Interview with PAUL HARRIS, A&R at B-Unique - Dec 11, 2006
"With us bands can call the guys that own their label every day, whereas you donít have that luxury with a lot of majors"
... assures Paul Harris, A&R for B-Unique, who signed and broke the Kaiser Chiefs (Top 10 UK). Harris shares his knowledge and experience in making the best of both worlds, with the advantages of independent and majors combined.
He also talks to HitQuarters about working for a hit as well as long-term, and the pros and cons of working with the latest internet developements.
You moved over from Warner Bros to B-Unique in 2002. What has happened since?
I started off as a scout here. Previously I was working for an independent PR company, APPR. The Ordinary Boys was the first band I brought in and ended up signing in September 2003. Since then Iíve been promoted to A&R Manager.
How did you first learn about The Ordinary Boys?
When I was working in PR their manager, Mark Nicholson, was looking after another band I was doing the press for. When I moved into A&R he called me up and said: ďIíve got this band, The Ordinary Boys from Worthing. You should go and see them.Ē So I did.
What has changed at B-Unique Records over the last year?
Weíre still fully independent. Nobody owns any part of the label besides Mark Lewis and Martin Toher. We have a lot of our marketing and distribution run through Universal and Polydor. Technically nothing changed in the past year for the set up of the label and the way we operate.
A lot of the times what we do is we set up acts independently and distribute their first couple of singles through Vital and then upstream into the Polydor marketing. And then some acts are still completely independent and run through Vital.
What artists are you currently working with?
Weíre finishing the Kaiser Chiefs album. The Automatic are writing some new songs. And a few new signings; Pull Tiger Tail, Alterkicks, Rex Radio. Those are for next year.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre?
A true sense of identity. It doesnít need to be an image. Just something thatís quite integral to what they are and what theyíre about. All of our acts have that. Also the ability to write a pop song, but at the same time keep it very credible and believable. All our acts do that too.
How did you first learn about Har Mar Superstar?
A friend of mine used to work at Southern Records here, and he distributed the Sean Na Na album, which was Har Marís record before he took on the persona of Har Mar Superstar. I fell in love with this record. I dropped the guy an email and he got back to me.
He started doing this Har Mar Superstar thing and signed to Record Collection in the States. We got a copy of the record in. Mark and Martin went out to LA a couple of weeks later. We ended up licensing it and doing it through our Van Warners agreement that we have.
And The Automatic?
I knew their manager, Martin Bowen, vaguely from Cardiff just from a few other acts that heíd been looking after. He sent me a demo, which had ĎMonsterí on it. I absolutely fell in love with the track. I went to the next available gig, which was in Cardiff on a very cold Thursdaynight.
I drove out there and I was the only A&R person who saw them. I fell in love with the band completely. We signed them about four weeks later, which is probably the quickest deal Iíve ever done.
What was it that made you want to work with The Automatic?
They were possibly the most well-formed live band Iíve ever seen at that level. Iím open to say that the first time I saw the Kaiser Chiefs, it was kind of shambolic, and The Ordinary Boys were certainly all over the place.
But The Automatic were so precise, every part of their show was ready to go, and they have an amazing energy. And of course, the songs were there.
How did they manage to have this live show experience perfected?
I think itís just something that comes from them. Theyíre probably more rock than anything else we have on our roster at the moment. There was an aggression and real energy to it. Also with Pennie, the guy that plays the keyboards, heís just a big ball of energy. He jumps around all over the stage. Itís instantly compelling.
When you can back that up with really good songs as well, then it makes through an incredible show. They barely played outside of Cardiff when I first saw them. It wasnít that they toured and toured.
How did you work with them?
I ran the first single ĎRecoverí out through Vital, and did it the indie way. We build that up with indie marketing and really concentrating on working up Wales. We did a tour with Goldie Lookin Chain. It was really important for us to get that Welsh fanbase going.
We then upstreamed to Polydor for the ĎRaoulí single first release, which did well too. It took it out of Wales and started making it more of a national proposition. And then we dropped ĎMonsterí. That went amazingly well on radio. Itís the highest trying single B-Unique have released. From there it kind of took off.
Why did they choose to sign with B-Unique?
I offered them a deal literally two days after the gig that I saw. There were other labels interested at that point. But their management felt that we had a very good trust, a very strong bond between us.
I spent a lot of time with them, listened to their ideas, discussed what they wanted to do and what I wanted to do. They just felt like they didnít actually want to see anyone else. They were happy with what we were proposing, both financially and creatively.
Itís very appealing to young bands, because we are an independent label but we have the money and the muscle with the Universal thing behind us to take things that bit further.
What can you offer creatively?
In terms of artwork, single choices, videos, anything like that, the bands are always very much consulted. In fact, we take their ideas and work forward with that. I probably speak to one member of every band every day on the phone. Just to keep in touch with their ideas and see whatís going on.
Whatís appealing to them is the fact that they can call up the two guys that own their label and still get through to them every day, whereas you donít have that luxury with a lot of majors.
What was instrumental in breaking them?
Firstly, building that foundation by touring. They went out with Hard-Fi, The Ordinary Boys, The Kooks, Kaiser Chiefs. Those were tours that we build up through friends and other managers that we know.
That was really key to laying the platform for them, because they got a lot of fans on the back of those live days. And obviously, as they are such a strong live band thatís really where they won.
And then it was the way ĎMonsterí took off. That was incredible. We came to release it just at the right time, and worked everything around it quite carefully.
Is there always the plan to break them in the US?
Yes, there is. A deal will be going through with them in the next week over there.
Is that the plan for all of your acts?
In an ideal world Iíd absolutely love to. We had a tough time getting The Ordinary Boys over there. Our plan is always to build and break the UK first, and then if we can get the right team and people to get behind the act in America, then yes, we would always do that.
What would you like to sign next on B-Unique?
Thereís a band that we really love called The Twang. Theyíre quite different to any other act on the label. They have a lot of influences of a lot of things that I was very much into in the early 90ís. Theyíre very much kind of baggy influenced, The Happy Mondays and that whole scene.
They have incredible songs. They donít sound like anything else on the roster, like the kind of B-Unique credible indie bands with pop songs, but it seems like here would be the right home for a band like that.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
We both ask each other a lot of questions. That goes from producers ideas of who the band would want to work with, who we see the band working with, creative ideas artwork-wise and videos. We cover the whole spectrum of ideas really.
What is the time schedule to show some success for a new band that has signed to B-Unique?
All of our deals for every act had been quite different. Thereís no time schedule per se. We sign all our acts with the aim of getting them to sell like 60,000 records in the UK. And if we do that, thatís cool. And anything after that is a bonus. So far we achieved that on every act we signed in the last four years.
How important is it for you to work long term with a band?
The Ordinary Boys is an example for this. They were still licensed to Warners from us at the end of the second album campaign. Warners didnít pick that option up.
Even though the second album hadnít done so well at that time, it was before the Big Brother thing, we still picked that option up. We sign all our bands with a long term proposition. We donít want to lose anything really. We enjoy building careers as much as having a hit.
What does it cost B-Unique to put out a band?
It depends how you make the album and who you make the album with. Matt Hales AKA Aqualung recorded his album himself at home. It was very cheap comparatively to the new Kaiser Chiefs record, which will cost a lot more.
At what point do you go for producing a music video?
On the first single. Obviously, the first single would be a smaller budget, the second single slightly more, the third single slightly more and so on.
These days with outlets like YouTube and being able to post your videos on MySpace, a video, even for a limited edition early single, is a really good tool. For example, Pull Tiger Tail put out an indie single before they signed to us.
They made little videos for like 250 GBP, which got about 3500 views on YouTube. We actually managed to get it played on MTV too when we got involved. Itís certainly an important promotional tool. Even for a small single itís still worth doing.
What input do you have on the production?
The key to a good A&R is actually finding the right band and the right producer and putting them together. I donít tend to sit in the studio tweaking stuff and saying, this is what we should be doing. At the end of the day Iím not a producer.
What I do like doing is going in every three to four days and seeing how things progress. And if there are things I have an issue with then Iíll have a chat with the producer, work out what the best direction is. But I definitely donít sit in there for hours on end. Thereís too much to do in the office.
Do you look for outside songs for your bands?
Never. All the bands write their own material. Nearly all the bands at some point have done a cover, but that tends to be for a special event or for some B-side or some song that they really like. Aside from that we never outsource writers.
How do you find new talent?
I come across bands from all sorts of different ways. Be it a promotor who I have relationships with throughout the UK and beyond, or a PR whoís taken something new thatís unsigned and they play it to me, or just a manager that I build up a relationship over time with. It could be any of these and has been.
Or just something that I kind of chance over and go, wow, this is great! Like Pull Tiger Tail, I saw them in a bar.
We get a huge amount of unsolicited demos, which I do listen to. But the backlog is quite large at the moment. Iíve got a very big pile of envelopes next to my desk.
Is the City Showcase in London a useful event for new talent?
When I do panels I always leave with a huge amount of demos, because everybody comes up to you afterwards. I can understand that, because obviously itís their one chance of meeting an A&R guy going and put it in his hands.
There was one band that I quite liked and that Iím still in touch with and that Iím kind of helping along. It is a good source, to get twenty demos straight up from one event.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
I donít mind getting links to things on MySpace, but itís quite easy to lose. I still love getting CDs. A MySpace link is good, but sometimes I want to go and listen to it in the car or I want to take it home with me and listen to it on a proper system instead of through my small computer speakers.
I would still say the old CD route is the best. And I know most of my other A&Rs feel like that too.
The other advice is to not worry too much about artwork and packaging and dressing the demo up as some fancy kind of thing. A demo should just be a white CD with the name of the band on it, contact details, the name of the songs and where youíre from. Thatís all I need really. Not a twenty page biography.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a career on the independent level?
Thereís a band here called °Forward, Russia! , whoís guitarist Whiskas set up his own label, Dance To The Radio, in Leeds. Theyíre an amazing blueprint for people to look at, itís incredible what you can actually do without having the infrastructure of a label behind you. You can start your own thing.
Be pro-active. Think about every way you can promote your own material. Initially within your local area, and then gradually expanding out. Do regional press, local press, local radio, and then take things from there.
I would advice more bands to be pro-active these days, because I think a lot of people just sit there and waiting for the record deal to happen and then succeed. And obviously, when the record deal happens then you only just start really. There is so much you can do on your own, of your own accord.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
There are certain areas that are more developed in the whole online thing. MySpace is a hugely important tool. But so is the bandís own website, still.
Other things are only just beginning to take off over here, which I know are bigger in the States, like blogging. I donít know how much of an impact that really has right now, but I think it will have more of an impact as time goes on.
Howís the radio situation?
Because of the size of our label we got an independent promotion team for each of our acts, which are often handpicked specifically for the act. Radio promotion is a really important thing for us. Weíve had a lot of support from BBCís Radio One for most of our acts. Regional radio is very important to us as well.
How does the deal at B-Unique look like for a band?
I hope itís looked at quite positively! Our deals are stretched like indie deals but they also have the kind of backend of a major deal. Financially, in the future we can provide for them. But they also have more of a touchy-feely aspect of an independent deal, that kind of connection between the label and the artist.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Iíd say things are quite good for me personally right now, because everything seems to be quite guitar orientated, which is obviously my background and what I want to do. Iíd say weíre in quite healthy spell right now. But obviously, that could change. Weíve just seen massive changes with how downloading works.
And when the new chart rolls kick in for next year, that any download is chart eligible regardless whether it has got physical release or not, that will change the way the business works at the moment quite significantly. Because the chart will stop being as accurate as it is now.
Because if you have an album out and you can download all the tracks individually then in theory you can have a new album with six tracks off that same album make it into the Top 40 in the same week.
I donít quite know how this is going to work. Itís going to be very interesting. Next year will be quite a big period of change for the industry here.
If you would turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
I would try and find someone that I thought had a similar perspective on my music and on what I was doing as myself. But also someone that I could trust to take it further, someone I could listen to.
Someone who could communicate to me when they have thoughts about what they want to do with something, but also listen to me as an artist so that I could feel that I could put my input in as well. And if I find a person who was like that then thatís the person I want to go with.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
Going into next year, I hope more kind of rock thatís slightly heavier. In the past, B-Unique had put out more rock music with Coheed and Cambria, Alkaline Trio and things like that.
A very large part of my record collection is devoted to more heavy stuff. I would like to see heavier bands getting a bit more of a break next year, and a few more things pushing through.
Obviously, this year has been kind of big on the Emo front with bands like My Chemical Romance. I hope that laid the foundation for next year. We see Get Amped coming through, Funeral For A Friend who got their third album coming out.
Biffy Clyro have just signed to 14th Floor. I think theyíre going to make an amazing record as well. So, I like to try and find something a bit heavier for us and see some more rock bands come through.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Iíd like to get more of a grip on downloading. The biggest beef I have right now is that when you put an album up on iTunes you canít lock it. An album is a body of work. Singles are there to promote and represent that body of work. But as such an album should be purchased as an album.
The problem with digital downloading of albums at the moment is that all the tracks are available separately. Iíd like to have, at some point in the future, a way of putting out a record digitally but itís still sold as an album, and you canít just go pick and choose the separate tracks.
Itís not necessarily from a financial point of view, but just from a creative point of view. An album is a body of work. Itís pretty sad when people can just go and pick off three tracks and not bother with the whole thing. Thatís what I like to see change in the next year.
How would you explain the ongoing success of B-Unique?
Weíre all very passionate. Thereís only four of us here. Weíre very devoted to each of the acts we work on. We have a clear vision when we sign an act that we like, weíre meticulous about working out a plan for how we go about breaking it, and a time that we want to do it in.
We have certain points that we need to have ticked off within certain time periods. We always work that way. Thatís why we continue to do as well as weíve done in the last couple of years.
interview by Kimbel Bouwman