Interview with JOHN WOODRUFF, A&R at JWM Productions, Australia for Darren Hayes (US Top 40), Savage Garden (US multi-plat) - Aug 31, 2004
"If you spend your whole life reading books about the business, youíll never get anywhere."John Woodruff, who is based in Sydney, Australia, was a manager for many years before he started his own record and publishing companies, to which he signed Savage Garden (US multi-platinum), and later Darren Hayes (US Top 40), from Savage Garden.
Here he discusses a variety of topics, including newly signed artists, what matters most after the music, why independent labels are flourishing and who should own the masters.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started out in management and I had a bunch of Australian bands who were very successful, mainly in the domestic market. My first band, the rock band the Angels, were massive in Australia, and then I had Icehouse, a band who broke in Europe, the UK and the US. We toured Europe with Bowie for a long time.
Later, I put together a band called the Baby Animals, who toured extensively in Europe and the US, and another band called Johnny Diesel and the Injectors, who broke big here in Australia.
After that, I decided that I was probably getting a bit old for management; I didnít feel I had the strength to get out there and do it all over again, but I wanted to sign the next band I worked with to a record deal and a publishing deal and manage them until they had a Top 10 hit in the US.
After that, I would find a decent manager for them, because without that chart hit, there would be no chance of them signing to a manager who was good enough.
What experiences have had a significant impact on your music business skills?
I donít think anything can substitute the experience of actually living with a band on the road. Apart from that, the problems that I had with the deal I did for the Angels with a company called Alberts had a profound influence on me. Theyíre a very respected company in Australia; they still have AC/DC, and it was sort of like a family company back then.
The problem was that they signed the band for the world, but they only had a company in Australia. It took me a long time to extract the band from that situation and get them signed to Epic.
That taught me the biggest lesson Iíve ever learnt: only sign a band to the territory where the record label wants them, is prepared to pay for them, and is prepared to put out the record. If you donít get that commitment to that territory, then donít give that territory away in order to release the record in another territory.
A third big influence was putting together the managersí forum, which has now become the International Music Managersí Forum. Two other guys and I started it in Sydney. We wanted it to be an organisation where managers could get together and, instead of saying to each other that everything is fantastic, which is what managers always say to everybody, discuss aspects of the business critically. It gave managers some power to negotiate deals, which has been very empowering for the whole business.
What companies do you have and what types of companies are they?
I have a record label called Fine Cut Records, and the first record Iím releasing through it is Darren Hayesí new album (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files Ė Ed.), which we are releasing in Australia. I have a production company, JWM Productions, which makes records and releases them to other labels. Thatís the company Savage Garden were signed to, and there are a number of bands signed to it at the moment.
I also have a publishing company called Rough Cut Music, which specialises in the Australian market and has a really good catalogue, even internationally. Thatís the company I use to develop most of the young bands Iím working with.
Then I have three magazines: Music Network, the only music industry magazine in Australia; Canadian Music Network, the only music industry magazine in Canada; and another magazine called Canadian Entertainment Network that deals with DVD more than music.
My wife, , also works in the company. Sheís the biggest music supervisor in Australia: she did ďThe PianoĒ, ďThe Quiet AmericanĒ and ďBabeĒ, the movie about the pig. Sheís done most of the big Australian films.
You donít manage artists anymore?
No, but I have a couple of young people working with me who manage a couple of bands. Managing artists is a young personís job. To do that, you have to be a lot more resilient and not quite as cynical as I am. But I do spend a lot of time mentoring bands and using the contacts I have to get them deals around the world.
What artists are you currently working with?
Evermore, a band from New Zealand, are having their first hit in Australia and thereís a lot of interest from Warner in the US.
The Butterfly Effect are a full-on hard rock band. Weíve done an album with them and theyíre about to embark on a basic tour in Europe and the UK.
Thereís a rock band called Small Mercy, whom we are making a record with at the moment. Theyíve just released an independent EP, and itís still early days for them. They come from Brisbane and we have high hopes for them, but theyíre just starting out on the road and thereís no story at this point.
Thereís a brilliant punk band called Kiss Chasy, who are signed to a small independent label called Below Par Records. Thereís a huge buzz around the band here at the moment; theyíre the current darlings of the music business. Again, theyíre on their second EP, theyíre on the road, and itís very early days.
Iím working with Darren Hayes and with Daniel Jones, the guys who were once Savage Garden. Daniel is producing an album for a young female artist in his studio in Brisbane, and Darren lives in London at the moment and is soon to be releasing his new album.
Do you work with your artists as an A&R or publisher?
It differs from band to band. Generally, I have the publishing as a development idea. If the whole thing works, theyíll earn the same, if not a better, royalty rate with me as with other publishers, because itís all about how many records you sell, not about the size of the advance.
However, if they need help getting there, then Iím there to do it. I spend a lot of time talking to the young managers about how theyíre going to go about attacking the world marketplace, what singles they should release, getting producers for the bands, taking the managers around the globe and introducing them to the people I know.
Obviously, over the years, Iíve come to know most of the older players, if you like, in the music business, who are now running the companies.
Are you currently looking for songs for any of your artists?
We tend to be sellers of songs. Darren, for example, has songs on four or five major albums. He has a big song on the American Idol album and he has a song on the new Backstreet Boys album. Darren is admired as a songwriter the world over, so we spend a lot of time selling songs.
Because I have the publishing for most of the artists Iím involved with, Iím much keener on making sure that they write their own songs as opposed to using somebody elseís.
What are the pros and cons of being based in Australia and working with an international artist, Darren Hayes?
The pro, really, is living here. I wouldnít want to live anywhere else; it is about the most gorgeous place in the world, although it is a long way away from anywhere else. Unless I was prepared to take that flight at any time, it wouldnít work. Most people arenít prepared to do it, or they say they are, but theyíll go next weekóthatís just not going to work.
I have an apartment in New York and I have places to stay in London. I have a bag packed at the front door the whole time, so if thereís a call from one of the artists or one of the labels Iím working with and they say they have a problem, I can be in Manhattan in a day to be at that meeting.
If you think about it, if youíre an A&R rep at an American record company who can sign a band from Idaho, who are in the same time zone and whom you can talk to every day, as opposed to a band from Australia whom you can talk to every week and who are going to take you four weeks and USD10,000 to get them to the US, itís a pretty big hurdle to jump.
How did you first learn about Savage Garden?
They sent me a cassette tape. I think they sent out about 150 of them, and I think two of us replied. Actually, I didnít reply: I got on a plane to Brisbane and the next day I rang them up and asked where they were so we could talk. Thatís how it happens. Then I brought them to Sydney, borrowed some money on my house and made the record.
How did you initially spark interest in the band in the US?
I went to the US as part of a trip around the world to sell the album, but I honestly thought that the deal was going to happen in Scandinavia. The first single, ďI Want YouĒ, sounded like Roxette to me. At the time, America was very much embedded in the Seattle grunge era, Nirvana and all those bands.
At that point, no pop bands were being successful anywhere in the world, not even in England so I felt that it was probably going to be a Scandinavian thing. It turned out that about half of the American companies I had contact with passed on them, but the other half of them started bidding and we ended up with a pretty severe bidding war there.
Meanwhile, Guy Zapoleon, a radio consultant who used to programme a bunch of stations in the US, happened to be in Australia for a convention. He heard ďI Want YouĒ on the radio, made copies of it for the radio stations he programmed and they started hammering it. That helped us with the deal and we ended up signing to Columbia/Sony.
Savage Garden were signed to your label, as Darren Hayes now is, and you license their material to Columbia. Some see this type of arrangement as the future model for independent and major labels, that is, the independent label finds and develops the artist and the major label sells the records. What are your experiences from working in this way?
Itís the model for the future, absolutely. The industry started to recede a couple of years ago and the first people that major labels and major distributors got rid of were the development people, the A&R reps. Very few of those people are left and, as a result of label mergers, thereís going to be even less of them.
Every time a merger happens, independent labels and production companies flourish. The top three singles in this weekís Australian chart are all Australian acts signed to independent production companies. One of is self-distributed and majors distribute the other two, but theyíre all independent.
Itís definitely the way of the world and weíll see more of that until some of these independent companies get big enough and labels recover their health and buy them out in exactly the same way they did ten years ago.
Will major record labels increasingly license the finished product from independent labels and production companies rather than develop artists from scratch?
Absolutely. Major labels canít do anything else, because they donít have the development people, the time or the money. They want somebody else to take the front-end risk, to draw up the plan and develop the band so they know exactly what theyíre getting.
In fact, I had a conversation with the managing director of an Australian record company and another managing director in the US, and when I asked them what sort of bands they were signing at that moment, their answer stopped me dead in my tracks: ďAnyone with a planĒ.
How much input do you have on the songwriting and production?
In the end, itís up to the artist. I have a favourite line that I say to artists: ďYouíre in charge of fascination, and Iím in charge of bullshit.Ē Their job is to fascinate by standing up and doing what they do, which is the very reason why I fell in love with them in the first place. Artists need the encouragement of someone sitting behind them saying, ďKeep going. This is your job. Youíre doing your gig. Just do it.Ē
That has become a problem for major labels, and thatís one of the reasons why the market has been moving backwards, because they ended up with a formula: ďIf you make a song that sounds like this, we can get it into that format.Ē After a while, the public stopped buying it.
How do you find new talent?
Mostly from the demos that are sent to me. I figure that if the music doesnít get me, then nothing else will. I listen to everything that I getóIím one of the few people I know who actually listens to absolutely everything. Either it grabs you or it doesnít.
As I often say to bands, because I reply to them all, if I donít like it, it doesnít mean that thereís anything wrong with it, itís just that the music and me are not going to work together as a formula, so itís got to be someone else.
A very wise guy in the music business once said to me, ďNever regret passing on something that worked, the only thing you should ever regret is the fact that you never got a chance at something that worked.Ē I think he was right. Iíve passed on many things that have worked, and I guess everybody I know in the business has.
Youíre in the wrong mood, itís not your kind of music, youíre having a bad day, you didnít hear the right track; whatever it is, it wasnít meant to be and itís probably just as well that you didnít struggle to like it. Every time Iíve struggled to fall in love with music, Iíve made a mistake.
How many demos, whether solicited or otherwise, do you get per week?
In a big week, one hundred demos. In a small week, twenty.
What types of artists and music are you looking for?
Itís really hard to say, because I started out managing hardcore rock bands and I ended up managing one of the biggest pop bands in the world. It just depends on whatever style of music gets you at the time. Audiences are not stupid. They need fascination, they need something thatís unique and different; consequently, Iím always looking for something thatís unique and different, just as everybody else is.
Is that just Australian artists?
No, but itís harder when itís a foreign artist. This is where I want to live and, if we were to go through a development period, it would be nice if they were here. Then again, technology has reached a point where, for example, when one of my artists makes a record in Maryland, US, or in London, which is happening this year, I donít actually have to go there. We have a secure FTP site that they upload the mixes to, so I go there and listen to the tracks.
How important are factors such as local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base when you are considering signing an artist?
Generally, I sign acts before they have anything happening. Itís important to me that they can play, but after the music, by far the most important thing to me is what they are like as people.
I once asked Roger Davies, a friend of mine who manages Pink, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson, what it was that influenced him when it came to signing artists. He said, ďI have a simple test. I ask myself whether I would want this person to come home for dinner with the family, and if the answer is no, then I donít sign them.Ē
Quite often thatís the first thing me and the artists get stuck on. I hear a CD, I get really excited, I call the band, I go to whatever city theyíre in to sit down and have a chat with them, and within half an hour I go, ďEr, not for me.Ē
Is it necessary to devise strategies to raise the publicís and the mediaís awareness of your newly signed artists?
Yes, of course it is, but itís a different strategy every time. One strategy isnít going to work for every band. The Baby Animals are a case in point. When I signed them, I had released 75 albums in Australia by various artists and 74 of them had gone platinum or multi-platinum, but I couldnít get any of the record companies to listen to this band or come to a showcase, so I booked them at a late-night venue in Kingís Cross, a residency where music industry people used to go and hang out really late at night after work, and they became massive.
Three weeks later, the venue was sold-out and the industry was completely buzzing about the band. Thatís how they broke. Iíd never done that with any other band, so it just depends on whatís happening with the band at that moment, place and time.
What should aspiring artists learn more about in order to stand a better chance of building a successful career in the music business?
They have to learn one fundamental lesson right from the start, which is the fact that the only thing there is, is fascination. You donít own anything, but you can make an income from selling tickets, records, T-shirts and songs. Thereís no other way for you to make an income, but all of that involves having some fascination factor, which is the reason why somebody would want to buy a piece of you.
If you spend your whole life reading books about the business, youíll never get anywhere. Spend your life being an artist, try to be fascinating and try to come up with something thatís your art, and youíll get somewhere. Ninety-nine percent of the artists I meet think that theyíre not being smart enough in the business. They think they havenít learnt enough, that they donít know enough people, and that they canít find the right manager.
Australia is a perfect example: Chris Murphyís first band was INXS, Glenn Wheatleyís first band was Little River Band, the Angels were my first band, and Gary Morrisonís first band was Midnight Oil. What did any of us know?! We knew nothing about this. They were just fascinating bands who wanted something as much as they did.
It wasnít a matter of whom they knew or what they knew; it was a matter of what they needed. Thatís the biggest mistake that most bands make. If I had AUD500 to invest in a new band, Iíd spend it on making 500 copies of a CD and sending it to 500 people. If you donít get them with your music, you wonít get them with anything. People ascribe way too much mystery to this business.
How ready-to-go must artists be before they are presented to labels, especially major labels?
You certainly have to be an artist who understands fascination, but you donít need to have all the other bits and pieces. For example, if I get a demo with a cover on it, I pay less attention to it than I would a demo CD with handwriting on it.
Making a cover is a complete waste of time. If they have those two hours to kill, they should be making whatís on the CD better, because thatís all they have and thatís all we need.
Should labels that provide artists with tour support get a return from the touring income?
No. If they didnít think they could sell records or break a band off the back of a tour, they wouldnít give the band tour support. This whole troupe of labels and publishers who are trying to get involved with T-shirts and touring, it really is the thin end of the wedge.
The artist has four opportunities to make money and thatís one of them, and theyíre going to take it from them? Theyíre looking for a piece of the T-shirt, but what did they do to deserve it?
Is there a good business climate for independent labels?
Yes, I think itís really strong. I donít think the music business itself is strong at the moment, but if youíre going to do something in the music business right now, seeing the independent labels is the way to go. Recording costs are less than ever before and the chances of producing a decent final result are higher than they have ever been.
The possibility of getting a deal that is simply based on having a decent product is also bigger than ever, because none of the majors are making product. Theyíre just not making records; they donít have the staff to do it.
If artists share the costs of making the album, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also have joint ownership of the masters?
Yes, I do, but when I say joint ownership, that brings a whole different side of it into play. The problem is that you shouldnít be able to interfere with somebodyís right to exploit a record, if they have invested money in it, because when they made the record there was nothing happening. If youíre smart enough to see something that no one else sees, then you deserve to reap the rewards.
At the same time, I also believe that the artist should get a different deal once the costs have been recouped, as thereís no risk left in the equation. The deal should then change in favour of the artist, but not in favour of the artist being able to stop the label from exploiting the record. Thatís where ownership comes in.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Getting my first Billboard Top 10 hit with Icehouse and my first Billboard No. 1 were the two biggest moments. Both happened in the US, but itís just because itís the hardest and the biggest market in the world, so itís a bit like getting a gold medal in the Olympics.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
More sailing and less music business, but still pretty much the same thing.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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