Sir Robin Millar has spoken to Music Week, following his knighthood in the New Year Honours.
“It’s generally the musicians who get knighted,” said Sir Robin, celebrated producer and co-founder of Blue Raincoat Music, who’s interviewed in the latest edition.
“I’m really chuffed,” he added. “But it’s not something I’ve ever consciously worked towards.”
Millar was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that causes a progressive loss of eyesight. He was registered blind aged 16 and lost his sight fully in 1985.
As a producer, Millar discovered Sade, recording the classic singles Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator, as well as their 1984 album Diamond Life. He also worked with Everything But The Girl, Fine Young Cannibals and Big Country.
His big break as an exec came in 2014, when he founded Blue Raincoat Music with Jeremy Lascelles as a management and publishing operation. Their remit expanded to include records, and in 2019 Reservoir acquired the business.
Chrysalis, which had been acquired in 2016, was reborn as a frontline label in 2020. One of its big upcoming projects in July is The Endless Coloured Ways – The Songs Of Nick Drake, a collection of Drake's songs reimagined by acts including Fontaines DC, Liz Phair, Let's Eat Grandma, David Gary, and more. The iconic song collection is also represented by Blue Raincoat on the publishing side of the business.
Today, Phoebe Bridgers, Emeli Sandé, Laura Marling and Arlo Parks are among the group's clients. Millar served as creative director before stepping back due to illness in 2021, when Alison Wenham arrived as COO.
Millar is devoted to his work in the charity sector and has been involved with a range of organisations and initiatives including Leonard Cheshire Disability, CALM UK and Scope, where he is chair designate.
Here, he talks Blue Raincoat, Chrysalis, diversity and his obsession with making records…
Let’s start with Blue Raincoat Music. What was the primary driver behind starting the business?
“In 2013, Jeremy Lascelles [CEO] contacted me and said he’d had a good idea. He wanted to start a company, but it had occurred to him that all managers were overworked and under-resourced. He wanted to find a catalogue, either in publishing or recorded music, and find about 12 staff to work with it. But those dozen people should also have some spare time and use it to support music managers. So when the Chrysalis catalogue came up, we grabbed it with both hands. When you see something that’s neglected and you spend some time on it, then it will be worth more money.
“Our initial ambitions were simply to have the artists’ catalogue and to support managers. In the old days, a record company would have a press department, marketing, radio pluggers... Now, those things are often outsourced and managers are left trying to do everything, often with little experience and as just one person. The first two managers that Jeremy pursued were Ed Harris, who was managing a fledgling Cigarettes After Sex, and Darin Harmon, who was managing the fledgling Phoebe Bridgers. Both acts were playing to about 500 people a night, now it’s more like 8-9,000.”
And then in February 2020, you relaunched Chrysalis as a frontline label. What prompted that?
“Reservoir came in as a partner. They were interested in master rights, but they also thought we’d done an amazing job with the company. We had increased the turnover by 10 times in three years, which makes us sound amazing, but remember it had been very neglected, half our biggest tracks weren’t even on streaming services. They then became a partner, via a 50/50 joint venture, to release frontline music. We kept the shares, but they provided recoupable funding. I mean, it can cost you £150,000 to promote one single and Jeremy and I are not those kind of risk takers. So we’ve now put out a small number of records, the first of which was the last Laura Marling record [Song For Our Daughter, in partnership with Partisan] which was very good. We then signed Emeli Sandé because we both feel very strongly that her best years are to come. We want to take a long view with artists.”
The main thing I would say about my personal journey is that I’m obsessed with the whole business of making records
Sir Robin Millar
So will you be building the roster further?
“We now represent the publishing for Nick Drake and that is our big project for this year, so we’re not looking into more frontline signings for now. It’s the first time he has changed publisher since his death and, honestly, it’s an honour. We are recording versions of his songs completely reimagined by a range of artists, all of whom you’ll have heard of. The only thing we told them was not to make it like the original.”
With Alison Wenham on board as COO, how is the future looking for your role at the company?
“Alison has been great. In October 2021, I was diagnosed with cancer, so Jeremy and I sat down to work out what to do. He’s always been the A&R person and I would never tread on his toes. As well as playing a supporting role on the music side, my role was in finance and admin, I know how to do deals. I knew that whatever happened I would be spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, so I could carry on being a second opinion on tracks and artists, or even go and meet an artist who needs support, but not the rest. Jeremy suggested Alison and I thought it was a genius idea. We spoke to Alison about making her permanent at the end of her 12-month contract, she thought I’d want to come back and I don’t! She does it much better than me – and I never have to look at a data protection agreement again! After an intense year, it seems like I’m out of the woods, somewhere between being in remission and having the all clear.”
As someone who has been on both sides of those kinds of debates and subsequently worked as an executive, has the business side of what you do ever been at loggerheads with your creative instincts?
“It is quite an unusual combination, but it just springs from having to do everything myself. And it does probably stem from the law degree giving me a lot of confidence, I think, to go into businesses and not be afraid of contracts. All these things that I’ve done are not because I’ve spent time as a paid executive [in the traditional sense]. The main thing I would say about my personal journey is that I’m obsessed with the whole business of making records.”
Of course, that business has changed hugely since you came into it. Do you think artists are getting a fair deal when it comes to remuneration in the modern industry?
“I think there’s a completely different business model if someone has the courage to start it. I would start with a streaming service with the right influential people on board and a promise to split everything 30/30/30 between labels, songwriters and artists, minus the very clear costs of running the service. I don’t see how you can be as big as Spotify or Apple Music without having taken too big a bite. A very old friend of mine, a management consultant, told me years ago that the thing about selling stuff is that if you lose control of your distribution, you’re on a hiding to nothing. And I think that’s what the music industry did with the rise of streaming services, it lost control of its distribution.”
Finally, what is your message to the industry regarding improving diversity and inclusion? What do you want to see happen next?
“In terms of disability, I don’t see how we’ll ever have a moment like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter. And thank goodness, in a way, but we have to chip away at it. I can’t imagine something happening that is going to make the world wake up and cause a real kick-start and a sea change. So it’s not easy, keeping diversity going. But the one thing I keep saying is, ‘If you think that employing disabled people is going to hamper your business, you’re wrong and the stats will back that up.’ If you’re inclusive, your business will [improve]. Your business will make more money and, because fewer people leave, your recruitment costs will go down. If you think that, [as of July 2022] 22% of people in the UK are disabled and they’ll have an average support [network] of a mum and dad, a neighbour, a partner, then that’s half the country. You can’t really turn your back and say, ‘Well, we won’t worry about the world’s biggest minority.’
“For the music industry, building the workforce you want to do the job with one eye firmly on diversity requires effort, planning and a lot of thought around recruitment. Get some advice from Small Green Shoots, PurpleSpace or Attitude Is Everything, you know, people who know about this stuff. Honestly, though, I do feel a bit like it’s down to me now, as the only conspicuously disabled, internationally successful musician and executive. After Andrea Bocelli and Stevie Wonder, if I’m the most successful blind music maker in the world, that is quite something to think about, isn’t it?”
Subscribers can read the full interview with Sir Robin Millar here.