Interview with CHRIS PARLES, A&R at Mercury London for David Sneddon (UK No.1), Sinead Quinn (UK Top 3), Blue - Oct 21, 2003
“TV shows like Fame Academy, Pop Idol and Popstars are currently suffering a huge backlash, and the artists don't really last longer than a year.”
Chris Parles is manager of A&R at Mercury Records, London. He was previously the co-A&R for Blue (UK No.1), Atomic Kitten (UK and Germany No.1) and Jonathan Wilkes at Innocent Records. Artists he now represents include David Sneddon (UK No.1), Sinead Quinn (UK Top 3) and Ainslee Henderson, all from the TV show Fame Academy, and Lisa Scott-Lee (UK Top 10).
Here he talks about the ways in which TV shows like Fame Academy are affecting the record industry; major labels' attitude to signing new artists; and the reasons why it is becoming harder and harder for new artists to get their records played by radio stations.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I did a Degree in Commercial Music, during which I studied record production, marketing, law and international music marketsbasically, the whole business. I got a first-class honours, which brought me many contacts, and a track that I produced with some friends opened up many other doors.
Hugh Goldsmith at Innocent Records was looking for an A&R person and a friend of mine recommended me to him. I started at the bottom of the ladder as an A&R assistant and, after a year, Hugh made me the A&R manager. In that position, I sought songs for Blue (click on artist or track names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and Atomic Kitten, and I learnt a lot from working with Hugh. Last year, I was headhunted by Steve Lillywhite to be his A&R manager at Mercury.
What experiences have contributed most to your A&R skills?
My studio skills have been really handy. I worked in home studios for two years before I started at Innocent, so when I talk to producers and writers about the process of making records, I know exactly how it is done. Not all A&R people have this knowledge, but I think it's really important to have a basic training in recording studios.
What styles of music do you focus on?
It depends on who the artist is, but we are tending to focus on pop/rock at the moment. Rock, r&b and hip-hop are where it's at right now.
What acts are you currently working on?
I've just completed albums by Lisa Scott-Lee, Michelle Lawson and Ainslie Henderson, from Fame Academy, and Lulu. Michelle Lawson, a new act, is very much British-sounding 60s funk/soul, with contemporary flavours. We wanted to do something completely different and find a niche that nobody else is doing at the moment. Lulu is sort of Shania Twain-meets-Bryan Adams country/rock and she’s got such a great voice, but she hasn't been really given the chance to do this kind of music before.
I’m getting remixes done for those artists now and seeing those albums through the marketing and promotional stages. I’m also currently doing several mixes for Texas, as well as looking for new acts to sign.
How did you come to work with the three Fame Academy artists Ainslee Henderson, David Sneddon and Sinead Quinn?
There was a bid to do the program with the BBC, which Mercury won. We auditioned thousands and thousands of people aged 18 to 35 up and down the country. We narrowed it down to about 20, who went on to Fame Academy, and of those we signed three. I did the first David Sneddon single, “Stop Living The Lie”, which went to No.1 in January.
How does your record label benefit from releasing new artists from TV shows like Fame Academy?
I don't think there are that many benefits at the moment. TV shows like Fame Academy, Pop Idol, Popstars and so on are currently suffering a huge backlash, and the artists don't really last longer than a year. TV companies are still making a lot of money from these shows, but record companies aren’t making as much money as they have done in the past with artists like Hear'Say, Will Young and Gareth Gates, who sold millions because the phenomenon was still a novelty. The public enjoys watching the shows and voting for the artists, but they don't necessarily want to buy the albums.
David Sneddon won Fame Academy last year and he had a No.1 single, but considering that there were seven million viewers per show, we didn't really sell that many singles. It's increasingly hard for record companies to make money from these TV shows because the market is flooded and people are getting bored with them. It’s also hard to get these acts on radio, because radio doesn’t want to support them anymore.
Does it have anything to with the fact that the artists are generally pop artists?
The TV companies always look for artists who cover the biggest demographic. They have to be good-looking and they have to make really middle-of-the-road pop music. Doing anything cutting edge or credible is really hard, because that’s not what the TV producers are looking for. It’s really the record company that caters to the needs of the TV company, rather than vice versa. It’s the mums, dads, kids and aunties that watch these shows, so that’s always going to mean some form of pop music, yet kids are buying heavy rock or hard hip-hop and r&b. However, it’s these forms of music that TV companies don’t want to programme on their shows.
Is the artists’ long-term potential necessarily limited?
If a talented and charismatic artist is picked up from a Fame Academy show very early on, without getting through to the final stages, he or she might have some long-term success. The further on you get to winning the show, the less chance you have of making it long-term it seems. Whoever wins these shows has the shortest career and the people who lose these shows or leave early on have more of a chance.
Do you think that the shows will continue?
I think they will always be around, but they have reached their limit. When we did Fame Academy last year, that was right on the edge of when people started to get bored of it. It’s not just music shows, either: reality shows in general have become an old and tired format.
Was making the albums with the Fame Academy artists different to making albums with regular artists?
No. I approached it in the same way: I listened to the artists’ ideas, who they wanted to work with, and then we just went from there. I never tell artists how to do things, I always work with them and get them involved in the writing as well. I empower artists and listen to who they want to be, because at the end of the day they have to promote their material.
In Fame Academy, every artist has different skills. Ainslee is a really good songwriter and an amazing lyricist, so I didn't have to get that involved in finding writers and producers. Two of the producers and writers from the band James went off to France with him and they did their thing. The album was recorded on a shoestring budget in a home studio, because I wanted something that was a bit raw and unpolished. The results were amazing.
Other artists like Sinead Quinn, for example, might not have as much writing ability, so you just sit and talk about the sound and the kind of music they want to sing, and then get writers and producers to help them.
How do you find new talent?
The most effective sources are managers, producers and the press, and basically just picking up tips from people in the industry. I have many meetings with producers, writers and managers, so a lot of artists come from there.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. I get thirty to fifty demos a week. I try to listen to all of them, but when you have four albums to complete and you’re spending a lot of time in the studio, it gets really hard to go through everything. There are assistants here who go through a lot of the stuff.
I've worked with writers whom I first learnt about through demos and a couple of them still send me songs. An unsigned, British writer wrote one of the songs on Lisa Scott-Lee’s album. However, I haven't yet come across any artists through demos.
What do you look for in an artist?
A distinctive voice that moves me and great performance. Most of the demos I get are from female soloists, and they usually sound the same. Michelle Lawson, whom I signed last year, has the most incredible voice and when I heard it for the first time, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, so I couldn't wait to get involved. As far as boy bands are concerned, their looks, how they sound together and the style of music that they're doing are all very important. For solo artists with their own material, it all depends on how good the songs are.
Is it important for the artists to write their own songs?
If it's a real pop band like Steps, for example, then I'd rather get the songs myself. For any other type of artist, it's important that they also write, if only to build up their confidence. It’s more interesting if an artist is able to talk about a song they've written rather than just a song that has been given to them. I actively encourage artists who do not write their songs to do so. Take Atomic Kitten, for example, when I worked with them they hardly wrote anything, but now they are really good at it and have written more than half of their new album. That goes for Blue as well, who were encouraged to write by Hugh.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
How heavily does radio airplay weigh in the balance when you are considering whether to sign a new act?
It’s extremely important. Alternative labels don't depend on radio but the opposite is true for more commercial acts, which are generally what I sign. Radio stations want to see what's going on around the artist, such as press and TV coverage, live gigs, street buzz and so on, before they decide anything. If the artist hasn't got any of that and if there is no or little plot then the major national radio stations, no matter how good the record is, won’t support that artist.
Therefore, you have to create stories around the artists when you launch them in order to get radio, press and TV. Blatant boy/girl pop bands are different and don't have to rely on a plot so much. However if you want to release a ballad, for example, it shouldn't be too slow for radio: you have to produce it so it's fast enough for them to play, or make a radio version that is a faster tempo. These are the sorts of things you have to consider.
What does the development process for a new artist involve?
Working on their confidence when performing, how they move, little things on stage. Songwriting, their musical direction. A lot of media and vocal training. I did all that with Michelle and with Blue as well. You need TV and radio exposure to break a commercial act, so they must be confident when talking to the media.
How much input do you have on the productions?
A lot. I spend time in the studio, editing parts, changing the beats, redoing vocalsbasically, co-producing. I usually meet the producers first and then I let them get on with it for two days. Afterwards, I take a look at what they’ve done and change things, if necessary to improve the song.
How much does it usually cost to record, market and promote an album?
About £150,000 to make a pop album, but from £500,000 up to a million plus, depending on the type of act, to include the marketing and promotion.
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?
I think that whoever pays for the recording should own the record. Therefore, if the artists pay for the recording of the albums, they should own the masters.
How involved are you in the negotiation of the record contract?
Before I sign a band, I talk to the legal department and set the advances and royalty but I leave the rest to the lawyers.
How important is it for your acts’ new singles to enter the Singles Chart in the Top 3?
It’s really important, but at the end of the day it's even more important to sell albums, and I'd rather they were in the album chart than in the singles chart. Still, people take note of hit singles where pop artists and new acts are concerned, so it's good to have a sticker on the album saying “Top 3 single”. However, for an artist like Norah Jones for example, it isn't important to break the Top 3 as it is the album that will sell.
What are the most important tools with which to break a new act?
Obviously, a hit record is the ultimate one, but also a good club plot, and lots of TV and radio exposure; programmes like The Box, Radio One, Radio Two, Capitol Radio and Emap, are very influential, as are all the afternoon TV shows, the Saturday morning shows, Top Of The Pops and CD:UK. Branding is hugely important and really hard to achieve. Turning the public on to an artist via a song is important and making sure they connect the song with the artist. Equally important as radio and TV is getting enough press and the right type of press. One of the most important things is word of mouth.
Why are fewer UK acts breaking in Europe than before?
The music in UK is different to what's going on in Europe. We follow the Americans quite a lot and, especially in London, everything is really super cool and serious. In the last couple of years, we've focused more and more on production, so the productions have been fantastic, but there haven't been that many songs that have translated well in the European markets. The UK market is a very inward-looking and domestic market compared to the European markets. It's always cold here, always so serious and boring, and it probably doesn't translate in hotter climates.
What prevents A&Rs from developing artists over time?
Few record companies are willing to take as many risks as they did before. They want you to sign things for less money, record albums for less money, and cut costs here and there. Sometimes you don't get enough time to develop the artist. The major label mentality is that if you don't have two or three Top 5 singles, then the artist gets dropped. There's no question of sticking with an artist. It's frustrating that artists aren't given as much of a chance these days because, although many artists and bands break with their third album, record companies don't let the band get to their second album if the first one isn't a success.
How has the general approach to A&R changed in recent years?
Nowadays, when you're signing acts, you want pretty much everything given to you on a plate. Record companies and A&Rs have become very lazy: they want the marketing done, the album done, the singles done, and the artists trained before they sign them. More and more acts that sign with record labels have all that and there's not all that much left for A&R to do.
It's just the nature of the business; I'm under so much pressure to make money and break big acts that I haven't got the time to develop them or spend a year with them on the road before releasing the album. It's just harder to sign new artists who haven’t got much going on around the music.
So you think record labels will increasingly limit themselves to licensing the finished product?
That’s the way it seems to be going. In this climate, it's really good that we have been able to develop Michelle Lawson ourselves. In general, however, the music market is in decline, record sales have diminished and people are losing their jobs, so labels only want to sign something that is already generating attention in the press, on radio, and so on.
What aspects of the music industry would you most like to change?
I would like people at radio to play exactly what they want to, just because they love it. In the 50s and 60s, you got airplay because of a voice and a great song. Today, 50% or more of it is down to marketing, and it's less about the artist and the song. People really should base their judgements on songs.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The Ivor Novello Awards this year were particularly memorable. Being in the studio with Steve Lillywhite: he's a legend, and working on and discussing tracks in the studio with him was really good.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
I'd like to be the head of the A&R department here or at a small record label, the head of a record label, or even perhaps go into management.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...