Interview with MARK BOWEN, A&R for Wichita Recordings - September 25, 2006
“When I first started doing this you were restricted to go into clubs hoping that you saw the new Beatles there. It’s 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,”... 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?
I’ve 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. We’re 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 we’re not very restricted by musical direction.
We believe in our independence. We’re 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 ‘Wichita Lineman’ 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 weren’t 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. They’re 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 I’m sure that’s one we all end up following, but it’s 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. That’ll 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 can’t sign hundreds of bands. It doesn’t 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. It’s a great way for us to get music across if we can’t afford the big marketing campaigns and expensive videos. It’s 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.
It’s 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 Party’s 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 it’s good then we’re interested.
What do you look for in an artist?
We tend to be attracted to things that aren’t 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 you’ve heard before don’t tend to excite us as much as the things that make majors go, “Wow, what was that?!”.
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 I’ve 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.
What’s discussed in the initial meetings with a new artist?
That we can’t offer the same things as bigger labels. That there are only four of us. That there is nobody else to meet. If we’re interested that’s the meeting there and then because there’s nobody to go to for approval, there’s nobody to ‘Ok’ the deal. It’s all up to us.
From the artist’s end they have to be into that as well. It’s right for some people, and then there are bands who like the idea of big teams and corporations, and that’s all good as well. You can tell from one meeting with a band normally if it’s going to be something that you’d be pursuing or not.
How much patience do you have for a project?
We’re very patient people. We have to be because we’re working with, in the main, very creative, very intelligent artists. You have to put a lot of faith in their vision. We’re 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 who’s 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, “Wow! There’s something in this which I’m relating to in the same way that I loved The Smiths when I was a kid.”
I’ve 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 didn’t have a manager at that point.
What’s 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. That’s why it worked around the world and not just in the UK. There are bands that do really well here but historically it’s 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. That’s 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 I’d 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 wasn’t a label that didn’t want to sign them. There was a fairly tense period. At that point I don’t think we’d sold more than 10,000 copies of any album we’d 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 we’ve 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, “I think you’d really like this band. Check it out.”
She actually sent me the album by Instant Message. It’s the first record I’ve ever received illegally through an Instant Message. That’s 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 Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and Big Black. That was 50% of my record collection. I’ve always liked American bands.
Do you put in money in tour support for your artists?
That’s the best money we can spend. It might cost you around 10,000 Pounds to go on tour and play to all those people. It’s so much better spent than 10,000 Pounds on a video that no one will ever see or on some posters that don’t mean anything to anyone.
Is this based on so called ‘handshake contracts’?
Less so these days. Bands always like the security of having things done right. From my end, we’re 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. Don’t kid yourself that you’re the best band in the world when deep down you know you’re not. It doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be, but keep working at it. If you can play live, please, play as many shows as possible. Get better and don’t invite people to the first show, but when you’ve 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?
It’s 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 ‘Young Folks’ by Peter, Bjorn & John, which I may be biased to say it, but it’s the perfect pop song, and it’s a song being played once on daytime radio here. It’s 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. It’s 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. We’re building it to a point where they’re selling out shows and we’ve 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. There’s 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 don’t plan on buying Universal any time soon or anything.
How difficult is it for British artists to break in the US?
It’s 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.
It’s been really interesting to watch Bloc Party do well there. It seems to be based on the fact that they’ve toured and toured and built an audience the same way as they do here. And it’s not about radio or MTV, it’s just about going out there and playing to people. It becomes a lot more real than anything that’s based on a great video or whatever.
What’s 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 naďve 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 it’s 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 you’re crazy, and I hope that continues for a long time. I don’t 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?
I’d like to see less banal guitar bands selling records under the guise of indie. I don’t know what I’d 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?
I’d 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 that’s still probably the greatest thing.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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