Interview with JIM WELCH, VP of Global A&R at Sony for Shakira - Apr 16, 2003
ďThe most exciting thing in music right now is that borders and boundaries are being taken down.Ē
Based in New York, Jim Welch is Vice President of Global A&R at Sony Music Entertainment. Prior to joining Sony, he signed and worked with the Norwegian pop duo M2M at Atlantic Records (US gold). At Epic, he is A&R for rock band the Juliana Theory and, at Sony International, for Shakira.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started writing my own underground metal and punk magazine when I was sixteen and the year after I started deejaying on the radio: I had my own show where I featured underground, metal, punk and industrial music. Then I started writing for Sledgehammer Press, which was well distributed throughout America by the record distributors IRD, now called RED. I was a record collecting junkie, and when I went to Texas University I booked all the concerts on my campus, from coffeehouse gigs to large scale events; that later got me a job at a booking agency in Massachusetts, while I was still in school. I started booking national tours and regional shows for all kinds of bands.
I ran into the president of Relativity Records at a show one night. Because of all the experience I had gained on my own, they gave me a job at Relativity right after college. I did tour promotion and marketing, and I developed that whole department. They werenít really sure about where they wanted it all to go, but I was working with My Bloody Valentine, Exodus, Joe Satriani, 24-7 Spyz and Nuclear Assaultóthose were the first bands. About five months later, the woman who ran Combat, their underground metal label, left to become a product manager at Columbia. I took over the label and ran it for a couple of years. I was five months out of college.
What experiences have helped develop your A&R skills?
Just being into music and feeling in my heart and soul that thatís what I wanted to be involved in. Also becoming a saxophone player early on and learning how to read and write music. Deejaying helped a lot too.
You work mainly for the Sony Global A&R department?
Yes, and itís a really interesting division because we work with different artists from all over the world and help them make records that will sell outside their home territories, which has so far worked really well. We interact with all the different A&R departments all over the world, but we also have our own signings. We help these A&R departments to access songwriters, producers, mixers and remixers, and other things that they cannot access on their own.
How does the Sony A&R report system work?
Generally, the head of each country's A&R department reports to the managing director of their company, who then in turn reports to New York. New York is the main international office. The A&R departments work very closely with our department, but not in a reporting sense.
How independent are the local A&R departments?
They all work very independently, because it is important that they base some of their success on signing local repertoire. Obviously, the goal is for that repertoire to work outside their country, but because of the language barrier, some of it stays within their territory.
How common is it that artists are signed across the territorial borders?
It happens: Sony Germany has picked up American artists and Sony UK has signed Italian artists. Sometimes thereís an artist in America for whom it makes more sense to work first in another country.
How does the priority rating system work?
Each country has its own priorities and everything is done on a case-by-case basis. Thereís a master plan as to how to break artists and you need to identify the areas in which you think that the artist is going to sell records. There has to be a list of priorities otherwise you would have utter chaos.
What upcoming territories do you think might provide international stars in the next five years?
The most exciting thing in music right now is that borders and boundaries are being taken down. Music is now more global than itís ever been and the playing field is a lot broader. You canít close off any territory; T.A.T.U are from Russia and theyíre exploding all over the world, but I donít think anybody could have said that Russia would be the new frontier for artists. Iím working with two artists from the Far East right now and not many Asian artists have been broken in the past, but now we've got at least two.
Everybody is much more educated about whatís going on in the world than they were before and by sharing cultural experiences with people all over the world, by extension, you share musical experiences. It makes people more open to hearing music from different places. This especially applies to dance music, because there isn't a language barrier in most cases, and pop music is easy for people to understand. Due to the fact that more countries are able to release music in other countries all around the world, there is now more diversity in mainstream music.
To what extent is the international department involved in the A&R work once local-selling artists have been given priority outside their own territories?
Is success in the home territory a prerequisite for an artist to become an international priority?
No, and one case where that wasnít the rule is Anastacia. She is American and signed to Epic US, but it was Sony France who first had success with her, then Sony Germany followed suit and then Sony Australia. Anastacia is last year's biggest selling artist in Europe. Her albums have sold in excess of 10 million copies and most of those sales are outside the US.
What are the differences between territories in terms of breaking new music?
It depends on the media. In the UK, you have Radio One, the national radio. If you have something out on Radio One then the entire country gets to hear it and thatís really important. We donít have national radio here in America. We do have national networks, but just because youíre playing on a Clear Channel station it doesnít mean that theyíre all playing you. MTV is a force in the US, although not so much in other countries. The club scene in America doesnít always translate to whatís being played on the radio, but it certainly does in Europe.
Do you think that the English language barrier will break down and that non-English-language music will sell more in foreign territories?
Without knowing the statistics, I think that is happening. French language records, for example, break in Italy and the UK. Excluding Spanish, are you going to see a lot of foreign language records break in the US? Not to a great extent, although I do think weíll see an increase in the US. I also think that there's going to be a reaction to it as well. In France, where there is a strong sense of nationalism, youíre starting to see a stronger domestic group of artists selling records. People latch onto their cultures when they see the world getting smaller and they want to have things that are specifically theirs. Thereís always an opposite reaction, which I think is healthy.
What acts are you currently working on?
I am working with a band called the Juliana Theory, who spent five weeks in the Top 200 very recently. And Iím working with a girl named Naomi Stramer, whose record will be coming out in June.
Iíve worked with Shakira ever since her first English album, ďLaundry ServiceĒ, was finished, which Emilio Estefan executive produced. She didnít have an A&R person doing all the day-to-day record work. It started with me doing remixes for her first single ďWhenever, WhereverĒ and from there we ended up making a recording just after the MTV Awards, which went really well. She is signed to Sony Music International, so she didnít have a point person in the New York A&R office. Thatís something that I was really lucky to get involved in, even in a small way. Her next record is going to be her best record by far.
How do you work with Shakira?
As a writer and as the director of her career, sheís one of the most amazing and independent artists that Iíve seen. What I can do is to help her realise the things she has in her head by getting her to work with the best people. Her vision for her music is so incredible that all I can do is help her find the pieces to the puzzle that are going to help make her next record.
How did you first find out about the Juliana Theory?
I just heard about them through the grapevine. They started to do really well on the road and I realised how many records they had been selling of their independent release. I went to see them play in Milwaukee and just fell in love with them there and then. They are amazing musicians. They have three guitar players, which is a little bit different, and they donít just use it to beef up their sound but in an incredibly musical manner, to bring across different melodies and sounds. They donít really fit exactly into anything thatís going on right now. They are part rock, part metal, part indie rock and part emo. They touch upon different things that are going on in the musical world, but they give it a different twist, almost in the same way that the Smashing Pumpkins fit into a different place.
How ready to go were they? Were there things they needed to improve before recording the album ďLoveĒ?
They had toured a lot and their strength is really their live show, so we wanted to incorporate that live energy into the record. They did end up changing drummers right before the recording because they thought that they needed a really strong backbone to the songs and that was something that was a little bit lacking in their live shows. They knew that because they were such an experienced live band. Having that new drummer, Josh Walters, was really a key element in making this record as good as it is.
How do you find new talent?
Itís every part of my life. Itís being out, being on the Internet, record shopping, talking to and e-mailing people all over the world. Itís great that A&R people go to clubs every night, but I donít find that to be the most time efficient way of finding new music anymore. In the time it takes me to go from my house down to the Mercury Lounge and back, I could probably have listened to twenty different things on the Internet. I want to know, now more than ever, that what Iím going to see is something that I have initially been attracted by: in 99% of cases, itís better to scout things out before you spend a couple of hours of your time at a show.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Sony on the whole does not officially accept unsolicited material. I definitely prefer it if somebody sends me something by e-mail first. It would be a lot easier than sifting through a ton of packages everyday. The point is that you really donít know where the next thing is coming from and I donít want to close any avenues. But, while I do want to hear all the new music, thereís only so much music I can listen to in a day. However, I donít turn unsolicited material away and eventually me or somebody will get to it, but it generally takes a while.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
It depends on the kind of artist. I donít think I could have made a Juliana Theory record if I had to find all the songs for the record. With a pop or an urban record, what's more important is the artist as a performer and as a personality. There are a lot of different factors that count and while itís much better when the artist is a songwriter, itís not 100% essential.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
We do demo deals quite a bit and if the demo turns out very well it leads to a signing. I think weíll be doing more and more demo and development deals, because itís just so expensive to sign and to commit up front with a new artist, especially in the US. Itís good for us to test them out recording to see where theyíll go. It always depends upon whatís best for the artist, but these deals are definitely something we should be doing more of.
When would you typically do a demo deal?
Weíre doing one at the moment. We heard this particular artist's live recording, which he had made in his apartment, and we felt that, although there was something amazing and unique about him, he didn't really have any recording skills. We heard the talent in the recording, but he wasnít technically able to realise everything that was in his head. We found him a producer that weíre both really excited about, and the producerís excited about working with him. Weíre going to send them down to a studio for a week and just let them be very creative.
What are the terms of the deal usually?
Weíll agree on a certain budget for a recording and generally that demo is made for us. We have a certain amount of time in which we have to let artists know whether we are going to pick them up and roll their deal into a full recording deal or whether weíre going to end up passing on them. Itís a time frame of few months, just long enough for us to get the music and send it to everybody who needs to hear it at Sony. Once we have their feedback, we can make an intelligent decision.
With the growth of the Internet and the increasing use of the mp3 format, what role do you think record labels will assume in the future? What will their business model look like?
Business models are changing to fit with the times, although I wish they were changing a bit faster. The Internet is a useful tool to market artists and ourselves, and, whether in terms of file sharing or just as a source of information, it helps to create a new breed of music junkies. And once youíre a music junkie, youíre always a music junkie and that should be really exciting to the industry. The Internet is still like the Wild West though, and record companies and the public are going to have to evolve to create a situation where artists actually get paid for their work when it's downloaded off the Internet.
What aspects of the music industry would you change?
I wish that the industry, at all its levels, was more open to different sounds and to musical diversity in general. Thereís so much incredible music out there that people donít get to hear because the media isn't open-minded, which influences how well people in the industry think they can do with an act, given that this is a business and that seemingly non-commercial music seldom gets signed. On the Internet, consumers can easily find different styles of music, and I wish that the public would just dig deeper to find music that challenges them.
I wish that art was given more importance in America. The government doesnít really encourage the growth of art as much as they do in Canada or Europe, and I wish more education and muscle were put behind it here.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
One of the most shocking moments was when I went to Norway to meet the two girls from M2M. They were about thirteen years old at the time, and I sat on the floor in a studio listening to them singing and playing songs on the guitar that they had written themselves. The first one they played was written by Marion Raven, one of the girls; it was the first song she ever wrote and it was unbelievable! I sat there with my mouth open, listening to these girls sing.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Expanding upon what I do now in the global aspect of my job, because becoming a really successful global A&R person is important to me. So many US A&R people think that everything is just about America and they donít really look around the world, but I really want to make sure that whatever Iím doing is on a global level.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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