Unsung heroes of the music industry

Marc Wadsworth

Superstar Stevie Wonder's European manager Keith Harris is hardly a household name. And nor is Jacqui Davidson who shaped the international career of reggae star Shabba Ranks and currently looks after Wayne Hector, a Black man who has co-written several West Life and O Town hits.

Danny D and Tim Blacksmith are not the celebrities that their exploits with the writers and producers, Star Gate and Blacksmith, should have made them either. Their protégés have won the sort of chart success for Atomic Kitten, Blue and Misteeq that has made The Neptunes, of America, the dominant force in R&B production.

Jazzie B pulled off triumphs, on both sides of the Atlantic, with Soul II Soul  — an enterprise he fashioned into a group, label, merchandising and management enterprise. More recently, Kwame Kwaten's top 10 success with Shola Ama has provided welcome chart company for British soul diva Beverley Knight. Ex-DJ Ron Tom, joined forces with Johnny Laws, to launch Gabrielle and Don-e. The savvy Tom dreamed up the All Saints band name and is today one of the managers of the Sugababes. I declare an interest here because an artist of mine was once in a group managed by Tom. Black managers are the unsung heroes (and sometimes villains) of the British music industry. Yet many of them are content to be anonymous for fear of upsetting carefully cultivated business relationships with powerful executives at music labels and publishers. They are concerned that personal publicity, especially about the glaring racial inequalities in the music industry, might make them seem strident and outspoken and cause offence among their white peers.

Personally, I have had a bee in my bonnet for years about the exploitation of Black music for white profit by labels, publishers and management and am prepared to stand up and be counted. Some of the biggest stars in British r&b and garage have white management much like Black sports and showbiz personalities. Yet never have we, as Black people in the music industry, had to stick together so much. Misteeq got into a big fight with a prominent community newspaper because their management allegedly asked for a  £10,000 fee for them to do a PA at a Black charity event. Perhaps a Black manager would have been more sympathetic to the event and therefore have prevented the queens of UK garage from receiving a lot of unnecessary bad publicity.

It was a Black manager who rescued the multi-gold album artist Roachford from an oppressive contract with Sony, which was hampering his progress. That manager is his brother Stephen, a talented businessman and producer in his own right. At a time when management has reluctantly had to take over all the developmental roles that should be rightfully handled by record companies, it pleases me that increasingly Black managers are networking. This they do  — many of us  — as members of the Music Managers Forum, which Keith Harris ably Chairs. They also work together on a one to one basis. We can compare notes about labels, producers and studios though, in the poker game otherwise known as the music industry, most players keep their cards close to their chest. Co-operation works best when there is a firm prospect of big money resulting from it. In other words, struggling managers get used to hearing producers and writers saying:  "What's your budget?" rather than being asked about how talented their artist is and how working together on a 50:50 production deal with no fee upfront could be a lucrative way forward.

Beverley Knight told the audience at the Urban Music Seminar, organised by Kwame Kwaten:  "I think the reason Black music is not developing and being embraced in the way that it should is a lack of artist development. People sign a package, a product, and want to sell it perfectly as it is." That is the challenge for managers today. They must act like mini record companies, completely financing an artist or roster of artists, from their own pocket, and this is hugely expensive, time-consuming and risky. In this proverbial poker game, they could win a bonanza or lose a fortune. Someone said, as managers, we must  "eliminate the fear factor" for record companies before they will sign our artists. In practice, that means handing them an artist, pre-packaged, who has already scored a hit.

Yet, it is a vicious circle. Most really good producers and writers don't want to touch an unsigned artist so the newcomer's chance of getting a hit is extremely limited unless they have a backer with a deep pocket. Also, no one knows what a hit is until it is a hit so  'Pop Idols'/'Fame Academy'-obsessed A&R folk go chasing each other's tails in futile search of a No. 1. Effectively, DJs, and particularly DJ-Producers, have taken over the role of record company A&R departments because they can make a song a hit on the  'underground' - for this read  'the clubs'. Then the song will get radio airplay and, if it is really successful, be play-listed by the likes of Radio One and Capital. The answer, I think, is for black managers to band together even more effectively and return to basics.

That is, put our weight behind songs that can become classics; place a greater emphasis on live instruments, musicianship and live music. This will put credibility back into Black music and position it way ahead of the stuff in the charts currently masquerading as pop. Black managers have a key role to play in leading the long-overdue renaissance. We need to return to the golden era when we could give a career break to a Karen Wheeler, Mica Paris or Gabrielle  — artists whose first success was in the Black community rather than the fevered imagination of a yuppie in the teenie bopper crazed A&R department of a major record company.