Clive Cawley talks to MBW the day after seeing Metallica play the first of two shows in Paris on the European leg of a world tour supporting their 11th album, 72 Seasons, which, as part of the EMI Records team, Cawley helped get to No. 1 in the UK last month.
Appropriately enough, the band [“The nicest people, they always look after you”] provide something of a through-line in Cawley’s career – and life.
The Stade De France show came 20 years after St Anger was one of the first records he worked as Product Manager at the band’s then-home, Mercury.
And 37 years after, as a kid growing up in Yorkshire, in an era of foam orange headphones and a cavalier attitude to road safety, “I nearly fell off my bike hearing the opening bars of Battery, the first track on Master of Puppets”.
Before then Cawley had been fortunate enough to have an older sister who listened to Motown and an older brother who listened to punk (bringing to mind the avowed ambition of fellow Yorkies The Redskins who said they wanted “to walk like the Clash and sound like The Supremes”), before a metal phase and a Smiths phase (“Everyone has a Smiths phase, right?”) ensured a rounded education and an enduring eclectic palette.
Horizons were broadened further when, having left school at 16, he travelled the world. Not as part of some privilege-based gap year, but for a decade, working variously as a builder, field worker and gardener in places as far-flung as Canada and Israel.
“When I came back I was working on the odd building site, an engineering company, even a bit of extra work on film and TV,” he recalls. “Then one day a friend of mine showed me an ad in the Yorkshire Evening Press for a sales rep. I applied for it and got the job, which was selling records out of the boot of a car all over Yorkshire and beyond.
“The guy who employed me was Paul Smith, and he basically saw that I was just so fucking passionate about music, that it didn’t matter that I had no idea about the industry.”
After 18 months, Cawley was offered London’s West End as his new patch and he moved South. He then got an office job as Label Co-Ordinator, before joining Mercury Records as a Product Manager at Lost Highway Records, the then-just-launched home of Johnny Cash, Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams.
“That’s where it really began for me,” Cawley remembers, “Because there just weren’t enough Lost Highway releases to make a whole job. So I started picking up other records in America, I did the first Sum 41 album [All Killer No Filler, 2001]. From there I got promoted to Label Manager at Vertigo, and then got made MD at Mercury.
“In 2013, Mercury merged with Virgin to create Virgin EMI. I was made MD on the EMI side and we had huge albums with artists like Queen, Taylor Swift and Elton John.”
Seven years later the Virgin name was dropped as Rebecca Allen, joining from Decca, became President of EMI Records (Jo Charrington, joining from Capitol, became Co-President in 2022) with Cawley becoming MD. “And that,” concludes Cawley, “Is pretty much where we’re at. And then came EMI North.”
The new label was announced in January this year, in a move that takes Cawley back to his roots as well as into the future. Much more on that later, but we start, somewhere between the two…
Looking back at the period of time, across Mercury, Virgin EMI and then EMI, which projects and achievements are you proudest of?
Metallica, probably. Just because we took Death Magnetic to No. 1, when they hadn’t had a No. 1 album for years.
That was the realisation of working with them for five or six years. And now they’re back to being the biggest metal band in the world.
The Killers was a big one for me, I’ve worked with them since Sam’s Town.
Also, and this is one some people sneer at, but I had my first No. 1 single with Orson [No Tomorrow, 2006], plus the album [Bright Idea] also went to No. 1, it sold 500,000 and they won a BRIT Award, so I’m proud of that.
You mentioned Rebecca Allen taking over, what sort of changes have you noticed since then?
There’s more of a drive towards trying to have success with domestic artists. It’s generally a very changed company, there are a lot more younger people coming through. I feel like a bit of an old fart sometimes!
With Virgin EMI, we were almost like a machine, we’d put stuff out: bang, bang, bang.
Now I’d say it’s more about creative thinking and a push to try and do unusual things, but, at the same time, still deliver on all those other things – make sure you do a great job on Elton or Queen or Taylor.
And in terms of management style, how are things different now?
[Laughs] It’s definitely very different. Listen, people have different styles, some people are more aggressive. Not always in an especially big, bad way, you know, they got shit done and drove people along.
Now it’s a nice culture in terms of there isn’t any fear; it’s positive. I’ve always thought people perform better when they’re free of pressure.
Years ago, managers and certain execs thought that kicking doors and banging desks was a good way to get things done. I don’t think it is. Certainly some of my best ideas, on things like the Lewis Capaldi campaigns, have come when I’ve not feel threatened or worried about feeling stupid.
How did EMI North come about and what are the founding principles behind it?
Towards the end of lockdown, I shouldn’t say it, but I was getting a bit bored! And I took it upon myself to start Googling little labels in Yorkshire and then going up for the day and meeting people.
And what started happening, was this underlying message from artists, managers and labels, saying, ‘Why the fuck should we have to come to London to get a record deal?’ Or, ‘Why the fuck should we have to come to London to get a job?’ And my honest answer was: ‘That’s a fucking good point.’
I’d had to move to London to find my career, but shouldn’t things be different now? So I started trying to work out what I could do about it.
Eventually, I went to David Joseph with the idea – and also said I couldn’t believe no major has ever opened a regional office in the UK. He basically said, ‘It’s a great idea, go do it.’
Then we had to drill into what we wanted it to be, what do we want it to mean and what do we want it to achieve.
The ethos behind it for me is that I want to employ people, to create jobs. I’m not taking people from London and shipping them up there, it’s about upskilling and supporting local communities.
I’ve done a couple of label deals, I want to do more of those, I want to sign artists, and I want to ultimately sign an amazing artist from the North who becomes our statement artist, if you like. And if things start kicking off, we can use the might of EMI to elevate it even further and take it global.
You opened in January, what sort of structure have you managed to put in place so far?
We’ve got an office in Duke Studios, which is a great little creative hub in Leeds. If you want to make a video or take some photos, we can get it all done there.
My plan is to have a team of four initially, a Label Manager, a Marketing Lead, a Label Co-ordinator and an A&R scout. I’ll be up there a couple days a week, because I’ve also got responsibilities down here, of course, with Lewis and Metallica and others. I think it’s going to take a while, if I’m honest, and I’m not bothered by that. We want to not only find the right people, but also put the time and effort into training them properly, make their skill-sets a priority.
At Vertigo, we were quite a small team, but we were superbly operational, we all really knew what we were doing and what the label stood for – and that’s what I want to create here.
What have you signed so far?
We’ve done two label deals, with Clue and Come Play With Me. We signed [poet laureate] Simon Armitage’s band, Land Yacht Regatta down here (EMI in London), but we’ll be putting them out through Clue at EMI North. And that’s because when we announced this, he was really into it; he basically said, ‘At last, you’re finally fucking bringing it’.
The other point to make in terms of signings is that it’s not going to be a load of indie bands (not that I don’t love indie bands!). I literally want Taylor Swift and Lewis Capaldi here – or whatever their equivalent turns out to be in the next few years. Put it this way, it won’t be all Yard Act.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d take Yard Act, but what I mean is, I think people’s perception of ‘The North’ is that it will be young men with guitars and attitude – we’re looking wider than that.
Initially, though, will you have to plug into the London machinery when artists reach a certain level?
Not really. Financially, the backing will be available, and there’s a team in London that can help and support and move quickly if someone starts really kicking off. But I want to lead from up here.
So you haven’t been sent up by the Southerners saying, ‘Go find The Beatles and then bring them down to us’?
No. If I find The Beatles I’m keeping them – and they’re staying put.
How important is it to have a physical presence through an actual EMI North at a time when physical presence and proximity is sometimes seen as less important – partly due to post-COVID attitudes as well as technology?
I think it’s respectful as much as anything, and it gets rid of that assumption that I talked about earlier – that everything happens in London and everyone has to come to London. Not necessarily move there, but even for meetings or celebrations or whatever.
We’re not firing out speculative emails to see what we can hook, we’re coming to your community, we’re making ourselves part of it; we want to be part of what’s going on and provide practical help and some momentum to what’s going on. We want to be in it, not just take from it. You can’t do that unless you’re here, with the right people, with the right mindset.
What do you think the industry’s attitude to The North (capital ‘T’, capital ‘N’) has been – and has changed – over your years in
I think it’s been pigeon-holed, especially, like I say, in terms of indie/alternative bands. Partly because so many great ones have come from here, but I do think that’s led to some people having a narrow view.
I also think it’s been seen as cyclical, like it’s a series of scenes or movements. It’s not, it’s permanent, and that’s why we’re here now. I can retire and this will still be here, being run by people we gave a start here.
I need to be careful what I say, but I do think there has been an element of industry neglect when it comes to regions like this. That’s got to change, and if this helps that process, I’ll take that.
Fast forward 12 months, what would you like EMI North to have achieved?
Most importantly, I’d like the label to be perceived as a valuable part of the community. I want us to be the go-to place for every artist in the area. I want artists and managers to come through our doors saying, ‘We want to be on your label, we’ve seen what you’re doing, we believe in it and we want to be part of it.’
“Most importantly, I’d like the label to be perceived as a valuable part of the community.”
And I’d like one of those artists to explode everywhere, in tandem with us, staying with us. Someone that changes culture and EMI North helps them do that.
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