Interview with JIM CHANCELLOR, A&R at Fiction/Universal for Snow Patrol (UK No.1, USA Top 10), Ian Brown (UK Top 5) - Oct 26, 2005
“If I was an artist, I would probably evaluate A&Rs and record labels on the careers of acts that I respect. That’s about the only way you can look at it,”
… says Jim Chancellor, A&R at Fiction Records UK. He is credited for signing Snow Patrol - who have sold quadruple platinum in the UK - as well as putting debut artist Stephen Fretwell and Stone Roses singer Ian Brown high on the charts.
Read about how a small label (Fiction) functions under the umbrella of a larger label (Polydor) without losing the feeling of “a boy’s bedroom”, how they work with new artists, and the path Snow Patrol took from being unknown to being an international success.
How did you get started in the music industry and what has been your route to becoming an A&R?
I started my own label with a friend of mine about fourteen years ago. It was called Mad Minute. We signed a couple of bands, made some records, and put them out. We ended up doing all the things you would do from a bedroom label point of view, like driving the bands around and booking the gigs. Mad Minute does still exist, but it’s dormant.
What experiences have been important for you in terms of developing your A&R skills?
Having been involved in every single aspect of making a record serves you well when approaching a band. Everything from finding a band to finding a studio to finding a sound to manufacturing a record. Then you can talk about the whole process rather than just, “I think you’re great, and I’d like to sign you.”
Your current home is Fiction Records. Can you outline the history of the label first of all?
Fiction Records is The Cure’s old label, which was started by Chris Parry in 1978. It was bought by Polydor some fifteen years ago and since then rolled into the Polydor system, but it’s lain dormant as a label name. Obviously it was carried on every single The Cure record that was re-released.
A year and nine months ago it was decided that myself, Paul Smernicki and Joe Munns from Polydor, who were working on the Snow Patrol album, should re-invigorate the label Fiction to give Polydor a bit more of a guitar stronghold. The vision was to give a degree of separation from Polydor regarding the pop music side and the rock music side. It was about domestically signed guitar bands. At Fiction there are six of us. Me, Joe and Paul make the decisions ultimately.
Fiction is wholly owned by Polydor. Polydor is one of the three main labels within the Universal system. We’re like a satellite of Polydor, but Polydor being a wholly owned Universal company, it’s effectively all Universal. When we sign an artist they are technically signed to Universal, but Fiction has its own budget within the Universal system.
How have you managed to revive Fiction from its dormancy?
My job as an A&R, along with my scout Alex Close, was to bring in acts. We got out there and brought in quite a few new UK based acts, and we inherited Ian Brown. Gradually over the twenty months that we’ve been operating we’ve gathered together what you could consider as a stable of artists. We’re just starting to build on that now.
We had an amazing start with Snow Patrol, and now we’ve had a bit of success with Stephen Fretwell. And then Ian Brown has always been pretty successful anyway. We’re helping Ian along with his career at this point - he’d worked with Joe and Paul on previous records and so it made sense to be a part of this.
What does Fiction as a label do and not do, and how does that affect the artist?
We act more as an indie label with acts, in the sense that there are six of us sitting in an open plan office and we just chuck ideas around rather than being all in our own little compartments beavering away. Fiction is like a boy’s bedroom.
So how does the label compare to its mother record company?
It’s the same thing but it’s smaller. We like to think that at Fiction we think about our artists a lot more. It has the whole bedroom approach. All six of us have to love what we’re involved in. It’s just driven out of passion and love for what we’re working with.
I don’t think it differs hugely from the major label. It depends on the major label. Polydor is a great company and there’s a load of great people in it. We’re just another segment of that system.
Do you, for instance, make and take more time to concentrate on your artists than perhaps a major would?
We have to, because they’re all UK signed guitar bands or artists, and those require a lot more work than some of the bigger international artists who already have a head start. Some of them are quite big before they get here, but that doesn’t go for everybody. But we have artists that come through Polydor such as Queens of the Stone Age.
When they arrived in the UK they hadn’t sold any records. It was Joe and Paul who worked on those records along with the rest of the Polydor team to break them open. It’s all about breaking artists effectively. That’s the hardest thing to do in this business, is getting them from naught to something. Once you’ve got them to something it’s a little easier to sell records.
As a label on Universal do you ever feel that being with a major can be a disadvantage when going international and not being able to choose your international partners?
We’ve been very fortunate because with Snow Patrol we found fans everywhere. The record has done okay outside of the UK - especially in America, where we’ve been properly championed by several people within the Interscope system. It has its pros and cons, but that goes for everything. When it works for you, it’s fantastic. When it doesn’t quite work, it’s a little bit harder.
How did you first come in contact with Snow Patrol?
Paul, who works as part of the Fiction team, went to college with them. He’d been in touch with them. When I joined as an A&R, we both went up together and looked at them and met them and got on very well with them. We thought the songs were fantastic.
Why do you think they decided to go with Fiction?
I’m not sure there was anybody else who was interested. If there were other labels, I wasn’t aware of them.
We loved the songs and thought they were great. We decided to go for it. Hopefully they work with us because they think we’re great.
And what was the big motivation behind you wanting to sign them?
They put out two albums beforehand, which I was familiar with. I thought they were good but a little bit indie. They played us some songs, which were not indie. There were a couple of popsongs and then ‘Run’, which is an enormous emotional rollercoaster of a track. It was just a question whether we could help them realise their potential, and I think we did.
What did your initial role involve?
I was involved in talking to the producer about the fact that I wanted a record for them that was bigger and bolder and a lot different than their previous records. I wanted them to make a more of a rock album rather than an indie record. I left it in the hand of Garrett ‘Jackknife’ Lee, who I felt was very talented.
He had a foot in the rock world from his previous band Compulsion. He’d also done loads of amazing remixes and was well known in the dance world. I felt that he had the perfect credentials to take a band that were a fairly straight forward Celtic indie band and transform them into something more than the sum of their parts.
How was their material chosen?
There were certain tracks that pretty much picked themselves. The rest was a little bit of a debate between me, the producer and the band. There were about 24 songs, and the band went in and started working on about fifteen. We ended up cutting twelve that went on the album in the end.
Did the band find it difficult changing from indie into a more commercial direction?
The first couple of weeks in the studio were quite difficult for them. But they were utterly amazing. They were so up for listening to what the producer had to tell them about how to simplify their songs and augment them, whether it’s with strings or stuff like that. They are a very musical band as well.
I think they felt it was their opportunity to take that step forward, and they took it. Some bands tend to be more defensive about what goes on in the studio. Snow Patrol weren’t. They were very much like: “Yeah, we really want to be successful this time.”
And if that’s what it takes, then that’s fantastic. They have a sound which is them. I just got some new songs for the new album, and you can hear it - Gary’s voice is amazing. They have a certain way of writing a pop melody which I think they’ve made their trademark. And hopefully they’re going to be around for a very long time.
You are also A&R for Ian Brown, the lead singer from The Stone Roses. How different is it being A&R for someone who is already well-known as opposed to working with a new band?
There’s not as much to do. Ian is very much the master of his own records. He is fantastically talented. If there’s anything I can do to help him, I do it.
I feel honoured to be working with him. What Ian does now is different from The Stone Roses. It’s what Ian wants to do, and that’s the most important thing. He has the freedom to do it.
What chances do artists over 35 years old have in the business if they’re not already known?
There have been several examples of artists that old. It’s not that old, but in the music world it might be considered old. I think it’s all down to the songs. If the songs are really good, people will buy the records. There have been a few examples of that. They are artists that might be a bit more mainstream, but they’re actually selling albums. It’s all about how good the songs are.
What other artists are you currently working with?
Stephen Fretwell. He’s a singer/songwriter from Scunthorpe. He put out his debut album in November of 2004. The record has recently gone gold. That’s fantastic. And we’re looking to make another record with him fairly soon.
We are working with a band called Your Code Name Is Milo. They put their debut album out last year. They’ve been on tour. And they’re writing some more songs for the next record.
We just signed an Irish band called Humanzi from Dublin. They’re just putting the finishing touches to their debut album. Their debut single is coming out in November.
How do you find new talent?
I’ve got a guy called Alex Close, who is just amazing at finding new bands very early on. And the Internet is a hugely important tool these days for A&R. It’s a mixture of stuff that comes from people that I know directly. After I started my own label, I ended up working for a producer/manager, looking after engineers, mixers and producers. I’ve met a real cross section of people through this business. Through the producers I met most of the A&R men as well. It’s a real mixed bag of people.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
I get quite a few CDs most days. I try and listen to them all. It tends to get a little overwhelming at times. But if it’s really good, the cream tends to rise to the top.
What do you look for in an artist or an act?
Uniqueness. Good songs. And that sort of magical thing, which you just can’t explain. Sometimes you see an artist and you just go: “I don’t know why, but I just think it’s amazing.”
How ready-to-go must artists be before you look at them seriously?
They don’t have to be that ready. The market that we live in demands stuff very quickly and the media tend to pick up on new talent much quicker than they used to. Sometimes you’d like to have longer than you’ve actually got. I’ve done a couple of development deals while I’ve been here. Some have worked, some haven’t. It doesn’t really matter. If we think that they’re potentially brilliant we’ll get involved. We’ll tailor a deal to fit where we think that particular act are in their career.
How important is it that the artists you work with also write songs?
I’m not a great believer in artists who require songs from other people.
What are the most important marketing tools for you to break new acts?
It depends on what type of act. Stephen Fretwell had a good start with about 10,000 sales. But to get from 10,000 to 50, 60, 70, 100,000, we needed some radio. Radio has become quite important in the UK. But the style magazines like NME and Q are very important as well. They lead the way in introducing artists to people. And MTV has got its part to play as well. MTV 2 was quite important for Snow Patrol. They added the video very early on and we definitely had some impact off the back of that.
How much does it typically cost to record an album and then market and promote it?
As much as it takes or as little as it takes. Every single record is different. The Willy Mason record was made for pence, as was the Scissor Sisters record. The Snow Patrol record wasn’t expensive. It just depends. I’m sure the U2 record costs lots and lots and lots.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It’s very competitive. It’s a bit scary. But then again, that’s good. There’s lots of good music. There are loads of new young bands, which means that kids are picking up guitars and wanting to write songs, and that can only be good.
If you were an artist and offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
Probably on the careers of acts that I respect. That’s about the only way you can look at it. For example, if you’re in a band and you like Franz Ferdinand, you look at Domino Recordings and you probably go: “I would like to go and sign there.” That’s basically what we’re trying to do.
Fiction is making an attractive place for bands to come and sign. Because we put out records in a way that represents the artist signed here. Laurence Bell at Domino is brilliant at that. Parlophone is brilliant at that. I hope that Fiction are good at that. It’s all about making your mark.
What kinds of artists, bands and style of music would you like to see gain more popularity?
I’ve always loved a bit of heavy rock. I haven’t got a problem with that. And there’s not enough guitar music in the charts. For some reason there seems to be one or two bands that seem to break through every year, but it never seems to be much more than that. I think that’s a little bit of a shame. But maybe that’s just me being greedy.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Make records more readily available. And spice up radio a bit. Be a bit braver about some of the formats of radio. Radio is very BBC-centric here, and we need a bit more variety. Which is coming with digital radio.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Seeing Snow Patrol’s record go quadruple platinum at the end of last year.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years time?
Hopefully still putting out records by great artists, and being respected for doing it - being able to put out records that I love, and getting to work with artists that I totally respect and love as well.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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