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Interview with SCOTT RODGER, manager for Björk, Arcade Fire - Apr 16, 2007

“The sort of artists that I really want to work with are people who are not just going to be around for one record,”

picture ... so says Scott Rodger, who has a clear-cut vision on how to nurture and develop artists long-term.

Rodger manages Björk (Top 20 US), Arcade Fire (Top 10 US/UK), Patrick Wolf and The Long Blondes in the management firm he set up, Quest, as well as A&R independent artists in his record label, AlmostGold.

He shares with HitQuarters his sharp criticism of how many major labels operate, and offers a fresh, experienced, and highly artist-supportive vision of how to conduct oneself in the music business.

How did you start out in the music business?

I used to play bass guitar in a band. I worked with the label One Little Indian in the UK when it first started. Then I worked with various management companies in the UK and the US until 1995, when I started my own company.

The first band that I managed was the Sneaker Pimps. They were immediately followed, within a month, by Björk. Since then there have been many other artists. Some I still work with, some I don’t.

What is your vision for Quest Management?

The main focus of the way I wanted to run a company was not to be the biggest management company out there. It’s the easiest thing in the world to just take on artists, even those with a very short life span, purely for the revenue and then build a bigger infrastructure. I wanted to be very hands-on and keep the roster incredibly small, to provide the artists on it with a far better service. You can’t spread yourself too thin.

If you have a roster of ten, fifteen artists, it’s impossible for the person who runs the company to know exactly what is happening at every stage of everybody’s campaign, where they’re at with their recording process or touring process. You lose that personal connection.

How did you find those artists?

I’ve known Björk for over twenty years. With Sneaker Pimps, I heard their demos and tracked them down. Now I get a lot of artists who are in touch on a daily basis. It’s very hard to grow a company and try to maintain the integrity of how you started it. You expand your staff base. But we turn down more artists than we actually get involved with.

How did the US label AlmostGold Recordings come about?

Simply from looking at the current state of the recorded music industry and seeing that there was a massive gap, predominantly in the US, for trying to work records in a different way.

The philosophy of the major labels, specifically in the US, is that any artist you sign has to sell records. You can spend a lot of money signing a band. Then you can spend a lot of money making the record. You then in turn spend a lot of money launching, marketing, promoting and touring that artist. And the strike rate for success isn’t very high.

I’m not going to gamble and say that 1 in 5 signings will be huge, or 1 in 10. I really have no idea. But that’s their philosophy; “We want to sign something. We want it for the world. We want it to be huge.” And I’d prefer to put out: a) good music, b) records that are profitable, and c) what about artist development?

You look at some of the great records of the past thirty years and there are many artists whose best work was maybe their third or fourth album. In the past ten, fifteen years, it’s been really hard for artists to try and develop. Often the label will look at the accounts and see that they are so far unrecouped. They look at what the potential investment is going to be with their option for album #2, and they may just decide to cut their losses.

I’d rather spend less signing an artist and try and look at different ways to develop them. The core of that is that you just have to market and promote differently, especially with radio in the state that it’s in globally. Radio helps, but I don’t think that it should be the one area that makes a campaign.

We want to put out four or five records a year and make those records really count. We don’t want to lose money on the records we release. It doesn’t matter if we don’t make money either.

We’ll do the best possible job that we can to position those artists and try to develop those artists, and hopefully give them a launch pad for their careers.

Using the internet mainly?

Not just the Internet. It’s everything. The way you present the music. The opportunities that are made available. It’s really hard without being incredibly specific as to exactly how we’ve done it.

Our first record was Peter Bjorn & John in the US. Today we’re on about 68,000 ship, and we’ve scanned half of that. The record has been out for six weeks. And we’ve spent less than 50% of what the average major label would spend on a record like this.

What is your musical direction?

We don’t want to have just one flavour. That’s something we’re very conscious of. The records that we are going to put out this year, when they do come out, they’re not all going to be the same genre.

It’s quite important to try and develop a variety of flavous early on. Otherwise you’ll just be known for indie-pop, or whatever generic label you want to put on it. That’s really not what we’re about.

Do publishing companies present you material?

Yes, but very rarely. It’s an area we’re going into ourselves this year.

What artists are you currently managing?

Björk, Arcade Fire, Patrick Wolf, The Long Blondes, and IV Thieves.

What was it that made you want to work with them?

Great music. What we do is a real job, but at the same time it has to excite you. You can’t work music that doesn’t inspire you. You have to sit down with a label or any other company and try and present the artist you’re working with. If you’re not excited by them, it’s impossible to do the job.

How do you convince an artist to take you on as a manager?

If you ‘get’ the music, and feel that you have the vision to work and take that music forward, then it’s the easiest sales job in the world. You’ve got to be honest. There are too many people who will try and sell bands a dream without being able to fulfill that dream.

Björk and Arcade Fire are very similar in a lot of ways, yet musically quite different. They’re similar in that they’re very careful about how they want to present their music.

It’s knowing when to say no to things, which a lot of people don’t. A lot of people can be blinded by financial offers or opportunities when those offers or opportunities may simply not be right for their career. It’s knowing how to try and build a career. If you feel you’re working with artists that have longevity or a life span of maybe more than two years then you present it differently.

Those are the sort of artists that I really want to work with. People who are not just going to be around for one record.

How do you work with artists at the label?

Obviously I’m trying to divide a line between the label side and the management side. When setting up the label I brought in a guy called Isaac Green. He used to run a small independent label called StarTime International. AlmostGold is more than an imprint, it’s a full label. That’s something that perhaps I was a little naïve about.

I work both in the UK and the US. There are a lot of people in the UK who have labels that may just be two guys in a room and their back-end is dealt with by their major partner or distributor. It doesn’t work like that in the US. You need to be more resourceful.

Part of the way that you work this is being more artist-friendly with your contracts. When we present an artist a contract, I’ll look at that contract and ask, ‘Would I sign this contract for the artist I represent?’ It’s trying to look at things from a management perspective.

Before things even get to an artist, between myself, Isaac and our staff, I can look at things from a management perspective and we can bounce ideas off each other. Isaac as a label, me as a manager, yet we’re both at the same company. Before we send out a proposal to an artist, we have a really good idea about exactly how we are going ot present it in the hope of trying to get it right on the first attempt.

It’s just about trying to take a different approach. Because I work with a lot of labels, independents and majors, and I have a lot of friends there, but they all look at the business from a label perspective. Which is their job, and a lot of them are really good at it. But they somehow don’t always grasp things from the artist’s position. We’re trying to take the approach where we’re incredibly artist-friendly, as we represent artists on a management level too.

On the label side, we felt we could work with some young bands, with young managers. Maybe those managers have never really done a campaign before. We can help and assist them. It’s not a case of charging extra for that. It’s a case of us all having the same mutual interest in the overall success of the project.

The hope is that we can partner with these artists and their management, or the team around them, and use my experience from working big campaigns over many years. Our relationships within the industry with promoters, agents on a global basis; we can influence and help position those artists in the live arena.

We are better positioned in the ‘cool’ sector, and have a better understanding of where those bands want to take themselves. We’re fully independent, yet we’re funded by a major.

What is an artist-friendly deal?

If you look at your standard major label contract, they want to own everything forever and for always. Let’s try and change things and say, ‘Would I sign a deal like this if I were them?’ You should erase everything from the contract that you feel is going to be contentious from the start. Asking for things in a contract that you know the artist will not, under any circumstances, give up, is simply a pointless exercise. I hate that mentality. Every major label is guilty of that. ‘We want to own your merchandise and your website’. You know that the artist is going to say, ‘No, we don’t want you to own our merchandise or our website.’ Why do they put it in there in the first place?

Let’s just erase these things. Maybe some pop artists are happy to do that, but I don’t know anything about that. The sort of music that I work with, no one would agree to do something like that.

How big is your roster on AlmostGold?

We have two artists signed. One we’re going to sign next week. We just completed negotiations. This calendar year we definitely have three albums out, hopefully four. There are probably about twelve artists that we’re looking at. It’s very difficult to get to the point where you really want to commit.

How did you get those acts on board?

With Peter Bjorn & John it was very different because they had released their album in several countries already before being released in the US. We were just fans of the band and the music. We played that album in our office for six months before we got involved with the band, before we even contacted them.

It was simply a case of, I don’t believe that nobody is releasing this record. This is insane. So I called their label in Sweden. I went and spent time with the band to try and convince them we were the right home for them.

We’re working with a brand new act from the UK called Does It Offend You, Yeah! , who are two guys from Reading. We signed them on the back of four songs that we’d heard that were unfinished. They come more from a dance background, but it was just incredibly exciting music. It’s a very different style of deal. We don’t have the record for the world. They’re on Virgin for the world. We have North America.

There were other records that we wanted to put out. We wanted to put out the Patrick Wolf record in the US. We couldn’t release that record because he was signed to Universal for the world.

How did you find the guys from Reading?

They’re managed by Bloc Party’s manager, Simon White, who I know. He sent me a link to their MySpace page. It was just really a case of people that you know through your own network of friends and colleagues.

Sometimes you come across artists and then you realize that you know people who are involved.

What will you release next?

Our next record is hopefully going to be Calvin Harris. It’s music we’ve had for the best part of a year. Because our deal is in partnership with Columbia. We wanted to sign him for the world directly, however Columbia in the UK had already approached. We had to step back, and they completed their deal.

Do you devise strategies for your artists in terms of how they should develop and how they can strengthen their brand name?

The sort of artists that we’re working with and the stage that they’re at in their careers, yes, it would be great to have big hit records and have huge amounts of success.

I think it’s actually about developing the artist - their live show, their music, the way they present themselves, prior to trying to develop their brand name. That will come later - there’s no rush to do that.

What is the time schedule for a new artist to show some success?

I don’t think you can really define that. You can’t say three to six to nine months. Sometimes you can be really fortunate. Some artists have an instant fanbase. It’s all relative if you have to support and fund an artist from the very beginning and try to develop them when they’re complete unknowns.

And sometimes you may put out a record where people have heard it, people download it, and demand to see them. There are no two cases that are the same.

And how do you define success? For us, when we put up Peter Bjorn & John, our target was 15,000 sales. We knew we weren’t going to get a huge amount of time from the band touring because they’re not a band who likes to tour for months on end. We thought it was a really great record. It was a sensible advance. We set our goals quite modestly. We weren’t going to lose money. If we did it was going to be a small amount.

We ended up shipping 16,000. We’d already exceeded our target. And now we’ve gone way beyond that. The touring base has expanded. They don’t require tour support, which is rare at this stage of a band’s career. Their touring is very successful. That makes the project instantly more profitable because you don’t have to fund tens of thousands of dollars in tour support.

What does it cost your label to put out a band?

You have your signing fee. You have possible video contributions. Tour support. Marketing, promotions. Your retail campaigns. You can spend between 15,000 and 100,000 dollars a launch. You hire independent press, radio, marketing.

It’s incredibly expensive to work a record in the US. And what you earn from each record is less than what you earn from records in Europe. If your dealer price in the US is say $7,98, your dealer price in the UK is maybe GBP 7,98, then that’s a 100% difference.

What input do you have on the productions?

If you have an idea that you feel you can contribute and is worthwhile, then you have input. But a lot of artists these days have such a strong vision of exactly what they want to do, and they know how the record should be. You just help them to try and get there.

Do you look for outside songs for your bands?

It’s rare. Collaborators, yes, but never delivered finished songs.

How do you actually go about finding new talent?

Generally it’s word-of-mouth. There’s always someone saying ‘have you heard this?’ or sending a link to either someone’s website or Myspace page. Or a friend of a friend. Or an artist saying, ‘you ought to check out my friend’s band’. Word-of-mouth is the strongest recommendation for anything. People know your taste, know what you’re into, and they’ll say, ‘you’re going to like this, check it out.’ And sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.

Who are the most valuable people within your network?

Musician friends. Sometimes people who are not in music, sometimes publicists. A lot of times it’s friends at independent labels, really small ones like two-man operations. It really varies.

How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?

The easiest way is email a link to their site or Myspace page. We don’t get as much as we used to get, but we used to get a lot of CDs in the mail every day. We would give them to one of our junior staff members, who we feel has excellent musical taste, and see if there is anything of interest.

It gets to a point where it’s impossible to respond to everybody, but if there’s anything of interest we absolutely get in touch. It has happened before, though not for a few years, where I’ve gone to see a band play live from a cold solicited CD in the mail. I don’t think that I’ve actually received any links or had any artist get in touch that we’ve actually taken forward. It’s always been from a dependable network.

You’ve probably read quite a lot about Sony/BMG in the past couple of weeks trying to develop this situation where the artist uploads their songs to this artist community. They’ll have a site that is an unsigned site, where their executives can go and listen to the music online. They have now pretty much stopped people sending in physical CDs or demos. It’s online and digital only. I’m interested to see if it works.

Do you attend a lot of live shows?

Yes, absolutely. We are a small company. We have 10 staff working between London and New York. We have a lot of young staff members who are out there all the time. If someone sees anything of interest then we’re there.

What advice would you give unsigned artists on how to build a professional career?

The biggest problem that we’re all faced with at the moment is quality control. Since the advent of affordable home-recording, basically enabling people to avoid having to pay to go into an expensive studio to make their music, that pretty much means that anybody can go home and make a song.

You can watch TV shows like American Idol or Pop Idol and be entertained. In the early stages of auditions where you see these kids who absolutely cannot sing to save their life. And then you ask yourself, ‘why don’t they realise that they’re not good enough to do this?’ That’s the one thing I’ll never understand.

It’s hard to educate people. They’re all inspired by probably other great records and great musicians. How do you raise the bar? Where people say, ‘what I’m putting out here is as good or better than a lot of stuff that’s out there’. I don’t know what it takes to raise the standards. Rather than having people just put a song on a tape and say, ‘here, this is great, could you sign me, I’m going to be huge.’ It just doesn’t work that way.

I still think playing live is vital. You can sit in your bedroom and make music, but playing live is something else. Playing live, especially for more developed artists, is really their way to survive in the industry. Because people make a lot less money from record sales and publishing than they ever did, the live music industry is bigger than it ever has been.

When you do development deals, what do you expect from people?

We never do a development deal as such, that’s to say giving someone some seed money just to experiment and take their project to the next level. Or some money to buy some equipment. That’s not really us. If we sign someone, we’re going to put out the record. Leave development deals to the major labels to do. That’s their world. I don’t think it’s ours.

Unless if it’s someone that we find is really young and just needs a bit of time, then we’ll take that on a case to case basis.

What kinds of artists would you like to see gain more popularity?

I’d like to actually see artists who make music that doesn’t necessarily conform to current worldwide radio formats have more success. There are artists out there who can sell records whose music doesn’t necessarily fit. Arcade Fire is one of them. Björk is another.

I work with true artists who don’t have huge commercial radio success yet can still sell records and sell tickets. I wish there were a lot more artists like that. It’s trying to avoid ‘playing the game’. You need the video, the radio edit, the remix. You shouldn’t need all of that. You do those if the artist wants to do them, but it shouldn’t be necessary to actually sell your records or present your music.

If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?

The way that records are marketed needs a drastic overhaul. But without creating a monopoly by having every major label and every key independent label sit down around the table together and work on a strategy, I don’t think it could ever happen. In the UK for instance, TV advertising is out of control. People spend way too much money to a point where the projects will break even or lose money. I’d say don’t TV advertise music.

Unless it’s some company who can only do it that way. If they put out a five-CD box of Barbra Streisand or whatever, but for a lot of new young artists, don’t TV advertise. Don’t waste your money. People get misguided thinking: it’s great, we’re being TV advertised. Nine times out of ten the artist pays for that, on the royalty break or if it’s recoupable or part recoupable.

How do you give the consumer more value for money? How do you educate people? Young people like to download music. Yet the quality of downloaded music is not as good as CD. How do you tell people that the CD is a better quality product than your download. People don’t value the CD anymore. It’s an old product.

Does a CD still have a life? Yes, it won’t go away. People will still buy CDs. There are a lot of people who don’t own computers and don’t download music. But how can we keep this industry alive? Is there a subscription model that will generate more income for all the labels and artists? I really don’t know. There’s a lot of changes to happen. Can I do it alone? No, absolutely not. I don’t have the platform to do that. I wish I did.

What are your future plans for Quest?

We will take on one or two more major management clients. We don’t want to be a monstrously huge company. We may consider partnering up with a bigger company, to gain more back-end resources.

What becomes really time-consuming around a small business is that you end up dealing with all of accountants and lawyers and the bureaucracy that has absolutely nothing to do with your core business. You end up running a business with payrolls, employees and taxes. All things that I hate to deal with, but they’re necessary. That’s the tough thing about having a small business. I have great employees though. It’s really fun a lot of the time and it’s incredibly gratifying.

The new Björk record is coming out in four weeks. It was almost two years in the making. When you get to the end of the line, it’s absolutely 110% worthwhile. And Arcade Fire’s record, helping them physically build their studio, then record it, going through every step of the process is incredibly satisfying. It just makes you want to do it all over again.

When you make records as good as that, that’s why you do what you do. You get that piece of plastic in your hand, you think: well, it was totally worth it.

And AlmostGold?

Building up AlmostGold was a huge amount of fun. In the way that we set up the label in that all of our staff are involved in both management and the label. We will put out four or five records a year and we want to keep doing that. It would be nice if we had a record that sold a huge amount, because that simply enables you to experiment more.

We are profitable. Not massively profitable, but we’re profitable. We want to make records that don’t lose money. We want to see artists earn money from their music as well. We do artist-friendly deals. We haven’t created something that has changed the universe. We just have a really cool destination for artists.

Interview by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: Richard Niles, producer for Pet Shop Boys, Take That, Cher

Read On ...

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