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Interview with ADRIAN SYKES, manager for Emeli Sandé - Dec 5, 2012

“If music isn’t the only thing in Emeli’s life then there is no fear – she's able to pursue a career on her own terms.”

picture After nearly a decade below the radar, Scottish pop singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé has finally exploded into the music world, with 2012 the year of her extraordinary breakthrough. During the last twelve months her debut album sold more copies than any other in the UK – even Adele’s; she’s had three top-five singles, including a recent #1 with Labrinth; performed at the Olympics; and won a raft of awards at the MOBOs. If that wasn’t enough, she’s also an in-demand songwriter to the stars, penning material for the likes of Alicia Keys, Susan Boyle, Tinie Tempah and Cheryl Cole.

Manager Adrian Sykes has been by her side from the very beginning and talks to HitQuarters about her choice of medicine over music, how she is a 360° artist and why a brilliant debut is worth waiting for.

What's your background in music?

I started out working for record companies – my first job was at Island Records in 1983. From there I worked independently with [music manager] Simon Fuller as he was setting up 19 Entertainment. I then moved onto MCA Records, where I worked with Bobby Brown and other black music, and also signed Danni Minogue. After that I went into consultancy before I eventually started managing artists.

Once you're inside the music business there is a natural progression for people that have the desire to further their careers beyond working for record companies. Having A&Red, having been in marketing and having seen so many different positions at record companies, management appeared a very interesting option for me. I realised it allowed me to make a difference.

So when did you actually start managing?

In 1997 I started working with N.U.R. Management – who managed Goldie at the time – and that was the first time I was on the other side of the desk, as it were. After that I did go back and work for another record company but once I’d finally passed that point for good I started managing a couple of small things before someone introduced me to Emeli Sandé. That was about nine years ago.

Sandé first attracted industry notice when she was a winner of a BBC Urban Music competition. How did you first meet her?

A friend of mine called Danny D told me about this amazing singer based in Scotland. I called her up and she invited me round. So together with Danny, who’s now her publisher, I jumped on a plane and visited her at her home in a small Scottish town (Alford, Aberdeenshire). Her family were incredibly welcoming and we spoke with them and then listened to Emeli play. It was pretty clear straight away that she was incredibly talented.

Given you first met her nine year ago, how it take so long for her to launch?

We made a deal with her when she was 16. But a year later she was offered the opportunity to study a degree in medicine. It was a chance to go away and get a real solid foundation in her life and if she still wanted to come back to music afterwards then she could. And if she did come back then it would be with the knowledge that if the music failed she would always have something to fall back on that would serve her well for the rest of her life. So for us her decision was a no-brainer.

Once she made the choice I was fully supportive and we kept in touch over the years and still managed to do some stuff together.

Having that behind her has allowed her to write from a position of strength. If music isn’t the only thing in her life then there’s no fear – she's able to pursue a career on her own terms.

During that period did she still pursue music in her spare time?

She put out a little EP, gigged around a lot and did some stuff for BBC 1Xtra. Ras Kwame and 1Xtra have been very supportive right from the beginning.

During that time she was introduced to Naughty Boy (producer/writer Shahid Khan) in London. They started writing hooks together and found that they worked really well together as a unit. They sounded very strong both musically and lyrically. Her songwriting partnership with Naughty Boy has been absolutely crucial for her career.

Out of their writing sessions came the chorus on the Chipmunk song, Diamond Rings (UK Top 10). Shahid had an “in” with Chip’s manager (Vash Sia Khatiri) and sent him lots of beats and the one they liked was the one with Emeli on it.

It was from that that she became a published writer. Danny D signed her to Stellar Songs at EMI. They have been there from the very beginning and they are part of the journey and so it was a natural fit for us to have them involved. Danny D and Tim Blacksmith together are one of the finest publishers in the world – not just the UK.

From that unexpected success people started to take notice and the thing snowballed much quicker than we had anticipated.

So when was the decision made to set aside the medical studies and really focus on launching her career as a performing artist?

It was October 2009. With that exposure we decided to make a plan; 18 months was going to be the time where we wanted to get things cracking. By then we were fully in the mould. It was something that we sensed. So she went to have a serious talk with her parents about her new plans.

Emeli signed to Virgin Records in early 2010. How did that come about?

I think by that point people had begun to realise what potential she had.

She’d recorded a single on Virgin with Wiley called ‘Never Be Your Woman’ that reached the Top 10 in March. Through that they heard more of Emeli’s music and became more and more interested in what she was doing. Also, what with the great reviews she’d already had through the songwriting features, they were really excited about the possibilities of what they could do with her.

It's all about being a visionary. Virgin saw the potential and took the risk. We have a very good team at Virgin. Glyn Aikins, our A&R guy, really knows how to make a great record. He is a very integral part of what we do – as are a number of other people at Virgin.

Does Glyn Aikins have any involvement in the production and the songwriting?

Not in the songwriting at all. Once we deliver our version of a record then, to add a bit of fairy dust that we need, he’ll take it away for some extra production or to have it mixed by certain people. That’s what they do everyday; they are always looking at potential producers and any people that we'd like to work with and seizing an opportunity.

Was it difficult finding the right sound for her?

Not at all it was very easy. All that you hear is what she does naturally anyway, and also by having one main producer work with her made it easy to find her right sound.

Initially, the album was largely produced just by Naughty Boy at his studio in Ealing. Everything else apart from the Alicia Keys track was done there. And then we did a lot of additional production and mixing.

What kind of plan did you put in place to launch her?

One thing I wanted to make sure is that people realise that she is a real artist – she not only sings but she’s an incredibly gifted songwriter, and she works really hard.

She is a fairly old fashioned artist in the sense that what you see and hear really is her. You get some artists now that sound great on radio but can’t translate that live. Or they are an amazing live act but just can’t get it right on record. Emeli, on the other hand, truly is a 360° artist. So once we had the single out I wanted to make sure that she was performing live and showing that she is as good as she sounds on record.

Who I should also mention here is Nick Matthews our agent at CODA booking agency. He again was one of the people that were with her before she signed the deal. He saw her back in 2009 and has been her agent ever since.

Together we made sure we picked the right venues for her so that she sold out shows very quickly. We knew where the fanbase was because as soon as people saw her, they realised what act it was and that it was real. We didn’t cloak it in lots of production and lots of instrumentation. It was all about her, a guitarist and a cello player. The band thing was the next level for us. There was a natural progression.

On the back of that we got a slot on the Jools Holland TV show in September 2011. That was immense – if you haven't seen it you should go and YouTube it. And it was an amazing launch for her to go up to another level.

Suddenly we had this building momentum of great press; great live reviews; records on the radio; people having seen her on TV and then with all of that, we got a number one through her feature on the Professor Green record, ‘Read All About It’ (October 2011).

At the end of the year Emeli won the Brits Critics Choice award. My hope had always been that we’d get nominated because essentially that’s recognition from the industry saying that Emeli is going to be the one for the next year.

What are the plans for the future with her? Are you planning to break into the US?

Absolutely. But I'm sure you realise that to break into another market you need to really commit yourself and look at all the resources you have available.

We still think we can sell another record here between now and the end of 2013. We start touring in the next few weeks and then we're back on the road again in February next year. At that point we’ll need to think about album number two. Those are the immediate goals we have.

When you say you’re back on the road, are you actually travelling with her like a day-to-day manager?

Yes I am. I mean, she has a tour manager as well but I try to be around all the time. That way if there is an issue I will be able to solve it.

Now that she has made the breakthrough as a performing artist, is Emeli still keen to still pursue her career as a songwriter?

She is still very much a songwriter now – she has just written a few songs on the Alicia Keys album, for example – and it's very important that people see her as a songwriter because the songwriting is a very important part of who she is and what she does.

Looking at her development so far in a broader sense, how as a manager have you helped to nurture her career?

Nurturing the career is also nurturing the person. You allow the artist the space to make the record they want to make and prevent them from being stressed by what happens within the confounds of a record company.

It's important to maintain relationships with the record company guys and listen to what they have to say, but at the same time you have to be creatively happy with what you're doing – there's nothing worse than compromising what you do in order to be successful.

Whatever happens you’ve always got to try to keep creative control because at least then you can still always hold your head up high and say, “I did it my way”. That might sound a little clichéd but it really is very, very important. There’s always artists who’ll look back over their career and say, “You know what, I wish I've done it differently.”

Invest yourself emotionally and you’ll get more out of it. Because if you believe in what you are doing you can sell it in a believable way.

Do you have any advice how an up and coming artist should assess potential managers?

I work on gut instinct. Hopefully I can read people very well. Do your aims match up? Does he believe in me as an artist, but will he look after me as a person as well? That’s what it is about. How they can help me make a difference in my life.

At what point is it good to put down things in an actual contract as an artist?

When you feel comfortable. You don't commit to anything until you feel comfortable. And also get a good lawyer.

I work with Helen Searle who is a crucial part of our team. Helen is the best type of lawyer; she’ll get angry if she needs to but she is a quiet and calm person. I'm deeply loyal to her in what she does for Emeli.

What would your advice be to artists early in their career to prevent them making common mistakes that they will later regret?

My advice is: take your time. Once you sign a deal there's always a lot of pressure and a lot of rush to put a record out. But the real rush is once the record’s out because it’s then that you’re faced with a big level of expectation that you don’t have time to catch up with.

While you’re still below the radar, no one is waiting for the record by X, but once you put something out there you have something to be judged against.

You have to make sure you have the best record possible so you can stand up and be proud of it. And make sure that once you get underway you’re always moving forward because once you get that initial momentum you need to maintain it all the way through otherwise you might not get it again. We took our time to make what we thought was the right record first and made sure we had our plan firmly in place.

What plan do you have in place to prevent the momentum surrounding Emeli from fading?

All of the above, plus we are trying to plan six months in advance of where we are at any given time. Last year I was hoping that we would be able to play the Royal Albert Hall by the end of this year – and we are doing that. You have to have the ambition. Now we are already looking at our tour next year. Have a long-term plan for your future in terms of where you want to be. Set yourself a target. That's what we did. But don’t forget to make sure you achieve those goals you’ve set – and don’t forget to enjoy the moment happening right now.

How did your plan actually lead up to a target like playing at a prestigious venue as the Royal Albert Hall?

We focus on the single releases, making sure everything is in place ready and that their profile is high at the relevant time. We ensure the general public knows who they are and become fans. All of those things are done with great TV, great radio, great press and enormous hard work.

How did Emeli’s appearance at the 2012 Olympic ceremony show come about?

We received a simple email asking whether she wanted to play. All that hard work on the shows and in getting a number one album brings you to the position where you might be considered for such a high profile event. You don’t seek out once in a lifetime opportunities, they come to you.

Are you looking to manage any other artists?

I always look at things that interest me emotionally. My passion always comes first. I mean, I was a music fan before I went into the business after all. I love discovering new things and love the beauty of seeing things grow and blossom.

But if you manage something you have such a big responsibility to that person or that band and so you should give them your time and make sure that you’re around doing the right things for them. At the moment we don't have a great deal of time because we’re still chasing what we want to achieve ourselves – but of course if I see the right thing I'm always interested.

Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath

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