Interview with OLA HŚKANSSON, managing director of Stockholm Records, home of A-Teens, The Cardigans and A Camp - Jan 28, 2002
ďIf the song is good enough, it doesnít matter how the artist looks.Ē
Ola HŚkansson is co-founder and the MD of Stockholm Records, a Swedish label that focuses on bringing Swedish artists to the international scene. Label acts include A-Teens, The Cardigans, A Camp and E-Type, to name a few. Here Ola gives us the formula to why Stockholm Records has become so successful in breaking their acts internationally, and advice to aspiring artists who wants to approach the music biz.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route to become an A&R?
I started out as an artist in the 60s, as a singer in a band called Ola And The Janglers touring around Sweden and Europe, but I got tired of going around in vans and of the cold dressing rooms. I was with the band until 1969, then I went solo until 1972 and then went back to school to study. I thought I was going to be a medical doctor, but I changed my mind again in 1976. I was offered a job at Sonet Music Publishing, which at the time was the biggest independent music company in Scandinavia and became the General Manager. Then in 1979, I had another career with a band called Secret Service, more or less by accident. All the time still employed by Sonet and working as a publisher and A&R. I became a shareholder in 1982 signing Magnus Uggla, Mikael Rickfors and Noice. I was with Sonet until it was sold in 1991 and founded Stockholm records in January 1992 as a joint venture with Polygram.
Which qualities did you have to display to be appointed as an A&R for the first time?
I think my background as an artist was very good, because when youíre out there performing, if the song is not good enough you drop it. Itís boring to perform songs when you notice the audience donít like them. I think itís very good to meet the audience, especially in Sweden during those days when it was quite tough. Like the Foxbox, if the audience didnít like you they simply threw things at you or set fire to the stage. I think another thing that was very good for me as a publisher was that you focused on the songs. Thatís the thing for a publisher, then you do the arrangement. The song is the main focus. If you have a good song you can always do a lot of things with it, but if you have a bad song, then you have to re-arrange it or dress up the artist in order to hide the fact that the song is not good enough.
How do you find new talent?
In the beginning when I founded Stockholm Records, I signed everything myself, which was Stakka Bo, The Cardigans and E-Type. It was easier because they were all baby acts and we were a very young, humble little company with 3 or 4 people employed and the thing was trying to find acts that we could export outside Sweden, because we really wanted to become a product source for Polygram. The only way to find talent was to use your gut feeling. I have an average taste, so if I liked it, there would probably be people out there who would feel the same way. In terms of sources, you used everything. Sometimes people told you to check out acts. For example: a guy very much into the indie scene introduced The Cardigans to me. They sent him a tape, which he played to me. Sometimes I go to watch a band play live. Itís different, when youíre a small company and virtually unknown, you have to do everything to find a band. In big record companies people send things to you. I think I made people aware that we were available and became very close to the artist and all the industry people. The door was always open and you could always come in to visit us.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
Songs. If the song is good enough, it doesnít matter how the artist looks. The other stuff one can always create. Signing new acts also means we have to educate them on the fact that this is a tough business. In the beginning you have to work like hell and may not make a lot of money, but if you stay long enough you could end up making too much. One has to be very honest with new acts, especially Swedish acts. If they are to compete with English or American acts, they have to know what it takes.
Is there a notable difference between Swedish and US/UK artists?
I think so. The English and American acts have a long tradition of making music behind them, so they know how tough it is and the fact that they have to work like hell because the competition in those countries is so big. They are devoted. In Sweden, itís more ďOh well! I did my bestÖĒ In general, I feel like we donít know what it takes. The Max Martins and Cheirons know that they must have the best songs and the best productions or people will go somewhere else. We havenít had so many artists out there, but I think A-Teens are the most American act we have at the moment. They work as an American act. They tour and rarely have time for relationships and all that. Iíve never seen a Swedish act work as hard as A-Teens. They were young when they started, so we have parents and tutors as much involved as possible. We try to make them aware that this wonít go on forever and that they have to be educated. We say to them, ďDonít become bigheaded because in two years you could be back in Stockholm living a totally different life.Ē With young kids you have a lot of responsibility.
Is local success necessary before releasing in another territory?
Normally, yes. Itís very difficult to persuade somebody in Germany to release something because his or her first question will be, ďHow did it do in your own territory?Ē You donít want to end up saying, ďSwedes donít like it but I think it will do better here.Ē I must also point out that The Cardigans were bigger outside Sweden before hitting the big time here. I donít know if itís just Sweden or every small country. You have to prove yourself abroad because the locals are always suspicious about their local acts and would rather opt for the more internationally recognised act.
How sure about the available market-space for an act do you need to be before signing and releasing them?
We have A&R meetings where we present our acts and everything come down to your reputation. If the guys in France believe you can deliver something for them, then they give you a chance to release it. Of course they have to listen to it and like it, but the bigger your reputation, the more marketing money they are willing to spend. In the big record companies, thereís a lot of politics going on. It takes a while to build up a reputation, but it only takes a second for it to come crashing down. If you have five consecutive successes, then you are given a chance but with two flops in the bag, youíll find it tough.
What do you think of your reputation as a record company?
I think itís good, because no one expected us to come and make such an impact. The first band we had was The Cardigans, who were regarded as a quality act, which was important for us. If we had had our first success with A-Teens that wouldnít have been real, but people look at us and say, if they can come up with a band like The Cardigans, then they can come up with something that is successful. Itís also not based on the amount of success youíve had, but with what you have been successful with.
How important is it for your acts to have foreign management when moving into other territories?
It is important and the reason for that is because we lack experienced managers here who are able to continue the success. We definitely need either English or American mangers that come here and teach us how to manage Swedish acts or Swedish managers that educate themselves so that they become international managers. There are very few managers here and those around havenít been here for many years unlike in the U.K and U.S, where they have many years of experience and we donít. It takes ten years to become good in your profession regardless of what you do.
You are affiliated with Universal, at which stage do you present your acts for the various Universal offices around the World, already when you plan to sign them or when you have a finished product?
First of all I sign the act and then use Sweden as a testing ground. We are currently working very hard to get Mendez and Lisa Miskovsky out there. We have to prove it here first. With Mendez, we are going into the club scene because club records can travel. We want to have a big hit here with the clubs and then talk to the other Universal companies instead of going straight to the radio. We try it out here as a test market and from there we will probably go to Norway or Finland and if we have the same thing, we take the next step.
What are the key factors that need to be in place when you release in another territory?
Of course, you need the act or artist available for promotional work. You canít conquer the whole of Europe at the same time; you have to pick a territory. Sometimes you go for France like we did with E-Type some years ago and Italy with Mendez. It takes a couple of years until you have your act together.
Which are the key territories you want your acts to move in to?
In terms of money, Germany is of course a very important market. Itís one of the biggest markets and they have high record prices. If youíre talking of an influential market then the U.K is the most important market. If youíre talking of a market where you can experiment in with a very diverse taste, then itís got to be France. They have some of the most exciting artists around in Daft Punk and Modjo. They have some movement over there, in Dance music at least. But for the A-Teens we will concentrate on the U.S.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach music biz people?
Write a very good song and then come to me! They can do covers, but I must say that the key thing is to come up with a good song. We do receive unsolicited material, which is normally around 20 Ė 30 per week, and the quality has improved because they have access to music making equipment that isnít that expensive. I canít stress this enough, but the song is the most important thing and if it is a vocal song, the voice is the second most important. The rest isnít that important because you can always do something about it.
Would you work with acts from outside Sweden?
No. From Scandinavia, yes, but it gets a little too complicated to take acts from the U.K and the U.S. Of course if I find something thatís extremely interesting then I have to do something, but right now, weíre not focusing on that.
Swedish songwriters and producers have over the last ten years had many worldwide- hits, what do you think this is due to?
Once again, we are back to the issue of songs. I think that people realise that a small country can never set a trend. If you have a good song you can compete with them, but if you donít, forget it. In America, you can sell an artist with attitude but that wouldnít work here in Sweden. Thatís the case because even if you havenít been to the States and have very limited knowledge of the country, you think you do thanks to movies and television, which makes them easily acceptable. We present the U.K and U.S number ones, as news here, which tells us itís a completely different ball game.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades? If so, why and is it a problem?
There is a lot more pressure nowadays because everything is much more expensive. You should pick your acts carefully. And before you release it, you should work it over and over. This is what we do at the A&R meetings. The problem is the artists themselves. They hate when you tell them, ďI donít think itís ready for release.Ē So, sometimes we release records even if itís not ready to go because the artist becomes really impatient.
Do you think that a system for artists, modelled after the actorís situation, where acts would be free to record for any label they would wish, do you think that is desirable and do you think it would work?
No, I donít, because you are investing in an artist. Letís take The Cardigans as an example, if you have that kind of artist, you know that you are bound to lose some money on their first record because it costs so much money in order to build a reputation and you have to make videos. Who is going to invest if they donít have a chance to get the money back? That will never happen. I think it is a free market, because as an artist you can sign yourself for 3, 4 or 5 albums, but I think itís a question of how much you want the record company to spend and how much they believe in you as an act. Today if you read the papers, you think itís the other way around, but the truth is that itís very difficult for the record companies today because the margin is not very good. It should be fair. The artist should make money, but the record company should have the chance to also make money.
Why do you think there are so few women being producers?
To be a producer you have to learn all the technical tools behind the production and I think that scares the girls away, but there should be more girls because they are more emotional. They are better at picking the songs, while a guy would say, ďDid you check out the bass?Ē
I think there should be more female A&Rs and producers because maybe there would be better songs out there.
The Billboard Hot 100 is based on both airplay and sales. Do you think this is a good system?
Yes, I think it's a good system.
If you could change something in the music industry, what would that be and how would you approach it?
We need to find a solution for downloads that fits artists, record
companies and consumers.
What do you think of HitQuarters?
I think it's great!
Interviewed by Victor Bassey
Read On ...
* Producer Tore Johansson on his career start with The Cardigans