Interview with WALTER HOLZBAUR, publisher at Wintrup Music Publishing for Wir Sind Helden (GER gold) - Jan 6, 2004
"Those at record labels who had received the first demo said that they liked the EP much more, although they were exactly the same recordings."
The German pop/rock band Wir Sind Helden laid the ground for their 2003 gold-selling album debut “Die Reklamation” with their independently released EP, “Guten Tag”.
Walter Holzbaur owns Wintrup Music Publishing, to which the band are signed. Here he tells us how the band who all majors passed on broke independently and went on to attract the attention of those very same major labels. Wir Sind Helden are Judith Holofernes (vocals, guitar), Mark Tavassol (bass), Jean-Michel Tourette (keyboard, guitar) and Pola Roy (percussion).
How did you start out in the music industry?
I started my own publishing company, Wintrup Music, in 1974, after having been the manager for Kraan for three years (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.). Through the years I’ve also managed D.A.F. (Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft) and Tab Two. I'm the publisher for Wir Sind Helden (website), but if necessary I also advise the band on deals outside of the touring business.
Who have been your most successful artists?
D.A.F. were very successful; they started the huge German New Wave boom, at the end of the 70s. They were signed to Virgin Records in London because not one German label wanted to sign them. Rheingold, who I also worked with, were part of the same movement.
We had a band called Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung or E.A.V. who sold hundreds of thousands of records in Germany and Austria. Another Austrian band called Hubert von Goisern were also very successful, and Rosenstolz are currently quite successful.
In the 80s, we had quite a few successful heavy metal bands like Helloween and Krokus. As a subpublisher, we have always represented internationally successful songwriters from the US, Canada and the UK for the German, Austrian, Swiss and Eastern European territories.
What are your activities?
Currently, six people work at Wintrup and our main activity is music publishing. We are not a record label, although we sometimes finance recordings. Our aim is to find new bands in their early stages and, instead of going to record companies straight away, start the recordings and ship the product as soon as we have completed five or six songs. If the labels are not interested in the band at that point, we finish the recordings and release the album through an independent label, which the band create for that purpose, or we talk to established independent labels.
If the band start their own label, how do you help them out?
We make the plan and we help them to get a distribution deal and an LC code (label code number – Ed.), which you need if radio stations are to play the record. We tell them how many weeks of promotion we need and what they have to do. We do our own radio promotion at Wintrup and, if the band are not able to handle the press through their label, we involve an independent press promoter.
How did the members of Wir Sind Helden get together?
They met in the summer of 2000 at a music academy in Hamburg where they all studied, all except Mark, the bass player, that is, who entered the scene later on. Judith lived in Berlin; Pola, the drummer, in Hamburg; and Jean-Michel, the keyboardist, in Hannover. The guys had all played in different bands, although none of these bands had been successful, and Judith had been a street musician in Freiburg, where she comes from, and in Berlin, where she also sang in cafés.
They started to rehearse in Berlin and at that time the songs mainly came from Judith. After a while they started to play live at small clubs like The Logo in Hamburg and Alte Wartesaal in Cologne. They booked the gigs themselves, with some help from a management company called Pophouse, who also manage Rosenstolz.
How did you come into contact with the band?
Through the producer, Patrik Majer, who actually found the band. He saw a small show they gave at a school in Berlin and he recorded two songs with them in his home studio, which he subsequently played to me in August 2001.
Those two songs were the best songs I'd heard in Germany in twenty years. One of them was "Guten Tag", which later became the first single, and the other was called "Pop Star", although that hasn’t actually been released yet. I suggested a publishing contract, we agreed to the main terms and a few weeks later, after they had discussed it with their attorney, we signed the agreement. It is a co-publishing deal with Patrik Majer’s company Freudenhaus, which is also represented by us.
What happened next?
They recorded an EP, which took about six weeks, in Patrik’s studio, although some overdubs were recorded in other studios in Berlin. The EP included “Guten Tag” and what was to become the second single, "Wir Müssen Nur Wollen". Pop House, their management at the time, and I presented the EP to all the major labels, some of their affiliate labels and the bigger independent labels. Some of the labels in the latter two categories were not interested in bands whose songs were in German, whilst the budgets of several other labels were too small. We’d never do a deal with a small indie: we’d rather put the record out ourselves and arrange a deal with a distribution company.
That was November 2001; at the management’s insistence, we also set up a showcase, which all the major labels attended. The band were still without a bass player, so some of the music came from tape. We wanted to show that they were a band and not a solo artist, but they didn’t get that and everybody just talked about Judith.
How did the labels react?
There was a straight no from all of them. They didn’t like it, they didn’t think it was original, they didn’t like the lyrics, etc. The only person who actually liked the songs and the band was the then president of EMI/Virgin, Udo Lange; his A&R people didn't like the band and he told me that that was why he decided not to sign them. Admittedly, it would have created a very difficult situation for him if he had to ask his A&R people to work with a band that they didn't like.
Had the band created a buzz by the time of the showcase?
They had a small fan base from their gigs but no media, so no, the buzz hadn’t yet begun.
Did the band have an image?
They looked as they usually look; they have no special stage clothes. This was one of the issues between the band and the management company, who wanted to push them as a pop band, which was not what the band wanted.
So that was one of the reasons why they stopped working with Pop House?
Yes, the management wanted to put together another pop act, but the band wanted to push the idea that they are a real band, as we did. We didn't want to do treat them as pop artists; we had a completely different idea. The band and the management company consequently parted in autumn 2002.
What happened then?
After the showcase in November 2001, there was a short German tour in May 2002 with two other bands from Berlin, to which we also invited people from record companies. At the end of September 2002, we had another showcase in Berlin. We said that if nobody was interested after the showcase, we would go ahead and release the EP ourselves, which is what we did in November 2002.
Why did the indie label Super Modern release the EP?
Super Modern is a small label run by Micha Maier from an office that is actually very close to our own. Super Modern is distributed by Indigo, an independent distributor, and it is a truly independent label. The company is just Micha, who makes money working as a tour manager for foreign alternative bands. The guys in my office know Micha very well because they live in the same town and we thought Indigo would be the best independent distribution company for this product.
The only two things we needed were an LC code on the record, and for the record to be available to record stores. An LC code on the record means that radio stations know that they have permission to play the music: if there’s no LC code on the record, the radio station has to contact the artist and ask for permission to play the music, which nobody does of course. Therefore, an LC code is imperative.
To ensure that the record was available to record stores we needed a distributor, because the distributor automatically lists the record in the Phono Net system, where record stores can find and order it.
How much did it cost to make and release the EP?
About €10,000 (US$11,950), including the artwork, the photos and the recording and manufacturing of the record. It was paid for by the producer, Patrik Majer; the band’s ex-management’s publishing company Partitur, which has some interest in a few songs; and us.
Were the band signed to Super Modern?
It was a kind of service agreement. We told Micha that we wanted to release the record but that we didn't want the label or the distribution company to ship the records to record stores: we only wanted them to deliver records if they were ordered by the record stores themselves. For this service, we would pay them a percentage. That was the deal.
So neither Super Modern nor Indigo marketed or promoted the record?
Not really, that was not the point. Although Micha helped out with press promotion, the only activity in that sense was our radio promotion and, two or three weeks after the release, the making of the video and its presentation to MTV. Two people in the office work on radio
promotion; when we released the “Guten Tag” EP in November 2002, they visited the bigger public and private radio stations and mailed it out to the smaller ones.
I had already talked to some of the main radio producers before that in order to get their reactions. I had, for example, talked to Jochen Rausch at 1Live WDR/Cologne, the most important pop station in Germany, so the key people had been informed when we released the record.
What kind of stations did you target?
Major public stations in general, private and so-called “college” stations. However, it is the big private stations you need if you are aiming at the Media Control Top 100 radio charts.
What reactions did you get from radio stations?
Only positive reactions. On 1Live, we had the best rotation you can get; we got evening rotation and a bit later daytime rotation too. The fact that some of the private stations picked up on it was a big sensation, because they don't usually play much German-language music.
Why do you think the private stations picked up on an unknown band whose debut EP had been released on a small indie label?
Because it was so different and fresh, because the lyrics are good, because it is authentic. The market was saturated with German hip-hop and Popstars artists, so the time was right for something new. They liked it, so they played it.
When the track got airplay, did record stores start ordering and then selling the record?
Yes, the EP sold 2,500 copies in four weeks, solely on the basis of people hearing “Guten Tag” on the radio and asking for it in record stores.
Was it at that point that you decided to shoot the video?
Yes, we did a low-budget video for “Guten Tag”, which was ready three weeks after the record had been released. It was done by a company called Filmlounge in Berlin, where the band knew people. That’s why they did it and at a very low cost. Filmlounge came up with the concept, which is based on a comic-book style. The video was paid for by Patrik Majer, Partitur and us.
Did you present it to MTV Germany?
Yes, Marcus Bunte from my office took it to MTV. He knows them very well. They put it on rotation and promised us that as soon as a real single was out and not just an EP, they would put it on heavy rotation.
Was their decision to put it on rotation based on the airplay you had previously had?
No, they really liked it, because it was completely different to all the other videos. Of course, at this point there was hype surrounding the band, but our feeling was that they simply liked the video.
Did you also contact other major TV stations, such as VIVA?
There was probably a play or two on VIVA at the beginning. Later on, they started to play the video more, of course. But it was MTV who initially played it most.
Did you start to get calls from record labels?
Yes, the same people who had previously passed on the band, in addition to other people. Companies like BMG, for example, have various satellite companies; we had offers from different BMG companies, from people who had seen the band live the first time and others who hadn't. Those who had received the first demo said that they liked the EP much more, although they were exactly the same recordings. There was absolutely no difference between the demos and the EP, just that this time we had artwork.
At that point, we stopped selling the EP and held meetings with record labels. We also talked to Indigo, but Indigo is solely a distribution company. They don't do licensing deals, but I talked to them anyway and told them what we were looking for, simply because I didn't want to push them out of the picture.
I wrote the heads of agreements and mailed them to all the major labels. They outlined all the important issues: what we wanted, what we didn't want, what we would agree to, what we wouldn't agree to, and so on, and as such they were very substantial.
Which labels did you continue discussions with after that?
We decided not to talk to Universal for various reasons. We talked to Sony, but we were not interested in signing with them, as we felt that at that time there wasn’t a positive vibe within the company for domestic product. In the end, we talked to Warner, BMG and EMI/Labels, an EMI imprint.
Why did you decide to sign with Labels?
Labels is a company with a completely different musical direction. I called the guy who runs it, Christoph Ellinghaus, because I knew him from another Labels-signed band we've been working with, The Notwist. I called him and asked him whether he didn’t listen to radio or whether he didn’t like the band, because all the labels were talking to us, but not Labels. From working with Notwist, I had the feeling that Labels would be a good company for Wir Sind Helden, because both Labels and the band have an independent, alternative attitude.
When I called Christoph, he said that he was just about to call Udo Lange, his boss, to find out why EMI hadn't signed the band in the first place. He had heard the band and really liked them. There’s an anecdote about Christoph being in his car when he heard them for the first time: he immediately stopped and tried to find out who they were. The next day, I called him right at the moment when he was about to call his boss to talk about the band.
You were therefore in a good position to negotiate a deal now that you had interest from several labels and had created a buzz.
Yes, and the deal we finalised with Labels is very substantial in terms of royalties, advances, commitment and rights for the artists. It’s a licensing deal and the band own the master. All the terms are much better than they usually are for a new band: the deal is in fact similar to that which might be offered to an established artist who is about to switch labels and who has several offers.
What happened once you had signed to Labels?
Labels rush-released the single, the exact same recording of “Guten Tag”, in early February 2003. MTV put the video on heavy rotation as they said they would. The band started to record the album with Patrik Majer again producing, but we already had the five tracks on the EP, which constituted the bulk of it. They used the same studio in Berlin, Tritonus, which they would have used for the album recordings even if we had not got a major label deal and released the album independently. Nothing changed. The new recordings were paid for by the band through the advance payment they got from Labels.
How did the single and the album do in the charts?
“Guten Tag” peaked at No. 55 and stayed in the charts for nine weeks. That was a bit disappointing for us and we still don't know why it charted so low. The fans buy the album and tons of merchandising at their live shows but for some reason they are not into buying singles. The album “Die Reklamation” was released on 7 July and entered at No. 6, which was a really good chart position, and peaked at No. 5 two weeks later. It's still in the charts and we have had seventeen weeks in the Top 30.
The album has to date sold over 150,000 copies in Germany, which is gold. They recently changed the gold figure in Germany from 150,000 to 100,000, a figure we had already achieved in September. In Austria, it has sold 17,000 copies, which is also gold (15,000).
Have the band toured in support of the album?
They have been touring all year. Ever since the single was released they have toured on their own, and before that they toured with other young bands as part of a package. They play festivals too, of course, but the key concerts are Wir Sind Helden concerts on their own tours. Their autumn tour was completely sold out.
Are you planning releases in other territories?
It’s something we’re looking at. We have started to record some songs in French, because Judith’s French is quite good. For the French version of "Guten Tag", we used a French artist we work with to discuss the lyrics and make sure that the zeitgeist is there. It wouldn’t be enough to just translate the lyrics, because they have to have the same feeling. There’s really no need to record the whole album in French; a few songs are enough. We’ve talked to a few people in France and everybody likes the band, so that will probably be our next step. We go through international affiliates of EMI/Labels and if they pass we talk to other companies.
Apart from that, what are the band currently doing?
They recently attended the MTV Awards in Edinburgh, and they did win the German Eins Live Krone, the biggest radio award for pop bands, in December. They’re also working on new songs, and they will focus on recording a new album, which we hope to release in early 2005. There will be a limited number of shows in early March next year and they will play the key festivals next summer.
Interviewed by Stefan Sörin
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