Interview with JAMIE BINNS, manager at Lateral Management for Taio Cruz and Paloma Faith - Apr 18, 2011
“Taio [Cruz] had a couple of singles that weren't massive hits but [Island] was doing it the old school way of developing an act … By the time we had a hit the foundation was so solid he was only going to grow. Other labels might have dropped it.”
Cracking the US mainstream is hard enough in itself for non-native acts but when you attempt to do so as an urban artist, a genre in which the States dominates and excels, then it should be nigh on impossible - or should it?
We speak to Jamie Binns, manager of Taio Cruz, the British R&B star who secured #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with his US debut single ‘Break Your Heart’ and later followed it with a #2 in ‘Dynamite’ and a Top 10 album, about how this new global star was created with artistic vision and ambition combined with artist development. It is “old school” artist development that forms one of the cornerstones to the management company, Lateral, which Binns founded together with Christian Wåhlberg, ex of legendary Swedish production and publishing company Murlyn Music.
The London-based manager also talks about how to approach label A&Rs with a new act and how a jobbing burlesque performer and magician’s assistant was turned into the dazzlingly original new pop siren that is Paloma Faith.
How did you become a manager?
I got into the music business when I was 20 years old. I started off as work experience for labels and then ended up doing record promotions for an independent promotions company called Mega Bullet.
I then joined forces with Jazzie B from Soul II Soul and we started our own record promotions company, Soul 2 Streets, which led me on to doing a joint venture label deal with V2 Records in London. There I signed a bunch of acts including Estelle.
Three or four years into that the record business was changing a lot and I decided I wanted to be more across the board in all different aspects of the music business, so management seemed like a natural progression. That's when I joined forces with Christian Wåhlberg from Murlyn Music Publishing and we started what is now Lateral Management.
We shared the same goal of wanting to form a management company that lets us do old school development of artists. Our first two artists were Paloma Faith and Taio Cruz. That was four years ago.
How do you work with the artists?
We are extremely hands on. I'm in L.A. now because I'm with Taio and when I'm back I will spend two to three weeks flat with Paloma [Faith]. I probably deal more with the artists directly and Christian more with the songwriters and producers. He also takes more care of the backroom functions so that all the logistical stuff is working correctly.
Who is working at your company?
Initially it was just Christian and me. I would find an artist, present it to him and then we would discuss and, using both of our experience, decide which one we are going to work with. Other than that there are four other people.
What does a normal day look like for you at the moment?
I arise at eight or nine, normally hit the gym first thing, and then I will pack in as many meetings as I can depending on where I am in the world: I can get through five to six meetings in New York; three or four in London; and probably three in L.A. because of the traffic and moving around.
I give myself an hour space in between so I can deal with telephone calls and emails. Sitting in front of the laptop and dealing with 200-300 emails a day between the meetings is a thin line [laughs].
Let's talk first about Taio Cruz as an example. How do you start working on a project - do you sit down together and set out plans and targets?
Every six months we set creative and financial goals. Taio had very strong visions of where he wanted to be as a songwriter and producer, and then as an artist. So we took that on board and broke it down into stages and tried to hit both targets - which we did.
How did you first start working with Taio and what were the first things you set to work on together?
Taio approached me and asked me if I would do the promo for [his debut single] ‘I Just Wanna Know’ with the promotions company I had with Jazzie. He payed like £300 for mailing out the record to DJs etc. for him. When I did the promo I could see the traction it was getting from the street and radio and so I was then chasing down Taio to represent him. We then decided to take that one song as far as we could.
There were already people aware of Taio. He was a guy that everyone had earmarked to do damage in the future. Darcus Beese (HQ interview) at Island and Monte Lipman at Universal Republic were chasing Taio. They thought ‘I Just Wanna Know’ fitted the format on both sides of the Atlantic, and so we did a split single deal with Darcus and Monte.
Although it had a reasonable amount of airplay, the song didn't perform as well as expected in both territories. But regardless of how the single did, the labels started to pay more attention to other songs Taio had – by then they’d bought into him and wanted to negotiate an album deal. So we went away starting to put together an album and it ended up with five singles.
So what was significant factor in building up Taio from that point?
The good thing about Island was that Darcus really believed in Taio. We had a couple of singles out that weren't massive chart hits but he was very much doing it in the old school way of developing an act. We didn't spend a ridiculous amount of money on the video, we kept it sensible and by the time we had a hit the foundation was so solid he was only going to grow. I respect Island for that. Other labels might have dropped it.
Did the label see the project the same way that Taio and you saw it?
Island UK really allows the artist to be the artist. There is always input in terms of singles but in our team Darcus always gives us the room to make the record we want to make and then comes in at the last minute with tweaks and overview. Taio is a songwriter, producer and an artist and he gets freedom to be as crazy as he wants to be. As a manager I'm there to mediate between the label and the artist, so that the label is in the loop.
In the beginning this growth was still within the UK?
Yes, until ‘Break Your Heart’ everything was happening in the UK.
So how did it then leap over to the US?
‘Break Your Heart’ was released off the second album ‘Rokstarr’ in the UK and it went to #1. It was massive. David Massey from Mercury/Island Def Jam was calling us. The relationship with Monte had gone a bit quiet, and with David now really exited about the song we managed to engineer a situation where Taio was moved from Universal Republic to Mercury/Island Def Jam.
Taio wanted to be with who was most enthusiastic and at the time David Massey and Daniel Werner were extremely excited and aggressive about releasing ‘Break Your Heart’ in the US. We left it to Universal to sort out internally. We still have a great relationship with Monte, David and Daniel.
What then happened once Mercury/Island Def Jam came on board?
It was like a rocket. I remember David and Daniel had come to see us in London in September and by January they were on the phone saying, “Hey, we have a bit of a catch on this, we need you guys in the States!” And after Christmas Taio and me found ourselves in the back of an SUV rolling around America. They really went for it, pushed the button for radio and really believed in it.
What was expected of Taio at that point?
Lots of radio, some shows, seeing key press and radio people and just being very present and available. Mercury kept us really busy.
Was that mainly set up by the label?
It mainly came from the label. Our knowledge of the American market was non existent. My partner Christian Wåhlberg and I had an ear for the songs and music that works in America but in terms of the market it was really early days for us. I was working really closely with David Massey, [VP of Marketing Def Jam/Island] Garrett Schaefer, the whole team at Mercury and the guys in the UK, and they gave us a crash course in how the American market works. I was out with Taio in the US as much as possible ... We wanted to be in the thick of it.
Was there a big impact at some point, a radio or TV show that broke the song?
It felt like a massive impact, it caught fire really quick. I remember waking up one morning to about 50 emails that we have broken records jumping up the Billboard charts. I think it was due to radio airplay - the spins were shooting up every week.
How did the Ludacris feature on ‘Break Your Heart’ come about?
That was in September the year before. David suggested to get a rapper on it for the US market. David and Daniel engineered the introduction with Jeff [Dixon], Ludacris's manager. He played the song to Luda, he loved it and within a week was on it.
Would you say the collaboration was essential component in getting the song into that market?
I think all the ingredients were extremely important. For a number one you need a hit song and the song proved itself in the UK and Europe. You then house that with a big US name to introduce Taio into the American market and tick the box of credibility, and that's a perfect situation!
Like various other pop stars Taio is exploiting his brand by developing a clothing line. How are you involved with furthering Taio's non-musical endeavours?
If you are dealing with something like a clothing line it's a way longer term plan than putting out records. It's a humungous job and takes time. Taio is an entrepreneur. He is extremely driven in making those things himself. His brand Rokstarr is his baby and as managers we are there to facilitate his aspirations and targets, offer support and logistics, and help him connect with contacts.
Everything we do is a team effort, if it's with Taio, Paloma or the producers Klas Åhlund or Bloodshy. None of us are operating with egos; we all sit around, discuss things and delegate it off to whoever needs to be the one that makes that call.
So how do you approach finding the right team for your artists both on an operational level and also to work with creatively?
People that have good empathy and people that are skilled in whatever you need them to do. We have people for logistics, we have account people, we have creative people and we try to not cross categorise them. Let everyone have the space to do the job that they are there to do.
When it comes to the music we will sit down and, for example, ask Taio, ‘Where do we want to go with the next record?’ And he will say ‘This is what I want to do, I like this kind of song, I've been listening to that a lot ...’ We always encourage him to be as upfront as that. Then we help him to connect with the right people.
I think a lot of people gravitate to Taio anyway because he is super skilled in a number of different areas. So the people we want to work with already want to work with him, which makes life much easier.
Do you have a street team or people that work the social media?
We still have Soul 2 Streets. They do a lot of underground street stuff and then the label is bringing in everyone in terms of media and press etc. We hire our own PR people in the States and the rest is via the label.
It seems like with two artists you have your hands full …
I think company structure is always so important. My business partner is based in Sweden and every three or four weeks I'm in Sweden and we talk about company structure and how we can oil the machine so it keeps us free to do what we can do best.
It's always extremely important to me that I have as much time as possible to spend with the artist. It's very easy to get clogged up dealing with emails, logistical issues, and so we try to educate everyone in the company to be very aware of what their role is so we don't have the confusion of who is going to deal with a particular issue. We are always trying to free up as much time as possible for Christian and me to be creative. We can guide the company in the right direction and we are there psychologically and creatively for the artist.
If you think about new talent that you are interested to sign what does that artist need to have?
Real talent ... It’s important that the person knows who they are and what they want to achieve. Someone that makes me believe in their drive.
Christian and me are very driven people and if you match that energy with someone who has the talent, the drive, a vision they willing to give their life for and that you share, then you can't go wrong.
What does a management contract with you look like?
Our contracts are very basic. Even though we have contracts to protect both parties I would say the most important thing is still the relationship. If you have a great relationship you don't really need a contract. Christian and me have been working together for three years before we had anything on paper.
Contracts are there when relationships go wrong and so far we haven't had one of those.
How did you first meet Paloma Faith?
We were representing a producer called Peanut and I was in his studio one day and he said, “I have this girl I’ve just been working with and she is looking for a manager. She is amazing, you have to meet her!” He gave me her number and three days later I met her in a little coffee shop in East London. I was just completely blown away.
I wasn't sure what this girl was going to do - she was an actress and a singer - but there was just something about her in that artistic realness that when I came out of the meeting I called Christian and said, “We have to do something with this girl!”
At what stage was she musically when you met her?
It was very early stages. She had written two or three songs and she was on the burlesque scene doing performances for cash.
So how did she get from that stage to being signed to Sony?
We just started helping her with the A&R process. She wouldn't let us manage her first, she was like, “I don't get into relationships that quick and do contracts - we have to build this.” So we spent six months to a year just setting up sessions, guiding and advising her before we even got into a formal agreement. Then another three to four months into having a formal agreement, we secured a deal with Sony.
Jo Charrington, the Sony A&R that signed her, said "all labels passed on her, she didn't have the hit songs … the song ‘Broken Doll’ was the change". How was the process to get the right songs?
It's all about building confidence with the artist and finding out what your strength and weaknesses are. It's what we call artist development - to be there for someone creatively and psychologically. You are there to deal with their financial issues or whatever, so as to free up the creative time and allow them to focus on songwriting and building their skills as an artist. Day-by day we were talking about writing songs, who she could collaborate with, setting up sessions ...
In Jo's interview she said that the first time she heard of Paloma was through you. What is the right moment to introduce a project to an A&R person at a label?
I think you just know. When the songs are at a certain level you know that you are getting close to a point where you are introducing labels. Number one you want to make sure that your artist has enough time to spend with the A&R people so the label gets comfortable with them but by the same token there is no point getting them in too early because that can sometimes hinder the creative process by bringing in too many other opinions.
So if the artist has a strong enough identity and a good portfolio of songs that makes them feel comfortable about their direction, then that’s when you walk them into a situation.
How do you choose who do you approach?
You have a hit list of people. I don't believe in a scattergun approach. You whittle it down to a few key people that you think are going to be right for it. Then you approach whoever is the keenest and has the enthusiasm and the vision, and also who the artist wants to work with. Nine times out of ten it's about a vibe. You introduce the artist to the right people and see who you get a good vibe out of.
How big is the pressure for Paloma in being on a major label following up a certain level of success?
We never feel any pressure and there shouldn't be pressure. You have to enjoy what you are doing and if you are lucky enough to be in a position where your career is doing something that you love it's extremely important that you keep enjoying it. It's tough when you go on a promo tour and you are flown all over the world and don't have a real grounding. But when you get into the creative process of making an album you have to make that as easy and pleasant as possible and never take on the pressure otherwise it's going to spoil the project.
We are probably blessed in that we have long-term real talents. We never get into that situation with labels because they are smart enough to know what they have. I feel like we have a 110% support from Sony. Paloma’s sold over 500,000 albums in the UK without having a hit single. With that foundation and her personality, you know that if you make a great second album then it only is going to mean great things.
You mentioned earlier that you worked with Estelle earlier on in your career. Is there some connection in the fact that, like Taio, she’s also an urban artist that cracked the US?
I feel like there is a thread with each act that I’ve been involved with in my career. The artists are entrepreneurs. Estelle is one of the hardest working individuals I have met in my life - very similar when I met Taio or Paloma. I’d love to think that I was a good enough judge of character to know if I came across someone that is going to make an impact.
I wasn't involved in Estelle taking over the States - by that time we already parted company - but it's really fulfilling if you know that you were right. She is very smart and worked her situation so well. She made the right connections and always had the vision of having a smash worldwide and good for her that she did that.
When you compare the English and the American music market what are the differences?
There is a slight difference in the music, a slight tweak in what works in America and the rest of the world. You can have a hit in the UK that is not going to work in America. We talk a lot about this with our producers, artists and partners, trying to find details of why songs are working in America and why others don't make it out of the UK.
In terms of the actual logistics, America is just huge. Like in Europe or anywhere else everything is based on the media. You need radio support, online following, TV advertising ... Radio is fundamentally important across the board; we are always wanting to make records that are going to work on radio. We spend a lot of time studying what’s going on at radio.
Would you say through Taio's success you’ve opened some doors for UK urban music in America?
It all comes down to the song and the attitude of people on a global scale. Nowadays people aren’t that bothered if an artist comes from a certain country; people just want to hear great music.
Great music is so easy to get hold of because of the internet, so why shouldn't it work? If you have an understanding what works on US radio, Australian radio or in Asia, it's not that difficult. You have to have an understanding of the market you are aiming at and obviously you have to be prepared to do the work. If you aim for the world it's a hundred times more work.
What is planned for Taio in the near future?
Taio is going to deliver an album by the end of the summer - he will have a couple of singles out. Both of those records are going to be big hits and then he will get into touring mode for 2012.
What was the best experience you had so far in music business?
Wow ... I can't particularly break it down to one moment because there are quite a few. I think when Taio had a number one in the US and when Paloma had her CD selling 300,000 copies in the UK. It sounds cheesy but the best experience is when you see people achieving what they want to achieve. But when you are moving so fast it's quite hard to appreciate the good moments because there are always more goals.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Binns' partner, and manager of Bloodshy & Avant and Klas Åhlund, Christian Wåhlberg is the Monday Interview subject
Read On ...
* Lateral partner, Christian Wåhlberg, on reinventing pop with Bloodshy and Avant
* Mercury president David Massey on what he looks at with new artists
* Producer-songwriter Fraser T Smith on writing 'Break Your Heart' with Taio
* Epic A&R Jo Charrington on signing Paloma Faith