Interview with BASTIAN CHRIST, manager for Thomas Azier - Dec 7, 2013
“Thomas Azier is not an EDM artist but he fits perfectly into this market because people are now looking for something original and authentic that is based on electronic music.”
The huge recent popularity of EDM in the US has set the stage for the international breakthrough of Dutch electro-pop artist Thomas Azier. With his Euro electro authenticity, beautifully defined dark and enigmatic image, and a stunning array of moody pop songs, the Berlin-based artist, writer and producer has the potential to ride the EDM wave into mainstream pop charts. Judging by the clamour to sign the 22-year-old, the majors certainly seem to think so; Universal/Mercury in France recently signed Azier to worldwide deal and Universal/Republic secured the rights for the US market.
HitQuarters speaks to his manager Bastian Christ about developing Thomas Azier for the international market and how A&R Worldwide played an important role.
How did you first come across Thomas Azier?
I met him about two years ago when I started working for a big management/publishing company (Mec-Early Entertainment) here in Berlin. They were already managing him but were more focused on his career as a writer; in the beginning he did a lot of writing for other people – he did Casper and he’s now working with Stromae. When I got in we started developing his solo career.
We had the idea of forming and building an international branch within the company, which is something rare in Germany. In the European market there are management companies who develop artists on an international level, and that’s what we were trying to do.
What made you want to work with him?
The first time I saw him in concert was at a very small club in Berlin in the early hours of the morning. It blew my mind; it was his voice, his appearance on stage, and his songs. I just said, “We have to work with this guy. He’s a huge talent. We have to find a way to break this guy internationally.”
What stage was he at in terms of his music, and was he ready to be introduced to industry partners?
When I met him he already had a lot of demos and had done some productions on his own. But we were in the process of finding a producer for him because back then the productions he was doing were okay but not on a level where you could actually work with them on a bigger international level.
When he tried working with different producers we’d always get back to the point where we’d say, okay, actually you’re better off producing it yourself. He got better in producing very quickly.
But it’s the quality of the songs that is most important and that was already there. Every piece Thomas creates is piano-based and then you build productions around that. We were able to introduce Thomas and his music to business partners very early on because the songwriting was there and the whole world around the artist was already very clear and specific.
Why did you get in contact with A&R Worldwide and how have they helped you?
We’d heard about the MUSEXPO conference that A&R Worldwide do every year. A couple of people had told us that it’s a really good opportunity for an artist from overseas to showcase in front of business people and media partners.
So we got in contact with them through my partner Nico [Meckelnburg] because he already knew Sat [Bisla] from another project. We sent over a couple of tracks – the first EP (Hylas 001) with ‘Red Eyes’, ‘How to Disappear’ and ‘Metropolitan Tribe’ – and asked whether they wanted to check it out and work on a global strategy for this guy.
A&R Worldwide really loved Thomas and his music. They have featured him a lot and generally been very supportive at an early stage in his career. Sat played the music on his radio show [Passport Approved], which is broadcasted in a few territories on specific formats and we got the package when you attend the MUSEXPO conference and are set up with a few meetings.
What were some of the positives that came out of MUSEXPO?
There are just so many people there that you are able to pull some attention towards you. You can invite labels to the shows and so it was good to see some label people. You don’t go to L.A. every day and so you try to make your time over there as useful as possible.
There are also so many music supervisors. But it’s not like that you go to the conference and come back with fifteen syncs in your pocket. It just helps you to get in contact with the people, stay in contact, and then eventually something will come back.
A&R Worldwide reported that Thomas Azier’s music generated a considerable interest from music supervisors at MUSEXPO. What do you think it is about his music that is so attractive to the sync market?
We got a lot of good feedback and people started reaching out asking for music. We haven’t scored a huge sync yet, but that’s also because the sync business is like a kind of gambling business.
I think the reason why music supervisors really like it is that his music is very emotional and so you can imagine his music combined with a lot of different pictures and different themes. There are a lot of varied parts in his music where you go from love to hate, or from solitude to a more outgoing mood. I think it’s very moody and very suitable for pictures.
It was through A&R Worldwide that you connected with booking agent Clotaire Buche of Junzi Arts. Why was that such an important connection for Azier’s development?
I was in contact with Clotaire before and had sent out some emails to [Junzi Arts] because I wanted Thomas to play support for Woodkid (Yoann Lemoine). At the same time Junzi had heard about Thomas through the [A&R Worldwide] newsletter. So having heard about Thomas from two different sources, he was interested enough to contact me about him. He then came to this show in Amsterdam at Bitterzoet, and completely fell in love with the project.
Clotaire and Junzi Arts have been very helpful for us because they not only act as a booking agency, but as a live producer. This means they’re also investing money at the beginning and if you’re talking about international development, when you’re going from market to market to market and need a lot of money, then that is a very helpful thing.
It also helped that the guys happened to be the management for Woodkid, who is a big phenomenon right now, especially in the live business. So they already had good contacts around world.
They were very helpful in getting Thomas a placement where he got in front of key people, and then from there slowly spreading the music out to a bigger audience and also to a major label.
Although you spoke with various labels you didn’t actually sign with a record company for a long time but instead worked with the publisher BMG Rights Management. Why was that?
We had talked with [a couple of majors], as well as a couple of indies. But we wanted to develop him internationally and the problem is when you sign to [a major] and they want the worldwide rights but cannot guarantee you any commitment to any other territory. That puts us in a very weak position. We think this guy has such an international profile that he could work in the US, the UK, Brazil etc … but if we just give away all the rights then we’re not able to develop him in those markets.
So we started working with BMG. A couple of years ago they introduced a new Masters Model whereby you sign with them as a publisher but also get given a budget to start developing your artist in whatever market you want. So we sat down with them at the beginning and I told them that I wanted to have a budget for the US, the UK, and for France.
Thomas and me started our own label called Hylas Records, which is basically the brand, to get some of his music out there. It’s funded by BMG, but because we had this position we were able to get an online PR in the US, in the UK, and set up small teams in every market, and just lay the groundwork for Thomas and his music. We started working a lot on the internet level with online promotion.
That’s more or less the most indie way you can go; you set up all of the teams yourself and then just try to steer everything from one table here in Berlin. It was very good because it really helped us to create a profile and get a little buzz online. Of course I think the content we put out there was pretty good.
But a system like that eventually gets too much. At some point you find you’re talking to five, six, seven, eight, nine different teams in every market and have to extend your team, all while trying to stick to this indie approach.
We always had the feeling that what Thomas is doing is not so indie but it’s also not so pop, it’s somewhere in the middle. So we started looking for the right partner who understood the project, and who was also able to push Thomas on an international level.
So we did a couple of showcases in L.A., met a couple of labels over there, talked to some labels here in Germany, and then talked to a label in France.
Why did Universal France prove to be a the right partner for Azier?
They were much more experienced with the international development of projects. They had projects like Feist, Carla Bruni, and had just started with C2C and Kavinsky. These were all projects that matter on an international level.
Signing with Universal France also gave us the opportunity to stay based in Europe. It’s very hard to sign a deal in the US where the artist can remain based in Europe.
We decided to go with a major because they understood the project and they have a very nice label in Vertigo, which feels like an indie but has the power of a major. It’s the same label Stromae is on. They are progressive and forward thinking, and really understand the artistic approaches the artists have.
Who at the label was involved in the signing?
It was through Olivier Nusse, the General Manager of Mercury, which is the biggest and strongest label in France right now, plus his A&R, Romain Bilharz, who basically runs Vertigo and Island France under the umbrella of Mercury. Those are the two people who are really behind the project, plus we had a guy called David Weiszfeld, who ran the International Exploitation office. We were especially involved with David because we said right from the beginning, we would like to sign with you because you understand our artistic approach, but what can you do for us internationally?
By signing to a major were you under any pressure to compromise the vision you had for Thomas Azier?
We were in a very strong negotiating position because we had this little buzz out there, we had a couple of major labels showing real interest in Thomas, and we also had already created strong imagery and style with the first video, first and second EP (Hylas 002) and with ‘Angelene’, the second video.
These were also some of the biggest reasons why the labels said they loved the project. They said he has such authority and an aura around him, and that when you see him on stage it’s like he belongs there. Plus the images, the videos, the music all fits.
So it happened at a point in the project when how it should sound and how it should look was already done, and that was what the people loved. There was never any talk about redoing any of the productions, or, you know, ‘Why don’t you add some guitar to the music?’
Azier has just been touring the US. Was trying to break the US a relatively early part of your original ambitions and plans?
We never sat down and said, “Okay, we want to break here first, and then here, and then here, and then here …” You can make rough plans but you have to see how the market is reacting. If a label tells you, this is the big master plan, just don’t believe it. They don't have it. They react on things too.
At some point, you just realise that it’s working a little better in one place than another and so then you try to put a little more focus on there. With the US it just happened to work very well, and the feedback we got was amazing.
Azier has a strong northern European sound. Where do you think he fits into the US market?
I have the feeling he fits very well in the US market. Electronic music wasn’t such a big thing in the US until three or four years ago and since then it’s just got bigger and bigger. For me the EDM wave has now reached its peak and I think you will see an evolution to the electronic music scene in the US as they try to find new ways to develop the sound.
Thomas is not an EDM artist but I think he fits perfectly into this market because people are now looking for something original and authentic that is based on electronic music.
If you think about electronic music you always think about Europe; you think about Germany, The Netherlands and the UK. There are all these different electronic music influences in his sound, whether it’s darkish Berlin Techno and Trance elements, or some Gabber hardcore style bass crazy Dutch elements. That’s what makes it interesting for the US market.
In terms of building a profile for Thomas Azier in the US market, how does the approach differ from Europe?
Artists don’t really like it when you compare them with other musicians or with other music, but if you think about Thomas and his style, from the beginning we saw it as somewhere in the field of Depeche Mode and we knew that Depeche Mode is already huge over there. But they’re also huge over here so there’s actually just not such a big difference in terms of creating and shaping his profile between Europe and the US.
If you speak about where Thomas his music is coming from then you tell different stories. For instance, in Germany, the story of Berlin as this creative amazing city where all the artists go, that’s rough and the night life and electronic music scene are amazing, it’s been already been told several times here, and so it’s not the main focal point of Thomas’ story anymore. But if you go to the US – or to France – it’s still a big focal point for them.
It works vice versa; if a band comes to Germany from New York, everybody is still like, wow, this band’s from New York! And in New York it’s like, wow, you’re from Berlin!
How much involvement do you now have in the release campaign?
A lot. Since we have a licence deal with Universal we’re basically also fulfilling the role of a master and so I’m very much involved with the label.
There’s going to be a lot of action now, starting with the end of the year. We’re going to have a lot more content for Thomas, especially online. So we’re basing our strategy around online content, and then there are parts where we have asked advice from the label.
For me it’s important to have an overall strategy and tell the label what it is we want to do, and even propose release schedules, and then ask for their input on radio, marketing … stuff like that. Marketing and radio are things the label has to take care of – that is their main thing.
Our strategy doesn’t necessarily always fit with the radio strategy. The label might want to have another single for the radio but we think it’s much more important to put the video online because it’s something Thomas feels creatively.
What are the next stages of his launch campaign?
He’s just finished a first US tour where he played a couple of shows at CMJ in New York and played in L.A. with Woodkid, and that was a very important step for us to launch PR in the US. And then we have the support tour with Stromae in France and the Benelux, which is going to be sixteen or seventeen dates, and will be very important.
We will launch a couple of rep episodes and work with different media partners to launch them. These are based around the story of how he made the album, because every single thing you hear on this record is produced, made, played by him. Plus he has this very interesting studio in the eastern part of Berlin, which is an old DDR factory they used to build the church bells for the Kremlin in Moscow.
And then there’s going to be a new music video and new single next year.
When can we expect to see Azier’s debut album?
I don’t have an exact date yet, but it’s going to be March, and the title will be ‘Hylas’.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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