Interview with MARK LEWIS, A&R at b-unique Records UK for Kaiser Chiefs - Aug 15, 2005
“There were other labels looking at Kaiser Chiefs, but they had been another band before called Pava and a lot of labels were put off by the fact that they had been dropped,”
… says Mark Lewis, A&R and founder of the independent UK label b-unique Records. He is the A&R for Kaiser Chiefs (UK Top 5) and Ordinary Boys and has been awarded No.12 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart.
Read about how he found Kaiser Chiefs, the importance of touring and building your own fanbase and how much tour support a prioritised band can expect from their record label.
How did you get started in the music business?
I played guitar in a band and quickly graduated from having a couple of record deals to becoming a producer and a manager. I then got more and more into management, and after a few years of that Richard Manners, who is now managing director of Warner/Chappell Music, gave me a job at Polygram Music Publishing as an A&R rep.
What experiences have shaped your skills as an A&R?
I feel like I’ve done every job, really: I’ve been an artist, a producer, a manager and a publisher, and all those different skills help me as an A&R.
What is b-unique Records?
b-unique is a fully independent record label that was set up in the end of 2000 by myself and Martin Toher. Martin was an A&R at Mercury Records and I knew him essentially as a rival A&R from another company. We got friendly, started drinking, and decided at the end of the night to set up our own label. It then took us about a year to get out of our jobs and start the label. We mainly deal with alternative music - leftfield guitar music, really - and we also do publishing.
What was the label’s first break?
We had two breaks at the same time. We signed an artist called Aqualung with whom we had a Top 10 hit in 2002 with a track called “Strange and Beautiful (I’ll Put a Spell on You)”, and at the same time we licensed a rock band called Alkaline Trio from Vagrant, an American record label, and we broke the band in UK.
We did a lot of licensing in the early part of the label’s history. Things like Hot Hot Heat, Har Mar Superstar, Coheed and Cambria, Saves The Day and Paul Westerberg. We wanted to do that in order to establish the label’s kudos, if you like, and then start signing domestic acts, which is what we’ve done.
What distinguishes you from other independent labels?
Both me and Martin come from a major label background, so we have a very commercial mindset; we want to sell a lot of records. And here we can give acts a lot more attention than we could when we were at majors, because there are just too many competing things going on in a major record label. At b-unique, it’s all about focusing on the acts.
What work do you do in-house, and what do you use outside resources for?
We are a small team, me, Martin and our A&R rep Paul Harris and we do A&R. For everything else we bring in consultants. For example, we work with a company called Big Sister, who do our TV promotion, we work with Anglo Plugging, who do radio for us, we have marketing consultants like Mark Mitchell, who did the Franz Ferdinand campaign and who started the Kaiser Chiefs campaign, and we work with Traffic, who builds and maintains street teams. We put together a whole variety of people around an act and it can be different people for different acts. That’s why we don’t have any in-house facilities.
Do you have a joint venture deal with a major for releases outside the UK?
Yes, we have an international deal with Universal. We also have two distribution deals, one with Vital and one with Polydor.
What artists are you currently working with?
We’re currently working with Kaiser Chiefs, and that’s been a really big campaign for us the last 6-9 months. We’ve put a lot of focus into that and we’re currently double platinum in the UK and pushing on to be triple platinum.
We’re also working with a band called the Ordinary Boys, whom we have a lot of faith in. They’ve chalked up four or five hits already and they’re literally just turning twenty now. We think that they’re going to have a very big future.
How did you first learn about Kaiser Chiefs?
Last summer, I was on the road with the Ordinary Boys and Kaiser Chiefs were supporting them. I missed their set, but the Ordinary Boys were telling me how great the Kaiser Chiefs were, so the next night I went back and made sure I saw them. I was very impressed with them and we sat down and started talking about doing an album for the label.
Paul, our A&R, had also been following them and he was interested in them, and we kind of arrived there at the same time. He was realising how much better they were getting, just as I saw them for the first time. We then went with Martin to see them in their hometown of Leeds and he was convinced about them too. We will only sign a band if all three of us are 100% convinced.
What made you want to work with them?
I thought they had tremendous energy and really powerful songs with great choruses. They made me smile when I watched them. They’re a band that you can see a lot; I saw them one night and I was happy to go see them the next night. They really give everything to their performance and when we got their demos we realised that they had some really big hits.
Were there other labels giving them offers?
There were other labels looking at them, but no one had really bid on them. Kaiser Chiefs had been another band before called Pava, signed to Beggar’s Banquet, and a lot of labels were put off by the fact that they had been dropped. I think labels were just watching their progress when we stepped in.
Why did Kaiser Chiefs choose to sign with you?
They said that they had had a lot of meetings with record companies and heard a lot of bullshit. I think they felt that we were the straightest guys they had met and they trusted us.
What else was important in earning them attention from labels? Their 2004 self-release of the single “Oh My God” which went into Top 70 in the UK charts?
“Oh My God” had sort of come and gone, really. It wasn’t enough to get them a deal at the time. I felt that their touring was more important; the fact that they got out there and toured on their own and were starting to get fans. You could also start to read about them on message boards; even the Ordinary Boys’ message board started to come alive with people going on about how great the Kaiser Chiefs were. Small things like that were raising their profile.
They also had a publisher, James Dewer, who was working at Rondor at the time and he was very instrumental. He’s not there anymore, but the band do credit him with helping them a lot.
What does your work with Kaiser Chiefs involve?
First and foremost, what we’re trying to do with a band is to get a plot together that enables them to break big. The plot with the Kaiser Chiefs was that we wanted them to do a major support tour in the autumn, put a single out at the end of the year to set the tone for 2005 and get everyone interested in them, and then effectively come with what we thought was their biggest hit: a re-release of “Oh My God” in February.
For the album we went to two producers, Stephen Street and Stephen Harris, and they made a great record. We helped the band choose the songs and what we really helped them with was the order of singles. We were very insistent that “I Predict a Riot” was the right single for November, that “Oh My God” was the right single for February, and that for the next track “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” was the right one. Each time the band weren’t sure, but we persuaded them that it was the right way to go and I think we were right.
What was instrumental in breaking them in the UK?
There were several factors. The success of the early single “I Predict a Riot” in November - it went in mid-week at No.15, which surprised the industry, and which came from touring.
The Shockwaves NME Awards Tour 2005, which they where the opening act on in January/February was important. They were alongside lots of other bands on the starter grid of the start of the year, but when we delivered “Oh My God” to radio, that’s what separated us from the other bands.
Radio felt that this was an A-list record, a high rotation record and more of a pop record than their rivals. That elevated us to a different level of play which got a massive audience response. So, there were several factors and a lot of pieces that contributed to their success in 2005 were put in place in 2004.
They didn’t have a label deal in the US, but they were played on alternative radio in 2004 with the single “I Predict a Riot”?
KROQ picked up “I Predict a Riot” in November after it had charted in the UK. I think it was Matt Smith, the music director at KROQ, who heard the record, someone played it to him, and they added it after having listened to it in a playlist meeting, which is obviously an extraordinary move for KROQ.
At the time, we were just negotiating a deal with a couple of labels; we had gone to America to play the tracks for a few people just to get some interest so that when we were going to be in a good position to break the band in January, there would be more people interested in America. But as we played it to people, more and more of them wanted it straight away and Universal were the most keen to do something with us.
What was the plan to break them in the US?
To get them out there touring in short waves all through the year, and to try breaking radio, which is obviously very hard, but we were on our way to doing it. They’ve been to America six or seven times this year already, and they are booked to do the Foo Fighters tour again in September. So they have kept their commitment to keep touring in America and trying to build a fanbase there.
How do you find new talent?
It varies; it can be from a tip-off from a contact, a manager coming in to play us a demo, from looking at web sites, and just general buzzes from towns where you might have a band locally causing a buzz, such as a press buzz, early radioplay, or pulling crowds of more than of fifty to a hundred people.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and we get a lot. I don’t count them, but we must get a few hundred a week. We try our best to listen to all of them. We’ve found things that we were interested in, but we haven’t signed anything from an unsolicited demo.
Is it important that the artists you consider signing already have a fanbase?
It’s extremely useful. It’s not always the case though, and we’re not afraid of creating a fanbase for a band that we believe in. But yes, it’s useful.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career on the independent level?
It’s about expectations. You have to accept that the rewards will be greater in the end, but that in the short term it can be a harder ride. The easiest thing in the world for an artist is a major label coming in and giving them lots of money, but the independent sector doesn’t do that; it can’t do that. But for the artist it can lead to a much greater share of the profits and it’s up to a band to choose which route they want to go down.
Some bands prefer to go down the major land route and take the money and hope that the label will focus on them. Other bands want to go down the independent route. You can usually tell when you meet a band what road they want to go down.
Do you support your bands financially so they can focus on the music?
Yes, we do. We realise that we’re not going to get the best out of a band unless they’re fully focused on what they’re doing.
Do you offer tour support for your artists?
Yes. For a twenty day tour you could be looking at minimum GBP10-15,000 (USD17-26,000).
Should labels have a stake in the touring income if they invest in tour support?
That’s not a road we’re going down at the moment, but I think it will happen. Companies will want touring income.
Or should that return come from increased record sales?
I think it really depends on the deal you have with the band, but yes, the return should come from increased awareness and increased record sales.
What do you think will become the major means of breaking new artists?
Apart from the usual channels like radio and press, the Internet has become a major boost for breaking artists. There are artists that have very successfully earned their fanbase from file-swapping and from peer-to-peer groups who are recommending a certain band, talking about gigs, drumming up interest in the band, etc. The Internet is a major player now and it’s only positive. We might have lost some sales, but we gained a lot more.
How do you view the current music business climate for independent labels?
I think it’s very strong for independents. If you look at the nominations for the Mercury Prize the last couple of years and the bands that have broken commercially, a majority of the alternative bands have come through the independent labels. So, musically it’s very healthy, but from a business climate it’s always difficult to keep an independent rolling.
I have great admiration for the independents that can operate on their own without any deals with majors. We never found that possible. We’ve always found that we have to do a license with a major at some point. But yes, it’s a healthy musical climate and I think you’ll find that a lot of bands want to sign to independents. They do want to be on smaller labels.
If you were an artist, by what criteria would you judge an A&R and label if they were offering you a deal?
From the records they put out, from the way those records have been worked, from the quality of them and from what producers they’ve used.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?
I feel that reggae and ska are very undervalued.
What aspects of the music industry would you most like to change?
TV advertising has become a big battleground and it’s very hard to compete with the majors who can spend GBP4-500,000 (USD710,000-890,000) on a TV campaign. I don’t know what could be done about it, but it’s certainly a frustration of ours when you watch majors who are failing with an act deciding to spend a whole heap of money to break them. It’s becoming a very uneven battleground.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The success of the Kaiser Chiefs has been the most exciting. But discovering Mansun in the rehearsal room was also very exciting.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
I still want to be involved in music in whatever way I can.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Manager James Sandom offers his perspective on the band's signing
* Kaiser Chiefs' producer Stephen Street on recording the band's breakthrough album
* b-unique A&R Paul Harris on breaking the Kaiser Chiefs