Artist manager, author, entrepreneur, impresario, raconteur. Simon Napier-Bell can talk it, he’s walked it and the rock ‘n’ roll stories will flow when he embarks on a national speaking tour next month, organised by broadcaster and author Jane Gazzo.
The British music man has a lot of content to work with. He managed the late George Michael and Wham, engineering the pop band’s ‘Make it Big’ mantra with a pioneering trip to China in the mid-‘80s.
He’s guided the careers of T Rex, Marc Bolan, Japan, Asia, Candi Staton, Ultravox, Boney M and Sinéad O’Connor and, early on, managed The Yardbirds, the blues-rockers with the implausible, guitarist’s dream team lineup of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.
He also co-wrote “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” a hit for Dusty Springfield in 1966, has penned four best-selling music business books (including the classic Black Vinyl, White Powder), and serves as CEO of Pierbel Group, which offers music management and consultancy.
TIO chatted with Napier-Bell from his base in Thailand for a warm-up to his speaking tour.
You’re coming to Australia, where a hot topic is on a non-binding postal vote on gay marriage. Various polls suggest a vast majority of Australians support marriage equality.
Isn’t gay marriage a strange thing? If two people love each other and you took some time to think about it, if you accept gay as legal, which it is, then why shouldn’t they do all the things that straight people do? I was never for gay marriage and I’m gay.
I thought the whole point about being gay is you don’t have get married – wonderful. So I also had to be convinced. I think a lot of gay people had to be convinced. Once you start thinking about it, the logic of allowing it is so strong, it’s very difficult to deny it. And I’m absolutely certain it will be law in Australia very shortly.
Let’s talk about the future of the record biz. The industry is finally enjoying growth from streaming services and, strangely, vinyl. But we’ve seen so called “white knights” in the past in digital downloads, which are now on the way out.
The problem is the record companies never took them on board. The record companies really screwed up at the beginning of this century. When they attacked Napster and they didn’t whole-heartedly accept downloading. So when they finally go into it, it was already disappearing.
If the record companies got into downloading in 1999-2000 as (quickly) as they got into streaming, downloading would have been absolutely massive. But it never really became massive because streaming came along. Of course, the record companies, the people in control of the catalogue, gave it away to Apple, which was sheer complete idiocy.
Now it’s the other way around. The record business is taking over Spotify, Apple don’t have the copyrights and they won’t ever match Spotify (in the streaming space) which is majority-owned by the record companies. The record companies have really fought back.
I wrote several articles in year 2000 and I thought it was the end. I thought you’d just have production companies who make money and record companies won’t exist as we know them. But that’s not true. They’ve come back. They’re the power in the business, they have the money, the back catalogues they have the know-how.
The total amount of money being made in the record industry worldwide is growing and I think it will continue to do that. The difference is, instead of the majority (of revenue) being record sales, as it once was, it’s now live music. In the end, it comes down to the same thing.
The public has a certain amount of money they’re prepared to spend on getting to here and enjoying music in one way or another. And now they’re willing to spend it on live shows rather than buying records. As long as people have that money, there will be clever entrepreneurs who can find way to take it from them and recirculate it and keep the industry going. But I’m very optimistic about the industry.
Stars will always exist. Stars will always want that love and affection and they do what people ask them to do to get it. And the managers will be there to keep the balance between the rapacious money-conscious music industry and the delicate artists and stars.
Managers behave like a bridge. The music will exist and people like us will want our stars so desperately, if people come along and pay them a little less than they should be getting they’ll agree to do it because they love it so much. Nothing will change so much except the actual structure of how the money flows in.
Do you have any advice for wannabe managers?
If a million people want to be a star probably one, at the most two, will succeed. I’d say the same ratio applies to managers.
If you’re seriously going to give up your career to be a manager you’d really honestly be better off working for 10 years and spend the entire amount of money you earned on lottery tickets. If you want to do it because you’re slightly mad and there’s nothing else you’re able to do, I wouldn’t suggest it to anybody as a sensible, conscious career to set out on.
You’ve got to understand artists, so you’ve got to have a love of the artist. And you’ve also got to understand record companies, which are pretty horrible if not just capitalist profiteers.
So there you have these incredibly nasty sides to you that when you started… go and get a job in a café washing dishes, that’s a better job.
So what’s your idea of a perfect job?
Journalists and lawyers are people I’ve always enjoyed the company of because they’re people who look very broadly at the word, they’re interested in everything, take in everyone’s point of view.
I would have thought the most perfect job in terms of having an exciting, interesting and satisfying life would be a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper. I can’t think of a better job. The Sunday Times or the Australian, a foreign correspondent traveling all over the world, talking with the top statesmen, creating policy around the world. What a fantastic job.
It’s a fantastic job but also a lonely one.
Well, writing books is a miserable existence. People ask if I like writing books, I tell them I like having written books. There were two years where I sat by my computer by myself.
No, writing books is not fun. At least journalism you get to speak to your editor once a day. As a book writer you see them once a year, you’re much better off.
Sinead O’Connor’s struggles have thrust mental health back into the spotlight. Is there a connection between the artistry and the illness?
It’s the horror story of artists. Sinead is an artist, she’s typical of all artists in that there are extremes. All artists are desperately insecure and megalomaniac. All artists are what would now be called bipolar, it used to be called the “artistic temperament.”
It’s a mood swing from self-denigration, no self-worth, to absolute megalomania and a certainty that they’ll rule the world. They live both those things. You need that lack of self-worth to write passionate insightful songs about yourself and you need the megalomania to get on stage and perform that to an audience.
In the end, they’re all desperate for love and affection from the audience. And they can sink into a terrible depression; they [might] go back to their hotel room and take drugs to pass the time until the next moment where they’re on stage.
With social media, if there’s a lapse in your career and things go downhill and you get overly depressed, it used to be that you went to a clinic, you were seen by a doctor, but with social media you grab an audience by putting a camera in your hotel room. And since that’s what artists need more than anything else it can be very dangerous. It can almost thrive on their bad moments rather than waiting for their good moments.
It’s been going on for nearly two years. It’s frightening and terrible and everyone wants to help. It’s impossible to say how they can help and what they should do.
I’ve known so many people involved, attached or related to her, but it can be very difficult to help somebody who is in that situation. But also when you have somebody with just enough money to get by, there’s not a situation where they have to put themselves in a public care system. It’s very complex indeed.
We lost George Michael last year, which was a huge shock especially considering he passed away at Christmas, a time of year when his voice is heard in so many households in “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “Last Christmas.”
Absolutely. But who knows, that may have added to his loneliness and however he felt that night, it may have made it worse being Christmas.
It’s a tragedy. We don’t know if he was going to go back and create music or not. There are many artists we know of who died young and it played into the artistic story, there’s a romantic Hollywood story about dying at the peak of your powers rather than later on. (Michael’s death) is very much a personal tragedy.
You took Wham to China in the mid-‘80s. That was such a huge story; no other band had done that, though Jean Michel-Jarre had performed his “Concerts In China” earlier in the decade.
No pop bands. (The authorities) were terrified of youth culture. Any repressive society knows when it takes ahold, it takes over and you can never go back. They’re frightened to death of it.
We’ve got a standoff between the U.S. and North Korea. Would you suggest it’s a smart idea to send a band over in a sort of diplomatic mission?
(Laughs). They’re pretty determined to not make that happen. Of course they’re well aware of it too. (Kim Jong Un) is well aware that the most undermining thing is a burgeoning youth who wants freedom.
Youth want freedom and they don’t even mean freedom politically. When we think of freedom as an adult, we think of politics, courts and the ability to say what you want. Youth just think, ‘I want to go out and I want to dance all night.’ It’s such a simplistic idea of freedom, it just grabs everybody by the neck.
Really repressive societies are terrified of it. China was too. The whole deal I made with the Chinese, we wanted to play there because we wanted to make Wham the biggest band in the world in a very short space of time. We had 90 television crews following us, we knew we would be – and we were – on NBC, ABC, all the bulletins each hour for a week.
At the end of that week they were the biggest group in America. That’s what we wanted, and it happened. What the Chinese wanted was investment. What I said was, if the world could see you opening up to youth culture, you’ll get your investment. People will say, ‘right, China is changing.’ No one in China knew, I just wanted to get them on those television programmes. And make them big. That’s the deal with the devil.
And how did you promote that show?
The Chinese had the idea that nobody there would know about this gig, and that’s pretty much the case until right up until the show. I started getting some subversive ideas on how to pull this thing of. We gave away a cassette of Wham songs with the tickets. On one side it had all the songs in Chinese and the other side the Wham songs in English.
We gave two cassettes away to each person who bought a ticket — keep one and sell the other which would pay for the ticket. That would spread the word around. The Chinese didn’t quite manage to keep it quite as under wraps as they thought.
A terrific travel writer Colin Thubron, who has written a great number of extremely erudite travel books, did one about China four years after that. He said everywhere he went in China he heard Wham songs playing. I did my subversive job very well, I think.
You’ll arrive in Australia in a few weeks from now. What profession do you write on your entry card?
It depends… If I put down music manager in some countries, they’re going to take me off to customs to have me checked for drugs. I would never mention the music industry. Writer, occasionally I’ve put down. Not in any sort of authoritarian country. The best thing is to write company director or CEO, really. But never put journalist. You’ll never get into anywhere if you put journalist.