Interview with CHRIS BRIGGS, A&R for Robbie Williams, KT Tunstall, Starsailor - Oct 1, 2007
ďThe most important things Iím looking for are the quality of the songwriting, the sound of somebodyís voice, and the potential to be really impressive liveĒ
From humble beginnings as a writer for the legendary UK music magazine ZigZag, Chris Briggs has grown to become one of EMI's most solid and successful A&Rs.
The roster he signed ranges from classic acts as Crowded House (Top 10 UK), to pop giant Robbie williams (No.1 UK), rock acts like Starsailor (Top 20 UK), and even classic artists like Joe Cocker.
He talks to HitQuarters about his focus on songwriting and live performance being most important for up-and-coming-artists, and his concern for the low sound quality of music listened to and bought online.
When did your passion for music first begin?
Probably when I was about 8 years old. My uncle had jukeboxes and fruit machines and he used to give me the 45s from the jukeboxes.
I had all these soul and rhythm and blues records - Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke Ö I became addicted to music when I was a kid. Itís all I ever wanted to do.
So how did you get involved in A&R?
I started in the Charisma Records press office. [Label founder] Tony Stratton Smith bought ZigZag Magazine, and had me writing for beer money. I was out most nights seeing bands.
I was interviewing Dave Mason for ZigZag and Daveís press person was Chrissie, wife of Roy Eldridge who worked at Chrysalis. He hired me to do his job so he could move up. I was still going out every night to see bands so I ended up doing A&R at Chrysalis by default. The first band I signed was the punk band Generation X. Tour managing Blondie was also interesting Ö
So I started as a scout while still doing my press office job. This was in the late Ď70s. Chrysalis bought Wessex Sound Studios and an interest in George Martinís AIR studios.
Around this time I met producers Chris Thomas and Bill Price and then later Mutt Lange and Tim Friese-Green. They sparked off my interest in record production.
Iíve worked in A&R for Chrysalis, EMI, Phonogram and A&M (now Mercury) before coming back to Chrysalis and EMI. I met Roger Ames and Brian Shephard while I was working at Chrysalis, and they talked me into working at EMI, in 1978.
What artists are you currently working with?
Robbie Williams, KT Tunstall, Crowded House, Joe Cocker and Starsailor.
Other artists Iíve worked with before the current period at EMI, or signed over the years, include Gang Of Four, World Party, Simple Minds, Squeeze, Def Leppard, Big Country, ABC and Del Amitri.
How did you come to choose these particular projects?
When EMI purchased Chrysalis in the mid-Ď90s, I came to EMI as part of that. Some of these acts I signed. Some of them didnít have an A&R person and I got involved. They were all people I wanted to work with. Iíve been very lucky.
Whatís the secret behind your formula for success?
I donít have a formula. Thatís the secret.
Every artist or band one works with is unique. They all need something different. Theyíll have certain things theyíre really good at. All I do is figure out what additional help they need. In some cases they donít need any help at all and I can go on holiday.
What happens when something goes wrong in the studio?
Itís just a process. Wrong can be good. Something goes wrong on every record. I would worry if it didnít Ö
Whatís the difference between working with an established artist and a new one?
Established artists have usually had more studio experience, so there is a common language straight away, though new artists often take to the recording process intuitively.
But itís very difficult to generalise. I donít think Iíve ever been in two consecutive situations where there was a pattern where you could say, this is how itís done. I just try to keep an open mind. Not get in the way.
All recording is a series of experiments loosely based on previous experience. The more you do it the fewer mistakes you make Ö hopefully.
Whatís usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
Songs, producers, and what kind of music they like. Youíre trying to find a link. You talk about music until you find some common interests. Iím interested in what that band or artistís taste in music is. That gives me some clues to where we might go.
If Iím introducing them to someone they donít already know, my route to that is through what interests them, what artists they like listening to. One is trying to assemble a team of like-minded beings. Sometimes itís just obvious from the music.
Do you set time schedules?
Not that early.
Are you always aiming to work long-term with a particular artist?
Hopefully. Once Iím working with an artist, Iíd like to think that I could be working with them for their entire career.
Youíve said your philosophy is ďless is moreĒ. How does that inspire your work?
Itís all about the songs and the sound of someoneís voice. The whole process of writing fascinates me. Knowing when youíve got a body of work and youíre ready to go into the studio.
When you do this every day of your life itís actually very difficult to put it into words. A lot of what one does is instinctive or intuitive. Youíre responding to someone elseís music and giving them some feedback that hopefully helps with their perspective on what theyíre doing.
Whatís the difference between a good song and a great song?
A great song is one Iím still listening to ten years later.
Do you look for outside songs for your artists?
Only if they want them. Iím not in the business of forcing outside writers on anybody. If I work with artists that donít write, or want outside material, and who actively want me to find songs for them then thatís different.
I feel more comfortable working in a self-contained project where there is a team of people focused on the record. Sometimes you sign a band and theyíre not fully formed. After the band is signed maybe another member is added. They might bring something extra to the writing.
I donít think I could do Simon Cowellís job though I sometimes wish Iíd had the idea for the TV show. Finding new songs for pop performers who donít write is not really my area of expertise.
How do you find new talent?
Iíve been doing this a long time. People recommend stuff. People send me stuff.
We get an enormous amount of unsolicited demos via email, and endless MySpace links. I could fill every day just listening to the stuff off of email. It has resulted in a huge surge of mediocrity. Itís convenient as an introduction but you want to see more character and depth.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
All the online stuff is incredibly useful but I still get more information out of seeing an artist perform live.
Demos tell you if there is songwriting ability and reveal potential. The recording quality doesnít really matter to me at this early stage. Iím listening to great songwriting and great singing.
To me the live side is incredibly important. If someone is going to have longevity they have got to be able to do it live. Iím not particularly interested in something that only lives in the studio.
How ready-to-go must they be before actually signing?
It absolutely doesnít matter. The quality of the songwriting and the potential is everything.
The three most important things Iím looking for are the quality of the songwriting, the sound of somebodyís voice, and the potential to be really impressive live.
Do you need to create a buzz within the company to get people fired up for the next new thing?
If youíve got something new you network it inside the company.
I work for all the EMI labels including Parlophone, EMI and Relentless and in my job itís just a natural process. The MD may bring me in on something. You talk to the press people, the promotion people, and the product managers. Once youíve got something that you think is sufficiently developed and worth listening to you start introducing people to it.
Do you spend any of your time devising strategies regarding marketing and looking for new platforms to launch new artist?
Iím an A&R person not a marketing person. My time is best spent on the music. Though I try and keep myself up to date particularly with new media and technological developments.
Although like every other A&R person, I do spend time thinking about all this stuff. Anyone that works at a record company these days has to be aware of how fast this business is changing, or they drown.
If you were an artist and offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Most artists want somebody who absolutely understands what theyíre doing - and some money for food ... I would be the same.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Iíd make all Internet connections faster so that everyone listened to music on wav files instead of MP3s. One of the few negative aspects of the digital age is that people are consuming music at the lowest audio quality since stereo was invented. I donít think many people realise that theyíre listening to music that has no dynamic range. It pushes you away rather than pull you in.
What kinds of artists would you like too see gain more popularity?
I donít have a genre of music or a type that I think is hard done by. Some very talented artists are unlucky. I probably could come up with a list of people who I feel deserve more recognition or success. Midlake should be huge.
I donít really think in genres - thatís more of a marketing thing. As A&R people go, Iím not a very good marketing person. Iím only really interested in the artists and the making of the music.
Any new projects coming up?
Robbie Williams is writing songs for his next record. Starsailor are in the studio with Steve Osborne.
Will your main focus stay on the music business in the future?
For as long as there is recorded music I will try and help where I can. Iím going to keep making records until someone tells me to stop. I donít know what else I would do all day Ö
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Relentless Records MD Shabs Jobanputra on discovering KT Tunstall