Industry Profile: Sat Bisla
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat: Sat Bisla, founder/president, A&R Worldwide/ Musexpo
There’s are few figures in the entertainment industry as enthusiastic about new music as Sat Bisla.
The British-born founder/president of A&R Worldwide was one of the earliest drum-beaters in the careers of such artists as Coldplay, Dido, Missy Higgins, Keane, Faithless, Fatboy Slim, Ting Tings, Sam Sparro, Sixpence None the Richer, H-Blocks, Rammstein, The Temper Trap, Lily Allen, the Chemical Brothers, and others in America.
A&R Worldwide, an independent artist discovery and development company based in Beverly Hills and London, oversees two annual music, media and technology conferences--Musexpo in Los Angeles, and Musexpo Europe in London.
As well, the company is a founding partner in the annual festival One Movement For Music in Perth, Australia, and programs the affiliated conference One Movement Musexpo Asia Pacific along with Sunset Events and Chugg Entertainment.
These events attract an unmatched mix of leading worldwide figures in radio, A&R, film/TV music supervision, publishing, new media, technology, and artist management as well showcase impressive emerging musical talent from all parts of the world.
Musexpo 2010 will take place April 25-28 at the London West Hollywood Hotel just off the Sunset Strip. The focus of this year’s meet is on solutions, innovation and inspiration for a music industry seeking to build lasting binds between artists, fans and the industry.
Among those speaking at the event will be: Harvey Goldsmith, founder, Harvey Goldsmith Presents; Steve Schnur, worldwide head of music & marketing, EA Games; Craig Kallman, chairman/CEO, Atlantic Records Group; Ron Fair, chairman, Geffen Records; Big Jon Platt, president, North America creative, EMI Music Publishing; David Massey, president Mercury/Island Records Group; Jason Flom, president, Lava/Universal Records; John Kirkpatrick, Sr., VP & chief marketing officer, Hot Topic; Nick Gatfield, president New Music North America, UK & Ireland, EMI Records; Ruth McCartney, CEO/co-founder, McCartney Multimedia; George Ergatoudis, head of Music, BBC Radio 1; and artist managers Troy Carter (Lady Gaga), Robert Reynolds (the Killers).
Bisla has had a multi-faceted and colorful career in the music industry. He has worked as a DJ, club booker, A&R scout, journalist, label consultant, and artist manager (Rob Dougan, Kate Havenevik, and Pilot Speed),
In the late ‘90s, Bisla launched A&R Network, an independent artist discovery and development platform that was soon acquired by Clear Channel Communications, then the world's largest concert promoter and radio conglomerate. Bisla then ran its operations as VP for A&R Network for three years.
A&R Network had a subscription web site dedicated to informing music industry professionals about promising acts available for recording contracts, licensing, management, publishing, and legal representation.
When Clear Channel decided to step back from A&R Network, Bisla founded A&R Worldwide (later partnering with Entertainment Ventures Jim McKeon and Steve Smith) with a similar template. He also played a key role in the discovery and signing of many new artists while also writing a weekly A&R column for the radio trade publication, Radio & Records.
Bisla, for example, was the first American radio DJ to support Britain’s Dido. He played her track "Flowerstand Man" from a Faithless demo tape in the summer of 1995 on KFSR in Fresno, California. For almost a year, Bisla worked with Cheeky Records in trying to convince American labels to sign Dido, and radio programmers to play Dido with little success before she signed with Arista in the U.S. in late 1996.
In 2006, Bisla reached an agreement with Entertainment Ventures partners Steve Smith and Jim McKeon to acquire A&R Worldwide.
Bisla then founded Pangaea Entertainment Group, the home to the A&R Worldwide and Musexpo brands. Pangaea is also parent to Passport Approved, a two-hour weekly import syndicated radio show hosted by Bisla. He also hosts “M.I.A.,” a twice-weekly radio show for Germany’s Motor FM.
It’s a bit crazy producing two 3-day industry conferences within 6 weeks of each other on different continents.
It’s like putting an A&R dinner together on steroids. Last year, we had about 400 people at the European event. (In Los Angeles) we will never have more than 700 delegates. That’s our maximum capacity.
When did Musexpo Europe and One Movement in Australia start?
We started Musexpo Europe in 2008. One Movement in Perth is in its second year. That came about because Michael Chugg (executive chairman of Chugg Enterprises) came to the LA event a few years ago, and was impressed.
These events are boutique-styled.
At the end of the day (the music industry) is about music. I’ve always felt like that if we can make a positive difference in the industry, and if everyone contributes in a positive way, we will have a healthier eco-system, and we will all benefit.
Musexpo is not our core business. We are lucky if we break even. We put so much back into taking care of the guests (delegates). Every meal is taken care of. As you know, that’s not cheap in LA. Most of it is out of (our) pocket if not covered in full with sponsorship support. The same in Europe.
There are a lot of different conferences in the world. This is an event that truly is created by music people. It started off as a dinner. That’s really important. That’s why we provide free meals throughout the entire event. I think that it is so important.
There’s more personal connect when you are sitting across from someone?
Correct. Our goal always has been innovation and inspiration. I feel that there’s not enough of that in our business these days. So there is no agenda (at the conferences). You are guaranteed great music. I think we do a great job of filtering (and then presenting) great music from across the globe. We have a total of 30 acts. We never do any competing showcases.
Why only 30 bands?
If you go to a lot of (music industry) events, you will see 2,000 acts, and they are playing in a donut shop. That’s pretty insulting to the artist. (Our event) is about generating outcomes. You can’t do that by having hundreds of acts. Also, if artists are traveling thousands of miles, and are making an investment to come over, you should have the best sound system, the best venue, and the best lighting. You should treat them like guests. That’s what they get when they come to the LA event. They get a couple of the best venues on the LA Strip, The Whisky A Go Go, and The Viper Room. We make sure that they are well looked after, and that they are in the right mind-set to perform at their best. Obviously, what’s generated makes us look good too.
These conferences, while music-related, attract executives from fields other than music.
That’s because of what we do day-to-day with A&R Worldwide. We work with cross platforms across the globe, from technology companies to A&R people to artists to radio to film and TV people. That’s the business we are in.
The art of A&R has diminished in recent years. Fewer people know a great deal about songwriting, song selection, picking a producer, performance, marketing, or radio and press anymore.
I know. The old (music industry) adage goes that (A&R) is lifeblood of all things music. And, it truly is because without proper artist development you are not going to have that next superstar act or that next artist that changes someone’s life. Whether it an artist who sells 10 copies or sells 100 million, you still need a great song. You still need a great artist to be able to perform those songs. You still need great artist development. You also need to have great infrastructure to be able to capitalize on the back of those songs.
Even the basics of A&R—song selection and performance—are things that are often overlooked today.
The younger generation of A&R, and even people outside the day-to-day artist development world, have no understanding today of what it takes to create a song; to go into the studio; to find the right producer, mixer and engineer; and to find the right studio in order to be in the right kind of creative environment. Then putting the live show together, the imaging, the marketing, the promotion, and the PR.
That’s what an A&R person used to do.
All of those things. Also developing relationships. It boggles my mind how so few people in our industry today focus their energies on that, unlike those of us who grew up in a business where it was the artist, and a relationship factor (was important) They think that by being on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace or other social media, they are covered. That’s their rolodex. But it’s not. It’s a virtual rolodex because very few of those relationships actually materialize into anything creative--like a face to face.
You have to follow-up social media activities with a face-to-face?
Nothing beats that. I hear people say that they have had 15 million views (via the internet) but then you find they have had, maybe, 200 sales. That’s where there’s a big problem today. They don’t realize that relationships are real.
Well, the music business is still probably more accessible than any other business.
It is. Absolutely. But technology has changed that. You are accessible virtually (through social networking) but not as accessible face to face anymore which I think is a real shame.
Many new artists today have no creative friction from within the industry. There’s nobody on hand to direct them.
I think you are right. It’s there but it’s not there enough. We need to do a better job of mentoring the next generation. They also have to have that passion and hunger to want to learn, to work hard, and to engage as we did when we were kids.
People I have respected and learned from over the years, they still have that passion for music. You still see that excitement for music from these people. There’s the knowledge that some of these (veteran) industry people have. But there isn’t any mentorship program today. Over the years, we have ended up having two kinds of people in our business. The passionate ones. They love music, and it’s in their blood. And the fashionites. They are in music because it’s cool. I think what people have forgotten is that it is about the music first. It still really is.
The diminishing of services at labels in recent years has given birth to a lot of different service businesses. Including your own.
Well, it has. But this is what I’ve done for the past 25 years. I was always wearing multiple hats. People thought I was crazy. “You are trying to be a radio and club DJ, a journalist, a booking agent, a (personal) manager? What are you doing? You should focus.” But I wanted to learn as much as I could about music, and the business of music. I thought that how I could truly understand that back in 1984 was by having experience in all of these different things. Before my wife and I had kids, I would do things just out of good will. If I was a friend of an artist, I would do everything I could for that artist. And a lot of that good will (from then) resonated with what we have been doing for the past 10 years.
About service businesses, I think that, yes, a whole plethora of different companies have popped up. A label still has the ability to do what they have always done but if they have to bring in people then they have that same kind of vision. The problem is that you sometimes have—not just with labels but any kind of business today—is that because of this age of technology, people have lived so much in the virtual world that they have not had the experience in a reality based world where they have real life experiences. That’s where the disconnect has been with a lot of this younger generation. As people get older and retire, we are losing that work force that has that ability to multi-task.
You have worked in several fields within the music industry. Did those varied experiences give you a fuller understanding of the industry than if you had worked in only one area.
Absolutely. That’s the whole reason why I did. I got excited about learning new things. I didn’t just want to just obtain people’s knowledge; I wanted to create my own vision and imagination. Being in this kind of creative business, one can certainly learn from other people, and from other people’s knowledge, but you also have to have imagination and creativity.
You also have to have, I think, a real genuine passion and understanding of the music but also the business too. It’s not an easy thing to do. Some of those who are more critically minded manage business very well; they are business minded but they don’t understand the creative aspect very well. When you can get people who can understand both (business and creative), and understand both well and know how to marry the two together, you are going to have a great success with all involved. That’s why I got into this business. I love music. I wasn’t good enough to be a musician but I thought I had at least a good ear for a great song.
Finding new talent is easier now because there are so many avenues for music to be heard. How much music do you receive weekly?
On an average week, I receive 80 to 100 releases. Physical and digital. I still love vinyl. I still love the CD. I don’t do cassettes anymore but, if the music is good, I don’t care where it comes from. Just as long as it’s good and it makes a mark on the emotional music meter. There are certain places I will go to on the Internet but most times it will be a manager, radio friend, producer or an A&R person who sends me something.
Can you still listen to music for enjoyment?
Oh, absolutely. I do that every single day. Especially with the radio show which is based purely on artistic merit. I still get excited when I hear a song in someone’s office. I will walk in, and ask what it is. “Can I have a copy of that?”
Is there anything better than getting a great piece of music?
Well, it changes your life. There’s nothing in the world that can have that connection like music does.
You were born in England, and lived in Wolverhampton?
I was born in England. My parents were from India--from Punjab. I moved from England to Fresno, California when I was 14. Between high school and college I moved back to England a few times.
What did your dad do?
Both of my parents were blue collar workers. They had regular factory jobs. England was going through an industrial recession in the late ‘70s, and early ‘80s. So they moved to America. I followed suit later.
Your family left for America and you followed two years later?
Yeah. My family is very close and my grandparents, who had helped raise (me along with my two younger and two older brothers), were devastated that all of us were moving to America. So my mom and dad reluctantly said that one of my brothers and I would stay a little bit longer, instead of us all leaving at once. It was very difficult. I was very close to my parents and my grandparents. So I said “Okay, I’ll do it.” But, after a couple of years I couldn’t take it anymore. I really missed my parents.
Did you encounter prejudice growing up in England?
In England, yeah. It was tough because back in the ‘70s, there was the (working class youth) skinhead movement and the neo-Nazi movement in the UK. To be spat on, and to be told, “Hey Paki, go back to where you came from”—and I was born there—it was a tough pill to swallow. And, to see my grandmother and my mom sworn at, and spat on, it wasn’t easy.
England doesn’t feel like your country?
I’ve always felt like a citizen of the world. I was born in England. So I consider myself British. My parents were from India so I consider myself British Indian. England is my home. I have a lot of great friends who were born and bred in England that were like family to me. They were great. Like in any culture, you are going to have those who are very narrow-minded. There were knuckleheads who had no understanding of whatever values I and other people had. You just tend to ignore them. (The situation) made me say to myself that, “I’m going to show these guys.” Not through fists. Not through swearing. Not through bricks. But by doing something with my life, and making a difference.
Wolverhampton is quite working class.
It was a tough place to grow up in but I would never change anything. It really taught me the value of a great work ethic, integrity and also having passion and a vision. You had to. It was a struggle (there) so you had to do (work hard) to better yourself.
Was Fresno any better?
Fresno was a different set of challenges. It was reverse discrimination. I was the only kid at the school that they had been seen from England who was brown. Most of the kids there thought England was the capital of London. They thought London was a country. It was a cultural shock (for me). Surprisingly, I was embraced by the Mexican gangs in school, and also by the Vietnamese. It was an interesting experience. I went from one armpit to another (from Wolverhampton to Fresno). But, at the same time, by talking to people, and making them understand and me understanding where they were coming from, we ended up getting along really well.
What did you study at Fresno State University?
Initially, I took journalism. Then I changed my focus to (studying) broadcasting and television. I went back to London to study journalism at the London School of Journalism for about a year and a half. After graduating, I couldn’t get work and I moved back to America, and got involved in radio.
You’d always had a strong interest in music.
I give a lot of credit to my parents. Every Sunday morning while having breakfast —from when I was five onward-- they would make me and my siblings sit around and listen to Indian music. But, in the evening my mom and dad would let me listen to John Peel (on BBC 1). (Their attitude was), “If you like music then listen to the music that we grew up with as kids, but also listen to music you want to listen to.” They were really good about letting me listen to music.
What attracted you to working in radio?
When I moved to Fresno I’d listen to radio and I wouldn’t hear the kind of music that I had grown up listening to (in England). When I had moved, I had taken some of my music collection with me. So I would call the local radio station (KFSR-FM in Fresno on the California State University Fresno campus), and I’d request all of these British bands that I had grown up listening to. Of course, the DJs had never heard of them. I would call several times a day. The DJs would recognize the voice. One of them finally said, “Why don’t you come into the radio station and bring these records with you so we can hear them? Stop calling and harassing us.”
It was bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Ultravox. I ended up having this meeting and they said, “We find this music interesting. Have you ever thought about DJing.” I had never DJed. They suggested I work as an intern and they would teach me the basics of radio. (KFSR-FM DJ) Radio Rich said “Come onto my show, and I’ll show you the (sound) board.” So, at the age of 17, they brought me on board to basically be the news reader at the station. They also gave me import program, "The Import Show.”
Within a year, according Birch Radio (rating surveys), the show was the highest rated daypart (show) on Fresno radio.
With the popularity of your show, local clubs started calling you to DJ.
Listeners started saying, “You have to bring this DJ into the club.” I had never mixed a record before. Never beat mixed or scratched. I had to learn everything from scratch. No pun intended. As the fan base grew, I was able to draw between 2,000 to 3,000 people to gigs. Some of the big promoters started hiring me to DJ.
You got pretty good.
I got pretty good. I DJed for 18 years before I packed up my turntables.
You continued working in radio.
I went from KFSR to commercial radio in Fresno. I ended up doing some work at KMGX with Kevin Carter who was PD. That was my first professional radio gig. Then I started doing an import show at KRZR. I got high ratings but the PD and consultant didn’t want to fragment their day time audience. It wasn’t who they were, which was an active rock station.
However, KKDJ’s PD Willobee (aka William Carlan) and I met, and he loved my show. I put together a business plan for Willobee, and the station (since renamed KMJ Now), after some research by (rock radio consulting firm) Jacobs Media decided to switch over to being an alternative station. I was music director there for a couple of years. I also did an import show called "The Cutting Edge." The station got a lot of recognition not just locally but internationally.
Between 1984 to 1993, you did some freelancing writing for the (radio tip sheets) the Hard Report and Friday Morning Quarterback. You also traveled overseas seeking out new music.
Basically, I was traveling around the world meeting people trying to get free records for the radio show. I figured that staying with family or friends or staying in a hostel would cost me “this much” but, if I was getting all of these free records, it would save me “this much” (buying music).
I would write letters to different record companies overseas and say, “I’m coming over in three months. Can I have a meeting with you?” And some would write back and say “Sure, c’mon in.” I would then go to these record companies and tell them I had a record show and ask if I could get some free records. Some of these people helped me out, others didn’t.
You moved to Los Angeles in 1995 and worked for the radio trade magazine Album Network, and its alternative spin-off, Virtually Alternative.
I was the associate radio editor and also the international editor. That became the start of what I do today (in A&R development). I worked with Steve Smith and Gary Bird at Album Network. Later, I joined Radio & Records and did the column “A&R Worldwide.”
Beginning with Album Network, a lot of the A&R people were checking out the acts you were writing about.
Then I got a call from Yigal Dakar who was running the college department at Interscope. He wanted me to come in and meet with Tom Whalley (chairman/CEO of Warner Brothers Records), and (Interscope co-founder) Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field because the acts some of the A&R guys were picking up on were through my column. (Yigal) asked me to be an A&R consultant. I asked, “Well, what does an A&R consultant do?” He told me that the company would pay me a consulting fee to bring them music. I said “thanks but no thanks” at first. But I ended up working with them. I worked with Dido before she got signed and before she had any interest and I helped her get on the radio (in the U.S.). As a result of that, as well as Fatboy Slim and a bunch of other bands, people started paying attention to me, and I started getting more A&R consulting gigs.
How were you paid?
At the time I got a flat retainer. I ended up getting a ton of bands deals in the United States. For me, it was great that there was more international music being heard.
You weren’t offered points on future records?
I didn’t know about that kind of stuff until later. It was Mel Medalie at Champion Records (Dido, and Faithless) who offered me a couple of points. I said I didn’t feel right taking (points) because I just loved the music. I said, “I don’t think I’ve earned it.” He said, “You’re crazy.”
Then Nic Harcourt offered me a job at KCRW. I did that for a couple of years. Nic and I became friends when he was at WDST (in Woodstock, New York). He was always one of those guys I talked to about music.
During this time, our magazine (Album Network) had been acquired by Bob Sillerman of SFX Entertainment and subsequently by Clear Channel. (SFX was sold to Clear Channel Communications in 2000).
By that time, I had realized that with all of this international access to music evolving with the Internet that it was time to evolve an online platform bringing all of the knowledge together.
That was the New Music Network?
At the time it was called Globally Challenged (changed to New Music Network and then A&R Network in March 2001). I thought that the industry was somewhat challenged in a global context. I did it out of my own house first, and then I ran out of money. So I approached Tommy Nast (then publisher of The Album Network) and asked if he’d be interested in buying it. He asked what revenue I was generating. It was zero. He liked the concept, and said if I could make it into monetary thing he thought it might work. So I approached him and Steve Smith (then COO of SFX) with a business plan and they subsequently said they’d do this. I came up with the name A&R Network, and sold it to Clear Channel. I ran A&R Network for Clear Channel for about three years.
TO: The first week I helped this artist (17-year-old singer/songwriter) Bonnie McKee. The songs were there but the production wasn’t. Nicolos Jodoin redid one song and we sent it to A&R people, and it went crazy. It was Tom Whalley’s first signing at Warner Bros. (as president/CEO).
Why did Clear Channel get involved with your New Music Network. To grow future stars?
I think that what happened is that when I approached them with this (A&R) concept, I had done a lot of good will for many years. So they had heard all of these managers and artists saying that I had done right by them. They knew I had been involved with Dido, Coldplay, and Keane before they got record deals. These were all multi-selling acts by then. So they started doing the math that this could be a good business to be in. It was about continuing discovering and developing these acts but now in a way Clear Channel could take them to the next level.
With antitrust allegations swarming around Clear Channel, anything they could do to say that they were helping young talent would be positive.
Yes, they could deflect a lot of criticism by saying, “Yes, well look at all of the good stuff we are doing.” I also saw the leverage that they had with the consumer and my thought was that if you could bring the consumer, the industry and the artist together we could take this to a whole another level.
Within a week of start-up, you had about 100 acts selected
It was a purely editorial choice. Anything that I felt was really exciting we would feature them. On top of that, I was sending weekly emails to different tastemakers around the world (publishing). I would combine their and my picks once a month and put out this email saying so and so at radio loves this band blah blah.
Why did Clear Channel lose interest?
Within a three month period we had over 30,000 artists signed up. Clear Channel was blown away by the reaction. But they didn’t know how to monetize (the activity). I wasn’t a sales guy. I was a music guy. They realized that it was costing more and more to maintain this (business), and the money wasn’t coming in quick enough.
Musexpo started with dinners?
Dave Holmes (then at Nettwerk Management) and I were having lunch at Café Med on the Sunset Strip in 2000 when I was doing some consulting work for him. We were talking about all of these people who loved music but who didn’t spend time talking to each other. So we thought why don’t we just start doing a bi-monthly dinner and invite a couple of friends. That’s how it all started. It started as this two person dinner, and it grew to 150 people coming to these dinners in a year.
The first year of Musexpo in 2005 just marketed itself.
Basically, I went through my rolodex and had the people who had come out for the dinners. I sent out an email to them letting them know through the A&R World Newsletter about this event. We had almost 600 people the first year. That was the only way we marketed the event. I felt that it couldn’t be forced. It had to be grown organically. Even today you don’t see us taking out very many advertisements.
You then partnered with Steve Smith and Jim McKeon to build A&R Worldwide, including Musexpo.
When my contract ended with Clear Channel, Steve said he loved what I was doing, and he was keen to support my idea. We had a three year plan, and from 2003 to 2006 we worked together. I bought back the names (in 2006).
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.