Island Records President David Massey Explains Dealing With Oasis' Gallagher Brothers, Bringing Up Young Artists
The separation of Island and Def Jam in April of 2014 seems to have energized both companies, but particularly David Massey’s Island. “Island is a smaller label [of around 50 acts] and we are exceptionally involved with our artists,” he says. That focus paid off almost immediately for Nick Jonas, Kiesza and Tove Lo. That hot streak has continued, through Fall Out Boy and newcomer Shawn Mendes, both of whose albums debuted at No. 1, and Demi Lovato, whose Confident bowed at No 2. Mendes spent several weeks opening stadium dates for Taylor Swift and scored a Top 5 single with “Stitches.” Flexing its synergy, the company also entered into a joint venture with Jonas, Lovato and shared manager Phil McIntyre on Safehouse, the label home of Lovato's Confident.
On tap for 2016: albums from Elton John, singers Mike Posner and Banners, a solo disc from Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, and new outings from Jonas and Mendes later in the year.
A London native whose mother, Marion, was one of the first female artist managers, orchestrating pop singer Lulu's rise to stardom in the 1960s, Massey, 57, brings 30-plus years of experience to his job. Massey started his career as an artist manager for groups like Wang Chung in the '80s before moving over to the label side -- and New York -- by taking a top A&R job at Epic in 1991. During his 16 years at the company he signed Oasis, and worked with them for their entire stint at Epic, as well as pre-superstardom iteration of the Jonas Brothers. In 2007 he moved over to Universal, sigining Avicii and bringing Iggy Azalea to Def Jam. In 2014, he was named president of Island and now, as CEO, he's molding the label into a major but manageable shape. “I wanted to go back to the idea of [founder] Chris Blackwell-era Island: an artist-driven label that was a major, but in an intimate manner,” says Massey. “It's been a great, great thing for our culture to be at this size.”
What's the biggest issue facing your sector of the business these days?
The biggest issue is monetization, obviously, for everyone. I think 2016 is the full year of transition from the old model into the new, and by the end of the year, streaming will dominate properly and if paid subscriptions are significant enough, the business can really get to a place where it can grow again. So this is a decisive year.
Do you buy the argument that "If 25 or 40 million people pay for subscriptions, it will enable musicians to sustain themselves enough based on the sales of their music"?
Not 25 -- but 45 to 50 million, I think yes, and that is obviously key. We're not halfway there yet, but it does feel like there's momentum. But it's the usual questions about how Spotify, which is really proving itself now, will differentiate so that more people are seduced by the paid model. Obviously, Apple needs to grow and other services need to grow too, to a place where it can do that but if you look at some of the other countries particularly in Europe, it does feel as if it's possible.
You have a twin brother – is he in the music business as well?
No, he's essentially an investment banker. He's as much of a music fan as I am but he started in finance early.
And you originally weren’t intending to get into the music business either, right?
When I was at Cambridge, I thought that I was going to be a politician and a barrister. And even stood for elections after Cambridge for the Westminster City Council when I was, like, 21; I led the Young Conservatives in London, I was very heavily political. But then I really wanted my own business and I met a band I just fell in love with -- Wang Chung -- when I was young. And of course my mum had been in the business before me and it was really my passion, and I had to sort of surrender to it, essentially, despite the detour of law and politics and Cambridge. So on my 23rd birthday I just gave up the notions of really wanting to do other things. I haven't really looked back since then.
So you essentially grew up in the middle of Swinging London?
Well, I was very young, that was between about [age] 4 and 8. But yeah, Lulu was right in the heart of that. She was 14 or 15 when she started and was very close with The Beatles, very close with Cilla Black and The Monkees, and she dated people -- she ended up marrying Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. My mother worked from home, so our house was a bit of a train station in terms of all of the young artists coming through. So I really grew up very much surrounded by that and was going to the studio a lot with my mum from about 6 or 7, and especially to TV shows, because Lulu had a TV series for many, many years, just around the corner from where we lived in Shepherd's Bush. I was there every weekend, so I think that's where I really absorbed the music and also the showbiz of it all, and I really do remain very drawn to both. I'm definitely an artist guy, but I also like the show business of it. I try to keep that in mind in terms of how fun that part of it is -- and needs to be.
Did being around Lulu give you an understanding of young artists?
Yeah, very much so. She lived with my grandmother until she got married, so she was very much a part of the family. We have to remember that they're young and we have to handle them and obviously, where necessary, their parents in a very sensitive way. For someone like Shawn [Mendes], for example, who we signed when he was 15, one thing that's really important to me and obviously to his parents is to make sure that he finishes his education, so the next six months of Shawn's career would also encompass him having to graduate high school. It's not quite the same as dealing with a 25-year-old.
Does it require a different kind of psychology to help a young artist deal with the pressures of fame?
I treat them exactly the same as I do a grown-up -- like with Shawn -- at least in terms of his participating in decisions, being very involved, helping keep his feet on the ground. Which in his case is not a difficult thing to do at all. But I signed Nick Jonas when he was 10, so I have worked and dealt with that part of it. In terms of the psychology of fame, I am not sure how different it is for young kids than it is for people in their 20s. I think that applies to everyone but obviously if a person becomes famous young, sometimes they can get very naturally adjusted to it. You see different reactions in different people; Britney Spears' journey is very different to Nick Jonas' journey. A lot of it I think depends on how quickly it all happens, what their background has been, and how their management and their label handle it when it all happens.
What other labels have been an inspiration for what you want to do with Island?
I wanted it to be inspired by Island as it [originally] was: the Chris Blackwell [Island’s founder] idea of a more independent minded label, but with the power and the juice of a major. And I wanted it to be driven by the artists. The bit that I didn't necessarily expect was that [so many of Island's artists] would be so young, but [that was the case with many of] the artists that we found and connected with and who wanted to be with us.
Also, I was always inspired by the early stages of Geffen, because I was a 23-year-old manager when Geffen only had eight artists. He had Eddie Rosenblatt as his president and a small crew, but all the artists mattered. And Wang Chung was the first unknown band that they signed -- they had John Lennon, who had passed away, Elton John, Asia, Donna Summer -- and the way that they handled me, as a 23-year-old manager from England, and my band was just so incredible. We might as well have been one of the big names. It's really influenced me massively with the young managers, so someone like Andrew Gertler who is 26 years old, who manages Shawn. When I see him, I see myself. The Geffen culture also really affected me in terms of allowing people to grow.
Why did you make the leap from management to labels?
I'd been in management for nine years, it was the early '90s and I was just having my second child. And Michele Anthony, who now works here, and Tommy Mottola reached out to me and said, “Why don't you just move your family to New York? Join us. Jump in, we'll make you the vice president of A&R at one of the labels.” And it just felt right at that time to move from being a young manager with a good staff -- I had a dozen people working for us -- into the heart of the business which was at that time New York. It just felt like an opportunity to learn a huge amount around the age of 30 and absorb a whole new set of experiences, so I thought I'd stay a couple years, but it ended up being 15.
Was Oasis the first act you signed?
No. The first act that I had a hit with was a girl called Des'ree. I didn't sign her, she was signed in the U.K., but I just picked her up [for the U.S.] and that was the first breakthrough hit. And Oasis -- I met them and signed them to Epic in '93, Alan McGee signed them to Creation first. But it was very early on in the first year that I'd been there. That was still I consider one of my most important signings. I was with them from the very first set of demos to the very last album on Sony -- all nine albums. And when they left, I left.
Was it hard to keep that train on the tracks?
Yes, but we were very pragmatic; we sort of worked around who they were. I remember we made three videos back-to-back -- "Champagne Supernova," "Don't Look Back in Anger," and another one -- basically because I knew that it'd be difficult to get them made. I loved the brothers, and they were both difficult in their own ways, but I got them completely. I mean, crazy things happened. I remember at [New York's] Radio City Music Hall, Liam changing the words to "Champagne Supernova" and giving [the audience] the finger -- I was in the third row just dissolving, completely mortified. But they were worth it.
Were there any artists you worked with prior to Oasis that prepared you for that sort of situation?
Yeah. I had some challenging artists before that.
I mean, Liam will kill me if he reads about it but bizarrely, and this is a very incongruous thing and you will not understand this I'm sure, but someone who really helped train me up for Liam was actually Naomi Campbell.
Really? When did you work with her?
Well, Tommy Mottola had signed Naomi Campbell to Sony because one of his closest friends was Robert De Niro, who she was dating at the time. This was in 1992, 1993. So Tommy was like, "Can you help me with Naomi? Just do a modest deal with her, but she wants to make an album" -- and I get on so well with Naomi, she's actually still a friend to this day. She was a person who was great as long as she wanted to do the thing that she needed to do. If she didn't want to do it, it was gonna be a problem. And there were very few days available, because she was a model and every day that she wasn't modeling was a big payday she was missing. That was the first record I ever made, it was called Baby Woman. She had the coolest taste in music, and she was really one of my first A&R experiences. It was a pretty wild beginning. Actually I enjoyed it, but I learned a lot from her about how to handle someone like that, and there were things in my experience with Liam which did echo a little bit back to that, only in terms of how to approach someone who actually really didn't want to do something.
What are some of your big releases coming up this year?
Elton John -- it's amazing to have him on the label, and his Wonderful, Crazy Night is an up-tempo, fun Elton record. I'm really excited about Mike Posner cause he is a brilliant songwriter. Then we have this young artist going under the name Banners, who is a kid called Mike Nelson who reminds me of Jeff Buckley, in a way. Spotify have made him one of the spotlight artists of the year, starting now. Brian from Gaslight Anthem has made a solo album which is an incredible piece of work. He's on it with Butch Walker and it's very, very song-driven. And Shawn will be back in the studio. I want him to make an incredible second album. we're hoping for a September album on him. We have Nick Jonas is back in the studio for his second album; we're hoping for a June release.
Can you say who Nick is in the studio with?
Jason Evigan produced some of the songs and this guy called Nolan Lambroza [Sir Nolan]. Also the Wolf Cousins have got a couple of really interesting songs with Nick on the album. Those are the basics so far.
Do you feel your mother's gotten the credit she deserves?
She was one of the two first female managers. I mean, there was another woman called Evie Taylor who managed ['60s British pop singer] Sandie Shaw. And no, she didn't get the credit she deserved -- she did an amazing job because Lulu could have had a three-year career -- but she’s still got a career and it's been 40 years. Mum wasn't someone who sought the limelight. And it wasn't an era where -- some managers now have a lot more prominence than they did back in the day. And she was also really a hands-on mom: she had three kids. When she started, me and my twin were 5, my sister was 8. She was always being offered other artists, but she had Lulu and my stepfather -- [songwriter] Mark London -- and that was it. But she was very respected -- if you talked to anyone of the generation that would remember her in London, everyone respected her. She got the respect she deserved, definitely.
How did she manage the work/life balance?
She managed it amazingly. Or at least we felt she did. She traveled and sometimes she was away for a couple of weeks and that's why she never got an office.
Are you in touch with Lulu at all?
Yes. She sang at my mum's funeral last year. Absolutely. I mean not as in touch as I would like to be but yeah, growing up, she was always another sister. She's very influenced by my mum. Her cadence of speech -- it's my mum.