Interview with PAUL LISBERG, A&R at Phonogenic for Natasha Bedingfield (UK No.1) - Sep 20, 2004
“The songs Natasha had already were too lightweight. She would've had hits with them but I don’t know if she'd have established herself as a true artist."
Paul Lisberg is an A&R and partner at the Phonogenic label, a joint venture with BMG UK. He represents Natasha Bedingfield (UK No. 1) and Ben Adams (formerly in A1).
Here he tells us what kinds of artists and music they are looking for and what their work with Natasha Bedingfield has involved. He also gives us an overview of UK radio and the UK music scene.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
About 16 or 17 years ago, I worked at BMG over the summer, answering the phones in the A&R department. I knew I wanted to work with music, but I didn’t know very much about the different departments of the music business. After university, I went back to BMG for six months and that led to my first job, as a talent scout. From that moment on, I have always been involved in A&R.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
A combination of everything, really. Prior to being part of Phonogenic, I worked at EMI Music Publishing for about 9 years, where I learnt an awful lot about songwriting and the formation of songs. That certainly had a great influence on me in terms of who I am now, but as far as I’m concerned, you learn something new every day.
Can you explain the set-up of your label Phonogenic?
One could say that we are a boutique label with major label backing. Phonogenic is a joint venture company with BMG. There are four partners: myself, with a background in A&R; Tops Henderson, with a background in management; and two songwriters, Andrew Frampton and Steve Kipner.
We came together via an EMI Music connection: Andrew and Steve were both EMI writers and Tops managed Andrew, and we talked about putting together a label, because we were being very successful with cuts that we generated through each other. We started talking to a few different labels, and BMG were very interested, so we started the label last year.
We feel we have a great collective strength in the fact that each one of us seems to look at things and situations from a completely different angle. As a result, I like to think that we’re quite good at problem solving.
What do you think BMG hoped to gain from being part of the label?
The architect behind the deal, Ged Doherty, head of music at BMG UK, told me that a letter that Clive Calder had written to the top Jive employees when Clive sold Jive to BMG had influenced him greatly. One of the things Clive wrote in that letter was, “Remember, hits are made in the studio and not in marketing meetings.” To a point, that is Ged’s philosophy too, and in Tops, Andrew, Steve, and myself, he saw a self-contained unit that could make hits in the studio.
If you look at us as a collective A&R team, although I’m the A&R person as such, we cover all the basics, which your regular A&R person doesn’t necessarily do; writing and production skills are also part of what we offer. That’s why BMG did the deal with us.
What is the vision behind the label?
Our vision is very simple: we only want to sign acts that we believe can sell 2 to 5 million copies. We have no interest in seeking market share, and we have no interest in signing things to keep our jobs, because Phonogenic is our business as opposed to our job. Therefore, we look for opportunities that might fulfil that aim but that might also fall into the genre that we are strongest in, which is what I refer to as “intelligent pop music” or “middle pop”.
Lately, there has been lots of very youth-based pop and there has been lots of stuff that’s left of centre, but there hasn’t been much in the style of music I’m talking about, which is more along the lines of Eurythmics, Terence Trent D’Arby, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, and many other acts of the eighties. That’s the kind of pop music we’re trying to make.
For many years, that type of music was snubbed, with a few exceptions, notably Seal and Craig David. Very rarely did you feel that a wave of acts represented that side of things, and more often than not it would be very marketing-led: gigging in rock or getting loads of TV in pop. There hasn’t been any pop that has sounded great on radio, and all of us here felt that this type of music had long been lacking on the English music scene.
Certainly, the range of solo artists we might work with is quite broad, because we would do r&b just as much as something that’s very middle of the road, although we generally would want it to be a bit more edgy. What we really want is a self-contained act, something like Maroon 5 or Coldplay. That’s our long-term aim.
A model that serves as a comparison, because it involves songwriters, is La Face Records. La Face was started by L.A. Reid and Babyface, who were obviously writers and producers as well as businessmen, and in a way they started with Toni Braxton, but they also, over a period of time, signed acts like OutKast, who are completely self-contained.
What does your work with BMG involve?
They market, promote and distribute our records. Ben Adams, one of the artists that we’re releasing next year, is not going to do his press through BMG, but not because we’re unhappy with the BMG press department, it’s just something that was discussed at the time of signing and that was a sensitive point for this particular artist. We’re very lucky that, at this stage, every department that we work with at BMG UK is very strong.
At what stage do you present your artists to BMG?
In the cases of Natasha Bedingfield and Ben, we certainly spoke to Ged Doherty prior to signing them to let him know what our intentions were, just to get his blessing, basically. Although I don’t think BMG would say no to us, simply because they have faith in what we do, we do at least want to complement what they’re doing.
Beyond that, we present the artists to the promotion and marketing teams when we feel that the records are ready. We only do album artists and, with both Natasha and Ben, we’ve presented them to BMG quite late, with only some productions and mixes left to go. There is enough mutual trust for us to be able to say to them, “Look, this is what this act is. This is who it’s going to appeal to and this is why it’s going to work.”
Could you license it to another label if BMG didn’t want to release it?
We could, but at this point in time, because we’re trying to establish ourselves, I’m not so sure we would.
What artists are you working with?
At the moment, only Natasha and Ben, although we will be testing a few artists in the studio over the next couple of weeks.
Do you take in outside songs for your artists?
Not at the moment. Both our acts are very writer-based and that’s something we look for in artists. We always say that if you take away the co-writers and the producers and you’re left with little or no substance, then they’re probably not the kind of artists you want to work with. We expect to work with artists who will at least co-write.
Ben Adams did well as a songwriter in A1. Was that what made you want to work with him?
His demos were just fantastic and he’s an absolute star. He’s just got bags and bags of talent and we owed it to ourselves to do this. I feel as though I’m on a mission to make this guy massive, because I really believe that he’s got it.
How did you find Natasha Bedingfield?
When I was leaving EMI Music I called all the people I knew in the industry to inform them. I also asked any managers whether they had anything for the new label, and one of them, Gary Wilson, Natasha’s manager at the time, said that he had just started working with her. I told him I’d be interested in hearing something by her and so we had a meeting.
What was interesting about the signing of Natasha is that we didn’t use any of the demos she had. As far as I know, her demos had been played to many labels that didn’t sign her. Our strength is that we can put artists in the studio with Steve and Andrew to see what they’re really made of, and that was exactly what happened with Natasha.
The songs she had already were good, but just weren’t right for us, as they were a bit like Holly Valance and Shakira, which we felt was too lightweight. She would probably have had hits with them, but I don’t know if she ever would have established herself as a true artist.
We had a meeting with her, and at one point she started ad-libbing over a couple of these songs. I remember Andrew and I looking at each other and saying, “Oh my god …” The way she was singing and the ideas she brought in to these ad-libs were fantastic. We got very excited and booked some time in a studio with her and Steve, and together they wrote a song. From then on, it was just really obvious from our perspective that we wanted to sign her, and I think the feeling was mutual, because she actually spent some time getting to know the label.
What has your work with her involved since that moment?
We signed her last July and in August she went to Los Angeles, because Steve Kipner is based there. She was there for about six weeks, and in the first two and a half weeks she wrote exclusively with Andrew and Steve and a third writer named Wayne Wilkins, who’s part of our team. They came up with three songs, all of which are on her album. One of those songs was ‘Single’, her first release.
For me, those songs defined the project musically. I went to L.A. towards the end of those three tracks being demoed, and I used them to start introducing her to lots of great songwriters: Pat Leonard, Diane Warren, Linda Perry, Rick Knowles, Billy Steinberg and the Danielle Brisebois-Wayne Rodrigues partnership, who ended up contributing three songs.
We were very lucky, to be honest, and Natasha proved to be amazing. During the seven or eight weeks of the trip, we ended up getting about five songs for the album and three of them were singles. We had half the record in about six to eight weeks, and it doesn’t normally happen like that, especially with us, because we’re tyrannical with each other about making the best album and letting the best song win.
Obviously, with all of us having publishing and writing backgrounds, we’re used to being given briefs: so-and-so is looking for this kind of song for this kind of album, you submit what you think is a really strong song, and then when you later see they haven’t chosen it for the album, you think, ‘My god, what were they thinking?!’ Often you find out there is a political issue and that the artist is trying to get as much songwriting or publishing as they can on an album. One of our main philosophies is ‘the song is king’, and so the best songs win. Therefore, with Natasha, we were astonished when we all agreed that we had six or seven songs for the album when we had barely begun.
Her first two singles, “Single” and “These Words”, both topped the UK Singles Chart. What was the key to breaking her?
Radio was the absolute key with Natasha. They embraced her on a massive scale. We believe that her next two singles are the strongest on the album, although both of them are slightly more middle of the road. We were careful to establish her and get her a constituent base with the kind of people who embrace artists early on, meaning teenagers.
The wider base, the 25- to 35-year-old market tends to embrace artists a bit later on. Thus, we specifically went with “Single” and “These Words” as the first singles, knowing that we had stronger singles to come, because we thought that they would work very well with the younger fan base we were trying to attract.
We believed that, with those songs, she was the right kind of artist for Radio One. Luckily, it all went according to plan. Radio One, which is still hugely influential in the UK, was a major feature, because once they’d adopted her, it helped us to get all the other stations, and that’s when it all started to happen.
Another thing that really sets Natasha apart is the fact that she’s such a great singer. All her TV performances in England have been live and I do believe that the fans have taken note of that.
How do you find new talent?
I find that most of it comes to me rather than me going out to get it, and that’s based on years of networking. Now that we’re starting to establish ourselves, I hope that people will want to be on our label and that a new set of people whom we don’t know yet will come to us.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, absolutely. I get about 10-15 demos a week and I listen to all of them. I have in the past found things that I’ve come to work with, although not at this label so far.
How much do you take radio into account when considering signing an artist?
Our label lives or dies by radio. As I said, we’d love to sign an act like Maroon 5, because even acts who are touring acts like them can benefit greatly from exposure on radio.
What is your view on UK radio?
Many stations follow Radio One and so getting Radio One is crucial. The problem with Radio One is that I don’t necessarily believe that they pick songs purely because they think they’re great. They pick songs and artists because of what they’re being sold. They listen to radio promoters too much, as opposed to listening to the music. In general though, I think there’s a healthy radio scene here, because it’s not as genre-based as it is in the US, for example. At the end of the day, I would say that, on the whole, radio still tends to pick the right songs.
How important is it for your acts’ new singles to enter the singles chart in the Top 3?
It’s not important if they are crossing over in terms of radio. If one of our records was in the Top 3 or 5 in terms of airplay and its actual chart position wasn’t even in the Top 10, I wouldn’t be that bothered. What I want to achieve is for each song to get loads and loads of airplay, because that’s what really makes an artist happen. Chart positions in the UK, as far as singles are concerned, are driven by marketing, and I’m not as worried about that. However, I’d certainly want my albums to be hanging around the Top 10 for a long time; that is definitely one of my goals.
Do your artists share the costs of recording when their part is recouped from their royalties?
Yes. What is interesting about our deals is that we’re part of the new BMG deal, which is a much more transparent deal, and while a lot of the old principles still exist, the first £100,000 of their records is non-recoupable. BMG has given the artist’s deal a big push, which is great for us as a label because it’s attractive to artists.
Should the artists also share ownership of the masters?
They shouldn’t if that’s what the market says, but I’m not necessarily in favour of what the market says on a personal level. But the truth is, I don’t feel bad about doing it if everyone else in the marketplace is doing it. I do feel, however, that some sort of compromise should be reached. If you’ve paid back the costs, there should be sharing on some level, although of course record labels take huge financial risks when releasing new artists.
The good news is that this new deal is structured so that after so many years of the term, let’s say five years after the end of the term of your deal, BMG has an option to lease the masters for another five years, and they actually do pay an amount of money at that point, as opposed to just keeping them forever, so we are moving in the regions of a fairer deal.
However, if we all started with a brand new pen tomorrow and it was a brand new business, I’d be an advocate of the artist having some of the ownership at some point. Not necessarily right away, because I think there is great risk on the part of the record company, but certainly eventually.
What aspects of the music industry would you change?
First of all, there is one thing that makes me furious, and it hasn’t got anything to do with the recording aspects of music specifically, but more to do with publishing: if my record gets played on a radio station in, let’s say, Newcastle, it isn’t necessarily apparent to the PRS (UK Performing Right Society – Ed.), because they simply take samples of radio stations.
What I mean by that is that even though I know it has been played, because I get reports every day and I can tell you every one of the stations in Britain that have played my record, the only way that the PRS and a number of similar companies, such as the BMI in the US, which give reports to people and pay them royalties, have of determining that fact is by means of a sample from a station. If they weren’t listening to that particular radio station in Newcastle at that time, royalties won’t be paid out for that record. It’s disturbing to find that this is happening in 2004.
Secondly, I’d stop the online downloading of music via file-sharing. It’s very hard to get every member of the public to understand that what they’re effectively doing is stealing. I completely see why it’s difficult to understand, because, for instance, if I have MTV on and I just press the record button on my video, I get music for free. But there are people on the end of the chain who are really struggling and losing money. Some of them may be out of work as a direct result of downloading.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I’ve got to say that this week has been one of the best. It looks like Natasha’s album has stormed in at No.1 in England and it has sold more than we anticipated.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I would like to be able to sell the company and start another one in a similar way. I’d like to get this company really established, and then have a try at doing it one more time and then I’ll probably retire after that.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* As A&R at EMI publishing Paul Lisberg offers advice on submitting material