Interview with RENE RENNER, A&R at Grönland Records UK for Herbert Grönemeyer - Apr 30, 2007
"You might get more money from a major but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be worked better or get released at all. Instead of big advances we rather commit to pay tour support and marketing,"...so states René Renner, A&R for UK indie label Grönland Records.
The label that handles Herbert Grönemeyer (No.1 Germany), reissued the classic German krautrock band Neu!, and has a unique vision and expertise in regards to working European artists in the UK, and vice versa.
Renner also talks to HitQuarters about what is needed for upcoming artists to get ahead (hint: touring), as well as some of the things that can just waste time and money.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started working on Musikfestwochen Winterthur in Switzerland as the program director. The first night I booked was Radiohead, Foo Fighters and Beck in 1995.
I worked there a few years and then got a job at EMI Switzerland as A&R and marketing. I was working Herbert Grönemeyer as his product/marketing manager for 4 years and was about to leave EMI. He approached me then to start his label in the UK.
What is the concept of Grönland records? What does it stand for?
We work really closely with the artist and only do a few selected artists per year. That’s the big difference to a major label because there is only little time you can dedicate to each artist. With a major company you switch to a new artist each month and you have to get the returns by the end of the year.
As an independent label you have the possibility to be a lot more flexible and with us we have a content European background. We have a better understanding of the European market and in that sense we work with artists who has just been signed in the UK to an indie label and we work with them for the whole of Europe.
It’s been a number of artists we signed in that respect like The Earlies, Fujiya & Miyagi or Emily Haines. I think a lot of labels here in the UK neglect the continental European market. There is a huge interest for any kind of music from the UK.
What style of music defines your label? What are you looking for?
The rights for the Neu! records were a door opener for many things we started to work with in the UK. Their music was never released on CD and through the 90’s Mute Records as well as Universal US tried to sign them for licensing.
That we got the rights was a starting point for the label in 2001. So we definitely have the electronica edge but we look for originality. That gave us a certain direction. That doesn’t mean that we only do Krautrock.
We look for artists with a certain edge that might not be incredibly hip today but they won’t be out of fashion tomorrow. Something that might be quirky and different. Something that won’t necessarily follow trends but if you work with them long term they create their own niche.
Which distribution partners do you have?
We have distribution partners in every single territory. We work with Vital in the UK and then we have partners from Canada to Australia and especially in Europe in every single market where we work also with different promotion and PR companies.
We work with a network of radio pluggers and media and send them music that we like and ask them how that works with them because they always hear the latest things from the whole industry. But by the end of the day you have to trust your own gut instinct.
Why did you choose to go to London in the first place?
Initially it was quite a simple reason - Herbert was living here, and he still does. He has been producing his records here for the last 15 years. Then we had these Neu! records, which had a much bigger standing and impact in the UK then they did in Germany.
London is much more expensive than Berlin but the market still has a bigger international approach. Anything that we release here, we get calls from Australia, Japan etc. from people reading magazines like Mojo or NME. We could release the same record based from Berlin and hardly anyone would hear it.
How did you get the rights for the Neu! records in the first place?
I think that’s a question you have to ask them. I think they just felt most comfortable to be with a label that is set up by an artist. Obviously Herbert was and is the highest profile artist in Germany. Obviously he could speak to them in words that the big companies couldn’t.
Do you try to launch German artists in the UK or is it mainly about looking for music in the UK and trying to break it in the German market?
For a German artist to get a foot in the UK market is very difficult. What we’ve seen over the last few years is that it is only with Scandinavian artists that there is more space and willingness to actually give these artists any credit. But we are here to channel a way for European artists into the UK and vice versa.
What is your main target market?
The UK is still the main market because we started here and the majority of the artists we work with, or their main fan base, are here. So the UK and Vital as a distributor are fundamental.
We only just started to work in France about a year ago, which has worked fantastically well. Germany, France and we just started the US. These are the key territories.
After you sign an artist in London, how do you work with your partners outside the UK?
Across Europe they get the finished product and we do the deals with the people in the other territories. Most of that work is done in the UK. We manufacture in Germany and then we distribute centrally to all the territories and feed them all the information about the artist like bio’s, photos, CD’s and so on and we give the artist tour support. We do that from our Berlin office.
How does a release plan look like in France for example?
We work with a distributor called Differ-Ant (the people who did V2 before). First they get CD promos and then they have a meeting with their own field staff. They assess the product and the commerciality of the music. Then we work with a press and promotion agency. They need about three months to set up any record and to do radio and interviews.
Those two companies work really close together and we kind of spearhead the whole campaign. We sit down with them and discuss what we can do, what are the main strengths of any release. How often does our band need to go to the market? Where do they need to play in Paris? What kind of advertising campaign? Where do we put ads? Etc.
How are they going to get paid? Do they get points off the record?
No. Nobody gets points off the records apart from the artist. They get paid upfront. There is like a fixed fee. Like in France the agency works on half of our releases, the key releases directly. The other releases are done in house by our distributor. In Germany for instance we work with a company who is working Grönland artists exclusively throughout the year. They are paid on a retainer.
How do you try to create a buzz?
You need people in the media who support your artist. If you have a rock or a slightly leftfield artist you need to have them placed by Radio 1, Steve Lamacq or Zane Lowe. You have to have the NME writing about you.
Some key press/media people. Strong online presence plus the band has to be out there and has to play. That still doesn’t mean something is happening but without any of that it’s basically impossible to create a buzz.
What is the process of signing an artist?
Sadly, hardly any artist is being signed as result of an unsolicited demo that’s being sent in. Primarily we hear of artists because other people tell us and we have scouts. You chase them up through myspace and you get the music. Then you go and check them out live. We are small so it takes us a long time to sign an artist.
Usually it takes between three to six months. We like to see how the artist develops, what they do, if it works out on a personal level, because once we sign with an artist we work with them at least two, three or five years. Other than the music also personality is involved. We have to be able to work together.
Can you demonstrate it on one of your recent signings?
Yes, take Sondre Lerche, the Norwegian singer who is signed to Virgin around the world. We signed him for the UK. It was basically the manager whom I’ve known from my days at Virgin International who came to my office last August.
He actually came to see me about a different artist but also talked about an act I had no idea he represented too, Sondre Lerche, who still had a Virgin/EMI UK deal at the time… Either way I told him I was a fan and that should there be a way to wrangle the artist out of his deal he should contact me...
So we stayed in touch and much to my surprise and excitement actually found an arrangement to work the artist in our main market, the UK. A further 3 months down the line, I went to the US where the artist is based to have a chat with him about his ideas and hopes for the UK, went to see him play live in the US and only then decided that he was absolutely right for us.
But that’s an artist who already had two or three albums out. So it is obviously a different case with a new artist where you get a demo and you go to see the band, go to the studio find the right producers. We are closely involved in the process of creating the actual music and being in the studio. We try to get involved at quite an early stage.
What are the next steps?
Once we like the music and we’ve seen the artist live, we contact the management. Depending on how many other companies are out there trying to sign the same artist, where you are competing on a financial level in relation to what the artist expectations are in deal terms.
Then you try to establish a personal relationship with artist and manager, convince them that you are the right partner for their records. If we compare ourselves with most indie labels here in the UK, we’ve got a very good understanding of what’s happening in Europe.
We have a German office and are not shy to invest in artists getting out of the UK to tour Europe. A lot of artists are quite into the idea of playing live. At this day and age hardly anyone believes anymore that signing to a major label means that they are immediately going to play France, Germany and Scandinavia.
Do you take in outside investors?
Yeah, it can happen. I mean we just don’t have the same amounts of money as the bigger indie labels like Rough Trade or Domino. But we like to give the artist a higher share, more points on the records.
The process of the decision “Yes, we want to move forward on this artist!” until we can actually sign him depends primarily on how much competition is out there. You might get more money from a major but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be worked better or get released at all.
Do you go then for a single first or do you record a whole album?
It depends on the music entirely. We work with this band from Reading, My Luminaries and with rock bands in the UK you basically release three singles before you do the album. Because it needs that kind of set up and they need to find a fan base gradually.
But there is another band, Half Cousin. They play this kind of quirky folk electronica so it’s pointless to go just with a single. You take a song off the album, possibly have remixes done and work it alongside the album. You try to get the attention on the album that way.
How much time do you spend on new artists and how much time do you put into work on your roster?
Sadly there is not so much time we can spend on new artists because with the small team we have there is only so much room for a new artist. Maybe 8-10 hours per week that include going to gigs. But if we are convinced and heard a demo we will go out of town or out of the country to catch a gig.
How many artists are you able to release per year?
5-8 albums a year. It’s hard to say how active the current artists are. With Grönland we try to give every single artist his/her own space. If we are being approached by an artist that sounds too much like an artist we already have we are not interested at least until we finished the whole campaign. We don’t want to compete in-house in the same music areas.
Don’t underestimate the amount of time you need for a record: to write the songs, go to the studio then give it the similar amount of attention and time to market and get it out there. Work mostly on a territory-by-territory basis.
When should a band go for a record label?
What we tell all the bands is: first you have to be willing to work incredibly hard and have to have a certain kind of following out there. If you have been in rehearsal studios, you’ve written a few songs and think they are fantastic and all your mates like it, it doesn’t mean you are ready to send it to a label.
Go out there and play it to people! If you have played a few shows you know a lot more what you actually want and how good your music is and what you can do with it. Internet gives you a possibility to interact with your audience.
Work on your live performance, on your Internet presence. Then you will be a lot more secure once you are dealing with a record label. What your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you might need help.
At what point do you think a band should get a manager involved?
I think you should do your first steps on your own. There are a lot of bands out there who hardly played shows but already have a management. What’s the point? The later you get a management involved the more you know about the industry, what you want and what you don’t want. Everybody can get shows in the area where you live. Start developing that!
Some of the artists we work with don’t have a management. If you worked with artists for a few years then there is a level of trust. You don’t need the manager to stand in between, or someone who gives you or the record label neutral advice, which is one of the functions a manager should have. He should be able to put himself in a position of the record label as well as the artist.
On the other hand we have developed as a label pretty much as a wholesome company where we do everything from tour management to organizing gigs, linking up sponsorships, all of what a management can do. But where we are now with the infrastructure that we have there is only so much we can do.
So from this moment on it is vital for us that every band has a manager who can take care of all the different aspects of their career. So in that respect it definitely helps when you have a management who can talk to agents, sponsors, tour management etc.
Do you think it’s important for an upcoming artist to live in a music center like London?
You don’t necessarily have to live in London. The main problem is if you live for instance in Sweden. To actually make it in the UK then, you need to have a single and an album and you need to tour it. It’s very hard logistically to work with a band that is based elsewhere, especially for an indie label.
It’s very hard financially and every band needs presence here and has to play here constantly. If you want to make it here you should consider moving here, at least give yourself a year and then you’ll see how far you’ve come. But there are always a few exceptions to the rules:
Bands that deliver a fantastic album and everyone jumps on it, you can get them here for one week, and all the media will show up. So the next time the come you don’t need to pay tour support anymore because there is already enough audience.
Do you think it’s important for a band to get their material mixed by a known producer/mixer?
Not anymore, not nowadays where a lot of very good music software is available for not much money and the Internet has helped many bands as a stepping board for their careers and gets the music out. Music doesn’t need to be as polished anymore as it had to be 20 years ago.
European bands in particular always think we record the music ourselves and then give it to a great mixing engineer who will charge us 2000 Pounds per track and we have to invest that. But if the recordings and the songs aren’t that great the mixing engineer is not going to help it.
Don’t spend all that money, because it’s about songs and not about mixing. There is enough cases where a mixing engineer likes the sound of a band that much that he does it for almost nothing or he approaches the band so once they get a deal he gets his points or share them.
If you sign an artist to your company, is it important that the publishing is in-house?
Sometimes it depends on how much money the artist wants and what we think is the commercial potential. We only publish one Neu! record, and Pet, that’s pretty much it. With Pet it was the case where we said: we get you here and there and promote you everywhere but your record is not that commercial so would you be up to give us the publishing as well…and they agreed.
If you would be an upcoming band and have limited resources, how would you invest it?
Touring, absolutely. Recordings don’t have to cost so much anymore and a lot of people have their own studio facilities or they can go to a studio, pay 150 Pounds and record five songs in a day so the money you actually need is probably for petrol or to hire a van or stuff like that to play up and down the country.
What would you say are the biggest investments you have to make with your label?
Touring again…because we want to get our artists out there in Europe and that always costs. Instead of paying them big advances we rather commit to pay them tour support and marketing, so they get to play in other territories.
Do you take a percentage of the touring income then?
No, that is still not the case. Currently only major companies have come up with such business models (I guess they can pay the big advances in such case) but it always depends on the extent of the deal.
I think in the future artists will have to sign off rights on touring and merchandising as well to the record label. Because for many artists in the years to come, touring will provide them with much bigger income than CD sales. Without a record label behind you there would be no touring.
Do you think that hype around niche music like Krautrock could rise up again in the UK?
I hope so! At the moment there are a lot of demos that come through that sample the 80’s. I hope that someone comes up with a more innovative and original idea than just sampling stuff we heard before. The youth of today don’t know for example Joy Division, so they are into Editors or whatever.
We work with Fujiya & Miyagi from Brighton. On their album are one or two songs, which are almost rip offs of Neu!. The funny question is why does nobody play Krautrock music in Germany whereas in the UK Krautrock is such a big influence on a lot of new bands.
Krautrock in the 70’s was credible but very niche. Neu! didn’t sell a lot of records, Can maybe a few more and Kraftwerk developed into this whole electronic thing. It could be the time now were this music is brought to the forefront of pop music.
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath
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