Interview with JULIE WEIR, head of Visible Noise and A&R for Lostprophets and Bullet For My Valentine - Feb 23, 2009
“We pride ourselves in being independent. We don’t throw money around, but we break really good bands and make careers expand.”
When Julie Weir founded UK rock label Visible Noise, her goal was to foster and break home-grown talent, and her A&R talents were quickly proven when she launched a “bunch of lads from Wales” into chart-topping rock superstars Lostprophets (UK No.1 & US Top 40). Along with other signings including Bring Me The Horizon and Bullet For My Valentine (UK & US Top 5), Visible Noise has not only established itself as one of the premier rock labels, but also been a major force in putting the UK rock scene back on the map.
The Cumbria native talks to HitQuarters about making a name for yourself in the modern rock world, the importance of band merchandise in a market of ‘free music’, and about being the only girl on tour with Scandanavian heavy metallers!
Is it a busy time for Visible Noise at the moment?
We’re always busy. It’s an independent label. There’s only three of us here. Whatever is happening we’re always doing the work like we’re about ten people. We are always run off of our feet. We have no lives! [laughs]
When you were starting out you tried anything to get involved in music – doing PR for local bands, band photography, T-shirt design, working in a record shop – did you just want some kind of career in music, or did you always have ambitions to run a label?
I was just enjoying being a part of the music scene. Leeds is pretty vibrant. And in Leeds 6 (Woodhouse, Hyde Park and Headingley), which is a big student area, there’s a band in every house. Every Sunday morning you just hear everybody practising drums. It was really loud there on Sunday mornings!
When I was working in that record shop, it was brilliant, but I did actually want something more. I got offered a Royal Academy scholarship in London. I was to do film and media. I moved down there, also as a bit of a leg up to get into the London music scene as well.
I spent a year doing my MA, which I passed. Then I sent out CVs at the end of all of that to a lot of different labels - to everybody like Roadrunner. But the people who got back to me and that I was most interested in at the time was a tiny label called Clawfist, which had a band called Gallon Drunk with lead vocalist James Johnston on it, who I absolutely loved.
I came in for an interview and I was given the position of merchandising manager. I set up all of the merchandising like T-shirts at the time. The people I was doing T-shirts for was Cradle Of Filth, believe it or not. This was around 1995/1996.
How did you then manage to become label manager at Cacophonous Records (UK metal label)?
I was doing all of the merchandising and helping out with a lot of the bands. The guy who was running Cacophonous was getting less interested in doing the actual running of the label and more interested into doing A&R. I was given the responsibility. It was just a gradual progression.
You seemed to have done everything involved with music without actually performing it - did you never harbour any ambitions to be a rock artist yourself?
God, no - I have no talent in that department at all. I like being behind the scenes. I would never want to be on the stage myself.
How did you survive working with death metal bands on a daily basis?
A lot of them are a lot scarier out there than when you actually know them personally. The majority of people are actually very nice, very polite, despite of what their past and press releases say about them. It does take its toll on the hearing. And also a lot of the bands that we were working with at the time were Scandinavian. So if you were out on tour with them, it was kind of a language barrier as well. Not to mention that I was always the only girl.
If you were in charge at Cacophonous, what made you then – in 1998 - decide to start up a new label in Visible Noise?
Alain de la Mata, my boss, started realising that I was a bit tired of dealing with that kind of music all of the time. As much as Dimmu Borgir, Cradle Of Filth, Gehenna… are great at what they do, it’s not something I would listen to on a daily basis or I would sing into my hairbrush to anyway.
Basically, at the time I was starting to look at younger developing UK bands. My boss noticed this and just said, “Well, if you want to set up your own label, you do that, and you can sign the bands that you want to sign.” I didn’t really have that much input in the level of Cacophonous signings. Visible Noise is now my label. I’m the MD of the label. I’ve worked hard for that.
And is it a good time to be heading a rock label - is the UK scene in rude health at the moment?
It’s probably healthier now than it has been for a long time. One of the reasons for setting up Visible Noise was that I just thought that everybody gave American bands far too much attention. Because if you’re an American band you used to be able to swan into the UK and get on the cover of a lot of UK music magazines. The British bands had to really fight their corner. I wanted to be able to help to foster home-grown talent.
Now British bands are doing really well. We’ve been involved with the majority. Bring Me The Horizon is starting to cause a real big noise in the States now as well. They’re all UK bands, but they’re all very different in sound. We do everything from hardcore to metal. The Dead Formats I would class like The Jam meets The Clash meets Black Flag.
How do you connect up your artists with the US?
We generally do licenses with America. As much as I would like to be able to have an office out there, it’s just not really affordable for us. It’s also good to work with an established partner. Our first major US relationship came through Lostprophets, which was in 2001.
And you signed Lostprophets after seeing them play live in London – what was it that attracted them to you?
They were just out to have a lot of fun. That attracted me originally. I just went up and spoke to them. And I signed them really quickly. I still maintain that the best version of ‘Fake Sound of Progress’ is the first version that was done, not the remix version. The first version sounds a lot more raw.
What effect did their success have on Visible Noise?
It catapulted the label into something it wouldn’t have been otherwise. To have a tiny label like us having the experience of working on the level of Lostprophets - with that band we had numerous Top 40 hits. It’s a pretty big thing for us. For me it’s something that makes us very proud to do what we do, and it makes me even prouder for the lads. They were a bunch of lads from Wales, who knew very little about the industry, and have developed into a stadium band with a great knowledge of a constantly changing musical landscape.
How big can your artist roster be?
I suppose it can be as big as I would like it to be. But I wouldn’t want it to be many more bands than we have already, because I don’t think it’s fair on the artists. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly.
And you maintain a very hands-on role with your acts - doing everything from legal work to commissioning artwork, videoshoots and photoshoots – and you wouldn’t be able to stay so involved…
Absolutely. We’re very involved. In a lot of cases we help them with management. We’ll book shows for them. Help getting the tours together. We place tour ads. Bring Me The Horizon we booked until really recently. The last tour we booked was the tour they did in October, but now they work with The Agency Group, which is great for us because the amount of stuff that we were doing over there was crazy.
One of the things that we really pride ourselves in is the fact that we’re independent; we can do things quickly. But we also do break really good bands and make people’s careers expand. We don’t throw money around. We can be there at every level for the bands. We have an in-house company called La Boca, who do a lot of our fantastic artwork.
Would you say online is very crucial in the rock market?
Online is crucial because our demographic is quite young. We do a lot of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Habbo Hotel, Twitter. All that kind of stuff is really important to us, because the communities are the kids that we deal with. They’re online all of the time. That’s how they communicate, more so than print press actually.
What’s usually discussed in the first meeting with new artists?
What they want to do, who they want to tour with, what their aspirations are, how we can help them… That’s the absolute wish list of everything. Then we’ll sit down, have another meeting, and then we’ll just talk about everything realistically. We never wanted to crush dreams. What we’ll always say to the bands is we’ll do absolutely everything we can.
And what do they need to have ready in order for you to start working with them?
They need to be able to tour. And have some level of experience that will help.
What advice do you have for young rock bands trying to make a name for themselves in the industry at the moment?
Establish yourself first before you start trying to get labels interested in you. Book your own shows. Tour as often as you can. Make friends with other bands, so that you can do gigs. For instance, if you’re from London you can go to Newcastle. And make sure that the band from Newcastle has a gig with you, so you can play with them.
Don’t try and get everybody to look at your MySpace and tell them how popular you are when you’ve only got ten friends, because it makes you look like you’ve made absolutely no effort whatsoever.
And if you’re going to send a demo pack, send a decent pack. Don’t send something that’s just a CD with a scrawl on it. Send a bio, a photo. If there’s logos and things like that, send something like that - make it look more professional. Because if you’re not going to present yourself to an established company, I just don’t think it makes you look like a realistic prospect.
Are Visible Noise still receiving a lot of demos through the post – and do you manage to listen to them all?
Yes, I do. And I’m looking at the pile as I’m behind my desk right now - although MySpace links do make my office tidier!
Besides the quality of the demo pack itself, I’d imagine you’re also looking for a demo that sounds different than what you’ve already heard?
Believe me, the demos that we do get sent do sound like Lostprophets, Bring Me The Horizon and Bullet For My Valentine - but if we’ve already signed those bands why would we want to sign another one?
Bands should be able to believe in themselves. Being scared of standing on your own is one thing, but also wanting to be able to pave a way for a decent career is another. Nobody will sign somebody who is just a sound-alike of someone else. If you can have a good time out there and just make your sound just slightly different that would be absolutely amazing. A band with a bit of stagecraft and confidence, that’s all I ask for really.
Does it make your job harder in any way the fact that artists are becoming more independently minded and aware how the industry works and what they want from it?
No, it makes it easier. If you’re working with a band that is more knowledgeable about the way that the industry works, there’s a lot more ideas to be discussed. If somebody is really naïve and does not actually know anything about the industry, I never want to feel like I’m pushing them into doing anything. I’d much rather deal with an opinionated band, rather than with someone who will let us decide what artwork they want. More bands do really understand the way that things are working, and I think that’s fantastic.
Live events are typically the biggest revenues nowadays. What festivals are most important for rock artists?
Download for the metal acts. Reading and Leeds for the more commercial acts. Glastonbury we’ve only had Lostprophets play once. But because we’re such a hard edge label, Glastonbury is not really that much of a proposition for us.
There’s this new festival Sonicsphere that’s going to come out this year. I think it’s going to be halfway between Download and Reading, so that might be quite interesting. For Europe, things like Hellfest and Rock Am Ring are brilliant for us. And we do a lot of the smaller hardcore festivals with the younger bands too.
You ran a long-running under-18s night (the legendary and much-missed Subverse) at The Underworld in London - why did that stop?
One of the reasons was that kids could get into bigger shows at that time. When we first start doing Subverse, kids couldn’t get into any shows apart from going to Wembley to see the Spice Girls with their mum.
The Underworld let us get younger kids in in the afternoon, so they could actually see rock bands that they wanted to see and that they weren’t pushed into just seeing a specific kind of band. We would get feedback from the kids and book the bands that they actually wanted to see play.
We had bands like Gallows, Funeral For A Friend, Bullet For My Valentine and Bring Me The Horizon play those shows in front of like 400 to 500 kids, and now these people are playing to thousands. The feedback that we got from the kids was absolutely brilliant.
We’re actually resurrecting Subverse now, but we’re doing it as a twice-yearly event. It’s going to be called Dark Days, and that’s actually going to start on April 11th.
The industry has been going through some major upheavals since you started the label, how has it affected you as an independent?
The dealer price of CDs for instance has gone down considerably. When you’re planning a marketing campaign, it basically means that you can spend less on marketing because you get a less of a return.
And downloading obviously, everybody is bound to whinge about that. I don’t think kids actually realise what they’re doing to an industry. They’re actually taking money away from the people that they love. But I think that has just gone too far to stop it. But the independents are probably suffering more than anyone. Majors always have a buffer to a certain extent.
But there’s also the thing with the industry that we can actually turn things around pretty quickly. We can actually do things a lot faster. We don’t have to wait for nine months to do things or release things. We can actually do things within weeks if we need to. Obviously, we prefer to do three to four months, but if we can do that kind of level it’s brilliant for us too.
Many industry commentators say that the money isn’t in music sales anymore but touring and merchandising. As one of your first jobs was as a merchandising manager, I’m interested to know whether you think merchandise really does have an important role to play in music at the moment?
Absolutely. Bands make money out of merch more so than anything else. One of the most successful bands that I think I’ve ever seen on the merch front is Bring Me The Horizon. They’re very clever in the way that they do things. They change the merchandising designs quite regularly, so that kids treat them more as a fashion item rather than just a piece of band merch. I think that’s genius. A lot of bands have taken a lot of influence from the band in the way that they do things.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would wind the clock back and make people think harder and longer about how downloading would have affected us. Because I don’t really think you can change the way that people perceive music now. The problem that we have is that people perceive music to be a free item, with things being given away as cover-mounts and with kids downloading everything and putting stuff on peer-to-peer.
If we try and educate people now to say that you shouldn’t be doing this and this is what’s happening, I think it’s just too late. People might understand more, but it’s a behaviour that’s entrenched, so you can’t really change now.
What’s in store for Visible Noise in the future?
I’m hoping that the label is going to grow more and more. And also what I’m really interested in is to get us involved in more events. That’s what I enjoy and that’s what the people in the office that work with me enjoy as well. We’re looking at doing something called Name Your Poison as well as a big club night/gig night in London. We’re hoping to take that one nationwide as well.
What up and coming artists should we be looking out for in 2009?
Definitely The Dead Formats. There’s a fantastic hardcore band that we’re working with called Your Demise. We also work with a great kind of 70s rock influenced band called The Plight, a really young band from Brighton called Brides, a really different leftfield post hardcore band called Burn Down Rome. Outcry Collective, which are a kind of a UK version of The Bronx, only better looking. And we’ll have a new Lostprophets album this year.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Billboard No.1 producer Andrew Lane
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