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Steve Lillywhite: Joint-Managing Director of Mercury Records

Music Business Journal
Interview conducted by Scott Chancellor Location: Mercury Records, New Kings Road, Putney, London Date: 7 November 2002

Steve Lillywhite is world-renowned for a long and successful career in music production - working in the studio with acts such as U2, The Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, Ultravox, Big Country, Counting Crows, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The La's, Travis and XTC. Now a senior record company executive with Universal in London, MBJ's Scott Chancellor catches up with Steve to discuss his former role, his new challenges and various aspects of the music business today.

Can you tell us your background and history in the music industry and how you got to where you are now?

I got my first job in the music business in 1972, working in a recording studio. I was a tape operator, and basically I would sit in a room and press buttons on a tape recorder and record bands. People would tell me when to press play and when to stop. It was the music business - but not very sexy at all! It was also a time when studio technicians still wore white coats - so it was very much certain jobs for certain people. Engineers back then were like laboratory technicians!

At weekends though - if the studio was not in use - I could go in and practice. I was learning to engineer by myself and with whom I wanted. So I took a band in to do engineering on my own and I did some demos with them. They subsequently got a record deal with Island Records - their name was Ultravox. Ultravox wanted me to work on their first album (the eponymously titled Ultravox) after they had been signed. I agreed, so I took two weeks holiday from my tape operator job to work on this record, along with producer Brian Eno. That was the first time I met Brian.

The Ultravox record wasn't really a hit but it got my name about. It was during punk rock. Punk rock was made by a lot of bands that couldn't play - so what better than a producer who couldn't produce! I was at every gig, seeing every band, and getting my face known. The next thing I did was a guy called Johnny Thunders; I did a solo album with him - So Alone - which again was an o.k. hit - although, subsequently, some people tell me that they think it was one of their favourite records which I've ever done. At the time it was well accepted, but not a hit.

During Johnny Thunders' sessions, though, a manager of a band came down and liked what he had heard. He was managing Siouxsie and the Banshees, who had just signed their first record deal. He invited me to produce their first single, which I did. It was called "Hong Kong Garden" and got to No. 7 in the UK chart in 1978. So, all of a sudden I had a hit, and I thought "I am in now", and hoped that there would be more work. I worked with a few more punk groups and got more hits. I always liked the more arty side of punk - so I worked with bands such as XTC, The Psychedelic Furs, and a band called The Members. They all had hit records but it wasn't pure straight punk - it was something a little different.

My next big moment came when Peter Gabriel called me up. He had nothing to do with punk and he was part of the "old school" that we all supposedly hated - with Genesis. It was long boring songs with time signatures - whereas we were all about short, sharp, testosterone stuff. But he convinced me that I should work on his solo album. It was the first international success I had done. Then came U2's early albums.

Which U2 albums did you produce?

I produced Boy, October and War and then worked on The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and the last one - All That You Can't Leave Behind. (I've worked on six of their albums.)

How did you first get involved with U2?

U2 made a single with a producer who had produced Joy Division. Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, committed suicide, though, and the producer decided he didn't want to carry on with U2 because he was so distraught. So, U2 looked back on their producer list and I was number two - so I got the job.

Did you think U2 would achieve the worldwide status that they now enjoy?

Not at the early stages - but they had a commitment and a passion even at the very beginning that I knew would hold them in good stead. They looked after themselves, and did very well.

Was the record company [Island Records] supportive in allowing them the freedom to do their music how they wanted at the early stages?

Yes, the first album wasn't successful. It did alright. The second album actually flopped commercially, and that was the time when maybe the record companies should have (maybe!) got rid of them, but they didn't. Then the War album had a hit single for the first time with "New Years Day" in early 1983, and from then they have had hits for the last twenty years.

How did the executive position at Mercury Records happen for you?

During the 1980's, I just carried on producing. I was lucky enough to work with artists like Talking Heads, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds, Big Country, Joan Armatrading and The La's. In the early 1990's I went to America to work with a band called the Dave Matthews Band, who subsequently became the biggest group in America. They never sold many records here in England, but I did very well with them, and we finished three albums.

About a year ago, I was living in New York and my current boss (Lucian Grange) called me up and said, "Steve, would you like to come back and help run a record label?"

I went! To be honest, I don't think I have ever done any "business", and didn't know if I could or not, but he said, "Don't worry, it will all be good." He convinced me it was the right thing to move back to England to do this, and here I am now at Mercury Records.

Are you still involved in record producing now, or do you keep more to the business side of the record label?

People play their records to me and I send them away and tell them to do this and that. And then - maybe - I will go to the studio to help them as well.

... as an A&R man?

Yes, but A&R men don't know how to make records - well, lots of them don't, and I know how to make records! So I can talk to the producer and they understand me. I talk their language because I am a record producer. It is sometimes a different language and you need to know studio terminology.

With Darius, for example, they brought me in the first single "Colourblind" to hear. I listened to it and said, "The middle-eight is terrible ... you need to do this and that .. and do more guitar at the chorus ... re-sing this bit", etc.. So, you know, I am good at helping producers!

When you were changing bits, were you looking at the record from a commercial level - suited to making a successful record for this point in time in the music industry or how a record should be? Are you aiming for a particular market with Darius?

No, I never think commercially. The last thing we wanted to do was to alienate people with his first release. We wanted a release that was acceptable within the parameters people know Darius for, and "Colourblind" is a good pop song. The follow-up single called "Rushes" is quite different though - it is not as commercial, and is a bit tougher sounding.

The first Darius album is a pop album that people who buy maybe Ronan Keating - or who listen to David Gray or Nelly Furtado - would also buy. It slots in with those artists.

Have you ever considered becoming an artist manager, or starting your own record label or publishing company?

No. Universal - for me - are the best record company in the world. They have the most power. The best people also work for Universal, and I feel I am one of the best people. The fact is that although I am successful at what I do in my other career - as a record producer - I now need to translate this to a new career as a record company Managing Director.

So far, we are doing pretty well, and it is exciting to be here.

What advice would you give to new producers trying to achieve a successful Top Ten hit?

It's a very different environment now to when I started back in 1972. Nowadays, anyone can have really good studio equipment in their home. For a few hundred pounds you can buy a great digital tape recorder with sequencers and stuff. So, in a way, you have to be more creative now to be different. Today, I think everyone really makes the same sort of music with the same sort of equipment. You have to think differently, though, to make a "better" record.

My advice is to be true to your heart, and never expect that you are going to get a job in the music business, because it is one thing to make a record that sounds nice, but it's another thing for that record to connect to someone enough to make them go out in the rain to a record store to buy it.

People might say they like it - but big deal! I may like a TV show - but I'm not going to go out and buy the video of it! People think, "I like that song on the radio; great, I will listen it on the radio"' - you need something else to make someone go out and actually buy it.

How are producers selected for artists - by the A&R department, or by the artists themselves?

What normally happens is that, once the artist is signed, the A&R man will sit down and chat about who the artist would like to produce their record. It's like "Give me your ten favourite producers".

The A&R man will then contact these producers - of whom three would probably be busy until 2009, two won't want to do it, and the other five will want to do it!

They will then meet up, and the artist can make their preference known.

What about singers - from shows such as Pop Idol - who may not know many producers?

In terms of Pop Idol, the singers don't write their own stuff. The A&R man would look for a suitable song, and then find the right producer to work with that song.

In your experience, has the role of the producer changed dramatically over time?

Yes, all the roles have now become more blurred. People are doing different things. Producers are now songwriters, artists are now producers, and some producers are now managers as well. Many artists also know, roughly, how production works. So, they can go and buy Pro Tools for their home now.

Do you think a producer should receive a songwriting credit if they contribute significantly to a song's ideas in the studio?

I have never done that. I feel that my job as a producer encompasses helping them with the arrangements. I am not greedy, and I never felt it has been something I have wanted to do - but some people do it. Darius' producers co-write with him - so they are a whole team. The three of them all work together, but he [Darius] does contribute a lot to the ideas as well.

Many UK artists are now struggling to make an impact in the US market. What are your personal ideas for improving the record sales of UK artists there?

The problem is the UK market has now become more and more singles-driven, and commercially pop-driven.

In America, because they invented Rock and Roll, they treat it as an art form. So they like their music and they like great lyrics. Elvis Costello, for example, is still revered in America, because he is a great lyric writer and they are also very serious about their music. In contrast, we have "throw-away" music here.

For us to sell records to America, well, look at the artists that are successful in America from here - like Coldplay, Craig David, Radiohead and U2. They are all "serious" artists. What I am aiming to do with this job, then, is sign artists for "worldwide" and the long-term - rather than just for England.

Do you think that original British music is perhaps in decline?

I think it is cyclical - but it is in decline at the moment.

What advice would you give young people seeking a career in the music business?

There are lots of different jobs in the music business, so write to your local recording studio or record label. The Internet is a great way of finding these addresses. Write them letters saying that you are looking for work experience, and you won't get paid but you can make contacts there.

It's an ongoing process, and you've got to start somewhere. Get in there and have a feel for the job. Some music courses don't give you a feel for the business, and a lot of them are run by people that can't make it in the commercial music business.

Steve Lillywhite, thank you for your time.

Scott Chancellor is a London-based correspondent of Music Business Journal

Interview text © Music Business Journal 2002