This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Dave Pichilingi, CEO, Sound City.
An outspoken supporter/one man band of UK regionalism, Dave Pichilingi boosts Liverpool’s reputation as a global music city with an annual music conference/festival event, Sound City, which has business-to-business as its heartbeat.
Now in its ninth year, Sound City (formerly Liverpool Sound City) is one of the most respected music festivals and conferences in the world, and a symbol of Liverpool’s economic and creative renaissance.
Sound City is also an ever-changing canvas for the restless and passionate music supporter Pichilingi.
Under his leadership the event has in recent years been attracting 3,500 conference delegates, and a festival audience of some 40,000 people to Liverpool.
2015, however, was not a year for the faint-hearted on Sound City’s 10 member staff. Pichilingi ordered a switch of the location of the events; ripping the festival from its spiritual Wolstenholme Square home in Liverpool’s city center to its once neglected, formerly derelict dockland area.
Relocating Sound City to the dramatic backdrop of the historic Bramley Moore Dock, and embracing Liverpool’s maritime history, proved to be masterstroke, and a rebirth of the event.
For this year, mindful of spiraling expense costs for attendees, the rebranded Sound City+ conference has been cut to a single day (May 27th), the Sound City festival to two days (May 28-29th). But with a dynamic line-up of speakers, bands, and DJs, the affiliated events will almost certainly continue to be highlights of music industry punters in the UK and elsewhere.
A former musician who grew up in Liverpool, Pichilingi’s music background was working in the management and marketing sectors of major and independent UK record labels, including RCA, Produce, V2, EMI, and Factory Records. He worked closely with such artists as New Order, Happy Mondays, the Farm, and Sub Sub.
Today, Pichilingi is also co-owner of Baltic Records with a roster that includes My Fear & Me, the Tea Street Band, Johnny Sanders, and Dead Buttons.
He holds a B.A. degree in drama and English from Lancaster University, and a MBA from the University of Liverpool.
For this year, the Sound City+ conference has been cut to one day, the Sound City festival to two days. Is the reasoning that 4 to 5 days in Liverpool is quite expensive?
That’s exactly it. Not just for young bands, but for anybody working in music now. What we found last year --we did Friday night, all day Saturday and all day Sunday--we found that something like 70% of people bought full passes for the festival, and 70% of them didn’t turn up on the Friday. They only turned up on the Saturday and Sunday. So we thought that this is crazy that we are using all of that budget, and that people are missing things. So that’s why we changed the festival, and the conference side. We decided if we are going to two days with the festival, let’s go to one day with the conference and make it a much more concise, succinct event itself with a big delegate party at the end of Friday.
How many conference delegates in 2015, and how many people attended the festival?
There were 3,500 delegates and, on the three days, we averaged about 8,000 people a day. So it was 24,000 people over the three days.
What economic impact does Sound City have on Liverpool?
Oh gawd, we win so many awards. Every time I get into a taxi or go to a restaurant, and they know who I am, most people thank me. They thank me wherever I go now, especially taxi drivers and hotel people because we have so many working with us. I do know that over the past 9 years we have brought with businesses in the region, in the north of England, about £16 million in contracts signed. The fact that those contracts have been signed is due to initiatives that we launched at Sound City. That is something that makes me, and the whole team proud. Beyond that, I think that our annual economic impact, in terms of traditional economic impact--which is hotel bed spill, taxis used, and people using restaurants, ancillary services that go with putting on an event like this--I think it is £1 million plus every year.
You have some very cool acts this year. Coral is headlining at the festival. Their first hometown gig in five years?
Five years. Even though I’ve worked with them for a long time (handling music publishing). The reason (for their touring) is that this is their first album (“Distance In between,” released March, 2016) in five years as well.
Another headliner this year Catfish and the Bottlemen which first played the festival as an unsigned act in 2011.
They did indeed. We first put them on in 2011, and again in 2012. It’s good to see them back again.
The latest lineup additions announced were Mount Kimble, Bill Ryder-Jones and C Duncan.
We have just announced Pete Doherty.
This year you have faced every promoter’s nightmare. All four members of Viola Beach, along with manager Craig Tarry, died in a car crash in Sodertalje, Sweden on February 13th (2016). You have kept the band on all festival advertising. How do you plan to honor the band?
We spoke to their family, and we spoke to their (other) manager. We have something special lined up for the day. Basically, we will be playing their music on the day. That (their music) is still what is being honored. It will be quite a poignant tribute in that sense. But you are right. We decided, “How can take them off the posters?” It’s just so final. We just couldn’t do that. We didn’t know how people would take it. We have had a number of people say, “The group is still on there (the advertising).” We say, “We know. It’s purely intentional.” We decided to leave them on as a tribute, really. But you are right. How do we deal with that? But look, we don’t have a lot to deal with. For us, it’s a small thing to deal with. For the families of those kids, and that young manager, it’s just...how do you cope with that? How do you come to terms with that for the rest of your life? They were four kids and a young manager arguably right at the most exciting part of their lives. For something like that to happen is terrible. To lose your child. I have two kids myself. I can’t imagine how difficult that is.
Many annual festivals have recently announced cutbacks on EDM and dance programming. Working with EDM promoters Freeze, you plan to have even more electronic and dance music this year, including performances by the likes of Leftfield, 2ManyDJs, and Hot Chip DJing.
We have stepped it up. Liverpool has a very strong association with dance and EDM music. Cream (the nightlife brand) was massive in the city, and still resonates very positively. James (Barton) has been a good friend for many, many years. Last year, what we found was that we have not reached capacity, but we now have the confirmed audience that we were after. We have reached all of those now. If we are to grow, we realize that we have to widen our demographic slightly. Working with Freeze allows us to do that. It allows us to bring in those electronic artists, DJs. and live acts that will appeal to not just a younger audience. It’s an audience that will still get Catfish and will understand the Coral, and Circa Waves and all of those great bands that we have on the other stages. But they connect with dance music, really. So in doing that (booking EDM and dance) our aim is not to piss off too many of our confirmed audience—and there is a risk of doing that—but, at the same time, appealing to a much wider audience to bring in that younger audience that appreciates the EDM side of things.
Steve “Revo” Miller has been one of the Sound City bookers since the event began in 2007.
We work with a number of bookers because we do events not only in the UK, but in other parts of the world as well.
You don’t find all of these emerging acts yourself?
(Laughing) I have an opinion about a lot of them. I will attempt to sign the headliners, but beyond that I leave it to people with much sharper ears, and who are living it (the music life) a bit. I am certainly not living it like I used to.
What size staff do you work with?
With Sound City, there’s 10 of us. Of course, when we are putting on festivals, it expands.
Sound City’s international manager Becky Ayres has been with the event almost since the beginning.
She didn’t do the first year. I brought her in. I poached her from London Calling. She does all of our international. She’s our chief of operations. She deals with all of the international stages. We do stages with many territories around the world. She runs all of the trade, and the international stages. She runs it all.
Who now oversees the Sound City+ conference?
Our conference is now overseen by Jo Whitty.
You have overseen Sound City-affiliated events in Dubai, Norway, and an event annually in New York. Are these just branding opportunities or are you planning on expanding?
A bit of both. It was our aim that we would really like to establish an annual event bigger than what we are doing in New York currently. We would like to establish an event in North America. We looked at launching an event in Athens, Georgia, but we couldn’t get the sponsors. We would still really like to do one in North America. The aim was also to do an event in Dubai, annually. We did well with that event in 2009, but then the economic crisis hit in Dubai 12 months after the rest of the world, and it was difficult to get the sponsors the following year. We are currently doing an event in South Korea, which is our second year. We work in partnership with Zander Fest and the MU:CON Festival. I’ve just done an equity deal with Modern Sky Entertainment in in Beijing. They are buying out my current partners. So we may look at doing something in China, as well. So yes, we are always looking at doing something elsewhere.
How does Sound City differ from other existing music industry festival/conferences? It seems more focused on emerging talent, and business-to-business marketing.
Are you trying through business initiatives and events to build confidence and a self-belief in attendees that unlike past years, they don’t have move to London to work in the music business?
You hit the nail right on the head. One of the key things with (the Manchester festival/conference) In The City was that we were hugely successful in terms of the festival, and a conference. What we weren’t great at was business going out of the back end of it. There were a lot of reasons for that. One of the reasons was that the industry in the time frame we were doing it, there was a lot of money washing up, and down the corridors of power, particularly in the record business. So people didn’t really feel that that they needed to do a lot of new business. They treated it much like a party.
Those days are gone really.
When we set Sound City up, particularly because we were working with UK IT from day one, it was key that business had to happen. It was a very important driving factor. The other part of it, and important to me and our team now, was that one of my big mantras--one of my big banging the drum things--is that you do not have to go to London to do business anymore.
When I was growing up, I had to go to London to do business. To work in records or whatever else that I did because that’s where the industry was. That’s where the focus was. Also, being from Liverpool or from Manchester, going into London then took three or four hours on the train. That’s all changed now. It’s two hours on the train to London now. And with technology, you are never more than a nanosecond away from anyone in the world anymore. So there’s no reason anymore for our young entrepreneurs, for our managers, labels, digital businesses or whatever they might be, there’s no reason why they have to go to London or anywhere else. They can stay here in the north of England.
So with Sound City what our aim is to do is to bring the business world into the city for three or four days, and make sure that the impact then for them (registrants) to do business is as positive as possible. That those (business) outcomes come out the backend in the next 3, 6 or 12 or 18 months. They are the key driving factors when it comes to the conference.
Then the heartbeat for me, and the most exciting things in music, is that the best music bands ever make is when they are hungry, and they are at the start of their journey. So for me emerging talent will always be the heartbeat of what we do. To find those Florence and the Machines, Ed Sheerans, Bastilles or Royal Bloods, whatever it is that we showcase.
In 2014, the British Phonographic Industry launched its Music Export Growth Scheme to enable UK bands to tour abroad. The program is further recognition that bands no longer have to first go to London in order to work overseas today.
[Through the Music Export Growth Scheme, launched in 2014 and operated by UK Trade and Investments, and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the UK government not only provides funding up to £15,000 for British acts that are signed to independent labels to pay for marketing, and expenses to work abroad for artists, but provides trade missions to key markets, including the U.S., Japan, China and India, and offers the help of trade advisors for working in other countries.]
Today, with the internet and with global streaming available, artists can slingshot out of their home territories.
That’s a wonderful phrase for it, and that’s absolutely true. That is absolutely what we are trying to instill. That belief, and that confidence in the businesses that we attract to Sound City. We are absolutely trying to make sure that this is the way that they can look at the world as well. As you succinctly put it, that they can see that they don’t need to be engaged in businesses in London because they can slingshot, as you said, to the rest of the world quite easily nowadays.
Sound City’s popular “In Conversation” series has been switched this year to being a festival event. Over the years, it has featured some iconic music figures including John Cale, Thurston Moore, Edwyn Collins, Wayne Coyne, Tracey Thorn, Andrew Loog Oldham, Viv Albertine, Julian Cope, and Mark E. Smith.
We have had some amazing people, yeah. Therein lies the reason why we moved it. What we found was that many people were coming to see that--those elements of the conference--that weren’t necessarily working in the business, really. So they were buying passes for it, but they didn’t really work in the business. The room was always full to exploding with the keynote speeches. So with “In Conversation,” and with the keynote speeches, we thought, “Well this is crazy. Obviously more people want to see this. We should allow people to see it. So let’s move that element lock stock and barrel into the festival, and allow more people to see it. That was our simple rationale for doing that.
2015 was a transition year for Sound City. You moved the festival and the conference. What was your thoughts when you saw the dockland site for the festival?
I will tell you something I have never told anybody else. I didn’t tell anyone else what we were going to do. I just decided that I was fed up with the whole thing. We had had a few issues with venue capacity sorts of things. So I just went secretly—I think that I might have told Becky aside that, “I am bored with this model. I don’t quite know what we need to do yet, but I am going to look for some other sites.” So I was looking all over the city for other spaces that we could do this and I found a site that was owned by Peel (The Peel Group, one of the leading infrastructure, real estate and investment enterprises in the UK). I managed—and I didn’t want to tell any of the staff—but I managed to convince them (Peel) to give me this land. I also managed to convince them to let me put a festival on there.
Then I came back and told all of the team, “Right, you know this thing that we love and that our audience loves? Well, we are changing it. We will change it.” But I didn’t want to tell them all about it until I had the answer to what we were changing it to. I didn’t want to create fear with the staff. So I said, “Trust me, but this is what we are going to do.” Then I got the plans and I showed them what we were going to do, and they were as excited as I was. We went down and we looked at this piece of land and it was great.
But what was the staff’s initial reaction to re-locating?
Horrified. “Don’t do it Dave. We are changing something that is not broken. Why would we do it?”
Liverpool is synonymous with the river so it makes complete sense to have the festival next to the Mersey. Also you had been facing problems with crowd spillage. Sections in Liverpool were being closed down, and there was overcrowding in venues. All kinds of issues.
Exactly. And we could have solved them. We hadn’t told our audience, yet. I had just told our staff we’d do that. Then it got worse, really, because then I was looking for a warehouse to do another party, and I found this great warehouse that was again on Peel land. On another piece of land. And when I went to look at this piece of land that is our site now. I went, “Oh my gawd, this is even better than the piece of land we already have.”
So you went back to the folks at Peel...
So I went back to Peel, “Thanks very much for giving me your land, but I found another piece of land that I want.” And they went, “No way.” Where our festival site is now it’s surrounded on three sides by water. They said. “No way. You can’t use that Dave. It’s too dangerous. No one would think of putting a festival on there,” kind of stuff. I said, “No no no. If we could make it safe; if we could get around all of the (safety) issues, would you let us do it?” And they said, “Okay. We can think about if we would do it.” That was another 6 or 8 weeks. Getting all of the right safety people in saying that we could do it. Working out how we could do it. Convincing both Peel, and the guy who leased the warehouses on the land, and convincing our staff again that we were changing it once more. It was a massive change last year but, within that change, there were massive changes. It wasn’t as simple as moving onto the land. I think I looked at two spaces before we went to the land that we are now on. It was a massive risk in many ways.
You also had to move the conference to the newly-opened Rum Factory Conference Centre at The Titanic Hotel in what was the North Warehouse of the historic Stanley Dock Complex.
We didn’t have to. That was a good bit of synergy that. The Titanic was just opening. It’s a much bigger hotel than what we had. We were pretty cramped in The Hilton. We realized that we could expand our activities into The Titanic. Also what I got really excited about was that it meant that we could take our delegates from the hotel to the festival site. In what world or at what festival have you ever been that you could get on a boat and listen to music with a band and then go straight into a whole festival experience? So I was excited as well about putting the conference into The Titanic.
Given these economic times, it is quite an achievement that Sound City is in its ninth year.
You are absolutely right. It’s a crowded marketplace that’s for sure. We started this 9 years ago. We were the only event like this in the UK, other than The Great Escape. I had worked for many years with Tony Wilson on In The City (Manchester’s annual music industry and festival conference) in a number of roles. I decided to set up Sound City, sadly, when Tony died (in 2007). Also not only did I feel that In The City died with Tony, but the symbol of it died with Tony, and the model itself was sadly dying as well. I had been influenced with what was going on in Austin, Texas with South by Southwest.
You’d gone to South by Southwest, and found Scottish, Welsh and Brit music industry people were there. When you returned home with the idea to do a similar event, you had to decide whether to do it in Liverpool or in Manchester.
That’s absolutely right. In fact, Tony was still alive, and I spoke to him about it. We agreed it should be done in Liverpool or Manchester. Some people were suggesting, “You should call it The Northwest.” I said, “What are you talking about? You talk to people in America, Australia, Canada or Europe even, and they have no idea what you mean when you say The Northwest.” We felt that the strongest (location), in fact, would be either in Manchester or Liverpool. I decided to go with Liverpool because that’s where I’m from. I also felt that it was time that Liverpool was put back on the map. People, when they think of Liverpool, they think of the Beatles. They think of ‘60s. They think of all of the great things that happened in the past 40 years, and the Beatles symbolized so much of that. I think that what people forget is what a music city Liverpool is. I think Sound City was very much part of our ethos. What I wanted to do was put Liverpool back on the international map as a place where music came from. The place where business is done. And that Liverpool is a great destination to go to, like Austin or like Cannes, Paris or wherever, to have a great time, and to see great music bills.
Someone you also spoke to was Sound City’s current creative and digital investment manager Kevin McManus.
Yes. I spoke to Kevin. Kevin is a lifelong friend. Kevin used to work for the NME (New Musical Express). So I knew Kevin back in those days when he was a NME journalist. We hatched this (Sound City) plan together, really. Kevin was very much instrumental in those very early years of Sound City, making sure that we got it off the ground, really. I think that if it had not been for Kevin, that we’d never have done it, if I’m honest. Kevin was able to convince people with a bit of cash that this was a good idea; beyond my kind of--not lunatic rumblings--but beyond my excited diatribes. Kevin was able to interpret to people with money to actually trust me, and give me some money really. So without him to do that, it would have been really, really hard to set it up in the first few years.
People with money. Do you mean Merseyside ACME where Kevin was director of operations?
Yeah, it was Merseyside ACME at that point. Also the City of Liverpool itself with the City Council. It was UK Trade and Investment because they came in the very first year. The head of the region Clive Drinkwater (Clive Drinkwater, UKTI North West Regional Director) got right on board with us. In fact, he has become a great friend and a great ally because we’ve done a lot in raising the profile of UKTI industries throughout both the UK and abroad.
What was the first year of the event like?
Like anything, the first year was like getting a train out of the station. The wheels spin a bit on the tracks. So it was nervous, and it was exciting. A lot more maverick, I guess, than it is now. A lot more cavalier than it is now.
The first year you had Florence and the Machine which you paid £100....
No, I paid £50. Fifty quid. I’ve been misquoted about that.
But 50 people in the room?
Yes, if that. I might have increased those numbers. There might have even been less than that.
Early on, despite being nicknamed Scouse By Scousewest, the event seemed very small.
It was. You are absolutely right, Larry. One of the things that I learned from Tony is that perception is everything. Reality means nothing. What I had learned was that even though it was very small that the way that we marketed ourselves, the way we PRed ourselves, the way that we shouted about ourselves, you would have believed--if you had never been here--that it was one of the music industry’s biggest events. That we were probably a year behind South by Southwest in terms of our size. It was not quite that, but that is certainly what we wanted to communicate. I think that was an important part of what we created. Although a lot of people didn’t come the first year who wanted to come, but those people who did come we made sure that they were almost like the disciples. We made sure that we hand-picked a lot of people who we felt would spread the word about Liverpool, about Sound City, and what we were trying to achieve. So they would bring 5, 10, 15 or 20 people with them the following year. And that was kind of how it worked really.
You were also very innovative working in venues around Liverpool. Putting on shows in the Anglican Cathedral, and in St. Luke’s “Bombed Out” Church as well as using old warehouse spaces. You even promoted a show with Echo and Bunnymen and the Zutons in the historic concert room in St. George’s Hall which had not been used for anything other than chamber music since last hosting Roxy Music in 1974.
That‘s right. I was very bored with “black box “venues. I’m not a fan. I’ve gone on record a number of times saying that. I find them boring places to consume music. To consume anything actually. Certainly not rock and roll.
What do you mean by “black box” venues?
What you would call standard touring venues. Maybe Live Nation or AEG venues. Those kind of venues where you go in---and don’t get me wrong, the sound is always spot on; the lighting is good, but it’s beer out of plastic glasses. The venue itself has no character to it. It’s just black walls, black drapes, and designed to only watch a band, really. There’s not a lot else that goes on in these places.
The UK marketplace differs from North America in that there are either tiny venues, theatres, or municipality buildings built in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There aren’t a lot of great choices in the UK outside of London to properly experience live music.
No and there even less to be honest now. A lot of venues have closed and those venues that are still open have become part of chains. So you’ve got the Academy of Music chain or the MAMA (MAMA & Company) music chain. Or the Live Nation music chain. The smaller venues are still interesting, but the bigger venues, anything above 1,500 or 1,000 cap plus, they tend to be homogeneous. They tend to be the same. You could go to a Live Nation or AEG venue in Birmingham, and then to the one in Liverpool, it looks exactly the same.
Also a lot of clubs and pubs have been taken over by conglomerates.
Exactly. Absolutely. So as the country became like that, the last thing that I wanted to do with an inner city festival was put on a load of gigs in spaces where our audience would feel bored. A thing that came back with me from that Austin inspiration from the first time that I went there was that what we needed to use were independent venues. “Okay, we don’t have any independent venues. What’s the next big thing?” Well, the next big thing we thought was to take over bombed out churches. To take over these old buildings. To take over cathedrals, and churches, car parks. Anything that we could find where you wouldn’t (usually) put music on or music in it.
Why I went to the city council was that I found this amazing St. George’s Hall that was only being used for classical concert music. I convinced the council to let me put rock and roll in there for the first time since as you said when Roxy Music played there. After Roxy Music played there I don’t think they dared to have something as left-of-center like that again. But I managed to convince them. They looked at what we did and they trusted me with a lot more buildings in subsequent years like the Anglican Cathedral, and the Catholic Cathedral and many others.
Sound City has substantial tiered pricing that increases up to the final days of the event. That obviously works for you.
Yeah it really works for us. It allows us to set budgets within tiers so when they sell out they sell out. It allows us to use a lot of strategies to sell tickets. It’s also a great reason to go back to our audience to be able to do that. So it works for that reason. The more reasons that you have to go back to your audience is always great. It’s great marketing. The last thing that you want to do is go back to your audience all the time saying, “Well, we are still here. Come and buy these ticket.” If you say, “We are still here. Buy these tickets because these tickets are going to run out in a couple of days or in two weeks with 200 tickets or a thousand tickets, whatever it might be, there’s always a good reason to go back. From the audience’s point of view, it means that early adopters, and people like that can buy their tickets even before we announce a band. They take a risk with that, and it gives us a cash flow into our accounts. They trust us, basically. A couple of thousand people every year will buy these tickets even before we announce a band because they trust us, and they get those early bird tickets really cheap.
You want loyalty, right? Not to decrease tickets leading up to the event or to paper the house.
You do. Our sales are stronger than ever, but I never do that. Before you treated people like that, you would go under first. You can’t do that. It’s immoral really to do that.
Brands that Sound City couldn’t attract in its early have since come aboard, including Jaguar/Land Rover, Mail Chimp, Facebook, Jackson Canter, Heineken, Red Bull and others.
Red Bull has been with us pretty much for every year. But you are right. Jaguar/Land Rover, Mail Chimp, and Heineken have all been with us for the past two or three years now. Again, I think that’s testament to what we do. Jaguar/Land Rover is an example. They were first with us in a very small way four years ago. Just gave us a couple of cars to get people from the airport. Then they have increased their profile with us ever since. That’s down to the fact I think that they see impact that the event has had on the city, and also the types of people that we are attracting. Obviously, they must think that the types we are attracting, particularly from the business world, are people that go out and buy Jaguar/Land Rover often as well.
With last month’s terrorist bombings in Brussels, I have to ask how will you deal with a potential terror threat? Anywhere there is a crowd today in Europe, you don’t know what might happen.
You don’t. You have to be ever vigilant. You use your audience to some extent as your eyes and ears. Let them know that we want to use them as our eyes and ears for things going on; beyond that when it comes to security have checks coming onto the site and all of that. We obviously have had to increase that now in terms of types that we are looking for with the security teaks that right at the front of it now. We use sniffer dogs obviously for drugs, but also those sniffer dogs are used for other reasons as well these days
You want a security presence, but not one overshadowing the event. But better to err on the side of caution these days.
You are absolutely right. So it’s that fine line between making sure that you insure safety as much as you can in these situations. It’s a very hard thing to do. Looking at Brussels as an example. How do you stop these people from doing what they do when they do it in such a subversive way? How do you remain vigilant? How do you offer security to people but, at the same time, don’t spoil the customer experience by having police and dogs all over the place? Our security is really on point of entry. As you enter the site that is where you will see the most security. Once you are site you should really notice anything. It should be like a Shangri-La in that sense. A Shangri-La on water.
You reformed your band 35 Summers for Sound City last year. For someone who grew up with punk music having your band rework the Beatles’ “Come Together” in 1990 must have been challenging.
(Laughing) Yes, as long ago as that.
Did you have fun as a musician?
Oh yeah. I was in bands when I was 16 years old. I was in a punk band called Device. Another punk band called Utopian Dream. I was into (David) Bowie at that time too. So I named it from a line (“Of the Great Utopia Dream”) from a track ("Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed") from the “Space Oddity” album. Then I was in a band called Wake Up Afrika which was a more new wave kind of act. After Wake Up Afrika. I was in 35 Summers. So my whole life was being in bands.
As a musician?
Singing. Always singing. When I was 16 years of age I used to go a club in called Pips in Manchester in around 1979. I used to go wearing this silver leotard with “Aladdin Sane” makeup on my face. My dad used to say, “David where are you going?” He used to usher me into a car and take me to a bus, and make sure I got on the bus at least safely to get to this place. I was obsessed with Bowie when I was a kid.
Were you in bands while at university? You have BA in English and drama from University of Lancaster.
When I first left school—I went to a really bad school. Everything that I’ve done has been despite my education from high school. After I left I ended up at the Ford Motor Company. I trained as an electrician. I hated it because I would have had to go onto night shifts. I left that to carry on being in bands. I went back to school and I did my A levels and I did my first degree which was in English and drama.
Did you want to be an actor?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t want to work. I didn’t want to be in a traditional job. I wanted to be in a rock and roll band. I wanted to be a rock and roll star. That was it. And because there were no courses to be rock and roll stars in those days, I looked at that (studying English and drama.) I guess also because of my Bowie thing and all of that, and I liked writing while in school. I felt that would be the best thing. The only thing that I was ever good at school was English. So I felt that the English, and the acting would be the best choice, really. So I did that. Afterwards I managed the Farm from Liverpool. We set up their record label together which led to me signing my own record deal with RCA (with 35 Summers). But as you quite rightly said about Sound City, I was much better at the marketing. I was great at building a vision around the band despite the fact that the band wasn’t that great. So when we got dropped from RCA I decided that was enough time for me. Besides having another go with another band for a very short period of time, I decided that I was much better at the business side.
In discovering the Tea Street Band for the Sound City festival, you returned to artist management. That led you to launching Baltic Records with Jack Launer from Jack to Phono Records.
Yeah, yeah absolutely. I think that once it’s in your blood it’s in your blood really. As I say to my wife I continue to lose money with records...
Baltic has released cool music by Liverpool’s My Fear & Me, and the South Korean indie duo, Dead Buttons.
The Dead Buttons are amazing. Their new album (“Some Kind of Youth” produced by Kim In Su of Crying Nut) is wonderful. They are coming out with a UK, and European tour this month. I think that if I didn’t spend my money making records like that I would spend my money on other stuff. I would spend it on, I don’t know, cars or more albums whatever it might me. I love the journey of finding bands and making records with them. As I said before, I like working with bands at the very start of their careers. To see the excitement of bands when they are in the studio making their first albums together and going out on the road for the first time. I don’t go out on the road with them. I just love seeing bands starting out....
Being a label owner or an artist manager also means phone calls at 3 AM that the band is stuck at customs overseas.
Thankfully, I don’t get involved with any of that anymore. I’ve got a number of assistants who work with us on the label side of it in the office now. So that kind of thing is deflected. What I get involved with is A&Ring the band; being involved in the recording process. I will always be involved in that side of it. But being involved in the logistics of touring or that nonsense, I definitely don’t get involved with that anymore.
A few years ago, you were approached by Sire Records’ co-founder Seymour Stein to relaunch Factory Records which is now owned by Warner Brothers. You took a pass on the offer.
Yes, because I wasn’t the right man. Seymour asked me if I would be interested in doing it. “We need to find to do something with Factory. You know that we now own it. Tony’s not here. Rob (Factory Records’ co-owner Rob Gretton who died in 1999) is not here. Would you be interested in getting involved with it?” I went, “A hundred percent no.”
What was the reason?
Because A, I was only involved in the backend of Factory. I mainly worked with Rob on Rob’s records and Manchester records. B, I’m from Liverpool and Factory is very much a Manchester label. That may not mean a lot of people in New York or the world, but in the UK that means a lot to people. The identity of where that label is from is so important. I was very honored that Seymour asked.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia,, Ontario, and a consultant to the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta.
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