ROCK / Keeping a stiff upper Brit: - Vote-rigging scandals, enemies at every turn - who'd be chairman of the Brit Awards, wonders Giles Smith

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The Independent Culture
Last summer, Rob Dickins, the chairman of Warner Music, had a momentary brainstorm and agreed to head the committee for this year's Brit Awards (which are due to be handed out next Tuesday). He was in Australia when the phone call came, and anyone capable of recognising a thankless task when they saw one would have hung up. But lulled, he says, by the sensation of being 'almost literally a million miles away', Dickins said yes. And in the joyless tradition of the job, he's been making enemies ever since.

Currently ranged against him are all those who think the number of aged rockers on Dickins & Co's Brits nominations list (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins) reflects an industry seriously endangered by furring of the arteries. But then there are those who, on the contrary, want to know who Tori Amos and k d lang are, and how come these 'unknowns' (the Sun) have any part in this.

Also gunning for him are people concerned that no fewer than 11 of Dickins's own acts on the Warner label made it on to the list of 48 nominees. ('Ironically,' says Dickins, 'there were even more last year when I had nothing to do with the committee.') And antagonistic, too, is anyone from Scotland, where the absence from the running of Primal Scream, Simple Minds, Deacon Blue and Wet Wet Wet is interpreted as a conspiratorial lock-out by southerners. Elliot Davies, who manages Wet Wet Wet, has pictured Dickins among 'an old boys' club, centred round west London'. Dickins says running the awards has brought home to him with new clarity how 'you can't please everyone', but there must have been times when he wondered whether it was, in fact, possible to please anyone.

And now the Electoral Reform Society, confidentially policing the awards for the first time this year, is said to have detected two cases of block-voting affecting next week's outcomes. (Each company registered with the British Phonographic Industry can vote once in each award category; but the small companies who are subsidiaries of the major labels could easily confer and push decisions in favour of their parent companies.) The guilty parties, who are undisclosed, are said to have had their votes halved.

Thank heavens, then, for the day job. Rob Dickins is 42, relatively young for a record company head, though he was almost embarrassingly boyish when he first took the post 12 years ago. These days he sits high in the Warner building (in west London indeed), in an airy office with its own roof garden and patio furniture, which altogether combines the charms of an Alpine ski lodge and a Nordic breakfast nook. It takes two separate lift rides to get there, which must say something about his status. Decorating the office are a guitar case, a bicycle strangely like Pee Wee Herman's, and a Charlie Brown poster, reading 'I remember once back about five years ago . . . I said the right thing.'

Dickins's father was one of the three people who started the New Musical Express. His brother, Barry, was a promoter who put on The Who at the Marquee in 1965 and smuggled Dickins into some early Hendrix gigs. He could swank around at school because he came from a home where 'the NME arrived the day before it came out and there was a white label acetate of 'Purple Haze' '. At Loughborough University he read Politics and Russian, and became social secretary. Thanks to his brother he was able to book Mott the Hoople for pounds 40, Free for next to nothing. 'But live music never appealed to me as much as records.'

So once out of college Dickins wrote to the record companies, and they all wrote back turning him down - 'including this one. 'Thank you for your letter, we'll keep it on file' . . .' But, eventually, the publishing arm of what would become Warner Music offered him a job in promotions. 'I got the job because the boss was a snob and it was between me and someone without a degree. People often say, 'What use was a Politics degree to you?' In fact, it got me my first job.'

At the top of the firm by the age of 24, he made money in a series of clued- up publishing deals: Vangelis, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Sex Pistols. Soon the American parent company appointed him to run their British record label - albeit after Dickins had patiently explained to them why he was qualified for the job. His rivals accuse him of precisely this kind of arrogance and tell the story about Rob Dickins and the badge. Just before last year's Brits, Vox magazine published a list of the 20 most powerful people in the British record industry. At the party after the Brits ceremony, Maurice Oberstein, record industry bigwig and No 1 in the list, gleefully sought out the top 20 and handed them badges with their numbers on. Dickins, slightly miffed at having come in merely fourth, refused to put his on.

But Dickins's allies say that, while this year's Brits stand for much that is dry and stagnant about the music business, at least the chairman of the awards stands for a few things that are hopeful about it. Musicians compliment him for being able to talk music, unlike the lawyers and accountants who clutter the industry elsewhere. And he's a company boss who, as they say in America, 'has ears'. He knew that Madonna's 'Into the Groove' would make a British hit single, when in America it had been pushed out as a B-side. He saw the commercial potential in Enya, as he did in Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II ('Everywhere else had slammed the door in his face').

He did miss out on Prefab Sprout, though. 'I'd heard their first single on the radio, called up Kitchenware Records, went to Newcastle and sat in front of a gas fire, in a council house as I remember it, with the owner of the record company and Paddy McAloon, who played through a whole stack of songs on acoustic guitar. I offered them pounds 10,000. They said, 'We want a lot more than that'. It was a ridiculously low offer, because I was nave, and still thinking in publisher's terms. They went to CBS eventually. This is my one big regret.'

Apart, perhaps, from getting involved in the Brits. He's redesigned the ceremony, bringing back the presenter role ditched after the disastrous Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood double act of 1989 (the job goes to Richard O'Brien). And he's sold the television rights to Carlton: 'a hard decision, because the BBC had stood by the show. But we were always going up against Coronation Street, whereas ITV have given us a prime spot between Mr Bean and News at Ten.'

He would have liked to have changed the name of the award, because 'Brits sounds ugly and faintly jingoistic. I wanted them called the Brians - British Record Industry Award Night - but it didn't go down too well'. But most fearlessly of all, he's insisted on some adjustments to the trophy itself, the Britannia figurine that resembles an Oscar with a large bun and a toasting fork. For this year, Dickens has stuck his neck out and stuck its neck out. 'I've tried to make the award look more attractive. All the great awards are attractive objects - an Oscar, an Ivor Novello, whatever. Let's not have this stumpy award with no neck. Let's have something slightly more aesthetically pleasing.' Come Tuesday, he'll probably get slagged off for that, as well.

The Brits will be announced next Tuesday and the ceremony will be broadcast at 8.30pm on ITV, Wednesday.

(Photograph omitted)

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