Interview with TIM CLARK, co-director ie:music, management for Robbie Williams, Passenger, Ladyhawke, Lemar - Jul 21, 2014
“If you don’t understand your audience, if you don’t know for whom you’re playing, you really are going to fail.”
When artist manager Tim Clark, together with ie:music partner David Enthoven, won the Robertson Taylor ‘Peter Grant’ Award for outstanding achievement in management last year it was in recognition of a long fruitful career in the industry working with the likes of Bob Marley, Roxy Music and Cat Stevens, and particularly their work in helping client Robbie Williams become the UK’s most successful solo artist, with over 77 million sales worldwide. But make no mistake, the award was certainly no career send-off gift because ie:music is still very much a formidable force; recently it has enjoyed huge success with Passenger (UK#2, US Top 5) and has added Will Young and Lemar to its growing artist stable.
Clark talks to HitQuarters about how Passenger built up his mighty fanbase, and why it’s so important for young artists to know who they are playing for.
Can you briefly tell us about ie:music, such as the artists it currently represents?
Obviously our most successful artist is Robbie Williams, who we’ve been managing for seventeen years. We’ve been managing Passenger (Michael David Rosenberg) for eleven years, and he has suddenly become incredibly successful. We manage Ladyhawke, and she’s currently in America writing for a new album.
We manage Will Young, who is a fairly recent signing, and he’ll soon be recording a new album. We manage Hero Fisher, who’s a new artist, Lemar, another recent addition to the roster, and then finally, Jake Emlyn, another very new artist. He’s developing his talent and we’re extremely excited by him.
And how big is the team working on their behalf?
We have sixteen people here all together. Apart from David and myself, there are two people specifically involved in the management of Robbie Williams, and then there’s two people specifically involved in his social media sites, Facebook, YouTube etc, as well as his own website, and then each of the other acts have a manager. And then of course, we have the usual administrative staff to finance people.
What is your day-to-day working life like at the moment? What is your current involvement with the artists on your roster?
I’m involved in pretty much all aspects of the artists we manage. I don’t get involved in all the detail of each of the artists, we have very capable managers doing that. David and I have an overview of everything that goes on, and I suppose we’re the two old farts who’ve been around a long time who try and give support and direction to a younger team.
And make the decisions?
We make decisions with our team. We try to be non-hierarchical, and we try and make sure that everything we do is as a real team.
What has proven to be the best ways of discovering new artists at ie:music?
Recommendation. Almost without fail. People say: “Gosh, you must check out so and so” or “You must go and see so and so.” Usually it’s other artists but sometimes it’s producers or engineers. So people who are creative themselves, who are working with artists themselves or who are out on the road and seeing other artists perform.
What are some of the key factors in helping you decide whether or not to work with a new artist?
Obviously, the key factor is to feel that they have talent, and obviously a lot of that is fairly subjective, and along with most people in the industry we don’t always get it right, but the key thing is our belief in somebody’s talent.
But secondly, and almost as important, is the belief that the artist really wants it. It is a very, very tough career, incredibly hard work, and you have to put up with an awful lot of brickbats – terrible press from time to time. Criticism can be really hurtful, and all artists, no matter how successful, will have gone through this.
Is the decision about whether to work with a new artist made by the whole team?
It tends to be made by David and myself and one or two of the others, depending on who we feel might actually work with this new artist.
At that stage do you consider whether you could see them developing a long-term career?
David and I have never worked on artists who we don’t believe have a career. We’d like to think that our whole strategy is based on long-term careers, and fortunately with people like Robbie Williams and Passenger we have developed that. But way back when we both started in the music industry we were working with the likes of Roxy Music, Cat Stevens and Bob Marley – these were all people that had brilliant careers.
When you first talk with a new artist, do you discuss their expectations and ambitions?
At what level would you want an artist to be at for you to start taking an interest in leading their careers?
If we believe they’ve got the talent but that it might need nurturing for a while then we would still take them on.
What other aspects can help distinguish a new artist as being someone with great promise?
Most great artists, whether they’re going to achieve success like Robbie Williams or be a great rock ‘n’ roll band, have an instinctive feel for their audience. They know who they’re going to appeal to.
When Roxy Music came along, they came out of art colleges, and so they appealed to an audience of college kids who understood the fashion and the statements that Roxy Music were making. And so we definitely look to an artist that a) understands who the audience is going to be, and b) also has a connection with that audience.
How did you first discover Passenger and then begin developing him?
It was actually a recommendation by an artist we were working with at the time who said: “You must see this guy! He’s only seventeen years old, but he sings beautifully and he’s got great talent as a songwriter.” We saw him at a charity show, and he was everything that we’d been led to believe.
So we took him under our wing. We put him out on the road; he was writing and so we put him with a producer (Andrew Phillips) who we felt would help him make a great record, and we paid for that record to be made.
Now as it happens, although it’s a jolly good record (Wicked Man’s Rest), it didn’t capture the attention of people at the time. And so Mike said: “I’m not giving up, I’ll go busking if that’s what I have to do.” We’d spent an awful lot of money on the record and didn’t have any money left, but equally we couldn’t find anybody else interested in signing him, and so we said: “Yes, go and busk! We’ll continue managing you and continue supporting you.”
What factors were important in his breakthrough?
He’d already built up a strong cult following. He was already playing gigs to a thousand people a time. All of that is not huge in Robbie Williams terms, but nevertheless when you’re just one person you can certainly make it viable.
The other thing that was extraordinary were his YouTube stats; people were looking at what he was doing on YouTube, they were watching him busk, they watched little films that he had made and so on and so forth. He really built up a following there.
Each artist needs a spark that captures people’s attention. It can happen through playing live, through a single, through having something on YouTube that suddenly catches fire. There’s lots of different ways of getting to an audience and building an audience.
But the best way to cement an audience is live. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Passenger, but Passenger on his own can play to 10,000 people, just him and a guitar. He has them in the palm of his hand.
How much control did Michael have over his development?
No, each artist is different. Mike is very responsible for his own career. He makes the decisions himself, and we support him in what he’s doing. We try and organise things so that things run smoothly.
As I said before, great artists have an instinctive feel for their audience, and Mike knows his audience, he knows what he can do, knows what he can get away with. He has a very particular audience that he really understands.
You’ve said that you only tend to work with artists that write their own material. In what ways do you help develop those songwriting skills?
We choose artists that already show a talent for songwriting. We don’t write songs ourselves, we don’t have that skill set but if we feel that a young artist needs to work with other writers in order to hone his skill then we suggest people with whom they might work.
When Robbie Williams first came to us, we knew that he could write, but he also needed a musician composer who could interpret his vision, and that’s how the relationship with Guy Chambers came about.
If you are developing a new artist then at what point do you think a record company should get involved?
We believe that artists should own their own rights and should be as independent as possible, but we’re also pragmatic; we believe in teamwork, we believe in fair partnerships, and spend a lot of time constructing deals with record companies. I think I’ve made no bones about the fact that I do like service type deals, that is distribution with additional services, but of course it does back the question: Where does the money come from?
And so these are questions that we’re all grappling with at the moment. And this is a period of great, great change. The record industry is changing, artists views of how they should work is changing, as is the role of management.
When we spoke to Scott Maclachlan, he said that he believes management to now be the centre of the music industry as opposed to the record company. What are your thoughts on whether the role of management is growing in importance?
I think we have to do much more, but that’s only because artists have to do so much more. Their job has become considerably more onerous. Back when I started an artist recorded an album; you put out a couple of singles, and then you put them on the road. We didn’t even make videos, and singles didn’t have picture covers. Now there’s a plethora of different digital formats, all the content that you have to make for the various social sites and their own websites; there’s Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and that takes up an extraordinary amount of time.
Don’t you have teams of people who help you sort out the social media side?
Yeah, but a lot of it falls on the artist, because fans aren’t dumb, they know if it’s somebody else doing it and they equally know when the artist is doing it. So it falls heavily on the artist. And of course a lot of it you can’t earn money out of, it’s done for free.
And so our role really is to try and manage their time to the extent that they can do this without it becoming too burdensome. That is hard. Record companies do get involved in that area, but like us they can’t speak in the artist’s voice. They also don’t manage the artist’s diary, that falls to the management, and that’s why we’ve become so closely involved in everything that the artist does.
What are some common mistakes artists make early in their career?
There’s so many. Essentially making the wrong sort of record, putting out the wrong single, if they’re badly advised. But not understanding their audience is really the main one. When an artist understands their audience, they’re usually well set for a career. If you don’t understand your audience, if you don’t know for whom you’re playing, you are going to fail.
The best career artists are those that continue developing. Do you have experiences of when an artist has struggled to move forward?
Oh gosh, there’s been so many. I guess one of the most famous is Nick Drake, who recorded three beautiful albums for Island Records and we got absolutely nowhere with them. I think none of them sold more than 3,000 copies. But now Nick Drake is revered around the world, and that sadly happened ten years after his death.
So, yes, I think there are artists that I’ve worked with that for one reason or another hasn’t captured the imagination or found their audience, but sometimes, as with Nick Drake, suddenly people discover and they get the reward that they missed earlier on.
What would you say are the key platforms for introducing a new artist into the current marketplace?
YouTube is hugely important now. But a live platform is the thing that cements. Drawing a crowd, attracting a crowd. And there’s no question that, although it might have taken a long time, all the time that Passenger was out busking and playing live, he was building a fanbase, and through that came his success on YouTube.
A few years ago you said that what we have to do as an industry is to find new ways of getting to fans. Have you found any new ways yet?
We are finding new ways of getting to fans, but sometimes it’s pretty confusing to find out where the fans actually are.
People often ask me what I think of Spotify and why we go on Spotify when lots of artists are saying they’re not going to go on Spotify. My answer is simple: Spotify is where lots of fans are. We can’t afford to not be getting to those fans. And so any of those arguments against it – whether we think we’re being paid properly or not – are absolutely nothing compared to the fact that if the fans are there then that’s where we have to be.
And it’s the same with YouTube. I mean, it’s common knowledge that fans go to YouTube and they download music for free etc., but it’s where the fans are. YouTube is the discovery site of the moment.
Statistics tell us over 70% of all music is downloaded illegally for free. The industry’s leading streaming platforms (Spotify, Deezer) are too expensive for a potentially huge and valuable demographic. Is it possible to make a great service available at a price that people will find attractive?
If the record industry, and the publishers in particular, would only embrace that notion. It’s ludicrous that we should be insisting on £10 ($17) or even £5 ($8.50) a month, which is way more than most people ever pay for music. We should be starting at a £1 ($1.70) a month, and really encouraging people to use a platform, and then hopefully encourage them to spend a bit more. It’s really about capturing them first, but unfortunately the industry at large has simply failed to recognise that simple obvious fact.
You’ve said that “We can offer consumers cheaper music if we take some of the gloop out of the middle”, can you explain what you mean by that?
Without question, the two most important things are the artist and the fan, and everything between them is just gloop. As sales fall and prices get lower and lower, the industry simply cannot afford all the gloop in the middle that has existed in the past.
Frankly there are lots of people who are overpaid in the way the industry is running now and so everybody has to justify their roles. We had to slim down, and so I believe other parts of the gloop in the middle need to slim down too.
So, the whole plan is to get everybody totally honest?!
That’s a dream [laughs]. And you know, one is an idealist, but I guess that’s a long way from happening.
How long will you continue doing management?
Well, I’m 69 in just a few weeks. My partner David is 70 in July. We’re not going to give up any time soon. But it all depends, the youngsters here might decide we’re all much too forgetful and don’t understand digital and we need to be put out to grass [laughs].
Will the survival of ie:music be a question of how long Williams can extend his career?
Well, I hope not. I hope not, and obviously Robbie Williams himself had three years off from 2006 to 2009, and we managed to survive those three years. And, you know, certainly we think that with Passenger developing, with people like Will Young and Lemar who already have a great following, that, yeah, we’ll survive.
interview by Kimbel Bouwman