Interview with MANUEL HERUNTER, A&R at Sony BMG for Pop Idol Germany - Sep 17, 2007
ďItís impossible to break an artist if the A&R is alone in the company with his opinionĒManuel Herunter, A&R at Sony BMG Germany, handles the winners and runners-up of the German version of Pop Idol, and with his vision and passion has shot last year's winner Mark Medlock to a No.1 album chart spot.
His experience in working for such a high-profile TV show, as well as collaborating with teen magazines and brands, provides him with a unique overview of the current market climate.
He talks to HitQuarters about turning record labels to entertainment providers, about the difference between Pop Idol marketing and developing artists, and about his label being focused on artists' needs.
How did you start in the music business?
I started at BMG in Munich in 2003 after my law studies. It was before the merger with SONY. I started as an intern for two years. Youíre in different departments. For one part you have to study at school and the other part you work at the company.
I was in a couple of bands the years before. I decided not to become a professional musician. My skills were more in managing and not in acting in front of an audience.
I got behind the scenes. It was always a dream of me to become an A&R. It was a long road, but it worked out eventually.
I started as a junior. Then I came into the business doing Pop Idol in Germany. I did it over the last two years. My skills developed and I had one success after the other.
Is it still a challenge to find new acts through TV programs like Pop Idol?
Yes, of course. Itís a challenge to create a career with a new USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Most important is to find the right songs for the right person. The difficult thing is that you donít know who is going to win.
You have to prepare ten careers for the Top 10 finalists. You have to pitch a lot of songs to the last Top three finalists. You have a whole album with 40 to 50 songs prepared for whomever wins.
In January 2008 season 5 is starting.
What has changed in the show over the years?
The mentality of the viewers has maybe changed. They expect to get entertained more and more.
The real big challenge is to find something new in this kind of format. A new extraordinary artist with a lot of personality. Itís a new challenge every year.
What artists are you currently working with?
Mark Medlock, the winner of last season. Lisa Bund, runner-up no.3, who released her first single on August 31.
Last year it was Mike Leon Grosch, Tobias Regner, and besides of Idols, Anna David.
There are a couple of new projects coming up in the next months.
What do you think is important for an artist in this kind of genre?
Of course you have to decide what kind of career you want to go for. If you donít have a band and your skills are
stronger in entertaining and singing, then Pop Idol might be interesting for you.
You donít have to have your own songwriting, band or history. You only have to have talent.
You really need something unique. And something that German people can relate to. They need to see that you want to compete, but they must feel that you are also one of them.
Pop Idol is a special thing that hasnít got a lot to do with a basic A&R process. We are not the talent scouts and we are not doing the casting.
We just get in with the Top 20s. Then we start to work and make our positioning-papers. But ultimately, it is the German public who votes the winner.
What is it that makes you want to work with an artist?
The kind of fascination and the vision that if you see an artist and hear the music and thereís a special magic feeling in your stomach that says, yes! I need to work with them. No matter how much time it takes, I want to build a career with them.
Sometimes there are artists who are really good and have quality and good songs, but you donít have a relation to it. Then you shouldnít work it.
You really have to burn like fire on this project. You need to have a kind of passion. You cannot have passion for all projects.
How involved are you in the productions?
Iím involved in everything. It starts with finding the artist. It goes on with creating a common vision with the artist, and how the artist is positioned. What kind of producer we should take. What kind of songs.
Most of the work is finding good songs. Itís all about finding the hit. This is most of my work.
After taking care of the creative stuff and having found the producer and the right songs, the production is a very important process.
For me itís very important not to come from top down and to force something the artist doesnít like.
Itís much more important to have a good relation with the artist and their management, and to share the same vision. This is something we have to find out before the signing.
If there is something about the management or the artist where I have the feeling that there is not the kind of similar level, taste or wish in regards to this whole project, I wouldnít sign it.
After having signed the artist, itís also my task to set up marketing and promotion. To build up a small team within the label, whoís also on fire for this project. Itís my work to warm up my PM or promoter.
Itís impossible to break an artist if the A&R is alone with his opinion and nobody else in the department can share the same vision. Itís a lot of work to find the right people in the department to work with and to set them on fire.
How do you build this interest for an artist within your company?
It depends on the artist. With Pop Idol, you donít have to do it. Thereís a buzz from everywhere.
If you have a newcomer, you have to catch the others very early on. You have to promote it within your own label. Itís like: ďhey, you should watch this. Iíve seen them last week in Berlin. Theyíre so cool. What do you think?Ē
Itís very important to give others the feeling that they are also involved. After signing the band the first step is a big setup meeting.
Then Iím writing a kind of 6-7 pages A&R vision paper for the new band. I write down all the steps to go, from the producer to the production to the songs to the marketing to the promotion. Pointing out all the puzzle parts we need.
With this setup paper I go in the setup meeting and say: ďthis is how I could imagine we could work this project. What do you think?Ē
Then the others bring in their skills and offer their feedback. In the end we have a very detailed strategy of where we have to go. We work it down up to the release, and of course following the release.
How fast is this setup plan created?
You should have this setup plan coinciding with the signing. You meet with a band or an artist many times before the signing. Itís not that you see them once or twice and then sign them.
There are a lot of meetings, a lot of live gigs you attend. You have to meet up with their management. You have to look for all the other partners who could take part, whether itíd be booking or merchandise or publishing.
You have to set up a really good team inside and outside the label around the artist. Thatís the job of an A&R.
Does it take one year to release the first album?
From getting signed to releasing the first album you should calculate about ten to twelve months. And then the work begins.
Of course, you can release a single after a couple of months. But in order to have a good production and a good producer, to have everything set up to the point, you need more time.
You also have to set up the promotion. You really have to focus on it for the album release. And if only one puzzle part isnít focused in time, then everything is really difficult.
Whatís your view on artist development?
You have two different deals. One is an artist deal, where we pay everything. We pay for the production and the album recording.
The other deal is when the album is already done. The artist comes to us with a finished album. Then you donít need ten to twelve months.
Artist development means that you take much more time than ten to twelve months. It means to work two to three years with a band before having a big commercial release.
We have other projects like Dķnť or Fertig, Los! . Thatís purely artist development. You first work on perhaps an EP, then on the first record release, then the second record. All in very small steps and slowly building up. Itís a long-term commitment.
Many new artists demand a quick success. How do you educate them to be patient?
Thatís a big problem. We donít sign them. If itís rock, indie, or anything leftfield, you have no chance to succeed fast.
If itís mainstream pop, of course you could do it. You could also create something very fast like a casting group. Then you donít have to do artist development.
The copyright comes from AAA writers, and you have producers working fast. Itís something totally different from artist development with a real band.
There are a lot of bands that think they are ready and want to have it fast. Then itís a lot of A&R vision and a lot of talking to bring them back down to earth, or you donít sign them.
Why do artists choose to sign with Sony BMG?
The big difference to other companies is that we, at Columbia, donít sign too many bands. We sign really focused. We want to concentrate on artists. We want to spend all energy and everything on this artist. Of course thatís a bigger risk, because that artist needs to work.
We are a really artist-thinking company. We are interested in the careers of artists. A lot of artists come to us because of this.
What is instrumental in breaking them?
It depends on the genre. If itís mainstream pop, you need to have a big TV cooperation or platform. You need to have radio.
Much more than that, you need to have good online promotion. You need to have a good booking partner. You need to have an excellent management.
When all puzzle parts come together, you have the chance to break an artist. If one part is missing, itís really difficult.
On the more indie side, itís the same. But you donít need that much of a big TV cooperation. Itís much more about long lead press and a lot of live gigs.
You have those two possibilities. Either itís a pop artist, then you need a big corporation with big media, or you have a rock artist, who needs to play a lot of shows and needs to have a huge fanbase before signing or before the release of their album.
It costs about 500,000 euros to break an act. What does that calculation involve? Could it be done differently?
I want to say it in other words: If youíre in the pop segment itís of course much more money that you need to spend on media. Whether itís a co-operation with TV or Bravo, Germanyís biggest teen magazine, or whatever.
With development deals or developed artists or rock artists, you have to spend the money in another way. Itís not that much frontline oriented.
You could think more in a different way. Times have changed. We have to go in another direction than we did in the last couple of years. The whole business changed.
Every newcomer band or every garage band could be released and sold via MySpace or whatever. The audience is overwhelmed with music.
There never has been so much music consumption than today. And it will become more and more. But the classic record sales have decreased.
Ten or twenty years ago, nobody had Internet, a cellphone, a PSP. We have to change too. The way we could change it is to become more of an entertainment company.
This means perhaps also to change contracts with artists. To get out more rights and to do more joint ventures with artists.
To Say that we are not only your record company, we are your entertainment company.
How strong is the German music market nowadays?
Not as strong as it was one or three or five years ago. Itís getting more difficult to create long-term careers, to create big artists selling a lot over several years.
Everything is changing faster. There is an act popping up and a year later nobody knows them anymore.
What will you sign next and what new projects are you working on?
Right now I have a co-operation with the brand Quiksilver. Itís a Quiksessions contest. Quiksilver is looking for a band they could brand.
Itís interesting for me, because this is a totally new way of finding an artist. To look into a closed community like surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding communities that are very lifestyle and music orientated, and to find a band for this community.
This is a contest that lasts until December 2007. And after this we will have a Quiksilver band. We donít have a name yet, but they will play in Queensland, Australia in February 2008 at the surf championships together with Jack Johnson and Groove Armada.
They will play 10-14 gigs at snowboard festivals at the Alps in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
They will get a development deal with Sony BMG. And this is all focused on this particular community. Itís something new.
Iím working Lisa Bundís album, and on Mark Medlockís second album this year.
We also have a newcomer with Bravo. We signed them, and this will be a development over eight to ten months until the album release. The first single might be out in February. We develop it together with Bravo.
We need many more partners. We need to have more communities, more platforms to make artists big. This is because we have too much spending. At MySpace you have hundreds of thousands of bands. Itís really hard to make one band successful.
We have different ways to work with partners in different genres with different bands. The stronger the partners are, the better we can perform.
How should unsigned acts present their material nowadays?
Creating your own hype is much more important than sending in a demo. You need to have a MySpace site. You need to present yourself on MySpace, out self-made video clips on it, having a lot of community.
You should try to play a lot of live performances to increase your fanbase. You should have some support slots with bigger bands. You could do all this without having a physical demo sent to the record company.
The important thing for us is that a band is really focused on presenting themselves.
A lot of demos we get have five or six tracks on. One track is hard rock, the other one is acoustic rock, and the third one is a-capella. The band tries to show us what range of genres they can play. This is totally wrong.
The demo should be really to the point. It should show us who you are and who you want to be.
Of course, you could send in a demo via MP3 or CD, but you should concentrate more on building all the other stuff around you, at the same time. The quality of the demo doesnít matter. We donít need a high-end production.
We need a MySpace site, community, live gigs. All this together makes it easier for the A&R to get a picture of what the band will be.
Will you be able to sign a band off of listening to a demo?
Itís much more often that we sign a band from what we get through our business contacts. A management or a booking partner saying, hey, we have a band we support. Have a look at it.
But sometimes there is a demo thatís really brilliant or there is a band on MySpace and weíre really impressed, and then of course we get in contact with them.
Is it important for you that the artist writes his own material?
Not every talent is a talented writer. If you have an excellent band with a lot of cool songs and a really good live performance, it doesnít mean that theyíre able to write a hit.
Weíre also doing co-writes with other songwriters for these bands to have a hit with their first single. Itís not necessary that every song is coming from the band themselves.
Where do you look for outside songs?
There are my contacts that I build up for a couple of years. These are professional songwriters and publishers all over the world. From Germany, UK, Australia, Sweden, USA to Canada.
They are excellent in writing songs to briefings. Or you tell them you have a project and you need this and you have that much time, and theyíll send it in.
We do that with Pop Idol too. Every year we have around 3,000 songs. We have to hear all the demos all over the world and classify them. And then put up the album for the winner.
If you would turn into an artist and were offered a record deal, by what means would you go about evaluating the A&R and the label?
I should first check out everybody on the team. Not only the A&R, but also the PM and the promoter. And the real important thing is to check out what their vision is.
As an artist, I would look into the eyes of the A&R and ask him, Ďdo you understand me? Do you understand where I want to go? What kind of steps would you take to reach my aim?í
To share the same vision with the A&R is really important.
What kinds of artists would you like to see gain more popularity?
There should be more authentic artists in all kind of genres. It would be good to have less plastic acts.
It doesnít matter if itís hip hop, rock or pop, but the only chance to have a long-term career is to be yourself and to be authentic.
A lot of acts are put together, and you can see that there is no story to tell, there is no history. There is no community in the band.
A lot of bands we see just cover other bands. Thatís not interesting for an A&R. We need something unique. And thatís really difficult to find.
Are you referring to Pop Idol artists as plastic and non-authentic?
No. Of course, they have the talent and the publicity, and thatís it.
With Pop Idol you need an artist that is really good in public relations. They need to be talented and unique, and it must be very mainstream music.
A lot of candidates think, oh, wow, now I could be a real R&B artist. That wouldnít work, because the viewers of the show want to have a real artist and a kind of celebrity.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
Music shouldnít focus on only one business. We should concentrate on building up an entertaining factor around an act. We should be doing more than only selling records with an artist.
I hope peopleís minds will change regarding illegal downloading stuff.
And I think things will change more into live experiences. You can see that festivals and concerts donít have any market loss.
I want to see more trusting in artist careers. Focusing more on them. Giving them a chance to develop into long-term artists.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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