Interview with NICK GATFIELD, MD A&R at Island for Mika, U2, Amy Winehouse - Oct 8, 2007
“With a hit song, I’ll know it within 30 seconds”
It is with great pleasure that we present this interview with Nick Gatfield, who is HitQuarters' No.1 A&R for the last 24 weeks.
Gatfield entered the UK music world as a member of the legendary '80s band Dexy's Midnight Runners. His foray into the world of A&R was perceived as a temporary escape from the pressures of the band.
Since then, Gatfield had signed, broke or worked with several of Island Records' giants, like U2, Amy Winehouse, Keane and Mika.
He talks to HitQuarters about Mika as a unique project to promote, about adjusting to the speed of the industry and finding new platforms, and about Internet making it impossible for true talent to pass unnoticed ...
How did you first start out in the music industry?
I’ve been in various bands. I was a member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners from 1982 to 1985 playing saxophone and singing backing vocals. I was going out with a girl who was an assistant to the head of A&R at EMI Records at that time.
While in the process of making a very long and painful third Dexy’s album, ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’, I met this guy called David Munns socially a few times and he started saying I should come inside and work in a record company. At the time I thought that was a terrible idea.
I was also getting tired of the band and I decided to leave it, and had no cash. I called him up and said, “You know that job you were talking about. I’d like to take it.” My view was I’d do that for six months while I put my own band together. That was in 1985 and I’ve stuck with it since.
Did your experiences with Dexy’s help shape your new music industry career in any way?
One of the best educations I had in A&R was going from being in a band, which had sold a huge number of records on the back of ‘Too-Rye-Ay’, a record which was made very inexpensively and quickly and had an energy about it, to spending a huge amount of money on a record that sold less than a quarter of the copies of ‘Too-Rye-Ay’.
It was a long drawn out painful process and the songs weren’t in the right place. It just felt uncomfortable and unnatural. That was a pretty good A&R lesson. I enjoyed the studio process. While I was an artist I enjoyed the process of seeing how a record was released and the roll out and why things succeeded and why things didn’t succeed.
EMI was very much a question of different times in the mid-'80s, they weren't particularly budget conscious in those days. You made your record and hoped and prayed that radio and press would fall in love with it.
And if they did you had a result. Before the days of the Internet people bought records in significant quantities. I became head of A&R at EMI in 1987 and I was there until 1992.
What’s the vision of the Island Records Group?
I’ve been president of the Island Records Group since December 1st 2001. Island has a heritage and a history of signing iconic artists, whether it is Bob Marley, U2, Nick Drake, or PJ Harvey in more recent times.
Chris Blackwell is a legendary figure in the music business. Somebody who builds a company on his personal taste basically, but very much with the idea of backing artists that were trying to do something different and unique and worth following.
So it’s not necessarily following the market, but instead setting a trend. That’s what we’re trying to do in the broadest possible sense. We’re not a specific label - we’re not a pop, rock, or urban label - we want to embrace all musical forms, but try and find the best of each breed.
With artists like Amy Winehouse in one sense or Mika in another, or The Fratellis, Keane … Those artists represent the best of what they do in that particular genre.
What artists are you currently working with?
The newest ones coming through the stable are an artist called Robyn, who we just signed. The record is out. The first single was No.1 in the UK and it’s started spreading out throughout the world.
We are just about set to launch a new artist called Gabriella [Climi], who comes from a label deal we did with Brian Higgins, who is a guy behind many hits we’ve had from Sugababes to Girls Aloud. She’s a very special artist - a young Australian girl.
Next year we have a new Keane record out. We have a new The Fratellis record coming. There is a possibility of a new Amy Winehouse record next year. There’s a lot of exciting new things. A couple of artists we are in the process of signing, which I can’t tell you about because we haven’t closed the deal yet.
How did you first learn about Mika?
Mika was a gift. He was initially signed by Tommy Mottola to Casablanca US. Mika was based in the UK. And it probably made sense that the UK company that we have would have participated in the deal because that’s where he was going to break out of.
It actually came in via Lucian Grainge. He introduced me to Mika. We decided that he was a great fit for Island.
What was it that made you want to work with Mika?
The songs were undeniable. When you hear the collection of songs, 'Grace Kelly', 'Love Today', 'Big Girl' and 'Happy Endings'. What you hear on the record is not a million miles away from the demos that he was playing.
There is something very unique about him, and about his presentation. There’s a real intelligence about him. Every great artist has to have intelligence. And that’s a thing that really immediately appealed with him.
I thought this guy is unique, knows what he wants to do, really smart, and also happens to have a collection of really great songs. The job that we had to do as a company was positioning him, because he is a very pure pop artist. Positioning him in a slightly leftfield, slightly alternative area, which we did successfully.
Why did Mika choose to sign with your label?
I think because he liked what the heritage of Island was about. He sort of recognised that whether it was artists like Bob Marley or U2 or Amy Winehouse, something felt different about Island's roster. It’s not a generic roster. It’s not a particularly big roster either. That appealed to him as well.
What was instrumental in breaking Mika?
We knew we had hits. It was really going to a point where traditional media like radio and TV had to play Mika, because there was enough of a groundswell about it.
It was very much a sort of underground campaign really, using press from Popbitch to Popjustice. Online press was very key.
Doing an awful lot of online activities at very early stages, using the right kind of remixes at early stages, to get basically a seal of approval from the tastemakers.
How did you work with Mika?
We originally were going to go with Trevor Horn to produce it. For a variety of reasons that didn’t happen. Mika met Greg Wells. Greg is a really good multi-instrumentalist.
He’s not particularly known as a hitmaker at this particular time, but he felt very strongly about the project. We took a leap of faith. The result was great, but Mika really took control of the record.
What’s usually discussed in first meetings after signing with a new artist?
The first thing we discuss is what do they want to be. Who do they think their audience is? Not necessarily comparing with artists, but just say, okay, how big do you want to be? Who would you like to go on tour with?
This is also part of the pre-signing process. Just to make sure that I have the same vision that they have, so that we understand each other. Everything is about songs as far as we’re concerned. It’s that we have the shots for radio, that we think that the material is there.
We wouldn’t put anybody into the studio until we’re 110% convinced that we have the material we need. The other mantra we have at Island is that we start marketing our artists the day they’re signed, regardless of whether there’s a record out there.
I make sure that the rest of my company gets very familiar with the acts that we sign and as we sign them they’re familiar with the music. We have journalist contacts, radio contacts at a very early stage on a personal level.
Just to get them familiar with the music and the name, without any kind of pressure on. Just start that process rolling. We start the online campaign immediately as well. Making sure the web presence is visible. MySpace site is visible. There is activity going on immediately as the artist is signed.
Do you set any time schedules at an early stage as well?
Yes. Speed-to-market is important. A deal has a momentum. You sign an artist, and there’s an excitement about signing that artist. And there is a lot to be said for moving fast as well. Getting into the studio. Getting the artist out playing live.
There’s nothing more soul destroying than signing an act and six months later they’re still in that planning stage. It’s about moving fast, because the market moves fast.
At what point do you go for producing a music video?
We do that once we’ve got the record done and we know what our first singles are. The video side for me is becoming less and less important now. So few people watch videos in the way that they watched videos five years ago.
Most people are exposed to the visual side of artists on YouTube or other online outlets. We created a department, which is all about visual content. We often give our artists digital cameras so they’re documenting live shows in the studio, because there’s an appetite for all this stuff.
How do you work with your A&R team?
I work very closely with the A&R team. We discuss every project in minute detail. I have some very strong A&R guys. It’s very much a collaborative effort between me and them. We’ll argue and disagree, and sometimes they’ll win and sometimes I’ll win. That’s how it works.
In a successful project it is always a collaborative process. And it’s between the direct A&R person, the artist and the artist’s manager. As long as we all agree on the created direction for the record and the right type of person, then I generally find this to be a fairly happy procedure.
Where do you look for outside songs for your acts?
When we do the trawl we get a music publisher obviously, but invariably we get a writer/producer now. For instance, we’re now enjoying a No.1 with the Sugababes, which is written by Luke Gottwald and Cathy Dennis.
We brought Luke over here specifically to write for the Sugababes with Cathy. We’ll go to Brian Higgins. We’ll go to Guy Sigsworth. We’ll go direct to the people who are also going to make the record. It’s very rare that we take an off-the-shelf song from a music publisher these days.
I want the person who not only writes the song, but knows how to produce and have the sound in their head. That’s how we go about it. We don’t have that many non-writing artists within Island.
Sugababes do contribute. We’re lucky to sort of cherry-pick the best people around at that time. Luke and Cathy are absolute top of their game.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
I would not sign an act now that hasn’t got some sort of web presence, whether it’s a MySpace site or some other site. Because that just shows there’s a momentum and a drive in the artist to do that.
The days of receiving a standard CD package with a photo in it are kind of getting limited now. I’m more than happy to go online, see some visuals of the band, hear three or four of their best tracks and some contact information and maybe live information about the artist. That’s perfect for me.
What’s the difference between a good song and a great one?
A great song is something you'll be listening to in ten years' time. A good song is something you listen to in the nine to ten weeks it’s on the radio.
When do you know it’s a hit?
It is a gut feeling. There is a book called ‘Blink’ written by Malcolm Gladwell, which is a quite known marketing handbook.
You can sum up ‘Blink’ so: if you’re knowledgeable in a field, whether if you’re an art expert or a music expert, there is something inside you, there is such a thing as an immediate reaction, which can often be right.
I generally find you’ll know whether something’s a hit song within 30 seconds. There’s nothing that I can say regarding why, you just know.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
I don’t think a video is a key marketing tool as much as it used to be. Our online strategy, in terms of how I pull our direct access to our customers, what we can do in terms of informing interest in music fans about new music directly, as opposed to having to go through the gatekeepers of radio, TV and press, is key, and is a major part of our strategy.
I still think there’s no substitute for an artist going out there live and building up a proper live buzz. There’s no real substitute for getting press excitement.
The great thing about the online medium is that people can get in and discover and share very quickly. And that, in terms of the viral nature of it, is hugely important.
Do you look for new platforms to launch new artists?
Yes, all the time. Sponsorship deals being one of the main ones. An awful lot of brands are looking at opportunities and want to be associated with music.
We’re in discussions with a number of options that we’re about to use as a platform, whether it’s launching new records for existing artists, or brand new acts.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It’s very tough. In the UK, we used to sit in a bubble for a while, because we kind of boxed the trend from the rest of the world. This year you’re seeing for the first time a proper double digit downturn in the market.
It is kind of inevitable. There’s only a variety of ways you get out of that. You’ve got to be quick to market and your A&R has got to be first class. And you have to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
If you were an artist and offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Obviously track record is key. I want to find out if they’re capable of delivering what they say they can deliver. I often tell artists and managers to speak to managers and artists who are already signed to the label to get a flavour of what it’s about.
I would also look at the level of patience that that label shows to an act. How long have they stuck with various artists? Are they prepared to allow an artist to grow and develop or are they fairly ruthless?
What’s your view on artist development?
You want to work long-term, but the finance has to make sense. Lawyers have to be smart about this now, particularly in the UK, which is a ridiculously expensive market for signing acts. I often said to lawyers, I will give you long-term commitment in exchange for you not taking all the cash you could possibly get on the table now.
You work with me in terms of putting together a deal that’s reasonable and palatable, and I’ll give you the long-term commitment. If you’re looking for a big upfront advance, I can’t give you that. Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in this business who take the money and run, and don’t necessarily think in the best interest of the artist.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would like to actually look at a business plan, which is a three-year revolving business plan, as opposed to a three months plan.
Any kind of artists you would like too see gain more popularity?
I don’t think so. The great thing about the Internet now is that niches have found their audience. What I still believe and I’ve always believed is that great talent will rise to the top eventually.
And that’s also one of the great things the Internet allows for - you can’t bury a genius talent anymore. Somebody will find it, and somebody will tell somebody else, who will tell ten other people. That is a C-Change in the business.
Ten years ago you had to have radio and you had to have press to be able to really spread the word. You don’t need that now.
Are you still going out to see live gigs?
Yes, absolutely. Access of information has changed in a sense that I can switch on my computer, go online and hear the new artists' tracks, see some visuals, but there is still no substitute for actually going out and seeing that artist perform. You still need to see the connection between an audience and the artist. That’s important.
What’s the importance of events like the Musexpo?
For me it’s interesting just to spend some time with people doing a similar job in other territories and sharing some of the issues, some of the problems and some of the opportunities. That’s the value.
It’s also an interesting forum to really spark some new ideas and new ways of thinking. Some come from independents, some from majors, some from the online world and some come from the physical retail world.
The interesting thing when you get a lot of music people in the same room is that at a certain point everybody shares a similar series of issues and concerns. There are shared beliefs amongst all of those groups. That’s interesting to discover.
How significant are The Brit Awards for the UK music industry?
For us, very significant. In terms of impact on sales it is significant. Artists are genuinely honoured when they get nominated and when they win.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Mika and Katy Perry producer Greg Wells on his career breaks
* Island A&R Louis Bloom on how Mika needed a big pop explosion