Interview with LOUIS BLOOM, A&R at Island Records for Mumford & Sons, Keane, Mika, McFly, Frankmusik - Apr 4, 2011
"There weren’t many bands that broke beyond a certain level from the folk world, but every time I saw Mumford & Sons I got more and more excited and so did a big crowd of fans."
In one of the last year’s most remarkable success stories, English banjo-toting folk rockers Mumford & Sons not only wrought merry havoc on a UK chart adazzle with sleek electro, but saw their rousing rootsy debut welcomed Stateside with a #2 on the Billboard 200. The man responsible for bringing their infectious stomp to the hit parade, as well as overseeing the chart assaults of Mika (UK, FR, NLD, NO No.1), McFly (UK No.1) and Keane (UK No.1 & US Top 10), is Island Records’ Head of A&R Louis Bloom.
Bloom talks to HitQuarters about the Mumford & Sons breakthrough, challenging Keane’s creative muscle, and how Tom Jones’ grey hairs inspired a new lease of life.
How did you get started in the music world?
I have always been obsessed with music. Some of my earliest memories are listening to my Dad’s record collection and I knew very early on that I wanted to work in music in some form. Growing up in Manchester with its amazing legacy of great bands really helped shape my music taste and although I was too young to experience the really great club nights in Manchester, my social life was very much rooted in the dance scene. My original idea was to become a music business lawyer and I ended up doing a law degree but I started putting gigs on at my university in Birmingham and that led me to doing some work experience as a scout at Island Records, and that was when I realised I wanted to become an A&R.
I applied for a job at Island but they rejected me. I then sent my CV off to BMG and went for an interview with Simon Cowell and Mike McCormack, and they gave me a job as a consultant for RCA which then turned into a full time scouting job. I worked there for three and a half years. Ultimately I found it really hard to navigate the system but I learnt loads watching some great record company guys at work. Even before pop idol Simon was something to behold – a real force of nature. When Paul Adam at Universal called me he saved my A&R career by offering me a job to work with him – I will always be grateful to him for that.
I signed with Universal as a junior A&R and very quickly brought in the pop band Busted who quickly found a niche when people were getting bored of the more formulaic karaoke type pop bands.They end up selling over a million records in the UK alone. On the back of that came McFly. We auditioned them while Busted were touring the country. Every time Busted did a gig we found new members in the respective city.
So was McFly a project where you already had an idea for a pop act and you looked for the right band members to fit that?
Yeah, the idea with McFly was to make a pop band that actually plays. We looked at early Beatles and The Beach Boys as our references. Tom [Fletcher] was doing work experience for the Busted management company. He was clearly very musical with loads of great ideas and we thought he would have a role in it, but he actually became the lead and ended up finding his bandmates with us.
They are far more talented than people give them credit for. They all write their own songs and play everything on the record. They're on their fifth album now which shows they are a career band who are not going away and we’ve just had a massive hit with ‘Shine A Light’ - a co-write I put together with Taio Cruz. It’s their second best selling single ever.
So have you always had inclination towards the band-based side of pop?
Actually, my heart has always been in more alternative music but I’m not a snob about music and talent and opportunity can come in all different guises. I really don’t care about whether the NME will like something or not. Being cool is about being yourself and not caring whether people think you are cool. As a kid I loved Duran Duran as well as The Smiths and I think the great thing about the UK is that kids can like music from a number of different genres. Funnily enough when we had the offer on Busted, Paul and I also had an offer on Kasabian, but that didn't go through. That dictated the route that I took and I became known as purely a pop A&R guy, which is a little bit misleading.
I put the first offer in for the Arctic Monkeys. I saw them really early on, six months before there was any hype. But ultimately I think they had a problem with the fact that my history at the time was only in pop music. I feel I’m now finally releasing records with artists that reflect my broad music taste. Ultimately I'm a song person. I'm a Beatles fanatic; I love them for their songs but also for their experimentation. If I get a mix of those then that is the perfect band for me.
So who did you move onto instead?
After that I signed the band The Feeling. The whole industry went to see the band at a gig and the gig was awful. Everyone came out if it and passed. The manager, Adrian Jolly (of Empire Artist Management), called me up and said, “Forget the gig, listen to the demos!” I was driving up to Manchester and listened to the songs about 20 times and it had all the eventual singles on. I thought, ‘Wow the songwriting here is incredible’. I played it to my mum and she just went ballistic and said, “You have to sign that!”
So you came back to the label and said, “My mum said, I have to do it ...”
Yeah, basically like that [laughs]. I even gave her a platinum disc with her name on it.
Did you sign Mika as well?
No, that was Lucian [Grainge]. I knew about the deal and screamed in the background that I wanted to be his A&R person. I wanted to be involved as soon as I heard the demo of ‘Love Today’ which is such a crazy record and then when I met him I was blown away by his huge personality. He is so bright and creative on a number of levels and also the most driven artist I have met. He went in with the producer Greg Wells (HQ interview) and in a day they recorded ‘Grace Kelly’. As soon as I heard it, it was so obvious that he’d found his musical partner. A brilliant song to break an artist.
So did you actually work the record?
Yes - I had a relationship with Mika where we were always on the phone to each other talking about ideas, about quality of songs etc … I have been a sounding board for Mika from day one.
The thing with Mika was to make sure tastemakers would love him in the very first instance rather than presenting him as a pure pop artist. We went with a club angle from day one with loads of mixes and placed his gigs in the more arty East End of London scene. We released the song ‘Relax, Take It Easy’ just as a taster to build anticipation before we released ‘Grace Kelly’.
The way we positioned him was really thought out. Our very creative marketing team headed by Ted Cockle - who is now the co-president at Island - and Tom March guided with stylists, video commissions etc. but also encouraged and developed a lot of Mika’s own ideas. Island’s and my instinct is always to follow not just the artist’s musical instincts, but also all their creative urges. We empower our artists to have as much creative control as possible, and we edit and finesse their ideas.
What other things did you work on after that?
A songwriter called Scott Matthews who was is in the tradition of Nick Drake and John Martyn. Sales wise it wasn’t very successful, but we made a beautiful record.
I also look after Keane. I've been managing their career since the second album. We are working on an album at the moment, which will be the fifth.
How does that work if an artist has already had an album out and then you come in?
Fortunately I knew them before they got signed. Their original A&R (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton) went to work for Virgin Records and they needed an A&R.
The Keane experience taught me tact and that you have to be very sensitive in the way you approach conversations with artists. Every relationship is different and it’s about developing mutual respect and trust – which we now have. At the same time it doesn't matter how big you are as an act, you always need an objective listener - a person that is coming from a musical place rather than just a marketing person who gets a finished record on their desks. You are paid to challenge your artists, to make sure they have the right production, enough great songs, the right edits etc. If you don’t care and you don’t fight for what you believe will help a record then you might as well go home.
You also work with Frankmusik – how did you come across him?
Ben Scarr, who was an assistant for us at the time, went to school with him and directed me towards his Myspace, which was getting loads of hits at the time.
He was also a name in the DJ world and always a person who attracted other artists - he was the first person to work with Ellie Goulding. He’d released a record of high energy electro and happy hardcore, but underneath all the madness there was some great hooks and melodies, and buried even deeper was a voice; it took a lot of time after signing for him to have the confidence to sing without putting loads of effects over his vocal.
We are making his second record at the moment and the challenge has been for him to simplify the structure of his songwriting whilst still encouraging him into taking risks on the production duties.
Do you spent much time in the studio with the artists?
I pop into the studio every now and then but I feel like you can put too much pressure on the situation by being there. The process of recording takes so long and so I get quite frustrated watching the 12th take of a bass line. Then you get too immersed in the song and think it's better than it actually is; you loose the objectivity that you need because you’ve heard it so many times. It's better to let them go on till they are happy with it and then come in and suggest changes.
On the mixing it's different. I get a lot more involved on that level when you can make quick and important changes.
What work do you need to do within the company itself. For instance, do you have to convince the marketing division to work your new project?
There is always an element of selling yours and the band’s vision to the marketing department but personally I have never suffered from not having focus or not having priority for any of my acts. We actually don't have that many records coming through the Island system as we have very little international repertoire.
In terms of signing I had challenges, people questioned things but once it's signed it's like, ‘Right, we are going to go for this and we are going to support you.’ I have the same support and encouragement from my bosses Darcus [Beese] (HQ interview) and David Joseph now and that’s been consistent throughout my tenure here. If it doesn't work it’s because the record wasn't right which is, in terms of the signing, ultimately my fault.
How did you find Mumford & Sons?
They share the same manager as Keane, Adam Tudhope. I saw them when he had just taken them on, and although it was really early days it was clear that they had great talent. I thought Marcus’s voice was very special and emotive. There was no one there for it, just a few friends, and they needed time to develop. Over the next six months I kept going to see them and they were literally picking up fans every time. They released a couple of EPs through Chess Club and the buzz got bigger and bigger. I had my scout Annie madly enthusiastic for them and a lot of people were telling me they really loved their shows.
There weren't many offers out on them because unless you were in that world going to their shows you wouldn’t know. There was no radio and press was OK, but not massive. There weren’t many bands that broke beyond a certain level from the folk world, but every time I saw them I got more and more excited and so did a big crowd of fans.
What was the point at which you decided to sign them?
I don't really remember as it was such a slow process. I think it was after a gig in London that they’d sold out. I was always questioning if they had the songs; they wrote ‘The Cave’ quite late on and a couple of others that eventually made the record. They needed to get the body of work together before they were ready to go into a recording process. When [producer] Markus Dravs came into the picture, I believed they had the songs and were ready to record.
I said I would finance the record outside of the deal in good faith as I knew that the negotiations would go on for a while and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity with Marcus Dravs. They made the record in one month and we eventually signed them in June 2009.
It was a very natural evolution for them - gigging, developing their songs, getting a producer and then making the record. There was never any pressure on that situation so it was a very creative space for them to work in.
What was your influence on the songwriting and production process?
I was very critical on the songs and having the songs for the majority of their album was the trigger for the deal. In terms of the production I just pretty much let them get on with it with Markus. They delivered and I was involved in making sure the mixes were just right – specifically the songs earmarked for singles.
In terms of timing what happened after you had that album in your hand?
We kept the live work going - it was really important to step that up a gear. We picked ‘Little Lion Man’ pretty quickly and went to radio. [BBC radio DJs] Zane Lowe and Greg James went mental for it and it took on a life of its own.
Did you use a certain radio plugger?
We used an outside radio plugger called Guillermo Ramos who worked at Anorak. In times when radio is dominated by dance, urban music and loads of US pop, to get a band with banjos and rootsy music played is an amazing result.
We had out of house press; they were from a specialist world that understood the folk / alternative scene and would plant them in a credible place.
Mumford not only managed to bring folk to the UK charts but the rare feat of breaking the American market first time round. How was that possible?
They just toured a lot in the States and a lot of stuff came from online. They are not big bloggers, but their music on Myspace and the performances on YouTube just travelled.
The record went through Daniel Glass (Glassnote Records) in the States, and that's a separate thing. He worked that record over there.
How was your work with Tom Jones?
I saw Tom on the Jonathan Ross show a couple of years ago and he had stopped dying his hair - he looked great! I’ve always been a massive fan of his voice but in recent years he had been doing the musical equivalent of dying his hair in trying to make modern records that just felt too forced and missed the mark.
I tracked down his management and coincidentally they were also thinking they wanted to make more of a classic rootsy record. I called [producer] Ethan Johns and he practically bit my hand off to make this record - I was a little surprised that he wanted to do it so much. He was our dream producer and he brought out a different side of Tom Jones that had never been heard before - quite an achievement and one of the best experiences on a project I’ve ever had.
When you think about new artists you want to sign what do they need to bring to the table to get your attention?
The basics are always the same: great songs and a voice that is unique and connects. But on top of that artists need a real vision of where they want to be and how they want to grow. It helps if they are already trying to connect with their audience, whether it's online or through gigging.
What I'm always looking for are the special artists who are pioneers in their field - the ones that can alter the musical landscape and allow other acts to follow in their slipstream. It’s all about working with creatively ambitious people. Even if it takes a while for the media to come around you can always wake up in the morning glad you are with artists that are always only moments away from something truly inspiring.
It’s also very important that I can see a desire from the artist that they will strive to succeed on an international level; the UK is just the starting point. But that doesn't mean compromising on the art - Mumford and Florence and the Machine are case in point here.
How do you assess the online factor for instance? Do you look at hits on YouTube and Myspace?
Yeah, but I would never sign a band just on the back of the hits they had on Myspace at the same time but you have to be aware that media is looking at these things as much as whether they are signed to the right label or not. But then you look at artists like Amy Winehouse and Mika and they had none of that – if they came along again we would still sign them.
Speed to market is very important. Having momentum within the process is critical as it keeps everyone excited. Ideally you want artists to be releasing a record within the first year, so the more work they’ve done beforehand to build awareness the better.
As speed to market is important, do have quite strict limitations to how much you can develop an artist these days?
No, we don't. If a great artist comes along and takes two years to come up with something incredible then we still want to be involved. There are no rules – deals come in all shapes and sizes. It comes down to us wanting to work with the best talent in the very first instance.
If an artist believes they have all that then what should be their next step do you think?
Finding good management is important, but don't think the management will come up with all the answers. They need to understand the whole nature of what it is to be an artist. A record deal is also not the whole answer, it's only one of the elements.
Depending on what kind of artist they are, it helps if they put themselves out a bit, finding like-minded individuals to work with creatively. Whether that's through touring, co writes or being part of a scene - like Mumford in the folk scene or Tinchy Strider within the grime scene who have respect and presence in their community pre-record deal.
How do co-write situations come up?
The only ones I work with at the moment are Mika and McFly. For the first time we have been putting Mika with writers. He is working with Klas Åhlund, who did the Robyn record in Sweden, and he's working with a few key people in L.A. There is a select group of people we have suggested that will complement Mika – more tracking than anything as Mika’s own melodies are incredible.
But, for example, I had The Feeling co-writing with everyone from Don Black to Taio Cruz and nothing worked. It only helped them in spurring Dan from the band to come up with the goods himself … so in the end it worked, but in an odd way.
If you pick a single how much is that decision marketing driven? Are you looking on factors like is it radio friendly?
There are loads of factors I take into account but it ultimately comes down to the song and simply whether it will bring out an emotion in the listener.
I’m not exactly sure what radio friendly means now, especially when you think about Radio One. We do edits of songs and try to tailor them, but it feels to me like in the UK, Radio One encourages songs and artists that take risks. Some songs may not have the biggest chorus in the world and musically they may be a bit at odds with what is going on elsewhere, but its that very uniqueness that makes them stand out.
Sometimes if you follow what has been a hit a few months earlier, you could be in trouble because the moment may have passed by the time you go to radio.
When you think in terms of budgets you need for an album, how do you make the decision of how much money going to put into a project?
Money doesn't equate success. Some of the cheapest videos we've done here have turned out better than big budget ones. It's about having passionate and creative people throughout the process and that can come as a very worthwhile additional cost. Obviously for certain pop acts that need to make an impact quickly we spend a bit more money straight away.
For Mumford & Sons, the video enhances, but it's the live work and the record that breaks them as a band. So with them we spend a lot on tour support. With McFly or Taio Cruz we spend a lot on videos relative to anything else.
The tour support budget comes up within the deal so you are talking about it from the very start. Then there's TV advertising and that depends on whether we see a connection with a certain audience, so we will spend accordingly. We try to be quite flexible with these things and we bend and change weekly so it makes sense with the business ultimately.
I remember with Mika there was lots of advertising ...
Yes, that needed a big pop explosion. We believed we had such a big record in Grace Kelly so it was important that we showed confidence in quickly showing off that song to a more mainstream audience. Sometimes you have to put your balls on the line and make something look and feel sensational and that was very much Lucian and Ted Cockle’s approach at the time.
What does a record deal with your company look like at the moment?
If we put in money to build up a band’s live plot then it seems fair that we are rewarded when it takes off, merchandising as well, but we're not at that 360 stage that Warner is at with all their deals. We want to make sure we are helping each other out and we are a team in all areas. If we add to a certain situation, we should benefit from it.
How are record deals affected by the hype around certain new artists?
Well hype certainly gets a band a better advance but that’s not to say it’s without its drawbacks. In most cases it helps if you are pretty much ready to release your record then a hyped deal can work wonders for your campaign.
If you go off into limbo for the next two years and you're not fully formed in terms of identity or by not having enough great songs, a bidding war situation can actually be detrimental.
It can put too much pressure on the creative process and before you know it player haters are talking about an act not working before it’s had time to breathe. You need good managers and sensible lawyers in that situation. The Mumford deal allowed for the band to get to the second album even if the sales were modest on album.
I think in the last 10 years the music business has washed through a lot of the chancers and what's left, in the most part, are really talented and passionate people across the business.
If you are really talented, smart and have drive then I promise you, there’s a lot of publishers, lawyers, managers and record companies dying to find you. Someone's going to pick up on that talent. Or create the buzz yourself whether through the internet, through live or even releasing the record yourself. None of it is easy but it’s supposed to be a struggle. In the end the cream rises to the top. My eyes and ears are always open.
Where do you see the music industry going in the future?
The way we consume music will continue to evolve and the digital world will continue to grow. Subscription models, in particular, are an area where I expect to see most growth.
I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom about the future of recorded music. Yes it’s very challenging, piracy is a huge problem and digital growth has not yet filled in the gap in dropping CD sales but then you look at Adele, for example, at the moment she is selling north of 150k albums every week, which is great in any time, in any era. Why’s it selling? Because it’s high quality music that resonates – ultimately it’s as simple as that.
I still think in some ways the basics haven’t change since the 50s. You still need a creative team around you. A band still needs an A&R person to help them make great records and you still need a promotion and marketing person to help get peoples attention. What’s changed is the way we sell music so what record companies now provide is a huge focus on the online world and having relationships with the vast array of digital services out there.
It’s easy to throw stones at record companies but they take huge financial risks in a very challenging market and should get credit for that. Where else can you get that backing as easily in this day and age?
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Katy Perry and Rascal Flatts songsmith busbee on his songwriting breakthrough
Read On ...
* Island's A&R co-president Darcus Beese on signing Amy Winehouse
* Former Island A&R Ferdy Unger-Hamilton on discovering Keane
* Island MD A&R Nick Gatfield on why they signed Mika
* Producer Greg Wells on why collaborator Mika is the perfect pop star
* Manager Sarah Stennett on developing Ellie Goulding