Interview with MICHAEL TAYLOR, A&R at Sony Australia for Delta Goodrem (5x platinum AUS, UK platinum) - Sep 11, 2003
“Pop Idol artists are an instant fix—they sell records, but they’re not going to be around for very long.”
Michael Taylor is based in Sydney, Australia and acts as A&R at Sony Australia to the new star Delta Goodrem (five times platinum in Australia and platinum in the UK), and the rock band Something For Kate (platinum in Australia).
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I initially played the drums in various bands and then I went on to book the pub at my university. I bought a lot of shows from the major talent agencies and I met one of the guys at the William Morris Agency, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world, and he offered me a position. I joined them when I left school; I was an agent trainee, pushing the mailcart and making very little money.
Still, it was great opportunity to really learn the business. I worked there for about five years, then went to Sony as an assistant A&R at Columbia Records. From there, I went to Maverick as an A&R manager at the New York office, where I stayed for about five years, and then I was offered a position at Sony International’s Australian office.
What experiences have helped you develop your A&R skills?
Playing in a band for as many years as I did has given me a different perspective and an understanding of what artists go through when they are on the road or making a record. I feel I have the ability to see both sides of the process now.
What types of artists do you generally look for?
At Sony Music Australia, we sign all genres, but I predominantly look for pop and rock.
Who are you currently working with?
I A&Red the Delta Goodrem album, which is almost six times platinum in Australia and was a No.1 record for over fifteen weeks, as well as platinum in the UK, where it entered at No.2. It's quite a big record for us down here and it's now being released in other territories, such as Europe and Asia. I recently signed and made an album with a really heavy rock band named Jerk (clickable artist or track names open Real Audio files – Ed.). Sean Beavan, who has worked with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, produced and mixed it.
I work with rock band Something For Kate, and I also just did a record with a band called Lo-tel, who make very melodic rock, in the vein of Coldplay perhaps. I have a roster of seventeen artists in total, so there are quite a few albums being made and we will probably have about ten releases by local artists this year.
How did you first learn about Delta Goodrem?
Delta was signed at the age of fifteen by Denis Handlin, Chairman and CEO of Sony Music Australia, prior to my coming to Sony Australia. She hadn't really put out anything in terms of records, just one single, but they had taken it in a very Britney Spears direction and ultimately it wasn't really her or how she wanted to be seen. Therefore, when I came aboard as her A&R, I spent a lot of time working with Delta to assist her in taking her music in a direction that was much more suited to her vision for the record. Delta is eighteen now, so she spent a period of about two and a half years writing songs and finding her musical voice.
How important was it that she was also a songwriter?
It was a terrific strength that we felt we had to make sure we played to. She is a fantastic songwriter and she has written or co-written most of the album, including her biggest hit, “Born To Try”. Her songwriting is what’s going to give her career longevity.
What had she done before Sony signed her?
She was very young when Glenn Wheatley, her manager, first spotted her and she needed to develop on her own for a while. It was a matter of seeing talent early, as Glenn and Denis did, and then giving it time to develop naturally before putting it out on the market. The difference between fourteen and eighteen years old is huge when it comes to singing and songwriting skills.
What happened after Sony signed her?
From the age of fourteen to the time when she made the record at seventeen, she worked with different writers, producers and vocal trainers. She used several producers for the album: Rick Wake on "Born to Try", John Fields on "Innocent Eyes", which was a No.1 single, and Matthew Gerrard on "Lost Without You", also a No.1 single. There are six producers on the album, although we only used one mixing engineer, Michael Brauer, who gave it a cohesive sound.
Through the A&R process, she began to find her musical voice, and she felt that sitting at the piano playing songs that she had written was really the best way for her to perform her music. It was a process of finding direction: I spent many hours sitting with her at the piano, talking about the artists she liked, the kind of music she wanted to make, and her songs in general. We, as a record label, never chose the direction for her, but I did work with her closely to help her find it. The crucial factor in her development was just giving it the time it needed.
At what point did the International A&R department in New York get involved?
Quite early on. David Massey, Executive Vice President of A&R, Sony Music Entertainment (interview here), heard Delta in the early stages, when she was demoing for the album, and was very excited about it. We also played stuff early on to the UK company and to Tommy Mottola, then CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, who was also excited by what he heard and provided guidance.
She was signed by the Australian company and she is Australian, so it was natural to start here first, although as we were setting up the record in Australia, we were also setting it up in the UK. We were confident that we were going to achieve success in that market as well. It was a real team effort when it came to breaking her internationally, and it involved a wide range of people.
What was instrumental in breaking Delta?
Ultimately, great songs and the fact that people connected with her as an artist. She had some exposure on Neighbours, the TV show, but other artists have had that exposure too and they haven't been successful. I’d rather put faith in the fact that the songs are great and she's a great artist, and that’s why it connected.
How do you find new talent?
I have a network of people whom I speak to regularly, mainly producers, musicians and concert bookers. I hear what people are excited about and I check it out early.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we do. We probably get about fifty to seventy demos a week. It takes time, but we listen to everything. I haven't found anything from unsolicited demos yet, but having said that it’s important to listen to know what's going on.
What do you look for in an artist?
Like many A&R people, I look for three qualities: great songs, great performing ability, and a bit of the “magic” factor. Finding an artist who has those three things is very exciting.
How important are factors such as local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
We certainly look at all those things, although case by case. Sometimes a brand new artist won’t have sold any records, never made a record even, but you see something special. It's a gut reaction. Then you’ll have an artist who's selling out shows, selling a lot of records independently, getting airplay and doing it on their own. That's equally exciting and those are also reasons to chase an artist.
How heavily does international potential weigh in the balance when you are deciding whether or not to sign a new Australian artist?
I've done A&R in the US and in Australia, and everyone is always looking for the same type of artists: artists who are going to really excite you and make records that you feel will excite other people and that will ultimately sell well. When I sign an artist, therefore, I'm looking for someone who I'm really excited about and who I think has great potential. Some artists will be limited to Australia, and some are going to be internationally successful. It's really about the growth that occurs after the record is made.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write their own songs?
It depends on the genre. It's essential for rock artists to write great songs, whereas it’s not always necessary for pop artists.
How common is it for you to do demo and development deals?
I usually have at least one going at any given time. New talent needs to be developed and money has to be spent on young artists.
How often do they lead to a signing?
It depends on the work the artists do. There isn't a ratio that I can apply.
Does the popularity of TV shows such as Popstars and the media attention that their artists receive make it more difficult to break other types of artists?
Yes and no. Artists who come from Pop Idol and similar shows often debut at No.1 on the charts with their singles, but they rarely have long-term careers. Most of the artists I work with aren't from TV shows and if their records don’t debut in the Top 40 that’s fine, because we just keep working at it. Ultimately, those Pop Idol artists are an instant fix—they sell records, but they’re not going to be around for very long.
What do you think of these TV shows?
I find them difficult to watch, because it's like going through a bad batch of demos. In the end, viewers will get tired of watching these shows, but there's still some life in them, so they will still be around for a couple of years.
As an A&R representative, how involved are you in the negotiation of the record contract with an artist you want to sign?
I'm quite involved in terms of meeting the Business Affairs staff and discussing the parameters that I think should be established before signing the artist. The director of Business Affairs then negotiates the deal with the artist’s attorney. We might only sign one or two artists over the course of a year, so I certainly keep very involved in the negotiation process to see if I can assist in any way.
How much does it usually cost to record an album and then market and promote it in Australia?
It varies, just as much as it varies in the US. Our budgets are certainly not as big as they are in the US, because our sales base is different: platinum in Australia is 70,000, whereas it’s one million in the US.
What aspect of the industry do you feel is in need of drastic change?
I would love to be able to solve the current downloading and piracy dilemmas. Not only would that be great for the industry—it would also make me a millionaire!
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
There was an event this year, the ARIA No.1 Awards, (ARIA is the Australian equivalent of the RIAA - Ed.), where Delta received a total of four No.1 awards, for the album and the three singles, and it was great to be with her on that day to see that success.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
I’d love to still be doing A&R, making great records and being successful with my artists.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman