The Hot Seat: Billy Mann

Published in The Music Network


Billy Mann knows a great record when he hears it. The American record producer and songwriter is peerless in his craft, having steered the careers of many top flight artists the likes of which include Take That, Joss Stone, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, and his fellow Philadelphian Pink. All told, Mann has had a hand – and an ear – in more than 75 million album sales worldwide.  In the past two years, Mann has served within the senior executive ranks of Guy Hands’ EMI, a music company which in that time has experienced upheaval and evolution quite unlike any of its major rivals. With the heavy lifting now done on Hands’ vast project, Mann can get on with what he’s best at — elevating the company’s international talent to the next level. Lars Brandle caught up with the international music man just hours before Empire of the Sun cooked the competition at the ARIA Awards.

What brings you to Sydney?

The ARIAs. I love it here. Many of the artists I’ve worked with over my career have been Australian and I have lots of friends who work in the industry here. There’s always great music coming out of Australia, bands like Operator Please, Airbourne, The Temper Trap and of course Empire of the Sun, which is a big story for us. The Australian and New Zealand markets are probably the closest in the world to the U.S. in terms of the people and the consumer behaviour and the way fans act and respond.

What’s your vibe on Empire of the Sun in the U.S.?

They have something which any artist or any music project wants — its own DNA, its own unique thumbprint. There’s three ways to talk about them. The most important is the musical way, and then the viral and organic explosion which has come from the fans who love it. The third is how EMI takes advantage of a global footprint and works with the team here along with the team in London, France and elsewhere to grow that. It’s an example of all three at its best.  The buzz in the U.S. has been enormous. I see this as being a long-life project, an album which is going to last a long time.

Why do so few Australians reach the top stage in the U.S?

The answer is fairly simple. There’s a geographical challenge. It’s a very long bridge to build. The Internet is an amazing tool for musicians and artists, which changes the complexion of the relationship between Australia and the rest of the world. The amount of artists from Australia who can reach people outside of Australia is probably greater today than it’s ever been before. The barriers that once existed are different now. They’re based for the large part on the truest, most authentic dialog you could hope for as an artist, which is giving people the opportunity to respond to what you’ve created. If you want to crack the U.S. or any market, people can smell when you mean it and when you don’t. You still have to put that elbow grease in, play the small clubs, the small towns, do the radio shows and all the grunt work.

You’ve seen up close the revolution of EMI under Guy Hands. Does Hands finally have the company where he wants it?

From a creative standpoint, EMI is a much healthier, more muscular place. We’re rationalising any relationship with the artist by bringing in capabilities that are tailor-made to the act instead of approaching the business with a cookie-cutter fashion. EMI is in the pole-position because we represent a much more indie-minded company. We can move more quickly, be more flexible, have more creative deals and tailor-make our relationships with artists in a way that in the past wouldn’t really allow. The old school always said, “come to us we’re the best.” Now, it’s about how we meet in the centre so an artist get everything they need to get their art out there and to do it in a way that has some credibility and authenticity to it.

Your role is an international one.

I like sitting in an international chair. And I like that I’m an American. The economic changes and the mentality shift in the world today are a result of eight years of arrogant mentality during the U.S. leadership through the Bush years.  People stepped away from looking at America for validation in terms of business and creatively. The creative community responded. Now we have English-speaking repertoire which comes from Germany, France, Scandinavia. There’s an optimism and a collaborative current in the air now, and that’s going to help the music and help any creative people. I still believe the U.S. and the U.K. are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll risk-takers. But innovation is not exclusively American. Innovation can come from anywhere, Empire of the Sun being one example.

Art Garfunkel called you a visionary. Do you ever miss being an artist.

No. I’m still a creative person and a musician. But I got to the point where I reached 40, I’ve got a great wife, three children, and I much prefer being the person behind the screen and not the person in front of it. And it’s not cool when you’re the guy in the club and you’re a bit too old to be there.

[Billy Mann has since been appointed President of Creative, BMG North America.]

The original story can be found here.