Interview with THOMAS KOWOLLIK, A&R at Universal for Juli (No.2 GER) - Feb 8, 2005
“If it’s the wrong manager I don't sign the artist”
… says Thomas Kowollik, A&R at Universal Germany. He signed and developed Juli, the biggest German breakthrough act of 2004. For this, he was awarded No.2 on the World Top 20 A&R Chart, the highest position ever for a non-American A&R.
What has been your route to become a senior manager and A&R?
I was studying economics here in Berlin and parallel to that I was a DJ. It was the time when the wall broke down and the club scene, especially in East Berlin, really exploded. The major record companies realized that, and dance music in Germany became very successful. I worked at The Tresor, a well-known club which still exists. During this time I also made some contacts within the music business: all the major companies and big publishers were recruiting DJ's, and I came to EMI Publishing in Hamburg as a junior dance A&R.
I stayed there for two and a half years, and then became a regular A&R. After having got an offer from Polygram Songs, I changed to them in 1996. I was working there for two years before I switched to Zomba Music Publishing in Cologne, where I worked for another five years, and then finally got the offer from Universal.
Before becoming an A&R, you worked as publisher at various labels, how has that affected your work as an A&R?
I was an A&R from day one in the music business; even in my days at EMI I was doing A&R. Working as an A&R at a publishing company is very similar to the work as an A&R at a record company. Of course, they’re two totally different business models and the payment is totally different, but the idea behind it; looking for new talents - it's quite similar.
How did you, as a publisher, find new talents?
The working process was almost the same as it now is at a record company: go to concerts and speak with producers and management agencies. But the subjects differ a bit - as a publisher you focus on issues related to the publishing, if they still are available. Now I ask what the guys are producing. As an A&R in a record company it's more work to do, because you have to care for the artist side as well. Otherwise the work is pretty much the same, to go out and go to clubs. You do the same work outside the company and you speak with the same people.
As a publisher, did you set up meetings, so songwriters could co-write?
Yes, of course. The work I did at that time was to involve foreign songwriters from Sweden, England and some from Denmark into the German market. My job was to introduce them to record companies and management teams. Of course, I was also looking for new talents from Germany.
When you listen to music, is there a certain aspect that is emphasized, or just an overall feeling?
I would characterize myself as a “song man”, who goes for fluent melodies and killer hooklines. I do care about whether I can sing the song out loud. What is important is if I can remember the hookline, and if it’s fun to sing. Do I like to listen to it in my car, is it catchy? That is what I go for.
What impact have your experiences in the music business had on your listening?
I grew up with rock music, but my time in the dance scene as a DJ changed my listening. It made me more directed towards mainstream and commercial music. I came from the groove, from the beat, but now I'm totally into hooklines and into great songs.
Can you separate professional listening from how you appreciate or enjoy music privately?
Yes, of course. When I work in the office, the emphasis is always on whether the music is suitable for the German market right now. Can we sell records? But privately I listen to quite other music. But the job of an A&R requires that you can separate your private music taste from business. What counts is: how is the market?
How important, from a publisher’s perspective, is it for a demo to have a good production?
Officially, I have to say “not that important”, because a good song is a good song. But unofficially, I admit that a song with a pre-production impresses me more than a cheap demo. Because then I can more easily imagine how it would sound for my artist. If you send me a demo, and there is just an acoustic guitar and some lyrics on it, I would not be as impressed as if the song has got a pre-production.
Do you have any experience of songwriters that refuse an artist a song, because the artist's repertoire would have a negative impact on the songwriter’s career?
No, my experience with songwriters is that they are happy if they get their songs played by valuable artists. But if songwriters are very convinced about their songs they might say: “This is a killer single, a top10 hit”, and then “You can only use it if it is a single, not just an album track”. Songwriters do care about their status, but all the artists I have worked with in my time have had a kind of credibility, so that has never been a problem.
Besides having a good sense for listening, what other characteristics do you find important as a publisher?
The song should be exceptional. There are a lot of good songs, especially from those professional songwriting camps like Murlyn Music or LaCarre. When you get a CD from them or from the major publishing companies, you can be sure that the material has a really high level of quality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can use them. You always have to ask: does the song fit the artist? Is it that exceptional, the song we need to bring us forward? The answer to that is mostly, “no”, but that doesn’t mean that the songs are bad. That might be the song for another artist.
When you sign a new writer, what in general does the agreement include?
On the publishing side, the standard contracts are usually for three years. I think anything below that doesn't make sense, so that’s mostly not an issue to discuss. All writers think the same thing, because you have to develop a co-operation with the writer and three years is, in my opinion, a minimum. I'm not working as a publisher anymore, but I've heard from our publishing company that the advances are very low, because the market is so flat.
What skills, from your time as a publisher, do you find helpful as an A&R?
The experience of the market, where I met all the important people and learned how radio stations and TV channels like Viva and MTV work. You learn how to sharpen the arguments for the promotion and marketing departments, who have an impact in working with an artist, or even signing an artist. But even if the artists are good, it doesn’t mean we would sign them - they could be impossible to break. And that's what I mean about experience - after more than ten years in the business I know the market and its people well. I can tell if a band is good or not, but even if they’re good, the question remains: Does it make sense for us, Universal? Should we sign them? Every record or publishing company stands for a certain kind of music. We know what kind of music we can break, and what we can't.
What specific type of music is your priority?
At my job at Universal it's pop music in general. We are developing artists, which means we’re looking for young bands or artists. But we are also looking in the dance market; Kid Alex, who I discovered, came from the dance scene, but he’s a “real” artist now, with a real band playing. So, we develop artists that come from the dance market and try to get them to the pop market.
How do you develop your artists?
The artists have to bring the potential that the market requires. They have to be really talented. What we do is to develop the talent and make them - I hate this term - suitable for the market. We emphasize their strengths and sort out their weaknesses. Let me give you an example: Kid Alex was a big talent, who also had a huge potential in songwriting, and was also a well-known DJ. So, what to do? We had to bring him to the point where he’s at right now, a killer live artist as well. Most of his songs are not 100% when they are presented to us, so we are continuously working on the songwriting. Suggestions might be trying to make a song easier, or bringing it to a certain point.
What do you need to hear in order to sign new artists?
I can't answer generally, though it depends on the market. But of course, the artist should be young, good-looking, and the voice should be outstanding and have its own character. Factors like these are really good to start with, but even that doesn't necessarily mean that you will sign them. Other important aspects are what producers are behind the artist. And if there's none, then questions will arise about what producers might be behind the artist. And then the management - if it’s the wrong manager I don't sign them.
What more than the music should an aspiring artist focus on?
It's hard to say to an artist: “Look at the market and be like it wants you to be”, because then it's not a real artist anymore. An artist should be the way he is. I'd never liked artists who say: “Okay, I present some pop songs, but if you think reggae is the big thing, I can do reggae as well”. That doesn't work. I'm looking for an artist who stands for what he is, who gives a shit about the market.
How long did you work with Juli before they were ready to release any material?
I worked with Juli about a year before they were ready to release any material. Juli were discovered in an internal discussion here at Universal - they were offered by EMI Publishing, Germany. It was a meeting with Tom Bohne, our Managing Director; Tim Dobrovolny, head of A&R and at that time for the Zeitgeist department; Joe Chialo, A&R at Universal, and I think even our international President, Jorgen Larsson, was involved.
So it was a common decision to go with Juli. When I came to Universal they were on my table, and everybody said: “Thomas, that's your kind of band, that’s exactly what you stand for”, and I said: “Yeah, that's fantastic, of course, let’s do it”. At that time the contract hadn't been signed yet, so I did it.
In what artistic ways have you contributed to the project?
We picked and experimented with three different producers, and finally decided on one of them. Actually, two songs on the album are produced by another of the initial three producers.
I gave the producers an exact briefing, and visit the studio in all phases of the project. My role has been to correct things and pick the songs for the album. We had about thirty songs but there is only one song that is not from the band.
Was there a strong visual idea from the start that could work as a guidance for the production?
Yes, the first question towards a visual direction was: where are they located within Universal? At that time the organization were restructured to some extent. At one side we had Motor Music, a rock label going for real artists, with acts like Rammstein. On the other side we had Polydor, which stands for pop music. The first decision was to put Juli in the pop division.
We discussed it with the band and said: “Either you go the band way…”, which means you do live gigs in smaller clubs for one and a half years - that's the hard way - “…Or you go the pop way”. Which means the album has to be pop oriented. We can try to do a co-operation with Bravo, which is a very popular teeny magazine here in Germany, or we could do a co-operation with Viva TV. Juli’s decision was the latter one.
What was most important for Juli´s break?
Some radio stations and the Bravo co-operation. It was quite easy, because of various reasons we had open doors. Last year Wir Sind Helden, a very popular band in Germany, had three Echos (the German “Grammy”), which is unbelievable for a new band. That was an initial sign for the media to recognize that bands with German lyrics could be successful.
Then BMG came up with Silbermond, which is a similar band to Juli, and they also had big success. And then we came up with Juli, which was very late actually. We were scared that it could be too late, but the success from Wir Sind Helden was so massive that we had no problems; the doors for bands with German lyrics were open.
Some important radio stations said: “Okay, “Perfekte Welle” is a great single, we're going to play it, we give support”. So, it was easier than with most other bands we tried to break. I admit that none of us expected that “Perfekte Welle” would turn out to be a massive hit.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would bring in the radio quota. We've had a big discussion about that for some time here in Germany. A station should be forced to play artists with German lyrics. It is becoming more frequent; the radio understands that this is what people want to hear. Unfortunately radio stations in Germany are very conservative, very careful and don’t give support.
Before playing a new song, they prefer to play Phil Collins for the ten-thousandth time. There should be a law which forces the radio stations - especially the huge ones that are paid for from taxes - into a situation like the one in France, or England with BBC and Radio One. That's the most important change.
What was your greatest moment in the music business?
It’s always when you are responsible for an artist's success, when you see the first trend charts and, “Boom! It’s going to be a hit!” Or when you do a briefing in the studio and the result is a bomb, much more than you expected - that's really great. The last huge moment was when I got the Juli album on my table. I listened to it and thought: “Wow, that’s exactly what we need! That’s exactly what the briefing was about.” These are the moments I work for.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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