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Interview with GREGORY GRINBLAT, manager for new Russian pop star Ariana. - Dec 9, 2002

"Many believe that Ariana can become the first major star from Russia."

picture Gregory Grinblat is the father and manager of new 17-year-old Russian pop-star Ariana, who recently released her Russian chart-topping debut album “I’ll Do It All Again”.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

I started managing Ariana two years ago when she signed a contract with Sony Music Russia. I already had lots of friends in the music business, but this was the first time I had worked in it myself, although I do have twenty years of business experience behind me. I managed an oil and gas company and, though the details may differ, the main laws of business are still valid for the music business and I am able to apply most of the business skills I have acquired over the years.

How did Ariana's career start?

Ariana was born and raised in Houston, Texas, where we lived and I worked. She took piano lessons and became quite good at it, but we knew she wasn't that enthusiastic about playing the piano and instead preferred singing. About four years ago, she started taking singing lessons at a workshop in Houston. Her teacher told me that she was very talented and had something in her voice that set her apart from the school's other students. She wanted to take her to London, because she knew producers there who would be interested in working with her.

I decided to do it differently, however. Ariana was only 14 years old at the time, and I decided to take her to Moscow, because many of my friends there are top music producers. I also thought it was a bit too early for her to be on her own in London, and I also wanted someone to confirm that she was as good as her teacher was telling us. By then I was living and working in Moscow, so it made sense for Ariana to stay with her family.

We had a few meetings where she performed for the producers: one of them was my good friend Matvey Anichkin, with whom Ariana wrote a song. They also made a demo video. I asked him for his honest opinion, because I know that teachers in the US can be a little over-optimistic and like to give their students high marks to keep them motivated. But he confirmed what I had been told in Houston and offered to work with her, so we decided to start her off as an artist.

What was the process of finding songs and producers for her like and who was responsible for it?

Matvey Anichkin, the producer she works with, was famous as the leader of a rock band in Russia in the mid-80s before he left for Los Angeles for quite a few years. He and Ariana worked out most of the songs on the album. When they work together, they sit down, she tells him what she wants to do and they go from there. The Russian lyrics were mostly taken care of by Matvey, because Ariana didn’t speak Russian very well when she first came here, having been brought up in the US and basically being a typical American kid. But some songs were also brought in from the Sony catalogue, and Sergey Gorbashchuk, the A&R, was also really helpful with the productions.

What were your thoughts on the profile of the songs and the productions when you started work on the album?

As with all debut albums, it involved a search for direction, and this album really reflects two major directions: ballads, which are Ariana’s strength, and r&b, which is a new style here and not a very popular one yet. We're not trying to become popular by just repeating what the Russian audience like; instead we're presenting a new style, r&b, which has been slightly adapted to suit Russian taste. We realise that this is the difficult way, but it’s the right way for us.

Are there plans to market her internationally?

Yes, that is the main goal right now. We have already started working on a second album and right now we’re looking for a single. Sony Music International have recently shown a great deal of interest in Ariana, because they can see that she has been through the process of development and is now a star in Russia. They are making an effort to find something for her and they want to produce everything in the West. They believe that what we’re making here may not be good enough to penetrate the western market.

Do you look for new talent?

I have been offered new artists to manage on several occasions, but I'm 100% involved with Ariana right now, so it would be difficult to work with anyone else.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes, but I don't receive that much, because people know that I'm not interested in new artists right now.

Did you have a strategy from the start as to how you would break her?

Yes, from the moment we signed with Sony, and it’s more or less based on their requirements. They set several conditions, which at first I would not completely agree to. For instance, I didn't understand why she first needed to become a superstar in Russia (as opposed to taking her worldwide immediately), knowing the differences that exist between the music that is popular in Russia and that that is popular in the West. So we tried to make music that would not compromise her style, but still be successful with Russian listeners. I thought this was a more difficult way to go, but nevertheless we successfully achieved what Sony wanted and she quickly became a popstar, dubbed "the Russian answer to Christina Aguilera." But we still believe that her music might be more readily accepted in the West.

How have Russian artists, songwriters and producers developed in the last few years?

There's been a lot of progress. For many years I have been paying attention to what’s been happening in the Russian music world, and it's been like a sleeping bear. With the last ten years of openness, the availability of music from the West, and the Internet, there are quite a lot of changes going on here. I believe Russia will become a part of western society, not only politically and economically, but also culturally.

What is the situation of the music business in Russia?

It’s not that good. It was always difficult for artists to make any money from records; they made money from concerts and this is still the case. CD piracy is a big problem right now, even more so than in the West because we have no laws against it here. If someone officially sells 100,000 albums, which we have done so far, you can estimate five to ten times more have been sold illegally.

But some positive moves have been made lately. A new law will be introduced and some major artists and labels have united in the struggle against piracy. They're more united than ever before because they’ve realised that piracy is the common enemy, although we're still far from any substantial results.

What is the international potential of the Russian music business?

Many believe that Ariana can become the first major star from Russia. We already have the group T.A.T.U, who have become popular in the West, but not, I would say, on the grounds of music: their breakthrough has been based on marketing and a specific image. I don't want to criticise it because no matter how you look at it, it was a positive move for Russian artists. They’ve opened a door and western people now realise that Russian artists can be marketed in the West. With Ariana’s background, her western mentality and fluency in English, both us and Sony believe she can be the second big step for the Russian music business.

What is the situation of the media in Russia?

Normally, owners of radio and TV stations also have record labels. They sign local artists and the only way for them to make any money is from concerts, and in order to make money from concerts they need to really play them a lot on the radio and show them on TV. So he who owns the mechanisms of popularisation promotes his or her own artists. Ariana and a few others are exceptions because we belong to Sony, who don't own any radio stations. This means that Ariana’s popularity is even more substantial, because people who don't have a direct business interest in her still put her on the radio and show her video, simply because she improves their ratings.

In Russia, are the costs for recording albums and making videos recoupable from artists' royalties?

Yes, but in real life it’s not working, because artists’ royalties are not big enough to cover these costs. As I mentioned previously, artists in Russia make their money from performances.

Do artists then get part of the ownership of the masters?

Not to my knowledge.

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

First of all, we need to find a solution to piracy, and Internet downloading in particular. We need to find a way to convince people not to steal, because by stealing from artists, they're ultimately stealing from themselves, because artists are less motivated to make music when they are not 100% rewarded for their work.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

My greatest moment was last year at the Kremlin, when Ariana received her first Golden Grammy, the Russian equivalent of the Grammy. It's awarded by the biggest radio station in Russia, called Russian Radio, which covers about 800 cities and is therefore probably the world's biggest station; it's based on the number of listeners requests made throughout the year. It is the people's vote and as such cannot be fabricated; it’s really about what people like and you can’t buy it for money. She was the youngest person to ever receive such an award.

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

When Ariana graduates from school in June, she will start to work on her professional career full-time. If she achieves worldwide recognition, or at least in parts of Europe, then naturally we'll continue in the same direction. But if we don't succeed in a year or two, or maybe even three, she will probably continue her education, although she'll still be involved in showbusiness because she likes it very much.

I would perhaps like to be a manager for one or two more years, but as she grows up, I think she'll need a manager who is not her father. I think there might be a slight conflict of interests here and I think it would be better if she worked with someone with a big name in show business.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

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