Interview with SAM HELLEMANS, A&R for Danzel (Top 25 EUR) and breakthrough A&R for Kate Ryan (Top 20 EUR) at N.E.W.S. Belgium - Jul 7, 2004
"A new period is beginning in which the independent labels will play a very important role."Based in Ghent, Belgium, Sam Hellemans is an A&R at the independent dance label N.E.W.S. He previously worked at Antler-Subway, where he A&Red Kate Ryan (European Top 20), and he currently works with Danzel (Top 10 in France, Italy and Belgium).
In this interview, he describes his A&R work with Kate Ryan and Danzel and goes on to discuss the best ways of breaking dance music and the significant role of independent dance labels.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started almost ten years ago. A friend of mine worked for Byte Records and they were looking for somebody to do promotion. I applied for the job and got it. This was during 2 Unlimited’s heyday (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.).
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
As a promotion manager, I came into contact with a wealth of radio programmers, artists and producers. I’ve always visited clubs and I’ve been a radio DJ for almost 20 years. All of that, together with my love of music and of dance music in particular, have contributed to my skills as an A&R.
What motivated your decision to move from Antler-Subway to N.E.W.S.?
I was very happy at Antler-Subway, but I wanted to go back to my roots, to an independent label. Independent labels have a very important role to play in dance music. Independents can move very quickly, which is paramount in the dance industry. N.E.W.S. is also a very special record company.
Can you tell us a bit about N.E.W.S.?
It’s quite a big independent dance company that was founded in 1992. Around thirty people work here. The main office is in Ghent in Belgium and we have also an office in Holland. N.E.W.S. has three branches: publishing, the record label, and distribution.
The record company is divided into two units. I work for Unit 1, which deals with chart-driven dance music. We put together lots of dance compilations for the Benelux countries; we release our own productions; we have several dance labels; we license material, and we also develop artists like Danzel.
Unit 2 has a long-term approach; there they work with album artists, such as Cinérex and Plastyc Buddha. They also have dance labels of international repute, like Music Man and Eskimo Recordings, which are important players on the international underground music scene.
N.E.W.S. distribution carries out the worldwide distribution of vinyl from DJ Tiësto’s label Blackhole Recordings and Ferry Corsten’s label Tsunami, among others. We also import vinyl for distribution in the Benelux; one of the labels we distribute is the successful UK dance label Defected.
You were the A&R for Kate Ryan at Antler-Subway. How did you come to work with her?
All big successes are strange stories involving many people. I knew Andy Janssens and Phil Wilde, who produced Kate Ryan, from my time at Byte. Andy was the studio engineer there. I was talking to Andy one day on the phone, and I asked him what he was doing; he said he was producing a new girl, Katrien Verbeeck, later to be known as Kate Ryan.
Her manager had already sent me her CD and, when Andy and I hooked up, I listened to it immediately. “Scream For More” really was a great record. Her voice was fantastic and the production was very effective.
We immediately signed Kate Ryan to Antler-Subway and “Scream for More” was released a few weeks later.It went to No. 9 in Belgium and it was also a hit in Holland. We started working on the album and when it was finished, I listened to it with Andy and Phil. I said that the songs were all very well produced but that, as a whole, it was lacking a big hit single.
I had been going out a lot in Ghent and, among the students, the big anthem at the time was “Désenchantée” by Mylène Farmer, one of my favourite singers of all times. The students had problems dancing to the song, however, because it was slow, and the DJs had to pitch the tempo up. That gave me the idea to do a trance version of it.
Curiously enough, Andy had been thinking along the same lines, which we took as a sign of it being a very good idea. In two days, Andy and Phil made the new version of “Désenchantée” with Kate Ryan, and it turned out to be a huge hit.
Why do you think it was a hit in Europe but not in the UK?
English people are perhaps a bit chauvinistic, and I also think it’s difficult to get French music played on English radio stations and in the UK clubs, as the two languages are very different.
Jason Ellis at Positiva suggested making an English version, but it was difficult to do because of the publishing. The French version was released in the UK on Nebula, a Virgin imprint. Although Nebula did their best, it failed to become a hit.
What artists do you currently A&R?
We’ve just finished Danzel’s album and there are two new artists whom we’d like to launch in the next few months: Ann van Hoof , whose first single is written and produced by Regi Penxten from Milk Inc. and Sylver, and a new dance project, which is unnamed at the moment, by Andy Janssens.
How did you come to work with Danzel, who is currently successful in France, Italy and Belgium?
I had the idea of doing a cover version of “Pump It Up”, the Black & White Brothers track, so I went to Jaco van Rijswijk, the producer behind Natural Born Grooves, who were successful in the clubs in the mid-90s. He is one of the most talented producers in Belgium, he had released some great club music and he had previously done a very good remix for Kate Ryan.
I told him about the idea, although I didn’t yet have an artist; I had tried to record the song with other artists but it hadn’t worked out. Jaco said he knew someone that would be great for the song, so he called him and I talked to him. It was Danzel, of course, and he sang a bit over the phone.
I thought his voice was great and, ten minutes later, he was at the studio; it was then that I recognised him as one of the twenty finalists of the Belgian version of Pop Idol. It was instant chemistry and, three days later, Danzel’s version of “Pump It Up” was recorded.
How did you try to break him?
We released a very limited edition of “Pump It Up” on yellow vinyl, via our own distribution, so all the right shops in Europe got the record and passed it on to the right DJs, which started a small but very effective buzz. Around twenty copies went to France, and Contact FM, a very important national dance station that has about 600,000 daily listeners, got a copy and started playing it.
We had also sent an mp3 to Rémy Saint Jacques at Airplay Records in France. He immediately called to say that he really liked it and he sent a proposal for France within half an hour. Airplay released Danzel in France in February and within two weeks he was in the Top 10.
A few weeks before that, we shopped “Pump It Up” at Midem, the music convention in France, and a number of A&Rs said they liked it. Then we got lucky, because Charles Schillings, a very important French DJ, got hold of the yellow vinyl and played “Pump It Up”—not once but twice—at the Midem closing party, which all the dance A&Rs attended.
After Midem, proposals came in very quickly and many deals were signed. After the success in Italy and France, where it was in the Top 10 for eight weeks, the record is now signed to companies in Germany , the US and the UK. I have just received the good news that Danzel is becoming a club hit in the US, and Ultra Records have asked Danzel to go over to do radio promotion in August.
Are you working to make it a summer hit in the Mediterranean, as that market has spin-off effects?
Before Midem, Spain’s Vali Music had already signed the record and they’re putting it out for the summer. Danzel is already a hit in Italy: “Pump It Up” is the second most played dance record on Italian radio, and Danzel is also the face for the national Pringles campaign, which starts next week. They’ve made a commercial featuring “Pump It Up”, so Danzel will be on the biggest commercial TV networks more than eight times a day.
How do you find new talent?
You have to look around at karaoke bars, talent shows, regional singing contests, and so on. What is most important is the fact that I have built up a network of producers, songwriters, musicians, singers, dancers, radio programmers, TV people and journalists.
They give me a lot of feedback, ideas and propositions; I take their advice very seriously and I ask them to tip me if they come across a good singer or songwriter. Many people are making music in Belgium. Pop Idol, for example, attracted 3,000 participants.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I do. We get lots of demos from producers and singers. If they are addressed to N.E.W.S., I listen to them when I have the time, but I listen to them more readily if they write me an e-mail first, asking whether they can send me the demos, because that gives me the chance to explain what we are looking for and how they should proceed.
The ideal situation is when artists, producers and songwriters send a selection of their material after we’ve discussed it beforehand. I prefer them to send the songs on CD, together with a short letter and the track listing. The CD itself should have a telephone number or an e-mail address written on it, as a CD can easily get separated from its case.
How important is it that the artists also write songs?
Most of the artists I have worked with, such as Milk Inc., Kate Ryan and Danzel, are not only great performing artists, they are also talented musicians and they write their own songs. Some of them, like Regi Penxten, even produce their own material from start to finish.
Would you work with artists or producers from outside Belgium?
If they were producers and songwriters I would, because the Internet is a great thing and you can work via a computer. But I prefer vocal artists to be from Belgium. It’s more difficult to work with an artist who lives in the US, for example, because of the distance. It’s always good if you can meet artists on a regular basis if you are to develop them artistically.
How do you break new artists?
The most important way of breaking dance music is the clubs. I’ve seen it with all of the Antler-Subway artists: Lasgo, Milk Inc., Ian Van Dahl and Kate Ryan. The record first works in the clubs, then it crosses over to radio, and finally the record breaks and the tune gets a face, meaning that the audience make the link between the record they hear and the artist.
This is a job for the marketing and promotion departments. They have a very important role in developing the artist. I’ve also seen people try to market dance music excessively, which is a mistake. In a similar way to urban music, which comes from the streets, dance music comes from the clubs.
What advice would you give someone who is producing dance music at home?
To be very self-critical. I’ll give a stupid example: producers may come to me and say that they have a big club record with crossover potential, but when I listen to it, it isn’t that big at all. I usually ask them why they think it’s so big and they will often say that they’ve had an enormous response to the record in the clubs.
When I dig a bit deeper, it transpires that they have a very good DJ friend who plays in a local pub and who played their record at peak time, between two big hits; there were some people on the dancefloor, who were totally pissed, and who were screaming.
You see what I mean? Play your record at the beginning of the evening when the dancefloor is empty and if people get up and dance to it, then you potentially have a big record.
How much do you pay for remixes?
It’s difficult to say. You can swap remixes: Producer A does a remix for Producer B and vice versa. You can also have an in-house producer who does the remixes. When a producer is hot and you don’t have a contract with him, success has its price.
When I want to launch a project and I need a remix by Armand van Helden, because I know that a remix by him will spark the interest of many DJs and it will sell more as a result, then I have to pay the price as well.
How often are remixes done on speculation?
At N.E.W.S., we always discuss the conditions with the remixer beforehand. We come to an agreement and we stand by it. If you want to stay in this business and have a healthy relationship with your artists, you have to be honest.
If we happen to not like a remix, we talk to the producer and explain why we don’t like it, and nine times out of ten the producer changes the remix and it is accepted.
What is your view of Belgian radio?
I’m very happy with Belgian radio. The state-owned Radio Donna is the biggest radio station and they just play the music that they think is important for Radio Donna, as does the alternative station Studio Brussel, which is also state-owned.
The commercial stations also have a tradition of playing fresh new music. In comparison to other countries, it’s easier in Belgium to get new music played on radio, although it isn’t that easy!
Luckily, Belgium is a very small country. In the US, for example, the amount of money they have to put into marketing new artists is enormous. We can break songs by new artists in our market and if they’re hits, we can get them on a few compilations and we can recoup our costs.
In other territories, they have to spend so much money on promotion that if the record flops, the project is dropped very quickly.
It’s been argued that European dance music doesn’t sell in the US because real artists aren’t behind the music…
You mean real vocal artists? You can’t put a fake artist on a record. You have to take your projects very seriously if you want them to work and at N.E.W.S. we only sign real talent.
Do you consider the Japanese market?
I’m very intrigued by Japan. They have their own culture and their own artists. I can’t really get a grip on it, though. Sometimes there are records that work over there and I ask myself how in the world is it possible for that particular artist to be that successful in Japan?
Other records that I thought might be big in Japan flop. It’s a very special market and a difficult one to understand.
How do you view the position of independent labels in the current music business environment?
It’s a very exciting time at the moment, and the whole landscape is changing. Many players are out of the market, which I deeply regret, but a new period is beginning in which the independents will play a very important role, doing the fieldwork and breaking new artists.
Lots of good new music will come from small or independent labels because they are willing to invest in new talent.
What are your views on reality music TV shows?
I have two distinct feelings about them. The negative aspect is that the people behind these shows think that they can launch artists just by marketing. A TV station puts a lot of money into a show and the artists are, in an artificial way, portrayed as idols.
Of the four artists who got contracts in the last edition of Pop Idol in Belgium, two have already been dropped. They were hyped as huge stars, but it was just a balloon, and they didn’t sell enough records.
The positive aspect is that people get a chance to display their talent. It’s a way for people who wouldn’t otherwise know how to get into the music business, because they don’t know any record companies, producers or A&Rs, to do so.
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
I’d put more music and less business into the industry. Because of the crisis in the music industry, people are really on tenterhooks.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
When talented artists have been able to do what they like most, that is, singing, producing and so on, and other people have had a chance to enjoy the product of that. On a personal basis, to have met some really nice people who have become friends.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I hope to still be an A&R. I don’t want to be a record company boss, for instance, because that isn’t one of my ambitions. My ambition is to be part of a good team that releases music with love.
I’ve now been an A&R for four years, and the longer I do this job, the more interesting it becomes; you get into it in more depth, you get more experience, and you have better relationships.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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