Interview with LIONEL CONWAY

July 2010
conwayWhile everyone is able to name the key figures in modern music, the names of those who work behind the scenes for the music to sound clear and loud remain largely unknown to the wide audience, but it’s thanks to these hidden movers the artists do what they do. One of such movers is Lionel Conway whose immaculate taste linked him as publisher and acute businessman with THE BEATLES, U2 and Madonna, among other musicians of high caliber. Even a short list of his charges speaks volumes about the man who’s still very much active which makes it even more interesting to hear out his views on both past and current state of affairs in the field.

– Mr. Conway, with so many highlights in the five decades of your career, what do you consider your greatest achievement?

I think my greatest achievement is the fact that over the length of my career, I have remained relevant to musical tastes.

– What qualities should an artist have for you to be interested in? Should he or she be genuinely original or generic enough to join the mainstream? Should they have a song baggage attached at the time of signing?

I love great songs and great singers. I think the stage performance can come later, you learn how to win over audiences through experience And I’ve always felt that if I love a writer or act enough, they will eventually cross to mainstream audiences. Sometimes I’m wrong, though.

– What’s your view on the current situation where the industry expects a artist to be a hit-maker from the word go as opposed to the old days when artists were given some four-album contracts to succeed or even groomed like Kate Bush?

It’s a major problem in our industry. It’s getting to be like the film business. If your CD doesn’t sell in the first month of release, you’ve had it with the record company. They don’t develop artists like they used to, mainly because of the economy. That is the sole reason why publishing companies are replacing them in the A&R field.

– Is there a place in today’s music business for writers who don’t have an artist to represent what they’re capable of like, say, Bernie Taupin was?

It’s almost impossible for lyricists to break into the mainstream, unless they team up with a track producer and melody writer. Bernie Taupin would never happen in today’s music business.

– Would you promote a good song if you personally don’t like it but recognize its potential?

That’s a good question. I have a vast catalogue of country songs, some of which I can’t listen to, but they get cut and become hits. Personally, I wouldn’t send a song to a record company or artist unless I believed in it.

– Having signed the likes of DECEMBERISTS and Jessca Hoop in the recent years, you must be very in tune with modern music. But who do you listen to when you’re off work?

I listen to all kinds of new music – THE KILLERS, Eminem, Alicia Keys, GORILLAZ, lots of British groups.

– In the Sixties, you worked for Dick James who was amassing one of the greatest catalogues at the time. Wasn’t it intimidating to place THE BEATLES songs? I mean they were on the rise and one could have been afraid to sell the Lennon and McCartney compositions too cheap, like on stock market…

I did place BEATLES songs with other artists in the ‘60s. Once a record is first released to the public, you cannot stop another artist from recording any song from that record unless they are changing the words. I tried to keep the quality of the acts I played the songs to, but once released, it was a cover frenzy.

– How instrumental do you think you were in shaping up Elton John’s career?

During my last year with Dick James, I was extremely helpful to Reg [Dwight, future Elton]. I got him plays and live shows on BBC Radio. I also played his demos to several record companies before Dick decided to sign him to his own label. I persuaded Dick that Elton was a fantastic writer and deserved a shot. I managed him in the early days when nobody was interested in him.

– You worked with PLASTIC PENNY featuring future Elton’s drummer Nigel Olsson and future PROCOL HARUM guitarist Mick Grabham. Who else did you manage at the time?

Just PLASTIC PENNY; I didn’t like management.

– Why did you leave DJM for Island?

Island was the most credible independent label in the U.K. They were doing things at that time that no other label was even contemplating. It seemed an obvious decision to me at the time; it turned out to be the most important move I made in my career.

– You worked for Chris Blackwell for a long time. Did Island, who had great progressive, blues and reggae acts on their roster, ever have an agenda with regards to style?

Island had no agenda. We signed artists that we loved. Singles, radio plays didn’t enter our world, just great music – Cat Stevens, U2, Robert Palmer, Tom Waits, MOTT THE HOOPLE, FREE…

– Having signed Gary Wright and Ian Hunter for Island, was it you who teamed them up with, respectively, SPOOKY TOOTH and the future MOTT THE HOOPLE?

SPOOKY had already signed to Island before I arrived, but Gary Wright was a writer that I really admired and I was always the first person he played his new songs to. I hope I was of help to him. Funny enough, Gary came to see me last week with regards to a new deal for him and we worked out that it was 42 years ago that we first met.

Ian was another writer who I was close to, he lived near me in Wembley and I would often go over to his house to listen to his new songs. I was his springboard to Island Records and Chris, so I would spend hours advising him on how he should handle things with the label. Actually, it was the guitarist, Mick Ralphs, I helped the most; he wasn’t happy not being able to get Ian to take his songwriting seriously and wanted to leave the band. I asked him to let me hear his songs and two of them were really good, so we went into the studio and cut both songs as demos. At the time, another one of my writers was looking to put together another band. The person was Paul Rodgers, and the new band became BAD COMPANY. Paul loved the two songs and Mick became part of the new band, and I’m happy to say that both those songs have become rock classics, “Ready for Love’ and “Can’t Get Enough.” I haven’t seen Mick for over 25 years; I hope he reads this and gets in touch with me.

– Do you think the SUPERTRAMP’s success could also be traced back to you who recognized Roger Hodgson’s talent?

I signed and produced Roger two years before SUPERTRAMP. The name we used for him was Argosy; it got a lot of attention and I eventually released him to sign with SUPERTRAMP.

– Did you – and do you – have a special attitude towards the female-fronted bands such as, in the old days, CURVED AIR and UNCLE DOG and now Adrianne and, again, Jessca Hoop?

Wow, you really know my career! Yes, I do have a major love for female singer-songwriters, not just female-fronted bands, apart from the ones you mention. Lucinda Williams was my favorite writer. Charlie Dore, Sandy Denny, Grace Jones were great, too.

– What was special about Madonna’s Maverick that made you want to join the label’s staff? Did the label really stop its operations?

Madonna and Freddy DeMann (Madonna’s former manager and Maverick co-founder) asked me to start a publishing company. We had sold Island and I became president of Polygram for about eighteen months. I hated that job so I left and joined Madonna to start Maverick Music. It was a co-venture with Warner; not a great situation, but I was very successful. After seven years, the company had changed a lot. Freddy wasn’t there and the publishing company was cast off on its own. I really didn’t enjoy not being part of the record company. Anyway, we sold it to Warner. As far as I know, Maverick as a label does not exist.

– Acquiring the ZZ TOP and classic AEROSMITH catalogues for Mosaic Media, did you estimate only their obvious commercial value or your personal taste played some part in the purchase as well?

I can’t say I was a huge fan of either band. I knew and liked their hits like ZZ’s “La Grange”, “Sharp Dressed Man”, “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Tush”, and AEROSMITH’S “Dream On”, “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way”, but I did recognize the importance of their catalogues. Both bands have been making great music for almost forty years and they still remain as credible as they were in the early Seventies. They are part of American culture; they will never disappear.

– How did you get AEROSMITH to agree to get involved in the video games world?

That was Joe Perry. He saw his son playing “Guitar Hero” and was so impressed; he thought AEROSMITH should be a part of it. We had, however, licensed several songs of their to “Guitar Heroes” before the release of their own personal version.

– Working in the music business isn’t the same thing as making music. But how did you end up singing backing vocals on Rod Stewart’s “Rhythm Of My Heart”?

Rod has been my friend since 1975. We both share this ridiculous passion for football. On this particular song, he wanted a big vocal sound in the chorus, so he got all his football buddies to sing the chorus. Some of them didn’t make it because they were terrible singers.

– Are there many people like you, who love their artists and don’t look at them as milk cows, in today’s show business?

I hope so. The record business, I’m afraid, needs a lot of help. The recession hasn’t helped and the big corporations that control 75 per cent of our business have quarterly budgets that they have to meet so it’s taken the passion out of the business. I’m sure I’m not the only one, though.

– Is there anything in life, any dream or goal you’d still like to achieve?

I’m still hoping that I sign a new, young talent that’s under the radar of the majors and I take that talent to huge success. I have an act now that I love – JUKEBOX THE GHOST. It’s a three-piece band from Philly and I love their writing. That would be a goal for me. Oh yes, I want to stay in music forever… Can you arrange that, please?

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