David Mortimer-Hawkins, senior A&R at Sony Music, was present at the Where Is The Music conference in February 2017 and we couldn’t let the occasion slide to talk to him and ask him some questions.
He started working in the music industry in the early eighties, as a music publisher. He has always worked in A&R in some capacity. David was at the festival to scout for new talent. In particular, he was looking for artists with a strong identity and good songs. According to David, in A&R, one has to keep an eye – or rather an ear – on what people are listening to nowadays.
But one cannot follow what is popular blindly by copying it, authenticity and novelty are also important. With regards to labels, there is a kind of task division between major and indie labels. Major labels are good at creating hits and facilitating a breakthrough for a band. Indie labels are good at finding new bands, supporting more experimental music and trying out new genres.
Indie labels change what music can be released by the major labels because they prepare the larger audience for new kinds of music. They make certain sounds, artists and music acceptable. In any case, for all labels, one of the biggest challenges is to preserve the artistic and emotional side of music while not being afraid to sell it as a neatly packaged product on a market for money.
Please tell us about yourself
I began as a music publisher in 1983, and been working in different capacities as an A&R person. I came to WTM to look at new talent, and to listen to new music.
We heard at the conference that a fierce competition among artists makes them fight for a place within a label, what’s your view on that?
As an A&R person you should be always looking to find an artist with a strong identity, as much as you are looking for a good song. And there is also the side of what people are listening to nowadays: if you look at the charts, it’s not what people used to listen to 10-15 years ago. That’s something you have a to be aware of. And in that part – if an artist X is doing really well, then a label would think, often unconsciously, that by working with an artist Y who sounds a bit like artist X, you could tap into that audience. You try to avoid thinking like that as much as possible. But often the most interesting artists are those who do not sound like X, Y or Z, but actually break new ground and bring something new to the table. But you can’t help that people describe artists like a mix of that and that artist.
What feeling do you get when hearing the world’s best song?
When you hear a great song, you become childish. It touches you. And this does not refer to a specific genre. It just connects, and it’s hard to have a cool professional regard on it, ‘yep, it’s good’. There are two sides of hearing a great song. First side is the childish feeling you get when hearing it, the other side is to work with it to turn it to a product (don’t be scared by the word ‘product’), so other people can enjoy the work of art, also buying into it. That’s a big challenge for any label. But sometimes there is no need to rework, it’s perfect, and by fiddling around you could lose the magic.
What differentiates artists with Sony Music from artists with smaller labels?
Level of artistry is generally the same, and still some genres are better worked on by smaller labels. The major labels are good at breaking hits, really big songs, that’s where they have their muscle. A lot of indie labels are good at finding interesting new stuff, new producers, new songwriters, left field and experimental, and start breaking waves, and preparing the grounds.
What do you think of the current trends in music, does it become more standardized?
Some artists would not have been commercially viable a few years ago, but as the envelope is always pushed a bit further, people get more used to a more experimental sound. We’ve moved from Backstreet Boys – very clean cut pop sound, now listen to Drake today, his productions are really big, also Rihanna or Beyonce, their last album, stuff like that would not have been released on a major label 15 years ago. To get there you need smaller labels breaking the waves and pushing forward. If you take a band 21 Pilots, their song Car Radio, it’s a blend of EDM, indie pop and metal vocals in the end, it’s a really odd mix, and it’s huge. The fearlessness of blending styles is what is driving the music forward.
What is the input of different elements of a great song by songwriting, vocals, and production?
I will give you a horribly boring answer here: it’s all important, and varies from song to song. So a third each.
By Polina Aitkulova, a singer/songwriter known as Shell-i. A sea shell inspires her as a notion of infinity and femininity.