Interview with MATT JAGGER, A&R at Mercury UK for Lucie Silvas (UK Top 10) - Nov 3, 2004
ďIt would be nice to see more independent record companies being able to compete again and invest in niche music.ĒBased in London, Matt Jagger is executive vice-president at Mercury Records. The artists he works with include Lucie Silvas (UK Top 10) and Razorlight (UK gold).
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become executive vice-president at Mercury?
Iím very much a product of the UK 1990ís dance scene and I would not be doing this unless Iíd been involved in that scene. I started as a lawyer in the very early í90s, representing dance artists, which I did for four or five years.
I then set up my own house music record label, Jackpot Records with my partner Seven Webster with whom I managed DJs like Sasha, John Digweed and Carl Cox. My partner Steven Webster and I also managed Dido in her early days. Later we set up a publishing company with Sony Music, called 7PM Publishing. I left in 1998 to become the head of Ministry of Sound.
My brief there was to turn Ministry of Sound from just producing compilations into a record company that had hits and for it to become active in publishing and international business. By 2002, Ministry became the biggest independent record company in Europe. I was hired that same year by Mercury/Universal to work with Steve Lillywhite, then the MD, as an executive vice-president. Steve left last Christmas and so I took on Steveís role as well.
What experiences have helped develop your music business skills?
Dance music in the í90s was a revolution in the UK, like punk rock was in the í70s, and it produced lots of good artists and executives, and I was one of those executives.
Being a lawyer and thus understanding how to put deals together and being aggressive, as we were at Ministry of Sound, really helped me. Dance music is a ďcut-and-thrustĒ business. The skills I honed at Ministry of Sound I took with me to Mercury, where they have served me well.
Did you sign a US deal with MCA/Universal at Ministry of Sound?
Ministry of Sound America was a lovely idea that never worked. America wasnít really ready for it, and to be honest, by the time we signed the deal in 2002, dance music was starting to decline, even in the UK. Dance music has since started to come back in the UK, but that year was the beginning of a drought. It is very hard to break dance records in America.
What is required to produce crossover dance hits instead of just dance hits?
Radio. In the UK, all my hit records ended up being very big radio records, something which you wouldnít have expected when you first listened to them, due to their dance sound.
What is your view on the current state of dance music?
In the UK, dance music is coming back. The best dance music is rhythmic pop and that has been missing for the last three years. Urban music has filled that void, but Iíve a sense that people want more up-tempo rhythmic music now as well.
What artists are you currently working on?
Weíre very excited about Lucie Silvas and we think that she can certainly sell very well in the UK. Theyíre also very excited about her at our American label, Island/Def Jam, and if L.A. Reid and those guys get it and want to put it out, we have a chance of breaking America, Iím sure, because itís such a fabulous crossover record.
We have some great new rock bands: Razorlight, who are on their way to 500,000 copies in the UK and whom we think can work in the US; Thirteen Senses, who are melodic English rock; the Black Velvets, who to me are Oasis meets Led Zeppelin; Terri Walker, a great pop/soul artist; the UK reggae artist Smujji; and we have just signed an exciting dance/rock artist.
Weíre absolutely across the board, thatís our brief, and to me, Mercury was the sleeping giant who hadnít had a great roster since the í80s, and we very much feel that weíre back on the map again.
How did you come across Lucie Silvas?
Lucie Silvas was already signed here when I joined, but as an urban artist. They were going to make a kind of a crossover urban record with her and we completely changed direction. I didnít feel that she was going to fare well in that world as she has a white, soul voice but sheís not an urban pop artist. Sheís a classic singer/songwriter, like a female Elton John, and we took it down that route and made a very mainstream adult pop record.
Did she have a manager and/or a publisher at the time?
Chrysalis published her for five years, because she was making a living as a songwriter, but she didnít have a manager. We did the deal with her and then she hooked up with the Daniel Bedingfield managers at Empire.
At that point, what had she achieved in terms of releasing independent records, playing live, and so on?
Nothing. Her first single was released three weeks ago and it went to No. 8, and her album came out last week and went to No. 11.
Were other labels interested in her?
Not at all. In fact, EMI had dropped her three years ago! She was an artist who was signed here and who was going in the wrong direction. We turned it around and made a great crossover record, but there wasnít a bidding war or anything like that.
What attracted you to her?
It was the whole package. She is such a great songwriter, she has such an amazing voice, and the music that was natural to her was so crossover. Itís going to appeal to everybody! Sheís the most talented person Iíve ever worked with.
What qualities have you helped her develop?
Sheís an amazing songwriter and musician. I canít help her with that, but I definitely helped her feel comfortable with the decision to move away from the urban genre in a new direction. Mike Peden produced, and we helped her understand that it was okay to make the record we were going to make, that she shouldnít be scared of being who she is. That was probably my most important contribution. The talent is there and Iím a facilitator.
How did you plan to break her?
Itís one of those rare cases where you think, ďItís amazing! How can somebody not like it?!Ē Basically, we had such strong songs that the music took care of itself.
When we launched her, we took her to the mainstream straight away. We got radio onboard very quickly: Radio Two and local independent radio stations outside London all loved it. Sheís not been heavily styled because she looks fantastic anyway. Sheís a naturally beautiful girl, but we didnít play on that, we really did let the music speak. We made a great video for ďWhat Youíre Made OfĒ, which really showcased and strengthened the song, but we didnít spend GBP300,000, we made a nice-price, sensible video.
How do you find new talent?
On the rock side, itís a case of scouting, of going to loads of gigs, and so we have a scouting network that checks bands out. The Lucie Silvas-type of artists you tend to meet with the managers and the publishers and people who come in with new stuff like that. On the urban and dance scenes, you find out whatís going on through the shops and through the clubs. There are three different approaches for three different types of music.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, absolutely. Itís the heart of the business. I receive about thirty demos per week, which me, the A&R team and the scouts listen to.
How ready-to-go must artists be before it makes sense to present them to major labels?
It depends on the genre. Itís still about the hits, though. Itís the old adage: if you got a hit on the tape, youíre in the game. Itís a clichť, but it still holds true. And if youíve got two hits on the tape, youíve probably got more chances of getting signed. If you feel you hear a hit and then you go see them and theyíre rubbish, it puts a doubt in your mind, but if you donít hear a hit and go and see them and theyíre amazing, itís still probably not enough until you hear the hit, or at least see the potential there is for the hit.
What should aspiring artists learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building successful careers in the music business?
Be yourself. Iím not saying you have to learn it, just be yourself and if you have the talent to write that hit song or get with people who could help you write it, thatís the best advice I can give.
How much does it usually cost to record an album?
Thereís no average, really, but for a rock album you should be looking at between GBP100 and 200,000 to record it with a good producer.
What are your main means of breaking new artists?
Radio is always incredibly important, but again, itís genre-specific. Television is more important for artists like Lucie Silvas than it is for Razorlight, and live performance is much more important for Razorlight than it is for Lucie Silvas. But if there is one constant, itís radio.
Do you offer your artists tour support?
Should labels that sponsor tours get a return from the touring income?
Not a financial return, I donít think thatís appropriate. In the long term, youíll hopefully see more record sales.
What is your view on UK radio stations and their playlists?
Independent local radio, ILR, plays it a bit too safe. Iíd love to see bands like Razorlight on ILR, but theyíre scared of a more abrasive sound. Radio One pretty much get it right though: theyíre committed to breaking new artists, theyíre committed to niche music that can cross over, and they do a fantastic job.
As does Radio Two, who are incredibly supportive of new singer/songwriters. My biggest complaint, if I have one, is that ILR needs to be more adventurous. I think the people want it.
Do you consider independent labels to be resources or competitors?
My background is indie, but I have to say, sadly, I donít think itís a great time for the indies right now. With majors hiring people like me, who come from the indies, we can offer artists everything that the indies can and more. The indies canít compete and so really I see them as resources.
The decrease in the price of CDs in UK outlets has really affected them too: profit margins are now so small that it makes it very hard to compete, because although the margins are smaller, the costs of marketing have stayed the same.
Will major record labels increasingly license the finished product from independent labels rather than develop artists from scratch?
Absolutely. But I did that anyway as a dance guy: my brief was to license finished product, so to me itís not a new thing; Iíve always done it.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?
Because itís in my heart, Iíd like to see more artists who make rhythmic up-tempo pop music cross over and sell loads of records. From the Human League through The Eurythmics to dance artists like M People and Prodigy, itís something that Britain is good at.
But Iím also very excited about the British guitar rock scene. Iím passionately patriotic about British music. I think our musical contribution, considering itís such a small island, is enormous and I want us to be proud of British music. We have a unique street culture and I really would like to see British artists working in the States again, like they did in the í80s.
What would you change about the music industry?
It would be nice to see more indies being able to compete again and being able to invest in niche music. I donít know whether a Prodigy or a Bjork could be on an indie anymore: the vibrant scene we had is gone, and I think thatís sad. However, those artists can now naturally fir on a major like Mercury so, perhaps we have replaced the indies.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
There have been several. On a personal level, it was going to the Hacienda one night in the summer of 1988. I was supposed to be going to a job interview for a position as a corporate lawyer the next day, but I didnít turn up for it. I just didnít want to do it anymore. After that night at the Hacienda, I wanted to be in house music! That was a massive moment that changed my life.
Signing ATB at Ministry of Sound was another great moment. I signed the record 9 P.M. (Til I Come) for GBP1,500 on my first day at Ministry of Sound and it sold over a million records!
Breaking a guitar band, Razorlight, at Mercury was also phenomenal. For the first time in twenty years, Mercury had broken a guitar band and, coming from dance music, nobody expected me to be able to do that. For me and the MD, Greg Castell, it was a stunning moment to realise we were in business.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten yearsí time?
Itís a pleasure to work for Universal: I love the people, I love the culture, and I love being able to work with some of the greatest artists in the world. At an indie, youíre limited, but here I can work with anyone. I want to keep doing what I do now at Mercury with Greg and the team. I think weíre on to something, I really do. Weíre going to turn Mercury back into what it was in the í80s, I can feel it.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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