Interview with MARTIN KIERSZENBAUM, A&R at Interscope for t.A.T.u., Keane - May 31, 2004
"In the end you don't sell five million records on the basis of sensationalism - there has to be some quality to the music."
Based in Los Angeles, Martin Kierszenbaum is Senior Vice-President of A&R at Interscope and Head of International Operations for the Universal subsidiaries Interscope, A&M, Geffen and Dreamworks. The artists he A&Rs include T.A.T.U. (US platinum), Keane (UK Platinum) and Sting.
Here he tells us how he approaches A&R at Interscope, what his work with t.A.T.u. involved, how he finds new talent, and more.
How did you get started in the music industry?
I was born in the States, but spent my childhood in Argentina. Then I moved to Switzerland and also lived in the UK for a year. After that, I moved back to the US and I ended up going to university in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
While at university, I played in bands and started my own small record label. I produced records and released them via independent distribution. I then moved to Los Angeles, where I got a job in the mailroom at Polygram Records. After that, I got a job at Warner Brothers International, where I worked for two years, and then I worked at A&M Records for almost ten years, where I eventually ran the International Department.
When I came to Interscope in 1998, my boss, Jimmy Iovine, encouraged me to combine the two sets of skills I had: A&R and production and my background in marketing. He put me in charge of international marketing, and had me do international and domestic A&R.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
I've had the privilege of working with many talented and creative artists. At Warner Brothers, in the late 80s, I worked with Madonna, Prince, the B-52s, Chris Isaak and Jane's Addiction. When I left to go to A&M in 1991, I worked closely with artists like Soundgarden, Sting, Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Bryan Adams and Richard Carpenter. I learnt a lot by being around these artists and working on their projects, because just about anything that could come up came up.
I gained a lot of experience and had the benefit of being around people like Herb Albert and Jerry Moss, who ran A&M, and Mo Austin when I was at Warner Brothers. I've learnt a great deal from Jimmy Iovine and he’s given me brilliant advice. I've been very fortunate to have been in environments in which I've had the chance to work with first-class artists and executives.
Can you give us an overview of what your job involves?
I have a dual role here. I oversee the international marketing of all the US-signed artists on Interscope, Geffen, A&M and Dreamworks, and I have a great staff who help me do that. My other role is as an A&R and, because of my experience, a great deal of my time is devoted to talent around the world, although I also sign US artists.
I recently signed two bands from the Bay area that I'm really excited about. Our philosophy is that it doesn't matter where the artists come from, so it's not necessarily international or domestic A&R that we do, it's more world A&R.
Do you bring local Universal artists up to the international level?
We have very talented A&R people within the Universal system, so that's my first point of reference. If something hot is happening in Norway or France, our Universal people there will be the first ones to find out.
I have many contacts within the system and I have a lot of confidence in the Universal executives’ ability to find exciting talent. I like the idea of taking an act that has been successful in their home market and translating that success over to the US and elsewhere. More of that is necessary and potentially possible now.
I go outside Universal as well. The two bands I’ve just signed are signed directly to Interscope and were not picked up through Universal. I've done direct signings, joint ventures with sister companies, and I've picked up artists from within the Universal system.
Do you also license artists from independent labels?
I haven't done that yet, but I definitely would. I recently considered doing so with an independent label, but it didn't work out.
On the basis of what criteria do you decide which local Universal artists to pick up?
The first criterion is the quality of the music. After that, it's whether the band have been successful in their home market. Has the band been able to translate to other countries that maybe have different cultures and different music-business infrastructures?
These are the standard indicators, but first and foremost, it's the music and how compelling they are as a band. If I feel the music, I approach them, and they don't have to have sold a million copies in their home market.
What up-and-coming territories may provide international artists in the next five years?
It could come from anywhere, because of technology and communication and the amount of talent being developed in every corner of the world. You're talking to a guy who found a CD in Russian by two talented girls from Moscow.
There are talented, passionate and excited kids everywhere now, and anybody can get a laptop and make a great record, whether in Hungary or Singapore. I'm at an advantage, because I have a big net. If I limited myself to the US, I'd miss a lot of talent, so I don't.
How involved are you when it comes to developing a local artist who has been given international priority?
It's case by case. If it's needed, I'll roll up my sleeves and get in there. If not, then I make sure they have room and comfort to do their thing.
I was very involved with t.A.T.u., for instance - I was in the studio with them every day. I coached them on the vocals, and I ended up writing the lyrics and producing most of the tracks. It was a record that we really had to hone and re-record for the western market.
Another joint venture I did was with Island UK for a band called Keane. They know exactly what their creative vision is. They recorded at home with an engineer/co-producer they were friendly with and then they wanted recommendations on a mixing engineer, so we hooked them up with Spike Stent and that was it. Their music was so beautiful and glorious that all we had to do was to let them do their thing.
Do you think that the English language barrier will be broken down and that music in different languages will become more popular?
English is equated with international pop at the moment, but I think in the end we'll have an influx of different kinds of music and languages. Eventually, people will open up, but at the moment English is the currency of pop music. It would have been much more difficult to break t.A.T.u. if they had just sung in Russian.
How did you come into contact with t.A.T.u.?
It's a funny story. Universal Russia sent me an album in Russian, which I listened to, and I was immediately drawn to the voices and the melodies. I called Universal and asked if they sang in English too and they said they hadn’t yet, but they had thought about it. I told them that, although I didn't speak Russian, I couldn't stop listening to the music and that we had to try something out.
Then I saw the video and it was fantastic. The girls are very intense and dramatic; they were everything I imagined when I listened to their music. I asked Trevor Horn to work on a few songs, just as an experiment, and to see if they could sing in English. I worked very closely with Julia, Lena and Trevor, and I also ended up producing six other songs and finishing the record.
Why did you choose to work with Trevor Horn?
My boss, Jimmy Iovine, introduced me to Trevor. The three of us went out for lunch and on the way out I said, “Trevor, I have this thing that I can't get off my CD player. It's t.A.T.u. and it's in Russian. Can I play it for you? I think it's something you might understand, or at least you can tell me if I'm crazy or not.” I played it to him and he got really excited about it, so I proposed to him that we should try recording something with them.
We all flew to London and the first track we did was “Not Gonna Get Us” (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) and, as we were all pleased with the result, we tried another one, which was “All The Things She Said”. Trevor is very busy and he was only able to work on two tracks, but I managed to convince him to do one more, “Clowns (Can You See Me Now?)”, and it worked out very well, as is usually the case with him.
I produced the rest of the tracks for the album with Rob Orton. I wrote the lyrics with Trevor for "All the Things She Said" and, although he didn’t have time to do the rest, he encouraged me to do it because he thought I was capable. Again, another instance in my career where I've been around someone with an incredible amount of experience who encouraged me and gave me good advice.
Was the marketing value of the lesbian factor important?
When I first listened to their music and was drawn to it, I didn't know about that component, but when I then saw the video I immediately understood that it was going to attract attention quickly, which it did. It caused a stir which brought attention to the music. In the end though, you don't sell five million records on the basis of sensationalism—there has to be some quality to the music.
The girls are very talented, they play the piano, they have unique voices, and it was their music that allowed them to reach the level they did in terms of sales. Of course, we benefited from the sensationalism at first, but at the same time, some people judged the girls unfairly because of it. Towards the middle of the project, it began to be a detriment, because people just wanted to talk about that aspect instead of about their music.
Apart from that, what was their edge?
They had spectacular voices and the music, composed by Russian composers, was interesting. There was something fresh about the melodies: they had one foot in Russian culture and the other in Western MTV culture, and the combination was very exciting.
What artists are you currently working on?
I'm very excited about Keane, a brilliant band whom I signed in partnership with Island UK. They're at No. 1 on the UK album chart for a second week in a row, and the album, one of the best records I've heard in the last five years, was released in the US on 25 May. The songs are exquisitely written and the voice of the lead singer, Tom, is absolutely angelic.
I've A&Red Sting's new single, “Stolen Car”, and once again he's done something very innovative: he’s released three videos for three different mixes of the song. Each video is related to the main concept, a party in a warehouse, but each video is a different vignette. One is Sting's version, another is Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas' version, and the third features Twista, the rapper.
I've signed a band from the Bay area called the Lovemakers, who are a great band. They write great pop songs, and they're very engaging and provocative on stage. I've also just signed a group called Flipsyde, who combine rock with great melodies and rap. We're launching the Sugababes record in the US, which I've picked up from one of our sister companies, Island UK.
The Rasmus are a fantastic band. We've scanned 40,000 albums in the US even before going to radio, which is happening now. They've just played the Roxy in Los Angeles this month, and they're doing a live performance on Fuse TV, as well as Ryan Seacrest's TV show.
I'm working with Shaggy on his new record. He's playing MTV Europe's Isle of MTV with the Black Eyed Peas in Spain in July. Zed are a great young band from New Zealand who are touring Europe with the Calling in July. Their record is a blast of power, rock and pop, like a Cheap Trick for the new millennium.
I've also picked up the Spiderbait and Feist albums for US release. Spiderbait's "Black Betty" is a smash and Feist creates a beautiful atmosphere with her voice and music.
What will be the key to breaking The Rasmus in the US?
I feel good about the way we've started, because if you look at their trajectory in other markets, it's been very radio-driven, which has forced the band to develop their profile very quickly. In the US, we've had the opportunity to do the opposite: we're developing them at a grass-roots level on the Internet, we're doing promotion at the rock-club level, and we've got Fuse TV spinning the video about 30 times a week.
The scans are slowly growing every week and we had 125,000 hits on the video on Launch last week. It's growing in a very organic way and fans are discovering the music by word of mouth, instead of being fed the music by radio. We'll set up our plan for radio once people know who they are and radio is calling us instead of us calling them.
How do you find new talent?
Through friends, colleagues, musicians and managers; people whose opinion I trust. I go to clubs and see bands live. I see which artists are getting radio airplay by looking at the charts, and I see which of them are creating a stir in their home markets.
I'm fortunate because I work in a fantastic environment. Jimmy Iovine is one of the most successful executives ever and he's a magnet for good things and talented people. He creates such a comfortable environment that a lot of the times opportunities just walk in here.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Absolutely. I'm happy to receive tapes from anybody, anywhere. We get maybe sixty demos per week and people here help me go through them. We also have contacts around the world, whether it be at the Universal labels or at radio stations, indie labels and the press. We just scour through music and whatever makes us passionate we pursue.
Primarily, we've found things through people whom we know, and whose musical tastes we share, which doesn't necessarily mean lawyers or managers: we found The Lovemakers via a friend of ours, a photographer in San Francisco, who was taking pictures of them and sent us a tape.
I’ve just come back from the Midwest Music Summit in Indiana, where I sat on a panel. I came home with fifty tapes and listened to everything. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything in there that was right for us, but I think one day there will be. At least we made contacts and started dialogues with people who are developing. Who knows, maybe in a year one of those people will send us a tape that we love.
How much does it usually cost to promote an album in the US?
That's a tough question, because there are so many avenues to starting a record: you can promote a record via radio, television, at the touring level, at the press level, or at the Internet level. A marketing budget can be anywhere from $2,000 to 200,000 to begin with.
Rather than spending a lot of money on expensive videos and pitching artists to radio, I prefer projects to grow organically. Keane, for example, started playing in their home area in Sussex and put out a single through the independent label Fierce Panda, which got them some attention. They then did a session for Steve Lamacq, a noted UK DJ, which got them more attention.
They released another single through Fierce Panda, which sold more units but was still limited, and we did the deal with them. We put out a new single, which had a broader appeal, and we shot a video. Throughout this process, they've built a very loyal following, which is important if they are to fulfil their ultimate potential, which is a very big audience.
Why do you think fewer non-American acts are breaking in the US these days?
I've given that a lot of thought. When I worked at Warner Brothers in the late 80s, every American band that we signed would ask when they could go to the UK and Europe. In the last ten years, they don't ask about Europe anymore. Obviously, it has to do with the music that American kids are exposed to when they grow up and, in the last ten years, there haven't been that many European acts in the charts.
Part of the explanation for that is that it goes in waves, and another is the fact that Europe became very dance and single-focused, and because that dance culture didn't develop in the US, Europe lost a lot of American kids. In the 90s, many US artists travelled to Europe, but not vice versa. That's changing now. There are a lot of European artists now who have a lot to say, with great points of view, and whose songwriting is fantastic, who are starting to come over here.
Have major labels cut down on artist development?
Overall, we are seeing less artist development, although certainly not here; it depends on the label. Jimmy Iovine is a musician/producer, and his perspective is based on the music and the artists. Interscope Records is a major, but it started as an independent label twelve years ago and it has always been run by Jimmy. Here the emphasis is still on artist development.
If artists share the costs of recording an album, which are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
That's the eternal question. The model is based on the record company making a huge investment in the artist. Making an album and marketing it costs a lot of money and the record company has to have a way of mitigating the risk. The masters are potentially meaningful entities for years to come and ownership of them abates the financial risk labels initially take on an unknown band. That's one part of it.
The other part of it is, of course, that the record company helps the artist to break and have a viable career, but doesn't share in a lot of the artist's income, whether from touring, merchandising or publishing. The label takes most of the risk in breaking the act, but doesn't benefit from the additional revenue.
I've always believed in artists being treated fairly and I'd much rather look on an artist as a partner. A happy artist makes the most compelling music, and is also prepared to promote the music and help the record company sell records, so the deal should always be fair. I don't want to be involved in deals that aren't fair: I started as a musician, so I really can't do it. The artists are treated very well here, and I think that's why we have a good reputation.
What will bring the music industry out of the current slump?
There's obviously a decline, with the UK being an exception as sales there grew this year, although in places like Germany sales have been drastically reduced. A lot of it has to do with fighting piracy, and one of the ways that we can combat the contraction of the current market is by giving people legal ways to buy the music the way they want to do it. If they want to do it digitally, then we should make it easy for people to do that legally.
The other thing is that there are a lot of new bands who have something to say. Whether it's Keane, Coldplay or Flipsyde, these bands have an esprit and people want to be part of their aesthetic by buying the album and going to their shows. The more compelling our bands are, the more people are willing to make an emotional investment in the music, rather than just hearing a song on the radio, liking it and downloading it illegally.
What would you change about the music industry?
I would eradicate people stealing music. It's wrong and it makes music feel disposable, which is a real shame, because when you're part of the process you know how much an artist works to write the song and record it. The artist spends countless hours in the studio with the engineer and producer, trying to make this piece of art and then it's just stolen by somebody who maybe doesn't know or doesn't appreciate all the effort that went into creating it.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The opportunity to work with Jimmy Iovine, who’s a consummate businessman, a great musician and a music lover at heart. Musical impulse and experience drive every one of his decisions. I’ve also had the privilege of working closely with Sting for fifteen years. The greatest thing for me is having the opportunity to work with really creative, talented, experienced people like Jimmy, Sting, Trevor Horn and Dave Stewart.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I never plan that far ahead, and I’m very excited about what’s going on right now. I concentrate on the coming year, on taking care of the artists and releasing the album at the right time. The only thing I can hope for is that, ten years from now, my kids will still love me and come and visit me.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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