Interview with CHRISTIAN GELLER, A&R for beFour (No.1 GER) - Dec 3, 2007
ďWhen you do art, you wonít sell any records. There is a lot of good music out there, but 10-15 albums a year sell 90% of the records. The commercial onesĒ
... so goes Christian Geller's brutally honest assessment of the record industry today.
Geller is porbably a man to listen to considering his amazing track record. Producer for Banaroo (Top 10 Germany) and A'Ha (No.1 US), songwriter for No Angels and Modern Talking (No.1 Germany), and most recently A&R on his own label Pop 'N' Roll for beFour (No.1 Germany), he has a vast experience in hit-making.
He talks to HitQuarters about his songwriting, about teaming up with TV and commercial brands to push beFour, and about what can up-and-coming artists can do to take advantage of the current business climate.
What is your background in the music business?
My musical background is commercial pop music in the broadest sense. I was discovered by Thomas Anders, former frontman of Modern Talking. As we lived in the same town of Koblenz, Germany, he was my connection to the professional music business.
He recognized my talent, so we founded a company together. I wrote and produced, he sold my songs with his, through Modern Talking at that time, good contacts.
I produced groups like Yoomii, Banaroo, A-Ha, Yvonne Catterfeld, Sandra and Isabelle Varelle. I wrote for No Angels, Modern Talking, Claudia Jung, Nicole, Hans-Werner Ohlm, Jantje Smit and Truck Stop.
I did remixes for groups like Enigma, Tobias Regner und David Hasselhoff.
Why did you decide to send your first demos to Thomas Anders?
We lived quite close to one another back then in Koblenz. I was about 16 years old. Thomas Anders was a pop star.
It was my only chance, because we all lived in a small village, to get any job in the music business. The only way I could make it was through him.
What kind of songs were on the demos?
Poppy dance stuff in the vein of Modern Talking. I always thought that Dieter Bohlen, the other guy from Modern Talking, whoís a well-known producer here, did very good stuff.
Thatís what I liked these days. Iím very commercially orientated as well. And this was my first touch of commercial music.
What did you learn from the early days working with Thomas Anders?
I learned how to make money with music. I finished my school and that was the point where he was getting to ask me if I wanted to start a company with him. So we launched KAGB Music.
It was heaven for me, because he was very much into the business and I wasnít. This was a very big chance and I took the opportunity to get to know other people in the business.
When did you start producing, arranging and mixing songs?
I started producing, arranging and mixing songs before. As a kid living at my parents place I always had my own little studio.
I always spent my time in the afternoon and evenings, even into the mornings, with producing, arranging and mixing.
Do you play all instruments?
I only play piano. But these days itís possible to play any instrument when you can play piano, because of the sampling stuff. I use modern technology to be able to play anything.
Youíre not producing a certain specific genre. What is the reason for being an all-round kind of producer?
Because I understand how a hit works. It works within three minutes and with very simple lyrics and simple melodies.
If you listen to very famous rock songs, to Schlager songs or to dance songs, the structure of any hit is the same. I think I understood this structure very early on, and thatís the reason why I do nearly any kind of music.
How did you happen to write your first platinum hit, ĎGroer Bruderí?
It was through Thomas Anders, because he was one of the artists of BMG Germany. BMG Germany was the company who did the marketing for all the music of Big Brother in Germany.
They asked me to write some songs for Zlatko, a big name in Big Brother. I had the idea to add JŁrgen, his best friend in the Big Brother house, and do a duo. It sold nearly one million copies in Germany.
What was your vision for Chartwards, your company since 2004?
In 2003 I decided to leave Thomas Anders. Not to leave him but to leave the small place where I lived then. I moved to Berlin.
I did songwriting and remixing stuff for No Angels and Modern Talking. So I had big names in my portfolio. That was the reason why I moved on. Chartwards was the result of moving to Berlin and being alone.
Chartwards composes, produces and publishes music for record releases, TV and broadcast advertising.
Why is Universal Music Publishing administrating the rights of your releases?
I have a co-publishing deal with Universal. I had a very good offer from them. When I moved to Berlin it was perfect for me, because it meant I had no problems regarding money. I signed the contract and it was a very good share.
Do you have your own studio?
A studio today is a big Macintosh computer with ProTools and Logic software on it.
When I record artists I go to a proper studio, but during mixing and producing time I always use my own studio, and there is no booth or anything. I usually go to big studios in Cologne or Berlin depending on what I do and with whom I work.
Why did you launch the Pop ĎNí Roll label?
I was always arguing about getting only 50 cent per record sold. I wrote all the hits, but it was all the big companies who were getting richer and richer.
Iím a businessman as well, not only a creative person. So that was the main reason why I decided to create a band and a label.
I saved some money over the last few years thanks to producing stuff. I had a lot of licenses. I reinvested it into the business and the result was Pop ĎNí Roll. We do distribution with Edel.
Who is the team you work with?
My wife Lynn Geller, and some freelancers for the TV and press promotion. I have a big cooperation with Super RTL TV in Germany for the Top 10 band beFour.
What artists are you currently working with?
Currently itís just beFour, because they are very successful. They are the artist who sold the most albums this year in Germany. I started my company in January 2007 and this is the first album we did, and itís platinum right now.
How was beFour created? How did you meet the members?
I created the band and then I had the problem that I needed a company to release it. That was the point where I made up my mind to invest my own money into the project because I strongly believe in it.
The members of the band know each other for five years. They always did music together. They were just covering songs.
I met Angel, one of the band members, and he was a dancer. He did some dancing competitions and I met him on one of those events. I always run around and look for talent.
I told him that he was a good dancer and asked him what else he was doing. He said that he had this band with three other friends.
He sent me a demo CD and I listened to it. I found the voices quite good and said this could fit to the project I want to do with Super RTL.
What was discussed early on?
I had a certain concept in mind - I wanted to create a cool pop band for kids. And the secret was doing grown-up dance tracks marketed for kids. Giving the kids the feeling that they are listening to something cool.
I presented this concept to the band, and they found it great, because having a target group who is still buying CDs, and making this kind of music was quite suitable for them.
How do you work on the live side?
We didnít work on the live side until now. But we are strongly focusing on that at the moment. Next year we are planning to do a big tour.
We just released our second album, the winter album ĎHand In Handí. It is top 10 as well.
The second album is working as good as the first one. Weíre going to release a third album in April or May 2008. After that weíre going to have a tour.
Did the playlist of VIVA TV contribute to beFourís initial success?
No, because Viva was the last broadcast station who played it. Nobody believed that such music could work. I strongly believed in it and showed everybody that they were wrong.
We had several meetings with VIVA and discussed that theme, and they didnít want to play it. After going No.1 with the first single ĎMagic Melodyí and going platinum with the debut album ĎAll 4 Oneí, they had to play it.
They played it because of the success and not because they liked it.
Why was the release of their first single supported by the massive marketing power of Super RTL?
I presented the package I had. I presented the artist and the idea, and they said that it could fit to their target group. We planned everything together and finally launched it.
I knew people at Super RTL. I produced some other tracks for them a year earlier. I did that for Sony BMG.
So all this was part of what I had in mind when I was thinking about an own project. As I said before, my small share was not enough for me, so this was part of my new game plan.
The single was originally a Russian song called ĎPesenkaí, which was also released by ATC previously. Why did you choose this song?
It was a massive hit all over the world. My target group is between the ages of 6 to 13. Some of these kids were not even born yet when it happened with ATC in 2000.
The target group doesnít know the song and itís a proven hit. So I thought, why donít we start with this one.
Are there any advantages/disadvantages for placing a song on a TV format?
It depends on the contract you have with the TV format. When you have a contract which lasts say five years, then there is no disadvantage. Because then you can break an artist and make him bigger and bigger.
When it lasts like three months or something, then it can be a one hit wonder or a no hit wonder. It all depends on what you are talking about with the TV channel.
Some independent artists/songwriters contact supervisors directly. What advice would you give them on how to request placements of their songs on TV?
Itís hard to explain without any certain brief or request for music. But generally, listen to the request quite carefully or read it carefully and do exactly the things they want to.
Be sure you know your target group and write exactly the stuff your target group is interested in. Donít write anything you are interested in personally.
Part of the secret of my success is that I always try to know who should buy the CD in the end. Thatís the reason why I managed to place that many songs.
Wasnít it a risk to choose grown-up songs for a 6 to 13 year old target group?
Itís always a risk. It could be a risk to choose kidís songs as well, because there are a lot of kidís songs on the market.
When you want to have success, you have to do at least something different then what others do. And this was my trick to do something different. Nobody knows in the beginning of anything if it works or not.
When you create a new band, new music, new band logo, new photos, new video, itís always a risk because you can make mistakes on every level of work you have to do in the process.
Picking grown-up songs is just an example of a little piece in the process.
Can you describe your process of writing?
I sit down at my piano and ask myself who should buy the CD, and what is the certain person who should buy the CD interested in.
Then I make up my mind about some titles for certain themes. When I have the song titles I try to write strong hooks for those titles. When I have the strong hooks I move to the verses.
What is it you tap into regarding the content of the song?
It really depends on what Iím working on. Should I write a song similar to a million others or create something new? It really depends on the target group.
It doesnít matter if I write Schlager or heavy metal, itís always the same way of working it out. I always try to find a strong hook first and then build up the song around it.
Do you prefer co-writing or writing alone?
I prefer writing alone.
What advice would you give up-and-coming artists/writers on how to approach the business nowadays?
Itís getting harder and harder, because the companies donít release as much as they were releasing ten years ago.
The songs should be very good and very commercial in every way. When you do rock songs, they should be commercial. Or when you write for Tokyo Hotel, you should do a commercial pop song and not art.
The biggest fault by young songwriters is showing in the demo what they are able to play. When you have a guitar player writing songs, heís always doing some solo stuff in the demo. But it doesnít matter at all.
Just concentrate on what you have to do. Nobody wants to listen to the art you are able to play on your instrument. Everybody wants to listen to what you can do as a songwriter.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, a lot. But so far I did not find anything that I ended up working with.
Whatís your view on artist development?
I developed the most successful artist this year in Germany. Iíll try to do this next year as well.
I would like to work long term with them. Also because I have a long lasting contract with Super RTL. This is not finished in the end of this year.
How can you make money in this business and still stay true to your art?
When you start to do art, you wonít sell any records. This is the way the business is today.
There is a lot of good music out there, but about 10 or 15 albums a year sell 90% of the records. And these are the commercial ones.
During the last 20 years no new Led Zeppelin or new Queen appeared. The art of music is always present in the old songs we have.
But when you listen to modern music, on one hand you have the hip hop market, which is not artistic, but is commercial.
You have the dance market, which is commercial. And you have the pop market. But youíre not really having any really successful handmade music.
I donít pity that, because music should make good or bad moods, and it doesnít have to be handmade for that.
How does the German music market treat its artists?
Itís very different compared to five years ago, because the big companies got rid of most of their people. And these people are on their own today.
For little money you can employ very qualified people, which used to work in a big company. You get a lot of know-how for little money.
The market for young artists is quite good at the moment, because there are a lot of good record people out there in the market, who listen to young guys. They have to listen to them because they donít get any money from the big companies anymore.
Do you have any strategy to break in the UK or US?
There is something we did with beFour recently, and I got the message yesterday that itís going to be Ok. We made a deal with the Footlocker brand. They will play the ĎMagic Melodyí video in January in every Footlocker store in the US.
This is the kind of marketing you should do in the very beginning, without promising anything. You canít say this is going to be a big hit because people at Footlocker know the song now. It depends on luck.
At least you can do such things and you can try to sell singles for 99 cents at Footlocker stores for example. But you canít guarantee this will have this or that effect.
How will you conquer the other territories abroad?
I will be at Midem, meeting international people, who are interested in the band and in the music I do.
While itís my aim to go international, Iím very happy with the success we have in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In all these territories we ended up at No.1 last summer.
I would be really happy when we have that success next year also. And one of the aims is going more international, but itís not necessary.
Iíll try my best to close some deals at Midem.
You already received many gold and platinum awards for your compositions and productions. What is your next challenge?
The next challenge will be beFourís third album and tour. And breaking another artist in 2008.
Itís always dangerous to hook a whole company on one act. When the next album will not be in the charts anymore, weíll have a problem with the company. So I should break another artist to be safer for the following years.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman