The Hilary Clarke Interview, Marc Marot: Soft heart, big noise

Marc Marot started out behind the counter of a `meagre store'. Now, at 39, he's in charge of the merged giant Island/Universal

n the UK music business, Marc Marot lays claim to two personal records of the non-audio kind. The managing director of the Island/Universal record label says he became the youngest head of a sizeable record company at the age of just 30. Nine years later, he reckons he has become the longest-serving executive with one label.

Marot has survived two take-overs of the company that was founded by industry legend Chris Blackwell: the first by PolyGram in 1990 and that company's purchase last year by the Canadian drinks-to-movies conglomerate Seagram.

Not a bad record for a man who was told by Blackwell and by the millionaire lyricist Sir Tim Rice that he was too soft and emotional to hack it in the cut-throat rock industry.

Tall with a greying beard, Marot's emotional side shows when he explains why the stunning collection of photos of Island's most famous artist, Bob Marley, are screwed on the walls at the company's west London headquarters: "People have actually come through here and tried to steal them. Can you believe it?"

He can also be a little sensitive. "When I know one of my artists has recorded a brilliant album, I can read 100 reviews that are good, but all I need to do is read one bad review and it sticks in my head and sends me in a spin."

But "passionate" is probably the best word to describe Marot, especially when it comes to music. He had been a fan of the rock and reggae of Island, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year, long before he joined the company. And, like many others working behind the scenes in the music biz, he started life wanting to be a musician.

A classically trained cellist, Marot dropped out of North Oxford art college because he wanted to be in a band. To keep the wolves at bay, he was a gardener for five years. Tim Rice was one of his customers.

"He took me aside one day and asked what a relatively well-educated person was doing digging his Jerusalem artichokes," says Marot.

After that, Rice let Marot use his studio but advised him against working in the industry. In 1977, Marot and his band, Pools of Sound, nearly clinched a record deal with Virgin.

"They did the usual thing I'm now in charge of," says Marot. "They came to see the band and talked to us for months about what they might do with us and plans we might have."

But then fate dealt a double blow. Punk burst on the scene, and Marot was hospitalised with a bout of toxoplasmosis, which he caught gardening.

"The kind of jazz/rock/fusion we were doing was no longer wanted. Basically, the Sex Pistols killed me," Marot says.

He recovered from his illness but was told by the doctor to give up manual work. So Marot took a job in London working behind the counter of Our Price records in Hounslow.

"It was a small, funky operation at the time and we were the smallest shop. We used to call it the `meager-store,'" Marot says.

Marot secured a job with a small publishing company after offering to work for free for six weeks. But his real big break came when he was offered a job as a talent scout for Blue Mountain, an offshoot of Island.

"I immediately said: `Yes'. It was Island and I desperately wanted to work for Island," says Marot who, with his brother, had been a collector of the label's records for years. What he didn't know was that Blue Mountain was also the personal company of Chris Blackwell, the place where he stashed all his favourite assets like Marley's catalogue, Free and U2.

"He was pissed off that they had hired someone he hadn't met and instructed the guy who did it to tell me to go. But he didn't," Marot recalls. He was fobbed off for weeks with a "trickle of excuses" as to why he couldn't start work. Frustrated, he eventually just turned up and asked for a telephone.

"About three days later, Blackwell summoned me to his office. My living legend was just about to fire me before I'd even started," Marot says. In the event, Marot was so full of ideas for the company that Blackwell was bowled over. Instead of giving him the sack, he doubled Marot's salary and appointed him managing director of Blue Mountain. Marot took charge of Island when PolyGram, which was owned by the Dutch electronics giant Philips, took it over nine years ago.

"I'd always wanted to work for an independent label. Then I woke up one morning and I was working for the biggest of the majors."

It was a tough job. With Blackwell now out of the picture, and U2 the label's only remaining big act following the departure of Grace Jones and Steve Palmer, it was Marot who had to downsize Island, cutting the artists' roster by 60 per cent and the number of staff by 40 per cent.

History then repeated itself when Seagram last year acquired PolyGram for pounds 6.1bn. This time Marot found himself not only working for a major, but but one which had a host of American stars on its books - including Stevie Wonder and Mary J Blige - as the merger involved folding into one company Seagram's Universal, Motown and MCA labels.

"All of a sudden I'm having to get used to having big hits and they [Universal] are having to get used to dealing with sensitive little hot-house artists."

Although Marot's contract forbids him from discussing how much Island/Universal is worth, City analysts say if it was taken to market, it would probably fetch between pounds 50m and pounds 70m. Marot is adamant the changes will not affect the essence of Island.

"I will do nothing to undermine the Island brand," he says. "What's new to me is I will have the Universal brand: commercial pop which allows me to have some fun, basically, and get into areas I have not been known for." Two years ago, Marot said he would be the only executive in the industry who would have been fired for signing the Spice Girls: they weren't in his brief, but they are now.

Job losses inevitably followed the merger, although the majority have been across the Atlantic. Marot believes that he and the team at Island/Universal have weathered the ensuing upheavals well.

"At the time when competitors said we would be most distracted, we sold 10 million U2 albums," he says to make the point. "Records don't sell themselves, they do need care and attention and marketing. That's testimony to the skill of the people I was working with through very difficult, troubled times. This year we've had three Top-10 hits and every record we have released has been Top 30. It's a fantastic way to start a company."

As if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, Marot has also been one of the leading lights in the current Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debt. He got U2's Bono involved.

"In the music industry, we get approached by literally thousands of charities, all of whom need cash or free music or whatever. With Jubilee 2000, I was intrigued by the whole concept." says Marot. "Just pounds 2 per tax payer would wipe out all the debt Britain is owed by Third World countries. It's easy to do and makes a dent on no one."

The campaign is planning a big event around the time of the next meeting of the Group of Eight industrialised nations in Cologne this summer.

And if the business, the campaign and his family (untypically for the industry, Marot married his first girlfriend) weren't enough to keep Marot busy, he also finds time to dabble in the recording studio and makes a third claim:

"I am probably one of the few music business managing directors who has his own studio," he says. "It's not just understanding music; I am familiar with the technology used these days in the recording process."

As if to prove it, he ends our interview to go help mix the new single of the techno dance band The Orb.

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