Interview with RUBY MARCHAND, VP of International A&R at Warner - Sep 22, 2003
"Music from Eastern Europe will potentially have a tremendous impact."
As VP of International A&R at Warner Music International in New York, Ruby Marchand has worked with Laura Pausini, Miguel Bosť, Ofra Haza and a host of other artists. Here she describes the ins and outs of global A&R and provides an overview of the most important issues to consider when placing songs in foreign territories, among other things.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
I responded to an ad in the New York Times. It was placed by an A&R man named Dan Loggins, who was hired by Nesuhi Ertegun to start WEA Internationalís first international A&R department. Dan was dissatisfied with the people heíd interviewed for the position as his assistant, so he decided to place his own ad in the Times, under ďMĒ for music. It only appeared once.
I happened to see that tiny ad and it really spoke to me. ďIf you have a knowledge of music and speak French and German, call Warner Communications,Ē it said. I had recently studied at the Oberlin Conservatory where I played the flute; I had a background in jazz and classical music primarily, but also in pop and folk music. My major at school was translating French and German women poets into English. I also worked for the public television station, WNET/13 in New York, in an experimental TV lab unit that pioneered the use of video, alongside Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, and many other seminal video artists.
What is your job description?
I am the global A&R person within Warner Music International. Iím based in New York, but I donít work for a US label. I work for a company that has affiliatesólocal Warner companiesóin many different parts of the world. Most of those affiliates actively sign local artists. There are close to 1,000 artists on the Warner Music International artist roster worldwide, which doesnít include our sister US labels, Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic.
I donít sign artists directly to the company, but Iím available to all the A&R people and their artists around the world. My job is to help the local A&R people develop their artists, be it locally, regionally or globally. Each project is individual, based on who the artist is, how they wish to grow, and what dreams they have for their musical careers. I never impose song or producer ideas on an artist; we work together as a team. At times I A&R projects from beginning to end, especially if an artist is recording in English for the first time. At other times, Iím what I jokingly refer to as an A&R swat team, and I come in for a specific purpose, such as finding a single when the rest of the album is ready to go.
Iím an in-house resource to help artists and local A&R staff in whatever way they need me to. If an artist is a writer looking to develop his or her skills, I suggest specific co-writers. If theyíre interpreters, I bring them songs that I feel will enhance their careers. If theyíre looking for a producer or a mixer, I suggest people who I believe will complement them musically.
As a global A&R executive, you have to intuitively understand the melodic and rhythmic preferences of different cultures. Thereís a difference between finding the right song for Japan, Korea, Taiwan or the Philippines. The same is also true in Europe, and in Latin Americaóplacing a song in Brazil is not the same as placing a song in Mexico. You eventually learn the differences; it becomes instinctive after a while. Itís an awareness that will only continue to grow in value as cultures accept each other's rhythms, melodies and nuances.
What experiences have been key to the development of your A&R skills?
Playing the flute has helped, because Iím able to talk to songwriters in musical terms. You donít necessarily need to be an arranger or a composer yourself, but you have to have the right tools, the right language, to communicate with the creative community. An eagerness to learn and absorb ideas is also very important, since you must approach different cultures and genres of music with an open mind. Whatever ideas or skills you have, just let them stay in the background while you absorb what youíre hearing from writers, producers, managers and other people at your company. You form a worldview country by country, which is necessary because every situation is unique.
Are there other international Warner departments across the world?
There are regional marketing offices, but this is the only international A&R office. There are local A&R people in many of the territories, but in terms of an A&R office that actively liaises with the world, it would be this one in New York. Local A&R people sign artists on behalf of their affiliate company, but there is no regional or global office that signs artists directlyóitís all done at the local level.
Who are some of the artists you have worked with?
I A&Red Laura Pausiniís debut English album, ĒFrom The InsideĒ (click on artist, album, or track names to listen to Real Audio files Ė Ed.), which came out in 2002. I also worked with Ofra Haza right after she did ĒIm Nin AluĒ. I worked closely with Arif Mardin on that project, which was a great honour. I worked with Miguel Bosť on one of his finest records, ĒBajo El Signo De CaŪnĒ. Iím very proud of having suggested conductor/producer Ettore Stratta to work with our Korean soprano, Sumi Jo, on a classical crossover album that has been an extraordinary success. I also greatly enjoyed working with Phil Ramone and Fito Paez on their Latin Grammy Award-winning albums.
Iíve worked with dozens and dozens of artists all over the world, either as their A&R person or as part of their A&R team. The list is huge, but it would include Olga TaŮůn, Frankie Negron, Alejandro Sanz, El Tri, Blue Rodeo, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor, Raimundos, Taxiride, Nina, A-Mei, Ilse de Lange, France Gall, Michel Berger, Randy Crawford, Noriyuki Makihara, Sugar Soul, and many, many more.
I helped define certain moments in several of these artistsí careers, working closely with them over a period of months. With other artists, I found a key single that helped launch their career, won awards, or went to No.1. In my job, visibility is less important than getting the work done. At times, I have played a role in getting artists their most successful songs, or remixes, but all the artists know is that these songs came from their team at Warner. And thatís just fine with me, because I want our artists to believe that their company has all the resources needed to provide them with the finest repertoire, producers and the like.
At what stage do you usually become involved in a project?
It varies. I work with artists who are international priorities, but I also work with artists who are just starting out. An international priority project, like Laura Pausiniís debut English album, is a prodigious commitment, and the local affiliate would probably ask me to help find the direction, the repertoire sources, and the right producers from the start.
I never take the place of the local A&R person; my role is to help them develop their resources. I would never try to make an artist change what theyíre doing to fit a standard that may not be appropriate for them. Rather, I will try to absorb what it is that makes that artist special and unique, and make suggestions to help them evolve in a natural way. The key to good global A&R is never to impose, but rather to enhance an artistís natural ability.
Can you see any specific international music trends?
Iím much more interested in new hybrids, new and intriguing combinations of rhythms and sounds that eventually begin to change the way melodies are written. These hybrids may emerge from any country in the world. When you blend sounds and ideas in a new way for the first time, the result is likely to have a very significant impact.
Will Eastern Europe become more important internationally?
Iíve been impressed by the variety of music that is emerging from Eastern Europe, everything from hip-hop to rock to new hybrids of gypsy music. In fact, our company has created an excellent compilation that gives an overview of some of the best bands from Eastern Europe, and Iíve learnt a lot just by listening to that. Several of these bands have the kind of raw energy that got most of us into music in the first place. I think music from that part of the world will potentially have a tremendous impact.
Do you think that the English language barrier will break down and that music in different languages will become more popular in foreign territories?
Weíre seeing that happen at the moment and weíve already become quite used to it. Look at the way that Latin music has reached mainstream acceptance in North America. When you hear remarkable artists, no matter what language theyíre singing in, you can still feel the power and energy. Therefore, although it may seem like itís a very slow process, because for years people have been wondering whether English is always going to be the language of choice, weíre actually watching that process unfold right now.
Was it necessary to work with new songwriters and producers to break Laura Pausini internationally?
It was a logical and important move. We identified one song that we thought would work very well in English when we studied her catalogue but we felt that it would be good to give Laura a fresh start. We encouraged her to meet new writers and producers, because she has such an incredible curiosity and a desire to be part of music in a very global sense. It was something Laura yearned for as well. The Italian team had always done a magnificent job, but English has its own nuances.
You work closely with songwriters in adapting their songs to other languages. What are some of the most important factors you have to consider?
One-to-one relationships between A&R people and songwriters become very meaningful when youíre looking at a global roster. Iím able to give the writers an insight into the global placement of songs. I try to convey the full context of possible placements, so I give writers a sense of who the artist is, the country theyíre from, whether they occupy a special place in that countryís culture, and the types of songs they respond to.
Very often we have to consider other important questions that might appear to be more subtle. For instance, if the record is going to be produced by a local production team, you need to have an understanding of how sophisticated that team might be and of the production sound in the individual country. You have to have a sense of how the final product will sound when itís done on a local basis.
If youíre going to adapt the lyric into another language, itís important to understand how that language is going to handle the lyric and if itís going to have a pleasing and powerful cadence. Over a period of time, you learn to gauge how successfully a song may be adapted locally in all these aspects. Then you can actually go through it step by step with the writers and explain how a song will or wonít work. It may sometimes be necessary to ask them to make a few changes to the song to improve its chances of being adapted successfully.
So songwriters might not always know about these different aspects.
I donít think they possibly could know without being guided. I donít think that any of this comes naturally, because itís a learning process, even for me. Every single day I learn something new about adapting songs to different cultures and languages. Even when you think you have it right, there will be a new twist as music evolves.
I learn directly from local artists from around the world, and from their production teams and A&R people. By sharing that information with writers who want to develop their careers worldwide, I am able to make a process that might be happening thousands of miles away feel very real to them.
Who are some of the writers you work with?
I work with a very wide range of people from all over the world. Iím often invited to meet writers through their publishers; I get e-mails every day asking me to meet a writer from such and such a country who is coming to New York. Unless I absolutely cannot make it, I always take the time to meet writers who are recommended by publishers.
Separately, just because of the way collaborations work, over a period of time Iíll meet the various co-writers of the writers I am working with, and then Iíll start to get calls from their co-writers. It expands almost exponentially. Itís very exciting to have such an enormous group of writers from all over the world to reach out to. I like to think that they feel the same way, that they can send me the fantastic song theyíve just written via mp3 and ask for my ideas.
I donít think thereís such a thing as having too many songs, because Iím always looking for fantastic songs in every genre. The more writers out there I can encourage to keep writing, the better. Sometimes their lives might be really up and down, because even for the best of the writers, there are periods when they need to reach out and make contact, so it works both ways. Itís very enriching for everyone concerned.
What other functions do you perform?
Iím the person within Warner Music International who officially presents our international music to our US labels for a possible US release. It means that I work very closely with an enormous group of US A&R people, but I donít work with them from the point of view of finding songs and producers for them. My role is highly specific and it involves presenting the most worthy of our overseas signings, whether from Canada, Australia, UK, Germany and so forth, choosing wisely and seeing if we can get US releases for our artists.
So you select the artists to be presented to US labels?
I have a say in it but I do not have the final say. I participate in New York, the affiliate company that signed the artist participates, and at times there is involvement from people in our main London office. For certain countries, such as the UK, Canada and Australia, itís understood that their worldwide signings should be given every opportunity in America.
For other countries, it involves a careful evaluation, which I participate in, of whether those artists fulfil a certain number of criteria, including whether they have been locally successful. If they meet the criteria, Iím certainly in favour of them being presented, because I think that the more exposure our American A&R people have to the best of our international repertoire, the better for everybody.
At the same time, we donít want to be seen as a generic supermarket. Every album is an important step in an artistís career, and involves the lives of many people. It has to be presented in such a way that the music is given every opportunity with its own unique window. I never bunch together projects when I present albums or singles to our US labels.
I like to think that, despite all the obvious limitations of getting US releases for overseas projects, if something is really strong and we present it properly to the US A&R people, each one of our presentations will have a meaningful shot. You have to be optimistic and really believe that things can happen.
I donít think a global A&R position is suitable for someone who talks themselves out of taking risks. You have to have a very positive mentality to do it. You have to be aware when something that has never been done before suddenly manifests itself. You must be able to understand when something very positive is unfolding musically somewhere on the world scene. It means that you donít box music into different genres, because you need to be able to recognise new forms. If you donít dismiss sounds and concepts as falling outside a category, then you can grasp that thereís something new and startlingly fresh going on.
Do you think that there is more local-language music breaking borders in Europe right now than ever before?
You do get the sense that borders are beginning to dissolve. Not always, of course; theyíre still there for much of the time. But then you become intrigued as to why a particular song has made it. What is it about the song or the artist that has defied all the odds and made it a huge success? Thereís a lot to be learned from just studying those examples and understanding the unique DNA of a project, when it doesnít really matter what language itís in because itís just irresistible to people.
Each language has such a unique sound. If we donít erect walls to music because we donít understand the lyrics, if we allow ourselves to fully experience music without imposing artificial barriers, we may find ourselves enchanted by the mood of the song and the underlying emotion in the singerís voice. When it all comes together properlyóthe right song, the right singer and the right productionóthe experience can be just as powerful as if we were to understand the words.
Do your roles change in different territories?
I would say that I work differently in certain territories. For instance, in the UK, most of our UK A&R people are quite self-sufficient in terms of songs and producers. Although I sometimes suggest repertoire and producer ideas, my relationship with them is more about presenting their artists to our US labels.
However, for virtually all the other territories, Iíve been closely involved in helping them A&R projects, including setting up appropriate co-writes for their artists all over the world. Very often, local A&R people and their artists come to me for access to great songs that were written in English by top songwriters. I suggest songs, knowing that they will be adapted into their local language.
As far as songwriters and producers are concerned, would you say that there is any territory that shows particular promise?
In terms of an obvious trend, in being able to export, I donít think that any country has yet come forward as visibly as Sweden did, although I expect others will. I know, for example, that there is a lot of activity in Denmark and that there are writers in every single country who have the ability to be regionally and globally successful but, since that great Stockholm moment, there hasnít yet been a phenomenon big enough to make the industry sit up and take note.
It seems that once a territory has been internationally successful, the process of acquiring awareness and knowledge is irreversible. Sweden had its forerunners, including ABBA, Europe, Roxette, Dr. Alban and Ace of Base, who showed that it was possible, and a lot of people learnt from that and built on it, so the level of knowledge and also the level of ambition increased progressively over a period of time.
Thatís a very good point. People might think it happened almost overnight, but as youíre pointing out, there were specific things that happened years prior to this sudden explosion that laid the groundwork for the whole process.
Belgium might be the next to do it, but beyond their dance successes they need to break a few artists abroad first.
Iíve been fortunate to work with a few of our Belgian artists, in particular Joost Zweegers, a.k.a. Novastar. He has tremendous talent and I think he might very well obtain much more than local success. His first album debuted at No.1 and stayed there for ten weeks. Thereís a lot of talent in Belgium; I completely agree with you.
What aspect of the music industry is in need of drastic change?
One thing I feel strongly about is the fact that the quality of albums as a whole has been allowed to degenerate. Too often people have thought that as long as there are two or three songs that will propel the record forward at radio, thatís enough. I feel strongly that it is not acceptable to release mediocre music. Music needs to have value.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years' time?
Iíve dedicated my life to global A&R. So far, it has been fantastic. There is always a new challenge, and every morning I look forward to reading my e-mails to see where in the world the next project will be coming from. Iím fortunate enough to be doing exactly what I like doing, and so I hope to continue to do exactly that for a long time to come.
Interviewed by Stefan SŲrin
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