Interview with RICHARD O'DONOVAN, A&R for Razorlight (Top 10 UK) - Jun 11, 2007
"Itís a good time for bands right now, because labels have become so competitive amongst themselves that bands can get better terms,"...so reassures Richard O'Donovan of the opportunities that are out there for upcoming bands.
O'Donovan, who started his career working as an engineer with U2, went on to become A&R at Vertigo Records for influential indie acts like The Rapture, and Razorlight (Top 10 UK).
O'Donovan talks to HitQuarters about the kind of bands he likes to work with, the differences between breaking UK and breaking America, and about changes he thinks are needed in the ways TV and Internet help expose new bands.
How did you become A&R Manager at Vertigo?
I was an engineer. I used to work at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin for a good while. I worked with U2, for their record label Mother for a while.
From that I got a job at Island Publishing. I signed something that did well and then I got offered a job on Vertigo Records.
How would you explain the success of Vertigo over the last year?
Weíre being quite careful about what we pick. As much as any other label, we tend to try and pick the bands which are doing the best at what they do in whatever field that theyíre in. Then we just pick one band in that area that becomes our focus.
We wonít sign three or four bands doing the same thing and hope that one of them works.
We sign one band that we think are doing the best, whether itíd be a variation of different types of alternative or rock. And then we try to work those bands to the best of our ability.
What projects are you currently working with?
Weíve just agreed for Boy Kill Boy to start their second album with Dave Sardy.
We continue to do some work on getting the next one or two singles for The Rapture ready. Theyíre in the UK for a festival in the summer. Weíre releasing the next single over here.
Weíre just in the process of signing two new acts, which is a lot for us. We donít tend to over-sign. We have a lot of bands on their second and third albums.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre?
I tend to be quite simple in my rules. Not to be tied to anything thatís short-term. If youíre tied to a scene you can die with the scene.
Iím old fashioned. I believe in a strong frontman or a front pair. I like that the singer writes the lyrics.
Bands that like working with producers. Bands that arenít afraid to have conversations about ambition. I donít mind if a band is as weird or left of centre as they want. As long as everyone is able to have a very open and frank conversation of whatís best for the band.
And also that the band arenít people who just sit back and say: just work us. I like bands that are quite opinionated and have very definite ideas.
How do you choose your projects?
Sometimes you see something and you realise that that is a completely talented band. They tick all the boxes, good frontman, good songs, play well, right time, right band. Theyíre ahead of the curve as opposed to being at the end of it.
Sometimes you dig more underground. Weíre signing one new kid next week. Heís twenty-something and everything from Woody Guthrie, Nick Drake, a young Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.
Iíve seen him play club nights. He was stuffing the room on a Sunday night. He has a good sense of himself. In the UK there are an awful lot of four piece guitar bands right now. People are looking for a bit more variation.
How do you work with them?
I have a good knowledge of producers and recording. If the band wants access to that then I will listen to what theyíre doing in the rehearsal room. I will come back with pretty strong suggestions about who I think would be good for them to work with.
If the band has very definite ideas themselves, I do my best to incorporate them if I agree with them. Itís usually quite a democratic process. We try and tend to agree on the right person in the right room.
Debut albums should be rough around the edges. They shouldnít be the finished article. The first record should be recorded on the floor, unless if itís an electronic album. They should show and give the band space to grow.
When the first album of a band is in front of you, you can see what the second album is like. Because theyíve spent hopefully a good year and a half writing it and playing it live. Second albums probably need more input from a specific sort of producer.
What is instrumental in breaking acts?
The whole label being on the same page and being informed. The communication between the departments of the label is crucial. Some bands like a lot of information, some bands donít.
If the band are involved, bring them into the conversations about the front-end of how theyíre promoted. If theyíre not, then me or the management of the band need to become ambassadors within the label.
Initially, I like working for very small teams. The message stays quite clear to the rest of the label. I like building from a core of about five or six people getting the message out for the first two singles. And then the label steps in as and when itís needed.
I donít think you should necessarily push it straight away from the beginning. Itís always good to build a natural fanbase with bands first.
Once you can start seeing the websiteís working, the live gigs are working, and youíre stepping up where you should be stepping up in the bigger cities, then you start bringing the rest of the label in.
Is there always a plan to break a band in the US?
Yes, ideally. Itís getting better, but it was very difficult the past couple of years. American radio is quite formatted. I donít think English bands necessarily work with that in mind. Itís just an exception when it does work like with Corinne Bailey Ray or Amy Winehouse.
Those acts you can probably work on various formats in America. In England you can go from the rehearsal room to getting a deal to be on national radio surprisingly quick compared to most countries.
UK bands are probably more honest, but probably less cynical in how they approach music. If people like it they can get on radio.
Thatís why theyíre beginning to do well right now, because maybe it seems to be faster in Europe than in America at the moment. The biggest problem of breaking acts in America is the format of American radio.
And also the complications of it; it takes quite a long time to break your home territory, and then make an impression in Europe, and then go to America.
By the time youíre getting something going in America, youíre probably in danger of being away from your home territory for too long. A lot of it is about diary management.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings before signing?
Some bands come in and they let the manager decide. They say: weíre happy with the choice of three or four labels. And then itís down to the manager to negotiate these deals as hard as he can. He wants to meet marketing, radio and everything else.
And some bands just react to people. And the decision making is a lot less business based, itís more people based.
What is the time schedule to show some success for a new band that has signed to your label?
Two albums. That takes about three years now. If you have something going, immediately youíre going to spent time touring in Europe, and then hopefully in America.
Most of our current roster would have had some touring in America in various degrees. They definitely tour in Europe, and then usually the festival circuit. Itís a lot longer in between records now. If it doesnít work then you get on with their second record quicker.
At what point do you go for producing a music video?
Straight away. MTV2 in the UK is treated like a visual alternative radio format. Now with websites like YouTube and MySpace, videos are taking a different meaning.
Do you look for outside songs for your bands?
No, I choose not to work in that area. Itís like going to university, youíre spending a long time getting to learn that world. Iíve just always preferred working with bands that wrote themselves.
Itís what Iím better at. I wouldnít presume to go across other people who think are better in sourcing songs.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
Itís better to try and get record companies to come to you. If itís a band in the UK, I would go out there and gig and tour. I would go and see the younger smaller labels, whether itíd be Moshi Moshi or Young & Lost, and get a single out.
Donít presume a record company to arrive and wave some magic wand and itíll start. Record companies are better adding to the existing heat than creating heat.
Get on and do it yourself. See major labels as a resource for you in a way of financing bigger ambition. We still do go out there and sign bands just from the get go before theyíve been seen, because thereís a very competitive A&R market right now.
Most bands who have written a lot of songs and have a lot of A&R interest usually donít say no to major label offers. Then you can say: fine, Iíll take the deal now.
You have to be competitive from the very early bands. But some bands just get on with it and slowly improve in public. Iím more naturally attracted to bands and managers who are built that way.
Ultimately, bands who go on organizing their own touring, websites and singles, by the time they get signed to a major they have a better understanding of the whole process, which makes everyoneís job easier.
What sources you find most effective to find new talent?
The two junior A&Rs that we have will report to us. And various tipsters that I have myself. They come from notorious agents and young PRs at press companies.
How does the deal at your label look like for a band?
I think most deals are seen as something to be taken advantage of in the beginning. But now I think itís got better. Most bands personalise their own deals. The temp that we have is good, but everyone expects to personalise it to suit their own means.
Itís a good time for bands right now, because the labels have become so competitive amongst themselves that bands can just get better terms.
Whatís your view on the success of indies nowadays?
The more bands and the more people that keep this business developed the better. They can help bands grow with the catalogue that they generate by having done one or two albums and then maybe switch to a major.
Itís good all around. It keeps music fresh. The fresher music is, the better influence young musicians are.
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?
If they have experience and the resources to give me. If they realise my plusses and my limitations.
The A&R is meant to set the temperature and the pace for the rest of the label to operate from. If you rush a band and not give them time to write, then how can you expect the second album to be good?
The producer will make good songs. He wouldnít write for you in the studio if youíre an organic band. Iíd look for someone who understands the value of patience. Someone who has the knowledge to give me what I didnít have or add it on what weíre doing.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
There needs to be more outlets for bands and music. Press doesnít have the same effect that it used to have. I donít think anything has ever filled the slot that good press used to have for bands.
From a business point of view, itís quite good at the moment, because in the UK thereís quite a fresh and open market for radio.
Around the world itís a much harder nut to crack to get a profile for your acts. It takes an awful long time to break bands internationally now, unless you hammer an awful lot of money into the project.
If there was some way countering radio for promoting acts in the UK, better formats of TV to promote bands, because right now theyíre very limited. Maybe three or four shows. MTV donít have the same effect as it used to have anymore.
If YouTube or MySpace had a more structured process for seeing new acts, that could be a benefit.
How important are the Brit Awards?
For some acts itís very important, for other acts not. For the more mainstream entertainers thereís a definite sales and promotional benefit to it. I donít always know whether people agree with the choices that are made. Itís a pretty mainstream award.
For the business itís benificial, for artists I donít think it necessarily means as much.
What will UK labels be focusing on over the next years?
The same as usual. Signing and being successful. Being at the top of their game. Sign the bands that are leaders.
You can always have moderate success. Thereís always a derivative of bands that have gone before. The labels that will stay ahead of the game and try and read whatís happening, looking for music in different areas.
Weíre beginning to get acts that are breaking from iTunes. That hopefully will happen more and more. Ideally, people will go directly to iTunes, build their own profile, and create an online fanbase. You can then maybe step in and help them get to more people.
In the UK weíre a little bit spoiled, because music here changes on a regular basis. The main thing is to stay ahead of that or try to be aware of that and not let it pass you by.
What are your future plans at Vertigo?
Continuing to hopefully take the roster we have right now to third, fourth and fifth albums. Continuing to expand the roster, but not too much. We donít want it to become unwieldy.
Every act we sign we plan to break. As opposed to signing a lot of acts and hope they work. Weíre quite particular in what we sign. As the roster grows and is more successful, we can sign things that are more left to centre or take a bit longer to nurture, but maybe in the long term can gain us more.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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