The Timeless Career of Sade (02/25/10)

Dan, Helen, RogerHow fantastic to see Sade return with the “Soldier of Love” album and Soundscan 501,000 the first week!  A #1 debut and #1 second week on the charts… and only their sixth album in 26 years.  I had the absolute pleasure of working with Sade (Helen Adu), Paul Denman , Stuart Mathewman, and Andrew Hale on their first four albums for Epic in America.  The first two were actually on the Portrait imprint, but essentially worked by the Epic marketing and promotion staff.

Back in 1983, the band exploded in the UK, but was initially viewed here as an English R&B lounge band with the success of their first single “Your Love Is King” in Great Britain.  That prejudicial opinion quickly dissolved for us, as we become more familiar with the album and began planning a release in the States.  The sheer sales success across the pond warranted it.

Sade (album cover)Amazingly,  back then, there was some trepidation about taking a first single to Urban Radio here.  English R&B didn’t have a lot of cred in the U.S.  Euro R&B was given about as much musical credit as actors attempting to be recording artists at that time.   Plus, the group had virtually no history of touring other than a few club dates.  Their performance at Ronnie Scott’s in London, which was seen as the pivotal gig in breaking was about all the touring credit they were given.  However, we often leaned on CBS Records in London to expand our success on our acts from the U.S., so based on the huge sales on Sade there, it was only fair that we reciprocate.  Additionally, Maurice Oberstein, the Chairman of CBS in Europe was a dear friend of Epic/Portrait/CBS Associated Label’s US GM Don Dempsey (Today that title would be Chairman of the label group).  Don was certainly going to do the right thing and give Sade the shot they deserved in America.

However, with our Urban Promotion Department’s concerns about taking an English R&B act to radio, Dr. Don, as he was warmly known, and his right-hand man, EPA Marketing Head, Ron McCarrell had to get out the velvet hammer to get the promotion department on-board with the program.  As the #1 and #2 guys at Epic, they could simply order the priority for Sade.  However, in the emotional game of building hits at radio, it was essentially that they establish confidence in the track and the act with the promotion team, to sustain the long effort it would take to get R&B radio to lead the charge in Sade’s potential career in the U.S.   Paris Eley and T.C. Tompkins ran Epic’s Urban Promotion in those days, and the efforts of that promo team gave Sade the Urban cred to ultimately explode their career across several formats.

Sade (band photo)Those critical initial set-up steps culminated in Sade’s first trip to the US.  Don and Ron hosted a meal with promotion and this new artist Sade.  It was determined that “Hold On To Your Love” was a better fit at Urban Radio to introduce the group in America (Remember, everything is a negotiation!).  Everyone played nice and a commitment was made to first go to Urban Radio and once it was Top 10 there, to begin the crossover process to Adult Contemporary and then to Top 40.  I recall Ron and Don being very relieved at getting Promotion’s commitment.  We could do all the press and marketing in the world, but if Urban Radio did not lead the charge, Sade would never happen in North America.

The next day, I met with the group’s manager, an English lad named Lee Barrett.  Lee was really just a friend of the band who fell into the void of manager when Sade so quickly skyrocketed in England.  Lee had no experience in the music business and we had learned that he was not perceived well by the marketing people in London.  I introduced Lee to Scott Folks; a very bright and enthusiastic young product manager on my staff who I was very confident could gain the group’s trust and establish a successful line of communication.

Scott and I quickly discovered we had problems ahead of us.  Lee had that “deer-in-the-headlights” look in his eyes.  He also seemed afraid and unwilling to speak to the group about the promotional and marketing activities we needed to schedule.  We came to believe that he was simply afraid to make a mistake and that he really didn’t have the background or experience to explain the U.S. media and marketing issues to the group.  Apparently, he was unable to answer their many questions with the kind of detail to validate it.  When you think about it, why should we expect him to know and understand?Sade (headshot)

The biggest problem that Scott and discovered that first day, was that the group was extremely upset that we were launching the first single at Urban Radio!  They thought this was a racial slight and that we were, as a company, treating them like second-class citizens.  Why wouldn’t we just take the single directly to Top 40 radio?  They grew up listening to the BBC, where radio formats weren’t segregated as they are here.  When Don and Ron had worked so hard to get the Urban Promotion staff on-board and it was discussed at the dinner with Sade, Helen and Lee had no personal reference point to understand how important Urban Radio was in America or that we had to take a step-by-step approach through the radio formats that could ultimately play Sade.

Upon realizing that this could become a serious rift and that the band might not cooperate with our efforts, Ron, Scott and I discussed how critical it was to educate the group.  They needed to know that commercial radio and its demographic fragmentation was a condition of the advertising industry in the States and not some arbitrary caste system that we supported.  Our fear was that Lee did not have the capability of explain this, as we didn’t feel he understood it when we explained it to him.  Very fortunately, Scott worked his way into the camp and helped the band understand that they were, in fact, a priority and that despite their natural wariness of us American music people that there were some logical explanations.  I later had a follow-up chance to repeat Scott’s lesson in U.S. media.  We also had a wonderfully experienced publicist in Laverne Perry, who was a key source of trust in those early days, as was Susan Blond.  Both are legends in their artist relations skills.

Sade (headshot)Over the next couple of years, Scott moved on (as did Don, Ron, and the Urban promo people) to a successful career in A&R, and along with heading the Marketing Department, I took on the role as Sade’s product manager.  I became involved in helping convince veteran artist manager Roger Davies in representing Sade, as the group realized the need for an experienced manager who could handle artist careers on the multi-platinum level.  Roger managed the likes of Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and Janet Jackson.  He was a guy who has become a lifetime manager with most of his artists. I still believe he is one of the best managers I have ever worked with.  Later, he and I crossed paths again, and engineered a plan to get Michael Jackson to agree to Mark Romanek to direct the “Scream” video, which was Janet’s idea.

In the meantime, although I worked with Sade for about 13 years, I was involved in only 4 albums.  However, amazingly in the subsequent 15 years, they have only produced two additional studio albums.  It is to Sade’s credit (and good fortune to have the option) that they have only made albums when they felt compelled.  After the first two, which came in the first two years of their career, they made music only when it worked for them.

Helen always felt dreaded the promotional work that accompanied the release of an album.  She did it dutifully, but was never comfortable with it.  Prior to the “Stronger Than Pride” release in America, I made her a deal.  If she would unequivocally give me two solid weeks just prior to the release in the States, we would create a plan to get every interview, promo requirement, EPK, and every other tools created.  And I promised her we would leave them completely alone after that.  Although she still didn’t necessarily like all the promo work, she agreed and seemed to be genuinely relieved that there was a specific time established and that once it was done, she was free of the “marketing”.  In planning those weeks for both the “Pride” and the “Love Deluxe” campaigns, the various departments in company, including sales, promotion, and publicity, worked unbelievably hard to maximize the time we had with her, and I felt we honored that commitment to her so well.  Both were among the most efficient and precise efforts we ever did with a specific artist. Sade (album cover)

But that first trip to the U.S. in the early ‘80’s for the four members of Sade must have been filled with fear, aprehension, and mistrust.  However, by the third and fourth albums, they arrived confident for each promotional trip.  Helen always teased me about making her work so hard, none the less, the four of them really went out of their way to do it right with quality and intelligence.  They did everything we asked, and they worked very hard to do it right.  Trust is the most important bond that a manager, a publicist, or label person can ever establish with an artist.  Artists are all vulnerable to be made to feel like second-class citizens.  They can be directed to participate in efforts that actually injure their career rather than help it.  They can be made to waste time or do promotional work that is meaningless.  They can be put in situations with media and industry people that are extremely uncomfortable and exploitive.  They need to be educated about why certain promotional and marketing efforts are essential, and how this crazy business works.  Artists “get it” when they are given reasons rather than simply being told something is important.  Most of the successful artists I have had the privilege of working with had a natural sense of what worked for them in projecting an image.  I always wanted to work with artists that had a sense of themselves.  It was my job to help them enhance their strengths, solve logistical problems, and get out of the way.  There has been an era where a few industry people projected the image of being bigger than the artists.  It is a fundamental breach of trust that virtually every artist can see through.  It’s still about trust.  Finding that in the music business can be a mighty challenge.

Back in the early ‘90’s I took Helen to a dinner with Epic and Sony Music Distribution executives, and as an aside, she modestly apologized to me that she hadn’t made an album in a few years.  She said she actually didn’t need to make the “Love Deluxe” album at the time, but she knew that Paul and Stuart, and Andrew were eager to work.  I recently read where she provided a similar mea culpa for the extraordinary 10 years between the “Lovers Rock” album and “Soldier of Love”.   The four members apparently had not even seen much of each other over those years. However, they seem to naturally never skip a beat when they are together.

I guess that this really makes Sade the essence of “timeless”.  She’s since raised a daughter and lived her life.  Her wonderful music is a big part of her life, but has never consumed her.  She has an inner-wisdom that we all feel in her music.  I can’t think of another artist who waited 10 years to follow her last multi-platinum album with another multi-platinum album!

When I first met her, I thought “this is an artist who could have a hit album when she is 75.”  She’s simply that iconic.  I likened her to Lena Horne, with that special dignity and quality that defies age or trends.  I hope she and the guys make a couple of more albums before their 75, but however it works out, I’d bet on it being #1 then too.

As I reflect back to 1983, if that first single had not been set up correctly, a second single would not have had any momentum and would have probably not generated the push behind it necessary to establish the group in America.  Potentially, there might not have been a second single, and Sade would have had a career that would have looked more like Robbie Williams’.  Timing, relationships, coordination, communication, and commitment stood behind the quality of that first single “Hold On To Your Love”.  A global career and 50+ million album sales have followed.

Sometimes, this business actually works…

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

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From The Mail Bag: Sade

Here are a couple of posts on the Sade story:

From Ron McCarrell, former head of Marketing and my boss at that time:

Great story on Sade!

I remember poor Lee Barrett.  When his deficiencies became so apparent, I was asked by Paul Russell (CBS UK MD) to sit in on a meeting in his office in London where me, Paul, and Helen fired Lee.  It was emotionally devastating to him, because as you said he was a pal of the band from back in the old ‘hood and was completely blindsided.  I then set up meetings with Helen and Bill Graham, Bob Cavallo, a few other potential managers, but as I recall she didn’t go with anyone until Roger Davies entered the picture a few years later.

It’s also interesting to note that Sade first cut a few demos for RCA in the UK, who passed.  Enter Muff Winwood and the rest is history.

From Steven Reed, a former CBS Records Executive and Long-time Producer/Entrepreneur:

Thanks Dan, for sharing those great stories about Sade.  It reminded my of the very small part I once played in helping the marketing efforts for Sade’s Love Deluxe album.  Having been an executive with CBS Records (later Sony Music) at the time Dan and company were releasing Sade’s first two albums, I was quite familiar with the band, their stunningly beautiful lead singer, and the very effective and efficient marketing efforts on the part of Epic Records.

Perhaps it was because I knew just how careful Dan was with his artists to ensure everything was done as sensitively and professionally as possible, that he entrusted this small project to me.

Given the extremely limited availability of Helen and the band, Dan asked me to go to LA to shoot a video interview with Sade that could be used for a multitude of purposes: an EPK, a VH1 to One (artist documentary), and even some questions submitted by various shows including one from the UK.

Knowing how exacting the band and management were about Sade’s image, my director Allie Eberhardt and I scoured the city for an appropriate location for our shoot.  We wanted everything to look just right to complement the beauty, elegance and style that Helen Adu embodied so naturally.  We finally settled on a new and very upscale hotel on Sunset Drive and accepted the terms imposed by the hotel’s sales manager.

The next day our crew arrived – lights, dollies, the whole works.  Unfortunately, the hotel general manager saw us loading in and went ballistic. Seems he had not been informed and was irate that his team had allowed us exclusive use of a beautiful, public room off the lobby for our shoot.  Knowing we only had one day to get this done, and how important this shoot was to Dan, the Label and the artist, I mustered all of my powers of persuasion, accepted all responsibility and somehow managed to convince the GM to allow our shoot to continue.  But he was NOT a happy camper.

Soon, our set was ready; we turned on all our film lights and – promptly set off the hotel’s silent fire alarm!  The manager, who really hated us by this time, came running in with his chief of security thinking we were burning the place down.  Once he realized it was simply the heat from the lights, he turned off the silent alarm (this would be key shortly!) and – after yet another lecture – allowed us to continue.

No sooner had he left than one of the film lights exploded, shooting burning hot fragments everywhere and starting little fires all over the ultra-expensive custom carpet of this fabulous room.  Our crew dashed left and right stamping out flames, but the carpet was severely damaged.

Sade was due to arrive any minute, Epic Records counting on us to use this small window of opportunity to get the shoot done, and the GM would surely throw us out on our ears if he knew what had happened.  Uh oh. What do we do now?!?!  If I told the manager, that would be the end of the shoot.  But the carpet was already burned.  Why not just wait until we were done to let him know?

I directed our crew to quickly move whatever furniture we could to cover as many of the burn marks as possible while still making the room look great on camera.  Then I assigned crew members to stand on the remaining burn spots whenever anyone from the hotel came through.   And we all did our best to look calm, cool and collected when Sade arrived.

My director, Allie Eberhardt, has always been one cool cat.  Somehow, he remained unfazed by the chaos all around him.  He was charming as always with Helen, and never lost his concentration in establishing a rapport, eliciting a terrific interview, and also working with our camera, lighting and audio crews to ensure everything looked and sounded first rate.  The interview did go very well.  Helen, her band and management were pleased, and we had delivered for the Label.  Phew!

By the way, throughout our entire ordeal, Dan remained cool and confident – or at least that was what he projected to us!  Believe me, the majority of record execs would not have handled things nearly as well.

So in the end, even though we had insurance to cover a new, custom-made carpet, I got an earful from the GM, was called every name in the book, and would never be allowed back to the hotel.  But, we got the job done.   When you have an opportunity to work with an artist like Sade, you knew he was trusting you and counting on you, and you simply could not let him down.  Thanks again Dan!

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

Luther Vandross & The Picasso Tour (2/19/10)

Working with Luther Vandross could often be challenging to say the least.  I am sure Daniel Marcus, Shep Gordon, Billy Bass, Jim Morey, Jeff Schock, and Alan Kovac could all tell some pretty eye-opening tales of how intense and difficult Luther could be!Luther Vandross

I had the good fortune of working with Luther as head of marketing and directly as his product manager at Epic through the reign of all these managers.  I was fortunately in a position where Luther couldn’t directly fire me!  With that said, I truly enjoyed and was honored to work with Luther through, I believe, 11 platinum albums.

We met in a most interesting way, and perhaps it was a first (and second) impression that somehow put me into a good light with Luther. I was writing songs with Felix Cavaliere the legendary keyboardist/vocalist for The Young Rascals.  Felix was recording an album in 1979, called “Castles In The Air” for Epic and needed some help with lyrics and A&R VP Frankie Rand suggested me.  We ended up writing two songs, “Don’t Hold Back Your Love” and “Outside Your Window” that made the album.

Luther VandrossI got a call from producer Joe Mardin, who invited me to the studio the night they were putting vocals on my songs.  I was thrilled to be a fly on the wall to hear a hero of mine and a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer record a lyric of mine!  I found an overstuffed chair in a dark corner of the control room and just listened.  Mardin had brought in a group of background singers – two males and two females as I recall.  As I watched them work, trying various inflections, octaves, and emphasis I was completely blown away.  These were vocal masters like I had never seen or heard before.

After a long stretch of vocal work, the singers returned to the control room to listen and discuss further some vocal approaches to the song.  After they swapped ideas for a few minutes, they arrived at a plan for the next run at the song.  But just before heading back into the studio, the obvious leader of the group came over to me and said how much he liked the song.  It was Luther.  He asked me if I would mind if he added a little rhyming phrase to one of lines in the chorus.  I looked at him and said, “With the way you sing, can do anything you want to that song.”  He smiled and said thanks, and went back to the mike and did his thing.

It was several months later and I was on the phone in my office on the 13th floor of Black Rock, at that point, the home of Epic Records.  Jerome Gaspar, the Epic A&R guy in Black Music Division opened my door a sliver and said, “Can I introduce you to a new artist?”  I waved him in and quickly finished my call.

As the door opened wide, Luther Vandross walked in.  Out of complete surprise he nearly yelled “I know you!”

We caught up quickly on the Felix session and Jerome was thrilled that Luther already had a big fan in the marketing department… that would be me.

Of those many years of working on numerous photo shoots and music videos and showing up backstage at shows to reconfirm our support for Luther, there are two one-liners that stand out from knowing Luther.Luther Vandross

The legend of Luther’s struggle with his weight will forever be a part of his legacy.  He would gain 100 pound and lose a hundred pounds.  People worried about the toll it had to have on his heart.  He once went on the Tonight Show to quell the rumors that he had A.I.D.S. because of a sudden loss of massive weight.

He often purged the weight coming into a new album or tour only to put it all back on, I believe to assuage the stress that he put on himself.  He demanded the best from himself and when he couldn’t stand the pressure he placed on himself, he would explode a put the stress on everyone around him.

I think it was ‘92’s and Luther was off and running with “Power of Love” and our press department landed an appearance on Saturday Night Live. This was the kind of exposure Luther wanted and felt he deserved.  Luther wanted respect from the people in the music industry and for them to understand his stature among artists.  Too often some simply thought of him as an R&B singer rather than an artist who had transcended a genre.

Luther felt very good about the SNL booking and excited about the sales and airplay progress on the album.  At that time, SNL had rehearsals for their musical guest on Thursday afternoon.  This was the earliest days of Soundscan’s computerization of retail sales, and the numbers for a short period of time came out on Thursdays, rather than Wednesday as it has been the practice for many years.

I had gotten the latest numbers along with some other information to share with Luther and walked over to the NBC Studios to deliver it in person.  When I walked in the backdoor of the soundstage, the room was virtually empty with the exception of Luther and 4 or 5 people from his band and the show.  Luther spotted me as I entered about 75 feet away and in anticipation of the potential bad news I might be bringing him, he warned in a loud voice, “Okay Dan… don’t make me eat donuts!”

Luther VandrossObviously, if the chart numbers and sales figures weren’t up to his expectations, Luther was going back to the dressing room to devour a case of Entemanns!

Luther toured a lot and delivered a new album virtually every year.  These albums sold a minimum of 1.1 million during the initial marketing life of the album, usually the first 6 to 8 months.  Sometimes he came close to 2 million.  However it was never below these figures and never above.  Luther had his audience, and if we crossed a single to pop radio, he hit the higher number.  If we didn’t, his core audience was there to sell a million.  As they say, he could have sung the New York City phone book and he would sell a million.  His catalog would always continue to sell long the initial launch, however Luther was a big consumer, so he wanted that tour money and the album advances to support his pleasures so we always had timely new music from him.

At one of his video shoots prior to the release of one of his many platinum albums, we were sitting around talking with a few of his friend on the production set.  After talking about the marketing set up, the radio promotion plans, and all the details about the video we were about to shoot, Luther turned to me proudly with a smile and said, “You know Dan, this next tour is going to be my Picasso tour.”

Knowing Luther’s penchant for perfection, I asked, “So it’s going to be that good?”

Luther dismissed me with a knowing smile “No Dan… I’m going to save all the money from this tour and buy myself a Picasso.”

It was maybe a year later, I stopped by his apartment, and lo and behold there hung a Picasso!

Luther enjoyed the fruits of his enormous talent.  He tortured many a manager… or maybe every one of them.  I am sure there are a couple who could never forgive him.  He demanded the best, and he gave his best.  Rest in peace, Luther.

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)


From The Mail Bag: Luther Vandross

Luther / DanFrom Billy Bass, who had one of the most successful experiences as Luther’s manager:

“Dan, Great idea and good writing. it was a pleasure working with you particularly on the "Power of Love” tour and album. Luther, Sinbad and the “Sounds of Blackness played every major city in America and Europe and it was a lot of fun.”

From Ron McCarrell, who was head of Marketing at Epic and my boss for several years:

“Great idea for a blog, Dan.

I remember first hearing Luther on a 12” single by a group called Change – the song was titled The Glow Of Love. Paris Ely turned me me on to it.  Then just a year or so later he joined us at Epic for the beginning of a great, albeit tragically short solo career.  Dr. Don and I presented Luther with a gold record plaque for sales of 500K+ of his debut album, Never Too Much, at the Savoy Theater in NYC.“

(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)

Fizz Or Fizzle??? (2/19/10)

My current issue on the future of the music business.

For better or worse, the major labels funded the career development process for recording artists for many years.  Now that these labels are less able and/or less inclined the make the sustained investment in artist development, who is best position and who should pick up the artist development mantle?  Is it the major live music promoters?  Is it the phone companies and the cellular industry?  Is it the Apple Computers?  Microsoft?  Facebook?  Myspace?  Sponsorship Companies?  Who stands the most to gain from the investment in the new careers in music?

Send me your thoughts.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog. Dan@musicbizzfizz.com