Interview with ANTHONY MARCIANO, A&R at Sony BMG France for Amel Bent (No.1 FRA) - Sep 5, 2005
ďAmel already understood many aspects of the music business that other artists have a hard time grasping. That made it a lot easier for us to work with her on her first record compared to other debutantes,ĒÖ says Anthony Marciano, A&R at Sony BMG France. He is credited for signing and breaking soul/R&B singer Amel Bent (No.1 France) and L‚‚m (Top 5 France) and taking care of the artists from the French version of Pop Idol.
Read about how much it costs to produce an album in France, why he signed Amel Bent and how he found songs for her and what the disadvantages and advantages are when releasing an artist known from Pop Idol.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
Iíve always worked with artists in the music business and always worked, directly or indirectly, with record companies. First I managed artists, helping them stage small gigs and bringing them to record companies for evaluation by the A&Rs.
Then at the end of 1999 I started an internship at BMG. When the internship ended they hired me as a junior A&R because they wanted the label to grow. Later on when the company got a new team of directors I became senior A&R.
In the very beginning, were you an artist yourself?
Yes, I was a guitar player, and when I was around fifteen I had my own band. I play a few other instruments too. Thatís why I like to discuss music with artists, because when a chord doesnít fit I can suggest something else for them to try.
As an A&R, I guess you have to know a bit about music and technology. I see a lot of people in production who donít know how to use ProTools or a MIDI keyboard, and donít know how to set up the computer for a session. I think itís really important to know these kinds of things.
What experiences have helped to develop your skills as an A&R?
The most important thing has been always being in contact with artists, whether theyíre signed to the label or unsigned artists bringing in new projects. That way you stay close to whatís happening and you always keep up with the trends.
What artists are you currently involved with?
Amel Bent, and a new band that I signed called Omni, which is going to be released next year. I also take care of the artists from the French version of Pop Idol called La Nouvelle Star, and right now Iím working with Pierrick, who comes from the latest edition of that show. In addition to that I also work with Willy Denzey, who is a big r&b singer in France, and with L‚‚m, a popsinger.
How did you first learn about Amel Bent?
Amel was a contestant in Nouvelle Star. She was knocked out in the semi-finals though, so we didnít have to sign her, but we decided to go for it because she has a wonderful voice and and thereís something very humane about her that simply made her an artist we wanted to work with.
So we signed her, and we really took the time to make her album exactly what we wanted it to be. As she didnít win Nouvelle Star, we didnít have a deadline, and that afforded us the time needed to work on the album, which was about a year in the making.
Which artists from the show are Sony BMG obliged to release?
We release the winner, thatís the only contractual obligation we have. But we always sign one or two more artists from the show, because usually you find great performers. This year we signed the two finalists and last year we signed the winner and Amel, who finished fourth.
Were there other record companies offering to sign Amel?
Not that I can think of.
Why do you think Amel decided to sign with Sony BMG?
We made a really good contact with her. When we started talking about her album we came off talking the same language musically and lyrically, and also as far as production teams. We naturally agreed on a lot of stuff and she quickly made up her mind that we were the right team for her.
What also attracted us to her was the fact that sheís very mature for her age (19) - she already understood many aspects of the music business that other artists have a hard time grasping. That made it a lot easier for us to work with her on her first record compared to other debutantes.
How would you describe her?
Her album is one of the few French albums that you can actually call soul/r&b. Most French r&b music is not that sophisticated and thatís what separates her from other artists: sheís really trying to talk about something, her point of view, where she comes from, and she succeeds.
Itís not light, itís not easy; itís very profound and it works perfectly with the music. She knows exactly what she wants and where she wants to go. Itís not hip-hop, itís not soul, itís not r&b, itís not pop; instead itís a very interesting mix of the musical styles that have inspired her.
What does your work with her involve?
In the beginning I was looking for songs for her, and in England I found ďMa PhilosophieĒ, the lead single and a major hit in France. Then I introduced her to Diamís, who is a major female rap artist in France and also a friend of mine. The two started working with the French lyrics to the song and they came up with the Ma Philosophie lyrics.
For the rest, Amel and I would visit different production teams together and they showed us instrumentals, melodies and whatever ideas they had. Itís pretty funny because Amel and I always had the same first impression on everything. So, when we both liked something we knew we had to go for it.
She also worked herself on songs and she was always trying to get involved with the lyrics. When someone was working on the lyrics sheíd come in and work with him or her to make sure that it reflected her ideas on that particular topic.
You found ďMa PhilosophieĒ in England?
Yes, itís written by a guy named Blair Mackichan. It just sounded right for her because itís the exact mix of almost oriental melodies and r&b. When Amel first heard it the lyrics and the music really inspired her, so we went for it right away.
A lot of people come to me with songs and this one came from our publishing company, BMG Publishing. We cooperate a lot and they often bring me songs. I found it in one of their selections.
Did her appearance in Nouvelle Star help you break her?
It wouldnít have been harder to break her had she not been in Nouvelle Star, but it would have been harder to sign her as she didnít have any material. Had she come with her album, ďUn Jour DíEtťĒ, we would have gone for it right away and we would have broken her in the same way.
French Radio usually donít like artists from Nouvelle Star; they donít go for it. But Amel is one of the first, if not the first, Nouvelle Star artist to be played on NRJ, which is the main mainstream FM radio station. And itís not like they started it slowly, they gave her hit priority from the start because they loved the song. So, while it would have been easier to break her had she not come from Nouvelle Star, people now only see her as Amel Bent.
So, had she not been in the show she would have needed material in order for you to sign her?
A demo containing these songs, yes. You know, sheís an awesome singer, but we have a lot of awesome singers in France and just a voice isnít enough. Had she come to my office with nothing but her voice and her humane manners, then I would probably not have signed her at that time, but maybe we would have done some sort of demo deal.
Are there any disadvantages when releasing artists who gained recognition through a TV show? Does their long term-potential suffer?
Obviously, yes. But it depends on a lot of things and primarily on the artistsí personalities. Amel has a very strong personality, and sheís an artist in her own right, so it was easy to break off her Nouvelle Star image.
When an artistís existence depends only on the show, it usually doesnít last very long, because you canít fool the audience - either you have a true artist or you donít, and thatís what guides our choices of artists from TV shows. We donít just blindly sign the winner and the runner-up; instead we go for artists who have real personalities and who inspire us to make records.
How do you find new talent?
I listen to all the demos that are sent to me, although it can take a while sometimes, especially if Iím in the studio. There are also people that I trust, producers, managers, journalists, etc., and when they tell me that theyíve got something to show me Iíll listen to it immediately because they know what could interest me and what level Iím looking for.
These guys come with projects to me or introduce me to people who come with projects and thatís really how I get my stuff. I might also hear about a band thatís doing great live, and in that case Iíll e-mail them and ask them to invite me to one of their shows. When itís in the urban game then I mostly hear about it from other artists. Theyíre always performing together in shows and someone knows someone who knows someone.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, but with song pitching, it really depends. Usually Iíll call all publishers and tell them what Iím looking for and theyíll send me a CD or two. I get a few by e-mail too, but thatís not really the best way because it overflows my mailbox. Overall, I get about 10-20 demos every day.
What do you primarily look for in an artist?
I listen to whether they have something to say or not, and if they say it well, because lyrics are really important in France compared to other markets. Lyrics are 90% in here. But itís not necessary for them to bring me a massive hit right away; in the beginning Iím really looking for artists.
If you were an artist, by what criteria would you judge an A&R and label if they were offering you a deal?
I would never look at their track record, I think that would be unfair because many of the most talented A&Rs are the ones that you havenít heard of and that havenít yet been given a chance to do something.
Most of the people who I trust in the record industry are not the ones you would think of - theyíre not famous, and they havenít done much, but I trust them because I know they have the right vision.
If I was going to a record company to sell them my project, which I have done in the past, I would listen very carefully to the A&R, not because he is an A&R, but because I donít have the objectivity to judge it myself. No matter who it was, I would listen and take notes, because itís a judgement on your music and that is always important.
After that it would come down to the way he feels about the project: how he listens to it, how he pays attention to the lyrics, and how he thinks of things that I might not even have considered in terms of production, structure and melodies. If he can provide good input to my project, it would be someone that I would want to work with.
How important is the role managers play in the French market - is it necessary for an artist to have one, and how much do they contribute to the development of the artist and his or herís breakthrough?
It depends on what type of artist youíre talking about, but managers, as well as independent producers and publishers, all play an important role in selling the artist to record companies. Itís not always good to have the artist himself in front of you and tell him what you feel about his music, because you might say things that could be hurtful.
Itís best if the managers sell the projects; they play an important role as the interface between the artist and the business. Artists should not get too involved with the details of the music business because it takes them away from what theyíre supposed to do. Itís important that someone takes care of the business stuff for them so that they can concentrate on their music.
How much does it typically cost to record an album in France?
You can take an urban album produced in a home studio, for example with ProTools and an Apple G5, and then you only need a good mix. An album like that could cost 40- 50,000 EUR (USD 50-60,000) to produce, although the average would be 80-90,000 EUR (USD 100-110,000).
What do you think about the media situation in France; do radio and TV break new artists?
Itís getting better, because we now have TNT, which is cable TV accessible for all, which means that we have a lot more channels, especially new music channels. Weíre going to have a lot more videos playing, which is really good.
There are also a lot of new specialised music magazines coming out, which is really good too. Radio would be the situation that hasnít changed. For young people, which is what I specialise in, you have three major mainstream radios, NRJ, Fun Radio and Skyrock.
What would you say is the major difference musically between the US and the French markets?
In France, the country market is non-existent, and we only have a few mainstream rock bands, basically KYO and Luke, both Sony BMG bands. The urban market in France is expanding. Weíre a bit behind the US, but weíre getting there.
But as I said earlier, French people like songs, whether itís pop, r&b or rock, that can be played on the piano or on the guitar, and that they could sing along with. They want to hear the lyrics. Thereís a lot of very minimalistic music in the US with great hooks, but almost no melody and no lyrics. This is not the type of stuff that would work in France.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís obviously not at its best right now, at least not for the majors, because of the downloading. But I think itís a great opportunity for artists; itís going to give them way more opportunities to get known, and instead of selling 25,000 CDs at your concerts, you might as well do free promotion on the Internet. Itís going to open a lot of doors.
As far as the record industry is concerned, weíre looking for artists all the time, that is what the industry is good at, because this is our business and this is our job, and until we close down the business this is what weíll do.
So, Iím not really looking at record sales and thinking I have to sign fewer artists because we sell fewer records. Itís just not the way we think. When we have a great artist that everybodyís excited about, then weíll go for it, whether the market is good or bad.
If you could dramatically change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
Iíd change the singles market, which isÖ well, you have to say that itís really kids that make up the singles market and itís dramatically poor in terms of artistic input. The No. 1 in France right now is Crazy Frog with ďAxel FĒ, with, you know, that little frog that makes these sounds. No. 2 and 3 is Ilona Mitrecey, who sings songs for kids with animal names in them.
I love the English market, especially their album charts where Bloc Party or Scissor Sisters can be No. 1. This is the type of market I would like to have in France.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Amelís ďMa PhilosophieĒ. It happened really fast, I remember sitting with Amel and Diamís writing the lyrics for this song, which took a day, and the next thing I know weíre doing a small showcase with Amel and everybody sings the lyrics by heart!
A month or two later I go to a wedding and the band start singing the song and everybody sings along. The impact of something weíd done in a small team, all hoping it would work but not really knowingÖ that was a great feeling to see it happen!
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 yearsí time?
Running Sony BMG! No, Iím just kidding. Iíll never be able to work in anything else but the music business. So, whether Iím still here - which I hope to be, because itís a great company to work in - or whether Iím somewhere else, Iíll be working closely with artists, because thatís my thing.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: The Final Results of Label Vote 2005
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