Interview with MARC TEISSIER DU CROS, A&R for Air, Phoenix, Sébastien Tellier - Apr 2, 2001
“If you’re doing anything new in music you have to be in the right place at the right moment.”
It was while working at the Source record label in Paris that Marc Teissier du Cros first discovered Air, a band he then went on to develop. Later, he and the members of Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, together with Air manager Stéphane Elfassi, started their own label/management/production/publishing company, called Record Makers, which is also based in Paris.
Marc is still a freelance A&R for Source, handling new funk/dance act Phoenix.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
When I was a trainee at Virgin I met this guy who was, at the time, starting Source. I didn’t realise he was also an A&R at Virgin. Source was a very clever idea: it was a fake independent label owned by a major company, devised so artists would sign deals with Virgin. We were paid by Virgin but maintained this very "independent label" attitude. It was what people call an imprint.
I knew my future lay in music from the time I was a student. I could feel it. I was studying economics at university, and at French universities you only need to show up at the end of the year to take your exam to graduate. I was never there. I just listened to music and went to movies, and I would study very quickly at the end of the year to pass my exams. It worked a treat. I finally received my diploma and was ready for a job.
Suddenly, an old cousin appeared and told me, "I remember that you were looking for something in the music business". He told me to call someone at Virgin to get on a four-month ‘stagière’ (apprenticeship). I called and took the opportunity. When the four months were over, I stopped to complete a year of military service and then had a 6-month period without work. Shortly after that I received a call from my old boss, Philippe, offering me a marketing job at Virgin. Two years later I advanced to A&R. 6 years later I was head of A&R.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as A&R?
The second day of my apprenticeship I was asked if I wanted to go to a studio to meet Etienne Daho, who is a famous French singer. He was recording a ‘live’ album. It was when I realised that he was re-recording many ‘live’ vocals that I understood just how much you could do in a studio.
Another really good experience was to work on compilations. We always had loads of producers coming into our offices, and at some point Philippe decided to make a compilation album, called Source, to showcase all the music that was being made by these talented producers. It was the start of the French electronic music movement. As an A&R working on these compilation series, I got to be around many different artists and see their different approaches to making music. This was invaluable to me, as I was able to learn my job as an A&R with many different artists at the same time.
Which qualities, in your opinion, are needed to be a successful A&R?
Good relationships with artists, a good understanding of artists’ concerns. You have to have an opinion. Artists like to be asked to do something, they like someone who shows them the way and then they do it themselves.
I have to like the artist and they have to like me. I then completely enter their universe. I try to build a very solid and frank relationship in the first few months, which then lets me say anything that I feel is necessary later on. If you’re afraid to say something to an artist, something that you think is really important, then you’re going to regret not having said it after their record comes out.
How did Air come about?
Nicolas [Godin] was an old friend of mine from school. I was already doing A&R in school! He was playing in a band with a friend of his. Later, whilst I was working at Source and the first Source compilation was being prepared, Nicolas was studying architecture but still also making music. I was a nobody in my office. I told Nicolas, "You have the level to be on this compilation", and I requested a track from him.
At the office a few days later, Phillipe hung up the phone, angry because another producer had just cancelled his track on the compilation. I came up with the tape from Nicolas and said that it should be on the compilation. He heard the track and liked it, so he put it on the album. And that was it. Of course J.D. (Jean-Benoît Dunckel) joined Nicolas later and it was their collaboration that led to the album ‘Moon Safari’.
What was key to their success do you think?
If you’re doing anything new in music you have to be in the right place at the right moment. This was the case with Air. They did their first mixtures of deep composition and wall-of-sound. Then we had the intuition to do some covers of clichéd 70s songs. The key for them was the release of their ‘Cassanova 70’ single in 1996, which we released on heavy vinyl.
Why did you start Record Makers?
Record Makers started a year ago, and the main reason behind it was the fact that I was frustrated: I had the idea that I was free, but I wasn’t. Working as an A&R in a major company means you don’t really make decisions although you think you do. Your boss decides and he is the one that signs the deals. I didn’t officially sign Air. I was frustrated. After 5 years of work, Source suddenly needed to make money, so it became a true record company, which was not the case at first, when it was really creative and experimental.
So I wanted to leave, and Nicolas and J.D. wanted to start a label. Why? Because they saw that their success wouldn’t last forever. They realised that they could work behind the scenes producing other artists. They wanted to be satisfied musicians, to be able to carry on making music and bringing music to others. Stéphane, who used to be Air’s manager, is the last of the 4-man team working at Record Makers. I feel much better now because I don’t have the pressure that I had working for the major.
What kind of music and what kind of acts are you signing to Record Makers?
We want to build a really broad musical family. Our first act, other than Air, is Sébastien Tellier. His music, which is quite acoustic, is all about composition, it’s very subtle. The first album, which is out now, is a really, really deep record, an ‘ahead’ record, a masterpiece in my opinion.
Our next act will be a Kraftwerk-style electronic artist from Detroit. After that we’ll probably do a hip-hop act. We also plan to release an R&B compilation where we ask several French guys to make some R&B instrumental tracks as dance numbers and then ask some singers to work with the tracks. I find R&B music to be very modern and "ahead" music, as not only does it have big hits, but the music underneath is amazing. Play the instrumental track of Aliyah’s hit ( "Try Again" ), produced by Timbaland.
We’re looking for very ambitious artists, into high quality music. Quality is our first priority.
Do you have a label deal or are you independent?
We have a label deal with Virgin. They do promotion and distribution for us.
What, in your opinion, do you do differently to other labels?
What I think we do differently is that we are a true independent label. We have very few products. I will change my life for a project that requires total involvement. I consider it my job to get as near as possible to creation and help this creation happen.
I was lucky because I started for a major company, where I learned everything I needed to know. I have major company habits and the character to develop serious projects. When I do something I do it until I reach the end. I want perfection.
Which factors are important in establishing Record Makers?
I don’t want to focus on being a label. I think that would be a big mistake. Artists’ labels are often playful but they don’t always pay their material all the attention that it deserves and requires. I don’t want it to end up like that. The best way to present our label and build our reputation is to consider each of our releases as a message to all artists. ‘The Virgin Suicides’ [by Air] is one such communication and our new release Sébastien Tellier is a perfect message.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign in comparison with the time spent dealing with acts in your rooster?
I would say half and half.
How do you find new talent?
Personal contact. All the people I’m working with now reached me through personal contact. As for demos, in my whole life, I have perhaps received one good tape through the mail.
What do you look for in an artist?
It’s all about intuition. I don’t care if the artist knows about the business side of things. If the artist is focusing on strategy and how to make it then he isn’t focusing enough on the music. Strategy is my job. First step is the music. I need to meet the person of course.
What advice would you give to someone sitting at home producing music, and who wants to showcase this music and start contacting the music business?
Try to get a meeting with someone at a record label.
Do you or would you work with acts from outside France?
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I do accept unsolicited material. I think we receive one demo a day. I listen to all of them.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned artists, with regards to contracts?
Be the owner of your masters.
How do you think the internet can or will affect the music business?
Very much. The thing that shocks me about downloading music is that you will be able to buy tracks instead of albums. I am really attached to the concept of an album. The change from vinyl to CD means that now an album has to last one hour. True music lovers won’t get into this track-buying thing. What I like about the internet is being able to reach the 2,000 people in each country who want to buy our music. The main change is that the world is now one big market.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Radio Programmer - it’s my dream. Radio on the Internet where I can reach my 2,000 people. You always need another goal in your life other than what you are doing at that moment.
What do you think of HitQuarters - how much do you value it as a resource for unsigned artists?
I think it’s a cool idea to help artists find a label.
Interviewed by James Burke
Read On ...