Interview with SCOTT MACLACHLAN, manager for Lorde - Jan 21, 2014
“I don’t believe the record company is the centre of the music industry anymore – management is.”
Lorde is the pop phenomenon of the last year, but with #1s across the globe, a multi-million dollar publishing deal and gushing critical acclaim, you’d think we’d be sick to death of the 17-year-old artist already – instead we just want more from this enigmatic and brilliantly original New Zealander.
HitQuarters speaks to manager Scott Maclachlan about avoiding damaging media overexposure, the importance of management in developing new artists and why the industry should be listening to young artists instead of telling them what to do.
What is your background in music?
I've done A&R for about 20 years. I worked for various companies in the UK and now in New Zealand. I started working for a big compilation company in the UK called Telstar and through them I had a dance label called Multiply Records. After that I went on to work for Jive Records and then Mercury, which is part of Universal. Five years ago I moved to New Zealand and worked for Universal there up until the end of last year.
You now run your own management company, Saiko with Tim Youngson. What is the philosophy behind your style of artist management?
We have a very small roster. Aside from the talent and everything else, I'm attracted to artists that have a vision for themselves. I believe management is about amplifying an artistic vision rather than being a Svengali kind of figure.
My approach at the moment is about finding the artist that is talented, who has a point of difference and a vision of where they want to go. For me as a management company it's about trying to make that happen for them. My experience in the business with record companies means I can do the negotiation and navigation while the artists gets on with what they want to do which is write music and play live.
When you found Lorde what where the first steps building her career?
I found her when she was 12. I had seen some footage of her singing at a school talent contest. The thing that really attracted me was her incredible voice and then when I met her I thought she was an incredibly intelligent person.
It's hard for a 12 year old to know what they really want to do, and so we basically just kept up a conversation and I made suggestions of how we might get some music together.
I put her with some writers and by trial and error we went through a few people but it didn't really work. Fundamentally I think she understood that she was going to write her own music but she would ultimately need someone to help with the production side of it.
After about two years she started writing on her own. Although the songs weren't perfect, there was real promise in what she was doing. Then it was just about nurturing that side of things. Giving her the space and time to find it herself.
When you talk about nurturing can you give an example?
It's really just about giving feedback; making practical suggestions about arrangement and melody and stuff like that. She would come and play me something that she had been working on, I’d make a few comments and then she would either take those comments on board or she wouldn't [laughs].
Then she would come back with something else three months later and it was always an improvement from the last things. That is absolutely key – if you see someone that young progressing with every piece of work they deliver, you know something good is happening.
Eventually we tried her out with Joel Little, who became her co-writer and producer, and that's where it really clicked. After a week of being with Joel one of the first three songs she played me was Royals.
It's also about allowing her the time to develop without the pressure of a record company pushing her to release something before it’s ready. That’s very important. The problem these days is that artists get signed and then the clock starts ticking to have to release something.
You cannot rush these things. If it's not right, it's not right. If you have the patience and work on it till it's right then everything else becomes so much easier.
In what way was Joel different to the other co-writing partners?
I think that comes down to personality. He's a very laid-back and generous producer; he doesn't have a big ego; he doesn't patronize her; he doesn't come in and say: "You’re just a 15-year-old girl. I know what I'm doing, you don't, and so this is what we going to do." He sat down and listened to her ideas, made a few suggestions and just complimented everything that she wanted to do. He took a vision and made it happen.
As an A&R guy or a producer you may feel that you are more experienced in the industry and that you should be telling the artist what to do. I 100 per cent disagree with that. I think young artists these days are very smart and savvy in how to make music, how to market themselves and take their music to their audience, whereas a lot of the industry is still stuck in the old way of doing things. The world is changing very, very quickly and all that experience can be helpful to a point but then it can also become very claustrophobic and destructive as well.
How much time did it take from listening to the demos to the actual release of the songs?
Pretty much everything they played me ended up on the record. There wasn't a long process of making demos. If you listen to the production on the record, it's pretty simple and is very much about showcasing her lyrics and her voice. It wasn't an over complicated process.
We were recording it in a very small studio. It wasn't about bringing in extra musicians and then getting a big heavyweight expensive mixer. They played me the demos and the three of us discussed them. I made a couple of comments, she changed some things as a result and some she didn't. The whole process was less than 12 months.
How many songs were actually written for the album?
The album is 10 songs but in total I think there's still another seven or eight sitting around that haven't been released.
In an age where it's difficult to get people to listen to an album she had to be 100% sure and happy with the songs that were on there. I had a conversation yesterday about the new Beyoncé album; it's a great way to release an album but who needs 17 songs on an album? I think 10 songs is enough. If half of the album is just filler material you're not getting value for money. Just make sure the 10 records you put on the album are the best.
Once you were happy with the finished songs what were the next steps?
We were really keen to not have the record company do their usual thing, which is employ a stylist, get an expensive photographer and do the traditional marketing. It started with an initial five track EP (The Love Club EP). We felt it was a very strong piece of music and thought, “Let's just put it out and see what people say”.
It's very difficult to put a record of an unknown artist up on iTunes and then expect people to spend their cash on it. We didn't subscribe to that at all, we said, let's put it out and worry about the money later. The whole vision of her as an artist was not driven by money, it was driven by her music. We never made a decision based on finances.
So initially we gave away 60,000 tracks. Which for a record company is a lot of lost revenue. But giving it away ultimately set us up to where we are now with two and a half million albums sold. We went to the right people and went to people who are sharing it and discovering it. That made a massive impact.
It crossed the world very, very quickly. We were getting calls from almost every American record company within four to six weeks of it being online. The way we started was, she put it on Soundcloud and shared it with her friends via Facebook saying: "I just recorded this EP! You should listen to it!"
It's funny, as a marketer or record company you’re always trying to get down and connect with the youth, but she is the youth. It's the ultimate marketing plan without having a marketing plan.
So you didn't employ a PR company or anything like that?
There was no photo, there was no bio. I wrote something, but we never wanted to mention her age. We thought this music is good not because of her age, this music is just good. When people find out that she's very young, well amazing, it's something that will surprise and delight them.
The picture was just an illustration of her holding a rat and a snake, just a surreal image. Not even a flattering picture. But it had an authentic thing.
When you released it did you send it out to anyone or did it just snowball from her actions on Facebook?
Both. I felt going down the traditional route of sending it to Pitchfork, Hype Machine or any of those things doesn't make any sense because that's what everybody does. These sites get new music everyday and I don’t think you get a fair chance of people listening to it. I thought we should send it to non-traditional areas.
I sent it to a couple of architecture and fashion websites. They never get sent music so they react and say: "Wow, this is great!" and listen to it. It wasn't even a plug, it was just: "Hey, we are working on this, what do you think?" - really low-key.
What else did you do in the 12 months from having the finished product to the release?
We did a couple of very small shows – maybe 90 to 100 people. We deliberately didn't invite any media. A record company normally pleads for media to turn up to see the new artist. The new artist might not be ready, and so the media rolls along, hoping to get some free drinks and then goes: "Yeah, it's OK." That can leave you very jaded. So we thought that we would do it differently.
At that stage there was a lot of hype around her and so everybody wanted to go. We said: "No, this is for her friends and fans, you guys can stay outside." That really pissed them off but made them want her even more. That has been an ethos that we have been going with for about a year now. We still turn down a massive amount of interviews, covers and all that sort of stuff.
Why were you so keen to minimise her exposure?
Some artists come out and have a big success with the first record and the second record dies completely and I think that is because the artist is so overexposed to the media in that first album process that by the time to get to the second one, the audiences are like: "I'm over this, I'm done with this."
It's difficult because she does have a lot of profile but we turn down so much stuff trying to prevent that situation where people are sick and tired of seeing her or hearing about her. You can't avoid people playing her on the radio and I don't mind that. That's what we are trying to do, to get her music out there. But all the other bullshit that goes with it we are trying to restrict very heavily from the beginning.
What were your experiences with radio?
We approached a local underground electronic station, gave them the EP and asked whether they wanted to play something from it. They were like: "We love every song, we’re going to play everything."
But you go to commercial radio and they don't understand this. They’d say: “What's the single? We need to know what the single is, otherwise we can't play it." We were like: "There is no single, we put an EP out." At first they said they weren’t going to play it but then came back two weeks later and said: "We’re going to play Royals."
If you are trying to sell your artist to fit their format you are in trouble. We said: "We are doing this, if you want to be part of the journey, excellent, but we are not going to bend to fit you.”
I'm still trying to figure out where the initial hype of Lorde in the music industry came from…
In the beginning it got discovered by a music sync person in America. She played it to Jason Flom (HQ interview). He messages Lorde direct on her Facebook saying: "I love this, can you call me." She says to me: "Do you know who Jason Flom is? I say: "Yes, I know who that is …” [laughs]. So we pick up the phone and after the conversation he jumps on a plane and comes down to see her. He wants to do a record deal. I tell him it's signed to Universal for the world, let's talk further.
From there word got around. You can't keep a secret from the industry. I started getting calls from every record label. First from the US but then it started spreading around Europe as well. Then Jason made an absolute key move on our behalf. Sean Parker, who ran Napster, has a very important playlist on Spotify. Jason played him the record and Sean said: "I love this." and put it on his playlist. He has over a million followers and from there it really exploded.
Did it lead to a bidding situation with the labels?
No, because the deal was already done. Initially I signed her to Universal as a development deal five years ago. When we had to put some money in we just build that up into a proper record deal. But Universal has many companies so we had to make a choice of who we would go with.
In the UK we went with Virgin because they are incredible in what they do and they had an understanding of what we were trying to do. In the US Jason was first. I'm a big believer in going with the people who call you up first and he had a joint venture with Republic and I knew how good they were in breaking singles. It has been amazing working with them.
When you looking for business partners, how do you decide who is the right one?
As a manager you need to protect and help the artist. For me there are two ways: first you need to sit down and talk to those people. Talk to everyone in the market that is interested and trust your instinct and your gut feeling. Then you ask people in the industry about those people. You are never going to get it right all the time but with her on this project we feel we have a great team.
Why do you still need a record company?
We do have a record company and we love their work. I think you can have them as a partner. I don’t believe the record company is the centre of the music industry anymore I believe management is. If you are working for your artist, you give the power back to the artist and that's where it should be. Especially in the early stages it's very much up to management and protecting the artist. I think for too long it has been with the record companies.
I don't want to slag off the record companies. They are a great ally and they have the muscle that we do not have. It's about finding a working relationship.
With Lorde almost 100% was done outside of the record company and they picked it up at a point where it was ready-made. It was like the dish was prepared by us and they served it.
Where do you think the record companies still have a big muscle?
In distribution and, certainly in America, in radio. Republic has been unbelievable. I think they have some great marketing people. They listened and understood what our ethos was. Sometime things happened where I thought: “We couldn't do that, that’s a situation where someone in the company that has seen an opportunity, picked up the phone, and said: "Let's put Lorde into that."
When you talk about distribution, how much is physical sales and how much is iTunes?
It's massively iTunes. My relations now are directly with iTunes and Spotify. If I want to put a record out I can speak to them directly and get the music out. We can do it ourselves but I always believe in doing what you are good at. The things that you are not good at or you don't have the time for, you get someone to do it for you. We can't do everything otherwise we turn into a record company ourselves.
There is also the argument that record companies invest money, which they did with Lorde. They put in some development money. We were not in the position where we could risk ten thousands of dollars.
Do you mean development money when you signed her 5 years ago to Universal?
In the beginning we would talk about small sums of money for simple things like some vocal coaching, studio time etc. Then we got Joel on board and he needs to be paid. That was all money from Universal. It's about partnering and working with them. The fact that we are in New Zealand helped. There wasn't that pressure from the record company that said that the record had to be out by a particular time.
Weren’t you working for Universal at the time when you signed her?
Yeah, but I didn't get pressure from my MD to put the record out. I said that I needed more time and it never was a problem. That was absolutely key. You find yourself the time to allow your artist to develop. We took our time, got it to a state where we are ready and then handed it back to them and said: “This is ready to go.”
If you want development money from a record company then it has to be small. You cannot say: “I want to develop this artist, I need $100,000.” When I talk development money I’m talking $10-15,000. But you need to be coming back with results and progress. It's a business partnership.
There is a reluctance of record companies to put in development money. They would rather come in at the end and spend 10x more than they would have but with a product that’s ready to go.
Then it falls to management to find investment from other partners to do those early stages. Either you go to the record company and say: “We took a lot of the risk, now you have to pay a lot of money.” Or you don't give us that much money and we hold on to a lot of the rights.
At what point did you sign publishing deal?
We signed it in November 2013, so a year after we got the EP out. We were not in any hurry. The record was number one for 9 weeks in America. We waited, we didn't need the money. It was down to finding the right partner. We signed with Ron Perry and Matt Pincus at Songs, a relatively small independent publishing company, but they just completely understood it.
If you have an artist that is 16 years old, you have to think long term. Everything we do is based on long-term objective. If you take the money out of the situation, you can make a decision based on long-term objectives. A lot of the short-term guys will throw a lot of money at you but they would want a payback very quickly.
It took a year to find the right partner. We had meeting after meeting with all the publishers in every continent.
I still find it amazing to hear that Universal allowed you five years to release a record and then let you give it away for free…
[laughs] I had to negotiate that. We came up with the concept and decided to implement it. Then we had to sell it to the record company.
How did you do that?
I had a great relationship with the MD. He is a very progressive thinking guy and was very receptive and understanding. When it got to 60,000 free downloads he said we have to stop now, which is fair enough but we would have gone even further.
I don't think I would have been able to do this in the UK or US, but here it was like: “This is what the artist wants, let's be a partner, let's understand and try this.” Because it was understood by Universal locally, the message was broadcast through the company globally, with me trying to explain it to the presidents of each company. We also described how we made it work, and that it's working very well.
Did coming from New Zealand ever pose a problem?
No, I don't think so. Because the big bands normally come out of the US and UK, people can sometimes look at things from outside these markets in a patronising way but I think nowadays there is a desire for something new. So it worked in our favour, people were asking: "This is coming out of where?!"
The song "Royals" is in a way a critique of hip-hop culture but it's coming from somewhere totally different. That intrigued people.
Are you looking for new artist on your roster?
Yeah, we are always looking. I'm very picky. At the moment we have an electronic artist called Mt Eden who is signed to Ultra in the US.
Our latest signing is Sole Mio, a trio of opera singers. At the moment we have been at #1 here in New Zealand for eight weeks. It's the biggest selling record of last year.
What is important for an artist to have for you to want to get involved with them?
We are always looking for something new and different. It has to be incredibly good and original. Something that we feel we can add value to. There is a whole bunch of criteria that makes me sign something to my management company. I recognise talent. I recognise a vision of the artist and I want to see a way of where we can help. Ultimately that we like the people because we are going to be involved with them. It's a tough job for everyone so we need to have a good relationship. We need to like and respect each other through that.
What would you say are some common mistakes artists make early in their career?
They get persuaded to compromise their vision. However close you are to the artist, you are not in their head. They are the only people that understand what they want to do and what they are trying to say. If they start compromising, they are diluting their message and they lose their authenticity and originality. You can listen to people but always listen to your own voice first.
If you were an artist what would be your first steps in trying to introduce your music to a wider audience?
If you get the music right everything else becomes very easy. Then you just put it up on Soundcloud or whatever and tell as many people as you can about it. Initially I wouldn't go to managers or record companies. If you create the buzz yourself everything will come to you. Don't send demos to anyone. Just put it up. If it's good, people will call you.
But no one has a formula. It's not a business where you can have formulas in. If I did, it would be very boring and in the hands of three people. No one is right, no one is wrong.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
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