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Music & Film

Hitting the high notes

Want to make your mark in the music business? We asked Simon Gavin, head of A&M Records and judge on Channel 4’s Orange unsignedAct with Sony Ericsson, for his tips on getting to the top.

How did your career get started?

I come from Kent and we used to put on nights – hiring DJs and putting on bands – and it was always something I really enjoyed doing. However, there was no way I could get into to job from that point because you have to know people in the music business to know that there’s a job going. So, I ended up working in Harrods but – although it was a brilliant place to work – got really bored of it.

I then decided to go to New York in 1988, where I started working for a management company that ran a hip-hop club in various venues around Manhattan. I was working for free – I’d turn up every day and ask who needed something done, be it answering the phone or getting people lunch. As the company grew they paid me a bit more money and I started to get an address book of contacts together.

How did your career progress once you got back to the UK?

I worked at Virgin from 1990 to 1994, which was a great place to work – it was one of the last true independents really. I got involved with acts like Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul, learning my craft slowly and methodically.

Then I came to work at Polydor at 1994, where I eventually became head of A&R. We continued the growth and success of the label, signing Kaiser Chiefs, Snow Patrol and then the Scissor Sisters. About 18 months ago I really felt like I wanted to do something a bit different and on a smaller scale, so I became head of A&M Records. Duffy was the first signing, whose album sales are up to about five-and-a-half million around the world, so she’s the biggest-selling new artist. Plus we’ve got the Courteeners who have gone well beyond their goals, so things are good.

How did you get involved with Orange unsignedAct?

Originally I was just going to put the record out, but then it was suggested that if I was going to put my money into it I should go on the show and make sure I had a say in who wins? The first series was a real experiment and we didn’t really know what we had or what would come out of it, and to be honest the standard of the entrants wasn’t amazing.

Then they commissioned the second series. For the first show we had 1,500 applications – this year we had 9,000. We’ve got a real cross-section of great artists left in the show and we’re up to the semi-final this Sunday – where we’ve got five acts and we’ll get it down to three – and then the final will be the following week.

Who’s going to win?

I think Tommy Reilly’s going to win it. Long term Toby Sebastian is a bigger, more exciting prospect because he has a mainstream appeal and massive potential, but he is 16 and his songcraft isn’t quite there yet.

Is a talent show a good way to get into the business?

They’ve been around for years, they are a uniquely British thing and, in my opinion, a good thing. You have to acknowledge that they are now part of the music business and stop being sniffy about them! If you are you’ll miss something.

You do get laid bare in these TV shows. If you’re good and you’re on it every week you’re on it for 13 weeks, and people will find everything out about you. If you’re not willing for that to happen it’s the wrong route. But if you are an artist, be it Hip Parade or Bo Bruce, it’s a great way of getting recognised.

Another good bit of advice is to be big in your own town. If you’re from Glasgow, for example, do what Tommy’s just done – put a gig on, sell it out and create a groundswell of interest.

How do you find out about up-and-coming bands?

There’s much more word of mouth going on– it’s a tiny business now so there are no secrets. If a band played at the Dog and Duck last night and were good and none of us were there, we’d know about it today.

We’ve also got some internet scouts working here at A&M who are always on MySpace looking at and listening to bands, so it is very valuable to have a good page with some good quality music on there.

What’s your advice to someone who wants to go down your route?

I always wonder why someone would want to work in the business and not do A&R – it’s the best job in the music business! It’s more creative than any creative job in the business because you’re finding new, unsigned talent, helping them make a record and driving it through the company, so you’re doing everything. You also get to drive nice cars – why would you want to do anything else?

Competition time!

Don't miss your chance to enter our competition to win a pair of tickets to the final of Orange unsignedAct with Sony Ericsson on 25 January - click here to find out more. In the meantime, the semi-finals are on this T4 Sunday this Sunday at 2pm, with the live results at 5.35pm - visit the website for more information