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Interview with SAFTA JAFFERY, A&R/manager/publisher for Muse - April 21, 2008

"The truly smart artists these days can pretty much do most of the first and second level work by themselves."

picture Safta Jeffery entered the British music industry just as punk exploded and challenged it, and his spirit of independence and emphasis on artistic integrity and a genuine love of music is what led him throughout his career.

His outsider position - knowing what's going on in the scene long before the record companies - helped him discover and break Muse (No.1 UK, Top 10 US).

He talks to HitQuarters about Muse's grassroots fan base ensuring their success on top of playing live, and about the potential of originality and honesty to break through, today more than ever.

You’ve just returned from India, what were you doing there?

Yes, I’ve been out there with John Leckie scouting for new artists. I’m a Board Member of AIM (The Association of Independent Music), and they asked me to be involved in their India initiative.

They’ve been to India a few times now. I’ve essentially been trying to trace a live music roadmap out there, trying to establish a live music infrastructure. It’s a long-term project in an exciting new market.

Is there a recognisable industry infrastructure there?

Not really. It’s Bollywood-centric, which isn’t something we’re interested in. We were there trying to work with up and coming players in the regions, partnering with local events companies and record labels in order to create a new music model.

Up until now they haven’t had a platform to build on, because there’s no infrastructure and no network of live venues or artists who are playing at an emerging level. It will take a bit of time, but the will is there. Everyone seems really excited about it.

Is there intention to bring acts from India over to Europe?

We’re calling the project Music Exchange, so the idea is to have emerging British/Western artists playing in India on the same stages as emerging Indian artists, and then bringing those Indian artists to play over here. Like a cultural exchange.

How did you set about scouting for artists while you were there?

Mostly by identifying key music people at ground level. Musicians know other musicians, and they know other people connected to independent labels who are trying to do something. Or they know management companies.

We just asked a lot of questions, meeting with radio stations and local media who pointed us in the right direction. It’s a massive country to explore. But there is definitely an exciting scene for new music going on at an underground level. It’s early days, but we’re making inroads.

We discovered a singer called Raghu Dixit, who is quite a find. Actually I just came back from tea with Mark Strippel at BBC Radio Asia, who’s already in love with that project, which is great.

Is that a new challenge for you, working outside Western territories?

I have dabbled internationally before – I worked with Japanese superstars Chage & Aska in the early ‘90s. They approached me to help them break outside of Japan. We teamed them up with Western artists doing duets of their songs, people like the late Michael Hutchence, Maxi Priest, Chaka Khan.

It was an international album, and it did well, selling around one million on EMI. I also went to China a couple of years ago, to Shanghai, and found a band called The Honeys. I produced their second album, and we had them playing over at MIDEM just this last January.

So I’ve always had an interest in working in other countries and developing new and exciting artists in those markets. India is an extension of that.

Could you talk a little about how you started out in the music industry?

I started out as a messenger, delivering parcels for Dick James Music, which was a big independent company back in the day. They had Elton John as a recording artist, and Northern Songs, which was the Beatles’ publishing.

I’d answered a job advert for a runner, which basically meant being on call all day delivering parcels to media companies. It was my way in. I was fresh out of school and didn’t fancy doing anything else. I’d been a singer in a school band, and music was always a deep passion of mine.

That was in 1976, just pre-punk. Within three months they moved me to the A&R department office around the corner in Denmark Street, because they realised I was in and out of shows all the time.

The build up to the punk scene was a really exciting time to be in music, and I was there in the midst of it, going out every night watching bands and bringing in all these new artists.

What kind of bands were you working with?

The first act I brought in was The Jam. I remember seeing them play a support slot at the Marquee. There were only about 15 of us in the audience, but you could tell they were incredible.

Everybody was playing regularly in those days: Generation X, Sham 69, Siouxsie and the Banshees. It was the beginning of the whole scene. The Adverts were another band I was keen on.

Unfortunately, nobody at Dick James really understood punk. There was a lady called Sally James who was actually signed to the label, who was a presenter on a TV show called Tiswas. She would drop into the office from time to time and ask what I was doing, and I’d tell her about all these strange bands I was interested in.

Her husband-to-be was a guy called Mike Smith, who was about to take over as Head of A&R at Decca Records. So she introduced me, and he asked me to go and join him as A&R Manager.

It was an exciting time to be doing A&R. One of the early artists I helped bring in was Adam and the Ants – we did his debut single, ‘Young Parisians’.

How did you find artists then, was it all about the live scene?

Yes. All my friends were either artists or involved in the business. We all knew where to go, who to see, who the buzz bands were. We were the in-crowd. I was also close to independent record stores, who were a useful port of call to hear what was happening – especially what was going on around the country.

Because we weren’t just London-specific; I was up and down motorways all the time to most of the big cities, even out in Belfast during the IRA days, looking for bands.

Was it hard persuading an established major label to listen to new emerging punk artists?

Yes. Although the whole punk movement was happening, people in the record companies had a very conservative view of music. The industry was always lagging behind all the fads and fashions, and it was no different at Decca, which was the quintessential old established British record company.

So again, I felt a little lonely there because of the artists that I wanted to sign. One in particular was The Tourists, who later became The Eurythmics. I remember taking the whole company down to the Music Machine in Camden to see them perform, and they were terrific.

But no one at the label thought so. After they passed on that one I wanted to sign a guy I had gone to school with, Tony Mansfield, whose band was called New Musik. Again, they were fantastic. When Decca passed on that one as well I decided to leave the label, rebelliously, and set up on my own.

Your own independent A&R agency?

I wouldn’t go that far! I was just running around like a headless chicken most of the time carrying bunches of tapes that I was in love with. Eventually I managed to sign a deal for New Musik at GTO Records, and they were successful.

The first single went in at No. 13 in the UK charts and the album went platinum. Which led me back into A&R at Magnet Records, where I was between 1980-1985.

At what point did you start to manage producers?

That was in 1985 when I decided to set up SJP, a producer management company. I’d always been closely involved in the creative side of things while I was doing A&R, working with a lot of new and up and coming producers and engineers.

I realised that producers were suddenly becoming more important than ever in the business. They were also starting to get royalties, which they never used to receive in the old days.

Were there other producer management companies around at that time?

Sandy Robertson and Paul Brown were running World’s End, and Zomba had a producer stable with people like Mutt Lange. They had some really good producers. But they were about the only two that I remember in those days.

So of course the minute I set up my company all these young producers flocked to me and asked me to manage them. And I took them all on, not stopping to imagine how I would cope with them all.

I was pretty spoilt, to be honest. I’d already built up relationships and contacts with these people, and they were just waiting for someone like me to go into business. One of the first I took on was John Leckie, who I still manage today.

Did you have any particular vision for the types of music or producers you wanted to work with?

Rock was always my passion. I was brought up on early David Bowie, early Lou Reed, Roxy Music. So that was my thing, and the producers I took on complemented that. If I didn’t like something, I didn’t go for it, even if I believed it might be successful.

I’ve always stayed true to my musical tastes – that’s probably why I always got into trouble doing A&R, because the big companies expected me to be a sort of all-rounder, understanding all different genres of music.

What were you doing on a daily basis at SJP? Was it about discovering new artists and pairing them with producers on your roster?

Exactly. I’d taken on all these producers, and I had one assistant working for me. Remember, there were no computers or fax machines then. It was just one telephone and a typewriter on the desk and you were in business.

I was basically going around all the labels knocking on doors trying to drum up work, or working from the office dealing with the artists I was managing. It was hectic.

One of the first projects to break actually came out of Australia. I was managing a keyboard player/producer called Chris Cameron, who was touring with Hot Chocolate in Australia. So I called a friend of mine from Magnet who had moved out there doing A&R and told him I had this brilliant producer who was visiting.

He had just signed a band called Wa Wa Nee, which meant nothing to me, but Chris liked them and went into the studio to produce some tracks. And that album became a huge seller in Australia, going multi-platinum. Later on I teamed Chris up with George Michael, with whom he still works with today. So it was a big success story.

Were you still managing artists as well?

I was dabbling with some artists that I’d taken on as a manager, signing record deals. I had to multitask. I couldn’t survive just on the back of producer fees – the producers I was managing were all new names, all up and coming guys. So I had to find new artists to manage.

Is that why you set up Taste Media, to separate those artist-based projects?

That came much later, in 1996. What happened there was that during the early to mid-1990s a lot of the producers I was working with were becoming frustrated because they weren’t being allowed to make the sort of records they wanted to make.

The industry was telling them they wanted a certain type of record or a certain type of sound produced in a certain way. I was also getting a bit restless myself. I’d run the producer business for around 10 years by then, very successfully. We’d produced The Stone Roses and the Radiohead album, ‘The Bends’.

We’d worked with the greatest artists of that era. At that time I had close ties with The Sawmill, a studio down in Cornwall, and its owner, Dennis Smith, was looking to do something more than just run a studio.

I had the producers and the contacts, and he had the studio, so we decided to pair up and establish a production company. The original thinking behind it was to find new artists that we both passionately loved and then utilise our resources to make the kinds of records that we wanted to make, rather than ones which the record companies wanted to make.

So we set out to sign a few artists, and Muse came along quite early on. They were from Teignmouth in Devon, where Dennis was based. He knew their parents and had seen the three boys grow up. He sent me early demos, and it was clear that there was something going on – they sounded very different, articulate and intelligent.

There was no real commercialism in those days, but it was exciting. They were very young, only 17. He arranged a showcase for me at the Cavern Club and I encouraged him to give them free studio time. Each demo got better and better until we thought, ‘Ok, it’s time to do something more formal here’.

Were other labels vying for the band’s attention by the time you signed them?

No, they still weren’t on anybody else’s radar. We signed them for a couple of EPs which we put out through Dennis’s label, Dangerous Records. Then we did some showcases; In The City and some industry events in London. But nobody in the UK was interested, nobody understood it, and everybody passed.

It was disheartening for the band and it reminded me of doing A&R back in the old days, when every time I found a new artist nobody else seemed to understand it. You start questioning your own ability, looking at yourself and thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m wrong…’ It’s very frustrating. But that always seems to be the journey with me.

We believed in the band, and in the end we had to take them to America to get noticed. We did CMJ in New York where a couple of scouts from Columbia liked the act. They invited us to showcase in Los Angeles for Rick Rubens, and that’s when things started to happen.

Maddona's Maverick Records were quickest off the draw, and we decided to do a deal with them in America. That really gave us the starting point to build up the career of the band the way that we did.

At what point did you get John Leckie involved?

John’s always been a partner of mine, so he was aware I was working with Muse. He’d come to a few shows with me and he already had a relationship with the band. One of the things I said to Maverick going into that deal was that we wanted John to produce the album.

Fortunately Guy Oseary, their head of A&R in those days, was a huge fan. So he was delighted, and John was allowed to make the record the way he wanted to make it. It was really our vision of the band, the way John made that record.

The only downside was that the Americans felt there wasn’t a huge song for them to take to radio. The track they believed in didn’t quite connect in the end. But it worked for us everywhere else, because having done that one deal we decided to go everywhere else and sign to friends in places all around the world.

We did all these great territorial deals, where we had complete creative control. The UK was the last place to get it – Korda Marshall at Warner/Mushroom had already passed on the band twice before we did a deal with him.

What was the plan behind the territorial deals?

To be honest, with hindsight I think that had I signed Muse to one label for the whole world, they would never have made it as a band. They were never radio friendly in those days. The music was too challenging. I’d decided early on that the only way we were going to break them was through touring, so all our deals were organised to be tour-specific.

I made sure there were huge tour budgets built into the record deals. For each territorial deal we did, I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to take a big advance here, what I want you guys to do is to promise me a huge tour budget’. That’s how we arranged it.

So, knowing that I had tour funds available, every time an exciting tour was going out I was able to secure it. The first two we did in America were the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Foo Fighters – the two hottest tours on the road that year.

I remember Bruce Floor coming up to me backstage at one of the Foo Fighters dates and saying, ‘I don’t know how the fuck you got this tour! Hats off to you, dude, because even I couldn’t get one of my bands on, so I don’t know how you did it’.

We managed to pull off a few stunts in that way, and that’s how we built it up, by touring on an international basis. The first year we did 54 international festivals. And this was them in their infancy.

We decided early on that they were an exciting live band, knowing they would only get better. It was important from the get go, because I knew we wouldn’t make it from radio. It’s the only method I know, to be honest – from back when I worked at Dick James and Magnet, that’s how bands used to break.

If you had radio on your side, that was a bonus, but you never waited for it or relied on it. And it’s why Muse have such a solid fanbase today all around the world, because those fans were there at the beginning. They’re genuine and real.

Were you looking after publishing for Muse too?

Yes. The deal we did was that, although we were looking after the management, we never commissioned it. It was something we did for free, while we took the recording and the publishing rights. I didn’t want to manage a band on an official basis, so I did it unofficially.

The band were happy about it because it didn’t cost anything. For the first three albums they didn’t have to pay any management commission, so it was a great deal for them.

It seems like you were quite remarkably ahead of your time with that…

That’s right – everybody’s doing it these days! Actually the only reason why we gave up the management was because of lawyers around the time of the third album, which reached No. 1 here in the UK.

They started saying, ‘You know, people are going to start questioning whether you’re doing the right deals for the band, because you’re not commissioning them’. I should have stuck with my instincts, but I didn’t, I let the management go, and that’s when everything changed.

It was the usual thing; a new manager came on board, and of course he had his own approach. He was a little jealous about the relationship we had with the band, and wanted to make his own mark. He started questioning some of the options we were bringing to the table.

I just said to Dennis, ‘You know what, this is probably the time to exit right now’. The band were successful, and I felt we’d done our job. We had another three albums on the contract, because we’d signed a six album deal with them, but I just felt that we’d achieved everything that we had ever dreamt of achieving. That third album was No. 1 in 15 territories.

Apart from publishing, my involvement with Muse ended in 2005 when we sold the recording rights over to Warners. That was actually another factor in the reasoning. I’m quite good friends with Serge Tankian from System Of A Down, and he was setting up his own label at the time, Surgical Strike.

He was coming to all the shows and was a huge fan of the band, and I thought his label would have been a great home in the US for the band. But it wasn’t to be.

How do you go about A&R after having experienced that kind of success? Does it change the way you evaluate new artists?

Totally. It’s unfortunate, but of course everything post-Muse sounded terrible to me. The bar had been raised so high. It took a while to get back down to reality and realise that I wasn’t going to find another act that good coming round the corner.

I needed to do something completely different, so it was great when AIM came along and offered me a place on the board. It was a chance to get out of my whole environment into new territories, into working with different types of music and new types of artists.

What attracts you to a new artist nowadays?

Two things: originality and honesty. We’re in an age now where a lot of filters which record companies used to control don’t exist any more. The field is so open that anything genuinely good and original can shine through and gain an audience. One recent artist that proves that is Rodrigo y Gabriela.

A friend of mine at Rubyworks in Ireland had called me up because he wanted John Leckie to produce their record. He explained down the phone that he’d just signed these two Mexicans buskers who did Metallica covers on acoustic Spanish guitars.

I thought, ‘Wow, Ok, that sounds amazing!’ When the demos arrived on my desk, that’s exactly what they were. No vocals. They were crazy! That record has sold 250,000 in the US on ATO, and it’s gold here in the UK and triple platinum in Ireland.

This without anybody’s help, without any hype at all, just word of mouth. There’s a lesson there. It shows that if something is interesting and original it will find an audience

So-called ‘difficult’ artists always appeal to me. I’ve always leant towards them because of the challenge they offer. I can’t do what I do unless I feel inspired. If I’m not excited by an artist myself, then I can’t go out there and work on it. That’s why I could never work for a record company, though I’ve been offered several positions over the years.

Do you still receive and listen to demos from bands?

Yes, all the time. There’s a sack that’s been staring at me for the last two weeks, which I feel a little guilty about. I have two assistants, and we’ll sit down, have some drinks together and go through them all, and hopefully we’ll find something. There will always be something that might be worth following up. You never know.

Do artists have to be presented in any particular way to get your attention?

It’s purely down to reaction. I remember taking meetings with managers back in my A&R days. When the manager showed me the photo first, I knew the music wasn’t going to be any good. The music should speak for itself.

Is it easier for you to find artists these days with the internet, or does the amount of information available make it harder?

Both. It’s easy to find something and look it up in seconds, and that’s great from a discovery point of view. The downside is that it can seem like there are more bands than ever before to trawl through. Generally I think artists should definitely feel more empowered in today’s climate.

The problem is that they don’t always see it that way; they’re still looking for somebody else out there to hold their hand. The truly smart artists these days can pretty much do most of the first and second level work by themselves, without relying on other people

The most frustrating thing in our business is having to rely on somebody else, because they rarely deliver for you. Modern artists just have to be savvy and interested in the business side of things, not lazy, sitting back saying, ‘Well, I’m the artist, man, I’ll leave all that to my manager…’ There are a lot more avenues now for people out there to arrive at new music.

Overall though, I have to say that I don’t think music seems to be as important as it used to be, on a personal level. I come from an age when music meant everything. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, music was the thing. I have two children now who are 11 and 13, and to them music isn’t that important.

I’ll give them a CD, they’ll say, ‘Thanks Dad’, and I’ll watch it sit on the table and gather dust. Computer games or mobile phones or going on Bebo are more important to them.

Is that because music is so easily accessible?

Yes, there’s so much media available, and so many channels for music. You used to have to go out to clubs to find new artists, but now you don’t because it’s right there in front of you. That’s made it less interesting. The basic sense of excitement isn’t there.

There are no real fads or fashions anymore because everything is so open, and today’s generation has seen it all and understands it. I’m in the music business – how boring is that? There used to be a sense of adventure about it, about breaking out of the standard household or job situation and becoming a rock star, or working for a record company.

It doesn’t carry the same level of excitement nowadays – being in the music business is no different from being, say, a psychiatrist, or something. It’s normal. But that’s just evolution - there are far many other areas of media and entertainment out there today that are a lot more disposable than pop music.

Having said all that, it will always be exciting when new and talented artists come along. Of course, music isn’t going to go away. The only sad thing I see is that there are so many artists out there who can exist by copying everything that’s gone before, rather than trying to be inventive.

That’s what makes most of it so bland when you turn on the music stations. Very little stands out and stays with you. But, occasionally, you’ll have someone like Amy Winehouse come along and genuinely stand out. And when one of those interesting artists does break through, they sell. People still go out and buy the records.

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Interview by Denny Hilton

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