It’s the nightmare haunting every talent scout since Decca rejected the Beatles in 1962 because “guitar groups are on the way out” – letting a global mega-hit slip through your fingers.
But now Chris Wright, one of the music business’s most successful hit-creators, has revealed the roll call of superstars and billion-dollar shows that he unwisely turned away.
The impressive list of greatest misses includes David Bowie, Dire Straits, The Kinks, The Spice Girls, the musical Cats and the Popstars talent show which was the precursor to The X Factor.
Wright, founder of the Chrysalis media group and former owner of QPR, discloses his “head-in-hands” moments in an autobiography, One Way Or Another, published on Monday. Despite discovering stars including Blondie and Spandau Ballet, building a hugely successful record company in the US and amassing a £70m fortune, he is brutally honest about his failures.
In 1971, Bowie was a one-hit wonder, “a pop artist, not an act with any longevity. He was in our office in Oxford Street all the time, often pleading with us for money to go and make demos. Our receptionist would ring around and we would all pretend to be out.” Chrysalis rejected his Hunky Dory album, an error softened by a decision, which still stands, to take 25 per cent of the singer’s publishing rights.
A move to sign The Kinks in New Orleans floundered, Wright admits, because “jet-lagged, I nodded off during their show. Ray Davies was not impressed, so that was probably why they signed with Clive Davis instead.” Dire Straits, who went on to sell 120 million albums, were dismissed for being “very good, but very very boring.”
The Spice Girls bounded into the Chrysalis office, miming to a backing track of “Wannabe”.
“They stood on Jeremy’s [the chief executive] desk and ended up sitting on his knee, not quite the sort of thing we were used to.” Chrysalis declined to increase a £250,000 bid on the basis that only one of the band could sing and none demonstrated songwriting potential. The quintet went elsewhere.
Wright turned down the chance to invest in Cats because he didn’t believe Andrew Lloyd Webber could write a hit without lyricist Tim Rice. “I went along to the first night and during the interval was congratulating myself on how I had made the right decision. Passing on the record-breaking, phenomenally successful Cats proved to be one of my very worst business decisions.”
Then there was the 80-million selling French synthesiser pioneer Jean Michel Jarre, a share in whom Wright rejected during a trip to Paris.
Passing on Popstars, the New Zealand format which inspired Pop Idol, was “another entry on the list of my most appalling business decisions,” Wright says. When he was presented with the singing competition concept, Wright sneered: “What, like Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks or New Faces? I’m not remotely interested in the kind of garbage you get on shows like that.”
“It was a huge opportunity missed, it could have been a gamechanger of the whole business because Chrysalis was the only company across music and TV,” Wright, 69, who sold Chrysalis for £107m in 2010, told The Independent.
He is philosophical about the litany of misses. “You get some right and you get some wrong,” Wright said.
Rock bottom: missing out
* Decca A&R man Dick Rowe gave The Beatles’s manager the bad news after listening to their 1962 demo. “Not to mince words, Mr Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out.”
* Jimmy Lenner, boss of Millennium Music, was unimpressed with the demo sent by an aspiring New York disco diva in 1981. “I do not feel she is ready yet. I will pass for now.” Madonna auctioned the rejection letter 20 years later.
* U2’s long list of rejection letters before signing with Island included 1979 missives from RSO and Arista Records.