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"I got an advance for Ten Years After’s music publishing, which was supposed to pay for their flights to America. But Terry spent the money on Jethro Tull’s recording time. Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco, I had to have my appendix out, and I claimed it on the medical insurance. So I took that money to pay the travel agency."
THE LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS
With Four Decades Under His Belt, Chrysalis Chief Chris Wright Is Still Playing It As It Lays

By Bud Scoppa

Starting off in the early ’60s as a college talent booker, Chris Wright flew by the seat of his pants right into the thick of the exploding rock business. Working with partner Terry Ellis, Wright formed a management company in 1967, adding a publishing wing a year later—their first signing was a youngster named David Jones, who soon thereafter changed his name to Bowie—calling the rapidly growing operation Chrysalis, a combination of the principals’ names. Chrysalis Records, launched at the dawn of the 1970s, joined A&M, Island and Virgin as a major player in the independent realm. Over the course of the following two decades, the label broke such acts as Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Robin Trower, Blondie, Pat Benatar, Huey Lewis & the News, Billy Idol and Sinead O’Connor. After Ellis left in 1985, Wright kept the company going, but changing economic realities forced him into a 1989 joint venture with EMI; two years later, his beloved label was swallowed up by the corporate monolith, and he was out of a job. But Wright held onto Chrysalis Music Publishing, building it into the U.K.’s biggest independent pubbery during the ’90s, a feat he’s determined to duplicate stateside. To that end, he recently brought in veteran publishing executive Kenny MacPherson to head up, and transform, the U.S. operation. Wright’s interests aren’t limited to music: Starting in 1991 with a 20% interest in a provincial station, Wright’s Chrysalis Group has built a radio empire that includes the top two stations outside of London and the second-largest commercial station in the London market. Chrysalis Radio is now the #2 radio group in London and #4 in the U.K. The company also owns a TV production house, a book publisher and a world-class recording studio. HITS"Tight" Bud "Jet" Scoppa, who conducted the following interview, owns several pairs of athletic shoes.

When you started in the business back in the ’60s, there were no guidebooks to tell you how to go about it; you stumbled upon things and figured out how to take advantage of them. The first big thing you stumbled upon was Ten Years After, right?
While I was running the entertainment at the University of Manchester, I started a blues club, the J&J Club, and we paid groups 15 pounds maximum. But bands kept calling me because it was such a great place to play. In those days, there were very few places you could play where you got a great audience. So Ten Years After came up from London all the way to Manchester to play for 15 pounds. And it was on the basis of that that I signed them up for management, and that was really the start of the whole company.

How did you find Jethro Tull?
They were originally the John Evans Band from Blackpool, a seven-piece with Hammond organ, two saxes, guitar, bass, drums and a singer, Ian Anderson, who also played the harmonica. By then I’d moved to London, but I went up to Manchester and saw them, and I told them I thought the guitarist was weak and didn’t think they would make it without a stronger player. I hooked them up with Mick Abrahams, and they got rid of their guitarist, and I don’t think anyone’s seen him since. We renamed them the Bag of Blues, and after two or three months of rehearsing, we booked them out.

I didn’t see any of their gigs, but I called up the first venue, and they said, "Fantastic—an amazing sound for a four-piece." I said, "No, that’s the wrong group—this is a seven-piece." So I called up the next venue and asked, "How was the horn section and the keyboardist?" "Well, they went down a storm, but none of them played horns or keyboards, actually." I then called Ian Anderson and said, "Ian, what the fuck’s going on? I sold you as a seven-piece band, and they told me only four of you showed up." He said, "What did they say we were like?" "As a matter of fact, they said you were great and booked you back." He said, "Thank God for that. We got down to London and five of them got homesick and went home. So we picked up another drummer and the rest of us did the gig. But we didn’t want to tell you—we thought you’d send us home." Another venue told me, "The singer does a great job on the flute." I said, "The singer’s never played the flute in his life." So I asked Ian about that and he said, "Well, I got bored with the long guitar solos, and I had to find something to do with my hands, so I picked up the flute and started playing it." And that’s how Jethro Tull started.

The band’s former manager had agreed to a deal with MGM for no advance. They hadn’t signed a contract, but they had pressed up 1,000 copies of a single called "Aeroplane," and they’d printed the name as "Jethro Toe" on the label. So I said, "Well, if you’re not paying any advance, then you can stuff it—and you have to withdraw all these records, ’cause you’ve printed the name wrong in any case." That single became a huge collectors’ item.

How did Chrysalis evolve from a management company into a record label?
We couldn’t get a record deal for Jethro Tull, and I came over to the States with Ten Years After, while Terry looked after Jethro Tull in London. He said, "Why don’t we put them in the studio ourselves?" At the time, nobody had ever done that. So Terry went in the studio with them, and they made a record, and by the time it was finished, they’d built up a really big fan base and everybody wanted to sign them. But instead of doing a deal with a major, we decided to do a production deal with Island, because it was a similar kind of independent company, and Chris Blackwell was a bit of a mentor as well. And when the deal was done, we said, "Why don’t we set up a situation where, if we have 10 Top 10 albums, that in the future, everything we do goes on the Chrysalis label?" At the time, we had one pretty obscure group, so no one would’ve thought we’d have 10 Top 10 records, but within one year, we did. And that’s when the Chrysalis label was born.

But we had a very complicated situation, because a lot of people by then were interested in Jethro Tull, and, of course, we had no money at all. The way we paid to make the Jethro Tull record was, I got an advance for Ten Years After’s music publishing, which was supposed to pay for their flights to America. But we came to America without paying the travel agency, and Terry spent the money on recording time. So the travel agency was suing us. Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco, I had to have my appendix out, and I claimed it on the medical insurance. So I took the money from the medical insurance to pay the travel agency. Meanwhile, there was an offer from Warner Bros. for Jethro Tull. We got $40,000, so I could pay the doctor and the hospital and the rent that hadn’t been paid for months, along with everything else.

But then the money started coming in.
It was coming from management. By then, we’d taken on Procol Harum, and we managed Supertramp early on as well, who were signed to A&M. Right after the first album, Indelibly Stamped, was recorded, I went out to dinner in New York with [A&M President] Gil Friesen, and afterward we went back to the office, and we probably smoked a few weird cigarettes, which you did in those days, and I said, "Have you heard the Supertramp album?" So I played it to him, and he said, "That’s fantastic. We’ve gotta make a deal for it." I said, "What do you mean? I’m playing it to you because it’s already signed to you." And he said, "Is it? Does Jerry know?" I said, "I suppose so." [laughs].

Were you doing A&R for the label?
I didn’t do much else. It was all A&R at the time, really. The record industry in those days was 95% A&R. There weren’t videos or marketing or anything—it was all down to having a great band and making a great record and the band touring.

What a concept. Why don’t we do that anymore?
Why don’t we? But that’s what I was all about—there was nothing else to it. If anybody tried to do anything other than great band/great record/great tour, people saw through it and said, "It’s not real—it’s a bit of a hype."

How did Chrysalis fare business-wise during the following decade?
There were good years and bad years, but business on the record label in England was always good, because we had much more strength and depth to the artist roster there. There were artists that did very well for us in England that we didn’t have in America, like Leo Sayer, Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, the Specials and their spinoffs—whereas, in America, we became very dependent on Blondie, Pat Benatar, Billy Idol and Huey Lewis. Blondie and Pat Benatar fell off their peaks during the ’80s, and Billy Idol spent four years making an album. At the same time, we got to the point that we were like a mini-major, rather than an independent, with a promotion person in every market. The independent distributors were very flaky at the time, as the majors began to control the distribution, and we were the first independent to sign a deal with a major for distribution, which was CBS. The overheads grew and grew, and we kept waiting for records to be delivered—and you couldn’t lay off half the staff until the next major artist delivered an album. So the company got over-stretched financially, which prompted us to do a long-term joint venture with EMI for the Chrysalis label, but it didn’t change an awful lot because the overhead still remained at the same level, so we were still losing money in the States. In the end, EMI took over the rest of the company, and that was that.

And you weren’t part of that deal. You walked away.
Yeah. When we did the original joint venture, I thought it wasn’t gonna change a lot. But in fact it did change everything. I couldn’t really work very well in a corporate environment. Although, having said that, the first year [1989-90] we were with EMI, the company had its biggest-grossing year ever; Sinead O’Connor did 7 million units [worldwide], and a bunch of other artists did really well. But then it became apparent to me that EMI basically didn’t want me there—it would be easier for them if I wasn’t. And ultimately, what I saw as being a lifetime deal was only a short-term deal, and that, whatever we got out of it at the end, I was just basically working for EMI, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Then, it suited EMI’s purposes to merge Chrysalis in New York with SBK and EMI Records into one company, and they couldn’t do that if I was around. So they basically fired me—the first time I’d ever been fired in my life.

In retrospect, that outcome allowed you to conduct your entire career in the indie sector.
After EMI bought the rest of the record company, I had nightmares for six months. Whereas other people sold their record companies because they thought they’d cash in and make lots of money, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I never wanted anything but to be in the record business—that’s all I’d ever done. And part of the deal with EMI was I couldn’t work in the record business for two years—a non-compete clause. It was awful, but in hindsight, I certainly wouldn’t have done the things that we’ve done since then, which have been very interesting. And fortunately, I didn’t sell the publishing company.

Was focusing specifically on the publishing sector satisfying?
Publishing is really the foundation of the company. The publishing company in England is much bigger than it is in America. It’s got a much broader roster; many more successful artists and writers. We have fairly consistently nailed #1 independent publisher in the U.K. We can compete with any other company for any writer. In the States, that’s something that we have to aspire to, which is why Kenny is here. We’re very committed to building up the publishing company in America.

In a way, the situation you’re looking at now is not unlike when you started in that there don’t seem to be any rules—at least the old ones don’t seem to apply anymore, and companies are struggling to figure out what shape the business will take.
In England, a huge amount of pop acts have come out of TV shows like Pop Idol and Pop Stars. To a very large extent it’s been monopolizing the charts, but I can really sense that the days of that are numbered. A lot of young kids that buy their first record are buying records by artists like that—they think that’s all you’ve got to do to become a great artist—you could be a hair dresser one minute and win a talent competition on TV the next. But I think that people are realizing that there are real artists out there who are writing great songs, making great records and doing great concerts. This may be wishful thinking, but I can sense a bit of a sea change, where we go back more to people looking past the glamour and the gloss and seeing what’s really there. My perception is that that is happening.

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