Interview with HUGH GOLDSMITH, A&R at Innocent UK for Blue, Atomic Kitten - Jan 21, 2002
ďIĎd rather have a group that sold a shit load of records and wasnít particularly cool than having a hip act that didnít do any significant businessĒ
Hugh Goldsmith founded and runs the Innocent label, a Virgin Records imprint in the UK. His roster contains 4 acts, which have all had No.1 singles and Platinum albums in the UK, as well as significant international success in the case of Atomic Kitten and Blue.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route to become an A&R?
Iíve always loved music from a very early age but I think the same is true of most people who work in the music industry. For a number of years I played guitar in various groups, so Iíve had the experience of being in a band, writing music and playing live, all of which I loved! So much so, that I left my job in advertising to do it full time for three and a half years. I substantiated my tiny income with some memorable job experiences such as being a gardener, a furniture removal man, and a production manager in a condom factory! In 1988 I was offered the opportunity to become publisher of Sky Magazine, a U.K style magazine, by an old contact from my advertising days. I thought I should take it, but still retain my involvement in song writing and production. I also managed a couple of acts through that period until, in March 1992, Jeremy Marsh offered me the Marketing Director job at RCA.
The company was not in great shape at that time, but the thing that got us all going and definitely put my career on the map was my association with Take That. They were just about to be dropped by the old regime but I definitely saw the potential in the act thanks to the fact that Nick Raymonde, their A&R guy, insisted that I came and saw a couple of their shows in the Manchester area. It felt like there were a lot of fans but RCA just hadnít connected with them. So, we created the first pop database marketing initiative in the industry and from then on and all through Take Thatís career the marketing revolved around direct communication with the fans. We also had Annie Lennox on the label and we worked with Deconstruction to break M-People. I had 3 good years as marketing director at RCA and then two years as MD, but I have to say, while I was MD, I realised that I was really missing the frontline, missing being involved. I had been frustrated at RCA because I hadnít had a hands on involvement in A&R. I wanted to get my hands on the act and oversee the records, not just the business side of it, so when Virgin Records came along and said ďDo you want to start a small label?Ē I jumped at the chance.
Which genre of music do you mainly work with?
When I set up the label it was my intention for it to be a cool, mainstream, pop label. However, we then went ahead and signed Billie Piper followed by Martine McCutcheon and the impression we gave was that Innocent was definitely mainstream pop, but not very cool! We had a double platinum album with Martine and a platinum album with Billie as well as five No.1 records between them and Iím very proud of our association with both acts. However, I think Blue is the best representation of where I want Innocent to be, going forward. I want us to make records that radio stations embrace and records that have appeal across the world.
So, you focus on mainstream pop?
Yes. One of the reasons why I focus on mainstream music is because I see it as an opportunity. A lot of A&R guys want to make music that is critically acclaimed and ground breaking rather than making records that sell a lot. Ultimately, I love music, I love great songs and I love selling records. IĎd rather have a group that sold a shit load of records and wasnít particularly cool, than having a very hip act that didnít do any significant business.
Many people would argue that this generation is keen to have a change from the MTV style playlist we are accustomed to hearing all the time, so the ďcool actsĒ are a break from the norm, donít you think?
I completely agree that there needs to be people in our business bringing through exciting, new talent like an Eminem or a So Solid Crew, but itís not what Iím particularly good at. I think I have to know my strengths and weaknesses. What I know about is finding stars and great songs. I also have a pretty reasonable ability at going into a studio and articulating to a producer what I want to hear.
Which qualities in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?
You need to be able to spot a star. Some young singers have it, others donít and itís not just about having a pretty face. Youíve got to be able to find great songs and youíve got to have the ability to combine the song and the artist with the right production to give you a record thatís going to sound exciting and appropriate in the market at a given time. You need to wrap around the whole process of A&R an understanding of the market. For example, there was a time when a lot of people were putting projects on the market that sounded very Britney and very Backstreet but not as good. The outcome was inevitable! Youíve got to look at the market and be careful not to come with something that itís already got a lot of.
But then thereís also the pioneering A&Rs who literally sign stuff because they feel itís different, exciting and they love it. They donít really stop and think, ďHow big is my market?Ē Itís just purely based on passion for a sound or an artist. This school of A&R is critical to the business and I have huge respect for the great players in this area.
I also do research to confirm to me that I am going in the right direction with my projects.
Werenít Blue in danger of just being another boyband?
We put Blue out at a time when people were saying, ďYou canít do another male act, the market is flooded with them,Ē but actually they didnít have a lot of competition in the market last year because Five split up and some of the acts like Backstreet Boys and *NSync were not that active in the UK. I used research, but it was clear to me and my team at Innocent what was needed. It was clear that another very straight boy group was not what was needed, but if we could come with a band with significant vocal talent and a more urban slant to their sound, then it could well work. And it really has!
How do you find new talent?
I have one guy who assists me in A&R and who is an integral part of the set-up here. His key role is to handle all the publisher liaisons, but he also sees and listens to anything that gets sent to us. He has always got his eyes and ears open. If something is hot Iíll have a look at it but I donít worry if time passes and Iím not being brought hot acts. If Iím not being brought what I want then I go and put it together or find it or find a way of finding it. Like I did with Blue, which was put together by their manager, myself and the Innocent team.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
What I look for are the obvious things: star quality, singing ability etc, but also something that can be fresh and interesting in a saturated market. When I started Innocent, I sat down with my head of A&R at the time and we talked about the fact that there were no solo females in the market. This was back in 97, so we had our eyes peeled for a young, exciting, solo female talent. I saw Billie in a TV commercial and I thought she looked perfect. I tracked her down and she was exactly what we were looking for.
What are you currently working on?
I have a duo from Glasgow with a guy who does the beats and the programming and a girl who fronts it. Sort of ďTexas meets DidoĒ. Cool beats, mainstream pop melodies, but with a nice urban edge to it. Theyíre called Speedway.
What advice would you give anybody who wants to be an artist?
First of all youíve got to look at yourself and ask yourself the question, ďHow badly do I want it?Ē Itís a very rocky road. Youíve got to be very sure you want it and very aware that youíre going to get a lot of knock backs and youíve got to keep on picking yourself up again. So, be sure you want it and donít bother if you havenít got exceptional talent. Youíve got to get advice from people who know what theyíre talking about and who are prepared to be honest with you. There are a handful of managers, who can make a difference and there are a whole lot of managers who donít have the contacts or the vision. Of course, it really helps if you can get with one of the top managers; a Simon Fuller or a Louis Walsh.
Why is the UK singles chart so peculiar with so many new releases going straight into number 1 to 5 and then drop?
This relates to the fact that our chart is sales based, so thereís no airplay in it holding it up. If you crossed sales and airplay a lot of the declines would be a lot slower. If you look at our airplay charts itís a much slower moving situation. I also think we have become very adept at making our target market aware of our records before they come out. We are definitely guilty of frontloading all the promotion nowadays, because, if you donít frontload the promotion you donít go in high enough and then people in radio are going to feel nervous about the record because itís not charting high enough. So, we are in a bit of a Catch 22 situation.
However, if you look under the surface of the British charts, you can see an awful lot of records that go in at 2 or 3, then only slip to 5 and then they stay in the Top 10 for a few weeks. The true hits stay top ten for weeks. Real hits do find a way of hanging on. So, we have a very fast moving chart and itís very confusing to people outside the UK. But if you look at the trends and know how to read the British charts, you can still pick the real hits.
How do you think the Internet will affect the music biz?
I think the Internet is a really positive thing and no self-respecting act exists in todayís market without a fairly comprehensive website. We can build a great Blue or Atomic Kitten website which can be accessed by fans from all over the world. If the act is breaking in South East Asia, for example, but we havenít really done as much promotion as we would like, fans can find out a huge amount about the act by accessing the website. Another great by-product of an interactive website is that we as record executives can learn so much. You can go into chat rooms, you can research tracks and peoples favourite songs on the website, or you can get news flashes to people.
As an industry, I think weíve just got to make sure we protect our music and deal with the CD copying issue so that people arenít able to download music at will, because that will have an effect, even though a certain amount of it is positive for record sales. Iím convinced weíll sort it out and it will be a problem behind us in a few years time. Music is always going to be here, itís like food and drink. We just have to find a way to protect our copyrights.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We do listen to absolutely everything. We are very organised. You see weíre not at gigs the whole time! We spend most of our time trying to uncover great songs. If youíre on top of things, you can stay on top of things. If you donít listen to anything for four weeks, youíre going to have a mountain and youíre never going to go near it, but if you do stuff on a daily basis and churn it through, then you are going to listen to everything.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
Thereís no reason why I wouldnít. I have no great desire to work with just British acts. I look at acts from everywhere. I see my market place as being Europe and then the world, not just the UK. Thereís no point on just focusing on and having only UK success because thereís not enough business to be done.
Which are the important tools for you to break a new act?
There are so many. Once you get a new act up and running, itís about knowing your target market. Itís also a real science building a campaign with the media. We normally start by making sure that key media people are being exposed to an act and getting a feel for the act a long, long time before we come with the main thrust. So, people are beginning to talk about your act in key media circles way up front. This has to happen across all media from the Internet, to radio, to TV and to press. Itís a fine art and a lot of people in the UK music industry are very good at knowing how to set acts up. However, there just arenít a lot of great new acts around so all the set-up takes place, but at the end of the day the public may say, NO!
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I donít think Iíd change a lot because I think the playing field is the same for all of us. But I think the one thing I would really like to see happen is to see a lot of focus on the issue of CD copying. I know in some countries it is creating major dips in the market and I think it could be very damaging to the industry if the issue isnít sorted out very soon.
As far as the industry is concerned it will always change. There will be good years, there will be bad years, there will be years when weíll be in recession, there will be years when the TV opportunities arenít so great and then there will be years when they are. Itís a level playing field and we all have to cope with exactly the same criteria, so thatís fine by me.
What has been the greatest moment of your career?
My greatest career moment was really the success Innocent enjoyed through the course of last year. The label is hugely profitable and selling a lot of records in the UK and around the world. Itís been hard work, but Iíve felt a great sense of satisfaction seeing such a small label break two acts in a market that has seen very few new acts break. I believe we are getting it right at Innocent. Iím not a one-man band. Iíve got a great team of people around me who devise our strategy, help me do all the marketing and keep everything moving forward. Weíve had success, weíve brought success to Virgin and I donít have any of the hassle that I would have if I were in a corporate job. I am completely close to the music and the acts, which is what I love.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
More of the same. Thereís nothing Iíd rather be doing than this but who knows what the future may hold?!
What do you think of HitQuarters?
Itís great, fantastic. I saw myself in your A&R Chart and I was very flattered.
Interviewed by Victor Bassey