Manager labels

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

Hunter S. Thompson

The Spanish call Francis Drake a pirate. The British call him a national hero. He was a privateer. A privateer was someone officially licensed to attack the enemy in a piratical manner. Many people with one leg, one eye, one testicle and one parrot on their shoulder (One day, I’ll tell you how I lost the other parrot). stood in Caribbean law courts while periwigged-bedecked briefs argued the difference between a pirate and a privateer.

The entrepreneurial manager labels of the late sixties were privateers. As the historic line between privateers and pirates was vague, they prospered under pirate radio. Those seasick jocks on old forts or leaking trawlers in the North Sea played different stuff to the staid BBC Light Programme with its dance bands struggling through studio versions of hits. They often charged money to do it too.

A privateer needs a patron, and according to Simon Napier Bell’s autobiography Black Vinyl White Powder, that patron was Horst Schmaltzy (was that really his name?) at Polydor. The German label, part of Deutsche Grammophon (DGG), was desperate to crack the British market. They hired Roland Rennie from EMI. They gave him a large budget to acquire artists, and most importantly, he also encouraged managers and entrepreneurs to set up their own labels.

Just as Good Queen Bess encouraged privateers to attack Spanish treasure galleons, Polydor was after the piles of gold generated by EMI, Decca, Pye, and CBS.

This is repeated on the Track page:

Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp had been laying plans for their own record label, Track Records, since the previous summer. They realized that the bulk of the clout and cash in the record business did not go to managers or even producers but to the corporations that made and distributed the records. According to the figures the worked up before starting Track, the record company grossed up to 500% more profit than the performer on each Who record. The situation was worse in Britain than in some countries (notably the United States) because in addition to their powerful distribution setups, the four major recording companies also operated virtually all of the record- pressing plants. As a result of what were effectively pressing and distrubution monopolies, the major UK record companies were able to drive nasty, often unfair bargains with anyone who wanted to start a label on their own.
Dave Marsh: Before I Get Old: The Inside Story of The Who, 1983

Not quite right. By 1967, CBS were a fifth major in the UK with pressing plants, though they were only just starting to focus on local talent.

Simon Napier-Bell has said the record industry was based on selling 10 cents worth of vinyl for $10 (LPs), and Polydor manufactured and distributed several of the labels; the related Philips group looked after the others. There was a degree of mild disguise so that Page One was ‘distributed by Fontana’ rather than the parent company, Philips.

Basically, they were farming out the A&R and recording element of the record business to sub-contractors and keeping control of manufacture and distribution. Note that Polydor is not hiding very far back on this Track Record centre label:

So the managers started out on their own imprints, financed by Polydor and Philips. The “manager” labels were set up by people with fast, well-armed ships, sorry, real industry experience. Andrew Loog Oldham (Immediate) came from managing the Rolling Stones. Robert Stigwood from Cream and the Bee Gees (Reaction, RSO). Giorgio Gomelsky (Marmalade) had managed The Yardbirds. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (Track) managed The Who. Larry Page (Page One and later Penny Farthing) came from The Kinks.  So had Shel Talmy (Planet). Tony Stratton-Smith (Charisma) had launched The Nice. Billy Gaff (Riva) was Rod Stewart’s manager.

Simon Napier-Bell (SnB) even tried it himself, and in his case CBS supported the SnB label and pressed and distributed it, just as they did with Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label (which will come under the category “Producer labels” here).

Napier-Bell pointed out that having a label was a Godsend for managers. In the past they’d had to recruit young hopefuls by saying ‘I’ll try and get you a recording deal.’ Once they had their own label it could be, ‘We’ll make a record right away.’

More traditional (old-school) managers started successful labels slightly later than the main group, for example, MAM (Gordon Mills) and DJM (Dick James). Belatedly, EMI and Decca got into the act, farming out to labels like RAK for production.

The first and most successful was Chris Blackwell’s Island. It stands apart from the rest of these labels in that it got bigger, lasted longer and had a far wider range of artists. Blackwell compares more closely to Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic or Berry Gordy of Motown as someone who started an independent which rapidly became a major label. Similarly, Chris Wright’s Chrysalis label was closer to the Island model than the other “manager” labels.

There will be around twenty pages here. Currently available are:

Immediate (Andrew Loog Oldham)
Instant (Andrew Loog Oldham)
Marmalade (Giorgio Gomelsky)
Reaction (Robert Stigwood)
SnB (Simon Napier-Bell)