Thursday, June 26, 2014

Simon Napier-Bell: 'I am an imposter'

[This is an expanded version of a story initially published in BASCA's magazine The Works, issue 40.]

Simon Napier-Bell
Simon Napier-Bell is waiting in the lobby of the hotel in Shepherd's Bush where he usually stays when he is visiting the British capital. It is his last day in Europe before flying back to Thailand where he spends most of his time nowadays. He is in London for some serious business – putting the last touches to his forthcoming book, his fourth, in which he attempts to document no less than three centuries of the global music industry.

As he just celebrated his 75th anniversary, the former Yardbirds, T. Rex, Wham! and Japan manager is in good form and in talkative mood. Before the interview starts, he makes a brief reference to The Works. “The literate people who are interested in the music business read BASCA's magazine,” he quips. And from then on, it is almost impossible to stop the voluble – and often controversial – chronicler of the music industry.

His new book, titled 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay', is named after a 19th Century vaudeville song, the authorship of which has been under dispute. “I think it is a jolly good song,” says Napier-Bell, who was inspired by the history of the song. For him, it encompasses what the music industry is – a vaudeville, with an upbeat tempo and a controversial background (not to mention that it was originally created in a Louisiana brothel).

“In the book,” he explains, “I have been analysing the business from when music became a commodity. And going from there to today made me change my attitude on things. The music industry has never been doing anything other than finding ways to make something that fitted the business models of the times. In the 19th Century artists would play musicals, which were seven or eight minutes long, and then songs became three-minute long when the singles came around. But songs were also presented in 32-bar format sold via sheet music. That format was created to sell sheet music. So there has always been a delineation of what the business side wanted and it was fulfilled by the creative people.”

Napier-Bell is adamant that creators have constantly been adopters of new technologies, and even if they have most of the time been on the wrong side of the business deals, they always found ways to express their creativity. “Creators have always adjusted to technology and any artist who grumbles about the business should go in the park,” he says. “You move into the business and it's a balance between commerce and creativity, with a compromise in the middle. You had artists who had to compromise with capitalism in a way they never thought they would and the role of the manager was to bring the two sides together and this is still valid today.”

“Artists are usually very shrewd and are quite savvy about the industry,” says Napier-Bell. “Stars are very unique people, they come along and have a certain amount of talent and are obsessed with showing off and insecure by doing so. They always compromise with the industry because that's their way of dealing with the system.”
Financially useless
The music industry, he adds, is the product of three centuries of evolution – with an acceleration in the early 60s and the era of the modern business to the heydays of selling CDs and now to today's digital disruption. The beginning of all the process was the recognition of value in creativity, with the Statute of Anne, which bestowed the ownership of the creation to the author and created modern intellectual property rights. The existence of a property right allowed transactions and eventually led to the modern business as we know it, which has become an integral part of the capitalist system, functioning in an open market economy. “Name me a better example than music as a financially useless product which has to be replaceable and defunct quickly,” he smiles. “But the profits are huge when it works.”

He adds, “Record companies want to sell plastic. It's a great business: They bought plastic and sold it with a thousand per cent markup! But the business had to be run by people who loved music to make sure that the music on the plastic was good so that the public would buy it. So there were some good people [in the labels].”

The real change in the business has been the growth of the live music sector alongside the recorded music business. For Napier-Bell, recorded music is a by-product of the live performance rather than the other way around. “We needed the record to create the market that you sold yourself to,” he explains. “The fact that we were cheated by labels was not important because it was the advertisement for performances and you had to get the record deal to get the advertisement. But once you had done the deal you were on your own. Now labels are chasing 360 deals.”

Napier-Bell's vision is based on 50 years in the business, mostly as a manager of global artists such as Wham! or Japan. “I don't like management much,” he drops drily. Coming from someone who is part of an exclusive club of mavericks who created the modern British music business, the statement can be surprising. Napier-Bell and the likes of Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, Kit Lambert, Peter Grant, among others, set new rules and invented new processes for the music business as they went along, and, occasionally, became more famous than their acts. He elaborates, “You start up by mainly doing out what seems to be common sense. When they [the artists] are successful, then you can make a lot of money out of it, and then they become quite an aggravation.”

He adds, “With Japan, it took four albums to have a success. I don't see how this could happen today. For a few years they were extremely influential. David Sylvian was a reluctant star. I made them huge in Japan, but when he became a star in England he hated it. He came to me and said, 'I do not want to be a pop star, I want to create, earn enough money.' I told him that that I don't know how to do. He was over intellectual, but he had a good brain.”

Moving away from music

From management to writing was a transition that happened naturally for him. Napier-Bell says writing is an old passion of his, dating back to when he was a teenager, hitch-hiking across the USA in the late 50s, after a stint in Canada where he expected to become a jazz musician. “It was a failure,” he notes. “When I was hitch-hiking, I wanted to be a writer but nobody wants to read what a 20-year-old wants to write. But that led me to the film business and then to the music business.”

He continues: “My parents asked me, 'what do you wanna be when grow up?'. Me? I said I want to be a dentist and then realised that you had to study hard. And then said music, which sounded quite nice. That's why I went into this profession.”

He admits being a huge fan of short stories, especially those of Somerset Maugham, so around the age of 40, he started writing, and in 1998 he published his first published book, 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me' (Ebury Press), about his experience as a manager. He followed it in 2001 with 'Black Vinyl, White Powder' (Ebury Press), in which described the influence of drugs in the music industry. “I found that I liked writing,” he says. “'Black Vinyl' was a best seller and had amazing reviews. It changed my mind about writing. And it happened as I wanted to slowly move away from music.”

About few years later, in 2006, Napier-Bell published his account of the Wham! Adventure in 'I'm Coming to Take You to Lunch: A Fantastic Tale of Boys, Booze and How Wham! Were Sold to China' (Warner Books). With this new book, to be released in June 2014, Napier-Bell says his goal was to write the ultimate book about the music industry, and then he came to the realisation that it would be as difficult to put together as it would be to read. So instead he selected what he believes are a number of key events or period that define the music industry, starting with the Statute of Anne which established in 1710 what became the first legislation on copyright in the modern age.

“It seem such an impossible thing to write a thing about the whole music industry and I kind to pulled it off,” he comments. “I researched through thousands of books. I had to find a way through it, and that's how I came up with a series of stories that would give a good feel of the evolution of the business. It took three years. It was a massive undertaking.”

He adds that he paid special attention to the writing. “The way I write is to make it flow nicely, but it does not mean that it does not take a long time. When I write I put in huge volume, write without too much thoughts and then I have the treasurable job of editing. I probably re-edit each sentence 500 times. I am an editor, my dad was a film director, so you learn to trim down. The point about my writing is that each sentence should sound like I'm talking. I try to get the rhythm right, so when you read it it flows in your brain like music, but that takes a lot of editing and re-writing.”

Using crowdfunding to finance the book

One of the interesting aspects of this book is the way it came about. Napier-Bell searched for a publisher for his book but says he could not get any interest. “Publishers told me 'We do not do books like this, we only do best-sellers' so I had to try something new,” he explains. That's when he was put in touch with Unbound, a publishing house that finances its projects through crowd-sourcing. So lo and behold, Napier-Bell set up the process in motion and asked for pledges from the public, asking for £20,000 (disclosure: this writer pledged £20).

“This is not really something new because subscription publishing has always been popular. With this system, you buy advance copies and that pays for cost of printing. I calculated that £20,000 was what you needed to print 2,000 copies to get it started. And I wanted some promotion too. That's what Unbound does.”

The Works' 40th edition
Napier-Bell hopes that the book will dispel what he think is the main misconception in the public and the media – and also within the industry – about the real shape of the music industry. “The [music] industry makes more money year on year, but a lot of people confuse it with the record companies' business. There were no record companies in 1900 and it was a flourishing business. Record companies will go! Or to survive they will have to become music companies and develop new talent.”

If you push him further, he describes record companies as “cry babies” for constantly lamenting the drop in recorded music sales. “The total worldwide money generated by the popular music industry has been growing,” he explains. “The main increase last year was from music publishers due to increasing radio stations online playing their music. The public do not mind spending money and people will always find ways to make money circulate.”

In his time as a manager, Napier-Bell has had a history of conflicting with record company executives, but surprisingly he professes not “hating them” even though he calls them “the enemy.” He explains, “I have a love-hate relationship with record companies. I've had some jolly good meetings over lunch and drugs with label executives. I loved my time. I never hated record companies per se but as corporate entities you have to come to hate them: They are so greedy and incompetent.”

Having a good time

Napier-Bell makes no apologies for having had a good time during his tenure in the industry. “This industry, from the beginning, was driven by people who artists would call crooks but who were ambitious self-centred people liking money and who would move things. The world depends on unreasonable people to make progress. And there's very few in this business. And the more I look at it, the more I like this business, including the crooks and the rip offs, the self-centred money makers and the ambitionists (sic),” he says. “But those were the guys who changed things, who moved the industry. It was greed all the time, including Dylan and [manager Albert] Grossman. It's the perfect example, and it made Dylan successful. Having engineered the system, he got it right.”

One thing that Napier-Bell does not like is boring people, and he says he's seen a few in record companies. “Boring people will remain boring 'til they die and there's always more boring people to replace them,” he reflects. It is therefore easy to figure out who, between Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and former EMI owner Guy Hands, Napier-Bell would bat for. “Take Ahmet Ertegun: He love the way of life, and he could talk the talk. But you could see from the first days that Guy Hands loved himself more than music. He said if artists didn't like it they could fuck off. If there is one thing you should never do is alienate artists.”

As the interview comes to an end, Napier-Bell drops, matter of factly, “In a way, I am an imposter.” An imposter? “Well, you see what I mean,” he chuckles. “Like for most things in life, I consider myself being an imposter, and I wheeled my way through quite well, don't you think?”

[Typed while listening to David Sylvian's works in shuffle mode. Sorry, but Wham! does not do it for me...]