Interview with GARY COOPER, A&R at BMG Munich for Natural, LFO, sub7even, Die Happy - May 22, 2002
“Of two artists equally talented, I'm going to take the one with a good infrastructure...”
As Head of A&r at BMG Munich, Gary Cooper works with acts including US boy band Natural, LFO and German rock bands sub7even and Die Happy.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I’m originally from England, and I started out playing in a punk band. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to have something to do with music. Because I was aware of the fact that EMI had a record company and recording studios, I took an apprenticeship with them as an electronic engineer and technician. There I drove the personal manager crazy for 3 years, until they transferred me to Abbey Road Studios. As a technician there, I watched how the producers worked, how master records were made, and spent all my free time hanging around the studio. That was my first step into the industry.
Then I left to live in Germany and started all over again. I opened up a record shop, went into distribution, got picked up by an independent dance label to do A&R, and then started my own label, until I eventually joined BMG as Head of A&R.
What experiences have helped develop your skills as an A&R?
First of all, you have to be passionate about A&R, you have to want to know about records and how they're made. Having moved through so many different areas of the record industry, I've become more aware of the needs involved. It's not just about making a great record, but also about knowing how to get it out there. You're also dealing with artists, so you have to understand their worries and fears as well as what makes them happy.
What acts are you currently working on?
Natural, Die Happy, sub7even, and Black Kappa, a Jamaican toaster. As the head of A&R, I oversee all areas, including rock, dance, hip hop, and mainstream. We've just finished a cover version of En Vogue's "Free Your Mind" with sub7even, and I managed to get En Vogue to redo the vocals and also to appear in the video, which was a great experience.
How did you find Natural and how did they become a BMG Munich act?
We have a long-term relationship with their manager, Lou Pearlman, since the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, LFO and O-Town. Lou presented Natural to us a year and a half ago, but, because I didn't feel that the market was quite ready for them and that they were ready for the market, we arranged a deal with Lou so that we could develop them and have an option to sign them.
We kept an eye on them and then, just before Christmas 2001, when we took one of our regular looks at the band, we were really impressed at how much they'd developed and how tight they'd become. The market was also suddenly opening up as ‘N Sync were going in a different direction, and the Backstreet Boys were about to make solo albums. There was a slot that could be filled by Natural.
What did you see in Natural that made you sign them?
It was the fun element and the wonderful mixtures. We talk about boy bands with distaste, which is wrong, because if you go back to what the Beatles and the Monkees were, it was just about having fun and being in a band. People have become more cynical about that, and that’s what made me sign Natural. They reminded me of those fun bands from the 60s, but they also play really well. They're just five young guys who basically want to go out and have fun and make good records. They're all great vocalists, performers, and musicians, and, as we say, we want to bring back the "band" in "boy band".
How do you find new talent?
We still do old-fashioned A&Ring: we go out to shows, we see showcases, we've got scouts on the streets. The major thing is that we have good connections with managers and producers, so we're always up to date with who's working on what.
How useful is the internet when it comes to finding new talent?
The internet is becoming a very valuable source. If I see a band in a showcase and get a feeling for them, I want to know more. Usually they have their own websites, so it's good to go there and see how they see and present themselves.
It's also obviously a great source of information. Sunday is my internet day when I’ll go to unsigned artists sites and see what's going on. I make a few bookmarks and see how they develop. But I usually use the Internet more for research than to look for unsigned artists.
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for that excitement; it's the same feeling as wanting to become friends with somebody, there is a reason why – it - clicks. With an artist, I want to be entertained. I want the feeling that they do it because they can't imagine doing anything else, that they're born to be entertainers and that they enjoy it. Joe Strummer once said, “Joe Public does not want to go and see Joe Public”.
What do you think of German talent in general? What are its strong points and its weaknesses?
There's a lot of talent in Germany, and there's a growing awareness of the fact that you can actually have a career in music and entertainment. The downside is that they're not, at present, as professional as their American and English counterparts, and they don't have their infrastructure to fall back on. They obviously want to sing in English, which isn't their mother tongue, so you've got barriers there. For the moment, they're going to be second class citizens.
It took many years before the techno scene became the worldwide phenomenon it is, and it was the first time that an actual musical movement or genre came out of Germany. It's going to take some time before Germany produces top-level artists like Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, Shakira, Kylie Minogue, and Robbie Williams, but it's not far away.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. It's very time-consuming, because we receive roughly 4,000 demos a year, and we listen to all of them. If somebody has made the effort to send you something, you should at least have the courtesy to listen to it. But the proof is in the pudding: I've been here for two and a half years, and we've yet to sign an act through unsolicited material. That's disappointing, but it's quite simply because the quality is not there.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
What I find astoundingly obvious is that, if I apply for a job at British Airways, then I'm going to try to find out about British Airways and the job I'm applying for. If I want to be an accountant, I'll have to train for that job. It really frustrates me that people pick up a guitar or stick a microphone in front of their mouth and that's it, they don't look for any further information.
There's plenty of literature out there, also on the Internet, about how the record industry works, about contracts, what an A&R does etc. You can inform yourself about this industry, and there's no excuse for saying “I got ripped off” - it's your own fault.
Even people who have been in the industry long enough to know better still aren't knowledgeable about it. The amount of artists who don't prepare themselves for the business they're entering is inexcusable. If they bought some literature, they could at least understand how the industry works, how to approach it, and maybe look for a unique way of doing it.
Does it matter where artists are from when you consider signing them?
Natural are from the States, and we constantly look at acts from other territories. The only thing is that you need a certain amount of closeness to the artists, and if they are in the States, UK or France, how close and how tight is that bond going to be? That’s the downside of it.
You could invest a lot of money to pull them closer to you, or you've got to accept this distance. We have a French act called –8- that we've been working on for two years, and it's taken two years quite simply because they're a long way away, and the communication is not as close as if they were living in Germany.
So yes, we're open to it, but signing a band from the States or the UK is such a huge investment. They may be good enough, but it has to be weighted against the logistics involved.
Do you give any importance to who the manager, attorney and team behind a new act are, when considering signing them?
The German music industry is not nearly as professional as it should be, and its infrastructure and organization holds no comparison to that in America or UK, to which it must be compared because Germany is also a major music market. The level of professionalism, certainly at management level, leaves a lot to be desired. Because of this inexperience, managers usually get in the way and cause confusion.
It’s important for an artist to have good management. Of two artists equally talented, I'm going to take the one with a good infrastructure, because it brings another level of professionalism, another level of contacts, efficiency, and possibilities. We have to offer the consumer far more than we have been doing, and if you don’t have a professional infrastructure, it's not going to happen.
What do you think of German producers in relation to US and UK producers?
On a technical level, they certainly meet the same standards. The whole level of creativity is something else. Whether they're capable of turning out the same level of creativity over a period of time, like their American and UK colleagues do, is something they have to prove.
But German producers have come on in leaps and bounds. The problem they have is who to look to for guidance and reference. They have to learn by doing it, because there isn't a history of years and years of pop music culture in Germany. In London, New York, or Los Angeles, there are thousands of studios where you can go to and pick up that experience, and that’s something they haven't had. It doesn't mean that they're any worse, it's just a case of them needing longevity and experience, which comes with time.
Do you agree that, other than dance acts, few German artists seem to break in territories other than GSA? If so, why do you think this is?
With the exception of Thomas Stein (President BMG Germany and Eastern Europe – Ed.), nobody else at a high level has any international experience, and that’s a problem.
But how many French, Swedish or Dutch acts, for example, break out of their territories?
All countries have the same problem. Everybody talks about the UK and US charts, but I have to say that the UK Singles Chart is a joke. With that speed, they're damaging themselves. How can you take that seriously? But people still look to those charts for inspiration and guidance, and nobody looks at the Dutch, German or French charts.
German artists are no worse than French or Spanish artists, but these markets are not looked at internationally as a source for talent, even though the talent is there. That’s something that has to be done at a management level.
What marketing tools are important when breaking new acts?
At the moment, to break mainstream acts, it's just TV. It's as simple as that, and really depressing. If you don't get TV, you don't break a mainstream act, even though radio helps to a certain extent.
But for other genres, it’s still a classic case of dance acts go to the clubs, rock and hip hop acts need to play live and build a fan base to the point where they make a video clip. The acts that we've broken in the rock scene, Die Happy and sub7even, play 150 to 200 gigs a year. You can't just break them with a video, because you don't have a base.
What do you think about the radio situation in Germany?
It's a joke. Even one of the most respected radio stations in Munich, Bayern 3, is changing their format to do exactly what NRJ is doing, so you can hardly tell one station from another. They all play the same thing, and they all have the same argument, “We'll play it when it's a hit”. A classic Catch 22 situation.
With the growth of the Internet, what role do you think record labels will assume in the future? What will their business model look like?
Without a doubt, the music industry structure is going to change. It has to. What's it going to look like? Well, it will be a mixed model, like that of a smaller company. Many of the independents control the merchandising, the tour revenues, the Internet performances, as well as the CD releases, and that’s somewhere all record companies have to go.
The only industry you can compare the music industry with is the film industry. In the film industry, they control everything, including merchandising, distribution, and cinemas. And where it's going to go, on what conditions, the price, VHS and DVD releases etc. It’s completely controlled, and the more control you have, the more you can dictate how successful your product can be, by putting it in the right place at the right time.
That’s something the music industry has to look at. An act can demand a huge fee for a live performance because they're successful, but they've become successful due to the work of record companies, who put all this money into developing an artist. Then when he/she demands a million dollars per show, they don't participate in that at all. But without the record company, the artist couldn’t charge anything for a show.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would take away the fear the majors have of the independents. Without the independents, there's no love in the industry. They have to be there to develop new artists. Independents have always been as important as having a B league in soccer. Stars are not born overnight, they have to be worked and developed. That has always been the lifeline for major artists, and there are very few that have not come from an independent background.
I would question the emotion behind what we do, and how we present it. The CD is 20 years old. Where's the emotion in putting a piece of plastic within a plastic box and putting it in a record store with a price on it? The product has distanced itself from any type of emotion. Your first kiss, the first time you had sex, the first time you drove in an open car, it's all linked to music. It's a direct relation to any emotion you have, and that real emotion has to be brought back into what we do.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I enjoy every day. I'm doing a job that I dreamt of when I was 10 years old. But it's not my job; it's my hobby. I just wouldn't know what to do if I didn't do this. I get a buzz coming into work every morning and deem myself a very privileged person.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Depends on whether we have an industry or not! There are very few A&Rs who become pensioners. What fascinates me is how records are put together, so I would like to be involved in that process in one way or another, at a management level, an advisory level, or organizing festivals.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman