Interview - Dec 17, 2004
“You may be the best artist in the world, but if your demo doesn’t sound right, then you’re going to have a hard time getting signed.”Lars Halvor Jensen is part of DEEKAY Music, a songwriting and production team based in Copenhagen, Denmark. The artists he and the DEEKAY team have worked with include Samantha Mumba (UK Top 10) and S Club (UK Top 10).
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a producer?
I kind of stumbled into it, because after my military service I had six months to spare before starting business school. I decided to try music, so I went to a school where you could live for five months and take various courses. Then I ran into my current business partner, Martin Larsson, and a girl named Christina Undhjem, and we started a band called You Know Who.
We started working together in the summer and we were signed to Universal Denmark later that year. We did really well; the album went platinum here in Denmark. But Martin and I felt that we wanted to devote more of our energy to songwriting and production. It was fun being on stage, but doing hundreds of interviews was a bit of a waste of time for us; we just loved being in the studio.
We started a company called P.O.P. Productions in 1997, which was later renamed DEEKAY Music, and we signed a publishing deal with Rondor in the UK, then the biggest independent publisher. We felt that Danish publishers were very inactive and that they couldn’t take us any further. After that, we started working with loads of different acts.
What important events have led you forward?
We ran into Asylum Management’s Steve Gilmour, our manager, in 1999. We were working with one of his writers, John McLaughlin, and when Steve heard our material he flew to Copenhagen to tell us that he wanted to manage us, and we fell for his enthusiasm and persistence.
At what point were you able to live off writing and producing?
It’s really hard to make a living here if you just work with local acts, so we weren´t able to make a living out of it until we started getting the bigger cuts, like Samantha Mumba and Mis-Teeq. Also, when we signed our publishing deal in the UK, in 1999, we obviously got an advance that we were able to live on.
What is DEEKAY Music?
It’s a production and publishing company. We also sign artists to the production company, so we have three branches, if you will: working with outside acts/labels, our own artists, and the publishing division, to which we have signed two writer/producers so far, Obi and Josh. They come from an urban and rock background respectively, whereas Martin and I come from more of a pop background.
Consequently, we´re able to mix our influences and draw on each others strengths which means we can do any style from pop and rock to r&b. Obi and Josh just did a track for the new Lemar album, which is already platinum in the UK, while Martin and I had a hit this year, “Breathe Easy”, with Blue, for whom I also did “Bubblin´” together with Josh. We all work together and our versatility is probably our biggest strength.
Why did you sign to Rondor (who were bought by Universal in 2000 – Ed.)?
We decided to go to London and of the six meetings we had there, we came back with four publishing offers. One of those offers was from Marc Sher at Rondor. Every choice we’ve made regarding whom to work with has been based on the person and not so much on whether it was a big company or the amount of money we could get.
It was always about the person that we would be working with, and Marc is one of the best publishers in the UK. That’s why we signed to Rondor, because of Marc.
How did you come to work with Blue?
Through the persistence of our manager, because he kept knocking on doors and kept telling Hugh Goldsmith that he should give us a chance. In the end, Hugh said we could have two days with Antony and Lee to see what we could come up with. We wrote “Bubblin’”, “Breathe Easy” and “Back It Up”, which all made the “Guilty” album. That was a good week!
What are you currently working on?
We’ve just signed an artist called Derek McDonald and we’re working on his album. We’ve done a deal with Universal in the UK for him. We’re developing our own girl band, called I.D. They’re going to do showcases for record companies over the next couple of months.
It’s important to develop your own artists, because you can get your ideas across, you don’t have to satisfy an A&R, and you get so much more out of it if you succeed. You don’t just work with acts that are already successful, you break acts, and you also earn a lot more financially. It’s hard to make money producing acts for labels because the deals they give you aren’t always the best in the world.
What makes you take on a production?
We usually write the song first; it’s rare that we just do a production. Above all, it has to be a good artist. It has to be someone we can get into, and someone whom we feel could be really big. We always prefer to work with artists in the studio, because then there’s chemistry and, instead of having to guess what they want, you can just ask them. The most important thing is for you to be able to hear their voice on the tracks right away.
You can also change direction as you go along if you think that they’re not feeling it. Like “Breathe Easy”, which we wrote with Lee from Blue: we would have never written that song had Lee not been there. The record company had told us not to write any ballads, because they already had too many, but Lee said that he really wanted to write one, and we said okay.
We spent an afternoon writing it and by the evening we had “Breathe Easy”, which went on to become their biggest single in Italy ever and one of their biggest in Europe.
If you don’t work directly with the artist, you usually work to a brief from the record company. Sometimes, however, you have to break that brief, because that’s when the magic happens.
How much input do A&Rs and managers generally have on the productions?
It depends: sometimes we come up with something that turns out to be exactly how they wanted it, but other times they have a different idea, and that can be a tricky situation. We want to do what we feel is right, but they’re paying for the production. It’s a balance between the two: we need to please them, of course, it’s their money, it’s their artist, but we try to push our ideas as far as we can.
We do listen to them and sometimes it turns out that they’re right, because we’re so deeply involved in the production that we don’t always see things as clearly as someone who is hearing the track for the first time.
How good does the production of a demo that is being pitched to A&Rs and managers have to be?
It’s very important that the demo is of a very high quality. When we do demos, they’re practically masters. The old days of pitching a song and then finding a producer are gone.
Now the song and the production have to be one package, so that the A&R can just say yes or no. We take it all the way and do our very best on the demos, because you can’t sell a song today if it doesn’t sound as it should.
You prefer to write specifically for and with artists?
We used to write more in general terms, but now we usually work directly with the artists. We do sometimes get an idea for a song and we write it without having a clue of where it’s going to end up. Usually those songs have something special and they get picked up at some point; they’re never wasted.
Who are your most useful contacts for writing assignments and production work?
Definitely our management. They’re the ones who have the meetings, play the songs to people, and all that. And obviously, we ourselves are building a big network as well and locally we’re getting all the work. But for the UK, our management is present there and that’s how we get the work there.
Do you have any tips on writing lyrics?
It’s very important to find a memorable title. I browse the Web and magazines and every time I hit a word or a phrase that I think looks catchy, I write it down and put it in my ideas notebook. ‘Bubblin’’ was a word I had found a long time ago on the Internet and I thought it would be a great title, so I saved it in my notebook.
How important is it for the verses to also feature recurrent hooks?
It’s always important to have that one hook that stands out, that you just can’t help but remember. The chorus will always be the most important section but the verse and the pre-chorus also need hooks.
Take Jamelia’s “Superstar”, for example. The first words in the first verse, “People always talk about… ay-oh, ay-oh, ay-oh”, there’s a hook there already. That kind of song will definitely be more prominent in the future.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and we always listen to it. My view is to never underestimate anyone. History shows us that you should never close your eyes to anyone, no matter what level they’re at. They might have something that you could learn from or that you could use.
Is contacting producers and sending them demos a potential way into the business for aspiring artists?
It could be, if your material is of a high quality. A producer’s response might also be useful if he or she tells you what you need to work on.
What do artists need to learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building successful careers?
They need to know how the business works, including how contracts work and the whole process of making a song, from writing it to producing the master. You may be the best artist in the world, but if your demo doesn’t sound right, then you’re going to have a hard time getting signed.
What advice would you give artists on how to get started?
HitQuarters is a good place to find other artists and production companies. The best thing for a new artist is to hook up with a production company and work as a team. If you’re a singer, you could offer your vocals for demos, maybe even for free, just to get your voice heard.
That way, you’re doing the producers a favour and they are doing you a favour, because you then have material that you can present.
Can you offer unsigned songwriters some words of advice on publishing contracts?
Before signing a publishing deal, there are a few points to consider. Remember that, whilst it’s good to get an advance, it’s basically a loan. What you do need to know is the percentage you have to give away in order to get your songs published, how long the deal is for, and whether there are any hidden suspension periods.
There’s also what we call the retention period, which means how long the publisher owns the songs for after the deal has ended. It shouldn’t be longer than fifteen years. The most important thing, however, is finding the right person to work with, and to get that person included in the deal, a “key-man clause”, as it’s called.
Basically, that means that if that person leaves the company, you have the option to do so as well. However, this is a tough one to get on your first publishing deal.
What is your opinion about putting songs on hold?
It’s rare that we put songs on hold, but it does depend on the project. With a big project, you will probably give them more time, but if it’s a smaller project you can’t afford to have the song sitting there for too long. When we get stuff on hold, we don’t stop working the song. If you feel that it’s a good song, you don’t want it to just sit there. We’ve been around long enough to know that most holds don’t lead to anything.
Should there be a standard contract that stipulates rates and time periods for holds?
That would be good, as you would then know right away if people meant something or not. Right now, you can put a song on hold for nothing and then you don’t really know whether they want the song or whether they just doing it to keep it from other people.
We think that producers should organise themselves into a union, so that we can negotiate better deals and contracts. As it stands, we’re pretty weak, because we’re each working individually, and we don’t have the power to force anything through.
Do you ever have to give up some of the publishing to get a song placed with a big artist?
Yes, that happens.
What aspects of the industry would you change?
I would take a good, long look at recording and production agreements, because I think that the way they’re structured is not fair on the artist or the producer. There are so many clauses, in every recording agreement, that work against artists and producers.
I know record companies are putting up the money for the production, but they’re making both the producer and the artist pay for it in the end, if they’re successful, and the amount of money that the artists and producers end up getting is very small compared to what the record companies earn. Artists should have the rights to at least part of the masters if they have to pay for them.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
To watch “Breathe Easy” being performed in front of one hundred thousand people in London last summer. To see people singing along to one of your songs is just magic; I can’t describe it!
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Writing even better songs and making even better productions. I see myself in charge of a big production company with about ten writer/producers, keeping the quality at the very highest. We’re working hard, but it’s what I love the most, and I simply can’t see myself doing anything else.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman