Interview with STEFAN HARDER, A&R for Monrose (No.1 GER), Marquess (Top 10 GER), Basshunter (Top 10 GER) - Jun 4, 2007
"Being an A&R is not about democracy, you have to be able to see what others don't. They might not see it until it is a hit,"... says Stefan Harder, A&R at Warner Music Group Germany.
Harder's credentials prove that he is truly an expert in hit-spotting: from Germany's Pop Idol winners Monrose (No.1 Germany) to a children's song about a crocodile (Schnappi - No.1 Germany), and the first German hit sung in Swedish (Basshunter's 'Boten Anna', Top 10 Germany).
Harder talks to HitQuarters about not counting only on records sales and spreading revenue avenues to TV, Internet and ringtones, about snatching Schnappi away from other labels, and about working with SongQuarters.
How did you get started in the music business?
I´ve always had a great passion for music. At boarding school I was head of the music society, I became a DJ and I studied cultural sciences in Berlin with music as my main subject. During my studies I did a lot of work placements in the music biz, like the label East West and MTV.
What was your first job after your graduation?
I applied to Bertelsmann, because they had great management training programs and they hired me for one of their flagship record companies, Hansa Berlin. This company was being transformed into BMG Berlin, and that was my first project.
So I started out doing managerial work, while learing all about the different departments in a record company - product management, promotion, A&R, etc. and that´s where I ended up, in the A&R department.
Then you got an offer from another record company.
Yes, from Intercord, they hired me to move the company from Stuttgart to Berlin - and three months after the move, they closed down! So I moved on to Edel in Hamburg. Then Universal, and now Warner. I joined the music business at a time of intense restructuring and I saw a lot of people getting fired...
But you remained hired and two years ago you set up your own label.
Yes, I have my own label called Harder Entertainment. I have an exclusive deal with Warner. Which means, I have an office at Warner, I am using their infra-structure, I am fully intergrated and all my product goes through Warner.
At the same time I am acting as A&R for Warner. For certain projects that go directly through Warner and for a Warner sub-label called Starwatch.
What were the most successful acts you worked with?
Schnappi (the animated crocodile), Monrose, O-Zone with their Europe-wide hit 'Dragostea Din Tei', Marquez, Joana Zimmer, Hot Banditoz, Hermes House Band, DJ Otzi.
I signed all these acts, except for DJ Otzi who was already signed when I worked with him, and of course Monrose, the girlband that came out of the German Pop Idol ('Popstars'), and I was asked to act as A&R for them.
How well did Monrose do?
They were released before Christmas and went straight to number one, both single and album. So far we sold 400,000 units each.
What exactly did you do and who for?
I picked the songs, I was in charge of the musical concept and the production. I guess they asked me because I had worked with TV shows before (Star Search and Big Brother) and I had song plugging experience – meaning I knew how to find great songs.
Popstars is produced by Tresor TV, they have a deal with Starwatch. This label is a joint venture between the TV stations Pro 7, Sat 1 and Warner. I do the A&R for Starwatch/Warner, Tresor own the masters and Starwatch put out the records backed by Warner's infrastructure.
How did you find the songs for Monrose?
First we had to pin down the musical concept for Monrose. We wanted to create the next No Angels who were very successful previous winners, with very melodic pop songs. But whenever contestants were kicked out that we had thought were going to make it, we had to adapt our concept.
In the end we went for pop with strong R&B elements. We gave out a song briefing to all the publishers, writers and producers that we are in contact with. And I also posted in SongQuarters that we are looking for songs for Monrose.
So how many songs did you get?
More than 600, maybe even 1000! I had to set up a separate space on our server otherwise my computer would have crashed with all those MP3s sent to me.
Did you listen to all of them?
Yes, together with a colleague from Starwatch and one from Tresor TV. I feel I have to listen to songs myself, that´s my job! Otherwise I could miss that hit.
Sometimes its just a part of a song that is great, so I have to be able to hear that and then you get them working on whatever else is needed. Like changes in the chorus, the lyrics, etc. so the song really fits the act.
What was the quality of the songs like?
Well, some people simply open up their drawer and send you what you might already have heard. The number of real song gems you get sent is limited. Just like artist demos - the percentage of outstanding material is very low.
Also, there are lots of casting shows all over the world. And they are all looking for good songs, for hits. So the top writers, who are in the US, in England, in Sweden, Scandinavia, they have to decide who to send their potential hits to: Beyonce or the German Popstars? But we did find some great songs.
Only one song you picked came out of Germany.
Yes, the others are all from international writers, England, Denmark, Sweden.... they all came through publishers.
These German acts who sing in English, do they stand a chance outside Germany?
It's difficult. Germany has a reputation for dance, but it is hard to get interest for a German pop project within the majors. Everyone would love to though. That was a reason for me to make my own label, because I know some of my projects have international potential.
So, Warner has a first option on my stuff for international exploitation, but if they don't use it, I can shop it myself to other companies.
Back at Universal, you had a massive European hit with the Romanian band O-Zone.
Here is the story: a friend had sent me a song that was really hot in Italy done by a dance act called Haiducci. When I did my research, I found out that the original came from a Romanian band called O-Zone, they had written and produced it and they even had a video for it.
O-Zone were well known in their country, with three albums released. I knew 'Dragostea Den Tei' was a hit, but I had to decide which version to release. In the company they were all for the track from Italy, but I went for the original. A band from Romania!
So you went with your gut feeling?
And I was right. It was a strange situation, because the Haiducci version was out there at the same time. But O-Zone took the crown by far.
Being an A&R is not about democracy, you have to go with what you feel is right, not what the marketing guy tells you. You have to be able to see what others don't. They might not see it until it is a hit.
That has to be your talent as an A&R, to pick stuff that is different, but will catch people's imagination. Radio hated the song at first, then they didn't stop playing it.
So how did you get O-Zone out there without radio or MTV?
I was doing A&R for the TV show Big Brother at the time, so I was able to place the song during the program, like when people were dancing. That caused an immediate reaction. We got some more placements and the song simply took off on its own. We only got TV shows after it had gone to No.1 in the charts. Same with radio.
Tell me about Schnappi, the crocodile. A hit that originated on the Internet.
I wanted to do another children's project after doing 'The Burger Song' with DJ Otzi, which was really for kids and became a big crossover hit. And I had had a similar success with the song 'Veo Veo' by Hot Banditoz. Then a friend sent me the Schnappi song and I loved it, I thought it was really cute.
The song, which was about a little crocodile called Schnappi, was all over the Internet in 2004. As a free download. Sung by a five-year-old girl. Kids went crazy about it.
The two ladies who had written and produced it had already been approached by record companies and I called them two days before they were going to sign with Sony/BMG.
I was able to convince them to sign with Universal because I had this vision of not just doing a kids thing, but going pop with it and crossing over into the charts.
So they agreed to sign and we sold over a million singles in Germany, 1.4 million worldwide. We were No.1 in Germany for 14 weeks. The album sold 420,000 worldwide. We even went No.1 in Australia. It was a hit in 16 countries.
What was your strategy in marketing Schnappi?
I went for the Internet. Big time. I hired an agency that specialises in Internet marketing and they created a massive hype, placing it in kids' forums, chat rooms etc. Special projects need special promo. Schnappi was not going to get Viva or radio, so all efforts were put into the online promo.
We then made a low budget video so they could play it on the chart shows. Actually, most of my acts did not get Viva in the beginning. Whatever the strategy - in the first place you need a hit you believe in!
Would you generally say that the music business works differently these days?
You still use the traditional means of promo, press, radio, TV, but new ways are equally important. I have an act called Basehunter from Sweden who have been No. 10 in the German charts now for weeks with their track 'Boten Anna', sung in Swedish! We've never had a Swedish hit in Germany.
The only promo we did was in the clubs where the track became hugely popular and we promoted the ringtone. I knew the song was a hit but I also knew that we would never get TV or radio. So we did clubs and ringtones because that´s how it worked in Sweden. We did a co-op with ringtone company Jamba and it worked.
What other releases are in the pipeline?
New single by Marquez who had a big hit last summer. Die Zipfelbuben, a Schlager/pop boy band. Milk and Honey, a girl group who sing in Arabic, English, French, what I would call oriental pop. We have a lot of enquiries from abroad because that style of music is very popular right now.
Any more kids' projects planned?
Yes. We just signed the deal. It will be a cooperation with Super RTL called 'Wir 3'. The concept is three girls aged around 18, very natural, no models, three best friends. The target group age is four to 14.
They had huge success with this concept in the Netherlands and we will adapt it for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We found three girls and we are having the songs translated. And we will record some new material. The first single, 'Heya Mama', just came out.
How do you find these acts?
Some are brought to me by their producers or managers, other times I am specifically looking for say a kids project so I put the word out about what I am looking for.
I also look to other countries to see what is working there to adapt projects and get inspiration. Or I might have a specific idea and then I start looking for people who could put that together for me.
Give me an example for such an idea.
Die Zipfelbuben. I had this idea to do a Schlager/pop boy band. So we found some great musicians and singers who I already knew from other projects, a producer, and the right songs. And now already they are on tour with major Schlager/pop artists getting great response and the album is coming out in July.
So you enjoy doing development...
I love to develop projects and get involved in the songs, the sound, the production, the artists. That is the job of an A&R. Of course I am in a better position to do this than say a rock A&R who signs a band where everything is already there. I can be creative with ideas.
Do you receive many demos?
Yes, but less than in the past. Because it has become harder to earn money with pop music, people have left the business. Or they totally specialise, like only doing commercials.
Producers used to sign artists, find the right songs for them, develop a project. But that is expensive and time-consuming and the return-on-investment is not as high any more.
Can our subscribers send you their song demos?
Absolutely! I actually get sent a lot of songs because it's a lot cheaper for producers to demo a song than to develop a pop act! I always look for a great melody and a strong hook!
Can you give some advice on what makes a good demo?
If you are demoing a pop/R&B song you need to do it with the sounds and beats you have in mind, because they are very important for that kind of music. We are used to very good sounds these days.
To send a song in for Monrose for example with just the vocal hook is not enough. If as a songwriter you are not in a position to produce your demos, I recommend that you team up with a producer and make a decent production. The demos need not be longer than 1.5 minutes, but sound quality is important.
Are you looking only for popsongs?
I am open for all kinds of music, I love rock, rap, hip hop. But of course my acts have been mainly pop, so people don't send me the new Rammsteins. As the label is growing I can see myself having one act from every genre.
What is the strategy for your own label?
Being selective, signing only what I really believe in. Creating content. Quality not quantity. I am setting up joint ventures with booking agents, with advertising agencies, I have my own publishing company.
You have to have a wide approach making use of the diverse music revenue streams. You can't make money in the music biz just with selling records.
Are you hiring?
Actually, I am. I have hired a marking manager and I am now looking for someone to take care of digital contents, international exploitation and publishing.
What was a real highlight in your career?
Having three organic - and by that I mean not coming out of a casting show - No.1 hits in a row that stayed on top of the charts for months.
If you wish to publish this article, or parts of it, you are welcome to do so after having received an approval from us. Requirements are statement of origin and link to HitQuarters. To get an approval, please contact us.
Interview by Monica Rydell
Read On ...