“Cause I’m real sick hearing these pricks talk shit / They’ll get their throats slit cause they’re talking to me like I’m thick.”
Roy Eldridge wasn’t supposed to be getting his head round lyrics like these; he was supposed to be retired. But sometimes, artists, the ones who really matter, will do that to you; they’ll suck you back into a game you long thought you’d left behind.
In this case, the act in question was Ben Drew, aka Plan B, in his early fire-and-foment guise: a warts-and-all UK rap storyteller for whom no harsh social reality was out of bounds.
Eldridge, a widely respected British executive who spent 25 years at Chrysalis Records, may have felt a certain familiarity with Drew’s combination of rage and wordplay.
As A&R Director at Chrysalis in 1979, ahead of a string of major achievements, Eldridge signed The Specials/2-Tone to a ground-breaking deal which gave the Coventry group not only their own label identity, but the right to sign and release 10 other singles.
Many of his peers at the time derided the agreement as overly generous, but Top 20 hits from Madness, The Selecter and The Beat, among others, proved the doubters wrong.
It is not overblown to suggest that this signing not only paid Chrysalis back handsomely, but single-handedly shifted the perception of Britain as a nation, while sending ska hurtling into the mainstream.
He’s got a few of these in his professional locker, has Roy, a student of Sir George Martin who spent his early years as a scribe on Melody Maker in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before going on to become Chris Wright’s wingman during a golden age of Chrysalis – playing a key role in the rise of Jethro Tull, Billy Idol, Sinéad O’Connor and many more.
Roy had another good reason to re-awaken his music biz credentials for Plan B, however: his own flesh and blood.
At this stage, the mid-noughties, Roy’s son, Sam Eldridge, had begun to make a name for himself managing the Mystery Jets in addition to well-connected London ‘scenester’ band Ludes.
Before long, Eldridge Jr. and Sr. began co-managing Plan B, who went on to four-times-Platinum success with his second album, 2010’s knuckleduster soul project, The Defamation of Strickland Banks.
That release has formed the lynchpin for a near-decade of success for Roy and Sam’s Marylebone-based management house, UROK, which today also looks after the likes of pop powerhouse Jess Glynne, BRIT-winning singer/songwriter Tom Odell and hotly-tipped, Glassnote-signed troubadour Jade Bird.
In addition, as co-managers, UROK is behind one of the biggest industry stories of the last 24 months: the astonishing commercial enlivening of Liam Gallagher’s career, to sold-out-Finsbury-Park proportions, thanks to 2017’s As You Were – an album which has now gone comfortably Platinum.
MBW recently spent a morning within UROK’s HQ with Roy and Sam, asking them all about their artist development principles, the state of the record industry – and, mainly, the familial dynamics of a kick-ass father and son team…
When most of us grow up we know what our dad does: teacher, truck driver, doctor, etc. Sam, What did you think that Roy did at work, and how did that impact on you as you as a boy?
Sam: Even when I was young, I knew that my dad worked in music. I remember very clearly listening to the charts on Sundays, and it mattering. And I also remember things like dad coming home with the video for Nothing Compares 2 U, and saying, This is going to be a massive hit!
Those were the exciting moments where his world crossed into mine. But ultimately what I really remember is this amazing separation between that world and my world.
I had parents that turned up on the touchline to watch me play rugby; growing up, rugby was possibly an even bigger conversation point in our house than music.
But I guess what’s interesting, looking back, is there was this huge cabinet full of CDs. And as I got a bit older, from about 11 years old onwards, I would start to pull things out of that cabinet and think, What’s this? And it would be Tom Petty, or Prince, or The Waterboys; these records that informed Sunday lunch and started conversations with my dad.
Roy didn’t invite the music business into the family home?
Sam: No. I guess the only time the music business ever came to our doorstep was on Christmas morning, when my parents would do this massive party for friends, including people in the music business. There would be 100 people in our house, people like Billy Idol, and I would be running through their legs.
Roy: I always wanted a separation between work and home. It is very easy to get dragged into the music business 24/7. But I made a conscious decision to have some family life as well.
It wasn’t that difficult, really. Especially because rugby was Sam’s big sport, and I’m a big fan. Plus the CAMRA Guide would help: ‘Where’s he playing this week? There’s a great pub near there, I’ll pop along to that.’
Sam, at what point did you start to have aspirations of following your old man into the music business?
Roy: I tried to put him off!
Sam: At school, the inevitable conversation of what your dad does occasionally comes up. So when everyone else would say, My dad’s a banker, lawyer, accountant, I’d be able to go, My dad works in the music business.
It was a cool thing, and I guess I played up to it a little bit. But behind all of that, I was 13 or 14 when Britpop was in the ascendancy; [Blur’s] Girls And Boys had just come out at my first school disco. And that led me back to this treasure trove of music that my dad owned.
During and after university, I wrote for the BBC about bands, I did work experience in advertising, and then I ended up doing work experience at Sony [Music] – not through my dad directly, but through my mate from university’s dad, [legendary Sony Music comms guru] Jonathan Morrish.
I worked in the Sony Music press department for ages, and then I met [then-Epic UK boss] Nick Raphael in the lift. I said I’d like to do A&R, and he said, You seem alright, you can come down to our floor. And then, after a few months of working there, Nick said, Hang on a second – Eldridge? Is your dad Roy Eldridge?
What was great about that, and other examples of it happening, was that as soon as I mentioned who my dad was, people would go, I love your dad, he’s great. What an amazing thing to hear people say about your family, as opposed to, Oh no, he’s an arsehole, that bloke…
Please explain: how did you end up working together?
Sam: I managed this band [in the mid-noughties] who were my mate’s school band, Ludes, driving around in my Peugeot 306 with a drum kit in the back.
Roy: Which is still in our garage.
Sam: Steve Sasse, who works with us now, signed their publishing – we still publish Matt [Allchin] from the band, who’s a brilliant songwriter that has worked with Florence + The Machine and George Ezra. When pitching Ludes [to labels], I met lots of people in the music business who didn’t necessarily want to sign them, but quite liked the way in which I went about it.
[Ludes] did these great squat parties in Peckham, before Peckham was anywhere near a nice place, and they were a great band for me to be associated with. Especially for some fairly green ex-public schoolboy coming down from university to London. I was at squat parties in Stockwell, turning up in chinos and a pin-striped blazer, and people were like, Jesus, who’s that freak?!
Off the back of that, I met the Mystery Jets, who said, Ah, you manage Ludes – do you wanna manage us?
I remember getting a call from Tony Wadsworth around that time, and feeling like I’d gone from being the work experience guy [at Sony] to sitting with the chairman of a major record company. He gave me, as a 22-year-old, an hour-and-a-half of his time, and that was an invaluable experience.
From there, Mystery Jets signed to 679, and then 679 went, We’ve also got this angry kid who doesn’t want to be managed by anybody. And that was Plan B.
I made a connection from what Plan B was doing then [hardcore 2006 debut album Who Needs Actions…] to the punk and street culture that the Specials had, combined with the force of personality that Sinéad O’Connor had. And that made me think: Chrysalis. And that made me think: Plan B should meet my father!
Roy, what was that meeting like?
Roy: I spent a couple of hours with Ben – and I told him very clearly, from the off, that I knew nothing about hip-hop or grime. He said, Great. I don’t want anyone to tell me about that. I’ll do the music, you just tell me how to maximize it.
I remember telling him about Huey Lewis and The News. When they used to come over to the UK, sure, they would do the meetings with Chris Wright and Terry Ellis – all the top people.
But they also took out the secretaries from the label to the pub, and all the boys from the post room. Because, in the back of their mind, they knew that the secretary or the post boy was going to become the product manager or plugger of tomorrow. Ben’s a very bright bloke, so he got that straight away.
In those days, Atlantic [where Plan B signed via 679] was in the Electric Lighting Station. And there was a bar right by there. So I’d always try and end up there with Ben at the end of each day.
And then we’d call up or catch people as they were leaving the office and sit down and have a drink with them. He got it. Same with TV people – he’d always thank them for their time, because he knew the junior cameraman would become a director some day.
Then I started doing it more ‘full time’, and I said to Sam, To be honest, I’m getting a bit too old to do this on my own.
Sam: [Laughs] I came to see you at Reading Festival and you were shaving in the mirror of the van, and I said, Yeah, this isn’t really your vibe, is it, dad – you’re a bit beyond all of this.
But it was amazing to see it happen. I came on board properly, and I remember tour managing Ben round Japan soon after – stringing the guitars and all the rest of it. Those experiences were really great.
Did you consider yourself retired at this point, Roy?
Roy: I did retire! Post-Chrysalis. I didn’t enjoy that last period under EMI’s ownership. There were some great people – Rupert Perry, for example, was a joy to work with. But having to get rid of people, I found that really difficult.
So I thought, Oh I’m gonna give it up. I might become a teacher, maybe I’ll start lecturing on the music business. Then, somehow, I ended up going back to Chrysalis to start a new label [Papillon] with Chris Wright for a while, but it was never quite the same, despite the fact we had some success. And so we started with Ben, and it worked brilliantly.
Sam: Then Ben came in one day and played us some of the tracks from Strickland Banks, plus a bunch of the Chase & Status co-writes that he’d done. That was a pretty game-changing day.
Sam, you had a label over at XL at this point?
Sam: Yeah, myself and Milo Cordell, now head of A&R at Young Turks, had started this label, Merok.
It was an amazing learning experience – just being around that XL environment. It’s always been an environment that we aspire to here. Not necessarily in terms of the artist culture, but actually in terms of the employee culture.
One of the best things I noticed about XL was that they just employed talented people, and then they found a job title for them, almost as a secondary [priority]. That’s definitely something that we’ve tried to emulate.
Was there ever a feeling, Roy, that you were getting sucked back in to a business you’d made the decision to leave?
Roy: Oh, I was very willing to get sucked back in. Because watching Ben take off was magic.
After Ben, what was the next big moment?
Roy: Tom Odell. Sam found Tom. It’s funny actually, because our artists are all very different – it’s a very unusual roster to some people. But they’re all super talented people with a really high work ethic. It’s so tough now to make it, and I don’t think people realise how much work the artist has got to put in in order to have a shot; it’s just relentless.
“I don’t think people realise how much work the artist has got to put in in order to have a shot.”
Sam: The Tom story was a really big thing for us. Seeing him win a BRITs Critics’ Choice Award, sell a million records, win an Ivor Novello. It sort of showed the world, and myself, that [Plan B] wasn’t a fluke. It put us on this trajectory of artist development, which I think we’ve been able to maintain since, in terms of breaking a new artist consistently every couple of years.
Tom Odell represents that album-led singer-songwriter, which seems to be less in vogue on Kensington High Street than it once was, as other genres ascend in popularity. Is the industry throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Sam: I think we could be. It shows a lack of confidence, and sadly it shows that there’s a danger of the UK becoming a very parochial market.
If you look, our greatest international exports as artists over the last few years – be it Adele, Mumford & Sons, Florence + The Machine, the XX, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith – they’re all singer-songwriters, and they all won over America.
The danger is [seeing labels] trying to break artists that old-fashioned way: we’re gonna get them on Radio 1, they’re gonna have a hit in the UK, and then we’ll take it round the rest of the world.
In my opinion, that is now a very short-sighted approach; you’re going to end up being like certain smaller markets, giving out Gold records that mean nothing anywhere else and don’t help deliver true long-term worldwide careers.
Is this something you think about a lot?
Sam: I think it’s a massive issue for the whole industry to think about. We’ve got to get back to looking at our artists on a much more global scale.
One of the great things that streaming provides is the ability to hotwire you into fanbases. But you also have to be world class within your space. If you’re doing hip-hop or alternative, for example, it’s no good just being a UK rapper or band for a UK audience and that’s the end of it. What’s the point?
You’ve got to be able to compete in the US, Australia, or wherever [your] music has a cultural base. You have to aspire to take on the best in the world, be that Drake, Kendrick Lamar, The National, the War on Drugs, or whatever you see as the benchmark within your genre. You’ve got to be able to stand up against that.
The point being: the modern music industry demands that you be best in the world, not just the best in your town. You have to be world class, so you can sit alongside the best of your [peer] group. Which makes me think of Jade Bird…
Yes, if certain UK institutions seem to be running away from singer-songwriters a bit, with Jade, you’re doubling down.
Sam: We’re doubling down on someone who’s truly brilliant though, you know? We put Jade in Nashville for three weeks, and by the end of it she was playing at the Bluebird Café with some of the best singer-songwriters in [Music City]. She’s that great, they just went, We want you in our circle.
We’re committed to delivering her to big things, but out of a genre and out of a place that is real. She’s signed to an American record label [Glassnote]; that’s been a key thing, and something we would consider again and again for future projects.
It makes you think: if Hozier wasn’t signed to Columbia in America alongside Island for the ROW, could they individually got that record away on a global scale? Radio 1 weren’t going to play it [otherwise]. The global ecosystem supported that record from the ground up, from alternative through to Top 40 – and that meant it was able to achieve what it deserved to achieve.
Sam: On that topic, I want to mention the culture at two of the labels we’ve enjoyed the most success with: Columbia and Atlantic. There are some really bright people at Columbia – Stacey [Tang, now at RCA] was fantastic, Manish [Arora], the promotion team have a very strategic outlook and Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] has that no-panic vibe, which instills confidence in everyone.
As a label, they are marking themselves out in the way they’re letting artists like Tom Odell grow. The way they’ve backed George [Ezra] is fantastic, they’ve done a superb job, and it gives me faith.
Why do you rate Atlantic?
Sam: The A&R and promotions strength of Atlantic is well-documented – they are the masters in the current market. Ben [Cook] is an A&R wizard with an amazing team.
Look at an artist like Jess [Glynne], who requires some very carefully thought-through A&R, much of which is contributed by Jess herself, I should say, because she’s a very creative person and an amazing hustler. But it’s also about us throwing in ideas and of course [Atlantic A&R co-Head] Briony Turner has been incredible.
Her attention to detail and ambition to help craft world-beating songs is a joy to behold. Watching Atlantic with Jess is a lesson in watching people who know their audience really perfect a record.
Roy, how do you feel about the fact that, partly because of streaming, it’s so competitive today – there’s so much music in the world.
Roy: It’s so much harder now than it once was. If I went back to my early days at Chrysalis, even in the ‘80s, there were two or three gatekeepers: oh, John Peel’s played your white label; oh the NME have written about it; oh, you’re now headlining The Marquee on a Saturday night. Those were the three cornerstones of how the music got out there.
But that was a blessing and a curse: if you had the NME, Radio One and Later… With Jools Holland, you got a Gold record.
But if you didn’t have those three things, you were absolutely fucked – there was no way for you to move forward. Whereas now there is an ecosystem that allows you, if you’re hard-working and you’re hustling, and obviously if you’re good, to find a pathway to some kind of success.
That success can be defined by your streaming numbers, your record sales or your radio play, but for Sam and I the jigsaw is completed by playing live.
That’s how you become a real act, establishing that unique connection with your fans, and it’s key for us to have the right live agent working with us to build worldwide careers.
“Success can be defined by your streaming numbers, your record sales or your radio play, but for Sam and I the jigsaw is completed by playing live.”
Pete Elliott at Primary has been Plan B’s agent from the beginning and Alex Hardee and his team at Coda booked Tom and Jess from day one and massively contributed to their success, as has Marty Diamond at Paradigm in the US. That’s why Alex and Marty were obvious choices for us when it came to Liam.
I’ll go back to the earlier point: look how hard artists have to work now. Jess’s schedule, for instance, over the past six weeks, has been crazy.
Sam: But is that any harder than Led Zeppelin’s schedule, or Elton John’s schedule back in the day? I mean those guys were putting out two albums a year, and they were killing it!
Roy: Yeah, but a lot of those people ended up in a bad way for a little while.
As a management company, you seem to believe that when you have the right relationship with a major label, it still works and it still has value.
Roy: We’ll consciously try to find the right home for an artist.
When we did the Jess [Glynne] deal with Atlantic, we took Jess in to meet Max [Lousada] and spent an hour or so just chatting. We walked out of that building, around that square at the back, and said to Jess, What did you think? And she said, Yeah, I liked him.
We said, Okay, do you want to meet some other labels? She said, Not particularly, do you think these are the right people? And we said yes. We knew how brilliant their promo and marketing were because of what they’d done with us on Plan B.
Sam: For us it wasn’t a case of let’s [use this interest] to go and take some money out of Universal or Sony. Atlantic felt like the right home, so that’s where we went.
With Liam, we didn’t shop it around either. People came to us, Max and Phil Christie in particular, who displayed a real bravery with that signing. What was interesting with Liam is that we thought a lot about the A&R process at the beginning, and put together the key early sessions for the album before anyone else was involved.
You got the recordings going?
Sam: We did two tracks with Greg Kurstin and two tracks with Dan Grech, and that was really important: it showed Liam wasn’t going to make an old-fashioned record with old-fashioned producers. Greg was the biggest pop producer in the world at that point in time.
Not everyone thought taking on a post-Beady Eye Liam Gallagher was going to be a clever move.
Sam: Maybe those people missed the fact that Liam’s an incredibly modern artist. He’s great on social media, he’s got a huge personality, and he’s one of the greatest rock stars of all time. If you discount that somehow, sorry, but you’re an idiot. Also, he wanted to collaborate, and of course he has that voice.
When you add all of that up, the opportunity is staring you in the face, isn’t it? Also, we’d heard the first demos, before we had any involvement with the [album], and we noticed that there were elements of his vocal range that he’d got back through rest, plus the quality of Liam’s own songwriting had matured into something special.
“The Liam record deal was big – it was 10 times the deal that I think other people would’ve offered us.”
From there, everything was about him signing him to a major. Warner Bros’ biggest domestic artist today is a pop star [Dua Lipa], but ultimately the rest of the their roster includes Muse, Royal Blood, Foals, etc.
The Liam record deal was big – it was 10 times the deal that I think other people would’ve offered us – because it was all about ambition. We sat down and we went, We’re going to sell a million records. And Warner Bros saw it, and created a deal that looked like a million-record deal.
Roy: I don’t think many people realised how ambitious Liam was on a personal level, either.
He absolutely, really wanted it, and you can definitely see that looking back from then to now. It’s been crucial.
I’m sure some people were also a bit snarky about the fact his missus would be co-managing him…
Sam: I’m really, really glad you said that. Immediately, when we met Debbie [Gwyther], it was clear she was a really, really good manager. She wasn’t just #TeamLiam all the time; she was focused, like, I want this to be really successful.
Debbie is very practical and, with Liam, probably more brutally honest than any other manager would be or could be. She’s been an amazing partner to work with.
“Our job is obviously to bring the best out of the artists that we work with, but I think increasingly our job is also to support and bring out the best in the managers that we work with.”
Our job is obviously to bring the best out of the artists that we work with, but I think increasingly our job is also to support and bring out the best in the managers that we work with. I hope we’ve helped in some way to bring out the best in Debbie, because she’s a great manager and she’s completely proven it. She deserves to be seen and talked about by everyone as Liam’s co-manager – not his girlfriend, or his fucking ‘PA’ – but his co-manager.
She’s an amazing partner, she absorbs so much of the work on that project, and she has helped created a great model for us as to how we could grow our business in the future.
Roy, you worked with Daniel Glass at Chrysalis before he went on to found Glassnote Records – and now you both work together with him on Jade Bird. How do both you rate him as an executive
Roy: Firstly, he’s incredibly passionate about music and always has been. And he’s a workaholic at times – he just does not stop. He must plug records in his sleep!”
Sam: As my dad says, Daniel’s promotional abilities are obviously brilliant, but perhaps what’s not quite as well documented is his romantic view of artists. The way he’s approached Jade Bird, letting her make a very pure statement, speaks volumes.
He breaks difficult records that would not obviously fit on a major label system, and he’s brilliant at it. He shows class and passion by not going, Change it, can’t you just make music like you made before?
“Daniel [Glass] shows a belief in artists that I think is up there with the best, ever.”
Instead, he goes, I’m going to make this work by thinking outside the box; I’m going to find ways to help you achieve success that no-one at a traditional major label would have predicted you could achieve with this music.
He’s done it time and time again: he let Phoenix be Phoenix, a French pop band; he let Mumford & Sons have banjos and release six-minute songs for radio; he let Childish Gambino make an adult R&B/soul record when he was just getting going as a mainstream hip-hop star; and he’s done it all to huge, multi-Grammy-winning success.
Daniel shows a belief in artists that I think is up there with the best, ever. After that, his job is to sell that music to gatekeepers – and he sells it better than anyone.
Last question: Sam, what are the best professional qualities that Roy possesses?
Sam: Charm, humility and an amazing empathy with artists. They trust him implicitly, and they should do, because he always puts the artist first.
That’s something from which we’ve grown the entire ethos of this company; our success is built around honesty, trust, a sense of fair play and belief in artists. We believe that if you give great and hard-working artists the space and time to be their best, they’ll repay you.
Same question to you Roy, about Sam.
Roy: Well, Sam’s got all my good qualities. And he won’t agree – but he’s got better ears than I have!
Sam: I don’t agree. Actually, can I add something? At the start of this interview, you talked about people whose parents worked in the music industry, and how sometimes those people were big characters.
That must be very hard for people, when their parents are those big characters, to find some space to develop their own personality and identity.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to have a dad who has allowed me the space, on occasion, to be the biggest voice in the room.”
Personally, I think that a mark of a great parent – but also of a great mentor and person – is someone who can give people the space to be their best; to let them, when they need it, be the biggest voice in the room.
I’ve been very, very fortunate to have a dad who has allowed me the space, on occasion, to be the biggest voice in the room. And that couldn’t have always been easy, at all.
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