He’s TV’s ‘Mr Nasty’, and the mention of his name never fails to ignite debate within certain music industry circles. But the turnout and tributes paid at Simon Cowell’s acceptance of the Music Industry Trusts Award last night in London spoke volumes.
Regardless of what you might think of Cowell, during a 33-year career he’s generated millions of pounds for the music business – a large portion of which has allowed record labels to invest in acts with more of a lasting impact than, say, The Teletubbies (who else do you think was behind their million-selling single “Eh-Oh” in 1997?).
Cowell has also been behind some more enduring creative talent himself, of course, from Leona Lewis to Il Divo, Labrinth, Ella Henderson, Little Mix, Olly Murs and One Direction (who joined him on stage last night at London’s Grosvenor Hotel, pictured).
And he’s become something of a reality TV phenomenon, creating hugely popular titles around the world such as X Factor and ‘… Got Talent’.
In addition, we were reminded at the MITs – held in aid of Nordoff Robbins and the BRIT Trust – that Cowell has raised a significant amount for charities including Comic Relief, Help For Heroes, Great Ormond St.Hospital, Shooting Star Chase and the Katie Piper Foundation. (Last night’s ceremony raised £177k during the auction alone.)
In an emotional (and self-admittedly drunken) acceptance speech, Cowell was happy to acknowledge that his career has sometimes been more defined by money than cultural contribution – before revealing the signing of a new six-year deal with Sony for his Syco Entertainment.
“He’s a complete record man… who really changed the relationship between music and TV.”
Doug Morris, Sony Music
Cowell’s colleagues and family received the most love from the stage. But first, let’s start with his days dressed as a dog to promote one of his first singles, Wonder Dog.
“It’s just my luck that I get the award I’ve been waiting for all my life and I’m completely hammered,” he started.
He added: “Watching that film when I was dressed as a dog, doing a stupid record called Wonder Dog… I walked into the record shop dressed as a dog to do a signing and nobody turned up. I thought it would never get any worse than this.
“To go from there to tonight has taken a while but the one thing, apart from the hits and a bit of money which has been good, what’s been great about tonight is seeing so many friends over the years. Along the way we’ve had so much fun, I cannot tell you.
“If someone had told me at 16 I could have a job where I could get up at 2pm, make records, TV shows, work with people like these guys, and every Monday morning I wake up excited. It’s been a long journey but I have made tremendous friends. Pete Waterman, you saved my life by allowing me to follow you like a dog for two years and teach me how important songs are.
“It’s been a long journey but I have made tremendous friends… we’ve just renewed a six-year deal with [Sony/syco].”
“I want to pay a special mention to the man who has made my TV career last 14 years, he’s not here, but the person who invented Botox. You have no idea how much money you’ve made me. I love you whoever you are.
“[When I got told I was] going to be a father, I gulped, then thought you know what, this is going to be the best thing that’s ever happened in my life and it is the best thing. I have a little boy who I hope will be standing here in about 32 years time as I am being wheeled into The Grosvenor. And obviously none of us would be here without our mums and dads. I lost my mum earlier this year and I’d like to dedicate everything I’ve been able to achieve to [my parents].
“Thank you for showing me the music business is a very nice business. One final thing, I want to thank Sonny Takhar for standing by me for so many years and I’m happy to announce we’ve just renewed a six-year deal [with Sony]. Thanks to [Chairman & CEO International of Sony Music Entertainment] Edgar [Berger], [Sony’s EVP and CFO] Kevin [Kelleher] and [CEO of Sony Entertainment] Michael [Lynton] for not just being great colleagues, but for being friends and supporters. I’m looking forward to the next six years.”
A litany of tributes to Cowell were paid by Sony Music colleagues, including global CEO and Chairman Doug Morris, who in a tribute video called Cowell “a “complete record man” who “really changed the relationship between music and TV”.
A number of artists appeared to thank Cowell for backing their careers, including Olly Murs, Labrinth, One Direction, Ella Henderson, Il Divo, Fifth Harmony, Little Mix, and, surprisingly, Leona Lewis, who left Syco for Island in 2014.
“what people forget about you is that your first love has always been music above anything else.”
Sonny Takhar, Syco
Edgar Berger, chairman and CEO of Sony International, praised Cowell for being “a fantastic exec at A&R and one that we all really cherish within the company.”
Syco Music MD Sonny Takhar said Cowell was a “brilliant A&R man… an exceptional promo person. He has the curiosity of an exec that’s just started”.
He added: “What people forget about you is that your first love has always been music above everything else. You’re a brilliant record man and on a personal level, I’ve learnt so much from you and I’ll always be so grateful.”
And Director of Programmes at Sony Music Entertainment Nigel Hall said: “You are unique, you are a star, and you are my friend.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron paid his own tribute, commenting: “Simon, for many decades you’ve been boosting Britain’s creative industries, and filling the world with musical TV.
“Stars are being born, dreams are alive and talent discovered, all thanks to this great British figure in global entertainment. You might not have tact, but you’ve certainly got talent.”
For his final trick, Cowell couldn’t resist returning to the stage later on in the evening to talk about the event’s charities, and call Takhar “the most loyal, nice, hardworking pain in the arse… I’m in love with you,” he stated, before thanking Hall for leaving his “huge” job at ITV as Controller of Entertainment to join Syco. “I also love you,” Cowell ended.
Not so nasty after all.
Simon Cowell: a life in showbiz
Born in Lambeth, Simon Cowell spent most of his pocket money subsidising record shops. Always a big pop fan, he admired songs and artists that connected with a wide audience.
“That stood him in good stead for classic signings,” noted host Jo Whiley last night, tongue firmly in cheek.
Those classic singings include Power Rangers, Zig and Zag, and The Teletubbies.
But before all that, Cowell’s career started in the post room at EMI Music where he observed the A&R men and decided he could do a better job.
A stint at Fanfare Records followed, then BMG, before setting up his own label S Records.
The label had a smash in the mid ’90s, when one day his team were taking calls from the public asking if he had the new record from a TV series called Soldier Soldier.
Musical duo Robson and Jerome were born after Cowell offered them £100k to walk into a recording studio, telling them if they didn’t like the record, they could keep his cash. The result was Unchained Melody, which had 1 million repeat orders by lunchtime on its release and became one of the biggest hits of that decade.
Cowell came to the public’s attention during his first TV talent show judging gig as the scornful but truthful face of Simon Fuller’s Pop Idol, where he earned the moniker Mr. Nasty. American Idol followed in 2002 and Cowell formed his JV with Sony named Syco that same year.
Syco Entertainment launched the X Factor as a replacement for Pop Idol in 2004, now in its 12th series in the UK, and Britain’s Got Talent in 2007, giving a microphone and stage to artists (and dogs) – both good and bad.
Other music-related achievements of note include turning Westlife into a platinum selling act, with manager Louis Walsh, whose 1999 single I Have A Dream paved the way for many more Cowell-controlled Christmas #1 singles to come. Then there’s One Direction, who have sold more than 65 million records since Cowell put them together on the X Factor five years ago.Music Business Worldwide