X-cell in Germany, and they have a worldwide option for the products on our label. Within the German-speaking territories, X-cell is a fully-fledged record company, with our own marketing, promotion, and A&R, obviously.
What acts are you currently working on?
Sarah Connor is one of our major artists, along with band ohne namen. We have a band called sofaplanet, and right now I'm working on new acts. We had an artist called Melanie Thornton whom we sadly lost in a plane crash, and who had just released her breakthrough album. I have also just started advising Sony in an A&R capacity. A major like Sony can offer many different opportunities, so I'm happy to be involved in that area.
How do you find producers for your acts?
It's always through a long-term relationship. For example, the big hits for Sarah Connor were written and produced by two total unknowns who had previously not even scratched the charts, people I've been building on for a long time. And the guys who wrote and produced the songs for Melanie Thornton are German producers I've been working with for 8 years.
How do German producers work differently to those in the UK and US?
In most cases, there really isnít much of a difference. With today's technology, it doesnít matter where they come from, although rock is an exception. With rock artists and rock production, American and British producers have an advantage, but in pop or dance, they're all using the same technology. What it comes down to nowadays is the song and the songwriting, not the sound.
How closely do you work with your actsí managers?
Very closely. There's a very definite lack of good management here; itís an area in which Germany has some catching up to do. Germany is particularly lacking in management with international experience, who know how to develop acts and exploit opportunities outside the German-speaking territories.
How do you find new talent?
Itís a different story for every artist I've found. I would say it's mostly due to word-of-mouth. I've spent so many years listening to tapes sent in, and very seldom has that really brought something interesting. So itís 90% word-of-mouth from different sources, generally producers, writers and artists.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
Somebody who inspires and excites me. I look for a funny feeling in my stomach.
What do you think of German talent in general; what are their strong and weak points?
In last few years, there's been an interesting counter-reaction to the European Union and globalization. Musically, the various markets have developed stronger national musical identities than ever before, so you can't take for granted that, for example, an English No.1 will automatically do well everywhere. I think that Germany is an important source of talent in the pop and dance areas, although in rock its influence is considerably weaker.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, although not many interesting things have come through that way. We get hundreds of demos every week. I have an assistant who I'm developing in A&R, although the things that are thrown at me personally I obviously will listen to myself. We have a system of sifting through it all, a kind of a filter. I try to listen to a lot of music all the time.
How sure about the available market space for an act do you need to be before signing and releasing them?
To me, itís all a fully-integrated system. I don't purely do A&R and have no other concern. When I'm on to something, I automatically think about the market and the promotion, simply because there's no point in signing something that doesn't have an opportunity in the marketplace. But I've never really faced that kind of a problem; it all goes hand in hand. I let my promotion and marketing people get very involved in the A&R process, and I inspire and motivate them to understand what we are doing. It's not a system of A&R gives it up, and it goes to marketing. That doesn't work.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach people in the music biz?
Create a few songs; don't overdo it. Don't send in a tape with ten songs, chances are that they won't get past the first one. If I get a tape with three or four songs, and they're good, that makes me hungry for more, so I just ask for more. Make sure that there's a visual aspect involved, like good photos representing what you stand for, what you are. And you should definitely be hungry; try to inspire optimism and show your ambition.
Do you work with acts from outside Germany?
Definitely. Weíre international. We worked with Melanie Thornton, who lived in the US; right now we're talking to an act in Los Angeles; and I'm also talking to an unknown act in Holland that I like. We want to find terrific talent wherever; it doesn't matter. Shakira comes from Colombia, Kylie Minogue from Australia, Sarah Connor from Germany, and Britney is produced for the most part in Sweden. Nowadays, itís international.
Few German artists seem to break in territories other than GSA, with the exception of German dance acts. Why do you think this is?
German acts who have been successful in the past are Boney M, Silver Convention, Milli Vanilli, the Scorpions, H-Blockx, Rammstein, etc. If it's good enough, it will work, and that's a belief that I don't want to have to give up. But itís very important to have a company like Sony behind you, who is able to give you the opportunity you need. Right now we have Sarah Connor who is breaking out.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in Germany in recent decades?
Everything has gone haywire in the last decade; itís very different from 10 years ago. The costs have gone up enormously and sales have gone down significantly. Nowadays, you have to know that if you are committing to an act, you are committing to spending a significant amount of money. Otherwise you might as well not do it.
What marketing tools are important to you when breaking new acts?
It's always the same ones: videos and co-operation with the media, generally TV stations. In Melanie Thornton's case, Coca-Cola's Christmas campaign was a very useful tool, and she sold over 200.000 singles. But if the music isn't any good, I don't believe it will sell purely on marketing. The actual music is more important than anything else is.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to have a plan for a longer-term development of artists. Today, the build-up to the release is the most important phase, and I would much rather have a window of opportunity, that lasts for several weeks and months after the release, in which to build something.
Everything is front-loaded and therefore incredibly competitive, and the music business really needs to look into this. I'm good at developing artists, and in the past I've been extremely successful with pitching unknown artists and giving them a big push. But I think for the music business in general, it would be much healthier to have a plan B, C, and D, to allow artists to develop and not just drop them because of a lack of immediate returns. That is, I think, the most harmful aspect of the industry.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I find it thrilling to still be inspired by music and artists. It's not only a question of going to No.1; the most thrilling moments are finding new talent, or finishing something off and knowing in your soul that you have created something really special. Being in the music business is a great thrill! Making it, getting a job in music. I started out basically because it meant I got records for free!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I have no intention of doing anything else; this is so much fun. The only other thing I would like to do is to own a Formula 1 team. That would be a challenge! But other than that, I donít think anything would be nearly as much fun, nor as rewarding.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman