Interview with JAAP WAGEMAKER, A&R at Nuclear Blast Records - May 5, 2008
"Pop music sales are going down, but last year was our most successful"Metal is an often overlooked genre in the music industry. However, seeing it becoming more and more successful when the market seems to be in crisis urged us to talk to Jaap Wagemaker, A&R in Europe's biggest metal label Nuclear Blast (Nightwish - No.1 Germany, Top 40 UK, Edguy - Top 10 Germany, Avantasia - Top 10 Germany, Subway To Sally winning the German Grammy - the Echo Award).
Jaap talks to HitQuarters about the stability and loyalty of metal fans, their interest in buying full albums, and about his expectations from a band he signs.
How did you become A&R for Nuclear blast?
Itís a long story. It dates back to the '80s. I was in contact with a guy called Andy Siry. He worked with some bands in America and I did the promotion and distribution for it in Holland and Belgium. Then he became A&R at Massacre Records in Germany and he asked me if I was interested in doing promotion for the label. I had no idea what he expected me to do but I thought about it and said that I will give it a try.
First thing I had to do was to work out a distribution deal for the label and that worked out after I looked at the yellow pages, found Rough Trade's number, called them up, they thought itís interesting and said ďletís do it!Ē So that was the first thing I did.
After doing promotion for that label, more and more labels came to me and asked me if I want to do the promotion for them and in 1997 Andy moved to Nuclear Blast and the first thing he did was to ask me, if I would be interested doing the promotion for that label in Holland and Belgium.
Nuclear Blast being my favourite label, I naturally agreed. Three years later I was offered to move from Holland to Germany and work here full time. I became head of promotion. Then one A&R colleague left the office and they asked me if I wanted to do the A&R.
Have you been a musician yourself?
Not at all. Iím just a Metal fan. Iíve been listening to Metal since Iím 11 years old, mainly because I discovered Iron Maiden.
What is exactly the main thing you are doing at Nuclear blast?
There is no main thing. Iím A&R for big bands like Dimmu Borgir, Anthrax, Hypocrisy, Exodus, Death Angel, Testament, Soilwork and many others. Beside that, Iím also helping out the promotion team with promotion for Holland and Belgium.
Iím also in contact with the American office everyday by phone or messenger and I coordinate the street team that we have in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I try to get licence deals as well, to release in Japan for example.
How does a normal day look like for you?
Itís starts at 9am and it ends at 9 pm. When I come in the office I check my emails. Around 10 I get the post and the CDís in. I listen to them while I'm working. I have meetings, talk to people on the phone, have more meetings, talk to the bands.
Mainly just have all kinds of meetings: marketing meetings, production meetings, promotion meetings. Itís all about the communication between the different departments in the office to work on the records. Itís all teamwork. Iím not doing this alone.
What is different about the metal scene compared to other genres?
Pop and hip hop is always about the flavour of the week. Here today, gone tomorrow. In the metal scene you are here today and even if nothing is happening for a year or two, the people donít forget about you. They are waiting for a new album and want see the band play again. It is coming more from the heart. People identify themselves with the music and stand behind the artist.
It is not what you hear on the normal radio. It has a deeper meaning for a lot of people. If they come home from work they can escape from reality listening to an album or going to a concert, where they meet up with friends.
People nowadays are living too fast; they donít take time to get to know other people or places. Everything has to be done in a hurry. Nobody looks behind. In the metal scene everyone knows one another, itís a community and people are metal fans from the heart. Itís a way a life.
How does the trend seeing less and less CDís sold nowadays affect you?
A lot of people complain about sales going down. That is certainly true in pop music but last year was the label's 20th anniversary. For us it was the most successful year in the history of Nuclear Blast, in a year where the music market went down drastically. This year started very good as well.
We had the Avantasia album which sold very good and entered the charts, as well as the single entering the Top 10. We had Subway To Sally winning the German national Bundeskontest on TV. Nightwish won the Echo Award (German Grammy).
Now we have the In Flames album out and it's on the trend charts this week on No. 2. We treat our fans with value for money. Nice packaging, CD bonuses DVD extras and other stuff. Metal fans are collectors so they donít burn or download that much. They want to have the real deal. At the moment everything looks very good for us.
How does metal work in the radio?
Well, European radio normally only plays the ballads some of our bands have. You have to go on local radios or internet radio to play metal. In the US itís much different. You have all these college radio stations and metal radio is much bigger then in Europe. When I receive the radio lists from America it seems like there is a big network of radios.
How important are music videos for metal bands?
They are not played on MTV or VIVA in Germany. But there is Youtube and other internet sites where you can watch videos. In the US itís still possible to find it on MTV's Headbangers Ball.
But I think Youtube is more important at the moment than MTV ever was.
How does the signing process look like? What is required from a band you want to sign?
A band has to know what they are doing. They have to be proactive everywhere - concerts, internet, magazines, street team if possible. They have to be able to sell a lot of merchandising or be capable of having something when the album is out. Itís all a process.
We need to see that the band is working, that they know how to do it and that we know, if we sign them, they are not just sitting there waiting for us to do something. They have to work together with us. We have to work together to bring it to the next level.
If they donít have a fan base we will start the pre promotion by saying that we signed this band and they look like this, and you can listen to their music here, and create a hype. Put the band on Blabbermouth and Bravewords, do things on Myspace and Myspace Metal.
What exactly do you do when you're promoting a band in the media?
We know the media for a long time. We are always in contact with the media. We have direct contacts to all the online outlets I mentioned above. So we just send them something. They will listen to it and then we ask if we can work something out.
You have the radios, the magazines and internet forums where people are discussing bands. Internet radio, newsletters with little videos where the band is introducing themselves, an E-card with a song, our own label site where we have a rotation of 3-4 songs to listen to, pictures and games where you can win something. Itís very interactive so that people are involved.
What is the most important tool to create a hype?
The internet. But I am not he guy who is handling the online thing; we have people doing that for us.
When you have figured out a marketing budget how do you split it for the different marketing tools?
You donít split it, you tell the band that this is your video budget and how many videos you can make with this budget is up to them. The marketing budget is based on the sales expectations. If the sales are higher than we expected or there is more demand you raise the marketing budget or if we totally believe in a band, a newcomer, we do what is necessary. The budget is secondary. If we see we can do this and that, we do it.
When do you start the marketing of a newcomer?
As soon as we have the new album out. Then we make the marketing plan for our distribution partners. If itís compatible to another band then we look at it and say, that band they sell this, so we can expect this band to sell as much. You never really know but the sales expectation is something that we have learned and we know how it works.
What is the main market/territory you are working for?
In Europe itís definitely Germany, UK and Scandinavia.
How important is the American division of Nuclear Blast?
Itís pretty much a company in it's own right. We have an A&R, promoters and some other people working there. We are the main base but they arrange everything for America and Canada and Iím in constant contact with them.
Are they promoting mainly the bands that are signed in Germany?
They sign their own acts as well and not every release that we release in Europe is released in America. If a band doesnít have any sales expectations or have bad sales numbers in the past, it doesnít make any sense to release it over there.
There are other bands that are signed in the US or were popular in the US when we signed them. We try to get them on the next level in the US and bring them over to Europe to break them here. For example the band All Shall Perish. They just toured in Europe last year on a package with bands from the same kind of music. That went really well. This year we have a couple of bands coming to Europe in the fall.
What do you base your decision to release a band in another territory on? What are the sales expectations based on?
We send the information about the European bands over to the American office. If they say there is no market for this kind of band or the market is dead then we have to look for other ways and maybe do a licensing deal.
How exactly are the sales expectations figured out?
We have a sales department, they are in contact with our distribution partners and they let them know how many CDís they need to sell. Every country knows what they sell on certain bands. Our distribution partners place the orders to us and we collect them.
We have a vision that we can sell a certain amount of CDs in Germany based on experience. Then we compare our vision with the orders of the distribution partners and if theirs is lower than ours, we push them to sell more CDs.
How do you push your distribution partners?
We have the promotion team that is in contact with all the magazines worldwide and they send us reviews and quotes. We make marketing sheets and send all the info to our distribution partners and say: ďThis is what the press is saying about the album. Your sales expectations are quite low compared to what the press is saying. So we want you to order more CDs!Ē
How many bands do you get licensing deals for?
We mainly do everything ourselves, but throughout the year there are maybe five bands that we license to other companies.
Do you license any bands from other companies for Europe as well?
No Ė there was just one band, Malevolent Creation that we licensed in the beginning from Arctic Music but they are signed now to our label directly. All the other bands are directly signed to the label.
How much are you involved as an A&R in the creative side of putting an album together?
We work in a team. We have the head of A&R, the A&R and the product manager. We all work together to make sure that the product is in the stores for people to buy. We get the master, we get the artwork or we have to find someone to make the artwork that the band or we have in mind. Then we do the booklet, arrange photo shoots, video clips. All the things that the band is not doing directly are done here by us in the office.
Are you involved in the actual music as well?
No, not at all. Why would we be interested in getting involved there? We sign the bands that we like because we are fans of that band in the first place. We donít tell Anthrax: ďHey write a hit single!Ē This is not like pop music. We are not the musicians; we cannot give them instructions.
What is the street team actually doing?
They promote our bands at clubs, shows, bars or specialised shops where they spread the music. They do flyers and hand out give-aways.
How many people are on the street team?
It depends on the country. In some countries we have over 100, in others it's just 25.
They get a lot of privileges when they work for us. They get free CDs, posters, free entries to shows, they get to meet the band, hang out with them and take pictures. All bands appreciate the street team work a lot.
What is important for a band that you want to sign?
We need to like it as fans. The biggest fan in the office is still Markus Staiger. As soon as he likes it and he thinks that this is a band we need to work with, we contact the band. Itís not like every week we contact a new band, because we get like about 30-50 CDs per week sent to us from bands and itís rare that we find something interesting.
What would you criticise in the scene? What problems do you see?
The bands are copycats. Why should we sign another Soilwork or In Flames? We already have these bands. We are looking for something else. Thatís why weíve signed bands like Eluveitie, Epica or After Forever or this new American band called Success Will Write Apocalypse Across The Sky. We like all kinds of Metal.
How far would you go towards another genre?
We tried that already, did a sub label called Revolution Entertainment and we had some bands in a mainstream rock thing. We are specialised in Metal and people know this. If we send other styles of music to metal magazines the reactions are not so enthusiastic and we are not feeding our fan base.
The whole thing was not working because people had different expectations of a sub label from Nuclear Blast. We only concentrate on metal these days because that is what we know and what made us big over the last 20 years.
How do you come across new bands?
We listen to CDs that are sent to us by bands on a daily basis. We go on Myspace and check new bands; we have people who are scouting new bands. We check concerts out, bands that are signed to us or producers working for us recommend new bands to us.
How did you find the last 3 bands that you have signed?
Myspace, and the last one was actually suggested by our US team. Germany is a very important market because we are based here and you have huge festivals during the summer like Wacken Open Air, which is the biggest metal festival in Europe.
Is it important that a band sings in German?
No, itís important that they sing in English because then the chances are bigger for an international breakthrough. No one outside Germany cares about a band singing in German if itís not In Extremo or Rammstein. Subway To Sally is the only German singing band on our label.
Are you limited in the number of bands you can sign per year?
We could sign a lot of bands if we wanted to but we donít want to because we want to give our bands the attention that they deserve. We are the label. We need the bands and as long as the bands are happy, we are happy.
Without the bands there would be no Nuclear Blast. From January on we are releasing an album every Friday until December. In December we donít have any releases. So why would we sign too many bands just for the sake of it?
If you see a good band today with a 30-minute show and two hit songs, what has to be done to get it out on the market?
Well putting out a single does not always make sense because even bands like Nightwish are not played on the radio. So why would we care to release a single? Especially now when the whole single market has collapsed. You have to enter the top 50 or top 10 to actually have the physical single in the shops.
We rather focus on downloads: we have a shop on our website that is linked with a lot of partners like iTunes etc. Or sometimes we offer free downloads to get people interested in the band to buy their album.
So you contact the media always with the full album?
Yes, because they are reviewing the album and the fans are reading the articles. So we have to have our CDs covered in the magazines.
How much tour support money does a band nowadays need to support one album?
It differs from band to band and itís negotiable. If they want to tour and they have a hole of a certain amount of money, we will find a way to compensate it.
Do you have to pay for newcomers playing with big bands?
It depends on what position on the bill they play. If the band is like an opener for the main band then you have to pay for them playing the tour. If you are second or third you get paid a bit of money to play there. It is definitely important to play for a big crowd and big bands play bigger venues.
In the US, the higher you play on the bill the more people think the band is important and that they have to buy the album. If you play the third on a tour, the fans will think this band is going nowhere. People have to believe a band is bigger than they really are. Itís the same with the summer festivals in Europe.
Do you take a percentage of the merchandising and the touring?
It depends. If the band has a contract with us and the contract says it all belongs to the band, we donít get anything. Other bands want us to manufacture the merch, design it and put it online in our shops. That of course is not for free and we take a percentage of what we sell.
We donít take percentage from the touring. We earn from the record sales. We donít book shows and we are not a management company so we donít earn from the live shows.
When you look at the metal scene over the last five years, do you see any major changes?
The metal scene is cyclical. During a certain period of time death metal is popular, then black metal is popular then thrash is popular then true metal is popular. The only permanent thing is that itís always the same fans listening to the music. At the moment you can see that a lot of young kids are discovering metal and that is a good sign.
A couple of years ago when you went to concerts you saw a lot of people who where over 20. Now itís a lot of young kids. Itís good to see that metal is still alive, more then ever. Just look at all the releases that are coming out every month and the bands that are touring. I think itís the most active scene because there is a metal concert going on every day, bands sell a lot of merchandising and have a lot of Myspace fans.
What was the strangest success story you came across on your label?
The only band I can think of now is Anthrax. They were signed to a smaller label in the past before they were signed to us. When they released albums like 'Stomp 442' or 'Volume 8: The Threat Is Real' they received average reviews in Germany and had only 2500 people coming to shows.
We were big fans of Anthrax and really wanted to work with them. Then they released 'Weíve Come For You All' with us and received amazing reviews; lots of press and the shows were pulling around 8000 people.
That was an amazing success story and we are very happy that we have been a part of that. Now we are looking forward for a new album with them after changing singers and are very curious about the next chapter of the band.
Why do you think was there such a drastically change after you stepped in?
I think that the smaller labels didnít have the right distribution, didnít have the right promotion channels, and didnít have the right power to get this band where it belongs. We as metal fans know exactly how to work, how to promote, how to market a metal band.
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Interview by Jan Blumenrath
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