20 February 2023 • 4 min read

It’s too easy to blame Napster, a prime mover early technology disruptor, radically bi-passing the routes to market of a bloated and lazy music industry. However in our rush to always attribute and blame technology for change and ensuing uncertainty, we often miss the subtler reasons and loss of other human-driven conditions that made that disruption possible in the first place. If you watch the recent HBO special The Defiant Ones, you will see the story of Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre and how their paths met and converged, first creatively around the development of Interscope Records and then, more commercially, with the hyper-accelerated brand launch and marketing of Beats headphones which they sold for $3bn to Apple. That’s the last episode of the award-winning documentary. This story comes in just the episode before.

I had somehow managed to blag myself at 22 to be positioned as the main marketing conduit and London hub for Interscope records, translating their acts that were breaking in America into international success over 30+ offices globally. Today I might have ‘brand development’ in my title but back then it was just me and my boss based as Head of International + Interscope NY. If you watch the whole documentary you will see that the story actually starts much earlier, when Jimmy Iovine and Dr Dre are sensing and honing their craft in studios. They aren’t initially businessmen. First and foremost they are musicmen. They learn over time how to recognise talent and then crucially give that talent the right amount of space, time, grit, and amplification for alchemy to emerge whenever or wherever. ‘Great can come from anywhere’ says Iovine. It’s this awareness that arguably turned Interscope into the modern day Motown and enabled Marshall Mathers to become EMINEM, Stephanie Germanotta, Lady Gaga or Brian Warner, Marilyn Manson. Which is where I come in.

My first morning at work, my boss Max tossed me Marilyn Manson’s file and said ‘Read this, listen to his back catalogue and his new record we’re working on’ (the now landmark ‘Antichrist Superstar’) and said ‘It’s our job to make him an icon and a stadium star’. Within 2 weeks I had met him for the first time – literally naked in his dressing room backstage after a small club show ‘Dan, this is Manson’ (everyone internally just calls him ‘Manson’). Within 3 years – factoring in fetish launch parties, hooker parties in Hamburg, porn star wives in Italy and tragically, Columbine in the States – he had become that international icon and was indeed the most requested artist playing stadiums.

I worked with many artists over time but Manson always sticks out because he is a classic example of someone who literally invented himself. He is quoted as saying that when he said or found the words ‘Marilyn Manson’ for the first time it was like saying ‘Abracadabra’ – a form of chimeric future magic unlocking all possibilities of self. He didn’t Google it, tweet it, like it. He sensed it and became it and when he met Iovine he was given permission to be it and amplify it because he was at a label which intrinsically understood that ‘great can come from anywhere’.

There is another story that illustrates this from another brilliant musicman (there are only a few) who tells the story of signing Massive Attack, arguably one of the most influential British acts of the last 30 years. He says that when they signed them it was a decision made by him and 2-3 trusted other people who somehow managed to sense that within this bunch of Bristolian stoners could be something extraordinary. Crucially once they’d made the decision to sign them, they were able to then give them 3 years to find that ‘extraordinary’. This turned into ‘Blue Lines’ which if you search for any classic British album should appear in the Top 10. Today, he says, this would never have happened. Why? Because they would be asked to justify a decision that they sensed with statistics and data which they wouldn’t have had and therefore wouldn’t have been able to sell and justify back.

Fast-forward to today and not just to the modern day music industry. Every creative industry and sector is now beholden to the crippling decision tendrils of death by data fetishism. Every person who spends enough time grooming themselves and their audience in front of a screen is an influencer. Every artist is a brand before they’ve found that magic ‘Abracadabra’ that ‘unlocks them’.

Something has mutated. Today ‘reaction videos’ of people literally watching and listening to other people’s music from their bedrooms can get a 1,000,000 views. A small group of models can get people to pay $10,000’s to attend a festival consisting of pre-packaged sandwiches and FEMA tents. An influencer doing bizarre stunts can become a leading seller of wine. What happens if this continues? What if, click by click we are eroding and chipping away at the temporal space that is needed for the extraordinary to develop, find itself and flourish? This is leading to a deeper malaise around trusting that who we gravitate towards and the space that they inhabit, create and the influence isn’t simply fuelled and corroded by metrics – whether data or financial. Death by a thousand likes. Anyprice Superstars.

In a weird way Brian becoming Manson is a forerunner of this. He loved a macabre circus and his intrinsic message/ promise/appeal was that it doesn’t matter who you are and where you’ve come from. Invent yourself. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do so. However do it with risk. With intelligence. Allow yourself the time to surprise yourself. Make mistakes. Risk taking a stand that divides. Practise the art of the extraordinary.

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