Richard Griffiths has worked in the music business for more than four decades. After breaking in as a London-based booking agent, he founded Headline Artists and became the first international agent for AC/DC. He went on to hold a series of senior executive positions on both sides of the pond, including Epic, CBS Records, BMG, Virgin Music and Sony Music. Griffiths and Harry Magee set up U.K. offices for The Firm in 2001, forming Modest! Management two years later. The company took off seven years later when Simon Cowell chose Griffiths and Magee to manage fledgling boy band One Direction, which he had assembled from contestants on the original U.K. edition of his show The X Factor. Griffiths and his partner haven’t looked back since, playing key roles in the development and breaking of clients 5 Seconds of Summer worldwide, as well as Olly Murs and Little Mix in the U.K. In the summer of 2015, Modest! simultaneously had #1 singles on 5SOS, Little Mix and L.A. teen quartet Hey Violet. Griffiths and Magee are now in the initial stages of guiding the career of 1D alumnus Niall Horan.
At what point did you know you wanted to leave the label sector and go into management?
I didn’t want to leave the label. That fucking idiot Rolf Schmidt-Holtz fired me and Harry Magee. We almost immediately decided to go in to management business together. Jeff Kwatinetz got in touch and we set up a London office for The Firm. Unfortunately, that fell apart soon after we started, so we set up Modest!
How did working at CBS/Sony prepare you for becoming an effective manager?
Working for Tommy Mottola changed my life. I was running Virgin Publishing in L.A., signing all the hit CBS acts. Tommy was getting pissed off, so we met and he offered me a job running Epic. Working directly with Tommy taught me so much, as well as dealing with Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies and others. Even though we were rivals at Columbia and Epic, Donnie Ienner and I had a great working relationship.
Back in the Sony days with Ozzy Osbourne and band, Sharon Osbourne, Dave Glew, Michele Anthony and Tony Martell.
Who was your first client?
Lemar, who came third in a talent show called Fame Academy. He had three double-platinum albums, but we could never break him outside of the U.K.
Which label execs have you worked with most closely and effectively?
Steve Barnett and I have worked together both at Epic, where I brought him in to run international, and subsequently when he was at Columbia and now Capitol. We’ve shared huge success together over the years. I love working with Rob Stringer, who was the Epic label manager in London when we first met. Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington at Capitol U.K.—we had massive success with JLS, Olly Murs and now 5SOS. We have had a great working partnership with Sonny Takhar at SYCO. His influence on the career of 1D and Little Mix has been huge. We will miss him.
What role did Simon Cowell play in the evolution of your company?
Simon worked for me when I was President of BMG Europe. When he wasn’t sure about going on TV, I encouraged him. We have a strong personal friendship. He came to Harry and me when the first two series of The X Factor failed to produce an artist of merit. The first year together, we got Leona Lewis and broke her around the world. There followed five years of unparalleled success, JLS, Olly, Little Mix and, of course, One Direction. Working with Simon established Modest!, but at the same time we helped The X Factor break worldwide artists. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but that hasn’t happened since we stopped five years ago!
What are your plans for 5SOS?
They are on a well-deserved break after finishing their tour last week. They did 102 arena shows and have sold over 750,000 tickets and 1.3 million albums. They are in a great place. The band will be around for a long time.
Do you have a strategy for breaking Little Mix in the U.S.?
I really believe we are going to break Little Mix big time with this album—not only in America but around the world. We’ve been close before but never quite got there. My good friend Scooter Braun has given us the Ariana Grande tour in the first quarter of 2017. I think this is going to be the perfect platform. No one works harder than those girls.
How does managing Niall differ from managing 1D?
Less cars for a start! Obviously, the guys were very young when we started so that was always a major consideration. Niall is now a young man with six years-plus experience at the coalface of the business, having had phenomenal success, so the approach is different. With 1D, for example, the writing was condensed and recording was mainly done in hotel rooms whilst on tour. Niall is writing and recoding at his own pace, which he is loving, and the results are a testament to his growth and emergence as a world-class solo artist.
Do you think 1D will ever reunite?
Not in the foreseeable future. They are all out there enjoying being themselves. I’m sure Harry and Liam will make records and have great success. Louis has some interesting projects he’s developing. But never say never to a reunion.
What are the biggest challenges for breaking a new act right now? How do you attack those challenges?
The new world that we inhabit evolves and changes on a weekly basis. Having a hit has become harder and harder due to the dominance of the major players that the streaming model favors. New acts need a mobilized fan base before going full-throttle. They need more time than ever to grow and develop.
Where did you get the name Modest! from?
When England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich, we registered FiveOne as a company. Then Ged Doherty, who was Chairman of Sony U.K., called me and asked me what name we were going to use. I told him, and he said, laughing “Why don’t you call it ‘modest’?” We loved the idea, but added the exclamation point to make it clear it’s ironic.
Who’s in your pantheon of great managers?
Irving Azoff, Sharon Osbourne, Roger Davies, Scooter Braun, Simon Fuller, Jeff Kwatinetz, Louis Walsh (that’s a joke!), Bill Curbishley, Cliff & Peter.
What can you depend on the major labels for today?
Well, it’s a very different world. Gone are the days when you could just hand a record over to a major and get them to spend too much money and you’d get a hit. It’s a far more collaborative process now. One big change is the labels are under-resourced and management must supplement their deficiencies. Modest! has a bigger digital department than any U.K. label; probably the same with branding. We have to do that because the labels are so understaffed. Also, so many of their people have no understanding of how hard an artist works. They sit in their offices coming up with stupid schedules because they have never experienced what an artist is going through.
What are some of the most difficult issues facing managers today?
The basic and most challenging issue is that it now takes much longer to break new acts. That obviously means more investment both financial and in terms of time. The other issue, which is also obviously both a gift and curse, is that campaigns now need to be thought through from a global perspective from the outset.
Is the impact of streaming on the branding process mitigating the impact of radio?
Not so much mitigating but providing another lane. The long tail theory hasn’t really materialized in the streaming world, however, so the same rules still apply—the big artists and songs dominate. There is no doubt that radio is going to have to revaluate its playlist strategies in the streaming world.
What are the most enjoyable and most gratifying parts of your job?
I still get a thrill from breaking a new artist. I love having #1 records and sold-out shows. Bill Curbishley once said the definition of management is doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful! That is true by and large, but we’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful artists who work really hard, do a great job and say thank you. And then there’s the management rider. We say promoters have to provide two bottles of fine red wine. Simon Moran and David Zedeck know more about wine now than they ever thought possible.
What changes do you foresee taking place during the next five years, for the business and for yourself?
It is much harder and is taking much longer to break new artists. This makes our job even more challenging, but never has the role of the manager been more important. On a personal note, I’d love to find and break a great rock band. That’s where I came from, and while I love that we are the Princes of Pop, I miss a bit of headbanging!