Interview with LOUIS WALSH, manager for Westlife (12 million albums sold, 8 UK No. 1 singles), Samantha Mumba, Ronan Keating - Oct 28, 2002
ďUnsigned artists just need one music business person to believe in them and that person can make everybody else believe.Ē
Based in Dublin, Ireland, Louis Walsh manages Westlife (12 million albums sold, 8 UK No. 1 singles), Samantha Mumba, Ronan Keating, and the Irish Popstars group Six; he has previously managed Boyzone.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?
Iím from the west of Ireland and when I left school 20 years ago, I started working for a company in Dublin that booked show bands, live entertainment and cabaret artists. I answered the phones, did the fanclubs, took the clothes to the cleaners, etc. I started at the bottom, which is the best way. Since then I have been an agent, a tour manager, a publicist, a record plugger, just basically everything. I did anything I could to get involved in the music industry. Itís such a small business here in Ireland that there are very few opportunities to work in it when you leave school. I like the whole machine behind the music and itís all I've ever wanted to do.
What experiences have been important in your development as a manager?
The most important thing was learning about the media: how to get your band on radio, TV and in the papers, as well as keeping the artists and the record companies happy. I like dealing with people and I think the best way to do that is to be honest with them and not give them any bullshit.
What new acts are you managing?
Iíve got a rock band called Red Lemon, Samantha Mumbaís twelve-year-old brother Omero Mumba, and Lulu, whoís 54. Iím going to manage a new girl group in England, which will be the result of a new TV series starting at Christmas called Pop Rivals.
How did you find Westlife?
Theyíre my favourite band to work with and also the easiest because theyíre very down-to-earth. One of their mothers called me years ago and said her son Shane was in a group and was an amazing singer. I went to see the six of them, all from a place called Sligo in the west of Ireland, and I got them on as a support act for Backstreet Boys when they played in Dublin. I saw potential in Shaneís and Markís voices and Kianís personality, but we had to drop the other three because they werenít good enough. We held auditions for two more boys and thatís when we found Nicky and Bryan. They all just gelled together so well from day one and if there are any arguments, five minutes later theyíre having a laugh about it. They have a very good approach to the music business.
Who came up with songs and producers for them?
I found a producer called Steve Mac, who wrote ďSwear It AgainĒ, ďFlying Without WingsĒ and other songs for them. Heís a very important part of their career. Simon Cowell is our A&R and he's very important too.
What was the key to breaking Westlife?
Their great, natural vocals. Then we got them on the Smash Hits tour in the UK and that was the start of it all.
How do you find new talent?
By listening to people, going to auditions, and having open auditions, which is the best thing, because artists come and sing for you live. Thatís how Iíve found my new acts.
You get so much every day in the post and people talk everywhere you go, but itís only when you meet someone that you realise that they have that something special. Ronan Keating has a great personality and Shane has a great voice, and itís just that x-factor that makes some people special.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I get at least 20 songs a week, but I donít always listen to them because I donít have the time. I will listen if itís from a name publisher or producer like Diane Warren, and if itís from Sweden, because it's a great place to get good songs and producers from. I donít know why, but they have a great, quality pop sound there. I find Americans have the best songs and they, along with the Swedes, are my favourites.
How useful is the Internet when it comes to finding new talent?
I donít use it at all. Itís obviously great for people to use it, but I live on a small island and if something is good, I hear about it. I hear the buzz and if theyíre playing somewhere, I go and see them.
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for talent, good vocals and a great personality. But it is almost more important to be a hard worker than it is to have the ability. If somebody has talent but doesnít use it, then I prefer someone with no talent but who will work very hard. Iím very much for attitude.
Would you work with non-Irish artists?
If I really liked them and I thought they were good, and they had the Irish charm factor. The Irish have this charm, which means theyíre just nice to everybody. Theyíre more approachable and more down-to-earth.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
No, they donít have a clue. They need to learn that they have to work hard, be nice to everybody, and play the game. They should read books about people like Clive Davis and bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. They all started at the bottom and worked their way up. The older people in the industry work very hard, and Elton John is the best example I know of an artist who still tours, still writes and has made something like 40 albums in his career.
What should an unsigned wannabe artist with no connections do to get noticed by the industry?
They should get an A&R or a manager who believes in them. The manager can often find the A&R, and sometimes the A&R can find the manager. They just need one music business person to believe in them and that person can make everybody else believe.
Do you think the Popstars concept is just the flavour of the month or will it continue to be a tool used to bring new artists forward for a long time to come?
Itís too early to tell. Itís giving unknown people a chance, which is the best thing about it. The worst thing is that there are too many shows now, and lots of talented people get voted out at an early stage.
Are there any disadvantages in promoting new artists in this way?
Again, itís too early to tell, because itís too early in their careers. Will Young (winner of Pop Idol UK, 2002) and Gareth Gates (runner-up of Pop Idol UK, 2002) are very successful in the UK, but Popstars act HearíSay have fallen apart. If the artists have talent, theyíre going to survive, and this is just giving them a platform to reach people. But Iím sure itís going to have a downside as well.
What do you think about the UK Singles Chart and how fast it is? How important is the Chart?
Itís too fast at the moment, with people going in and out. I much prefer it the old way, where records would go in at No.20, then go up to No.15, No.10, and then No.5. But singles are just promotional tools to sell the album now, and the chart is not as important as it used to be. Even though everybody still wants to be No.1.
What do you think about the radio situation in the UK?
Radio is hard. Some of our biggest selling records donít get played on BBC Radio One, but they still go to No.1 because of stations like Capital and because of ILR (Independent Local Radio). Emap is very successful and obviously very good to new acts. Radio One play whatever is hip and not what the people want. My favourite UK radio station is BBC Radio Two, because itís very mainstream and it plays everything.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades? If so, why, and do you think it is a problem?
It has, because it costs so much time and money to break an act now. Itís a problem and I donít know what we can do about it. Itís survival of the fittest but I think the talent will eventually come to the top.
Why do artists pay for promotional costs like for example videos?
Artists pay 50% because they need the video to sell themselves, because sometimes artists break with just a video now.
If artists share the costs of making albums and the videos with record labels, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
Thatís for the lawyers to work out, but itís a very good idea and definitely something that should be supported.
Do you think the royalties recording artists receive from record sales are adequate?
It depends on the artist. If you sell records, you get a big royalty. If youíre a new artist, you donít get a big royalty. Again, itís for the lawyers to sort this one out with the big record companies.
In your opinion, why is it so hard for UK acts to break in the US these days?
Because the records are not good enough, and because in America it's either rap or rock and thereís no in-between. American radio is also different than it is anywhere else. The worst thing of all for me is when white artists try to sound black in r&b, which is just a joke.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would make radio a lot more open-minded and have it play what people want, and not just what the DJs want, because DJs just play what they think is hip. Thatís the only problem I have with radio, that itís not open-minded.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Working with Westlife. Itís the easiest and most successful thing Iíve ever done.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Doing the same thing, hopefully. Even though sometimes the red tape takes over the music, I still want to be in the music business. I still want to manage acts, I still have the passion for it, and I hope I donít lose it.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman