Interview - Feb 21, 2002
“I've had the worst quality home-produced demos, done on a 4-track, that have been really exciting and energetic.”Miles Leonard is A&R at EMI/Parlophone UK. He signed, and currently works with, Kylie Minogue, Blur, Gorillaz, Coldplay and Radiohead, among others.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become an A&R?
I started at Virgin Records in 1991 as an A&R scout, and within my first year there I signed a band called The Verve. After working with them for several years, I moved on to Roadrunner Records, where I stayed for about 2 years, before moving on to Parlophone in 1996.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your A&R skills?
Nothing more than love and passion for music, which I've felt from an early age. Being an A&R is all about personal taste and opinion, really, and I don't believe there are any specific qualifications that help you to become one. I think it's purely love and passion that help you succeed.
What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working on Blur, who will release a new album this year. Then there's Dirty Vegas, a recent signing that we're very excited about. Coldplay are working on new material, and Beverly Knight's new album is being released in the next few weeks.
How do you find new talent?
Mostly through management companies, agents and friends. But they can come from anywhere: word-of-mouth, directly from the artist to the label, from DJs, from producers. There isn't a specific set of people who we get our acts from. It's very different here from the US, where artists often come through lawyers. In the UK, you can find new artists anywhere.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
A unique, individual talent. That might sound obvious, but I think every successful artist has a very unique sound, whether it's a vocal sound or a musical sound. The ability to perform live is integral to success, if you're that kind of performing artist. I also like somebody who has the ability to write songs. It's not essential, but I think an understanding of the songwriting craft is very important.
How did the signing of Gorillaz come about?
Damon Albarn was doing the Blur project, obviously, and then we talked to him about a solo venture. He was looking for ideas and a direction in which he could take his songs. We discussed producers and the sort of styles that might work for Gorillaz. We came up with a really urban hiphop and dub-based sound, a sound which we were both fans of. Then it was just a case of finding the right people and the right producers to make the project work.
You signed Kylie Minogue at a time when many people thought her best days were over. What did you see in her and what drove you to take her on?
I believed that she was still very strong vocally, and still definitely a star. There was something there that hadn't been achieved by her last label, and I didn't think it really had anything to do with her. It had to do with the A&R process and the awareness of the talent she actually had, talent which hadn't been tapped into, I think. I believed in her as an artist and I knew that with the right project, the right songwriters, the right producers, the right team, she would still have a fanbase out there.
When you planned her reappearance, what were the important aspects you had to think about regarding how she would be perceived by the media and people in general?
I knew the media still loved her, because she was always a star. I knew that she could walk in to any TV station or magazine. However, would they accept her for her music or as a fashion icon? It was about turning that perception around, and I believed that with strong songs it would work very easily.
How did you go about finding her direction musically? Was it obvious where you wanted it to go?
We sat down and spent a long time talking about wanting to make a pop record. I felt she was a pop artist, and that that direction had been lost before. But I didn't want to make a throwaway pop record. I wanted it to have an edge and some depth, and that could only come from working with the right songwriters and producers. The ideas we had took us across the first album (“Light Years” in 2000 – Ed.), which had a slightly more direct pop approach, which said “Look, I'm back and I'm making pop records”. But we always had a more electronic, programmed and contemporary sound in mind, and that's what we've achieved with the new album, “Fever”.
She has a real vision as well; she has an idea of what she wants. I respect that in an artist. I tend to only work with artists who do have a vision: it's something that's really important to me.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
How involved are you with the production?
It varies from project to project. Sometimes I get very involved in the production and mixing, and other times I have a very hands-off approach. I think that a great A&R person is somebody who can sit back and accept when something is working and feels right, and not meddle with it just for the sake of it.
How sure do you need to be about the available market space for an act, before signing and releasing them?
You always have to be aware of the marketplace, have a general overview of it, but you can worry too much about the marketplace and forget about the actual songs and the artist. In general, though, I think that being aware of what is happening musically is always a good thing.
Do you have any advice for unsigned artists with regard to record label contracts?
There are few labels that would sign an artist without him/her having a lawyer. At the end of the day, if I get any artist to sign a contract without them having legal representation, it can always come back and hit me in the face later on. So I always recommend them a good lawyer if they haven't got one, because it helps me just as much as them.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we do. We get around 150 CDs a week. It's hard for us to listen and reply to everything we get, but we do our best. I have a team around me that does a great job listening to unsolicited material. The quality varies, but, to me, it's not always about well-produced demos. I've had the worst quality home-produced demos, done on a 4-track, that have been really exciting and energetic. Then I've had people who've spent a couple of thousand pounds in a top studio, and they've been absolutely appalling.
However, the artists I tend to work with generally come from a manager or a producer.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in the last decades?
No, I don't think so. We spend a long time here at Parlophone developing new artists. Some artists break with the first album, and that can be really exciting. However, we will work with the artists through a series of albums. If you believe in an artist, there's always a way you can break through. You're lucky if it happens with album one, but it's also an achievement to do it with album three.
How important do you think The Brit Awards are?
I think they're important. People have different views on them, though. There are people who think it's just an industry party where we all give ourselves a pat on the back. But I believe it means recognition of great artists and talent. Anything we can do to promote British music around the world is obviously a good thing.
How closely do you work with managers?
Pretty closely. We have very good relationships with the management teams surrounding our artists. The success of any band comes as a result of the management understanding what we're trying to achieve, and us understanding what the management is trying to achieve with their artist.
How important is it for your acts to enter the UK Singles Chart in the Top 3 with a new single?
It's not about that at all. It depends on where the act is. It's fantastic when a developing artist who has his/her first single go into the Top 75. If you have been hugely successful with an artist, and you're releasing a new single, of course you want it to be a Top 10 record. But it's not essential. There are many ways to break an album: touring, videoclips, and a strong fanbase that wants to buy the album and not the single.
Even though many UK acts still break in Europe, there seem to be fewer than 10 years ago. If you agree, what do you think the reasons are?
It's hard for me to say. My acts, Coldplay, Radiohead, Kylie, Gorillaz, all work in Europe. I think Europeans look to our album chart more than to our singles chart. If there's a successful album-selling artist in the UK, they take notice of that, because there are many singles that enter the singles chart that are just one-off singles, club and pop records behind which there isn't necessarily a true artist.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would make radio a little bit more open to more artists. The medium can be slightly narrow-minded and blinkered. I'd rather have it as in the US, where different stations are dedicated to different genres of music.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Everytime you have a No.1 single or album, you think well, this is it, this is a great moment. However, chart placings come and go, and I really believe having the opportunity to work closely with great, talented artists like Damon from Blur, Kylie, Richard Ashcroft from The Verve, etc, is really special. During my time in the industry, those are my fondest memories.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I hope to have the opportunity to run a label.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman