Lars Eric Mattsson / Lion Music (Industry Interview)
LARS ERIC MATTSSON – HEAD OF LION MUSIC INTERVIEW
A guitarist of the classic metal/hard rock school Lars Eric Mattsson was first discovered by Mike Varney (Guitar Player Magazine and Shrapnel Records) in 1985. After playing and touring with various local hard rock bands Lars recorded and released numerous albums under his own name and the Mattsson moniker for various labels and saw release worldwide.
Mattsson then founded Lion Music in 1989 as a production company for the composer and artist to handle production and licensing businesses in Europe, USA and Asia after several dubious deals with other labels. At that time it was never intended that Lion Music would become the record label that it has evolved into with its first releases coming in the late 1990’s. Since this time Lion Music has operated as a real record label with regular releases and seen its roster of artists grow considerably offering more varied musical genres and styles. Lion Music are now considered a leading force within progressive metal circles with an uncanny knack for picking up previously unheard of bands from around the globe and bringing them to wider attention. The label is also closely associated with promoting instrumental albums with the likes of George Bellas, Jennifer Batten, Rusty Cooley, Michael Harris and Joe Stump leading this side of the roster.
Lars agreed to an interview with questions coming from the DRG forumites about the music industry. Lars answered all openly and honestly and hopefully this will provide a few eye openers to the state of the industry.
Who are you targeting? That is who is your perceived market?
I think it’s different with each release, but after many years doing this I kind of know what will work for us, and what wont work for us… by saying that I mean that something we cant sell could do well on another label as they might have different distribution and fan base. I think the people who buy from us are more into music that is a bit “different”, classic heavy metal and AOR don’t do well for us, while music that would seem to be less commercial might do better for us, while another label probably could not sell it.
What, in your opinion, sells?
It’s hard to answer such a question, because for instance Joe Stump sells, but a Joe Stump wannabe no matter how good might not sell… so perhaps I should say that bands and musicians with a strong following and those who actually do tour sell.
What are you looking for in a "band" these days?
We are not looking for bands as we have too many already, but if we did, it would have to be a band that is interested in investing time and money into their own career and who realize that nothing will happen to them unless they take care of their destiny by themselves. They would also have to fit into what we represent as a label which should be quite obvious to anyone that looks at our website www.lionmusic.com. We do prefer bands that can “play”, singers who can sing on pitch, we have moved away more form the operatic vocals of late to a more earthier darker vibe as this seems to be what the market prefers at this time.
As no one is getting rich anymore, why on earth do you bother doing this?
Because I am stuck here and can’t do anything else? :) I have a love/hate relationship with my work, and deep inside I am an optimist, but I don’t do this to get rich, if this was the case I would have given up years ago. Our staff all work other jobs and all put in a lot of time and effort mainly for the love of music.
First, is this label producing records for release, or are they licensing recordings from the artists for release?
We work in many different ways, but in these times the artists usually can’t expect to get their recording costs fully covered unless they have their own studio.
Are they selling more hard copy (CD's, LPs) or more downloads?
CD’s are still 80-90% in terms of money, but the variations between releases are very big, some acts sell a lot of downloads when you compare that figure to others that have almost no downloads at all. Instrumental music seems to be quite consistent in the digital realm but not so good in the hard CD format. However the day when digital will be everything is still a long long way off.
Do you provide tour support/marketing support?
No labels provide tour support these days. We help out where we can, but the situation is very bad, promoters are unwilling to take a chance on unknown bands, big bands charge their support acts and this often helps them recoup their own losses from touring. The whole situation is difficult to say the least.
How often do your artists tour?
Some never, some quite often, but those who tour do sell more.
How much money does the average artist make in royalties per song?
This is between our artists and us, and not public information, but we pay per album, not per song.
After a band gets signed and releases their first album what is the criteria used to determine whether they get to release another album or just get dropped?
It’s very rare that a band doesn’t get a second shot, but sometimes we feel that a band does not suit our label and a few times in the past the band’s first album didn’t really live up to the expectations as we had signed something that was not yet complete and that we had expected more of in the final end product.
Are there minimum sales numbers a new band/artist must meet in order to stay signed?
Not really, but we usually have a feeling whether a band can/will grow or not.
How do bands get discovered/signed now? Is it mainly a digital media thing now (ie: myspace) or are guys still sitting in at local shows, trying to find acts to sign?
They usually contact us some way and after that myspace or mp3 files sent over the internet is just as fine as a CD in the mail, at least to begin with. Lion Music has never gone out looking for bands per se, all our signing, at least those over the last 5 years have all found us.
How does one determine whether or not an act will be signed? What "criteria" do they have to meet?
If we think we can sell it and that it fits the label we might make an offer, but what’s also important is the timing - do we have space to add one more release during the coming months or not… if the answer is no, then I don’t even listen as it’s just a waste of time. We can’t sign/release everything that has potential if we did bands would be waiting 2+ years for their product to come out which is not a good situation for either party.
If a band is not marketable because they do not conform to musical trends, will they even be considered, or will they be cast aside by the record companies now?
We don’t follow the trends, but if we know that something does not work, then we don’t waste time and money on it. I think the stuff we release is out of fashion anyway in the grand scheme of things!
How do you decide how and where to promote a new band geographically...seems like the USA gets overlooked a lot?
We have very limited resources, a lot of things are overlooked, but it’s the only way to survive in these times. That said we do work closely with sites that fit in with our audience and have good relationships with many.
If its worldwide or wherever...how do you decide how to promote....rock-music magazines/internet/concerts/ etc?
We use internet mostly these days.
Why do record companies sign promising bands, then try to change every single thing about them so they no longer represent why they were signed in the first place?
We don’t do that. I believe in artistic freedom, the guys can do what they want but if that does not fit us then they should find another label.
Why can't an average mortal get front row seats at a concert? Why should the record company and their cronies get the good seats?
I have no idea about this…
Why do all metalcore bands sound the same?
Because they all copy the same shit.
Although this might be shooting your "business" interest in the foot....... What should artists look for or shy away from in contractual language? "Net" vs. "Gross"? "Money provided upfront for studio time, disc production, mastering, promotion, touring, etc. and repayment plan including any interest, etc."? What artists should expect to put in in the way of time, effort, travel, etc. before realizing any true return on the artist's investment?
In these days if they can find a label at all they should be lucky, it is getting extremely difficult! But I think the bands should not limit themselves to more than 3 albums – because then they can find another label if things do not work out.
What's with all the inbreeding? At least half the releases in the melodic/proggy genre are projects that combine the same dozen or so of musicians. Does this really sell more than a bonafide band?
I totally agree, I think it’s more interesting with real bands but as they don’t make any money they try to take part in several acts. I understand that it’s happening but it’s not very cool but again the buying public also dictates these things. I do think other labels are afraid of finding new talent to a lesser extent, which in the long run isn't good for the scene in general.
How does Lion Music decide which artist(s) they want to have a contract with and who decides?
We usually roll the dice. Seriously we are not looking for artists these days but the factors mentioned already play a part. The main one being is this act a good representative of the music we promote?
Has Lion Music a politic/strategy for recording that first album on the label, that is, do you have any influence over sound, production, songs and image, if you think an artist needs that "guidance"?
No, being a musician myself I believe in artistic freedom, and those who don’t suit us should find another label.
Nowadays, more often than not, new artists have their first records ready, at least at a demo stage, when signing contract. Do Lion Music invest in the development of the first record (and the second and third), i.e. support the artists financially in their development artistically speaking?
These days it’s very usual that the bands have a finished master when they first contact a label, usually we do support them in some way though, but every situation is different. If the debut sells well then you have an idea of potential sales for further releases and that then is where an advance for recording costs will come in – some bands are able to work to these budgets, other invest extra money of their own on top. We are realistic about the potential sales though and artists need to be also.
How does a deal look like these days? How many albums do you get signed for? Promotion as videos, radio-playing? Studio-time? You know that stuff... What support does the band get? And how many albums does a average band sell today?
We sign for 1 to 3 albums, these days usually for just one sometimes with the first option on a second. However all deals are individual and unlike the next, but we don’t put money into videos as no-one plays them unless you pay a lot of money to get them on TV in first place which we don’t have. YouTube is changing that a little but even then not enough to warrant video budgets like major labels would give in the 80’s. A savy artist will effectively use a budget/advance they have to the best of their abilities and if they feel that can create a video within that then great, there are a lot of Uni students looking for experience in this realm and can come up with original creative content – thinking outside the box for things like this helps.
Are there any area of the world you feel have a lot more bands that you sign? You know, any area that seems to have a lot more high-quality bands? And were is the place to be right now for metal-bands? Like London was in the late '70s and Los Angeles in the mid '80s. Do you feel that bands of the same style seems to be in the same area? As the NWOBHM-band was mostly from London, the hair-metal bands from L.A., the early power-metal bands from Hamburg, the melodic death-metal bands from Gothenburg etc.? See any trends like that today? Any city that have a large amount of the bands from a certain sub-genre?
I think these days great bands come from everywhere, I don’t think any certain country rules? but a lot of great music comes from Sweden and Finland for sure. Is this dictated to individual cities like the "LA scen"e, the "Seattle scen"e etc then no, not as much. There are probably great bands in every town/city in the world but we are not interested in “scenes” as fads come and go.
How much do you care about the demo review sections in metal-mags? If a band have a demo with great reviews do you read them and look into bands recommended there?
Do lot of bands send you demos and do you even care listening to them and if so how often does bands doing that get a deal?
I don’t read them, I don’t have time so it’s not that I don’t care… its very rare that we sign something based on a CD I received in the mail. I would say it’s really a waste of money to send out promos without knowing if someone will look out for it. It’s better to check if a label is looking for stuff and if what they are doing would be right, trying to talk the label into reconsidering their preferences is just stupid and a waste of time and money for the band.
Do you see any trends when it comes to metal music? You know the power-metal expolosion of late '90s/early '00s, we had the sleaze-wave a couple of years ago starting to weaken, right now probably are on the top of the New Wave of Traditional Metal? You see any pattern? What do you predict is the new big thing in metal?
I think that the next thing will be a mix of different genres but with good songs and not too many worked out cliché’s.
Do you care about this? Trying to jump on the bandwagon? Do you see difference in sales depending on which is the hot-thing according to the mags right now or is it pretty stable that the genres sell pretty much the same amount of records no matter what?
No I don’t care about this. I will never sign a band with just growl vocals for instance because I think it’s not interesting to me. I think the magazines are just focusing on big bands and big acts of the past and I don’t think magazines will be very influential on what will be the next big thing. Some high quality acts with a decent following will sell even if their genre is out of fashion, and as soon as something is in fashion that scene might be over crowded and most bands wont sell anyway…but for us Progressive metal is the genre that works the best, actually much better than traditional metal and AOR, also Goth metal is doing well for us.
What do you think about festivals in general? That is were I usually feel that young bands actually get a chance to play to bigger crowds, right or wrong? Is this the future, will it pop-up even more festivals as it have done the latter half of this decade, have we reached a level where nothing will really happen or do many festivals going to die?
I think that festivals can be great, especially those that target a specific audience, but usually it’s hard for young acts to get on the bills.
The music industry has changed. My understanding is that these days, the only thing of value a small indy label can provide (that the artist can't do themselves) is distribution. If that is true, what kind of distribution can Lion provide for the artist? If that is false, what else can you offer (tours? monitary advances for professional studios/engineers/producers?) Why should an act want to sign a deal with you? What does the artist stand to gain from signing? What does a standard contract from Lion music look like these days? What does a really attractive contract (from the artists perspective) look like?
Distribution is just a small part of what we do, we can also offer promotion, having a myspace page does NOT make a band famous and sell records. We know the right people and the fans of the “right” genres will look out for cool music coming from us. We can NOT offer the bands tours. Our contracts are confidential agreements between us and our artists and not public information.
Consider the three following situations:
1) I buy a CD on Amazon (or any other large store)
2) I download a song on iTunes or Amazon
3) I buy a concert ticket
In average, what percentage of the price actually goes to the artist in each situation?
All I can say it that the download will get the artist more money out of the first 2, as we don’t work with concerts I can not comment on that one.
Lion has some stellar guitarists on their books, but also some that sound rather "less developed". If a budding musician/band is hoping for a record deal, what can they expect in terms of sales?
The sales are very very individual, but in order to sell they need to get out there and play, even shitty places are better than nothing. A guitarist who does not tour should not expect to sell. Also some older guys who already have a name will benefit from that advice, but it’s not always like that.
There's an AWFUL lot of bullshit when it comes to figures - artists trying to pass themselves off as big stars, when they're selling hardly anything and are footing the bill for their hobby themselves. A bit of reality would be a good thing - it might shatter a few dreams, but at least people could then just concentrate on what matters - doing it for the love of it, instead of dreaming that they're going to get rich.
You are totally right – all the way from when I started in the music business people have been lying about their sales, so this is nothing new. Our artists might sell anything from 600 copies to 10,000 but no one will sell much without a lot of effort also from the artist.
What kind of promotional pack would get your attention from an independent guitarist/musician? Great music goes without saying, but can you elaborate more on that and talk about the other factors?
At this time as we really don’t look for artists, in order to make us interested they would need to have a very good product, amazing songs, great production etc… no one signs a band based on a shitty demo and then give them lots of money to record that masterpiece anymore. The band will have to have a selling product before approaching labels or they will end up in the thrash can.
Having a professional looking overall package i.e. press kit, website, myspace profile (one that doesn’t take a century to load is also nice - ask yourself do I need these aps?) will help attract attention. Also a clear idea of what you represent as an artist and also signs that you put effort in yourselves also helps.
From a solo guitarist standpoint even if you are an incredibly accomplished player then sales are low in this genre. Unless you have an established fan base like Joe Stump or the means to promote yourself as a clinic/tradeshow player then don’t expect to be on stage at G3 anytime soon. Lion Music have some incredible players who are technically as good and arguably more interesting than the “big names” but can’t get a look in as printed guitar press doesn’t want to know about new players. Rusty Cooley has managed to break into the mainstream media to some extent which is cool but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Is the traditional "deal" dead? Going forward are record companies only going to do 360 deals whereby they get a slice of touring revenue, merchandise, ringtones etc. etc.?
The business is changing and it will change much more during the next few years. Artists need to be able to “sell” themselves or they wont get anywhere, even with a record deal they need to have this mentality, or they will be very disappointed.
Also once an artist has established themselves what is the point of a record company (see NIN, Radiohead etc). What can a record company actually provide an artist these days?
The artists we work with are not on this level, and they need help with having their records manufactured, distributed, promoted etc… Of course anyone can manufacture some discs but the truth is that to have distribution for a single artist is not possible (unless you are Radiohead of course).
When you promote bands where do you mainly aim?
We have our following after having done this for many years and new people are discovering us all the time. Also, in terms of territories, there are some countries where it’s not possible to sell CDs because either people have no money or all the distributors are crooks than never pay and we don’t do much in these places as it’s just a waste of money.
Which kinds of people do you try to reach and which network do you use for that purpose? And why do you use those networks? How did you find out that to be the best way?
We try to use the methods that are affordable in order to reach open minded people interested in real music. There are so many narrow-minded media people out there that have very stupid ideas about how things should be done. We just work by trial and error but in these days we need to keep our costs down or we won’t be around much longer.
If you feel that the band has some "mainstream" potential to you try to get them at the radio for example?
It’s very difficult, most of our acts don’t fit in with what they usually play but of course we have a number of radio shows that we co-operate with.
Do you pay radio-stations and MTV to play bands or does they do it because they "want to"?
No we never pay for this and we never will.
And with YouTube and lots of online metal radio-stations and shows (even TV-shows put online only) do you try to use those channels to promote bands?
Yes we do have some video clips available on YouTube. There are on the other hand many internet radios that don’t really have many listeners.
I think YouTube have secured that the music video will continue to be a important way to promote bands, do you feel the same? And how do you think it will be in the future?
Yes I agree completely. YouTube is much better for a promo video than smaller TV shows, and you can forget about MTV anyway which is anything but music these days from what I can tell.
Is it possible for maybe a YouTube version of "Headbangers Ball" and one for "Europe Top 20" etc.? That the business is trying to capitalize on the online success you can get through online promotion?
Maybe, I think internet is taking over as the main place to be when it comes to promotion. Magazines are too slow and no longer interested in new stuff and commercial TV holds too much “pay to play” attitude. Some of Europe’s top rock magazines now feature full page adverts for things like fashion which a couple of years ago you never saw – this tells you the magazines are having to resort to other non music areas to fill their pages, which is ironic given their lack of interest in new music for the most part (unless you pay for features). If publications were more open minded to this then sales for smaller artists may improve which would mean more money for adverts in their magazines but maybe that’s too obvious?
And... do you ever put groups together? You know like they do in the realms of pop just that you do it with metal artists instead? Like you have signed a great singer and put him together with some musicians you think will work and put some songwriters to write songs for them? You know, really making a band?
No, we don’t work like that. We only sign finished products. We have released a couple of things in the past where say a lead guitarist has been recommended but for us doing a metal boy band equivalent then no.
And when you decide whether to sign a band or not do you look how well it fits with the rest of your artists? I don't know your stable with artists that well but just to make an example... you mainly seems to have guitar virtuosos and progressive metal bands signed but if you find for example an extremely good crossover pop-metal band in the vein of Poison or Def Leppard and know you can make a lot of money on this band will you sign it or don't because it doesn't fit well together with the rest of the artists you represent?
No matter what we think of ourselves, it seems like Lion Music has become a brand and people do expect certain things from us, stuff that is different from that does not do very well for us even though in theory it could do well on another label. On the other hand, as the music business has developed I am no longer interested in investing money into trying to break a “commercial” act, as that would certainly need a different approach.
You know, you see yourself as a label just for a certain type of music... or do are you open for anything as long as you think it's good?
Music that is outside of what we normally do, don’t seem to be easy to sell to our distributors so we are not going to stray too far away from what we normally do. The problem is not with us but with what is expected from us.