Interview with JOHN ARNISON, manager for Gabrielle, Billy Ocean - Mar 24, 2008
"As a manager you advise, you don’t dictate."
John Arnison has travelled a long and winding road in the British music industry.
He started in the '70s as a tour promoter for rock stars Status Quo, and shortly after achieved two Top 20 UK spots with punk band Penetration.
Throughout the '80s he managed No.1 UK prog rock act Marillion, but in recent years has started handling pop acts, like Gabrielle (Top 10 UK), and TV kid star Connie Talbot (Top 10 UK).
One of the latest additions to his management roster is '80s Grammy Award winner, No.1 US artist Billy Ocean.
When did you start out in the music industry?
It was back in 1976. I was at Law College and became involved in running the events department at my Student Union. So I was in touch with various agents in the industry through promoting events and disco nights.
What kind of acts were you booking?
It was the mid-‘70s, so it was mostly all rock artists. There was a band called Babe Ruth who I particularly liked, with a lead singer called Jenny Haan. I’d booked them on a couple of occasions.
One day she called me saying she’d been offered a management contract with a major company called Quarry Productions, who were managing Status Quo and Rory Gallagher – two huge acts at the time.
They were interested in signing her but felt she needed a day-to-day manager. Out of the blue she thought of me. I went along to an interview with them, and, amazingly, I was offered the job. I was only 23.
It was just one of those lucky things that happen, being in the right place at the right time. It was the same for so many people of my era who got involved in management. But my parents weren’t too happy about it!
I told them I was going to try this job out and then go back to legal studies. They said, ‘Ok, give it a year’. I ended up staying with Quarry for over four years. It was like an apprenticeship.
What was your role at Quarry?
I was mostly handling tours on behalf of the company. Promotion was all in-house then, and everything was done from our small office in Waldorf Street. I literally learnt everything fast, on the hoof.
The very first tour I did was Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ tour in 1977. The single and album had gone straight to No.1 and the tour sold out in a matter of days, which was incredible then in those pre-internet times, when you had to physically queue up to buy tickets.
How did you make the switch from promoting to managing artists?
It happened naturally. There were a couple of smaller acts on the roster who I got involved with; Jenny, and a band called Nuts, from Liverpool. Then the Punk scene started to take off, and it was all really exciting.
The first artist of my own was a band from Newcastle called Penetration, who I’d seen playing at the Marquee club in London opening up for the Buzzcocks. I started looking after them, and we eventually signed to Virgin, which was in its very early days then.
Richard Branson and Simon Draper were really hands on at that point. We made 2 albums - both top 20 - and the second one was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who was only 19 at the time.
Then I started managing John Cooper Clarke, the punk poet from Manchester. When Penetration split up their singer, Pauline Murray, formed a band called The Invisible Girls who were produced by Martin Hannett, of Joy Division and early U2 fame. He was the one who put me on to John. So after starting out in Rock I moved into Punk.
Did you become involved with Marillion around this point?
Yes, when the Quarry group were splitting up I set out on my own, managing full-time. Almost immediately I walked into the Marquee club one night – which was where I spent most of my evenings after work – and caught this band playing the opening set.
I remember I’d just come out of a meeting at CBS about John Cooper Clarke with John Kennedy, who was a junior business affairs person then. I literally just stopped by for a drink, and there they were.
It was strange, because when I was 15 or 16, my favourite bands were Status Quo and Genesis. I’d been lucky enough to have worked with Status Quo, and now here I was seeing this band who, to put it bluntly, made me think ‘this is Genesis!’
The amazing thing was that the audience was going crazy for them. And they were a really young crowd, in their mid-teens. So I spoke to the band and arranged a meeting with the singer, Fish, for the week after at a gig in a pub somewhere in Milton Keynes.
There was the same enthusiastic young crowd there. We agreed to give it a go, shook hands, and I went on to manage them for the next 16 years, both with Fish and then afterwards with Steve Hogarth. We’re still good friends now. Again, I was just in the right place at the right time.
Do you mostly rely on those kinds of chance encounters when you’re looking for new artists? Do they still happen?
Yes, definitely, they still happen. New acts that I get involved with come mostly through lucky breaks, or through hearing about things through friends. I managed Gabrielle for six years after meeting her in 1998, when I left Hit & Run.
Again, I was just waiting for a meeting at my accountant’s office, and as I was going in she was coming out. She happened to be looking for a manager, we arranged a meeting, and that was that.
Rock to punk to pop – has that always been a career plan of yours, to work with a diverse range of artists?
It’s funny, one of my best friends, Rod Smallwood always says that to me. Rod’s a big metal fan – he was managing Iron Maiden in the’80s when they and Marillion were taking off around the same time. Both bands had different styles of audience, with the artwork and imagery and everything, but they were heavy rock.
He said to me, ‘how can you manage so many different styles of groups at the same time?’ To be honest, I think I just have really very wide musical tastes. And working with different artists is something I’ve always done – it was especially the case when I was at Hit & Run in the 1990s.
Does it require different skills to work with different artists? Do you find yourself adapting your management style to suit particular genres?
You certainly can’t manage every act in the same way. To me, the art of management is helping the artists to achieve as much success as they can. But, importantly, it’s about helping them to achieve it in the way that they want to, because not everyone wants to be successful in the same way.
My rule is always: first, I have to personally like what they’re doing. Second, I want to feel like I’m working with one of the top artists in that field. Before I began managing Aswad I looked carefully at that pop-reggae style and they were right up there with the best. We went on to have a big hit with ‘Shine’, No.1 in Japan, and they were an incredible live act too.
Is the live show still the best way for you to judge an artist’s potential?
Yes I think it is. I grew up on great live music. And I come from a promotions background. To me, every artist has to be able to deliver onstage in front of an audience. It’s still the same now, even though obviously the world has completely changed with the internet.
The internet phenomenon started when I was working with Marillion. The keyboard player in that band, Mark Kelly, he was the first person I knew who had a real vision of where this new technology was going to go. Now of course, Marillion look after themselves. 90% of what they do is through the internet: they promote themselves, sell their own tickets, etc.
You have your own company now, Terra Artists. How did that come about, and what acts are currently on your roster?
It was after Gabrielle, who I was managing until 2005. I started working with Mark Morot, the founder of Island Records, on a Yusaf Islam project which lasted for a year – he only ever wanted to make one new album. That was a real pleasure.
So we went on to set up Terra Artists. Now I’m managing Billy Ocean, who came to see me a year ago saying he wanted to be back on the road again having fun. And that’s a hugely satisfying project, great fun. And at the other end of the spectrum, I’m doing something totally different for me, managing a young artist for the first time called Connie Talbot.
How did you hear about Connie, and what is it like working with such a young artist?
Well I had to think long and hard before taking this one on. She had appeared as a finalist on the ITV television competition, Britain’s Got Talent, in 2007. Connie’s father happened to be working for the girlfriend of a friend of mine at the time.
They’d had the whole disappointment of thinking that they were going to win the TV show, which in the end they didn’t. This girlfriend contacted me and said, ‘look, could you maybe have a conversation with her father and see if you can offer some advice?’
One of the considerations there, is that everybody is naturally scared of signing a girl who is so young, because they don’t want to be seen to be exploiting such a young artist.
And also, from the major labels’ point of view, if you have an artist who is under legal age, you can’t easily sign long-term contracts. And you know how corporations hate the fact that they might create something that’s successful and then have it slip away from them.
I just told her father, ‘how about making an album of songs that Connie likes? Just write down a list of songs that she might sing at her birthday party, and take it from there’. Later on I got a call back from their lawyer saying, ‘they liked talking to you, can you help us take it from here?’
This was last August, and we went on to record the album. The plan was that in order to make the most of the TV exposure we’d have to put the album out by Christmas, so we released the UK version with some Christmas songs, together with the single, ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’.
Were you apprehensive about taking on such a different project?
Totally. Mark Morot said to me at first, ‘you know, this is a TV thing. I’m really not sure whether we should be looking at this’. But Connie walked into our office and stood there and sang some songs for us, and we just both turned to each other and went, ‘she is unbelievable!’ She was genuinely incredible. And really, whose right is it to say that we shouldn’t make a record?
The album went gold in three weeks, and now we’re going to be launching around the world in May this year. And we’re doing it through Independent labels.
What’s the idea behind releasing independently?
Well, as you know in the last few years the majors and independents have all been shrinking. The industry’s been developing very fast.
When I started out 30 years ago, if I had an act that I thought was genuinely talented then I could call up six or seven different A&R men who all had development budgets and who could get us into a studio within three or four days to demo tracks. That just doesn’t happen now. The option isn’t available. You have to do it all yourself.
Does that change your approach? Are you more cautious about adding acts to your roster?
Yes, it’s sad to say, but you can’t take as many acts on as you used to. One of the main problems is that artists really do need time to develop. Marillion, for example, were touring for two years before they got signed. But they could manage it.
When I was promoting Status Quo in ’77 we’d be paying the opening act £100. That was a lot then, enough to pay for bands to hire a van and some road crew and to stay in cheap hotels along the tour. Today, opening acts generally get paid nothing. The reality of that is that it stifles a lot of artists who simply can’t afford to tour their music.
Nowadays if you have an act with an American company and you’re thinking, ‘okay, let’s have a 12 date tour of the UK’, you’re going to be talking upwards of £12,000 or so in costs. It’s totally different. And the whole pub rock nightclub scene is much smaller than it was.
But then on the other hand, because of the internet many artists can get their music out there much more easily. The key really is: are they real artists? Are they real stars, with real potential to develop? At the end of the day, if you’re paying £25-30 for a concert seat you want to see something special.
Do you find yourself more concerned about song selection and production now that you’re more closely involved in developing and breaking new acts?
It comes down to your own judgement, basically whether you like the music and believe in it. I will sit down, as I do with all my artists, and listen to the songs and give my opinion as to what works and what might be single material. But it’s totally up to them. As a manager you advise, you don’t dictate.
I’ve never been a manipulator of bands. My attitude has always been that my role is to advise. They are the artist. To me, it was always: ‘you are the artist, you have the talent, you have the songs. My role is simply to help you as much as I can’.
There are other managers, more on the pop side of things, who have ideas about gaps in the market and so on, who go out and deliberately put projects together. You know, let’s find a boy band, or a particular kind of act. That has never been my approach.
But I must admit that as far as new music goes, nowadays I do have to consider the fact that I’m going to be doing the A&R and developing it myself if I want an artist to take off.
Actually I’ve been very fortunate with the quality of artists that I’ve worked with. Gabrielle for example is a genuine singer/songwriter – she’s writes all her own material. She’s a completely unique talent. We sold 5.5 million albums in three years.
What projects are you engaged with right now?
I’m moving into a whole new area. There’s been a lot of press about Ingenius type record deals – the company Ingenius, who invest in artists to make their own albums. I’m actually working with a variety of artists on that level, helping them release their own material.
So I’m effectively managing a label with seven or eight artists. The Connie Talbot album was done entirely that way. I’m doing a new Aswad album, and there’s a new band called Black Daniel I’m working with, which is me going back to a rock band for the first time in a long time.
I’m thoroughly enjoying that, because it’s my roots. From a pure management point of view, I’m only managing Billy Ocean and Connie Talbot.
Is that a logical progression from management these days, establishing your own label?
At the end of the day, major labels will always be there. But they’re taking on less and less artists, and the reality is that the public out there want new music. There was always an issue between majors and artists who were selling 400,000 or 500,000 albums.
A friend of mine, who is one of the most senior guys at a major, always puts it this way: in an ideal world, majors would rather have just 10 acts who all sell 5 million records each. Everything else that they’ve got just gets in the way of that ultimate major sales objective.
Marillion sold 12 million albums, over 12 years. Some did 500,000, some did 1.5 million depending on whether there was a hit single or not. My point of view, especially coming from the kinds of acts I’ve experienced working with, is that you have to really look after the artists who are selling around the 500,000 album mark.
Doing it this way, releasing independently, artists can make as much selling 500,000 albums but doing it directly as they would do selling 2 million through a major label. And that sums it up.
Is there anything you would change about the music industry?
It’s still a fantastic industry. It’s open to everybody who has a real passion for music. It’s funny, to go back to the beginning, at the moment I walked out of legal college to get into music they actually changed the legal profession to make it an all-degree profession. So I couldn’t go back to it without taking a degree.
In music, it still doesn’t matter where you come from or how you’re qualified as long as you genuinely care about what you’re doing. And it’s a constant challenge – there’s no one way to go about a project, no right way to do anything. I have people in my office who are 30 years younger than me, and I pick up things from them about how to go about things now. You learn something new everyday.
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Interview by Denny Hilton