Over a 32-year career managing legendary Welsh rockers the Manic Street Preachers, Martin Hall has helped his charges to the highest highs: meeting with Fidel Castro at a pioneering gig in Cuba; winning multiple BRIT Awards; and ushering in the new millennium in a stadium full of their ecstatic countrymen and women.
But he has also had to navigate the lowest possible lows: the still-unsolved disappearance of troubled Manics guitarist Richey Edwards, which came soon after the death of Martin’s own brother, management partner and mentor, Philip Hall.
All that would have been more than enough for most people. But Martin Hall has also done so much more; helping to plot the careers of everyone from James Arthur to Pixie Lott, Groove Armada to The Script and Shampoo to Wet Leg.
The only thing he hasn’t done is talk about it. Until now.
Today’s tetea-tete with MBW, in a Soho private members club, is – remarkably – the first time he has ever spoken in depth about his career.
And there is a lot to talk about. Even by his standards, the last nine months have been exceptionally successful, bringing him three UK No.1 albums by three different artists: the Manics’ Ultra Vivid Lament, The Script’s Tales From The Script: Greatest Hits and Wet Leg’s self-titled debut album.
But his back story is just as remarkable.
Hall started off in the ‘80s selling advertising in music magazines before his entrepreneurial spirit saw him decamp to New York to set up his own publication, covering the stars of the then-ubiquitous second British Invasion (“Having lived in New Malden, New York was fucking amazing,” he grins).
The fact that the magazine, London Calling, never actually published an issue didn’t prevent him from talking his way into interviews with the likes of the Thompson Twins, or onto the red carpet at the very first MTV VMAs, all the while getting “a taste for how easy it was to blag your way into things”.
After a stint selling ads for Star Hits, the US version of legendary British pop mag Smash Hits, he returned home in the late ‘80s and began work at his big brother’s independent press company, Hall Or Nothing.
The pair had been mulling over a move into music management when a letter arrived.
That missive, from four Welsh punks declaring themselves ‘the future of rock’n’roll’, was what they – and pretty much every rock fan in Britain – had been waiting for.
At their first meeting in South Wales, bassist Nicky Wire had cut his head and was bleeding all over the blouse he’d co-opted from his mother’s wardrobe and stencilled with seditionary slogans, while singer James Dean Bradfield was too shy to even talk to the visiting music biz hotshots.
“I wasn’t sure about it,” Hall admits today. “But Philip was like, ‘I’m going to get so much press on this band. It’s going to be great – and the music will catch up’.” It did too.
Signed by Rob Stringer to Columbia UK, the Manics cut a swathe through the moribund early ‘90s UK scene with dazzling songs such as Motown Junk, You Love Us and Motorcycle Emptiness.
Edwards and Wire entranced the music press with a series of provocative interviews (Richey famously carved the phrase ‘4 Real’ into his arm with a razor blade during an interview with NME’s Steve Lamacq).
This being the first band the Hall brothers had ever managed, they thought all this was normal. But Philip’s tragic death from cancer in 1993 was followed swiftly by Richey’s disappearance in 1995.
There’s been no trace of him ever since, and he was declared officially dead in 2008.
The Manics carried on as a trio – drummer Sean Moore completes the line-up – and finally became as big as they always said they would be, as Everything Must Go went triple Platinum.
Martin had stepped up to run HON management (Philip’s wife Terri Hall took over the PR business of the same name) and, after a few years, he started to take on other clients.
He’s sold the business twice – to Sanctuary in 2003 (later becoming Sanctuary MD) and YM&U, then the James Grant Group, in 2012 (with Hall later becoming executive chairman).
But corporate conformity wasn’t his style, and both times he returned to the independent life (“I enjoyed all that, but I’m pleased to be in charge of my own destiny again,” he says).
And now, 32 years on from that letter, his career has come full circle.
He still talks to Nicky Wire every day (in fact, Wire calls just as Hall sits down with MBW), whether it’s about work or just the rugby.
But Hall is once more managing the hottest new alternative band in the country, overseeing Wet Leg’s phenomenal rise from their debut gig in July 2021 to a UK No.1 album 10 months later.
And, finally, Hall seems to be getting the respect he deserves as one of the British music business’ most under-the-radar success stories. His phone hasn’t stopped buzzing with congratulations about Wet Leg’s many triumphs and, despite all his years in the game, he remains every bit as passionate about music and the business as he was back in the ‘90s.
Nor is he about to go anywhere. While he’s toying with launching a publishing company or a label (“I’d like to get into some kind of rights ownership – that’s quite logical as a manager”), it’s clearly management that still makes him tick, as he enthuses about dashing between his charges’ various gigs on different sides of the planet.
“It’s the best part of the job,” he smiles. “Seeing the bands play live and being in the dressing room, that’s what I enjoy the most.”
There are plenty of good times ahead, then, as his artists look forward to another huge live summer. But before then, it’s time for Martin Hall to, finally, have his say…
You must have had your hands full with the Manics in the early days…
Yeah, it was tricky. You know all the incidents, I don’t need to repeat them.
Nicky couldn’t stop himself really. Even now, when he goes up to the mic, I always have an involuntary shudder at what he’s going to say.
But they weren’t arseholes or difficult, they were lovely to work with, they just presented this front.
Did you have any idea how big they were going to become?
You think every band you work with could be successful, but you don’t know to what level.
“Seeing the bands play live and being in the dressing room, that’s what I enjoy most.”
Sometimes, as a manager, you’ve just got to believe in the people – if you believe that, collectively, they’ve got something special about them, that’s got to be the starting point.
The Manics was a difficult journey, so winning the BRITs and everything was always bittersweet.
That’s why Rob Stringer, me and them are still so tight.
They speak to Rob a lot because going through that together brought us closer – most bands don’t have to do all that with their manager.
Nor do many managers have to deal with something like Richey’s disappearance…
I know. Filling in the missing person’s report at Harrow Police Station… that was difficult.
The band had known each other since primary school, so it was really hard for them.
I don’t think we ever thought it was obvious he wasn’t coming back – I still have dreams that he turns up now. In terms of continuing, I just left it to whatever they wanted to do. We didn’t have a sit-down meeting about it, they’re not like that.
They gave it a pause and then they started writing. Nicky sent James a lyric and it was A Design For Life – he said, ‘I think I’ve written something special…’
How was it sorting out the notorious Cuba visit in 2001?
That was an interesting trip! It was Rob Stringer backing the band’s vision to do something as crazy as that, because it was really expensive. And it was unknown territory.
When we met Castro, it wasn’t planned, we were backstage before the show and one of the officials said, ‘Do you want to meet someone?’
And there he was, standing there in his full military uniform.
James said, ‘It’s going to be quite loud tonight, so maybe bring some headphones’ and Castro, through his translator said, ‘It can’t be louder than war’.
Then, the day after the gig, it was like, ‘You must go see Castro do a speech.’ It was three hours away on the coach, but it wasn’t optional. I had to say to the band, ‘Come on, you’ve got to come’ – I basically bribed them to get on the coach because they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
After all that, managing other artists must have been easy?
Nicky Wire once said to me, ‘Why are you managing other bands? Paul McGuinness only manages U2’. And I said, ‘If you were U2, you’d be the only band I would manage!’
Different bands have different challenges, but you don’t have to deal with the same drama or tragedy that we did with the Manics.
It’s unusual to come through that and then make it successful.
What’s changed between those days and Wet Leg’s breakthrough?
It’s more competitive now, because there are so many bands. There seemed to be fewer then.
At the time, I felt if I found a Britpop guitar band, it wouldn’t be that hard to get them a record and publishing deal.
Everyone was signing British guitar bands, it was easy. There’s so much music now, to get heard and cut through is hard.
Does wet leg’s breakthrough prove that alternative rock is alive and kicking?
Every year, everyone says indie music is coming back.
Maybe as a guitar band that can have a big No.1 album, Wet Leg might open a few doors. I hope so, but I do think the difference is, Wet Leg are better.
Their songs can cut through, they’re pop songs really.
They’re already doing well in America. Could they be the next big British band globally?
Oh, they could be huge. I trust them as songwriters, they’re smart and they’re not fazed by this stuff.
Some bands struggle with the weight of expectation on the second record but I don’t think that will happen to them.
If Wet Leg become as big as they might be, I’ll need more help…
Is that why you did the YM&U deal, to get more back-up?
In theory, yeah. I sold to Sanctuary and to YM&U because, on paper, the back-up, the brand team and the international office feels attractive, and the cheque looks good.
But neither time worked out how I envisioned it. I found I lost my entrepreneurial spirit in a corporate environment. I’m not sure if Wet Leg would have joined me if I’d been in a corporate environment right now.
They liked the fact it was a smaller business and I’m really hands on – that’s good for them. Ultimately, I’m pleased to be doing it myself and not having a boss.
If you ask too many people, you’ll never make a decision. You’ve got to trust your instincts, whether things are good or not. We’ve got other [new acts] that I’m finding harder to get moving, but I have to trust that I really like it, so hopefully it’ll work.
You’ve managed a wide variety of acts, genre-wise. What do you look for in an artist?
You don’t want to be more ambitious than the band you manage.
If you’re going to work that hard, put that much of your personal time into it, you’re going to want to know they actually want to be successful.
Are you friends with your artists?
I’m friends with the Manics. I think I’m friends with The Script. They came to my wedding and my birthday party, but I’m still their manager. I work for them and it’s hard to blur the lines.
When I was at YM&U they said, ‘We’re not friends and family, it’s a professional relationship’.
But, when you work closely with people and you’re on the road a lot, you do become friends with them.
Do you have a view on the catalogue rights sale boom that has taken place in the past few years?
There have been some conversations going on with the Manics.
If the deal’s right, you’re of an age, you’re maybe not selling all of it and they give you the money you need, then I’m open to those conversations. But it’s the artist’s call.
They’re saying Pink Floyd is going for £500 million – fuck me, that’s a big cheque for anyone! I don’t know how they do their numbers on that – it doesn’t stream that well! It’s like, with the Manics, we never seem to get any adverts.
For years, we’ve been saying you can work our catalogue, why not?
Historically, the NME and Melody Maker would be a bit judgemental about that, but they’re not there to be judgemental, unfortunately.
We’re open to using the rights, there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, what would it be and why?
I’d like deals to become more artist-friendly, so we’re not signing in perpetuity and giving rights away forever. It’s got to move on.
Labels do now offer 50/50 revenue, or reversions of masters, but some of those old deals are tough.
The pendulum swinging back in the artists’/managers’ favour is a good thing.
Although, as a manager, when you sign a record deal, you don’t keep too close an eye on recoupment, because you know you’re going to tour and make money.
You don’t say, ‘Let’s spend 10 grand on the video, not 20, because we’re looking to recoup’ – you just make the best video you can.
Then, if you’re properly successful, you’ll renegotiate the deal. You shouldn’t skimp on expenditure early doors, you’ve got to go for it. Have the Manics recouped? [Laughs] Yes!
With this run of No.1s, are you finally getting your dues as a manager?
Well, I’m not a self-publicist. I don’t go looking for awards and things, I’m more of a behind-the-scenes type.
Some managers have Instagram accounts etc, but that’s not how I operate. I always thought I might get offered a job at a record company, but I never got a call and I’m too old now!
“Some managers have Instagram accounts etc., but that’s not how I operate.”
Plus I love what I’m doing and I’m not sure I could do anything else. I live and breathe it and never stop working.
I’m never not on the phone at the weekend because, if there’s a call, you have to take it.
I’ve got no plans to retire. I’m not saying I want to work forever, but maybe I’m just hitting my stride now.
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