Interview - Apr 24, 2003
“You need a marketing concept for a band in Germany, possibly more so than in the UK or the US.”Björn Teske is head of A&R at BMG Berlin, Germany. He shares A&R duties with André Selleneit, the company's managing director, for the German edition of Pop Idol, Deutschland Sucht Den Superstar (DSDS), which has so far spawned instant No.1 singles for Alexander, the winner, and Daniel, and a platinum DSDS compilation album. Other acts he has worked with include German No.1 dance/pop act French Affair, platinum-selling hip-hop act Die 3 Generation, and B3, the German and US gold-selling band.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
My father worked in the music business, doing promotion, distribution and sales for Warner, BMG and Polygram, so I grew up with lots of music around me. I started accompanying him on promotion tours when I was about five or six years old. I met lots of producers, artists and people who worked at record companies, and I deejayed and made music throughout my teenage years, so I had really strong ties to music and I was particularly interested in how music is developed.
After an introductory apprenticeship, I worked as a publisher at a publishing company for a while, and then I went on to study economics and musicology in Hamburg, whilst still deejaying and doing lots of things with music in my spare time. Almost seven years ago, I completed my studies, and that's when I started working at BMG.
What acts are you currently working on?
We have almost completed an r&b/pop album with the former B3 member Rod Michael, we’re releasing pop/rock artist Phillip Boa's next album in the autumn, and I'm working with Yvonne Catterfeld, who sings MOR/pop in German and is a huge soap-opera star in Germany. Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, the show she stars in, has five to six million daily viewers, although she originally comes from a musical background. We will be releasing her fourth single and her album in May.
Another newcomer I'm currently developing is Timo Langner, whose music is emotional German pop music with certain rock elements and a touch of “echt”. Then we're taking care of Gracia, one of the artists from DSDS, whose music is pop/rock in English. Alexander and Daniel, the two best-known artists from DSDS, have mostly been taken care of by songwriter/producer Dieter Bohlen (from Modern Talking – Ed.), and me and André supervised their albums, which are just about to be released. These artists are our priority right now.
Who at BMG took the decision to do the Deutschland Sucht Den Superstar show? What made the company decide to do it?
It was decided by Thomas Stein, president of BMG GSA (Germany, Switzerland, Austria - Ed.), and the managing directors at the TV station RTL and at the entertainment and media company Bertelsmann, BMG’s mother company. It was a top-level decision because it's a huge Bertelsmann synergy project. We believe that these kinds of TV formats are very important channels for the marketing of music. When we first started discussing it, this type of programme was only a success in the UK, but the idea and the fact that it would be produced with a TV production company really convinced us to become part of it.
As a record label, what are the advantages of bringing out new artists via a TV show?
In a TV show you have a certain character, an artist, and you have the possibility of creating emotions towards him or her among the viewers, and that’s what sells. Music is emotion and viewers are emotionally moved by the artist and the music, which drives them to the record stores. It’s a new way of putting people into contact with musical and artistic emotions.
Are there any disadvantages?
You run the risk of having a one-hit wonder or selling only one album. In the outcome of these shows, you really have to take time to think about the second and third albums. To prolong an artist's career is very important to a record company.
What is the long-term potential of the current DSDS artists?
I have a very positive attitude towards artists and I feel you always have to give them a couple of chances. It is very important that the artist is given the space to develop. Take Alexander; he is a great singer, has a great character and is a highly appreciated artist at the moment. What he's doing right now is or should be perhaps 80% of what he will be doing next year, so he has to develop by himself and be given that space to develop.
As for Daniel, he is unfortunately well known as a bad singer, but he's a great entertainer, so we need to think about how his voice is going to be developed and how he's going to be developed as an artist.
Do you think that there is a limit as to how long these TV concepts will continue to capture an audience's interest?
I think that you can do the same thing twice. That’s what we've experienced with Big Brother and PopStars. We're going to have a new DSDS in Germany in the autumn and I think it will be huge too, as there's enough excitement about this new format for viewers to be drawn into this one as well, although it always depends on the girls and boys who want to be on the show. But we will really have to take care with the third show and adapt it to what the audience wants to see.
Are there differences between working with DSDS artists and “normal” artists?
No, because we always aim to deliver quality. We had to put Alexander and Daniel's albums together very quickly, though, but we benefited from working with Dieter Bohlen, who is a hard worker and quick as lightning.
You work with B3, the group from the US. What were the pros and cons of releasing an unknown American band in Germany?
The deciding factor was our strong relationship with Jürgen Hohmann, the TV producer from MaxiMedia; we knew that several marketing platforms were already in place to bring B3 to a wider audience. Of course, the concept behind B3 was to cover Bee Gees songs: you need a marketing concept for a band in Germany, possibly more so than in the UK or the US.
You have just put together a solo album with Rod Michael from B3. How do you rate its international potential?
He is a native English speaker and a very talented songwriter, entertainer and singer, and I consider him to have huge international potential. The material we have put together has received very positive reactions from international BMG offices.
How do you find new talent?
I maintain strong ties to producers, managers, publishers, and to the kind of talent scouts who are themselves writing and spending time in clubs and open-air concerts. You have to network efficiently with all the people who work in the record industry. I also get lots of offers by e-mail and post, and sometimes there's a song or an artist that sparks my interest.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. BMG's policy is to listen to every offer and, if my time schedule allows it, I always welcome people into my office to play their music, no matter if they’ve had a hundred hits or none at all. That’s how I signed Timo Langner: he came to my office with his guitar, played four of his songs and then we sat together and I played him a couple of songs. I had a single for him, so that was the start of a very good relationship. How much I receive per week is hard to say, but perhaps around 30 to 40 packages. I try to listen to all of them or I give them to the A&Rs who work for me.
What do you look for in an artist?
All-round potential, meaning looks, voice and aura. I have to feel their personality and charisma when they walk into my office.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
It's important, but not a must, because there are plenty of good songwriters in Germany and throughout the world. It does of course depend on what kind of music you want to make: artists like Yvonne Catterfeld, Timo Langner and Rod Michael will be well-received if they write. If artists have a talent for songwriting, we bring them into contact with other songwriters so that they can develop that skill.
Do you sign both German artists who sing in English and German artists who sing in German?
Yes, but if they sing in English we look closely at where they come from: we like them to have lived in the UK or the US. If they have a noticeable German accent, we advise them to sing in German instead.
Do you consider new German artists' international potential when you are deciding whether to sign them or not?
It’s not all that important. We consider international potential if they sing in English, but we have to break them here first and then take it worldwide. It's always hard to make artists who sing in German switch to English, and that has to be developed over a longer period. We first take a very close look at the home territory, and the international market comes later.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of German talent?
Their strengths are that they are very diligent, hard-working and disciplined, but I often miss the feeling that they would die for their music, which is something I find in the UK and the US. At the castings for DSDS, many of the boys and girls came with an "I don't have a job, I can’t do anything, so why not try music?" attitude and that’s not the right way. You really have to want it.
These boys and girls need to take a close look at the market and at the kind of music they want to make. They need to know what's in the charts and what it means to break outside Germany. I always have the same discussions with them, when they compare themselves to international artists. A German rapper might compare himself to 50 Cent and P. Diddy, but what he should be doing instead is comparing himself to other German rappers and thinking about where he might fit into the German market.
How important are local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base when considering a new artist?
A solid fan base is really important, particularly in independent music and the kind of music that breaks through live performances and credible grassroots work. Radio and press also help.
What areas of the music business should unsigned artists know more about in order to increase their chances of building a music career?
Songwriting, publishing and live performances.
Is it a must for a German act to have a manager in order to break?
It's not really necessary, although it might depend on the situation. I have good relationships with a number of managers, which is very helpful, because they do a lot of work that would otherwise have to be done by us.
How much input do you generally have on the productions?
I’m heavily involved with artists who are signed directly to us, from working out the sound and the artist's position in the market to discussing every single hook line.
How much does it cost to record, market and promote an album in Germany?
500,000 € (US$545,000).
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
It's very common, because there are lots of very talented people out there who have to be developed and need a chance to work on their skills. It's a good way to minimise the risk and still maintain relationships with artists or songwriters and develop them. In my experience, around 20% of these deals lead to a signing.
If the costs of making an album and videos are partly recouped from artists' royalties, do you think that these artists should share ownership of the masters?
They should own the masters when they contribute to the production costs.
What are the most important marketing tools when breaking new acts in Germany?
TV, TV and TV. Primarily Viva (German music TV channel) and MTV, but also other TV shows, which I wish there were more of.
Radio, to a certain extent, although very few artists break through radio, perhaps only two or three a year. We need to work on and improve radio in Germany, especially for German artists. There's Berlin-based Fritz, which is very important for newcomers and very helpful to the independent scene; RS2, the biggest station in Berlin; Energy; N-Joy; EinsPlus; the public stations, NDR; Bayern3, a Bavarian thing; and SWR3 around Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
Other marketing tools are movies, commercials, and print media, particularly for the independent scene.
What aspects of the music industry would you change?
I would forbid any kind of egoism. I'd like to have stronger, more reliable networks throughout the industry, which would include radio, press, advertising agencies and TV. There's so much talent and good music that doesn't find its way to an audience, often because people just do their own thing. In a shrinking market, we have to work out what we can do together.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I'm still working on it! I've had a No.1 with French Affair, and the Big Brother soundtrack success with Die 3 Generation. Sometimes it's just a small thing, like unexpectedly having a video on rotation on Viva. It's always good to have a No.1, but I'm still looking for lots of others.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Working with artists and music is my favourite thing, and that’s what I'm good at.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman