Interview with CHRISTIAN WÅHLBERG, manager at Lateral MGMT for Bloodshy and Avant, Klas Åhlund - May 2, 2011
“We're not going to sign anything we don't believe in 100% - it has to be someone that you are prepared to do that extra for otherwise you're not going to have the energy to take it all the way."
Having helped Sweden achieve renown as a hit making mecca by co-founding the hugely successful production house Murlyn Music - with clients including Madonna, Britney Spears and Janet Jackson – this week’s interviewee, Christian Wåhlberg moved into management full-time to fulfill a goal of redefining pop music by finding and cultivating a rare breed of forward thinking pop artists, songwriters and producers. His latest venture, Lateral MGMT, is home to impressive array of talent including artists Taio Cruz (US & UK No.1) and Paloma Faith (UK Top 10) and producer-songwriters Bloodshy and Avant (Britney Spears, Madonna, Kylie), and Klas Åhlund (Ke$ha, Robyn).
The Stockholm-based manager talks to HitQuarters about mentoring songwriters in best exploiting their market, choosing the artists its top songwriters and producers work with, and convincing Bloodshy to give up rapping to focus on reinventing pop.
How did you first get involved in music and then come to found Murlyn Music?
In my teens I couldn’t play an instrument and so when other friends were starting bands I opened a DJ store called ‘Pitch Control’. It started off as a boutique and later transformed into wholesale, mail-order etc. We also had a little record company where we signed young local talent out of Sweden. We actually managed to get a Grammy for one of them – an early Swedish rap act called Infinite Mass. I also signed a band called Goldmine.
I founded Murlyn Music in 1997 with Anders Bagge (HQ interview). We were a production company and publishing house that was purely focused on songwriters and producers. In those years we wrote and produced songs for Britney Spears, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson and Ricky Martin and a few others.
When I left Pitch Control to set up Murlyn I brought pieces of Goldmine with me. The front girl was Deetah, a rapper we signed with Pete Tong at London Records, and one of the others was Bloodshy (aka Serious). We persuaded him to stop rapping and become a songwriter-producer instead.
Swedish pop in the 90s has inevitable associations with Cheiron. Were you involved with Denniz PoP’s production house at all?
No, not really. Before Cheiron they were called Swemix, which was a DJ collective from Stockholm. They were my friends, and also my clients – they picked up records in my store.
When Denniz opened up Cheiron I realised I wanted to do a similar thing but different, and that's why we started Murlyn. In those days we didn't go after the Backstreet Boys and Britney; it was hard to get production gigs because Sweden wasn't really on the map. Denniz and Max Martin put Sweden on the map. Anders and me believed there were other international acts to write and produce songs for.
What was your big breakthrough with Murlyn?
With an act called 98 Degrees. They never really happened outside of America. We had a top three record and the album sold over 5 million. That gave us all the other opportunities which then later gave us Britney, Jennifer Lopez and all these acts.
I read you signed a multimillion dollar record label deal for Murlyn Records with Interscope in the early 2000s. How did that happen?
By writing songs you develop relationships with people in the industry and back in those days we had very close relationships with Colin Barlow (HQ interview), Lucian Grainge and Jimmy Iovine. I think it was their vision to build a company around our songwriting where we would develop acts together.
How did that relationship develop over the years?
When we were in the deal with Interscope and Universal it was around the time that whole pop trend came to an end. As a company we were looking more for singer-songwriters. That's a different game. You write and produce your first album and find your fan base and then you hit the big numbers on the second one. But from the point of view of the record label, they want a return faster than a second album. That’s why we decided we were probably better off closing the relationship and continuing to have a really good and productive relationship on the songwriting.
It was pretty rare to terminate something from our side that was financially so good but for us it has always been about the relationships and not the deal.
How did your involvement with Murlyn Music come to an end?
Anders and me decided in 2007 that we would sell the publishing catalogue we had built over 8-10 years. We sold it to Crosstown Songs in America and financially it was just one of those deals you want to do in life.
After that Anders and me found ourselves in a position where we could do what the hell we wanted. Rather than try to find a combined vision we said, “Let's part ways here and you do what you want to do and I'll do what I want.”
And what was it that you wanted to do?
I believed in reinventing pop music. Looking at my roster of producers I decided to just keep Bloodshy and Avant because that was the only team I believed could reinvent pop.
I wanted to find songwriters that combine cool with great songs. There are a lot of people out there that can produce cool sounds but cannot write songs, as well as there are a lot of great songwriters that don't understand cool. To work with a producer-songwriter team I have to love their music, find them extremely fun to work with - and they have to be able to re-invent pop.
I put up very hefty terms to find songwriters and producers to sign but people we’ve found include Bloodshy and Avant, Klas Åhlund and Joakim Åhlund, as well as the new generation of interesting songwriters out of Sweden like Michel Zitron and John Martin.
Are you looking for more people on your roster?
I'm trying to sign as little as possible, but once I find people who have that DNA, who write great songs, are fun to work with and I can see making some money, then I have to sign it.
How else did you want to move away from Murlyn Music and how did that lead to starting Lateral Management?
I also wanted to start finding artists. Sweden is the most successful country in the world at giving birth to great songwriters - there are only 9 million people here and looking at the track record, it's impeccable - but artist wise I think England is the best country for finding interesting people who have the skills and dare to be different.
As England is just two hours away from Stockholm I thought, ‘Let's find someone to work with in England - we could join up, find some great artists and have some fun with it.’ But you still have to find that person. It’s similar to finding your life partner; you can’t just go out and cut a deal with anyone, either you find that person or you don't.
I happened to occasionally bump into a person called Jamie Binns (HQ interview) around the same time that we were selling our catalogue. Jamie and myself clicked and we have been working together now for four years. There’s not been one boring day with Jamie. It's always a full agenda, full of new challenges and new opportunities and we just love to take it all on.
Two of the first artists you signed were Taio Cruz and Paloma Faith. How did you decide that they were the interesting artists you were looking for?
I think we signed both artists in 2007. At that point we were running around in London and only had one artist on the roster so we had to find something we were willing to sweat for for a couple of years before seeing any return. So out of the fifty artists we met we jointly decided on Taio, and then signed Paloma Faith on the same philosophy.
We're not going to sign anything that we both don't believe in 100% - it has to be someone that you are prepared to do that extra for, like your wife or your kids. Otherwise you are not going to have the energy to take it all the way.
Jamie told me he works closer with the artists and you deal more with things in the background and logistics - what are your work fields exactly?
Lateral Management has two arms: the publishing arm with the songwriters and the management arm with the artists. Jamie is the captain for the management arm and I'm the captain for the publishing arm.
But because looking after artists is much more time-consuming than looking after songwriters, I do what people would call the boring stuff on the management arm. I handle all of the financial and legal sides and we jointly do all the endorsements and sponsorships deals. Office wise, all admin and business is grounded in Stockholm, while in London we have a mobile office where everyone is constantly on the run.
How does your collaboration with your songwriters and producers work – are you involved with the songwriting?
It's more coaching and mentoring than teaching them how to write songs. I also think I have a big talent in spotting people who can write songs.
I'm mentoring songwriters to get a better understanding of how the market works. So for any songwriter I’ve taken on board I’ve made sure they can make a living on their songwriting and some of them have gone off and had extremely good careers.
In terms of the daily work with all the songwriters, I look after their business. We have time when we meet physically at least once a week and we talk daily. I never ever just send out a sampler.
What kind of discussions do you have with your songwriters?
When someone has written a song I ask the writer, “Now, who do you have in mind for this?” Sometimes they don't know and we have to figure out who he wants me to send it to.
Just by giving them information and talking about things they slowly understand that it's not about writing a song every day, sometimes it's about going back in on the one song. I will challenge them by saying, “Now take this good song and turn it into a great song! See if you can make an improvement!” Most songwriters need to find that extra 10% of whatever it takes to make it onto the biggest charts in the world.
It's so important that, as the publisher, you and the producer share the same goals. I wouldn't take on anyone that didn’t have the goal of finding success in all the big territories of the world.
When you send out the songs is it important that the production level is absolutely top notch?
No, not at all. To me a song is a song and production is something else. It all starts with a song, and in any songwriting nowadays there is a sign of where the production is going. And there are so many A&Rs, managers and artists out there with their own vision about what the production should be like that to send out a finished production would actually be doing it the wrong way.
So what do you think a song demo should consist of?
It all varies. I happen to be weekly contact with managers and A&Rs and other movers and shakers around the world and know them so well that I can say, “Listen to this idea! Do you hear what I hear?” and it be 30 seconds of someone whistling. They might say, “No, I don't,” but sometimes it’s, “I hear what you hear, how can we take it to the next level?” and we then have a creative chat about it.
Sometimes you just have a full song which has a very shitty production but the song is really great, and that would be what you send out. Sometimes you just have a track with a chorus. A chorus would be something you send out to people that represent an artist that is also songwriter, and it's important that they write their own songs.
All the managers and people in record labels that are looking for songs must get hundreds of emails a day with songs? How can you get them excited about your songs?
To me the entire music industry is about two things: it's about great songs and it’s about relationships. If they don't know who you are then most likely those people are not going to listen to the song, regardless if it's a good song or not.
In my case I send out very few songs but when I send out something, people know it's special, regardless if it's a full song or just a 30 second idea. I wouldn't send out anything that I don't bet my life on.
One of the producers you represent, Klas Åhlund, recently worked with Coco of I Blame Coco on her debut album. Knowing Coco and her talents, I didn’t feel the album reflected her style and wasn’t daring enough …
If she had been signed to XL [Recordings], for example, then what Klas and Coco would have done together would have sounded differently. But Coco signed to Island with Darcus Beese (HQ interview) and he is more on the electro pop tip, even though that's not really Coco.
But don’t you think it’s important to listen to what the artist is actually about? Surely the team around the artist is there to bring that out of them and to refine it …
It is extremely important. If we sign away our artists then we really think about those things. We look at it this way: this is what our artist is about and, regardless of what the deal is looking like, what would be the best match? Sometimes managers don't do that and just go for the biggest deal.
The deals with Paloma and Taio would be considered really junior deals, but we did not make the decision based on the cheque, we base it on the people we truly want to work with. A major label couldn't care less about a cool indie act that gets the hype on the internet, it's a multinational that is only interested in music if they can make money from it.
What are your thoughts on Coco’s management?
Briony [Turner] is a high street girl and not a punk rocker.
What do you think about Coco as an artist? I believe she has the potential to do great things in future …
We love Coco. I remember we did a round in the UK and met with every A&R that you could possibly meet. They presented all kinds of acts to Klas and I asked him, “What do we think?” And he said, “The only thing I like is the girl that didn't have the deal.” Which was Coco. That was based on being the punk rocker that she is. Klas had a bit more experience in songwriting than her and was able to mentor her so that she understood the structure of a song. If you don't have a certain structure of song you never make it onto pop radio. The words and the messages are all still Coco - she has something to say.
Regardless of how many records she sells if she picks up the phone to myself or to Klas then there is always a door open for her.
If I'm an unsigned artist and I have some great ideas demoed and want to work with one of the producers in your camp, how would I approach Lateral?
I would start by sending that off to me or Jamie or anyone in the company. Whatever we sign, artist or songwriter, the whole company always knows about it. But even if that artist is a very unique talent in need of a songwriter or producer, there are a lot of factors that are important to us other than that.
First of all, is the artist is managed by someone? He might be very talented but if he is managed by someone who we think doesn't have the skills to take the artist all the way then we would pass immediately because that would mean great songwriting would not see the light of the day.
If it’s a young artist with a good manager willing to invest in the artist then there still has to be more in it for the songwriter then just being the songwriter. That has to be discussed from time to time depending on the situation of the artist.
It might be that there is an interesting artist without management where we would go to our producers, talk about it and probably partner with them and say, “You put in your best songs, we chip in our skills and we’ll create a little venture together.”
We want our songwriters to use their time as productively as possible. I think the definition of being productive is doing things that are fun and at the end of the day you are also maximizing the income. It's a balance between those two; you cannot just do it because of the money and you can't just do it because it's fun. It’s our responsibility to keep it balanced.
What is your policy with regards to receiving demos?
Just send it off to us and either we like it or we don't and if we like it we can help them if we don't like it then doesn't mean that it's not good but that you need to go find people who think it is. We might tell them simply, “This is good but it doesn't turn us on.”
When you think about the American market, how is it different compared to other markets?
You have to have the balls to dare and be different. I think if you stay too long in America every European becomes too American. If you just go over there frequently, you get the energy and the understanding, but still have some of your own DNA.
For songwriters it's good to go over there, you get a really good injection. Our writers here in Sweden always come back with a lot of energy, but are still in their own environment and I think that is very healthy.
You say the networking is as important as the music how do you stay in contact with all these people?
I start my day at 7am and I end at 12 midnight. I spend about 25 weeks per year on the road. There are just a few hours around dinner time and weekends that I spent with my family. I've been doing the 7am to midnight days for 15 years. People ask me, “How do you manage to work that much?” I'm so passionate about what I do that I don't really see it as work. For me it's just getting my own personal kicks.
It's so in my veins that if I hear a song on the radio I haven't heard before and think, ‘That could be a big one!’ I automatically switch on and think, ‘Do I have anything in my catalogue that is close to what I'm hearing?’ And I know exactly to what five persons in the world I will send these ideas as soon as I get to the computer.
When you talk about reinventing pop music, where do you see it going to?
For me what needs to happen is that we need to bring more substance into the songs. Even if they are over a great melody, those lyrics that don’t mean anything are a bit worn out, and that has to change.
The substance also needs to be delivered by an artist that means it. You cannot sing a very deep song and as an artist not believe in what you trying to say - that is not going to work either. The artist has to make me believe that they mean it. If you say, “I'm that bad bitch”, do I believe that you really are that bad bitch?
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Aftermath producer DJ Khalil on working with Dre and Eminem
Read On ...
* Lateral co-founder, Jamie Binns, on breaking Taio Cruz stateside
* Former partner at Murlyn, Anders Bagge, on what makes a young songwriter shine
* Special feature on Sweden's ongoing influence behind the scenes of modern pop
* Former Murlyn Songs MD, Pelle Lidell on working with new writers