No hit happens alone. Your song may be released and getting a good reaction in the local media. But taking that baby success and growing it to the next level requires a well-oiled machine. As with any sizeable corporation, a music label, particularly one working within a multinational structure, is made up of departments that can collaborate -- or clash. Alas, motivating these many folk with their often varied agendas, is a Herculean daily task. Foolhardy is the record company head who would commit to signing an artist who's not endorsed by his whole company; it's generally bad news for all concerned.
So what are the qualities in an artist that will motivate a cautious record company chief to totally sign off on a deal?
Our focus group for this session was:
Legendary Jamaican and cosmopolitan, founder and CEO of Island Records, the pioneering early 60s independent now signed to Polygram. The label is fast approaching its 40th Anniversary.
Managing Director of the dance independent, Smile Communications, who doubles as the V.P. International A&R and Product Manager at Profile -- and is a partner in the celebrated Robot Wars.
Chairman of the Sire Record Group, is a veteran music mogul whose career spans 50s doo-wop and every subsequent wave of music. He is reviving his old independent label, Sire, after 2 years spent as President of Elektra Records.
President of Arista, UK, and original co-founder (with Adele Nozedar), of the UK underground DJ label, Rhythm King. The label is now part of Arista.
No variables are involved in why Smile Communications' M,D, Gary Pini, wants to sign an artist. "It's a simplistic answer. I sign music that I like." Pini releases electronica, a genre in which, as he puts it, "the line between group and producer is kinda vague. Kids nowadays don't demand a traditional group. They accept the fact you go to a rave and see one guy just twiddling knobs."
Generally, that role doesn't allow for much stagecraft, or visual style. It doesn't bother Gary. "None of that means anything to me with Smile. All those other things are gravy. If an artist told me they didn't want to have their picture taken, do interviews or go on the road, and I loved their music, I would still sign them."
In fact, the new Smile combo, the Omni Trio, a.k.a. British DJ Rob Haigh, fits that profile exactly. "He doesn't do any media, but I like his records. I put them out (on license from UK indie, Moving Shadow,) and they're getting great reviews. They do good."
But at most chart-oriented labels, non-musical factors can be decisive. To make him want to sign an act, Martin Heath of Arista UK needs, "something that will excite my imagination; somebody who, when I meet them, will be exciting and interesting as an individual."
Heath has evolved a set of criteria, a check list that determines the likelihood of a group's success. Initially, he likes to have a sense of where the group can be positioned in the short term, and where they can develop in the future. Working in the UK, a central concern is whether a group will be played on the all-powerful station, Radio One. Equally important is a band's actual or potential core following; its appeal to a specific, loyal market and/or media segment, even if it's small to begin with. Occasionally a group hits the jackpot on all checkpoints, a rare instance which Heath describes as, "Orgasmatron, a nuclear explosion in the brain." One such band and moment came together in early Dee-Lite. Enthuses Heath nostalgically, "They had everything. Their first single was perfect for radio. They were cool. They fitted into a clear genre -- dance. They had future potential, and she was a star." On reflection, Heath concludes, "But still, you need a heavy dose of timing and luck; and sometimes you have to create your own luck."
The formula is less complex for the man who signed the Talking Heads, Madonna and countless other musicians who've marked the last four musical decades. Says Sire's Seymour Stein, "My ex-wife is in real estate, where they say that three things matter: Location. Location. Location. "To me, it's the same with the music business. Songs, songs and then songs. "Commitment is also extremely important. The thing I walked away with from my first meeting with Madonna - not that I could walk away, I was in a hospital bed at the time -- was her ruthless determination to make it. I've never before or since signed an artist on the basis of one song -- it was Everybody. "I liked the song, and after I talked to her, I said, No way is this girl not going to make it." Stein agrees with Heath, "Overall personality is very important. All these things -- stage presence, sex appeal -- are important in varying degrees. "But without the songs, it means nothing. If the songs are there, you have a shot."
When the finely tuned antenna of a record company head meet real talent, an instant signal is evidently transmitted. Recalls the CEO of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, "To me, the first and always the most important thing is talent. I go with my gut instinct -- like the first time I saw Steve Winwood play in a pub in Birmingham, or Melissa Etheridge, I knew these were artists who could really deliver, and would grow. They were both passionate on stage, and that's what people respond to, to a great extent."
"Obviously, image is very important. Though on its own, image isn't enough, it's become so important nowadays that without a strong visual identity, actually selling an artist becomes much harder. Sometimes the people who can create that unforgettable image play as significant a part in an artist's success as the artists themselves. A good artist often understands that and can create their own image. Like the way P.J. Harvey changes her look; it's become another way for an artist to express what they're trying to project."
But what we can now call the Madonna factor -- an overwhelming obsession with making it -- is as decisive to Blackwell as it is to Stein. "Without commitment, all the talent in the world won't be enough. You have to have drive, and total focus on wanting to make your music heard by as many people as possible. "In other words, if you're still suppressing a nagging feeling that your calling might possibly be skateboarding or fashion design, not music -- don't expect to conquer the charts. Unless, of course, you just get lucky.Back to magazine