Interview with MARK BOWEN, A&R for Wichita Recordings - September 25, 2006
ďWhen I first started doing this you were restricted to go into clubs hoping that you saw the new Beatles there. Itís been amazing how the Internet allowed us to search for talent on a global basis. Now it could be coming from anywhere in the world,Ē... so affirms Mark Bowen, A&R for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Bloc Party (Top 10 UK).
Bowen, having breakthrough experience already in the 90's, started Wichita Recordings as a specialist independent label.
He told HitQuarters about Bloc Party's instant appeal to him and the international market, hooking up with V2, and the difference between British and American bands today.
What experiences have been important in developing your A&R skills?
Iíve been lucky to work for several of the most talented A&R people we have in the UK. Geoff Travis and Jeanette Lee over at Rough Trade. Alan McGee and Dick Green while I was at Creation. They all taught me different things, but they all have such broad tastes and been so committed to music for so long, they probably taught me everything I know.
How would you define Wichita Recordings?
We try not to be bound by any genre. Weíre putting out stuff we like and firmly believe in. The Bronx, which is a very hard punk rock album. Espers, which is a medieval folk record. Peter, Bjorn & John, which is Swedish indie pop. That sums up quite nicely that weíre not very restricted by musical direction.
We believe in our independence. Weíre a small team that really has to be so into something to get involved, that we end up being quite fussy about what we do.
What were the reasons for starting Wichita in June 2000?
Dick Green and I have been at Creation Records and we decided that it was time for that to end. Dick simply proposed that we did something much smaller. There was no staff. There was no great plan for world domination. Just to put out records we really liked and go back to basics.
We just had this idea that if we could ever put out one song that was nearly as good as ĎWichita Linemaní by Jimmy Webb then the label would have been all worthwhile.
What were the crucial factors in establishing Wichita?
We were always very careful to go for quality over quantity. We werenít working many records, but the ones that we did were all well received. That set up some kind of reputation working with good and interesting music.
From a business perspective, the biggest single move was hooking up with V2 a couple of years ago for the international license set up, which enabled us to take on bands on more of a career basis and on a wider scale. We worked with bands around the world and to know we could still be in business and commit to them for long term.
Would you ever consider teaming up with a major?
No. Theyíre not going anywhere. They have to adapt just like all the rest of us. They do something very well and other things not so well, and that is never going to change. There are some very bright people who work over there who will find a way to make a new model for the business, and Iím sure thatís one we all end up following, but itís not for us.
Which bands are you currently working with?
Three records just came out, The Bronx, Peter, Bjorn & John and Espers. Bloc Party are mixing a new record, as well as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Those records will be out during early 2007. Thatíll be everything we have time for really.
When do you see the artists perform live?
It tends to be busy a lot with our own stuff. We canít sign hundreds of bands. It doesnít feel so important that I see every single band that comes along. But if I really like the sound of something or if somebody has recommended something strongly to me then I always make the effort to go and see them play.
As an independent label we tend to lean towards bands that can play live. Itís a great way for us to get music across if we canít afford the big marketing campaigns and expensive videos. Itís key to us that the band can go out. We work with people who can put on a good show.
How do you find new talent?
By word-of-mouth recommendation. After six years people have an idea of the sort of thing we might like. We get less people coming to us with things that make no sense.
Itís been amazing that the Internet allowed us to search for talent on a global basis, which has been great. We work with many American acts, Swedes, whatever. When I first started doing this you were restricted to go into clubs and hoping that you saw the new Beatles there. Now it could be coming from anywhere in the world.
We listen to everything, and we get back to everyone. Not always immediately, but within a few weeks. We have signed bands from demos, but we recommend that artists check our website to see if we would make a suitable home before sending.
Do you have a few examples of people you have met with recently, within your industry contacts?
Bloc Partyís lawyer Peter McGaughrin is always a fantastic source of new talent. That man knows more about new bands than anybody else I know.
I like the guys over at Drowned in Sound, who tend to be attracted to things, which maybe seem a bit more leftfield to other people, but they always seem to hear the potential in things that we do too.
Is it a necessity that the artists have released independent albums and developed themselves to a certain point?
No, absolutely not. They can send us their first song they ever wrote and if itís good then weíre interested.
What do you look for in an artist?
We tend to be attracted to things that arenít too straight ahead. Things that maybe have a twist or their own unique way of doing things. Bands that sound like other bands or just sound like somebody youíve heard before donít tend to excite us as much as the things that make majors go, ďWow, what was that?!Ē.
What input do you have on the productions?
With the new Bloc Party album we tried several people out before we settled on Garrett Lee. The first time Iíve ever met Clap Your Hands Say Yeah we talked about using David Friedman for the second record, and I was really glad the way that turned out.
Whatís discussed in the initial meetings with a new artist?
That we canít offer the same things as bigger labels. That there are only four of us. That there is nobody else to meet. If weíre interested thatís the meeting there and then because thereís nobody to go to for approval, thereís nobody to ĎOkí the deal. Itís all up to us.
From the artistís end they have to be into that as well. Itís right for some people, and then there are bands who like the idea of big teams and corporations, and thatís all good as well. You can tell from one meeting with a band normally if itís going to be something that youíd be pursuing or not.
How much patience do you have for a project?
Weíre very patient people. We have to be because weíre working with, in the main, very creative, very intelligent artists. You have to put a lot of faith in their vision. Weíre not here to tell them what to do so much as to facilitate their careers and their music. I got all patience in the world for somebody whoís making great art.
How did you first meet with Bloc Party?
I saw them play a show at the ICA in London just before Christmas in 2004. They struck me because they reminded me of The Smiths. I just thought, ďWow! Thereís something in this which Iím relating to in the same way that I loved The Smiths when I was a kid.Ē
Iíve been told by a manager friend, who was one of the few people looking at them, and he said I should check them out and I might like them, and I really did. They didnít have a manager at that point.
Whatís their success story?
They have it all. They write great songs. They put on an amazing show. They are very intelligent. They have plenty to say. They look fantastic. The whole package. Thatís why it worked around the world and not just in the UK. There are bands that do really well here but historically itís been quite hard for UK bands to work well in the US and outside.
A million records have been sold in more than twenty countries now. It has kind of appealed to people everywhere. Thatís the most satisfying thing for me about the whole thing. Away from London and the NME, people from South Africa to Finland bought into it.
What was it that made you click with them?
The songs. The words were fantastic. Kele Okereke was just an incredibly striking performer. He did remind me of the kind of frontmen like Morrissey that Iíd liked when I was a kid that just held the room and you were absolutely fascinated by them. There seemed to be more to him than just the average guy fronting an indie band in London.
Did they have to prove anything additional before signing?
We signed them after several months of negotiations. There wasnít a label that didnít want to sign them. There was a fairly tense period. At that point I donít think weíd sold more than 10,000 copies of any album weíd done.
We had the history and the experience from Creation of knowing that we could do more, but it was still a big leap of faith for the band to go with us and accept that we might be able to do the job weíve done.
A lot of the songs that are on the first record were in that first set when I saw them. And I watched them get better and better as a live band. Even then the album exceeded our expectations when they went off to make it.
It was really about us proving to them that we could live up to what they needed because they had a really strong idea of just what they wanted and how good a band they were going to be.
Is it true that you first hear about Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last April from a young woman who sells their T-shirts?
I saw them in Brooklyn, New York for the first time. We try to set up a label in the US and she was working with the people we were working with at that time. She just sent me an email saying, ďI think youíd really like this band. Check it out.Ē
She actually sent me the album by Instant Message. Itís the first record Iíve ever received illegally through an Instant Message. Thatís kind of quite fitting with their whole internet thing. We signed them for the whole world outside of North America.
How come you signed U.S. acts?
When I was growing up there were two big strands to my taste; one was the UK independent labels like Rough Trade, Creation, Factory, 4AD, and then I was very much in love with the American underground scene, the SST and Homestead labels and bands like HŁsker DŁ, Sonic Youth and Big Black. That was 50% of my record collection. Iíve always liked American bands.
Do you put in money in tour support for your artists?
Thatís the best money we can spend. It might cost you around 10,000 Pounds to go on tour and play to all those people. Itís so much better spent than 10,000 Pounds on a video that no one will ever see or on some posters that donít mean anything to anyone.
Is this based on so called Ďhandshake contractsí?
Less so these days. Bands always like the security of having things done right. From my end, weíre happy to work on a handshake basis.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to build a career on an independent level?
Be honest with yourself. Donít kid yourself that youíre the best band in the world when deep down you know youíre not. It doesnít mean you wouldnít be, but keep working at it. If you can play live, please, play as many shows as possible. Get better and donít invite people to the first show, but when youíve done ten and you know that you got something good going on then start thinking about inviting people down.
How easy or difficult is it to get played on radio?
Itís becoming harder all the time. It seems to be less about the songs and more about the marketing spent on the artist, which for labels such as us is hugely frustrating.
Take a song like ĎYoung Folksí by Peter, Bjorn & John, which I may be biased to say it, but itís the perfect pop song, and itís a song being played once on daytime radio here. Itís very sad because people react to the song and they like it, and you know that if we had a million Pounds to spend on marketing then it would probably be a No.1 single here. Itís the biggest frustration we have.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
We depend a great deal on press. Wichita has always been very lucky in having fantastic critical support. And then beyond that, a great live show is the next best thing we can have, because radio always comes last. Weíre building it to a point where theyíre selling out shows and weíve got a little bit of press before radio is considering it.
What is the current music business climate for indies?
There are a lot of opportunities, because major labels are in a state of flux. But if you really want to break an act to any kind of large level you need to spend an awful lot of money to do so. Thereís a big frustration that so much is born out of marketing rather than being based on the quality of the music. But it has always been the same.
What are your goals for the future of Wichita?
Pretty much to carry on exactly as we are. We donít plan on buying Universal any time soon or anything.
How difficult is it for British artists to break in the US?
Itís one of the hardest things in the world. There is only a certain amount of people who are even listening. And by this point the ones that are listening are so cynical and skeptical after the terrible UK bands that have been forced upon them for the last twenty years all under the guise of breaking America and being the next big thing.
Itís been really interesting to watch Bloc Party do well there. It seems to be based on the fact that theyíve toured and toured and built an audience the same way as they do here. And itís not about radio or MTV, itís just about going out there and playing to people. It becomes a lot more real than anything thatís based on a great video or whatever.
Whatís the difference in working with British and American acts?
British acts on the whole are a lot more business savvy. Certainly a lot of the American independent acts are quite naÔve in what they might need to do to sell records. I wish it could stay that way.
They are always shocked that they need to make a video or that their song might be played on the radio because itís less of an issue over there than it is here. Whereas British bands come out expecting to be in the NME and on Radio One, and they know what they have to do.
A lot of the genuine innovative American acts like Bright Eyes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, if you talk to them at first about these awkward videos and radio and stuff, they look at you like youíre crazy, and I hope that continues for a long time. I donít like the cynicism that we can often get here with new bands who read all the books and know what they need to do before they set out.
What style of music would you like to see gain more popularity?
Iíd like to see less banal guitar bands selling records under the guise of indie. I donít know what Iíd like to see more, but I certainly like to see less generic four boys on guitars selling records and claiming to be indie.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Iíd have to still say The Boo Radleys having a No.1 album in 1995 when we were at Creation Records, because Martin Carr from the band had been my best friend forever and thatís still probably the greatest thing.
If you wish to publish this article, or parts of it, you are welcome to do so after having received an approval from us. Requirements are statement of origin and link to HitQuarters. To get an approval, please contact us.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...