5 Questions with Daniel Miller, Founder of Mute Group of Companies

Erika Wall

Simple question. What do Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Moby, Richie Hawtin and Goldfrapp all have in common? Anyone who knows their “indie” music will know the answer: Daniel Miller. The British music man built a culture with his Mute brand, which he established back in 1978 with the release of his first single, The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette.” A young Miller’s vocals appear on that early track. Over time, Miller would realize his calling wasn’t as an artist but as the driving force of an independent-minded music company.

Mute became a “major label” affiliate in 2002 when he sold it to EMI in a deal worth £23 million ($33 million at May 2002 exchange rates). Miller and Mute left the EMI family in 2010 to become a wholly independent company again.

In a complicated series of events triggered by Universal’s buyout of EMI, the original Mute catalog and brand is now held by BMG Rights Management. Miller has set about re-establishing his roster and team, but he kept the vibe of Mute by licensing the name and brand and some titles from EMI.

Miller recently named two senior executives (Shirin Foroutan as global managing director of the Mute group and Dick O’Dell as head of artist management) to his Mute group of companies -- appointments he’s confident have positioned the company for growth.

Miller's growing empire includes the Mute Artists Limited recording label, Mute Song Limited publishing business and Mute Management. The group has offices in London, New York and Berlin, and a recording studio in the British capital.

Mute albums on the slate include sets from Erasure, Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny, Cabaret Voltaire and Goldfrapp, whose new album “Tales of Us” is due Sept. 6 in Australia, Sept. 9 in Europe and Sept. 10 in the U.S.

You’ve recently said the company is well positioned for growth. How so?
There are a number of different things going on that will help us grow. Probably, the fastest area will be in the artist and producer management side, with the appointment of Dick O’Dell, who’s a very experienced manager. He’s someone I’ve known for many years as a friend, but we’ve never managed to collaborate. Now the planets are aligned, circumstances on both sides allowed us to work together. He’s only been here a few weeks and is already expanding the roster. On the records side, when we left EMI in 2010 we signed quite a few new artists. People like Big Deal, Cold Specks, Beth Jeans Houghton and Josh T Pearson. And we’ve moved another new artist who was on EMI over to Mute -- Polly Scattergood. They’re all in the process of making or just-about-to-release their second albums. That’s a really important time for us. They’ve all created a good platform on their first album to launch from. Those second albums are all coming in the next six to eight months. We’ve got a very positive release schedule. We’re been working on a lot of debut albums in the last couple of years. Now we’ll be working on a lot of second albums. That’s going to be very important for us; there's a lot of potential. Two of our longer standing artists, Goldfrapp and Erasure, will be releasing records this year. On the records side I can see a lot of potential for growth with the development of all those artists. The hiring of Shirin Foroutan brings a whole world of skills and opportunities from her experience, which we are already exploring. There are a lot of really great possibilities across a number of platforms. Obviously we’re always looking for new artists. Not too many, just the right ones.

You took Mute back into indie land in 2010. What were the circumstances?
There is some confusion about what actually happened. I sold Mute Records to EMI in 2002. In 2010, after a lot of conversations with EMI, we decided to part company on a friendly basis. It seemed that we were going in very different directions, and what Mute needed was not where EMI was going, and what EMI needed wasn’t where Mute was going. It was a mutual decision. I didn’t buy Mute back. I started a brand new company and I licensed the name and brand Mute from EMI. So I was able to use the name Mute. Also I licensed some of the catalog to the new company. Some of the deeper catalog. Obviously EMI wanted to hang onto some of the bigger artists, like Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp and Moby. But we had a lot of great catalog which we felt we could maximise better than them. Also, a number of artists came over from EMI to Mute, people like Goldfrapp, Erasure, Liars, Polly Scattergood, Maps. And many of the staff came across as well. What is currently trading as Mute is a company that started in 2010. Universal bought EMI and then BMG bought Mute from Universal as part of the divestment in accordance with EU regulations. So BMG currently own the Mute catalog and the name and trademark, and the license agreement has been transferred to BMG Music Rights. So BMG now owns the Mute catalog and the Mute name.  The EU only just approved the deal and we are in early positive  talks with BMG about how to work together in the future.

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So, for an indie to survive do you have to be involved in multi-rights deals?
I don’t know if you have to. For us, it makes a lot of sense. What makes us a bit different is our track record for long-term artist development. In order to really build on that and encompass it more, it’s great to be able to have the expertise in management as well. And obviously in publishing, where we’ve had a long history. What’s important, even if an artist isn’t signed to all our different divisions -- say they’re only signed to management -- they still have access to the intelligence of the whole company, which encompasses publishing and records. We’re all in the one building. We’re not that big. We all talk to each other all the time. If Dick O’Dell has a question about a marketing plan or sync which some other label has put together for one of his artists, we can critique it. We’re three distinct companies within the group, but we still link into the same intelligence network. We can bring a lot to artists. We have a solid foundation. Andrew King, who runs our publishing company, is hugely experienced publisher and can bring an awful lot to the party. Between all those parts, we really have a lot to offer our artists even if they’re not signed to all three companies. In the end it’s all about artist development and that’s what we do.

I was interested to see a statement on Daft Punk breaking records on Spotify, knowing the band had already sold well in many territories. Your acts are on Spotify and other streaming services. Do you need to constantly review the model?
It’s about constant review, really. It’s such early days. All artists behave in a different way in terms of streaming and downloading, vinyl and CD. It’s really early days. (Streaming) is growing, but it’s still not huge. Spotify is hugely talked about, but it’s not massive yet and it hasn’t got anywhere near critical mass. And as it gets towards that, we’ll learn a lot more about (consumer behavior). Obviously we’re reviewing all our ways of getting music to people all the time. As a label we have to address all the streaming services. We’d be crazy not to. There are so many things that drive record sales. A lot of it is about the quality of the record. You can’t just say that because the artist’s previous record sold 100,000 copies, the next one will do so. It might sell a million, or 20,000. It has nothing to do with Spotify or illegal downloading, it has to do with the quality of the music as much as anything. And how the band is engaging with their fans. There are so many variables.

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What are your proudest moments?
There are too many to name. Two of the proudest things are starting, and still being here today. Mute was never intended to be anything other than a one-off single release. I’d never planned to start a record label. I just put out a single. And somehow I’m still here today. On a personal level, I feel proud that I’ve been able to do that and sustain long relationships. And put out a lot of good records. I’ve had so many proud moments for my artists that I couldn’t even begin to name them. Sometimes they’re small things that make me proud, sometimes huge things. I’m proud of my artists in general because they’re very committed and they make great records. And they work hard..well, most of them [laughs].


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