Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

London, England.

How did you first get into the music business?

A friend of mine named Don Black (the well known lyricist who wrote Sunset Boulevard with Andrew Lloyd Webber) was working for a newspaper called the New Music Express, which was, and still is, a very well known weekly music paper. He asked me whether I would be interested in working for a music publishing company over the summer. I went to meet the professional manager, and he took me on. His name was Dick James. I worked at that company for a few years, and when Dick went on his own I went with him. When I joined the company, he had just signed the Beatles. We had about forty percent of the charts when I joined. It was a lucky omen (laughter).

When was that?

Oh my God! I wish you hadn't asked that (laughter). I joined Dick around 1964.

At the height of the Beatles!

Yeah. I joined the company right after "Please, Please Me" was a hit.

Wow!

I knew Paul. I didn't know John. John was never interested in the publishing company, but Paul certainly was interested.

Paul was interested in publishing even back then? (Paul now owns a very successful music publishing company—ed.)

Yes. Even back then. I remember him coming and playing me a song he called "Scrambled Eggs," which eventually became "Yesterday". He actually played that to me in my office on a harpsichord which somebody had left there for the summer. So that was my humble beginning in the music business.

Not so humble (laughter). Where did you go next?

I went to Island. I had never heard of Chris Blackwell or Island Records at that time. It was 1969. They'd only been in business a couple of years. Chris told me that I had been recommended to him by a guy called Martin Davis, who was running United Artists at the time. He wanted to know whether I'd be interested in running Island's publishing company. There were only about 15 songs in the catalogue at that time, but he had signed some great writers like Steve Winwood and the band, Free.

I actually turned him down at the beginning because I was unsure of him. Then I got a call from Denny Cordell (the independent producer at that time) who was going to take his acts and go into partnership with Chris. He said, "I know you turned Chris down, but I want you to know that all my acts—The Move, Joe Cocker, and all the rest—we're all going into this joint company. Would that be of interest to you?" So eventually I took the deal.

On the evening that I took the deal, I was reading my evening newspaper on the underground coming home—you must remember, I was very, very straight—and I read that Denny Cordell had just been busted for marijuana. I was so scared. I thought, "Oh my God! I'm working for drug addicts!" So I was going to turn him down the next day. I was going to say: "Sorry. I can't work for this kind of company." But eventually I thought "Well, let's take a chance."

Were you there for a long time.

Until Polygram bought Island Music in 1990.

Did you have a lot of success at Island?

It was a tremendous era. We really helped to start the whole underground revolution with groups like Jethro Tull and Free and Traffic. We were starters. We started both Virgin and Chrysalis Records. Meaning, that they did deals with us for distribution and promotion, and came under our wing. They eventually grew and did it themselves, but we started them.

I remember having breakfast with Richard Branson (founder/owner of Virgin) where he wrote down on a napkin all this information that I gave him about publishing . I was going to do a deal with him on publishing, and then he decided to do it himself because I had already given him all this information (laughter). That was 1970.

Did Island continue to do well?

The Seventies were brilliant. The Eighties weren't as good, and then the late Eighties were perfect. We signed U2 in '78 and we started to come back, but the Eighties weren't very good for us. However, Bob Marley was always big throughout that period.

You had some hits in the Eighties though...

Yeah. Robert Palmer and Marianne Faithfull and Grace Jones and U2, obviously. But were weren't the label that we were in the Seventies, when we were the forerunners. Everybody wanted to be with us. We had an image.

Now you're at Madonna's company, Maverick. How long have you been there?

I was Managing Director and President of Island when it was sold to Polygram. During the year and a half I was there after the sale, everything was going well for us. But the powers that be wanted a change, and I resigned and came here in April 1992, making it three years.

And you started this company . . .

... from scratch. I mean, we had zero songs in the catalogue. It's a co-venture with Warner/Chappell. In my first year I signed Lucinda Williams and we won a Grammy for Country Song of the Year—"Passionate Kisses"—which was recorded by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I also brought M'shell N'dgeocello into the company. Her tape had been sent to me by somebody that I'd met in New York. Candlebox came in '93. So the company has been sort of an instant success.

Why are you opening a Nashville office now?

Well, I've always been a song man. That's why I left London to come to Los Angeles. Because the writers at that time (1975), were all coming out of Los Angeles. There were places like the Troubadour, where I saw Billy Joel, Carly Simon and James Taylor in the course of two nights. That's not happening right now in Los Angeles. There are very few writers coming out of L.A. or if they're in L.A., they're going to Nashville. So I started a Nashville office because I want to be able to pick up those songwriters. They do exist there and they're not only writing Country. There are all sorts of writers in Nashville.

Are you signing them strictly as songwriters as opposed to artist/writers or producer/writers?

Yes I am. A lot of the big companies won't take just straight songwriters unless they have an outlet already built in. Meaning that they produce acts, or they write with acts, but I will sign writers who are just writers. I signed Benmont Tench, who's the keyboard player with Tom Petty, and he doesn't have those outlets. But we've managed to put him with the right collaborator, and he's just had a number four record with Hal Ketchum. We've also had cuts with Carlene Carter. We've done extremely well with Benmont. So I'm interested in just songwriters, but they've got to be absolutely unique and brilliant.

Are you signing artists as well?

I will be. I'm also looking out for that sort of unique talent that comes out of Nashville for the record company (Maverick). A Steve Earle or a Lucinda Williams, if she were available. That's the kind of act that I'd like to sign to the record company. Left of center, but still with those Country roots.

Do you like to sign artists before they have record deals and do the development necessary to get them that deal, or do you prefer to sign them after they've gotten their deal?

If it's a songwriter that has a unique talent, then I'll sign them. I won't sign a band and try and develop that band. I will develop a songwriter, but it's harder with a band because you've got four or five individuals. My own forte is to work one-on-one with the songwriter. So, I've done that. I advised Brent Bourgeois (formerly with the band Bourgeois Tagg) to go to Nashville. We worked together on the demos, I sent them to Reunion, and we got him a record deal. So, yeah, I will work with talent for the end product of getting them a record deal.

What do you look for in artists that you sign?

Songs. They have to have songs. I don't even care what kind of music they're in to, as long as the act has songs.

What are the elements that make a song great to you?

Melody. I'm very hip to melodies first, then I get into the lyric. I know there are a lot of people that would hear a lyric and say, "I could never do anything with that song because it's got these awful lines". I'll hear a melody first—and then I will hear the awful lines (laughter). By the way, I will never publish a song that has the word "Saturday" in the title (laughter). Or "Rock and Roll" (laughter).

So, I'm a melody man first, and it's got to make me feel some passion. I've got to feel the hairs on my arm stand up—something that I want to hear again immediately. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen very often. That's why I don't sign a lot of acts. I like writers that can grab you from the very first note. There are a lot of writers who don't get in until the chorus, and by that time you're bored stiff. So, I like a writer that gets me hooked from the very first two lines.

Do you find that even your favorite writers occasionally come up with clunkers as well?

Oh yeah. I always think that a good percentage is one great song out of five. I'd be worried if it was one out of ten. Because that's usually their first year's delivery commitment (the number of songs a writer owes a publisher by contract—ed.) (laughter).

Do you think it's important to write a lot to get the clunkers out of the way?

No, I really don't think that's the answer. It's got to come from the heart. An amazing thing in Nashville is that there are writers that can write from 9 to 5 every day of the week and the standard will be tremendous. But most of the time, writers that do that are only going to write one in ten where there's something magic about it. I just don't like that whole conveyor belt approach to songwriting. A writer has to feel inspired. It should be like a painting. It should only be completed when they feel that they can't improve on it anymore.

Do you prefer writers who you can work with on those sorts of elements? To whom you can feel free to say, "I think this song needs a bridge", or, "I wish you'd fix the lyric here"? Or, do you prefer a writer who is so committed to their own vision that they don't want that kind of help?

I must admit it's happening less and less that you can actually tell a writer that you don't like a particular chorus or a certain word or whatever. It's getting tough because their attitude is... "Who are you?" Years ago it was different. You could actually work with a writer. The kind of writers that one signs now, they're not amateurs. They're all pros. They've had success and it's tough to say to them "I wish you'd change this chorus". I've initiated it at times. But it didn't go over too well (laughter).

What are the biggest changes in the industry that you've seen over the years?

The fact that most bands now are self-sufficient and write their own songs. It's getting tough now to get covers. It seems to be a dying art in the music business. Although, it's not dying out in Nashville, thank God. It's still a very healthy part of our business there.

I hate saying this, but a lot of publishers are becoming banks. The acts don't really want to do a publishing deal unless they're made an offer that they can't refuse. That happens a lot. Some of the deals are so huge that, if you were a manager you'd say, "Look, I know I told you to keep your publishing, but this is a ridiculous amount of money. Do the deal!" It's tremendous for the bands to have the means to get large sums of money without paying any interest, but I don't like to do that kind of business.

Let's shift gears here. How do you get the tapes that you listen to?

All sorts of ways. I can get them from other musicians. I can get them from lawyers, which is basically where we do get them from. Or, we get tips from people that live in other cities that say, "Oh, there's a great band playing here in Chicago." You get them from all sorts of people you know. It's good to have that sort of network.

Do you accept unsolicited tapes?

No.

Do you recommend that new writer's/artists hire an attorney to shop their tapes?

In the last year or so, some of the lawyers that used to have tremendous success shopping, don't shop anymore. Now, you're getting attorneys that don't have the experience running with tapes, and it's not happening as much as it used to. How does a writer get a tape to a publisher? It's tough. A lawyer may be somebody who will take a lot of money from these people and will send these tapes around to publishers with just a letter that he sends to everyone—and that letter and the tape will finish in the trash can. It really is tough getting an unsolicited tape to be heard by someone.

Are there lawyers out there who will basically shop anything if they're paid to do so, who aren't selective about the caliber of music that they send to you?

Yeah. We know those lawyers, and we don't listen to the tapes they send us.

What advice would you give to a young writer and/or artist who is trying to get heard by the industry?

I really do think that if somebody is talented enough, they will eventually be heard. I know there are millions of musicians out there who would say: "Well, I'm talented, I should be heard." But they're listening to their mothers and fathers and they're not being practical. We listen. We hear so much, and I'm telling you, that if there's somebody that's talented, I will eventually hear about it, and I imagine that all my peers will, too.

It's a long process. Both my sons are musicians, and both are in bands, and they haven't been signed. Both of them. But I do think they're talented. My advice to them is keep going. Don't ask your parents what they think of your tape. Mix with other music people. That's the way. Go to clubs where the music industry is. Eventually you'll get heard. Or you'll get advice.

What if you don't live near one of the big centers like L.A., New York or Nashville? Let's say you're in Boise, Idaho.

When I lived in London, there was no way you could get a deal unless you came to London. It's better now. There are so many bands that get signed from small, out of way places. We weren't even looking at Chicago years ago, and now Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair—lot's of artists—are coming from Chicago. It can be Akron or Oklahoma. People are there. Scouts are there. There are people in record stores that will report to record companies about what is outstanding in their territory. They're on the record company payroll to do this.

Maybe I'm being the cock-eyed optimist, but I do think that anyone who's talented enough, no matter where in the world, will eventually be heard by somebody that can get them a record deal, a publishing deal, or take them to the next step.


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