Interview with DARCUS BEESE, A&R at Island for Amy Winehouse, Sugababes - Feb 23, 2004
“Amy Winehouse is a law unto herself and I don't A&R her in the way I A&R the Sugababes.”
As senior A&R manager at Universal/Island UK, Darcus Beese looks after artists including girl group Sugababes and exciting new R&B/soul/jazz singer Amy Winehouse.
Here the London-based A&R tells us how when he first discovered Winehouse she being kept a closely guarded secret, he also talks about how she was signed to Island and first introduced into the public sphere, and how the English singer-songwriter talent is being embraced as a ‘genuine artist’ by a market scarred by pop reality show stars.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started in 1989 and my first job was in promotion. A friend told me that there was a job going as an assistant in the promotion department at Island Records in London - this was when it was still an independent label. For about a year, I did mail-outs, made people tea and collected their dry cleaning.
Even though I was the tea boy, I would make sure that whenever the Island bands were playing, I went to see them and I would also go along with the A&R guys to see up and coming bands, so our MD at the time, Clive Banks, thought that I would be good in A&R. I also worked for Big Life Records for three years in-between my stints at Island.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
There's a saying that I’ve picked up along the way: “If you stay on the pitch, play well and stay on it long enough, you'll score.” I came up at a time when the development of artists was key. Working at Island allowed me to see all the good and bad things that could happen. I’ve seen many changes: Polygram buying Island, the merger of Universal and Seagram, changes in staff, but I’ve managed to stand the test of time.
People here saw potential in me and showed me the way. I also came up under brilliant bosses from Lucian Grainge, Nick Gatfield (HQ interview) and Marc Marot to Jazz Summers and Tim Parry
What acts are you currently working on?
My current acts are Sugababes, Amy Winehouse, and a recently signed artist called Taylor, who might be described as a mixture of Justin Timberlake and Daniel Bedingfield.
How did you first learn about Amy Winehouse?
I was sitting in my office one day when a producer/manager came in to see me. He managed the Lewinson Brothers, a team of producers who have since worked with Joss Stone and others. He played me their productions and suddenly this voice came on, and I asked, “Who the hell is that?!” and he said, “I can't tell you - it's something that we've done for 19 Management which we have to keep very quiet.” I said he’d have to tell me what it was, but he wouldn’t.
It took me months to find out who it was just by continually asking around. I called 19 Management, but they wouldn't return my telephone calls. Finally, I bumped into Felix Howard, who had been writing with the Sugababes, and he played me some songs that he'd been working on. I recognised the voice and asked him who it was and he said Amy Winehouse. All in all, it took me about six months to actually find her.
At that point, had she played live, released any independent records etc.?
She hadn't done anything - the management company had been developing her. She had quite a few songs down, although only a few of them actually made it onto the record. By the time I’d found her, she’d signed a publishing deal with EMI and through them she formed a relationship with Salaam Remi, which we carried through to the making of the record.
At what point did you decide to sign her and what was the ensuing process at Universal?
I wanted to sign her immediately, as soon as I heard her. I knew she was very talented and as soon as my boss, Nick Gatfield, met her, he said, “Let's get this girl signed!” At that point, interest in her had started to build up and people at EMI and Virgin were coming in. The management company quite rightly wanted to know that there was support from the top down.
How did you view the fact that the style of music that Amy makes is not very common in the charts?
My view is that for the past two or three years, there’s been a complete backlash to reality/music TV shows like Pop Idol, Fame Academy, and so on, and it has got to the point where people feel starved of great young talent. In the wake of that backlash, we're seeing genuine artists starting to come through now.
These new artists aren’t following the pop model, which is about penetrating the Top 5 as many times as possible with singles and then selling albums off that—they are actually album-driven artists.
How many of the songs on the album did she have when you first listened to her music?
Four or five songs from the original demos made the album, among them ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’, ‘In My Bed’ and ‘Take The Box’.
Who are the team around her?
Whilst the album was being made, the songwriters and producers Salaam Remi and Commissioner Gordon, obviously. They played a vital role in helping her shape her sound, which I think is completely her own sound.
The work on the songs and production was also influenced by 19 Management, with whom I worked very closely. They had managed her for two years prior to the recordings.
Has Amy written or co-written most of the tracks on the album?
Amy has written all of the tracks on the album, except the covers.
As an A&R, what does your work with Amy involve?
Amy is a law unto herself and I don't A&R her in the way I A&R the Sugababes. She is a singer-songwriter. She had a relationship with the producers who made the record and it wasn't something we needed to break up. She is very strong-willed and sometimes that’s frustrating, but that’s how it is when you're dealing with potentially great artists who are very confident in what they're doing.
How did you tackle marketing and promotion?
As far as marketing is concerned, we made sure it was very organic - your first 20 or 30,000 copies have to be especially organic. Our first ever gig sold out to about 1,500 people, and those first 1,500 were the most important people of the campaign, because that’s what we were going to build upon.
We knew that if we could reach the first 20,000 buyers, they would be real Amy fans and they would establish her fanbase. We also had phenomenal press. Out of all the Katie Meluas and the Joss Stoneses, we rolled it out really early.
Did you get her on radio and TV?
It's a very hard act to program on radio, so we didn't get radio except for Radio 2, who supported her right from the start. That helped us to get the album to where we wanted it to be, because Radio 2 listeners are generally album buyers. We're at stage two of the project now, which is getting it onto radio and opening it up even more.
We didn't have much TV initially. We made a video for the first single, ‘Stronger Than Me’, which in hindsight we shouldn't have done. We didn't make a video for the second single, ‘Take The Box’, because you can't put it straight on Kids TV, MTV, etc., and the Later with Jools Holland show only runs for a certain amount of time.
From a marketing point of view, we looked at acts like Norah Jones, who never had a hit single but still sold millions of records. Initially, therefore, we didn't want to go chasing singles when she's not a singles act, but obviously the right radio single will allow us to open up the album to radio more.
Has she toured in support of the album?
Yes, we did a sold-out tour to support the album, which did help to break her.
Did her two Brit Awards nominations this year, for British Female Solo Artist and British Urban Act, come as a surprise to you?
Yes and no. No, because she is a major talent, and major talent always sticks out a mile. Yes, because I didn't think we’d get it so quickly. However, it’s always easy to get a nomination in the female category because there aren’t ever lots of brilliant female artists all doing something at the same time. I know Dido is going to win it (Darcus Beese was interviewed before the Awards ceremony – Ed.), but I'm happy that Amy was nominated.
What is your opinion of the Brit Awards?
They're brilliant at gaining artists recognition - that’s been proven. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don't, but in any case we need the Brits. There are great nominations this year, including Dizzee Rascal, The Darkness, Amy Winehouse and Busted, and the nominations are spread out, so it’s not as one-dimensional as it has been before.
How do you find new talent?
It's the network that you build up, and the respect that people have for you as a person and for the label that will get you the early calls. It takes years to gain people’s respect and to build that network, whereas if you’re out one night and see something, that’s just luck.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes and no. I do try to listen to unsolicited demos, although it’s easier for me if they're solicited. I tend to get mp3s from people rather than demos by post now, or people try to get me to listen to stuff on the Internet, which is actually quite easy, because I can just click on it, have a listen, and if I don't like it, quickly e-mail back to say that it’s not for me.
What traits must artists have for you to show an interest in signing them?
To state it exactly would be a cliché, so I won’t do that. If you look at a lot of pop artists, you can't say that those people have natural talent; you will say that they're manufactured and manipulated. The acts that I like to get involved in have a natural, strong talent.
Whether they will become stars, I don't know, because you can never tell the future may bring, but you do always need something to work with from the very first instance, a raw talent that is intrinsic to the artist. Unless you're working with a Timbaland and he walks through the door with his new act.
Would you work with acts from outside the UK?
Can you break artists without radio support?
I take radio very much into account. If I'm dealing with the Sugababes, radio is paramount, because the Sugababes follow the pop model and the pop model is TV, airplay and heavy marketing.
With Amy, the marketing was very much organic; grow radio and TV to the point where she walks on TV and does a Parkinson Show. Before you do Michael Parkinson, the general public doesn't know about you, but you do one Parkinson and all of a sudden the whole nation knows you. You do however have to do that at the right time.
How much of an influence do you usually have on production?
I'm an A&R man, so I necessarily have an input and I'm very much a studio head. Sometimes though you let the producer and the artist run, because what they're doing is great and they're on the right track. At other times it doesn't work like that and you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. With Amy, the day-to-day A&R work is less hectic than it is with the Sugababes, which is very hands-on.
Are the escalating costs of releasing a record to be blamed for the fact that many artists get dropped when their first album is not successful?
Yes, that is the business we're in. When you look at what you’ve spent over the duration of a campaign with an act, you have to make the right decisions about going forward, both for the act and for the label. If the cons outweigh the pros, then it becomes a business decision and not a creative one.
Does the fact that the label expects a return on the first album affect the work of A&Rs and the type of artists that they look for?
If you're going to go in there with a pop act, then you're going to run the risk of coming out on the other side saying, “This didn't work; see you later.” If you're dealing with an organic groove like Amy, you spend the money but you know that you can move forward with the act. We know that America will love her. We know that there are pockets of Europe that have taken to her. We know that here it’s already well on its way.
All we have to do to get to where we need to be in terms of record sales is take it a step further with the next album. But this only works with artists whom you know you can move forward, because there is a place for them to go to. In pop, you know where you're going to be from the first chart position.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Having my first No.1, which was with the Sugababes. Everybody thought that I would fail with them after Warner had dropped them, and the way we did it was brilliant. Another great moment was seeing Amy break as a real artist.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Having a piece of the pie, whether that involves going into business myself or working for Island, a company I love ...
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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