Interview with ALAN WILLS, A&R at Deltasonic for the Coral (UK No.1), Zutons, Dead 60s - May 24, 2004
"I didn’t want to work with them, I hated them!"
Alan Wills is the founder of the independent label Deltasonic, based in Liverpool, UK. He A&Rs the Coral (UK No. 1) and the Zutons (UK Top 15).
Here he tells us what his work with the Coral involves, how he finds new talent, and how he views radio and major labels in the UK.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you start Deltasonic?
I played in bands in Liverpool, some of which had record deals, but as I got older, I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I started in the business by scouting artists for Polygram and London Records. I also started managing, but I soon realised I hated it so I started a record label instead.
What experiences have helped you to develop your music business skills?
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink—that’s the most important thing to remember when working with artists.
Did you start Deltasonic to release the Coral’s records, as you were managing them at the time?
Yes, but I didn’t actually want to manage the Coral, I wanted other people to manage them, but nobody wanted to. I always wanted to own a record label and most people wouldn’t have understood the Coral at that point anyway.
When I found them I already wanted to get Deltasonic going, so it was always the aim to release them through Deltasonic, and it was always their aim to be on Deltasonic. We needed a manager though, but because we couldn’t find one, I did both jobs for about 18 months.
What are the pros and cons of releasing them yourself as opposed to releasing them on another label?
There are only pros and no cons—we have complete control over the entire project.
What kind of label is Deltasonic?
These days people call labels like ours boutique labels. We specialise in one thing, which until now has been guitar music. We’re small and everyone who is signed to the label knows all of us who work here personally. We have five people working full-time: myself; Joe, who does A&R and artwork; Nikki, who is the A&R co-ordinator; Ann, the label manager; and Karen, who is the accountant.
We have a joint venture deal with Sony, which owns 49% of Deltasonic, and we are distributed and marketed worldwide through the Sony network. The chairman of Sony, Rob Stringer, loved the Coral, and Mervyn “Muff” Winwood, who at the time was president of Sony, loved our other bands, like the Zutons, for example, who are doing really well now.
We got the deal at a time when pop music was dying and guitar music was supposedly on the increase. In addition to that, no one really had guitar bands, so they took a gamble on us and it turned out very well.
What bands are you currently working on?
The Coral, the Zutons, and the Dead 60s, which is our newest project: we’ve released one single by them so far. They’re more punk and they’re into stuff like Lee “Scratch” Perry, so their sound is very different to that of the Coral and the Zutons.
We’re just finishing off the album by a band called the Basement, and our latest signing are an amazing young band called the Little Flames who have a girl singer, the first girl singer we’ve signed.
How did you come across the Zutons?
Dave McCabe, the singer, used to write songs with James Skelly, the Coral’s singer, and they’re really good friends.
Why made you want to work with them?
I didn’t want to work with them, I hated them! I’d heard other bands Dave had played in and I thought they were all rubbish, but James kept telling me that Dave was really talented. Then Dave put together the Zutons and I heard some of the demos he had made in his bedroom. I really liked them, and that convinced me that we should work with them.
How did you first learn about the Coral?
I went into a rehearsal room and they were playing pool. They just looked cool and that was pretty much it. I went to see them live and thought they were great. They hadn’t released any independent records, nor did they have a fan base.
What artistic aspects have you helped them to develop?
In some ways, everything, and in other ways, nothing. We talk to the bands, we might give them other bands’ records, and we pretty much let them do what they want. The one thing we do is to encourage bands to be as good as anybody in history.
We’ll say, “If you want to do this, you’ve got to be as good as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and the Velvet Underground. You can’t hold these people off as being untouchable. They’re just human beings who play music, and if you want to, you can be that good.”
What was instrumental in breaking them?
The band being exceptionally brilliant live and very young and having a unique-sounding first single, “Shadows Fall”. What was instrumental in crossing them over into a mainstream audience and selling 300,000 albums was “Dreaming Of You”, which was a radio hit, and playing live at Glastonbury, which was televised, also helped.
How important was your cooperation with Sony?
The band started to break before we signed our joint-venture deal with Sony, but we wouldn’t have sold the amount of records that we did without it. It’s all about teamwork.
How much radio and TV exposure did you get?
It was very difficult to get radio and we didn’t get proper airplay until “Dreaming of You”, which was the fifth single. We did quite well on MTV though; we were played there straight away.
What other territories are you focusing on for the Coral?
The Coral don’t like flying, so it’s very hard to focus on anything outside Britain. When I speak to other countries they always complain about the Coral not going there, but actually what it is, is they really hate flying.
What territories have they been successful in?
They’ve done quite well in Japan and all their shows there at 1,000-capacity venues were sold out. They’ve also played sold-out shows in Los Angeles, New York and Paris. If you consider that the band has done very little work worldwide, as a result of the flying issue, they’ve done really well.
Could they break in the US?
At the moment, no. It’s hard work to break in the US and I don’t know if the Coral would go to America as often as it would require.
Do you work with Sony’s international A&R department or is a US A&R rep involved?
No. Maybe we do have a US A&R rep, but we don’t have much to do with him. We have a US product manager though, Nick Gucci, and he’s whom we have most contact with.
Who are the team around the Coral?
Joe and myself are probably the most creative members of the Deltasonic staff. Then there’s their manager, Simon Moran, who co-managed them with me for a year, and who’s now managing them on his own. Then there’s their lawyer, Andy Booth, and at Sony, Rob Stringer and the MD, Catherine Davis. Their publisher is Mike Smith at Delabel/EMI, but it was Simon Duffy who brought them in.
Other people include Kathryn Craddock, their marketing manager at Sony; Craig Madley, who does radio; Deirdre, who does TV; Dave Cooper, our in-house press agent; the tour manager, Neil Reeves; the sound man, Dave Kay; the lighting guy, Leggy; and Simon Hankin, who works on their website. They are the fundamental people, those who are on the front line.
How do you find new talent?
Most artists we find come through artists who are already signed to us, so it’s usually word of mouth. I believe that if you go to any city you should be able to find all the talented people within a month, because all you need is to find one or two creative people and they know everyone else who’s creative. Most creative people gravitate towards each other.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, a lot of demos come in; I think Joe listens to about 15 a week. The Little Flames sent us a demo, but actually we already knew them, although we didn’t know it was them when we heard the demo. We’re also about to start working with a band from Manchester called the Longcut, and that’s happened through a demo that we really liked.
What do you look for in artists?
Talent of some description, and youth. We much prefer to sign people under the age of 25, even under the age of 22 if we can. They must have a real focus and a really positive attitude towards work. We also want to work with people who want to sell records.
If you sign a group, no matter how good they are, if they don’t understand what the selling of records entails, they’re going to be a liability. It’s a very hard job selling records; you have to promote them and play all over the world.
Must they necessarily be songwriters?
It’s extremely important that they are, and that’s what we focus on most. They must be talented songwriters first and foremost.
How much input do you have on the productions?
Up until now, zero, apart from helping the bands choose a producer. But I’m producing the Basement’s album now and Joe is producing the Dead 60s’ album, so I’m in the studio too much, and I should be running the company more.
We always said that Joe and I were going to produce, we just didn’t want to produce the first couple of albums. Joe will probably take over and do most of the production in the future.
How much does it cost to record an album and then market and promote it?
To record it, GBP75,000 on average. To market and promote it, anything up to 200,000, including the videos, and that’s probably cheap. But we spend an awful lot on touring.
What is your main strategy when it comes to breaking new artists?
The only thing that’s truly important is playing live. It’s the only time that an artist gets to be in front of an audience without anyone else being involved. If you’re brilliant live, even if the media don’t get it at first, they’ll be forced to get it in the end.
What is your view on UK radio and their playlists?
Pathetic and short term. They have no vision and they’re not building artists’ careers, not considering bands that are going to sell albums. Short-term pop for a good turnover: that’s why Radio One is losing so many listeners.
The problem is that if the people running the corporation don’t know what they’re doing, they’re not going to employ the right people in the positions below them. It’s a similar situation to that of major record labels, which are all in trouble, basically because the rot starts at the top.
What is the current business climate like for independent labels?
Hopeful. These might be good times. A lot of the people who run independent labels, like me, have good intentions, but the problem is that many of them lack a professional attitude. It’s the opposite with majors: they don’t really have good intentions, but they have a professional attitude.
If indies can get themselves organised and realise that it’s not all about being cool and credible but that it’s actually about delivering, then I think independents can do amazingly well. Major labels don’t really have the right A&R staff and they’re not signing the right bands. Indies can take over if they want to, it just depends on whether they’re willing to do the work.
Will online sales in digital formats boost the music industry?
I don’t particularly care, online sales are just the natural order of things. The only reason the CD came about was the greed of the music industry giants. No one was asking for a new format, everyone was quite happy with vinyl, but the big corporations wanted one so that they could re-sell their back catalogues.
Digital is not as good as analogue for the purposes of playing music, but it’s ironic that what’s happened in the end is that computers are able to print CDs. The only reason they did it in the first place was because of greed, and now things have come back to bite them in the ass, which is funny.
Will major record labels increasingly license the finished product from indie labels and other companies, rather than develop artists from scratch?
Yes. I don’t think they know how to develop artists. The problem with major labels is that it’s all based on corporate ideas, and the boards and the people who own the corporations are only interested in one thing, and that’s turnover. When the share price goes up they make bigger dividends, which keeps their shareholders happy.
They’re not employing the right creative people. Marketing people run the companies these days and they’ve left themselves wide open for people like me to come in and own the product and then either do joint ventures or license it to them.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I’d line up ninety percent of the people and shoot them!
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Watching the Coral play a sold-out show at Liverpool University in front of 2,000 people was pretty amazing, as was watching them do their first show after we got involved with them, in front of 200 people in Sheffield. Those moments were fantastic.
The Coral’s album going in at No.5 was great, and the Zutons’ album going in at No.13 was brilliant, because that was a really hard job. Doing a video in Paris with Schack, the band I played in, was great fun, and even though we got soaked we had a ball.
I have to say that we’re very lucky in what we do: it’s a fantastic job and most of the time we’re just having fun.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Sitting on a big yacht in Mallorca, inviting the bands over to spend the weekend!
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman