Interview with IAIN WATT, manager for Mika, Alphabeat - Sep 22, 2008
"You have to be internationally successful, one territory is not enough."
Iain Watt founded Machine Management in 2002 for the purpose of working more flexibly than what is possible within a big record company. The reasons for doing so were his wish to cater for each of his artistsí specific needs and potential, but also in order for his work to be satisfying and fun.
His biggest success came with the UK No.1 and Top 40 US act Mika, followed by Alphabeat (Top 10 UK).
Watt talks to HitQuarters about the different and new avenues one needs to explore in today's industry, like branding and working with different types of media, as well as about the artistic importance to stay true to one's own style and not conform to radio trends.
What were your first steps in the music business?
I started my career seventeen years ago. I worked for a PR company called Lynne Franks PR. I worked in a team that was run by a guy called Julian Henry.
At the time we looked after Simon Fuller, Annie Lennox, and UK celebrity Lenny Henry. That was my first break in the music business. Julian still looks after Simon Fullerís interests today.
I worked for Freud Communications after that, where I worked on Radio One and other media brands.
Then I worked for a music marketing company called KLP, a brand and music agency. I looked after all the sponsorship for The Prodigyís ĎThe Fat of the Landí world tour in 1997.
After that I joined Epic Records as Head of Press, working with Macy Gray to Rage Against The Machine.
In 2000 you switched over to the management side with the firm Done and DustedÖ
In 2000 there were a series of heated meetings at the label within Sony saying there is this new thing called the Internet, itís going to dramatically change our business and we need to be aware of it.
Other than you need to be aware of it they didnít say how we were going to use it or what we were going to do with it. At which point you could just see the fear on peopleís faces who ran these companies.
And as soon as the full horror of the Internet started kicking in you could just see the old structures of how these places were run starting to crumble.
I was like: ďI donít want to be sat here for another couple of years and then be fired. I much rather be outside of a corporate organisation with an entrepreneurial spirit exploiting the new playing field of the music business.Ē Thatís why I went into management.
What was your vision for Machine Management?
I founded Machine Management in 2002. My vision was to work with artists, musicians and projects I liked and enjoyed, and have the freedom to shape and cultivate their careers in a new and interesting way.
I have worked at record labels and at a previous management company, who generally have one rulebook, and that rulebook is: ďWe do things this wayĒ, and they apply it to every single act that they have. I found that to be quite soul-destroying, boring and dull.
My vision was to start a management company where you viewed every single act for what it is on its own. And you came up with a creative strategy to make that act happen.
What artists are you currently working with?
I handle Alphabeat, Lightspeed Champion, signed to Domino, and Magistrates, signed to XL. I manage Mika in the UK and Europe. I do that in partnership with Rich Isaacson and Jerry Blair, who are based out of New York.
And Iím now also handling Jonathan Jeremiah, a new act signed to Island.
How big can your roster be?
It canít be much bigger than it is at the moment. You can probably add another one or two acts to it, but due to the personal nature of management, I need to be acutely involved in every single project that we work on.
We have a staff of four now. Clearly, some of the day-to-day activities can be done by people who work for Machine Management, but whoever is represented by Machine Management is buying into my strategic vision and my creativity.
By the very nature of being one individual and the amount of time there is in a day, thereís limiting. Some managers overstretch themselves and they start losing clients. I donít want that to happen to Machine.
Any specific genre you focus on?
No. If I look through my record collection, it goes from dance music through to rock Ďní roll to great pop to rockabilly and anything thatís good.
Thatís the unifying thing about the roster that I have; everything is good. We love it, we like it and we feel passionate about it.
How do you choose your projects?
If we like them and think we can make them commercially successful, then we want to work with them. There is plenty of music that we like, but we canít work with projects when weíre not the people to make it successful.
We are built to make our artists successful. And Iím talking about properly commercially successful, where everybody can make money; the management, the record company and the artist.
Are you looking for songs?
Most of our artists are songwriters themselves, but from time to time they will want to work with other songwriters to make new songs.
When did you first meet Mika?
Mika was introduced to me by Rich Isaacson and Jerry Blair, who are from Fuerte Group in New York. They were looking to work with a partner in the UK. They introduced me to him after weíd met a few times. That was about two and a half years ago.
I was recommended by Ted Cockle, who ran Island, as a partner that they should consider amongst others. They took meetings with various people, and I guess they liked me the best.
On the day of the album's U.K. release, Mika was the focus of a street party in a circus tent. What was your involvement with that?
Most of the vision comes from Mika. Heís one of the most creative and dedicated artists, if not the most creative and dedicated artist Iíve ever worked with. From a creative aspect, all the ideas come from him. We as a management help facilitate those ideas.
The global association with the Paul Smithís spring ad campaign in 2007 did help to market Mika in all territories. Looking for multiple impressions of an artist and not just particular songs; will this be the future strategy of making artists a brand?
Yes, of course. The way people consume media is so fragmented that you have to look at ways in getting your artists in front of places in all those different sectors of the media.
And if youíre able to do that you can have a globally successful artist in the same way that we did with Mika.
How do these negotiations look like? Are you presenting artists or do they ask for a certain song?
Because of my experience in branding we have a range of contacts, which extend outside of the music business. And from time to time, as part of my role as a manager, you will meet those people to see what opportunities you can generate for your artists.
Thatís how the Paul Smith opportunity was created, and it was the same for T-Mobile. Thatís a good example of managers in these days; they need to be experienced, they need to have expertise in a variety of areas, which are not just music related.
Those things can create other opportunities for your artists to make them more successful. These brands will look for something that sounds amazing. They will look for an artist that looks exceptional. And everyone wants to back a winner.
So based on the way an artist looks and the way itís presented and the way it sounds, they will decide, particularly if theyíre backing a new act, whether they believe itís going to be successful or not.
And then they will tie a line to their brand in the same way that T-Mobile and Paul Smith did. Via our list of contacts we took a few meetings, we showed the new projects that we were working on, which they felt were appropriate for their brand.
And then when we discussed it at lengths and we worked out some of the ideas that Mika wanted to implement and that fitted in with what they wanted to do, then we moved forward towards the next stage.
First of all you see if thereís a synergy with the brand, and once you have established this synergy, you basically work with the brand to do something that satisfies their requirement, but also fits creatively with the artist.
Everyone is different. So itís not just a buy-off-a-shelf package.
Where do you find new talent?
Anywhere and everywhere. You can be walking down the street and bump into or hear something that inspires you. Whether thatís from a record shop, on the radio or someone tells you about it or plays you something from their iPod.
Iím actively trying to avoid places, which are what you would call ĎA&R hornsí. Because if you are an A&R horn, naturally, youíre going to be hunting in a pack, and Iíve never really been interested in doing that.
Everybody is constantly looking for something thatís great, unique and different. How can artists distinct themselves nowadays and remain individualistic and original?
By following their own beliefs and desires. And by really having confidence in their own talent. Because the moment you start trying to create a song for radio or something that appeals to people nowadays, you lose sight of your own ability.
Itís really important that if youíre a truly inspirational artist, whether thatís Mika, David Bowie, Marc Bolan or whoever, none of those people ever tried to conform to anything other than to what they believed in.
What does unsolicited material need to possess in order to grab your interest and what needs to be ready in order for you to start working with an artist?
To sound different and possess an amazing ability to write songs. Those are the most important aspects. Theyíre the hardest things to create and have. Once you have those already, then you are 70% of the way there.
What is usually discussed in first meetings?
We discuss where the artist wants to be. What the artist wants to achieve. And during that meeting you suggest the strategy, which helps them achieve that goal.
What strategy do you use to help develop their careers?
Itís different for every single artist. You canít apply the same strategy and the same logic for every single artist. Each one would want a different course to get to where they want to go.
Thatís the golden rule; you will obviously use your expertise to generate ideas and a strategy to help break the act, but theyíre never the same.
What time schedule do you use for developing periods?
It all depends. If an artist is talented enough you will work with him until they reach fruition.
If you work with an artist on the basis of one song, and that one song youíve heard is the best song theyíre ever going to write, then you dramatically shorten the fun you can invest in that act.
Whatís the reason for the lack of worldwide success by British artists in recent years?
Guitar music doesnít really travel that well. And unfortunately, for most of the guitar music that has been generated in the UK, the songs havenít been good enough.
In what ways do you adapt to various industry-related changes over the years?
You have to become more and more experienced in other areas outside of the music business. In previous years, you only needed to know how radio and media and press worked.
Now you need to be friends with every single brand thatís working in the music space. You need to be aware of all the media and the gatekeepers through the media.
And you also have to be aware of how you can manipulate the newest brands and stuff that works outside the traditional music world to the benefit of your artists.
You need to have more and more strings and experience to your bow in order to give your artists the best chance of success.
How big are your financial risks nowadays?
Itís harder and harder to make a living, the risks are higher, and income is decreasing. Unless we revive certain revenue streams and find new ways to make money, the financial risk will get higher and higher.
Itís very expensive to promote and break artists, and the returns are not as great as they once were. Are the demands for success forcing you to sell your artists worldwide?
Yes, you have to. We build our artists to be internationally successful. Weíre not interested in just one territory, because thatís not enough.
What constitutes a good manager?
A good manager is someone who can create opportunities for an act by working really, really hard. Someone who has a commercial perspective on making an artist successful. And someone who can make things happen and who is proactive, rather than just sit there and be reactive.
Whatís the Wonky Pop Club?
We run a club night/live event called Wonky Pop, which celebrates everything in the world of pop that is real and unique.
We originally did a Wonky Pop tour last April as a vehicle for Alphabeat to celebrate the fact that they make great pop music.
Initially, it was a tour concept developed together with Islandís marketing manager Tom March, to push a collective of artists in the UK who fall outside the confines of the manufactured, producer-driven groups that are sometimes associated with the genre.
When you went to the first show on July 10th 2008 at Cargo in Shoreditch, London, there was a bunch of kids that maybe three or four years previously were into guitar music, and were now dancing around listening to good pop music.
Since then thereís been a wave of new pop acts that have come to the fore, who are made by kids, who three or four years previously would have been starting guitar bands.
The reaction to it was so amazing that we started a club night. Now weíre going to move it to a bigger venue, a 2000 capacity. And in the summer of next year weíre planning a one-day Wonky Pop festival in London. The target age group is 15-25.
Thereís definitely a renaissance in pop. But itís not a renaissance of manufactured pop but a form of pop where people do it all themselves. They write their own songs. They put their own bands together. They feel no shame in writing and performing a wonderful pop song.
How significant are the Ivor Novellos and Mercury Music Prizes?
The Ivors are very significant, because they celebrate the art of songwriting, which I think is exceptionally important.
The Mercurys are becoming less important, because they were developed to celebrate interesting groundbreaking music. But in the last few years, they havenít really celebrated new and interesting acts. Itís all been very safe, unfortunately.
Thatís a shame. The Mercurys should be a bit more risk-taking and celebrating the less commercial music thatís created, music that is actually groundbreaking.
Who are your most important US contacts now?
Rich Isaacson and Jerry Blair. We work on Mika in the UK and Europe together. Iím also working with Rich Isaacson on Alphabeat in the States. Weíre just about to sign a deal in America for that act.
Did you attend Austin, Texasí SXSW 2008 Festival last March?
Yes, I did. It was good fun. Weíre not entirely sure of its value to Lightspeed Champion, who went there. He did get a lot of gigs and generated a lot of media.
From that perspective it was good, but unless you really are focused with the things you do there, it is actually very difficult to get some cut through.
You will be joining MUSEXPO Europe 2008 Global Managers Forum in the end of October in London. What will you speak about?
I will speak about similar themes to the conversation weíve had now. The role of a manager in the new phase of the music business.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Island A&R Louis Bloom on how Mika needed a big pop explosion
* Producer Greg Wells on why frequent collaborator Mika is the ideal pop star
* Island MD A&R Nick Gatfield on why they signed Mika