Interview with MATTHEW RUMBOLD, A&R at EMI - Aug 14, 2006
"One of the main things for A&R people to do is to get out of the way. If something is going well, youíre going to offer a few things, but you donít want to get in there with the A&R sledgehammer,"... goes Matthew Rumbold's support of artistic freedom.
Rumbold, A&R for EMI, signed Corrine Bailey Rae and took her eponymous debut album, released in March 2006, to No.1 in the UK and Top 20 in the US.
He speaks to HitQuarters about the unchanging basics - a good song and a good live performance, as well as about his long aquaintance with Corrine, breaking the US and his eye for a good artist.
How did you start out in the early days?
I started in the press department at Atlantic in the early 90s. Then I moved around a bit and started doing press again for Creation Records in 1994. So I had a grounding in the industry. Then I went away for a year to India, came back, and realized that what I really wanted to do was A&R.
I started writing reports and sending them to Heads of A&R at various labels. I ended up getting a job at Food Records in 1996, which was the home of Blur, amongst other bands. I worked there for five years and did three signings; Idlewild, Liz Horseman, Matthew Jay.
Food was a wholly owned subsidiary of EMI. After five years they ended their association. I was asked to come and work for EMI full time. I worked for Parlophone for a year and now Iím based at the EMI label.
Is it still EMI's strategy to develop Ďslow-burní artists who gain exposure through word-of-mouth?
Yes, thatís the best way of doing things. Developing artists as much as you can out of the public eye before the songs are ready. When you sign an artist, you hope that things like the voice and the shape of the band or the attitude of the singer are already in place, so you just need to make sure that all the songs are there.
How do you work with your A&R team?
We have four A&R people that work here. Everyone is pretty much on an even keel. We all try to cover different areas. Itís about trying to find something that you totally love and then trying to make that successful. Thatís the attitude here. Just sign as few things as possible and try to make them work.
What kind of new artists are you interested in?
For the last six months Iíve been focused a lot on the Corinne Bailey Rae campaign. There hasnít been a lot of time to look at new artists. Iím only just starting now to look at new things. I tend not to like a lot of stuff. I would offer on maybe two or three acts a year.
What styles of music do you focus on?
All sorts of things. I like Keane, the Guillemots, Corinne Bailey Rae, Bloc Party, Martha Wainwright. Itís quite a diverse thing. I love female voices. Besides Corinne Bailey Rae, I work with Beth Orton, The Divine Comedy, and Claire Sproule.
When do you see artists perform live?
Iím out at least once or twice a week. Itís important. Thatís where you can make a real connection with an artist. The demos arenít necessarily showing the full picture. You should be able to get a strong picture live.
What input do you have on the production?
Mainly advisory more than anything else. If you have an idea that someone might work well, whether itís their personality or artistically and creatively, then you suggest that. The strongest artists are the ones that have a lot of ideas themselves.
Whatís discussed in the initial meetings and how do you go about working with a new artist?
The melodic content of the songs, and whether there are any key songs. And then you go through them. If the production is good but it needs to be better Iíll make suggestions about various things. For example, the original production of the Corinne Bailey Rae song ĎPut Your Records Oní just needed tidying up on the snares and various other things, but it was quite nearly there anyway.
One of the main things for A&R people to do is to get out of the way. If something is going well, youíre going to offer a few things, but you donít want to get in there with the A&R sledgehammer.
I do spend a fair amount of time in the mix studio, because thatís somewhere where you can maybe offer a good sort of outsiderís aspect. If an artist is working on a track for two or three weeks in a mix situation, it can become a bit intense. A fresh pair of ears can be very useful in those situations.
How much patience do you have for a project?
Iíve got infinite patience. I worked with Idlewild for four albums, a band I truly love. We tried all sort of things in terms of suggestions and help in production and writing. They got very close to breaking up, but they never did.
But I feel thereís always room for patience. You always want to try and help artists achieve what they want. If they donít want to be successful then you canít manufacture that, but if they do, you just try and help.
The point of A&R is to help decide how good the songs are, and if they arenít strong enough, to encourage further writing.
How did you end up working with Corinne Bailey Rae?
I saw her about eight years ago when she was in an indie band called Helen. I stayed in touch with her manager Bob Miller through the interim years. She went to university to study. He brought in some new material and I met Corinne again.
And it wasnít until I saw her play live about two and a half years ago that it really clicked, and I realised she was doing something totally unique. It was an amazing live show where she did four songs. And it was like, Ďwe need to get involved here pretty quicklyí. We negotiated the deal and we signed it in May 2005.
What is her success story?
An incredibly focused artist, who pretty much runs the show. As an artist she is intriguing. She has a fabulous voice, a really unique voice. And she is a great writer.She did a production deal with a company called Good Groove about six months before I saw her play that amazing show. That was a confidence booster for her.
She was just developing as a writer. She had done a publishing deal. She had written with a lot of people. When I saw her she had written the majority of the songs. ĎPut Your Records Oní was the last song that came to the table.
What are the future plans for her?
The record seems to be gathering a lot of interest in America. It just spent six weeks in the Billboard Top 20. Weíve got a good campaign set up for her third single in the UK, which comes out in October.
How difficult is it for British artists to break in the U.S.?
If you can be distinctive in the marketplace over there and not sound ĎAmericaní, it seems to help. Cathy Thompson and James Blunt have done well there recently. Corinne as a great vocalist and performer definitely seems to be touching people over there.
Corinne has always said that she wants people to see her live. She enjoys performing so much. We based a lot around that. TV performances helped as well, where people can see that she is a genuine performer. Sheís writing her songs and when she performs them live you can see that theyíre sung from the heart. The key thing for her is to be seen live.
How do you find new talent?
Contacts are important. And just staying aware of things. I meet up with publishers, other A&R people, managers and with a few people around the country regularly. I can pretty much stay on top of most things.
I try not to receive any unsolicited material. We have somebody who listens through to those things. I get emails a lot, and thatís a more direct route to me.
What do you look for in an artist?
You want something unique. You want to see if the songs are strong, and if the voice is arresting. Iím sitting here in an office and those are the two things I can really judge. You can look at pictures and stuff, but they donít mean much until you meet someone.
Once you meet them, itís that sense of being with an artist as opposed to being with someone who either just wants to make money or is just doing it for a laugh. You want to be with someone who wants to make it their lifeís work.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
In order to sign them you always need a number of great songs. If you donít have those songs then often things can fall apart. Weíve all sat in a bath singing songs. These songs are the ones you want to get to.
They should present themselves as honestly as possible. Especially if youíre going to be working with an artist over a number of years, you want that relationship to start off on an honest basis.
If itís all about the songs then, what should a song sound like?
If we could all write great songs, thatís what weíd do, the people in the music industry. Itís trying to do something a little bit unpredictable, a little bit less obvious.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
A great live performance. Whether itís a band like The Killers or The Strokes, or a great singer like Janis Joplin, it doesnít have to be about looks, it just has to be about passion and great performances.
How much does it typically cost to record an album and then market and promote it?
If a record is already made then it only costs you the amount that it costs to sign the advance of the cost. Realistically, it could be anything from 20, 000 to 30,000 Pounds all the way through to 300,000 or 400,000 Pounds to make a record. On marketing you can spend the same amount.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís pretty good at the moment. People are buying records. Theyíre not buying them in as bigger quantities as they used to be, but theyíre still buying great records and there are still a lot of them being made. A lot of the music around at the moment is pretty good. You turn on the radio and you donít want to turn it off within five minutes.
If you turned into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Inevitably, youíd have to think about whether they had some degree of success before. So youíd look at whether they could help you out in that respect, purely just by the fact that they have the experience behind them. Also you look at labels and you think: ďDo I like some of the artists on their roster?Ē If you donít like any of them, then itís probably not going to be the right culture for you to develop in.
In what direction do you think record companies will evolve?
The whole digital market is just growing in leaps and bounds. As long as the labels can make sure that the consumers feel as though they own digital musicÖ Itís not just something that is in thin air, itís about the physical attachment that you have to CDs. The labels need to concentrate on making sure that consumers feel the same way about the digital tracks.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would love to have a crystal ball in A&R. I want to be able to see into the future. But thatís probably asking quite a lot.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Definitely when Corinneís album went to No.1. That was just an exciting moment. I was very pleased for her. She totally deserved it.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 yearsí time?
Iíd like to still be doing A&R. I really love it. Itís the heart of the music industry. I wouldnít want to get too far away from it.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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