Interview with FERDY UNGER-HAMILTON, A&R at Island for Keane (UK No.1), Portishead - Mar 21, 2005
“Talent is everywhere nowadays—there’s a very healthy band scene in England”,
… says Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, A&R at the Universal label Island UK. Artists he works with include Keane (UK No.1), Gabrielle (UK No.1) and Portishead and he was awarded No.1 on the UK Top 40 A&R Chart of 2004.
In this interview Unger-Hamilton talks about his "hands off" approach with Portishead, how the unsigned Keane cultivated a massive industry buzz, and about getting a seal of approval from Bob Dylan.
How did you get started in the music business, and how did you become an A&R?
When I was seventeen I worked for Brian Lane, who was managing Yes at the time, among others. I learnt a bit about music from him, and I worked out what A&R was. I also toured with a group for nine months and after that got a job as a scout at Chrysalis Music. It didn’t last very long—I didn’t get on very well with the boss, and he sacked me after six months. But I was determined to stay in A&R, and I got a job at Go! Discs. After a few months there I found Gabrielle, and in the same period I found Portishead as well.
Gabrielle’s first single, “Dreams”, went to No.1, and then we put out the Portishead album, “Dummy”, and it all started to happen from there. Go! Discs was then sold to Polygram, and John Kennedy and Roger Aimes at Polygram asked me if I would like to carry on running Go! Beat and do a 50-50 deal with Polygram. I decided I wanted to stay with my artists, and so I carried on A&R-ing with Go! Beat as a satellite label to Polygram, using Polydor as its marketing company.
I worked with Go! Beat for seven years until the end of our contract when I decided to sell my part of it to Polygram, because it had become something of an outdated business model to have a small company through a major. I spoke to Lucien Grainge, the chairman at the time, and we agreed that it would probably be best for me to go and see Island, another Universal/Polygram label. I got on with Nick Gatfield at Island very well; we had a similar vision of how we wanted things to be. So I folded Go! Beat into Island. Shortly after I got there I found Keane, and now we’ve just signed a new artist, Tom Bek.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
You learn everything from the first things you do, but in different ways—I couldn’t have had two more different approaches with Gabrielle and Portishead. With Gabrielle I was very involved in choosing the collaborators, the style of music, the songwriters, and I even wrote some of her songs myself—I co-wrote “Rise” with her.
With Portishead, I couldn’t have been less involved. They delivered me the album and I just said ‘thank you!’ They played it to me along the way, but I just allowed them to do what they do, and at the end of it we had a fantastic record. Those two experiences at the beginning were so far apart from one another that I just worked out what needed to be done. There’s no rule and sometimes the approach just is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
If you were an artist, by what criteria would you judge an A&R and label if they were offering you a deal?
The important thing is to have an image of what you as an artist ultimately want to be, and see if they share your vision. You should know where you want to end up and make sure that the A&R person understands your sound, your songs and your look. There’s no point in signing to somebody who wants you to be someone that you don’t want to be.
Would you consider the A&R’s track record?
Their track record is something that you would obviously look at, but you can’t assume that somebody is an idiot just because they haven’t done anything yet. Still, if someone has got a track record then you know for a fact that they can do their job properly, which means you’re taking less of a chance.
What artists are you currently working with?
Keane, Gabrielle, Portishead, and Tom Bek, our new signing. He’s a very talented young man from London.
How did you come across Keane?
I first learned about Keane through a pretty big industry buzz; it wasn’t like finding them under a rock. In their case, the hard thing wasn’t so much finding them, but getting them. I started at Island almost at the same time as their buzz was blowing up and the UK was very excited about them. I read a big piece about them in the Sunday Times and I heard “Everybody’s Changing” on the radio, which was initially released on the independent label Fierce Panda. I then went to see a show and they were brilliant.
What attracted you to them?
I heard five songs and every one of them was brilliant. They were “Everybody’s Changing”, “This Is the Last Time”, “She Has No Time”, “Bend and Break” and “Somewhere Only We Know”. Their songwriting was incredible and Tom Chaplin’s voice is amazing, and, again, they had a fantastic live show with lots of energy. As soon as I heard them I wanted to sign them, and even if I hadn’t been able to see them live, I would have tried to sign them anyway.
Several labels were bidding for them, so why did Keane choose Island?
We just got on with each other, and they knew that I didn’t want to change them in any way. I thought that if we could make an album like the five songs I had heard, it would be a good job, and I think that appealed to them. Maybe my track record appealed to them as well, but I think the most important was that I liked them just as they were.
Besides their music, what else was involved in getting them into a position where labels were making offers?
Adam Tudhope, their manager, had done a really good job of making sure that they were always around on the live scene in England, and as a result, they had a good name as a band by the time they were signed. They also had good press, radio and TV. Before they signed the record deal they had signed a publishing deal with BMG Music, with Caroline Elleray, who has a fantastic reputation. BMG also did a great job in helping the band to create a buzz.
What does your work with Keane involve?
In the case of the first album it was just about realising that they knew exactly what they wanted and what they wanted to sound like, and about making sure that they found the right people to help them achieve that sound. When we signed them, they had a lot of songs for their album, “Hopes and Fears”, so it was devilishly easy. We’re about to make a new album now and this time they’ve had to write a new collection of songs.
What was the key to breaking them?
A lot of the work had already been done, and radio knew who they were. They had a big audience and a lot of people knew about them. What we needed to do was to release singles that could reach the people who hadn’t heard of the band; the second wave of people who may not be the tastemakers and who may not be in touch with new music. We needed to get more popular TV channels, radio stations and press. The middle media, if you like.
While we were doing that we were trying to keep the image of the band authentic and not sell it through too fast and too hard. We had an idea that it was going to sell, so we wanted to make sure that we didn’t cheapen the image or the brand that the band have.
How do you find new talent?
It’s everywhere nowadays—there’s a very healthy band scene in England. But I’m trying to look further than that. You can find good stuff on the internet, and press has always been a favourite: I found Portishead by reading about them in a magazine.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, I do. I get five to ten CDs a week and I try to listen to all of them. I encourage artists to send me their demos and I encourage them to write to me by e-mail as well.
How ready-to-go must the artists be?
As an artist you want to make sure you get your point across, musically. You’ve got to have at least one or two songs that sound good and you have to hit people with your best shot; I’d rather listen to one song than many to base my decision. You don’t have to have an album, but if you do have one, then the best way to get a deal is to start making noise yourself. I’m more likely to hear about things that way. Try to release a record yourself. Get some press and get something going.
Is it important that they already have a fan base?
If it sounds good, we’ll sign it. It’s great if they have a fan base, but it’s not necessary.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
Clever people telling me it’s good. It could be a friend, a guy in a record shop or someone in radio who I know likes good music. If somebody smart tells me to check something out, I’ll do it.
How important is it that the artists you work with are also songwriters?
Someone has got to take care of the songs, that’s the thing. If an artist has got a lot of talent but can’t write songs, then you need to find the songwriting talent. If there are certain things that the artist can’t do, such as writing songs and producing music, then he or she has to be aware of that and be content with letting somebody else do it. Great songwriting and great vocals are both necessary, and it’s difficult if your hands are tied by someone who won’t let you improve something.
Do you offer your artists tour support?
Yes, we do. We want our artists to tour at the right time, at the right price, and we want to facilitate that for them. We have experts at Universal in tour support.
Should labels that offer tour support take a percentage of the touring income?
No, I think that labels should make their money from records, and that tour support is an investment in record sales.
How heavily does radio weigh in the balance when you’re considering whether or not to sign a new artist?
I don’t try to work out where it’s going to fit; a true innovator wouldn’t fit in at radio. As I said, if it sounds great we’ll sign it. So little music is genuinely exciting that when you hear an artist that is exciting, you just sign it. No questions. The best artists don’t fit; they create a niche, they don’t follow one.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It has become a lot more homogenised in the way people do business with small labels and beat labels. Nowadays it’s mainly about artists starting off with an independent, or building some stuff on their own, before the bigger labels get involved. Obviously, that’s not always the case, but it’s a very healthy climate. There are also more ways of selling music now at better prices. We’re probably just in the tail-end of a period of change.
What kinds of artists and genres would you like to see gain more popularity?
I’m a bit old school: if they’ve got a good song, then that’s enough. It doesn’t matter if they’re an innovator who fuses a new kind of beat or if they’re just somebody with an acoustic guitar. It’s just the craft of writing songs that I’m interested in.
If you could dramatically change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I’d create more opportunity for new artists. I don’t know how I would do that, but I wish they had more opportunity. As far as the music industry, I’m very pragmatic about it. You have to try to work with the right people, whether they’re the right artists or the right record companies. You can sign a very talented artist, but it can all go wrong if they haven’t got the right attitude. Just as you can sign to a record label for the wrong reasons and have them ruin your career.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Bob Dylan saying that he liked “Rise”, the Gabrielle song, and giving us 50% of the publishing. We used a sample of his track “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on it. He’s kind of my hero.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
I’ll be doing the same thing, in some capacity: working with talented artists.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Keane's current A&R Louis Bloom on his working relationship with the band