Interview with AMANDA BEEL, music promoter for Mariah Carey (US & UK No.1), Ray LaMontagne (US Top 5), Katie Melua (UK No.1 & US Jazz No.1) - Aug 17, 2009
“Commercial stations have to sell advertising time and so it’s very important how many and what kind of people they reach. They say they are not there to break records or new music.”
To kick off an ongoing series looking at music promotion on both sides of the Atlantic, HitQuarters spoke to esteemed radio and TV promoter Amanda Beel.
With a career in radio and TV music promotion stretching over 20 years, Amanda has worked with a dazzling array of music stars, from legends like Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen and Public Enemy to current stars like Mariah Carey (US & UK No.1), Ray LaMontagne (US Top 5) and Katie Melua (UK No.1 & US Jazz No.1).
Now head of her own All About Promotions, London-based Beel talks about how both new and established acts are promoted on the radio and TV, stresses the importance of having a strong profile, and how the future is in online promotion.
How did you first get into artist promotion?
I kind of stumbled into it really. I used to work in marketing for the major record label WEA, and then I started working for a management company and through the person I worked with I met a lot of radio producers etc. It was these relationships that made it possible for me to be a successful plugger.
I started working for a small label and then I was at for Sony for nine years [as head of radio promotions]. When I left the obvious thing to do was to set up my own company. I was kept on by Sony as a consultant, and then I did some different partnerships for a while, before I finally completely went out on my own.
It's nearly 6 years now since I started All About Promotions. We have a good team of people. It's important to have young people on board as well - they know about what's going on with new music. We take care of a very diverse roster because we can.
How many people are working in your company?
I have two members of staff and two associates that I pay fees to. One of these guys is also an expert in TV, and sometimes TV requires a full-time job. We also have work experiences [interns] working for terms of three months.
What music promotion is your company focused on?
Primarily we deal with national radio and TV - all of the BBC stations, out of London and London-based stations. A lot of the London commercial stations are part of a group that have stations in Birmingham and Manchester etc.
We also take care of the in-flight channels, British forces broadcasting and some of the talk stations. And at the moment we are learning as much as we can, and as quick as we can, about digital radio. There's so many new media to be considered in the moment.
Do you still send out physical CDs?
Most stations and most individuals still want CDs. We send out well over a hundred copies and some are hand-delivered to the stations in London. Some go to independent production companies and individual presenters.
How do you follow up a CD when it's sent out?
We tend to follow through with an Email. With the smaller outlets in particular, we find people actually still enjoy receiving new music. They will listen and give us early feedback. That helps us where we are with an artist early on.
The rest, like Radio 2 for example, involves walking around that building, seeing people, having face-to-face conversations, as well as telephoning and emailing. We try to pursue them to listen and give us feedback because they receive so much product. The music has to be on top of the pile and that’s where we come in.
They are more likely to listen to something we are giving them because they know us and they know that if we’re taking it on, it’s worth listening to. But still they are all very busy people and they have only a certain listening time built into their day. Some of them only listen to the record last minute before it is discussed at playlist.
I send a lot of information out about the artist just to keep the name out there. This is because you have some artists that are not new, they are not contemporary or young enough for some of the younger pop stations, but I keep the people informed about what they are doing because something might just suddenly fit. For instance a collaboration might pop up.
Do you test your songs before you send them out?
A lot of the radio people say they don't like to play A&R. There were a couple of occasions recently when as a favour we asked the people for their input, because we’ve had a dilemma of choice, but we don't go in with every record and test it upfront.
Commercial radio stations, like the Global Group for example, don't tend to go with brand new acts or even new singles. They wait until there is a bit of profile first.
They do a lot of testing with their audience. This happens long after we’ve decided on a single. I would consider it a very unreliable test. I’ve heard they don't play very much of a track, and it wouldn't sound familiar if they haven't heard it before. Sometimes things grow on you.
Commercial stations have to sell advertising time and so it’s very important how many and what kind of people they reach. They say they are not there to break records or new music. They play it much safer than the BBC, for instance.
The BBC is supposed to take some risks and offer an alternative to commercial radio and they do that with special radio shows on BBC1, for example, or by giving sessions to new bands. They do play a role in breaking artists.
Having said that, you do have stations like XFM with presenters like John Kennedy that are part of the Global Group but do play new music. They want to be the first to play it.
When you decide on taking a new artist on your roster, what's important for that artist to have in place already?
It's good if they have done a few live gigs in town and if they have a little awareness already building. It's also good if they have been active on their social network sites like Facebook and MySpace - working the networks, going out there and convincing people to check out their material. This is the place where a lot of young people are discovering new music. The media now kind of expects people to have a little bit of that already in place.
There are a lot more things you can do as an individual artist nowadays. It takes a lot of work but it sorts out the ones that are serious.
We are all in transition at the moment. Certain ages now are just not listening to radio anymore. So you have to be ahead of the times - mostly through playing live, and building some kind of fan base. It's amazing how that still cuts through, and that gives the media the feeling, "There is something going on here, we should look at this!"
Can you give any examples of how you’ve plugged an artist on the radio?
There is an artist called Jay Jay Pistolet that we were introduced to. He’s not signed to an official label as such, but he has got people to put out a single here and there. Musically it's kind of a new type of folk, which at the moment really hits the spot. We managed to get sessions on Radio 1 and 2, XFM etc. just on the back of one EP.
He’s just got a style of music that fills the gap, he’s got the timing right. People are saying really good things about him, and that’s normally a springboard for taking it to the next level.
Another artist, completely different in many respects - she is American, from Memphis. We saw her when she had a tiny little gig at the 12Bar in London. It’s not something that's gonna fly on to radio across the board. It’s a bit Americano, with a Memphis twang. She looks like she's straight out of an old film, and she plays this huge double bass, which gives her a good look. Her name is Amy LaVere.
We saw her and fell in love with her. The next day there was a great review in the Daily Mail. I forwarded it straight away to Mark Hooper, who is the producer of ‘Later … With Jools’, a big TV show everybody wants to do. I just thought it might strike a chord with him, and it did. Within a couple of months he gave us a date for the next series. It was her debut TV over here. She’s had phenomenal press and now she’s recording another album. It will be a slow process but she just has such critical acclaim. But there is never a formula how it works.
How much of your work is radio and how much is TV?
With new acts so little is TV, whereas with radio there are so many outlets. If you don't have a profile you don't get on the big prime time entertainment shows. The daytime TV shows are a bit more angle driven. They don't want to just plug a record - you have to have a good story to go with it.
If you can afford a good video, there are lots of outlets now. There’s a system called fasttracks, which is a way of monitoring who has viewed the video. It's not only TV - it goes to shopping malls, clubs, gyms ... All the things on the fasttrack list adds up to millions of viewers. We’ve got things on MTV but mainly because of the story, not because the music is fantastic.
How important are Internet things like Spotify or LastFM?
Record labels panic because it's all for free. But on the other hand it's a way to introduce new music to people. It's all part of the new media. Giving music away to one person maybe makes one of their friends buy it. It's all about building a profile.
Once you’ve got the profile there are other ways of securing revenue, such as merchandising and touring.
Do you use internet media in your campaign?
Not at the moment because we are not an online promotions company. We make sure that someone is taking care of it in a team meeting though.
How important are remixes in a certain style or a special DJ, for instance? Do you use different versions to promote a particular track?
It is very important but sometimes it's just something that is missing from a track - something you can’t put your finger on it and the radio people are saying the same.
We go back to the manager and say, "We need some fairy dust." Sometimes you have to change it a bit so that it works on daytime radio. It can also be a very clever full-blown dance remix for the clubs. Sometimes it's too long. If you want to be on radio you have to give us the best tools.
How do you find it working with bigger names like Ray LaMontagne or Katie Melua?
Katie was a very interesting one. She had a certain style and a particular track that I thought punters would buy. By punters I mean average people on the street that suddenly hear something and then go, "I have to have that, it moved me!"
A lot of those people listen to Terry Wogan on Radio 2 and when he played it people just went mad. Radio 2 put it on their website as well so Terry Wogan listeners knew about Katie Melua way before anyone else. She was number one in the Amazon presales charts before she even released the single!
Is there a big difference when you work a project if it's a new or an established artist?
Established comes in different forms these days. A band that has been around for 20 years are actually coming back and finding problems because they don't fit into a particular format anymore. Or you have a really new project with a big buzz around them and people are biting your hand off for them.
We’re doing the 20th anniversary edition of The Stone Roses' classic album, but there is no one willing to do interviews in the band. So we’ve got a lot of interviews lined up for the guy who produced it, John Leckie. Even though it's an established act, they're old tracks, and so a lot of radio stations won't playlist them.
I’ve been working with Mariah Carey for nearly 10 years now. There were times in the beginning where it wasn't easy to even give every record away, and then there was a time when she had the magic touch, when every song was supported. Then people were requesting things with her to do and she was not available. So we get upset radio people saying, "Why should we support her when she never does anything." Sometimes you have to be a politician and a psychotherapist [laughs].
In terms of radio deadlines, what is the time you need to plan in advance for a release?
Radio 2 discusses their playlist four weeks upfront of release. Then it would go on 3 weeks upfront of release. The only problem now is that release dates are not as black and white because of online releases, physical releases etc.
Sometimes we work with an impact date, which is a date we can work back from. But with new releases we are involved way upfront because we are working with samplers, promos, limited editions etc. Or we try to get them to see the artist live. We try to warm up as much as we can before we go in with a release.
So if I would come to you with a finished album how would you calculate the time?
It depends, obviously sometimes there are some tour dates, dates when people are available. If you have no idea when you want to release something then we would suggest, depending on the type of music, to give us a flavour of the album, a sampler and get it ‘round so that people can make early comments.
Then we would see if it's something that would take off quickly in the media. You want to get a few sessions and some press first, and get some live gigs. But if it's an artist that’s not based here and cannot come over and do years and years of gigs, that's when the online stuff like YouTube comes in.
It's good to be involved 2 or 3 months before the release to give some advice. But there is no set mark.
Is it important that the artist has a record label?
No, a lot of artists are happy to do it on their own label or find a very small label.
What they do need is some financial backing. Obviously if they come to us and they have no money and there is very little time, we can help them with the running costs. However, we have to be very choosy about these projects because we have to pay the rent too. But it's not just our fees - at every level it costs.
It's either they are working still in a day job and save up some money for a campaign or they find an investor. Nowadays there are a lot of people in the City (traditionally London’s financial centre) that are interested in investing in a project. For them it's like a hobby.
Nowadays there are lots of other ways instead of a big record deal. I don’t say it’s not possible but it's a lot slower process if you have no money. We take things on from a very embryonic stage. We are often the consultants to help build a team for them from scratch.
How much does it cost to promote an album?
That’s a question I can't answer. It depends on so much. The fees these days are not what they used to be. It really does depend on the style of music, how long the project is likely to be, how much of our time will be involved, what the budget is.
We might not charge a full fee in the early stages in the hope that the artist is getting signed to a big label and we are kept on. But we have bills to pay so we cannot do that with everyone.
What kind of financing possibilities are there?
Sometimes we do monthly fees and sometimes we do one off fees or where 50% is paid upfront. It really depends.
Do you work for points on the record?
These days with record sales so low, you want to get points of revenue. It is negotiable but it's not something that I go looking for.
Is there a minimum fee?
I cannot say we charge £500 or £1,000 because then everyone comes and says, "Well, that's what you said!" Major labels would be paying £1000 to 2000 a month. For a bit of help and not full-blown, we do it for £500 one off plus expenses on top.
If you think back over your career, is there any project you are particularly proud of?
… Oh gosh! Katie Melua, or what we’ve done recently with The Stones Roses.
What did you do exactly?
I cannot break it down. It was a very broad exposure for them.
Where do you see your company going in the future?
I can see us doing online and digital promotion as well. Definitely expanding into other areas.
For a further insight into music promotion, read our interview with Sue Busch, director of radio promotions at Sub-Pop records.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Professional Demo Review returns and this month it's your rock tracks on the turntable.
Read On ...