Interview with COLIN LESTER, A&R at Wildstar Records UK for Craig David, and manager for Travis, Brand New Heavies - Dec 10, 2001
“When you send a demo to a record company and say, “Here’s my CD, please sign me” you are effectively saying, “Here’s my CD, please invest a million pounds in me.” I would urge acts to consider that.”
Part owner of Wildstar Records and Wildlife Entertainment together with Ian McAndrew, Colin Lester works both as an A&R and a manager. His label’s signings include Craig David and Dum Dums and management signings, amongst others, Travis and Brand New Heavies.
In this exclusive interview he talks to HitQuarters about how it all started with Craig David and what he would like to change in the music industry.
How did you get started in the music industry and what has been your route to becoming an A&R?
I started as an artist playing with a band called The Eyes in the late 70s that was signed to Jet Records. My first real contact with the industry came in the form of Don Arden, who owned Jet Records and was a major industry personality and alleged hard man. I spent a while doing the gig circuit but got disillusioned of trying to get people to listen to song orientated bands because at that time it was all about punk.
I had always been interested in management as it gives you the scope to work in all areas of the industry combining creative with business, and some years later I started managing artists. I managed an act that was signed to CBS (now Sony – Ed) called JJ - the guitarist Tony Kirkham is now the keyboard player in the Stereophonics. They were published by a tall chap by the name of Ian McAndrew and that’s how we met.
JJ had some relative success here in the UK, lower 20s type hits. That was a co-management venture with Kim Turner who was managing Sting at the time. Ian and I had been discussing the prospect of working together ever since meeting and the opportunity arose a while later with the Brand New Heavies who were looking for management. Ian and I teamed up with The Heavies being our first act. The idea being for our artists to get two managers for the price of one and for us to be able to micro manage them as well as get involved in other things. With The Heavies we did the A&R as well as the typical day-to-day management of the band.
Our roster contains a small and exclusive line-up of Travis, Craig David and The Brand New Heavies, so a lot of focus and attention can be given to each act.
What experiences have been important for you in developing your A&R skills?
Obviously making records is the best experience you can get and I have learned massively from that process. As an A&R guy you often get to what is right by going through a process of getting it wrong. For example you’ll do a mix with the kitchen sink in it and at that point realise that it needs to be sparse with a stronger beat or bass line or whatever. Quite often it’s what you leave off that makes it work.
Which styles of music do you generally work with?
I’m into good songs. It’s important for me that the artists can write and perform their own material. I’ve worked with varied artists from The Brand New Heavies to Travis to Craig David to Conner Reeves, and from Lutricia McNeal to Alda to Fierce on the label side. I’m not into any specific genre of music as long as it’s good.
Which acts are you currently working on?
I’m working with a new act called De Nada, a 21 year-old female singer called Nadia and Justin and Toney from Crash And Burn. It’s a hybrid between garage and R&B. The first single came out and went in at number 13 in the UK … lucky for some! I’m currently making their album which is self produced by Justin Oliver and Tony, who are in the band.
I’ve also signed an act called MC Allister, a 19-year-old MC/rapper from Southampton who will have a single out in the New Year called ‘Step, Step, Slide’ and that’s produced by Wideboys. He is currently in the studio working with Mark Hill and recording tracks with Wideboys.
How did you come to sign Craig David?
The first thing I heard from Craig David was the song ‘Walking Away’. That was the first track his then manager Paul Widger played to me. And of all the songs he played, it was that one that was an absolute stand out, stand-alone track. It struck me that any seventeen year-old that could write a song like this had huge potential. For a seventeen year-old to use the line, “I’m walking away from the troubles in my life …” told me that this was an astute, intelligent and bright kid. He was interesting and definitely someone I wanted to meet. Craig came along to the next meeting and we got on like a house on fire.
What really convinced me to sign him was when I first went to his home in Southampton and in his tiny bedroom, in this tiny council flat which he shared with his mother, was stacked from floor to ceiling with 12” vinyl, some dating back to the early 70s. That convinced me he was the real deal and not just some kid acting out the part. At this point I offered him a development deal. I didn’t want to spend a whole bunch of money on advances and make him feel comfortable financially. I needed him to achieve and develop at his own pace away from the discussions of the financial director and the board room.
I remember when I first heard ‘7 Days’. It instantly sounded like a No.1 record. I upped the deal to an album the same day! Shortly after signing him, ‘Rewind’ (Artful Dodger Feat. Craig David – Ed) came out and was doing very good. It became quite obvious to me, given its success, that ‘Fill Me In’ would be the perfect launch for him because it had the two-step thing going on in it although it’s not a pure 2-step/garage track. It has a line in it, “Young people doing what young people do, parents trying to find out what they’re up to”. This gave it an immediate home … youth! I had no aspirations, or thoughts for that matter, for that one to be No.1, though I considered it a hit record. For me it was about, how do I create the base to get to release ‘7 Days’ and ‘Walking Away’? I wanted to show that he wasn’t stuck in one genre.
When ‘Fill Me In’ went in at No.1, I was absolutely stunned. It was a wonderful moment telling Craig that his record was on top of the charts. It’s always a wonderful feeling, telling an act they are top of the charts.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
Ambition, drive and talent. Some people want to be popstars and some really crave to be artists. I think there’s a difference between a popstar/celebrity and an artist. I look for artists and not popstars, I leave that to the experts like Simon Cowell because I don’t really care to understand that world. I think it’s very fickle. I look for artists that will have a career and with whom I can work with in developing a foundation. The only way you can build a career is by building foundations. The better the foundation the longer the building stands. I think it’s imperative that the ambition is to be a long-term artist.
How sure about the available market-space for an act do you need to be before signing and releasing an act?
I don’t do any market research. If I’ve got a gut feeling then I’ll sign the act. I leave market research to radio stations. They tell us if the market wants to hear our records or not. I learned that and a whole lot more from Richard Park, ex-music boss at Capital Radio. If we signed acts on market research, then I don’t believe we would have signed Travis or Craig David. They were both completely against grain at the time. If I did market research then I wouldn’t have signed half the acts that we have signed. The Brand New Heavies were leaders of the acid jazz era as was Craig with two-step. I’m very proud to have been associated with artists at the forefront of their musical genres. That wasn’t down to market research because they were new genres. If I’d have done market research, you’d get the answer, “No!”
What would your advice be for an unsigned artist/act on how to approach the music industry, how should they go about it?
If they want to get in touch with someone like me, it’s important that they send in CDs and keep it as short as possible, put the best three songs on it. Don’t send a CD with ten tracks. The thing an act needs to understand is that when you send a demo to a record company and say, “Here’s my CD, please sign me” you are effectively saying, “Here’s my CD, please invest a million pounds in me.” I would urge acts to consider that.
Touring is not that essential for all bands in its early stages. Obviously it’s essential for alternative and indie type bands. I think the days of touring records into the charts are gone. It’s a very valuable commodity to have once the artist is out there selling records. For a band like Travis, if they continue to tour, they will sell records.
There is an argument that says if you tour, you’ll build up a fan base and you may then have enough fans to attract a record company. They end up signing you, puts your record out and all your fans buy the record week one which puts you in the top end of the charts and you end up selling a million copies, sell out stadiums and we all live happily ever after … That would be really fantastic, but we’ve heard that story told by so many people, but how many times has that really happened?
So while I’m not suggesting you don’t do it, I am suggesting that there are other ways. Perhaps spending months on the road trying to build up a fan base is not always the best and most time efficient way.
Do/would you work with acts from outside the UK?
Yes. I’m looking at an American artist at the moment but I can’t reveal the name.
Even though many UK acts still break in Europe, they seem to be fewer than 10 years ago, if you agree, what do you think it’s related to?
I think that Europe has become quite self sufficient in sourcing their own repertoire. The record companies have quite rightly started to concentrate harder on signing and developing local artists. The economics of that makes sense and I think a lot of European countries have made a very definite decision to do that and given that France plays mainly French speaking artists on their radio stations is a good example of that. To have a career today, you need to create global artists and certainly if you want it to be a long-term career.
What do you think about the UK singles chart where the Top 5 often are new entries?
In the UK we have a one-week chart, so mixes and acute marketing is imperative. It is all based on getting the highest chart position week one. For me, I tend to watch how slowly a record falls down the charts rather than where it enters. That gives me a better indication as to how big a hit it has been. That paired with the radio airplay chart are the two main things I look at to determine how successful a record has been.
Do you think the singles chart should be based on both airplay and sales or just sales?
The thing is without airplay you’re not going to sell any records. They both go hand in hand with each other. You need airplay to sell records. Radio ultimately controls hit singles because they make hit singles. It’s a tough call but it probably will happen in the future. No, I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing.
Do you find it hard getting your songs played on the radio?
Yes, some go on and some just don’t. We all have our radio success stories and our radio failures, That is the nature of the business, You just hope you get more on the radio than you don’t. Today radio works pretty much on audience market research. I just wish that they gave the records a little while longer on air before they researched them. I had an invaluable insight to the world of radio from ex-partner and Wildstar director Richard Park.
Are there ways of “muscling” a record into the radio playlists?
I don’t think that paying to get your records played on the radio exists, but I do think that there are other ways one gets records played. That’s why we employ radio pluggers. All radio stations have annual concerts these days which artists play for free, generally in the understanding of airplay in return. This is an example of what I mean, or maybe I’m just naive.
Which are the important tools for you to break a new act?
A great record, radio and creative marketing. Basic, old fashioned, but true. Good acts are also great adverts for themselves and valuable to the mix of breaking records.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, absolutely. I receive about 25 a week. I wish I could spend all day listening to demos, but unfortunately that would have a diverse effect on the acts that are already signed and those that we manage. All tapes do get listened to in my office.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break (or get dropped), decreased in the last decades?
Yes. Labels can no longer afford to develop artists. Overall record sales are down and that obviously creates financial restrictions. Like any company where you have partners, share holders and financial people advising you, that has an effect on creative decisions. I wish it wasn’t like that and I try not to let those type of decisions affect my artists, but ultimately they affect all artists.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would change the necessity to release singles commercially. Ultimately, when you release singles, you’re having to put additional tracks out. I think we’re giving away a lot of music that is slightly substandard due to time restraints. It is also very costly to record companies and more often than not a loss making exercise in order to create awareness for a forthcoming album.
More money could be spent on development of artists and give labels the ability to stick with acts for a longer period before having to see returns. If we didn’t release commercial singles and radio played album tracks or single sounding records that gave you a flavour of what an album was all about, I think we would start selling artists albums again in place of a buoyant compilations market.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Thankfully there have been a lot of good moments so far. Having been involved with artists that have in some way touched people’s lives is great. Seeing Travis and Craig at No.1 in the album charts has been great. You always believe that when you sign an act, the act is great and you want the best for them. For me at the end of the day, the artists are the ones that make these records and we are the back room guys that help create the environment for them to work in.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I don’t think I could do anything else. I don’t have any aspirations to retire and would definitely like to continue what I’m doing right now. Continue to make records and manage artists … I can’t see myself farming the land - maybe a salt beef bar in Whitechapel is not out of the question!
What do you think of HitQuarters?
I think it’s very informative. Well done!
Interviewed by Victor Bassey
Read On ...
* Sony Music Publishing MD Charlie Pinder on signing Travis secretly