ROCK / A close shave and no cash back: When David Bowie signed to Savage, he took a long shot - and missed. John Adams reports

ON THE evening of 5 June, a small independent record label with plush offices on New York's Broadway shut its doors for the last time. The 18 staff were being made redundant immediately. But at this point, the label's most celebrated artist was unaware of what was going on. David Bowie did not learn of the closure of his American label, Savage Records, until he opened a newspaper several days later.

The tale of Savage and its 24-year old playboy boss, David Mimran, is a sobering one, involving music, money and ego, though not necessarily in that order. Most of all, it highlights how much money can be lost trying to buy the sort of kudos that such industry luminaries as Gary Gersh and Ahmet Ertegun have spent a lifetime of hard work achieving. The label's closure ends a young man's dream of industry stardom, sees his hugely wealthy father lighter by millions of dollars, and casts a shadow over the American future of Bowie's latest album, Black Tie White Noise.

In 1986 in Geneva, the 17-year old Mimran (who is Swiss-French) persuaded his father, Jean Claude, to back his extravagant scheme to found a record label. With the family fortune (founded on a hugely successful import / export business) behind him, and offering keenly financed independent deals, Mimran hoped to cut a dashing figure in the music business and eventually to rival the major record labels.

History shows that, with few exceptions, independent labels survive by the skin of their teeth until they have some success, when they are sucked in by a major. Very few make it to the big time on their own, and those who do often come unstuck, as the closure of Factory Records earlier this year showed.

Undeterred by the long odds on triumph, Mimran initially set up in the elegant Georgian surroundings of Clerkenwell Green in London, and Savage soon gained notoriety as a label with lots of money but very little expertise. The most notable example of the label's greenness was when Savage paid the recording costs for a first single by Lisa B (a Puerto Rican model trying out as a singer), without first putting her under contract. The singer eventually used the recordings to attract another label. Such success as Savage had was down to the skill of Mimran's pugnacious sidekick, Bernard Fanin, who signed the label's biggest commercial success, Soho, gaining a British and American Top 10 single in the late Eighties.

Mimran, however, rapidly became bored with the London music scene and set his sights on America, where he saw himself mixing with the movers and shakers of the world's biggest record market.

Again with little expense spared, Savage opened prestigious offices on Broadway, but this time Mimran decided to try to leapfrog into the Big League by hiring a music business heavyweight to run the label - Michael Jackson's former manager, Frank Dileo.

David Bowie's contract with EMI ended by mutual agreement in 1991. There followed a bidding war for the right to distribute his recordings. The German multinational BMG / RCA secured world rights excluding America, where Savage beat off strong competition from Geffen Records. According to Bowie's publicist Chris Poole, it was the mixture of Dileo's impressive background and Mimran's fan-like enthusiasm that tipped the Bowie deal in Savage's favour and away from the multinational major label. This was an impressive feat for a firm open less than a year, but already observers had come to question just why a man of Dileo's calibre was working with Savage, and many came to the conclusion that he was being paid a giant salary. Dileo refuses to comment on exactly how much he was paid, but the writing was on the wall for Mimran when, on the eve of the release of Bowie's Black Tie White Noise album, Dileo left the company.

It is difficult to imagine that, with his vast years of experience, Bowie was swung exclusively by Mimran's Gallic charm. Bowie was also acutely aware that, after the dreadful performance of Tin Machine, his critically scorched back-to-roots rock band, he had to come up with something very special, and that his next album would have to be worked very hard in a difficult market-place.

The ex-Savage A&R man Bernard Fanin is frank about why he feels Bowie signed to the label. 'It was a pure money thing. Sure, other labels wanted Bowie, but David (Mimran) wanted to get among the big boys so badly he would have given Bowie almost anything,' says Fanin.

Says Chris Poole: 'The details of Bowie's deal with Savage will not be revealed. But at the time we advised he should go with a major label.'

Bowie's decision to place a pivotal album in the hands of a virtually unknown label may now have its repercussions, and the closure of Savage is likely to create insuperable problems for Black Tie White Noise in America. Worldwide, the record has been a Top 10 success in every major country, but in America it barely made the Top 40. Bowie's management may have reckoned that things were not altogether as they should have been at Savage. Despite the fact that Black Tie White Noise was receiving critical acclaim akin to that showered on 1981's Let's Dance, the record was not performing well in the charts.

There is confusion about what happens next. Bowie's management refuses to talk, save to issue a press release trumpeting the success of the album elsewhere in the world. The chances of another American label taking up the record are remote. As one Bowie camp insider says, 'The record is a proven high-profile failure in America. It's been out eight weeks, it peaked at number 39, and is now heading down towards 200.

'It's almost certainly going to get more difficult to buy in the shops and I can't really imagine another label would be brave enough to take the record on. America is a very difficult market; it's a lot less forgiving than Britain, where records can fail first time around but then get re-released.'

Officially, the label's failure was put down to the inexperience of David Mimran following the departure of Frank Dileo, and severe cash flow problems that Mimran had not seen. Others have suggested that, back in France, Mimran pere had tired of financing his son's losses. During David Mimran's flight towards the top of the music business, he had been given regular warnings by his father not to fly so high. Rather than wait for the heat to melt his son's wings, he stepped in early and clipped them.

(Photograph omitted)

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