We left Gerry trying and failing to interest Chrysalis Records’ co-owner Terry Ellis in signing Motorhead. So, next I asked him about starting a record label.
We were with Philips, and Philips had a distribution problem. Island had duel distribution, their own and Philips’. Philips failed completely – they moved into a new warehouse, everything went wrong and Island pulled out. I went to Philips and said I was going to pull out as well. What brought it to a head was that we put out a Juicy Lucy records and we were phoning shops and they were saying ‘we’ve ordered two boxes of 50, we’ve had them on order for two weeks and if we could get them we’d sell them.’ We started putting boxes in the backs of our cars and delivering them to record shops. I went to Philips and said ‘you’re destroying my business, I’m leaving. If you want to sue me, sue me but I’m leaving.’ We negotiated a deal where we left. They were so embarrassed they just let us go.
Who was ‘We’?
Me and Brian Eagles – Colosseum, Uriah Heep, Juicy Lucy, Richard Barnes all for production and management. So, clever dick me managed to get out of a deal but had nowhere to go! I phoned David Betteridge (partner with Chris Blackwell in Island Records) and asked him if he fancied forming a record label with us. We went round there and talked about a deal. I spoke to Chris Blackwell. He said ‘this is great. This is the deal – you’ll never see me because I’ve got other things to do, you’ll deal with David and I’ll see you once or twice a year.’ I thought ‘this can’t be true’ but I’ve known him from way back. He always tells people I was the first person he met in the music business when he came to England, can’t quite be true. David and I knocked together this deal and we were released by Island within 24 hours. I had no aspirations to run a record label; it was just that I had nowhere else to go. We couldn’t think of a name, so we offered £50 for the first person to come up with one. The drummer in Uriah Heep (probably Lee Kerslake) said ‘I don’t know what you’re all flapping on about, it’s obvious you should call in Bronze – it’s his name.’ It was staring us in the face, we just didn’t see it.
Always on the Bronze label, not under the Island logo to start with?
It was always separate. I suspect that Chrysalis already had a similar arrangement – it must have been 1973-4 (though Wikipedia says 1971!) I have never been so rude as I was to Steve Gottlieb who was Chairman of Philips. He gave me the big thing of ‘oh Mr Bron, I think you’re being unreasonable, go down to our warehouse and you’ll see we are making great strides, we’re going to get this sorted out.’ I went down there and I saw how they were doing it. I said to him ‘you’re the biggest fucking idiot I’ve ever talked to. You have absolutely no idea what you;re talking about – it’s the biggest shambles.’ They were time sharing a computer on a line; because it was expensive they didn’t have their own computer so they’d take the orders and would store them up, then process them by batch processing it down the line, so even if someone phoned up at 9am, the order wasn’t ready for picking until some time in the afternoon. The other mistake they made – again they were trying to save money – they put the whole warehouse at the top of the building. They took over a building, but they took the top floor, which meant they were doing the picking at the top and sending it down the lift to the delivery vans at the bottom. Whoever organised that didn’t know what they were doing.
We did a licensing deal with Island. They paid us probably only 12% at that time. My deals were structured in such a way that I could live with that. I didn’t pay Uriah Heep that much. I paid Colosseum 50% of what we got, so we started with Island and think we only went up to 16%. Some way down the line we realised that we could do a much better job internationally than Island and we’d earn a lot more money so we then parted with Island and did it all ourselves. But Bronze would never have been born if it wasn’t for the problem that Philips had, and it was just a coincidence that Island had made their move (away from Philips) a few weeks before ours. I knew David very well. David and Chris go back to when they were round the corner in Cambridge Road and they had all these reggae records stored in racks in the basement. It was always a very successful operation.
Chris Blackwell and David Betteridge
Did that affect the artists you signed to your label?
I think the musical direction was always the same. I love music and I will record anything I like. All I had going for me was that what I liked seemed to be what the public liked. I made records for myself, I never made records for anyone else. I’ve often found artists that I talk to are actually trying to do something they think will be successful.
I would never have made Motorhead records as a producer. The story of Motorhead was that Neil Warnock, who ran Bron Agency came to me and said ‘I’ve got a problem. I’ve just booked a Motorhead tour and the promoter said unless they’ve got a single he’s going to cancel. Could Bronze just put out one single?’ So I said ‘yes, if that solves the problem – it’s my agency as well.’ They did ‘Louie Louie’ and I thought it was the worst record I’d ever heard. It went in the charts at 72 and I thought ‘whatever I think, there has to be something here.’ I went to Hammersmith Odeon and it was filled with screaming jumping crazed people. I thought ‘this band has got a following, we’ve got to have an album’ so we signed them to a long term deal It was a commercial decision, but it was based on what I could see was there.
When I joined EMI (in 1978), Bronze and Island were licensed labels
LRD (Licensed Repertoire Division – I was General Manager of Motown). Alan Kaupe was a nice guy but really didn’t understand what we were doing at all. The history of Sally Oldfield’s ‘Mirrors’ was quite interesting because it wasn’t on the (Waterbearer) album. It became a hit and I said to Alan -‘you’ve got to put it on the album.’ and I he said ‘no we can’t do that.’ I said ‘you’re joking? Can you think how many more albums we’re going to sell with the single on it’. They refused to do it and I think we had a three or four week battle, all down to them not wanting to re-cut and re-release the album because it was going to cost money.
You were licensed to Island, so you never had your own staff running the label?
Oh yes we did. Looking back on it, the worst thing that ever happened was that I broke away from Philips. Up until then I was simply a record producer/manager running a relatively small operation. Once Bronze Records was formed we constantly had this problem that we thought we could do better than anyone else. We had our own press department, our own promotion, a very large management operation. It got ridiculous, we were carrying a huge overhead and still only getting a 12% royalty. We were doing a lot more than anyone did on a licensing basis, but it worked because we were effective.
Was the move to EMI a result of Island not being able to carry on?
At some point Chris Blackwell said ‘I don’t want any more of these licensed labels. I want Island to be Island and nothing else’ Virgin, Chrysalis and we all left. We went to EMI and probably Polydor after that, I can’t remember the sequence. But we were simply licensing to EMI, we didn’t do a P&D (pressing and distribution) deal, which we should have done because it would have saved the day. If we’d done that we’d still have been in business. When CD’s came in we would have made a killing. The problem was that I was personally doing so many different things that I just didn’t want the aggravation. It was attractive to me to do the same as before.
Did Bronze naturally come to an end?
I split up with Lilian – it became very acrimonious. I was running all sorts of different businesses. I had an air taxi business at the time, a recording studio and I think we were just overwhelmed with problems. It failed partly because a great deal of time was spent arguing about what the children were going to do rather than what the business was going to do. As I said to Terry years later when he said ‘well, you never had a partner like Chris Wright’ and I said ‘do me a favour, I had a partner called Lilian Bron’. He said ‘yes, you’re right – it ‘s the same thing really.’ It is very destructive. If you’ve got a partner that you’re married to it’s ten times worse. If you’ve got a partner that you’ve built a business with and each goes a separate way, it can still work.
I think the demise of the company was partly that we started to run into trouble anyway. Lilian left; the Germans in particular had lost confidence in what we were doing. They all hated Motorhead which was just about the only thing we had going at that point, and they were quite happy just to hand the deal back to us. I always resented it because they made an absolute fortune out of Bronze Records in Germany. Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann were major sellers – it never cost them anything; we just gave them records and they put them out. When it came to it they said ‘we’ve got an unrecouped advance and we don’t want to carry on’ I said ‘but if you work out what we’ve made, you’ve made an awful lot more than an unrecouped advance. It’s not like you’ve given us money you’re never going to earn back.’ It just killed us really.
Were you married before the business?
We married first and then…in fact Lilian at my suggestion worked in a record shop and she outsold all the other salesgirls in the shop. I used to give her all the information about the classical records and she was a very good saleswoman.
She had a powerful reputation
She made the international (sales) work. She was a bulldozer. In the end they did things in Germany because they didn’t want to argue any longer, they just did it. It worked. The more she was right the more they had to do what she wanted them to do. We were enormously successful in Germany. She learned German in five weeks; she got fed up with arguing with them in English! They thought she was fantastic and she got terrific results.
What about Manfred in Japan – the world had opened up to British music
Philips were hopeless. They had no idea how to sell records abroad. The way I got into management and record production was via my father’s publishing company, and the one thing we were very good at was buying songs from America and sub-licensing them to the Continent of Europe. So we knew the Continent very well. All our publishers were only too pleased to be our publishers because they got Gene Pitney and Manfred Mann B-sides, so they didn’t have to do any work at all, they didn’t mind giving us the odd advance because they were making money. Whenever a Manfred Mann record came out we would phone up the French publishers and say ‘look, you’re on the B-side, you’re not doing anything, get us a couple of TV shows.’ And they would do it. We did that with our licensees and made them work. Philips would never do that. We got things going. If I phoned up someone at Philips they had no idea who their counterpart was in France anyway.
Did they not have an International Department?
Oh yes, Caesar Voute. I discovered years later that his big interest in life was flogging product abroad. He was interested in export to France, not in getting the record selling in France. His day was made if someone phoned up and said ‘send us 2000 of the latest Manfred single.’ We weren’t interested in that – the income from that was nothing. Once you get into P&D and can press records and sell them for profit abroad, it’s much bigger money than getting the licensing return. That was all they were interested in; we were interested in selling hundreds of thousands of records in Germany. We were making more than Philips. I think the international (market) was opened up by The Beatles, but it was always there. Let’s see..The Manfreds were 1965, The Beatles were 1963.
I think the non-domestic business is so crucial
The philosophy at Bronze Records was that there are at least 20 territories out there that can sell 10,000 albums each – that’s 200,000 albums. We can’t sell 200,000 albums in England so let’s go for the territories.
Did you go off with Bronze and do territory by territory licensing deals for the label?
Yes. We made 90% of our income from abroad. When Chris Wright saw our overseas sales figures he accused us of lying. He said ‘well, we don’t sell records like that in Germany.’ I said ‘believe me Chris, these are our actual sales.’ One of the things Lilian would do was to phone every record company abroad and get a list of their sales month by month so we had a very good picture of what we were doing abroad, and we had a computerised sheet – quite extensive. Chris Wright was amazed because I think he had a traditional deal with a major that had the territories round the world, whereas we were selling to each territory. Much stronger.
In 1986 we sold the masters to Legacy who then immediately sold them to Castle. We sold the publishing to EMI. We were under great pressure from the bank. They were saying they didn’t believe the overdraft we had was covered by our assets. I kept saying our publishing business was probably worth half a million pounds but they didn’t believe it. Stiff Records went the same way in the same year. I went round to (Stiff owner) Dave Robinson to say I’d just been through the same thing myself, was there anything I could do? When I saw what Stiff ended up owing everyone compared to Bronze. I went to the creditors’ meeting. I think it was something like six or seven million pounds, and there must have been 200 people in the hall. The same thing happened with Bronze but it was much smaller. I did get some money from selling the catalogue and said to the bank ‘I want to pay off some of the creditors’ and they said ‘We’re your biggest creditor Mr. Bron, we want all the money.’
Richard Branson has said the same thing about the banks
I talked to Richard in those days. He came to look at our air taxi outfit in London and we had lunch. He was telling me they were much closer to the wind than anyone realised.
What were your reflections at the end, having run a record company?
Two years ago (1997) I was seriously thinking of doing it again, but I think I just couldn’t cope with what’s going on out there. I don’t think the majors are getting it right. The way I worked I think could still work today but you need three years on every act, and where does the money come from to keep something going for three years? Also I’m 65 and don’t want to start something I can’t finish.
Was this because you felt there were a lot of artists with potential that records company were ignoring?
Absolutely – they sign things they shouldn’t sign. From 1986-1996 I ran the Roundhouse recording studios and saw a lot of people coming in and making records and I had to bite my tongue because on more than one occasion I would go ‘what on earth are they doing? Why did they sign this band? Why are they remixing for the third time?’ I reckon we made a load of money out of people’s mistakes. The original Roundhouse studios were at 100 Chalk Farm Road where Bronze Records was. The studio continued until 1993 and then we built a new studio in Saffron Hill and moved there.
I would have liked to have revived Bronze Records. The receiver offered me the logo for £500 but I made a mistake and turned it down. If I had it, maybe I’d have started the label again. But I don’t know what the relevance would be today because I think English companies are still concentrating on acts that don’t travel and to me that’s always been what it’s all about.
The big thing that changed my attitude to the world was that I had Uriah Heep. The initial deals I had with Philips was that they didn’t have America. Irwin Steinberg (former Polygram co-founder and CEO, died December 29, 2014)
came to me and said ‘why won’t you give us your product – you’ve given Colosseum to Dunhill.’ and I said ‘I just don’t think you do a good enough job.’ and he said ‘I don’t know why you say that because you’ve never given us a chance to show what we can do, would you please give us the opportunity of bidding for the next act.’ The next act was Uriah Heep. I couldn’t sell Uriah Heep to anyone in America so I said to Irwin, ‘OK, here’s one, do the deal’, and he did the deal because he said he wanted my next act. Uriah Heep were very successful in America. The first royalty cheque I got from America was for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This changed my life, whatever I could have asked for as an advance would never have come near this sort of figure, and suddenly you look at America and you realise that you can sell that number of records and bring in that sort of money, this is what the business is all about. Forget selling records in England, it’s really small beer. Uriah Heep never sold many records in England but we sold millions around the world and toured everywhere too.
Do you have any contact with those artists now?
No, Manfred and I parted on bad terms. Ariola told us the only reason they wanted the Bronze label was because of Manfred, which was a nonsense if you analysed their figures. I think it was the prestige more than anything, and they started working on a deal to sign Manfred direct.
The last time I saw Gene Pitney was at the Palladium and the programmes were £10 each, and he hasn’t got a record deal. I’m convinced that if he made a record and you could get to the public when he does his next tour, you’d probably sell more records than the average for one in the Top Ten.
N.B. Gene Pitney died April 5, 2006.
This long extract completes my interview with Gerry Bron. As with all interviews, it is repeated here verbatim with my explanations in italics. If you have any comments, corrections, additions or observation, do use the section below rather post them on Facebook. That way all future readers can benefit from your contribution.
Next, long-serving EMI employee Colin Burn.