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Lorde and the 'new world'

Barney Chunn chats to Scott Maclachlan
Scott Maclachlan seems to be the right mix of old head with new ideas to counterpoint Lorde’s new generational instincts, as manager from her tender age of 12, and partner in the philosophy of her approach to releasing her music.
Lorde ‘The epiphany came by seeing her deal with the people in the industry, who have more experience, and a greater wealth of knowledge, and she was just calling them out. Just picking holes in their argument…'
Lorde's manager Scott Maclachlan talks to Mike and Barney Chunn about the 'new world' where time-honoured practices in the craft of management and A&R have been shaken.

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Lorde, a 16-year-old student, has recently had three songs in the NZ singles charts simultaneously. While that is unheard of there is more! A heady world-wide advance of her material with a new methodology and principles behind it is underway.

Her manager, Scott Maclachlan, talks to Mike and Barney Chunn about this 'new world'.

A world where his time-honoured practices in the craft of management and Artist and Repertoire (A&R) have been shaken.

* * *

Lorde sings: I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh.

It’s the opening line to Royals, a track currently making tsunami-sized waves worldwide. In the Play It Strange world of songs written by school students, great opening lines are prominent.

Rain falls off your face and runs away - No More Songs For Him - Maria Schryvers

We are not philosophers, we are blank page - Philosophers - Hugh Piesse

Young wordsmiths are evocative, and through them, a change is being made. With Lorde at the vanguard of a growing lyrical emphasis, who better to ask this question to but her manager and Universal Music A&R man, Scott Maclachlan. Maclachlan started out as an A&R man at Jive Records for 6 years. He then joined Mercury in London in 2005. His signings in the past have included Groove Armada, Dragonette, Basement Jaxx and Shanks & Bigfoot. He is now a founding director of the small but passionate Saiko Management while continuing to head A&R at Universal Music in Auckland. With that experience, Maclachlan seems to be the right mix of old head with new ideas to counterpoint Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor)’s new generational instincts, as manager from her tender age of 12, and partner in the philosophy of her approach to releasing her music.

Tell us Scott. Are first lines important?

Absolutely.

And with Lorde?

I think she’s the voice of her generation.

I had an epiphany about two years ago, when I was with her,’ says Maclachlan in response to questions about their unique approach to her career. ‘I had always been taught that you learn from your elders and from experience all through school and university. Now… I think there’s a younger generation of her age group, who are incredibly savvy, who are incredibly socially minded, who are incredibly instinctive about what they see and the way they approach life. So for me, I’ve completely shifted; I’m now looking downwards.

Certainly it’s a shift from the mentality of much of the mechanics of the pop music industry. That infrastructure has been and is dealing with the inevitable consequences of its inertia in the face of modernity, and perhaps its arrogance towards those who really make the rules; the audience. While the dust may not have settled yet from these destabilizing developments, Lorde seems to be one of the first to be shedding light on the possibilities that always come from change, as she hacks through the suffocating ways of an often overbearing industry that’s become paralyzed by apprehension.

For the last 10 years, everyone’s been telling us the industry’s in a terrible state, and we’ve been selling off everything really cheap, and to the detriment of our artists. I was hearing things like: ‘I can’t believe you’re giving so much freedom to a 16-year-old…' [from those] who are just ploughing the furrow they have been on the whole time; because they refuse to believe that they can learn anything from the people younger than them.

The epiphany came by seeing her deal with the people in the industry, who have more experience, and a greater wealth of knowledge, and she was just calling them out. Just picking holes in their argument… But then the amazing thing is seeing this change to the big labels in the US, and you can see the light bulb go on in their head, and they think ‘actually, maybe there is another way to do this,’ and that’s amazing, and a watershed moment. And it’s all out of this 16-year-old kid.

The ‘epiphany’ might be as simple as that: looking down. Rather than directing artists, providing the most direct medium between an artist and their audience. However, it’s been clear that another large, and unique, part of the Lorde approach has been to closely guard information on the women herself.

As Maclachlan says, there’s a ‘tried and tested, and not necessarily correct anymore’ approach to any whiff of attention. That was to throw everything you had at the media, to get as much of that exposure as quickly as possible.

Today the audience wants everything, and they want it now, but what happens is they get it, they digest it, and they move on to the next thing. I’m cognisant the whole time that I’ve got a 16-year-old here, and I’ve got to help her build a career over the next 20-30 years, and there’s no way we could do that if we just threw it all out there. So it was very much about drip feed, and very much about control.

Though this could be taken as hypocritical given that the EP was available for free for so long, it’s about a broader approach than that. It’s a reversal of what used to be the case i.e. make yourself available but charge for the music. Now the idea is, make the music available, but everything else is guarded. One can only form opinions on the information available to them at the time.

Mike: So what sort of impact did letting the music by itself make all the opinions?

I was fielding calls from America very early. So we put it up at the end of December 2012, and about 5 days I get a call from Jason Flom.

Mike: And with Lorde having Spotify’s most viral track in the US and the UK. What wheels are spun to achieve something like that?

None. It happens of its own accord. For me, when I first got the American one, that was the biggest news I’d had, cause it meant that kids were sharing it, because they wanted to share it. When we gave it away to begin with, all I wanted to see and hear every morning was that kids were sharing it, cause as soon as that chain of sharing stops, you’re dead really. So the Spotify thing is completely unhypeable. There’s nothing you can do.

The centre to the whole change in attitude with Lorde, and the way she has put herself and her music to the world, seems exactly that: that she does have control. And within that control, is a certain honesty and integrity. To repeat myself (Barney) on the topic, she IS her audience. And it’s the first time it feels like in a while someone’s been able to write pop music from an honest and direct and involved perspective.

It’s not just about the lyrics but its about the whole package. So with Miley Cyrus, the videos etc, there’s this whole, ‘I’ve got to be scantily clad, I’ve got to show that I’m partying, that there’s an insinuation to drugs, and sex, but to me, that’s a 40-year-old record execs idea of what youth are doing. Then you go talk to Ella, and she’s like, ‘I have no money, I’m too young to get into a club, I can’t drink, so what do I do? I sit around at bus stations with my mates. I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, so where’s all this lifestyle bullshit coming from?’ ...So what it all really is about, is truth…. and it’s about honesty.

Ella played in Australia over the weekend and I went with her, and the kids over there are in awe of her, and I honestly think its like, they’ve found their Joan of Arc. They’ve found someone.

I think she’s going to be galvanizing kids into thinking, this is what I should be exploring, and that’s what I think - she’s going to have a cultural effect.


And with that flourishing culture those first lines just keep coming.

Written by

Mike Chunn

17 Jul 2013

Interests Mike Chunn has worked with original songs all his life from his days with Split Enz and Citizen Band through Mushroom Records (Dance Exponents and DD Smash) to eleven years as Director of Operations for APRA.