Interview with NICK BURGESS, A&R Virgin UK for The Thrills (UK platinum) - Dec 18, 2003
"Lawyers especially will drive deals to completely unrealistic figures."
As senior A&R manager at Virgin Records in London, UK, Nick Burgess represents pop/rock band The Thrills (UK platinum) and singer/songwriter Gemma Hayes.
Here he describes how Virgin worked to break The Thrills, the issues A&R representatives face, the significance of A&Rs in artists’ careers, and so on.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I was the guitarist in a band called Gluebound, who were signed to EMI Records from 1995 to 1998. However, I realised that it wasn't going to go very far, and I was keen to work in A&R. So, I got on a train to London and landed some work experience at an independent label called Gut Records. Initially, it was just for one week. I walked through the door and told everyone that I wanted to do A&R and then I bumped into the A&R guy and one evening we talked about music for two hours; the next day, the chairman came in and said that he’d been told by his A&R guy that they needed to hire me. I was there for two years and then Virgin Records offered me a job. I've been here for eighteen months and was recently made senior A&R manager.
What experiences have shaped your skills as an A&R?
Being in a professional band is definitely the most valuable experience I've had. Having been through the processes of getting a record deal and touring makes my job so much easier, because I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the fence, where the music industry isn’t really understood. I was with other bands all the time back then, so I'm used to going into rehearsal rooms and just hanging out. This, I hope, gives me a natural ability to talk to bands and to get on their level.
In practical terms, I know the whole experience of writing, recording, mixing and mastering a song. I can use a mixing desk and I know what can and can't be done. As far as understanding the practicalities of A&R is concerned, being in a band is the best education one can get.
As an A&R, making an album is the steepest learning curve. I was lucky because my very first signing, The Thrills, went platinum in the UK. So far I’ve only experienced success, but I'm sure I'll sign a band that fails and I'll learn a lot from that. I think you probably learn a lot more from failure, because when you’re successful you don’t really question things.
The Thrills are a great band, so everyone at the label was behind them, but the label also put a lot of pressure on me to deliver a record that they could sell, especially the marketing and promotion departments. Everyone had an opinion, but I learnt how to deal with them, as I learnt how to deal with the band and the producers, and how to get the best out of them.
I had disagreements with the producer, the mixer and the band, but you just have to balance those clashes and since it’s about creating you have to deal with it delicately. It's quite difficult politically, as you have to make sure not to fall out with these people, while at the same time you have to make sure that your opinion is heeded. It’s important that you stand strong, that you get your argument across, even when it gets intense and the members of the band are saying that you're wrong. When they all argue against you and you have no support, you have to stay true to what you believe in—that’s what A&R is.
You're not only doing it for their favour, you're not doing it for your own cause, because at the end of the day the job is to make the best record that can possibly be made at that moment in time by that band. And whatever that takes, whatever decisions have to be made, if you don't do your best and you don't fight for your cause, you have to live with that for the rest of your life. If you don’t want to argue and instead yield to their wishes, you know that the band will turn around later and ask you why you let them do it. You can’t win that way: you just have to be a good arguer and give credible, concise arguments, even when everyone is shouting you down.
What styles of music do you focus on?
I'm mainly into great guitar music. That’s the base, my love, and it has been so all my life from the age of nine. Guitar music transcends a lot of different styles, from Neil Young, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin to At The Drive-In, The Beach Boys and James Taylor. I do enjoy nearly all genres of music as well if the songwriting is good. I love melody in music
I strive to sign acts that I think are going to be around for twenty years, that transcend time. The more you are today, the more you will become yesterday. If you're very now and of the moment, when you’re no longer current you can quickly become irrelevant.
Which acts are you currently working with?
I’m working with The Thrills and a singer/songwriter called Gemma Hayes from Ireland (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.). I didn't sign Gemma, she was signed by the managing director here, Philippe Ascoli. But he's become too busy, so I'm looking after her second album. Gemma is amazingly talented; she's 22 and she looks absolutely stunning. Her first album was produced by Dave Fridmann and it did really well. We got a Mercury Music Prize nomination, but it didn't really have any hits on it, so it was difficult to get a public face to it.
For her second record, we're working really hard to give her a better shot at radio. In the UK at the moment, as anywhere in the world, radio is really important to sell records and, because we didn't quite have enough radio songs on her first record, I'm striving to make sure we have a couple of really good radio songs on this record.
How did you first learn about The Thrills?
I first heard about them from a friend of mine who is a promoter and works at a concert venue in London. The band were looking for gigs in London and had sent him a CD, and he asked me if I wanted to hear it. I had only been at Virgin for two months, so I was really desperate to find something. I went down and he played me one track, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)”, in my car stereo and I just loved it. I thought it was so different to anything I'd heard and so musical.
So I got the number of their manager, phoned him up, went over to Dublin the next week and saw them rehearse. There was a real vibe, they had a great identity and really good songs, so and I invited them to London to play for Virgin in a conference room we have. They did a gig here for the whole of the Virgin label and everybody loved them.
Were they ready to go?
They had 90% of it. All the songs for the first album were written, except one. We saw that they had the songs and that their identity was really strong. Their playing needed a lot of work, but that just comes from experience really. They're very smart lads, they knew what it took to be a great band and they worked and worked to make sure they were the best band they could possibly be. After twelve months they were a completely different band than the one I signed.
What did your working relationship with them involve?
I did a lot of work on the mixing of the album to make it sound right. They are doing a lot themselves as far as perfecting their craft and their act on stage. They've done 130 gigs this year and they really have become a great band. That comes from confidence and from the public buying their records and giving them the confidence to go out there and perform to the best of their ability. I don't think I have that much influence on them in that respect. Some bands you do have to educate and I've advised them on other matters, but I had no need to turn them into a better band than they knew they had to be anyway.
What was instrumental in breaking them in the UK?
They were fortunate to have support from pretty much all media straight away, that is radio, press and TV. You need all of them: it's very difficult to break an act with just one out of the three. It happened because there are not many bands in the world who write great songs and have a strong identity. They were a priority act for Virgin and we worked really hard to give the media what they wanted. We had strong NME backing, which was nice to start off with, then Radio One, Virgin Radio and independent radio backed us, and then MTV and MTV2 were straight onto it.
They also toured and toured from the minute we signed them and they’ve built a fan base by being a great live band. The timing of the project had a lot to do with it as well. The campaign is almost textbook: we started in November 2002 with the first single, “Santa Cruz (You’re Not That Far)”, which was a limited edition, 1,000 copies, and then we released two more singles while we gradually exerted more media pressure. We had no video for the first single, we did a GBP2,000 video for the second single, “One Horse Town”, and for the third single, "Big Sur", we did a proper video because we knew that that song was going to be the crossover hit.
Then we did the festivals, culminating at Glastonbury in front of 25,000 people, and the next day, 1 July, we released the album. In its first week, it sold 50,000 copies. The Glastonbury TV coverage and the media coverage leading up to Glastonbury was a perfect way to launch an act. Of course, we needed hits too and we had two Top 20 hits in that period.
How do you find new talent?
There's a million and one ways that you can find new talent, but the longer you do this job the easier it gets, because the more industry people you know who respect you, which they do if you and your label prove that you can break acts, the more people come to you with music. I have very good relationships with most UK music publishers and with a lot of music lawyers, managers, and owners of rehearsal rooms and studios. It's just about making as many contacts as you can, so that when a hot new artist comes on the scene, you're one of the top three names on the list. When new artists ask whom they should see, you want them to be told, "Go and see Nick Burgess at Virgin, he's really good”.
You have to create a strong brand for yourself and for your label. My hope is that I'm going to be one of the names recommended. That is very important, along with keeping your network up to date with people who are constantly on the look-out for things. I don't go to that many gigs; I only really go to gigs when I know beforehand that the music is good or when someone I know strongly recommends it. Too many bad gigs can effect your morale and perspective.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We do accept it, but I rarely get to listen to it. Unless if it's to my name: I listen to everything that’s sent to my name. I get about 20 to 30 a week. We get much more, but the stuff that is just addressed to Virgin goes into a pot that various people here look after.
What do you look for in an artist?
Songwriting of the highest quality is essential, but a strong identity and a positive attitude to the business of music is important too. Historically, sex appeal has also played a major role in reaching an audience, whether it’s Elvis or The Strokes. It feeds on natural human instinct
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
Hugely important for me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable working with an act who didn't write their own songs. I think this is because I was in a band and I could never understand a band who didn't write their own songs. I like the fact that art is an expression of the soul, and that’s why I’ve never been a big pop fan, because you’re listening to an artist but it’s actually someone else's art.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
How much do you look at factors like local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
It doesn't work like that in the UK, that’s an American thing. The UK scene is too small to be judged like that. I like to sign a band because I think they're the best band in that genre, not because they’re the most successful. I just go by the quality of an act. In the UK, there aren’t as many indicators with which to gauge how successful an act is as there are in America, where it's a lot easier because there are minor territories. In the UK, you have to take it from scratch.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, attorney and team are when considering signing a new act?
It's important, but not fundamental: I would never not sign an act because of the manager. It's obviously great if they have a good manager, but it wouldn't effect my decision-making.
Can artists be broken without radio support?
It's very difficult. Radio and music are so transitory at the moment. People don’t focus on music as much as they used to and this is increasingly true now that they have to hear it before they buy it. Very few people would read a magazine and buy a record by an act they’ve never heard. There's a core of music lovers who will, but there's not enough of them in the UK to break an act.
In the UK, you can perhaps sell 30 to 40,000 copies of a record by an act that gets amazing press but no radio. You need people to hear it, that’s the way you sell records. Word of mouth is a positive thing. Press coverage doesn’t sell records in the UK anymore, because not enough people pay attention to it, although it does help. As I said, you need all three media: radio won’t sell you records either, on its own without press and TV
How involved in the production process are you?
I have a big input in terms of who will produce the album and how the final mix will sound, but not on the actual production, because I don’t think that’s something an A&R should be involved in. The producer is paid to produce the record, so if the producer is not producing the record accordingly then you made a wrong choice, and that’s more your fault, than the producer’s.
The actual recording, the way it's laid down on tape, is quite a personal thing between the band and the producer. It’s important for an A&R to get involved in the mixing, but I would never walk into a studio and tell the producer how to produce a record.
If artists share the costs of making the album, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
It's hard to make money in the record industry at the moment. You have to spend half a million pounds in the UK to break an act, and you have to sell a lot of records to get that back. Only two debut acts have gone platinum in the UK this year: The Darkness and The Thrills. Basically, we have to cover our costs: if we have one successful act, that act has to cover for a lot of things that aren’t successful. If we were too generous with our artists we wouldn’t be able to cover our overheads.
Are legal downloads (iTunes and similar) positive for the music business? Can they change the business?
Yes, definitely. In fact, they’re the only way the music industry is going to survive. We have to work a way around illegal downloads, which is killing the industry, but we can become a successful industry again if we can work out a way to benefit from downloading. We're learning about the Internet and trying to evolve with it and in two to three years’ time, when we understand how it works, we'll be back on track.
How involved are you when it comes to negotiating the record contract with an artist you want to sign?
Fully involved. I'm the one who decides what we are going to offer and then we negotiate those terms with their lawyer.
What is your opinion of the Popstars concept?
It’s entertainment, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with music. In general, pop music is about marketing: it's not based on music, it's based on manipulating people who don't know better, which is why the marketing is aimed at kids . I don't think anyone signs a pop act because they love it: they sign it to make money.
What factors prevent A&Rs at major labels from developing long-term artists?
The pressure of breaking acts is horrific at a major record company. For the sake of your own personal career, you can't afford too many failures. Being an A&R man is the toughest job in the music industry, because you're the one everybody will look at if an act isn't breaking. With every decision you make, you are putting your reputation on the line; every act you sign is signed based on your opinion, and your opinion will cost your company half a million pounds if the project doesn't work.
Consequently, it's difficult for A&Rs to be free and easy and just sign things. You have to really analyse a band to determine whether they will be culturally relevant, whether the timing is right, and ultimately whether they have the potential to be successful.
It’s not just the record companies' fault: managers and lawyers are equally at fault. In the UK, it's hard to sign a band to a development deal. You may find a band who are not ready, but their lawyer and their manager don't believe you if you offer a GBP50,000 development deal. They think you're being tight and greedy. They want the biggest possible deal going and lawyers especially will drive deals to completely unrealistic figures.
As an example, I recently found a young band nobody knew about, and I thought it would be great to do a low-key development deal for about GBP50,000 and nurture and develop them on the sly, so to speak. But then they got a lawyer, and he told me not to even think about offering less than GBP100,000. They ended up going for GBP200,000, and then they just disappeared because there was so much pressure on them.
Many managers and lawyers think, “If it fails it fails, but at least I’m going to make some money off the advance”. They need to take a long look at themselves, and consider where their greed is leading.
Will record labels increasingly license the finished product from production companies or independent artists, for example, rather than develop artists from scratch?
I think it will happen, although I've never experienced it. Record companies are still important and a good A&R is still crucial to a band's development, because bands are often isolated and don't really understand how their music fits into the cultural scene. The A&R’s job is to make the band understand what market they're going for, what kind of record they should make, and to give them confidence, which is all vital to their development. Bands who try to do it themselves will find it a lot harder to make it.
What aspect of the music industry would you drastically change?
I would change the system of signing acts, particularly the way advances are worked out in the UK. To sign a band you have to give them a certain amount of money and it can be anything: it all depends on how much competition there is for the act, and it doesn't depend on how good the act is. Often, bands are signed for far too much money, and the fact is that it’s always about money and not about what the label can do for them, even though working with a team of people who understand them is the most important thing for any act.
Nevertheless, bands and managers sign with the label that offers them the biggest cheque, and the label that should have made the record isn't involved. The A&R for the label they sign with is just interested in the money and there's no care, no love, no nurturing, and the label's culture is not right for the act. I wish there was a standard advance that everybody paid, almost like giving the band wages, so that acts aren’t signed for half a million pounds when they're not ready for that level of financial commitment.
The greatest moment of your music career…?
The Thrills' first proper single going in at No.17 on the UK Singles Chart. It was like my graduation day when, after so much hard work, blood, sweat and tears, I finally achieved something. Also, the album going to No.2 in the mid-week charts was an incredible feeling
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Either having my own label and working with acts really closely or becoming the head of A&R at a major record company.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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