This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Dion Singer
Dion Singer throws a spanner into the conventional belief that major label executives are wankers who don’t know or care about music or artists.
The 38-year-old South African is a rarity within the high-stakes world of major label poker. As London-based VP of international marketing for Warner Bros., he is many things to many people: Not just a label executive, but a friend and fan to many of the artists he works with.
Meanwhile, he also resolutely tries to provide the marketing tools, and creative environment in which Warner’s artists can develop, and be heard globally.
While Singer has played a pivotal role in developing Canadian crooner Michael Bublé worldwide, he has also overseen projects internationally for Madonna, Josh Groban, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Eric Clapton, Seal, Damien Rice, Alanis Morissette, R.E.M., and dozens more since his arrival at Warners six years ago.
Bublé has sold over 22 million albums to date. His earliest market breakthroughs came in the U.K. and in South Africa, where Singer, then GM of the International Division of Gallo Music Productions, was one of his most fervent boosters.
Bublé has since consolidated an impressive international following through extensive touring, coupled with near flawless career planning co-coordinated by his Vancouver-based manager Bruce Allen, and Warners’ formidable international team.
Bublé’s career, in fact, is so globalized that Warner Bros. staggered the international release for his current album "Crazy Love" to allow him to make personal and TV appearances close to the release date across the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and North America.
At the same time, Warner Bros. is having yet another wave of Madonna-mania globally.
The second leg of Madonna's “Sticky & Sweet” tour for Live Nation in Europe in 2009 solidified the American diva’s stature as having the highest-grossing solo tour of all time, and one of the biggest tours ever--grossing $417 million for 85 shows that attracted 3.3 million fans.
In Oct., 2009, Madonna secured her 11th number one album in the UK when her greatest hits collection "Celebration" shot to the top of the charts -- equaling Elvis Presley's record for a solo artist in Britain.
According to the Official UK Charts Company, Madonna is the most successful female solo artist of all time in the UK with the most weeks at the top of the album charts -- 29 -- the most number one singles -- 13 -- and the most chart doubles for topping the singles and album charts simultaneously – four.
Bublé’s emergence on the world stage, and Madonna’s continuing global clout are both significant given the shift in global sales patterns in recent years.
Traditionally, America has been the biggest exporter of musical repertoire—by a wide margin. This has been due to the popularity of English-language repertoire as well as the growth of media embracing American values and cultures internationally.
Though the multinationals continue to rely heavily on exports of English-language acts, primarily from the United States (Bublé is an American signing), the top sellers in many countries today are, increasingly, recordings released by homegrown acts.
Sales began to shift more than a decade ago.
In 2000, an estimated 68% of worldwide sales derived from local repertoire — artists working in their native country — up from 58% in 1991, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the organization that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide..
By 2007, domestic acts had increased their share in 19 of the 39 markets surveyed, according to IFPI statistics, with four staying the same. In the previous five years, domestic repertoire had gained market share in 22 of the 42 markets for which numbers are available, with two unchanged.
While American acts like Metallica, Madonna, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift still connect with fans in territories around the world, the ranks and global appeal of leading American acts appears to be waning.
In Germany, local music's share of the market rose from 48% in 2003 to 62% in 2007, and down slightly to 52% in 2008.
In Japan, there has been a steady decline of international repertoire for years. According to the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ), shipments of foreign product represented 27% of the total market in 2005; 26% in 2006; 23% in 2007; and 22% in 2008.
The world's Top 5 selling albums of 2008 were all by British acts, according to Media Traffic which collects data from more than 34 national charts as well as Russia, China and India which do not have official sales charts.
Coldplay's album “Viva la Vida” topped the official global chart with sales of 6.6 million units; Amy Winehouse's “Back to Black” came second with sales of 5.1 million units worldwide; AC/DC, founded by Scottish brothers Malcolm and Angus Young, notched up sales of 5 million units with “Black Ice”; Welsh singer Duffy had sales of 4.5 million units; while Leona Lewis sold 4.3 million units of her debut album “Spirit.”
The decline of an American presence abroad largely stems from cultural differences. Musical genres that have fed the American market in the past 15 years, including rap, hip hop and country music that do not tend to sell well overseas.
As well, a decade of layoffs at the multinational affiliates over the past decade have weakened their ability to boost acts from the United States globally, as was once the case.
Acknowledging the significance of markets abroad, multinationals have increasingly sought in recent years to develop artists capable of moving beyond international boundaries. They have also greatly strengthened their international departments; and increased partnerships with their affiliates.
With the realization that acts need supplemental support to meet the challenges of the global marketplace, Singer readily uses Warner’s resources and inter-company structure to support acts internationally while providing content exclusives for individual territories so affiliates will be more attracted to the acts.
Singer grew up in Benoni, a small city on the East Rand in the South African province of Gauteng.
After working at Lincoln Music, a local music shop for a decade, he attended Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, graduating with accounting degree.
Singer was then hired on as an accountant at Johannesburg-based Gallo Music Group, Africa's oldest and largest independent music company. Over a decade, he had numerous positions in the company, including A&R administrator, Import Manager, Strategic Marketing Director, A&R Director, and GM International Division.
In 1926, Eric Gallo set up a one-man business, the Brunswick Gramophone House to distribute records from the US-based Brunswick Records in South Africa.
Throughout the ‘50s, ’60s and ‘70s Gallo – holding licenses in South Africa for PolyGram, Sony, MCA, Motown, Virgin, A&M, and Island, was wildly successful, its prime competition being only EMI South Africa.
The African indie powerhouse has also built an unparalleled catalog of indigenous music that includes 85% of all recordings made in the country prior to the mid-'80s. This includes recordings by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbulu, Juluka, Spokes Mashiyane, Lucky Dube, Yvonne Chaka, Stimela, Sipho "Hotstix" Mabuse and Solomon Linda & his Original Evening Birds.
While Singer worked at Gallo Music Group, the company hit a 10 year market share peak of 26% in 1998.
Since 1996, Gallo Music Group, which also includes Gallo Music Publishers and the RPM Records imprint, has been part of Johannesburg media conglomerate Avusa (formerly Johnnic Communications).
Warner Bros. provides you with a significant international role.
I was VP of international in London, but my role has kind of changed. I work for Matthieu Lauriot-Prevost who, along with John Reid (chairman of Warner Music Europe) and Christian Tattersfield (chairman of Warner Music UK) lets me get involved creatively on many things.
What does your job specifically entail within the international market?
I work with Warner Bros. L.A. So I am in close touch with Michael Nance, Susan Leon (VPs of international); Piero Giramonti (senior VP international marketing), Tom Biery (president of Warner Bros.), Diarmuid Quinn (president of Reprise) and with all of their teams. I work any Warner Bros. artist outside of America.
The motto (here) is, “What can we do to help you sell our music.” We create (sales) tools for the different countries. Coming from an affiliate (in South Africa), I have a pretty good idea what they need to do their jobs. We do whatever we can to help them. We make TV ads, production pieces, videos, material for the internet, whatever.
We just did some terrific stuff for the new Katherine Jenkins’ record (“Believer”). We made a new video (“Ambitions”) for our Norwegian signing, Donkeyboy, who have had a big hit in Norway. We are going to release their album (“Caught in a Life”) in the UK, and Germany. So we creating and making magical things to help people sell Donkeyboy.
Does it make you laugh when people say, “You’re the Michael Bublé guy?”
They don’t know what I do, really. I have worked on (projects by) Madonna, the Chili Peppers, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Eric Clapton, Seal, Damien Rice, Alanis Morissette, R.E.M., and Josh Groban. I do everything on Warner Bros. I’ve been to places and done things that I have never thought in a million years I would ever do.
Michael Bublé’s global success has been a career high for you.
When I got to London six years ago, Michael had sold 400,000 records. Most of those sales were (from) Canada and South Africa. So there was a long way to go.
Today, I think back on of some of the things we’ve done with Michael, and it amazes me. I recall sitting in the Capitol Record studios (in Hollywood) with (producer) David Foster and Bublé; and I remember watching (producer) Phil Ramone when Michael and Tony Bennett did a duet together there (“Just In Time”). I was taking pictures of the walls because I wanted to show everybody, “Here’s the record sleeve.” There’s also been (such highlights as) Michael performing at the Sydney Opera House, and Royal Albert Hall.
You must have close relationships with Warner Bros. personnel.
The Warner Bros. team is like family. And they are really cool to me. They love people who are passionate, and who are enthusiastic. Seymour Stein (Sire Record CEO), the guy is so amazing to me. Liz Rosenberg (Sr. VP Publicity, Warner Bros. New York) is my hero. The time that these people take to talk to me is amazing. It is the same thing with the artists. The “A people,” who just want to get on and do it, have all the time in the world to deal with you.
How did you earn a credit on the Madonna’s greatest hits album "Celebration?”
Well, I worked my ass off on it. We have been working on the project for about two years.
While Madonna has maintained her global status, American music is down worldwide due to cutbacks at the major labels along with strong interest in local repertoire in countries like Germany.
During my early international meetings in London when I would come from South Africa, I’d be sitting with the Spanish (affiliate) or the German (affiliate). Then the bulk of the sales for everybody was American. We sold bucket loads of American (signed) acts. People like Alanis Morissette, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Madonna.
What has happened in the last couple of years is that everybody wants their own music. The Spanish want their own music; the Germans want their own music. There are a huge amount of records out there, and there’s (competition) for media and exposure of artists on TV.
In Germany, 52% of the market is German; 48% international. In France, it’s 57% French. There were a couple of weeks in Japan this year where our Japanese company told me that (the market was) 97% Japanese, 3% international.
iTunes and the MTVing of the world is now working for local repertoire.
Peter Fox, who is in the (Berlin reggae/dancehall) band called Seeede, made a solo record (“Stadtaffe”) as a side project this year, and we sold 800,000 records in Germany. We have this band in Japan called Kobukuro. Two years ago, they put out “Best of Kobukuro” that sold 2.5 million copies.
MusicLoad, an iTunes-type service in Germany, does really well. They will take a German artist, and do something huge with it in Germany. There was a time when you’d get all of this American and British music from iTunes in Germany. They are now (adding more local repertoire). iTunes now has teams in many of those (international) markets so they will now do things with local repertoire.
Since local music is so strong, if you are a global artist you need to make yourself local.
Our French company is brilliant at doing this with our artists. They found a French song, and they asked if Josh Groban would do it. And he did it. We were trying to break Josh Groban in the U.K. and I wanted him to do “Anthem,” the big number from (the musical) “Chess.” I knew that if we could put him on English television, and people could see him doing “Anthem” that they would react. So, they were doing the “Chess In Concert” at Albert Hall in 2007. Josh performed in the show as a cast member (along with Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel), and we released a DVD and a CD.
[The recording of this concert cast was released on June 16, 2009 as a DVD and 2-CD cast album in the U.S. To promote the package, PBS-TV aired the concert.]
You were after Michael Bublé for years to record the Quincy Jones’ arrangement of “All of Me” from “Sinatra At The Sands” (1966). But, it’s an instrumental.
It’s one of the great jazz arrangements ever. It was always the track I busted the needle out on. I used to say to people that my favorite Frank Sinatra record is “All of Me,” and he’s not on it. It’s one of the finest jazz records ever made. I looked everywhere for (the arrangement). I tried to have it transcribed. On the Internet there’s a website called ejazzlines.com where some guy had transcribed it. I got the score to (David) Foster, and he and Michael were in the Capitol Record studios trying three songs, and this arrangement arrived, so Foster threw it down. (The recording) is that Quincy Jones’ arrangement from “Sinatra at the Sands.” When Michael plays the song live, it’s sensational.
Are you starting to see the impact of Spotify in Europe and the UK?
Everybody is talking about Spotify.
With all of the digital music service it’s easy to find even obscure recordings today.
When I was growing up you couldn’t find an Aretha Franklin record in South Africa. I had to go to the black part of Johannesburg where there was a record store (Kohinoor in downtown Johannesburg) that had it as an import. I got it and I couldn’t believe that I got the record. I must have had one of four copies in the country. It cost me a fortune. I had been looking for this record for ages and I couldn’t believe I was one of the first people to get it. Later, I would travel around the world and find this or that record. I would be in awe that I could find a record somewhere that I had been looking for ages.
For years, distribution (of music) was shit; the experience was phenomenal. Today, the distribution is amazing, but the experience has become shit.
Music has become disposable.
Yeah. My thing about music is that you don’t listen with ears; you listen with the hairs on your arms. There’s something about these (digital) records that you get called ear fatigue. You fast forward. I have 5,000 CDs at home--probably more if I look--and I have a huge massive computer library with 50,000 songs. I walk around with two iPods full of music, and I have nothing to listen to.
We are the clicker generation.
They say that but then I read where parents say that their kid will sit and play a computer game for three hours. And. I’ll go home and watch 20 hours of television in one go.
Music is not eye candy, and it’s everywhere.
A couple of months ago I had them put a turntable back in my office. The guy next door has a turntable, and he was playing a great compilation of all funky tunes and the hi hat was going. I walked in and said, “What are you playing?” Now I’ve got a turntable and a great pair of speakers in my office. I have all my (vinyl) records here now. You know what it is (about vinyl)? You put it on, and there’s no fast forward, and no skip. You just listen. It’s hard to change tracks on a record.
Neil Young talks about how vinyl records sound better than CDs. He’s absolutely right. They do sound better. This Christmas, I’m buying a top-of-the-line record player for home.
For an artist with a multinational, what are the obstacles they face breaking out globally?
I really believe that they have to find one believer in every market. If they find that one person who believes in them in every market, it is, honestly, half the job done. What I didn’t know from being in South Africa, that I do know now is, is that records are sold by the people who show up (in territories). It is that simple.
What are the mistakes managers or artists make in the market?
I call what some of them do “The Secret Room of the Committee To Sell Less Records.” It’s “Let’s do no promotion. Let’s not do any interviews. Let’s not put the name of the band on the record cover. Let’s piss off the journalists so much by being divas that they never want to talk to us again.”
The reason Michael Bublé has been so successful is that he’s the perfect triangle. You have a label that gets it. You have a manager (Bruce Allen) who gets it. And, you have an artist who gets it.
What amazes me about this business is that the A stars, and the A teams, they are As for a reason. The problem are the Bs who think they are As. The real As are amazing. Some of the A stars that I have met like Phil Collins, these guys know what they are doing. I had heard stories about Jon Bon Jovi, but I got to know his manager Jack Rovner (co-president/manager at Vector Management). We worked on a project together. I had heard that he was difficult, tough. He’s one of the nicest guys, and best managers I’ve ever worked with. Guys like him can spot bullshit a mile away.
Bruce Allen has a fierce reputation as well.
Bruce has been a mentor to me. We have become so close (from) working with Michael Bublé.
How do you view South Africa today after moving from there six years ago?
Well, it’s still has its problems, but they have to fix up 60 years of disaster. It was great to watch it change. I was there with Michael Bublé in 2007 for a week. It’s odd down there because audiences don’t clap (at the end of songs). They clap in time (along with the song). Their timing is impeccable. When they clap along, they have amazing rhythm. Artists from REM to Josh Groban have mentioned this to me.
You grew up in Benoni, a small town about 30 miles from Johannesburg.
It’s where actress Charlize Theron came from. It’s my only claim to fame. I know exactly where she grew up. I grew up in the crap area, but she grew up in an even worse area.
[Benoni was founded in 1881 when surveyor-general Johan Rissik named a piece of land in the area, Government Farm Benoni (son of my sorrow)--after the Hebrew name given by Rachel to her son in the Book of Genesis. During the apartheid era, designated townships for blacks were established outside Benoni, namely Daveyton and Wattville, while Benoni itself was reserved for “whites only.” Today, the town is integrated.]
What is your family’s background?
My mother came from nothing. My grandfather was a farmer. He lost everything he possibly had. My dad had a butchery. There was a Jewish community of about 400 families (in town), and I went to the Jewish school. Of the kids in my class, I was the only one that played music. But there was never an opportunity of having a band like there is in America. The first time I met musicians was when I worked at a music shop.
Did you collect records as a kid?
There were two shelves. One for the ABBA records; and one for everything else. I loved all that disco stuff, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer.
What’s the first record you bought?
It was ABBA but it wasn’t really an ABBA record. It was “ABBA’s Greatest Hits” by a band called the Sessionmen. It sold for $2 in the supermarket. I came home and listened to it, and my uncle said “No, this isn’t the real thing.” Eventually, I got the real thing.
How did you discover music?
South Africa didn’t have television until 1976. When the regime finally let it in, broadcasting was only 4 or 6 hours a day. It was strictly controlled. When I about 7 or 8 years old, there was a show called ‘Pop Shop” for 30 minutes once a week that had 5 videos with a VJ in between. I saw the ABBA video “Money Money Money” and the video opened with Benny Andersson playing on the piano. That changed my life. I wanted to play that piano. My parents bought me an electric organ in about 1978, and sent me off for organ lessons.
[South Africa was among the last countries in Africa to introduce television broadcasting to its population. Dr Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, said that TV would come to South Africa "over (his) dead body," denouncing it as "a miniature bioscope over which parents would have no control." The Dutch Reformed Church proclaimed the medium as the "devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality."]
While growing up I wasn’t listening to Bruce Springsteen or Whitney Houston or the Pet Shop Boys. I was listening to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Burt Bacharach records. I also listened to ABBA all day long. I collected every ABBA record I could find and tried to play the songs on the keyboard. I’d bring in a bunch of pop records, and say to the teacher, “Teach me how to play this riff or that riff.”
You eventually met ABBA’s Benny Andersson.
I was in LA in 2005 and Madonna’s management played me her new song “Hung Up.” I had heard a rumor that she was doing an ABBA sample but nobody knew what the sample was. The minute I heard it, I knew it was “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” from 1979. it had been a huge hit in South Africa.
Everybody says ABBA was huge in America. They were not. They had #1 single with “Dancing Queen” and a few Top 10 hits (“Waterloo,” “Take A Chance On Me,” and “The Winner Takes It All”). (The musical and film) “Mama Mia” broke ABBA in America. They only toured America once (doing 13 U.S.) dates in 1979).
After I heard the track I said to producer Stuart Price, “There’s no one in the world that can market this song like I can.” After they had recorded the track Stuart’s wife Angela Becker, Madonna’s manager went to Stockholm to play it for them (Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson), and they were blown away by it and they cleared the track (for licensing).
How did you come to meet Benny Andersson?
in 2006, I was going around playing (affiliates) the Chili Peppers’ record Stadium Arcadium.” I went to Stockholm to play it for the Scandinavia company. The company knows that I am an ABBA freak. I got picked up from the hotel by Bo Frolander (GM, Warner Music Sweden). We were going to the studio for the listening session but said that he had to make a stop to pick something up. I freaked because everybody was waiting for me at the studio. We walked into this office and it was Benny Andersson’s company Mono Music. There he was waiting to meet me. They had arranged the meeting without telling me. The best thing for me was that we sat and talked about Madonna. I had Madonna vinyl with me, and I had him sign a copy for Stuart.
Did your parents enjoy music?
My folks listened to a lot of middle of the road stuff. We never played the Beatles or Elvis Presley for some reason. It was either pop stuff or vocal singers including Neil Diamond, The Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, the Carpenters, and ABBA.
My mom loved Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. I learned all the standards from listening to Sinatra records. My mom was obsessed with Lou Rawls, James Last, all those kind of things. She loved Lovelace Watkins. He was a Vegas singer who came to South Africa a few times in the 70s. He was wildly popular.
Lovelace Watkins was hailed as the “Black Sinatra.” He was born in New Jersey and raised by his grandmother in New Brunswick in Canada.
My mother loved this guy. She just loved him. Here was a guy who was black and an American, and he would come to South Africa, and he would sing to these segregated crowds. When I got to Gallo, and I was going through the royalty ledger and I found an address for Lovelace Watkin’s music in England. I called the music consultant at Warners here to try and track down Lovelace Watkins (who died in 1995). I wanted to put out a “Best Of Lovelace Watkins” out in South Africa on Gallo.
[In South Africa, Las Vegas-based Lovelace Watkins received two gold albums and was so celebrated that a public parade was held in his honor – an unprecedented reception for a black entertainer at the height of Apartheid. The Times of London called him “the best entertainer on earth.”]
A lot of American middle-of-the-road or country acts were popular in South Africa.
The radio was programmed by whites so they put country music on because that is what they loved. Doug Hill, a sales director I worked with at Gallo, would tell me these stories of putting 1,000 Elvis Presley singles out in stores in downtown Eloff Street in Johannesburg, and they’d sell them all on a Saturday morning. To this day, you go into a black record store in Johannesburg and they are going to have “The Best of Dolly Parton” or “The Best of Jim Reeves.” I was told that Jim Reeves bought a house in South Africa,
[In the early ‘60s, American country star Jim Reeves was more popular than Elvis Presley in South Africa. Reeves toured South Africa and recorded several albums in Afrikaans. In 1963, he starred as a con-man in the South African film, “Kimberley Jim.” In 1964, Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel died near Brentwood, Tennessee in a small airplane crash,]
How did you get the job at Lincoln Music, the music shop?
We went to the store when I was about 11 or so, and there was a huge Yamaha organ, and I played it. Here was this little fat kid playing schmaltzy tunes like “Tico Tico” and “Spanish Eyes.” The owner offered me a job to come in a play to create a crowd outside his store. I worked in the music store from age 13 to 23.
You got your music education there?
We sold musical instruments, and music books to schools. I learned almost everything there was to know (about music). I’d drive around Johannesburg delivering music books to all the schools. What an education. I found about what people liked, and what they didn’t. I learned about classical repertoire, popular music, everything. There’d be some obscure Bartok piece or some teenager who wanted Led Zeppelin guitar tabs.
To this day, printed music is still the biggest indicator of a hit song to me. When people buy sheet music for “Tears In Heaven” or “Bad Day” because they want to play it on their own musical instrument, they go from being a passive listener to an active player. That’s a hit song.
You spent 10 years at Lincoln Music.
The guy who ran the music shop was Malcolm Wood. His best friend was Heinz Alexander who was one of the finest musicians I have ever known. A piano genius. He was a German Jew who had escaped from Berlin in the mid ‘30s. He landed in the entertainment corps of the British Army in Singapore, went to Palestine and eventually settled in South Africa. Heinz would come in on a Saturday morning, and he’d play. He was an amazing sight reader.
The two of them would talk music. They had the most impeccable taste in music. They gave me records by Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Andre Previn, Dick Hyman; and all the classical pianists like Vladimir Horowitz, and Sviatoslav Richter,
Malcolm had a massive record collection that he just gave me. He’d also say, “Here’s Quincy Jones’ ‘Walking In Space.’ Go and listen to it for five weeks and come back and talk to me.” That was one of those life changing records. Not only did I play their recommendations to death but Heinz would be at the piano, and he would explain “This is the chord. This is why it sounds so groovy.”
We listened to everything at the store. I heard soul music, all the big R&B and disco artists like Chic, the Pointer Sisters, and Donna Summer. I never liked the electronic pop stuff of the 80s because they weren’t (recorded with) real instruments. Heinz would show me that all these disco tunes were just filled with jazz harmonies that I loved. He used to play all these klezmer tunes which sounded like jazz to me which they are, of course. I still have a bunch of his standards on midi discs where he played and extemporized. I put them into my Calvinova at home, and there he is playing in my living room.
I am so grateful for those years working in (an instrument store). Everybody worked in a record shop, but not everybody worked in a sheet music shop
Did you play customers music from the sheet music?
No, nothing like that. The people who came to buy music already knew the songs. I would demonstrate keyboards and other instruments. I would show them the piano or the harpsichord sound (on a keyboard instrument). Or I’d play a tune and put the guitar sound on a Spanish flamingo piece, then put the drums on, and show them what the clarinet sounded like.
You grew up with segregated audiences.
Yeah. I’m also Jewish, and I went to a Jewish school. So I was even further removed from what was going on (politically).
Western kids take it for granted about seeing a band in a club. When you were growing up, you couldn’t do that.
I was in high school in the ‘80s. We saw nobody. By that stage, the (international) sanctions were in full swing. There was “We Hate Sun City” (derived from group the Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steven Van Zandt that recorded the song and album “Sun City” in 1985), and no international artists were coming (to South Africa). I think I saw three concerts growing up.
When Sun City opened, I saw Rod Stewart Barry Manilow, Olivia-Newton John, and the Osmonds. My parents saw Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, and Liza Minnelli there.
[As apartheid became increasingly controversial, there was widespread international sanctions, divestment and growing unrest and oppression within South Africa.]
Growing up in South Africa, there must be a few gaps missing in your knowledge of pop music.
Liz Rosenberg came to London awhile ago, and we hung out in my kitchen, and listened to songs. I knew Laura Nyro because of the Fifth Dimension and Barbra Streisand covers. I think I had her greatest hits album. But I never knew the “Eli and The 13th Confession” album. Liz said, “How could you be listening to Regina Spektor and not know “Eli and The 13th Confession?” I missed it (in 1968). I have since picked it up.
A lot of records didn’t get to South Africa?
There was a very big record store, Hillbrow Records in Hillbrow, which was kind of the first multi-cultural (integrated) part of Johannesburg. I would go there from the age of 15 to when it closed down. I’d go to the book shop, and then to the record store every Sunday morning. The store had a lot of stuff. Every weekend today, I’m in a record shop somewhere.
You went to Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, and studied accounting from 1990 to mid 1995. Why didn’t you become a musician?
I didn’t think I was good enough. Either I wasn’t good enough or I didn’t have the confidence. I also knew from working in the music shop that those musicians coming into the store were not making fantastic livings. My mom always said “You need something to fall back on” Every spare moment, I’d rush back to the music shop, do customer orders sell instruments, pack boxes, order music, and sell anything that made a sound.
You began university the year the National Party government took the first step towards dismantling apartheid by lifting the ban on the African National Congress and releasing Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years incarceration.
It was 1990 and everything was going crazy there. Wits was the big left wing university. There were ANC posters everywhere, and protests every day. Winnie Mandela was always talking on campus.
The music shop closed in 1995.
Photocopying was killing us. Why buy when you can photocopy? A music sheet was $5, but you could photocopy it for 10 cents. So Napster and all of this P2P stuff wasn’t news to me later on.
Today, SheetMusicDirect.com sells sheet music online.
If I am looking for "Georgia On My Mind," I can now just print it out. But, in the sheet music shop we didn’t have that. Not every song was available as the single sheet. (Publishers) sold folios. If someone said “I’m looking for ‘Georgia On My Mind,’” you’d say that it was in the “Big Hit Of Easy Listening Songs” book which sold for $15. But the customer only wanted the one song. They’d ask if they could photocopy it and, of course, they couldn’t. I wish that I had had a computer, and could have said, “For $1 you can choose any song you like.”
Being able to play a song straight off from sheet music is a good indicator it is a hit.
I do that all of the time. I will sit at the keyboard or the piano and, if I can knock off the song after hearing it once or twice and play and remember it, that tells me that people hearing it on the radio will remember it. I know about rap and R&B and all of that, but as Sammy Cahn once said, “You can’t whistle a chord progression.”
How did you come to work at the Gallo Record Company?
I finished my last year at university, and the store was going to close up. I couldn’t bear going to an auditing firm, so I went down the road to Gallo. I drove them absolutely bananas. They said to me, “If we give you an interview will you stop calling?”
For decades, the parent company Gallo Music Group was the powerhouse music company in South Africa.
Due to apartheid, most of the majors (except EMI) had given Gallo their licenses. Imagine a three story building with three companies all owned by Gallo. The company that had the PolyGram licenses was on the first floor; CBS was the third floor; and on the second floor was the company that had Motown, Virgin, A&M, and Island.
It’s hard to believe how big Gallo was. It has been going since 1926.
The only thing they never had was EMI, which operated on its own in South Africa for decades.
Why didn’t the other majors set up independently in South Africa?
The political situation was big in the ’60, ‘70s and ‘80s. Excepting EMI, the majors had licensees in that period there. It probably wasn’t worth their while to set up in South Africa. Warner didn’t have its own companies there until 1971 when it opened WEA South Africa. Warner left South Africa in the mid 80s when sanctions were at full tilt.
You had applied for a sales job at Gallo Music Productions which was the domestic label.
Eventually they gave me a job in the accounts department. I was there for a week and I said to my boss, “I don’t want to be in the accounts department, I really want to be in music.” Within, the Gallo empire, we were this small company. I got involved in everything. If the production lady was away for a week I did production orders. Telesales. I paid royalties. I went off to see dealers and took orders. They let me help with everything. As long as the accounts work was done, I could get involved anywhere.
It must have been like going into the candy store for you.
But South Africa had changed, and all the majors came back and set up their own affiliates. PolyGram was back, and Sony was coming back to open up their own operations.
Within six months, everybody had left Gallo which had been this huge machine that had been doing manufacturing and distribution for 70% of companies (releasing music in South Africa). Gallo was left with just its domestic roster and its Independent labels. We had these massive offices, and we were now simply the domestic company with 12 or 14 people. The company was bleeding money. All of a sudden, it didn’t have any major repertoire beefing up the domestic repertoire.
Gallo’s indie imprint RPM Records still had Island, Motown, Virgin and A&M.
That wasn’t too shabby for an indie. Of course, we watched all of the companies being sold off to the majors. So, all we had left was Motown and Lionel Ritchie was huge in South Africa. They kept saying after the “Dancing On The Ceiling” album (in 1986), “There’s another Lionel Richie record coming.” RPM kept renewing the Motown license, and paying for it. Then (after Richie’s poor selling “Back To Front” album in 1992) Motown was sold to PolyGram (in 1993), and Lionel Ritchie never released another record with us.
Gallo Music Productions was huge in the traditional market.
Traditional Zulu music, they were the kings. We had Lucky Dube, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Stimela, the Soul Brothers, West Nkosi, and Amadodana, all on cassette.
We had the Naxos label, so we sold classical music. Naxos had a 70% market share of classical music because the majors ignored their classical repertoire. There was a Danish company called Elap. We bought super budget CDs from them, and we sold hundreds of thousands of records. We called them up and asked them to give us an album “Pan Pipes Play the Hits of Celine Dion” and we then sold 40,000 or 50.000 copies one Xmas.
I worked for an amazing Scottish woman named Freda Lowe who moved to South Africa in the early 70s. She started as a machine operator at the cassette plant and worked her way up to the Gallo Africa Board and then ran GMP. I worked for her for about 4 years. She was great mentor, and one of the finest record executives I’ve ever known.
South African music sold well but shows by some of these acts weren’t always well-attended there.
I remember going to Ellis Park Stadium (now called Coca-Cola Park) in Johannesburg, where they play rugby. They had 80,000 people there, and there was an area where Lucky Dube was performing. We went to watch him perform. Here was Africa’s biggest superstar playing his heart out in front of 300 people. He did an amazing show, but there were nobody there watching him. Yet, he would go to Uganda and perform for 40,000 people. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as well, would do small shows in South Africa. I’ve been at the Royal Festival Hall in London and watched 3,000 people go ape-shit for them.
[Reggae artist Lucky Dube was gunned down in Johannesburg in 2007 in what police called a botched hijacking. He was apparently dropping off his son at a relative's home when two gunmen approached his car and opened fire. Dube's son was unharmed. The 43-year-old was one of South Africa's most successful recording artists. Several of his apartheid-era albums, among them "Think About The Children" and "Prisoner" earned platinum status in South Africa.]
After Warner Bros. left South Africa in the mid 80s, it returned in the mid-90s and created the Tusk Music Company. In 1997, Gallo bought the Tusk Music Company.
Gallo had to get back into the major label game.
Gallo then reorganized the company, and promoted you
They told me to look after their “indent department,” the 1’s and 2’s for the specialist stores. That’s where I learned the Warner catalog. We did everything we could to get the Warner product happening in South Africa.
What really shocked me is when I got to Gallo, I thought I knew everything from working in the music shop. GMP sent me to the black trade were most of the product was cassette. I first looked at (the catalog), and I knew nothing. Of course, that’s the stuff that made South Africa tick. Artists like Teddy Pendergrass, Randy Crawford, Brandy, and the O’Jays. I got so into all of that stuff.
Our biggest artists were the R&B acts like Brandy, Keith Sweat, Tracy Chapman and George Benson. The biggest selling Warner artist of all time in South Africa is Phil Collins. The pop market loves him; the R&B market loves him.
Gallo also became a major seller of hit compilations.
Eventually, Warner realized the importance of strategic marketing, and we started creating these (catalog) divisions. EMI and Polygram were the (compilation) kings, and we wanted to try that. We did the obvious hit compilations like everyone, but we also did such great concept records.
Charles Kühn, the CEO of the company, taught me about “concept before content.” He also taught me that the strength of a record company is when you don’t have hits. When you have hits, that’s the cream on the top.
So we would talk to the retailers and look for special concepts. We did compilations. (with such themes as) Jazz, Dinner Party, driving, 60s, 80s, rock, and classical. Some were huge and some were dogs but we worked that catalog inside and out.
There’d be Rhino compilations offered to us like “The Very Best of Spinners” in 1993 with 20 tracks. I’d call up (Rhino) and say, “I don’t want this or that track. And I want the Spinners’ cover art from 1978 album.” (“The Best of the Spinners” on Atlantic). It’s the 12 track record. That’s the one the South Africa market wants. Rhino would ask “Why are you changing the picture? You are making it hard to sell.” Why? Because a lot of lot of black people in South African then couldn’t read. They bought records based on pictures. That’s all changed now.
We also took risks, and we tried different things. In 1997, Edith Magnussen, the marketing director said “Lets take Bette Midler’s “Experience the Divine: Greatest Hits” from 1993, and Rod Stewart’s “Love Song” record, and put them on TV.” Well, that saved our Christmas. Remember that in 1997 Warner was not having a great run.
What’s a big record in South Africa.
Today, a gold record is 20,000 units. Back then was 25,000 units.
Working with Tusk brought you in touch with the Warner international executives? You started going to London and Los Angles for meetings.
Warners had these strategic marketing conferences for their companies, and because Gallo was a licensee which did a great job, they always let me in. (International heads) Steve Margo at Warner Bros., Fran Lichtman at Atlantic, and Bill Berger at Elektra were amazing to me.
How did Gallo come to break Josh Groban in South Africa?
In 2000, I went to LA to see Warner Bros. and Steve Margo said to me, “Look at this Josh Groban kid. We have to do something with him.” Josh hadn’t done much in America yet. So I took the (self-titled debut “Josh Groban”) CD back to South Africa. I knew nothing about Josh, but he had a website. I had never seen an artist website before. Charles Kühn and I listened to the CD and our attitude was, “Wow, let’s try this. It’s David Foster (producing). It will go into the Julio’ market.” One of the biggest selling records in South Africa in the 80s was “Julio Iglesias 1100 Bel Air Place” (in 1984)
We worked solidly on the Josh Groban record for two years. South Africa was the first country outside of America, and Canada to break him. The record took 18 months to get to 100,000 units which was double platinum in South Africa.
Remember, we were selling all these big Warner artists like Madonna, Chili Peppers, Linkin Park, Cher, Simply Red, Enya, Phil Collins, and Tracy Chapman. “You are platinum on Madonna’s ‘Music’ album (in 2000). Every licensee was platinum on Madonna’s ‘Music.’” But, to say that you were platinum on Josh Groban, and he hadn’t visited the country, (Warner Bros.) people paid attention to that.
How were you introduced to Michael Bublé?
In 2002, I came to London for a listening session for the second Linkin Park record (“Meteora”). Afterwards, I had a drink with Steve Margo. It was midnight and he said to me, “Oh, before you go, here’s an (interview) video of Michael Bublé. We don’t know what to do with him yet, but you will like him. We are going to change his name. You don’t say Bubble, you say Bublé.”
When I got back to South Africa I played the video and I loved it. The kid was talking about being in school and not listening to any of the music that his classmates were listening to. Well, that was me, of course, too. I took the record home to my mom, and I played it for her. She bawled her eyes out on “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.” So I decided to take a chance.
The South African campaign for the debut album came from your late night chat in the bar with Steve Margo?
All of the advertising said “His name is Michael Bublé…. You pronounce it Boo-blay.” All of the marketing paraphernalia said, “Don’t forget that the way to say Bublé is boo-blay” And, just like with Josh, we did all of the basic stuff like walking around shopping centers dropping off records in coffee shops and restaurants.
The CD didn’t explode, but it started selling. We spent and marketed the crap out of it in every way we could. For Valentines Day, we loved the idea of using “Fever” to catch peoples’ attention. Flowers and chocolates are lovely on Valentine’s Day but, basically, you want “Fever.” Basically, everyone wants a bit more than just romance on Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, you had been driving Warner executives crazy saying “If there is ever a job somewhere……”
In about March, 2003 the Michael Bublé album was gold in South Africa. Jay Durgan (then Warner Music International's head of global marketing) phoned and said there was an International gig going at the London office working for Warner Bros. They wanted their own international person in London. So I packed up my records and books and moved to London to be marketing director.
Was it a big adjustment to go from working in a small market to working globally?
Jay said to me once, “You may be the King of South Africa, but you know fuck all about Germany or Japan.”
I’ll tell you a secret.
Everything is the same. The only difference is a zero on the end. There’s the same problems, the same issues with customers, with retailers, with media partners, and with journalists.
I learned this from Doug Hill, the sales director at Gallo.
Friday was the release day at Gallo. The product people would go in and talk to the sales force and present their records. You had to prepare the sales rep so that when they traveled around the country, and went into a record store, they’d know how to talk about your record.
Doug would say to me, “There are two ways you can go (to customers). You can either go, ‘MICHAEL BUBLÉ.’ Or you can go ‘Michael Bublé.’” The rep has 15 minutes with the customer. The Sony guy is behind him; and the PolyGram guy is in front of him. He’s got your little bag of samples. He’s got 20 minutes to talk to the customer and take an order.
What happened at Gallo after the sales reps returned on Friday night?
We would play musical Trivia Pursuit (at a local bar). We used to go up against Sony or get a retailer in. Everybody would get completely rat-assed.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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