Joel De’ath is the label manager of Music for Nations, a company that had its heydays in the 1980s and 1990s with early signings like Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth. We met Joel at Solent last week to talk about the music industry, his work, what is takes to succeed, how artists get signed to major labels and much more.
Music for Nations was actually shut down in the early 2000s and all of its catalogue relocated. It was only a few years ago that Sony decided to resurrect the label, which led to Joel joining the company. It is now a frontline label that signs new acts in addition to managing a huge heritage catalogue.
Fun fact: Solent music business lecturer James met Joel around ten years ago through Funeral for a Friend. James was asked to make a remix of one of the band’s songs. Joel loved it but, unfortunately, the band didn’t. Luckily for us, they stayed friends.
So when did Joel realise music was his biggest passion?
Joel’s dad has always had a huge collection of music, so all classic rock acts like Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were always around. His brothers were music fans, too, so obviously Joel nicked their records for the purpose of education.
’I was very lucky because I had this proper library of bands and styles. I remember quite early thinking I want to find my sound in the house because my dad was into classic 60-70s, brothers into grunge and power pop, and I liked it all, but I couldn’t find my style. So I gravitated into the real heavy, metal and death metal, which at the time was really quite scary and fun. It still influences the acts I work with. I’ve always gone for the real alternative bands and thinking, ’Oh god, how can I get this really aggressive screaming act played on the radio.’’
You had quite a musical household, did you engage with music at school?
’Not really, I did music GCSE but really it was just learning West Side Story.’
Apparently, all girls voted for West Side Story and all boys voted for Pink Floyd apart from one who chose everyone’s fate. Joel’s middle brother was in a band so he often went to pub gigs, rehearsal studios and hung out with musicians. ’I remember meeting Johnny Borrell (Razorlights) who was in a band with Pete Doherty. They were still teenagers who were just jamming. I was always surrounded by musicians and always listening to music. Oh, and I wrote one demo and sent it to Terrorizer Magazine. They gave me 3.5 out of 5 and I still have it framed on my wall.’
How did music turn into a job?
Joel failed A-levels because he found it ’ridiculous being stuck inside on a sunny day’. So he left to work at a bakery but he saved all his money for gigs. He started tape trading with metal bands some of whom ’got into a bit of trouble, some burnt some churches, some shot each other but it was great.’ When other friends at gigs would marvel at the bands, Joel had a thing for the backstage world, so he built his relationships. He then started writing letters to record labels to enquire about work experience options.
’I got a couple of replies, one of them was Music for Nations so that’s where I did my first ever industry work.’
After being at Music for Nations for 18 months, he got another work experience at Mushroom Records. Joel eventually landed a full-time position as the right hand person for Korda Marshall, the Managing Director.
’Once you’re there, then it’s entirely down to you, and because my thing was A&R it was all about convincing acts to work with us. I did some research, really geeked out about it and communicated this to the musicians.’
Fun fact: Joel did the backing vocals for Enter Shikari’s first album ‘Take to the Skies’, 2007.
What happened after Mushroom?
Joel stayed at Mushroom Records for 3-4 years and during that time he got very lucky discovering one of the biggest acts of the 2000s, The Darkness.
’I remember going through some demos and thinking this is so bonkers and unbelievably crazy, it could work.’ And although the head of A&R told Joel that he would be sacked if he played any of The Darkness’ songs again, he persisted. So when Mushroom merged with Warner Music Group and The Darkness was offered to be on the label, the band said they would not join it unless Joel got a full-time job, since he was always by their side.
Joel also worked with Funeral with a Friend and Get Cape Wear Cape Fly among others.
There is a time you have to rely on others in the industry, especially when you’re just getting started. Was there anyone who helped you?
Joel’s biggest influence was Korda Marshall (Mushroom Records) who discovered Garbage, Ash, Muse. Korda also worked with alternative acts, which is something Joel has taken with him. He had Joel go through every single demo sent which is how Joel learnt that ’if you absorb yourself in music constantly then the really good music is going to appear, so you can never listen to enough music.’
We’ve talked about some of the proudest moments in your career. What are some of the challenges?
Joel talks about how the music industry is more than just a job, it is a lifestyle. So it is always extremely difficult to get sacked. So here is a lesson, ’Don’t ever let yourself get into a position where it takes over your life. Always understand that it’s a job and it can’t take over all of your life.’
Joel then got into artist management and cannot stress enough the importance of sense of separation between the act and the manager and the necessity of second options. One should never put all their egg in one basket because nothing is set in stone.
How did Sony and Music for Nations come about to complete the story?
Joel never stopped going to gigs and keeping up with his contacts, which is how he met with an old friend, Andy Farrow (manager of Opeth, Paradise Lost) who put Joel in touch with Sony at the time of relaunching Music for Nations. And since Joel knew all the bands involved from before, he was hired as a consultant. So again, it’s about researching, geeking out and knowing your music.
Let’s talk about journalism. Which blogs, magazines or journalists do you rate highly?
Joel immediately starts talking about what he calls a new force in journalism – podcasts.
’What I found with podcasts is that they’re making me want to listen to music more than when just reading something. I do read Kerrang, PROG Magazine, Metal Hammer, and Classic Rock. However, my favourite is That’s Not Metal podcast done by an ex-journo at Metal Hammer and Kerrang called Beez. I can then pause it and find the band on Spotify. That for me is the ultimate goal in journalism.’
Onto a slightly different topic. Many of our students are musicians, can you talk about why bands get dropped?
More often than not it comes down to business, numbers and how much the band sells.
’What many people don’t know is that when a label signs a band, they have options – for a label to continue to work with a band, they can either pick up the option or not. But it’s another investment to sponsor a second album. So are the demos good enough to go for another album? Sometimes you get managers who are so passionate about the act that despite the first album flopping, they still go for a second one. Travis – first album flopped, second – humongous.’
How do artists come to a major label’s attention? Do they need someone speaking on their behalf?
Joel thinks it certainly helps having someone represent you but it is not essential, since music is a social industry and many deals are even done in bar toilets. You just have to get out there and start talking.
’I remember a PR person whispering in my ear at a gig about The Darkness and that’s how I found out about them. It helps if you make friends in the industry and if you have a manager, but in the end you just have to be really good. It’s also about shop keeping, updating your socials, sending emails to A&R people. Definitely look after your socials – it’s now as important as rehearsing. Most importantly focus on being very good, work hard and everything else will follow.’
What’s a typical week for an A&R person?
Joel calls A&R a managerial role within the label.
’You’re the first point of call for the band and managers within the label. There is a lot of shop keep, booking rehearsals, deciding who mixes, produces the bands etc. It’s not just about discovering the act but also looking after them and using your industry contacts to do so.’
How to discover acts?
’Listen to as much stuff as possible, even to acts that are signed. Get immersed in music, try and figure out what the trends are not only here but in other countries as well. Only by listening to loads of music you can pick out the best. It’s also about giving each other tips, so recommending bands you might not want to work with to other more suitable managers and labels.’
Editor’s note: I have to add that Joel’s record is 38 consecutive days at gigs!
Can you give some tips for someone starting in the industry?
’Definitely have blogs, podcasts, playlists, something that shows other people what you’re into because you have all the tools now. The whole thing is about sharing music. Someone might need band for their event, remember that you’re into that kind of music and come to you for help. Why not start a monthly event with your friends showcasing your favourite local acts, collaborate, talk to bands and offer to help them. And when you work with someone, blog it, vlog it, document it. Go on tour with them! Also, definitely keep up to date with internships and other available schemes.’
You have a new intern at Music for Nations, too. Can you give some advice on how to stand out at job interviews and land those internships?
’When going into an interview, you’re expected to say more than that you’re a music graduate. You’re expected to say, ’I run this blog, I do this vlog, I run a monthly club, manage this band on the side’ and so on. It’s a lifestyle and that’s what’s going to tip people into getting those schemes and internships.’
The conversation was then opened to the floor in the form of a Q&A
What would be the best way to contact labels for job opportunities?
’Internships, which is the ’easier’ way. Another way is to try and associate yourself with up and coming bands, go to gigs and make contacts. People will remember you if you engage and work hard. Do research on bands so you can impress industry people when you talk to them about a band – you can then ask if they know anyone who could need a hand. Be a geek. It’s good to be a geek.’
Why do record labels keep their artists when they want out of the deal and the label don’t release their music?
’It’s usually because the label’s invested a lot of money and they still want to make the album happen. So if there are clashes, the label often tries to make their ideas work. They don’t want to drop the acts because then they’ll lose half a million. Also, sometime they do just torture the acts if the relationship has gone bad because of the artist. In the end it’s a business.’
How should one approach an upcoming band?
’When I hear something good and there’s no manager, I immediately talk about how much I like their music and ask them about upcoming shows and so on. It’s important to engage with them on their music and then gradually bring in the business side.’
Do you think bands take you seriously if you don’t work for a record or management company?
’It’s not about working at a label. If you show you’re passionate about their music, that you want to know more about them and want to help out – they’ll take you seriously. As a manager you need to do the stuff bands don’t want to do and bands have to start somewhere so you can grow together.’
What do you think about the current trend of old bands coming back?
’It’s killing the music industry. Look at the major festival headlines – it’s heritage acts doing albums from start to finish. And it’s killing the industry because headliners are making fortunes and the rest get the scraps. Music promoting is purely about profit and the promoters want to book acts who bring people through the doors and it’s destroying the industry at the moment since other acts can’t compete.’
Who do you think is the most exciting act at the moment?
’Creeper are really exciting and quite cartoony. They’ve been working really hard and they’ve been really good at creating a story – it’s not just the music but also their look and artwork.’
Editor’s note: Creeper are one of the most intriguing up and coming bands from Southampton.