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Interview with ERIC HÄRLE, manager at DEF for Moby, Sonique, Röyksopp - Mar 25, 2003

“Independent producer types who find people and make it work will be instrumental in the future of music.”

picture Currently based in London Eric Härle manages Moby (multi platinum in numerous countries, including the US), Sonique (UK platinum) and Röyksopp (UK platinum). Here he talks about the process of breaking Moby, and why artists should own the master recordings of their work.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

I wasn't clear about what I wanted to do initially, but I had always liked sports and music. I thought business training would help me in whatever I wanted to do, so I took a business degree in Germany, which is where I'm from. When I finished, I went on a trainee programme at BASF, the German multinational; I was also deejaying at the time. I attended my trainee programme from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then I deejayed, usually from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., a couple of nights a week. That was the extent of my early hands-on experience in music.

When the programme ended, BASF offered me a marketing job in the UK. I actually wanted to leave the company at that time, but working abroad was an interesting opportunity, so I accepted the three-year assignment in Manchester. That was at the end of the '80s, which was a really interesting time in Manchester. The house-music scene broke at the Haçienda, bands like New Order and The Smiths were still around and other bands like The Happy Mondays, 808 State and The Stone Roses were taking off, so it was very exciting to live there and it inspired me to give music a shot.

I sent out CVs for music industry jobs, but nobody responded because I didn't have any experience. One could say I was forced into starting my own management company! I had always liked the idea of being a manager because it's an all-round job in which you have to work with all the different sides of the music business. A manager has to have so many skills in order to make things work and, with my background in business, I thought I could do it.

I picked up my first band, a local act called Eskimos & Egypt, in 1990 and also started a record label, DEF Records, at the same time. It coincided with the early days of the house/techno/rave scene and as DJ culture started to evolve some of my releases did really well, but it became obvious to me that with limited resources and lack of funds, I wouldn't be able to operate as a proper record label. Consequently, after releasing records for a year, I started focusing on the management side, and that's when I started to work with Moby.

What experiences have contributed to your skills as a manager?

The business training I went through gave me the confidence to go into an industry in which I had no connections whatsoever, and in a country where being German wasn't exactly an advantage. The English music industry, very much like the Americans, has a certain arrogance about its heritage and so everybody else, especially if they're from continental Europe, is considered second generation.

I guess that was somewhat understandable at the time, although luckily things have changed quite a bit since then. That made it hard at the beginning, because it wasn't easy to make connections. However, it was my training and experience in business as well as my unshakeable belief in my artists that gave me the confidence to persevere.

As far as other experiences are concerned, it's a constantly evolving process and I think I still have many things to learn, particularly because the company's situation today is very different to what it was twelve years ago when I started it.

What acts do you currently manage?

Apart from Moby, Sonique and Röyksopp, we also look after a production outfit called Cap-Com, also known as F.A.F (Fat As Fuck), who are two former members of Eskimos & Egypt and their engineer. They produced the top-selling single in 2000 in Germany for Jive/Zomba, a track by Rednex called "Spirit of the Hawk", which sold over a million copies. They also produced other UK Top 10 singles and they've recently worked with T.A.T.U.

We have also been looking after Jake Williams, who had five Top 10 singles in the mid-'90s under the name JX. Then he had a hit two years ago with a song called "Bullet in the Gun". Paul Oakenfold signed, released and fronted the project under the Planet Perfecto moniker, but Jake wrote and produced the track. Jake is very methodical and takes his time to do things, nevertheless, his strike rate is pretty impressive. He is incredibly talented and a perfectionist.

So how did you come to work with Moby?

At the beginning, when I was still working out of my bedroom, I went over to the New Music Seminar in New York. I was friendly with 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald who were performing there as the only British techno representatives. I also met the only German techno DJ, Westbam, with whom I later worked with. The only US artist making electronic techno music at the time was this guy called Moby, who was on a tiny label called Instinct.

I had never heard of either and he hadn't released his first single yet. I went to see him deejay before his first ever performance, a fact that I only became aware of later. The music was amazing, but the show was riddled with technical mishaps. Still, it left me very intrigued and impressed in a strange way. We kept in touch and when he started getting his records released here in the UK, we decided to work together.

I had never worked with anybody from outside the UK and had no real knowledge about the American market, so we also decided to find somebody to help us with his American setup and, after a couple of false starts, we found Barry Taylor and Marci Weber at MCT Management who still to this day look after Moby in North America.

What were the important factors in the breaking of Moby?

Moby actually almost broke twice. He had a UK Top 10 single in 1991 with the track "Go", which also became a hit in other European territories. Unfortunately, America wasn't even on the agenda for that kind of music at the time. Moby was one of the pioneers of electronic dance music, and it was too early for him to break into the mainstream album market.

When he delivered his first album, “Everything Is Wrong” for Mute/Elektra, it was very eclectic and difficult to pigeonhole, and a lot of media people didn't understand it. They thought it was just a derivative of disco music and not a serious art form. At that time a lot of journalists in the traditional music press were having trouble understanding this new, electronic music.

Moby became very disillusioned with the feedback or lack of it that he received from music critics and the media in general. Then, just as this type of music started to gain recognition and the popularity of artists like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy began to grow, Moby had already decided to make a rock record, "Animal Rights". It buried him completely, because it wasn't even slightly interesting to most media and it didn't connect with a large part of his still developing fan base. People were confused as to what Moby really was. Consequently, although he had had a good start, he managed to wipe out all of his early good work and we found ourselves struggling for even the slightest bit of recognition. He became a has-been in the eyes of a lot of people in the industry.

For the album ‘Play’, he tried different things and our goal was to sell 250,000 copies, which was what ‘Everything Is Wrong’, Moby's biggest selling album to that date, had sold. Obviously now, ten million copies later, it's a completely different situation.

We initially released three singles from the record but none of them had a major impact: they sold about 20,000 copies each, which was typical of a record bought almost exclusively by the Moby fan base at the time. At that point, most major record labels would have stopped working the album, but luckily nobody gave up on the record; being on the independent label Mute in the UK helped us a lot, because they just kept ploughing on and at some point around seven or eight months after the initial release it turned around and started snowballing.

We had an album with music that didn't fit in with mainstream radio, so we needed to find other avenues. Moby’s music is very evocative and emotional, and as a result a lot of people asked us for permission to use the music in TV, films and commercials as soundbeds.

Many people seem to think that we pitched the music for ads only, whereas the truth is that we just responded to the requests; the ads we selected were very carefully chosen, and we actually turned down more than we accepted. It is also somewhat hypocritical to label Moby "the ad guy", when most of his music was really used in film and television and the advertising usage was fairly limited. Those areas played an important role in our "guerilla marketing" campaign. Since then, many people have actively pursued that route as an alternative way of making music heard that might be struggling on conventional radio.

It was very interesting to see that we had different key songs in each market. In the States it was "South Side", in the UK "Porcelain", in France "Natural Blues", in Germany "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" and in Italy "Bodyrock". We released about eight singles from the album, and each one was popular in a particular territory, but didn't do nowhere near as well in the rest of the world. That is very special and unusual. Later on in the campaign, the record label Mute let the labels in the regional territories decide what they wanted to do, which is a very healthy approach, as regional cultures are still so very different. Traditionally, when everything is driven centrally from one person in L.A., New York or London and you have that one single, it doesn't necessarily translate in all territories. We were fortunate to be in an independent setup, because this approach couldn't have happened with a major record label.

One very important part was Moby's desire and determination not to let this opportunity slip through. Having experienced how short-lived and rare success in music can be, he dedicated every second and every breath of his life to the fulfillment of the potential of his work. There were weeks when he crossed the Atlantic four times to help promote "Play". Since the record was global, everybody wanted him at the same time.

How important is it that your artists also write and produce their own material?

My first love is electronic music and I deal with people who make music, as opposed to people who can sing or dance. So first and foremost they are producers and songwriters, with Sonique being the exception. She's the only person who has an amazing voice and doesn't produce most of her material on her own, although she writes the majority of her music.

How do you find new talent?

It was easy at the beginning, because it was the only thing I focused on. I kept up with what was going on and tried to get there first and somehow strike a rapport with people. It's different now, because I'm working on managing people's lives and their business affairs, so I can't keep as up-to-date as I did; it takes up so much time to manage artists at this level. I now rely more on other people tipping me off, although we've just started a publishing company and I hope that through that I will be able to become involved with new talent again.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Sure, that is to a certain extent what we're looking through now that we have the publishing company, which is named Bert’s Songs after my son. We have a fulltime A&R person who tries to listen to all the demos, so if someone sends something in that grabs our attention, we'll follow it through.

What do you look for in an artist?

First and foremost, the music needs to connect with me emotionally. I need to feel that I want to listen to it again and again, whatever genre it falls into. Secondly, there has to be a degree of uniqueness and originality. How you define originality is subjective and people outside the genre may think that some of my artists are similar to each other, but I feel they are all very different and very unique.

I obviously also have to get on with the artists personally and they must have healthy expectations and a certain determination, because if they don't, we're wasting each other's time.

Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry?

If they have never been signed before, they're unlikely to have the necessary knowledge and they will have to learn and pick things up as they go along. I didn't have a clue how the music industry worked when I started, and I had to learn straight from the off. And it's the same for most unsigned artists.

Do you support artists financially once they have signed to you so that they can focus on the music?

Not really. I will try to find ways to make it work, but I don't tend to lend them money, although I have on occasions. There's only so much I want to do on that side. I'm not a Svengali type who puts a pop project together and then sells it on. I want to see that the artists are determined, that they can look after themselves and not rely on me financially. In the end it's their career and I don't want them to be completely dependent on anybody, whether it's the record label or me.

As a manager, do you develop strategies for your artists in terms of what areas they should develop and how to strengthen their brand name?

Strategies develop quite naturally from what the artist is; I focus on their strengths and help them to get those across. But I won't tell my artists to dye their hair and wear certain types of clothes, because if I have to do that I don't want to work with them. Their qualities have to be intrinsic, so all I do is point out what these qualities are and suggest ways of developing them. I get involved because I believe in what they do, and I will fight for them to make their dream come true, but in a supporting role.

Which of your artists made all the right moves?

You earn your breaks, that's how I see it. Moby wouldn't be here if he hadn't been so persistent and single-minded, because his career could have ended after his rock record. A lesser person might have not recovered from that situation. It's about belief, being passionate and focused, and if you want something really badly and work at it every day, you will at some stage get a break. It took Moby nine years, and a lot of people wouldn't have got that far. You have to do what you have to do, believe in it, fine-tune it and stick with it!

What do you think of the whole Popstars concept?

It's in the interests of the industry to revive their flagging position now that the way music is sold is rapidly changing. But it's a short-term side issue, a TV show, a karaoke situation where people go up and sing songs that other people produce, often very badly. They might sing the songs very well, but it's still just a personality thing linked to a TV show, and I don't see any real link between that and what I'm doing.

In the UK there’s a show called "Stars In Their Eyes", which I consider the blueprint for all these shows. I've hardly watched it, but it's pretty ghastly in musical terms, although I don't deny the entertainment aspect of it. I totally appreciate it as a genius idea to exploit the extremely powerful medium of television for the benefit of CD sales, but I still have to be convinced that artists with long term potential will be unearthed this way.

What's your opinion on UK radio?

Compared to the situation of radio in other countries, it is probably one of the healthiest in the world, although there are of course ways of improving it. Radio One is still powerful but it also takes its responsibility very seriously, and I think they're doing a good job.

How important is it for your artists' new singles to enter the Singles Chart in the Top 3?

For Moby and Röyksopp we don't even contemplate that and it's never happened. Moby's highest UK chart position was No.5 and Röyksopp's biggest single success was No.16. Singles for both these artists are only there to give us other opportunities to continue to promote the project. With the current singles market, both acts will just about get Top 40 singles under normal circumstances, but on the back of that we might do lots of other promotion that will help feed the music through to a mainstream audience and we will end up selling a lot more albums.

People who like Moby or Röyksopp will buy the album and never bother with a single. The singles market is heavily dominated by kids aged between five and thirteen and that music just doesn't connect with them. With Sonique it's a different ballgame, because she's more of a pop act and a great singer with a very strong personality and if the first single from her new album goes Top 3 then we'll be absolutely delighted.

As record labels show less and less interest in developing new artists and instead want a ready-to-go package, including songs and productions, do you think that it will be left to management companies to take on the task of developing artists?

I think it will be up to outside setups, primarily production companies, to bring forward new artists. Producers who actually physically make music will put things together. A management company may have an artist who has all the bits, but they will need to develop the project with a producer to the point where the record label recognises the artist's potential.

These independent producer types who find people and make it work will be instrumental in the future of music, as they have been in its past. Then there are those individuals who love music and start their own little label which can end up being a home to a lot of new and exciting music as has happened in the past. There is a rich heritage of new music being allowed to develop outside the major record company system and I believe it will continue to be the case.

Could independent artists' websites replace record releases?

The biggest factor in successfully releasing a record is the marketing, and it's very rare to sell a lot of records without any marketing. The majority of records get sold because there's a certain amount of money spent on making sure that people get to hear the music. A website alone can't replace that marketing. It can still play an important part, but there's a reason why major labels dominate the record market: they simply have the money to push their product into the stores. And if music is predominantly being bought via the web in the future, they'll make sure that their product is easy to find and listen to. How would one find unknown artists’ websites? It would need a record company connection to be successfully marketed.

As record sales decline as a result of downloading and CD burning, do you see management companies branching out into other areas in order to create more revenue streams?

That might be necessary. Management companies do that already, but there could be a shift in focus and there might be areas other than CD sales that people will take more seriously.

Record sales were effectively 80% of an artist's career and the rest were just things that happened along the way, such as shows, publishing and merchandise, but that might all change in the future. Perhaps recorded music won't cost anything in the future and performance, publishing or merchandise will become more important.

Do you think the cost of making an album should be recoupable from an artist's royalties?

Well, that's what's happening now, isn't it? In a normal UK or US deal, albums are being paid for by the artist. It's different in continental Europe, but here it is typical for the artist to pay to make the video and the record—and if artists pay for them, they should own them. If you pay for a house, you own it, but for some reason property laws don't seem to apply in this case. Ownership of the masters should be shared until the label recoups all the recording costs from sales and, at that point, full ownership should be transferred to the artist.

If record companies want to own the recordings they should pay for them and not have them recouped from artist royalties!

A record label will never have the same long-term interest in an artist's work as the artist does. There is often so much internal wrangling and politics going on at record labels, particularly at majors, that they don't even know whether they want to release an album or not. But things are changing, and record labels are inevitably going to have to reassess their position. I have hope that the predominantly favoured system of licensing records to record companies as practised in continental Europe, will become the norm as well in the UK and in the US.

Why has it become so hard for UK acts to break in the US?

Firstly, it costs much more money for American record labels to have an act brought over from the UK compared to the costs of breaking a domestic act.

Secondly, if you're an artist in the UK, which is a much smaller market, breaking in the US means working a lot harder. The artist needs to be prepared to take a risk and work that much harder, and I'm afraid a lot of English artists are not cut out for that, or else they're just not interested. To break America means to put a stop on your career elsewhere as it needs your full attention.

Also, to break the US you have to infiltrate the American market, which is a very isolated and even ignorant culture. The majority of American music consumers think about music as they do about other things, namely that the world is the United States. They don't think too much about what's out there.

What aspect of the music industry would you change dramatically?

It would be a nice thing if major labels released fewer records and worked harder and longer on the ones they do release. They have to remember why they signed something in the first place. Independent labels have no choice in the matter, because they simply don't have the money to commit to a huge roster.

Creative units need to stay small, so hopefully major labels could become more like distribution and marketing facilities and finally do away with traditional A&R departments in exchange for independent setups that deal with the talent's creative process. Ownership of the masters needs to stay with the artist so that if something doesn't work out, they can go somewhere else as opposed to getting buried in the system.

Both the US and the UK should take a complete and global view of music and stop looking just into their own backyards. The case of t.A.T.u, the first Eastern European act to break on a worldwide scale, is refreshing, but it's a shame that it's still true to say that it makes a big difference where you're from.

The US and the UK are gateways to the world due to their language and they sometimes keep flogging their inferior local repertoire to the rest of the world instead of having a more open approach to foreign quality music. Some of the majors are even insane enough to promote their local karaoke popstars to foreign territories!

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Moby's final breakthrough, although that's not just one moment but a whole period. He's somebody who has been written off so many times by so many people but has still succeeded in the end. I'm very grateful and it makes me very proud to be involved with Moby. He has made my dream that I had when I started the company in 1990 come true.

What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?

I hope I will still work with great music and with talented people, although I'm not sure in what capacity or whether the company will still be the same.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman

Read On ...

* Manager Eric Härle talks about clients The Knife