Interview - Jul 1, 2003
“If a band are brilliant but they haven't yet got a fan base or sold a single record, you sign them anyway.”Dan Keeling is the A&R representative for Coldplay (UK and US platinum). He is based in London and works for EMI/Parlophone. He also performs A&R duties for the rock band Athlete and the alternative pop band Alfie, among others.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I used to put on clubs in Manchester whilst at college, and I had always wanted to do A&R, so I started ringing up everyone in A&R in London. I didn't know anyone, but in the end someone at Island Records called Darcus Beese introduced me to who would eventually become my first boss at A&M Records, where I stayed for one and a half years. When A&M merged back into Universal, I got a job at EMI/Parlophone with Miles Leonard, who runs the department I currently work in.
What experiences have contributed significantly to the development of your A&R skills?
Working with good people counts for a lot, and at EMI we've got some really good people: the chairman, Tony Wadsworth; the president, Keith Wozencroft, who signed Radiohead and Supergrass; and Miles, who signed The Verve and Kylie Minogue. If you watch people, you can model how they act in different situations and you can learn how to work with artists. Of course, you need to have a basic, instinctive understanding of music and artists to be able to relate to them, but a lot of it is down to who you work with and within what culture. Every record label has a different culture, and I like ours. I don't know if I could work at lots of different labels.
What types of artists and styles are you primarily looking for?
It could be anything, just great artists really, artists who say something different in whatever genre. I'd love to sign someone like Kate Bush, the Chemical Brothers or Soul II Soul, although obviously hip-hop and r&b aren't as big in England as in the US, even if the American urban artists are very popular here.
What new acts are you currently working on?
I haven't signed anything this year, so I haven't really got any new acts. We also release acts on a sub-label called Regal, which is for more experimental or leftfield artists that might need more time to develop. Then there's another label called New Religion, which is very electronic and also limits its releases to around 1,000 copies. Alfie are the newest band I’ve signed; they used to be on Badly Drawn Boy’s label in Manchester and we picked them up after they left.
How did you first learn about Coldplay?
Through Caroline Elleray, a music publisher and a friend of mine. She told me about them quite early on and later signed the band's publishing. I got their first demo, but I didn’t think it was very good, and I went to see them and at the time they weren't all that impressive. But three months later I heard another demo, an EP of which they had printed 500 copies, and they had progressed so much in that short space of time that I was really shocked. So I went to see them again and knew I had to sign them, because they were so great. All their tracks were great, so we knew we were going to make a great album.
What had changed from their first demo?
The songs. They had written more and better songs and they kept getting better all the time. They had also developed their sound to become a lot more unique. It takes a while for a band to develop their own sound.
Where the songs for their first album “Parachutes” in place when you signed them?
No, they hadn’t written most of them. "Yellow" was written towards the end of their recording session. "Trouble" was written after we signed them. They had "Shiver", which became the second single and they had a few tracks on the album.
How did you find a producer for them and why did you settle for Ken Nelson?
We first did a recording session with a producer called Chris Allison and, whilst Chris is a nice guy, every producer has his own style and his own way of relating to an act and in the end there was a bit of a clash, so we decided to change. I was reading Music Week and it had a profile of Ken Nelson, whom I'd never met, funnily enough alongside one of Chris Allison, which talked about him recording with Coldplay. I started reading about Ken and I just thought that he sounded right in what he was saying, so I got in touch with his manager. I then introduced the band to a few producers and Ken was the one they got on best with and we haven't looked back. He will work on the next album too.
What was your approach to working with Coldplay?
It's an ongoing relationship. Obviously, when you sign a band like Coldplay, there's more work to be done on the first album than there will be on the third. My initial input was to guide them through what they needed to do; I talked to them about their songs, their strengths and their weaknesses, and what they could do to improve them. Basically, I was there to support them. Everybody has doubts, especially on their first album, so you need to offer advice and let the band do what they do naturally.
It's important to always be truthful. That’s the major thing about A&R: you've got to be truthful with your artists, and you can't be a yes-man.
What was instrumental in breaking them in the UK?
They did a lot of touring at first, supporting everyone they could, including bands that they didn't necessarily like. They're a hardworking band and that was an extremely important factor. The timing was right: the hit, "Yellow", created a bit of a fan base, we had good press, a great video and a lot of radio support, particularly Radio One, who have always been very supportive towards them.
At what point did you start to think about a US release for Coldplay? Had you been given any indication that Coldplay might do well there?
Capitol Records US didn't pick it up straight away: it came out on Nettwerk, who manage the band in America and are also a label. After a certain number of units were sold, Capitol took over from Nettwerk. Capitol have done a very good job promoting them in the States and the band have constantly been out there touring, because they understand that no matter how good you are, to break America you've got to be there all the time.
Obviously, people pick up artists because they think they're going to do well, but I don't think anyone thought that Coldplay were going to do this well. We knew they were going to be great and that they would make classic albums, but you can never tell just how big something is going to be.
How do you find new talent?
By talking to other people in the music industry who are also passionate about music. The UK is a small place and if someone is really good, you will find out about it, so just keep your ears open.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we do, although obviously it’s hard to listen to everything that comes in. We get 50 CDs a week and the quality is generally not very good; I have never found anything through demos that I’ve later come to work with.
What do you look for in an artist?
Originality, passion, intensity, personality, a great voice and, above all, great songs—basically, the whole package.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
Yes. We've got a dance label called Credence and, on the dance side of things, we sign a lot of stuff from outside the UK, although perhaps not as many bands.
How heavily do factors like local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base weigh in the balance when you are deciding whether to sign a band or not?
You take all those factors into account, particularly whether the band have built up a fan base by themselves, which is a massive bonus. Having said that, if a band are brilliant but they haven't yet got a fan base or sold a single record, you sign them anyway.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write their own songs?
For a band, it's extremely important. In mainstream pop, there tend to be writers who do that, but for a band like Coldplay it's a must-have.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
Yes, we do demo deals: we give people money to pay for a studio to get some tracks recorded.
We try to devise deals that suit the stage that the artists are at. If something has got potential, we'll pick up an EP with an option, release it and then see how it goes, not necessarily in terms of sales, but just generally. It's particularly important to get to know the artist at this stage, because a good working relationship is essential.
Are the costs of making an album recouped from your artists’ royalties?
That all depends on the artist. There's no such thing as a standard deal, particularly now, when the music industry is changing so rapidly.
How highly do you rate UK radio?
It would be good to have a station that just played new rock, another for dance, and so on, because smaller artists would get more airplay that way. The bigger stations in England play a lot of different things, which is great in some ways, although you don't necessarily want some cheesy trance track next to a really good Radiohead single.
What would you change about the music industry?
I like good pop music and I think Madonna, for example, was exactly that. But when you put Madonna next to someone from the Fame Academy or similar, they're just not on the same level. I think there should be both more quality and more soul in pop music. It also annoys me that producers aren't a bit more innovative.
The quality of the UK music press could also be improved. I don't enjoy reading the magazines that I used to. Nick Kent, though, is a great journalist, because he really gives you an insight into an artist—there should certainly be more of that.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Being woken up with a bad hangover by Keith, the president here, and being told that "Yellow" was No.4—that was my most exciting moment!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Hopefully, working with other great artists. Or sitting on a Bahamas beach and recording at Compass Point Studios! I think I will still want to do A&R or be in some way involved in the breaking of new, great artists. It would be great to sign another band as good as Coldplay.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman