Interview with ENGIN AKINCI, A&R at Sony Music Turkey for Sertab (EUR Top 15) - Jun 7, 2004
"Finding new talent is quite a difficult process because we don’t have a proper management system in Turkey."
Based in Istanbul, Engin Akinci is head of marketing and international A&R at Sony Music Turkey. One of the artists he A&Rs is Sertab, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003 with “Every Way That I Can”, which subsequently became a European Top 15 hit.
Here he describes the strategies that were employed in designing Sertab’s success and gives us a comprehensive overview of the Turkish music industry.
How did you get started in the music business? How did you become head of marketing at Sony Music Turkey?
I started as a musician. I sang in a rock band while I was at university in the ’80s. I then went to Canada and studied music for a year, and then music production and broadcasting for another two years after that. Upon my return to Turkey in 1993, I worked for TV stations and I also hosted a radio show at a major rock station in Istanbul called Hur FM.
In 1996, I successfully applied for a position as marketing manager at Sony Music. First of all, I was sent on a hands-on training course at Sony Music UK for three months, and then I worked at the European regional office, which is based in London, for a month. That gave me an understanding of how a global record company operates, and a grounding in music marketing and promotion.
Back in Turkey, I was put in charge of the local and international marketing departments at Sony Music Turkey, and I also did A&R. Three years later, I was promoted to marketing director, although I also do international A&R.
What artists do you A&R?
Sertab and other artists, mainly local artists. I have worked on a few successful Greek acts in the past, as Greek music is quite popular here. But my international A&R career started with the Sertab project.
How did Sony come to sign Sertab?
She was one of the main success stories in Turkish pop music historyshe released her debut album “Sakin Ol” on an independent label in 1992 and it sold more than one million copies, and her second album sold about 800,000. She was a star, but she wanted to work with an international record company, because she also wanted to be popular outside of Turkey, especially in Europe.
Most Turkish artists manage themselves, so you have to deal directly with them. This was also the case with Sertab. We had to come up with a strategy for her to become an internationally recognised artist, which wasn’t easy—only Tarkan (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.) had managed to break outside Turkey. We were able to persuade her that she would have an international career with us and she started working with us in 1997.
It took years to develop Sertab and, as would any artist, especially a self-managed artist, she came up with really crazy ideas that had nothing to do with the market or that were simply not good for her career. We had to explain why she shouldn’t do this or that and why she should do the opposite instead. It took a long time, but she learnt a great deal.
She now knows more about the record business and about how an international record company operates than any other Turkish artist, including what she can expect from the label, what she should develop on her own, what management involves, etc.
She runs her own management company and we are her record label, which has worked very well so far, but as things have taken on a larger dimension, particularly in Europe, we’ve advised her that she needs an international manager to take care of her career.
Who are the team around her?
Her manager is currently Yesim Doran. Yesim and Sertab take the decisions, and then they have a publicist, a production manager, and Sertab’s brother, who is one of the highest-earning advertising executives in Turkey. He comes up with ideas and Sertab relies on him a lot from a creative point of view.
How did she come to represent Turkey in the Eurovision Song Contest?
TRT, Turkey’s public radio and television company, asked her if she wanted to represent Turkey. It was quite a risky step for an established artist to take, because the Eurovision Contest had never been taken very seriously here, but Sertab saw it as an opportunity that could open doors for her.
She and her songwriting partner and producer, Demir Demirkan, came up with three songs, and TRT chose the most up-tempo one, “Every Way That I Can”. The song in its original version was arranged by Ozan Colakoglu, who produced Tarkan and other famous Turkish artists.
The song was to be released as a single in Europe, so we had to come up with a few remixes. I thought of letting the French dance duo Galleon, Gilles Luka and Philippe Laurent, do one. I asked them to do a more up-tempo version with more of an edge, a bit of a twist to it, and they understood totally and came up with the now famous version, which we all thought was fantastic. It just filled all the blanks on the map for us and Sertab loved it so much that she performed the remixed version in the contest.
Did you market her in Europe before the contest?
In many European countries, Sertab wasn’t a new name. Her Turkish-language “Best of Sertab” album had been released in many European countries and she had also sung a duet, “Private Emotion”, with Ricky Martin, on his 1999 album “Ricky Martin”, which was released as a single. Another version of the song was also recorded with the Swedish singer Meja and the territories themselves chose which version to work on.
When the Eurovision fever started to build, many people went on the Internet and found that Sertab was one of the candidates most likely to win the contest, so the attention was on her. We collected her video, photographs and biography into a package, which we sent to all the international Sony offices, in more than a hundred different countries.
The first to believe in the project and to come on board were Sony Music Germany. Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Greece and Israel followed. Then they saw its potential at Sony Music Europe’s regional office and they began to help us to put the marketing and the promotion plans together.
Another key issue was our collaboration with Music and Media magazine, which at that time was the European equivalent to Billboard. For a fee, you could get a track featured on a CD showcasing European talent that they would then give away to their subscribers, who are mostly radio programmers, radio DJs and record label representatives.
We took the crucial decision to include Sertab on it three or four weeks before the contest, and it started getting airplay. That really did the trick for us, because you get three minutes to make an impression in the contest and if people like it, they vote for you, and if they don’t get it, they don’t. But when people have already heard the song on the radio, they can relate to it in another way.
What happened after she won the contest?
The song became one of the biggest hits for Sony Music in 2003—a Top 5 or at least Top 10 single everywhere in Europe. She then went on to record her first English-language record, “No Boundaries”, which was released in January 2004 in most European countries. She’s still promoting that record and the new single from it, “Leave”.
Did you adapt her music to suit the international market in any way?
That was the challenge, because Sertab is in her late thirties now and it’s quite difficult for a Turkish artist with that background to be accepted as a Britney Spears or even a Dido. We had to come up with plans to ensure that she got exposure on MTV, VH-1 and radio, which she needed to break internationally. That’s why she came up with a pop album with a lot of oriental and Turkish influences.
It was a good decision in some ways, although not in others, because even though “Every Way That I Can” was a massive hit and radio and TV were all over it, the next single, “Here I Am”, was a bit of a backlash for us, because European media said it didn’t conform to their format. They said they liked it but that they didn’t know what to do with it, so it didn’t go anywhere.
We’re going in a new direction with “Leave”, which is a powerful ballad that undeniably shows Sertab’s talents, and we’re being very careful to get radio this time.
Who are the famous Turkish Sony artists?
None of them have been exploited on an international scale yet, but we have quite a few artists who are happening locally.
Nil is a very hip, up-and-coming artist. Her first album sold 120,000 copies and we’ve just released her new album, which has sold 110,000 units in two months. She’s becoming a massive artist for us and she’s caught the eye of David Massey, senior vice-president at the Sony International A&R department.
Nil worked with an A&R team headed by Nick Feldman in London last summer and she had a hit with “XL”, which MTV loved. We made an English version that was worked on the Mediterranean club scene.
Göksel is a very solid seller as well. Her debut for Sony, which was her second album, sold in excess of 220,000 copies and she has recently released another album that is also selling very well.
The other acts mainly do Turkish music and of those artists Yavuz Bingöl is doing particularly well. We’re also trying to establish several promising rock acts.
How do you find new talent?
It’s quite a difficult process because we don’t have a proper management system in Turkey. There aren’t any entertainment lawyers presenting new artists, so we have to go out and look for them. Some new acts play at clubs, but they generally don’t have a clue. When you talk to them, it’s like talking to someone from another planet, and when you show interest, they think they’re Aerosmith and come up with the most unbelievable requests.
It’s quite difficult to find new talent that way. You need to know people, for example, the promoters who give new artists a chance, or the small production companies who spot the new stars but don’t have the money to put them into production.
The live issue is quite important. You need to be an artist or a band that likes to perform on stage, something which not all Turkish artists want to do. Many just want to put out an album, do a video and be famous, but when you ask them about playing live they aren’t able to do that.
They expect the record company to provide everything for them instead of getting their own team together with a manager and a lawyer. They just want to sit and wait for everything to happen, maybe playing four concerts a year. To be honest, most of them are lazy and we try to avoid those that are.
Do you take other territories into account when considering a new artist?
We sign for the world, but it must start locally. You have to be successful in Turkey first, so that you have a story to sell in other territories.
As far as labels are concerned, who are the market leaders?
Independent labels dominate the market and they always have. Major label participation in the market was restricted to Sony, Universal and BMG, but BMG has shut down its office and instead licenses its catalogue to DMC. Only Sony and Universal have wanted to work with local artists, which has traditionally been the independent labels’ domain.
Independent labels suffered severely as a result of the economic crisis in Turkey in 2000 and most of them shut down. There are not many left of those that released mainstream music and none of them are able to market their product on a massive scale, as we do.
Which is more heavily featured in the media, international or local repertoire?
The market is ninety percent local and ten percent international music, and they are two totally distinct areas. Most radio stations play local music and the rest play international music—none of them play both. The same goes for TV stations, who either play local or international repertoire; only two play both, but the local music they play is just rock and pop music that is similar to its international counterpart.
What is the most effective way of breaking new artists in Turkey?
To what extent do the Turkish media give new artists exposure?
Basically, they should open up to new artists. It is very difficult to get rotation for a new artist’s video on TV stations; they simply don’t seem to like new artists. It’s all about established artists here and you have to work really hard to get them to accommodate anything new. You have to explain why the artist is important and usually, even if they like the artist, they’ll say they can’t play it, because it might jeopardise their ratings.
The media business boomed in the ’90s, when private radio and TV stations were first allowed to operate. Before 1990, we had state-owned radio and TV and they were, in a very East European fashion, “selective” about the music that got aired. When the private sector was let in, there was a massive boom. They played music by artists that no one had ever heard of, and many new artists came up. That lasted for ten years and in that period many artists’ albums sold on a massive scale, which is why the major labels came here.
Unfortunately, however, the industry was not ready for it. They didn’t have the right people to run the companies, so there was a lot of bribery and corruption at record companies, as well as in the media. Then the independent labels started paying money to the radio and TV stations to get air time for their artists and from there things took a bad turn.
The crappiest albums you could ever imagine were released by artists who should never have been singing! This ultimately led people to lose interest in new artists as they were perceived as mere gimmicks that the public was being force-fed by the record companies and the media, a perception that hasn’t worn off yet. We, the music industry, are still paying for that misconduct.
Sony, however, is in a relatively good position, because we’re an international company whose modus operandi is decent and transparent. We supply TV stations with our international repertoire and our bargaining power is therefore quite good.
What state is the Turkish music industry in?
First of all, independent labels have to develop, they have to start working as proper record companies. Most of them are run like family businesses and there’s no professionalism, one person takes all the decisions, there are no proper job descriptions for the people who work there, they don’t have a marketing or promotion team ...one person tries to do everything and that just doesn’t work.
And when it does work, it’s pure luck. Independent labels should take note of how the majors operate and adapt that model to a smaller scale.
The management system doesn’t function appropriately, which hurts the business the most. The managers aren’t real managers, they’re just friends trying to help the artists. Alternatively, artists are self-managed. We really need people with management knowledge who are willing to work with the record companies.
Most of the problems we have stem from the managers and not the artists themselves, because the managers don’t know how to deal with record companies and don’t understand the business at all. Some I wouldn’t even call managers.
What is the situation in terms of music piracy?
After the recession in 2000, piracy exploded and you wouldn’t believe how much higher piracy levels were in Turkey in comparison to Europe. Here, you would find pirated product everywhere on the streets and there was no law enforcement. Nobody was buying the legitimate albums, so sales dropped by about sixty to seventy percent, or perhaps even more, and that killed a great number of record companies.
Considerable developments have taken place recently, however. Turkey is trying to become a member of the European Union and, to succeed in that sphere, there has to be a stricter adherence to the law in general, including copyrights. The current government is taking the issue very seriously: it works with the local office of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), called Mü-YAP, and together they’ve come up with a new copyright law, which was recently passed by parliament.
We are starting to see positive signs. They’re now arresting sellers of pirate CDs and DVDs: first-time offenders are imposed a fine, and repeat offenders are sent to prison for up to a year. Bootleggers have now disappeared from the streets and, for the first time, I feel that this problem might be on its way to being solved.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Sertab winning the Eurovision Song Contest. I personally A&Red that single, and the remix successfully opened the doors for Sertab and for us.
Another success story was Ricky Martin’s “Vuelve” album, which sold a quarter of a million records in Turkey alone, making it the best-selling international album of all time here. That was quite an achievement.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
I love doing what I do at Sony Music. In recent years, the industry has been getting smaller and smaller, and with it our company, so I would love to see them grow again. I would also like to work more on the executive side and sign young new artists to Sony Music, which might lead me to start my own record company when things get better.
I would also like to get into promotion, perhaps at a management company. This is thinking far into the future, but I might just do something by myself. I’m happy working for Sony Music right now and there are lots of problems that we have to solve first.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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