Interview with LARS TENGROTH, A&R at Playground Music Sweden for The Rasmus (No.1, GER) - Oct 6, 2003
“More artists are going to own their masters in the future.”
Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Lars Tengroth is director of A&R at the independent record label Playground Music. He signed and currently works with the Finnish rock band The Rasmus (Finnish double platinum), who recently topped the singles and album charts in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
Although I originally have a background in journalism, I wanted to be a producer, so I started working as an engineer at the MNW Records studio in 1987. I did that for a year and then I got a job at MNW as a PR person. MNW was a very small company, so I got to do everything from listening to demos to doing promotion and A&R.
What key experiences have contributed to your A&R skills?
It's hard to point out any specific experiences. You learn by your mistakes and inevitably that takes time. I learnt by working from the ground up. With Peter LeMarc (click on artist or track names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), a domestic Swedish artist, I worked on his breakthrough album and I learnt a lot from him about the artist's integrity and how to work with the media. My background as a journalist also came in handy when doing PR and promotion, because I understood how the journalists were thinking.
Which genres do you focus on?
I've always been keen on melodies and melancholy, so most of the things I've worked on have those two elements. And I'm a pop/rock fan; I like guitars, and I like good choruses.
What is Playground Music?
Playground Music is an independent company owned by other independent record companies such as Edel, which owns the larger part, Beggars Banquet, and others. We distribute and represent European labels, as well as running our own label with our own A&R department.
It was set up in 1999 and it took off very fast. Over a couple of months, we opened five offices in Scandinavia and released one hundred records. Many of the people involved came from MNW and they brought in their skills and their contacts with European labels. I came in after a couple of months, so I was more or less there from the start.
Where do you primarily aim to sell your records?
We have our own distribution network in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, and we have partners in the Baltic countries, Iceland and Russia. Beyond that, we license territory by territory.
What acts are you currently working on?
I'm mostly working on The Rasmus, but I also work with a house DJ called Eric S., and a garage band called The Teenage Idols. Apart from that, there are several demo projects that are not yet ready.
How did you become aware of The Rasmus?
It was late 1999. Petri H. Lundin, The Cardigans’ manager, who was working in Helsinki, said I should check them out, so I saw them play live in Helsinki and fell in love with them straightaway. They were so good, so energetic! Though they were only twenty years old, they had already released three albums and been moderately successful in Finland. However, they wanted a career outside Finland, and they thought we could help them. And so we did. It started in Scandinavia and now they’re licensed all over the world.
What made you want to sign them?
They had the songs, they were stars, and they could play. Lauri, the singer, has a unique voice, plus they were young and hungry, although somehow experienced at the same time. They had everything you could ask for in a band.
How did you work with them once you had signed them?
They wrote a lot of songs. The album we did was very different to what they had done before, so it was like starting from scratch; we were creating a new band so to speak. This time, they worked with producers, which they had never done before. The producers were Swedish and it was a big step for them to record the album in Sweden. We also worked on the songs a great deal before they went into the studio, which was new to them.
They already had the stage show, but all the elements in an artist's career are important and things can always be improved. I put forward my suggestions and ideas, they agreed with several of them, and their stage show has improved significantly.
What was the key to breaking them in Germany?
The hit song, “In The Shadows”, which has worked in every country in which it has been released. I don't know what it is, but everybody likes it. The album, “Dead Letters”, is also very solid: there is no filler material and all the songs could really be singles. They are released in Germany by Motor Music, a division of Universal.
How do you find new talent?
I get a lot of unsolicited material and, although we do listen to all of it, the things we pick up usually come from publishers or managers, because they are usually the most effective sources.
Is the Internet useful to you when it comes to finding new talent?
It's very useful. We also get demos via e-mail, and if artists provide links to their websites we can check out the photographs and listen to more of their material. I don’t surf without purpose; I usually get tips on specific artists’ sites.
How frequently do you go out to see artists live?
As often as I can, but not as often as I should; perhaps once a week. It will usually be something that I have heard before that I will want to see live. Obviously, I always want to see acts live before we sign them, because I only want artists who are genuine and not just good on record.
So you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, and we get about thirty demos a week, all of which I listen to. We have actually found things through demos several times. It's funny though, because usually, when you get a really good demo, you’ll get an e-mail from someone tipping you off about them on practically the same day, and then they’ll play live somewhere in the same week.
What are the most important traits an artist should have?
An artist must be stubborn and willing to work, of the type that never gives up; obviously, he or she must have a good voice, as well as something unique. Artists are sometimes lazy; an artist might be very talented, but talent alone won’t get you far.
Is it important that the artists you work with also write their own songs?
It's pretty important. Self-contained artists can express how they feel about things in their lyrics and in the long run it's easier to sustain a career if you're self-contained. If you have to look for other people's songs all the time, you're never greater than your latest hit single.
Do you take radio into account when weighing up a new artist for a potential deal?
Yes, quite a lot, because that’s one of the very few ways we have to promote an act, which is a bit sad, because radio formats, at least in Sweden, are very limited. For instance, there aren’t many stations that play rock. There are acts that I would have perhaps liked to sign but they seemed impossible to promote on radio. Basically, when you find something that works on the radio and that also has integrity and something unique, then you’ve hit the jackpot.
Do you attach any importance to the managers, attorneys and teams behind artists when you decide whether or not to sign them?
Yes, having a good team around the artist is important. Sometimes you sign things without the team in place, and that’s ok, but it's important to build a team around them from that moment on. Some bands are very active and do a lot themselves, whereas others need people who can help them and, if that’s the case, we try to find those people for them.
What does the development process for a new artist often include?
A range of things. They have to improve as songwriters and as musicians, and they need to learn how to work with media to avoid being eaten up by them and to maintain their integrity. Their live performances also usually need work, but then of course the process is different for different artists.
What is your level of involvement when it comes to the production?
I am as involved as is necessary, and usually quite a lot. I like to be close to the artist and therefore involved in the whole process, although not when it comes to songwriting. I play a part in the “song doctoring” and in the studio, where I listen to takes and mixes.
Do you give the producers guidelines or is it up to them to come up with the ideas and the direction?
It's a case of teamwork, but it also depends on the individual producer, because although some of them are very strong and have lots of ideas—in which case I have to fight to get my own ideas across—others are weaker on that front and so they’re more receptive to my ideas.
How much does it usually cost to record, market and promote an album in Sweden?
It can be done for very little money in Sweden. Recording an album might cost as little as €8,000 (USD8,950), but a very good studio album can be made for around € 45.000 (USD50,300). It would cost about the same to promote it.
Do you do demo and development deals?
Not often, but I don't have anything against them. We usually establish a relationship with the artist and work for a while without a deal being signed, and then we go straight to a record deal. However, if an artist delivers very good songs that are poorly produced, we might give him or her a budget to record demos, and keep the option to sign them. Of those deals, perhaps one out of every five leads to a signing.
Do your artists share the costs of making videos and albums when these are recouped from their royalties?
We go by an industry standard and videos are 50% recoupable. It's different in the case of albums: sometimes, if the budget for a recording is very low, we pay for it all, but if it’s higher, this money tends to be recoupable. It might be 50% recoupable, although we might only recoup it from royalties outside of our own territory, that is Scandinavia.
Remember the record company takes the full financial risk on the recoupable costs, plus it also pays for the marketing, promotion and art work and all the invisible costs like offices, staff and such. People sometimes don’t realise the amount of work and money it takes to make a record successful.
If artists share the costs of making the album and videos, should they also share ownership of the masters?
That’s not something that I can see happening at the moment. I'm quite old-fashioned in that I think that the record company should own the master unless the artist delivers a finished master. In that case, it's fair that they maintain ownership. More artists are going to own their masters in the future, but as a company we need a back catalogue, because otherwise the company would have no value after a while.
Are independent labels in a better or worse position than before?
Right now, independent labels in Sweden have a good chance of finding and signing talented artists. There are lots of good new bands out there, and lots of acts that have been sacked by majors. However, it's very tough to sell records and get a share of the market, because sales are diminishing and retail outlets are having a really tough time. Alternative ways of selling records are not really prevalent yet and Internet sales do not ultimately amount to much.
It’s a good time to start a new label, but you might have to wait a while before you get your money back. The whole record industry is in steady decline, but if you have the money to invest and don't need it back right away, then it's a good time to find and invest in talent and build careers.
How do you think the Swedish music industry will evolve in the next few years, from an international perspective?
It's going to be difficult for medium-sized companies. There will probably be an increase in the number of small labels popping up, labels that are more like production companies specialising in songwriting and production, but that are perhaps also involved in merchandising, publishing and booking the artist’s live performances.
What aspects of the music industry would you most like to change?
One of the problems for us is that Sweden is a small country of only eight million people, and it's very expensive to market records here, so there’s always a big risk involved. I’d make Scandinavia one market, by taking down the borders between the Scandinavian countries. I would also make radio less formatted. If would also be great to get Internet sales off the ground.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I saw something great in The Rasmus when they played in Helsinki in January 2000—it was a very strong feeling, almost a revelation—and, as it turned out, I was right.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Probably the same thing I'm doing now. There's always much to learn about all the different aspects of the industry and it's very exciting now, following The Rasmus’s success in the rest of the world, to learn more about other markets.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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