Interview with SARAH STENNETT (part 2), manager for Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Jessie J, Conor Maynard - Mar 4, 2013
“The rock and roll days where you just show up and sell 10 million albums are long gone. The money will come, but you have to do your apprenticeship.”
The common link between breakout stars Ellie Goulding (UK No.1, US No.2), Jessie J (UK No.1, US Top 10), Rita Ora (UK No.1) and Conor Maynard (UK No.1, US Top 40) is the guiding hand of label head, manager and artist development mastermind Sarah Stennett. For the second part in an exclusive two-part interview, the Turn First Artists CEO talks to HitQuarters about preparing young artists for their big shot at chart breakthrough, including encouraging Conor Maynard’s creative growth and revealing what an artist development deal actually involves.
What was the development process like with Conor Maynard?
Capitol and Greg Thompson are just launching Conor in America at the moment.
Conor was found on YouTube. In the one and a half years that we were involved with him we wanted to find out what sort of music he was listening to and what was inspiring him to do what he was doing. We put him with producers who would spend a block of time with him, like The Invisible Men and Sophie Stern, who is signed with Dr Luke.
How did you encourage Conor’s creative development?
It was more about guiding him through the writing process than saying, “Sing this song, now go to the next producer.” This led to the first single ‘Can't Say No’, which went to #1 in the UK. That song was a tastemaker track. It sounded like something he was listening to, which was urban radio. That's where he came from.
Once we gave him time to get into his role and gave him the confidence to accept that you can sing ten melodies and if nine of them don't work then that's fine. And that you can write lyrics and scrap them and start again. It was a process of nurturing it and then introducing it into the market with the right strategic approach, working with the right team of people at the label and creating open forum for discussion.
If you work with young people, whether an artist or a young executive, you can’t put them in situations where they're too scared to say what they think. People should be reminded it's a young business and we make music for young people.
What would you say are the key platforms to introducing an artist into the current marketplace?
In order to create a name for an artist, rather than a hit record, you need a successful campaign comprising of online, TV, radio and touring. You have to bring together a full picture.
There are a lot of examples where you've got radio but have nothing online and so you don't connect. Those records fall away.
There are also lots of examples where labels took on artists that had lots of YouTube hits thinking they’ve already got statistically proven interest, but then they’ve ended up not crossing over and connecting.
It's not easy. The only way you can do that is by merging the online campaign, radio and touring and you need an understanding of the character you're delivering to the market.
In recent years has there been any particular tools that have made a significant impact in the early career breakthrough of your artists?
I think Vevo and their LIFT artists programme has been a very, very important tool in launching some artists that I’ve been involved with. Jessie J was the first Vevo LIFT artist.
In terms of online activity I think the blogs by people that are passionate about music are very influential. All the blogs that can lead to a Hype Machine number one. This community of people that are genuinely online looking for music they love and who are not necessarily in the executive music business.
How important is the print press these days?
You cannot underestimate the importance of what the classic print press does. Rolling Stone, the NME and Q Magazine, for example, are important tastemakers because people respect those magazines. And they do much more now, like the NME awards, the tour, the Q awards … So I would say key traditional music print press is still very important and brings so much more to the table.
It seems like you always start with the artist in the English market. How does the transition into the global market work?
We usually start in the UK because we mostly have UK artists. In terms of the transition into the global market, whether it's America or anywhere else, I have representatives over there. There is an amazing girl who works with me called Nadia Khan. She's very knowledgeable about the US market and she spends big blocks of time over there. She was there for two months setting up Conor. She is in regular contact with the label.
A lot of it’s about communication and having experienced people on the ground in America who can help, whether it's Jason Flom, Rob Stringer, Greg Thompson or Monte Lipman.
What headaches do you face when launching an artist internationally?
One of the big dilemmas is that the artist only has so much time and you have to decide where they spenc it. It’d be very odd to do the job without the artist being there. If we are having a great run in the UK then it's just a quick jump to go over to France or Germany but when you do a trip to America that's a whole different ball game because the flying time means you’re effectively taking the artist out of the market.
They have to make choices so everybody gets what they need. Everyone wants the artist but the artist cannot be everywhere. Physically it’s not possible. It's the balance of time that becomes tricky. That's the most difficult challenge in breaking an artist in America.
Can you give any examples of how your artists deal with that difficult balance of territories?
Rita Ora has had three number one records in the UK and a number one album. She now can't step out the door or off a plane without being photographed. But when she goes to Kansas City, for example, life changes. She has a lot of work to do there. She has to start again.
Ellie went out on the road in the US in a tour bus together with her manager Jamie Lillywhite. It's very physically demanding and if you've got two territories happening at the same time then it’s particularly hard. I don't want to be sexist about this but men are a bit more robust. So if you're a solo female artist on the road with a crew of men in a little tour bus in America then it’s tough.
During that time she probably had to fly back to the UK three or four times to do promo. You only can make it if you have that work ethic. Everybody in the music business now, whether you a journalist, manager, people in labels or an artist, has to work really hard if they want to be successful. The people who last are the people who love it. You can call it a lifestyle choice. Putting the footwork in, going into every single radio station, meeting people and just enjoying the process – that is all part of the dream.
Can you explain what it’s like being an artist on a development deal at Turn First Records?
My business has got the management business and it has got the label through Universal. As a label we have been given a development sum by Universal. If we find something we think has got potential to be successful, we invest in it as a label. The artists we want to work with are often things that no one else would pick up on. Things that major labels would see as being too early.
With the artists we’ve worked with so far we haven’t gone in and done huge deals with them. We try to do things quietly and not build any expectation of excess. If you put £10,000 ($16,000 approx.) into their bank account every month then it sets an expectation. Manage the money, manage the artist; it’s about not giving too much too soon. Quite often they’re young kids that live off very little money, work in part-time jobs or are living off their parents.
We generally give the artist a salary. Those three artists that are on the label are paid a monthly allowance. We pay them monthly just like you would in any other job. They also get the resources, studio etc. that they need to be the artist that they envision. If you want to work with XY and Z, we send you out there.
We try to teach them to understand that the people investing in them are investing in their future and so they trust them to be responsible and act like an adult about the investment. The rock and roll days where you just show up at work and sell 10 million albums are long gone. It's a trust thing. The money will come, but you have to do your apprenticeship. Roc Nation invested in Rita Ora’s development and that’s an investment of time, effort and resources.
With most artists that I've worked with, if they're not given that expectation then they're not worried about how much money they've got in the bank. They just want to do what they want to. It's like being a priest you make a decision.
An artist can usually pinpoint when they make the decision of doing what they really wanted to do. They don't do it because they think they can get rich they do it because they want to perform.
How does the management side differ to the label side in terms of financial support?
For the management company it’s a different conversation. It's the label that pays the money. But when Ellie wasn't signed, we provided accommodation for Ellie so she could stay in London.
Then you have studio costs. We have studio facilities, we've got resources around us. When people know that you've got a history of delivering things over 10 years you can pick up the phone and talk to people. If we pick up the phone for Dan Croll and say, “Look, can you help us do this record? We haven't got a lot of budget at the moment, it's in development." Anorak who is plugging for Dan Croll helped us out because ultimately we were going to deliver it and if you get on board early then you can be part of the success. No one is making money out of this at the moment.
In terms of the day-to-day life of an artist, as long as he has got somewhere to live, somewhere to record and some money in the pocket to eat and we get him in a few clubs and on a few guest lists, it's actually not that expensive.
How has your management client Liam Bailey managed with limited resources?
Liam was fortunate in getting a publishing deal but that money has been properly managed. So he's got the luxury of that and he’s also has the success with Chase & Status song ‘Blind Faith’, which he featured on.
But he doesn't have a lot of expectations. He doesn't want to live in a big flat in Notting Hill (London) for £10,000 a month. He is happy because he lives in an artist community. He's a real artist. He shot a video for his record ‘When Will They Learn’ with his friends in Nottingham for £1,750. There's some incredible visual talent out that don't need to be paid £150,000 for a video.
We just did a video with Dan Croll. He did it with his friends and we financed that. We did a little video with Ellie in Soho that we put online.
The video with Liam is amazing because his friends capture him so well. He was signed to a major label previously (Polydor) and they never quite captured it. And only when he was set free I said to him, “Go and be an artist, hang out and make music with who ever you want to make music with.”
He is doing a record right now and releasing it on Ministry Of Sound. I'm really excited about what he's doing. Great art doesn't all have to be paid for.
Do you sit down and decide a budget for an artist at the beginning?
We've got the signing budget and usually we decide to pay you X amount a month to a point where we have actually got a record. Then the structure of the deal changes. It's a classic development deal.
We have a fund for recording, a fund for marketing and some for touring. From those funds we will decide what we think makes sense.
Are you looking for new artists at the moment?
We are always looking for great artists, exciting artists, exciting executive talent and exciting team members.
We’ve just done a deal with a label called Noizy Cricket!! with a guy called le' Roy [Benros] (HQ interview). He manages Angel Haze and is based in New York and a booker for SOB’s. He's the guy that found Angel, put a team together, released an EP online, created a buzz, and A&Red her. He is an all rounder. Now she’s signed to Republic and Island Records. Le' Roy has got several acts that he has got in development that are really exciting. We have given him a fund to go off and do things. He doesn't have to ask for permission.
He got a band in the studio the other night to record some demos. He actually got them on Skype with us so we could see them perform. That's really exciting for me. It's about passion and this kid is passionate. He has a vision of what he wants Noizy Cricket!! to be as a label. I invest in people.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Jason Flom on turning Jessie J into a superstar
* Le'Roy Benros on developing hot new Island/Republic artist Angel Haze