Interview with JOHN WILLIAMS, A&R at Sanctuary Records UK for Ocean Colour Scene (UK multi-platinum) - May 10, 2004
"Sanctuary is a company where every aspect of the entertainment industry is catered for."John Williams is Senior VP of A&R at Sanctuary Records UK, where he represents Ocean Colour Scene, Alison Moyet, and others. John was instrumental in breaking the song “Mad World” in Europe, taken from the Donnie Darko soundtrack, by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews.
The Sanctuary Group is a fully fledged entertainment company with many divisions, one of them being Sanctuary Records.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I started in the record industry in 1974. Whilst at university in Canada, I wrote letters to people in the UK music industry. I got responses from Richard Branson at Virgin, from Polydor, and, because of my previous work as a journalist, from Sounds magazine. Virgin wasn’t established at that point, so I took the job at Polydor, where I did radio promotion.
It took me twelve years to get into A&R; during those initial years, I worked at Island Records as a product manager, as an editor of the Radio & Record News, which is a trade magazine, and as an artist with Mickie Most in 1979, which is when I learnt how to make records. After having become known as a producer, I became an A&R and producer at Chrysalis in 1986, where I produced acts like the Housemartins and the Proclaimers.
What skills should an A&R have?
The most important skills are being a good listener and being able to bring the right people together.
What makes up the larger portion of your work?
These days, I spend most of my time in an office behind a computer screen, fielding e-mails. I used to spend a lot of time in studios producing and mixing records, but these days I don’t do that so much: I help oversee the making of records, which is more of a supportive role.
Artists like it if you know how a studio works and can therefore sympathise with what they’re going through. Again, you have to be able to listen to artists and to pick up on the small problems they might have, because small problems can eventually become big issues unless they’re dealt with.
What styles of music does Sanctuary focus on?
Sanctuary is a 360-degrees label. We release records by artists like Dolly Parton, Steve Winwood, Ocean Colour Scene, Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Gary Moore, Alison Moyet, etc. It’s a very diverse roster. The only real common thread is that they are all great artists, who have a strong sense of the records they want to make.
If you put the right team of people around a certain project, then there’s absolutely no reason why a company can’t put out heavy metal records, Americana records, reggae records, because they all go to the same shop, they all have to go through the promotion process of radio, press and TV. It’s not rocket science; it’s just a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.
Who owns the Sanctuary Group, of which Sanctuary Records is a part?
It’s a PLC, a public company, now, but it originated about thirty years ago, when Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor discovered Iron Maiden (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.). Basically, the company’s fortune grew on the back of Iron Maiden’s success.
What activities do the Sanctuary Group’s various companies engage in?
It’s a very broad company. It has a very big music agency that books acts from Robbie Williams to Natalie Imbruglia; it has a management division, a book publishing division, a TV and DVD division, a recording studios division; it has the largest selection of mobile studios in the UK; we do tour production, and we do merchandising.
It’s very much a company where every aspect of the entertainment industry is catered for, but I work for the record label in particular.
Could you elaborate further on the claim made by your company on its website that “SRG is a niche-based label that relies on artist development and strategic marketing”?
That refers to the joint venture Sanctuary has with Rough Trade Records, which develops newer acts like the Strokes and the Libertines. SRG tend to deal with more established artists who have the ability to tour and who already have a solid retail history.
We market those artists to the existing fan base, but obviously we always want them to develop beyond their previous albums. We are often delivered the finished records by established artists, and all the A&R process involves in these cases is us saying, “Yes, we’d like to be your partner on this record.”
Many people see Sanctuary Group’s business model, which is that of an entertainment company with many intertwining activities, such as publishing, merchandising, touring and so on, as a model that should be adopted by other record labels. What is your view on that?
It’s certainly one way of addressing the problems that the industry faces. An artist’s income comes from many different strands, and records aren’t the only one. Touring and merchandising play, for big artists, a much bigger part than record sales do.
This has been our strategy for a number of years now and, whilst I’m not saying that nobody else can do it our way, all the infrastructure needed to make it work is already in place here.
Does having these different types of resources help you in your A&R work?
It’s an added attraction, but attracting artists to a record label has a lot to do with a one-on-one ability to communicate with them. Some artists don’t want all the different strands, but it certainly is additional leverage when talking to very big artists.
Do you work much with the other divisions?
Absolutely, in the UK we’re all in the same building, except for the booking agency. We also have offices in New York, Los Angeles, Raleigh, North Carolina and Berlin.
How common is it for Sanctuary artists to be signed to more that one Sanctuary company?
Morrisey, for example, is signed to the record label, the management company, merchandising, and agency As long as you are paying them the market value, there seem to be few problems in having these kinds of multi-areas available. Generally, it works better for the bigger artists.
Do the ways in which you and major labels work differ considerably?
One of the big differences is that we don’t play in the pop arena, we haven’t gone down the boy-band route. We are very cautious and we take a strategy-based approach to our artists, including doing a lot of research on how they fit into the retail market.
How do you value the prospects of bands from the old school of hard rock, such as Iron Maiden, Queensr˙che and Megadeth?
There is a very healthy touring base for these artists, and it seems that there’s no let-up in the demand for Iron Maiden. If anything, they seem to get stronger: they still sell and they’re doing better than they have done in recent years.
What acts are you currently working on?
I’m working with Alison Moyet on a new album, which is being produced by Anne Dudley, and I’m making a record with Ocean Colour Scene, which is being produced by Dave Eringa, who produced the Manic Street Preachers.
We’ve just finished a new album with Beth Nielsen Chapman, who’s got a very strong base in the UK, and we have just made a new album with Tim Booth, the singer from James.
Are you currently looking for songs for any of your acts?
Most of our artists are also singer/songwriters, but I’m always interested in hearing a good song.
How did you come to work with Ocean Colour Scene?
They came out of their contract with Universal about two years ago and I was a big fan of theirs. I meet the band and their manager, Chris Cradock, who is the father of the guitarist Steve Cradock. They made an album for us last year called “North Atlantic Drift”.
We did very well with the album, and we had an option for another, which they’re recording as we speak. They’re recording the album in a house in Scotland, and they’re very excited, because they feel like it’s their first record all over again.
Although they are seen as a rather traditional rock band, they have been very successful. Why do you think this is?
It’s all down to their ability to continuously write good material and play it live. They’ve always, especially in the UK, been a constant touring item and, whilst they don’t sell as many records as they did in the mid-nineties, when they were hugely successful, they still have a very strong fan base, to which a more youthful element has been added.
How do you find new talent?
By being a detective and being aware of which artists are no longer on other labels; I’m constantly aware of artists that may be let go. Then there are the usual sources: lawyers, managers, and publishers. It certainly doesn’t come through the post.
How frequently do you catch artists live?
I go out maybe once or twice a week to see artists who are out of contract and I obviously see our own artists as well. But my role isn’t really to sign all that many brand new acts. I have done it, I’ve stood at the back in smoky pubs and clubs waiting for the new hit act to take the stage, but these days I deal more with artists who are already established.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I do, and I get about 50 demos a week. Once a week, I go through them with an assistant, and we respond to everyone who has included an e-mail address. To be honest, in my career as an A&R man I’ve never signed anything from a tape sent through the post.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write their own songs?
It certainly helps, because the rigmarole of having to source brand new songs and then persuade an artist to sing them is avoided.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career in the music business?
To not give up easily, because it’s tough to get that door to open for you. Be original and don’t copy other people in an attempt to be fashionable. Just be yourself. Really great artists all also have one thing in common: they all have voices that are immediately identifiable.
How much input do you usually have on the production?
A lot less than I would have had twenty years ago, because we tend to license finished records. My task then is to say, “This is a good Hall & Oates album.” or “It’s the bad Hall & Oates album.”
But with Alison Moyet, for example, I was very involved with song and producer selection. Generally, it’s all down to working with people rather than forcing things on them. I go to the studio perhaps once a week, but it’s difficult to be an A&R and be constantly in the studio.
Do you give the producers guidelines?
You can tell a producer what it is that you want to achieve, and then it’s down to the chemistry between the producer and the artist. Hopefully, you’ve picked a producer who can draw the best out of that artist.
How much does it usually cost to record an album?
It’s a lot less than it used to be. Many artists these days have their own home set-ups and with digital technology and computers it is possible to make records in home studios. Gone are the days when people booked studios for two months at a rate of GBP1,000 per day. These days, there’s a bigger emphasis on keeping costs down.
How much do you take radio into account when considering a new artist?
You can never second-guess radio, although I did sign Gary Jules/Michael Andrews’s “Mad World” record thinking that it would be a huge radio record, which it was. Then again, I’ve often signed records with the same thought but it hasn’t turned out that way.
How did you come to work with Gary Jules?
Paul Conroy, from Adventures In Music, whom I had worked with at Chrysalis in the 90s, played me the track and we decided to launch the single as a joint venture. Gary Jules was a gigging artist who had some presence on the West Coast folk circuit and we knew that his version of “Mad World”, originally a Tears for Fears song, lit up the phones whenever it was played.
At radio, they were at first reluctant to play the song because, being such a slow song, it didn’t fit into their style of programming, but our radio campaign convinced them to put it on the air. We pushed that single, his album, “Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets”, and the Donnie Darko soundtrack on which the song appears in the UK and in Europe, which are the territories we hold the rights to.
What are the principal ways in which you break new artists?
Radio, press, TV and touring. If you have all of those firing at the same time, you have a huge hit. If you’ve just got press going, it’s not enough. If you’ve got press and radio, then that may work for you, although there’s nothing like TV to really expose an artist.
Is there any aspect of the music industry that you would change dramatically?
The music industry evolves in its own way. You can’t change things; it’s too big for that. It would be great though if retail had expandable walls. One of the problems of the industry is that shops can only take so much stock and only take your records for a certain amount of time.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
All the great moments evolve around records that get to No.1. I produced the Housemartins’ “Caravan of Love”, which was a Christmas No.1 in 1986, so that was a big highlight. I managed a band called Blancmange in the 80s, and when we had our first Top 10 hit, “Living on the Ceiling”, that was very exciting.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Hopefully, I will still be doing the same thing. I’m at a very good company who have long-term desires, so I hope to be advising them on A&R matters for another ten years.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...