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RAINMAKERS’ BACKSTORIES:
MERCK MERCURIADIS

Perhaps no figure on the contemporary music landscape has earned the designation “disruptor” more assiduously than Hipgnosis founder/chief Merck Mercuriadis. Touting a thoughtful thesis about how streaming’s impact could radically escalate the value of songs and convert them into a recession-proof asset class, he proceeded to assemble the financial resources to transform not just the publishing world but the economic calculus of the entire biz. The outspoken Canadian, now based in London, arrived at this lofty perch after years of managerial toil and entrepreneurial hills and valleys, and though he has of necessity immersed himself in the vagaries of finance, copyright and the legislative processes of multiple countries, he is and has always been a hard-core music fan first and foremost.

Merck grew up in Middleton, Nova Scotia, the son of Greek immigrants. “It was great, but there was an underlying tension of being made to feel different” he says of his childhood. “Out of the 2,000 people in our town, 1,900 were either white of French descent or white of English, Scottish and Irish descent. The other 100 were a few Black families, my Greek family, an Indian family and a few Indigenous families. My best friend was Black, and we got a lot of abuse. Our real friends were the records we listened to. When I was seven, my cousin Mike came to live with us from Greece. He brought records with him by the early Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack, Black Sabbath, Curtis Mayfield, Leonard Cohen, Deep Purple. Those records became the center of my life, along with Harvest by Neil Young and Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. He also knew about drugs, girls and motorcycles. He changed my life. Most of my education came from the music. I never went to university, but I graduated from the University of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, The Clash, et al., with a PhD!”

His music-biz mentors included “Bruce Findley, who managed Simple Minds and was focused on creating enthusiasm for this incredible band. Rod Smallwood and Andy Taylor, who were my partners for 20 years on all things Iron Maiden and Sanctuary, and the late Elliot Roberts, who was the greatest manager of all time. I love you, Irving, but Elliot kicked all of us in the ass! What I learned from Elliot was that it was never about the biggest check; it was about getting the most money that allowed you to keep your legacy intact.

Simon Draper at Virgin was one of my heroes. He had impeccable taste that covered Tangerine Dream, Henry Cow, The Sex Pistols, XTC, Peter Gabriel and more. I was determined to be part of Virgin; I thought it was the most artist-friendly company. Simon signed greatness and helped it find an audience for it. I was lucky enough to be there as a product manager for Culture Club, Human League, PIL, OMD, UB40 and The Blue Nile, among others, as what was left-of-center began having huge commercial success. Culture Club were the biggest band in the world. Simple Minds were the first band I ever championed, and I had been a massive fan of their albums before they came to Virgin, so I found it effortless to make people believe what I believed. We were lucky enough to have gold and platinum success with just about everything we touched. Simon ensured we had great artists. The President [of Virgin Canada], Bob Muir, was a 34-year-old overachiever from Columbia Records and a bright marketing executive. We built it into the hottest label in Canada before Bob succumbed to addiction issues. Laura Bartlett was my counterpart on the promotion side; we were running a company at an incredibly young age. An amazing guy called Charlie Dimont was sent by Ken Berry to be our caretaker. He was an underrated guy in the history of Virgin and taught me to do a P&L.

“The person I was closest to was Jeremy Lascelles, a great record man in his own right, who has Blue Raincoat today. He allowed me to be part of signing Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was special. She may not have been easily able to articulate what she wanted, but she knew what she didn’t want. It was the first time in my four years there that I felt conflicted between what was best for both the artist and the label. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t working for the artists but for Richard Branson. I was naïve. I left and made the decision from then on to always be on the artist’s side. My way out was accelerated by Virgin appointing Doug Chappell as Bob Muir’s replacement. We were never going to get along, as he didn’t understand the culture. He was promotion-focused, and I was passionate about the artists.”

At that point, 1986, Merck went into management, joining Smallwood and Taylor at London-based Sanctuary Music. “Rod and Andy were both almost 15 years older than me,” he says. “Iron Maiden was having its first blush of huge success; they were looking to give up responsibility, and I was looking to take some on. It was the start of a great 20-year relationship, but I had to prove myself. I learned every move they made. Andy was 100% business—he hated sports, he could drink a bottle of rum and remember the 64 pages of a record contract. Rod was 100% creative; he lived for sports and could drink 15 pints of beer and not remember a thing the next day. They both worked hard, were incredibly fair and led with integrity. I became the bastard offspring of the two. They, their families and all the Iron Maiden guys are part of my family and my success. Without them, I would never have gotten where I am today.”

Merck lists his biggest takeaways from that experience: “Managing Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden and Morrissey, overseeing the management of Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, helping incredible people like Troy Carter and J Erving, building the biggest independent company in the world, taking Bravado from strength to strength, building what is now CAA U.K. The most important takeaway is that, despite Sanctuary’s successes over 20 years, it failed because the bottom fell out of the business. Technology came along and allowed people to download music for free, albeit illegally, and we didn’t make the right moves to sustain. When the business was sold to Universal, I walked away from it—ensuring my artistic integrity was 100% intact but with nothing to show financially. The latter was not a big deal as the former was, but I still felt failure. I continued to manage great artists, but ultimately it took seven years to recover, because I was determined to analyze everything that had gone wrong at Sanctuary and learn how to ensure that when I launched Hipgnosis, the same thing could not happen.

“I wanted to change where the songwriter sits in the economic equation,” Merck says of his motives for creating his game-changing company. “This requires leverage and economic power. I could foresee that streaming was so convenient that it would make people who have never paid for music finally start to pay. That meant our world would actually grow—and so would grow the revenues of the songs that the world loves. The tipping point was 2017, and by 2018, what I predicted to the investment community had become a reality.”

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