ie:music group: Tim Clark and David Enthoven
The management company behind Robbie Williams
Robbie Williams' ringing endorsement must be music to the ears of David Enthoven and Tim Clark.
The founders of management company ie:music are like many other business owners. They rely heavily on one client in particular – it just happens that theirs is the UK's most successful solo artist.
So when Williams sent a video message from Los Angeles for the Music Managers Forum awards, last month, to congratulate the pair on winning the Robertson Taylor ‘Peter Grant' Award for outstanding achievement in management, there must have been keen interest in what he would say. He didn't disappoint, teasing that it gave him the perfect opportunity to break the news of his decision to leave their stable. Clark and Enthoven wouldn't have squirmed – it's fairly obvious their most valuable client is going nowhere.
“I just want to express how much I love you and how much you mean to me,” Williams gushed to the camera. “Ie:music is the best kept secret in the music industry. As luck and fate would have it God put me in the hands of two of the most capable men in the industry today. I definitely wouldn't be as healthy as I am today if it wasn't for you. When I grow up I want to be like you. I will never go anywhere else. You've got me for life.”
The industry might be known for fickleness and its temperamental characters, but you get the impression this union is sincere. It's down to the success of Williams – his albums to date have sold 32 million in total – that Enthoven and Clark have been able to nurture less commercial acts, such as Sia, Craig Armstrong, The Casuals and Archive – an unfamiliar roster to most.
As the award they secured suggests, Clark and Enthoven have been in the industry a good while. And for those less enamoured with the talents of Robbie Williams, they have a curriculum vitae boasting a host of performers more acclaimed by the critics.
Enthoven managed and named T. Rex, while also taking on, among others, Brian Eno and Roxy Music. He did this with EG Records, the company he co-founded. His impressive career then went off the rails. But after a 12-year period indulging in drink and drugs, he returned to the industry to guide old friend Bryan Ferry. Clark, as managing director of Island Records, oversaw the careers of Bob Marley, Cat Stevens, Steve Winwood, Jethro Tull and Mott the Hoople, among many more.
It wasn't until 1992 though that they paired up officially, despite knowing each other since the late 1960s. Clark remortgaged his home and Enthoven borrowed heavily to raise the necessary capital. Their first significant business win occurred when Virgin asked them to take on Massive Attack and their success with the Bristol-born, triphop group alerted the former Take That star Williams. He was champing at the bit to go solo, attain a new image and an older fanbase and was set on securing their ‘remodelling' services, having been labelled ‘most likely to fail' post-Take That.
It was in Clark and Enthoven's interests too to find an artist to build their business around, although a major risk given the cost of producing and promoting albums and Williams' poor reputation, with no track record as a songwriter.
Their first meeting was inauspicious. “When Rob first came to us he clearly had extraordinary presence. He walked into the office and made heads turn even though he wasn't in great nick – he was in the midst of a binge period,” recalls Clark. Williams had released a cover of George Michael's Freedom, but Clark and Enthoven wanted to know he was capable of producing his own material. Unconvinced, they agreed to meet again. “The second time he was in worse shape, but knew it was not the way to go. He knew he'd finish up in a casket and wouldn't realise his dreams. We finally ran out of things to say. Nothing he'd played or chatted about seemed to be something we could do anything with. Then he started reciting his poems. And if you can do that you can write songs,” states Enthoven.
Like taking on a sizeable customer with a questionable track record of meeting debts, they took a punt. After announcing they were managers of Williams they enlisted songwriter Guy Chambers to help Williams get his ideas down as lyrics. “In his first session he wrote Angels and Let Me Entertain You,” says Enthoven. They also provided the personal guidance Williams appeared to need, proving strong personal relationships with clients reaps commercial rewards. “We've been through it all and seen it all. Rob knows he can discuss anything, with David in particular,” says Clark. “If you're on a course of self-destruction you need a different way of living. Rob knew it was mad at 22 and addressed it.”
After a quiet start, the sales started flowing and Williams' contract has effectively been a sustainable business model since. His contribution to the company's turnover, which now amounts to 80%, is made up largely of the deal with EMI. Signed in 2002, it is thought to be the UK's biggest record deal and Paul Gambaccini described it as the ‘deal of the decade'. While the figure reported by the media is £80m, for which Williams has to deliver a further three albums, Clark and Enthoven claim it has been overstated.
Nonetheless, it helped the company record a turnover of £6m last year, with an expected drop to around £3.5m this year. With Williams on board revenues for the business rocketed each year prior to that, growing 68% a year between 1999 and 2002, with turnover rising from £734,000 to £3.5m over that period. Those figures secured a slot in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 in 2003.
It would be easy to prioritise and instinctively create a customer hierarchy when one is paying you significantly more than others. But while Clark admits there is an excitement to keeping Williams happy and motivated, all the company's clients deserve a similar level of attention. “Artists evolve if they have substance. But it would be really unhealthy just to have Robbie Williams. We have the opportunity to grow something, which Rob loves because he's competitive and it keeps his desire going.” So by working hard to develop its other artists the company has simultaneously inspired its most valuable one. Difficult to translate into a droplet of wisdom for all businesses, it nevertheless shows their approach has engendered trust throughout the client base.
They also employ rolling contracts with all their artists – which is standard business practice, as you can't easily tie customers to your business long-term no matter how much you might like to, yet is still the convention in music and sport. “With each of the artists we say ‘shall we go again',” explains Clark. “The thing that characterises management is close relationships – it's not like record companies.”
To ensure equal treatment, each artist is assigned a manager. And each of those managers has had to learn their trade, from driving vans to being a roadie, as Clark and Enthoven are strongly opposed to impressive university graduates going straight into “quasi-executive roles”. Each manager takes care of contractual negotiations as well as the day-to-day necessities of dealing with a range of third parties, such as record labels, producers, distributors, TV companies, telecommunications companies, mobile operators, sponsors, and any relevant new media developments. There are also the logistics of management, including organising studio time, session musicians (where necessary), shooting videos and designing sleeves, devising a marketing strategy and putting the logistics of a tour together.
The age-old rule of giving the customer what they want has also played an important part, despite their responsibility to direct their artists. “You have to subsume your ego and learn to listen. Sometimes artists need to get things out of their system,” says Clark. “The thing about this business, is it's not a business. It's a dichotomy – you have to make money, but on the other hand, artists are like painters and need to do their thing. It's a balancing act between needing to understand the commercial reality and managing the artistic imperatives of the artists.”
What this means in practice is that they will knowingly release music that is less likely to be a commercial success. But in return their artist will learn from the experience, while also being grateful for being permitted some control in the direction of their career. The hope is that next time they will come back with something more likely to succeed. It's risky and probably loses the company money in the short term, given that it costs £75,000 to £150,000 to record an album and another £200,000 to £300,000 to “market it properly”, which includes tour support – although this can vary wildly across the industry. “Our contribution to that is high and is a big cost for us to bear,” says Clark. “We get paid advances by the record company, but then we're last in the food chain, with a commission on royalties.”
It brings them the respect of talented artists though and avoids comparisons with managers of ‘manufactured' artists. “We're not a Simon Fuller,” laughs Enthoven. “We've never put together pop bands or been interested in that music.”
And refusing to compromise their principles, despite growing fast, is something smaller businesses sometimes find hard to achieve. Innocent Drinks is a recent example of a company that has not dropped its ethics, using environmentallyfriendly packaging, fresh fruit and holding festivals for charity, instead of chasing the pound. “We've continued with the vision we had when we came into the industry as a couple of young idealists,” says Clark “We're working with artists who have their own vision and a strong opinion of what will work. Of course, we have our say if we feel they're going off on a tangent though.”
What the future holds
This filters through to their view that live performances are still the key to record sales and ultimate success. Williams' performances at Slane Castle in Ireland, the Royal Albert Hall and Knebworth helped to cement his reputation and kept his fanbase loyal. His performances also gain frequent airings on TV.
There is also great commercial value in touring. A five-week tour for Williams can turn over £30-35m. “We would be fairly upset if the return wasn't above 20-25% profit from the tour. The artist gets that minus our commission, which is 20%,” says Clark.
The other great moneyspinner is cracking the US market, something Williams has so far failed to do. While Clark and Enthoven say the EMI deal did not hinge on success there, it would be the icing on the cake. “He feels ambivalent about it. David and I feel it's inevitable,” says Clark. However, it's not as simple as that. Clear Channel control an estimated 70% of radio output, so until they decide to give his tracks airplay it's less likely to happen. And ultimately the growth or even survival of ie:music may be a question of how long Williams can extend his career.
Clark and Enthoven have contemplated the ‘unthinkable' – that Robbie Williams will one day leave or retire. But it appears they haven't put any plans in place to cope when the situation arises. “It would affect us considerably if Robbie left,” says Clark. “We would continue to earn from royalties, but would have to think carefully about money we invest in other artists.”
The positive news is that the fledgling careers of Sia and Archive appear to be taking off and both have secured a record deal. Award-winning composer and pianist Craig Armstrong has an impressive track record, having collaborated with Madonna, Massive Attack and U2. “They are not huge successes yet, but get advances and are financially secure, making a decent contribution.” Clark's mentor at Island Records, founder Chris Blackwell, said you only need one major success. And if one of ie:music's other artists achieves a quarter of what Williams has the company should be ok, with or without their star performer.
Read more on how to start your own record label company.