Nick Raphael keeps it quiet, but it hasn’t been long since the now-Capitol Records U.K. boss hit a seriously rocky patch.
In 2011, alongside long-term confidant Jo Charrington, Raphael’s 18-year career was soaring. The duo had recently broken a platinum-heavy lineup of JLS, Olly Murs and Paloma Faith at Epic Records U.K.
Then Raphael made a suspiciously sudden, high-profile exit from the company. His resignation looked very likely to have been driven by his being overlooked for the chairmanship of Sony Music U.K.
Revenge was in the cards.
Universal Music U.K. boss David Joseph sealed Raphael’s arrival at UMG by gifting him the resuscitated London Records label. Joseph, ever the cunning operator, knew this was an offer laced with sentiment; London was the home of Raphael’s first record company job back in 1993.
Raphael’s first move was to bring over Charrington—his amiable but frank-talking partner in crime. A fellow London Records alum, she shared his romantic vision of rekindling the label’s past glories.
For Joseph, this was two for the price of one: UMG had snared both of Sony’s foremost A&R alchemists without breaking a sweat.
And then… well, nothing.
Raphael, an ultra-competitive exec accustomed—nay, addicted—to hit-heavy weeks, went cold for the best part of 18 months. His and Charrington’s big bets at London included a frankly bizarre stab at turning The Gypsy Queens—a washed-up group of street crooners so cheesy they stunk out half of Kensington High Street—into household names.
Another bundle of London’s chips were placed on Arlissa, a U.K.-based Beyoncé-alike who collaborated with Nas and hit the BBC’s influential Sound Of list…before sinking into a quagmire of industry indifference.
Raphael was unable to see the funny side of these flops. He put himself under the sort of unforgiving scrutiny he more commonly applied to meticulous artist campaigns. His self-inflicted pressure pushed him close to the edge.
London Records mk.2 had been an unmitigated disaster. Millions had been flushed away by Raphael and Charrington’s big bets. Typical major label bosses may well have reached for the scissors.
That’s exactly what Raphael feared ahead of a finance meeting with Lucian Grainge in September 2013. Contrary to his usual unflappable demeanour, Raphael admits now that he was “shitting my pants.”
Grainge, though, wasn’t worried in the slightest.
UMG’s godfather apparently looked down at London’s dismal balance sheet and, with Raphael quivering in front of him, dismissed the seven-figure losses as “nothing more than a pimple on my tuchus.”
Grainge informed Raphael (and, by extension, Charrington) to stop worrying about what they’d pissed away and direct all of their energy on their two new acts: Sam Smith and 5 Seconds of Summer.
It’s proven quite the turning point.
“That moment when Lucian told me to stop thinking about failure changed my entire mind-set,” says Raphael. “He was completely right. The new acts deserved the best we could give them.”
Why did Grainge keep the faith? Because ever since signing Jay Z with his friend Christian Tattersfield in 1996, Raphael—side-by-side with Charrington—had spectacularly failed to fail. Surely he was bound to come good again.
Back in the U.K., Raphael and Charrington had just been handed another restorative parachute, this time by David Joseph.
To help the duo banish their London calamites, Joseph cleverly rebranded them as the new co-heads of the historic Capitol Records label in the U.K. Immediately, they gained a special relationship with their U.S. counterpart, Steve Barnett—an exec who Raphael says sets a “gold standard of how to operate in America.”
“Even at the worst times of London, Jo always believed things would turn around,” he adds. “I was the weakest one of the group. Between Jo, Lucian and David, as I moped, they managed to keep the confidence up.”
They didn’t know it then, but toward the end their London Records woes, Raphael and Charrington had managed to sign two acts destined for platinum—and, very possibly, Grammy—glory.
Cut to late summer 2012. Raphael is sitting with Charrington inside her Range Rover. Both are freshly awestruck. Minutes before, they’d witnessed an exclusive audience with the unknown Sam Smith, accompanied by Jimmy Napes on piano. Charrington gives Raphael his orders in no uncertain terms. “An artist like Sam comes along every 20 years. Don’t fuck this up!”
Just like that: resurrection is in the cards.
“Within 30 seconds of Sam singing ‘Lay Me Down’ at that session, I was holding back tears,” says Raphael. “Sam was clasping his hands together and staring at the floor [with nerves], which just made us like him even more.”
Raphael and Charrington had been tipped off a couple of months earlier on Smith by a mutual contact of the singer’s go-to co-writer Jimmy Napes. They’d met with Smith’s triumvirate of impossibly youthful managers—Jack Street, Sam Evitt and Elvin Smith (no relation)—who played them his demos. Recalls Raphael: “Track three was ‘Lay Me Down.’ I was gobsmacked.”
A few days later, Raphael and Charrington joined Smith for breakfast at Bill’s in Notting Hill.
“Within 30 seconds, we knew we liked him—he was self-deprecating, honest and clearly had no idea how great he was,” recalls Raphael. “When we got outside, I told Sam that I didn’t believe it was a physical possibility for him to sing like that: to go from the highest falsetto all the way to a baritone in a split second and keep control. So he said he’d show me it was the real deal in the studio.”
Smith was the only artist in the world in 2014 to sell a million albums in the U.K. and the U.S. On its release, In the Lonely Hour sold more copies in its opening week than any other debut LP by a British male artist in the modern era.
In the U.K., Smith has just been named Artist of the Year by iTunes and local industry bible Music Week.
He has Grammy and BRIT nominations coming out of his ears—and a mutating U.S. audience still mesmerised by an introductory Saturday Night Live performance that had come out of nowhere.
Meanwhile, 5 Seconds of Summer, managed by Richard Griffiths at Modest!, have sold 3 million records worldwide.
The Aussie band have become such a youth phenomenon that their own convention—Derp Con—had packed out the Paramount lot in November.
Back in industry-land, Raphael is a changed man. His confidence just about survived failure’s assault. But in the dark days of 2012, when it came to signing Smith, this funk didn’t dilute his ability to make demands.
THEY LOOK SO PERFECT: Label and management teams celebrate a sales milestone with 5SOS (l-r): Modest! Management’s Harry Magee and Richard Griffiths, UMG U.K. ruler David Joseph, Charrington, Modest!’s Matt Emsell and Raphael.
“I called [then UMG, now WMG lawyer] James Radiche and told him to give [Smith’s lawyer] Paul Lennon whatever he wanted,” recalls Raphael. “‘Don’t penny-pinch, don’t try and squeeze the margin. I don’t give a fuck. This artist is not negotiable.’”
He adds: “Other labels wanted to make Sam dance-y or disco—to follow on from ‘Latch’ [with Disclosure]. But we knew that ‘Latch,’ as brilliant as it was, was a red herring; Sam needed to sing more songs like ‘Lay Me Down.’ I’m aware this sounds like corny record company bullshit, but I really believed Sam could be the biggest artist in the world. I still do.”
Those are the words of a record executive back firing on all cylinders. Doubtlessly, the success Raphael was starved of throughout 2012 and 2013 makes it taste even sweeter now.
And then, there’s that matter of the Sony U.K. chairmanship. The one Raphael didn’t get—or didn’t get offered—for whatever reason. The job went to another U.K. A&R maverick, Nick Gatfield, who—rumor has it—fell afoul of Emperor Simon Cowell before being pushed out of Sony just three short years later.
By contrast, Raphael joined a parent company that, thanks to Grainge and Joseph’s unwavering belief, never once lost certainty that he and Charrington would sow the seeds of global success.
That faith, that support, took the pressure off Raphael when he needed it most. To borrow a phrase, it meant he could take money off his mind. And rediscover just what can happen when you do it for, you do it for the love.
The Editor of Music Week for the last three years, Tim Ingham recently left the trade in order to launch his own site, musicbusinessworldwide.com. We suggest you bookmark it immediately.
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