Natural mystic

He founded the legendary Island Records, and launched the careers of artists as diverse as Bob Marley, U2, and Nick Drake. On a rare excursion from his Jamaican home, Chris Blackwell talks about a lifetime in independent music.
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Chris Blackwell is often regarded as synonymous with Bob Marley and rightly so: it was Blackwell who saw in him the potential to grow from a relatively small-time Jamaican artist into a worldwide superstar.

Yet in a sense it’s a reductive reading. Chris Blackwell deserves to be seen as synonymous with independent music in general, something he embodies in almost uniquely personal fashion – as is evident in his recollections of the early days of Island, the label he founded in 1959.

“I didn’t know anything about the record business,” he smiles, on a rare excursion from his Jamaican home to West London, “but I was a big fan of music, particularly jazz. I started with a jazz act: I recorded them, got it mastered and manufactured and took the records around myself. That’s how it was when I came to England in 1962 too. I’d drive around the parts of London where all the Jamaicans lived and deal with the retailers. It was the personal relationship with all those shops that gave me the shot to build up the early part of Island records.”

Having scored his first hit in 1964 with “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small, Blackwell went on to sign to Island a staggering number of artists, including U2, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Free, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Roxy Music, Tom Waits, King Crimson, Free, Sparks, Fairport Convention and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And in 1972 he met Bob Marley, deliberately pushing him in a more rock direction “because I wanted to lure the rock market into Jamaican music, reggae music, which was considered novelty music at the time.” Along the way, Island – together with fellow independents such as Virgin and Chrysalis – significantly changed the face of the music business.

“When I started,” recalls Blackwell, resplendent in Hawaiian shirt, “there was EMI and Decca, and they had 95 per cent of the market share. Then there was Philips and Pye, so there was about 1.5 per cent for the independents. Over the years, the majors retreated little by little and the independents built up: ourselves and Chrysalis and Virgin and others had really quite a lot of clout.”

As these labels either disappeared or were consumed by the majors, the needle, to some extent, has swung back in recent years towards the major labels: “a big business approach”, as Blackwell puts it. It’s something he attributes to the decline in independent record shops and the advent of MTV, “because the video started to be the be-alland- end-all of how you got a record broken and videos cost a great deal of money.”

Yet he remains optimistic, pointing out that the independent sector is in a better shape than a half-century ago when he started out. “The independents don’t have the power that they used to have,” he says. “There are now so many of them but most are tiny relative to that period where Island and Chrysalis and Virgin and a few others had a reasonable percentage of the marketplace. But I think we’re just in a transitory stage. The future I see is where it will be mainly independents again. The internet is a great leveller, because there are no middle men in the same way. Now, as it always is, it’s down to the artist and the marketing savvy.”

Although Island is now itself part of Universal, one of the so-called “big four” majors, Blackwell still regards as vital the distinction between a major label and an independent: “An independent label, with very, very few exceptions, is run by people who are really fans of the music, and that’s the main thing that drives them. Obviously they have to pay the bills, but there is a much closer relationship with the artists.

“With the majors,” he continues, “you don’t have the luxury to sign an act that you think is going to be huge in three or four years, because if you spend money on that act in year one and it doesn’t make money in year one, you’ve lost money. If you own your own business, you’re thinking the opposite: in three or four years time, I’m going to have this huge asset. You’re building it up.”

So, are there any labels out there he regards as embodying the sort of ethos that Island had in the early days?

“I’m not really in it like I used to be,” he smiles, afterwards explaining that the only interviews he usually does in the UK now are those relating to his property business. “I spend much more of my time in Jamaica. But I’ve got to know Laurence Bell at Domino [home of the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand among numerous others]. I rate him a lot and I rate the label a lot. I think he’s really smart.”

Marcus O’Dair interviews Chris Blackwell on Independent Music Radio.