Interview with JO CHARRINGTON, A&R at Epic UK for JLS, Paloma Faith, Scouting For Girls, Olly Murs - Nov 29, 2010
“We watch the iTunes charts religiously as a barometer of how much people like your artist”
Winner of this year’s Music Week’s Best A&R - alongside colleague Nick Raphael – Epic’s Jo Charrington snapped up the accolade in recognition of a phenomenal record which has seen her break four acts in three years and clock up six #1s in 18 months, with the likes of JLS (UK No.1), Paloma Faith (UK Top 10), Scouting For Girls (UK No.1) and now Olly Murs (UK No.1)
As JLS’ latest album debuts at #2 this week, Charrington talks about how Epic make and break their stars, what a demo needs in order to catch her attention and why supermarkets should stick to selling rather than making pop music.
How did you get into the music industry?
I joined a temping agency called Handle Recruitment and got a job as a temporary marketing assistant at London Records in about 1992/93. It was a very exciting time because a lot of big pop acts like Bananarama, East 17, Shakespears Sister and Whigfield were signed to London. I worked for Christian Tattersfield and Nick Raphael (HQ interview) as their assistant and was sending out records to the reps, organising parties, commissioning videos …
I stayed for about a year and a half and then went to Virgin Records and worked in the international department for about a year under Nancy Berry. They were launching the Spice Girls, Lenny Kravitz, Meat Loaf, Shaggy … and they had quite an aggressive policy in trying to break acts internationally.
I then went to work as an assistant for Jeremy Marsh, who was the president of BMG at the time, but I knew I didn't want to be a PA for the rest of my life. Nick and Chris set up a label called Northwestside and had an idea to put together a boyband that was a bit different - an interracial boyband. I said, “Let me put it together and then, if you like it and want to sign it, I can leave my job with Jeremy and manage them.“ So I was working for Jeremy and I obviously didn't tell him I was putting this band together on the side.
I went to the BRIT school, the modelling agencies … just generally putting the word out and auditioning the singers. I then presented them to Nick and Christian, they loved them and decided to sign them - and I handed in my notice.
Because I hadn't done management before we decided to hook me up with a big management company - with John Reid, who was managing Elton John at the time. There was a guy there called Derek MacKillop who was really supportive. So we worked together on managing Another Level from 1996 to 2000. They were pretty successful - we had a number one, a platinum album and Clive Davis was about to launch them in America when the band just basically fell apart.
During that time Nick had been hired by Rob Springer of Sony to be the MD at Epic and he phones me up and says, “I know you are managing Dane [Bowers] but I really need someone here that I trust to help me oversee what’s happening at Epic, I thought you could do A&R.“ I said, “A&R? I can't do that, I don't even know what it is!“
Even though I was doing A&R without realising it, I’d never thought of me as someone who could do that. He said, “Trust me, I've done it for years, I can talk you through it.“ That's how it started. I joined Epic in 2001 and have been doing it since then.
What does your work involve at the moment?
At the moment I'm vice president of A&R at Epic and we've broken four acts since 2007. The acts I'm working on specifically are JLS, Scouting for Girls, The Priests, Paloma Faith and Olly Murs.
In the last six years we’ve had 12 albums that have gone platinum or multi-platinum. And we’ve had six number one singles in the past 18 months.
We have a new singer called Aloe Blacc, who had a big hit in Europe and we signed him for UK and Ireland. We also have a record coming out by a classical artist called Russell Watson. We don't specialise in one genre. We want to have hits and work with talented artists - it doesn’t matter if it's rock, pop, whatever … if we see there is an opportunity and we can do something with it, we will do it.
That's quite a lot of artists ...
It sounds like a lot of bands but they are not all active at the same time.
At this actual moment I’ve finished the JLS record, I’ve finished Olly Murs and I'm working on Paloma Faith's next record. The Priests record almost makes itself because Mike Hedges produces it and the Priests and him choose the songs - we just oversee it. It's less intense.
Can you describe how the JLS thing happened from the beginning?
We are a part of Sony, as is Simon Cowell’s (HQ interview) label Syco. Nick and I have a history working in a pop/R&B business, because we had Another Level, a group in 2000 called Big Brovaz, who had a platinum album and also Lemar from Fame Academy. We had five albums with him and two of them went double platinum and one platinum.
When Simon Cowell’s label decided they were going to focus on Alexandra [Burke], the winner of X Factor, their manager thought we were well suited to working with JLS.
We met the boys and they were very hard working. They were a band that wasn't put together - they were a real band that wanted it more than you do. I think that’s very important. The minute we met them we knew they wanted it - they look fantastic, have great voices and just had ambition. But they are also polite, wanted to learn and were excited to work with us as well.
I think it's down to chemistry. When you meet someone you know in 30 seconds whether you are going to get on with that person or not.
What were the next steps after you signed them?
The minute we signed them Nick and I started looking for songwriters and producers. We went to the people that we thought are the best people to work with like Steve Mac (HQ interview), Wayne Hector (interview), JR Rotem (interview) or DEEKAY.
We went to see Steve Mac and he played us ‘Beat Again’ which became there first single and first number one. The minute we heard it we thought, this is absolutely perfect for JLS.
Once you’ve got that special song everything else seems to fall into place.
How long did it take from signing them to get the record out?
It was pretty quick. I think we signed them in January and had a single out in June. The album came out in November. With X-Factor artists if you have that momentum you have to capitalise on that moment.
How important is the marketing aspect in signing process - do you always have that in mind?
No, I don't think about that. I think in the first instance it's about the artist and the songs. It's about meeting the artist and getting that feeling that there is something special about them.
Can you give an example with another of your other artists in terms of how you signed them?
Paloma Faith was an artist that all the labels passed on. I found out about her through her manager. We met her and when she played a showcase for us it was clear that she was a star but the material was a bit generic. She didn't have the hit songs.
We went away and talked about it. We weren't a 100% sure so we left it for a few months but I kept checking her MySpace to see if she had something that had a special direction or sound. Then I heard her song ‘Broken Doll’ and thought, this sounds like a well-crafted song! It had an opening line, a fantastic chorus, brilliant lyrics … I said to Nick, “I think we should get this girl back in. She sounds like she is getting it now. We can help her get the songs.“ Now we are on 500,000 records worldwide ...
Another example is Scouting for Girls. Every record label passed on them. They won Glastonbury [Festival] unsigned. Huw Stephens at Radio 1 loved them and their CD landed on Nick's desk. Nick phones me up and says, “These are hits, let's go see the band in rehearsals!“ We literally signed the band in two weeks. They had written all their songs themselves and they were ready to go. Make the record, put it out - that first album sold 900,000 records in the UK.
The Priests is an idea that Nick had with Mike Hedges. They went and found these two brothers and a friend who were opera singers and built the record around them. That was classical music, a completely different genre. This was almost born out of an idea in the office.
How much involved are you in the actual production and writing of the songs? Do you go down to the studio, for instance?
To me A&R means you do whatever it takes to make this song the best it can be. If you need to go to the studio, you go to the studio. If somebody is songwriting - for example, Paloma Faith is writing with Eg White, Greg Wells (HQ interview), Claude Kelly (interview), Steve Robson and Ed Harcourt - I will talk to her about what our aim is and what our ideas are, but she essentially goes into the process with those writers. I don't interfere too much and let her get on with it.
With JLS sometimes we find songs for them that are already written, so I pop in the studio and give an opinion on something but most of the time they work with such brilliant writers and producers that it's not necessary. You are almost like an executive producer of the whole thing.
How do you find out about new songs?
You build up relationships with your artist. We do a lot of pop and there it's important to have relationships with songwriters and producers. There are certain people that have hits consistently and they are so important. We are in constant dialogue so they will know if we make a record with a new artist and they will call up and say, “Listen, I have this!“ or Nick and I will go out and sit with them in the studio and listen to what they’ve got.
Then you get lots of songs from people I’ve never heard of. I listen to everything that comes through on a computer. I can tell pretty much in 10 secs if it's good enough or not. Unfortunately most of the time it's only suitable for an album track, but every now and then you get something really special.
I also have great relationships with all the publishers. We have regular meetings and we talk about what I'm doing with the artists we have got and how they can help.
Don't you get hundreds of emails of people sending you mp3s?
I know it's a nightmare. I had to change my email address because I received so many emails from people I didn't know because it was clogging up my email. In the olden days you get a CD in a package and someone else could listen to it. Now it's so easy to have access you need some kind of filter.
If someone emails you specifically and says, “I have this song that could be great for Russell Watson”, and they made the effort to find out the project you’re working on specifically then it's much better than if someone just sends a mp3, they spell your name wrong, don't know what artist you’ve signed and just want you to listen to their music. In that case I'll back that off to my assistant.
Where do you listen to songs?
Our office is open plan. Nick and I have a desk opposite each other. All we do all day is talk about our records and our artists. I literally just double click and listen to an mp3.
How much artist development can you do nowadays?
It depends. It's on a case-by-case basis.
Would you sign an artist that doesn't have the song yet?
Yes, we signed Paloma Faith and she didn't have a hit. We signed Scouting For Girls and they had hits. We signed JLS and they didn't have one song, but we signed them because they were stars. There are no rules.
Before Sony merged with BMG, Nick and I worked with Muff Winwood who signed artists like Sade, Terence Trent D'arby and Des’ree. And we learned something from him, he said, “If you get someone that you know is a star, and you know what they should be doing but just haven't nailed it yet, don't be scared about that. Your job as an A&R person is to help that artist find the songs, craft the song.“
Do you go to live shows to check out new talent?
Very rarely. I’ve never been a scout and worked my way up. It happened in a different way. I’ve never been in that scene of going to gigs every night.
Do check sites like MySpace or is it all through recommendation?
It's mainly recommendations. I have an A&R meeting every Thursday with people coming in that scout for us. They bring in things and if I like it I play it to Nick. Epic is a slightly different model to other labels. We only sign one or two things a year.
We stay away from competitive deals because when you spend so much money upfront there is this massive expectation on the artist, and no time for development. We prefer to do deals that are not so expensive and then nurture it get the songs right and launch them when they are ready.
When you look at the budget you have for a newcomer artist, how has that developed in recent years?
Our budgets are still the same. At Epic we have always been really conscious of budgets and of not spending money if it's not necessary.
It's not important to spend lots of money when you are making a record. Sometimes you just have to - to work with certain people or run with a certain idea. For that reason we are spending the same amount of money on artist as we were in 2004. We haven't had our budgets slashed.
The producers you’ve mentioned are more big name producers. What does a new writer/producer need to have for you to give it a shot?
The reason why we are working with the more big name producers is because we had so much success with JLS, so that opened quiet a lot doors for us and because we sold a lot of records we’ve been able to invest that money.
On Paloma’s first album we worked with people who weren't necessarily the big names and still had success. In the most part those producers were able to finish their own records. She worked with Ed Harcourt, Patrick Byrne and also some big names like Steve Robson.
There might be an occasion where you are using a new producer and it is missing a little bit of fairy dust, so we might give it to someone to do a little bit of additional production and mixing.
But I am very open-minded. New producers and new writers are so crucial to what we do, so I always have an open door to any manager who wants to play me something and introduce me to someone up-and-coming. Even if there's no project where we can use them now, there might be an artist we sign next year and it might be perfect for them. If I feel that they can deliver and I can direct them in the right way I will give a new producer a chance.
How much are you just focused on the UK market with your artists?
In the initial instance you just focus on making the best record you can. We’ve always worked on the premise that if you do have success in the UK hopefully that will give you enough of a springboard for the other international companies to take note and work them in their territories. That is something that we definitely want to build on going forward. In fact we need to spend a bit more time in certain territories introducing them to our artists and having them feel part of the process.
How does a record deal with you look like at the moment?
Any deal that we do we are trying to participate in as many revenue streams as we can that we feel have benefited from our input as a label. That would be across live and across merch.
You hope as an A&R person that you have added value. That means that your artist is having hit singles and albums and is an artist that people want to buy into. If it added value in terms of songwriting, we participate in publishing as well.
Nowadays it feels like even if you don't have a record label you can become a successful artist just through the Internet - the blog world writing about you, selling your music via iTunes etc - what can a big record label offer an artist that the artist cannot do themselves?
We have years and years of experience in breaking artists. I think people underestimate the value of that.
I will give you a recent example of it. There is an artist here called Nadine Coyle - she was part of Girls Aloud – and she has put a record out through one of the supermarkets (Tesco). The supermarket skill set is not in A&R.
When you are developing certain artists it's incredibly important that you have that skill set. We can introduce you to certain writers and producers for example. Other than that we have a huge experience in radio and marketing. What artists are doing on the Internet is really positive and a great part of building a fan base. We can up things to the next level and you can have a hit all around the world.
There are a lot of artists that don't need a major label to make a living but a major label can take you from being a silver or gold artist to multiplatinum selling artist.
How many downloads do you sell compared to actual CDs?
The single market in downloads is really, really healthy. In album sales it's not as high because there are still a lot of traditional CD buyers.
Single track downloads are big with a younger demographic hence the rise of the singles chart again - ie. JLS, Taio Cruz, Tinie Tempah - whilst many album acts can still have predominantly physical sales because they appeal to an older demographic who buy from Amazon, HMV for example – Russell Watson and Michael Buble fit into this category.
Paloma crosses both because she does very well digitally, particularly on iTunes but also physically, because her appeal is broad, both younger and older. I still think it's a really great time for music in the moment.
Are you looking at signing any new artists at the moment?
We are definitely looking to sign something. But because we are quite diverse I would never say, “Oh, I'm looking for something electronic. Because electronic is IN at the moment.” I don't look for things that are in trend at the moment. You know when you come across something that it's the right thing to do.
I talked to a scout from another big record label and they are very interested in the dub step scene - are you interested in new genres like that?
The dub step scene reminds me of the drum and bass or 2-step scenes. I think it's quite niche. You might get a star from it like Craig David, but as a genre I don't think it has a commercial appeal.
There is always a new sound coming - especially in the UK. It's such a big part of our culture, always looking for the new thing ... I focus more on the artist and the songs.
How do you see your job evolving in the near future?
I'm not really planning for what is happening next. All I care about is the next record we get out going to be a hit. Every time a single comes out you are judged by the chart position.
A&R is a job that you should get better at the more experience you have. If you make a mistake, you learn from it. I love my job here. Sony has been incredibly supportive to what we do here. I want to build on the success we’ve had with our artists on our label. Building on the roster, signing new artists.
So the charts are very important for you?
Very important. For some acts its more important than for others. For pop acts like Tinchy, JLS, Pixie Lott it's very important - the media is looking at it and we watch the iTunes charts religiously as a barometer of how much people like your artist. It helps us understand where our artist is. Have we done a good job with the A&R? Did we spend enough money on TV?
If you have an artist that goes on Jools Holland and you don't see a change in the chart position, you have a problem. Millions of kids on a Sunday will still tune in and listen to the chart rundown on the radio - it's part of our culture, it's part of who we are. There are other more albums selling artists where witnessing the chart position is not important because people don't buy singles.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Co-writer of Rihanna's recent #1, Traci Hale, talks about her career breaks
Read On ...
* Head of A&R at Epic, Nick Raphael, on how Jay-Z inspired his star making skills
* Producer-songwriter Steve Mac on the challenge of meeting the expectations of millions of Susan Boyle fans
* Songwriter Wayne Hector on classic ballad writing