Interview with NICK RAPHAEL, A&R At Sony Music UK for G4 (No.1 UK) and Lemar (Top 10 UK) - May 23, 2005
“This is the most exciting time in the ten years that I’ve been on the record company side of the music business! There have never been more opportunities to break artists.”
… says Nick Raphael, senior vice-president of A&R at Sony Music UK. His breakthrough credits include G4 (No.1 UK), Lemar (Top 10 UK) and Big Brovaz (Top 10 UK). He has been awarded No.19 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart and No.44 on the World Top 100 A&R Chart of 2003.
Read about the success story of G4, the continued rise of the Adult Pop genre, his view on the Sony/BMG merger and what advice he would give unsigned acts.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I ran nightclubs and DJ-ed at the age of 16. By the time I was 20 my nightclub business had become very successful. A guy who did marketing for London Records (which at the time was part of Polygram) approached me, and I started doing marketing at Polygram. After that I did A&R in the dance music area, and I signed loads of Top10 records.
After that I left Polygram to start a record label with Christian Tattersfield - who was also an A&R - called Northwestside Records, and we had a label deal with BMG. We signed Jay-Z for the world - BMG’s US partners passed on the US rights! - and we signed a bunch of other stuff that was successful; platinum albums and singles and stuff.
Christian then left to run East West, and I first became head of A&R at Arista, and then managing director of Epic.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
Firstly, meeting the best recording artist I’ve worked with – namely, Jay-Z. Not only was he a brilliant recording artist, he was also a very bright business person. The way he and his manager Damon Dash ran their business and their label was very logical.
Secondly, the opportunity given to me by Tracy Bennett and Roger Ames when I worked at London Records to learn the record business from them.
Thirdly, being a professional DJ, because you understand what the public likes and what makes the dancefloor busy, which is a really interesting experience.
I’d also say watching the best A&R people in the world, like Clive Davis, do their thing. At Arista I had the opportunity to work with him, and it was interesting to hear his philosophy, and very insightful seeing how records are made by the guys who are the best in the business.
Most recently it has been working closely with David Massey and Muff Winwood, two exceptional A&R talents.
How has the Sony BMG merger affected the A&R work?
So far, it’s been nothing but beneficial. For the A&R people who work within this new system there are a lot more opportunities to be successful as a result of the merger. For an A&R person who works here and for an artist who is signed to us it can only be a benefit, provided that you have the right material.
If you have the wrong material, then crap records are crap records under any system. But a hit record in the right system could be even bigger with the right team pushing it.
What artists are you currently involved with?
Former soprano singer Charlotte Church, who has just recorded her first album with contemporary music; G4, who recently released their album; Lemar, who is a solo black male R&B singer and whose second album has reached double platinum in the UK. By the end of the year we hope to have sold a million units and we aim to break him in Europe as well. His first album also surpassed 500,000 copies.
The last one is an act called Mylo, which is underground, electronic music. The album “Destroy Rock & Roll” was the critics’ choice last year and it has now sold over a 100,000 records, and we’re trying to get it to 3-500,000 records in the UK.
How did you first learn about G4?
They were on a national TV show called X Factor, which is a talent search similar to Pop Idol. They were the runners up and as a result the option to sign them was not picked up by the judge, Simon Cowell, and we decided that we would pursue the band because we felt that they were the best act on the show.
Did Sony have a deal with X Factor that you would release artists from the show?
BMG had a deal with X Factor, and as we were going through the merger at the time, we approached the band through BMG with the view that we thought that we could offer them a recording contract, because the TV show stipulated that only the winner would get a deal.
The rules of the show said that they were free to go if they didn’t win, and so we chose to pursue them as we felt that not winning the show was not a reason not to sign them. In fact, it was probably a good reason to sign them.
Were there other record companies bidding at them?
Yes, Universal and EMI.
Why do you think G4 decided to sign with Sony?
Because of our attitude towards making a record with them. Me and Jo Charrington, who is in my team, approached the band and their manager Louis Walsh (who manages Westlife and Samantha Mumba, and previously managed Boyzone) with a view to making a record very quickly so they could make the most of the opportunity.
Mother’s Day - which is a big event in the UK - was coming up, and we felt that the band would appeal to mothers. We also had a plan of how to make the record; we wanted it to be produced by big producers like Trevor Horn and Brian Rawling, who’s been involved with Seal, Enrique Iglesias and Cher. We approached the band with the view that we wanted to make a proper record, we wouldn’t make a rush TV job.
From what the manager has told me, the other labels that were interested in signing them didn’t have a plan as to what they were going to do with the band. They were like, “Yeah, we’ll make the record and release it”, but we had a definitive release date, a definitive date to put out merchandise and we had already organised the structure to make the record.
We had a plan of how to work with the band, as opposed to our competitors who just had a desire to sign the band.
How would you describe them as a group and what separates them from other vocal groups?
They are musicians and classically trained singers who sing contemporary music in a classical style. They are called G4 because they went to the Guildhall School of Music which also the composer Anne Dudley and the opera singer Bryn Terfel attended. G4 are very unique in what they do; there’s probably only one other act that works in the same area, classical crossover, and that’s Il Divo, obviously.
What does your work with G4 involve?
We basically sit with the band and we make decisions about what material we think should be recorded. Since they do all the vocal arrangements themselves they tell us what material they think will work and if there are any particular songs that they feel strongly about or something they think we’ve missed, we let them have their songs in.
Then we basically make the record and mix it. It’s a very typical process. This album was dictated by what the band felt would work and what they felt they could do. We facilitate for the band, we get involved, we make suggestions, but ultimately if the band says that it’s not working then we don’t do it.
Who does the track selection?
We are involved in the track selection and basically we do it by simply having a conversation with the band. A lot of the songs on the album were actually determined by the fact that they were on a TV show for thirteen weeks performing different material. They also had a range of material that they had performed previously.
Why do they only perform covers?
If you look at the classical market, for example, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, they don’t record original material. It’s not in the area of what they do. We felt that in the time we had to make the first album and get it out, there was no time for original material.
We also felt that because they put their own twist to the material there was no need to have original material. What is original about them is their take on the material.
How did Trevor Horn and Brian Rawling come aboard as producers?
Trevor Horn was our suggestion. We went to Trevor and his manager, who is his wife, and asked if they would be interested, and they said ‘yes’. They met the band and they all got on very well, and Trevor produced three songs with them, of which two were included on the album.
I introduced Brian to them, because I had worked with him previously on Lemar and I knew that he had worked with Andrea Bocelli on an album that had sold three and a half million copies. So I knew that not only could he do classical music, he could also do contemporary music.
Apart from that I have a good working relationship with him, and I find his team a very hit-oriented production team. They’re very efficient, very good technically, and very reliable. It’s never a difficult process making a record with Brian.
How important have Trevor and Brian been in shaping the group’s sound?
Definitely very important. They interpreted the sound that the group had, and the fact that the album sold 250,000 copies in its first week suggests they got it right; they hit the nail on the head.
Could a group such as G4 break without being featured on a TV show?
I don’t think so. To launch an act like G4 without TV wouldn’t be very typical.
Would you have signed them if they had not been on the show?
They were never presented to me before they were in the show, but I probably wouldn’t have signed them. To be honest, the same could be asked of any of the acts that were in Pop Idol in America. If Fantasia walked in from the street tomorrow, would they sign her cold? Similarily, would they sign Clay Aiken? No, they wouldn’t. They sign these artists because of the platforms they’re given, which enables the public to fall in love with them.
What was more important to their success; appearing on X Factor, or having star potential?
There was something in their chemistry and dynamic, and the fact that they were four friends that had been to school together and spent many years together; that really worked in terms of chemistry on-screen. That’s why the public bought so many copies of their record.
There are many acts that appear on Pop Idol in America, and X Factor or Fame Academy in England, and they might even win the show, but the two winners of Fame Academy have together sold fewer records than Lemar, who came third in Fame Academy. The fact of the matter is that he had something about him that was superior to the others. He has some sort of star quality; there’s something about his voice, something about his look, something about the material he’s recorded that separates him from the others.
The same goes for G4. There’s something about what they do that is special and endearing, and that goes beyond the TV show. You could be on a TV show and not sell many records; you have to actually have an element of talent and a unique appeal that takes you beyond just being on a TV show.
Their format, adult pop, has seen an upswing in the last few years with artists like Josh Groban, Il Divo and now G4. Has this format been neglected by major record companies, or does it just happen that these artists emerge at around the same time?
I hope it continues to be neglected by the majors, because the more they neglect what the public like, the more opportunities there will be to sign records that sell. There’s a general issue at major record companies: most of the people that work there are trying desperately to be perceived by their peers as being cool, as opposed to trying to sign and make records which are actually for the general public.
I don’t care about trying to look cool, but record companies are just thinking about guitar bands and singer/songwriters: that-is-cool! Or hip-hop music: that-is-cool! You know, me and my partner Christian signed Jay-Z not because he was cool, but because we thought there was potential to sell lots of records around the world.
Did you draw up a separate marketing plan for G4 or was it based on them being featured in X Factor?
G4 was driven by TV advertising and the fact that there was a major gift purchasing part of the year that got the kids out to buy their parents this album. They thought it was a good gift for Mother’s Day. It was about exploiting that opportunity by using promotional opportunities and TV advertising.
How do you find new talent?
I’m very open to the way I find my artists. I found Jay-Z because a friend of mine who ran a dance label in New York was distributing his album. Will Socolof of Freeze Records sent me a CD and a video and said to me, “This guy is incredible, but he needs a bigger label to take over. Are you interested?” The record he sent to me was “Ain’t No Nigga” and I went crazy, thinking that I had to sign him!
G4, of course, came from a TV show, as did Lemar. I thought Lemar was the best artist in the show, but he was signed to Universal and I had to wait for him to get out of that deal. With Mylo it was my scout at the time, Dougie Bruce, who is now at Universal Publishing, reporting to me.
So, we have many different methods. There are a million ways to skin the cat, as the phrase goes, and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if it comes from a tip-off, from a recommendation from my parents, from people inside or outside the business, a publisher, or an old acquaintance who I’ve worked with in the past. To me there’s no wrong or right way to find a recording artist.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Before it became Sony/BMG, we, the four major A&R people here, received between us over five thousand unsolicited demos a year. I’ve taken songs from unsolicited material in the past. I’ve contacted people and said, “Listen, I love your song, but I don’t like your voice, I don’t like your look, I don’t like your vibe, but I do love your song.” And I later recorded their songs and had success with them.
How ready-to-go must the artists be?
It is sometimes important that they’re ready-to-go, other times it’s important that they have a brilliant song. If they don’t have their material together I’m very reluctant to get involved. It all revolves around a great song; if you’ve got a great song, you’ve got a shot - if you haven’t got a great song, then you’re struggling at the door.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
It’s unquantifiable, and I can’t really say. But sometimes the buzz can put me off, especially when it’s the industry buzzing itself; when the buzz is the deal as opposed to the quality of the artist. My scouts and A&R people can come in and the first thing they say is, “Universal, Atlantic and Interscope are on this.” I ask them what it’s like and what the hit single is and they say that it’s cool and that all those guys at the other labels can’t be wrong.
I then tell them that what is happening is that they’re buying the buzz and not the record. If I love an artist and the buzz builds up, that’s the quality. If I did not like the artist in the first place and the buzz builds up, I still think the material is lacking and I’d rather walk away from the deal.
One artist I wanted to sign but who unfortunately went to Atlantic Records were the Darkness, about three years ago. There couldn’t have been less of a buzz, and only two record labels showed any interest in them. The business as a whole thought they were uncool. In fact, people were saying that they were a joke and that they weren’t real.
Now, 3.5 million records later, they’re one of the greatest of all bands in the world, and that’s because what they did was real; they weren’t copying anyone. If they were copying, then they were copying someone from twenty years ago, and no-one else was doing that.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to build a career on the independent level?
Try to find the company that loves your music, and let them put it out. There are a lot of independents. For example, Fierce Panda put out Coldplay and Keane before anyone had heard of them. Independents play such an important role and it’s a really good way to release your discs and cut your teeth.
The guys who did Mylo at Breastfed - they put Mylo out and sold 75,000 records before they even had a record label. It really changes the whole perspective of an act if they’re doing something. You can walk in twenty times to see an A&R person and then manage to get a junior scout to listen to your demos, and although your music might be great, it’s so much more attractive when you’re doing something for yourself.
Go out and prove that your record can sell: release it, get it on specialist radio stations and get it in the independent shops. That always brings people to the table.
If you were an artist, by what criteria would you judge an A&R and label if they were offering you a deal?
You can look at that track record, that’s one way. People like Clive Davis and Peter Edge in the US, and Simon Cowell in the UK. But you could also look at someone like Dan Keeling, who when he signed Coldplay hadn’t signed anything else. The fact that Coldplay were his first act probably meant that he put his heart and soul and everything he had into it.
You have to judge it by the person’s enthusiasm, the logic of what they say and the power that they have within their company. If it’s somebody who is really enthusiastic and he’s powerful within their company, then you should go with them. If you have somebody who’s enthusiastic but has got no power and can’t really help you within their organisation, then you need them to bring someone else to the table who’s going to drive it through and make you successful.
Every situation has different potential, and there isn’t a single method. Do you go by track records? Sometimes yes, but someone with a track record who is less enthusiastic about you is not as valuable.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It’s the most exciting time in the ten years that I’ve been on the record company side of the music business! There are a bunch of people within the business who are in a state of shock because CD sales are declining, but with the Internet, the iPod, the proliferation of music channels and TV shows, I’ve never felt more excited. I’ve never felt people more interested in music. Everywhere I go outside of the circle of the music business itself, everyone has an opinion and talks to me about music.
There have never been more opportunities to break artists, and for people to hear new music. When there’s an amalgamation of the major labels there are lots of opportunities for small labels to get their records out and heard, to do niche music that majors aren’t interested in.
There are great opportunities for new people to make their name whilst some of the old guard are panicking over the decline in CD sales. The challenge now is to sell music in different ways, for example, through the Internet and mobile phones. This is the moment when we should all be excited. When we look back on it in ten years time from now we’ll say, “God, we were part of the whole change.”
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Nothing so far has been significant enough or exciting enough for me to say that it’s my greatest moment. My greatest moment has yet to come.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
Continue to be in the creative process of making records.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Former partner at Epic, Jo Charrington, talks breaking talent
* A&R Dan Keeling on having Coldplay as his first signing