Interview with HANS HAEDELT, A&R at MCA Records for Shaggy, Semisonic - Jul 3, 2002
“A good start is to build a brand for your band”
Hans Haedelt is Vice President of A&R at MCA Records, New York, and works with rock bands Semisonic, Nonpoint and H20, and urban artists Shaggy and Rayvon, amongst others.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
As a little boy, I would take my allowance and buy records, whatever was new. I put myself through high school and college working in music retail, and afterwards continued to work in music retail from the late 70s to the mid-80s. In 1986, I opened up my own record store, one of the first compact disc-only stores in the United States. At that time, I was bringing in bands to an independent label called Relativity Records, and subsequently started work there in 1989. I have now been with MCA for almost nine years.
What qualities do you need to be a successful A&R?
You have to truly love music, and you have to balance your love of music with the understanding of the fact that this is a business, and that we are in business to make money. Apart from that, you need to be able to communicate and articulate well, read between the lines and figure out what people are saying to you, and you need to be able to determine what constitutes a good song.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
I've learnt something from every single person I've worked with. Because my dad was a diplomat, we moved around a lot when I was a young child, from country to country, until my late teens. That helped me learn about being non-judgmental towards people.
The artist I've learnt most from is Shaggy, and his manager, Robert Livingston.
What new acts are you currently working on?
We work with Big Yard, Shaggy and Robert Livingston's record label, and Rayvon, one of their artists, who sings with Shaggy on the song "Angel", has a new album coming out. Then there's RikRok, who sang on Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me", and who will release an album at some point this year. We also have Big Yard albums from Prince Mydas, and new signing Marcia Morrison, coming out soon.
How did you find Semisonic?
I heard a demo tape a long time ago and I wanted to sign them. They ended up signing to another label, but things didn't go well, so I got another opportunity. This time it worked out.
"Hot Shot" is Shaggy's first album on MCA. How did you sign him?
It wasn't just me that wanted to sign Shaggy; it was a group of people within MCA Records, including the head of A&R, Gary Ashley, and the president of the company, Jay Boberg. It was brought to our attention that he was looking for a record deal by our head of pop radio promotions, Bonnie Goldner.
We released the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced soundtrack for the movie "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" in 1998, which included a Shaggy and Janet Jackson duet called "Luv Me, Luv Me". Shaggy had left Virgin, and was promoting the soundtrack doing radioshows. Bonnie saw that and thought we really needed to get into business with him. She was the catalyst.
What were the crucial steps in the making of the album?
Shaggy, Robert Livingston, and reggae producer Shaun "Sting International" Pizzonia (longtime collaborator and producer of Shaggy's first international hit "Oh Carolina" in 1993 - Ed.) are a tight group - they create the music and steer the ship. I went out to Long Island, where Shaggy has a studio, and listened to the songs they had worked on while being unsigned, and gave my perspective on the tracks.
"It Wasn't Me", which is arguably the giant hit of the "Hot Shot" record, wasn't meant to be on the album! Shaggy liked it, but others within the group of people that created the record didn't like it at all. I heard the song by accident, and said to everyone involved, "Look, you guys, songs like "Angel" are great songs, but lyrically they're very safe. If you want to balance your album, then you need something cheeky, suggestive, tongue-in-cheek, lyrics that are a bit spicier. This song might be perfect."
But they resisted, and said, "No, you're wrong. It's terrible, we don't like this song." And I countered, "But it's a great song, and you should really think about putting it on your album." Shaggy agreed with me, but the rest of the camp didn't, so I asked my boss, Gary Ashley, to listen to it. He concurred with me and said to them, "Please, put this song on your album", which they then did. It's funny that this song paved the way for the album!
How do you find producers for your acts?
You talk to the artist and go through a process of elimination. Every artist has certain people that he or she is dying to work with, but sometimes those people are unavailable, so you have to cast a wider net. But staying on top of the trends, reading a lot, and listening to other records gives you an indication of who's doing what.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
As much or as little as the artist wants me to put in. Someone once said to me, "Don't tell me there's a problem if you can't propose a possible solution." And I think it applies to songwriting and production. How can I say that it's not a perfectly great song if I'm not able to articulate what's wrong and can't rewrite it to make it better myself?
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, as opposed to dealing with your roster's more established acts?
It goes in waves. Right now, most of my time is spent working with the artists we already have. Once this next batch of records is finished, then there'll be a time when I'll be more active in looking for new talent.
How do you find new talent?
I do a lot of research. I'm usually looking for rock bands, so Shaggy is an odd thing on my resume.
What do you look for in an artist?
Rock bands all pretty much write their own music, so it's got to be a person or a group of people who have great songs and are incredibly talented. They need to have grasped the fact that this is a business, and very importantly, that if they're in a band, their goal is to create and develop a brand name.
Is it any different from Coca-Cola or IBM? No, it's just a lot smaller. But if you can build a brand for your band, if you can sell merchandise and play in your hometown on a school night in front of 500 kids who should be studying, but instead are at your show buying T-shirts, that's a good start.
The bands that I stay away from are the ones who think that getting signed to a record company is like winning the lottery. I prefer to get involved with bands for whom the record company is the icing on the cake. The actual cake is their hard work, the touring from town to town, developing an audience and a brand, selling merchandise. And then there's the record company that helps spread the news further.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
I try to look for acts who don't necessarily have all those human elements in place yet, so that perhaps I can help create the mechanism and the team.
How sure do you need to be about the market space available to an act, before signing and releasing them?
Very sure. In this day and age, where more and more records are being released every month, and where the business is getting more and more difficult, you have to be really sure that you've got exactly what you need.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
From which people and departments at MCA do you need support before signing an act?
Generally, I want support from everyone. I want everybody to think that his or her particular job will help this specific band become big. I need support from, obviously, my boss and the company president, because they control the money. I need support from the marketing people, who hopefully accept, understand and buy into the band's vision. I also need support from the radio and video promotion people; I need them to understand the band's vision and I need them to think that the material is appropriate and good enough to move forward with.
What are MCA's strong points?
MCA is a major label that doesn't release a large number of albums every year, that doesn't have a gigantic roster, and where, as an artist, you won't have to compete for attention within your own label. It's hard enough to compete for attention in the music business, with so many bands and things going on at all times. The last thing you want to do is sign to a label with an active roster of more than a hundred artists where there are already four or five bands just like yours. What do you do then? How do you get the attention? There's always going to be a giant artist ahead of you who is going to steal the attention away from your developing record.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach people in the music business?
Forget about approaching music business people, and instead concentrate on building your brand! Do your thing and be great at it. The better you're doing, the more A&R people will notice you. It's my job to find you, not the other way around.
Would you work with acts from outside US?
Yes, at the moment we're just getting into business with an act from London, that I'll be working with, called Fiction Plane.
Why is it that American acts seem to break in the European territory with much more ease than European acts in the American territory?
The American band that get into a van and spend six months touring the United States are ahead of the European band who can steal three weeks of their time to do a quick American run. But the American band can spend three weeks in continental Europe and probably make more headway. That's the difference. It's overwhelming when you come to America and you realize how massively big this country is, and how much time and effort a band have to spend here to really do it right.
I also think that culturally, European kids are far more open, aware, educated and well-read than their American counterparts. They're more accepting of cultural differences. American teenagers tend to be pretty one-dimensional and stereotypical, and unless you do things in a certain way, they won't accept it. That's why it's very unlikely that there would ever be, for example, a European rap artist who would really connect across the board in America.
For the same reason, it's very unlikely that a European heavy rock, lifestyle band would be embraced by the average American heavy rock lifestyle fan. Which is sort of funny, because British heavy metal bands in the 80s, like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, were totally embraced by Americans. But it doesn't happen anymore.
Are recording artists' royalties adequate?
Every recording artist that gets into business with a record company has an attorney, and they pay that attorney a lot of money to negotiate the best and most acceptable deal for both parties. To complain later may not be the best way to go about things. Any artist that sells a few million records will send their attorney back in to renegotiate anyway.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades? Is this a problem?
Yes, significantly. It's a giant problem, but I don't know what we can do about it. If you're owned by a multinational corporation, you have to do your business plan in the same way as other companies within that corporation, meaning that you're accountable for your quarter-yearly projections. Now, how can you break a band in 16 weeks?
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would want to fix the Internet problem, and I think bands could fix it right now. All they have to do is find a great programmer and have him write an encrypted program. The program is attached to their mp3s, which are then uploaded all over the Internet, and when a kid downloads one of these mp3s, it opens up the encrypted program, which erases all the band's songs on his computer. If three or four big artists did that, the mp3 problem would be solved.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Every day is a great moment, because this is literally all I've ever wanted to do. When I was a little boy, one of the first records I ever got was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Brain Salad Surgery", and ever since I heard that record I've wanted to be an A&R guy. Now I am an A&R and I've been a little bit successful, so every day is a great day!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Hopefully, I'll still be doing A&R at MCA.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman