MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we feature Bruce Allen, manager of the likes of Bryan Adams and Michael Buble. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip Music, the currency exchange specialist which helps artists, managers and music businesses obtain an optimum currency exchange deal.
Bruce Allen chuckles when, through a mixture of politeness and contractual obligation, MBW informs him that he is being interviewed for a slot called The World’s Greatest Managers.
“I guess you stick around long enough, they’ll call you great just for surviving,” he jokes.
There’s some truth in that, of course. Simply still being in the game after nearly 50 years is worthy of recognition, no matter what the scoreboard says at that stage.
It’s also fair to say that Allen has done far more than survive. He has, in fact, been something of a pioneer.
Canadian artists are currently enjoying a golden age, with Drake, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and The Weeknd all in the IFPI’s list of the top ten most successful global artists in 2016.
For decades previously, however, artists achieving serious commercial success outside their home territory were rare and isolated.
Critical acclaim, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, absolutely. But needle-moving, earth-shattering sales figures, not so much.
In the 1980s there was Celine Dion, in the 1990s there was Shania Twain. And there are honourable mentions along the way for Rush, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavigne, Nickleback and others.
But, generally, for a variety of reasons, plenty of artists across several decades broke big in Canada, but could not parlay that domestic success into worldwide superstardom.
Those that did go global, most notably Bryan Adams, often did so with the help, guidance, tenacity and contact book of Vancouver born (and still resident) Allen in their armoury.
Adams alone has sold close to 70 millions albums around the world and still holds the record for the longest running No. 1 in UK chart history with Everything I Do, I Do It For You.
Allen also looks after another Canadian musical giant in globe-straddling, multi-Grammy-winning crooner Michael Bublé.
Allen’s music business roots stretch all the way back to booking bar bands in his home town, but his involvement with the record industry begins with a group from Winnipeg whose signature tunes, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet and Taking Care of Business, couldn’t have been more prophetic for their inexperienced but ambitious young manager.
Before looking back, though, we talk present day, and about those continent-straddling acts who, whether they know it or not, might just owe Allen a tip of the blinged-up baseball cap.
How pleased are you to see Canadian artists doing so well right now?
I think it’s fantastic. It’s really good for the country. International successes like that used to be few and far between and it’s great for young people here to see that.
People are looking north now because there are great records coming out of this country. And you know what, my guys and what they’ve achieved, might just have had something to do with it.
Do you ever look at Justin’s career in particular as a manager and think how you would have handled it – and him?
I think about it all the time. I met Scooter Braun and I think he’s a brilliant guy, a smart guy and a good guy. I think one of the really clever things he did was not do too much, he kind of let [Justin] go through some things.
Scooter was there as a safety net, but he didn’t try and slap him into line, because that would only have made things worse. Instead, he was always there for Justin and I really admire that, because he let the kid be a kid. We do stupid things at 18. I look back at the stupid things I did and can only imagine how much more stupid I’d have been if I had $10 million in the bank!
Did you ever want to be a performer yourself?
To me, music was a hobby, I collected records, I’ve still got them in fact. Every spare bit of money I had went on music, either records or shows. I never had any inclination to play or perform, but I wanted to somehow be involved, and I ended up in the booking business. At one time I had the booking rights for 17 clubs in Vancouver, pretty much controlling the market.
Then, in 1971, Randy Bachman comes into town, having put together Bachman Turner Overdrive, and asked me to manage them. Of course I was terrified, because he’d already been in an act of some consequence. I said, “How can I manage you when you know a hell of a lot more than me?” He said, “Listen, my problem is, I don’t like going into offices saying, ‘I want this and I want that’. You can go in for me and say ‘He wants this and we want that’.”
So I said, okay, and I split the agency up at that time,
Sam Feldman came in and took over the booking side of it, and I went on the road to learn the management side, and [Bachman Turner Overdrive] were the first act I ever managed – and they were a very big act for the time.
What did you think you needed to be a manager at the time? What made you think you could do it?
I only had one act, so you’re tremendously focused. The big thing, always the big thing, is how can I get a record deal? We got turned down by I think it was 16 labels, and we ended up with Mercury Records in Chicago.
That wasn’t where the business was, of course, the business was in LA and New York. But Randy and I agreed with the label to go on the road and work this [eponymous debut] record. Randy and the band worked their asses off and he taught me to work my ass off. We would do 200-250 shows a year, continually; they were indefatigable. And we broke the band that way.
“Now we’re in a time when the single most important thing is to have an act that can tour, because that’s where the money is.”
If I’m honest, I haven’t changed my approach that much since then. Now, in fact, we’re in a time when the single most important thing is to have an act that can tour, because that’s where the money is. I remember seeing Bachman Turner Overdrive tickets for $7-8 and we all said, “Do you think people might pay $10?”
Look at us now!
[Bachman Turner Overdrive] were the biggest selling artist in the US in 1975. In all they had five good albums that really meant something, but the problem with bands is that they argue.
They argued, they broke up and people went their separate ways and we never recovered from it. There have been attempts to put the band back together, but somehow those feelings have stayed there and it hasn’t happened.
What’s that like for you as a manager, when a band is arguing amongst themselves and heading for a split? Do you try and keep them together or let it play out?
Had I been more skilled at that time I might have been able to hold them together, but we’re dealing with family here, we’re dealing with two brothers, and that’s really difficult – you can see it with the Gallaghers today. Over the years it has driven me to the point where I don’t want another group; I don’t want that dynamic.
Randy Bachman was the core of that band, and I don’t think he treated the guys properly. So they rebelled – and they had money. And when you have money and you don’t think you’re being treated right, you can make life pretty miserable. I don’t think I had the skill when I was young to hold that all together.
Thankfully, one of my friends who was in the bar business put together this band called Loverboy. He brought it to me and said he thought he had something pretty good. I was driving down from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, put the cassette on, and by the time I got to LA I said to him, “They’re outstanding, we have to do something with this band.”
In the end Jeff Burns at Columbia in Canada took a shot at us; they were a Canadian signing. The problem with that is that when you have success in Canada first, and still to this day, there’s a certain stigma attached because of our 35% Canadian content [on radio] rule. People think that hits coming out of Canada are imposed on people by the government.
So when I took the thing down to Columbia US, they looked at us very askance, very suspicious of what we’d achieved. However, one guy there, during the reign of Walter Yetnikoff, a guy called Arma Andon, said, “You know what, I like what you did with BTO, I’ll make you a deal, but you’ve got to promise me you’ll tour your asses off.”
Loverboy were big [four multi-platinum albums in the US] up until the same kind of infighting that broke up BTO. And then along came Bryan Adams.
What did you think when you first saw Bryan live?
The biggest thing is, when he went up there, he was ferocious; he still is. Bryan Adams is the type of guy who, if he’d decided when he was younger that he was going to be a great nuclear physicist, then trust me he’d be a great nuclear physicist right now. He’s one of those people; he has the most tremendous amount of guts and determination.
Initially, he was doing covers. That’s what you had to do when you played clubs. You did 80% stuff people wanted to hear and 20% you snuck your own stuff in.
Bryan came down to see me and first off I didn’t want to do anything, because Loverboy was still moving along pretty good. But
Do you think he was so determined to get you because you’d broken acts outside Canada?
Yeah, Bryan wanted to break the United States, there’s no doubt about it and he worked his ass off there.
I remember he sat in my office and said, “Listen, you and I get together and I’ll be the biggest act you’ve ever had.” He was right!
But then the next thing that happened was that we got an offer to go to England and open for Tina Turner when she was hot with Private Dancer. I went to A&M to ask for tour support and they said, “No way, you’re not gonna go and support Tina Turner, you’re gonna kill this kid’s career, she’s a cabaret act!”
And to Americans, that’s what she was, she was Las Vegas, she played lounges, but over there, [manager] Roger Davis had done a tremendous job, re-invented her, turned her into a massive act, so Bryan and I said, “We want to go to Europe, we want to do this.”
So we went, and we were making $1,500 a night when we could have been making $15,000 a night in America. There were some nights when you sat there and went, Jeez, here we are again, back to opening up, but then the key move was made, when we got her to sing on Bryan’s It’s Only Love.
From then on, we would do our set, and then she would introduce him, bring him back, to sing that song, and that was our Tina Turner seal of approval. And it took off from there.
What was the key to Bryan’s popularity and what was it like within the camp at his absolute peak?
No matter what situation we put him in, he was never phased by it. He was very confident, he knew if he got out there he knew he could get you and he would do anything to get you.
The other thing is that he and Jim Vallance became very, very good songwriters. We also worked with Bob Clearmountain who was one of the best engineers in the business, and we worked with Mutt Lange.
“now Bryan’s a staple, he’s got big ballads, he’s got anthems, he’s got great rock n roll.”
Bryan’s career ebbs and flows, and when it slowed down after [1987’s] Into the Fire, we got involved with Mutt and he put together some killer records [starting with 1991’s Waking Up The Neighbours, a No. 1 album in the US and UK, containing the single, Everything I Do I Do It For You].
That [Everything Do] came to us from [film score compose] Michael Kamen, without lyrics, who was working on Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Mutt and Bryan heard it and wrote the lyrics in two or three hours – bang, that was another hit [it sold 15 million copies around the world and is still the longest running number one in UK history, having clocked up 16 weeks in the top spot].
And all of a sudden the career takes off again. Like I say, ups and downs. But now Bryan’s a staple, he’s got big ballads, he’s got anthems, he’s got great rock n roll.
Do you think Bryan gets the acclaim he deserves?
I think if people took the time to look at what he’s done, then they’d give him all the respect in the world. But the thing is, Bryan doesn’t toot his own horn a lot, he’s not a media darling, he doesn’t court the press and he doesn’t play their game.
You could argue that that helps him; people sure aren’t getting tired of reading about him. It’s disturbing to me sometimes, because I’m often thinking or saying, If we did this, or we did this, but that’s my job. I bring him things and if he doesn’t wanna do ‘em, we don’t do ‘em.
There’s a saying that’s died out lately: no mystique, big mistake. Bryan came through when that was still important and he’s stuck with it.
In the ’90s you went to Nashville and managed Martina McBride who signed to RCA. What were the main differences operating there as a manager?
Well, here’s how it was very well put to me: Bruce, in rock n roll the act is the top of the pyramid; here it’s not that way. I said, What do you mean, how can it not be that way?
They said, First it’s the publishers, because they’ve got the songs, and here it’s all about the songs; second is the radio, because they’re playing the song, third is the fan, because country people treat their fans like gold, and fourth is the artist. I said, “You’re kidding!” But as soon as I got that through my head, I was okay.
“The artist has to win over the writer in Nashville, not the other way round.”
Because Martina didn’t write songs, we had to get songs. When the Nashville scene was exploding nationally, who was making the money? The writers were, because not many artists in this business write their own songs. So who are the writers going to give their songs to? The person who they think will make them the most money. The artist has to win over the writer, not the other way round. You have to get into that circle.
I loved my time in Nashville and I loved my time with Martina McBride, we did very well together. She was CMA vocalist of the year four times, she sold 25-30m records.
How did the Michael Bublé relationship come about?
Michael played clubs in my town [Vancouver] here for probably eight years. He was doing the stuff he sings now, the Sinatra era songs, he was a bar room Sinatra.
David Foster, who I managed a long time ago, when he was a teenager in a band called Skylark, before he became a big time producer, he saw Michael singing at the wedding of the daughter of the Canadian Prime Minister [Brian Mulroney]. The Prime Minister went up to David Foster and said, “Listen, you have to record this guy, he’s outstanding.” David said, Yeah, sure – I mean it was the prime minister! – and he was true to his word, he started working with Michael.
He called me up, he said, “You know Michael Bublé?” I said sure, he plays the clubs, I know him.
He asks me what I think of him, I said, “What can I say? He sings standards in clubs and bars, he’s a good singer who sings old songs – why?” And he tells me he’s making a record with him and he describes it as ‘a romance record’ – because you know what’s missing from music right now, Bruce: romance.
Anyway, he sends me the record, I listened to it and I said, “This might work.”
Michael had a manager at the time and we started working together, but those things never work, so that ended and I became his sole manager.
The [self-titled debut] record came out, it did well in Canada and started to make a bit of a move in America, because Foster was working it and he could deliver things like an Oprah Winfrey show. We booked some live dates, we worked hard and it happened. It really happened on the second record [It’s Time, top 10 in the US and the UK and 11 other territories]
What do you think is the secret to Michael’s success?
Well, we have the advantage of the songs being exceptional, of course, but Michael himself might well be one of the best performers and entertainers in the world. When he’s on TV he jumps right off the screen, when he’s on stage he holds the whole room in his hand, he’s just magnetic. We just had to get him in the right places.
He’s also genuine, he’s not a converted rocker doing his Sinatra phase; he’d been doing that stuff all his life.
How much potential did you see in Michael?
Well there were very few singers I’ve seen as good as him, but the personality and the presentation were what set him apart. It’s funny, we had a meeting with Tom Whalley [Warner Bros chairman at the time], and he didn’t get it.
But Foster had his own label with Warner, and they were looking after him because he had Josh Groban in his pocket, so [Whalley] meets with us. He says to Michael, “Michael, we already got Frank Sinatra; the actual Frank Sinatra.” And Michael came back straight away with, “Yeah, but he’s dead!”
It was a pretty smart arse remark for a young man to make, but he said it and you couldn’t argue with it!
And that story’s no reflection on Tom, by the way; plenty of people didn’t get [Michael], plenty of people looked at me strange, but I just knew if I could get this kid up to bat, he’d take a really good swing. [Warner Bros signed Bublé and went on to enjoy worldwide multi-platinum success.]
He’d been practising to be Michael Bublé for 20 years of his life. And when he got his chance, man did he work hard.
I remember him saying, when he was dreaming before the first record came out, “If I can just sell 50,000 copies, that means I can make another record – and if I make another record it’ll be a Christmas record and if I can do that, I’ll lock it in for life.”
And he was right, he actually made a Christmas EP after the first album, but he hung onto the idea and then in 2011 came the Christmas album, and that thing’s at 13 million now. He knew.
What’s next for him?
We’re talking about the next record and it looks like Foster wants to do it. I can’t tell you what will be on the record, but I don’t think Michael will stray too far from what he’s done. He’s got an audience, and nobody’s in his lane.
How has the balance of power shifted between artist/manager and label during your time in the business?
I think the artists these days have more power than they realize. I’ve always tried to keep my relationships with record labels strong and I hope I’ve achieved that. I’ve never viewed them as the enemy; I’ve always viewed them as a partner.
I think the streaming [royalty payout] thing is way out of whack, though. I think it’s disgraceful, but we’re tied to these old contracts. Someone has to step up. We’re looking at a business that’s gonna go from $25 billion to over $40 billion pretty quick, almost all through streaming, and I don’t think the artists are going to benefit too much from that.
You take an artist like Michael, who writes maybe one-and-a-half songs a record, it’s not great – and it’s really one-sided.
What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career?
As you get older, people look back and say, You must have had a lot of run-ins with people. Of course I did, but thankfully they didn’t come back to haunt me. But that can’t be your modus operandi, there has to be a give and take.
Some artists don’t understand that and they drive managers to make deals that just leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Everybody’s got to win on a deal, everybody’s got to have an upside.
“Some artists don’t understand that and they drive managers to make deals that just leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”
Am I gonna write a book about how I slapped Walter Yetnikoff around? No, I was never that guy. I was maybe a bit harder when I was younger and didn’t know any better, and maybe that got me a bit of a bad reputation, but now I’ve learned that those kind of relationships don’t benefit anyone in the end.
Also: touring, touring, touring. I always knew live performance was important, but now it’s really important.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a young manager today?
When someone who’s been in the game a while takes time to talk to you, just listen.
Also, you gotta trust each other. I have never, never, never had an act under contract. When I left Martina McBride, there were no lawsuits, no nothing, I was gone. I’ve had acts, like Tom Cochrane, where I just couldn’t work with this person anymore. No contract is gonna hold that together. I don’t need to sign a contract with anyone.
I don’t have side deals, I look after my people and I’ve never had any complaints. Listen, if I wasn’t able to do the job, I’m sure I’d be fired. But I don’t care what anybody says, my track record speaks for itself.
I’ve been here a long time, I’ve broken five acts, I don’t need to sign a contract, I shake your hand and that’s good enough for me.
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