Interview with TODD INTERLAND, manager for James Blunt, Elton John - Aug 29, 2005
“Linda Perry came to see James Blunt at SXSW and based on his performance she came up after the gig and said, ‘I’m writing a cheque to sign you to my label’. ”
… says Todd Interland, manager at 21st Artists UK for James Blunt (UK No.1), Elton John and Just Jack. Read about how he discovered James Blunt, the biggest selling UK breakthrough artist in 2005, how he went from working at Universal NY to becoming a manager and what advice he has to offer to aspiring artists.
How did you get started in the music industry?
I started out working at London Records in New York, about 15 years ago. I started as an intern and went into an assistant job to the president there.
After various years at Polygram and Universal I was working at Rocket Records, Elton John’s label, which is how I came to know Elton. I was introduced to him through a former boss in New York at Island Records, whose name was Johnny Barbis - he was a former MD of Island in the US. Johnny made the initial introduction, and it was his idea, he thought I was probably a good guy to get involved with Elton’s label and try to find new talent for him, because I was young and hungry.
After Universal took over Polygram they started shutting down all the small labels, and they shut down Rocket. And the guys, Elton and the various managers, said, ‘Hey, are you interested in coming to the UK? You can have a job over here’. That was in 1999.
What kind of experiences did you have that developed your skills as a manager?
Working in A&R and marketing was valuable. I’d left the record companies and they said, come on over to the UK and work in management. At that time I was also pretty well knowledgeable in the field, like about how artists’ websites benefited different artists in the business. The whole dot.com boom was around that time, and I was asked to spearhead the eltonjohn.com project, and that’s initially how I started over here.
It’s funny because these days management involves A&R - I mean, for an example, I thought of the producer Tom Rothrock when we were looking for producers for James Blunt’s album. I was such a huge Eliott Smith and Badly Drawn Boy fan, and I gave these records to James and said, ‘This producer is amazing; listen to these records and listen to the timeless quality these recordings have’.
I thought he would be perfect because I thought he would be a great match to James music, which I think has a timeless quality to it as well. So James had a listen, met a few different people, and came round to thinking, ‘You know what, I really like this guy and what he’s done with these other records’. So he ended up producing ‘Back To Bedlam’
How did you first get into contact with James Blunt?
When James was still in the army he was taking a little time off here and there during his days off to work on demos. And a girl that I used to share a house with did some backing singing and some co-writing with James. She told him, ‘If you’re looking for a manager you should call this guy I used to share a flat with…’ So he sent me a demo from there on her recommendation.
I think one of the tracks on it was ‘Goodbye My Lover’. When I heard that I was actually driving home listening to the demo in the car on a rainy summer night. I pulled over and ejected the CD, which had his mobile number on it, and I called him up and said, ‘Let’s set up a meeting’. And it just got started from there.
What was the production quality like on the demo?
It wasn’t bad, actually. For me, demos can be in any format, if the song gets across, a good song is a good song, and hopefully that will come through. It did in this case.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, not unsolicited – James was a recommendation. We have a policy that if something is submitted on an unsolicited basis, we have to return it.
What was the development process with James like?
I met with him, started collecting various demos and looking at his repertoire immediately. And taking meetings with various publishers - if there were any co-writes in order, which in some cases there were, we had to find the right people for him to write with.
How did you find the other songwriters?
By going to the publishers and playing them James’ songs, showing them exactly the direction we were heading in, and finding out if they had anyone suitable. They would send me discographies of various writers, and I would take a look - some I was familiar with and others I wasn’t.
But you know, there weren’t that many new people introduced into the mix in terms of writing, because he’d already actually done some co-writing with some other people who he’d enjoyed working with. One of the new ones we set him up with was Ricky Ross - and they co-wrote the song ‘High’ together. We also had James write a song with Guy Chambers, which we set up through his own publisher at EMI Music Publishing.
Did you have a certain marketing strategy for James right from the start?
Well, I did, but only because these days the record companies unfortunately don’t develop artists the way they used to do. They don’t sign something and say, ‘Okay, in two or three years down the line we’ll get it right’. Times have changed, and really that responsibility has fallen more and more onto the shoulders of management.
So I realised that we had to create a fanbase, a genuine fanbase. I had to put together a band for him, and then we just started playing gigs. We did this on a regular basis, so that people would remember his name and come back and see him again, bringing more friends with them, and that’s pretty much how it started.
In general, at what stage in an artist’s development do you think it’s appropriate to approach a major label?
It really depends on the artist, but a general rule of thumb is that they have to have a collection, a small collection, of decent demos to get your songs across properly. In addition to that, and just as important, is that they have to have a decent live presentation of their music.
So they have to have their band together and they have to really feel confident onstage. You can’t present a show and have the risk of it being poor, where you’re having to hope for the best. If there’s any work needed, then you should really try and do that work prior to introducing all the labels to it.
Who did you approach with James’ record at first?
Well initially it was kind of funny, because there was a great deal of interest in the A&R community in the UK, and we met with a lot of people. But in the end we decided to do a deal with Custard Records, which is the label of Linda Perry from Four Non Blondes, the producer and co-writer of Pink and Cristina Aguilera.
She came to see James at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas a couple of years ago, and based on his performance there she came up after the gig and said, ‘I’m writing a cheque right now to sign you to my own label’. So it was pretty immediate. It was just down to her enthusiasm for the songs already written - she said she had no doubt in her mind that he was a huge talent.
She didn’t want to write anything with him because she thought that his songs were complete in themselves. Based on her enthusiasm we did a deal with her, and ultimately that deal went through Atlantic USA, which is how we came to know Max Lousada.
Because James was English we said, ‘Well, maybe it would be better if we get this started through his own country.’ So we sat down with the people at Atlantic, and Max and various people within the company listened to the record and they loved it. They said it was something that they could work with.
The album has taken an unusual path to chart success since its release, hasn’t it?
The album came out last October. It started off with an organic build, with us very softly releasing the album and the single, just trying to find new believers out there at radio and retail. And that’s exactly what we did, whilst also getting a lot more shows under our belt
We had a very, very lengthy plan that we talked about with the label, that we didn’t put down on paper, and it was purely for the sake of development, because even though we had been doing shows - we’d supported Katie Melua and Lloyd Cole and Elton John - we were still building a true fanbase.
We didn’t want to have any type of ‘Put it out there, go as hard as you can, and if nobody goes for it, then it’s over’ kind of thinking. We wanted to really do this, but cautiously, in the sense that we had to find the sort of true troubadour fans out there… and the people at Emap and Radio 2 picked up on it and really stuck their necks out for us. Then everything came together.
What were the key breakthrough moments?
Everything really came together with some big profile gigs like Glastonbury, and the Wireless festival, as well as some key TV appearances. I think his biggest initial key TV was when he did Jools Holland in early June, and he did one song, ‘Goodbye My Lover’, on piano.
Nobody knew who he was but people just started phoning up the BBC and so forth to find out who the hell this guy James Blunt was. Because he only did the one song it really stood out amongst the rest of the talent that was performing that night, and that’s when a nice buzz started where other TV programs were saying, ‘Hey, let’s keep an eye on this guy’, or ‘Let’s try and book this guy’.
Where do you take James now from a management point of view?
Well obviously James has become the big word of mouth story of the year in the UK, and we have been introducing him to other territories too - his album has gone to No.2 this week in France, he’s got a Top 5 record in Italy, and other European territories are following suit, as is Australia/New Zealand.
Where do we take it from here? We have to now take this amazing success story and bring it to the US, and hopefully it will allow us to get some attention to the project and allow us to develop it over there as well.
Do you have any general advice for aspiring artists?
Play as often as you possibly can. Even if it’s in a pub you know, and you’re not getting paid – do it. Get as comfortable as possible with being in front of an audience. To me, even back in the days when I did A& R in New York going through Island Records, it was crucial that they had to have that part of it down. Either the songs are there or they’re not there; you can try to co-write with other people, which can help, but if the live shows are not together, I think you’re going to be hurting, I really do.
What artists, besides James Blunt, do you work with at the moment?
I still work with Elton John, I’m on the management team for that. And I’ve taken on an artist named Just Jack – a UK act. It’s sort of progressive almost English hiphop, but with a definite dance flavour to it.
How do you find new artists?
Just Jack put out a record on an independent two years ago. Elton John - who is absolutely crazy about going out when he can and buying all the latest releases - picked it up and fell in love with the record. He said, ‘This is something that we should pursue’, but Just Jack had other management at the time. Coincidentally, a couple of years later, he came my way again and he was available, so we took him on.
What do you look for when you’re looking for new artists?
I look for songs, that’s where I start. From there I branch out to, ‘Who’s delivering the song? Do they like the songs themselves? Do they have some kind of marketable appeal so that other people would want to hear this music?’ Then I take it from there.
Are there any aspects of the music industry that you’d like to change?
I think it’s changing as we speak, and it’s all based on recent developments over the years with digital downloads and so forth. I would like to see there being a little more faith in artists, people trying not to have too many preconceptions before they actually go in and check a new band out or listen to a new record. People should let artists songs speak for themselves, rather than trying to fit them into a certain mould. To really have an open mind - that’s really important.
What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?
James Blunt, absolutely – this whole year has been a high point in my career. Also having the chance to work with people like Elton John and just really see what makes him legendary: it’s not the celebrity status but his awareness for new music as well as his unbelievable talent for writing new music himself. And just being able to witness that has been an amazing thing for me
Where do you see yourself in five to ten years time?
I don’t know. I wake up every day and say, ‘Wow, I’m so happy to be doing this, I’m such a lucky person.’ And I hope to be saying the same thing five or ten years down the line. But you know you never know what’s going to happen in this business, or which direction your career’s going to be heading for.
My career really started out from being an intern doing work experience, then I was an assistant, then I was doing marketing, then I was doing A&R, now I’m a manager. I mean, I would never have guessed my career would have taken as many turns as that. And it doesn’t have anything to do with being fickle, it’s just that opportunity presents itself in funny ways. So, to try to guess… God only knows. But I’m really loving what I’m doing right now.
Interviewed by Denny Hilton
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