Jazz Summers: ‘Sales have gone down – but what’s happened to exec salaries?’

Tim Ingham Music Week 02/11/14

“Jazz Summers is a fucking lion. If you’re part of his pride he will fight to the death for you.
He can make grown men cry and shit themselves. He is, though, essentially a kind man with a big heart with a deep capacity for love. Just don’t piss him off.”

As you can tell from Gary Lightbody’s succinct description of Jazz Summers, the Big Life Management founder comes with something of a certain… renown. And just think: the Snow Patrol frontman actually cherishes the guy.

Read Summers’ recently-released autobiography cover-to-cover, though and it’s hard to conclude that Lightbody has his manager anything other than bang to rights.

Summers has faced enough hardship for a thousand lives – a concentrated flurry of it when he was unsentimentally packed off by his father into the army in his teens. The regimented, emotion-averse culture of these harsh surroundings had a profound effect on the personality of Summers; at the time, a drifting drummer who’d fallen hard for music. It’s not as crystal cut as the army infusing him with an aggressive spirit; a debatable trait that he’s been accused of by plenty since. But Summers’ experiences certainly left him with scarce tolerance for frippery, nonsense and bullshit. It is perhaps no fluke that he stands out in the music business.

Not much of what people say about Summers is actually true, according to one of his most loyal clients, Boy George. Summers himself acknowledges these wayward assumptions in his galloping memoirs: “I’ve never burned a venue to the ground. I’ve never even hit an A&R man. I locked one in a cupboard once, as punishment for some racism and sexism.”
Other laughable tall tales, he informs Music Week, include the story of an ex-acquaintance of The Verve, who on being told that Summers was
to take over as the band’s manager, comically exclaimed: “Not Jazz Summers! He pours acid on people’s cars!”

However Summers has done it, his achievements have been ridiculously monumental. Since emerging as the manager of Wham! in the 1980s alongside Simon Napier-Bell, his artists have sold over
60 million albums and 72 million singles around the world, including over 100 Top 40 hits.

After setting up Big Life in 1986 with Tim Parry, Summers has played a vital role in the careers of some of Britain’s most celebrated music artists, including The Verve, Lisa Stansfield, Yazz, Soul II Soul, Badly Drawn Boy, Snow Patrol, Klaxons, La Roux and Scissor Sisters. He was rightfully ordained with the Music Week Strat Award in 2007.

Yet Summers has also maintained a healthy cynicism of industry plaudits, with his own foolproof metric of success when it comes to music management: “When nobody knows you, you’re a wanker. When you get your first act away you’re a genius. If you get a second one away you’re probably a crook. Then when you get fired, you’re straight back to being a wanker again.”

Autobiography aside, Summers hasn’t got much cause to linger on the past right now: he’s busy working his latest triumph, London Grammar – the Ministry-signed British act whose debut album is making waves the world over, including Rob Stringer’s office at Columbia in the US.

The titter-worthy value of Summers’ book – itself called simply Big Life – is nicely encapsulated by the anonymous Twitter account @QuoteableJazz, which for the past few months has tossed many of his bluntly idiosyncratic pearls of wisdom into the social networking snake pit. Some Music Week favourites: ‘There wasn’t one woman in the room. It was a pandemonium of penises – testosterone hell’; ‘What kind of man trashes a hotel room post 1975?’; ‘Napier-Bell’s mouth fell open. He looked at me like I’d groped the Queen.’

But enough ruinous sneak peeks. If you want to know about Jazz Summers’ jaw-dropping life – and some pretty universal (and a fair few Universal) lessons he’s learnt along the way – buy his book. You’ll probably end up liking him.

If you want to know what he’s got to say about the modern record business, read on…

Let’s start with what you’ve got going on right now: London Grammar’s debut album, If You Wait, has been a great success story for you and Ministry.

London Grammar has been an interesting exercise for all of us. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this: you can still go round with a band like London Grammar, with a voice like Hannah Reid’s, and people don’t get it. I can’t say there was no interest, but Sony passed on it – didn’t like it, wouldn’t see the band. All the Universal companies passed on it; in fact, one of those was interested until they found out Big Life were managing them, which caused a bit of a stir. Atlantic were kind of interested, but then they were like: ‘Well, we’ve got another girl, so we don’t want to do that.’ I didn’t go to EMI with it because they were in flux.

The album was released in the US digitally last year, with the physical LP expected later in 2014. How is the plot going in the States?

We did our first American tour in September, and sold it out. Okay, we’re talking 300-500 seaters where you don’t make any money. But there was no radio, very little press – it’s all down to a big social networking buzz. A guy at Big Life, Colin Roberts, who manages Chloe Howl, also runs a social networking company called Work It Media, and it really has an impact. You used to break acts on the streets, then you did it in the clubs – now it’s done on social media. London Grammar is the first time I’ve gone to America and completely sold out an artist’s first tour since Wham!.

Do you have to adjust your personal ways of dealing with people when you’re in America?

With London Grammar, when we played it to [Columbia US bosses] Ashley Newton and Rob Stringer in New York, there was no data. They just listened to it, then said: ‘Wow, this is amazing, let’s do a deal.’ They are real music people. As for the rest of America, there’s only a few managers in [the UK] who know how it works out there, and I’m one. There’s a way in which you break the US. You’ve got to put the time in, you’ve got to do it right and you’ve got to make the Americans believe their own bullshit.

One of your clients, Boy George, recently released his album through a services deal with Kobalt. How’s that gone for you so far?

I’m very impressed with them, especially internationally. They’re bloody good people. They’re on it and they’re committed. In some ways they’re spending your money because you own [the rights], so it’s a different process. But it’s fresh and it’s an alternative way of doing things. They release it digitally with some physical distribution, and they’ve got people in different territories. Boy George is in Paris just now promoting his record: I tell you, if his record was out on one of the majors, that wouldn’t have happened.

Are there other pros and cons to a services setup? What about their ability to break emerging acts?

I’ve just seen a new band from Ireland, and there’s a buzz around them. The dilemma is, do you go to Kobalt and say: ‘Let’s do this band’? Kobalt will say: ‘Hmm, they’ve got no existing sales base. How do we operate?’ When you go [to a services company], the band own their recordings and they don’t have to give up any live or third-party income. There’s also a very controlled budget – a million pounds isn’t being spent trying to grab market share, or chart positions.

I’ve just done a deal for a jazz artist with a major label that shall remain nameless who said: ‘We want 20% of live.’ I said: ‘Get lost, I’m not going to pay it.’ They said: ‘Fine, we won’t sign it. Where you going to go?’ I said: ‘Actually I can go to Kobalt, and if we’re clever, we can do a deal on this. They don’t ask for live.’ Immediately I got it down to 12.5%. The major record companies really have to look at themselves – and they are doing so.

If you were the boss of a major record company right now, what changes would you make?

You’d have to have a major shift in thought – a new paradigm. Whichever way you look at it, artists have never really been in partnership with the major record companies. Never. There’s some great people in record companies, and people who really care about artists and work hard. But the philosophy of a major record company is to own copyrights and exploit them. The artist royalty is treated as an expense – the same as a salary, or an office building, or a first-class air flight.

How can that attitude ever change?

Daniel Miller [Mute founder] managed to keep one of the biggest bands in the world [Depeche Mode] on his little label for pretty much the whole of their career. You know why? Because he did a 50/50 deal to begin with, then later he changed it to a 60/40 and a 70/30 deal. He was incredibly fair with them, and they had complete control.

So what would your new major record company contract look like?

An artist may well sign away their copyright for a number of years. Not forever. Did you know some of these contracts today cover ‘any other non-recorded income’? So if an act is a bit broke because their record’s not selling and they’ve been offered a part in a TV soap, the label wants some of that money. Besides, current record contracts are not fair on a very basic level. The average royalty for an artist on those contracts is 20%. Years ago, they’d say: ‘There’s 20%, but we also need to take a 25% packaging deduction off that.’ So in other words, they were giving you 15%. Now it’s straight to 15% without any packaging deductions [when releases are digital]. Out of that the artist has to pay the producer, which is three points, so you’re down to 12%. Then abroad, your contract tells you you’re not on 15% – you’re actually on 13%. So in the majority of the world you’re effectively on 10% or 11%.

And then there’s more to pay?

Out of that 10% or 11%, the artist pays for all their recording, plus any advances labels pay them to live on, any tour support, half the video costs… And then you have to pay your manager. But the worst bit is, at the end of it, when you’ve paid for your album 50,000 times over, you still don’t own your recordings. It’s so plainly unfair. And, of course, now there’s a new thing called streaming, where [labels] license your material to a digital company. Under the old contracts, if you licensed something, you’d split it with the artist 50/50. But major labels don’t split streaming with the artist that way. They regard a stream as a sale: so, again, that’s effectively 10% of any tiny streaming fee coming in [after deductions]. So the record companies are taking 40% more out of streaming income than they should, they’re giving the same shitty record contract they’ve always given, and sometimes now they also want more money from everything else. Why’s that? Ask yourself this: record sales have gone down over the years, but what’s happened to executive salaries? You already know the answer.

In the book, you make reference to hearing Kurt Cobain’s voice and the grit of it – how it contrasts to ‘wispy’ bands. You mention The Vaccines…

I wasn’t picking on The Vaccines – they’ve been successful and they’ve got their place. But I saw them at a festival and Magnetic Man came on afterwards. It was, ‘okay’ and then ‘bang!’. The crowd went mad. That’s power. When you see something like that, you understand why electronic music is flying, even if it has taken America 10 years to get into some kind of drug/club culture.

I met Skrillex recently. He’s a bit fearless. He makes these tracks, puts them out, doesn’t worry about whether they’re on a label or not on a label. Then he does 300 gigs a year at £50,000 a night or whatever it is. The guy earns a bloody fortune. I like that fearlessness. George Michael was fearless, in a different way, musically. But just the same, he said: ‘I’m going to do it.’ And then he did it.

The Verve took three albums to really hit their stride, before Urban Hymns made them a household name in 1997. Do you believe a major label can offer you that development time in 2013? Perhaps it’s better to take a smaller money advance – it might buy you more time.

That’s right. I go back to Badly Drawn Boy. There were 14 record companies out there offering him a deal. There was this infamous A&R gathering in Manchester. We came back on the train the next day and the lawyer said: ‘We can go and get a three album firm deal here. We can get a million pound.’ I said: ‘No. That’ll kill him off.’ Three albums firm means you have no options to get out, you’re locked in – three amounts of money on delivery of each album. On a million pound [advance], that would mean the label had effectively got to spend three million quid. Never mind the A&R guy or the head of A&R – the president of the company will be under pressure to deliver on that.

What happened then?

We knew we’d happily do a three album deal, but not a three album firm – and that’s what we did with Beggars. Good music comes out of confidence. Hut and Virgin gave The Verve confidence over three albums, then you get Urban Hymns. They’d have never got there if they didn’t have that space. I don’t think there’s the money in the industry today to support a band of that level. When I took over managing The Verve – which was [just before] Urban Hymns – they were £1.2 million in debt to Virgin. No record company today is going to be £1.2 million in debt and still going [with an act]. They have dropping parties these days.

You accept in your book that you have a reputation for being intimidating. How do you feel about that, and have you ever used it to your advantage?

Well, I’ve never been violent. Oh, actually, I was once. I took a vow of non-violence in the late 1970s. I haven’t been violent for 35 years, and I was never really violent with anyone in the music industry. Except one day, this guy was being a complete arsehole in our folk club – I picked him up and threw him down the stairs. Then a couple of months before that, I bopped someone who worked for Transatlantic Records at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Now, I still don’t take prisoners easily or suffer fools gladly. And if someone really doesn’t see what I see for my artists, I do everything in my power to make them see it. I don’t think I’m the best diplomat in the world, but everyone who’s ever dealt with me knows that I tell you how it is.
I don’t compromise if I believe in something. Why would I? My whole life has been about belief: belief when I was 15 that I could challenge the army and get out after I’d been incarcerated, really, by my dad; belief in Wham! when going to America with Careless Whisper and meeting people who didn’t get it. What am I supposed to do, say, ‘Okay?’ No, I find a way.

You seem pretty calm to me.

Years ago, I was a drunken, drug-taking, screaming loony. Today, I’m much more Zen. Maybe people still remember those times where I’d shout or scream at somebody. Do I use [my reputation] today? People know I’m not a pushover. Maybe I do have the power or charisma you need to be able to say ‘oi!’ to a record label now and again. But more than that, you need up-to-date knowledge. I know everybody I need to know – all the bosses of the record companies. If I need to, I’ll call them. And you’ve always got to do your bit: you can’t just go into their offices and start demanding. So I have a reputation not to be pissed around, but I’m a lot calmer than I was 30 years ago. For the record, I never burned a building down and I never held anyone over a balcony – but I know who did.

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