"I just want to find somebody who can help me change the world."
Text: Michelle Sullivan
Photography: Damian Weilers
Art Direction: Beatrice Hurst
Mike Smith is informed, diplomatic, opinionated, and he sounds like the fifth Beatle. Since his start at MCA Publishing in 1988, with positions subsequently held at EMI Music Publishing and Columbia Records, he has signed a plethora of successful artists, ranging from Blur to The White Stripes, Mark Ronson, Calvin Harris, The Ting Tings, Miike Snow and Madeon. In April of 2012 he left his position as Managing Director of Columbia Records UK to become the President of Music at Mercury Records UK. In a label re-brand a few months ago he was re-positioned as President of Music at Virgin EMI. Through the course of 2013 he has worked with artists including Jake Bugg and Arcade Fire; his new signings include Iggy Alalea and The Strypes. Moreover, Mike Smith is also an illustrator and in 2011 he held an exhibition at Somerset House, depicting 30 years of work. He has carried a sketchbook and pencil since he was 15.
In this post post-modern world of music, what impresses me most about Mike Smith is how passionately he speaks about musicians. He has a subtle charm that complements his firm handshake. My prediction is that Mike Smith is going to achieve great things with the newly re-launched Virgin label. He might not always get it right, but he’s going to ensure they release some damn fine music.
He might even change the world.
Michelle Sullivan: The first time I met you was at a party for The Ting Tings in Soho. We were introduced by Steve Strange. The Ting Tings were about to go number one in the UK and it was a big night for you. How much has changed for you since that time?
Mike Smith: Oh an awful lot has changed since that time, because I think the Ting Tings were the first really big international band that I brought through while I was at Columbia. We had had a reasonable bit of success before that, for example Mark Ronson. By the time The Ting Tings record had come out, Mark had sold almost a million records. So for me, coming from a career in music publishing … to come in and run Columbia – I had to really question myself as to whether I had the necessary skill set to succeed in a record company. I had a tough first year getting to know how to pull everything together, what the job actually entailed and realising a record company is so much more than just the music – its about how you sell things.
Now that you’ve left Columbia, do you keep in touch with those acts?
Smith: Oh God, yeah. I was with Mark Ronson last night and you know I was driving across to a gig last night and I was on the phone to Miles Kane, one of the acts that I signed. I had breakfast with Damon Albarn last week … Its absolutely vital to me that we’ve got a friendship that goes beyond anything.
Would you say that’s how you view success in your role?
Smith: There’s so many different ways you can quantify success – one of the basic ways for me is to allow an artist to grow. It means you can get to make more music together. As long as you can keep making art more interesting, it means it can keep being done. Being able to find joy and happiness in what you do for a living - that’s a great sign of success; to have an impact on popular culture - that’s real success. For me its always been trying to do something that can have a wider impact, that can go beyond the charts. Yes it’s about having the charts, but then it’s so much more than that. You don’t necessarily have to have those big chart numbers to change people’s perception of what music can be.
What are the things that have happened in your career in terms of failures or setbacks? What have you learned the hard way?
Smith: I think a big lesson is to not do something that you don’t believe in with your heart, because you can sign things that you love and then they may not work out. If it’s something you’ve gone into thinking “Oh this is the kind of music we should be working with right now” and your heart isn’t in it you just feel like an idiot. When things go wrong it will be hard to find anything within yourself to go on and fight for that artist, because you already know you shouldn’t have been working with them in the first place. If you didn’t love it, why did you seriously expect everybody else to fall in love with it? Most of the failures I’ve experienced have come about because I’ve tried to sign something for an opportunistic reason. A & R is a very strange thing. It speaks for how music affects you and it can take a long time for you to trust those instincts.
In terms of your reputation, you’re known as a music man. Are you conscious of the reputation you want to have, and of how you want artists to perceive you?
Smith: Yeah and it can be a bit of a double-edged sword. I think it’s a huge compliment in the music business to be referred to as music man. At times I’ve been made to feel that that is a bit of a hindrance, or that someone who is a music man isn’t well equipped for the way we run the music business. So the whole concept of signing artists that you love and believe in and making records is in fact out of step with, you know, thinking about how you monetise music these days - all of which I think is complete rubbish. The most important thing for the music business is to get the music right. It’s obvious! If you don’t get the music right, everything else falls down.
To me the music men and women are the most important people in the music business - after the artists themselves - because we are the ones who can find the artists and help them; guide them to a place to make the most incredible music and once you’ve got that incredible music, then everybody else in the music business can go to town. I can’t imagine anybody doing A & R and not having that reputation. But sadly I’ve met enough people that don’t seem to know a great deal about music.
Let's discuss the skills required to be a modern A & R. What do you consider crucial capabilities that emerging A & R men and women need to develop?
Smith: I hire people who want to work with artists above all else and have that as their core, that they feel a calling to do this job. I think being able to have an empathy with creative people is absolutely vital. You know the biggest challenge is marrying up expectations of a music company, be it a record label or a multi-national corporation, with a guy or a girl in their bedroom with their laptop or with an acoustic guitar or in a rehearsal room, and make it work so that you are all on the same side. Yes, there’s the opportunity of fame and fortune but it’s about putting something special out there - and the A & R is a translator both ways.
You need the ability to get on with people. It’s a strange business … you need a hunger. For me it’s an addiction. I’ve been addicted to finding new music my whole life.
Do you encourage your team to trust their instinct enough to be mavericks? Do they have the necessary support to pursue acts that might not be “hot”?
Smith: Definitely. I sincerely hope that we do encourage that, and I think we do sign things that other people aren’t looking at. If you think about some of the biggest successes in the world, I think Mumford & Sons are a perfect example. Everyone looked at them. Everyone had gone “I’m not sure. They’re not the best looking band in the world and they make folk music”. As a result no one really wanted to sign them and they ended up signing for a really small deal, and those are the ones that really come through. Acts that weren’t competitive signings do go on to be hugely successful. But at the same time there is that kind of “herd mentality” where something gets very hot and everyone wants to sign it. I think what happens there is this - if somebody told you that Lady Gaga is on her final world tour and you’re never going to see her again, you’re going to rush to make sure you actually see her. Whereas if you didn’t know it was her farewell tour you would think “oh well I don’t really mind if I don’t go see her right now”. So as soon as you see that an artist (who you quite like and have been following) is going to sign with your competitor then you’re like “Hang on! So I’m not going to be able to sit around and mull and work out whether I like it or not. I’ve got to make a decision right now” ... and then you chase it. It’s a basic human instinct. Also – if someone you respect has made an offer on an artist, you’re going to think “hell, if that person thinks it’s good and I quite like it, then we should definitely be trying to sign it”.
I was thinking back to your departure from Columbia. Are you able to tell me why you left?
Smith: I had nearly 7 years there. I was the longest serving Managing Director at Sony UK. I adored Columbia … I always wanted to stay at the label up until 2012 because we were celebrating the 125th birthday, but the lure of working for the worlds biggest music company is very attractive. The opportunities created within Universal were really appealing. You have two options in life. You can work with a team of people, and fight with them and take them to be the number one label. Or you can look across at the people that are really winning and think “I want to be part of that winning team.” I think the time had come. I loved my time at Sony. I learned a lot. I think they are an amazing company and well equipped for the changes that are going on, but I fancied a change.
What would you like to bring to the game now that you’re here at Virgin? How are you going to make your contribution?
Smith: I want to find that artist that’s going to change the world. You have absolutely no idea what’s going to walk through your door or what’s going to become of it. Of all the artists I’ve worked with that have gone on to enjoy success, I didn’t necessarily anticipate that they would evolve the way they did.
I just want to sign acts that are going to shake things up, change things, and that are going to have an impact on society. You look at somebody like Gaga and you just think “My God, who signed that? How incredible”! But then you look at the Beastie Boys and Eminem. You look at what they not only brought to music, but also to society and culture.
If I get the opportunity to work with people who can change things, I’ll know I’ve done the right thing.
What are you passionate about outside of work?
Smith: I draw and I paint and I write. Drawing is very important to me. I’ve carried a sketchbook since I was 15. Initially it was just a way of meeting people and trying to impress girls. That’s why I did it.
Smith: [Laughs] It was a bit crass actually. But I do draw - every day. I’ve carried the sketchbook with me throughout my life; it’s a big part of what I do and who I am. If I hadn’t made a career in the music industry, I’d love to have made it out of making pictures.
Do you feel the need to always be expressing - that artistic sense of needing to create and produce something?
Smith: Yeah! It’s that feeling of knowing you have to do something and you don’t know why. I’m lucky that my livelihood doesn’t depend on the success of expressing myself. If you’re an artist you’re going to be very egotistical. At least I don’t feel I have the pressure of forcing my own artistic vision - in terms of words or pictures - into the world. I can do it vicariously through the artists that I work with, sign and invest in. It’s probably a slightly healthier thing.
I’ve always envied artists and musicians and writers. I think they are the most special people in the world - and also the most annoying (laughs).
It’s a pretty selfish way to live your life. You do become quite self-obsessed, not always, I mean it’s always a great relief to meet artists that can have successful family life and friendships and be good human beings. But that’s not always compatible with creation. It’s such an all consuming force.
The artists I most admire – from David Bowie to Damon Albarn – are the ones that are constantly getting up every day and asking “What can I find out about music? Where can it go?”