Five years ago, a new Island was created Down Under. Universal Music Group International and its key executives Max Hole (now Chairman and CEO) and George Ash (President of Universal Music Australasia) took the initiative to start investing heavily in Australian A&R. Part of that was to launch Island Records Australia. Half-a-decade on, a raft of Island artists have enjoyed their own slice of paradise, from Boy & Bear, Hilltop Hoods, Gin Wigmore and The McClymonts to Marvin Priest, Brian McFadden and Havana Brown.
The label is headed by Mike Taylor, who also serves as General Manager of A&R at UMA. Taylor has had A&R stints in the U.S. with Columbia Records and at Madonna’s Maverick Recording Company, and in Australia where he served as A&R Director/Head of A&R at Sony Music. At Sony, Taylor A&R’d Delta Goodrem’s Innocent Eyes, one of the biggest-selling albums in the history of Australia’s record industry.
What’s been the vision behind Island here?
Along with Island U.K. and U.S., Island Australia is the only other Island label brand in the world. I saw it as such an exciting chance to be involved in the creation of the label, so I moved from New York to Sydney for the job. When we get it right, Island Australia is a home for artists who cut their own path, who start from the left, and who, in time, come into the mainstream on their own artistic terms.
Chris Blackwell is a legend of the music biz. Has he played any guiding role with the Aussie company?
Chris Blackwell sold Island to Polygram U.K. in 1989, when it was the world’s most successful indie label. He stayed on as CEO of Island for another ten years but has since fully left the company. Today he’s mostly enjoying his actual island, in the Caribbean. And I hear he doesn’t leave Jamaica for much anymore. I’ve not met him. But his legacy is just incredible. He brought the whole genre of reggae music to a wider world audience, and then U.K. folk, prog rock and beyond. It’s a staggeringly brilliant roster: Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Traffic, Grace Jones, Nick Drake, Free, Bad Company, Cat Stevens, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Pulp, Tricky, U2. The list goes on.
We’ve slipped into 2013. How’s the face of A&R changing?
It’s still about great songs and exciting, true talent. However, you’re seeing a change in terms of how quickly things can happen now in the A&R world. A song or video reacting online can overnight turn into an A&R signing frenzy, to a priority push at a major in a few days. Personally, I don’t chase trends as you’re then behind the curve. Rather, I look at what really excites me and what seems to be exciting those around me.
This year, Universal and EMI will be integrated here and elsewhere. How will that process change the way your company does A&R?
EMI has a successful roster of great Australian artists. At Universal, all the labels–Island, Mercury, Dew Process, Modular–compete internally. EMI will now be joining that list. It’s a healthy competition which gives Universal a wider chance of success in the market. For Island Australia, it’s business as usual.
You launched the Bali Songwriting Invitational back in 2009. Why?
Great songs are the key to success for an artist. I started this with Peter Coquillard, music publisher at Bill Silva Management, as something of an experiment. When there’s nothing to do but write songs and bond in an amazing setting–where mobile phone reception and Internet suck–the quality of songs can be incredible. We bring together 21 artists and songwriters from around the world, put them in the jungle of Ubud, Bali at a recording studio and private villa resort, which we take over for ten days. Each day the writers break into groups of three: an artist, a track songwriter and a top line writer. I get to know and work with “A List” writers and artists; that access benefits my artists immensely. If a great song comes from it, myself and our A&R Manager Josh Kellett are the first to hear it, and possibly get it for one of my artists. Last year, 11 cuts came from the 39 songs. That’s an amazing strike rate. Last year APRA and Universal Music Publishing Australia came onboard as sponsors. Our 4th annual Bali Songwriting Invitational is in May.
You’ve been in Australia five years. What are you impressions?
I loved it then, and love it now. I grew up in New York and lived in the city for years, so I wanted a change. In terms of the music scene and industry in Australia, it’s really vibrant, and punches way above its weight class for its population size.