Industry Profile: Sandy Roberton
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Sandy Roberton
If anyone was managing music producers, engineers and sound mixers before Sandy Roberton launched his company in 1979, there's no apparent record of it.
Or they only represented one or two clients.
Certainly, there's been few in the entertainment field more successful at overseeing the demand for music production talent than Roberton's Worlds End Producer Management.
The Los Angeles-based born Scot (an American citizen today) commands a towering presence in the field by handling over 60 music production clients including such leading names such as Larry Klein, the Matrix, Dave Sardy, Niko Bolas, Danny Kortchmar, Malcolm Burn, Gonzales, Nick Launay and Tim Palmer.
Additionally, Worlds End's production division includes such newbie acts as Mozella, Fiction, Teenage Bottlerocket and THEART.
In the '60s, Roberton was a London-based recording artist with Decca, Fontana and EMI. He went on to oversee the Arc and Jewel Music publishing catalogs in England, which handled all of the Chess Records artists.
In 1967, with brothers Mike and Richard Vernon, Roberton co-founded the prestigious Blue Horizon label, which released titles by Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, Christine Perfect and other blues-related acts.
In 1970, he formed September Productions and began producing acts for the Charisma, B&C, Mooncrest and Pegasus labels. He subsequently operated his own Rockburgh Records label from 1978 to 1981.
By the time he stopped working as a producer in 1982, Roberton had produced 55 albums for such acts as Steeleye Span, Plainsong, Ian Matthews and John Martyn, all of whom he also managed.
Roberton set up Worlds End-named after an area near King's Road in Chelsea, London, where the company's office was first located-in 1979 and began handling several clients, including Phil Thornaley and Tim Palmer. He relocated to New York in 1987 and settled in Los Angeles in 1988.
Among the top-name producers Roberton has represented over the years have been Don Gehman, Steve Lillywhite, Gus Dudgeon, Terry Manning, Hugh Padgham, Don Was and Stephen Hague.
Roberton's touch has been most apparent with the Matrix-- Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards & Scott Spock. Each had each enjoyed limited success prior to working as a production team with Roberton.
Christy, who is married to Edwards, had recorded two albums as a solo artist for Mercury Records in the mid-90s (as Lauren Christy and Breed.) Edwards and Spock were a band called Dollshead that recorded for Refuge/MCA Records.
When the trio began working as a production/songwriting team, it was Roberton who suggested they come up with a name, because it was hard to constantly describe the three of them. So they were christened the Matrix.
Their career break came when Roberton hooked them up to collaborate with an unknown Canadian singer named Avril Lavigne who had been signed to Arista Records. However, Lavigne balked at the country-styled pop songs the Matrix presented at their first meeting. She didn't want to be Faith Hill; she wanted to be a rock singer. So overnight, they wrote her breakout hit "Complicated" as well as four other tracks on her 2002 multi-platinum debut album, "Let Go."
Under Roberton, the Matrix has continued to be one of the hottest production/songwriting teams in the music industry, working with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Koran and David Bowie.
Your family moved to Tanganyika when you were 6; and you were later raised in Kenya. You came to London in 1962 to become a recording artist?
My parents emigrated to Africa following the war (World War II). I went to school in Tanganyika and Kenya and I played in school bands. The Forces' radio station (the British Forces Broadcasting Service) there had all of the best music. I left Kenya to get into the music business in London. I did a job during the day and played in bars and clubs at night.
The Beatles were just emerging in England then.
It was an exciting time. There was a different band coming out of Liverpool or out of Scotland each week. You couldn't keep up with them..
You were part of the duo Rick & Sandy (with Rick Tykiff) from 1963 to 1966 that recorded for Fontana and Decca.
When Dusty Springfield decided to do a solo career, the Springfields disbanded and (her brother) Tom Springfield decided to become a record producer and a songwriter. He did a deal with Fontana and produced us.
(Working with Tom) was great for us because we were just starting off. Dusty Springfield would have these amazing parties and Tom would invite us. Dusty was so huge then. She was friendly with the people at (British television series) "Ready Steady Go!" and she was in love with Motown. So any visiting Motown stars would be invited to Dusty's parties. We were at parties with Martha and the Vandellas and all of these people. We were star struck kids. It was incredible.
Then songwriter Les Reed got us a deal with Decca. We made two or three singles for Decca.
Do you recall the audition for Decca?
It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon and we came in to do a demo tape. The engineer was Gus Dudgeon and the tape operator was Roy Thomas-Baker. We took our guitars in and played. Later on, I managed Gus Dudgeon for a period of his life.
Did Rick & Sandy work a lot?
Our managers were television producers who knew everybody. So we got on every TV show (in Britain). We were on "Ready Steady Go!" with the Who (who did their debut on RSG on Dec. 31, 1965 performing "I Can't Explain.") We were on "Old Grey Whistle Test" three times. Usually with TV shows then, you'd have one run through (rehearsal). You sang live to a backing track. Some times you'd mime.
Why did Rick & Sandy breakup?
We were playing clubs up north all of the time and it got mind-numbing. It's fine doing shows but what do you do during the day before you go onstage?. You got so bored.
So when my partner decided to get out of the music business I said, "I'm not getting out. This is in my blood." So I did the solo record for EMI.
You covered Neil Diamond's first hit record "Solitary Man." How did that come about?
In those days it took so long to get records out (in the UK) that a smart A&R or publisher could go to America, grab a record, come back to England and cover it. If you got it out quickly, you would beat the (original) on the chart. We had three hours at Abbey Road to cut the A and the B side.
The Abbey Road Studios had a strict work code then.
The artist wasn't allowed in the control room. You could listen to the playback in the studio but they didn't want you in the control room. The (producer, engineer and tape operator) were sitting in there with suits and ties. If you were on a "cool session" you wer allowed to undo the top button and loosen your tie a bit. That was the "cool session."
British studios were then regarded as primitive by U.S. standards.
They never had 8-track. And (UK producers and engineers) really had to make it up as they went along. Geoff Emerick's book "Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles" in 2006) talks about how they had to come up with (different) sounds like taking the head off of the kick drum and stuffing the roadies' sweater inside to dull the sound and putting guitars through Leslie (speaker) cabinets. Editing two inch tape, you had to get it right or you'd hear the edit. Nowadays, anyone with a computer who can run ProTools can dial up any amp head (sound) they want.
[It was, for example, Abbey Road engineer Ken Townsend who invented the groundbreaking studio effect known as automatic double tracking (ADT).]
You got to know so many people touring and recording.
I got to know so many people. I applied for a job running Chess Records' publishing company Arc Music as well as Jewel Music operated by Gene and Harry Goodman, Benny Goodman's brothers. I ran both publishing companies in London. It was an incredible time.
[Regent Music Group, owned by Gene and Harry Goodman, set up a partnership deal in the '50s with Chess Records and its publishing wing, Arc Music. Through this arrangement, the Goodman brothers published the songs of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and many others. The brothers also acquired the catalog of Jewel Music which included such gems as "Moonlight Cocktail," "Sunrise Serenade," and "Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)."]
Did you have any contact with Leonard or Phil Chess?
Yes, but Marshall Chess came into the picture [Marshall Chess, son of Leonard, became vice president of Chess in 1969, before the Chess brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape (GRT) the same year for $6.5 million]. Marshall was the one trying to push newer sounds. He was very influential in getting Chess artists working with some of the European musicians.
Have you seen the film "Cadillac Records" yet?
It's not bad but because of people not giving (clearance) rights, like Bo Diddley and a few others, it is not as good as it could be. But the film caught the flavor of the times. For me, working that catalog was incredible. I got a lot of cuts. That was a learning situation for me because it was just me and an assistant. I basically did everything. I got covers. I went to the BBC and got the plays. I was hanging out with all of the (radio) producers.
My job was to go to Pye Records and get them to put out these (Chess) records on Pye International label. Chess was releasing a lot of records. Pye couldn't put everything out. We would discuss (with Chess) who we really wanted to release. Then I got over there and would try and get it released. My job was to try to get a local cover on it as well. I'd have Billy Stewart's "Sitting In The Park" released and then I'd get Georgie Fame through his agent and producer to record it. Georgie Fame had the hit of that song in the UK. He had a #1 with his version.
Weren't Gene and Harry Goodman often in London acquiring songs?
They would come to London and go around to every publishing company on Denmark Street (London's Tin Pan Alley) and they would buy songs. I would go to the meetings with them. They would listen to 10 songs and say, "We'd like to buy that one." They would do the deal on the spot. It was incredible.
You moved onto Blue Horizon in 1970.
I got friendly with Mike Vernon who was then was a staff producer at Decca. If you look at John Mayall's "Blues' Breakers With Eric Clapton" album (in 1966) I think we had six or seven of the cuts on that album. That's when I got a great friendship going with Mike. He and his brother Richard were blues fanatics and they had been running a little side label from home called Purdah Records. Mike decided to leave Decca and started another label. He asked me if I would leave Jewel and Arc and come with them, set up the publishing companies and be a partner in the label. He had distribution with CBS.
And that was the Blue Horizon label.
Yes, that was Blue Horizon.
The label immediately had success with Fleetwood Mac and Chicken Shack.
Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac had been playing with John Mayall.
Christine Perfect was then with Chicken Shack. They had a hit single on Blue Horizon with a cover of Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind."
Christine Perfect was dating John McVie, (whom she later married). She was then a window dresser for a store on Oxford Street. She played piano and started Chicken Shack with Stan Webb.
Blue Horizon tapped into a moment in time when a blues boom developed in the U.K.
It was unbelievable. Every pub had a room with a blues band playing. Mike picked up some B.B. King records from Modern Records. I set up the publishing companies and I signed acts like Savoy Brown, East of Eden and "Duster" Bennett. Then I caught the bug of wanting to produce.
Didn't Sire Productions buy into Blue Horizon?
Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer had started Sire Productions (later renamed Sire Records) in 1966. They came over and we went to a festival together. Then they bought into Blue Horizon. We were running the label with very little money and they needed repertoire. Seymour was smart by coming to the U.K and picking things up from there.
How did Blue Horizon come to lose its biggest act Fleetwood Mac after three successful albums and their final album "Albatross" on the label reaching #1 in 1968?
It was one of those weird things. Today, (recording) contracts are structured that if (the label doesn't') doesn't pick up a band's option, the band has to put the label on notice. The label then has 30 days to rectify (picking up the option). In those days, they didn't do that (because the rectify clause wasn't in contracts). We were so busy promoting this band and I think the band's manager was counting the seconds after the moment we failed to pick up the option.
You started producing in 1970?
Chris Blackwell told me that if I wanted to produce I should do some projects for Island Records. He said, "Find an act and bring it to me." I found the Ian Anderson Country Blues Band. Ian was a great slide guitarist. We made a record and Chris put it into the release schedule,. Then he struck a deal with Chris Wright and Terry Ellis (at Chrysalis Records) for Jethro Tull. Their lead singer, of course, was (another) Ian Anderson.
Chris phoned me up and said, "I can't take your Ian Anderson Country Blues Band album because of this deal I've done with Chrysalis." He was friendly with United Artists which had put out Spencer Davis and Traffic. So he and I went to see Martin Davis (then managing director of United Artists Records UK). Chris said, "I'd like you to put this record out." Martin said, "Okay, Chris." And the deal was done. [Martin later became chairman of Island Records & Music Publishing,]
Then I did Steeleye Span's "Please To See The King" album (1971) for B&C and it really started blowing up. So I left Blue Horizon and started a production company. I took the risk that a lot of producers do now. I signed bands for the production company, paid all of the costs and then prayed.
You signed Steeleye Span with B&C and then with Chrysalis.
The beauty of doing the deal with B&C was that I would find acts, make the records and they would put them out. They were like distributors. Lee Gopthal had been in partnership with Chris Blackwell on Trojan Records (the partnership ended in 1972). Then Gopthal wanted to get a label that wasn't just reggae. He started B&C Records which was a dreadful name. It stood for "beat" and "commercial." Then he funded Charisma Records.
You had your own label Roxburgh with Ian Matthews and others.
B&C went down. (The new owners) bought me out of my producers' royalty. I walked away because I wasn't sure I'd ever get royalties out of these people without fighting for it.
Besides producing you were also managing artists?
I managed Steeleye Span, Plainsong, Decameron and John Martyn.
John Martyn recently died. Was he tough to deal with? His reputation is pretty fierce.
John is one of my favorite artists. All of his demons made him sort of difficult to work with. Being brought up in Glasgow with his dad who was an alcoholic and he was on the road very young. He started drinking a lot and then doing drugs. It was a way of life for him. I got so sick of dealing with all of his personal problems. Like a lot of people, John spent more than he earned. He was always in trouble with his bank manager. I would have to deal with all of this stuff. I loved his music but I didn't want to deal with all of his other demons.
Phil Thornaley was the engineer on John Martyn's "Well Kept Secret" album that you produced in 1982. Didn't working with Phil lead you to become a producer manager?
If it wasn't for Phil and (bassist) Alan Thomson, I don't know how we would have made that record. It's not one of John's best but it sold the most because it was more commercial. He was quite sick then.
Phil was the conduit to me deciding to manage producers. During that session I turned to Phil and asked him what was he doing next. He said he didn't' have any work. I thought, "Hold on there's a business here." So I started managing producers.
As a producer I made 55 albums back-to back.
You also began working with Tim Palmer early on. He's still with you as well.
I've managed Tim Palmer for 26 years. He is a classic example of why you should always listen and keep an open door. I knew Tim when he was the tape operator at a studio. He was living in a studio apartment and at night he was creeping back into the studio and recording B-sides with various bands. He cut this track with this band and he sent it to me and it was fantastic. I said, "Let me manage you." The track ["Take Another View"] became the B-side to Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy." Tim has just started producing the new Goo Goo Dolls album.
Nobody was doing producer management when you started?
I think I invented producer management. I really do. There were people who might have represented one or two producers.
Why did you decide to come to America to work in 1997?
With Roland TR-808 drum machines coming in (in the '80s) and London Records (UK) putting out these cool records made in bedrooms, I thought "If the bands can make the records themselves, this is the end."
On a trip to America, I was astounded by how many projects there were and how many people didn't know about having a producer manager. At MCA in New York, I met the A&R crew and they said, "You mean we can contact all these (producers and engineers) through you?"
You came to NY first.
I was there a year. Then I started taking on a lot of clients living in LA. There's a three hour time difference, of course and they'd be phoning me at midnight. So I thought, "This is not going to work." So I moved. I have been in the office I am in now for 20 years.
You have worked with the Matrix (Lauren Christy, Graham Edwards and Scott Spock) for years.
I started managing them in 1999.
How did the Matrix get together with Avril Lavigne to co-write and produce five songs on her 2002 multi-platinum debut album, "Let Go?"
Avril Lavigne is a wonderful singer. She also has a lot of personality. When she put her vocals on those tracks, it was just fantastic. Those were lucky sessions. It helped the Matrix' career explode and it certainly started her career off.
Today, you handle more than producers, engineers and mixers. You have a label, a film and TV division and the company is working with bands and songwriters.
Andrew Harper and Gabe Deluc, who run our artist management division, are young guys full of enthusiasm. They are very knowledge about bands. Currently, they are signing baby bands. So far, we are working with Mozella, Fiction, Teenage Bottlerocket and THEART
We are doing very well licensing (music). Colin Chambers runs the department and Kevin Krump is his number two. Colin has started to do some music supervision on some movies as well.
You daughter Nikki has the label IAMSOUND Records that is starting to make some media noise. Its roster includes Little Boots, Florence and the Machine, Telepathe and the Black Ghosts.
It is all kicking off for her. She just signed the Suckers. I am behind the scenes helping on the business side. She's also got Sunny Day Sets Fire from London.
Why are you doing all of these different things?
The producer business has changed drastically. Record companies don't have the (big) budgets anymore. It is harder for producers to try and make a living. Certainly producers that don't have a studio facility of their own are finding it very hard. And there are less projects too. So it is not like a producer has a lot of great choices anymore. If a project is right, you have to go for it.
Producers spend so much time in the studio that they usually don't know what's going on in the marketplace.
That's where I come in. I keep up to date. I listen to so much music. I buy every music magazine I can think of. There's also a meeting here every Monday morning in my office with everybody in the company. We go through every clients' (file) and talk about projects. If there's a project that someone heard about, we try to get it for our clients.
How involved are your clients in decision making?
A producer like Dave Sardy takes advice well and he gives me advice on music. We collectively make decisions. The same with Nick Launay. After he recorded that Semisonic record, ["Feeling Strangely Fine" (1998)] he could have done every pop rock band around but he was very careful with what he did. Now, in that indie rock world, he's doing so well. He's got some very cool credits. He's done Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Maximum Park and he's about to do the Cribs. He's very happy because he likes to listen to the music he makes. A lot of producers produce for the dollar, but they don't go home at night and listen to those albums they work on.
Like artists, producers are receiving reduced royalty payments today with digital selling mostly single tracks.
In Britain, producers are also finding it hard because the producer is charged a (proportionate) share of advertising (of the release) on television. Advertising comes out of the artists' share and they then charge the producer with a proportion of it. There are producers and bands who have had a hit but didn't get much money because all of the television (advertising) money was charged back.
On top of producer advances being lower in recent years, sales-from which they benefit from--are decreasing as well.
But I do feel positive because of what is happening now. It's an exciting time for a producer who may want to develop acts and release them himself. There's no cost in putting (music) out digitally. So if a producer, who has a (home) studio, finds an act he can sign them, record them and he can digitally release that record and get the lion's share of digital (revenue). This is the way producers have to think now.
Perhaps, producers should share in other revenue streams if the band can't afford to pay a proper advance or fee.
I think it's in the band's interest to cut the producer in as a participant in other areas, if they don't have the funds (for a fee). Sales figures are down. If a producer makes great music with a band and then they go off and make money on the road from playing live and selling T-shirts and the producer doesn't (participate in these revenue streams), I don't think that's balanced.
Within a band, there's usually a player that's not great. But he's getting an equal share so why shouldn't a producer who is really bringing something to the table? Some producers help write songs or suggest riffs. They bring so much to the table. The band should be smart and say, "Listen we 're going to bring the producer in and we're going to make him a partner."
Everybody, including labels, publishers and managers, are now competing for a piece of that ancillary income.
Record companies should be smart and (make) contracts with a lot of the producers. When I started in the business, every A&R man was a producer. I think that thought is going through Sony Music Entertainment with the hiring of Amanda Ghost, who is a writer/producer, to run Epic. And (producer) Rick Rubin came in at Columbia (as co-head). Maybe having creative people signing and developing of bands is a trend.
Sandy Roberton can be reached at: email@example.com
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry 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.