Interview with IAN GRENFELL, A&R at the indie label simplyred.com for Simply Red (UK No.1) - Jun 21, 2004
"We’ve successfully proved that artists can self-release on the same scale as a major."Based in London, Ian Grenfell manages Simply Red. He is also the managing director of simplyred.com, the independent record label owned by Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. The label has sold two and half a million copies of its first release, the Simply Red album “Home”.
Here he tells us why they started simplyred.com, how the label functions, what the current music business climate is like for independent labels, and more.
How did you get started in the music business?
I worked for major record companies for twenty years and, for the last couple of years, I was the general manager of East West/Warner UK. The biggest act at the time was Simply Red (click on artist or song names to listen to Real Audio files – Ed.), and Mick Hucknall had been talking for a while about doing things differently and starting his own label.
People talk a lot about starting their own labels now, but in 1999 it was quite a new idea. Prince was the only person who had considered it up to that point. Then one day, through Andy Dodd, who was his manager at the time and is now my business partner, Mick asked me if I wanted to come onboard, and it seemed like a good time for me to switch sides.
What experiences have helped develop your music business skills?
In this business, you learn most from working with great people: in my case, people like Rob Dickins; Max Hole, who was my MD at East West; David Munns, who was also my MD for a while; and Peter Mensch, who is a great manager.
What artists do you currently manage?
Simply Red, and I also work with a young Swedish girl called Stina Nordenstam, who is big in Sweden and has also sold well in various other territories. Her music is along the lines of PJ Harvey and Björk, although it’s more acoustic.
Do you take in outside songs for Simply Red?
Mick tends to write his own songs or come up with ideas for covers and at that point we talk about samples and other things. Although he has occasionally written with other people, such as Lamont Dozier and Joe Sample, it’s not something that he actually seeks.
How did the simplyred.com label start?
While I was at Warner, I had tried to re-sign Simply Red, but they had wanted to speak to more senior staff. A year after I left Warner to manage them, their contract with Warner expired. There were lots of changes going on within Warner at the time and Roger Aimes and new management came in.
We talked to Warner about a new contract with them, although we were already toying with the idea of doing our own thing. The fact that there were lots of new people at the company whom we didn’t know and that, as a band, we didn’t really have a relationship with them anymore made the decision easy. We also had discussions with other majors that wanted to sign Simply Red, although with differing degrees of enthusiasm.
Mick, Andy and I went through a lot of presentations and spreadsheets; we looked at the options for Simply Red over the next five to ten years, and we analysed the figures from the previous ten years. We came to the conclusion that we were in a unique position and that if we signed a major label deal, we wouldn’t be in the same position again for another five or six years.
With our record company experience and the team we put togethermany people we ended up working with had also either left Warner or were starting their own businessesit felt very possible and we agreed that starting our own label was the way to go. It was a different way of doing business that was more beneficial to the artist, in that the artist owned the masters, for example.
Are you an independent label?
Yes, 100% independent.
What is your function within the label?
My functions are A&R and being the managing director. I put together and manage the team.
Do you also have your own publishing company?
No, we don’t. With Simply Red, we publish through EMI .
Mick Hucknall is one of the founders of the reggae label Blood and Fire (founded in 1993). Did the experiences he had working with that label influence his ideas for the Simply Red label?
Not really. Mick has been very brave to trust Andy Dodd and I to run the label. He doesn’t get particularly involved in day-to-day business. He likes the creative idea behind the label and the fact that the label is owned by ourselves and not by a major, but he lets us get on with it.
How many people work at simplyred.com?
Between the management company, Silentway, and the label, simplyred.com, we have about ten people working full-time; during particularly active periods, we might reach about thirty people.
All the functions that you would expect of a major release are covered: there are regional and national radio pluggers, TV pluggers, a sponsorship person, a product manager, a marketing director, two International people, two lawyers, and two finance people.
Will you also release other artists via the label?
Not on simplyred.com. Silentway may release other artists on their own labels, but simplyred.com is a vehicle for Simply Red.
What have you released so far?
The only thing we’ve released on simplyred.com is Simply Red’s album “Home” (2003) and the four accompanying singles.
As far as promotion is concerned, what were the challenges you faced?
From the point of view of A&R, it involved coming up with a single that would work on European Hit Radio and working on getting UK stations like Capitol, rather than just Radio Two, to play it. We didn’t just want to move towards the more adult stations; it had to work on the pop stations too.
Mick told us four times that the album was finished and four times we sat down and I said that we didn’t have the first single. And so we did further mixes and tried ideas. The main strategy was getting the music right.
How much did you spend on promotion and marketing?
When the album was released, we had spent about £1,000,000 on recording the album, and the album campaign was about another £1,000,000, including TV advertising and promotion.
How important has your website been as a marketing tool?
The most important aspect of it is that it helps us talk to our fans, so we’re very in touch with what the Simply Red fans want from us. In terms of touring and single releases, it’s been very useful having access to 20-30,000 people who will tell you if you’re getting it wrong, what song they want as the single, and whether they like the dance mixes or not. We tap into that a lot and listen to what all of those people have to say.
Did you make videos for the singles?
Yes, we’ve made videos for all of the singles. The first video cost about £230,000 and, in all, we have probably spent about £6-700,000 on videos. They’ve been aired on various TV stations all over the world and the first two of them were No.1 on VH-1 in the UK.
Have Simply Red toured in support of the album?
Yes, we did a worldwide tour last year, during which we played to about one million people. South and North America, South Africa, the Middle East, Europeit was pretty much sold out everywhere.
How important was touring in raising the public’s awareness of the new album?
Definitely very important.
How do you distribute the records?
In the UK, we have a distribution deal with Ministry of Sound, who go through Universal, and in the US, we have a distribution deal with RED, which is Sony’s independent distribution arm.
In most other countries, we have a territory-by-territory deal. In Europe, they’re mainly distribution deals with a marketing bolt on, so we pay for the marketing but we pay an override for the local territory to do it with our approval.
Do you have a deal with a US label to release records there?
No, we did the US ourselves. Lisa Barbaris at So What Media & Management in New York has been our management representative in North America for ten years and she put together a team of people in the US to work on the record.
How easy or difficult was it to find a technical solution to selling the records on your website?
It was very easy. We have three people who work on the website in various capacities and we do everything in-house. When you have complete control of these things and the right people, it’s very simple. It was also relatively cheap. Idil built the initial template for the shop and we’ve since rebuilt it ourselves with new, slightly different software.
How many records have you sold via your website?
We’ve sold about 3-4,000 copies of “Home” via our website and we’ve sold 2.5 million through record shops worldwide. There’s really no comparison.
Do you earn much more from the records you sell on your website than you do from the records sold in record shops?
We have such a good distribution deal in the UK and in Europe that we probably earn just 10% more through website sales. It’s not like when you’re signed to a major and have an 18% royalty rate; we’re on a far greater royalty rate, which is comparable to what we get from our own, direct sales.
What are the pros and cons of releasing via your own label versus releasing via a major label?
You have to take on a great deal of responsibility. If you’re heart is not in it and you’re not ready to work until the record is right and then promote it, then you should release on a major and just take an advance.
But if you’re absolutely committed to making the best music you can and you’re ready to work it, which Mick was, then there’s no better solution than doing it yourself. Obviously, it’s not cheap to do and it is a risk, so you need to be psychologically prepared to take that risk.
What kinds of artists would you advise to start their own label?
You need to have a global fan base and you need to be the sort of artist who is involved in the business side of things. Ideally, you need to be a touring artist. For us, touring was a very effective way of announcing that there was a record out and of promoting it too, particularly outside the UK.
What were the crucial points in terms of establishing the label?
A crucial point was getting the right team together, although getting the album and first single right was even more important. I felt that if we had a contemporary first single, that would bring the album through, and that’s what happened.
How did you come up with the first single?
I commissioned a number of remixes from various producers and Andy Wright was one of them. I had lunch with him and played him the original version of “Sunrise” and, later on in the day, he happened to hear the Hall & Oates track “I Can’t Go For That”; in his head, he put the two together, which led him to include a sample of the song in “Sunrise”. It was one of those absolute fluke things.
How do you find new talent?
There’s lots of talent, but great talent is very hard to find. I don’t have a magic formula, but working hard and keeping your contacts up is the only way to do it. We’re not currently looking for new acts to manage though.
If I was to get involved in managing any other acts, they would have to be big acts who had already broken. They’d have to have a global fan base and be touring artists. Many people who work in our organisation have a major record company background and we’re definitely geared up to working with big rather than small artists.
How involved with the repertoire and production are you?
I’m very involved, and the best example of that is Simply Red’s single “Sunrise”. Mick never considered that to be a single, and I got a range of remixes done and then played Mick the finished version that Andy Wright had produced. Mick then re-sang the vocal for it.
What do you think of radio stations in the UK?
It’s an interesting time, because many commercial stations are becoming very research-led, which I think is obvious because radio here tends to follow America, although it’s a few years behind.
Whilst research is quite often useful, I miss the maverick radio, the radio stations that play a record because they like it and think it might be a hit. A station can become soulless if they try too hard to get it perfect.
What is the current climate for independent labels?
The distributor 3MV went down here very recently and that stripped a lot of independent labels for cash. At the moment, many small but successful labels are under pressure but, in the medium term, I think the climate is excellent for independent labels and artists. I heard today that Warner is dropping 85 bands from its roster and a lot of staff with them.
Inevitably, that will leave many good people and artists looking for ways to make and release their music. There’s an awful lot of opportunity and I’m very glad that we’re not starting simplyred.com now and that we did it three years ago, because we’ve learned an awful lot, which gives us a commercial advantage.
If artists share the costs of making an album with the record label, with the artists’ share of the costs being deducted from their royalties, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
Absolutely. There should be a formula, so that if they’re successful, like the old Simply Red albums, there should be a limit on the major label’s earnings. You currently have to pay back the cost of recording again and again and again; at some point, I think it should revert to the artist.
For example, Simply Red’s “Stars” album sold over ten million copies, which generated more than USD100,000,000 for Warner, but it cost about USD800,000 to make, and Mick doesn’t even own 1% of it.
Will online sales in digital formats be a boost for the music industry?
We’re still quite a long way off, but ultimately, yes. Ultimately, the more ways in which music can be consumed means more opportunities. I think that what is happening now is fantastic and that it will create a more profitable industry, in the same way the CD did.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would persuade people in positions of power not to be paranoid about downloads but to embrace the technology.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Successfully proving that artists can self-release on the same scale as a major. That’s what we’ve done with simplyred.com. We sold about 90,000 copies of “Home” in our first week in the UK and went in at No. 2, almost beating Linkin Park to No.1, but ahead of Celine Dion.
What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years’ time?
Hopefully, by then, we will have worked with other major artists and encouraged them to do the same, having made them realise that they can do it themselves. If I have spread the word to three other major artists and helped them release their own music, then I’ll be happy.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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