“One year I organised the Christmas party and we actually took over the Russian Embassy in Kensington,” Zita McQ recalls from her time at the notorious London Records as a young A&R Liaison Manager. “My budget was so high that I was able to hire fake snow and Russian bodyguards. Nowadays you’re lucky if you get a warm glass of wine.”
McQ has witnessed the music industry’s modern transformation first hand. Once a bombastic business that rewarded big spenders, the environment created by the digital revolution has meant that the frivolities of the ‘80s and ‘90s have frittered away and only the fittest, leanest operations are able to survive.
And having run producer, writer and mixer specialist Z Management since 1994, McQ has done more than merely survive. Over the past two decades, she has represented a long list of top talent including, from the early days, Utah Saints, Blacksmith (as mixers), Marcus Dravs, The Boilerhouse Boys, Chris Potter and Mykaell Riley.
Z clients have worked on countless No.1s, Top 10s and multi-platinum albums. In the past couple of years, Ruadhri Cushnan and Chris Potter have perhaps been two of the company’s most prominent clients. Cushnan has mixed hits for likes of Ed Sheeran, Mumford & Sons, Shawn Mendes, Jamie Lawson, James Bay and many more, while Potter (who has been with Z for 25 years and produced and mixed The Verve’s 11 million-selling Urban Hymns) is currently mixing for Michael Kiwanuka, newcomers Seven Cities and Pale Seas.
Meanwhile, Z has made inroads into the live sector with Ben Allen enjoying success as the Musical Director for Izzy Bizu and Amber Run as well as FOH support for Zara Larsson and Kent Jones.
Both a veteran of the music industry and an exec still very much on the front line of the business, McQ was a more than deserving recipient of the Writer/Producer Manager prize at the MMF and FAC’s 2016 Artist And Manager Awards at the end of November.
But, even for someone of McQ’s experience and calibre, the transition from Russian bodyguards to warm glasses of wine in the music business hasn’t been easy.
Here she talks to us about the changing industry, the challenges faced by those who sit behind the studio console and the urgent reforms that are needed if producers are to survive.
What made you specialise in managing writers, producers and mixers?
Roger Ames really valued producers and mixers at London Records, which more often than not is a very strange concept in today’s industry. Part of my job was to take these producers, writers and mixers and entertain them so that we’d have a rapport with them.
After around five years of being at London Records, I decided I wanted to start my own company manging songwriters, producers and mixers. Roger Ames and Pete Tong – who was already at London with his FFRR subsidiary - didn’t want me to leave so they offered to do it with me. London Records backed me and I joined in with Pete and we became known as FFRZ Management. I was working with a lot of DJs (such as Utah Saints and Blacksmith) and dance people from Pete’s repertoire, but then I also got involved with Robin Housman and Chris Potter.
I worked with Robin Housman doing East 17 and was involved in their early successes. We were also involved in Massive Attack with Jeremy Allom. To be honest, it became a bit of a conflict of interest, because of course when you run a management company from a record label it gets a bit tricky when things go wrong!
I was at London Records for around 10 years and then I got pregnant. I was sitting in the office and I could hear all the A&R guys comparing who’d “partied” the most over the weekend and suddenly thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t such a good environment to be pregnant in!’
I had my first of three children, set up Z Management and based myself at Metropolis Studios, where I stayed for five years. During that time we made the Urban Hymns album with one of our clients as the producer/mixer. He was on a 3% royalty and took approximately £1.5 million on that one album. Fast forward to now and there’s been a massive change, even when it comes to successful mixers like Ruadhri Cushnan working with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Mumford & Sons we see nothing like this kind of income.
Tell us a bit about how the business has changed from your perspective?
Obviously the key change I’ve seen in my time is money. I started, aged 18, in an industry where you often had limos waiting for you in case you ran out of cigarettes to one now where you need three people’s approval before you can buy your client a sandwich! The biggest change to the writer/producer side I work on is without a doubt money or lack thereof!
It seems to me that the record is no longer valued, so the music has become secondary to the video, the PR campaign and so on. Everybody seems to have forgotten that it starts and ends with music. I’m constantly fighting to get people paid and [managers] are the ones having to support unsigned bands. I can’t remember the last time we got a demo budget from a record company.
Nobody wants to spend any money. You read about big American producers getting paid a fortune and the ones over here are getting less and less – but they’re expected to own a studio, maintain it, keep it up to date, play on the record, engineer it, produce it… and then, to add insult to injury, [the labels] try to make everything recoupable. I cannot emphasise enough that unless the producer is valued, they will become an endangered species.
I suppose it’s symptomatic of the digital transition that the whole industry is going through. Many hope that the business will come out the other side even better off, do you believe that could be on the horizon?
No, I don’t think so. When you manage people like I do, you live from one year to the next to be honest. And I’ve been hearing this for so many years. You look at headlines that say how much the likes of Universal are making from Spotify, but how much of that is going to artists? And even less will be going to the writers, producers and mixers for sure.
I think you need to rip up the whole accounting/payment rulebook and start again. There should be one pot that supports the artist, and everyone involved in supporting the artist should be paid from that same pot. With the greatest respect, suggesting that we’re paid just from record sales when there aren’t any is nothing short of an insult really. We are still paying producers and writers based on a system from forty years ago – since which time we’ve had a digital revolution where streaming subscriptions come free with technology, yet we still try to pay people based on an outdated antiquated system. Please, please let’s change this before it’s too late!
Does it all come down to contracts being out of date?
Yes, I think so. Some people who work in record companies seem to have little idea how producers and mixers actually make any money. They assume we’re making loads out of our 1% royalty. One of our clients worked on The Feeling’s first album, which sold a million copies. I asked a load of record execs how much they thought he made on royalties from that album. The majority couldn’t answer, some said £30,000 or £80,000 but it was actually a big fat zero. That’s because record companies TV advertise, and these poor producers who are making a measly 1% are expected to stand behind that TV advertising. So the whole thing has become a big con really. If you’re talking about an album like Urban Hymns, which will sell 10 million records, then we don’t mind standing behind TV advertising, but when you can get into the Top 5 on 15,000 sales, how can any producer be paid after such big costs are being recouped?
So it comes down to out of date contracts and being paid on the same basis as an album that sold 10 million copies 20 years ago. That’s just nuts. No one is deliberately trying to rip us off – Traditionally, if you think that a producer delivers stems to a mixer and has been paid a royalty for those stems from record sales, if those same stems are now used in live shows that make revenue, then surely producers should be paid for those stems instead on a non-existent record sales pipeline income. The vast majority just don’t realise how the financial side works. I would imagine there are not many record company staff who would like to just be paid based on a percentage of record sales alone. Correct me if I am wrong!
I feel strongly that we should get a percentage of artists’ live income because they’re using our stems to reproduce their songs in a live setting – with the same sound as on the record – so surely it makes sense.
And that’s where all the revenues are these days…
Absolutely. Sadly I feel like we’ve become like a freebie tool in order for bands to tour. Fans even have to pay for a programme but no-one pays for the stems.
How do you make sure you can keep your heads above water with all this in mind?
It’s survival of the fittest isn’t it? We work harder. We work longer hours, we’re very proactive. We have to work bloody hard for the money we make.
Of course you make money in other ways: you make sure you have a balance of writers and producers because every few years you’re able to do a publishing deal that brings money in, we’re doing more library albums for adverts, which I would have been snooty about in years gone by, and you diversify.
Do you think managers are taking on more of the risk these days?
Yeah I think we are. We put ‘what if’ deals in place with younger artists where if they get signed, we get paid. That’s obviously a massive risk because a lot of artists don’t get signed and then nobody gets any money.
We have just seen two artists come through actually. Joel Baker and Tom Prior are two artists our clients were involved with two or three years ago under ‘what if’ deals and they’ve just gotten signed and honoured those deals.
You clearly have to be willing to get involved with artists early on and then give them time to grow…
We have to gamble. We have to judge an artist just like a label A&R would before we decide whether our clients will work with them. We look at who manages them and if they have a proven track record.
We’ve also expanded a bit into the live sector – we have Sam Smith’s string guy, Runone, for example – and you have to gamble with the young producers as well. We have Josh “JT” Thompson, a new young talent writing for the long-awaited Leon Else album, signed to Interscope, and exciting newcomer Huntar. Of course, developing the younger ones with no track record is much more time consuming, but much more fulfilling if you get them away and change their careers. I love being able to have that impact.
We were also rock and pop focussed traditionally but with the changing market we’ve moved into grime, working with the likes of Skepta, Professor Green, Jme, Giggs, Jammer, Novelist, all of them. We are also developing an artist called Marlon Bernard, with our new arm Lil’ Z.
How do you see things developing in the years to come?
For years I’ve talked about setting up a publishing company but I’ve never done it, partly because my husband got diagnosed with cancer in his forties and was ill for five years. He died to two years ago, so it’s been a real rocky road for me personally. After he died, I really threw my head into work – as a result we’ve had a lot of hits that we weren’t really planning on. When you get very driven you just keep pushing. Music and working in it was my saving grace.
As for the industry, I think what’s been going on isn’t only the devaluation of the producer but of the A&R role as well. Many creative A&R people have disappeared and I think we’ll just have project managers at record companies, which would be a great shame as there are still many great A&R guys out there. I fear that will mean that the producers will become the A&R guys that they used to be. After all, it seems we are the only ones demoing the artists, therefore we have to find these artists early, often by helping other young artist managers develop their clients. The problem is we aren’t getting paid for these extra roles! We would love to have a budget to develop artists.
What advice would you give to a young producer manager just starting out?
It looks a lot easier than it is so be careful! You can see that there are very few young producer managers. We’ve all been around for years. It must be very hard for anyone just starting out. But if you love music then, regardless of all the possible downsides, the music will drag you in. Music has always had that power and at the end of the day, it’s great fun – there’s never a dull moment in the Z office!