The Big Interview: Colin Lester, JEM Music Group
by Mark SutherlandJune 2nd 2016 at 5:18PM Published in Musicweek
Lester by name, but Leicester by nature, the chairman/CEO of JEM Music Group has made a habit of upsetting the odds in the music business Premier League.
A born and bred Londoner, his real name is Colin Lester Balsam, but he switched to his middle name while pursuing a career as a guitarist with glam rock band The Eyes, when Don Arden – head of The Eyes’ label Jet Records – told him he didn’t sound enough like a pop star.
Despite his more glamorous moniker, The Eyes never saw success and, disillusioned with music in the early ‘80s, Lester drifted into producing demos for EMI. Then someone asked him if he could recruit an engineer for a job, he lined up a friend, earned his first commission and decided management was where it was at.
He initially partnered with Kim Turner, then Sting’s manager, now, like Arden, sadly passed away. Lester says Turner taught him a lot and he learned the rest on the job (“Yes, I fucked some people’s careers up along the way but I’ve obviously done more right than wrong,” he chortles), things really taking off when he partnered with Ian McAndrew in Wildlife Entertainment in the ‘90s.
The pair took the Brand New Heavies, Travis and, later, Arctic Monkeys to international success and, along the way, launched Wildstar Records. It was there that he discovered Craig David, the UK R&B singer with whom his name is probably most closely associated. The pair hit it off immediately, but even Lester was surprised by the way David’s debut album, 2000’s Born To Do It, performed.
“If you’d told me at that point we were going to do seven million albums on his first record it would have been the equivalent of putting 100 grand on Leicester to win the league,” he grins. “I always say to people, It’s a shame I only put a grand on it…”
Most of Lester’s gambles since have paid off in a career that also took in a stint running Universal’s Twenty First Artists management company, before he launched JEM Music Group just over a year ago. We meet him today at JEM HQ, tucked away in sleepy Dollis Hill, North West London, but buzzing to the sound of David’s remarkably revived career. Lester took over as David’s manager shortly after his initial success; as we talk, news comes in of David’s new single, One More Time, being added to playlists. It cements a revival in his UK fortunes that kicked off with When The Bassline Drops, a song released by JEM in conjunction with Speakerbox, although David has since signed to Sony’s Insanity.
JEM Music Group also comprises a publishing company while, alongside his numerous music clients, Lester now manages Attraction, the shadow-theatre group who won Britain’s Got Talent in 2013.
Such success suits Lester, one of the biz’s most ebullient characters and a professor of music at Southampton Solent University, where he regularly lectures and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014.
So, as the ding-ding-ding of Lester’s email inbox keeps up a speed garage bpm rate in the background and his soundbites arrive at a similar rate, Music Week sits down to talk artists, labels and why comedian Leigh Francis – the comedian whose ‘00s Bo’ Selecta show lampooned David as a kestrel-keeping oddball – is still persona non grata round his house…
What’s been the biggest change in the 35-odd years you’ve been in the music business?
I don’t think the music industry has changed in the 35 years I’ve been in it. Great song plus radio will still equal, nine out of 10 times, a hit record. Of course, the way we distribute and receive music has changed, but that’s not unique to the record industry. E-commerce is different in every single industry. When people say the music industry has changed beyond recognition – [I say] No, retail has changed beyond recognition, music hasn’t. The basics are still the same and without those basics, there’s no point in trying to learn.
Why did you leave Wildlife after such a successful partnership there?
It was time for a change. You have to reinvent yourself and do something different. We’d done the record company and the management company that were both very successful. Pretty soon after that, I was approached by [Universal’s] Lucian Grainge, who asked if I’d run TFA, which initially I thought was Tottenham Football Association – and I’m a Chelsea fan! But the reason I agreed to do [Twenty First Artists] was the challenge. I wanted to be able to create a hub of managers that could all work together with one over-riding entrepreneur teaching them the way forward. To do that sort of venture with private equity is very difficult because they don’t understand the music industry. But Lucian got it - he said, you put 20 managers in a room, one of them is bound to sign U2. And he’s absolutely right - the only problem I had is, it was very difficult to find 20 managers you could put in one room!
You’ve managed Craig David through good times and bad. How challenging were the wilderness years for you as a manager?
I can’t say it was challenging. For me, Craig has always been an incredible artist, an amazing vocalist and writer. So, whatever else has been happening in the world of PR and media, it never really affected the songs that he was delivering. The quality was amazing, it was just the way they were received became very challenging because of the media perception of Craig. So, of course it had its difficult moments but, throughout that period, the surprising thing is, it was me that hated Bo’ Selecta far more than Craig. Craig took a lot of the media stick. For me, I’d have liked to shove Bo’ Selecta right up [Leigh Francis’] arse, with a stick. Craig was pretty chilled about it. He was like, It is what it is. It was a lot harder for me than it was for Craig.
How did you try and manage that situation?
Initially I tried to address it, but failed miserably and decided to ignore it.
Do you genuinely think it had an impact on Craig David’s career in the UK?
I do think it damaged his career. The UK suffered the loss of a great artist through that period of time.
Did you ever meet Leigh Francis?
Keith Lemon? I have met him, recently, at the BRITs. I bear no grudges; at the end of the day, I get it, he’s doing a job and, if that’s what it took for him to do the job, then great. But he’ll always be a cunt to me.
You’re surely having the last laugh now that Craig’s back with a vengeance…
It never felt to me like Craig ever went away. For me, it was just a matter of time - if you keep working with artists that are talented and put your faith in them and continue to be professional about it, they will rise back to the top. Craig’s not the first to have done it, we didn’t write this book, but you need a certain type of artist. You need a very talented artist who will persevere and work through difficult times. Because going from selling so many records to not selling that amount of records is hugely disappointing and concerning to an artist. But a good artist will be inspired by that, and Craig was one of those artists that was inspired by failure. It inspired him to do better and that’s what makes him one of the UK’s great artists. He could have gone away and said, I can’t deal with this shit anymore, my records aren’t selling. But he didn’t.
So, what’s changed now for him to suddenly be big in the UK again?
You’re only ever three minutes away from changing your whole life. It’s just a question of finding that three minutes and fitting it into the right time and place. And that’s what’s happened with Craig and When The Bassline Drops. I would put that very much down to team effort over here at JEM. Craig asked, Is there anything I can do to help you guys? And one of the young guys said, Yeah, we need you in the country more often. That was a great thing to say – it was a crucial line, because Craig took notice of that and spent the minimum of a week a month in the studio, which was in our office. So he knew what was going on in the UK and he was very much ahead of the game. I could never have imagined When The Bassline Drops would become a gold single, but it struck a chord with the British public. And that’s what brought Craig back into the limelight: his music, not some comedian on television or some lucky moment.
That must feel pretty good, for both of you.
I’m incredibly pleased for Craig and the team here. I’m over the moon that Craig is receiving the accolades and success that he really deserves. Craig was only ever interested in his laptop and writing songs. He’d literally be writing songs until the moment the tour manager came in and said, 10 minutes. And when he came off, after he did the meet-and-greets, back to his laptop. If you ask a songwriter what they did on their day off, they’ll tell you they wrote a song. If you ask a pop act what they did on their day off, they’ll tell you they went to Thorpe Park. And that’s how you can tell the difference between a songwriter and a celebrity.
You now also manage Attraction. How did you get into that?
I signed them on the basis that I thought what they did was the most artistic thing I’d seen in years. I went crazy trying to find this act and I got hold of them in Hungary. I said, What you do is astonishing, but could you keep my attention for an hour, as opposed to three minutes? And Zoltán [Szücs], who is Attraction really said, I could keep it for longer if I was given the money. That was music to my ears and we decided to create a show called The Box, which we’re currently in negotiations over opening in Vegas. We had a very successful sold-out night at the London Palladium, we’re talking about touring in China, we did the Swinton Insurance TV commercial.
What are the differences between managing Attraction and managing musicians?
That’s been a very interesting learning curve for me because I’m a music person through and through. You learn it as you’re doing it and we’ve done very well so far. The difference is, there is no star. It’s a scalable business, because there’s no one individual. You could have 20 Attractions touring the world at the same time. In Harvard, they teach you, that if you can find something that crosses all language barriers, is scalable and bars entry for anyone else doing it, you have almost the perfect investment. Attraction cross two and a half out of three. It’s scalable, there’s no language in shadow and it’s very difficult to do what they do.
You formed JEM Music Group when you left Twenty First Artists. What are your ambitions for the company?
We’re continuously looking for new artists to work with that we believe have what it takes, rather than the scattergun approach that perhaps I would have had to have taken earlier in my career. Now I can afford to work with acts that I really believe in, as opposed to acts that can pay the bills - and there’s a big difference.
I’m incredibly proud of that long-term relationship with Craig, even though artists take 80% of our income! But I can live with that because, without them, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m very chilled and relaxed now but my ambition is greater than it’s ever been before, simply because I love the new business. I love the outlets, I love the fact that we have iTunes and Spotify and that we can, as managers, make things happen.
Are your artists being paid enough by those sorts of digital services?
We have to consider that, whilst we are – as managers and artists – worrying all day long about, Are we getting paid correctly off streaming?, ultimately it’s not in our interests that record companies suffer financially. We have to be flexible. My father always said to me, Watch the pennies and they’ll make pounds. Today, I’d have to say, if you spend all day looking for the pennies, you’ll actually miss the pounds. There are so many avenues for royalties that you have to chase but, ultimately, it will come. That’s not to say I’d ever ignore it, but I have to balance it with the cost to us and the artist to collect that money at the moment. Is there really enough, or are there very few artists it makes that massive difference to?
So, what is the biggest issue for managers today?
My biggest bugbear is that, while record companies remain the number one investors in music, I wish they would go back to more gut feeling and instinct rather than following statistics. When that changes, we will see a change in music – for the better. Until that happens, we’re playing a very George Graham’s Arsenal match: very safe, keep the ball in midfield, let’s not lose anything – but we’re not attacking either. It’s important for people to go back to taking chances. I’m looking for that person who’s sitting in his bedroom thinking we’re all a bunch of wankers. I’m not looking for the guy that’s trying to follow what’s in the chart at the moment. I’ve always gone against the grain anyway. I was once told by a very senior executive in America that I’d never sell UK R&B in America. We did a million records there with Craig David and we’ll be proving that point again when we put his record out there.
So, in conclusion, what have you learned?
I always said that I would have done this job for nothing if you’d have offered me it when I was a kid. I wouldn’t now, knowing the pitfalls! But my belief is, if you do something for the right reasons, the money will follow. If you do it for money, only rarely will the right thing follow. I’ll always do the right thing by the artist. I’m definitely not a sycophant, I manage artists. But outside my office it says Manager, not Magician. Bring me what I need and I’ll work on your behalf, but I’ll be the first person to tell you your music’s shit. I manage artists, they don’t manage me.
How to have a career like Craig David’s – In 4 steps!
published by BBC.co.uk
It can be tough sometimes in the music industry whether you’re just starting out or you’re experienced in the game.
Craig David's been around for 15 years so he has a few tips on what to do when it seems like you're up against the impossible.
1. Work the system
Use social media platforms in the right way and it might just get you noticed.
Craig suggests if you’re a producer put your instrumentals on a site like Soundcloud – you might just get a singer approach you with a project in mind!
Manager Colin also has tip for YouTube:
If people click on your cover, they'll be able to find your original songs too. Play the game.
You never know when something might go viral... just look at Craig's performance on Mistajam's 60 minutes.
2. Don't Get Yourself Down
For Craig the main obstacle in his career has been self doubt:
Craig says by getting stuck in you’ll hopefully feel ready when opportunities start to appear.
"When the opportunity comes you need to be ready for it and I think that’s what a lot of people’s error is they’re not ready".
3. Show your passion
Craig says you have to be enthusiastic at every stage of your career.
"What difference does it make if you’re playing to 2,000 people or 100,000? You either love it or you don't"
That applies whether you're on the stage or off according to Craig's manager Colin.
"It doesn’t mean you can’t work in the industry as a lawyer or as an accountant… but you have to be passionate about music… otherwise you will find it really hard to go to work."
Colin says being keen when you're first starting out is always a good thing.
"The managing director of my company came from work experience. Three people currently working on Craig's campaign came from work experience.
"You've just got to really want to do work experience".
4. Find out what makes you stand out
The industry wants to discover the next big thing – if you’ve got something different you’ve got to get your head down:
Ultimately Craig says it’s all about making good music.
"3 minutes as a musician can change your life... It just depends on how diligent I am to be in the studio through any adversities".
Craig David and colin lester on music success
Craig David is busier than ever; hitting the headlines, planning to release his sixth album next month, selling out concerts and headlining festivals – including this year’s Common People in his hometown of Southampton.
Despite this, Craig, who was awarded an honorary doctorate in music by Solent in 2008, found time to send a video message to the University’s students with some great advice for those wanting a career in music. Read the full story here
Students visit music management mogul
Colin Lester Produces Attraction's The Box
COLIN LESTER ‘SPILLS THE BEANS’ ON SOLENT TV ABOUT HIS ACHIEVEMENTS IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Colin Lester and Attraction visit China to play for an Audience of 1.3 billion People
Colin Lester Launches Award
First published in Music Week 18 November 2013
Twenty First Artists CEO Colin Lester has launched an award aimed at discovering and nurturing new entrepreneurial talent. The Colin Lester Digital Entrepreneurship Award gives South Hampton University students - both existing and alumni from 2011 onwards - the chance to win a cash prize of £1,000 and up to £9,000 of claimable expenses to develop and support their digital music enterprises. Entries should be based on finding new ways to digitally promote music and artists. The prize also includes mentoring from Twenty First Artists, Lester's London-based international artist management company.
Lester launched the award on Monday (November 18) as he was recognized for his services to the music industry and to the city of South Hampton with an Honorary Doctorate by South Hampton Solent University.
Lester, who has been a Visiting Fellow for the University for the last five years, was presented with his award at a ceremony held at the Southampton Guildhall and gave the keynote address to graduates and guests.
Having helped oversee the careers of successful artists including The Brand New Heavies, Travis and Arctic Monkeys, Lester is best known for his association with South Hampton born Craig David. During their professional relationship David has sold more then 15m records and won numerous awards around the world.
Lester said " I am very grateful to everyone at Southampton Solent University for this wonderful honour. I love working with the students, and they are the inspiration for the new Digital Entrepreneurship .
MUSICWEEK publishes Craig David & Colin Lester Profile 15.11.2013
Born To Do It Once Again
Craig David remains thick as thieves with his manager, Colin Lester,15 years after their working relationship began. As David's career enjoys a new lease of life, the duo speak candidly about fighting more fires than most in the music industry and surviving a TV comedian's attempts to 'destroy our brand'
BY TIM INGHAM
,When things are going wrong, the only thing you can do as an artist is write your way out. The bottom line is, it's all about your music: you have to keep remembering that you're only ever three minutes away from changing your life" Cmig David knows how it feels to switch from a hot property to a figure of fun. As the noughrics dawned 1 his long-tcnn global superstardom seemed inevitable. David's debut album Born To Do It, released in August 2000, sold an astonishing seven million copies worldwide, including more than a million in the US. His first two singles, Filll Me In and Seven Days, capped a trio of UK No 1s following his 1999 smash with Artful Dodger, Re- Rewind. Please read the full article here
Colin Lester and Craig David attend No 10 Downing Street meeting
In the News
Universal Publishing Group(UMPG) has partnered with Colin Lester, CEO of global management company Twenty First Artists, and singer/songwriter/producer Craig David to launch JEM Music. The new music publishing Company will aim to sign both new and existing artists and catalogues around the world. Read more
When you go out and buy the latest innovative product to hit the shops, you do not pay attention to the designer of the product but more so the shop you can get the best deal from, the same principle applies to music. You tend to see the finished product but not the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to create and nurture such a product. Read more
originally published in Music Week July 2012 #36 Colin Lester, CEO, Twenty First Artists Colin Lester began his music industry career as guitarist in the.. read more
Private Gigs Hold Up Despite Economic Downturn
LONDON – The party might be over for business magnates in RFussia and the United Kingdom, but insiders say private gigs for super-rich individuals remain bug business in Moscow and London. Once the preserve of veteran acts no longer able to draw audiences on the regular touring circuit, in recent years the promise of mega-ruble paydays has lured even current superstars to perform at corporate and private parties, with the sectors growth largely fueled by money from Russia’s new breed of oligarchs.
Please continue to read the whole post in Billboard here
Interviewer: Sat Bisla, Founder & President, A&R Worldwide/MUSEXPO (USA) Colin Lester, CEO of Twenty First Artists, Universal's management business, discussed how to succeed in music management today. Lester has managed acclaimed trend-setting acts, from punk revivalists Arctic Monkeys to neo-soul artist Craig David, and was involved in setting up Twenty First Artists.
Colin Lester with Alex Dyke at BBC Solent
© 2015 Colin Lester. All Rights Reserved.