Interview with SHABS JOBANPUTRA, MD of Relentless Records and A&R for KT Tunstall (US Top 10, UK Top 5) - Nov 13, 2005
“If the artist is trying to do something creatively very different, then we’ve got a great chance,”
… says Shabs Jobanputra, MD and co-founder of Relentless Records UK and A&R for KT Tunstall, whose debut album went Top 5 in the UK, France and Brazil, for which he was awarded No.14 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart.
The independent Relentless Records has broken more new artists into the Top 20 of a major market than any other label. Since 2001, 11 artists have debuted on the charts through Relentless Records, including Daniel Bedingfield and So Solid Crew. They were also the first label to break Joss Stone.
Read the interview where Shabs tells why and how they work with new artists, what they look for in new artists, and how a small independent label can put more debut artists on the charts than any other.
How did you get started in the music industry?
I was DJ-ing for many years. In 1992, I got my first break in the business when I was a junior manager to Rebel MC and Shut Up And Dance Records - PJ and Smiley's pioneering London breakbeat label.
My background is PR and promotion. Over the years I’ve worked on many big campaigns including Jamiroquai and The Fugees. In terms of making records, the big thing early on was when we had our own record label called Outcaste Records, which was formed in 1995. It was a home for British Asian music. I learned about making records cheaply and promoting them on a budget.
Artists that I’ve worked with on that label were Nitin Sawhney, Badmarsh & Shri. That all helped me to understand the business. Not so much from a PR and promotions level, but from a recording and publishing level.
What is Relentless Records?
Relentless Records was founded in 1999 by me and Paul Franklyn, whom I knew from university. It started then because we felt that there wasn’t any new urban music coming from Britain. It felt like a fallow period.
One night we had a very late drink in a bar with Matt Jagger, who was then the MD of Ministry of Sound, and we were shooting ideas. I shot the idea to start a label and soon after we started consultancy to see, on an exploratory level, if this could come true. Luckily the first record we signed was “Re-Rewind” by Artful Dodger, featuring Craig David. This first record went to #2, sold 700,000 singles, and was a hit in many areas. After that, it definitely felt as if there was a place for Relentless.
Relentless is 50% owned by EMI Records UK. We are an eclectic, music orientated label with a wide range of genres. We’ve done anything from So Solid Crew to Joss Stone to KT Tunstall.
How come you’ve managed to grow as a label?
We’ve understood how the market has been changing. Because we’re quite consumer orientated, we managed to stay alive. We’ve always tried to remain close to the consumer and figure out why they’re buying something and what reasons they need to actually go and purchase something.
How does the hierarchy within your label work?
The A&R people are Gwyn Aikins and myself. Gwyn started in our PR company, which is called Media Village. He’s been with us for seven years. We all work together in a small team. Our full staff is six people. We all do creative decisions, but I’ll make the ultimate decisions. We’re pretty much inhouse on everything, and quite self-sufficient. We use the tools of a major, but we are an indie company who does its own thing.
Relentless is the label that has broken most new artists in the past 3-4 years. What is the secret of that success?
We try and sign things that are completely distinctive, since we can’t compete with a major. We always try to do things differently than bigger labels such as Interscope and XL, and we operate in different music areas. We try to find things that no one else wants to do, because we believe in them and we can see a market for them.
And also us being able to focus all our activity has made it a bit easier for us. We never had a big roster. We can concentrate on things we actually believe in. That’s why it’s worked so far.
What are the dangers in working with new acts?
Once an artist gets confident and understands the process, it takes less time. An established artist or a more mature artist is more confident with you and you’re more confident with them. Once you set the parameters of what you’re trying to do, then you get to let the artist develop and grow.
It’s important when an artist develops that they understand how we work and we know how they work. It’s important to let artists grow and put the music out that they want to put out, and that they have an understanding from us of what it’s going to take.
It’s not just a decision that they make completely independently. They also know that we need X and Y to make this thing work, and we’re going to help them. You’re not going to need to spend as much time sometimes with mature artists because they know what they need to do or should do.
With new artists, we look for many different aspects. For the music. The potential of the artist. How they’re going to grow and develop. How they’re going to work with us. The timing of the music. Its relevance. We also look for a path that’s going to mean that they can do what they want and how they want it in a comfortable way that can only be viable.
What input do you usually have on the productions?
All the way, from start to finish. I’m involved in every single level. From getting the songs to pre-production, finding the producer, working very closely with the producer, to executive producing on every project. From the final mix to the edit to everything. Because that’s what it needs. We need to be close to the creative process all the way through.
Though, sometimes you’re going to leave people alone. It’s important that artists are left alone to do what they want to do. My job is to give the artist all the resources and the direction that they need to make the best possible record that they want to make.
Once an album is finished then I make sure with anyone else that we take it through the whole process.
What happens when things go wrong?
When a process, particularly in the studio, goes wrong, the most important thing is to have a good enough relationship so that you can be honest. And that’s the hardest thing with an artist. Because I have final creative control I can make the decisions about what I think is right and wrong, and it’s clear. I’m not having to ask a head of A&R if this is good or not. It’s important that we do it that way. Otherwise you’re going to get lost in what’s going on.
What artists are you currently working with?
We’re developing a couple of acts. The Union of Knights. AMPOP. We found them through demos and lawyers. We’re very pro-active. We’re not sitting here waiting for someone to give new talent to us, and usually use managers, lawyers and scouts. We’re very much out there and looking to develop artists, and also watching a lot of live shows.
We also have a publishing company, which is a joint venture with EMI Music Publishing, where we develop artists through the publishing side as well.
When did you first hear about KT Tunstall?
It came through some various scouts telling me that she was good. We put an independent offering pretty quickly, but she was going to go and sign to Columbia or Warner in America and passed on our offer. That deal didn’t turn out however, and then we signed her.
How did you work with KT Tunstall?
I met the manager first and then met KT. She wasn’t ready yet, but we knew that her voice was amazing and the songs were fantastic. They played just a few songs for me on the first meeting. We discussed the process of how we saw her happening and how we would work, why we thought the songs were great, why we thought she was great, and why it could really work if we took enough time.
We had a strategy we wanted to follow. And we were all on the same page. After the signing we were picking the right songs to develop. She’s co-writing and doing a lot of it herself. It took a long time though, developing her live performance. She had to do a lot of shows and hone her craft.
In a lot of territories, like France, the record got on the radio and it just exploded. In Brazil the record got on the radio and it had just gone off. It was not a strategy of marketing. It was good work by EMI.
What are KT Tunstall’s future plans?
It’s all about America the first six months of next year. And writing and recording a new album, which will be out in October 2006.
You originally signed Daniel Bedingfield and broke him, but only signed him for one single, how come?
It was a very competitive deal. He was already signed to someone else and we stole it. When we first heard the record we thought it was good. Then we ended up with a hit when he re-wrote the song and put the bridge in - that’s when we thought that was a complete smash in “Gotta Get Thru This”.
The record was very big in the clubs. We needed to get it to market quickly, which is what we are good at. Then the manager, Neale Easterby, had a desire to go elsewhere - his brother-in-law worked at Polydor. The rest is history.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, we receive a couple of hundred demos a week. And between the two of us we get through them.
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
As long as you got the songs and a sound, it’s fine.
What kind of buzz makes you take note of something?
I’m not interested in a buzz. If it’s great and we believe in it, then we go for it.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
The key marketing is an artist that’s being distinctive in their own right. Having something different to say. And then the marketing comes from there. If the artist is trying to do something creatively very different, then we’ve got a great chance.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Very tough. There’s not much loyalty with artists. Consumers don’t have much loyalty. That’s diminishing. It’s very tough around new streams of income opening up, which aren’t quite mature yet, but the public’s desire for new music is great. If we can protect it they’re definitely there to buy it.
If you turned into an artist and were offered a record deal, how would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Are they passionate? Are they strategic? Are they realistic?
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
The success of KT Tunstall, and selling 1.2 million this year.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years’ time?
Hopefully running a successful music company, not just with recording. A successful music business which is in the live industry, publishing and recording music. That will be the future for Relentless.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Marc Labelle, A&R At Shady Records and No.1 on the World Top 100 A&R Chart Of 2003
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