Industry Profile: Ralph Simon
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Ralph Simon, CEO, Mobilium.
Global mobile trailblazer Ralph Simon is bullish about the mobile entertainment industry, and he has plenty of ideas on what works for music monetization in the medium.
With over 4.5 billion mobile phone users worldwide, and with mobile phone usage exploding in China, Russia, Brazil, India, Africa and Latin America, and with mobile phone penetration approaching 80% or more in developed countries, he argues that there is now the need for a deep body of knowledge in this key potentially entertainment-laden sector.
Simon has been focused on mobile since the late ‘90s, when he persuaded American music publishers to grant his then start-up company, Yourmobile Networks, the first ever ring tone licenses.
In 1997, he had argued that mobile phones would become the indispensable voice/social networking-and-music companion for consumers, and their increasingly mobile lifestyles.
In 2003, Vivendi Universal purchased Yourmobile Networks—which had broadened to have business in Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and Africa—and renamed it Moviso.
Today, Simon heads London-based Mobilium which has offices in London, Los Angeles, Mumbai and Helsinki.
Founded in 2004, Mobilium offers strategy, expertise and guidance to clients—mobile handset makers, telco operators, technology companies, media companies, movie studios, TV networks, music artists, ad agencies, brands, and platform providers around the world—seeking to deploy mobile strategy, technologies, and tactics as part of their business.
Mobilium recommends ways to expand a client’s mobile business by growing revenues and maximizing impact from the use and distribution of mobile entertainment content, mobile music, messaging, mobile media technology and applications.
As founder and chairman emeritus of the Mobile Entertainment Forum, the global trade association industry, Simon also works to raise industry standards, and identify mobile revenue opportunities.
Sales projections suggest that 1.8 billion mobile handsets will be sold globally in 2011. Demand for greater mobile music experiences as well as improved user interaction is expected to continue to fuel the sales of smart phones that have mobile TV, social networking, Web surfing, and access to "cloud-based" content.
Labels and publishers are in a tizzy over the potential revenue from mobile music applications, but future revenue growth will require an understanding of social broadcasting, where music has become the contextual backdrop to communications, and communities anchored through social networking.
Simon has described the new iPhone apps market, with its 350,000 apps and 10 billion downloads, as a “tornado.” He has said, “Most of the applications relate to games, but there’s a wonderful opportunity to turn these into more music-monetizable experiences.”
Simon and others believe that social broadcasting is set to grow dramatically over the next few years. More than ever, he argues, labels, managers and artists need to develop ways to drive cross-platform consumption, and purchase of content with more emphasis on social networking tools that give consumers a taste of an artist's repertoire, persona, visual imagery and other social networking magnets. That they must work to develop content bundles that generate buzz on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other spaces.
Prior to Yourmobile Networks, Simon was from 1993-1995 executive VP of Capitol Records and Blue Note Records in Los Angeles, and developed EMI Music’s global New Media division.
Simon is famous for being the co-founder, with Clive Calder, of the London-based Zomba Group. Founded in London in 1975, the two built the independent company into a global entertainment powerhouse.
Back in late 1971, two Johannesburg musicians, Simon (then a business student at the University of Witwatersrand), and Calder first forged a business partnership together that handled record production, music publishing, artist management, and concert promotion under such affiliated companies as Clive Calder Productions (CCP), Sagittarius Management, and Bullet Records.
Their productions were distributed by EMI Records South Africa, where Calder had previously worked as A&R manager.
In 1974, Simon and Calder re-located to London and managed the band City Boy, as well as rising producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange who produced Graham Parker and the Rumour, the Boomtown Rats, Outlaws, the Michael Stanley Band, and the Cars, before finding international fame with his multi-productions of AC/DC and Def Leppard.
In London, Simon and Calder founded Zomba Group and Jive Records and had enormous international successes with such acts as Tight Fit, Billy Ocean, A Flock of Seagulls, Whodini, Samantha Fox, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
On the music publishing side, Zomba handled the catalogs of Elvis Costello, the Boomtown Rats, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, the Scorpions, AC/DC, the Village People, and Bruce Springsteen (in the U.K.).
In 1990, Simon and Calder had an "ethical disagreement" which led to them parting ways.
We are seeing the explosive growth of mobile handsets. Predictions are for 1.8 billion new handsets this year globally.
When I was recently in Cannes at MIPTV (April 5, 2011), I did an interview with the CEO of Ericsson (Hans Vestberg). He was talking about the fact that over the next four years we are going to have 50 billion devices that can talk to each other, or that can communicate with each other; and that there are about 100 manufacturers of tablets (tablet personal computers) that are going to start manifesting themselves in the marketplace soon.
[Shipments of smart phones globally grew 66% to 292.9 million units in 2010 according to Strategy Analytics. Google announced in late 2010 that it was activating 300,000 handsets a day. iSuppli has forecast that Apple will ship 60 million iPhones in 2011. Apple sold 16.2 million iPhones during the 4th quarter of 2010.
Sales of tablet computers such as Apple's iPad will more than quadruple from 15 million worldwide in 2010 to 70 million this year, according to Gartner Inc.]
Apple’s iTunes dominates North America’s music market, but that isn’t true internationally.
No. Apple probably operates in 30 or 40 countries around the world but they certainly don’t have the depth that Sony has. Sony operates in almost 200 countries. Some people have said that (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs only likes to work in the territories that he’s familiar with or that he likes—or alternatively where there’s sufficient broadband computing power. That’s one of the reasons why he hasn’t set up in Africa. He’s done it in Australia because there’s a high penetration of broadband there. So that stands to reason.
Apple went into Asia with the iPhone in 2008.
They have done really great there. (The iPhone) is really a classic device story that has been a fantastic change agent. I remember when we were working closely with Nokia the week that the iPhone came out, and in the boardrooms of all of the competing handset makers, they were shocked. They all went into emergency meetings because (the iPhone) was a fundamental game changer.
[In January, 2011 Strategy Analytics reported that Nokia continues to dominate the mobile market with a 34.2% share followed by BlackBerry manufacturer RIM with 16.7%, and Apple with 16.2%.]
Hans Vestberg also talked about the rapid growth of mobile handsets in the developing markets.
Interestingly enough, the country the with biggest penetration of mobiles, at about 2 1/4 mobiles per individual, is Dubai.
I thought it might be India. Maybe, the market there has become saturated.
Not really. There are only 750 million (mobile subscribers) out of a population of 1.3 billion, and growing at (a rate of) 15 to 18 million (new phones) a month. So it’s still motoring pretty well. With Dubai, if you are living in one of those environments, and you want to go flirting with somebody, you want to do it with your private SIM card. That is what tends to happen.
In contrast to Western culture, Asian youth prefer to download their favorite songs onto their mobile devices rather than computers. Will China be the next big music market? There’s certainly been the explosion of mobile there.
Also with social networking in the form of a company like Top100.cn. Again, in China, you have to use an avatar (a graphical image that represents a person, as on the internet). You don’t use your name because people are still sensitive to the political considerations.
According to Chinese government figures, about 84% of China’s nearly 300 million Internet users download music over the Internet, and most of it is used for cell phone ring tones, and issues on music copyright there seem to be changing.
There are emerging signs showing that the Chinese are taking copyright more seriously. I know that when John Kennedy was the head of the IFPI, he had to tether the local copyright societies (there) on kind of the rules of the road; that they are also bound to honor the WTO edicts in relation to respecting intellectual property, and intellectual property rights.
With the rise of Chinese software development, there seems to be a growing sense of copyright in a way that is different from seven or eight years ago when it was much more of the Wild Wild East.
[Baidu, China's biggest search engine, is planning a licensed music search service Baidu Ting that will soon launch. The new service is expected to feature streaming, playlist creation and social networking. Baidu has long faced copyright battles with the international music community. It was accused of deep linking to unlicensed MP3 sites, but was cleared of contributory infringement in a court ruling in January, 2010.]
With the introduction of the iPhone, we are now seeing a significant growth in apps.
By the way the iPhone is only 2% of all handsets in the world. I think there are about 500,000 iPhone apps; 200,000 Android amps; and about 6,000 Blackberry apps.
Over eight billion app downloads?
It might even be more now.
[Apple has now delivered more than 10 billion downloads through its App Store. Android now has 200,000 different apps available for phones and tablets running on its operating system, but is still short of Apple's estimated 350,000 apps. Nokia has 30,000 different apps available on its Ovi store.
Revenue from mobile apps is forecasted to reach $15 billion this year, according to Gartner Inc. The company predicts that the number of apps downloaded this year will be 17.7 billion, a 117% increase from 2010.]
The smart phone market is really opening things up, and creating a new type of experience and with new types of revenue opportunities.
For me one of the best examples is the small little team (at Rovio Mobile) from Helsinki that created Angry Birds. They raised $40 million in funding. They are probably going to make between $30 and $40 million in profit. (The puzzle video game) has taken off like a rocket. What does happen now if you do have a hit with something is that it goes wide and deep really fast, which is what happened.
[Since being released in 2009, over 12 million copies of the Angry Birds game have been purchased from Apple's App Store.]
Overall, the music industry doesn’t seem to be dealing well with the mobile marketplace in terms of directly marketing to it.
I think that’s a fair comment. That does seem to be the case. It still hard to find acts or labels that are really trying to bring any kind of mobile A&R to the act. There are some managers who do it pretty well. But, I agree with you. It is because the ring tone is the dominant configuration at the moment. The ring tone business has become somewhat commoditized, and flat-lined.
In the developing world, it’s different because colloquial music content drives so much of mobile music. For example, in the African market, local language material is very, very popular.
The smart phone is as big a breakthrough in technology and potential music use as the transistor radio was in the ‘50s.
That’s very true. In fact, what seems to be the dominant theme is that there’s been a huge spike of video viewing on mobile devices. Wherever there is good connectivity, you are seeing huge amounts of video being downloaded. They say that 35 hours of video is uploaded on YouTube every minute. There are probably about five or six million smart phones worldwide. The rise and rise of smart phones is going to lead to much more visual music. That seems to be the trend line.
What problems do you see in the recording industry dealing with the changes in the mobile market?
You know that when this ring tone phenomenon started, we found that there seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between A&R, and the technology people. Technology was seen as new media, and was not fully embraced. It is much more so (embraced) now. What I do find though is that it’s hard to try to find unusual, artistically-creative thinking in mobile music. I think that there could be ways in which bands could be utilizing (mobiles) in a far more interesting way to deepen and glue their fan base to them, and to their music.
But, I think also what has happened is that over the past five to seven years, social media, and the glue that is social media, seems to be a much more potent form of connectivity than just the music. It is almost as if (music has) got its peripheral linkages. I don’t hear anyone saying, “We’re only going to put out a mobile album.”
There are still only a handful of top-notch technology experts working in the music industry.
There are a few. Someone like Rio Caraeff (president/CEO of VEVO) stands out because he comes from that (technology) background. Also, he’s a visual guy now, although his background wouldn’t suggest that. But you’re right, it’s an issue. It’s a problem.
It also seems that there is a conflict between the technology experts and the music people over the linkage between music and technology. The tech experts don’t know music, and the creatives don’t know technology and want to hang on to their control of content.
I think that’s an accurate supposition of yours. Definitely. But obviously, there are (knowledgeable) digital executives at the major labels. In my view, one of the very best is Michael Nash from Warner Music Group (executive VP, Digital Strategy and Business Development). He’s a real music guy, and he really understands the union between technology and music in a real interesting way. He’s a wonderful strategist. He’s in New York, and he’s fabulous. He’s so smart and he understands the linkage between music and technology.
There are now managers who understand how mobile content can accelerate music sales by improving the digital bundling of an artist's work.
What I am seeing is someone like Guy Oseary who is such a smart guy, and a smart manager. He’s thinking very much ahead. He’s formulating his architecture for the next Madonna outing. He wants to have a very comprehensive mobile strategy—mobile viewing, mobile product and so forth. But he wants to do it in such a way that it helps to accelerate social media as well as downloads, and also to give loyal fans extra stuff that (Madonna) can gift to them for their loyalty, so to speak. So, it is really fan relationship management in a sense.
Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter is very aware of doing things that bind her to her audience.
He’s very, very aware of mobile connectivity.
You’ve been talking to Troy about developing mobile bundles for Lady Gaga.
What we are looking at is a way in which we could get her to really have a foothold in such countries as Brazil, Russia, India, and China; as well as in Africa, and South America. What really drives these things (in these markets) is multi-local (content). In other words, if you can do something in Russian, even if it’s a chorus of a song in Russia, that will give you colloquial significance, and colloquial relevance.
In India, an artist can do something in English, but Hindi repertoire is 85% of the music sold in India. So if you can do something in Hindi—as we are planning to do with Gaga—that will, I think, open up a whole new vector for her.
Lady Gaga is so huge already in Europe, and in North America—but if she really wants to try and widen her social networking base significantly—it would be very wise to do what she is doing. Taking different languages, and making some colloquial relevance.
A new breed of cross-platform companies have sprung up. Digital companies which provide services are seen as a much safer investment than those requiring rights clearances and music licenses.
I think you are totally right. One of the companies that has done really well is GetJar in California. They have done well because they have zoned in specifically on applications. They do dozens, and dozens of applications, including music. One company that has great technology that has not got the coverage that I think they deserve is Tunewiki. On a global basis, it is certainly doing well on the popularity of the app, and the platform has been doing pretty well. There’s a lot of pickup and follow through on it.
[Independent app store GetJar recently secured $25 million in Series C funding from a number of investors including Tiger Global Management and Accel Partners. AllThingsDigital has reported GetJar has delivered 1.5 billion downloads for Android devices to date.]
When I heard about the 48 million (monthly visitors) for Metrolyrics, when I heard that number when I was in Canada (at Canadian Music Week last month), I had a mini-orgasm. I thought it was really fantastic to hear that. It also reinforced the fact that lyrics remain a very important search item.
Doesn’t the mobile market offer various revenue streams for music creators that were previously unavailable?
Yes, I think that is correct. People sometimes confuse the mobile business with the old singles’ business. It’s not that. There are some tracks that do really well if they have a particular following, but it’s a jukebox model. It’s seasonal. It’s hits. It’s great classic catalog. That seems to be the prevailing trend. I think that what is happening is that you are seeing music somehow subservient to social media stuff. So it might be woven into social, but I think that today’s generation sees music front and center of their media consumption consciousness. I think part of the reason is that, you are right, when someone is making an album do they sit down with someone like Michael Schneider, who runs Mobile Roadie and say, “We want to create some really amazing stuff. What should we do?" I haven’t seen much of that.
People aren’t just listeners anymore. They are using music in a cultural way. They are using music as social activity with their friends. It is an identifier with a group.
I think that you are completely right.
Digital on mobile allows for a new type of interaction with an audience.
Absolutely. Matt Drouin, who manages Metric, he’s really the technology guy, and he’s very, very aware of stuff like that. He’s one of the few managers mining this area well because he works hard at it; he puts stuff into practice that reinforces the group’s imprimatur. A very impressive manager.
You left Zomba Music Group in 1990?
By the end of the decade, the company would explode with releases by the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears.
Thanks to (Swedish producer) Max Martin.
How did it feel watching your baby from the sidelines?
Clive Calder and I did not finish on a good note. So for me, it’s always been bittersweet because, after the 20 years of working and building it up, it wasn’t an ending that I had worked toward. On the other hand, it has always been important that the spirit of what one does in a creative and personal sense, you have to be a joy bringer. And if there’s no joy bringing going on, then you shouldn’t be involved.
Were you squeezed out?
You have cited your leaving as having an “ethical disagreement” with Clive Calder.
Let me put it to you this way, I would not have done what took place during that period. It just goes against my nature to do that. But, by the same token, simultaneously, when I realized that Calder’s ego had just gotten out of control, I had always had an inkling about the link between technology and creativity. That was partly the reason for deciding to leave London, and the U.K. and to relocate to California and Silicon Valley.
I was in San Francisco for three years. (South African record producer) Hilton Rosenthal and I had a little record label, Rhythm Safari. We signed Carole King. The idea was to create a whole new label identity in San Francisco.
[Rhythm Safari Records initially concentrated on world music, but later developed to have success with releases by Carole King, Foreigner, Christopher Cross and Boyz Of Paradize. An Australian label with the same name was launched by Hilton Rosenthal in 1997.]
As I got more and more involved with the creative community in Silicon Valley, it became so self-evident that this was the future. The technology became that much more intriguing to me. It was really as a result of that that when I got approached by the EMI folks that I said if I could have full responsibility for creating new media. That was really the primary trigger that got me to go down (to Los Angeles) and join the Philistines (as executive VP of Capitol Records and Blue Note Records, and starting EMI Music’s global New Media division).
Given the $3 billion that BMG paid to purchase the remaining stake of Zomba in 2002, did you feel you were properly compensated when you left a decade earlier?
No. Definitely not. By the same token, you have to be happy with what you do. it’s not just about the money. If you are in a partnership that is successful, you should not abrogate the spirit of the partnership. (As an example) I used to watch (A&M Record co-founders) Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. Class acts. As it turned out, going to San Francisco, and being in that cohesive community at the start of the CD-ROM movement, greatly benefited me.
Did you know Clive from university?
He didn’t go to university. I knew him because we played in rival bands in the same town (Johannesburg). He had Calder’s Connection, and I played in the Bassmen when I was at university. I was doing a business degree. The Bassmen was just a human jukebox band. “Can you play ‘Hello Dolly?’ Can you play Pink Floyd? Can you play AC/DC?”
Were you two good musicians?
I was not a bad keyboard player and lead singer, and Clive was a good bass player. Being musicians was a tremendous benefit later on. As a publisher, if you can sit down with songwriters, and take them through chord sequences and play with them or show them where they can improve the song—well, that turned out to be a tremendously valuable attribute. I found that just by having a musical sensibility and understanding how to play an instrumental and all that stuff was of enormous value. I find that even now in the mobile space.
How did you and Clive come to work together?
I had won a scholarship to go to America in ’68 or ’69. I spent most of my time, instead of studying, at the Fillmore East. I came back to Johannesburg and I called him up and said, “Look man, I’ve been to America and there’s this whole new thing going on. Let’s put on the first open air festival in the country.” Which we did, and that ultimately led to us working together. He was then working as an A&R man at EMI, and I was working as an agent. We decided to start a label together, Bullet Records.
With what acts?
Local acts that were of no international consequence other than Richard Jon Smith, who looked like a young Tom Jones, and had a voice to match. He really became a phenomenon (in South Africa) because he was not white, and we managed to get the government to agree to allow his 17 piece band—that was based on a Motown revue type of format—to play in white venues. This was when apartheid was very much in the frame. We also managed to get his music played on the white radio stations.
[Simon and Calder produced Richard Jon Smith’s “Candlelight” which reached #11 in South Africa in 1972.]
In the years of building a record label in South Africa, we were exposed to the American and the British charts. If you got a cover out faster than the American or British release, then sometimes you would get the hit.
Who signed the infamous South African band Suck?
We both did. When I went on this American scholarship I met Shep Gordon who was managing Alice Cooper. We really tried to make (Suck) like a little African Alice Cooper. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the expertise that Shep had for that kind of act. It raised some eyebrows, but it didn’t sell any records.
[During South Africa’s apartheid regime, Simon and Calder signed heavy metal band Suck to EMI. South Africans were startled by posters in the street saying “Time to Suck.” The band lasted about six months.]
Was it the smallness of the South African market that led to you two doing everything, including concert promotion, management, and production?
That’s precisely correct. You had to do everything. And, if you were looking for quality control in some form, you had to find the acts; you had to nurture them in the studio; you had to produce them, and then promote the records. There were some (club and concert) promoters, but not major promoters. So you had to go out and promote. Because 95% of the acts on the label were black or R&B acts, we had to promote in areas that white guys normally wouldn’t go to.
You and Clive emigrated to London in 1975.
What was interesting was that we found that in the U.K. record industry—and the U.S. record industry to a certain extent—you specialized in a particular area, but you didn’t have the broad, all-round exposure and experience (like in South Africa).
Your experiences in South Africa must have prepared you for the British market.
In retrospect, to be able to see the real 360 degree process (in South Africa) where you had faith in your own creative judgment in terms of the acts and the songs—the writing of the songs, the productions values and so forth—I think all of those were tremendous vital lessons to learn when coming into the English environment, which in itself was going through a cataclysmic change with the advent of the punk movement where bands were playing with speed and energy rather than necessarily with elegant musicianship.
Had Mutt Lange been playing on that same band circuit with you and Clive in South Africa?
Mutt is originally from Zambia. His father worked (as an engineer) in the mines there. He had quite a childhood moving about from place to place. He was someone who loved hooks, and loved chord constructions. He always used to stress that you have the principal hook, and then you have four hooks in counterpoint flecking the major hook.
Mutt was very much into the Eagles, and the Eagles-kind-of-sound. Then he formed a band with his first wife (Stevie). He got a two singles’ deal with Atlantic Records. Phil Carson (then the European GM of Atlantic Records) signed him but nothing happened to that.
Mutt came to London before you and Clive.
He was there just a short time before because of the Atlantic Record deal. He rented a house. We lived in an area in Surrey near him. Then we went and pounded the pavements to try and see if we could get him some (production) work. It was Nigel Grainge (then head of A&R at Phonogram UK) that really gave him a shot—first with City Boy, and then with Graham Parker. Then Simon Draper at Virgin gave him a shot.
We recognized in Mutt that here was a guy who was really a cut above. Mutt was so talented that anything that he did—any album that he produced—you knew you could just rely on his sheer excellence, creative ingenuity and so forth. He is probably the closest shoe-filler (as a producer) to Quincy Jones. If you look at his track record over the past 30 years, it is really substantial.
Zomba didn’t start in South Africa?
It started in London. We had about 15 minutes to come up with a name to give to the accountants to register a company.
You registered the company in Switzerland.
That was partly due to the fact that if you are not born in the U.K. and if you are born in the British Commonwealth, you were only taxed on money that you brought in the U.K. but not money that you earned outside of the U.K. That is the reason for that structure.
City Boy was your first major band as managers.
We were approached by Nigel who said that the band had a manager who was a hairdresser who didn’t really understand the business. Might we be interested in managing the act? We thought we didn’t have anything else going for ourselves, and this would give us the opportunity to understand the record company politics; and be a way that we might be able to get an opening.
City Boy gave you access into the North American market.
Canada was a key market for them. We even went to Sudbury (in northern Ontario). That was all part of being on the road then. Subsequently, they got seven weeks as the opening act for Hall and Oates (in the U.S.). All of that was designed to try and see whether the Poor Man’s Supertramp could actually break their shackles, and have an original success; but, aside from one minor hit (“188.8.131.52”), it didn’t happen.
Among the acts you brought to Clive Davis at Arista for distribution on Jive Records were A Flock of Seagulls, and Whodini.
We had a hit ("I Ran (So Far Away)”) with A Flock of Seagulls, and they became emblematic of the skinny tie movement.
How did the connection with Clive Davis develop?
We got to meet Clive and we found that with him we could really talk the record business. Clive really liked Mutt as a producer. We got Mutt the Michael Stanley Band (album) on Arista (“Cabin Fever” in 1978), and then the Outlaws (“Playing To Win” in 1978). What we always took some exception to was that Clive Davis always thought he should do edits on Mutt’s mixes. We said, “Up with this, we shall not put.” As much as Clive likes to be involved with stuff like that, we couldn’t allow that to happen with Mutt.
Of course, Mutt’s career soon exploded.
I remember us getting him AC/DC in 1979. We suggested to AC/DC that they needed to improve their backing vocals. Make it a little more commercial, but without losing their edge. It was a big fight to get them to do that on “Highway To Hell” but it proved to be correct.
Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” in 1984 was Jive Record’s first #1 in America.
What had happened is that Billy had first recorded that as “European Queen” (reaching #82 on the U.K. chart). We took it into Clive Davis, and we tested it with some radio stations in New York. It just didn’t get any traction. Billy’s then manager, Laurie Jay, said, “A lot of Americans go to the Caribbean on vacation. Why don’t we just change that word?” I went back into the studio and dropped that one word in, and took it back to Clive Davis and Richard Palmese at Arista, and (the track) got traction almost immediately.
We had made that record to mimic the rhythm of (Michael Jackson’s 1983) “Billie Jean.” That rhythm was so popular at the time. We used to try—not to copy exactly—but certainly try to pay homage would be a better way of saying it.
“Caribbean Queen” was Jive’s breakthrough in America.
The record was huge at the time. It got the company going. We felt that it justified Clive Davis’ faith in the emerging label. After the Billy Ocean era, we started having some big hits with some of the American talent. It was also around that period that all of rap and hip hop started to emerge and that was around the same period that Will Smith was signed (as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince with his childhood friend Jeffrey "DJ Jazzy Jeff" Townes as well as Ready Rock C).
Samantha Fox became a huge hit soon afterwards.
But she could never really sing, and she was more a model in The Sun.
As Zomba became more successful how were the roles broken down between you and Clive?
It was all very hands-on in every respect because the company was only the two of us plus three other people. So you had to do everything. Clive always had very good A&R sensibilities. But we would both make a point of trying to learn as much as we could. Just try to seep it all in. The roles were not specifically defined. It was really just about trying to grow. Find and sign talent.
And then as the business got bigger, we had to segment the U.K. from America. We opened an office in Chicago because there was a whole Chicago scene that had started to emerge, opened an office in Nashville, and then we got Neil Portnow in L.A. (in 1989).
Publishing became a huge chunk of Zomba.
We established an early relationship with Dave Robinson, and the Stiff Records team, which then led to us signing Elvis Costello’s publishing. That led to the Boomtown Rats’ publishing. Then the American office was opened in New York (in 1978). We always felt that we could have a very good affinity with America because of all of the experience and understanding, and loving R&B.
Well, you are also probably “the step-father of heavy metal” signing Iron Maiden for publishing in 1979.
That’s right. Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, the Scorpions, and AC/DC. I also always loved Rickey Medlocke (frontman/guitarist of Blackfoot) but we could never get anything going for him. I always thought he was a guy with a lot of sass.
Zomba administered Bruce Springsteen’s publishing for the U.K. early on.
And the Village People. You can’t get better pop hits than those.
Considering the range of acts that you and Clive worked with—from City Boy to Tight Fit to A Flock of Seagulls—someone once said they could never figure out your and Clive’s musical taste because it was all over the place.
If anything, it was broad simply because we didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a particular area. I remember afterwards seeing Martin Mills, and seeing what he did with Beggar’s Banquet, which stayed very much in that indie frame. We always loved good pop. If you had a good pop hit it, you’d have a hit all over the world. It’s the pop hits that always did great. I remember being influenced in the early years by Johnny Nash. Records like “Guava Jelly,” "Comma Comma," and “I Can See Clearly Now” —all of that stuff.
In the mid ‘90s, you championed ring tones and mobile connections with your company Yourmobile. What was the response from the music industry?
In the early days, when we were trying to get licenses from the various music publishers, it was around the time when (Napster founder) Shawn Fanning was on the front cover of Time magazine. It was still the time of polyphonic (ring tones). So if you wanted to use some copyrighted material, you had to get the rights from the publishers. Being that it was just instrumental, you didn’t need lyrics. You needed the melody per se.
At first, nobody wanted to give your company licenses.
In fact, we got sued by EMI Music (Publishing)—me personally for $45 million, and the company for $45 million on the basis that we were pirates. We had struggled to try to get EMI to understand the coming future technology. This was when Marty Bandier was the chairman of EMI. Marty, in his own way, is actually very innovative. It was his deputy, the #2 guy there, Bobby Flaxs (then executive VP of EMI Music Publishing), somehow we got on his goat. EMI basically sued us and put out a press release accusing us of being pirates.
There was a lot of paranoia going around in that period in the music industry over illegal downloading of music.
Our strategy then was fee aggregation. Get a ring tone free. As soon as we got the law suit, we got a lot of press around it and we saw the aggregation go up like crazy. Fortunately, we had a wonderful lawyer in L.A., John Frankenheimer. I called up John, and asked, “What do we do?” He said, “I’ll call Marty and find out.” He came back and said, “If you guys have $150,000, we can settle this. Once this is settled, maybe, they can talk about a license. $150,000? We were a start-up (company).
So what did you do?
We were very fortunate that we had taken out an E&O Policy, an errors and omissions policy, which is a policy that you can take out when you make a movie or television program for the inadvertent use of copyrighted material. We got paid out by the insurance company. So, in start-up land where you are making these ring tones available for free, this was a godsend. It also got the company going and that ultimately led to the company being acquired by Vivendi Universal.
Certainly, these publishers weren’t unknown to you.
I remember going to all of the publishers, laying it out to them, and telling them there was a lot of potential. There was only one publisher who saw this as an opportunity for the future. Jody Graham Dunitz, who was running the west coast office of Sony/ATV Music (as executive VP of Sony/ATV Music Publishing) basically said, “I think that this is great. I will give you guys a license.” I said, “Will it include Norah Jones, and the Beatles? She said, “Absolutely.”
We thought that if we could get one (publisher) the others would follow. It wasn’t as easy as that. But once things were sorted out at EMI, we started to see the situation changing. But there must have been dozens of meetings with various publishers, extolling the value and the virtues of this new world that was coming.
At the time, because America was about two and a half years behind Asia, you could only give colloquial examples from Korea and Japan, which didn’t have the same resonance. People in the music business (in the U.S.) would say, “Well, that’s Japanese content,” or “That’s Korean content.”
All that has changed.
There’s been a whole set of changes. Social media has lowered a lot of barriers. But what I find that I miss in this whole space is trying to find an Ahmet Ertegun or the Nesuhi Ertegun of mobile. I guess you have to look at Steve Jobs who has lost the plot a little bit or in signs that there is going to be an (alliance) between Microsoft and Nokia. In terms of the other handsets, music needs to be adrenalized. There needs to be a much more creative approach to it which has always been the case with music.
The music industry continues to be wary because many label and publishing executives figure that MTV built an empire on the music industry’s backs.
They sure did. I remember David Geffen making a comment in the early frame of MTV, saying that it was the death of the music business because (labels) had to spend all of this money making videos that might not get a lot of rotation. It was a cost centre rather than a profit centre.
Of course, Vevo has changed that.
What Rio has done is really interesting. A lot of people attribute Doug Morris as the guy who did the original deal with iTunes for the (music) industry. But, he’s also the guy that basically had the idea for Vevo—this whole notion of music video as a profit centre which, of course, we wouldn’t have been able to do this without a YouTube precedent.
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: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”