Interview with MARTIN HEATH, CEO of Lizard King and A&R for The Killers (US Top 10) - Dec 12, 2005
ďMy brief is to find acts in America, make them a bit more European, market them over there, and then bring them back to the US once we have some movement in the European market."
Ö says Martin Heath, CEO and founder of Lizard King. He signed and developed The Killers (US Top 10), for which he is awarded No.8 on the World Top 100 A&R Chart of 2005, which is being released on December 26th.
In the interview Martin explains the unique way Lizard King is dealing with new artists, bringing them from the US to Europe, as well as what it takes to make it in certain territories, and what the proís and conís are of the US vs. UK markets.
Read his thoughts on how todayís A&Rs can be compared to well-connected fans rather than people who are helpful in the record-making process; what the advantages are of growing as a band outside the public eye; why it is better to work with expensive promotion people, and how labels enter into partnerships with radio ...
What was your route to becoming an A&R?
Daniel Miller, who was running Mute Records, became our partner on Rhythm King Records, which I founded with James Horrocks. The first record we released in 1987 went Top 5 in the UK. Over the next four years we had 36 Top 10s and 2 No.1s. We had a lot of success with artists like S-Express, Bomb The Bass, Moby, Betty Boo, Leftfield, Echobelly and Aphex Twin.
The three people Iíve worked with over the years are Daniel Miller, Chris Blackwell and Clive Davis. I ran Arista Records after I ran Rhythm King. Lizard King is my fourth record company. And the thing Iíve learned is: itís all about the songs.
How is Lizard King Records structured?
Lizard King Records is a New York and London-based independent label founded in 2002. Iím the owner. We have seven people in the UK and four people in New York working for us.
Distribution goes through ADA in America and through Pinnacle in the UK.
We try to find things that other people have missed. We then apply a UK-focused production, or a different choice of singles, or a new marketing approach to increase the chance of the act breaking in the UK. This profile, as with the Killers, then gives us further opportunities, especially with US originated acts. The difference between US and other UK indies is that we release our records across Europe. We specifically market each act with specific people. We may have up to forty people working on one act across Europe directed from the UK.
Iím now in America in a venture with Warners, directly with Lyor Cohen. My brief is to find acts in America, make them a bit more European, market them over there, and then bring them back to the US once we have some movement in the European market. Ordinarily, American acts tend to sign directly to British indies and then break, like The White Stripes, The Killers and The Strokes. After they broke they find deals in America. But Iím signing them for the world with Warners backing me and then trying to break them in the UK.
We have different strands finding bands like Alternative rock bands or development acts, where we have American performers and are looking for songs for those. Pretty classic old school A&R.
How did you first learn about The Killers?
I heard the demo that was played to us by Ben Durling, who works for Sony UK now. We all sat around and we all thought it was great. And we signed them. It was as simple as that. There was no deliberation.
Iíve been coming to America since 1989. I love American music. I started off in rap music by signing Skooly D from Philadelphia, and Erik B. & Rakim. Iíve always had a strong US connection. We started to make our own records with friends and moved from there.
We signed The Killers in the summer of 2003. Everyone in America had turned them down. They had been out for a year looking for a deal but nobody was interested.
We signed the band first and released the first and second singles, then the album. Then Island signed them subsequently. Lyor Cohen and Robert Stevenson signed it for the rest of the world. Thatís why Iím here, because Lyor Cohen then moved to Warners.
Why did you want to work with them?
Great and interesting original-sounding songs. When we met Brandon Flowers for the first time it was very clear to me that he was a major star. He had huge charisma. He completely believed in what he was doing. He just stood out and carried the music.
At that time, people were very interested in the areas of British independent music that inspired them Ė Morrissey, The Cure, New Order Ö There were lots of different influences in their music that related to British people and not necessarily to Americans. At least until we had a hit - then the Americans followed Ö
What separates them from other musically-similar artists?
Brandon is a wholly believable popstar and an exceptional lyricist. The songwriting is very detailed and poetic. You have to give a lot of credit to Jeff Saltzman who put the record together. Although the band wrote all their own songs, Jeff was very important in influencing the direction of the music. When you listen to it you get Killer-grooves coming first, which are really important for Brits.
How did you work with them?
We have 50-50 deals. Profit share deals. We simply discussed everything with them up front. We have a very close relationship with the manager. We planned out the first release. It all went incredibly smoothly. We had a very good marketing team headed by Siona Ryan. She made sure that we not only co-operated with the band but with Island/Def Jam in America and with Radio One and NME. Everyone was on the same page. It was clear from the reactions we were getting that this band was going to happen. We followed up fast. Weíve sold 1,6 million records in the UK, which makes them one of the biggest acts of last year.
Itís the way Franz Ferdinand was broken by Domino. British indies tend to hire people around records as independents, rather than have full-time staff. When you get very dedicated people itís more expensive because you have to hire them for every record, but itís more effective as well. It was a combination of very good professionals, who were independent, and the right timing. Britain was ready for the type of music they make. A year later or earlier it wouldnít have worked so well.
We were listening carefully to our radio promotions people about the right choice of singles. We would have meetings with NME and Radio One about what they wanted. It was a partnership between band, record company and media.
What were the most important factors in breaking them?
The very early championing of Radio One and NME together was the key. All the things that we said to the media about The Killers happened. That helped us in terms of credibility and in terms of media. They were willing to support us because the band and the record company delivered at every point. When we knew that we had already gone past the average indie audience we television-advertised the record. We then switched into another marketing mode that normally only the majors would use.
It cost us over a 1,5 million USD to break them. But we only spent the money that we were already making. We didnít market them into a market. We marketed to their audience.
How do you find new talent?
People under 24 who go to clubs a lot, who talk to people, who understand whatís going on. I hear 200 to 300 things a week. I pick two or three things a month and I work on that. Itís rare that I come across something thatís unsolicited that I really like, but it has happened.
What do you look for in an artist?
A unique vision, intelligence, and the personality to carry it through. Then we can help to support that process. It doesnít matter if an artist is going to sell 50,000 records worldwide or 5 million. It matters in terms of money, but if you know that your 50,000 selling artist is only going to make you a gross 400,000 GBP, you only spend 100,000 marketing it globally. As long as youíre intelligent enough to know the limits of that record and how to market it, then youíre fine.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
Iím different than most A&R people because when I hear music I often think of it in terms of what it could be, rather than what it is. It allows me to be very creative about signings. I donít have to sign things that are all finished up. I prefer not to. But itís clearly better to work on a band like The Killers that more or less came with everything intact - all we had to do was figure out the approach of the market and mix the record and put it out. It was pretty much done when we came across them, by Jeff Saltzman and his crew.
As a producer I got involved in making all our early records on Rhythm King in the studio. Now I much prefer to make suggestions, have an overview of the music, find the right people to make the record if itís necessary to do that, and leave them alone to do it. Like all creative people, Iím a control freak. I like people to listen to my opinions. But itís bad policy to dictate to people what they should be doing.
Can you give a comparison of the ways in which new bands get noticed by the industry in the UK and the US?
The A&R community in the UK is more integrated than it is in the US. Itís very London-centric, and only maybe fifty people. If scouts are chasing a band, youíll see the same thirty people in one room. You get a herd mentality in the UK, but also some very diverse signings as well.
In the US the scale is so different that people tend to wait until a band is truly established, or has sales under their belt, or has lots of other offers before they do anything. That makes it more expensive but probably a bit more productive because thereís already a lot of work done that they donít have to do.
In the US youíre trading money for time. In the UK, British indies will spend a lot of time and not much money.
Which scene is more healthy?
What British people look for in Americans is quite different. The British are very good at writing songs. Their lead singers arenít that good for American ears. Culturally, we both have different feelings about things. America is the land of guitars and lyrics. Britain is the land of rhythm and feel.
A lot of American A&Rs donít like Britain because they think the music there is quite lightweight. A lot of British A&Rs think American music is without imagination or irony. It depends on your perspective. I love America, because American bands are really hardworking. The imaginative ones stand out a long way. I like Britain, where everything is under the public eye very quickly.
And the scale of America means good things like The Killers can develop outside the publicís eye - they were around for three or four years before anyone noticed them. And theyíre allowed to develop at their own pace. When you do get hold of a band theyíre much more developed than they would be in the UK. The bands you hear in the UK may have only played ten gigs before they signed if theyíre any good. Thatís not enough time to develop a musical identity, let alone songs.
How should American bands try to get signed in the UK?
The first step is to do your homework. Find out who has an open ear to American bands. Secondly, be realistic. If you are a heartland rock band, donít bother. Ask yourself: ďWould I really be successful in Britain? Do I write radio-friendly songs? Have I got the unique identity? Do I sound like bands that have worked in the past?Ē
Brits liked The Breeders, loved Iggy Pop and The Doors. They love anything that has intelligence and a difference about it. If youíre Hoobastank, youíre going to be in trouble. If theyíre special, have a unique vision, look right and have real songs, then Iím interested in listening to them.
If you were an artist and were offered a record deal, how would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Bands are better placed these days to do things on their own terms. A lot of A&Rs are entirely redundant. A&Rs used to be producers who would help the artists on their arrangements and develop their songwriting and find musicians for them. These days they are much more like fans who are well connected and knowledgeable, but not very helpful in the process of making records.
Artists should be trying to find a fanbase and people who want to buy their records, and find a way of getting the records to those people, whether itís through the Internet or through local releases or through selling them themselves. Once theyíve established their identity, A&Rs will come to them. When theyíre trying to please an A&R, theyíre invariably going to fail. Thatís called selling, and that doesnít sit very well with being an artist who passionately believes in what theyíre doing.
How do you view the current music business climate?
There are loads of opportunities to manifest in music in terms of distribution and commercial channels. The old hierachical top-down approach from the record business has disappeared. Big money budgets have gone. In theory, thereís more room for people to develop over the long term. The structural changes are good for music in general. In the short term itís very disruptive because sales are still declining. The existing record business can afford to do less and less.
How much does it typically cost to record, market and promote an album?
Digital technology allows people to make records very cheaply these days. If you are a live band, and more and more are, then itís much more labour-intensive. You need a live room, engineers and touring. If youíre a dance or pop band it can cost only 1000 US dollars to make an album. It all depends on how dependant upon technology you are, and how much live sounds matter. On an average, most deals are around 150,000 GBP, 250,000 US dollars.
In the beginning, the maximum exposure we had for The Killers was 30,000 US dollars in terms of the costs we had out there that we didnít know we would recoup. The money we eventually spent was millions of dollars. We were only spending the money once we knew the artist had broken that particular sales level.
How do you view the independent labels situation in the UK?
Itís a very good time to be an indie, as long as your A&R is able to spot the right bands. Seven out of the eleven biggest acts in the UK last year are signed to indies. Most of the Alternative bands are breaking on indies and at the same time selling the most records. If youíre an indie in the UK you have an advantage over the majors. You can move more quickly.
We all have equal access to radio because Radio One is publicly owned and not supported by advertising, as radio is in the US. Itís also national, so something that breaks happens nationwide, which is not possible in the US. If your music is good and interesting youíre probably better placed than a major that has maybe thirty priorities on its desk. Indies make more money than the majors do once theyíre successful, because theyíre more careful about controlling the costs.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
I would look for other sources of funding on the record companies. Public markets. Private finance.
Half of the problem for musicians and labels is that the financing is coming from the majors themselves. As other means of distribution have grown, the companies have moved away from the source, which is the musicians themselves and their audiences. Theyíve become largely marketing and financing organizations. They often get confused about where they should usefully put their efforts. A lot of indie operations are extremely efficient, especially now around digital distribution and marketing, and have a low cost of entry compared to majors, who by their nature tend to be quite wasteful.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
When I was 25, I made a record with a great friend, Mark Moore. I was driving in Yorkshire and heard on the radio that S-Express had gone No.1. The next week it was No.1 as well. A bunch of friends in a room had generated this astonishing thing and the whole nation had said that we were the best. That was an amazing feeling. We were all just amateurs who liked what we did. We had no illusions other than the job in hand. And the best thing was we all stayed friends, and still are today.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Angelo Sanders, A&R at Aftermath Entertainment for The Game (US No.1)
Read On ...
* A&R Robert Stevenson on being confused between The Killers and The Kills