Interview with CAROLINE ELLERAY, publisher at BMG Publishing UK for Coldplay, Keane - Sep 26, 2005
“I think we’re in an era where it is more about real bands with their own songs. You don’t have to have a very well produced demo anymore, as long as the song is really great,”
… says Caroline Elleray, Music Week Award winner and publisher at BMG Music Publishing UK. She is credited for publishing Coldplay (US No.1) and Keane (UK No.1) before they made it big.
Read about how publishers can help unsigned artists, how she approaches record labels, how she found Coldplay and what advice she has for aspiring songwriters and bands.
How did you get started in the music business?
Straight after graduating from college I started work at Strawberry Recording Studios in Stockport, Manchester. I was a general team member for a little while, and then very quickly made my way up to studio manager. That was in 1989, when Manchester was really booming and we had Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and The Charlatans - bands who all worked in that studio.
I started to manage a couple of bands and run my own label soon after, and I left the studio in 1993 to concentrate on managing the bands. I also did a bit of work for a regional promotion company. Then in 1995 I met Ian Ramage from BMG Publishing, who was at EMI Records at the time, and he offered me a job as a consultant at BMG Publishing.
I really went in knowing very little, only what I’d gathered from working in the recording studio and managing bands. I then decided to just work as a consultant at BMG, and was made full-time in 2000. And I’ve been there ever since.
What experiences have shaped your skills as a publisher?
It’s always had a big empathy with bands. Because I had so much experience in the studios and as a manager getting to know the record labels and how they worked it meant that I could help position a band, and knew better how to approach record labels. Often a band can slip through the net when they have all the qualities and everything that they need apart from the elusive record company. But I don’t think I specifically learned how to be a publisher until I actually was one.
Is one of your main objectives as a publisher to find and develop artists?
It’s always appealed to me more to be involved with an artist in the early stages of their career. One of the things I always aspire to do is to put the right team around a band, and that’s a sort of combination of the team that we have at BMG plus whatever team that we can help secure for the band, whether that’s a press person or a regional radio person or an agent or a manager. So, that’s what I find most satisfying - finding a band that I love and then persuading a whole bunch of other people to love them too.
With Keane, I spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room with them, and various people came to see them who we thought might ultimately want to work with them. It’s a very gradual development process, and we very rarely suggest that a band alters what they’re doing, because they have a much more definitive vision of where they want to be. We just try to help nurture what’s best about them without loosing any of their unique qualities.
Who chooses the team around a band?
Generally, it’s myself with the manager. BMG Publishing is quite unique, because within our A&R department we have such a various bunch of people who all have different sorts of specialties. We’ve got a chap called Johnny Davis, who’s based in Belfast; he’s recently signed Hard-Fi, and he’s originally from a radio promotions background. And we’ve got Ian Ramage, whose background is marketing.
We’ve got a chap called Joe Etchells, who was in promotions, and Tom Campion, who ran a record label. Everyone within our team has a different level of expertise, and between us we bring all of our varied qualities to the new bands that we get involved with, and help to find the best people for them. And it’s generally done alongside the management of our new bands.
Do you develop their songwriting?
I’m not a songwriter, and I have total respect for the art of songwriting, but I think all of us in some way think we have an instinct for spotting songs that could be hits, otherwise we wouldn’t really be doing what we’re doing. If I pride myself in one thing it’s probably that I can recognize a song that’s going to be broadly loved.
And if I get the opportunity, I will gently steer a writer or an artist towards the songs that I think have more chance of being heard and being successful. I know that sounds kind of vague, but it’s such a vague and subjective process.
After a band has become successful, what is your role for the band?
We’re really keen for our newer bands to be included in all the marketing meetings at the record companies. For instance, Hard-Fi were at quite early days in their development when Atlantic Records very kindly invited us along to their marketing meetings so we could have a little input and maybe help them to get the appropriate things.
Hard-Fi is a good example again, because we’ve got them a lot of sync activity around sporting events, like Premiership football, which is quite appropriate for their kind of market. And I just generally like to keep in dialogue with the A&R and the marketing team as far as I can.
At what point does it make sense for an artist to sign with a major publisher?
Bands might do a small deal before they’re even ready to put out a record. Or in some cases we’ve even got involved after just a handful of gigs, because we believe we can help them get to the next stage. Or we’ve given them money to do demos.
Or it can be like Massive Attack, one of our recent signings, who have always been an absolute personal favourite British artist of mine, and we helped get a little bit involved with their next album.
Can you give us an example of an artist you are currently developing?
We signed a writer last week called Declan O’Rourke, who’s actually released an album in Ireland, but we want to help the rest of the world hear about Declan O’Rourke, and it might be as simple as slightly changing the running order of the album or specifically helping him to get a tour in a certain territory.
What style of music do you focus on?
Personally, I always lean more towards what you would call alternative-rock music, but I love some pop music and I love some dance music, because I’m not rigid in what I get involved with.
Have any pitches worked perfectly in the past?
We had a really lucky set of circumstances with Jamelia. At one point, after having finished “A Rush Of Blood To The Head”, the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, wanted to work with another artist, or write with or for another artist, and we had Jamelia in mind.
And by happy coincidence we went into the studio and Chris said: “I know who I want to work with! Jamelia!” So, that worked out really fine. They wrote “See It In A Boy’s Eyes” together, which was a Europe-wide success.
Is the responsibility for releasing songs shared between the songwriter and the publisher?
The manager is often the key. If the songwriter has a really pro-active manager then our lives are made very easy. For example, Phil Sonali and Jimmy Hogar, who we publish, are managed by a chap called Bill Stonebridge, and he’s the most active, efficient, thorough manager, and it makes a publishers’ job incredibly easy.
How important is it that the production is already good at the demo stage when pitching a song?
I think it was important a little while ago. The production became more important than the actual song itself, and that’s how a lot of production deals were set up. I don’t think that it’s as important now, because pop music isn’t as prevalent as it might have been six months ago.
I think we’re in an era where it is more about real bands with their own songs. The number of artists that you can pitch to has shrunk; it’s just a handful of caliber artists that you can pitch songs to. I think it’s a very different climate than it used to be. You don’t have to have a very well produced demo anymore, as long as the song is really great.
How involved are you with the productions?
I like to make suggestions about producers, because of my background in the recording studio. I’ve suggested Ken Nelson for Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay and Kings of Convenience, because I think he’s fantastic. We publish a band called The Earlies, and they’ve been producing a lot of other artists recently and their profile as producers has developed, but as a general rule we make suggestions but we tend not to interfere too much in that process.
How did you first come into contact with Coldplay and Keane?
Coldplay played at ‘In The City’ in 1998, and a friend of mine, Debs Wild, saw them and told me about them, and that’s how I first got to hear them. And then I got to know the manager, Phil Harvey, and got to know the band.
Keane actually came to me through Coldplay. Their manager, Adam Tudhope, got in touch with them because Coldplay’s manager Phil Harvey had recommended that he did, and they had in fact played a gig together many years ago. So I got to know Keane through my contacts with Coldplay.
Were there many publishers bidding for them?
No, not at all.
Did anything other than the fact that you loved their music contribute to your wish to sign them?
Just playing them to lots of people, all kinds of people - and seemingly everyone thought they were wonderful. Only a couple of people didn’t really see it. But there was no specific factor that I could list that made me want to work with them. They just were great.
Their chart presence in the States - what opportunities did that create?
Our American sync department is amazing, and even though neither Coldplay or Keane particularly do a lot of things - because they’re very choosy about the things that they want to do – they’ve opened a lot of doors for our marketing team. And we are particularly helped by Ron Broitman, who is just amazing at creating sync opportunities for our bands.
For instance, he went to see Kings Of Convenience when they did a gig in America and the next thing we knew we had about six syncs on the table for them. So, that’s how it affected things and opened doors in America. And it also means that we’ve been able to develop a few more relationships with A&R people over there. I do think that a lot of our new crop of artists have a really good shot at some success in the US.
We’ve signed a girl called Lesley Feist, and she’s had a little success in the UK so far, but her profile has really started to build in America. And I think Hard-Fi have got a really good chance of doing something great in America, because there’s a lot of excitement at this stage.
This guy Declan O’Rourke who we’ve just signed with - I think if he has the right representation in the States, he could do incredibly well over there, in the way that maybe David Gray did previously.
How do you find bands? What sources are most effective?
Generally, all the artists are very good at putting me onto new things, because often they’ll see the support bands or they’ll just be exposed to new talent. Small labels are always good, and little independent record shops, or all the managers who you trust recommending new artists.
It’s very rare that you get something unsolicited through the post that you could really follow into. It generally comes recommended from someone you know and you trust their taste.
How important is it to have a relationship with an A&R or manager in order to get your song taken?
I think any songwriter who hasn’t got a publisher should decide in their own mind who they would like to have perform their song. I think they’ve got to do their research. I think any songwriter has got to have a really clear vision.
If they believe they’ve got a hit song, they should be very single minded and decide on the route for their own song, and seek out the people that they will think will enjoy what they do and will help them to get their songs cut.
What does a contract with a new writer or band generally include?
Generally, we just have options for albums with a band or a solo artist, and with a songwriter we generally have a specific minimum commitment and then move into a next option period.
You are working both in Manchester and London - why?
I believe that being up here in Manchester means that I can see things a little differently and I’m not too lost in the London thing. It’s hard to describe, but I think it’s quite good to keep a little distance and do things in your own way, and I manage to do that by staying up in Manchester and just spending a day or two a week in London.
How should bands deal with the situation that almost the whole UK industry is based in London?
Most of the great bands have come out of Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland, Sheffield or Leeds, and what tends to happen, because I’m based up here, is that whenever one of our bands is touring and they’re playing in one of those northern towns, then I get to see them when no one else is around and I get a better contact with the band.
For instance, if Keane was playing in Manchester next week, having played a couple of gigs in London, everyone from the record company or the agents would have seen them in London, and then they go on to Manchester and I get them all to myself. So, it makes a lot of sense to have an office up here.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
We’ve got a little P.O. Box and we gather together a lot of CDs there, and we absolutely listen to everything we get. But it is, as we often say, far better to have a thing recommended from elsewhere.
What do you look for when listening to a new artist?
The song that makes your ears prickle. One band that we signed recently – Hush, who are from Denmark, were recommended to us by Kevin Robinson (Universal Records UK). He had been to The Spot Festival in Aarhus last May, and he saw them playing acoustically in one of the tents and just thought they were amazing. So he tipped off Tom Campion from BMG about them.
And we put the CD on during our marathon listening session and at first it was just one particular song that absolutely stood out, but as we listened more and more we realized that there were lots of great songs in there. Again, there’s no real guideline, it’s just instinctively hearing something that you believe can work.
It was the same with Hard-Fi, when we heard “Cash Machine”. We heard about them through a radioplugger, and we put the CD on in the office and immediately felt it sounded like a hit song. Then we gradually got more repertoire.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of the songwriting itself?
Just absolutely bury yourself in music, and do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you think you can make a load of money out of it. Draw from personal experience and think of things that people haven’t written about before. It’s not so much about the structure of the song, it’s about the emotion within a song.
If they’re writing about an experience from their life that really had an impact on their life, then it’ll sound great. And that’s the bottom line, that it’s genuine, from the heart and from a personal experience. I think people can spot that. I think the general public is not stupid; if there’s real emotion in the song it touches them, and if a writer tries to falsify that or manufacture it, I think they’ll be found out.
New artists are often dropped by major record labels when their debut album doesn’t produce a profit, because major labels don’t have the patience to wait for an artist to break over the course of three albums. Are major music publishers in the same situation, or are you able to give new songwriters/artists more time?
We can stick with it a little longer. We don’t have all the market forces. We don’t have to do a lot of TV advertising or give financial support for a huge tour, but we will do all of those things if we think we can help our artist. But we’re not under that much pressure because we don’t have the great big marketing expenses that the labels have. So, we can be a little bit more broadminded.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
There have always been limited opportunities for female and black musicians from the north of England. And I worked with an amazing band called Parish from Manchester about five or six years ago, and they had the most incredible pop songs, but the industry in London was seemingly quite resistant. It’s a quite an old fashioned industry, and there have never been hugely successful female artists from the north of England, apart from maybe Lisa Stansfield, which was fifteen years ago now.
I think it’s about time for an amazing female artist and some amazing black guys from the region. And it’s strange, because every year in ‘In The City’ they try to put on the urban unsigned, and for some reason there always seems to be problems with it. But I’ve seen that there are some fantastic urban artists out there that we’re just missing, and that’s why in some areas we’re not really properly competing with the US, apart from a couple of isolated success stories in London like Lemar or Craig David. I think under-represented people should have more opportunities to present themselves.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Getting the Music Week Award was pretty amazing. Keane getting a Brit Award was amazing. And obviously, Coldplay’s first No.1 album was just mindblowing. When you work with somebody for so long it’s just so satisfying. I just cried at the Brit Awards when Keane got a Brit.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Jerome Foster AKA Knobody, A&R at SRC for Akon
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