Interview - Mar 24, 2005
“Talent is everywhere nowadays—there’s a very healthy band scene in England”,… says Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, A&R at Island UK, a Universal Label. Artists he works with include Keane (UK No.1), Gabrielle (UK No.1) and Portishead. He was awarded No.1 on the UK Top 40 A&R Chart of 2004.
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 at the time managed Yes, amongst 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 as I didn’t get on very well with the boss and after six months he gave me the sack. 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 joint venture with Polygram. I decided I wanted to stay with my artists, and so I carried on running with Go! Beat as a satellite label to Polygram, using Polydor as its marketing company which began my relationship with Lucian Grainge.
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until the end of our contract when I decided to sell my part of it to Polygram, because it had become something of an outdated business model to have a small company through a major.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, the chairman, 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 Vek.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
In different ways you learn everything on the first things you do and in Gabrielle and Portishead I couldn’t have had two more different approaches. With Gabrielle I was very involved in choosing the collaborators, the style of music, the songwriters, I even co-wrote some of her songs.
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 I heard 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 a picture of what it should be in the end and to 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 right and you take less of a chance in those cases.
What artists are you currently working with?
Keane, Gabrielle, Portishead, and Tom Vek, 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 this case the hard thing was getting them more than finding 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, and I 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 had I not 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 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. I think the most important thing was that I liked them just as they were. They also liked the Island “ethic” and were similarly impressed with our partners in the U.S - Interscope.
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, by the time they were signed they had a good name as a band. They also built a good buzz at 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 develop the band.
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 making sure that they found the right persons 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 have 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 the singles that could reach the people who hadn’t heard of them, the second wave of people that may not be the tastemakers and 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 some ideas that it was going to sell and 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 now these days. It’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. Stephen Bass (from Island) is a genius at this!
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 outside of songwriting, then you need to find 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, although I have only signed artists who write their own songs.
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 big labels and it’s now a time where you start off with an independent or build some stuff on your own and the bigger labels will get involved later. Obviously, that’s not always the case, but it’s a very healthy climate. There are also new 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 it’s 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?
In any capacity I’ll be doing the same thing: working with talented artists…hopefully!
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman