Revisit Max Hole's Big Interview

Revisit Max Hole's Big Interview

On a bright spring afternoon in West London, Max Hole – one of the most successful music executives of the last 40 years – is contemplating how a life can turn full circle.

He’s here in the drawing room of his Barnes house talking to Music Week because he’s the latest recipient of The Strat, the Music Week Awards’ own lifetime achievement category, aka the best possible excuse to look back in wonder at his career as an agent, artist manager, producer and label executive.

But in a wider, more metaphorical sense he’s where he is today because, aged 12, he heard The Beatles’ Please Please Me (he’d somehow missed their debut, Love Me Do) and fell hopelessly, head-over-heels in love with pop music.

“The Beatles were an incredible thing,” he smiles. “They made me get sucked into music.”

And once he was in, there was no way out. To the extent that, almost 50 years later, Hole found himself a key figure in Universal’s £1.2 billion acquisition of The Beatles’ long-time home, EMI.

“This was a serious deal,” he understates. In fact, it was possibly the last deal of that size and scale that the music business will ever see.

Hole – Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge’s right-hand man – spent weeks flying around the world, meeting EMI personnel and working out how best to integrate them within Universal’s structure. And yet, what he really kept thinking about, usually with a gleeful grin on his face was: We’re buying The Beatles.

“For me as a music fan, the fact that we ended up with The Beatles after 50 years was incredible,” he says, that same gleeful grin reappearing on his face today. “I think, Wow, I’ve been lucky in the music business.

I’ve worked hard, but one of the main reasons I got involved in the music business was because I was a fan, and then it turned out I was also quite organised.”

It’s undoubtedly this combination of wide-eyed enthusiasm and hard-nosed business skills that helped Hole to the very top of the business. But what would the 12-year-old Max have thought of getting involved with his idols’ back catalogue?

“I just wouldn’t have believed it,” he says. ”But that’s what’s so great about music. When you fall in love with it, it raises you [up] – you can have a bad day and still put on a record and it makes you feel good.”

By his own admission, Hole has had a few not-so-good days lately. In October last year, he stepped down as chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International – a role that had made him a serious contender for the title of most powerful music executive outside of America – after he contracted encephalitis earlier in the year.

The condition causes memory loss and Hole forewarns there are a few gaps in his recollections, but he remains sharp, focused and likely to be the smartest guy in any room that doesn’t contain Albert Einstein.

When he stepped down, Grainge – a friend and colleague of Hole’s for many years – hailed him as “one of the most talented and accomplished executives to have ever worked in the music business, with an undying passion for music”.

“He has been one of our industry’s most effective champions,” Grainge added, “Opening new markets and creating opportunities for artists and fans everywhere. Max’s contributions to Universal will be forever a part of the fabric of this company and our industry, and he leaves with our deepest gratitude and respect.”

Since leaving Universal, Hole has – like many music fans of late – rediscovered his love of classic vinyl albums. He’s been listening to music that way since his childhood in Kensington, London, where his mother would play jazz and classical albums around their flat.

Hole would only start to enjoy such genres later, instead happily letting The Beatles indoctrinate him into the worlds of rock and pop. He would listen avidly to the BBC Light Programme and Radio Luxembourg, browse endlessly through record shops and – once he hit 17 – became a regular at the original Marquee Club on Wardour Street, where he saw many a band who would go on to worldwide superstardom.

He didn’t make the leap into the business side of things, however, until he headed off to Kent University in Canterbury to study law. By the end of his first term, he had a show on the campus radio station, was the Students’ Union social secretary and a general ‘face’ on the local scene.

He booked numerous bands, including his new favourite band, The Who – the contract for that show is framed above the piano in his house.

“I booked them for £1,000,” he laughs. “That was the most I ever paid for anyone and I always remember we grossed about £1,150. So we just about made money!”

The role introduced him to a number of booking agents and also to a band of fellow students, folk-rockers Spirogyra, who featured a young Barbara Gaskin, later of It’s My Party fame.

Hole offered to manage them, snagged them a record deal with B&C Records and accompanied them on a world tour.

Spirogyra’s career fizzled out all too soon, but Hole had been bitten by the bug and in 1972 he formed Gemini Artist Management Agency – usually known as GAMA – alongside Geoff Jukes and Richard Thomas.

A pioneering 360 degree-ish business (they did management, booking and had a production company, plus later launched the Criminal Records label), they set up shop in a cramped office in Shepherds Bush and looked after the likes of Martin Carthy, Michael Chapman and Camel – the latter introducing Hole to his beloved Japan when he accompanied them there on tour.

At GAMA, Hole even had a crack at producing some albums although he self-deprecatingly claims, “I’m not sure I was good enough – or patient enough”.

“It was a bit of a shambles,” says Hole of GAMA, “We never had a really big band, but somehow we did quite well. But the thing you worry about when you’re running your own company is financial trouble. Even though sometimes you had a winner, the money from the win went to paying stuff you hadn’t done in the past…”

That was why in 1982, when Tarquin Gotch approached him about joining Warner Music’s WEA Records, the offer proved attractive.

He might no longer be his own (co)-boss, but equally he wouldn’t have to worry about paying the bills anymore. He duly signed up as A&R manager and became focused on something that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career: “dealing with artists that sold”…

Former PPL chairman/CEO Fran Nevrkla was at Warner when Hole arrived and the two have been friends ever since.

“When I first met Max, it was immediately obvious that he was a very talented, high calibre individual,” says Nevrkla. “Intelligent, articulate, focused, determined and very hard working. It is no surprise that he grew into one of the most successful senior executives in the music industry in recent times. 

Max is also a man of integrity and real fun to be with. Above all else, he is a truly loyal and supportive friend and colleague. His dedication to the industry and his passion for music and his artists are second to none.”

It’s those qualities that undoubtedly helped Hole climb the Warner Music ladder, as he rose to managing director of WEA and then, in 1990, founding MD of East West Records. But Nevrkla reveals he could also be a tough negotiator.

“In spite of being a gentleman, Max does have a steelier side which, of course, is essential,” says Nevrkla. “It is when his hair stands up ever so slightly and his glasses go misty that his colleagues probably know that the time for frivolity is over! Quite rightly so, too.”

Hole and Nevrkla still regularly meet up to exchange what the former refers to as “goss” from the music business and discuss those Warner days, when Warner Bros, Atlantic and Elektra were on fire and their fellow executives included legends such as Ahmet Ertegun, Doug Morris, Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin.

Hole’s track record wasn’t too shabby either. Having made his name by being involved with signings such as Howard Jones and Matt Bianco, the company hit real paydirt with Simply Red, whose 1991 Stars album was the best selling album in the UK in both 1991 and 1992 and went 12 times platinum in the UK (FYI: Adele’s 25 is ‘only’ nine times platinum to date).

He describes his relationship with Mick Hucknall as “businesslike” – while he was “very close” to the likes of Chris Rea, Martin Carthy and Sting – but he was never in any doubt about his talent.

“We all thought Stars was amazing when it was delivered,” he says. “I remember we all thought, Boy, have we got one here! It’s an amazing feeling when you actually get something and think, Oh my God, it’s better than I imagined.

That’s pretty rare. You often think things are good, but it’s not often you get a record like that.”
He pauses.

“Mind you, I’ve been lucky,” he laughs, “It’s happened quite a few times…”

Indeed, it happened a few times just at Warner. Hole made the transition to A&R easily because, in his words,

“I was somebody that felt I had an opinion about music”.

“I was a crap guitar player and I knew I wasn’t any good as a musician but I loved music so I felt I could have an influence on it,” he continues. “Working at Warners, I learned a lot from being close to producers and you start to be a helpful influence.

But the key is, Howard Jones wrote some songs that were really good, Matt Bianco did, Simply Red did. You’re really there to try and find artists who will do that and then encourage them to do the right things in the right order…”

You suspect there was probably more to it than that. But either way, Warner UK was on a roll, with a top team in place including Rob Dickins, Paul Conroy and Peter Reichardt. Hole puts their success down to that team’s ability to motivate the entire company to rally behind an act.

“All you can do is be organised, be an enthusiast and push things to happen,” says Hole. “Because, sometimes, [with] records you really believe in, there are some people you go to and they don’t like it. So you think, Fuck it, what are we going to do about that? I used to love doing that.

Step one was getting everyone in the company to think that they loved it. For years we were together and ran a good team that went along with us. If we believed in it, they’d say, Right…”

Eventually, however, even the dream team began to “burn out” and Hole joined Universal Music Group International in 1998, initially as SVP of marketing and A&R. His horizons broadened again, travelling more and getting involved in aspects of the business beyond his traditional areas of artists and repertoire.

But it was in 2004, when he was promoted to EVP, added responsibility for digital, strategic marketing and commercial affairs and took on Asia-Pacific and Nordic/Central/Eastern Europe that he really hit his stride internationally.

“When you’re an A&R man in the UK you’re just like, Are you going to have a hit with my act? I’ll make sure they fly there…” he laughs of his previous dealings with international departments.

“But [the job] taught me how different Asia is and that made me realise a bit about how different Sweden is, and how different all the other countries are.

There’s a varying size market for English language music, but all of them have got a market for local language music.”

Of course, Japan in particular is littered with gaijin who thought they could take on the market with their Western ways and failed.

Hole became one of the very few Western executives to become respected and successful over there, hauling Universal Music Japan up the market share rankings in a country traditionally dominated by Sony, Avex and the big Japanese independents.

He even tried to become fluent in the language, although he claims the number of books on the subject in his house pay testament only to the fact that he didn’t quite succeed. He did, however, raise $10 million for the Japanese Red Cross after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami through Universal’s Songs For Japan album.

“Japan was a big challenge but something that I welcomed,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking, Oh God, I’ve got to go to Japan – I was very interested in Japan. In fact, I loved Japan from the first time I ever went there – there was just something about it that was very interesting.”

Many executives – particularly ones with the likes of Taylor Swift, Eminem, Lady Gaga and Rihanna in their armoury – might have tried to leverage Western superstardom in the region.

Hole invested in local repertoire. Others might have tried to take on Asia’s penchant for piracy and a completely different digital approach to the rest of the world.

Hole – as illustrated by his speech to the Music Matters conference in Singapore in 2014 – embraced the spirit of change, partnering with tech firms to build new business models and driving consensus amongst the labels.

One of the things Hole is happiest about with his legacy is that he left Universal Music Japan in great shape, steered by the capable hands of Naoshi Fujikara, an unusually youthful president and CEO for the territory, but a more than capable one.

He’s also justifiably proud of his work in classical music. He might, by his own admission, be populist in his classical tastes (not to mention more at home listening to The Who or other rock classics), but he ran Universal’s worldwide classical music business, helping to restore iconic labels such as Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon to their former glories and steering the careers of everyone from Rolando Villazón to Andrea Bocelli. He also came up with the idea for the Bristol Proms and sat on the board of the English National Opera.

He puts his success down to adding “more focus on classical within our organisation” but his colleagues in the sector insist his drive has been a crucial factor.

?“Max has made an enormous contribution to the UK music industry, providing huge support for classical music in particular,” says culture minister Ed Vaizey.

“His work in establishing the fantastic Bristol Proms has been instrumental in attracting completely new audiences, and I congratulate him on being awarded this thoroughly deserved lifetime achievement Strat Award.” 

“Max has fought to take classical music out of its niche and make the genre accessible to and appreciated by everyone,” agrees Judith Neuhoff, director, artist management Europe with Centre Stage Artist Management.

“He has taken many bold steps to realise this vision and through that, has injected new drive and energy into our industry. On a personal level, I could not have asked for a better mentor and guide than Max with his vast experience, broad creative vision, unfaltering clarity, incredible strength, steadfast loyalty and kindness.”

In the terms of his beloved cricket, then – he has long been a familiar face at Lord's during test matches – Hole emerges as a great all-rounder. He clearly relishes being part of a winning team, speaking with great pride of his work with Grainge and Boyd Muir at UMG, hailing them and Universal UK chairman/CEO David Joseph as “very clever executives”.

When Grainge moved to LA, Hole flew out regularly to "get some of his energy".

“I first knew Lucian when he was a publisher and he always used to make me laugh,” says Hole. "He’s got a very good opinion about things and he had a good nose for hits, but he used to like a laugh. When we were a lot younger, Lucian was someone who was good fun to go to a gig with and would tell amusing stories about things. He’s a real winner – and he’s funny!”

Now that he’s left Universal, Hole can also continue his friendship with Sony Music chairman/CEO Morris – who he served alongside at Warner and Universal, and describes as “a fantastic backer; he’ll talk to you, give you time and support you in terms of taking risks” – without worrying about being in competition.

“Max is a dear, treasured friend and a great record man who I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with for almost the entirety of my professional life,” says Morris.

“He is an enormously accomplished executive who has done just about everything in this business over the course of his varied career, and he has been a success the whole way.”

Hole and Morris recently went to see the Motown musical together and Hole has more time for such musical indulgences nowadays. But he’s not quite ready for full-on retirement yet, despite his ongoing recovery (“I’m definitely getting better, but I’m not as better as I’d like to be yet,” he smiles).

He hints at the possibility of working with Grainge again on something, even though he has enough achievements in his locker to rest easy – and much to be grateful for.

After all, if he hadn’t booked The Who all those years ago, he might never have met his wife of 17 years, actress Jan Ravens. Pete Townshend himself introduced them when she appeared in his conceptual music project, Psychoderelict. “I’ve always loved The Who,” he grins.

Others, meanwhile, take similar delight in having worked alongside Hole himself.

“I have loved working with Max,” declares IFPI CEO Frances Moore. “He has been a leader and a statesman for the international industry, and has a brilliant way of tackling difficult issues by shifting the paradigm so that a solution suddenly became obvious. He is also a great multi-culturalist who is comfortable wherever he is in the world.”

Talk to most people in the biz and they’ll put Hole's success down to his combination of creative, artist-friendly skills and practical, business-compatible acumen.

“I think I'd agree with that,” he concludes. “I love the music but, over the years, I’ve become quite knowledgeable about business. And, if you take care of business, you can do more in music.”

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