Interview with JAMES SANDOM, manager for Kaiser Chiefs (No.1 UK) - May 28, 2007
“When I was actively looking for artists, some of the best stuff was often the understated material. Too much of a sales pitch can actually detour you.”
James Sandom, manager for Kaiser Chiefs (No.1 UK), has recently won the Manager of the Year MusicWeek Award for 2007.
Sandom has broke Kaiser Chiefs and has a lot to tell about it. His company, SuperVision Management, is known also for rock artists like Franz Ferdinand, another UK No.1.
Sandom talks to HitQuarters about the extra possibilities, advantages and flexibility an independent company can offer in today's market, about breaking America, and about finding the right manager.
How did you start out as a manager?
As an artist, I played bass guitar in various bands in the 90s. None with any great success. Following that, I worked in PR for about three years. I ended up doing a lot of corporate branding at music events like Glastonbury festival. Having been an artist and gaining a lot of PR and marketing skills from that just led me into this path.
What is the SuperVision Management Group?
It’s an artist management company under the umbrella of The Channelfly Group, one of the UK's leading independent music businesses. The ultimate parent company of the group is MAMA Group Plc..
I didn’t found SuperVision myself, but I was the first person to join once the company was sold to the Channelfly Group in 1999. The company was founded by Paul Craig in 1999. He immediately sold it that year to Channelfly.
It’s not directed to a specific genre, more to a specific outlook. From then to now, we pride ourselves on an independent ethos where music comes first and we have to truly love an artist’s music and their repertoire for us to get involved. That existed way back when there was just two of us in the office, and now there’s ten of us and we still share that exact same ethos.
Our roster includes Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, The Cribs, Richard Swift, Mumm-Ra, Ripchord, Youngplan, Cajun Dance Party, Late of the Pier, The Duels, Cord, Annie, The Pistolas.
What artists are you currently working with?
I manage Kaiser Chiefs and The Cribs, who are signed to Wichita in the UK and to Warner Brothers in the US and the rest of the world through Tom Wallace’s office in LA. I also manage a singer/songwriter called Richard Swift, who is on the Secretly Canadian label in America and on Polydor in the rest of the world.
How did you first learn about Kaiser Chiefs?
Back in 2003 they were preparing to release a 7” single on a label called Drowned In Sound, which is like a singles club. The founder of that label, Sean Adams, tipped me off. He sent me the record.
Kaiser Chiefs had got themselves into a bit of a position where they were a band that had a history. They were a band called Parva four years previously. They had a record deal and they’ve been dropped. No one would touch them because they had a history. A lot of people used their history against them.
For me it was a fortunate situation. I went to see a couple of shows and you were just bombarded by a series of potential hit singles. In that set they had as an unsigned band were songs like ‘I Predict A Riot’, ‘Oh My God’, ‘Every Day I Love You Less And Less’, ‘Modern Way’. Songs that have gone on to become massive hit singles.
A lot of people were discussing it. Different publishers and record companies. But Sean was the one who continuously beat my door down, persuading me to go and see them.
Were you involved with their signing at B-Unique?
Yes, I was. It happened very soon after I was involved. I picked up the range where they were. Many labels, just when we had signed the deal to B-Unique, put their hands up and were very keen to get involved. B-Unique and Atlantic/Warner Brothers were the only two labels that offered on the band.
What was the thing you could add to help them achieve their success?
One of the key things was helping to re-instill some confidence in them. As a band they had taken a lot of knocks. To this day now, they’ve been together eleven years. The same five people. They’ve been through a lot. It was just helping them to get a few brakes.
One of the things that really helped them catapult ahead of the competition was getting them on the NME Awards Tour at the start of 2005. It has an annual stigma attached to it, which is positive. In that opening slot you’ve had Coldplay and Franz Ferdinand. There’s a history of the first band on the bill each year on that tour to get the media spotlight. It also featured The Killers and Bloc Party.
Kaiser Chiefs were the least known band going into the tour. They came off of the tour, literally three weeks on the road only, as the kind of media darlings on the back of it. They were just very entertaining. That run of dates really helped them.
What has changed for them since their debut in 2005?
When you release a debut record, if you catch that moment in media, which could be radio, press, TV, you can get the kind of Zeitgeist of being the hot new band.
The second time around you have to rely much heavier on having a genuinely great record. You obviously have built up a fan base. On this record we’ve tried to be very careful and not to appear like we’re treading water and trying to repeat history.
Also trying to evolve their sound and their appeal slightly so it’s close enough to the original that the fan base likes it, but ultimately has something new to offer people. They’re slightly more assured as a band. There is less of a need for them to prove themselves so much. A more assured confidence in what they do.
Who chose the singles for their last album?
Myself, the band and Mark Lewis, who’s the MD of B-Unique, we chose them together. There was never much discussion about which the singles should be, more which order they should come in. Those songs really stood out even from demo stage. It was just a case of working out how best we could make them work in a chronological order.
Is there always a plan to break your acts in the US?
Without any doubt. Even with the depressed US market, there’s still the old act of analogy that applies. You break America, you break the world.
With Kaiser Chiefs in particular, it’s one of those situations where I’m not going to send them to America for six months to wear themselves down. Equally, we will dedicate enough time to give America a proper shot. They’ll tour America this year three times. They’ll also go into radio, festivals and all the things they need to do to make sure that they essentially are seen in the right light and seem to be an artist that is trying.
In America, if you don’t go in and fulfill those radio commitments when you’re requested, you’re generally giving off the perception to the industry over there that you’re not actually taking the market seriously.
What would you like to sign next?
It depends very much to me on finding things that I’m truly passionate about. I’m not genre specific. I just have to find things that I’ll get out of bed for in the morning and be excited by their artistic output. It also works on a personality level. If you’re going to work a lot of hours every day, not 24 but maybe 16, and seven days a week for a long time, you have to have a personal rapport with those people.
Ultimately, you work in an industry, which is driven by the artistic output of artists. You have to have the same belief in the art that they do, and you equally have to be driven to do it. And a lot of that comes down to the personalities involved and keeping a sense of willingness to want to succeed, not only for yourself but also for all the artists.
How do you convince an artist to take you on as a manager?
I like to get to know them, particularly on a personal level. Trying to understand what it is that makes them tick.
In terms of what we have to offer as a company, it’s really making them understand that we work for them and we don’t have any kind of specific allegiance to any label or publisher. We do offer an alternative because we’re not part of a big multinational conglomerate. We are an independent company. Therefore we’re free spirits. We can do as we please.
In this era, where the business is evolving so much and where we need to find new ways of selling records, the freedom of being able to offer that is quite important to artists.
What’s usually discussed in the first meetings with a new artist?
If it’s someone that I’ve never met before, I think first and foremost it’s good to talk about music. What do they like? How did they become an artist? What drives them to do what they do?
The most important aspect of any artist is that they’re a true creative force. And that they have both an identity that they believe in and something musical that they believe in. That formula hasn’t changed since the 50s and 60s. If you have a strong identity and something unique to offer the public, it’s far easier to carve a path for artists in that position.
Is it important for you to work long term with an artist?
Definitely. The difference in working for Kaiser Chiefs compared to working with Richard Swift for instance. With Kaiser Chiefs it went very quickly.
With Richard, just because of the nature of the artist that he is, it will always take a bit more time. It’s just showing that we’re here for the long haul. We will build as many bridges as we can for him.
What input do you have on the productions?
In the 1980s, most of the creativity happened between the A&R men that would structure the record with the artist. Those days have somewhat gone, except in the straight pop world.
In terms of making the Kaiser Chiefs second record, I’ve spend most of last summer at least once a week, going out to Leeds and sit through rehearsal with them and talk about my thoughts. We had many discussions on producers. It was actually meeting some other producers that made the band realise that ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’.
The debut, ‘Employment’ was made under such extreme circumstances because they were under very tight time constraints and they were on the road. It was quite rushed actually. They never had a proper time to really get to know Stephen Street, and to actually relax in his company and make a record with him. The contribution to ‘Employment’ was very much like two tracks there and a very short time span to squeeze it all in.
Do you look for outside songs for your artists?
We have a chap called Paul Everett in our office, who has just joined us. This year he’s managing the Norwegian pop artist Annie. He’s right now in the throws of putting a pop record together with Sugababes producer Brian Higgins.
He’s going through that process of choosing songs, producers, and very much constructing a record with her. I never had to do that myself. If it’s something down the line, I would actually like to get involved.
Who are the most important people within your network when it comes to finding new talent?
More so than ever, in the UK there’s a wave of things happening on the underground. There’s a number of websites. There’s this whole underage movement with bands like Los Campesinos and Cajun Dance Party. These are all very young bands that have just signed record deals.
As I’ve become more experienced, I have more contacts. It’s generally a word-of-mouth thing. It’s finding out about things before the A&R guys. Even for managers in general, not just for myself, it’s increasingly frustrating when you’re finding out about things after lawyers. That’s not traditionally the way it’s meant to happen in this business.
There are a number of underground websites like Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound, who catch on things very early, and will write about demos online. And the whole explosion of MySpace means that most new bands have as a first thing a page with their music on and something that represents them.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
I like simplicity. It’s more a case of how some artists should not present material. Like if I get a package through that’s bombarding me with photos and a big spill about how wonderful they are. It’s more intriguing sometimes to receive a CDR with a handwritten note saying, “We’re playing here, have a listen”, and then something directing you to the MySpace page.
When I was very actively looking for artists, in my pre-Kaiser Chiefs time, some of the best stuff that came through to me was often the understated stuff. Too much of a sales pitch can actually detour you.
Do you agree that it’s becoming harder for a new artist to attract a big-name manager, as it’s more lucrative for them to concentrate on their existing acts?
I agree on the point that the whole industry is being essentially feeling the pinch financially. And that obviously the live market has never been stronger. There are many aspects that are earning managers money.
But because of the business from labels and publishers feeling the depression in the market there is a focus from the bigger name managers to try and keep their bottom line up.
A big-name manager isn’t necessarily always the right thing for an artist. It’s more a manager with good contacts and a good dedication and devotion to the artist.
Every year there are a few good new managers that emerge. I don’t necessarily think that new artists should go charging for the goals, for a big-name manager. It’s more about finding someone who they feel comfortable to work alongside with.
Are you offering artist-friendly deals?
We have a standard template for our artists. We generally work on a rule that we wouldn’t make any artist sign a contract until we’d work together for at least three months. We’ll get to know one another.
Yes, we have standard terms, but ultimately those are negotiable. There are some things like commissions that are standard, but in terms of some of the working terms we’re flexible and open to discuss with the artist and their lawyers what works.
Do record label A&Rs give you a hard time regarding artist development?
I’m involved on the outside with Mumm-Ra, who are on Columbia. Keith McColl in our office manages them. They’re an example of a band that could have done with a bit of artist development and a bit of time. Most major labels need to rush towards the finish line at the moment. This isn’t meant as a dig at them. It’s just a sign of the times.
There’s a lack of artist development. That’s the reason why in both the US and the UK markets, the big indie labels, whether it’d be Domino, Wichita, B-Unique or Rough Trade, or Barsuk and Merge in America, you can reel off a long list, are all having a good time. Their whole resource is artist development. They’re able to grow artists over two or three albums.
The majors will generally throw the money straight at it, and if it doesn’t work then it’s difficult. For managers it sends out a message that if you have an artist that isn’t necessarily ready to fire straight at the big time you’re better off signing them to an indie<.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty regarding everything digital at the moment. If I had some miracle cure, it would be to restrict and prevent the illegal free downloading in music. That’s the heart of a lot of the problems the industry has right now. Whether it’d be album sales on the decline or the singles market all over the place, I genuinely believe that the physical single in the UK, which has been such a strong identification of our market for years, wouldn’t exist in a year’s time. I don’t think that’s healthy.
I just don’t think music should be free. If it’s free, the artist doesn’t get paid. If the artist doesn’t get paid, then it’s not a living. And if it’s not a living, then where do we all stand?
Did you attend the SXSW Music Conference last March in Austin, Texas?
It’s the first year in six that I haven’t been. I was in Australia with Kaiser Chiefs. It changed quite a bit since I first went. In recent years, what it has been important for is the showcasing of newly signed talent rather than the emergence of unsigned talent.
The freshly signed talent that showcases from Europe or Australia to US media, and then the same vice versa. You get quite a lot of UK artists traveling over and playing to US media. It is used more as a showcase vehicle than it is necessarily for unsigned artists. When I first went in 2001, it was maybe 80% unsigned artists.
What are your future plans for SuperVision?
We just brought some new people in. We’ve acquired Ankst Management, which is run by a chap called Alun Llwyd. He manages Super Furry Animals and Los Campesinos on Wichita.
There’s a new Franz Ferdinand record coming out next year. There’s a Kaiser Chiefs campaign, which will run for at least another year and a bit. We’re very focused on trying to break The Cribs this year.
I’m just looking for more likeminded people to come and steadily grow. Whether there’s two or three this year, or whether there’s one this year, or none, it really depends on finding the right people and investing in their resources rather than any rush to become a big company.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Kaiser Chiefs producer Stephen Street on working on the band's debut