Interview with PAUL CROCKFORD, manager for Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler - February 18, 2008
"If you want somebody who is only going to tell you that you’re great, you might as well get your mum to manage you,"... says Paul Crockford, who has 30 years of successfully managing top artists behind him.
Crockford switched from promotion to management with Julian Cope's '80s act The Teardrop Explodes. Since then he worked with massive '80s acts like Tears For Fears (No.1 US), The Human League (No.1 US), and Level 42 (Top 20 US). Nowadays he manages Dire Straits' frontman and guitarist Mark Knopfler (pictured, Top 10 UK, Top 40 US, Top 10 Germany).
With his British dry humour he talks to HitQuarters about the changing challenges of management over the years, artist-manager relationships, and his refreshing optimism about the current industry climate.
How did you get hold of bands like The Dammed, Jess Roden, Ian Gillan, and Elton John's band when you became Social Secretary of the student union at Southampton University?
In those days, if you were a Social Secretary it was supposed to be a sabbatical post. You’re supposed to take a year off. But at Southampton you had to do your studies at the same time.
I was lucky enough that the guy before me passed on a lot of information and left his phonebook there. You called the agents like John Jackson or Martin Hopewell at Cowbell Agency, or Rod MacSween at Good Earth.
All of the guys who are still round at the top were all booking bands at that point. You just called them up and said: “Hi Rob Hallet! I would like to book the Fruit Eating Bears.”
I made friends and contacts there that I’m still in touch with now, thirty years later.
Then you got a job as soundman and tour manager for The Pleasers. Where did you learn your sound skills?
I didn’t, actually. Listening to my hi-fi was as complicated as it got. I lied to get the job.
A guy called Chips Chipperfield, who’s now a film and video producer for Apple, called me up and said: “I’ve got this band. We need somebody who’s going to drive them around and set up the little PA they’ve got. Could you do that?” I said sure.
I turned up on the first day and he’d told the band I was this sort of wizard sound guy and electronic expert. I had to make them show me how to set the PA up first and then mark it up with coloured tapes the same way every day. I hadn’t a clue.
Luckily, the mixer was a small simple Peavey system. It consisted of balance left and right, treble, bass, and volume. And I sort of built up from there.
The biggest show I did was when they played the Bielzen festival in Belgium. That was 15-20,000 people and it was a proper out-front board, and I just picked it up as I went. You just used your ears.
In 1980 you went to work for Outlaw Management Ltd/Outlaw Concerts Ltd…
The agent for The Pleasers was a guy called Paul King. He was running an agency and promotions company called Outlaw. He also employed Ged Doherty, who’s now Chairman of Sony/BMG UK.
Paul asked me if I would like to run a show and be the promoters’ rep. That’s how I started and worked my way up until he and I were partners in the business.
What has changed over the years regarding promotion and management?
The advent of these super corporate promoters like AEG or Live Nation have become more business-like, and not necessarily for the better. There’s a lot of fun gone out of the business.
Previously, people would talk about the music. Now, you see an interview with Michael Rapino, who’s talking about ‘customer experience’.
He’s talking about what are the toilets like, what are the cloakrooms like the price of the popcorn. The artist doesn’t even get a look in.
They’re talking about ‘interacting with the ticket-buyer’. People have lost sight of the fact that the bottom line is: no artist, no industry.
It’s all very well saying ‘we need to increase the ticket price here’ or ‘we need to get more value for that’, but essentially it all falls down if the artists are no good.
From a management perspective, nowadays you’ve got to do more and you get less money for doing it.
Previously, with labels being buoyant and fully staffed, there was a lot of support for managers from record companies.
Now, you’re supporting the record company. You have to come up with the marketing ideas, the photographers, the video ideas and TV reality shows.
A lot more is provided by the artist/manager than by the label. And the label is still earning 80% of the income.
You took your first steps in the field of artist management managing Teardrop Explodes…
That happened because we were the promoters, and three shows into the tour the band’s manager ran off with all the money and all the drugs.
The band came to see us at the end of the show and said: “Look, we’ve got a problem. We can’t play tomorrow, because the manager has disappeared with the money, and we can’t pay anybody.” We were like: “But we paid you an advance!”
So after much discussion, we agreed that we would do it in exchange for the management, because that was the only way we could get the money. We never did of course. So we actually paid them twice.
That taught me the first rule about management: never invest your own money!
How hands-on was doing that?
Very much so. Julian Cope, who I’m still in touch with, was definitely a very eccentric character. Quite a hard worker, but incredibly creative.
There were always a million ideas coming out of his head. It was a matter of trying to get focused on one or two that you could try to make work.
My management style is still very much like that. I’m not like a corporate manager with 90 acts half of which I’ve never met. I have four or five artists and I know them all very well. It’s still very hands-on.
Why did you decide to establish your own management company (Paul Crockford Management) in 1987?
I basically fell out with Paul King about money. I was a junior partner and I wanted more, and he didn’t want to give me more. We agreed to part ways.
I left with Level 42. He kept Tears For Fears. It was quite scary to go off on my own, but I was really close with the band and luckily it was very successful.
Were did this success lead to?
It led to more acts and kept me in the business. You’re only as big as your last hit act, be it as a promoter or a manager. Unless you get to the stage where you’re managing Michael Jackson and you’re pocketing millions of pounds.
Most managers aren’t. You’re working for about two albums, from tour to tour and then it doesn’t go any further. It’s a risky business. Acts come and go, as we all know with increasing frequency. Working with new acts is incredibly risky.
At least with somebody like Mark Knopfler, he’s an amazing talent, he’s got a great fanbase and he’s sensible to work with. You can give him advice. He doesn’t always take it, but at least you can have a sensible adult grown up discussion with him.
As you get older as a manager, you don’t necessarily want to be arguing with artists who don’t want to listen to what you’ve got to say.
I always say to bands: why take me on for my experience if you then ignore my advice?
If you want somebody who just is going to tell you that you’re great, you might as well get your mum to manage you.
I always think musicians get the manager that they deserve. They might not be what they need, but it’s normally what they want.
How do you choose your projects?
I have to like the music first. Then I have to like the people second. And then if I got the time I’ll do it. But I turn down a lot more than I take on.
I like to have 3 or 4 artists, because it gives you a sense of objectivity. It’s very easy, if you’re only looking after one act, to become very subjective and a bit closed to new things.
And if you’re working in the business overall, you end up having a bit of a wider sense of what’s going on.
What artists are you currently working with?
Mark Knopfler, obviously. A new signing called Scott McKeon, who’s signed to the Mascot Provogue label that broke Jo Bonamassa.
William Topley, who used to be in a band called The Blessing, who I have looked after forever. And the legendary bass player Danny Thompson.
When did you first meet Mark Knopfler?
I first worked with Mark when Outlaw promoted a Talking Heads show at Brighton Top Rank. Dire Straits were the opening act in 1978. And we paid them five pounds
I was their concert promoter from the late ‘70s. I did every tour apart from one. And we were always bumping into each other.
I worked for them doing different things. As well as being a promoter, one tour in Europe, I was a site coordinator. I was often bought in to do specific projects for them by their previous manager.
In 2000 when Mark was doing ‘Sailing To Philadelphia’, Ed Bicknell, who was managing Mark at the time, got me in to oversee the touring and the promotion for that album.
He fell out with Mark, and I ended up carrying on, because Mark liked me. He’s known me for a long time and trusted me.
It was a convenient and a comfortable fit. You don’t have to go through that awkward phase of trying to find somebody new to do it. Eight years later and I’m still here.
What’s your contribution as a manager in ensuring and maintaining his success?
You try to turn his artistic vision into something commercial that allows him to continue being an artist. You don’t necessarily let him rub up against the grubby face of the music business.
When people ask Mark what he thinks of the music business he often points to me and says: “That’s the music business! I don’t have anything to do with the music business.”
You keep the day-to-day grind and the unpleasantness and the commerciality away from them, so that they can be creative.
How involved are you with repertoire and production?
Not at all. As Mark would say: “Paul has got no taste anyway.”
What package needs to be ready for a new artist to get involved with management?
A new artist needs to look for somebody who’s enthused, who is connected and that they can trust.
And somebody who’s honest. Artists need to be able to hear the truth from at least one person in their life. That’s normally the manager. Everybody else has a different agenda.
What’s the difference in working with new or established artists?
Money. It’s easier to get things done when you’ve got a fanbase and it’s a matter of sustaining it. But in terms of trying to get an act established, it’s very hard work, particularly nowadays.
Mark was 29 before he signed his record deal. Now if you went into a label with a 29 years old guitarist, you’d probably need to break the door down just to get a response.
What’s usually discussed on the first meetings?
Sadly, most of them are discussing what they wouldn’t do. For me, you normally discuss what they want from you, what they think they’re going to get from you, and you’re hoping that they are realistic.
And what their aims are. What they want out of it as much as what you want out of it.
Do you attend showcases like Midem featuring new artists?
No. There’s no need. I would go to Midem if I was looking to sell my company or buy a publishing company. Or maybe if I specifically wanted to launch an artist, I might go there.
But essentially, Midem is not of much use for managers. Maybe if you wanted to see what else is going on, but the reality is it all goes on in the bars around the fringes.
You have given a lot of time to charity work. Are you still organising and promoting shows of this nature?
Yes, I still do some bits and pieces. Not so much with the Prince’s Trust these days, because that’s not set up the way it was.
When I was involved there was a pop organising committee, and the big gala shows were incredibly lucrative. But the broadcasters in particular got bored.
They all wanted the same artists like Sting, Elton John, Phil Collins etc. You can’t keep going to see those people every year. It becomes boring for everybody.
So now the charity events tend to be lower key. There’s not so much of that in your face stuff, unless it happens to be one of those big global events like Live Earth or Live Aid.
What are the sources you use to find new talent?
Normally it’s recommendation. It comes to me from musicians or people I know. In all the years I’m doing it, only once have I got involved with an artist from an unsolicited source. It was someone who sent me a demo, and it didn’t work anyway.
What does it take for the material to grab your interest?
I have a very catholic taste. I have to like it, but I also have to see that there’s some sort of commercial potential in it.
It doesn’t mean it has to be ABBA or Leona Lewis. It doesn’t have to be out and out pop. It just has to be something where I think, Oh, yes, I like that. I can work with that. I can see that might appeal to other people and therefore it might work.
Are you looking for outside songs?
Not usually. Most of the artists I have are very self-contained.
What makes a great song?
If I knew the answer to that I’d be richer than Simon Cowell. Anybody who writes a line like ‘All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme’, then that’s an amazing line.
But a great lyric or tune on its own is not enough. And even a great tune and lyric is sometimes not enough.
It’s a very subjective thing. Sometimes these things sort of catch the wave and they go off at a huge rate of knots and nobody can really tell why. Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.
What’s your view on the British music industry nowadays?
People are very worried about it, but it’s still earning a lot of money and it’s still selling a lot of records.
It’s just not selling as many records as it used to and people aren’t making as much money as they would like. But it’s a long way from being in the dumper.
It’s reinventing itself pretty sensibly. People are being more careful, more controlled, more cautious about what they do, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
How should an artist prepare himself for a professional career nowadays?
Be realistic about what you’re going to get out of it. Be very realistic about the fact that you can look at X factor or Pop Idols and think that you can be on TV for six weeks and it’s going to make you a global superstar.
The reality is: there is one Mark Knopfler, there is one Eric Clapton, there is one Elton John, and there are billions of others who never make it. They are all quite talented and work very hard, but it just doesn’t work.
If you could dramatically change some aspect in the music industry, what would you do?
I would make everybody who downloads a song pay for it.
What are your future plans for PCM?
Just more of the same, really. There is no grand plan. I just take it as it comes. I certainly think at the moment it’s pretty difficult to plan. The business is in a state of flux.
You just have to do what you do and work as hard as you can with your artists and keep your eyes and ears open to what’s going on. You have to stay in touch with the latest technological changes. Don’t get left behind.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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