Simon Fuller: Three-minute wonder

He's the man behind 100 No 1 singles, the richest media entrepreneur in Britain (he earned £36m last year). He made the Spice Girls a global brand then created S Club 7. Simon Cowell is Pop Idol's face, Fuller is its brains. Now the king of kerching has David Beckham in his sights...
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The Independent Online

That Simon Fuller is the most brilliant entrepreneur in the British entertainment industry is now beyond dispute. So is his wealth: he has recently been revealed as the highest media earner in the Sunday Times's Pay List, last year alone earning £36m. That he is a cool, ruthless operator was demonstrated for all to see last week, with his chillingly public humiliation of his client Victoria Beckham.

But he is also the most artistically and commercially destructive force to have struck British popular music in the past decade - well, that's my opinion. Simon Fuller is to music what McDonald's is to fillet steak. He flogs fast-food pap, marketing to the masses, rotting their brains and clogging up the arteries of their souls.

Others, of course, take a different view. Simon Jones, the Thames Television executive with whom Fuller developed Pop Idol, is full of praise for his colleague. "Simon's very intuitive, very bright," Jones declares. "He doesn't go around shouting his head off. He's no pushover in negotiation, and he knows what he wants. But he's very charming, very polite.

"His strength is that he thinks on a very large scale. He's very ambitious, and he doesn't worry about obstacles or problems. Other people get distracted by reasons why you can't do something. Simon just goes for it, 100 per cent."

Fuller, 42, began his career running discos, before working as a talent scout for Chrysalis Records. He made his first million by managing Paul Hardcastle, whose hit "19" provided Fuller with the name of his company, 19 Management. Then he became a serious player when he turned the Spice Girls into a global marketing phenomenon.

Fuller did not, in fact, discover the Spices: they had been assembled by a father-and-son management team, Bob and Chris Herbert. But he was able to satisfy their limitless ambitions in a way that the Herberts could not. He did not give the Spice Girls the slightest scintilla of musical credibility: that has never been his concern. But he did make them an international brand, applicable to records, films, dolls or Pepsi-Cola commercials.

In November 1997, the Spices sacked him, believing (erroneously) that they could manage their own affairs without him. Fuller, meanwhile, continued to collect an estimated 20 per cent commission on all deals - in all media - that he had negotiated. He made, justifiably perhaps, more than any actual Spice Girl.

Fuller is a slightly built man, whose most notable features are the perma-tanned skin and thick black bouffant hair that frequently causes him to be mistaken for his Pop Idol partner, Simon Cowell. But while Cowell is a publicity-hungry pantomime villain, Fuller prefers discretion. He lets his pop puppets bask in the limelight, while he pulls the strings from the shadows.

In the aftermath of the Spice Girls, he was determined to create a new group, to be marketed across multiple territories and media. Unlike the Spices, however, they would show no signs of independence. They would obey orders and be grateful. Enter S Club 7, a gaggle of bright-eyed showbiz kids, whom Fuller promoted via a children's television series, telling his protégés: "I could put cardboard cutouts of you on the stage and it wouldn't make any difference."

There, in essence, is the entire thrust of Fuller's career: a lifelong search for the perfect pop cardboard. He found it, eventually, in Pop Idol. And the key thing to understand about Pop Idol is that it has almost nothing to do with music. Those fame-crazed boys and girls, singing schlocky old ballads, are merely means to an end. The value, as Thames TV's Simon Jones points out, lies in "a format that can be rolled out anywhere - that's where the profitability comes from".

Countries all over the world now have their own version of the show. In true Fuller style, the marketability multiplies, for the winning contestants are signed to 19 Management and recorded by BMG, the company for which Simon Cowell happens to work. Some might think that this arrangement, in which the manager and the record company have divided up the spoils before the artist is even chosen, could be mistaken for a cartel. They might wonder if the artist's best interests are served by a manager whose interests might appear to be rather different.

Earlier this year, ex-members of the now disbanded S Club 7 were reported to be suing Fuller, claiming that he had made £50m from the group while paying them a mere £2,000 a week. But then, as Fuller pointed out: "The whole thing was my idea. I came up with the name and the embryonic group." This is the nub of the argument, both for and against him. It is said that Fuller has been responsible for more than 100 No 1 hits.

But how many were any good? How many of the singers are still in business? This is not just a matter of music snobbery. Genuine artists, with a vision of their own, not only produce work of greater creative value. They make more money, too.

The Will Youngs and Gareth Gateses produced by Pop Idol, and their equivalents overseas, are short-lived TV characters, of interest only to their domestic markets. Unlike self-made artists - be they as fiery as Eminem or as bland as Dido - they do not create substantial catalogues of hit material with long-term sales potential. They cannot tour around the world. For record companies, they offer short-term cashflow, but long-term poverty.

Not that Simon Fuller cares. He's always got another project to be getting on with. Last week Victoria Beckham was photographed shivering in the car park of 19 Management's Hammersmith offices, waiting for an hour for Fuller to come out and look at a video storyboard.

In July, Fuller welcomed Posh back to 19 Management, with the promise that he could rescue her moribund singing career, and turn her into one half of a billion-dollar Beckham brand. Soon afterwards, it was reported that David Beckham would be following his wife, leaving his long-term agent, Tony Stevens, and signing up with Fuller.

David, of course, is the driving force behind that family brand. Fuller has no real interest in football, any more than he has in music. He once tried managing the former Liverpool footballer Steve McManaman, now of Manchester City. "I remember thinking, ooh, that could work," he said later. "But it turned out not to be my scene. The people in [the football] world are not the kind I want to mix with."

Beckham, however, is not so much part of the football world asof the fashion, hair-gel, computer game and pin-up world - and that's something that Fuller does understand. He might keep Victoria waiting in his car park: she has served her purpose. But he wouldn't do that to her husband. So, would Beckham be wise to ally himself with Fuller? Or are the maestro's methods past their sell-by date?

The packaging of synthetic pop sensations has become so blatant that, like consumers turning away from Big Macs, fans are starting to lose interest. As I write these words, my house is filled with my daughters' teenage friends, all educated at our local comprehensive. They profess no interest whatever in the current series of Pop Idol. They crave the hard-core street thrills of 50 Cent, or the raucous, guitar-driven fun of The Darkness.

It may sound mad to suppose that Simon Fuller's days of global domination are over. But who knows? Perhaps, like Victoria Beckham, he might yet find himself left out in the cold.