Interview with SIMON GAVIN, A&R at Polydor UK for Daniel Bedingfield, Ms. Dynamite - Feb 21, 2003
“If all you have are TV-associated projects, real talent has a problem getting noticed.”
As A&R at Polydor Records UK, Simon Gavin works with include Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Ms. Dynamite and Daniel Bedingfield. Here he tells us what the cost is to record and release an album with a new artist in the UK and when it’s the right time to do a demo deal.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
In the late '80s, I lived in New York and worked for Empire Management. We managed rappers and producers such as Gang Starr, Master Ace, Bobby Konders, Mark the 45 King; we also staged a lot of parties in and around Manhattan. I came back to the UK in 1991 and worked with dance music, in promotion and A&R at Virgin, for four years. I started at Polydor eight years ago.
What experiences have been instrumental in your career as an A&R?
Definitely the move to Polydor, which meant working in an environment that was very cold at the time, and where you had to grow up quickly and find some acts who sold records, because that was the brief. The people who have been important to me are the Universal Music UK CEO, Lucian Grainge (previously GM and A&R at Polydor – Ed.), and Colin Barlow and Paul Adam, my A&R colleagues at Polydor.
What new acts are you currently working on?
Keith Flint from the Prodigy, Eagle-Eye Cherry and Acacia Parker, the singer and songwriter.
Do you consider outside songs for your artists?
I'm very open to listening to outside songs, but most of the artists I work with are also songwriters: self-contained artists are what I tend look for. Having said that, if a great song comes in I would never shut my door on it.
So it’s important that the artists you work with also write songs?
Yes, because it gives their careers longevity and makes them more convincing to the audience. The whole disposable pop culture is getting boring and I think people will begin to demand something a bit more substantial.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
I am involved in finding the producers and the musical direction for the artist. I'm not one of those A&Rs who likes to sit in the studio all day long. I feel that once we have set it up, if the producers and the artist can't make the record then we're all in trouble.
How do you find new talent?
It comes through a wide range of sources such as managers, publishers, lawyers and word-of-mouth. You have to be open to anything; it could be the cabdriver who tells you about something. But I don't think artists come knocking on your door anymore, so you have to go out and find them and find them very early, because the competition is so great. That's essentially what we did with our artists.
What do you look for in an artist?
Individuality and talent.
Do you attach any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind a new act are, when considering signing them?
It's an important factor for the artist, but it's generally not that important to me.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, definitely. I probably get twenty demos per week, which I eventually get to. We also have a demo-line, which two scouts attend to. The overall quality is pretty poor, although Acacia Parker was one of those who sent in a demo. It was just voice and guitar or voice and piano and she had done her own artwork on the envelope, which drew you to it straight away and made you listen, because it was very creative. If what's inside is really great, then what's on the outside should reflect that.
Which of your artists did things right in order to build a career before you signed them?
They all did—and that’s why they are where they are now. They had the talent, ambition, drive and focus to do it. Daniel Bedingfield, for example, made “Gotta Get Through This” in his bedroom, released it as a white album himself, and it was a No.1 record before anyone had licensed it. He was going to go all the way, and I'm just getting his message and music out.
At Polydor, who do you need support from before signing an act?
I just need to be backed by the people I work for, and not necessarily the promotions, marketing and press departments. They are obviously all important and I like to get them involved at the right stage, but the most important thing is that the artists feel they have someone they can trust and rely on within the label, and that the label itself can actually deliver what it says it can. The image and success of the label is important to the artist, otherwise they wouldn't come through the door. But ultimately, I think that people sign to people and not to companies.
What does the development of an artist generally involve?
I think it's really important that when you sign artists you get straight to work, in order to capture the spontaneity of the songwriting, their enthusiasm and also that part of the industry that is enthusiastic about the artist. You have to be very quick to capitalise on the buzz, if there is one. Ms. Dynamite had made guest appearances on a couple of club records that were very big here, so we tried to move very quickly. Daniel's development was accelerated by the fact that he had previously put his own record out.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry?
Unfortunately not, because they watch programs like Pop Idols and think that the music industry is about getting lucky, but it isn't just about that. They have a very narrow view of the business and most artists distrust it as such. But once you get through the doors and start meeting people you quickly find out that it's not an evil empire.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades?
No, but the number of signings has decreased. There are less visionary signings than there used to be and fewer risks are taken. If all you have are TV-associated projects, real talent has a problem getting noticed.
How much does it usually cost to record an album and then market and promote it?
You’re looking at an investment in excess of UKŁ1,000,000 from signing to three singles and an album released.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
We've done it a lot here. It's hard to put a figure to it, but more often than not it does lead to a signing.
Can you describe a situation where you would typically offer a demo deal?
You meet someone with a voice who has recorded some very rough demos at home but who, musically, has no sense of direction. You believe in that person's charisma and talent, but the music is not quite right, so you decide to record a bunch of demos with a producer you both agree on. You try to give the project a sense of the musical direction it is lacking, and assess whether the artist really has what it takes to deliver in a studio environment.
What do you think about UK radio?
It's fairly healthy. Radio One takes risks and invests in new artists very early on by giving them airplay. They supported Ms. Dynamite from day one; we used to play them demos and they got involved very quickly. Commercial radio in general is improving all the time. What I don't understand is why many radio stations play one song sixty times per week. That’s unnecessary, and it takes up room on the playlist that new records could occupy.
How important is it for your acts to enter the Singles Chart in the Top 3 with a new single?
Many labels have become obsessed with the Singles Chart, although it does depend on the genre. A pop group needs to chart at No.1 if you’ve invested a lot of time in it, but in terms of what I call a real artist, the Singles Chart is just one part of it. It's important to hit the market place with a decent entry and to have further singles to drive the album, but it’s also about airplay and TV exposure.
What is your opinion about the Popstars concept?
It's just a moment in time. It will get boring and stop. It's very novel and exciting to watch at home if you don't know anything about the music business, but it isn't representative of it.
Why do you think there are fewer UK acts breaking in Europe than there were 10 years ago?
It's a case of labels not signing the right music and the right artists. The downside of the music business isn't just piracy, it's also bad management, and not investing in the right artists. We should be investing in long-term and not short-term career acts.
How important are the Brit Awards?
It's recognition of hard work for a lot of artists, and that’s always good.
What aspect of the music industry would you change dramatically?
I'd invest more heavily in long-term career artists, because that’s where the profit will come from.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
It hasn't happened yet! A new Brit Award is not that important to me. I think it will be having an artist that actually breaks on a worldwide scale.
Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years' time?
In Lucian Grainge's job, with him reporting to me!
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman