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Interview with PETER LEAK, manager for Dido, Avril Lavigne - Dec 13, 2004

"Managers have to do even more work now, because record labels are now generally very coy about spending money."

picture Based in Los Angeles, Peter Leak manages Dido and co-manages Avril Lavigne, at the Nettwerk management company.

How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a manager?

Originally, I played the drums, and I started to book gigs, arrange rehearsals and that sort of thing for the bands I was in; it was a side that I also enjoyed. At one point, the band I was playing in began to be pursued by a record company and I had to decide whether I wanted to be a drummer or a manager.

I felt that I wouldn’t been taken seriously as the manager of the band if I also played drums in it, and I decided that I’d probably be a better manager than a drummer. I replaced myself with another drummer and carried on managing the band. This was in the UK, during the punk era.

What experiences have helped develop your skills as a manager?

I learned a lot from the ground up and just got out there and did it. The fact that I was once a musician helps me to deal with artists and discuss things with them. At the same time, I have a background in accounting and law and that’s helped me with the business side of things. Artist management is ultimately the job where those two things meet.

The New York End Ltd. is your management company?

Yes, that is my company, which I started about twenty-five years ago. It now has a joint venture with Nettwerk, whom I’ve worked with over the last five years.

What are the advantages of working at a bigger management company?

In this day and age, it’s very hard to be a stand-alone manager, where it’s just you and a couple of assistants. There’s so much to do now and it’s such a sophisticated business that there just isn’t enough time to do everything that you’d like to do. I found myself spending too much time running my own company at one time and that wasn’t really what I went into the business to do.

Having the infrastructure of a company like Nettwerk really helps both me and my artists and it enables me to do the part of the job that I enjoy most, which is managing the artists. At Nettwerk, we have our own film and TV synchronization department, and we do our own radio promotion and marketing. These are all things that I wouldn’t have enough time to do as efficiently if I was working in isolation.

Is Nettwerk expanding?

Nettwerk has built itself up gradually, and there’s not a big rush to do anything. There are lots of really good people at Nettwerk; a number of younger managers have worked their way up from being assistants and are now managing artists for the first time.

We are expanding our UK office, as we’re going into a venture with a couple of established managers there. Although some of our artists do very well in the rest of the world, we haven’t actually had as much of a presence in the UK as we would have liked.

We are in continual evolution, and we just keep building it organically, which is the way we like to work with our artists too: we like artists to develop organically without a lot of hype.

What bands were you first successful with?

10,000 Maniacs and the Cowboy Junkies.

Whom do you currently manage?

I manage Dido and I co-manage Avril Lavigne. Then there are a few artists that people around me are managing and I’m helping them with. We have an artist called Rachael Yamagata, who is on RCA Victor and whose album is really starting to take off in the US. It’s not out in the rest of the world until next year, but she’s a phenomenal artist.

Then there’s Butterfly Boucher, who is signed to A&M/Interscope. It’s a similar situation: the record is starting to do well in the US and it will be released in the rest of the world next year.

We have an artist called Kristian Leontiou, who’s signed to Polydor in the UK, and his album has quietly sold 180,000 copies there. We are also excited to be managing Tom McRae, who is a brilliant British singer/songwriter. They are all artists whom I’m involved with, although I don’t personally manage them.

How did you come across Dido?

Peter Edge, her A&R, is an old friend of mine. I arranged to see him in New York one day, and we played different records to each other. He played me some music by Dido, whom he was already making an album with, and I heard one song and I was just blown away.

I asked about her, and he said that she actually needed a manager, so I met her a couple of times and started working with her. That was before her album was finished, although she was already signed to Arista at that stage.

What did you see in her that made you want to work with her?

Dido encapsulates so much for me. One of the things I first noticed was her incredible voice, which is unique. Then I heard her songs and I realised that she was a great songwriter; she has a unique way of putting everyday situations into songs and making them art.

That’s why people all over the world responded to her on a massive scale, because she strikes a chord with so many people. When I met her, I realised that she is a fantastic person too; she’s really bright and she’s a wonderful person to manage, because we can have a really open and frank discussion about anything that needs to be talked about.

How did you plan to break her in the US and the UK?

The plan was to break her by a combination of touring and working radio and press. We always meant to release the album in the US first, so she spent most of the first 18 months of the promotion campaign for “No Angel” in the US. She would come over for three weeks and go home to the UK for a week, then come over for another three weeks, and so on.

As the first single, “Here With Me”, went to radio, she toured the major markets and played at showcases mainly for press and radio. Then she did the same thing again, but this time with a small public audience there as well. Then we placed “Here With Me” on Roswell, the TV show, and that added to her presence.

How detailed were the plans for the marketing and promotional campaigns?

We had several very serious campaigns and the people at Arista have always been really committed to Dido. We put a band together in New York so that she would have a band in the US that was readily available to her and could therefore keep touring in the US, and Arista funded that.

They were very aggressive, but we didn’t try to do too much too quickly. We wanted to build the project organically, because I think that contributes significantly to an artist’s long-term career.

How sure were Arista about Dido making it?

They always believed in her and believed that she was a very special artist who was going to end up being very successful. It was a long haul: “Here With Me” took a long time at radio before it broke through and it required everyone to remain focused. In this day and age, it’s hard to get a major label to remain focused for that length of time, and we were also going through upheavals as a result of staff changes at Arista.

L.A. Reid came in at one point, and Clive Davis left, but everyone was still able to stick with it. The truth is that every week there was a piece of good news, there was always something positive happening that kept people going. My job was to keep people motivated.

How did she break in the US?

Many different factors went into breaking Dido in the US, but Roswell was certainly one of the most important. We were working “Here With Me” at radio for a long time and we were gaining some ground, but when we got one station to add it to the playlist, another station dropped it, so we weren’t really building up a consensus at radio.

To get a fresh start, we felt we should move on to a different track, so we actually chose a different single, and that was when Roswell played the song in its entirety in the season finale, instead of featuring it as a 40-second clip of music at the beginning.

That week, sales suddenly went from 2,000 to 9,000 units and we realised that, even though people had been hearing the song as the theme song, they didn’t necessarily know what it was, because it wasn’t credited as the theme song. But as soon as it was played in the body of the show and it was credited at the end, they went out and bought it.

That signalled to us that “Here With Me” was working, that people loved it, and that was why I actually told Arista that we had to switch back to it as the single. At first, Arista didn’t think we could go back to radio with the same song a second time, but we did and it became a hit.

How did Eminem come to use Dido’s “Thankyou” as the basis for his track “Stan”?

Warner/Chappell UK placed “Thankyou” in the “Sliding Doors” movie; that was the first placement of Dido anywhere and it actually happened before the album had even been released. Then the 45 King, a producer who puts together beat tapes, happened to be watching the trailer for “Sliding Doors”. He taped the music from the trailer off the TV, made a tape of it and sent it out to lots of different people.

One of those tapes got to Eminem and he created “Stan” to the track that the 45 King had put together. Obviously, it was cleared by us later, but I don’t think Eminem knew who was singing on the track until after he had made “Stan”. Basically, it was because of “Sliding Doors” that “Stan” happened.

Of course, things really did go overboard when “Stan” came out, although Dido’s album was already approaching platinum sales in the US, which a lot of people don’t seem to realise. They credit “Stan” with breaking her, but I believe she would have been huge in the end regardless, because people were discovering her and “Here With Me” was becoming a hit.

How do you find new talent?

New talent comes along in all kinds of ways. I might be wandering through a club and hear something, a lawyer or someone I work with might send me a demo or, more often than not, an A&R person might ask me to listen to something.

Do you accept unsolicited material?

I find that I don’t have time to listen to everything. We listen to demos at the company, but they don’t necessarily come to me first; they might go to one of the people whom I work with. Generally, we listen to everything—it’s not always possible, but we try.

What types of artists are you looking for?

I don’t think we look for any particular type of artist or band. I happened to have ended up working with lots of female singers, including Dido, Avril, Rachael and now Butterfly, all the way back to Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs and Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. I happen to have been successful with female artists, but it’s not actually something I look out for; it just happens.

What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?

Much of it is instinct. I don’t think it necessarily has to have a buzz about it if it’s something that I think is special. There wasn’t a buzz about Dido when I started working with her, but I just knew that she was really special.

That’s generally been the case with most of the people I’ve worked with: it’s really just down to falling in love with what artists are doing and then meeting them and realising that you can have really good relationships with them.

You don’t therefore require artists and bands to have released independent albums and developed themselves up to a certain point before you get involved with them?

No, it’s not important for me for them to have done that. What’s important to me when I’m looking at an artist is for me to consider them special in their own right. That’s what I look for in an artist, because that’s the way they can be successful. If something just sounds like something else, that’s not very interesting to me. Artists should try to figure out who they are, what they’re trying to say and endeavour to make it unique.

What should aspiring artists learn more about if they are to stand a better chance of building successful careers?

All artists really need is to be creating great art and also to understand that this is a business. However, although I think that it’s really good for artists to understand the business and know how it works, because they then make good decisions and enable their manager to make good decisions, artists who get too involved in the business end of things may get sidetracked from what they should be doing, which is exploring their own creativity.

How ready-to-go must artists be before they are presented to labels, especially major labels?

If they’re a band, they should be able to impress people live, and an individual singer/songwriter should at least be able to play and perform. On top of that, you need great songs. I would feel confident that if I had that package I could go to any label and make a record deal.

Is it too expensive to promote artists to radio?

The expenses of promoting artists to radio have been horrendous and if that’s the only way you can break an artist, it’s a problem. But it’s a necessary evil: you have to promote records to radio if you’re going to have worldwide success. Of course, you also need to have other strings to your bow: an artist needs to be touring, they need the press on their side, and there has to be a good marketing campaign.

You have to promote your records to radio, but you just have to be smart about the way you do it. The fact that independent promotion is disappearing from the business means that it’s not quite as expensive as it used to be, although it’s still not cheap.

If artists share the costs of making an album, because these costs are recoupable from their royalties, do you think they should also have joint ownership of the masters?

Yes, I do. As a manager, I believe the artist should control everything, and we’re already starting to see more of that kind of deal being made. I think that record deals will become shorter-term in the future and that we’ll eventually see artists acting as free agents.

How has managing artists changed in the last twenty years?

It’s a much more of a sophisticated business now. There are new avenues to explore in getting an artist noticed. At the same time, there are more artists around, and record companies are in a very different situation compared to twenty years ago.

Managers have to do even more work now, because there was a time when labels would take over to a certain extent and go out and spend a lot of money on breaking an artist, but record labels are now generally very coy about spending money and showing faith in an artist, which makes it much harder to break an artist.

There have also been a lot of technical innovations. I managed my first artist before there were fax machines. A lot more information is available to managers now: with BDS and SoundScan, you know whether you’re getting airplay in a market, and you can see whether it’s having an effect on sales or not.

It was all smoke and mirrors in the old days: radio stations would say that they were playing your record because they’d been paid to say that, but there was no way of knowing whether they really were.

If you could change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?

I would put more power into the artist’s hand sooner. I think that artists should have more control over the masters, and I can see it coming, but it’s still quite a long way off. That’s definitely one aspect of the business that I would love to change sooner rather than later.

What has been the greatest moment of your music career?

If I had to put my finger on one thing, it was when I was managing 10,000 Maniacs. When I first met them they didn’t have a record deal, but I remember them playing in front of 15,000 people at a sold-out show in Boston, whilst a thunderstorm raged.

I stood all the way at the back of the outdoor venue, and everybody was dancing in the rain, and the band were on the screen and I was listening to the sound and it just came to me in a rush that I had been part of that success and I felt very proud. After working at it for several years, it finally felt like I had begun to achieve what I always believed I could.

What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?

Probably exactly the same thing. I love management; I think it fulfils all my desires. I enjoy business and I love working with artists. It is tremendously exciting to know that you’re the first person to be hearing an artist’s new song and that you’re going to be part of the process of getting the rest of the world to hear it.

Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman