Martin Mills, chairman of the Beggars Group, in many ways helped create the idea of the indie label as we know it today.
From its London roots as a mobile disco, a small chain of record shops and the Beggars Banquet label, the company has grown into a global force.
Beggars is one of the biggest independent music groups in the United Kingdom and, worldwide, the largest owner-run group of labels in the alternative sphere, with a U.S. headquarters in New York, offices in Los Angeles and nine other international capitals, and joint-venture companies in Spain and Australia, according to a company profile.
Today, Beggars comprises four primary active labels: XL Recordings, in partnership with Richard Russell; 4AD; Rough Trade; and Matador.
Artists who have thrived through their association with Mills and Beggars Group labels are legion, including Gary Numan, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, the Cult, Dead Can Dance, the Pixies, Mercury Rev, the Prodigy, Radiohead, Cat Power, the White Stripes, the National, Interpol, Basement Jaxx, Badly Drawn Boy, TV on the Radio, the Horrors, Bon Iver, the xx, Tune-Yards, Grimes, Alabama Shakes and Vampire Weekend.
Oh, and a young XL Recordings superstar named Adele.
All the while, Beggars has prospered firmly outside of the ownership structure of the multinational major labels.
"Martin doesn't do drama," says Richard Russell, owner of XL Recordings and Mills' partner of 20 years. "All encounters are subtle. He never imposes himself on any situation. He's the most Zen non-Buddhist I've ever met. He is a tough man in many ways but he is fundamentally gentle."
In that tough but understated manner, Mills has steadily looked beyond his company's goals to the collective interests of the independent music sector. He has played a leadership role in organizations established to protect and advance the rights of indie companies including the Assn. of Independent Music, Impala, the American Assn. of Independent Music (A2IM), the Worldwide Independent Network and Merlin. Notably, Mills testified before a congressional subcommittee on June 21, 2012, to voice the indie sector's concerns with the Universal Music Group-EMI merger.
In recognition of his achievements and contributions to the music industry, Mills will receive the Billboard Industry Icon Award on Jan. 27 at MIDEM.
Through four decades in the music business, Mills has never lost his enthusiasm, particularly for seeing bands live. During a late-fall visit to New York, he planned a visit to music club Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., to see Yo La Tengo -- and recalled seeing Throwing Muses and Pixies for the first time, decades earlier, at the same venue. The following day, at Beggars' headquarters in Manhattan, he sat down to reflect on his life and times and success.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with Billboard today. We want to walk through some of the different moments of your career. You've not only had the good fortune and the good judgment to release some of the greatest music of modern times, but you've also inspired a lot of people in how you've blazed trails in the business.
Wow. Can we stop there?
I'd like to start at the very beginning -- how you came to wind up on this music path.
Well, I come from an upper-middle-class English family, most of whom ended up in either government or education. So I came from that kind of background. But I was also a child of the '60s. I went to Oxford University, and I studied philosophy, politics and economics from '67 to '70. All sorts of acts came through Oxford and Aylesbury, which was the nearest other town where artists played. I saw Pink Floyd early on, with Syd Barrett. Mott the Hoople came through. Music was incredibly important to me from the days when I used to listen to "Pick of the Pops," which was the top 40 show on the radio on Sunday afternoon, and tape it illegally on my reel-to-reel tape player, like everyone does.
I think the statute of limitations is up. You should be OK.
I still have memories of hearing "A Whiter Shade of Pale" or "Good Vibrations" and just being blown away by them. I remember listening to the "beat boom" in the '60s. The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals -- those were my favorite bands. By the time I went to college, it was the hippie world: Incredible String Band, the Doors, Love, Van Morrison and all those things. And university was a lot of fun. I came out with a decent degree and I didn't do any work. In those days the general ambition was to do as little as you possibly could, for as long as you possibly could. Stay up until 4 a.m., get up at lunchtime, be on unemployment benefit for as long as you could.
After graduating from Oxford, Mills held a government job for more than two years, working for the Office of Population, Census and Surveys writing reports on reforming abortion laws. "When I left that," he recalls, "I said, 'I want to do something completely different.'" A friend was running a mobile disco under the name Beggars Banquet, named after the 1968 album from the Rolling Stones. The disco business by 1974 had given way to record shops selling albums, including those by American acts from Jackson Brown to Barry White. Mills and his original partner, Nick Austin, also took on concert promotion, diving in the deep end, presenting Tangerine Dream at the Royal Albert Hall in 1975.
What happened after two years of all of this was punk. Almost overnight there were these [record-shop delivery] vans showing up with 7-inch singles from, like, the Flaming Groovies, the Ramones, very early Stiff and Chiswick records. Suddenly, life changed.
It turned everything upside down. It turned shops upside down. It basically killed our [concert] promotion company -- but it started a label, under one of our record stores, the one in Fulham.
The Lurkers, right?
The Lurkers started getting managed by [Mike Stone], the manager of our Fulham record shop. We talked to labels about doing a deal. No one wanted to.
Everybody already had one punk band. They only wanted one band in case [punk] happened. So we thought, "Let's put it out ourselves." That was a radical thought in those days. These days, a kid in a bedroom around the world can release stuff every minute of every day, but in those days there was no map. There was no one to tell you where to get your record printed, no distributors ready. You had to make it up as you went along.