Breaking the Mold: Record Label & Sync A&R!
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with May Mahmoudi took place on Tuesday, May 30th, live from Los Angeles, California.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In part one, May explains how someone from Virginia made their way to LA. How pop music was the entry point but not the goal and taking a unique career path: Major Label to Indie label. May also explains the differences between what publishers and indie labels are looking for in an artist, and what does syncable mean exactly?
Marc Brown: Hi May, welcome to How We Listen Live: In Conversation. Let’s start by asking you to explain what you do.
Marc: OK, but where did you start out and how did you end up doing what you do now?
May: I grew up in Northern Virginia. I didn’t go to school for music or anything, I was just a huge fan. I always say I started out as a listener. In college, I didn’t study music but I was part of the big music scene at Virginia Tech. It led to bands like Beach Fossils, Wild Nothings – it was a really cool scene. After college, I stayed in Virginia for a few more years and then moved out to LA with a bunch of my friends who were all involved in music in different ways.
Marc: Wow, that sounds complicated. How did you all coordinate moving together?
May: One of our friends got into pop songwriting and he had some success in that, so we all followed him to LA. Today he has a management and publishing company. So the ability for everyone to move out together was due to their success.
Marc: Were you into pop?
May: I wasn’t interested in being part of that scene. Coming to LA and seeing what it was like made me realize that it wasn’t my vibe so I went the indie and underground route. I was playing music in underground venues and warehouse parties. I also had all kinds of odd jobs, like walking dogs, until I eventually got a job at Universal Music in the copyright and royalty department. I was there for three years always looking for something else. Working at a major label was not where I wanted to be. Then I got a job at Ninja Tune in their publishing department. Everything I had done and been learning up until then is what let me grow within music, even if I was doing a job that wasn’t really related to the space I wanted to be in.
Marc: How did you make the jump from Universal to Ninja Tune? Most people go from indie to major, you went the other way.
May: I was looking around for a while. Universal was great, but it wasn’t my vibe so I was looking for something else and I found a sync assistant job at Ninja Tune. It is always really hard to get a job in music if you didn’t know anyone at the company, but I emailed the sync person directly and got a meeting set up and then was able to get through several rounds of meetings and I got the job. There were a ton of applicants, maybe over 200, but I built my resume by doing things related to music on the side, I was managing a friend’s band, putting on shows, and DJing. I also learned a lot while at Universal, and that helped me too.
Marc: How much time did you spend on the publishing side before you went to the record side?
May: I worked for almost 3 years on the publishing side paying my dues, and then I was able to move on to the label side and do A&R.
Marc: What’s super interesting is that those are totally different worlds. Can you summarize the difference between the work involved at a record label and publishing?
May: Yes, they’re very different. On the publishing side, you’re focusing more on sessions, sync placements, and signing artists who fit those categories, and then there is a lot of admin. You are connecting people for sessions, and it’s more on the backend side of things. You’re not working directly on releases like you do in publishing. On the A&R side, the job involves finding artists, making sure they fit the criteria you need as a label and making sure you can provide the right resources for them. Also if you’re working with an artist who doesn’t have an album yet, you’re connecting them with producers and making sure they create the best music they possibly can, which is a little like the publishing job.
Marc: On the publishing side, did you find that artists knew much about what that world involved?
May: The admin side of publishing is complicated, so that’s what artists need the most help with. Sometimes it’s better when it’s just artist to artist so I encourage them to work with people that they’ve already talked to or played shows with. Artists can sometimes be the best A&R for themselves.
Marc: You mentioned one of the artists you work with just did something with Beck, and that it came about organically.
May: Yeah, we were talking about how it’d be great if one of the tracks on the album had a feature, and she said that she knew Beck. So I just told her to DM him directly. That kind of thing is so much better than if we had to go through the labels and managers. That applies to the press too, they like when the artist hits them up directly.
Marc: OK, so it sounds like you have a lot going on, how does a typical day break down for you at work?
May: I’m still doing publishing sync stuff, so that’s a part of my job. I help with the U.S A&R and help the sync team. On the label side, I have a ton of meetings with the UK staff because Big Dada, our sub-label, is based there. I also keep in touch with all of the artists we’ve signed and make sure that they’re working on music and that they’re aware of all of the things we need from them for their campaign. I also talk to artists that we potentially want to sign, and research artists in the scene that we should be talking to.
Marc: What do people look for when it comes to new artists from a publishing standpoint?
May: It depends on the company and what they need at the time. I feel like a lot of our signings at Ninja Tune/Just Isn’t Music, revolve around syncs because we have such a strong team in that department. We focus a lot on that but we are also focusing on great songwriters and producers and trying to bring those worlds together. We do sign artists as well. It is about how they fit into the songwriting world and the sync world.
Marc: How do new artists get syncs if they don’t know anything about that world and don’t have the support of a publisher?
May: Sometimes an artist will make music that is so syncable that music supervisors find it on their own. That often means living in LA or New York or one of those music hubs to have the opportunity to showcase your music live to music supervisors. So it’s super useful to have a publisher or a sync agency to help get your music into that world.
Marc: Now what does being sync-able mean? Are you talking about sounding like whatever else is being synced?
May: Unfortunately, sometimes yeah. That’s what I find disappointing about music sometimes. I get it that people want to make money but I don’t think we should be promoting the type of mindset of artists needing to sound like someone else to be successful. I always say people should just try to make music that sounds like them and see what happens.
Marc: Absolutely. You’re always looking backwards in that case and not forwards so whatever you’re doing is going to lose steam, and run into a wall. From an A&R point of view, how does that differ?
May: It’s very different but also has its constraints. Specifically what we’re doing at Big Dada is we look at people who are pushing boundaries. We are trying to provide people with some resources earlier in their careers. The artists that we sign at Big Dada probably wouldn’t be signed to Ninja Tune yet. We look for people who have an interesting community and fanbase but need help with Spotify and press and all of that. That’s what we have our in-house teams for.
Want to read on? Head to Part II here!