A Conversation with Nile Rodgers and Merck Mercuriadis

Music is a complex business.  As consumers, we engage with the finished product whether that be a live event, song, or soundtrack, but behind the scenes are an army of experts in music, business, production, distribution, management, and more; all aiming to turn the spark of talent, into the fire of success.

Search for the connections between the most successful musical artists and songs of all time, and you’re likely to notice two names coming up time, and time, again. Nile Rodgers, and Merck Mercuriadis.

Among music legends, Nile Rodgers is truly exceptional.  His work in the CHIC Organization and his productions for artists like David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Madonna have sold over 500 million albums and 75 million singles worldwide.  Merck Mercuriadis is one of the most successful music managers and entrepreneurs of all time; former manager of globally successful recording artists, such as Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Morrissey, Iron Maiden and Beyoncé, and hit songwriters such as Diane Warren, Justin Tranter and The-Dream, and former CEO of The Sanctuary Group plc.  Their latest venture, Hipgnosis Songs Fund (LON:SONG) turns the most successful songs in history into a new investment asset-class and already owns copyrights including Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ Kanye West’s ‘All Of The Lights’, Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’, and Jay-z’s ‘Holy Grail’ featuring Justin Timberlake.  Estimates suggest the fund could rapidly grow to well over £1 billion in market capitalisation.

In these exclusive interviews I spoke to Nile Rodgers and Merck Mercuriadis to learn more about the business of music, their creative process, the secrets of great management, production and what they’ve learned from a lifetime at the pinnacle of the music world.

[bios]Among music legends, Nile Rodgers is truly exceptional. He amplifies his legacy as a multiple GRAMMY-winning composer, producer, arranger and guitarist by constantly traversing new musical terrain and successfully expanding the boundaries of popular music. As the co-founder of CHIC and the newly elected Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Rodgers pioneered a musical language that generated chart-topping hits like “Le Freak,” (the biggest selling single in the history of Atlantic Records!) and sparked the advent of hip-hop with “Good Times”.  Nile Rodgers transcends all styles of music across every generation with a body of work that’s garnered him inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (2017) and the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2016).

Most recently, he was appointed as the first ever Chief Creative Advisor for the legendary Abbey Road Studios to cap off a year that has included “festival best” performances at both Glastonbury and Coachella that resulted in the BBC nominating the band for the BBC Music Awards as “Best Live Performance Of 2017” and the LA Times stating “Nile Rodgers influence stretches all over Coachella, beaming the sound of a better future”.

His work in the CHIC Organization and his productions for artists like David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Madonna have sold over 500 million albums and 75 million singles worldwide while his innovative, trendsetting collaborations with Daft Punk, Avicii, Sigala, Disclosure, and Sam Smith reflect the vanguard of contemporary music.  Nile Rodgers & CHIC recently released their first new studio album, “It’s About Time”  in over 26 years to critical acclaim and a Top 10 position in the UK album charts.

Merck Mercuriadis is a Canadian-American music executive and music manager.  He is the current CEO, Founder and managing partner of Hipgnosis Songs Ltd, an artist management firm, publisher, and record label based in London and Los Angeles.

Mercuriadis is currently the manager of music legend Nile Rodgers and the former manager of several notable rock and pop bands and musicians including Sir Elton John, Guns’N’Roses, Iron Maiden, Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone and Jane’s Addiction, to name a few.  Additionally, Mercuriadis is notable for serving from 1986-2007 as Director and CEO of The Sanctuary Group PLC, a major management company, an independent record label, a merchandise company (Bravado)and a booking agency (Helter Skelter now CAA UK) based in London, New York and Los Angeles.

Mercuriadis is the current CEO, Founder and managing partner at Hipgnosis Songs Ltd.  He was the CEO of The Sanctuary Group PLC from October 1986 to June 2007. Earlier, he was an A&R and marketing director at Virgin Records where he started his career at the age of 19. Mercuriadis is known for his contributions to several well ranked albums and singles including, Nile Rodgers and CHIC “It’s About Time” (Top 10 UK debut) Ringleader of the Tormentors (number 1 album) and You Are the Quarry (number 2 album) by Morrissey, Changes (number 1 single) with Ozzy and Kelly Osbourne,  number 2 single Elton John’s Electricity, and several number 1 albums with Iron Maiden. He was also part of the Mercury Music Prize winner Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now.  In addition, Mercuriadis was the first music manager to feature on the cover of Billboard magazine with Sir Elton John on September 10, 2005.  For his contribution to the music industry, Mercuriadis was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Pollstar CIC awards in 2005.

In October 1986, Mercuriadis joined Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, the founders, at Sanctuary Music (Overseas) Limited, a management company based in the United Kingdom. Over 20 years, he helped build The Sanctuary Group PLC encompassing Sanctuary Artist Management, Sanctuary Records Group Limited, Rough Trade Records, Helter Skelter Agency and Bravado Merchandise, Twenty First Artists and Trinifold Management. During this time, Mercuriadis moved from London to New York to build the North American base in 2000.  In addition, Mercuriadis and Sanctuary Group relaunched Rough Trade Records with founder Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee in 2001.  This initiative included several artists such as The Strokes, The Moldy Peaches, The Libertines, Arcade Fire,  Antony And The Johnsons, and The Kills. During his tenure at Sanctuary Group, Mercuriadis oversaw the management of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, Nelly, Mick Fleetwood, Tommy Lee, The Who, and Robert Plant. He also managed the recordings of Lou Reed, Kiss, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, The Allman Brothers Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Blue NileLynyrd Skynyrd and Simple Minds. With its list of notable artists, intellectual property rights collection, record labels, integrated services style, Sanctuary Group created a unique position in the music industry.

Most recently, Mercuriadis is the Creator and Founder of the Hipgnosis Songs Fund, LTD, which has raised over $300 million in investment Capitol and has acquired hit songs and copyrights, including Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’, Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ Kanye West’s ‘All Of The Lights’, Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’, and Jay-z’s ‘Holy Grail’ featuring Justin Timberlake, among other songs.  Nile Rodgers is a co-founder of the Fund and sits on the Advisory Board.[/bios]

Q: When did you first know you’d started something special with your music?

[Nile Rodgers] I was talking to some kids last night and they were asking me ‘do you remember that first moment that you knew you’d made it’, and I said, ‘of course I remember that moment, I’d been chasing it all my life’.

I walked into a club that I didn’t even know had my record – thought it was a demo – the engineer who recorded it also happened to be a DJ, he’d been playing it for 2 weeks and it’d become the biggest song in the club, this unknown group called Chick or Cheek or whatever, he didn’t even know what to call it.  He was playing it and people were dancing.  They didn’t need to know who the band was, they didn’t know what Nile Rodgers… didn’t mean anything.  They were just going crazy, and so I walked in there one night, he told me to come down and check it out.  I walked in and straight away felt this was something strange – listen, I was so poor I couldn’t even afford to get a copy of my own record.  This is before cassette tapes, I couldn’t even get an acetate made so I could go listen at home.

The only time I ever heard the song was in my head when I wrote it and when we recorded it that night.  The next time I heard it was in a room full of strangers dancing to it.  And they were in complete pandemonium and I’m like ‘oh my god’.  It was the most exhilarating feeling in the world, because I walked in completely anonymous and meanwhile these people are responding to my work and have no idea who I am, and it was just ‘this is the most incredible feeling in the world’.

I felt it again when David and I did ‘Let’s Dance’ and the first time I heard it was at a punk rock club.  Let’s Dance was so not punk rock, but this is what happened.  Because the record said David Bowie on it, the guy figured ‘Hey, David Bowie, new record, let’s see what this sounds like’, scary monsters, Ziggy Stardust, so and so.  He played it and I don’t remember what the song was before that but it was whatever, slam dancing or something.  And it was incredible, the whole club stopped and everybody just started listening.  You know how difficult that is in a nightclub in New York at 5 in the morning?  Everybody just stopped and started listening and was looking at this guy like ‘what is that?’.  And all of a sudden it was just so interesting musically to them they started responding and these punk rock kids just started moving or just whatever, conversing to that thing, and they became engrossed in Let’s Dance, just like people were engrossed in Everybody Dance when I first…  so, I’ve had that experience quite a few times, and that’s what I’m always chasing.  Like, that thing of me being anonymous and just the music that’s moving the person.

Q: When did musicians become entrepreneurs?

[Nile Rodgers] …it really sort of took off in the era of hip hop, when artists on a large scale started to think of themselves as brands, prior to that, there were only a handful.

There was actually a time where it was almost taboo to think of yourself as an artist and as a businessperson – I remember when Phil Collins and Eric Clapton did a couple of beer commercials and it was like ‘what are you guys doing?’ – but now if you don’t have that, you’re almost not considered a valid artist.  The whole mindset has changed.

I still think most genuine artists do it for the love of the art, and they realise that in order to be in it, and to be able to enjoy that art that you so love, that you do also have to do this other stuff.

Q: What led to the idea for the Hipgnosis songs fund?

[Merck Mercuriadis] Nile and I have always believed that hit songs and music, art in general, has real value to it.  What people don’t really recognise is that when a song becomes a proven song, the earnings pattern to it becomes very predictable and reliable, and is therefore investable.  And these songs are as valuable as gold, or oil, or Nile sometimes talk about pork bellies.  I’m vegan so I never talk about the pork bellies.

The idea is very, very simple – The income streams are predictable and reliable because you’re investing money in proven music as opposed to music that is unproven and a total risk as a result.  In a post-Donald Trump world, what investors want is not only something that’s predictable and reliable, but something that’s also uncorrelated to everything else that’s going on in the marketplace.  The beautiful thing about music is that, when things are going fabulous music is the soundtrack to celebrate, and when things are challenged, music is the soundtrack for escape, and for people to get away from that challenge so you can rise up again and conquer whatever it is, whatever that obstacle is that’s in front of you.

I’m biased, but I’ve believed in Nile Rodgers since 1977 when I bought Dance Dance Dance, literally within a few weeks of it coming out; and as a great creator – one of the things Nile has always wanted to do is create great music, but also he has wanted to make the world better for fellow artists.  Nile and I, one day, just started riffing off of these ideas of how do we change this system, how do change what’s going on today where the songwriter – who provides the most important component in an artist having success –  is the lowest person on the totem pole… and we realised the only way that we could change the system that was in place was through critical mass and through building a company that will grow to be the billion pound company, that will grow to being the 2 billion pound company and have the leverage to change that system.

[Nile Rodgers] A song, a single song, should be seen as a commodity – like an emerald or a diamond.  The interesting thing with songs are they may fluctuate, but they rarely go down – the economics don’t work like that.  Songs stay in the marketplace, stay working for you, and as they get older, they become more valuable.

When I was a child, I asked one of my math teachers how come, and my family had just bought a new 1963 Buick Riviera.  And inside it had plastic and vinyl! I said to the salesman, ‘…why does a new Buick cost so much more than an old Buick?  Because our old Buick had burl maple and beautiful celluloid handles and things like that, and chromium and these really expensive materials?’.  And he just looked at me and said ‘supply and demand’.  And I went ‘what the hell does that mean?’.  This new car which looked fantastic… the raw materials were not nearly as valuable as the old materials…. Well, with a song, it proves the point that innocent little child that was saying ‘wait a minute, this older thing has got more valuable components, more valuable individual components is actually worth more than the new thing, the new thing has to prove itself’. And songs do that.

Q: What is the role of the music producer

[Nile Rodgers] As a producer, firstly I am a psychologist – that’s super important.  You’re dealing with personalities that run the gamut of almost any kind of stereotypical wild-person to the calmest person in the room.  People ask me how I deal with these extreme personalities, but guess what, I love them.  The more difficult a person seems to be, the happier I am – it means they have an innate sense of what they want – and they’re very clear – and don’t mind pissing me off and telling me, ‘no, I want to do this…’ or ‘don’t do that…

I believe that the first role of a producer is to make the artist understand that you have their absolute best interests at heart.  I’ve been doing this a long time, my legacy, whatever, it’s already written.  I like to explain it very simply like this.

Madonna and I, we were arguing over what the first single was going to be on the ‘Like a Virgin’ album, and I told her that Material Girl was compositionally a lot better than Like a Virgin.  And she says ‘but, the spiritual meaning of Like a Virgin is much more important’.  And then she sat me down and she gave me this whole thing about how important it was when a girl loses her virginity, or a woman loses her virginity.  I’m sitting these listening to her, and what am I going to say, she’s a woman, I don’t know if she’s right or wrong but she’s the artist so at the end of the day I said to her ‘You know, Madonna, this is not really an argument because the truth of the matter is when the record comes out it’s going to say ‘Madonna’ (produced by Nile Rodgers), it’s your record, it’s your decision’.

If I don’t make that commitment, that spiritual and emotional commitment to them, then how do I know when I’m talking to them that I have their best interests at heart? I have to invest a lot right at the beginning before we start to compose and before we start to do the record and all that sort of thing.

Q: How important is the relationship between the producer and the manager?

[Nile Rodgers] Producers, like managers, like artists, all have different personalities and different techniques… everybody has a different way that they go about performing their job functions, because our brains sometimes are wired to do things a certain way.

I’ve seen many situations where I’ve had to rely on management’s relationship with the artist because I knew we were straying off the path.

I worked with David Bowie on quite a few records, but on one record in particular I actually thought that he believed that I was being a sycophant and was going ‘oh man, I like everything you do…’, but in fact I was questioning him.  I thought like ‘wow, what you just wrote sucks’, well.. not sucks but it’s just not what we talked about.  It’s like this…. If you sit down with a group of people or any number of partners and you have a plan, it’s an absolute clear focused plan, and then all of a sudden the next thing the other person’s going ‘what happened to our plan?’ – so we had an absolutely clearly focused plan, and when he walked into the room and played this song for me it was not nowhere near that plan. I thought he was trying to see if I was the kind of person that would go ‘oh my god that was great David, that was fantastic’.  So I called his management and said ‘Look, David just came in and played a song for me.  He’s calling it Let’s Dance and it’s so not Let’s Dance-y it’s ridiculous.  Is he doing this to test me to see if I’m gonna go oh my god David, you’re the man, you’re fantastic’.  And they said ‘No Nile, if he sang that to you he really thinks it’s a hit’ and I went ‘oh’.  What do I do now?!? I said to him [David] at this point we now have a relationship.  We have that relationship that I talked about, that connection, that contact, ‘okay I’m on your side’.  So I just said, ‘Hey David, do you mind if I do an arrangement?’, and the reason why that was important, and I chose those words, was because David was very intellectual and he knew that the job of an arranger was very sophisticated at one time, you were like a Quincy Jones, you were like a Burt Bacharach, so I used that word and he said ‘Oh yeah, that’d be great’.  And I wrote ‘Let’s Dance’.

[Merck Mercuriadis] Talent, and particularly an extreme amount of talent is normally God’s way of overcompensating for something else in your life that he really messed up.  So that psychology that Nile talks about is very, very important to the making of great art… As a manager, you can help position somebody for their own wellbeing – you can help them remove the roadblocks they’ve put up for themselves that are stopping them from achieving their potential.

As a producer, one of the things that’s made Nile so successful is also a deep understanding of the whole process.  Nile is a weapon on every level, he can walk into the studio and he can play the most incredible guitar, he can hear a song, hear what’s best about it, arrange it so that it is a hit… he can write, compose, orchestrate, do anything with it.  But ultimately, what really makes Nile so special is that he is able to get the best out of people.  When you talk about that word ‘production’, one of the things that people rarely think about is, he’s producing a performance… extracting something out of you that someone else can’t get, because someone else doesn’t know how to make you feel…

[Nile Rodgers]  In a way I become like a coach at the time, the best friend, the little brother, the older brother, the dad, whatever…  When we were doing the vocal to Let’s Dance, David had written the song only a couple of days before, and I said ‘David, you sing it exactly the way you sang it when you walked into my bedroom and told me it was a hit before I did this arrangement’.  – David was singing exactly like he was singing the song, but because it was a little different vibe when he said ‘tremble like a flower’ – his voice broke a little – and he immediately wanted to fix it – because with technology we know how to punch it and fix it and make it right.  I had to work hard convince him, I said David, wait a minute bro..  Please don’t touch that.  Because 1) you’ll never be able to do that again because it was a mistake and 2) the audience will hear that sound like emotion, and with all the technology we have… I can fix time, I can fix pitch… I can fix all sorts of things.  But there is no button on the console that says ‘emotion’.  I don’t have that button, it doesn’t exist, but you just gave me emotion on a word.  You said tremble, and you cracked.  It was awesome.

[Merck Mercuriadis] Everyone in this room that knows that record knows that moment that we’re talking about, and it’s a pivotal moment to the success of the song.  But for David Bowie to agree with what Nile suggested to him took tremendous trust.  And that trust would not have been possible if Nile had not invested himself as that psychologist to begin with.  You don’t get to be David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Thom Yorke or Aphex Twin by trusting people, right?  You do the exact opposite.  You fuck the world.  That’s your attitude.

At a certain moment in time, in order to achieve what you want to achieve you have to put your trust in people.

Q: How important are awards to artists?

[Nile Rodgers] I was walking the red-carpet last night and someone said ‘how does it feel to be nominated for a Brit award?’.  I said ‘are you kidding me?  Here’s what it feels like to me.  I’ve been nominated for big awards more times than you can think of.  But I just never win them!’.

As a matter of fact, when they finally put me in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it was after 11 nominations.

I even said to them, I said ‘guys you know what my rock n roll hall of fame is?  All those gold and platinum records all around my house.  That there’s my rock n roll hall of fame, I don’t need to be in a building’.  I mean the people told me that they loved it, I don’t need you dudes to go ‘okay, let’s see, does he belong in the rock n roll hall of fame or not?’ ‘uh, uh…’.

You know, it’s those kinds of big awards and things like that are really peculiar.  It would be interesting to me if it were more scientific and mathematical and factual, that would be awesome because then you would have something that you could really compare.

When you’re an artist you have to have these goals, and they can be small goals, but they have to be goals that you’re always in pursuit of.  That’s what makes my life and my day interesting.

I’ve been here in London for a few days now, and before that I was on tour with Cher for the last month and a half.  As soon as we finished our last show with Cher about 5 days ago, we caught the plane and flew right over here and 4 o clock in the morning I had to get up to do BBC on Monday… I was exhausted and brain dead, but I did it because it’s my job and because what I was thinking about is the thing down the line that I’m promoting…

You have these goals that you’re always trying to hit and achieve, and every now and then, you hit them and they’re fantastic and they’re home runs – but most of the time, it’s just little ones.

Q: Why do artists choose you as a producer?

[Nile Rodgers] When I track my life, 95% of the records that I’ve done have been a result of chance meetings, I just bump into somebody and we talk and we vibe and say ‘hey let’s go…’, like last night.  I saw Sam Smith.  Now, I made a record with Sam Smith when nobody even knew who the hell he was.. and I know that he remembers that feeling.  That feeling of being a nobody… We went into the studio together and it was just exciting as hell, and disclosure said ‘man this is so cool, we’re going to break the internet’.  We didn’t…  but it was cool.  The feeling was cool, it was exciting, we had that goal we were going after.  So last night Sam Smith walked up on me and said ‘man, we got to go into the studio again’.  He’s a big star now, I don’t know if that same feeling he’s chasing will come back, because he really was just some guy sitting in the corner and Disclosure said ‘hey do you mind if our friend Sam sings?’.  But I said ‘no, come on, it’ll be great’.

[Merck Mercuriadis] For me, it’s that concept of belief – you shouldn’t work with an artist if you don’t believe in them. This is an integrity-based business.

If you’re the farmer and you wake up tomorrow morning and plant seeds in the ground, you’re not thinking about whether those seeds are going to grow or not.  You inherently believe that all you need to do is put those seeds in the ground, that the sun is going to shine, that the rain is going to fall, and that eventually is going to turn into some beautiful vegetable which I as a vegan love entirely.

Q: How do songs continue to earn money?

[Merck Mercuriadis] Nile Rodgers gets paid every year from work that he did in 1977, from work that he did in 1978 and in 1979 and in 1980, in the year 2000 and so on… Nile will be the first person to tell you, he has just as many failures as successes, if not more.  It’s just that the successes are of a magnitude that’s extraordinary.  So, everyone’s focused on the successes and of course those successes continue to pay off this predictable reliable income that is investable… and ultimately the idea is to take the leverage that comes from building this fund up and not only give a great return to our investors, but equally well then use that leverage to change where the songwriter sits in the economic equation.

Nile is the chairman of the songwriters’ hall of fame, he’s obviously an inductee of the songwriters’ hall of fame as well as the rock and roll hall of fame, but as the chairman of the songwriters’ hall of fame, it’s very important to the both of us and particularly as people that have made their reputations and the livings with artists as opposed to the expense of artists, to do something that makes the world a better place for creators.

[Nile Rodgers] I just also want to quickly say that the unique thing about Hipgnosis Song Fund is that the philosophy basically is concentrating on the songs that will absolutely give the highest return to the investor.  But, the one thing that Merck left out is that most of my product was failures right, it’s just the big ones that you know.

Even my failures, every now and then, have a bit of magic.  One of the biggest failures that I’d love to talk about is a film called ‘Soup for One’ that was so bad it closed in 2 days!  So I wrote the score and the theme song, and few years later a group called Modjo wrote a song called ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’, and it was based on Soup for One and that became a multi-million dollar property! even sometimes in a negative situation like that where it’s, even though Soup for One was a failure, the copyright was never worthless.  It just didn’t really jump up, it was sort of pretty flat until Modjo wrote Lady and I became 50% of that property!

Think of it this way, what kind of transaction happens in the world that makes gold twice as valuable in one day? It’s rare.  Every now and again, things like that happen, but it’s not common – In my case, it’s actually much more common than it is uncommon that something that I created could be worth a lot more by some unusual circumstance happening and those unusual circumstances happen quite often in today’s world.

Q: How have technological shifts changed the revenue model of music?

[Nile Rodgers] You may worry that you’re getting a lot less of a cut now, but guess what – a few years ago, billions of people weren’t streaming your stuff.

I remember my very first record deal, I had a small percentage of my deal, and I did everything, I was the composer, I produced everything, I had a tiny percentage and my attorney that I hired at the time said ‘you know Nile, you gotta’ relax a little bit… you did all this work and yes I agree you’re really undercompensated… but you know, any portion of a million is a lot’.

I guess I didn’t think about it like that!  Now we’re talking about any portion of tens of billions.  And over the next few years there will be hundreds of billions.  I mean, it’s just going to grow and grow and grow.

[Merck Mercuriadis] If we were in this room 7 years ago, there would probably be 5 of you that were on Spotify, or on Apple Music.  Today probably 90%-100% of you are on Spotify or Apple Music.  We’ve gone from 50 million paid subscribers to music streaming services around the world to 200 million in the space of 2 years.  We’re projecting in the next 4 years to be upwards of a billion.  JP Morgan put out a note about a month ago that predicts 2 billion by 2030, so 11 years from now.  We’re talking about a business that’s grown 4 times in the last 2 years, it’s going to grow somewhere between 3 and 6 times in the next 4 years, and then it’s going to grow again by at least double.  So 10 times where we are today is what the prediction is.  And this is a business that 6 or 7 years ago people thought was over, because of technology.

Technology made it possible for you all to be able to consume music effectively for free, albeit illegally.  There were no payments going through, or minimal payments going through to the creators.  That same technology has now come full circle in the form of streaming, and the reason why the vast majority of you pay for Spotify or Apple, sadly, is not because you think that Nile and I should be getting paid, but because it’s convenient, right?  It’s easier for me to pay you [Apple] this tenner a month so that I can have all the music I want when I want, how I want, what I want. If Adele releases a new album tomorrow, you’ve got it already.  If the Beatles release a 50th anniversary of Abbey Road, you’ve got it already.  You wake up and it’s there on your device ready to go.  And that’s the beauty of technology.

In the download era, one of the things that really killed the music business was that they gave a tremendous amount of power to Apple without realising.  Record sales had declined significantly, all of these men and women that were running record companies wanted to bolster the coffers, so they were made these long 5 and 6 year distribution deals with Apple.  What they didn’t understand was that suddenly they handed the power to Apple, who were now able to dictate what the offering was – instead of having to buy Dark Side of the Moon as an album you could buy each of the 8 songs on it individually, you could pick and choose what you wanted.

Now what happens with the streaming services, whether that’s Spotify or whether it’s Apple or whether it’s one of the bigger regional ones, is that no-ones making a deal that’s longer than 2 years – ultimately that’s the only leverage you’ve got to keep them honest.  They have this tremendous technology, you wake up every morning, you fire Spotify up, you fire Apple Music up, and it all works beautifully – but you’re not paying your £10, your $10 depending on where you are, for that technology – you’re paying for it because it gives you Nile’s songs.  It gives you The Beatles’ songs.  It gives you the Rolling Stones’ songs.  It gives you the latest Zara Larsson song or Dua Lipa or whatever you want.  The minute you wake up and The Beatles are gone and Nile’s gone and Dua Lipa’s gone, your £10 is gone as well.

Q: Have you had to change song writing to make it more up-front in the digital era?

[Nile Rodgers] I’ve always believed in putting the chorus up front – every one of my songs go ‘1, 2, 3, ahhh, freak out’, ‘we are family’, ‘let’s dance’.  I’ve only had a handful of records that are hits that the chorus comes later, ‘Get Lucky’ being one of them but that’s a rare, unique one.

The reason I believe in that formula is because I’ve always believed that we need establish what the concept is right away.

I was in a movie theatre once in New York, and we went to see this movie called ‘The Dungeon Master’ and it was supposed to be the greatest horror movie of all time after ‘The Exorcist’.  We were sitting there watching the movie and we were a good 10-15 minutes in, and somebody screamed from the back of the theatre ‘let’s get to the fucking part about the dungeon master!’.

Every time I’m in the studio with an artist, I end up like sitting there looking at them going ‘let’s get to the fucking part about the dungeon master!’, and that somehow affected me because I kept thinking to myself ‘this audience, that guy’s criticism was very valid’, because it was the ‘scariest movie of all time’, and we were all sitting there, we’re not scared at all.  I mean, when is the dungeon master going to come and scare us?

I think song writing, its trends, technology and things like that become cyclical.  When I first started writing, it was really based on a lot of groove.  Groove, groove, groove, groove.  And orchestration to keep it interesting over a long period of time… because the 12 inch record had just been invented, it was great, now you can go hear a dance song that was 10 minutes long, it was like this amazing transformation.

Q: What’s coming next, what will displace our music technologies?

[Nile Rodgers] We have no control…  The one thing we know for a fact is that we’re in the knee of the technology curve right now, and we know that over the next 10 years more things will be invented than have ever been invented since humans have walked the earth.

Things are being invented a phenomenal rate.  We are in a world now where it’s almost limitless what a person can think of.  We have one kid in our foundation, a little African kid, who made a radio station from garbage that put out a stronger signal than the frequency modulation radio station in his town, and he blew these guys away – just think about that, he made it all from garbage!  If he had said that to you, you’d sit there cracking up.

The one thing we have learned as business people, is that ‘content is king’, and I think right now it’s being proven more-so than ever before.  Content is king.  You may have a great delivery mechanism, but if you don’t have a really cool show like the Game of Throne, nobody will care… Our business is about storytelling.  You want to hear great songs, which are stories…

Q: How do you portfolio manage songs?

[Merck Mercuriadis]  We are in the song management business, and in the writer management business.  Every one of our songs, believe it or not, has a P&L.  You can pick any song in our catalogue and say ‘what did that song earn last year?’.  What do we believe we can get it to this year?  So we have a song in our catalogue that earned 7 grand last year and this year has earned 125 grand already.  So that’s a 15x, almost 17x multiple of what its last year earnings were, just because someone has identified exactly what the numbers are on it and decided they are going to make it their mission to improve it.

Most of these great songs are in big publishing houses at the moment where there are as many as 17,000 different songs for every creative person working for the company in the world.  So, our approach is we only buy proven songs.  Now those songs obviously come with catalogues that have unproven songs or unexploited songs with them.  Even failures within them, but ultimately because of our approach, the ratio of proven songs to overall songs is very, very high.

Q: Is music becoming a spectacle?

[Nile Rodgers] I often ask if we have reached the point where everything has to be a visual spectacle, It’s like we have to make what was once a sort of more introspective emotional experience now a visual experience, because anything that involves sight is sort of exciting, you know what I mean, but it’s not necessarily emotion…

To me, the listening and performing of music has always been its own emotive, and emotional art form.

Q: How did you come to launch a foundation?

[Nile Rodgers] When we first started out, we were reactive like most charities are… most charities react to some bad thing that’s just befallen someone… they have cancer, they have experienced some awful thing….  In my case it was September 11th.  I had 3 people who were on that first plane, and you can imagine how it was seeing them being crashed into a building and killed… so everyone in New York felt it, deeply.

There was also inside me that was yearning to do something.  I’ve been involved in so many big rock and roll kind of charitable events, and those are wonderful and fantastic, but the repercussions and the follow through almost always is a failure.  I was involved in Live Aid and in my opinion that was probably the biggest concert, and the biggest failure.  I know the Scottish banker who still has got all that money and says ‘I don’t even know how to distribute it’.

When they started to deliver the food to the people that were starving, it would never get past the fighters – they’d take the food, take the money – Geldof and his banking partner got smart and said, ‘look, we’re just funding this thing so instead of us helping the people live, we’re helping the people die.’  – Often, our hearts are in the right place, but because we don’t necessarily have the knowledge on the ground, we can’t be effective.

When we started the We Are Family Foundation, it came from realising that we were making the same mistakes others have made, we were raising all this money and giving it to people who have never had millions of dollars… They’re often left in worse condition than they were when they were before because they don’t know how to manage it!  We thought to ourselves, we are not going to do that.  We’re not going to just give away a bunch of money to housewives and firefighters who don’t know how to manage millions of dollars.

We decided to do something that’s not only sustainable, but which could grow and exist without me.  When people first started interviewing me, they asked me what was my goal for the We Are Family foundation… I said, you know, quite simply, I’d like it to be as big as the song….

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.