Interview with Ulysses Hüppauf, manager of Apocalyptica (US Mainstream Rock No.1, Top 10 Germany, Top 10 Finland) - April 27, 2009
“Mostly the focus remains on the domestic market. So when you are in Germany you think, German market, and when in France you think, French market. I don’t think like that, I think ‘international’ for my bands and try to go for global markets.”
The US music market is notoriously difficult one for European artists to crack, but German manager Ulysses Hüppauf not only managed the feat, but he did so with an all cello-playing Finnish rock band called Apocalyptica. Their single ‘I Don’t Care’ reached No.1 spot on the US Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in December last year, and in the process achieved the highest ever US chart placing for a Finnish act. Back in Europe, Apocalyptica's most recent album ‘Worlds Collide’ has taken the charts by storm, breaking the top 10 in Germany, Switzerland and Finland.
In an exclusive HitQuarters interview, the Berlin-based musical mastermind and owner of Halbe Miete Management outlines his battle plans for achieving international success.
How did you first get into the music business?
I knew someone who worked at the record label ZYX and I became a trainee there. Then I applied for an A&R job at Mercury, Hamburg, but I didn’t get it. So I decided to try freelancing and I was approached by Semaphore in Nürnberg, an independent distributor. They distributed Epitaph, an L.A. punk label. Their band The Offspring were having tremendous success with their album ‘Smash’.
For 6 months I did promo for this and various other projects until Mercury remembered me and offered me a job. First I did promo coordination and then I moved on to international marketing for Tricky, PJ Harvey, Bosstones, Tindersticks, Status Quo, Nana Mouskouri, and later on U2 and Metallica. Then the big merger came, we were bought out by Universal, and Mercury was named Island Polydor and moved from Hamburg to Berlin – and me too. At that point the company realised the need to develop successful local acts.
A ‘local acts’ department was formed with me being PM and marketing manager. And that’s when we signed German bands like In Extremo, Helge Schneider, and Apocalyptica.
So that’s how you and Apocalyptica first met?
It was before that. Apocalyptica released their first record ‘Plays Metallica’ in 1996. It was something totally different - 4 cellists playing Metallica. When I started at Mercury in 1997 my first assignment was to work that record in Germany. It sold over one million worldwide. And then I worked as product manager for their second album.
And then you signed them?
They were originally signed to Universal in Finland, but just before the third album they had a big argument with their record label and their management approached us. So we decided to sign the band. They were not ‘local’ repertoire, but they had gone gold twice in Germany, so their market here was substantial.
Did you change the concept?
The first Apocalyptica record was covers of Metallica songs, the second as well with a few tunes from Slayer and Faith No More. With the third record ‘Cult’, we introduced original songs and guest vocalists – like Sandra Nasic of Guano Apes - and that proved to be a very successful strategy.
Then further merging of record companies led to further changes?
We were in Berlin shooting the video for their fourth album ‘Reflections’ when it was announced that our domestic department was going to become part of Motor Music. Which meant the band was going to a different record label environment and I was going to have to go back to international which was not really a challenge to me. Mercury had been like a home to all of us. The people were wonderful and we had worked together as friends in a really great atmosphere. At that point the band and I started talking about management. I was not sure – that was not my field of experience!
But you decided to give it a go?
First, I got a job offer from Sony and I took it, but I told my boss right away that I was thinking about managing Apocalyptica. So I started preparing, getting the legal documents and contracts together, gathering know-how about management. And when Sony and BMG merged I handed in my notice… and became the manager of Apocalyptica. That was about 5 years ago.
How old were you then?
Wow, that seems very young! When I think of managers, in my mind they are tough old guys….
No, I have many colleagues who are my age!
So how’s it going?
The band and I get along really well. We are of similar ages, between 30 and 35 and they are simply great guys.
In a nutshell, how did they start out?
All band members were cello students at the famous Sibelius Academy in Finland for classical music. As a joke, they started to play Metallica tunes on the cello and their fellow students wanted to hear more. When they played live at a college party there happened to be among the audience a guy who worked for an indie label. And on the spot, he offered to do a record with them because it was so fresh and unusual what they were doing. They agreed and were hoping to sell maybe 1000 copies of a record that was recorded within a few days in the main hall of the Academy… and instead they sold a million. They were the first Finnish band to sell over 250,000 outside of Finland.
The indie label was distributed by Universal, which then took the band on board and managed to release the record internationally. Finland is a small country and the Fins were incredibly proud! Apocalyptica gave their first interview outside of Finland – to the Guardian in London!
Lets talk strategies…
Originally our audience were the metal fans. So for promo we would go to magazines like Metal Hammer, play metal festivals and sell albums. But how could we have a single out there that crossed over the metal boarders - where we could have a video on mainstream music TV?
That’s how the idea of having guest vocalists came about. There is hardly any instrumental music on pop radio or TV. Hence we invited Sandra of Guano Apes, her record company agreed and a few days later we went into the studio to record. The band had started to write their own material and they had a new instrumental called ‘Path’. This was given to Sandra - she wrote a vocal line plus the English lyrics and off we went. We did the same with the singer of the Farmer Boys. We sold the record in 50 countries - but not the States and not England.
This was before you managed the band – what happened with the fourth album ‘Reflections’ when you became the manager? How did you manage to break the band world wide, particularly the US?
We continued with the same formula with the aim to broaden our audience. Nina Hagen became a guest vocalist. She did a Rammstein Song called ‘Seemann’ and we had our first top 10 single in the German charts. The album went Gold. Our audience demographics changed. Originally Apocalyptica’s audience had been Metallica fans. Apocalyptica was a ‘novelty act’. We were also liked by journalists, who wrote about us in the cultural sections of the newspapers. So at concerts we had people in Metallica T-Shirts and intellectuals in suits, mostly male. Now it’s 70 per cent girls!
Is that because the boys are cute?
Girls love the cello! Also, on the following record, we did a ballad, a duet with the singers of HIM and The Rasmus, both from Finland. The single ‘Bittersweet’ got us mainstream audiences. Pop radio started to play it. Now the audience is a mix of gothics, girls, and metal fans.
Going back to your international strategy…
When I started to manage the band our market was Europe, with Germany being very strong. So I started to work on other countries. Our first show in Paris held an audience of 300. After a year and half of working the record there it was 1,500. Now, after the last record was released we had 4,500. But really I wanted to get to the US, Japan and England. The US and Japan are huge record markets and the UK is still very important music press wise to get international attention. We had toured in the UK and the US but Universal had not released any of the records in those countries.
So I started to focus - first, we changed record labels and signed a deal with Sony USA. There was no need to sign with Sony Germany because I had good relations with them anyway. I wanted the record to be released and worked in the US. I contacted the head of 20/20, which is a joint venture with Sony New York, and he signed us to Jive/Sony. What convinced him was seeing the band live – four head-banging cellists! I knew we could make it in the US, but I was surprised how well it worked - they released 2 singles, the first went to number 3, the second to number one.
Many European artists try but don’t get anywhere in the US. What are the ingredients of your American success?
Three main ones – one, the band worked extremely hard. They did so many radio interviews, didn’t moan about having to get up at 6 and go to yet another station, play live on air, answer questions, travel, do sound-check, do a couple of press-phoners and play the show at night, and 90 of those.
Two - there are no egomaniacs in the band. They do what they love to do and they listen to other people’s advice. For instance with the single release in US, they all were fine with our US A&R deciding on what the sound should be like, because he knew best what would work in his radio market. And it did. Our guest was Cory Taylor, singer of Slipknot.
Three - our team was totally committed. We started working the album January 2008, we released in April, and the single is still top 20 one year later. And stuff is happening all the time. The Jive/Sony rock department is really strong. Red, our US distributor, loves the band. CAA does our booking, and our agent is Helter Skelter. I made deals with them even before I signed with the record company, so really everything was in place. ‘Worlds Collide’ sold 200,000 in the US.
How did you get these eminent companies to work for you?
By asking them to come see a live show.
How often do you see the band?
When they tour I try to see them every 10 or 20 shows. When they are at home to write we get together every 8 to 10 weeks.
How do you become a manager – is it a case of learning by experience, or of simply starting out in record company, for example?
For me there was a lot of learning by experience, because when you work in a record company you don’t know about merchandising, publishing or licensing. The band already had a publisher, so I re-negotiated the deal. But I get calls everyday for synch licenses because the music, especially the instrumentals, is ideal for use in TV, film or ads. Universal publishing gets the initial requests but then the band and I have to make the decision. Like, “do we want to have the music in a Dunlop tire commercial (yes), or the use of our song ‘I Don’t Care” for US pop idol?” I do a lot of music licensing for computer games. Recently we had 30 minutes in a German TV film, and a sound track for a Finnish film. As manager you pick the team who works with and for the band. I think it is crucial that all these people get along well and work together.
Do you spend all your time working for Apocalyptica?
I used to but now things have found their routines and so I manage two other Finnish bands called The 69 Eyes, they do goth rock, and Turisas, a metal band who base their show and music around the Vikings. They look like Vikings and their last record was a concept album about the journey of the Vikings to Constantinople.
What makes a ‘good’ manager in the music business of today - good in terms of making a band successful across national borders?
There are not many people who truly think ‘international’. Mostly the focus remains on the domestic market. So when you are in Germany you think, German market, and when you are based in France you think, French market. I don’t think like that, I think ‘international’ for my bands and try to go for global markets.
I work with European bands because this is where I am from and this is where I am based. I work with bands who are unique within their genre and who focus on a great live performance. Because that’s what I love about this business, great concerts, and the audiences are buying the records because they loved the band live. This works in a rock market and that’s where my know-how is. I am sure it would be totally different in the field of hip-hop.
What is the future for the metal market?
The market is not growing. But, whereas other areas of the business are declining, the metal market remains fairly stable. But of course – the music business has changed dramatically, we can feel the economic downturn, and I am sure if Apocalyptica had had their break 10 years ago we would have sold a lot more records, concert tickets and merchandising. Also, there is a surplus of touring at the moment - all the artists want to make up for lost record sales by selling concert tickets. But my three bands are all doing very well and I firmly believe that if a band is successful in their segment and if they have good songs, then they have a good chance to broaden their audience – and their success. I also think that crises have a purifying effect on everyone and finally record labels are starting to look again for truly creative talent.
Interview by Monica Riedel
Next week: Sub Pop A&R Sue Busch