Interview with HUGO BEDFORD, A&R for Hard-Fi at Atlantic Records - August 4, 2008
“When artists sign to a major and sell 50-100,000 albums, that’s actually pretty good these days,”... says Atlantic Records UK A&R Hugo Bedford, who professes a realistic, pragmatic view regarding nurturing artists and making sure they have long careers as opposed to being just another flash in the pan.
Bedford signed and broke several dance acts, including Groove Armada (Top 10 UK), Hard-Fi (Top 10 UK) and the fresh signing Santogold who just had a single reaching #25 on the UK charts.
He talks to HitQuarters about an A&R's role in supporting the artist's own vision, the importance of providing a new twist on an existing sound in order to succeed, and the importance of having a long term view beyond an artist's debut release.
How did you become involved in the music industry?
I started out working in a record shop based in Soho, called Mr Bongo. It had two floors, one of which was South American music, from old Brazilian bossa nova to contemporary Columbian stuff. The front half was more hip hop – it was the era of Mo’Wax, that wall of sound thing. We used to do all beats & breaks, which was obviously peaking at that point.
It was back when some would still be changing hands for Ł100 a piece and more. I was there for a while and I set up a label from the shop, also called Mr Bongo. It started out concentrating more on Brazilian re-issues, but we gradually signed our own artists and broadened out from a Brazilian base to embrace wider sounds, encompassing jazz, rare groove, etc.
I was there for about 5 years before moving to Universal, which was Island Publishing at the time.
Were you approached by Island, or did you approach them?
No, I was approached by a guy called Nigel Coxon, who employed me as A&R.
Coming from a record label background, how did you develop your A&R skills?
I worked with Ruth Rothwell, who was the major A&R person there, and she was a really good boss. She took me through all the whys and wheres and hows of A&R, and she gave me a pretty good education. In publishing you can often sign acts late, with lots of people coat-hanging, but with acts that we signed like Zero 7 we made sure we were there early.
We put their first EP out, we got them the best record deal, and they went on to success from there. I’d say she was instrumental for me in building up the right skills.
What other artists were you working with early on in your career?
My first signing while I was at Island was Groove Armada. The dance scene was probably at its peak, or just entering its peak, around that time, so it was mostly all dance-related stuff.
I moved on quickly from there, with a lot of one-off bits and pieces like Spiller (the ‘Groovejet’ track), Artful Dodger (‘Movin’ Too fast’), and Joey Negro, with all his various releases.
You recently enjoyed a lot of success with Hard-Fi. How did you discover them?
Hard-Fi came about through their manager, Warren Clarke. I received a tip-off that they had some good songs, and I had a very early meeting with Warren and Richard from the band about a year before we signed. I think we made quite a good impression on them.
At that point it was all being done without the band, it was just songs. Fast forward about 10 months on and they had a full band which we went to see, and they looked and sounded and felt really good. So we made an offer there and then.
Did you have to persuade anyone around you to make that deal?
I had to talk to my boss at Atlantic at the time, Max Lousada, but it didn’t really take too much persuasion. It was clear that they had 4 or 5 pretty big hit songs. Add to that what they brought to the table, plus the fact that everybody seemed to get on, and it was becoming quite a hot deal - we just managed to close it before it got too stupid.
What happened after they signed? How involved did you become in the project?
Most of the songs which formed the bulk of the first album, ‘Stars of CCTV’, were already there. So for me it was all about trying not to disturb what they had. They were doing it pretty well by themselves, and the whole ethos of that album was very much a DIY approach.
Although we looked at working with more substantial mixers, they actually didn’t really improve things that much. It was working with the team that Hard-Fi had down in Staines, England that seemed to produce all the best results.
In terms of the recording process, the approach was much more hands-off than hands-on. We just made sure that the songs were all the right songs, and we helped out with the mixes. The album was made and mixed by Wolsey White, who was unknown at the time. We just let him do his own thing.
It took a bit of time though – when you work with a professional mixer you’re in and out of a mix studio in a day and a half per track, max. But with this it just took a few more days to get what we were after. But it was really important, especially in the context of the whole campaign for the album, that it was very much a homemade album.
Was there any pressure around you at the time to work with more well-known producers or mixers?
Because it was working well on its own steam, there wasn’t much pressure to change things. Bigger names would have probably been detrimental to the campaign as a whole, which was mostly being run on its own merits.
The band already had independent promotion that was doing very well, and independent press, etc. So it was more about taking what was already going on and not altering it very much. Just letting the band be.
How would you define your working relationship with the band?
Richard is really the main dude. I think he had - and I hope he still does have - a strong level of trust in my opinion. He knows what he’s after, and he knows he can use me as a sounding board and take my ideas on board whenever he feels it’s applicable.
How do you usually discover new artists, is it through recommendations, or through demos/live shows?
Not so much through the traditional CD demo these days. The internet is certainly the quick and easy access for new things out there. But I still think almost all of the stuff that I hear is through word of mouth as opposed to anything else.
As you get older you have an ever increasing network of friends and contacts, and you naturally warm towards people who have the same sort of musical tastes or the same sort of musical ideas as you. At the same time you’re building up relationships with all different types of people.
So hopefully when someone has something new they might approach you first, and if you feel someone’s really good at what they do, then you trust them. That works even with acts that you fail to sign, or where a deal doesn’t happen, for whatever reasons. If you leave that manager with a good feeling about what you stand for musically, then when they have another act they’ll come back to you.
That has happened recently with Santogold. We tried to sign one of her manager’s previous acts, and for some reason it didn’t happen. But the very next time he was in the UK he came over and said, ‘Ok, you need to hear a bit of this’.
It’s a fairly natural process. You always want to work with music that you like, and if you’re speaking and hanging out with similar people on a weekly basis then some of the time, not all of the time, something will come through and it will pay off.
What happened after you’d heard the Santogold demos?
It was clear that she was pretty special, but it was a fairly complicated deal, what with the various parents, etc. She was signed to a small label called Lizard King, and also to a label called Downtown in the States. They have North America and we have the rest of the world now. Once all the legalities had been sorted out, it was a relatively painless process. We got there in the end.
What steps did you take to develop that project after you’d made the deal?
As a US artist she was already enjoying a little bit of hype over there, but it was felt that her natural home was probably here in the UK. It was actually a fairly similar project to Hard-Fi, in that she had done most of the hard work already with the songs and with the concept: the vibe, who she was, etc.
The whole thing was much more about helping to finesse the songs for radio mixes, helping her find a stylist, a video director, someone to put together lighting for live shows, etc. Just networking, being able to provide for the whole picture.
How involved do you typically get after a deal has been done? Do you prefer to control production, for example, or song selection?
It completely depends on the artist. My overriding rule is that if you’re signing a great artist then they already have a vision and you shouldn’t be interfering with it too much. If they go off track then you might be able to help them back on track again, or you might throw up ideas, or bring up a writer or producer who they might want to work with.
You do anything that will help grow their confidence and develop the music. Most of the artists that I work with have a strong vision of who they are and what they want to be, and I think that if you get too hands-on then sometimes you start to dilute what it is that they’re after, and what they’re trying to achieve.
It’s always about knowing the right times to step in, and making sure that they have that necessary confidence in themselves and in you. Because I think one of the key things that has happened recently with major labels is that they’ve lost that essential communication with the artist. I think that’s one of the most important things.
Where do you think that communication problem between artists and labels has come from?
Maybe it’s because major labels are becoming bigger and bigger, which means they have less of an identity. If you go back 10 or 15 years there were numerous major labels and I think there was probably more camaraderie within the system. Now there are only 4 majors left, so they’re much bigger beasts.
It’s very important for the A&R man to make sure that the artists aren’t lost within that system, so they feel they’ve always got someone who they can trust. If the A&R man loses the artist, then the label as a whole will start to lose the artist, and in the end it becomes a battle rather than a conversation.
When you have problems - and you always will - if you’re not communicating easily and trying to get over those hurdles together, then it just becomes ever more difficult.
So as artists become more and more independent these days, do you still think the role of A&R is as important as ever?
The role of A&R nowadays, compared to way back in the day is less about making the albums, because artists are so much more musically savvy in the studio. They’re smart enough to know what to look and what to sound like, and to know the feel of things, all the textures.
One of the key A&R roles is to have a shared vision of where the artist wants to go so that you can communicate that back to the label, be it the promotions people, the marketing people, the press or whoever. You’re really there as a point person for them and the manager to communicate things internally.
Does the fact that a lot of modern artists are more capable of managing their own professional development make your job harder?
It’s not so much harder, as different. But that’s the evolution of the job. We all like being in the studio and making sure the mixes are absolutely spot on, etc., and that’s very much part of the role - you need to get those radio mixes spot on. But the wider vision always has to be about supporting the artist.
Do you still go out and watch a lot of live shows?
Yes, but not as much as I used to. Because I’ve got five acts now, seeing them all play live takes up quite a lot of time. Besides Hard-Fi and Santogold, I work with a band called Fields, and Hadouken! , who have a younger audience. They’re a kind of quality mishmash of rave and indie, with a very avid live following.
I also have a new act called Primary 1, which will be out for next year. That’s really cool, fresh pop music from a very original artist who produced most of his own album, and who sings and performs it. That’s one of my big acts for 2009. I think he’s an amazing artist.
What are the main qualities that attract you to a new artist?
Again, it depends on the artist, and on whether it’s a band or not. Good songs are always at the heart of it. With bands in the UK at the moment it certainly seems to me that we’ve reached a sort of creative cul de sac, especially with the more traditional sort of indie sound.
I think that it’s bands that can provide a twist on that sound who really succeed. The three bands this year who have provided a production twist or a musical twist have been Vampire Weekend, MGMT, and Black Kids. They’re all US bands with the same concept - four/five kids playing guitars - who have managed to find a big enough twist to keep the whole thing fresh.
That’s happening less so with UK bands at the moment. Which is not the case with good pop - I actually think we’re about to go through a really good phase of quality pop music. So it’s about finding artists who obviously have good songs and a unique voice but who also have that special twist to their vision, and to their production, which means that they stand out.
Obviously having good songs helps, but I think we’re in an era now where you can easily make really good, interesting, cool pop productions. And half of that comes from the artist, half from an array of new producers, like Paul Epworth, etc., who really know how to bring out the best in an artist.
What other changes within the industry have your noticed during your time in A&R?
It feels like a smaller industry now, in the sense that when something becomes hot, it becomes hot incredibly quickly, and everybody - be it A&R, lawyers, managers, press people, or whoever - is onto it very quickly. Also the process of breaking acts can happen incredibly quickly.
Is that preferable from your point of view, or do you find yourself trying to slow that process down?
I think we should try to slow it down, somehow, but it’s very hard. Acts grow so quickly. If they’re successful by the end of the first album campaign then so often they’re over-exposed and people are bored of them. You haven’t created a true fanbase, which makes it difficult when you come back to do album No.2.
If you look at the amount of bands that have had poor second albums lately, it’s clear that what we’re failing to do is to build careers. Major labels probably need to find a system in which they can try and nurture acts a little more slowly. It’s not easy in the neo-culture that we live in at the moment, but I think it can be done, and probably needs to be done so that we can actually really establish longer careers.
What kind of things do you think might be done to encourage longer musical careers?
There are some possible answers. When you’re enjoying success I think you could possibly end things earlier, rather than trying to wring every last ounce of CD sales from a campaign. You could forego however many thousand CD sales at the end of the campaign so that when the artist comes back for the second album then people are still wanting to hear more.
Audiences can feel like they’ve been over-bashed with information about artists sometimes. Not working artists too hard and too expensively on their debut album can help to elongate careers. It’s also about cultivating that perception within the industry that when artists sign to a major label and sell 50-100,000 albums, then that’s actually pretty good these days.
There’s a lot of space to grow from that. It’s a good stepping stone. And of course the ultimate rule is making sure that when an artist does come back, that first single from the new album has to be better than anything else on the previous album.
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Interview by Denny Hilton
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