Interview with MILES LEONARD, president of Parlophone (EMI), A&R for Tinie Tempah, Gorillaz, Coldplay, Eliza Doolittle - Feb 7, 2011
“Tinie [Tempah] and his manager wanted to show us ideas they had for a clothing range, how they were social networking with their audiences … It was incredible [they] were doing so much so soon with so little.”
EMI’s future may look ever bleaker following the news that Citigroup have wrestled control of the troubled music giant from private equity owner Guy Hands in anticipation of a future sale, but the label’s beacon of good tidings, subsidiary Parlophone Records, remains as strong as ever. Key to its ongoing triumph in the pop sphere - introducing Coldplay (UK & USA No.1) and Gorillaz (UK No.1, USA Top 3) to the global masses and more recently ushering in the breakthrough success of Tinie Tempah (UK No.1) and Eliza Doolittle (UK Top 3) - is president Miles Leonard.
In this exclusive interview Leonard talks to HitQuarters about being bowled over by Tinie Tempah’s home-grown vision and industry, how Coldplay and Gorillaz overcame regional constraints to crack the global market, and why recent signings Morning Parade and Chiddy Bang are destined to continue Parlophone’s remarkable run of success ...
Despite EMI’s ongoing troubles, Parlophone remains a consistently brilliant performer. As its chief, what do you think has been key to its ongoing success?
Quality over quantity has been our philosophy for the last fifteen years. We always want to work with the best artists in all genres of popular music, and as a label have never restricted ourselves to working within one particular area. That is really what sums up our success.
What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?
Making sure that our artists are delivering in all aspects across their campaigns.
One side of my role here, as president of Parlophone, is to oversee campaigns and work closely with our marketing/promotion, digital and brand departments. I also run an A&R department here as well, and there are artists that I directly A&R and look after, and then there’s a team of people who I work very closely with in terms of developing the artists.
Are you involved in studio sessions as well?
Very much so. I started in this business exactly twenty years ago as an A&R scout and A&R was what interested me most at that time. I love being with artists in the studio, and I always find that creative part and working with an act when something is developing - whether that’s a new artist developing their career or an established artist working on a new record – hugely exciting to watch.
Who have you been in the studio with recently?
Tinie [Tempah]. I’ve spent time in the studio with Gorillaz, Kylie [Minogue] on her album, Eliza [Doolittle], and at the moment we also have Coldplay working hard in the studio on their next record.
How are you involved in terms of finding and signing new artists?
I have an incredible team at Parlophone who are out looking for new talent and keeping me abreast of all new music that is coming through. We have regular meetings and updates on all new music.
At the same time I follow up leads of contacts on artists I hear about, and I take a great interest in all new music. So, I’m in a fortunate position in that I hear everything that comes into the Parlophone A&R department that people are interested in or excited about.
What kind of artists are you looking for at the moment?
I’ve never had a view that we must go out and try and find another ‘X’ - you know, another Coldplay, another Gorillaz or another Tinie Tempah - because I believe the artists we work with are unique and individual and to think, ‘Let’s go and find another one of those because that has been successful and so that will in turn be successful’, is not the way to do A&R.
We look across all genres. If you look at the roster of artists we have, it’s very broad - Lily Allen to Pete Doherty to Kylie Minogue to Gorillaz to Bat For Lashes to Tinie Tempah. As a major label these days you have to be broad and reflect the musical cultures around at that moment in popular music.
Nowadays, a lot of people of all ages listen to a huge variant of artists and music and genres, and not just one particular sort of scene or area, and we need to reflect that in our roster, and I think we do that well.
What is the best method for unsigned artists to submit demos etc?
The best method for any band is to recommend that you go to one of their online sites - whether that’s SoundCloud or Myspace or wherever they have new music available. The beauty of online is that it’s a great opportunity to show you visual as well as musical ideas. You get a more rounded view of what the artist is about.
So do you use such web-based platforms to find and discover new music?
We all spend time talking to relevant contacts in the industry, as well as spending time using the internet and its many platforms.
We’re in a new age where the consumer is telling the media, and pretty much the record labels, what they want and what they want to hear. And so by going online you actually get a very good idea of new artists that are developing and coming through, because there’s an audience out there who’s very vocal about what works and what doesn’t.
There’s also mechanisms where people come and vote for songs they like more than others, and it’s easy to look out and see who is getting attention and who isn’t, and then in turn you can listen to those artists and make decisions of whether you feel the same or you share the same vision or you feel you can give something to that artist further and beyond a record deal.
How did you discover Tinie Tempah and what were your first impressions?
A colleague of mine, Jade Richardson, went to the Wireless Festival in the summer of 2009 as a pointer and called me saying, “You’ve got to check out this guy Tinie Tempah. He came on at lunchtime and there’s about 1,000 kids screaming for him. He’s only put out one independent release and he’s got this huge audience.”
I was going on holiday the day I got that phone call and so as I left I spoke to Nathan Thompson in my A&R team and said, “I’m away for two weeks in Ibiza, you need to find this guy.”
When I got back, Nathan found Tinie and where his studio was and we went down to see him. We were bowled over by his vision for his career. It wasn’t a case of just going down, hearing a few songs and liking him; Tinie and his manager Dumi (HQ interview) wanted to show us ideas they had for a clothing range, their merchandise ideas, they wanted to show us what they were doing online, how they were social networking with their audiences, and how they were building a fanbase.
I thought it was incredible that an artist and manager were doing so much so soon with so little, and they probably achieved more than what we sometimes can achieve with all the access to time and finances we have. And that impressed me as much as the music.
And Tinie was very professional, in the way he held himself and talked about his vision. We walked out of that meeting knowing that we had to offer him: Tinie signs to Parlophone.
When did you sign him and who then took charge of developing him?
We signed Tinie in October 2009. Nathan Thompson is the A&R guy for Tinie, and he very quickly ran with the project and worked very closely with Tinie to put Tinie with various new producers and writers that were coming through at the time, and very quickly the album started to come together. He has done an amazing job with Tinie.
In fact, one of the first young producers that Nathan Thompson put Tinie with was a guy called Labrinth, and nobody really knew about Labrinth at the time. They went in, recorded ‘Pass Out’ and ‘Frisky’, which were the first two singles. ‘Pass Out’ went straight to No.1 and sold a half million copies.
You said that Tinie impressed you with how much he had achieved on his own. Other Parlophone artists like Lily Allen and Chiddy Bang had all had built up a significant following and reputation by themselves before signing. Is this something you now expect new artists to do before getting involved with a big label?
Nowadays there’s a generation of young people for whom social networking is a way of life. So for a young artist coming through, social networking amongst friends to gather friends who like your music and therefore finding fans who are into what you do, is also just an extension of that.
But it’s the more entrepreneurial artists who recognise the value of it and recognise that they can’t simply just rely on a record company to find fans for you.
What level was Eliza Doolittle at when you first signed her in 2008, and how much development was then needed to get her to that stage where she was ready to be officially launched?
She had a publishing deal with Universal, and she’d been writing and recording songs in a certain urbany area, but she was just finding her feet at the time, finding what was going to be her direction.
She had this one song, ‘Rollerblades’, that sounded very different to anything else she’d been doing prior to that and it was that song that really made Parlophone interested in wanting to work with her. It felt fresh, felt original. At the time there were a number of female artists in UK pop music who were tapping into a more electronic sound - Little Boots, La Roux … - but the thing with Eliza and this song ‘Rollerblades’ is that it’s at a completely different pace to the more programmed electronic sound - it was more organic sounding. For us the song was fantastic and the sound fresh as well.
And so we signed her on the back of that one song, and then needed to spend probably about the next twelve months working on the album using that as our template. We had to work hard to write and record songs with her before we could go and produce them. We were really starting from scratch.
Eliza seems to be targeting a similar audience as Lily Allen and was launched during a time when Allen has taken a break from music. Is strategic timing such as this critical to the success of an artist launch?
No, it wasn’t strategic timing - that was pure coincidence. We thought the album would come together a lot quicker, and we’d release it a lot quicker. But you’ve got to have the best album you can possibly deliver for that artist, and there’s no point rushing something out just to hit a deadline. We kept putting the album back because we weren’t ready and if it’s not ready you’ll fall at the first hurdle and you will never be able to pick yourself up again and have a second bite of the cherry.
Not only did we have to get the album right, but when we did nobody knew about Eliza - she was somebody that didn’t have a huge fanbase or online presence. We recognised that she had a very distinctive album that had hits and that we believed had a place. We knew that if we got the set up right, the rest would all come through.
And so we spent a lot of time working with our brands department and our sync department getting her brand and sync opportunities so that people heard her music. At the very beginning when you don’t have any sort of fanbase and unless you’ve got something buzzing or going already it’s very difficult to get radio in this country.
So we got a number of opportunities so people started to really hear of this girl Eliza, and we released our first single with very little radio and it went in at 20. At that point, media really started to pick up on her and take notice of her, and then they really came on board and really supported her.
When you last spoke to us ten years ago you said that if a new developing artist breaks the Top 75 with their debut single then that is a success. Has this attitude changed at all in the meantime – are expectations of making an immediate impression much higher now?
I think so, yeah. In pop music the expectation is higher. If you’re nurturing a young alternative band that’s coming from the alternative, leftfield specialist area then you can afford to develop and climb the charts with each release, but if you’ve got something that is ultimately a pop act you got to really make an impression on your first release.
As you said Tinie had an immediate massive impact in the UK charts with his debut single ‘Pass Out’ reaching #1. What things did Parlophone do to help achieve such a strong first impact?
We loved ‘Pass Out’ because it set new precedents for British urban music from what had been happening the year before. And it was a new sound; it sounded fresh, and like it came from the clubs.
As great as it was we felt it had quite an edge to it and questioned whether radio were going to take the risk and play it on their daytime mainstream shows. But we didn’t mind, we wanted to have it as our first Tinie release; we would have been very happy if it got specialist radio play and if it ended up being a ‘set up single’.
So we made it available to specialist, and specialist embraced it immediately and because the stations were getting such great reactions they had to cross it over and start putting it on to daytime mainstream rotation.
It just kept climbing in the airplay charts. We didn’t have every radio station on board, but we had certain stations that championed it for us, and those that did championed it for us was really to a specific audience and they absolutely got it. And it was right at the beginning of 2010, it was a new year and people wanted a new sound, and it just took off.
Once the momentum is there for the song to become a huge hit what are your next considerations?
Our consideration then goes to, okay, what do we do to keep this going and follow it up? All the radio stations and media were coming back to us saying, “Is it all just about this one track?”
So as much as you’re trying to get them to enthuse and enjoy the success of a new artist they want to know if we have other songs to follow it up. We did have other songs that we were recording at the time, and assured them that there were follow-ups. And as quickly as we could we made sure they heard the singles that were coming, and when media heard what we had in our armoury, Tinie wasn’t going away.
We had all the singles very early on and so the issue for us was in putting the album together. And Nathan Thompson worked tirelessly to put an album around those singles that wasn’t just all throwaway tracks. It would have been so easy to say, ‘We’ve got the singles, now let’s just put anything on the album.”
People have been saying that British urban artists don’t sell albums, and that has been the case with a number of the other artists in that area. And so the work for us and Tinie was to break that mould and deliver a great album, and I think we’ve done that, and the sales figures show that.
What were the radio stations that really supported Tinie at the very beginning?
[BBC] Radio 1 really was the first adopter of Tinie - and their partner 1Xtra. They were on this very early and supported Tinie right from the beginning. Also MTV as well. MTV were the only media outlets that tipped Tinie for 2010 in their end of the year polls.
The last time we spoke you said that you would change the music industry by making radio more open to more artists. How do you think this has developed in the meantime in terms of the emergence of digital and online radio?
There will be a point when British radio goes completely digital, and when it does it’ll be interesting to see how people migrate and adapt to the sort of unique stations that are genre specific. Commercial radio in the UK has always really been about playing the hits, and BBC and the more specialist stations have been more about breaking and taking risks with new artists. That’s just the nature of radio, and I think both have their place.
The power of commercial radio is that it hammers the hits home, which is great when you’re having hits, but we really do need those BBC stations that discover and champion new music as well.
You’re well known for guiding Coldplay to success not only in the UK but internationally. What was key to breaking them globally?
We all ask, ‘What is that bit of magic that sets you apart from just being a great UK or European rock act to a global one?’
Those things are sometimes very hard to define. They have a sound and lyrics that touch people and they also worked very, very hard to go out and support their music in America. But if you haven’t got the music that eventually connects with that audience it doesn’t matter how many times you tour America. So, the two are very important but the music always has to come first.
Chris [Martin] is also a very charismatic and engaging front man, and they never felt like a parochial UK artist; some bands are very proud to be British, but sometimes come across as being very ‘British’. Coldplay never aspire to that; on one hand they sound British but on the other they sound like a huge global artist. What was the magic of U2 that made people connect with them?
How did Gorillaz manage to find success in the US when Damon Albarn failed to really breakthrough with Blur?
Well, exactly - Damon wrote the songs for Gorillaz and the songs for Blur [laughs]. I was with Damon in the US just before Christmas, and Gorillaz were out there playing stadiums and arenas, and Damon said, “It’s interesting, I’ve been making records and songs for twenty years and now here I am in America for the first time playing stadiums - and packed stadiums.” The writer is not different, but the sound and the approach are and the little touch points that connect with people are different. And it’s just that piece of magic of what just works and what doesn’t. Of course the incredible visual aspect from Jamie Hewlett also really set it apart.
What have you learnt from your experiences in helping break Coldplay and Gorillaz internationally that you’ve applied to other artists?
Aside from the record itself and the touring plans of a band, we spend more time pre-release putting together a global strategy of how we’re going to utilise the time we have with the band as best we can across the globe, because on a band as big as Gorillaz, Coldplay or Kylie, you only have an finite amount of time to promote their album in certain territories.
We spend more time now preparing the plan than we’ve ever done because now there is so many media platforms and outlets for people to hear and consume music that you can’t do it all, but you got to make sure that you touch as many people with the things that you do, and that needs real care for global planning. So, we work very closely with our artists and their managers to actually put that plan together.
Martin Kierszenbaum has said that “if music resonates in one country it can do so another”. Do you subscribe to that theory and believe that all the artists you sign have a global potential or are some inherently more regional?
No, not at all. There are artists on EMI, there are artists on Sony/Universal and wherever that have huge success in certain territories that don’t in the other. Robbie Williams is one of the biggest selling artists in the world, but hasn’t had the success he’s had globally in America. We talked about Blur, and they had huge success and didn’t quite have the same level of success in the US, and there are US acts too that have a great and very healthy career in the US but don’t quite connect with either a European or UK audience.
With indie-style guitar music reportedly on the decline in the UK in recent years, is the signing of the band Morning Parade an indication that you think this is just a temporary blip?
Absolutely. We try to find the best artist in any genre at any time. And if you just try and chase artists that happen to be of-the-moment or harvesting media attention more than others it could be very short-sighted, because none of us really know when the tide will change and when pop-urban-rhythmic music, which happens to be having a huge impact at the moment, will get tired and wane and new artists will come through.
Morning Parade is a band that make incredible music has strong melodies and a really ambitious sound, which I think transcends territories. Now, whether Morning Parade are going to strike through now or in two years time or five years time, there is a band that absolutely have the ability and the talent to break through, and so we need to be working with them now.
There’s a history of bands that have had a long development. Look at the Kings of Leon as a classic example of a band that really struck through on their third or fourth album.
I remember that in the early 90s people were saying that more kids were going out buying Technics turntables than guitars - guitar music is over, it’s all about dance music. And then very quickly, dance music started to get tired and formulaic, and guitar bands came in and became very exciting and broke new areas, and now it’s turned to pop again. It’s always cyclical.
So, just work with the best in any area at any time. The sounds that the media happen to be excited by at the moment always change and they always move on.
How did you come to sign the US hip-hop group Chiddy Bang?
They were putting up their new songs online and starting to get a lot of attention by a number of people and that turned us onto it. We were listening to the ‘Opposite of Adults’ all that summer, and Ollie Slaney in my office just said, “As we keep on listening to this maybe we should do something with it.”
We have the Regal label imprint, which is a very important label to Parlophone, and we wanted to put an EP out by Chiddy Bang. It started to really take off, and we decided from that point that we really want to work with them on an album and for a long-term career, and so we signed them to a long-term album project.
You’ve said they have the potential to be a global success. What is it about them that make you think that?
Because very early on all the other territories within EMI got very excited about the music they heard, and were sending us the message that this sound was very much what was working in their territories. Now, when you’re hearing that from the US to Australia to Japan to Germany to France, you know that you’re on something that has the possibility of going global.
And so, for us, we thought, let’s work on a mini-album (‘The Preview’), and we wanted to get that out for the end of last summer, and now we’re working on what is their debut album proper at the moment, which is going to come out this year. I know that all our territories including the US are very excited about this album coming, and I really feel there’s an opportunity to really break them through.
They just recorded a track (‘Rescue Me’) with You Me At Six, which is on the Radio 1 playlist at the moment, so it’s going to be a very big hit over here and in some of the other territories as well.
They’ve caught attention for being a hip-hop group that use familiar indie rock samples. Do you think this cross-pollination – as seen in artists like Kanye West, B.o.B, Kid Cudi – is one way that hip-hop can help sustain itself?
Yeah, absolutely. British artists have until recently been reluctant to work with other artists outside of their comfort zone or their genre, but in the US they’ve been doing it for some time, and they’ve been doing it very well - look at Linkin Park and Jay-Z, *NSYNC with Justin Timberlake and Nelly.
Urban artists have been much more open to working with multiple genres and they’ve set the precedent. In the last year and a half that has fed through into the UK, and artists are more open to working across genre now than they’ve ever been.
Tinie has come out of a very British style of urban music culture. What are the challenges involved in breaking an artist like that – and a more regional type of music - in an international market?
What was very important early on was that Tinie didn’t want to be perceived as just an MC - there were a number of urban artists who were just MCs - his musical taste is much more than just urban music, and I think that reflects in his music and the way he holds himself. So, seeing him as just a UK urban artist, for us, was quite blinkered.
It was very important to get his live show together and we did that very early on. Tinie went out and performed with Gorillaz, and with Snoop Dogg in front of 100,000 people at Glastonbury [Festival].
In terms of the US, it’s very important that he retains his Britishness - that he doesn’t try to sound American or try to emulate what the US artists are doing. He brings something new, exciting and fresh. There has been a number of US hip hop and urban artists that are reaching out to him because they love the new sound that they’ve been hearing - he already had Nas and Damian Marley wanting him to appear on a track, P.Diddy asked him to appear on a track, Snoop doing a version of ‘Pass Out’ … That happened very early on, and very naturally.
Are you involved in the creation of Coldplay’s upcoming album?
The band create the album, not the A&R man.
What is your involvement with the band at this point?
At this time it’s really working closely with the management to make sure we start setting up the global campaign for this album. The band are at a stage now where they don’t need real hands on A&R. The skill of any A&R man is really knowing when to be in the studio and when not. Right now they’re in their recording stage and know what record they want to make and are very busy in the studio making that. Down the line, once we start forming the album or looking at mixes and finalising the record, that’s when the A&R attention to detail is really necessary.
When can we expect it?
Towards the autumn of this year.
As the BBC recently announced its Sound of 2011 list – who do you think will be the big breakthroughs this year?
Jessie J will, obviously. I think Jessie, Mona, and Morning Parade.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Songwriter Julie Frost on composing the 2010 Eurovision winner and the Black Eyed Peas' latest single
Read On ...
* Miles Leonard talks in 2002 about reviving Kylie's career and signing Gorillaz
* Tinie Tempah manager Dumi on building the Tinie brand
* Parlophone A&R Dan Keeling on A&Ring Coldplay's breakthrough
* Publisher Caroline Elleray on first discovering Coldplay and Keane
* Producer Ken Nelson on helping Coldplay create their breakthrough hits