Interview with AXEL WIRTZ, A&R at Universal Germany for Nevio, Pachanga, Paul van Dyk - Apr 9, 2007
“It's quite sensible to presume that an artist who is really popular on Myspace could be popular for a bigger audience soon.”
As A&R at Universal Germany, Axel Wirtz looks after Nevio (Top 10 Germany), Pachanga (Top 20 Germany) and world-famous producer and DJ Paul van Dyk, provides HitQuarters with a glimpse into the workings of the European dance scene and market.
His insights and professional advice, however, are relevant not only for dance artists but for anyone who wants to find out more about the industry in general.
He talks to HitQuarters about mixing up known sounds to create something fresh, the problems of making a profit off singles, and how a club hit can find its way to mainstream success.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started playing as a DJ at the age of about 16. First at school and on private parties, later on in bars, small clubs and then bigger clubs and raves. Through the DJ thing I got offered a job at Superstition Network in 1995, an electronic independent label in Hamburg/Germany.
I became head of promotion, also for the sub-labels Poker Flat and Dessous Recordings until the Managing Director, Tobias Lampe, took me into the A&R and Product Manager section as well. I worked in this company for 7 years and it was a real great time there.
In the summer of 2002 I went to Universal Music Berlin as A&R/Product Manager Dance for Polydor Zeitgeist, as I had the feeling some change is needed.
Were there any major events/people that led you forward?
My mum will always be No. 1 for me! Business-wise there are for sure a number of people who I have to thank a lot, but let me name six guys who are special for me - first of all it´s Tobias Lampe of Superstition Network who gave me my first job in the music business.
He is a real cool guy and still an important friend. Tim Dobrovolny was the man who took me to Universal Music in 2002. There I got to know Tom Bohne, Jochen Schuster and Martin Rutter and these guys taught and still teach me a lot.
However, there´s huge competence within the Universal company in general and as an employee you can take benefit from the knowledge of many many colleagues.
How does a normal working day look like for you?
There are a lot of meetings, internal ones and also external ones with artists, managements, producers, singers, songwriters, media etc., those artists who are already under contract at Universal who I´m responsible for and those who offer new material.
I get about 50 offers a week, sometimes more, and I always had the attitude, that if somebody works hard in a studio and writes my name on an envelope to make me hear his stuff and the music he believes in, I have the duty to give him a proper feedback, also in case of not wanting to release it.
I´m also going through international charts and condtantly check Myspace and other sites for interesting stuff. However, working as an A&R is not only about listening to music.... there is a huge amount of administration to care of and the whole job is a quite complex one.
How did you work on Nevio?
With Nevio we signed an artist contract, which means that the entire production responsibility is on our side and in our hands, in accordance to Nevio of course. Nevio is an artist who knows nearly exactly what he wants and he brings a lot of substance.
On the current album he wrote like 75% of the songs himself. He plays several instruments. My job is being the gateway between him, the producers and our interests as a record company - on the artistic, but of course also on the economic points of view – all by enabling the artist to realize his very own vision.
How did he progress from unknown to successful?
We saw Nevio in the beginning of 2006 on TV being a candidate of the Pop Idol season in Germany on RTL Television. He did really well and was the favourite singer for many people, but in the end he was ‘only’ fourth place.
We didn´t hear anything from him in the media during the first few weeks after he left the show, but suddenly we realized he was giving a concert in Berlin that he organized more or less totally on his own, no tour or concert agency was involved.
So we went there and were quite amazed seeing the place was crowded with more than 2000 people going mad. The concert was great and from this moment we knew this artist can go big time. The deal was signed a few months later.
We had the feeling that, due to the fact that Nevio is half Italian, we could hit a market gap in Germany with Italian lyrics. That worked quite well with the first single which went to No.2 in the single charts. The album entered at No.5 four weeks later.
How did you choose to release him as a single, what convinced you?
You mean the first single? It was the clear structure, the kind of hymnal character and the strong hookline of the song ‘Amore Per Sempre’ that made me believe in this one being the right first single for Nevio.
I had the feeling there could be a big intersection of tastes and so we could hit a wide spectrum of people, with that song being a great door opener.
What was needed to be done about him before placing him on the market?
Well, due to the fact that he had huge public exposure through the Pop Idol show where he was taking part for about three months, there already was a certain fanbase.
RTL is the biggest TV station in Germany and each show was seen by six-eight million people each Saturday evening prime time. Nevio was already popular when we signed him and we had the feeling a number of people were waiting for records from him.
What kind of artists are you looking for at the moment?
I´m always looking for a wide variety of artists. For a major company the artists and the music should be definitely commercial. We´d like to sell records and try to hit the taste of the masses. That´s our mission. The thing is, you cannot invent music anew, everything seems to be there already.
But what you can do is combine existing styles and elements to make the result sounding fresh again. Either there´s a recognized market gap as was the case with Nevio and Italian lyrics, or it´s something totally fresh. The artist himself is very important, as visualisation and embodiment must be of high significance - the times of the faceless studio tracks have gone.
I´m looking for artists that are innovative and individual, emotionalizing and polarising. To fill in market gaps, it´s about ‘building’ acts as well as bringing people together around an idea to realise a vision, in which case castings are done.
Do you listen to unsolicited material?
Yes, definitely. I try to capture everything that lands on my desk.
What is the most important thing that makes the kids be interested in an artist? What do you need to hear in order to sign new artists?
Mystification or identification. Both can eventually lead to glorification.
How do you go through demos?
The first 90 seconds are the most important ones. For demo senders I´d recommend the following and I guess that this applies for many A&Rs: put your three best tracks on the demo CD and the one you consider the strongest first.
Make sure the first track is really expressing what it´s about by 1:30 minutes the latest. You can be quite sure that if an A&R is impressed at this point, he surely will listen to all tracks and then ask for more.
How many acts can you sign per half a year? What are the limitations?
Two-three album projects per half a year is enough if you want to work with the demanded elaborateness. On top of that you can work on, let´s say five-eight single projects. However, that depends on what kind of deal we have with an artist. Artist deals are much more complex to work than tape licensing deals.
Would you sign an act directly if he/she is from another country?
Yes of course, if I have the feeling it can work in our market. Basically I always prefer if my company is repertoire owner for as many territories as possible.
When you sign a new artist, what in general does the agreement include?
Territories, advance, royalty and several specifications from commitments to deductions.
How do you look for songs?
It´s a continous thing, working in the network of contacts of publishers, writers, producers. And I think tools like HitQuarters are very helpful, although you might get sent also some drawer-stuff after having announced a briefing…but there are always pearls in between.
How does the dance scene work at the moment?
I think clubs are going well, but selling dance music big time is difficult. It depends on the country, though. Dance music is selling better in the UK and France than in Germany.
What are the most important things for breaking an artist in the dance scene?
A massive club hit, that eventually makes it high in the commercial single charts. Lately, Bob Sinclair or Eric Prydz serve as good examples for breakthrough dance artists. Paul van Dyk, Richie Hawtin or Deep Dish convince with their constant highest quality level. They don´t need a chart hit to be incredibly successful worldwide.
How does a buzz work in the dance scene?
I guess it starts within the DJ scene: ‘have you heard this one….? There´s a great response from the crowd!’ and is then played by more and more DJs and ideally becomes a consensus record which is played in 80% of the clubs. The internet is of course really important for a buzz as well.
Is it driven by DJs? Or can a kid at home produce a major record on his laptop?
A kid can do this for sure (Kid Paul produced Energy 52’s ‘Café Del Mar’ as a teenager in 1992), but the result of programming a bass drum and a hi-hat is not imperatively a club hit, It´s about feeling and ideas for what can work on a dancefloor.
And then you need the ability to elicit your vision out of the machines. Or, today, also out of the laptop only. But the DJ support will be definitely necessary to spread it of course. So yes, it´s driven by DJs.
What would you tell a kid that made a hot club tune in his bedroom and doesn’t know what to do next?
Look around which labels it could suite on and then send the demo CD. It´s a quite classical procedure and will always be.
How important are certain clubs, labels, DJ's, festivals, magazines, music television channels and internet sites like Myspace when it comes to making an artist known?
Of course there are always certain opinion leaders who appear as authentic. On Myspace it´s about plays and profile views. Myspace is a great microcosmos and it´s quite sensible to presume that an artist who is really popular on Myspace could be popular for a bigger audience soon.
How important in the dance scene is a remix of a known DJ?
Initially it’s very important because the name dropping will cause the record to be listened to. However, I was often disappointed by big name DJ remixes. Such a remix is not automatically good only because a big name has produced it. But it´s automatically very expensive.
How do DJs buy their records nowadays?
I think it´s a mixture of going to record stores all over the planet and visiting sites like Beatport, which is a fantastic online store for DJs.
When is the point that a song switches from being a club hit to being a mainstream hit?
That point is difficult to determine. But if a track is played five times a night in clubs all over the country, if there is airplay suddenly and the video has stacks of views on Youtube and plays on Myspace, well, then it might need an advertisement campaign and could maybe hit the Top 10 sales charts.
What are the biggest areas for a label to invest on a dance artist?
Video production. And sometimes it´s burning money, because no TV station wants to play it. Dance is difficult to market.
What is the point when you decide to make a music video for an artist?
If there are good indicators through dance charts, internet buzz and maybe format orientated airplay. A video production for a dance track needs to be legitimated by significant parameters that give a certain perspective for success.
Is it a single-driven market? How important are albums or compilations?
With singles it´s nearly impossible to earn money. The marketing investment to break a single is higher than what comes in with the single sales. It´s all about the album behind. Compilations are often important to recoup a single investment if the album is a flop.
How much income of a dance artist is earned by downloads?
I don´t really know, but I guess it´s very little. Dance artists make their money with DJ gigs.
How important is the physical record?
I think it will always exist and for me it´s very important. A lot of people will always want to have the physical product, with pictures, the booklet, the information etc. there’s a difference between just listening, and listening with a booklet in your hands.
But it depends on individual interest of course. A fan will always buy the physical record. A piracy jerk will download the songs illegally.
How do people find out about records? Is it still the old way of asking the DJ what is it that s/he is playing?
Yes, I guess it´s also this old way. But nowadays a lot is possible. There are already mobile tools to recognize tracks, you push a button on your mobile phone, put it in front of the speaker for 30 seconds and then you get sent an SMS including artist and title information. Unbelievable, but true. In Germany it´s called ‘Musicfinder’.
How big is the influence you have on your artist's records? Do you sit in the studio with them telling them ‘this hi-hat has to be louder’?
There are artists that need some help sometimes, with ideas and also on the production side. I am in studios a lot. But it would be kind of ridiculous to tell Paul van Dyk ‘hey Paul, turn the bass drum louder and make the hi-hat sharper’, you know? There are artists like him who always exactly know what they do and there are those who need and want to be coached.
How important is your DJ background when it comes to your work nowadays?
To be honest, not so important. However, it makes me understand the dance scene, which is an advantage perhaps. And if I need a club mix for a pop project I usually know who to call.
What are the biggest changes that took place in the dance scene over the past five years?
Commercial dance lost its relevance in the sales charts, but slowly seems to come back. Cascada is a good example. It´s always comes and goes in waves, a genre is suddenly big until a certain overkill is there, then it´s over and after a few years it comes back again.
Underground dance hasn´t changed so much in the past five years. Maybe in 2002 it was more trance-oriented and it got a bit more house-oriented during the years. But no matter if it´s techno, trance, house or progressive – every sound has people who are totally into it.
How did your work as an A&R change over the past years?
From Hamburg to Berlin. From the mixing desk to the office desk. From sequencers and drum machines to real drums, guitars and strings. From dance track business to complex pop album productions.
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Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with Scott Rodgers (Arcade Fire, Björk)
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