Interview with LUKE WOOD, VP of A&R at DreamWorks Records US - Mar 4, 2002
“If you can find your audience yourself, you'll have a career.”
As vice president of A&R at DreamWorks Records in California, USA, Luke Wood has signed and works with artists including Jimmy Eat World, Elliott Smith, A.F.I. and Creeper Lagoon.
How did you get started in the music biz and how did you become an A&R?
I played in bands for a long time, and in 1988, when I was 18, I was in a band that had a development deal with Chris Stein, from Blondie, and Richard Hell, who produced the songs. Nothing came of it in the end, so I had my first bitter taste of failure in the record business. Which is the best place to start, isn't it?
Then when I was at college, I started a publicity company doing press for bands on the Rough Trade label. When I graduated I kept my company and started working with Geffen/DGC on acts like Siouxsie & the Banshees, Teenage Fanclub and Sonic Youth. Eventually I became a DGC publicist working with Nirvana, Hole and a lot of the grunge acts. That led to a marketing job at Geffen, and in that position I signed a band called Girls Against Boys, a move that signalled the beginnings of my career as an A&R.
I was also in a band called Sammy at the time, who were signed to Fire Records at first, and then later to Geffen Records worldwide. We eventually got dropped, of course, so I had my second taste of bitter defeat as an artist. Lucky me! Consequently, I know what it’s like to be a recording artist.
What qualities are necessary in order to be a successful A&R?
I think the most important thing is a true respect for artists and their creative vision. If you truly believe in your artist's vision, and share the artist’s belief regarding the direction their career should take, you can come up with the right answers for them. It will inspire you with the passion to fight all the battles you have to fight in order to get the exposure your artist needs.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as an A&R?
A marketing background is crucial, because it enables you to understand how to reach an audience, and when to spend and when not to spend money. It's also very important to understand the creative process in the recording studio, so you can have a real dialogue with your artists about the making of their record.
I don't think it's a requirement for an A&R to also be a musician, but for me personally, having driven 9 hours in a van to play for 10 people, having sat in recording studios for hours and hours, having been dropped, having heard people say horrible things about my music, but also having had great reviews and having played for people who really appreciated the music, I can say I have a very real understanding of the culture of making music and promoting it. I know what my artists are going through at every point in their career.
What goals motivate you as an A&R?
Ultimately, when I look back upon my A&R career, I hope to have worked with bands who touch people in an incredible, authentic way. Bands who inspire people to say, “When I was 18 years old, that record got me through high school.” Bands who have a really meaningful impact.
What new acts are you currently working on?
We have just signed a band called Leaves from Iceland. They’re represented by Courtyard, who also manage Radiohead and Supergrass. We're very excited about them - they’re a fantastic, talented young rock band. Right now they're in Iceland recording.
The other new thing is A.F.I., which was a fairly competitive signing in the States. They're a band from Berkeley, California, who have sold over 100,000 copies of their last independent album.
How were you approached by them?
I’ve been a fan of A.F.I. for several years. A lot of people were interested in signing them, but it was up to them to finally decide to make the move to a major label. And when they did, I felt DreamWorks would be a great home for them.
I was lucky to sign Leaves via a first-rights deal with a new English label called B-Unique, a deal which actually includes three artists: Regency Buck, Sebastian Rogers, and Leaves. The deal covers North American and Australasian territories and also gives DreamWorks more exposure to developing acts from the UK.
In the case of Jimmy Eat World, I was an enormous fan of their records. When they were dropped by Capitol a couple of years ago. It was a tremendous opportunity.
I contacted Elliott Smith in 1993, when his first record came out. I kept in touch with him, and when he finally went looking for a major label home, DreamWorks seemed to make sense for him.
The same with Creeper Lagoon; I talked to them for 3 years before I signed them.
I tend to build up personal relationships with my artists over a long period of time. They trust me with their career, and I trust them with mine. The relationship and the depth of trust needs to be built up over time in order for you to really prove that you're the champion of their cause, that you're there for them.
So you work with acts from outside the US?
Yes, we did the deal with B-Unique about a year ago. It's great, because in the past five years the marketplace had become increasingly polarised, in terms of US and European artists tending to sell mostly in their own territories. There’s been a change in the last year, however, with several US artists now doing very well in Europe. It’s started to happen over here now to, and I think more and more European artists will find a home here. Great music is great music, and this is obviously universal. It would be a mistake not to be exposed to developing talent in Europe.
How do you find producers for your acts?
I usually get a sense of the type of producer that a band want to talk to. The most important thing for me is the producer's dialogue with the band and his or her thoughts on the new songs. I never have a set opinion on who should produce an act until I've had a chance to really sit down and talk with the band, and then I pretty much let them decide. I educate them on the assets of various producers and what they'll bring to the project. It's very important how the band relate to the producer's ideas and how the producer reads the band's vision for that album.
How much input do you usually have on the productions?
I try to have relationships with my bands where I can talk about arrangements and production ideas. Hopefully we communicate well enough for them to know there's no pressure from me. They should feel free not to listen to me. All I ask for is a forum where they can hear my ideas, and I've usually been lucky in that the exchange of ideas has been very fluid with my artists. I know I’m going to have some horrible ideas and I’m open to the artists saying, “Thanks for the idea, but it doesn't work for us.” At other times they might pick up on an idea and mix it with something else. It's generally a true partnership, as opposed to a do-this-do-that dictatorship. That’s not my style. I know that, in the end, it’s their record and not mine.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with already established acts in your roster?
I probably spend about 75% of my time working with the acts I already have. That is my first commitment. Obviously, the label wants you out there finding new acts all the time; but if you sign an act, I think you make such an enormous commitment to their career that it's criminal if you then move on to find the next thing. So I really spend a tremendous amount of time on the acts I have.
How do you find new talent?
I have a community of people that I trust, and that I talk to on a daily basis. You start to kind of feel certain things happening with certain bands. For me the No.1 thing is to buy records. I get a sense of something that’s perhaps happening, so I'll go and buy the record and live with it. Almost all the artists I've ever signed have come through me buying a record, living with it, and really loving it. Then going to see the band live and loving it, and moving from there. To me it's not about what's going on in the marketplace. It's starts with me falling in love with a song, or a set of songs.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
Something that touches me in a genuine way. For me, it's all about songwriting. After that, you want the artist to have a really strong work ethic, because it's so competitive in the marketplace now. You also want someone with a lot of charisma who can really play live. That’s very important with the kind of artists I work with. But it starts with the vocals, the lyrics, the melodies and me believing what they're saying, that they're honest, that they have a point of view that is true to who they are.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager, the attorney and the team are, when considering signing a new act?
I do pay attention to who the team are. I’m not as concerned about the attorney, because that’s about the deal and if I truly love something, the deal is secondary. I find that most US attorneys are very good at letting bands make their own decisions, and that they focus on protecting them once that decision is made. But the management, the booking agent, they’re all very important, because once you get signed, it's only the beginning, and it's a long road from there. A lot of artists don't understand that, but if you have the right team around the artist, you can really get going, dig right in and get to work.
How sure do you need to be about the market space available to an act before signing and releasing them?
We want to sell a lot of records, obviously, but my focus, and DreamWorks’ focus, is to find artists who’ll sell a lot of records over many records. I'm looking more for a career than for the one hit album. Great labels have always consisted of artists with many great albums, and I really want to have the opportunity to work with an artist for five, ten, fifteen years. And there aren’t many people in the record business who could say that anymore.
Who do you need support from within DreamWorks before signing an act?
I can sign whatever I want to sign, because I'm VP of A&R, but I think it's a big mistake to sign an artist in a vacuum. I really like to expose as much of the label as possible to an artist before signing them, because I want to make sure that it's a fit. I think it's unfair to sign an artist, then discover that nobody at the label understands the act. To some extent, it's my job to explain the artist and articulate their vision to the label. You're working with a community of people at a label, and you want to make sure that the community loves the act as much as you do. I’m also fortunate enough to work with exceptional A&R people in their own right, who have signed some of the greatest rock artists of all time, and who can consequently understand what I do for a living.
It goes both ways. It's important for an artist to get to meet the promotion, marketing, sales and publicity people. They have to make sure that they feel good about those people as well, and that those are the people they want to work with for the next few years. When everyone has as much information as possible before going into a partnership, it always works better than if you sign an artist, then get them to meet the staff, only to discover that it's not a great fit.
What are DreamWorks’s strong points?
I think that DreamWorks's strong point is that we’re an independent company that, unlike most of our competitors, is not affected by Wall Street or the financial markets in any way. We're not looking for quarterly numbers, so we take a long-term view when building our roster. DreamWorks’s other major strong point is the executive talent here. Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Michael Ostin and Michael Goldstone’s vision defines what this record company is. You're not going to find better record company people in North America. They're true artist people.
How would you advise unsigned acts to approach the music biz?
An unsigned act first needs to work on songwriting. Focus on having great songs. Don't focus on the business, on booking shows and getting signed. Most of the time should be spent in the rehearsal room, not on the phone. Once you have what you feel is the true vision of where you want to go, and you're getting feedback from the people in your community, then go out there and work. Don't wait for a record company, a lawyer or a manager to bring everything to you and to find you an audience. Find your audience yourself. If you can do that, you'll have a career.
Why do American acts break more easily in Europe than vice versa?
I think it has to do with the difference between how we market and promote records. In Europe, you have some very specific promotional avenues. For example, in England, if you can get playlisted on Radio1, get on Top of The Pops, get a major feature in NME, and play at the Reading Festival then you have a good chance of selling records. That’s the pipeline. And it's very similar for the rest of Europe.
Whereas in the US, you've got twelve different radio formats and every format has almost over a hundred radio stations, each independently programmed. It’s very difficult for European artists to commit the time necessary to break here. The modern rock format alone has 80 radio stations, and each wants to do something different with the artist. How does a band like Travis really commit, with all the success they have in the rest of the world, to the amount of time it takes to please eighty different radio stations? The size of the market is very hard to get to grips with, and it's very segmented, so I think it's a marketing question.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we get a large volume of material. It's unlikely that I will ever sign anything that way, but I will never rule anything out. Either I listen to it or somebody at my office does. I trust their taste implicitly.
The quality is actually not that different from that of the solicited material, or what you might hear in any club. But I'm a true music fan, and what are the chances of me walking into a random rock club and seeing a band I love? Pretty narrow, because I have a very specific taste in music. The same goes for demos: it doesn't mean it's bad or not developed enough, but it's just probably not to my taste.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break decreased in the last decades? If so, why, and is it a problem?
Yes, absolutely. The financial commitment, the costs of doing business, are much larger than ever before. What that means for many labels is that they don’t have the ability to work with an artist over two to four records, which is how long it sometimes takes to develop an artist. For most labels, the artist development period is one album, and if they don't break, that’s it. With DreamWorks it’s a different story. We don't suffer the same sort of market pressures. We’re trying to build a label of great career artists.
Imagine recording artists being in a similar situation to that of actors, being able to record for different labels without being contractually obliged to stick with one. Do you think this might be desirable, and do you think it would work?
No, that’s an impossibility. So many things would have to change for that environment to work. The amount a major label has to spend just to get the first single on the radio in the US is several hundred thousand dollars, usually even one million dollars. Now, how can you expect a label to commit to that much capital expenditure, and then not have any future relationship with the act? In a sports team you might have players playing with you for a year, but they are already developed, they’re already great players. They can get a better offer and leave your club next year, which they will. Here, most of our artists are completely embryonic, and nobody has ever heard of them. We have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it's rare that they hit. I think that system would cater to the superstar artists, and it's not about developing artists. It's fine for superstar artists who have already broken and all the work is done. But if you're dealing with developing artists, what's going to happen is that there won’t be any artist development.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would change the way radio works in the US, and find a way for it to be more open and play more records. I work with Elliott Smith, and if you expose people to Elliott Smith's music, they love it. More often than not, they want to buy every record that he's ever made. But the pipeline to expose people to Elliott's music is very small. If I could figure out a way, whether through new media, mobile communication, or the radio, to get more people to hear Elliott, and all the other Elliotts, the music environment would be much richer, more exciting, vibrant and ultimately more satisfying. 7 million people in the US bought The Beatles’ Greatest Hits, and there's a good chance that if you like The Beatles, you’ll like Elliott Smith. But his records only sell a couple of hundred thousand copies, so how do you bridge that divide?
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I’ve not had that moment yet. I love all my artists so much and it's so exciting every time I have a record delivered. I learn something from your artist with every new record. It's not a case of when this record hit triple platinum, or when I heard that hit song for the first time. It's never as simple as that. Luckily I find all my artists equally rewarding.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years time?
I probably see myself as an A&R person, hopefully working with a roster of artists that is just awe-inspiring.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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