Interview with DAVID NOVIK, A&R at Universal for Boyz II Men, Hayley Westenra, Donny Osmond - May 14, 2007
ďWhen youíre dealing with an artist who has quality, that person is going to get discoveredĒ
... so states David Novik with much confidence.
Novik's A&R work for Decca, Universal, and Universal Classic is particulalry diverse, ranging from Boyz II Men (Top 10 US), Hayley Westenra (Top 10 UK), 70s comeback star Donny Osmond (Top 10 UK), to adult contemporary, jazz, classical crossover and even TV talent show acts.
Novik speaks to HitQuarters about the difference between the pop and the adult pop markets, the need for artists to push a product out as fast as possible, the lasting importance of the record label and new ways for labels to maintain a creative, profitable market without necesarrily having to fight or control digital downloads.
How did you start doing A&R?
I started as an office boy messenger at a little independent company in London. I was taking messages, running to studios with reel-to-reel tapes, going to radio stations with records in envelopes to drop off songs for DJs to play.
My first A&R job was at a small independent company called Magnet Records in London. It was lucky enough that they didnít do a lot of contemporary artists. The first band I signed there was a big hit ska act called Bad Manners.
Not too long after that I was offered a job at different labels. I chose to work with CBS Records in London .
Where did you get your ability to nurture talent in a variety of diverse genres?
The UK market is particularly diverse. It always has been and always will be. A lot of it comes from growing up in a culture where the radio stations are national and you can hear every kind of music on them.
From rock to pop to AC to R&B and everything in between, it all happens on one station instead of being separated like in the US, where youíre constantly looking for different types of music on different radio formats.
What artists are you currently working with?
Itís a broad selection of artists. I currently work with Donny Osmond, whose album debuted in the UK chart at No.7. Itís coming out in the US as well. I work with Deborah Cox. I just finished an album with Deborah singing songs by Dinah Washington, the great 50ís and 60ís R&B blues singer.
I work with William Orbit. Weíre making a new version of ĎPieces in a Modern Styleí, which Iím very excited about. I work with a brand new group called The East Village Opera Company, who are a rock opera band. Also a group called The Section Quartet.
Along the way Iíve worked with Elvis Costello. Iím currently working on a project with David Sanborn, the great saxophone player. Iím working on the new Boyz II Men album, a female AC group called Three Graces and an artist by the name of MiG, whoís on Rock Star INXS. His record just came out.
How do you choose your projects?
I have to believe in the artist. I have to believe that the artist has the potential for a significant career. And that the artist has great songs and a great voice. Assuming that that is a given and that thatís what the artist is coming with, then I also have to know if thereís an audience there for that act.
One of the things that Iím asking every time I find an act is, who am I trying to sell this act to? This is obviously a challenge in this day and age because of how difficult it is to find audiences for music.
The one thing I do believe is that there are audiences out there for adults. The adult consumer is looking to find music that satisfies their urges. They often canít find it when theyíre going to radio or to places where they might have found their music in the past.
Now our job is to sell to an audience that doesnít necessarily listen to the radio all the time, or watches music on television all the time. Itís a tough audience to find, but when they connect with something, it can be a very significant success.
Can you specify what you mean by a Ďsignificant careerí?
Working with Donny Osmond was a very exciting process. He is an iconic personality. This is his 55th album. Itís unbelievable to consider that. Yet the album charted in the UK and weíre having high hopes for him in the US too.
We helped come up with a concept for him - love songs of the 70s. Itís his perfect era. He became a star when he was having hits in the 70s. These songs fall in line with where he came from.
The adult consumer wants nostalgia. Itís part of their make up, songs that they grew up with. Listening to these songs helps them get back to their roots too.
The idea of helping Donny have another hit during his career is just as exciting as finding a brand new artist that we will hopefully build a career with and make significant sales opportunities for.
Also, giving them a chance to build a profile as a touring act and as an act that can sell merchandising, and do it over and over again so that they have a legitimate career instead of just a one hit record.
Youíre also involved with the international classical labels?
We are part of the Universal Music Classics Group. I donít do classical music per se, although I do get involved in classical crossover. Hence The East Village Opera Company and Three Graces that are classical crossover, although pop in the same manner. Theyíre not classical groups at all. They would never appear on the classical chart.
Decca in the US has been part of the Universal Classics Group. What we ourselves would consider to be an adult pop label. For instance, Paula Coleís new record will be coming out on Decca in June.
Whatís the difference between artists in that genre and pop artists?
Two things pop artists tend to have that the adult artists perhaps might not is an obvious radio single that can get on Top 40 radio and a video that can get on MTV or VH1. Some of the adult artists have the same things, but they donít go there at the beginning of the campaign.
Radio is perhaps the last thing you consider when youíre building a campaign for an adult pop act. Whereas in the pop world, itís probably the first thing you think about. Can we get this song on radio and is this artist going to break because of it?
At the end of the day, every act wants to be exposed to as many people as possible. Radio can without question play as big a role in that, and more importantly TV exposure. But for us, TV, touring, press and the Internet are probably the first places we go to build a campaign. Radio comes last.
What creative aspects do you work on?
If youíve got the right repertoire then a lot of it is already in process. Once youíve found the right songs, itís about finding arrangements for those songs that work. Either youíve found a producer that can handle that or you bring in an arranger. It doesnít matter which approach you take.
My idea is to help the artist grow by finding the right people for him to work with, whether itís the arranger, producer or engineer. Itís about choosing great covers with the act or finding other songs or helping the artist to choose the right songs they already have in order to make the album with.
Or having them go and collaborate and co-write with people to build those songs. Then once youíve got the repertoire itís a matter of finding the right producer team to go in.
In some cases it might be people theyíve written with. In some cases it might be a producer that has the right kind of vibe for the act weíre dealing with. Finding the right mixing engineer to come in is the icing on the cake once the record is finished production-wise.
Then you help the act to find a touring agent. And help the act to build their profile within the company so the rest of the team understands what the act is doing. Trying to be a representative for that artist within the company.
What makes a good song a hit single?
Not every great song is a hit, sometimes because the song itself didnít quite have the exposure that it needed. Or sometimes because the artist didnít quite make a recording of that song that is great. Or sometimes the song itself is a hit but the artist isnít. There are certain experiences where the artist becomes secondary to the quality of the song.
No matter which way you turn, as long as you feel in your heart of hearts that youíve found the best possible repertoire and that the performance of that repertoire on the production of it is strong enough, then you hope that youíve done whatever you can do to get it to that point. And then itís up to the public and to the consumers to say: yeah, we agree.
How do you work with Chris Roberts?
Chris is my boss. Heís the Chairman of Universal Music Classics Group worldwide. Heís extremely supportive. He guides me in terms of whenever I need his objectivity, heíll help me through it. He lets me do my job, which is amazing. That support is completely recognized and vital.
Like every A&R guy, I donít like to be second best, but sometimes you need that objectivity to help you see the light. Iím very pleased with how our relationship has evolved.
How did you bring in Natalie Imbruglia at the time?
I was at RCA for nearly ten years. At that point, I was Head of International A&R. I worked with the UK, who signed Natalie over there to put out the record in the US. We were very successful with that album. We sold nearly three million records primarily because of the success of the single ĎTorní.
It was a case where the record really was a superb piece of work. The album was a pretty good album, but the song itself was really what sold that record. It doesnít seem to me that Natalie has been able to capitalise on it. In that case, itís a classic example of a great song and a good performance outshining the artist.
What are you going to sign next?
I have a couple of deals on the table. Thereís one in particular that Iím excited about that I wish I could tell you about because she is amazing, but itís too premature.
Iím in a fight with a bunch of other labels to try and sign her as well. Itís a brand new artist. She made an independent record that people love and Iím hoping that we will prevail but we donít know.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
Very often it starts with you just building a dialogue with them. You talk about how much you appreciate their music and how excited that music makes you feel and what you think could be accomplished with that music.
Itís really all about selling the artist the label that you work with and who you are as an individual. Your ability to communicate with that act. Your ability to talk to that act on their level. Thatís usually where we start.
I donít go for a desk-slamming hard-selling kind of personality push with an artist. Itís not who I am anyway, but I think itís wrong. Artists want to find like-mindedness when they talk to people. They like to hear things about where they might end up. The kind of positive things you can tell them about the label and the people that work there.
Just have a really positive overall dialogue with the act about them and what their music means to you as an A&R person and as just a human being. And hopefully that in turn will lead to a more creative discussion about how you would then go through the process of signing the act, developing the act, working the act through the label.
Making sure that the artist has the support they need. Talking about the music from a production point of view. Finding the right producer, engineer, mixing engineer. Helping the artist choose the right songs to put on the record.
It evolves from that dialogue. Itís not something you start out by saying, Ok, this is what I want you to do, and leave it at that. Most artists wouldnít respond to that.
How do you find new talent?
Word-of-mouth is probably the most effective way of finding something new. I wouldnít be surprised if thatís how most people find their music.
I use the Internet a tremendous amount. Constantly looking on Myspace pages and Facebook pages and all the other sites that one visits to find new things. Seeing what is getting exposure and what is getting interest from various places around the country in particular and sometimes worldwide.
I used to find artists by friends of mine telling me about the act. When I was a kid, finding music, more often than not, I would discover it on radio. Iíd listen to late night radio with John Peel in England or Radio Luxembourg.
Iíd watch TV shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test, a BBC2 television music show that ran from 1971 until 1987. It was the best program on television for music ever. And Iíd go see artists live. Iíd see the opening act and they would sometimes blow me away.
Iíve discovered artists that Iíve never heard of before just by listening to what they were playing before the act that I was going to see, through the sound system.
I discovered Supertramp by hearing them being played before the great rock band Caravan, who used to play them beforehand.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
If I was an artist and I had made an album, Iíd want to put that record in the market as quickly as possible. Whether itís just on iTunes or whether itís on an independent CD that Iím selling at gigs. Put music up on Myspace and get people to pay attention to it.
The stuff that is out there thatís getting the attention; itíll get discovered somehow. Thatís the key on every level. When youíre dealing with an artist who has quality, that person is going to get discovered.
There are new ways to find that act. Touring, press, local radio, retail reaction that Soundscan picks up and all the various things that come along with that aspect of it. But then really the Internet is the thing thatís galvanising all these people around projects. There are plenty of artists who are building tremendous awareness for themselves just on their Myspace page.
Whatís your view on the fact that more people are promoting and presenting themselves solely on the Internet, and therefore bypassing record companies?
Itís the way of the future. I donít see it as a surprise that theyíre successful. At some stage, almost every artist whoís got some success on the Internet is going to look at what theyíve accomplished and ask, how can we get bigger?
The question now becomes whether the physical world that the record labels live in a world that they can capitalise on by joining a big company and getting their message to a further amount of people.
Or is it that all theyíd be doing is just pretty much preaching to the converted, which they could do just as easily on their own?
The answer is, when you reach a certain level of success, you need somebody else with expertise to come in and help you get to the next level. Thatís what we, as a record company, do well.
Thereís a sort of expectation that when you reach a certain level of success you want things to happen. You want to be able to tour, sell merchandise, sell music at your shows, get more fans and get a bigger audience for the next set of shows.
Itís not easy to say that the Internet is going to ultimately destroy the record companies. But this yearís sales are down 10% again from last year, and itís going to go that way until something gives. Whether itís the labels giving up DRM or musically some new form thatís going to take place that people are going to gravitate towards.
The labelsí strength is that they can reach the masses, whereas the independent labels or artists still cannot at this stage.
Doesnít it put it out of reach for new young artists when record companies nowadays demand everything in place before signing?
Every artist has the potential to be successful at any stage of their career. A brand new act could see success on an independent or small local level that could attract attention from a major, or that act could have absolutely no pre-awareness whatsoever.
An example of that is Mika, who had massive success in the UK and Europe. Heís just being launched here now. There wasnít any artist development done before he was signed to Casablanca .
Casablanca stepped in early and started building it from the ground up. The artist became successful in the UK just because the record was so good. Part of that was that they had Top 40 radio as part of their equation as much as they did any other development.
Thereíll be artists out there that can get signed from absolutely nowhere. Iíll bet you thereís an artist tomorrow that someone signed thatís going to have a record out that no one has ever heard of.
And the record is going to do well or not do well based on people listening to it at that very moment for the first time and accepting or rejecting it. For the most part, artists that want to build a career for themselves should be doing it themselves.
Would you ever sign a new artist, recommended to you by a respected industry contact, who presents a demo which has only two songs on it? You know they are hit songs, but they donít have a completed mastered album/top manager/attorney/music publisher/top quality photographs and videos in place.
If someone gave me a song or a CD or I heard two songs on the Internet that I thought were hits, I would do everything in my power to find that act and bring them in here and figure out a way of getting them what they need.
If it was a woman who weighed 300 pounds and had moles all over her face thereís a pretty good chance that I may decide that thatís not quite the kind of image I thought that artist would have. But if that artist happens to be a great looking artist and they can sing their hearts out, then maybe thatís enough to make that decision.
Doesnít it also make it tough for aspiring artists that thereís not a circuit like there used to be of clubs and pubs to play live in and build up a following?
Thatís true if you live in Iowa and your job as an artist is to figure out a way of exposing yourself in your local area and there probably arenít that many places you can play.
But on a given night in New York thereís 300 bands playing. There are plenty of places to play in New York, in LA, and probably in bigger towns around Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco.
The problem starts when you get to a certain bigger level and you want to be able to play in different parts of the country. It costs a fortune to get from one side of the US to another.
Youíve got to be prepared for that or youíve got to have somebody pay for it. Youíre not going to get paid much for the shows you do unless youíve got a hit record. In that case you can demand money for tickets. But until then no one is going to pay.
There are circuits you can play depending on who you are as an artist. If youíre a pop act, you donít go out on tour until youíve got a hit. Then you play big venues. If youíre a rock act, you can play every little club in every part of the local area, and youíll probably start to draw a following.
You canít expect to draw a following and then have a hit quickly. Drawing a following takes a long time.
If you turned into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Firstly, do I relate to them as a human being? Secondly, do I think that their label has the expertise that I would be looking for to help me grow? Not only to grow artistically, but also to sell records.
Iíd look to find out if they have lots of artists on the label like me. That could be positive because I could tour with them. Or it could be negative because they already have that, so why do they want another one?
It would be interesting to hear from the people in the company that do the key jobs - whether itís marketing, promotion, sales or publicity - to see what they can offer. What do they think they can get as far as developing some campaign for me?
And I want to know that the A&R guy is going to be there whenever I need him. Because if Iím sitting in a crappy club in the middle of nowhere and I need some help in terms of getting the promoter to pay attention, I want to know if that A&R guy has got a relationship there, that he can help me make that happen.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Iíd get rid of DRM. Let people find, discover and trade music if they want to. Find a way to create a subscription model so people could pay for music in a way that allows them to buy anything they want at any time.
The labels have to divvy up the money somehow. Perhaps weíll be making less, but maybe itíll help grow the creativity of the business.
Iíd love to be able to see radio play more adventurous programming. Have the DJs program their own shows instead of being centrally programmed by a corporate entity. Then radio, whether it be satellite, HD radio or terrestrial radio, would once again have power over how people discover music.
And Iíd get music videos off television. I hate videos.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
Pop in its heyday. The pop music of NSync, Britney Spears or anything that Max Martin or Denniz Pop produced. It was a great era for pop music. pop music has become a lot more homogenised lately. Itís less about songs and more about something else.
Every now and again, you get a great group like a Panic! At the Disco or The Killers or something that comes along with something new that people get excited about.
I would look for the ability to open it up for great pop, underground, rock, whatever you want to call it - that comes from the heart but still has mass appeal. Thatís the kind of stuff that Iíd love to find as a consumer. A great example would be ĎCrazyí by Gnarls Barkley.
What are your future plans?
I love working with artists. Itís been my passion for a long, long time. I continue to want to be able to work with artists and help them realise their vision. Thatís what Iím good at. Thatís what I like to be able to do.
Iíd like to be able to continue doing this for as long as I can. Theyíll probably put me in the grave doing it.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Chris Smith