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Interview with DARRIN WOODFORD, A&R at Echo for Feeder (UK Top 5), Moloko (UK Top 5) - Jan 21, 2005

“We get 500 songs per week and everything gets a listen”.

picture Based in London, Darrin Woodford is an A&R at the independent record label Echo. He works with the rock band Feeder (UK Top 5) and the dance duo Moloko (UK Top 5), among others.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?

I was in a band called the Cherry Blades many years ago and my manager at the time told me about this job at Echo. I applied for it—the first job I applied for in the music industry—and I got it. I’ve actually spent all of my career in the music industry, which spans about eleven years, at Echo.

I started as a scout and, because it was a new company and I was able to participate in the record-making process, I managed to move up pretty quickly.

What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?

Watching Feeder, and particularly their songwriting, progress from their first album up until now has been very important to me. Being a musician beforehand has also helped me to understand the creative side of making records.

An A&R needs to be able to understand that an artist’s whole life and career is based on getting a record deal and getting a record out. The team at Echo have been helpful from the start and they have a lot of experience, which they have passed onto me.

If you were an artist, by what criteria would you judge an A&R and label if they were offering you a deal?

Their enthusiasm would probably be a determining factor. The A&R should be able to understand what the music is about, but creative freedom, that is, being allowed to make the music that’s inside your head, is most important of all.

Would you consider the A&R’s track record?

You’d have to look at that as well, but personal chemistry is more important. What I would look for is someone you can get on with.

As an A&R rep, how involved are you in negotiating the recording contract with an artist whom you want to sign?

We sit down and talk about what kind of deal we want to make and, right from the initial offer, I am pretty involved in the negotiating process.

What is Echo?

Echo is an independent label that was started eleven years ago by the Chrysalis Group.

What kind of music do you work on?

We’re quite eclectic. I’d say it’s alternative rock or dance that’s left of centre.

What artists are you currently working with?

Feeder, Moloko, Morcheeba, the Stands, Engineers, I Am Kloot, Ray Lamontagne, the Vacation, Roisin Murphy and the Acoustic compilation series

What does your work with Feeder involve?

I help them to work with the right producer, I find studios, I listen to the mixes and I help with the mastering. For the last three Feeder albums, we’ve had a pretty constant team around the band.

How have they developed musically?

They’ve changed their sound and they’re starting to appeal to a different audience. When they first started out, they had a rock sound that appealed to a young audience, and that sound has now developed into something that lies somewhere between U2 and Coldplay. Their songwriting has also matured, particularly their lyrics.

It took three albums for them to break, which is a rare occurrence today. Did you consciously take a long-term approach?

When we put Feeder’s first record out, we were a brand new label and our agenda was always to allow them to develop over three records. We wanted to go against the grain of what major labels were doing at the time, because they didn’t seem to be interested in developing artists.

It took a while for radio to get into playing the band, so initially we had to build them through their live performances. They have always sold well for us, from the release of their first record, which was silver in the UK, so we obviously wanted to do a second and a third record, and we saw them grow with every album.

It was a natural progression and an obvious thing to do, but it would certainly be hard to find that kind of patience at other labels. Labels want to see a return on their investment as quickly as possible, and that’s a simple fact.

How do you find new talent?

Through word of mouth and contacts. In the UK, there is a really healthy DIY ethic and artists have a tendency to release records by themselves or through small labels, so you’ll often start to hear about them as a result of that.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

Yes, we do. We get about a five hundred songs per week and everything gets a listen. Generally, bands who send in demos are at an early stage in their development and they still need to go out and play live or even make another recording. You never know though; I do get stuff through the post that’s really good.

How ready-to-go must the artists be?

I get a lot of records that are almost finished as they are and then there are others that need more development. There are no rules—it all has to start with a passion for the music, when you hear something and get excited about it. We usually sign an act when they have three songs that we love, and then we try to get them together with a producer.

Is it important that they already have a fan base?

No, not at all. We don’t mind starting entirely from scratch.

How important is it that the artists you work with are also songwriters?

The artists that have appealed to me have always been songwriters. I like artists who have strong opinions and artists who do tend to write their own songs.

What advice would you give unsigned acts on building their careers at the independent level?

You can’t replace going out and playing live—that’s the most important medium for learning your craft. If you’re good enough, you’ll build a fan base and then get discovered.

What methods do you generally employ to break new artists?

It has to be a mixture of TV, radio, press and touring, although it does depend on the band. Some of our bands are currently breaking purely through playing live and we’re breaking other bands through TV.

It’s usually a mixture of all these things, but word of mouth and the Internet are becoming very important in selling our records. People seem desperate to check out new artists and explore new music via the Internet.

Do you offer your artists tour support?

Tour support is always an important part of our record deals. I don’t think that we’ve ever denied anyone tour support.

Should labels that offer tour support take a percentage of the touring income?

That is an important issue that is currently being debated at record labels. We don’t get a share of the touring income at the moment but we’d obviously like to.

How heavily does radio weigh in the balance when you’re considering whether to sign a new artist?

It’s always a consideration. While you listen to the tracks, you have to think about the radio stations they might get played on. There are different ways of breaking bands but, ultimately, at some point, you have to get the band on the radio, so it is very important.

Do you recoup the costs of recording an album from the artist’s royalties?

Yes, all the recording costs are recoupable, but we’ve started to change the way we do things and we’re now making more joint-venture deals.

How do you view the current music business climate?

Lots of people are really downbeat about the whole music industry but I think that it’s undergoing a period of change and that’s really exciting. We’re really excited about the releases we have coming up and we’re really focused on what we’re doing.

There’s some great music around but it has become harder for bands to get record deals. Artists have had to start releasing their records themselves and new independent labels are springing up. People have learnt to be more resourceful and I think that makes for a more exciting climate.

The world’s changing cultural climate has really started to change the way people approach music, and things like the Iraq war have made people a lot more serious about their music and less concerned with celebrating and partying.

What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?

I quite like the way it is at the moment, because I think that everything gets an opportunity. Dance music has gone a bit more underground but I think that that will create new, exciting sounds. I never really aim to sign a particular kind of band; it’s all music and I simply try to find something I like.

What aspect of the music industry would you change?

I’d like to see more independent options, so more independent labels would be a welcome change.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

Seeing Feeder playing at Wembley was quite a big moment for me.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

Doing A&R!

Jean-François Méan

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