Interview with CLIVE BLACK, chairman of Blacklist Entertainment - Oct 30, 2006
"Signing to Warners is not the day to open champagne. It's when your single, your album or your tour is being successful"
Clive Black started his career signing and handling some of the biggest names in music, from Kraftwerk, Kate Bush and Cliff Richard to Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Mark Morrison and Babylon Zoo.
He then decided to apply his vast experience and work independently, coming back to the fore of the business with The Game (No.1 US).
Black shares his highly valuable knowledge talking to HitQuarters about his fave songwriters, how artists can develop themselves, and how a record deal is just the entry ticket to the race.
What has been your route in the music business so far?
I grew up in a music business environment. My father is a songwriter and my uncle is an agent. Music was the first choice. I started when I was 16 years old as a tea boy/office junior for Island Music Publishing. Lionel Conway gave me my first job in the game.
It was a chance for a young kid to get my head into the cupboard and listen to songs and send out copyrights to people from Russ Ballard and Stevie Winwood songs. Then we signed a songwriter called Mark Hollis, who went on to form a group called Talk Talk.
I got disillusioned with publishing because it took me two years to try and get an A&R man interested in Talk Talk. I started thinking I was too young for publishing.
I received a phonecall from David Munns, Head of Artist Development at EMI Records at the time. He asked me to be an A&R and gave me an office down the corner. I inherited a lot of acts. We had a huge roster of about 75 artists. I decided to sign acts that I personally loved like Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Afrika Bambaataa, Cabaret Voltaire, and compilations of the label Some Bizzare.
I was given Kraftwerk to A&R and I built up a relationship with Kate Bush. I was happy with my world but I realised I wasn’t making any money. Munns tried to explain to me that it cost ten British Pounds to buy a record and maybe Ł200,000 to make one. You just have to have a broad commercial view on these things.
I stayed at EMI from a junior A&R manager to general manager. When Nick Gatfield left for Polygram in LA, I became director of A&R for EMI and Parlophone at the age of 27. I had a No.1 record with Tasmin Archer and Eternal. I was working closely with a number of big artists from Whitesnake’s David Coverdale to Cliff Richard.
I moved to Warner Brothers, where I signed The Outhere Brothers, Babylon Zoo, and we had a No.1 in America with Mark Morrison’s ‘Return of the Mack’.
Then Jean-Francois Cecillon became the President of EMI UK. He begged me to come back as Managing Director, which was possibly a mistake. It was a very different climate to what I left. It was very finance-led. The days of great creativity at EMI had gone.
We put out the Babylon Zoo record six weeks after I got back at EMI, and it was the fastest selling record in the history of the UK charts for a non-charity record. I thought I made my money back quickly and then I could carry on being creative. But it was a year that EMI for the first time didn’t make budget. It all got very political.
I set up my own company, Blacklist Entertainment, in 1999. Cliff Richard was the first who came to me and wanted to make a new album. We formed a company called Blacknight.
A couple of years later, I bought Edel UK from Michael Haentjes. There was some catalogue in there that had some value. I used that as a foundation for Blacklist to go forward. I also launched a dance label called Free2air Recordings.
I developed the management company over the last few years and I felt that record labels had lost a lot of its glamour because it’s so one dimensional. Management with all the revenue streams became far more attractive to me than just being a record company in the mainstream area. In the niche area, like in dance for example, you can still make good revenue.
Having chart positions on midweeks, getting radio, not getting radio; this is the language I’ve lived with for 25 years now. It was something I couldn’t really give up. Free2air keeps me in that world. We currently have six people working for Blacklist, and nine artists on our roster.
What’s your prior business area nowadays?
My core business is developing the management company. I have a partnership deal with Czar Management New York where I look after the artist rapper The Game.
On a musical level I manage Denise Van Outen, who’s a big star here in theatre and TV; Phil Campbell, who’s my Bob Dylan from Glasgow, who I believe strongly in. I also manage my father now, Don Black, which I always describe as my favorite client.
I try to be very entrepreneurial. I even do live events for friends and people that want special nights. But my core business is management. And of course I would love to manage Coldplay or Radiohead, but I’ve seen a lot of big people in go out of this business, waiting for that day to come.
One of the things that I’m very proud of over the last seven years of being an independent, is that we’ve always managed to make enough money and have enough success to stay at the table long enough to hopefully one day get those 4 aces coming. This year has been a good year for a small independent label, to have two Top 5 records.
I’m happy I feel free to make records. I feel free to get on planes and just go and hang out and look for opportunities.
What’s your musical direction?
I realized that I’ve always been a very weak salesman unless I am very passionate about what I love. The common thread through the artists and the records is that I believe in them. All my artists are people I can stand up and talk proudly about.
The other thread is that I’m a songs man. The Meck record for example, with the Leo Sayer song ‘Thunder in My Heart’, that’s a song that I’ve had in my drawer for probably 20 years. I told Craig Dimech, who runs Free2air for me; “You have to listen to this.” He didn’t know who it was. He then jumped on it and did some work on the rhythm track and we had a hit.
I’m always looking to do those kinds of pull-outs of some great songs from the past. But you can take them in a lot of different directions.
How did you get involved with David Hasselhoff?
I had a crazy situation recently where I met someone who got involved with David Hasselhoff. He’s a 54 year old man, but his energy, you can see why he’s a superstar in certain parts of the world.
There are a bunch of records of him that people keep sending me on the Internet but there’s one that stands out which I think is a hit. He asked me if I help him do it. So I set up another label called Skintight Records. ‘Jump in My Car’ went No.3 in the UK.
How do you find artists?
They tend to find me lately. I do search around a bit, but my phone still rings a lot. Young up and coming managers contact me a lot. It’s becoming more relevant that managers manage managers.
I don’t want to be out on the road all my life with bands and spend my life in travel lodges or in youth clubs. I get these people to come to me. They need guidance in the creative area, and often more so in today’s climate in the business area.
I’m partnering up with people. Acts are finding me quite often, like rock bands that come along with their uncle who they love. I’ll do a deal with them. Give them a piece of the management and I’ll strategize and do the bigger plays. And the guy who has the hands-on relationship with the act becomes more than a manager.
How do you convince an artist to take you on as a manager?
By being myself. By being honest. I don’t bullshit in the relationship because there’s no point making the honeymoon look great if you can’t get that level going on. I am as I am from the start, and I found in my life that some warm to it and others don’t call me back.
Do you get material sent to you?
I get a lot of unsolicited stuff. A lot of people search the net and they put an act they’ve liked and they see your name comes up. I get a lot of acts that write me if they know I signed things like Marc Almond or whatever else. Some people are fanatical about still.
When you have a hit record like we’ve had this year, your profile goes up. That awakes people to say, “Oh my god, you were the guy that was at EMI. You weren’t that bad. I wonder if you want to hear my tape.” You come back to people’s minds when you’re in the charts.
Do you listen to what publishing companies present?
Yes, I do. I’ve set up my own publishing company as well now. Publishing companies nowadays like the BMG guys develop their own artists to a point where they actually are hot enough that the majors will sign them, knowing they’ve got some momentum.
It’s very rare that they sign songwriters and then send songs out. Most modern publishers are signing groups. One or two are signing those songwriters that had a big dance hit and then try to develop them further.
What does it take from the material to have your interest?
I’ve grown up in a house of a man that wrote ‘Born Free’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, ‘Ben’, ‘Thunderball’. The greatest songs and lyrics this country ever produced. Lyrically it has to be special for me. It doesn’t mean it has to be clever, it can be very simple and just a motive, but lyrically it definitely has to work.
I’m a fan of original writers like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. On the other extreme, I’m a fan of people who can just craft hit after hit, like Desmond Child and Diane Warren. They’re the great pop songsmiths.
In terms of songs I’m very broad in what I like. In general, I’m not really a guy who likes backing tracks sent to me. I’m a melody and lyric man. I was raised on Bacharach and David, not on Keith Moon backing tracks.
But I don’t care how rough a demo is, I would have them la-la to me over at the breakfast table and then watch them grow. I like the acorn to oak-tree aspect of songs.
Do you ask for certain specifics in a song?
There are so many songs that I listen to. I love country music. Lyrically country music is an area where people can write stories. You can say ‘I Love You’ in so many ways, but there’s ways of doing it differently.
In country music people manage to get across different ways what’s often been an overused emotion, find a different slant on it.
My world is very R&B. I’m into black music. Eminem for me is the Cole Porter of his generation. I was raised on Gershwin, but I put Eminem lyrically in the same category as I would Lorenz Hart, which is basically genius. My taste goes from Porgy & Bess to whatever is top in the open chart today.
But subjective as it is, I always felt that the key to being a good A&R was having taste, and working on the assumption that if you had taste then you were hard to please. That if I liked it then someone else out there would do.
I’ve learned over the years that I confidently know what I love. And I feel very at ease standing up and pressing play on a machine and cranking the volume up and saying; “You better come listen to this. This is incredible!”
How should aspiring artists present themselves and prepare for success?
The majors have become less interested in artist development. I’m not frustrated by that. Sony BMG UK spent ten years trying to break acts that no one ever heard of, and they failed miserably. In more recent times they sign acts that have won pop shows or reality TV shows.
But more importantly they signed things like Sandi Thom and Lil’ Chris who had momentum. And what they’ve shown is that if they come in late in the game, at level three, they can help take you to level ten.
They are very good at adding momentum and power, money and focus, to someone that’s already moving. That’s something one has to utilize and understand.
What that does for independents like myself now, is it gives us an opportunity to perform between levels zero to three. If you have an artist, whatever genre of music it is, you’re going to promo yourself and get to a point where it’s getting heat, and then wait for that phonecall from Universal.
If it’s a rock band, you’re going to get your website up and you’re going to get some shows, and you get maybe a little vinyl, an EP or T-shirts. And once you got some heat there and you’re selling 500 tickets at a show, or you got 7000 names on your database, then you can start waiting for Universal or BMG to ring you.
But in general, the days of wandering and saying; “Look, we’re three guys. We’re looking for a drummer but we need a record deal,” forget about it. It doesn’t happen. Artists have got to develop themselves. Artists are far more opinionated about what they want now.
There are very few puppies in this business anymore. I don’t think many people are looking for a Svengali behind the doors of a major.
What are you telling a newly signed artist?
Normally the first thing that is discussed before I sign a new artist is what we are going to do together. It’s a broad relationship. Creatively you have to know what you can do together.
But you also have to have a few arguments about it and make sure you know strategically what you want to try and achieve, and try to keep it a bit realistic.
I try to get across to them what I think our strengths are, what I think we need to work on to get it right. I’m being realistic and knowledgeable about majors after being in them for 20 years. I’ve learned over the years that getting the record deal is not the winning ticket.
Most artists that get a record deal end up leaving a year later and never getting signed again, because they for whatever reason weren’t prepared to win the race. There is no point coming out to run the 100 meters and finding there’s all these great runners out there and you’re going to lose.
It’s a very quick race and nine seconds later you’re back in your tracksuit. Signing to Warner Brothers is not the day to open champagne. The day to open the champagne is when your single or your album or your tour is being successful, and you can actually look yourself in the mirror and say; “We’re doing something of value.”
The record deal is the ticket to the race, but what happens in more recent years is that if you sign to a major and you don’t have success quickly, you can get very stale in that environment.
Because there’s always someone that’s hot and is ready to be released or someone that’s come off a TV show or someone who was in a band and just has gone solo and everyone is running and paying a million dollars.
That act is becoming a priority and you’re the little guy that was signed in February that a year later is still trying to get the chorus right on his first single. Often what happens is that the A&R guy moves on or gets fired, and suddenly you get caught up in some sweeping.
There are so many artists I’ve seen over the last five years that have ended up never releasing a record.
It’s not about getting a record deal and just saying; “Great” and giving your mum half the advance for her to buy herself a new car. It’s about getting in to that position when you know you can win.
When you do development deals, what do you expect from people?
It’s a double-edged sword. Development from a creative point of view is obvious. You expect people to take half a song, and to end up with a catalogue of material that will at least make one good starting studio album.
In development of a singer/songwriter you look at someone who has got a couple of songs but needs more work.
The other side of developing is what you refer to as the plot. It’s naďve to think you are going to come out of a basement studio nine months later with ten good songs and just going to wander and life is going to be beautiful for you.
You have to nurture and develop your website, your MySpace, whatever the genre is, you have to develop the outside world’s perspective to you.
The good thing about the industry now is you can develop in public. There was a time you had to explode or disappear. You can develop now by putting out a single that’s a bit rough around the edges, putting out some promo, a free download or streaming through MySpace. You can grow and you can get instant feedback.
People talk about MySpace all the time because it’s a great place for feedback and to find out what you’re doing wrong. The greatest artists of our generation and the next generation will always be hit-strong people that believe they know what they’re doing.
They might want feedback to know which song you wanted to be the single. But in general, I don’t think groups like Arctic Monkeys rely on fans writing to them they don’t like line three of a song. They rely on them telling; “Can you please release this?” or “Can I see you live?”
You develop both sides in tandem now. You develop the creative musical aspect of a group, and you also develop the market awareness. The major label needs three reasons to sign you before they press play on the music now.
And if they got three reasons to sign you and when they press play it sounds really good, I think you’re in good shape. Otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.
If you could change some aspect in the music biz, what would you do?
I would probably change the way that major labels do their accounting. The financial restrains on majors is so tight that the people that run the majors, if they don’t make their money or make their monthly numbers or at least within a year, then they’re out.
All long development, not only of artists but also of individual staff and counter people within marketing and A&R departments, is under too much pressure. I would suggest that everyone gets five years to make it work or not work.
Can you tell anything about the upcoming projects of Blacklist?
The Game album drops on November 13th on Geffen/Universal, which is a big thing for us. We just had this crazy David Hasselhoff No.3 record. We’re talking about doing something with David on a musical project for the West End stage.
I’m making an album with Denise Van Outen at the moment, which is a very adult orientated album. We’ve recorded some great Diane Warren songs in LA. I’m A&Ring that and looking for the right home for that at some point for release next year.
Phil Campbell, is touring at the moment supporting Sandi Thom. We have his album scheduled for February 2007, coming out on Safe House Recordings, which is another label I set up and is independently funded.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Martin O'Shea, manager for Atomic Kitten (Top 10 UK)