ON A COLD spring night in 1999 Mike Smith found himself in the crowded back-room of the Bull and Gate, a small pub in north London. He was there to watch a young rock band just beginning to build a reputation on the UK club circuit.
Nothing Smith saw that evening blew him away. But he was nevertheless confident he was watching superstars in the making. He also knew he had to sign them to his record label.
“I don’t know if Coldplay had a great song at that time,” says Smith, one of the most renowned A&R talent spotters in British music and today managing director of influential Warner Chappell Music UK. “But Chris Martin had a fantastic voice.
“What stayed with me is that he was super-charismatic. Making good music isn’t enough in this industry. You have to be able to communicate that art — be an amazing publicist.”
Smith travels to Ireland this week for Music Cork, an industry gathering which will bring together senior record business figures from around the world (see panel). As it happens the city has a special place in his heart.
In 1992, he led the chase to sign Sultans of Ping, the cartoon punk quartet from Leeside who briefly looked set to conquer the charts and prompted the British music press to hype a so-called “Corkchester” scene. “It’s very easy to dismiss acts that may seem more humorous,” says Smith of the Sultans — best known for ‘Where’s Me Jumper’. “But if you look at David Bowie with the Laughing Gnome and Chainsmokers with Selfie — you can often come through as a novelty artist. It is the sign of a mischievous and playful mind.
“I loved what the Sultans were doing. I thought they were a really exciting punk rock band. I had high hopes — they reminded me of The Damned or Green Day. I thought they might go on and become a great punk rock act. Sadly these things don’t always work out.”
Ironically, Smith may have himself played a part in the demise of the Sultans. Along with many other Irish groups, the Corkonians were blown away in the mid Nineties by the rise of Britpop — a movement Smith helped foment when he arranged for cheeky chappies Blur to sign to EMI (where he was then heard of A&R). Britpop is in Ireland often perceived as a jingoistic oddity. However, Smith regards it as part of a wider push back against corporate music —one that flowed directly from grunge.
“I got into the business in the late ’80s and things had lost their direction. You had a lot of ersatz soul. With the success of George Michael, everyone was chasing the next blue-eyed soul singer. It was that or the next U2 — I remember we were constantly getting on planes for Dublin or Glasgow looking at people trying to be U2 or Van Morrison. You were just sitting there going, ‘Oh god, doesn’t anyone want to be themselves any more?’ It was very frustrating.’
Everything changed as the decade ended. First, dance music went mainstream — and was soon perceived as a serious threat to the social order, especially in the UK. Then came grunge — an angsty backlash against a decade of polished, self-parodying rock. “There were a bunch of explosions. Dance music came from outside the major label system and was very existing and quite anarchic. Then you had grunge, which swept away the whole Sunset Strip hair metal scene. Again that was happening outside of the majors, being fuelled mainly by independent labels such as Sub Pop.”
With revolution in the air, it was inevitable that British rock would be influenced. “You had a reaction to what was going on in America… bands such as Suede, Blur and Oasis were going, ‘Hang on – look at what is happening in America. We should be doing this in the UK and we should be taking from our own culture and backgrounds and celebrating the identity we have in Great Britain’.”
Again, this was a revolution largely led by outsiders. “Blur were signed to Food, an independent. Oasis were signed to Creation. Pulp were managed by Rough Trade — it felt it was happening slightly outside the major system. For a short period period, it was very thrilling — the musicians were taking over the business. Of course, the business very quickly caught up with them and immediately signed every artist out there with a guitar.”
In addition to shepherding into the spotlight acts such as Blur and Coldplay, Smith spent much of the 2000s as head of Columbia Records. Here his job was building a relationship with established mega-star such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
“Springsteen couldn’t have been more inclusive. Before he put out a new record, he gathered the heads of all the record labels together for dinner. I came into Columbia a fan of Springsteen and left an absolute true believer. Dylan was different — he was on the road all the time and kept more of a distance. I spoke to him once at the opening of one of his art exhibitions in London, for which we did the PR. I think he found it easier to talk to me about art than music.”
Blur are often cited as a group that could not have made it in today’s music industry. It took several albums for them to find their sound. Today, goes the theory, they’d have been ditched after their first record failed to set the world alight.
“If anything people take longer developing nowadays,” says Smith. “Consider Rag ’n’Bone Man, who has had a lot of success lately. He spent four years in development — and many years before that as unsigned artist. So it still takes time. The difference is that nowadays artists aren’t necessarily on a major label throughout the process.”
In hindsight, Britpop looks like a last flush of glory before the internet and file sharing altered the industry forever. Up until a few years ago, the consensus was that, with CD sales collapsing, the survival of even the majors was in doubt.
However, with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music offering labels and artist an alternative, Smith is cautiously positive about the future. Yet he is equally confident the glory days of multi-platinum album sales are gone.
“If you were to look at a graph of music industry income — it would be a bit like looking at the Matterhorn. There was this colossal spike when CD and DVD sales were at their peak. Then this spectacular crash as piracy came along and people moved away from buying. With streaming what we were seeing is an incline upwards. There’s the Matterhorn and this nice hill next to it. We’re in recovery but we’ve an awful long way to go.”
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