Interview - Oct 5, 2004
“Great singers are great singers no matter how they’re packaged.”Based in London, Max Lousada is the head of A&R at Atlantic UK. Artists he A&Rs include The Darkness (UK multi-platinum and US gold), Goldie Lookin Chain (UK Top 10) and Funeral for a Friend (UK Top 20).
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become the head of A&R at Atlantic?
When I left university, I started my own distribution company, which imported and exported records for DJs and independent outlets. Before that, I was putting on club nights and I basically found that lots of great music wasn’t being distributed properly.
I then went on to run various independent record labels. I ran Ultimate Dilemma, then I became the managing director for all countries outside America at Rawkus, then the head of A&R at Mushroom, and finally the head of A&R at Atlantic.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Understanding what records work in a club environment, and also working with Mos Def in the UK and breaking Zero 7 to sell a million records. Those two records were very important in terms of my development. Releasing a load of independent electronic records for the love and the passion of it was also important.
What styles of music do you focus on?
What we don’t do is pop. We do rock, we do urban, and we do singer/songwriters.
I’m interested in real talent, real creativity, real live performances and experiences, and great songs. It’s very diverse, from The Darkness, Zero 7 and Bebel Gilberto, to Funeral for a Friend and David Gray.
What artists are you currently working on?
At the moment, The Darkness, Goldie Lookin Chain, Zero 7, a new r&b act called Sef, and new records by Funeral for a Friend and Blazin’ Squad.
Are you looking for songs for your artists?
Rather than get fed songs, I search for them. It’s different for each act, but I generally look for co-writes more than songs.
How did you come across The Darkness?
Joe, who was my scout at the time, fell in love with the band and introduced me to them. Then I embarked on a nine-month courtship: I followed them all around the world and offered them a worldwide structure of guaranteed releases, especially in North America and the UK.
They were very independent, they knew exactly what they wanted to do and they had built up a very loyal fan base by themselves. It was a case of adding fuel to the fire, which we did exactly as they wanted us to do it.
Had the band recorded demos and released independent records at that stage?
They had pretty much recorded the album and they had released one single.
Were other labels interested in them?
Yes, I think one or two were, but it wasn’t a massive A&R thing.
What attracted you to them?
Originality, incredible songs, a great live show, and the fantastic people they are. If you went to their live show, you would be sure to buy their record and embrace them. They’re one of the best live bands I’ve seen in recent years. I felt they were the opposite of much of what was going on and that they would really shake up the scene.
What aspects have you helped them to develop?
It was more about creating an international structure so we could sell 600-700,000 copies in America and still maintain, and not alienate, their core fans. Also, we needed to make sure that they had time to write the second album.
How did you plan to break them?
I just felt people needed to see them and hear the album. It was very much an old-school strategy. They’re extremely good at selling themselves and so it was just a case of informing people and making sure they knew who the band were. We knew they would engage the British public.
What media played the most important role in raising the public’s awareness of the band?
Radio One was very important and MTV was incredibly important, because the band have such a strong image. They were the catalysts for all the other media.
Apart from the UK, what other territories are you focusing on?
Only North America, but they have pretty much sold gold in most territories, and quadruple platinum in the UK.
How do you find new talent?
The music business is magical and it can come from anywhere. You just have to be open to it. It can come from a taxi driver who gives you a demo, from a demo that arrives in the post, or from an established manager. Great singers are great singers no matter how they’re packaged. Normally, I find new talent by going to gigs or through my A&R team. For example, we have just signed a new band called No Hope, from New Jersey, on the basis of a demo that we loved.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
At what stage is it appropriate to present a new band to a major label?
That’s a good question. These days, I think the public wants to feel that they have discovered and broken a band. If bands are too marketed and too force-fed, audiences reject them. Bands and artists need to be clear about who they are for me to believe in them. If their sound or their songwriting skills aren’t up to par yet, then we’re probably not the company for them.
How important are factors like local independent sales, local airplay, live performance experience and a solid fan base?
Every case is different. The band we signed from a demo had never played a gig, but we just thought that they were great songwriters and that they had real potential. The Goldie Lookin Chain were massive on the Internet, but they hadn’t done many shows, but The Darkness had done loads of shows, as had Funeral for a Friend. It doesn’t depend on just one ingredient. The music industry isn’t about rules—it’s about gut and raw emotion.
How important is it that the artists are also songwriters?
It’s becoming increasingly important that they write their own songs, but that doesn’t mean they have to do it completely by themselves. David Gray and The Darkness write their own songs, of course, but artists on a pop level generally co-write.
What should aspiring artists learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building successful careers in the music business?
Songwriting, songwriting, songwriting, and also playing live.
Do you build strategies to raise the public’s and the media’s awareness of your artists?
Yes, but every act is different and so every strategy has to be tailor-made. Using the same strategy for different acts doesn’t work, because they are usually at different stages in their careers. The most important thing is to build confidence and loyalty within their fan base, confidence at retail, and confidence in the media.
What are your major means of breaking new artists?
Live performances, radio and word-of-mouth.
Do you provide your artists with tour support?
How much money might tour support entail?
Again, it’s on a case-by-case basis but, by way of example, we might offer GBP50,000. If we believe in the band, we support them.
Should labels that offer tour support get a return from the touring income?
Yes, because record sales are decreasing and live income is increasing. Historically, bands have toured to sell the record, but now we’re releasing records to sell the tour. I want to be involved in as many aspects of the band’s career as possible, and if I believe in the band I’ll invest as much money as it takes to break them.
How much do you take radio into account when considering signing an artist?
I don’t take it into account at all.
What is your view on UK radio?
I think it’s good. Sometimes I get annoyed if I don’t get one of my records on radio, but there’s usually a legitimate reason for it.
Will major record labels increasingly license the finished product from independent labels, rather than develop artists from scratch?
Yes, because major labels are shrinking.
Do your artists share the costs of recording when their part is recouped from their royalties?
Do they also share ownership of the masters?
What aspect of the music industry would you change?
I’d make it more fun. It is fun, but I would make it less cynical. These are exciting times and I would make the industry embrace modern technology rather than run away from it.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The highlight of my musical career was starting in the music business, because from there on in, it has continued to baffle, amaze and excite me.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
The same as I am doing now, and if not, being a managing director.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman