Becoming a music PR 

by Mal Smith

I became a music PR in the dizzying 1990s, relieved the 1980s were over. The world was something like this at the time… things look promising as the West versus USSR Cold War comes to an end. The way forward seems clear. The West is even more powerful than before. Yet the bad decisions of the early to mid 1990s are numerous. Some I recognised at the time, some I didn’t.

There's the failure to deal with climate change and to recycle; the botched privatisations in abandoned Russia; the hedge fund boom is allowed; downsizing is rife; there are Clinton’s welfare, housing, policing and incarceration policies; laws that push but fail to regulate subprime lending; loopholes seeding the proliferation of heavy and dangerous SUVs; the selling of cell phone spectrum instead of renting it out, resulting in billions lost; allowing mp3s with no regard to copyright; the list goes on. The 1990s all told are dire in terms of bad or mishandled policies, which contradicts what is sometimes said about the ‘untroubled’ decade. Opportunities came and then went. Bad things were going on in my more immediate world.

Broadgate in The City of London’s financial district, UK, 1991. It's a brand new, rather visionary, prime offices development next to Liverpool Street Station. The station I use to get there, direct from Finsbury Park, is nearby Moorgate. The number of journeys per day to and from Moorgate, Liverpool Street, Bank and the other City stations may have been the largest in number in the world? I feel like an interloper but I will get to witness what goes on behind the scenes.

I had somehow drifted into a job at a top fund manager, starting as a temp in 1989. There is fascination and alarm in equal measure for me, observing the financial district. I enjoy the short walk from the office to London Wall each day, the NatWest Tower looming large, to get my lunch from the blissful Italian sandwich shop. I like the people I work with, staffers and temps. But in 1991 events take a dark turn.

The boss of my section has a nervous breakdown through overwork and is given leave of absence. It’s a first frightening occurrence. A warning perhaps? But my boss is resting, doing okay. And I’m now de facto running the section. As effectively a troubleshooter, I've learned how my section operates, from consumer sales to business customers to admin to banking to accounts to compliance to HR to bespoke software. Not so simple stuff when combined, but I’m actually enjoying it.

Six months pass. What I don’t know is that behind my back the shadowy management consultants are about to reorganise the company by centralising everything, to zero real purpose. For me this is not how to do things. The changes are arbitrary and destabilising. It is time to go. For one thing, there are glaring faults in compliance, and doubtless within the industry generally. I need out. I quit my needlessly messed-with job on 30th November 1991. It’s not my last experience of corporate shenanigans.

Another event is about to shake the whole city. One spring evening in 1992, the sound of the blast is so loud that I hear the Baltic Exchange bomb go off, from my small apartment in Finsbury Park. The Baltic Exchange is very close to where I had worked and got my sandwich. The bomb kills three people and 91 others are injured. Very sad, and frightening.

In 1992, I have a notion of working in the music industry. I’ve always wanted to. But I have no idea how to actually go about it. I don’t have much money. I do have a good, fairly broad knowledge of music. I’ve written articles about music. But I need to find out more. I do two week-long music industry courses, which help a lot, before being selected for a government-backed scheme which allows me to train as a sound engineer for three months followed by a nine month work placement. This is the breakthrough, though at the time I’ve no idea how things will pan out.

Covent Garden Underground Station, London, 1991. Photo by Ben Brooksbank.
Covent Garden Underground Station, London, 1991. Photo by Ben Brooksbank.
Camden, 1984, around the time I first go to gigs in London. Photo: Ben Brooksbank.
Camden, 1984, around the time I first go to gigs in London. Photo: Ben Brooksbank.

The sound course takes place at Falconer Studios in Camden Town, my favourite locale in all of London. Camden is humming. It has the best bookshops and the best record shops, and is deliciously down at heel in those days. I have my own place in nearby Finsbury Park, but at the time I catch the 31 bus, darting stop-start hell for leather to Camden each day, eagerly, from my girlfriend’s place in Kilburn. I love the very journey itself. The course is interesting too, acoustics and analogue recording to two-inch tape. But I soon realise that life as a tape-op and then hopefully as an assistant sound engineer, is going to be awful, with little free time. I need another plan.

Rhythm Records, Camden, London, 1984. Photo by David Corio.
Rhythm Records, Camden, London, 1984. Photo by David Corio.
Rykodisc's London office in West Kilburn
Rykodisc's London office in West Kilburn

Students on the sound course must organise their own recording studio placement. I take full advantage of this to bend the rules, in a good way, deciding to approach record companies instead. My luck is holding. I get away with it and wind up with a nine month placement at Rykodisc, a go-ahead Anglo-American independent label, which is located in a handsome former laundry building in a London enclave named West Kilburn, surrounded by houses and railway lines. Not far away at all, but I’ve never set foot there before. Now I walk there each day, through the streets of London.

Rykodisc, which had been set up in 1983 as CD-only, with the CDs made in Japan, is organised network-fashion with offices in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Salem, and Los Angeles, with London as the European office. Ryko is a Japanese word supposedly, according to Rykodisc, meaning sound from a flash of light, alluding to the new optical discs read by laser light. Rykodisc is an interesting creature of the time, representing a groovy-chic, knowing modernity. In fact, Rykodisc had preferred back catalogue releases, less risky prospects. However, with the Boston band Morphine, the label ditches risk-aversion with two tour de force new albums, Good and Cure For Pain, both released in 1993, just as I arrive at Rykodisc’s London office.

I soon realise my best approach is to attach myself to Ryko press officers Pat and Jody, who are wonderful. I can’t thank them enough. I shadow, observe, ask questions, and do whatever is asked. For the rest of the time I help with organising the UK admin of the New Music Seminar, a New York based annual industry conference which Rykodisc helps out with, and assist in the music publishing office. A great warmth permeates the place. I have hopes of meeting legendary A&R Joe Boyd, whose company Hannibal Records has been absorbed into Ryko, but he’s not well and I only meet him briefly. Hannibal at the time, via Rykodisc, is releasing John Cale’s Fragments Of A Rainy Season, reissuing Nick Drake’s Bryter Later, and putting out a boxset of Richard Thompson recordings.

Working in the Rykodisc press office convinces me I can do it too. And there are signs of intriguing things happening in music. In 1993/4, The Jayhawks, Grant Lee Buffalo, Rainer Ptacek, Morphine, and Cracker each appear on UK national television. For me, music isn’t Britpop and Grunge. After completing a course in setting up a small business, gradually I accumulate the things I need: a second phone line, a fax machine which doubles as a phone, a notebook computer and a small printer. I start trading as a freelance music publicist in 1994, as Delta PR. Soon I get a better computer, a second-hand Mac; plus a laser printer, and a modem. I add email in 1995 and a website in 1997. I’ve got my start, although things are far from plain sailing. But that’s another story.

I shall mention one episode. For me, Ryko’s greatest contribution, alongside Morphine, is its releases by Willard Grant Conspiracy, another superb Boston band. In 2000/2001, as a freelance firm, we get to represent the Willard Grant Conspiracy album Everything’s Fine, in one of many crazy twists. It's a great album. But things are not fine. The smooth ride on the shiny-bright sound from a flash of light spinning disc has run its course. By 1998, Ryko had got into trouble, over-leveraged with debt, and had been bought by ex-Island Records head Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. But things go further awry. Rykodisc/RykoPalm is bought again, this time by a Chase Capital led group in 2001. Willard Grant Conspiracy are not happy and will move on. Rykodisc had a remarkable run from 1993-2001. Today, Ryko is no more than a ghost, having been swallowed up by Warner in 2006 and effectively shut down.

I have learned a few things. Beware corporate shenanigans. The City firm I joined in 1989 and quit at the end of 1991 was bought by an overseas buyer in the late 1990s, not surprisingly with bad outcomes. I’m glad I wasn’t there. The ‘ring of steel’ security around the City of London went up in 1993. Had I not quit when I did, I’d probably have never left. The City soon becomes a way of life. In music, the loss of the CD as the main format continues to haunt the industry, which has since become incredibly technocratic.

In terms of places, the London and Boston mentioned above are now transformed, gentrified almost beyond recognition. The Italian sandwich shop is no more. Falconer Studios no longer exists. Rykodisc has vanished. My personal favourite music venues, bookshops and record shops have all closed down. And when I think about it now, many of today’s problems can be traced to the 1990s. The special underground vibrancy of the time has mostly lost out to dubious, powerful vested interests. Today illiberalism is at the door, scheming, screeching, shifting blame in the wrong direction. The mistakes made were not inevitable. I sometimes wonder how different things could have been.

Mal Smith

This is an article written for Delta PR's 30th Anniversary Year

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