November 29, 2011
In a sense, Sat Bisla has created a veritable United Nations for popular music with A&R Worldwide, bringing up-and-coming talent and undiscovered hit songs to the appropriate sources and commercial machinery that could break them not just in the U.S., but worldwide. Earlier this year, he approached All Access on creating a spark that could start burning global radio's cultural and language barriers, to fuel the growth, popularity and promotional power of this medium. That led to the Worldwide Radio Summit, which proved so successful that a second Summit is already set for April 27th-28th, 2012 at the W Hotel in Hollywood. Here, Bisla offers a world's eye view of music and radio industries.
What made you decide to start A&R Worldwide?
I started A&R Worldwide in 2003 on the heels of me leaving Clear Channel (CCE) and A&R Network. I originally started A&R Network as an independent business, from an idea that started in my bedroom after helping artists such as Coldplay, Muse, Fatboy Slim, Dido, Sixpence None The Richer, Frou Frou (Imogen Heap) and many others either garner deals or their first key support (pre-signing) in the U.S. and/or international markets. I helped artists such as Keane, Missy Higgins, Cherie and Bonnie McKee (artist/writer on Katy Perry's new album) garner massive major-label deals, as well as independent deals for artists such as Jem, Tina Dico, Kate Havnevik.
Initially working with Clear Channel obviously brought a lot of opportunities to A&R Network, but in actuality, when it came to fruition, one realizes that you have to go through a lot of red tape to navigate the creative process in a major organization, whereas I felt my effective creativity needed to be accomplished without hindrances. The primarily reason to go it alone was to give my idea the organic freedom I felt was needed to encourage the creative process.
A&R Network originally was a filter of sorts that brought talent and quality songs to label A&R reps who are understaffed or overwhelmed. How have the changes in the music industry changed the way you do business at A&R Worldwide?
For me, it's a much more exciting business. From the beginning, I was always working local but thinking global. I had been involved in the international music business since I was 16 years old, so for 28 years I've seen the opportunities that had been created. The American music and radio industries are just starting to realize that when it comes to the growth in music and radio, essentially the world is flat. To me, the world has always been flat. I feel the need to be connected to all areas, wherever music is being consumed ... where it is heard, seen and interacted with, and where it's promoted. You can't look at this as a black-and-white business; it's a full-color spectrum of music without borders.
With the former A&R Network, which spawned Clear Channel's New Music Network -- an idea I helped co-create (now iHeart Radio) -- and current A&R Worldwide, it all comes down to creating the right relationships with trusted filters that have the ears and foresight to spot talent and nurture it into a commercial reality. You always have to start with good art, and then you'll be able to create a business with it. That has always been a part of our eco-system and it continues to be.
One thing that has changed is that there's a lot more hands-on development now. You used to have labels doing almost all of the artist development. Now we possess a global knowledge and a track record of doing things that are much more involved than just being a filter. Not only do we find songs, the right producers and mixers, we have shown the ability to image, market and develop acts from national to global success.
That almost sounds like what a label does today. Have you ever considered actually putting out your own records?
One of the first reasons I started this business was to help bring talent and songs to labels, publishers and agents. We essentially had to be Switzerland; we certainly couldn't have developed such strong relationships with them if we were in the same business, what with all the conflicts of interest. However, now the business has changed and everyone is doing a little bit of everything, so ideas like that have come across my mind -- as long as it retains the integrity of A&R Worldwide.
For us, the one thing that is constant is that a great song is a great song - and at the end of the day, that hasn't changed. You still need a great song and an incredible artist to perform it. Then you apply the appropriate business techniques to capitalize on the opportunities around them. Those three things will never change.
Certainly, the Internet has made it possible to engage with people much more rapidly, but their attention spans are so much shorter that developing acts still need a core foundation of hardcore fans who are passionate about them. Then you can add things on top of that, to reach those who don't require as much passion.
It's a little bit harder for people who don't have much time to go through the process, but it's also easier in certain respects. Now you have the ability to connect to a lot more people across the globe. You have Net access to the global market, and the world has access to you. There are also far more tours that offer artists an opportunity to capitalize on building a foundation on them, as long as you know have the talent, relationships and opportunities to do it.
So how did the idea of a Worldwide Radio Summit come about?
I was on vacation in Estonia in the Baltic States last year with my wife and kids, when someone there asked me about my radio show, Passport Approved [www.passportapproved.com], which aims to play the best music from around the world. The show has given artists such as Adele, Ting Tings, Editors, Wolfmother, Duffy, LMFAO, Temper Trap, Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys, Corinne Bailey Rae and many others their first U.S. and/or worldwide radio exposure (usually pre-signing).
My friend asked me if there was a conference that brings radio people together from around the world. Not really; there's the NAB, but that's for operators more than creative personnel. My colleague said, "I'd love to go to a radio conference where I could meet great radio programmers from around the world in one place" -- and that's when the idea came to my head. I approached Joel Denver, President of AllAccess.com, and we created The Worldwide Radio Summit. We started on a handshake agreement and off we went.
Having listened to radio from around the world, what are some of the differences and/or similarities between programmers in various countries?
There are differences in markets and language, of course, but not so much in fundamentals, which are similar across the board. Most programmers and station owners today stream their sound online, which can reach a global audience - and it gives them the ability to sell advertising beyond their market borders and brand themselves worldwide to grow their audience and traffic. A lot of stations did not stream, but when you look at BBC Radio in the U.K.; it generates millions of unique views and drives a huge number traffic to their brand. Most international programmers now realize that there's a massive audience out there; so why not capitalize on that?
So you feel there are enough businesses out there with enough global appeal to be interested in advertising on an international radio level?
Anything's possible. Obviously there are a lot of brands out here that have a global audience, so why wouldn't they be interested in reaching out to them through a global radio strategy?
What was the most significant impression you received from those who attended the first WWRS?
Radio now realizes that its destiny is in its own hands. Radio can act to build a better business, by thinking outside of the box instead of thinking in black-and-white -- and looking at it from a full-color spectrum.
American broadcasters have some catching up to do, because international broadcasters are years ahead of us in building audience and increasing ratings and revenue through non-traditional means. Seven years ago, Tokyo FM Japan was talking about radio streaming on mobile handsets. One of its PDs came to our MUSEXPO convention back then and showed this device, which you could use to watch video, listen to audio and make purchases - all on a handheld device.
What people realized at the WWRS is that certain markets are so far advanced from the U.S. that we can learn from that; it can help us forecast the future. At the same time, international broadcasters can learn what to do and not to do from American programmers' experiences. A great collection of minds came together, all for the love of music and content, with an interest in creating beneficial policies and eco-systems.
It's a way to start thinking like Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg. How many people dismissed Apple, Microsoft and Facebook because they were different? Eventually, "different" becomes "mainstream" ... and today's mainstream becomes the fringe. Radio needs to think along those lines, start building on imagination and not relying so much on knowledge. The most successful brands come through imagination, or using your imagination with existing knowledge to make it better.
We hold the same philosophy at A&R Worldwide. We helped LMFAO get their first publishing deal when become no one else believed in them back in 2006 with a U.K. publishing company owned by a U.K. radio group. I helped Coldplay get its first U.S. airplay working with their now-worldwide manager Dave Holmes as an independent when EMI first passed on them in the U.S. We helped them strategize the best approach to expand beyond the U.K. market. We hold the same philosophy today: If you feel something great and believe in it, get behind it.
Over the years, have global music tastes been homogenized as the music world has "flattened"?
I think people have more varied tastes as they've been given even more access to a larger assortment of flavors, so at the end of the day, the more options you have, the more access you have to new ideas, the better tastes to come. A good example is going to a shopping mall. You don't just go to a mall to shop at one place. You shop at Macys, Hallmark, Nike and all sorts of retail experiences. Music is the same way -- a sound experience where each one is unique. People ultimately like diversity - we don't wear the same clothes or eat the same food everyday, do we?
So what kind of expectations do you have for the second Worldwide Radio Summit?
The goal is always to make it better, but not necessarily bigger. It will be better if it continues to bring in great people. Our 2012 goal is to show people that there's a world of opportunity out there in radio. One of the things we'll be focusing on is the rise of Asia as a radio and music market. Remember, 95% of the world's potential consumers are in markets outside of the U.S., which currently generates 75% of sales.
Emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India and the Middle East - these people have greater wealth than ever before. Radio is also evolving in these markets with a growing young audience; there will be hundreds or thousands of new radio stations in India, many of them will be reaching a largely English speaking audience. There will be opportunities for radio groups and producers to sell programming to 350 million people in India who speak English and for music creators to sell music to new consumers! It's the largest English-speaking country in the world. Indians love music fashion, food and social experiences. A market like that offers huge avenues of opportunity; you'd be an idiot to turn your eyes and ears away from the rest of the world.
In listening to radio internationally, what do the best radio stations and programmers do to succeed across borders?
One of the things I do hear quite frequently at the most successful stations I listen to abroad are those that have a philosophy of broadcasting local, but thinking global. They realize that even thought they must maintain a local market appeal to serve their audience; they're also cognizant of a whole other audience online that they can tap into as well to grow the overall brand experience and opportunity. I also feel that international radio has gone back to community building. A number of stations in Australia, U.K., France, Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, etc., while very national and global in scope, have enhanced its place in the social community. Radio was the first social media community; we need to go back to that philosophy.
How do they do that?
They engage with their audience through FM and platforms such as mobile devices, apps and online experiences, live event experiences and in some cases, even a dedicated TV channel. They're engaging with their audience in all aspects as part of their entire social music experience.
So what's in the future for A&R Worldwide?
We've always had to be chameleons. The core essence of A&R Worldwide -- artist discovery, artist development and community building through music - will always be there. As far as where we'll go from here, we'll still be acting local but thinking global and constantly evolving as nature intended!