A couple of weeks ago we had the chance to sit down with Anna Wysocka, A&R Director at FONOBO, one of the leading indie record labels in Poland. We sat down with Anna to ask her some questions on getting started in the music industry, what the industry landscape looks like in Poland, social media and advice for younger musicians and aspiring professionals. It ended up being a lengthy chat, so welcome to Part 1, Part 2 will follow soon!
Connor: Hi Anna! How are you? Welcome to this interview and why don’t you introduce yourself briefly?
Anna: I’m super excited to talk to you today! My name is Anna and I’m from Poland, I’m the A&R director of one of the biggest independent record labels here (FONOBO Label). No one really knows what A&R is, people outside the music industry ask me if it’s a real job I have.
C: You have even a lot of people inside the music industry aren’t completely clear on what an A&R exactly is. So what do you do?
Anna: A&R stands for artists and repertoire and those are the key words of my job. I do a lot of things, I mainly look for new talents, sign artists, negotiate contracts and make sure once we do that, their career goes smoothly. I am working with them (artists), in a sense of music production and just artist development in general.
C: Would you say you’re involved on a creative level as well?
Anna: Yes, very much so. I think this is a massive part of my job. Also music production wise. There’s a lot of creative work as well. And also visuals and the way we present the artist, and just how we proceed with their career.
C: So say someone’s interested in music business. What path did you go through to end up at one of the biggest independent labels in Poland, or did you just send in the resume when you were 18?
Anna: I actually did send my resume to the label I work for right now, but I started working in music before that. I started with Sofar Sounds here in Warsaw and that was the first branch here in Poland. So I did that for a couple of years (since 2014) and gained some experience there, gathered a lot of contacts in the music business. I was also working in the fashion business before this. Like professionally. That’s where the money came from. And so I met a lot of people and then I decided, “OK, it was cool, and fashion is a very nice thing, but it’s not for me”. So I would rather just try my chances somewhere else. I sent my resume to the company I work for now, and I started on a completely different level than I am right now. At first I was a Product Manager. I did most of the things I’m doing right now. But I was just responsible for a limited number of artists.I was more focused on the on the promotion side and marketing rather than scouting and artist development.
C: Or maybe like the operational side?
Anna: As well. Yes, promotion and just planning their release was the biggest part of my job.
C: And then you just stayed with the company and kind of grew upwards?
Anna: Yes, I did stay with the company. I can’t imagine working anywhere else right now. Sebastian, who I worked with, and me have a similar view on many things and how we want this company to be like in a few years. We decided to work together more, on a different level than I was before. And I think it paid off because we are in the place that we wanted to be five years ago. So yes, it all worked out.
C: So tell us, what was that place that you guys five years ago put to paper? Like where did you want to be?
Anna: This is a complicated story, because we have two record labels, one mother record label where we have a lot of artists with more focus on the older albums and audience. Evergreen Polish hits.
C: would you call them legacy acts?
Anna: I think so, yes. Some of them definitely. Like evergreen bands from the 80s and the 90s in Poland. I really love working with them, but having this company, we also started to develop FONOBO label, which is a sublabel of MTJ (the mother label). And when I started we had just one artist there, and we wanted to make sure we develop the catalog.We signed new talent, so we would be more recognizable as a separate label. And it all worked out. Right now we work with 12 artists and we’re still developing our catalog and finding new artists. We just became a really important label in the market. We are receiving a lot of demo submissions from artists who want to be our label as well. So that’s a big success.
C: OK. So what would the next five years look like or ten years?
Anna: Well, definitely more artists. But the main goal for us is, well, the pandemic kind of made it a bit worse. But we wanted to, and we started to, try to build our artists’ engagement and audience outside of Poland. We want to be more international, and we’re still doing that. But we’re slowed down because of the pandemic.I would say that the next step would be just making sure that we’re recognizable, even for those outside of Poland, and that we can do even more amazing things with our artists, just like we are doing now.
C: Do you think it’s possible or for Polish artists to break outside of Poland without being able to play there live?
Anna: Well, I think it’s possible, but it will be super hard to do. Being realistic, I don’t think it’s something that we can achieve easily.It’s important to make sure that you have a team, marketing and promo in the country you want to break in. Playlists play a really important role as well. Just please don’t go to South by Southwest to play a show that ten people will see. Texas is cool, but you will spend a lot of money and play there for the sake of playing.
C: I’ve seen that happen so often. It’s just a waste of money.
Anna: No one pays you to do that. You just have to put your own money in, and it’s just not worth it. Of course, it’s super great to go and to make sure you’re seen there, but you have to make sure someone will come, and that they will play your music on the radio before your show, that there will be interviews, etc.
C: What about the other way around, do you think it’s possible for foreign artists to break easily into Poland? Is that something you guys are actively seeking out?
Anna: As a label, not really. We signed an artist from a very “exotic” country, two years ago and it was great. We organized a tour for him as well. It was a success, but I think we would rather focus on Polish acts making it abroad, and not the other way round. And also, if anyone wants to come and play here, I think that people are always interested in a foreign artist, and they would be likely to go and see you if you just make sure you promote it well.
C: And speaking of that, so you need to promote your show as well, obviously, but what what’s the Polish music landscape like? Is all of the power concentrated in one or two big companies, or is there a lot of smaller players? In regards to the recording business?
Anna: I think it’s the same as in any other country. We have the major labels here that are really prominent. But I guess we just recently started to have companies like us. We are not very niche. We’re not like a jazz label that a few people (with great taste!) listen to. I mean, I love jazz and everything. It’s targeted to a very specific audience and we are broader. We have the same artists, that could be signed to Universal or Warner or whoever else. We’re actually signing an act who was signed to Sony previously. So,we’re on the same page here. It’s very good for the business that there are independent labels that can do the same as the major labels but with probably less funding.
C: I mean, less funding. It’s like Universal has an unlimited supply of money, right? So how can you compete moneywise with that?
Anna: It’s very hard, but we’ll be fine.I think there are more players like us on the market recently, and this wasn’t the case 10 years ago.
C: OK, so that’s great. There’s a lot more competition springing up within the country. And what about the streaming services? Because here in Holland, Spotify kind of reigns supreme like everyone loves Spotify. What’s that like in Poland? Do people use Spotify? Do they use something different?
Anna: People use Spotify here, and it’s very popular, especially amongst younger audiences. But Tidal is also very popular.
C: What have your experience has been with the artists on your label? You told me that you would like to break them abroad. How has that experience been so far? You have some experience with your artists outside of Poland already. How did that go? Do you want to tell us something about that?
Anna: It’s work in progress because we started very recently to focus on that. It’s not our main focus, we still want to make sure that they’re really well developed here, in their own market, and then we can start going abroad.
The Polish language is very hard to listen to if you are a foreigner. So to break outside of Poland you have to sing in English. So you have to work on that (your accent) and you have to perfect that. I guess there’s a bit of an issue with that. We’re focusing on making sure that our artists, who we want to break outside of Poland, are really well prepared in that matter
I guess we have to wait for festivals outside, like the Great Escape in the U.K. or South by Southwest, as I mentioned before. Just this one thing I want to add, we’re trying to use whatever tools we have right now. So we’re trying to place our songs and artists on the foreign playlists. And actually, with one of our artists, it went really well. And we can see that his numbers are growing in other countries, even the countries that don’t really have a lot of Polish people living in. So it is probably the foreigners listening to the artist. We’re trying to utilize the tools the best we can.
C: So what I wanted to ask is you said you guys are trying to use all the tools available to grow your artists as much as possible, and streaming has been great for that, of course. What about the social media platforms? How as a label do you deal with the TikToks, and the Clubhouses and the whatever next is going to come up?
Anna: Well, we’re trying really hard. We are there, everywhere. Whenever there’s a new platform, we’re there as a label. The challenge, and that’s the thing that we have the most issues with, is trying to convince our artists that it is really, really important to utilize their social media apps as well. But they’re getting there, and we always provide them with a ‘how to’ and the best practices for all the different apps. So we’re just making sure they’re well equipped, and they actually want to do it. We’re not going to force anyone. So I think it’s super important and that’s just how the world is shaping and we have to follow it!
That was part one for now, a next part will follow soon! In the meantime you can give FONOBO and Anna a follow on Instagram, and make sure to check out some of their artists