If you’ve spent decades in the belly of the music business – immersed daily in its triumphs, its tribalism, its power battles and its politics – does it eventually blunt your perspective on whether an artist is actually any good?
On the one hand, all of that experience is bound to have refined your antennae for a hit, not to mention your mastery of the factions you need to conquer for your best chance of climbing the charts.
But on the other, perhaps with every platinum record you nail up on the wall, you inevitably shuffle one step further away from the purest perspective in existence – that of the punter.
This quandary was on Mike McCormack’s mind when he decided to leave behind the music biz after 35 years in 2014.
McCormack’s decision, catalyzed by personal tragedy, left the UK industry without one of its most talented A&R minds, and one of its most well-liked characters.
Over the following two years, McCormack became a successful sports agent for cricket stars, before returning to Universal Music Publishing UK as its MD last summer.
This hiatus enabled the exec to see things from the unblemished viewpoint of a music enthusiast – a stance he hadn’t witnessed since entering the entertainment biz by pulling pints at Dingwall’s nightclub in Camden in 1980.
“Working in a different industry for a while gave me a lot more clarity on what it was I needed to achieve,” he tells MBW.
“By the time I left music, I was running out of steam; I’d almost forgotten what it was that made me a good executive in the first place.
“Now, I know exactly what I’m here to do.”
It’s been just over a year since McCormack took over as MD of UMP UK, succeeding his friend and long-term boss, Paul Connolly.
MBW catches up with McCormack in his penthouse Fulham Broadway office during something of a golden run for the company – recently capped off by it bringing home a record eight Ivor Novellos.
One of McCormack’s biggest moves since returning to UMPG was the signing of British producer/writer Steve Mac, who officially joined Universal’s roster in January.
“Steve is an extraordinary talent and there’s so much more to come from him.”
Mike McCormack, UMPG
Mac (pictured inset) has been behind a swathe of UK Top 10 hits this year including Ed Sheeran’s Shape Of You, Rita Ora’s Your Song and Liam Payne’s Strip That Down, as well as Clean Bandit’s Rockabye and Symphony – a startling run of success which has already led some to tip him for a Grammy nomination in 2018.
“Steve is an extraordinary talent and there’s so much more to come from him,” says McCormack. “It seems like every single thing he’s touched this year has come out and smashed it.”
McCormack explains that since taking over at UMPG UK, he’s been determined to broaden the company’s reputation beyond signing long-term album artists to compete more forcefully in the world of chart singles.
In addition to Mac, this has been evidenced with signings such as Jonas Blue, Dua Lipa (via TAP Music, pictured) and Ed Drewett (Little Mix, One Direction) – who will join UMPG from Warner/Chappell after this year closes.
The boss has certainly noticed.
Jody Gerson, CEO and Chairman, Universal Music Publishing Group, tells MBW: “Bringing in Mike has helped unify our global company, and he shares my vision for making this the best music company in the world and the premier home for songwriters.
“Mike has an innate ability to sign, discover and develop iconic talent and catalogs, and he continues to be a key voice on my leadership team.”
Other recent successes at UMPG UK include ‘Jin Jin’ Bennett who co-wrote Jax Jones’ You Don’t Know Me (which has sold almost 1m in the UK), while a JV with indie Best Laid Plans has given the major a share of eight songs on the double-platinum-selling debut album from Rag N Bone Man.
The signing of a certain Harry Styles – in conjunction with Jody Gerson’s UMPG team in the US – hasn’t hurt McCormack’s mission.
“Mike has an innate ability to sign, discover and develop iconic talent and catalogs, and he continues to be a key voice on my leadership team.”
Jody Gerson, UMPG
“We signed Harry in my first few months as MD,” recalls the British exec. “Jody and I talked about it and immediately went: ‘You know what, we should do this.’
“How many global superstars are there his age who really have that charisma and are an established name worldwide? If we want to show how ambitious we are as a company, we’ve got to step up – and this was us stepping up.”
Other emerging artists McCormack’s team has bet on of late include singer/songwriters Tom Walker, Tom Misch, Grace Barker and Rex OC, in addition to Irish pop duo Picture This and Sony-signed indie act Bad Sounds.
In the 18 years since, UMPG’s London team have signed and developed some of the biggest album artist/songwriters in the world – including Adele, Coldplay, The Killers, Florence + the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Bastille and Chase & Status.
“I think we’ve got by far and away the best A&R force in the UK.”
Many of the talented A&R team who were by McCormack’s side for these signings remain at the company today, including the likes of Caroline Gale (nee Elleray, pictured with McCormack), Mark Gale, Darryl Watts and Frank Tope.
“I think we’ve got by far and away the best A&R force in the UK,” says McCormack, proudly.
“All of the senior executives in that team have got great track records and are very well-respected.
“And on a junior level we’ve got some really exciting up-and-coming executives too. We’ll let them make some mistakes, as everybody does, and we’ll support them and nurture them.”
McCormack knows the importance of having a good team around you better than most.
The exec started his record label career in the early ’80s at A&M Records, before moving on to Virgin Music Publishing as A&R Manager, where he signed the likes of Terence Trent D’Arby, Stereo MCs and all of the members of Take That – before heading up the A&R team that signed The Verve and the Prodigy.
He moved on to run the A&R department at RCA Records in London in the early ’90s, having huge success with Take That, while hiring a young Simon Cowell to work on made-for-TV pop stars.
After RCA, in the late ’90s, McCormack joined Simon Fuller at 19 – helping the British mogul set up a sports agency, as well as working across various music projects – before making the jump to UMPG.
MBW sat down with McCormack to ask all about his ambitions with UMPG, his view on recent major industry issues – and what A&R means to him in 2017…
What did you learn about the music business in your two years away from it?
Taking some time out was the best thing I could have done. I’d run out of steam; I’d lost the desire. I really didn’t want to be the guy sitting in A&R meetings failing to get excited about new artists. My mind was on other things.
Going outside and having a separate challenge meant I became a consumer of music, rather than someone always trying to facilitate an artist’s success. It was the best healing process I could have had.
“I really didn’t want to be the guy sitting in A&R meetings failing to get excited about new artists.”
When the opportunity came up to return, I was ready for it. I had clarity; I knew this company from top to bottom and I knew how good it was across every department.
The one piece of the jigsaw missing here was that it needed to be a bit re-energized and dragged slightly back more into the mainstream.
If you look as all our signings over the last 18 years, musically there’s some of the best artists that have ever come out of the UK.
But, like all things, you’ve got to have a healthy balance between what’s going on in the chart, and long-term artists you develop over time. We’ve set that rhythm now.
The UK has been a tough market for breaking new acts in the past few years. Why do you think that is, and how have you responded?
Streaming’s added such a huge curveball into the game of A&R.
Before, you’d have an impact date and you’d pull back the elastic and then let go – after which, you knew if you were in the game or dead in the water.
Now, when you pick your horse, you have to stay with it. It takes so long to get proper traction – you have to commit and take a long-term perspective.
“to a certain extent, the ‘rules’ of A&R haven’t changed: If you make a brilliant record, and the company supports it and sticks with it, you’ll have those magical moments where things completely kick off.”
A&R has always been like trying to hit a target you can’t see. Now it’s like trying to hit the bullseye of a target you can’t see!
But, to a certain extent, the ‘rules’ of A&R haven’t changed: If you make a brilliant record, and the company supports it and sticks with it, you’ll have those magical moments where things completely kick off.
Look at Rag’N’Bone Man. [Columbia UK’s] Julian Palmer did a brilliant A&R job, but it took a long time to make and then break that record.
New artists are now competing with all the music that’s come before – as well all the music around the world.
That means you have to set the bar extremely high – or be saying something so pertinent and so relevant to your audience that no music from the past says it better.
How are you finding it working with Jody Gerson?
When I first spoke to Jody about the job, I instantly liked her. The first thing she said to me was, ‘I want to make this the best creative company in the world.’
That was exciting to hear.
“The first thing Jody said to me was, ‘I want to make this the best creative company in the world.'”
She said she’d give me and the team here her full support, and she’s been absolutely true to her word; whether that’s signing something big like Harry – on which we were arm-in-arm – or other occasions where I’ve wanted to pass on something that might have had a lot of heat.
Jody’s a tough taskmaster, but she’s fun to work with – and has a great sense of humor.
What was it like coming back to UMPG full time after your time away – and why have you remained so loyal to this company for 18 years?
No other major publisher has the strength and stability we have with our senior creative team at UMPG.
I’ve been here 18 years, Darryl Watts even longer – and Caroline, Mark and Frank have been here at least a decade each.
That gives us a unique creative continuity – plus it’s reassuring to managers and artists that the A&R person they sign to may actually still be at the company when their record comes out!
Are there any other reasons you decided to come back to music, and Universal in particular?
During that period where I was having a really tough time, Universal were unbelievably good to me.
Lucian [Grainge] wrote me a hand-written letter – he could obviously empathize with my situation. Paul [Connolly] was great and gave me all the time and space I needed.
“There was never ever pressure from anyone to throw myself back into work. That really stuck with me.”
There was never ever pressure from anyone to throw myself back into work. That really stuck with me.
The other thing I learned at that time was about the supposed cynicism of the record industry – you know, the Hunter S Thompson thing: ‘A cruel and shallow money trench…’
All the way through that time, David Joseph, Jason Iley, Max Lousada – they were all still inviting me to events, or for a cup of tea.
I had nothing interesting to tell them, or any information that would better their careers, and yet they all kept in touch.
When the opportunity came to return to the industry, I didn’t have to ‘renew’ my relationships, because none of them ever stopped.
Also… the word ‘family’ is bandied around a lot within the music business, but at Universal it felt like I’d genuinely come home.
I would never consider working anywhere else. Simple as that.
Simon is a unique character. It’s no accident as to why he’s been so successful.
I’ve never met anybody who’s as fearless as he is, or who thinks as big as he does. He’s uninterested in things that don’t have a huge amount of ambition.
You look at what he’s done with the Spice Girls and American Idol and it shows that.
And – this is the most important bit – he’s achieved all of that success without bullying anyone. He’s done it all through charisma and pragmatism. And I’ve never seen anyone better at dealing with artists than him.
He taught me a hell of a lot.
You worked with Paul Connolly for a very long time at UMPG. What’s it like flying solo without him here?
It’s funny. I’ve worked with Paul for so long, we know each other incredibly well. We had a very different way of working – I was more outgoing, he preferred to be in the background.
I think I’ve got balls of steel – that man’s got balls of titanium! He really is hardcore and I love him for it.
“Paul’s built a brilliant company here. It’s a bit odd not having him around, but it’s also a good thing because I can put my own stamp on [UMPG].”
During those 18 years with Paul, he taught me how to be slightly less impulsive than I would have been without his direction. He really thinks things through and doesn’t let any outside influences affect his judgment.
He’s built a brilliant company here. It’s a bit odd not having him around, but it’s also a good thing because I can put my own stamp on [UMPG], and do what I felt we need to be doing more of – particularly mainstream-wise, where we let opportunities go in the past.
I still get on with Paul very well, there’s no bad blood between us at all.
How do you feel about the private equity money now flooding the music publishing business?
It shows that this industry is healthy and is growing, otherwise it wouldn’t be there.
How it affects us competitively? There’s often a point in most negotiations, at crunch time, where there’s more money on the table from someone else – particularly if that party is in danger of losing the deal.
We just have to convince the writer this is the best home for their copyrights. That’s always been the case.
UMPG has been quite loud and proud about the transparency of its admin systems in recent years. That obviously comes in the wake of Kobalt shaking up the industry.
When Kobalt came into the industry, it definitely had a big impact. Everyone had to up their game.
I have no doubt in saying that our systems are world class now.
I don’t know if that strapline of ‘transparency’ or being ‘the most efficient collection engine’ is even that relevant anymore.
“To get my personal respect in publishing, certainly, you have to develop worldwide superstars. That’s when you show how good you are.”
Interestingly, with Kobalt, it looks to me like they’re starting to reverse into a more traditional model – paying advances and acquiring long-term rights [via separate business Kobalt Music Capital].
To get my personal respect in publishing, certainly, you have to develop worldwide superstars. That’s when you show how good you are.
Multiple co-writes seem to be becoming more prevalent in the pop music world. What’s your take – is it healthy?
If it’s a means to an end in terms of writing a worldwide No.1 hit, then so be it.
That said, all of my songwriting heroes were at most partnerships – whether it’s Strummer/Jones or Leiber /Stoller, or 100% writers like Paul Simon or Rod Temperton.
“all of my songwriting heroes were at most partnerships.”
Ideally, I’d like [multiple co-writes] to be less of a norm, as it makes clearances and licenses much more complicated.
If you have huge worldwide success with a 50/50 or 100% writer, not only do you reap the benefits of it commercially, it’s just a hell of a lot easier to exploit.
Is it true you hired Simon Cowell back at RCA? What was he like back then?
Myself and Jeremy Marsh brought him into RCA.
Simon is such a brilliantly funny character. Things really weren’t working out for him at Arista, and Jeremy came to me and said: ‘What do we do about Simon?’
I said I’d have him in my department in a heartbeat, because he’s unique. And he’s obviously gone on to prove just how unique he is.
When he came into our A&R team, he needed a bit of a hand round the shoulder. He’d lost some confidence and needed to be reminded of how good he was at what it is he does.
“Simon is such a brilliantly funny character.”
It’s in his book, and it’s absolutely true, that I said I want you to be Gary Lineker – stand by the goal and wait for the ball to be passed to you; I don’t want you running around the midfield.
The point being: wait for the right opportunity, even if it takes six months to a year, and put it to bed. And that’s what he did with Robson & Jerome, Westlife… and it’s kind of gone off from there.
Which other standout mentors have had a real influence on you?
At A&M, Derek Green. At the very start of my career I was a sound engineer, then I did some PR. Derek was the person who said: ‘Why don’t you become an A&R?’
There’s something Derek said to me back in the eighties that’s only become more relevant the longer I’ve worked in the industry: ‘There’s only three things that matter in A&R: 1) The artist – as in, their ability, their talent and their charisma; 2) The artist’s attitude – as in, their tenacity and their will to make it work; 3) The artist’s manager. You can’t underestimate how much difference a great manager makes to an artist’s career.
He was completely right.
“You can’t underestimate how much difference a great manager makes to an artist’s career.”
Steve Lewis taught me a hell of a lot about deal-making. He made us write all of our offers out by hand – every single one – so we’d understand every point. If you can listen to what an artist really wants and bespoke a deal around it, it’s a huge help.
After that I went to work with Jeremy [Marsh] and Hugh [Goldsmith] at RCA. They taught me a lot about team-work.
Jeremy was so much fun to work with. Very ambitious, but also brilliant at running a team full of different characters – including Pete and Keith at Deconstruction, myself, Nick Raymond and Simon Cowell.
He really taught me the value of getting an eclectic bunch of people to work well together – and that’s definitely something I still prioritize today.
Last but not least, my sis Maria McCormack who sadly passed away last year. She gave me a copy of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Who’s Next?” when I was 14 – that’s when I fell in love with music, then Kristy, my fiancée, who’s a massive music fan and helped me rediscover my passion for it.Music Business Worldwide