This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Barry Dickins, co-managing director, International Talent Booking Agency.
After a near half-century in the live music business as an agent and promoter, Barry Dickins still has a rookie’s spirit.
Although Dickins may talk amusingly of the past-- including arranging gigs for the Who, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Nice, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Redding and others--he absolutely refuses to live in it, and has no patience for those who resent changes in the industry.
He also has no patience for those who aren’t passionate about what they do or aren’t prepared to work hard for success.
Along with co-managing director partner Rod MacSween, Dickins has guided the mammoth International Talent Booking Agency, headquartered in London, England, since 1978.
Today, ITB’s roster of more than 200 acts includes: Adele, Mumford & Sons, Maroon 5, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, North Mississippi Allstars, Wintersleep, James Blake, and others.
Dickins himself represents such artists as Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub, John Fogerty, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Seal, Jamiroquai, Neil Young, and ZZ Top.
ITB is also one of the leading concert promoters in Britain.
The Dickins family are UK music industry royalty.
Barry’s grandfather had a knife throwing act in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the early 20th century. Barry’s father Percy co-founded the New Musical Express. His brother Rob was chairman of Warner Music UK.
Barry’s son Jonathan operates September Management which handles the management of Adele, Jack Peñate, Tom Vek, Rick Rubin, King Krule, Richard Russell, Tom Elmhirst, and Jamie T.
Daughter Lucy Dickins is an ITB agent with an impressive roster that includes Adele, Mumford & Sons, Jack Peñate, Jamie T, and others.
Being 66, is retirement on the horizon?
Will you work for as long as you can?
As long as I enjoy it. This is a phenomenal business. I’ve made a decent amount of money. I could do with a bit more, but I suppose everybody would say that. But I’ve made a very good living doing something that I love doing. Working mainly with people that I respect; and working with young people. I’m an old man, and I have these young people come in, and you get their vibe.
I recently went out to dinner with some friends that I’ve known since I was 16. They are really nice people, but boy are they boring. I suddenly thought, “I am so different than you.”
In this business, you do have to know when to step aside.
I don’t want somebody to say,” He was great in his day.” Not while I can still be meaningful. (Being a veteran agent), you take on a different role. There are all these people who get me excited. The kids in the office get me excited. New bands get me excited. I don’t like all of them (musically), but they get me excited. You’ve got at look at it, and you have to appreciate stuff. It makes you listen.
You know my musical tastes. It’s the same as yours. I still love the Clash. It’s still one of my favorite bands of all time. They were exciting. They were great. A great rock and roll band.
There are still going to be other bands that come along. I’ve watched Mumford & Sons come along. It’s my daughter Lucy’s act. It’s not mine. I have very little to do with them. I went to see them in a little club in London with 150 people. They just sold out the Olympic Park with 60,000 tickets. That’s how big they have become.
[Mumford & Sons will headline London's Olympic Park on July 6, 2013. The outdoor event is the first headline show to take place on the renovated Olympic site. The event will also feature Vampire Weekend, Ben Howard, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Haim and Bear's Den on the bill.]
You now can provide younger people with advice.
What you do changes slightly (as you get older). But I’m not sitting there every day (doing nothing). I’m in demand. I’m booking bands every day. But I am also giving help to youngsters who come along because that’s the future. The future is development. You’ve got to develop them young.
Somewhere along the way you think, “Hey, I don’t want to be this guy who used to be great. That used to be great 30 years ago.” That would worry me. Luckily I still have some acts that are cool. They were great acts. They are still great acts. Neil Young is still a cool act. So they are relevant. I am still putting people onto Roskilde Festival (in Denmark) which is one of the great festivals. I am still putting people on Glastonbury. It’s not like I’m stuck doing none of that. If it came to that (doing nothing) I’d go, “You know Barry? You’ve had a great fucking run.”
What has made you a good agent? Your negotiating skills?
I don’t know. That’s not for me to say. I think it’s for other people to say.
Do you think you are a good agent?
I do. I am a very good agent. The thing about being a good agent is not necessarily about trying to get the biggest amount of money (for a client). That’s not a good agent. That’s a bully. I try to get the right amount of money for my client. Obviously, I fight for all that I can, and I get them as much as I can within reason. But I also worry about ticket prices. I don’t gouge people on ticket prices, especially in these times. Where you read about Spain with 28% unemployment and 57% of that is 18 to 25 year olds. That’s our market for God’s sake. You want to kill it? So, it’s just not the money.
[With about 1.8 million Spaniards under the age of 30 out of work, and an unemployment rate of 57% for those aged under 25, the life chances for a generation is worse than for those born a decade before.]
Wasn’t International Talent Booking owned by manager Don Arden originally?
He owned a third of it. In 1984 we bought him out. It was Rod (MacSween) and Don’s or it might have been just Don’s. It started in ’76. Rod and I got together in ’78. So I tend to think that ITB didn’t exist until 1978. Everything that we celebrate is always from 1978.
When ITB opened, one of its big acts was Electric Light Orchestra which Don Arden managed.
We had ELO, the Kinks, and Fleetwood Mac. In 1978, ELO did 8 nights at Wembley Arena, and after that Fleetwood Mac did 10 nights at Wembley Arena. We promoted both of them.
Rod came from the Bron Agency?
Yes. Ironically, I had tried to headhunt Rod when I was at MAM (Agency). He wanted too much money. I thought, “Blimey, I’m not going to ask somebody who wants more money than me.” I didn’t think he was as good as me (as an agent). I still don’t think he’s as good as me. But he will argue that.
ITB has a good balance of veteran and young agents who are probably out every night looking at acts.
I think so, yeah. We’ve got some good people here. The best way to represent anybody is to be passionate about them. So if somebody is going to be passionate about a certain act we go, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.” I have to be driven by their passion. And that applies to the junior agents and to the other agents. I don’t sit there and go, “No, you can’t take on.” I say, “Hey, if you really want to do this, then go ahead and do it.”
Do you get caught up in their enthusiasm?
Of course I do. You mention going out every night, and I don’t. My days of going out every night are well over. Of course, I did that when I was their age. I did. I don’t know how I stayed married. I was out every bloody night.
When I was young music journalist, I’d be out six nights a week in clubs.
(Laughing) Sometimes eight (for me). If you are passionate about something, that passion, I think, follows through. Their passions are different to mine. The type of music that they are into. Not always, but a lot of the time. We’ve got clients here that, personally would I listen to them at home? No. But they (the agents) are passionate about it. Nine times out of ten, I am proven wrong because the bands seem to come through.
Over the decades, the role of an agent hasn’t really changed. The job is to find work for clients.
Well, yes. The basic job hasn’t changed at all. You are right. It is to find work. You find it, and you negotiate it. But now what you have to do is so much more than when I first started. It’s completely different world. A completely different world.
Is that due to the breakdown of the traditional recording industry infrastructure?
I think so. And I think that we--and I’m am talking the live entertainment business--we have to be careful that things don’t go past us. It’s easily done. You have to think of ways of being a bit different than the guy next to you because most agents, if you are decent, are doing the same job. So why does an act come with you? They come with you for your personality; the kind of clients that you represent; and you try to bring something else that is new that somebody else doesn’t. That’s what we have to do. We have to reinvent ourselves, slightly.
You been able to maintain long-term relationships many of your clients, including with Neil Young, whom you have represented since 1968.
I looked after all of Elliot Robert and David Geffen’s acts when they were together as Geffen-Roberts Management
It was 8 years of working with Bob Dylan before he spoke to you?
You began working with Bob Dylan many years ago.
Thirty years ago, I think. Elliot Roberts managed him, and Elliot gave him to me. I remember that Bob was over here (in the UK) making a movie. He had this house in Holland Park, which was enormous, and I had to go and meet him. He was in a room watching TV with sunglasses on. I thought, “Hmmmm.” He said about two words to me, and he didn’t talk to me for years. I got a couple of grunts. Suddenly in Singapore, he started talking to me, and he has talked to me since. Are we best friends? No. but, he talks to me.
ITB started doing concert promotion with David Geffen and Elliot Roberts as well.
We’ve done quite a bit over the years. This was in the days of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, & Nash and Young, America, Poco, the Eagles. It was everybody. They (David and Elliot) managed all of them.
Basically what happened is that David Geffen came into the office and said, “Look, we have the biggest acts in the world. If you want to sell them to a promoter in England that’s fine, but we are not going to pay you a commission. Or you can promote them.”
I thought, “Promote?” I had promoted a couple of little dances when I was a kid. I did that to keep my hand in.
What was the deal?
The deal was 90%. They got 90% of the net. This was before we had VAT (Value Added Tax) and PRS (collecting society) was 2%. And they didn’t want a guarantee. I looked at it (the deal), and went, “Hold on. This is fabulous. As long as I pay the rent, advertising, and the PRS.” This was also in the days before you spent $6,000 or $7,000 a show on catering. You didn’t have 60 stage hands. You had 6 guys or something. I thought, “As long as I make more than that, I’m on a win here.” So I did it. Of course, Elliot later changed it, and asked for a guarantee. Now I have to pay him the same as everybody else.
You also have promoted Diana Ross in the UK since 1982
I just felt that we could do very well. I could charge a decent ticket price because she hadn’t been here. It worked out very successfully. That was 1982, and I have promoted her ever since.
Talk about some of ITB’s younger agents, Emma Hogan and Liam Keightley.
Emma came here as an intern as, in fact, did Liam. He studied at Leeds University and got his degree in the music industry which always makes me laugh. What you can learn in three years. I’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years, and I still am learning.
On what level do new people come into the agency? It used to be as a tea boy or girl
Pretty much, yeah. Since they are university graduates, they don’t start off as tea boys or girls. But the kids today, if they have got some idea of what’s going on--and most of these people who have been at university have been social secretaries so they have an understanding and knowledge--they come in, and we usually give them the terrible jobs. It is kind of our version of the mail room (in American agencies). If we are impressed with them, we tend to keep them on which is what happened with both Emma and Liam. They both ended up being assistants. Emma was an assistant to Steve Zapp, and Liam was an assistant to my daughter Lucy. They both learned the ropes like I did when I started.
They (new employees) start off as an assistant, which is the best way to learn. You are picking up the phone. You are talking to people. You get to know who the right people are and you develop relationships. That normally lasts two years. If somebody has got something, we promote them to pretty much a junior agent (position) rather than agent. They aren’t full-fledged agents yet. They are, but they aren’t. They are junior agents.
Can a junior agent sign artists?
Well, they can sign. They have to say, “I’d really like to take on this band.” Generally, if somebody is passionate about something, we let them do it as long as they have got time to do all of the other jobs which is normally assisting an agent. So if they can fit it in, that is normally what we do. We are doing it here now. We have two young guys Chris Payne and James Simmons, both working with Lucy, and they have both taken on their own bands.
You must be immensely proud of having Jonathan and Lucy in the music business and doing so well.
Let me tell you, it’s been great. That is the proudest achievement of anything I’ve ever done. Watching those two grow. Hopefully, I had something to do with some of their success. I hope that being part of the family rubbed off on them.
Have Lucy and Jonathan always listened to you?
No (laughing). What kids do? They probably tell me to “fuck off” most of the time.
Jonathan started out in the recording industry?
Originally, he started at MCA. What happened was that my brother Rob was running Warners and every time that he tried to sign an act Jonathan’s name came up. He went, “I don’t want my nephew signing acts, and not working for me.” So he hired him. I don’t know to this day whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. You have to be very tough when you have kids that work with you. You want to earn their merits not because they are your children.
[Barry’s brother Rob joined Warner Bros Music Publishing in 1971, and was appointed managing dir. in 1974. Rob was appointed International VP of the company in 1979. In 1983, he became the chairman of Warner Music UK, and remained in that role until 1998. The following year, he launched the Instant Karma label. In the 2002 Queen's Birthday Honours, Rob was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the UK music industry.]
Also many people think the kids get a free skate when often they don’t.
My two do their own thing. I do try and guide them. But I think a lot of the things I say are right, and then they will argue back, and I will go, “You are right and I am wrong.”
Did you advise Jonathan against doing management when he launched September Management in 2006?
It was something that he wanted to do. He tried the record business, and he had some moderate success. Was he the King of A&R men? Probably not. But he was moderately successful. He’s very likeable, and he really grew up. Now I am really impressed with him, even if he wasn’t my son. I am totally proud of him, and of Lucy.
Didn’t Lucy jump right into the agency side of the business?
Yeah. Ironically, she studied film. In England, we have slightly different education system. She fancied doing her A levels which is what you take at 16 to 18, depending on how well you do, it leads to what university you can go to. She wanted to study film. She was just really into film. It wasn’t on the curriculum. I took her out of the school, and she studied her A levels at her college which did film on the curriculum. She got her A levels on film studies.
Then she decided that she didn’t want to go to university, she’d rather work. She asked, “Who do you know in the film business dad?” I said, “No one. You’d better write letters.” The same thing happened with Jonathan as well. Jonathan said, “I’d end up getting a degree in geography. What’s good is that for me? I don’t want to become a geography teacher.”
So they both wrote letters to everybody. Of course, it was the usual thing. With most of them, you don’t get a reply. The ones that you do get a reply say that you don’t have any experience.
Jonathan did actually get a job at MCA, but Lucy couldn’t get a job because she didn’t have any experience. So I sent her to Queens College of Business, where she learned something that is probably no use to anybody now called shorthand. She graduated top of her class. She did very well. So I said, “Okay now go get and get yourself a job.” She looks for a job, and doesn’t get a letter back. Couldn’t get a job.
So I said, “C’mon I need somebody to assist me. I had an assistant at the time, and I hired Lucy to be like a second assistant and hopefully she would find a job eventually. She stayed with me for awhile, and did very well. Then she became David Levy’s assistant. She did very well with David. Then she went to work at a label (Coalition Recordings) that Peter Waterman was involved with. Lucy became a product manager at a record company. She did so well that she became the European Product Manager for a label that had one hit. They had the UK or European rights to the Sarah Brightman/ Andrea Bocelli duet “Time To Say Goodbye” (1997). She was doing all of this stuff and working with all of these different bands which got into Europe.
To make a long story short, Warners bought the company, and then closed it down. She didn’t have a job. So she came back here. and worked for me again and did very well. Then she said, “I want to be an agent.” So I said, “Okay but you get no favors. You better be good at this. Thankfully, she was and is.”
North Americans think of Adele and Mumford & Sons as being overnight successes. In fact, these two acts played all of the dives in the UK before breaking through in North America.
Of course, they did. We call those “toilet tours. But that’s part of growing up. Years ago, people did what was called an apprenticeship. If you wanted to be a mechanic, you did a three, four or five year apprenticeship. Basically, that’s what artists need to do. They have to learn their trade, and that’s how you learn it. That’s what’s wrong with this bloody business, right now. Too many people want to be successful by being on a talent show on television. They think they know it all. They don’t.
While there have been past successes for artists on reality TV shows, the producers aren’t interested in building careers. They are in the TV business.
Yes. And they are going to show you the drama, and on the program are people who haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of doing anything. They are laughable. Why are they on the program? Because they make the program more entertaining. You always get someone who has their father dying or their mother is dead. All of the sub-stories. It’s emotions that they (the producers) are playing with. It’s a TV show. Look, (as an artist) you become a can of beans. You stack them up high, and then you sell them.
What is it about the grind of touring that so improves a band?
Practice. Practice makes perfect. It also hardens artists. Most of these acts when they are doing the van up and down the country; they are not exactly in the high luxury. They are staying in B&Bs. They are giving up a lot. It’s hard work. It’s hard work with very little financial return. They are lucky to break even or barely earn a minimum wage.
But what makes them better?
I think that it (the touring) teaches them. It’s the school of hard knocks.
Do you think it’s from focusing firmly their careers?
I think they go out there, and they think, “I want to do this. I really want to do this. And I want to do this at the best of my ability. I’m going to work and work and work until I get what I think is great.” I think that is what does it. It’s like everything, Larry. If you want something, you really have to want it, and you have to do something about it. None of us have a given right, no matter what we do, to have something without working. I think that everything in life you have to work for.
While many music industry filters have been eliminated--like recording in a studio or finding a label—the performing filter remains intact.
Live music is still live music. If you look at everything else that we do, you can enhance it. It can become HD. Then it’s going to become 3D, 4D and God knows how many other Ds we are allowed. You can clean up records. I have bought records that sometimes that are too sanitized.
Bring back mono, that’s my motto.
The big difference (with other aspects of the music business) is that when an artist performs live, they’ve got an instant reaction. Now how many CDs, downloads or whatever they do get that reaction? Yeah, they can say, “I have sold one million or 10 million, whatever.” That’s a nice thing for the banks, but they don’t get that reaction of live, especially if they are good live. Because my business has always been live, it amazes me when people tell me that they don’t want to work. I think, “You play an arena, and you’ve got 15,000 or 20,000 people screaming because they came to see you, and they are having a great time. How can you beat that?”
Recently, I interviewed Debra Rathwell, senior VP, AEG Live. She said that she looks for a “sticky” factor” with any new artist. The artist might have millions of hits on YouTube, but that doesn’t mean you can sell tickets. We have a lot of acts today that aren’t “sticky.”
We do. No doubt about it. An artist has to have something that sets them apart from other people. I have seen acts that come out and, “Wow, they are incredible.” I even gone and seen acts that I don’t particularly care for, but I come out saying, “Well, it’s not my kind of music. but I get it. it’s wildly successful.” But there are a lot of people I’ve seen, as well, that they are about as exciting as watching paint dry.
And it’s about having a team.
That’s what you always have to remember. You need a good manager. You need a good promoter. You need a good agent. You need a good record company. That’s (releasing music via labels) all changed now because a lot of people now are doing it on the internet. The internet is huge.
One of your complaints about is that many bands tour too much.
I don’t get that. I don’t see why. But the money that is involved when you are hot, hot, hot is substantial.
And the market is bigger than ever.
Yes, and, because it is such a big market, why do they have to do all of that. I remember once talking to Dylan. I said, “Why do you work this much?” His answer was, “It’s my job.” I said, “Well, you are hardly a plumber.” He said, “That’s my job.” Look at people from the old school like B.B. King. He can barely walk, he’s 87 years old (doing 100 shows a year).
For some acts, the alternative to touring may be working in a hardware store.
That’s true. I don’t understand why people—I’m doing myself a disservice here because we only make money out of artists if they tour. We want acts that tour. But it’s a big world out there. Yesterday, I booked an act in Angola. Now China and India opening up. There are so many places. The great thing about this is business is that it’s international. Everyday something new and exciting happens.
Decades ago, booking acts in Germany and France that was going afar for a UK agent.
I can remember being worried about “This guy wants to do Italy, and Spain. Oh my God.” Now these are major markets, and we are into Turkey, and now India is starting to open up. China has already started to open up. They have got a lot of venues there. This is a country with 50 cities with more than 10 million people in them. They have over a billion people.
[China is the largest country in the world today. In Jan. 2013, the Chinese government released data confirming that the population of China was an impressive 1,354,040,000. India, the next largest country, has 100 million fewer people, for a population of 1,210,193,422. The United States, the third largest country in the world, has a much smaller population of 315 million.]
The most successful festivals have been going for decades. It seems everybody thinks, “A festival, that’s the way to make money.” At the same time, every time you turn around, there’s another festival going under.
Yes. A festival, if you get it right, it’s a very lucrative business. But Peace & Love (started in 1999) in Sweden just went broke. This is a festival that had 48,000 people there last year.
The fact is there are too few major headliners for too many festivals.
Well, the problem is that everybody thinks that they are a headliner. Everybody thinks they are a headliner. And do you know what? They are. But not necessarily to 50,000 people.
All the new acts want to do festival tours.
Of course, they do. They say, “We’ve done the club tour. We didn’t make any money. We starved the death for five years. Now, here’s our chance, let’s get some money.” Hopefully, with publishing and record sales or whatever, they will make some money anyway.
What do you tell young bands seeking to be on a festival if they aren’t really all that known?
I tell them, “Okay, if you are on a festival at 10 AM, nobody is going to give a fuck. You better off waiting and doing something, and we’ll put you on at a decent time. Why do a festival for the sake of doing a festival? Do it when you have something to say and you can put yourself in a good position.”
Festivals are good for some things, and bad for other things. It depends on the act. It depends on when they are on. And it depends on what’s going on with then. It depends on a lot of factors.
Most of the magic I’ve seen live with acts has been in smaller indoor venues.
I don’t think that I disagree with that. The acoustics are better. You aren’t that far away. What I play people in smaller venues than they normally play, and people says that the ticket prices are high, I say, “Hold on a minute. The worst seat in this theater is better than half of the great seats in an arena.”
I remember going to see Michael Jackson at Wembley. I had actually promoted Michael Jackson in Cardiff prior to that. I went to see him at Wembley. I thought, “I must be mad.” I’m sitting in a royal box of best seats, half way back, and high up. I’m looking (at the stage) thinking, “I may as well watch this on TV.” Onstage, he looked about two inches high.
A lot of people get off on it (the festival experience). I’ve enjoyed festivals. I enjoyed the Isle of Wight Festival. I have enjoyed Glastonbury and Redding at times. There are other times I think, “What am I doing in this all this mud?” That’s why I love Montreux. Even if it pisses with rain, all I have to do is cross the street to go inside a building that is warm and dry, and has good acoustics. My wife’s line is, “I’m too old to stand in a field. I don’t care where the field is. I’m not standing in a field. I’ve done all that for years. I’m not doing that anymore.”
It was a great shock losing Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs this year.
Yes, I agree. Claude was one of my best friends. This was a guy who had a dream, worked hard at it, and the dream came through. When I first knew him he was at the Montreux Tourism office. He worked for Raymond Jussi as his assistant. He came into my office with a bloody knapsack on his back. I thought, “He’s going to yodel in a minute.” He said to me, “I’m going to do this festival.” What the hell is he talking about? Then we started talking, and this guy was like an encyclopedia. His father was the Montreux baker. Hs father made him go for hotel management classes in Lausanne in Switzerland. Claude was a fantastic chef. He loved music. He just loved music.
[Montreux Jazz Festival founder and GM Claude Nobs died on Jan. 10, 2013 after suffering a skiing accident that left him in a coma.
The son of a local baker, and once an apprentice cook himself, Nobs transformed Montreux, Switzerland into a Mecca for musicians from around the world. The first Montreux musical events in 1963 were small blues concerts that Nobs put together with a bunch of friends as the Association For The Youth Of Montreux. Then, he started to work for the Montreux Tourism office and was involved with the Golden Rose television festival. The first Montreux Jazz Festival was staged in 1967. Nobs was also is the managing director of Warner Music Switzerland.]
Almost all the performances at Montreux Jazz Festival have been taped, and filmed. An exception is Bob Dylan’s 1994 performance, which you booked.
Dylan has never recorded (live shows). It was one of Dylan’s great shows. It was a shame it wasn’t recorded. That’s what he wants, we don’t record anything.
[During his Montreux Jazz Festival performance, Bob Dylan suddenly realized he wasn’t playing to an average crowd. He stopped the performance, and said, “Let's go acoustic.” After the show, Dylan said to Claude Nobs, “I hope you still recorded that. It was my best show in 10 years.” Nobs reportedly said, “No, I gave you my word.”]
With your father Percy a saxophonist into Coleman Hawkins, you and Claude would have a mutual jazz connection?
Yeah (laughing), I hated all that. What a noise. John Coltrane, Chico Hamilton. I remember them now. And it’s so funny because as you get older, you turn to your kids. I remember my dad saying, “What is this Rolling Stones all about? I remember him with Dave Clark. He came in and said, “This guy’s a drummer? I bet Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich are really terrified.”
It will 50 years next year when you started in the music business. You started at 17.
(When I started working in the music business) I thought, “I am surrounded by music. I am surrounded by talented people. Most of them talented, and I am getting paid to do something that I love. “Wow, I think I’ve won the lottery.”
Your father running NME, and introducing The Music charts in the UK, must have provided you with a front seat to what was happening in the British music in the ‘60s.
He gave me some advice, and that was about it. It was, “Hey, you want to do this? Then go and do it.” I thought, “Wow.” I had left school at 16. I became a junior stock broker. I hated it. Hated it.
[Born in London's East Ham, Percy Dickins left school at 14 to work in the advertising department of the magazine publishers George Newnes. A saxophonist, he performed with numerous local dance hall bands to supplement his wages.
By the end of the 1940s, Percy was working in the advertising department of the Melody Maker, the music trade paper.
In 1952, Percy along with entrepreneur Maurice Kinn, and editor Ray Sonin founded the New Musical Express as a rival to Melody Maker.
It was Percy who came up with an idea that changed the British music business forever. in the early 1950s, a song's popularity in the UK was measured by the sales of its sheet music. He instead developed a weekly chart based on the sales of records in stores.
A decade later, Percy oversaw the launch of the NME Poll Winners Concerts featuring such acts as the Beatles and the Stones on the same bill at Wembley Arena. in the early ‘70s, he introduced the annual NME Awards.
Percy Dickins died Feb. 11, 2002.]
I knew NME co-founder Ray Sonin. After leaving the UK, he lived in Toronto. He was the first to play the Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do” In North America on his CFRB radio show “Calling All Britons” in 1962.
The three people that started NME were Maurice Kinn, Ray Sonin and my dad. Ray left, and moved to Canada. My dad absolutely adored him. I can recall Ray Sonin when I was about 4 or 5. NME used to be in Denmark Street in Tin Pan Alley. I remember my dad taking me up there, and he had to go out for a meeting. He put me in Ray Sonin’s office. I sat in his leather chair. One of these round back chairs. He said, “I’m going to go next door.” There was a café called Julie’s. “I am going to go there and if you are still sitting down, you can have a cheesecake.” Now cheesecake for some reason, all the English can do is coconut. He was gone to me it felt like an eternity. So I stood up. I remember he ate two of the pieces of cheesecake in front of me. The bastard (laughing).
[In late 1962, Ray Sonin, then a jazz reviewer for NME, received a UK copy of the Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do b/w “I Love You.” The disc was sent to him by a local listener who had just returned from a trip to Liverpool. The accompanying letter told of the Beatles’ popularity in their hometown. Sonin read excerpts from the letter, and played “Love Me Do” on his “Calling All Britons” show on late Saturday afternoon in Dec. 1962. This predates any known broadcast of a Beatles record in North America.”]
Early on, you worked for some colorful booking agents, like Roy Tempest who booked the Wonderful Temptations.
No. The Fabulous Temptations. As long as you put it (the adjective) on the same line you got away with it. He was a character. Roy was one of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen.
Was he the first agent you worked with?
Yes he was. I was with him for awhile. I was the worst agent. You talk about jobs. I had every job. I ran messages. I made the tea. I was answering the phone. I was booking bands. I left him and went to work for Alan Blackburn who used to be in partnership with (bandleader) Vic Lewis. Vic had the GAC (General Artists Corporation account for the UK (taking over from the Grade Organization). They broke up and I went to work with Alan Blackburn when he offered me a job. To be honest, I was in rock and roll, and he was in a totally different world. It lasted about six months. I left and I went with Malcolm A. Rose, and a guy called Richard Cowley who, ironically, went to the same school as me. Richard left to join Chrysalis agency and later formed Cowbell agency with Kenny Bell.
Then I was headhunted, and I went to Harold Davison (in Regent Street) and I was there for quite awhile. I was an agent and did pretty well. He sold the company in 1970 to MAM Agency, which was Gordon Mills. I was the youngest director of the company. I was 23 years old. MAM had Tom Jones, and Frank Sinatra, and I had people like the Kinks, the Small Faces.
You used to go out on the road with the bands to places like the Orchid Ballroom in Purley.
Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I played Otis Redding there.
You took a fee rather than a percentage deal.
Don’t think I haven’t forgotten that. That’s about bloody 40 years ago. I’ve learned from those days Purley was a Mecca (Mecca Leisure Group) ballroom. It probably held 2,000, maybe 3,000 people. I remember that I got £650 which in 1966 was a shitload of money. Most bands were making £200 or something like that. I figured, “I’ll rip this guy. I got a great deal here.” If I had taken less money, and a percentage it would have been over £1,000. Yeah, I was a good agent then.
When American artists came to the UK in the ‘60s, they couldn’t believe the difference. Like ham sandwiches being so thin.
That’s true. I remember when people would moan about the sandwiches. You are right. They have often said that it’s two countries separated by a common language. For instance, what we call lemonade, you call Sprite or 7 Up. What you call lemonade, we call lemon squash.
In those days with no artist riders, agents would run to a Wimpy outlet for the band.
That’s exactly what we did. It (a hamburger) was like rubber in those days.
You represented the Who after seeing them as the High Numbers at The Goldhawk Social Pub in Shepherd’s Bush.
That’s where they started. I was 17. They were younger than I was. I think that Moon was the same age as I was.
Why would they go with you? Presumably, they already had an agent.
Yeah, they had a local guy in Shepherd’s Bush, Bob Druce. But I was near Tin Pan Alley. I worked with Malcolm Rose. And I just loved them. They were so exciting. They were so visual. Everything about them. they were one of the great bands of all time. My father knew Peter’s father as well. My father was a tenor saxophone player and his father was a saxophonist (and played clarinet). Pete’s father was Cliff Townshend was in the (Royal Air Force band) Squadronaires. Quite a successful band in the war.
You worked closely with the ‘60s progressive rock band Nice.
Listen, I helped put them together. They were P.P. Arnold’s backing band. The original guitarist was a guy named David O’List who was in a band called the Attack. Lee Jackson was in band at the Cromwellian Club, like a house band. The original drummer was Ian Hague who had been playing with Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds. He left after six months, and was replaced by Brian “Blinky” Davison. Keith Emerson was playing in a club called Cybella’s.
We just put this band together and, at the time, there was an album by Lord Buckley on Elektra Records (“The Best of Lord Buckley” featuring material previously issued on by Vaya Records in the early ‘50s). I remember there was a line in it, “The nazz says, I told you to stay cool, didn't I, babies?" I always remember that. That why we called them the Nice. In America, there was a (Todd Rundgren) band called the Nazz. So we called them the Nice, and got away with it.”
The May issue of Uncut magazine features the Marquee club from that era.
Tuesday night always used to be THE night there. I remember when I had the Nice, Chris Wright had Ten Years After, and Terry Ellis had Jethro Tull. We used to lie to each other about how many people that we did. “How many did you have?” I’m not going to let him beat me. Ten Years After are not as good as the Who or the Nice or whatever.” They were exciting years.
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.
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 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.”
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