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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