Interview with MARY GORMLEY, A&R for Death Cab for Cutie, James Blunt, The Donnas, The Darkness - Oct 12, 2009
“My best strength and asset is myself. I know I can find talent, I know I can develop them, and I know I can get them signed or get them co-writes. So I just started doing it myself.”
Networking, forging important relationships with influential figures, is an integral part of any successful career in the industry. However, as a relative unknown, making the right connections in a vast indistinguishable universe of dots is an impossible task. More effective is to link up with one big dot around which all the influential names orbit. Mary Gormley is one such dot!
On first name terms with a raft of important figures up and down the industry ladder, Gormley can conjure up opportunities for her clients with a decisive flick through her address book. Her far-reaching network and talent for developing artists has been cultivated through an extensive career as an A&R at Atlantic Records, working with Death Cab for Cutie (US No.1 & UK Top 30) James Blunt (US & UK No.1), The Donnas, The Darkness (UK No.1 & US Top 30) and Sinead O’Connor (US & UK No.1).
HitQuarters talked to Mary about connecting the dots to her young artist clients, lucrative video game placements, and how she helped Snoop Dogg get a role in The Godfather.
A&R is very male dominated - have you always felt like the minority?
Yes - there are many women in different departments, but not very many that do A&R. And when I found myself not at Atlantic anymore there were limited opportunities for me at other companies, and I figured my best strength and asset is myself. I know I can find talent, I know I can develop them, and I know I can get them signed or get them co-writes. So I just started doing it myself.
Perry Watts-Russell, Senior VP of A&R at Warners, said that if the top roles in A&R were more evenly divided between male and female then there would be more diverse music on the radio and in the charts, and more credible female artists. What’s your view on this?
Well, half the world are women, right? And it’s the A&R who determines what gets signed and what record get made and what record comes out. Common sense could tell you that things would look a little different, wouldn’t it?
When you say you started finding talent yourself, this is when you founded ‘Connect The Dots Media’ - what is that exactly?
It is exactly what it is. It’s finding artists … For instance with Reni Lane and with Lionel Neykov, it was helping them before they were signed. With Reni, I signed her and was A&R on the record with Linda Perry and Katrina Sirdofsky’s label, Custard. I’ve known Linda and Kat for years and did the James Blunt deal with Custard and Atlantic together.
It’s a consulting/management company - I guess that would be the best way to put it. With some artists, I’m representing them and managing them, and other artists I just consult and help them get deals. For instance with Snoop Dogg, it was really just brokering the deal for Yoostar.
What is Yoostar?
They’re a company and that I’m looking for artists to be in film and video clips for their new product. Basically, with Yoostar you get a camera, a green screen, and a mic, and you film yourself, and it puts you in famous movie footage. They’ve licensed millions of dollars of film footage. So it’s a video karaoke kind of thing.
My friend manages Snoop Dogg, so I hooked up a deal for Snoop Dogg to be in these Yoostar video clips. They have clips like Snoop in The Godfather, Snoop in Abbott & Costello, or whatever. Snoop gets paid first of all, and he’s there to promote Yoostar as a famous person in their clips.
What was it that first attracted you to A&R?
I just love music. I moved to New York and would go out all of the time to see shows. I was studying communications and business and I decided to get an internship because I felt like when I’m going out this much I should go and make a living on it [laughs].
I love artists. I love the art of putting people together that I feel would be good with each other. A&R is a whole job, it’s a whole skill set, “Oh, I know this producer,” and “Oh, I know that artist, or this A&R guy or gal, I think would really enjoy this kind of music.”
So the first step is being a talent finder, but then it’s helping the artists realise their vision. When I sit and spend time with an artist and see where they want to go, then I try to, through all my contacts, find the right opportunities for them.
With ‘Connect The Dots’ it’s not just signing artists at this point. I represent Justin Hawkins, who was the singer of The Darkness, and who’s now focusing on writing, and I introduced him to one of my A&R friends, who said, “He would be great for writing with Adam Lambert.” And so Ashley Newton, who represents Adam Lambert, heard a couple of Justin’s songs and loved them, and now Justin’s got tracks on Adam’s forthcoming record.
Your client Lionel Neykov said that “it's all about connections in this business and everybody knows Mary.” So how did you establish your name in the industry?
I started out as an intern at Polygram Records while I was in college. I worked my way up. So I just grew up in the business. I met people along the way, from just going out, be it artists, writers, producers, managers - it’s like a lifestyle, rather than a job.
My first real job was at Geffen Records back in the late 80s and early 90s, and there I worked under John Kalodner, Tom Zutaut and Gary Gersh. We were always taught to have a very diverse roster - pick the best of each genre. So I approach talent finding from that perspective.
What were the projects that established your reputation?
When I started at Atlantic, I really had the opportunity to execute that idea. I worked with Sinéad O'Connor, I did the ‘Headwig and the Angry Inch’ album, at the same time I did the Pokémon soundtrack. You couldn’t be more different.
And then I went on to work with The Donnas, The Darkness, Death Cab for Cutie, James Blunt … Again, all very different but all extremely talented in their own genre. So I think that those were the years where I really got to execute the vision of being a talent finder.
How did you come to work with James Blunt?
James Blunt was signed with Custard Records, who had a deal with Elektra Records, and when Atlantic and Elektra merged together I signed James directly to Atlantic. Although James is a US repertoire owned artist we made the strategic decision to work with the UK and release the record there first. They did an excellent job breaking him there first, and the rest, as they say, is history …
Is it true that before he broke you successfully argued to keep him from being thrown off Atlantic Records?
I stood by James from the beginning. I was definitely strongly behind him in becoming an accepted artist on Atlantic Records under my A&R.
How about The Donnas, how did you first come across them?
I knew about them from my little sister actually [laughs]. I started paying attention, checking out some of their indie records that were on Lookout! [Records] and then a friend of mine named Nicole Poulio and I went to see them play at Irving Plaza - it was right after 9/11 actually, so everyone was still pretty shaken up - and we met their booking agent, the late Sandi Schaffer, who introduced me to the band.
I brought them to Atlantic. As I was a consultant at the time, there was another executive named Nick Casinelli involved with the signing of them as well.
As a female group that is relatively unusual in not being a pop girl group, how did that affect the way you developed them for a mainstream market?
It didn’t actually. They’re just great writers, they’re fun, what you see is what you get with The Donnas, and there is really no difference in how I work with them and with The Darkness. The only difference is that The Darkness had a finished record.
The Donnas were very notable in that a lot of their tracks had placements in video games. Was this your inspiration?
The Donnas were huge, huge licensing. I think it was a collaborative effort, but they had a great publisher in EMI Publishing that was extremely active in finding placements for them. Their music really just came to really fit into fun, playful movies and games. Atlantic's Film/TV person Kevin Weaver really kicked as for them as well.
Are film, TV, and video game placements something you consider for all the artists you represent?
Absolutely. One of the questions that I always ask artists when I meet with them is, “What shows do you like, or is there any games that you like to play, and is there something that you don’t like at all, so we don’t waste your time asking you about it?”
What other potential business opportunities are there?
Licensing, touring, merch. This Yoostar company is interesting. Also there have been a number of artists that have obviously done really well with Guitar Hero too.
How has the move towards the Internet over the last decade affected the way in which you’ve developed your artists?
Well, there is definitely a whole other way to market them. I can tell you in finding artists it changed things too - just the fact that like people can send me a song instantly or some video footage, you can go to their website and really learn a lot about an artist before you ever meet them. It has given me access to so many more artists - obviously so much quicker.
And then as far as marketing them, there is the obvious social networks and how the artist can reach their fans and their people directly, and let people know like what’s going on with them immediately.
What advice do you have for artists looking for that key connection that will open up their career? What type of person should they be looking for?
Strong management is probably the best thing that can happen for an artist. Management that has conviction, that is honest and loyal - someone that the artist can trust to run the business part of their life so that they can really focus on the creative side. So many people come and go in an artist life, and so if you have really trusting strong relationship with your manager then that person can really help you and guide you through the process.
What was it about Lionel Neykov and his music that attracted you?
He has just a gorgeous, gorgeous voice. And with ‘Freeze My Senses’, I just couldn’t stop listening to it - and ‘I Need You’.
Can you describe how you have helped him so far?
I helped him in the beginning when he was looking for a deal. He used me as a sounding board for hiring a manager, business manager, lawyer - things like that. There was never any intention of being his manager - he was really looking for me as a resource for putting his team together. Now I don’t work with him anymore - we’re friends and it’s all good, but now he’s signed to a company that handle his creative.
If I was an unsigned artist with a lot of promise and you took me on as a client, what would be the key contacts you would need to make for me?
Well, first of all, I would spend time with you going through your material, and when you and I agreed that we’re ready to start focusing on looking for producers and labels, we would do that together. And I would make these introductions. In some cases I would attend the meetings along with you if that’s what you needed. If you had management, I would do that hand-in-hand with management. If you didn’t have management then we can look for management.
If, for example, I had great songs but my lyrics were terrible would you set me up with a great lyricist?
I probably wouldn’t be working with you [laughs]. For me, it’s really important to be selective. I’m not just going to represent anyone that sends me music. Just like when I worked at a company, you can only sign so many artists. Now as an independent with ‘Connect The Dots’, that’s even more important for me and I’d be even more selective. With each artist I take on I have to make sure that I can give them enough of my time and energy to help them fulfil their vision. I can’t spread myself too thin [laughs].
How do you select?
I exec-produced the School of Rock record, which really means that I helped the producer to look for some guest star artists to play on the record. I’m not actually doing the production - I’m doing some research and reaching out for some contacts for him. With the Yoostar deal again, that was basically setting up strategic relationships.
With Justin Hawkins though, we were in meetings every day from morning ‘til night all last week in New York. And we did a round like that in L.A. and so that’s a lot more time consuming. There’s another writer, Sam Bisbee, who I’m representing, and we just started developing this singer/songwriter, Kailin, who’s amazing. So that would be a lot more of my time as well.
What package needs to be ready in order for you to start working with an artist?
Honestly, I just need to hear music, learn a little bit where they’re from and their life, what kind of fanbase they have, what their goals are, if they’re looking to be on an independent or do they want to actually go on and be a pop artist.
I think really it’s just a matter of if we connect musically and then also if I would spend a little time with the artist in person to get to know them before I make a commitment and see if we have enough in common to work together.
Is your non-profit organisation Friends of Snuffy connected up to your music concerns?
Oh yeah [laughs]. James Blunt came upstate [New York], where the organisation started in 2006, and kicked off with a concert to raise money. All of our fundraising events so far have been music related. And we did the Snuffy Animal Dance, where everyone had to dress like animals and DJ Logic volunteered his time. And then I just did a concert with Michael Lang, the original producer of Woodstock, called Kidstock. And that was unbelievable.
We did a food drive for pets. So people were encouraged either to donate money or bring dog and cat food that we donated to local food pantries. In this area – Woodstock - there are a lot of people really, really suffering from the economy where they literally will go to food pantries to get their food, and some people are using their food stamps to buy tuna to help feed their cats and stuff. So we feel if we can put enough pet food in the actual people food pantries, we can help people not surrender their pets to shelters. Because the shelters are really overrun when people have given up their animals because of economic reasons.
I have resources that other people don’t have, and if I can put that to some use and help my local community, which can hopefully spread this to other communities, I think it’s a win-win situation.
What’s in store for ‘Connect The Dots Media’ in the near future?
Continuing to look for more talents, and developing the talent that I have. I’m really excited for Justin right now - I think that he’s really just hitting his stride in his writing - and Sam Bisbee developing this girl Kailin, that’s very exciting.
Photo of Mary Gormley with Reni Lane by David Pattillo
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Up and coming star and HitQuarters member Leeann Akers talks about signing with Motown and working with RedOne and Lady Gaga
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