Phil Nelson – BIMM Music Industry Ambassador

About to officially start his role as BIMM’s Music Industry Ambassador on 1 August, it’s the culmination of over thirty years work in the music industry for this most friendly and engaging of people. From researching the industry whilst doing an MA, to setting up a label, managing bands, lecturing and tutoring music students, and generally being instrumental in shaping the music scene in Brighton, Phil has been there and done that in this ever-changing and fast-moving industry. He took time out to answer some questions for us.

You’ve really been totally immersed in the music industry all your adult life.
During The Great Escape, I was being interviewed by Steve Lamacq who started by saying, ‘I can’t really go through Phi Nelson’s CV, otherwise we’ll be on air all night’. It was back-handed compliment, I suppose!

How did you get started?
I set up my own record label (Hag), while I was doing my MA at Sussex University in 1986 in English, and put out a compilation album of bands form the South Coast. One of The Levellers (drummer Charlie Heather) was in a band with my cousin, called The Fence, whose record I put out on Hag. Then I got an Arts Council-funded classical music job running something called the ‘Society for the Promotion of New Music.

Tell me more about the MA.
Well, at the beginning it was an English MA. But, I got bored with it. It wasn’t about books, it was about French psychoanalysis, really dull stuff. I asked if I could switch to music. I said I would like to do my dissertation on how the music industry affects the music we listen to. I tried to find a tutor from the music department, but in those days music degrees basically ended in 1945. So, they ended up letting me do it without a tutor. Back then, no-one was really interested in that as a subject. Looking back, on my young self, how was I interested in that, then? Where did that come from? I suppose I was inherently curious.

You must have obviously been into music.
Oh yeah!. I had been in shit bands. Thankfully, there is no evidence of that on the internet, although there is a dusty old cassette somewhere in my house. But, I was classically trained, Grade 8 bassoonist. Lots of my bands have said, ”I’ll get you to play on my record’. But once they hear it they change their mind.

How did you end up managing The Levellers?
I was sharing a flat with Charlie, and the story goes that I didn’t go to their first gig, but when I woke up the following morning I could tell from the commotion that it had been a buzzy gig. I hadn’t even listened to their demo, so I put on the cassette, listened to it, and thought ‘this is quite good, really’. And I started managing them from then on. I made sure I knew more than they did, and learned as quickly as I could what on earth management actually was. That was 1988.

The band eventually really took off.
I had a day job for the first three years of managing The Levellers. The boss of China Records rang me up one day to say the mid-week position of Levelling The Land (their second album) was number eight in the album chart. He was as shocked as I was; we hadn’t even had a top forty hit by then. So, I left my day job and became a full-time manager in October 1991.

Do you think the band made it without the help of the press with whom they had a poor relationship?
We did get a lot of radio play, but the press didn’t like The Levellers. They felt their success happened without them. Of course, it didn’t help that Jeremy (Cunningham, bassist) sent a turd through the post to a journalist.

Ah, the film (where that ‘incident’ is talked about), A Curious Life. You’re in that. What did you think about the film?
I really liked it a lot. When you’re the ex-manager of a band – we never fell out, but a manager gets fired – and I knew I was interviewed for the film, I didn’t know how it would pan out. But where Dunstan Bruce (Director) got it right, was to not make it about the rise and fall of The Levellers. Almost every band has that story, but the idea of picking out Jeremy, who is the most interesting member of the band, and his parents. I thought it was fantastic.

The life of manager can be hard one.
It can be quite scary. In the case of The Levellers, the label and the band could be quite far apart in what they want to do, and you’re the conduit between the two. At that time both can hate you. It can be quite a lonely place.

But, you must like it. You’ve managed a lot of other acts over the years.
I’ve managed 13 bands, that have released at least one proper album. I count four of them as successful; The Levellers, Longpigs – I still think they released the best record of any band I’ve managed so far (The Sun Is Often Out) – Aqualung, who have actually sold more than The Levellers, but hasn’t had the prominence; and Duke Special, who has done well in music theatre and got a platinum album in Ireland.

What is your role at the moment?
My assistant Fran manages Duke Special on my behalf. I now only have an advisory role for Sweet Billy Pilgrim, and I still manage Aqualung. I also look after Echo Zoo studios in Eastbourne, where Paul McCartney made a record once. It’s been nice to step back from that feeling that you’re always on 24/7 when being a manager, constantly waiting for the thing you’ll need to respond to.

You also work for and on behalf of BIMM. What do you do as ambassador?
I was the Head of Business Studies there, but what I want to do now, with the help of three BIMM colleges’ worth of students is, in a manner of speaking, to try and fix the music industry! 15 years ago, 95% of the money was made by 5% of the people. Now it’s 99% made by 1%, and I think there’s various things that can be done to reverse that a little bit.

Essentially, there are lots of knowledge gaps. For instance, I’ve got students building a sub-300 capacity venue database, because it doesn’t exist. We’re working with the Music Venues Trust on this. Apparently, not a single live music venue of this size make money purely out of live music. And venues are generally in a poor state of repair; shit PA, shit lighting, smelly toilets. And 18-year-olds go, ‘we don’t want this experience’. ‘We’ll go a festival instead’ (although the toilets are, by general consensus, far worse. ). So the average age of the audience is older than the band they’ve come to see. That’s not very healthy. So, getting this information together is the first part of working out some solutions.

What is the Brighton Music City Project?
A year ago I found seven students, as part of their dissertations, to each map a different area of music provision in Brighton and other cities in the UK; retail, education, venues, musicians, record companies, press offers, publishers etc. The idea was to see how the local music economy works. Along with my students I’m in the process of mapping the entire music provision outside London, to see where the gaps are.

What we found were three main elements to the local music economy; education being one of them (the other two being live music, and the creation and sale of music). We found music education to be in a mess; the classical, commercial and community music approaches don’t talk to each other, they’re scared of each other and talk different languages.

In the live world we felt we needed to map a venue ladder, from the smallest to the largest. In Brighton we do quite well, dependent upon whether the Corn Exchange fits that 1,000 capacity area when it’s finished (work will be finished in 2018). And whether we get an arena or not (planned for the Black Rock area in the next few years). But generally, outside of London, our provision is better than most.

And we also looked at the creation and sale of music locally, whether or not that is happening outside of London and whether it’s healthy. I would argue it is. There are three sorts of labels that can exist outside of London; labels that support themes (such as the Skint label, which became synonymous with Big Beat for a while); Kindergarten labels, who help to get bands to the next level; and what I call Tall Poppies, which could be someone like Warp, who are based in Sheffield, but don’t actually contribute that much to the local music economy, because their national or international remit means they could be based anywhere.

What else would you like to see?
I want to have someone be appointed Brighton Music Officer, reporting to a board. I think I will make this happen, thanks to Wired Sussex offering us free office space, and a couple of organisations helping to fund the first six months of the role. What we want to do is help an already economically healthy scene in Brighton, but I think by joining the dots and providing a real focal point we can help in the way Wired Sussex have helped the tech and digital industries, and become a genuine representation of their sector.

I think it’s a bit of a cliché, this idea that live income and merchandise is the only future for bands; I don’t necessarily think this is the case. People say you can’t make money out of streaming, but it is early days for this. Watch this space…