Interview - Feb 28, 2005
“Being a good businessman means you’re able to do a good deal, to screw a load of money out of a record company, which I’ve been quite good at doing over the years, I have to admit”,… says Mike Batt, one of Britain’s best-known producers/composers. His outstanding track record goes back to 1974 when he broke through as a singer in The Wombles (four gold albums in the UK).
He went on to compose and produce “Bright Eyes” for Art Garfunkel, “Phantom Of The Opera” and dozens of other Top 10’s, including the breakthrough albums of Vanessa Mae and Bond.
Three years ago he started his own independent label, Dramatico Entertainment, to which he signed Katie Melua, who had the biggest selling album in the UK in 2004 (1,5 million sold). For this, he was awarded No.3 on the 2004 European Top 40 A&R Chart.
How did you start off in the music business?
I left school when I was 18, and decided that I wanted to be a songwriter. I used to travel up to London with tapes and go and see people, trying to get a deal. It was hard going at first. And I always used to insist on seeing people, instead of just sending or leaving the tapes. It took a lot of persistence.
Eventually I found out that Liberty Records, an American record label which was starting up in England, was looking for talent. So I went to a kind of audition. There were two other people sitting in the reception; one of them was Elton John, the other was Bernie Taupin. The three of us were completely unknown to each other. The company hired me as a songwriter and they put Elton and Bernie together as writers.
Shortly after that I got the job as producer, and became the Head of A&R, which was a job that was way beyond my capabilities – I was only 19. At the same time I was also signed as an artist to the label. Before that I was earning my living by transcribing other people’s songs, for the publishers of the company. Liberty became Liberty United Artists when the two companies merged.
For how long have you run Dramatico?
Technically, it’s about three or four years, but in real active terms, about two years. I did initially form the company to handle a Christmas Womble release I was thinking of doing.
What is the idea behind the company?
It’s a question of being able to achieve things that you can’t achieve through a major company, unless you have lots of luck and know all the right people. Majors often tend to make executive decisions and changes that are very autocratic; you seldom have the right or the ability to influence what singles they put out, or what records you make.
To provide an outlet for artists, so they feel they can put a record out whenever they want – that’s the ultimate dream. We didn’t have a problem finding Katie Melua a deal initially, because one of the majors offered her a substantial contract. But they wanted to change her musical direction.
The majors want to control you artistically, and they hardly have any staying power. What they do have is spending power, but they don’t always use it, because they have a very short-term outlook these days. In the old days there used to be companies that would take three or four albums to break an act. But today, a major will drop an act and find someone else if they don’t break with the first album.
How is the label organized; how many employees are there?
When we started Dramatico it was just me and two assistants. Now it’s grown slightly - there’s about seven of us. In a small organization like ours, everybody does everything. We all make tea, and we all do the more important things. But people do have specific responsibilities that take up most of their time.
We have a relationship with the distributor Pinnacle, who are the biggest, and in my opinion the best, independent distributor in the UK. They don’t just take on anybody; you have to earn your right to be with them. We pay them a percentage of sales.
I also had to set up a network of independent distributors throughout Europe, South Africa and some other territories, including America, which is done through Universal. In Australia we’re with Sony. It was very hard work trying to keep in contact with everybody, to discuss and to establish what each marketing campaign would be. We have to put the marketing money up front in each country.
Now we’re effectively running an indie record-label. We have three companies that help us with radio, TV and press promotion, all of which we pay monthly retainers to. Dramatico doesn’t rely on any other record company or investors for support; it’s solely an outlet, which I basically own, which allows me to choose which artist I work with, and make the records that I want to make, in order to give me the artistic freedom that I want. It also gives Katie Melua the artistic freedom that she would never get under a major.
Where are you based?
We’re based both in and out of London. The actual company is based about an hour’s drive to the south of London. It does have benefits; it means that if you look out the window you see trees and sheep instead of taxis and lampposts. It also means that we can work from our London base if we want to. If Katie has a TV show in London for example, we might spend the afternoon working from the London base, because it’s easier than driving all the way back down.
Did you actively search for artists when you discovered Katie Melua, or did she send the material?
No, she didn’t. I was looking and went to her school. I was thinking of making an album like ‘A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night’ by Harry Nilsson, from 1973. This fantastic album was amazing, it became a classic. Basically, I was looking for a singer to help me to do that. And when I found Katie, I realized that she had her own identity, so it wasn’t so much a question of doing the album I had in mind, but more a question of finding a way of giving Katie the vehicle that she needed.
Can you describe the working process?
We have a control room in the house, and might choose a certain room for a vocal. The microphone gets plugged into the wall; the whole of my house is wired for sound. We started to put some tracks down with my engineer, who was working with us at the same time. It took a while to find the right musical direction, because Katie had some songs that were quite heavy, quite rocky. But she seemed to be most comfortable with the ones that were acoustic, guitar-based type of songs.
We could have made this into a project that didn’t include my input as a songwriter, but it seemed to me that there was enough affinity between her songwriting and mine – stylistically, there was a way of mixing the two.
We would invite the band over for maybe two or three days. They’d stay here, and we’d have nice meals in the evening, and then get up in the morning, start working, and cut two or three tracks in a day. And Katie might put some vocals on in the evening. It was all done very casually. Then she might have to go back to school – the Brit School, which is a college paid for and founded by the Brit Awards in England. She had just turned 18 the week before we met.
Did you have a clear idea of how the music would be performed, or did that grow, organically, with the live musicians?
I already had a pretty good idea of what songs we were going to do, and had even spent some time thinking of arrangements before the musicians came. The music grew organically, or was at least growing from the seed that I planted.
How much of the album is recorded live in the studio?
A lot of the tracks were recorded live, even if we did put a vocal on again a lot later. Finally we put strings and the odd woodwind on. I mixed it all at home in my own control-room. I’m a musician more than an engineer, but I find it a very satisfying experience mixing on ProTools, because you don’t have to set it up every time, it can all be kept internal. I don’t use outboard gear; I only use the plug-ins within the ProTools.
Why did you have different release dates for the album when it was launched abroad?
It was mostly because we hadn’t got the deals together with particular companies. We wanted it to be like it is in England, where we have independent relationships with distributors. But even with a major you’ll find that the first album comes out in the first territories, and then eventually in other countries. On the second album we’ll probably go for a much more co-ordinated release date.
In what ways has the success of Katie Melua changed Dramatico?
It’s given me both artistic and commercial freedom, which I have to be careful not to misuse, in terms of what other records I want to make or issue. If I find an artist somewhere who really turns me on, and who makes me think that this artist could be very successful, I can sign that artist. I don’t have to go slapping around record companies, asking them if I can sign to them, and then be completely in their control.
How did you manage to break her?
The key thing in breaking Katie was the fact that she’s an extraordinary artist. I knew that we would break her eventually - even if it took a year or two - just because she’s so strong as a singer and interpreter of songs, as well as being a good songwriter. It’s her composure and her attitude when she’s performing - the songs come across in a very sincere and confident way, which I think is very attractive to people.
But in marketing terms the key thing was having some luck on the radio with Terry Wogan’s show on Radio Two, which is very powerful. They played her record twice a week for several months. We also managed to get her on a big television show in the UK, called the Royal Variety Show.
We also started the TV campaign around her at that point - a small amount to start with - and then we gradually built her career on the initial chart position she’d reached through that TV advertising. We were able to undertake the advertising because we were so confident that she would break through as an artist.
Did you have an initial plan to present the material to jazz and “adult” music-orientated radio stations?
Not particularly. We did know that there were several audiences for her. It’s very hard to advertise efficiently to a wide demographic. But the good thing about it is that because you know a lot of people will find the artist attractive, you don’t need to target specific demographic groups - wherever you advertise, you’ll have a result, in a way.
When we first started TV advertising, we chose sophisticated young thinking shows like Sex and the City, Will & Grace and Friends, knowing that women listen to lyrics and are moved by songs very much more than men are.
We made the record without aiming at a demographic musical or other target group. It’s demonstrated by the audience we see at concerts; you’ll see very young people, and middle-aged couples holding hands, singing all the words to all of the songs. And there are much older people as well.
How important is image to an artist like Katie Melua?
Well, we don’t work with stylists. What Katie wears is what she chooses. My wife helps; she’s also conscious and aware and able when it comes to things like clothes and stuff like that. There are several people involved in advising Katie what to wear for particular shows, but generally speaking we don’t have stylists.
Being both an artist and a businessman involves different skills; in what way do these roles benefit from each other?
I think you’re never only either an artist or a businessman; nor are you both and only both. You have to have an entrepreneurial spirit, which comes along with being adventurous. If you’re adventurous creatively, combined with being adventurous in a business sense, to me that is where you can create something special.
Being a good businessman means you’re able to do a good deal, to screw a load of money out of a record company, which I’ve been quite good at doing over the years, I have to admit. Or you’re able to do a great publishing deal, because you know what the parameters of a publishing deal are, and the best terms you can get. But the entrepreneurial side of it is separate; it’s somewhere between the artist and the businessman, and that’s the pea, the missing link you sometimes find in people.
Have you ever experienced any tension between being commercial and creative?
Not exactly tension. I’ve done things more out of feeling, or out of fun, rather than anything else. And some might have turned out to be mistakes, but I’ve never cared too much about image when I’ve been doing commercials, or something for children, which I’ve enjoyed enormously. Some less tolerant people in the music business might view that as being slightly unwise, but I don’t regret any of it myself.
About two or three years ago I was talking to a friend of mine, who’s quite a well known rock star, and he said: “I wish I could do all the different things you do”. He wished he was allowed to. “What do you mean?” I said. He continued: “Well, you do film schools! In the past you’ve done commercials…”
Would you work with an artist who you think will sell a lot, but whose music doesn’t attract you?
No, I never would do that.
How important is authenticity?
Well, technically authenticity means ‘it is real’, and therefore it could mean anything. It’s 100% possible to be genuine, and I think I am 100% genuine all of the time. If you made a record with a pretty girl who couldn’t sing, and you’d faked it, it would be false - that’s a lack of authenticity.
I do find it very difficult to write with other people, and the reason is that I feel that a song is very personal. It’s like my song “Soldier Song”, which is about a soldier that goes off to war as a young lad. You project yourself into the mind of this person - it might be a woman, or an old man - but you write with geniuses like any dramatist would.
When you write music, do you have a specific artist or a situation in mind?
Not always. Sometimes. If I sat down today and write a song, I would be thinking of Katie, but it doesn’t mean that every time I write a song it’s because I have a commercial pressure - it’s more an artistic pressure. But I work much better with a deadline.
How do you compose music?
Usually I sit at the piano and play until an idea comes. If it’s a song, I will usually be thinking of lyrics and melody at the same time. I can easily have an idea on a plane, or on a train, but I’ll have to sit at the piano to write a tune. Sometimes I’ll come to the piano with a few lyrics in mind that I’ve written somewhere out on the road, and then shape it into a song, and then finish up the lyrics.
What factors are most important in writing music?
The most important factor with any art, whether it’s painting, drawing, sculpting or writing songs, is to just start doing something. There’s nothing worse than a blank piece of paper. And I think to write something down, whatever it is - even if it’s absolute crap, because you can change it… if you put the first idea down, it may lead to a second, which is better than the first. I don’t think there’s anything called ‘writer’s block’ - you just have to keep on writing. Think of it like a job and sit down until you get something.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
If you could get rid of the snobbishness, which creates a false impression of what ‘coolness’ is, that would be very helpful. In America, ‘cool’ is important, but not quite that important; there are ways around it. I’m talking about allowing an artist to be heard by the public.
There’s a filter, through which you have to go, that’s called ‘the media’. The people who control the media, including the record companies, are people who exchange values. They share this sense of feeling whether something is cool or not cool. If they could be a little bit more talented and perceive the quality of music, which isn’t necessarily central to their genre, then people would be allowed to cross between genres much more easily, without the disdain and contempt of people who are protecting their own corner.
To make that happen, observers, the critics, the record company executives, would all have to become cleverer, because they’d have to be able to judge something on its merit. At the moment they’re judging it on whether it’s cool, or whether it’s on the front-page of the NME. They’re following each other around. Most new acts wear clothes and sing songs that are very similar to acts that are already around.
What was your biggest moment in the music business?
There were two. One was going to No.1 with “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel, and the other was going to No.1 with Katie Melua this year. The first was because it was a world-class artist. And the second one was because it was somebody who I found from scratch, and worked together with. And it was on my own label.
What are your future plans?
I just bought back all my old albums from Sony. We’re going to put out a series of twelve double albums called the Mike Batt Archive Series, where you get a double album for the price of a single album. There’ll be two solo albums in each digi-pack. They’re not going to sell millions - it’s just a personal pleasure.
We’ll release Robert Meadmore’s album in two weeks. It’s a classical album. He’s more of a theatre-singer. And for my next album, I might find a black blues-singer in Chicago, or a brilliant viola-player… Either way, I like to work with quality people who deserve a break, and who can give me some pleasure through working with them, musically.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman