Interview - Chris Gelbmann, A&R at Buntspecht Musik - Jan 15, 2007
"I think about how I can sell a song when writing it and that’s a mistake. I have to tell the manager in me: ‘shut up now!'"...This is how Chris Gelbmann describes the situation of working both as an artist and as a businessman.
Gelbmann signed Christina Stürmer when working for Universal Austria, and it is much thanks to his instincts and choice of songs that she later on became a No.1 act in Germany, an amazing precedent for an Austrian artist.
Gelbmann describes the process of discovering Stürmer, and talks about his move from working for major labels to starting his own indie company.
How did you get started in the music business?
I started doing music when I was eight and as an artist when I was 15 playing live gigs. In 1997 when I was 24 I changed to the business side and started as a marketing manager for EMI Austria because I thought it would be great to look at the other side.
EMI was a great experience and I changed over to Universal in 1999 until 2004 because I was running out of money. Now I founded my own company, Buntspecht Music (German for ‘woodpecker’).
Why did you leave Universal?
I wanted to go back to making music myself again. I was too successful on the business side at Universal to be able to find the time making music while having a job like this. I had to find out where my priorities are. I was too much into business, A&R management and things like this and not enough into music as I wanted to be. Then I wanted form my own company. It’s better to run a small kingdom that is yours.
At the time with Universal you were the A&R for Christina Stürmer, a pop idol from Austria. The amazing thing with her was that she got big in Germany, a much bigger market, something that is almost unheard of. How did you get to work with her?
I was responsible for all the candidates involved in the whole Starmania thing, the Austrian Pop Idol show. Very soon when we saw Christina perform we found out that she has got that certain something.
Something you cannot really explain. So we started to work with her. She had quite a clear vision about what she wanted to do. She wanted to sing in German and was into that kind of German rock thing that was just starting to get huge.
When exactly did you start working with her? After the show was over?
She was not the winner of the show, she was second place. We started to work with her immediately. We went with her in the studio to record 5 hours after she got the second place. We prepared everything for her first single because we were really sure she’s going to be big.
We had picked already the first single, originally a song written by an Austrian songwriter called ‘gone digging’ that we decided to do in German as ‘Ich Lebe’ which was her very first big hit.
How did you pick the songs for the candidates?
We knew that we had to work with more candidates than one. To be honest we already had a plan for Christina but we did not talk about her own album before she left the show. So it all had to be very quick. We had to have a plan, songs and a producer that we thought would fit Christina, which was Alex Kahr for the first two albums.
As an A&R manager I don’t want to miss out on the artist but you have to have a plan to be able to explain your vision and we were quite sure that we have the same vision Christina has. As the work goes on the vision gets clearer and luckily it came to the point that Christina liked it too.
Would you have taken the same song for another artist if she wouldn’t have made the second place, or was everything built especially for her?
We already had a demo recording of ‘Ich Lebe’ with Vera who left the show a little bit sooner. But she did not want the song and we were kind of happy because we knew the song is really big and it will be much bigger if Christina sings it. We didn’t have to persuade Christina because she wanted to sing in German which Vera didn’t want to.
If Christina would have made the first place we would have made the same thing. It wasn’t important that she is winning. The show was going on for weeks and she had the best charisma on TV.
Were you responsible for the winner, too?
Yes, I did the A&R for the winner, too, a guy called Michael Tschuggnall. The song he had won the show with was a very successful single hit in Austria. Then he was producing his first album with Peter Wolf in LA which was quite successful, too.
But first of all he did not sing in German and he was not that kind of unique. He did not have the USP (unique selling proposition) you would say in formal marketing words.
What would you say was the most special thing about Christina?
She is a very natural person and she is able to transport this naturalness and pureness. She’s got that kind of prettiness that is not too much of just another typical beautiful lady and she always got a clear vision of what she wanted. She was making music before she entered the show but after she had the first feeling of success with Starmania, she knew exactly what she can and cannot do.
That she cannot write the songs for herself so she didn’t want to do that in the first step for example. Another main thing that was very important was certainly her unique voice.
Would you have signed her if she wouldn’t have been in Starmania? How important was that push of the TV?
Christina was playing in a band called ‘Scotty’ in upper Austria, quite far away from Vienna. But if I would have seen her perform like this in another setting besides a TV show, somewhere else, I’m quite sure I would have signed her. But I think I would have never gotten the chance to know her. As the A&R director of the biggest company in this country I would have never gotten a demo-tape of her.
I think that she wouldn’t have sent me one. That’s the biggest problem of an A&R; you cannot travel to all the small regions of a country to find all the talents. Then you have to find out how the talents work with media or on TV, which is a very important thing.
You wouldn’t know that if you see her on a small club stage. You only see that she can work the audience. It was a very luxurious situation to have such a person out of a TV show, who is already known all over the country.
How did you decide for the producer?
I wanted to have an Austrian producer because I think it’s very important to bring people together and feature people within this country, which did not happen anymore with the German releases, which I’m very sorry for but I wasn’t responsible for. I would have loved if an Austrian producer would have produced the German product.
Alex was the one who delivered the right songs. He was not delivering songs because he wrote them all by himself. He already had a team of songwriters around him and that was the key issue for my decision to work with him. He has this kind of very professional international attitude of working together in a team, which is very important.
Did you just have this one song for her?
We had a lot of songs. We were looking for songs the whole Starmania show because we knew we have to produce some albums with a lot of different artists. So we got into song searching in a very early stage of the show, where it wasn’t clear who is going to win. But we knew which kind of songs would be useful.
Did you announce somewhere that you were looking for songs?
Yeah, there was a magazine called ‘Songs wanted’ in Munich, Germany. Alex worked together with them and we worked close together with Universal publishing, Koch/Universal publishing and other publishers. There were a lot of songs…I remember myself sitting in the office always casting songs for weeks.
Do you test the songs somewhere after you picked out the ones you like?
Yes, at this time I did. I don’t work like this these days. But then I was playing the songs to other artists or producers that were signed to Universal or came to my office, to older more experienced people who are coming out of this genre called ‘Austro-pop’, songs sung in a kind of German dialect that was very successful in the 80’s.
The main guys who wrote the songs those days are still signed to Universal. I did not play it to journalists because that doesn’t really make sense.
What did you base your decision on?
For the most important hits for Christina when I was involved with her, it was always a gut feeling from the very beginning on. With ‘Gone Digging’ I said: ‘let’s change the lyrics to German with a positive hook like ‘Ich Lebe’ which means I’m living, I’m alive… with a kind of subjective look from the singer.’
It was clear for me that the hook is working. If you have something like this and match it with the right singer you can be quite sure that you have a hit. And to be honest if you have a good singer that is already known, you don’t have to be the biggest A&R in the world.
You have to be at the right place at the right time and make the right decision out of a gut feeling. I think it’s because I’m musician myself, it’s still a feeling deep within your heart then you talk to others about it and if they have the similar feeling you feel secure.
How much was the TV Company involved in A&R decisions?
I was responsible for the recording artist Christina Stürmer for Universal. Universal paid the production. I was the head of A&R and we had a very good relationship with the managing director, who was also involved in the show. So we had very good connections to the TV Company ORF and my managing director kind of handled all the political things with the TV guys.
I have to say I had maximum freedom on all these decisions and I used this freedom. I think this is very important. If you have a guy who is running the A&R department, who has a good singer, hot stuff, he has to be able to take the important decisions.
How did Christina get then in the German market, considering that the whole Starmania hype means little in Germany?
This was a very complicated process. I would say it’s important to involve all the important people in Germany. So as soon as you give them the possibility to make it their own project to a certain kind of degree, there is quite a good chance to be successful. There is always money involved.
You have to be a good guy and be able to talk about money with the right people. You have to give them their own project. Of course they have to believe. There seemed to be enough persons in the right positions who believed in Christina. But you have to keep in mind that Christina was really, really successful in Austria.
She was selling a lot of units and if you take the same amount of units that she sold in Austria to the German market, although the German market is about 12 times bigger, they would have been happy. A record company is there to sell units. They saw an Austrian act like this selling units and working in a kind of genre that could work in Germany as well.
She never sang in Austrian language or dialect, she sang in clear German language. They would have been fools after all the success and having an act like this within the Universal family to not do it.
At some point they had no other chance then to say: ’Ok, let’s put money in it and really try make it an even bigger success than in Austria’. The managers did a lot of, let’s call it project management; to make sure that at the right time the right persons are friends.
Was it more like the German company heard of the sold units and got interested or did you present the whole thing to them?
At the end of 2003 I was in Berlin trying to present this project to the German guys, so that was the first time we started working on this. I think it was both. I’m quite sure that the personal management of Christina started to dig into those German persons that would be important in the process of finding an opinion towards Christina.
Because it’s different if a company like Universal Germany says: ‘well, we’re going to release it’ or if they say: ‘we REALLY release it!’ It’s like a band from the UK trying to be big in the US (or the other way around like it seems to be now sometimes). You have to find believers.
Real belief in a project is always first from person to person. Sometimes it’s because they do believe in it, sometimes it’s because they smell the success or the money, sometimes it’s because they’re under pressure from their boss. I think a little bit of everything.
Did it happen again that the German company put out the Austrian pop idol on their market?
No, there was some kind of hope within the music scene that now some Austrian acts would get bigger appreciation in Germany, which was not the case.
I think the Germans really adopted Christina. She’s not an Austrian artist for Germany; she seems to be a German artist.
Did they do all the A&R for the release all over again or did they take over your work for Christina?
For the first album ‘Schwarz Weiss’ they took the repertoire of the first two albums I worked on and reproduced it. I’m not sure if it was just remixing or re-recording. It was made in that kind of Silbermond (a band that was big in Germany at that time) style. There is also a big factor in Germany which is called VIVA (music television).
You have to make sure that you work together with certain music producers to be able to get real good VIVA airplay. So they had to get the German sound a little bit roughened. That was the work of the A&R guys in Germany, to make it sound like a German product, because they seemed to know what it takes to make it successful over there. But the repertoire was nearly 80% off the first two albums.
How much were you involved in artistic direction decisions when you worked for Universal Austria?
It differs from artist to artist. With Christina it was a clear vision I had together with Alex Kahr, who was my favourite producer and together with Bogdan Roscic, who was managing director at this time. He was involved in the show as a judge. It was my job to transport this vision into the studio and the artist.
I did not miss out on Christina. I tried to find out if it fits with the picture I already had from what I saw on TV and how she acted towards media people and towards me. I had a respect for her talent.
I presented her the vision and she was quite sceptical for example to record in such a small studio where she was not playing live with a band. I think that’s what she would have wanted to do. That’s the vision of someone who is going to a professional studio the first time.
Did she put a lot of her on vision to it or did she just go with your ideas?
I think she put a lot of her own vision to it because she made it very clear that she wanted to record German songs. There were already a lot of talks between Bogdan, who was on the show, and her.
Our team was nurtured by her ideas but we had to structure these ideas. That’s the job of the A&R guy, to structure the ideas of all the people involved. To sell it to his own company and to sell it to the people out there who should buy it.
How close did you work with the producer in the studio? Do you tell him things like ‘this hi-hat is too loud’?
Yes, I go very deep into the studio work. But I’m not sitting next to the producer and tell him what to do and getting on his nerves. I tell him to give me rough mixes and to send me MP3 files and keep me involved. I’m not in the studio while they are recording because I would not like it as an artist. You have to know when you are going to the studio and then you have to use the situation to be the guy who has a distance.
I think it’s important for an A&R to keep the distance and then give very clear instructions. It’s like director work in theatre productions. I like to work with pictures, something like: ‘It should sound more a little bit like a rainy day’ for example. I would say I get involved like a producer but I’m not an engineer.
I always got the feedback that it’s good for the guys who are sitting in front of the mixer to get a point of view from a distance. But I never do that in front of the artist…
How does a brief you send when looking for a producer or songwriter look like? What do you write in it?
I don’t like briefs that go ‘I’m looking for songs like Christina Aguilera’. But sometimes it has to be like this, because the producer or the songwriter needs something to link to. I try to make a brief using metaphors, pictures, naming artists and songs that the whole thing should sound like.
Then I get back suggestions and can find out quite quickly if the other side understands what I mean or if I got sent just his usual catalogue…what most of the times happens! They don’t even read your brief, they just send you the stuff that they just wrote.
At your time with major companies, did an A&R get points on the royalties on the records he is working on, or a fixed salary?
It depends. I think the usual situation is that you get a fixed salary and you have to be aware of the fact that there is no real Austrian A&R that is just doing A&R. A&R seems to be a sort of position that you get if you want it. You can call yourself A&R as a kind of a part of your salary.
I think that I was a kind of A&R guy that was very special because I had this huge thing with Starmania and some other good luck situations with artists like Ostbahn Kurti or this great Andre Heller project. There are no real A&R’s. It’s more like there are managing directors who also do A&R.
Of course you have guys who can call themselves A&R. But A&R means to me to be able to sign artists. I don’t think that any A&R guy in Austria can sign an artist. I was able to do that. So they get fixed salary. I had some side deals and got some percentage. That was because of a special situation. But it’s not common in the major world to give percentages to A&R’s.
What do you work on in the moment?
The music company Buntspecht that I have with my partner Erich Kratzenbacher, who was managing director for EMI Austria and is in the business for a long time. We try to make music, release music, publish music which we personally really adore. We try to act internationally. We are very much into the whole digital business.
It’s a very thrilling time at the moment to be into that. We are trying to realize our personal long-term visions. I’m quite sure that the times of the pop idol superstars is really over and I’m very much involved in being an artist myself. I’m starting to work on my third album. I’m no more into this pure commercial business.
What kind of artists do you have on your label?
We have Emma McGlynn from the UK for example, Daniel Adam Smith from New York; an Austrian singer-songwriter singing in Austrian dialect called Kempf. We have Clara Luzia, a very charming adult pop band from Austria.
We try to sell music, sign music, and produce music from Austria but also from other parts of the world for Austria and also for other parts of the world. We try to really think international. The decision of signing or not signing an artist is not based on commercial thinking, it’s based on what we personally really like. A sort of luxury that we still can afford to do.
What would you say is the most interesting part of your company where you can help aspiring artists?
I think what I can do best for artists is giving them a home, to give them consultation and understanding. I’m trying to help them with what should be their next step and help them to get through the jungle of today’s music business. We are mainly into that kind of adult pop music; some people call it singer-songwriter music.
How important are the contacts you made at the time you worked for Universal and EMI?
I have the theory of parallel universes existing in the music business. I think there is a major world and an independent world. I seem to be more within this independent world and to be honest the contacts I have from my past at major companies don’t really matter. It’s all new guys.
Do you go out and look for talent?
Yes I do go out, go to concerts, and encourage people to send me stuff. I have sort of satellites and guys who tell me about new things: producers, publishers, songwriters, artists. Artists are a very good source for information, because they play with many people. So I’m very interested what’s happening out there and use Myspace.
I think Myspace is a little bit over but it’s still a good tool to find new music. But to be honest we have a lot of stuff we cannot do because we are such a small company. I’m still looking for the next real thrilling artist. There’s a lot of good music out there but to find a real good and true artist is very hard.
I also get hints from my partner Erich because he is involved in many things and looks on sites like Record Of The Day. That’s always a good place to go and listen to new and interesting music. We act mostly for the Austrian marketplace, which is not the biggest in the world and try to act internationally but find out everyday that we are really small…
What is important for an artist you would like to sign?
It’s more than 50% interpretation and voice, I call it charisma. It is for me the same thing. You can have a rusty voice but if you know how to use it, you can be great. If you look like Klaus Kinski, the German actor, and know how to use this look you can be really huge.
Within the charisma is the voice itself, but you have to know how to use it. The rest is about 30% of having a clear vision of what you want for your life, not what you want from the music business, what you want from your life as an artist. The small last bit is a personality that doesn’t slap your face the first time you meet him or her.
What else do you do in your company in the moment?
We are still working on the network. First of all we have a world wide digital distribution that works well. We have problems with the physical distribution and therefore we look for licensing deals at the moment. I mentioned Emma McGlynn. She is an artist from UK and has her own small label in the UK. She wants to get released in Austria for example.
We can release her now in Austria; find her the right booking agent. And then we say we would like to have rights for Germany and Switzerland too, and we try to get her released there. That’s one example. We are in contact with another artist called Jim Morai from the UK and we just love what he does.
We told the manager, she is a very nice lady: ‘if you have overstocks of your CD, give it to us. We try to sell them and try to put you together with the most important booking agencies in Austria. We would love to do something for Germany but we do not have direct partners sitting there at the moment. Right now we are searching for a distribution company in Germany that would fit us.
So it’s quite interesting for small labels who want to break in the Austrian market to do a licensing deal with you…
Yes, it’s like a ‘give and take’ deal. We are in contact with Canadian labels and management companies for example and we say: ‘give us your artists, we try what we can work out and you take our artists and see what you can do.’ But it also depends on each project.
I can’t tell a label: ‘I take all your artists.’ But if you are at trade fairs like PopKomm in Berlin this year you find out that there are a lot of sellers, artists and management firms that are trying to sell their product but there are not enough buyers! That’s the problem the music business has. So I think the only way out of this is ‘give and take’ deals. Where the money is…I don’t know.
What is special about the Austrian market if you look at it from the perspective of an international artist who asks him or herself if the people would like his or her music down there?
I think it’s quite like in all the other European countries. There is a lot of Volksmusik here, a kind of Austrian Schlager and a lot of pop music. Regarding pop music I would not say that there is something special if you look at the charts.
But I think the fact that we have a very interesting radio station called FM4, which is playing real alternative music makes it easier for some kind of alternative artists to make their first steps in this country.
I think this radio station is quite a unique thing all over the world. On the other hand we have a very difficult media situation. Besides FM4 we have a real problem regarding radio and TV. We are very dependent on what happens in the UK, in Germany or on VIVA and MTV. We are very much ruled by this.
We also have a very small but very neat music television station called GOTV. I cannot tell you anything special about the Austrian market and that’s the real shame. Media is not supporting Austrian talent enough. As an international artist you are always more welcome than if you are a local Austrian artist.
How would does the business side affect your work as an artist?
It’s a constant attempt. It keeps me quite awake. I cannot get into the position of getting too much settled. If I do too much as a manager the artist in me says:
‘You have to care for me now‘ and if I go too much with being an artist I’m not earning enough money. This kind of tension is typical for a situation that an A&R guy or a personal manager of an artist is into. It’s a fight.
Do you think about how you can sell a song while you are writing it?
I do and that’s a mistake. I have to tell the manager in me: ‘shut up now’!
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Interview by Jan Blumentrath, picture by Dieter Brasch
Next week: Conrad Dimanche, A&R at Bad Boy Entertainment