Peter Murray is a Scottish manager, label head and businessman who’s been working in the French music industry since the 80s. He launched the careers of bands like Les Négresses Vertes and Zebda, managed recording studios like Studio Du Manoir, and even helped acquire funding for Skype. After reaching out to him for an interview, he invited me to his offices in Paris for a chat where we talked about his career in both the music business and the tech space.
– Hi Peter. Thanks for sitting down to speak with me about your career. Were you involved with music in Scotland before coming to France?
Yes, I got involved at a young age. It started with my parents playing Scottish traditional music on Sunday nights at home, with my dad on the accordion and my mum on the spoons. I later decided to become a musician when a local jazz artist came to my school and played us “Danny Boy” on a recorder. So at age twelve I got a job delivering newspapers and saved up to buy my own recorder, after which I joined the local brass band to play the cornet and trumpet. Then came the O Levels in music, which I did very well in. The English version only lasts a few hours whilst the Scottish one takes three days and includes both instrument performance, composition and a four-part dictation. My grades were among the best in the country and I received a lot of encouragement from my teachers to continue with music.
– What were the circumstances surrounding your move to France?
I was too impatient to continue with higher education, so I left school at sixteen and got a job in a music shop to save up for a Fender Stratocaster. I formed different bands in the south of Scotland soon after that, and eventually became friends with a French drummer called Fred. We met through an exchange program that my hometown of Peebles had with a French town called Soissons. I visited Fred in France a few times and he invited my band to play at something called a “bal”. Because of the name, I thought we were playing for people in tuxedos at a ballroom, but it turned out to be a farm gig on a trailer, behind a tractor (laughs). My bandmates were pissed, but the 500 francs we got paid was the equivalent of my weekly salary as a sales manager, and the show was followed by an incredible dinner with great wine and beautiful girls. After getting back to Scotland, I thought, “Screw this, I’m moving to France“. Most Scottish musicians had to relocate to have a proper music career in the 70s anyway, and London was the typical destination, but I preferred the idea of being a Scot in France, so I told my bandmates, “Guys, let’s move to France. We can become pros there instead “. I was the first one to move over, and predictably, the band never followed (laughs). We argued about it over the summer, but I eventually realized they weren’t coming and I ran out of money by the autumn. So I went grape-picking to earn some money and traded in my Stratocaster for an acoustic guitar so I could busk in the subway during the winter. That was in 1981.
– Did you know any French at the time?
Not really. I’d acquired the basics at school, but honestly, I learned more French whilst picking grapes and reading my “Learn French In 30 days” book (laughs).
– Did busking turn out to be good money?
It did. Very few people busked in the Paris metro in those days, and the ones who did usually played songs by Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, whilst I was playing Elton John and Stevie Wonder, which helped to set me apart. I’d go down in the morning after rush hour and discovered that one of the best places was the Charles de Gaulle–Étoile station, since it has exterior tunnels that provide fresh air and good acoustics. There’s also the tunnel from the Champ Elysees towards Arc de Triomphe, where I’d make a lot of money at night by singing ballads like “Killing Me Softly” and “Space Oddity”. It helped that I was well-dressed and didn’t look like a bum, although I was always shy at the start. I’d walk back and forth in the corridor with my guitar until there was no-one around, but once I got going, things felt okay. Sometimes I’d make one franc in two hours, and on other days the money would pour in for no reason. But I always made enough to pay for my room, my food and some drinks when I went out.
– Wasn’t it awkward to busk for money in a foreign country?
Not really. I enjoyed being a Scot in France. The only awkward bit was telling people about it. I had a French girlfriend and I remember going to her house once for dinner. When her parents asked what I did for a living, I replied “Je fais la manche“, not knowing that it meant “I beg” (laughs). The word “busking” doesn’t exist in French, and the phrase used to describe it is the same one used for begging, so it didn’t leave a good impression and certainly made it difficult to open a bank account. But it was a unique experience and I met some of my closest friends during those times.
– How did your artist career take off?
I needed to earn more money, so I blindly applied for a job in the France Soir newspaper. It was for something called a “Directeur Artistique”, and when I asked my friends what it meant, they said that it was for a book publisher. So I called the company, talked my way into an interview, and was lucky enough to have the receptionist help fill in my French application form when I got to the office. I was then invited to the interview with none other than Marc Lumbroso. This was before he discovered Jean-Jacques Goldman, but there were still Gold discs all around his office. He chatted away in French until he realized I didn’t understand a word, and then looked at the form I’d supposedly filled in. He said “Ah, you sing and write songs. Will you sing me something? “. So I sang for him and he invited me back to record my three best songs in his studio. I didn’t get the job, but we got along really well after that.
Things took off after I became friends with another busker called Silvano. I helped him finish a song that we later recorded with a well-known producer called Yves Dessca. He suggested we form a band with me on bass, my busker friend Jeremy Knight on guitars, and another guy on drums. The track we recorded was called “Have You Ever Seen Me Dancin”, which I co-produced. Afterwards, Jeremy and I went off to Scotland for holidays, and when we came back, Yves was smiling and held up a record sleeve. There was a British flag and our faces on it, underneath the name “British Colony“. All my friends know that I’m a campaigner for Scottish independence, so seeing my photo on the British flag wasn’t very amusing (laughs). But I went along with it and we soon got a record deal with Carrere Records in 1983. “Have You Ever Seen Me Dancin” went on to become a massive hit and sold half a million singles in six months. Even though music charts didn’t exist back then, we were number one on radio stations like NRJ and RTL. It was completely unexpected. I remember Silvano saying to me, “Let’s go see if we can find our single in the stores”. I laughed and said, “No way it’ll be there ”. But when we got to Avenue des Champs-Élysées, the two record stores had nothing but our single in the window. I have to credit our label head, Claude Carrère, for that. I hear a lot of talk about what it means to be an indie label today, but Claude was the first real indie in France and was excellent at his job.
(Below: Album cover for British Colony’s single. Peter Murray on the right)
– Did you do any live shows for the single?
Yes, we did. Four days after the single was released, we played one of the most-watched TV shows in France alongside Spandau Ballet, Serge Gainsbourg and Bonnie Tyler. Three months later we performed on the TV show Champs-Élysées with Michel Drucker. In total, we played 22 national TV shows, toured the clubs and did promo at radio stations all over the country. It was a great time.
(Below: A live show by British Colony with Peter Murray on bass)
– But you eventually left British Colony?
Yes, that’s right. Egos started to clash after the success of the single, and the rest of the album was awful. Silvano left first and Yves had the not-so-good idea of getting another busker called Keith Bell to re-record the single – that’s the version you hear on Spotify. Although Keith has a beautiful voice, it must be strange for people who bought the original to hear a different singer on the digital platforms. Additionally, I saw myself on TV and felt I wasn’t suited to be in front of the cameras, so I decided to focus on producing and writing for others.
One of the first artists I produced was a French-Moroccan singer called Sapho, and we made her album “Passion, Passons” in Geneva. I ended up engineering the project myself after firing the in-house engineer. He was a twat who thought that it was cool to wear headphones and watch the news while I was coaching Sapho’s vocals. But anyway, she’s a great singer, and thanks to her covering a song by Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, I learned about Arabic music. I kept telling Sapho that she was singing out of tune until she burst out laughing and explained that she was singing quarter tones. If you imagine a Western piano keyboard, an Arabic one would be twice the size since you have notes in-between the black and white ones, and that was a big eye-opener for me.
– At one point you were distributing music for Stiff Records. How did that happen?
I created my first label with a friend and sound engineer called Emmanuel Thibierge. It was called Off The Track, and we set it up through a company called MusiDisc. The owner said he’d let me sign whatever I wanted, but I knew the company had both a poor business reputation in France, so I proposed he give me a budget to sign deals with international labels. I made a list that included names like Stiff Records, Mute Records, and 4AD, and I reached out to all of them. Some already had deals in place, but I saw an opening with Stiff and managed to close a deal with founder, Dave Robinson. But I quickly noticed that the sales figures I gave to Stiff didn’t match the ones MusiDisc was sending, so I knew something dishonest was going on and decided to end our relationship. But then I got a call from Dave asking if we could meet. He’d stopped working with Musidisc due to a disagreement in royalties and said “What about you? Would you distribute us in France? “, and I replied, “I’d love to but I don’t have a distributor yet “. So he gave me a month to work things out and I was able to set up a partnership with Just’In Distribution, which allowed me to close the licensing deal for Stiff’s entire catalog. We ended up releasing bands like Elmer Food Beat, The Mint Juleps and Dr Feelgood, which all became successes in France. I also broke The Pogues over here, and France became their second biggest market worldwide.
There was never a dull moment at Off The Track. I had a great team and we were always coming up with good ideas, even when we had to make things up as we went along.
– So you didn’t experience any push-back from the French market toward releasing English music?
It wasn’t really a problem in those days because the scene was mainly full of French variety music, and rock was a new thing. Téléphone was the only big French band around, and guys like Johnny Hallyday were still considered “rock” because the scene hadn’t produced enough artists yet. New genres like punk and new wave took longer to reach France, and not all of them did, so when I finally signed an act like Les Négresses Vertes, they became the new acoustic punk in France.
(Below: A young Peter Murray)
– What drew you to Les Négresses Vertes?
We were on fire with The Pogues and “Dirty Old Town” had become an anthem for the punk scene. Around that time, a friend told me about a French acoustic band who played the accordion and acoustic guitar with a touch of flamenco. He showed me a demo and it sounded raw – the drumming was done on the kitchen table, with spoons and glasses for percussion. The vocal was all over the place, but it was flamboyant and full of character. So I asked them for a meeting in my office, which was a big loft we shared with Just’In Distribution. The band consisted of eight guys and two girls, with the guys wearing suits similar to what you’d see in a Jean Gabin film, and the girls being colorful and exotic. I could sense their talent, so I signed them on the spot and they were in the studio a month later with producer Clive Martin.
It took a while for the French media to pay attention to them. It wasn’t until William Orbit’s house remix of “Zobi La Mouche” went #1 in the UK that the media suddenly said, “Wow, this is actually a great band ” (laughs). Their career took off after that, and the second single, “Voilà l’été” was the most-played song in the summer of 1989.
– What was your biggest commercial success with Off The Track?
Internationally, it was Les Négresses Vertes. I licensed the first album, “Mlah”, in 22 countries, with Sire Records for North America, Toshiba-EMI for Japan, and different labels for Europe.
Locally, it was tied between Les Négresses Vertes and Elmer Food Beat. I signed Elmer because their imagery and lyrics were amazing, and they went on to ship over a million units despite the provocative lyrics. We later sold out the Olympia four nights in a row, which was amazing.
– You also re-released some Curtis Mayfield albums in France, correct?
Yes, that’s right. He was one of my idols as a kid, so I got in touch with him when I realized he wasn’t in the French market. Funnily enough, his managers were two Scottish brothers, and I told them Curtis had to come to Europe to perform. So we put together a tour and re-released “Super Fly“ along with the “Live in Europe” album. He also played some gigs at New Morning which went very well. That was in 1988.
– Did your success with Off The Track lead to further opportunities?
It did. We’d broken the Pogues in France and proven we could sign and develop acts both locally and internationally. When my deal with Just’In came to an end, I negotiated a new one with the boss at Polydor France, who was none other than the guy I’d sung for some years earlier, Marc Lumbroso. But my ultimate ambition was to secure a licensing deal with Polygram International – I’d offer them a minority stake in my label in exchange for upfront investment. That would allow me to ramp up my artist development and expand internationally. Marc was instrumental in arranging a London meeting between me and Alain Levy, the vice-president of PolyGram Worldwide, but it was a bit strange because Alain was quiet and didn’t say much. I presented my pitch and requested €30 million for a stake in Off The Track, and he asked, “Would I get a majority stake? “, to which I said, “But then I’d be working for you, which I’d rather avoid “. So he asked me for a proposal and I suggested he take a minority stake instead. We could set milestones over a ten-year period, and if we reached those, PolyGram could buy us out for a ton of money. I wasn’t sure if I’d said the right things once the meeting was over, but when I got back to my office in France, Emmanuel Thibierge asked, “What did you do in London? “. He showed me a fax that just came in from PolyGram with the exact proposal I’d made to Alain, and things took off after that.
– Is it true that you were in talks to sign Daft Punk?
Yeah, there were many big artists I almost signed, but it’s hard to financially compete when major labels throw tons of money at them. I loved “Da Funk”, so I met with Thomas Bangalter in 1995 at a Chinese restaurant in Montmartre and told him I wanted to sign them. He said, “We’ve got an offer from Emmanuel De Buretel from Virgin, but our issue with him is that he wants our solo careers too “, to which I said, ”If Virgin takes the risk to develop an unknown group, then it’s common practice to have their solo careers too, but since Daft Punk are already popular, I don’t see much risk here. So I’d agree to your terms and only sign the group “. But then Thomas said, “I do have an issue with your label though. You have Silmaris on your roster, and I really don’t like them “. I thought that was funny, so I replied, “But if you sign with Virgin, you’ll be on the same roster as Alain Souchon. Do you like him? “, and he didn’t have an answer. But in the end, they went with the money and signed with Virgin.
– I’ve heard there was a falling out between Off The Track and Les Négresses Vertes. Can you talk about that?
Unfortunately, certain people turned Les Négresses Vertes against us by filling their heads with doubt, which led to a lawsuit over non-payment of royalties. It was nonsense. We won the case, and all magazines that spread the false claims made by the band’s accordionist were given court orders to publish the judgement. But whoever was behind it got what they wanted – the rift between Off The Track and the band was too much, so they signed to Emmanuel De Buretel’s newly-founded Delabel. Over the years, I’d run into Stéfane Mellino from the band, and we’ve gone over the whole story. Everything is clear now and we all reconciled for the 30th anniversary release of “Mlah”. But without the accordionist of course.
– So what happened to Off The Track? I don’t believe it exists anymore.
Well, in addition to losing Les Négresses Vertes, our deal with Alain Levy was sabotaged by an executive at Polygram France. He was pissed that I’d gone over his head to do a deal directly in the UK, so it led to problems, and Off The Track would have folded if I hadn’t been introduced to Laurent Dreux-Leblanc from XIII Bis Records. He wanted to buy the label, and it seemed like a good deal at the time. I was told nothing would change – I’d still be the boss, and Laurent wouldn’t involve himself in the label, apart from checking the numbers once a month. He gave the same guarantees to all my artists, but of course he couldn’t help himself. He had to interfere and all of my staff left because he was such a pain in the ass. So I eventually told him to piss off and said he was nothing but a cheque book, and I left the label. But it turned out his cheque book wasn’t big enough since he was being sued from all directions and his empire collapsed. Last I heard, he fled to Asia.
– So with your label gone, how did you end up working at Barclay?
Alain Levy found out about my problems with the executive at PolyGram France, so when I lost Off The Track, he decided to give me a label to run. I got an unexpected phone call from Paul-René Albertini, who said, “We’d like you to work under Pascal Nègre at Barclay to relaunch the Nord Sud label. You can start by signing three unknown artists for long-term development “. I accepted, and negotiated a deal that let me work as a freelancer rather than an employee, and the first act I signed was Zebda. I also co-produced their first album with Steve Chase. But there wasn’t any real enthusiasm at Barclay for Zebda even though Skyrock radio was playing their single twice a day. So after two years of working under a major label, I decided it was time to move on. I had some good times there, but I was tired of the way things operated.
– Did they fire you or did you leave on your own?
It was a mutual agreement not to continue, but I’m pretty sure the “long-term development” idea was bullshit (laughs). There was never any real intent for it to last. And Zebda, who seemed like an embarrassment for Barclay at first, went on to sell almost a million albums.
Shortly after my time at Nord Sud, I received an offer to become managing director of a French major label, but I had no desire to get back into that world, even though it was financially tempting. By the time I received another proposal in 1999, I could tell that the music industry was about to decline. Decisions were being made based on budgets and reporting to the UK or USA, so I refused that label offer too.
– Weren’t you also managing some recording studios at that time?
Yes. I’d taken bands like Maujarde to record at Studio du Manoir in the south-west of France, and I was also mixing a lot of stuff in Capri Digital Studio. Both owners seemed to like me, and they proposed I become the business manager of their studios, which is something I did parallel to running Nord Sud.
For Capri, I was able to fly out artists like Ozzy Ozbourne, Mariah Carey, and the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra. I also brought in five of the UK’s biggest producers to the studio: Flood, Alan Moulder, Clive Martin, Andy Wright and Al Clay.
(Below from left to right: Clive Martin and Peter Murray in 2020)
– How did your time at those studios come to an end?
I had to give it up because I was so busy with the artists on my new label, Murrayfield Music. Also, a lot of big studios had to close in the 90s and early 2000s. Studio Du Manoir closed for a long time and reopened only a few years ago. Carloquinto Talamona ended up having to sell Capri, which had been a major investment for him. So it was a shame to see it go.
– Tell me about setting up Murrayfield Music.
Whilst managing the studios, I was still scouting for new talent and someone told me about a band called Silmarils, so I went to see them rehearse at the Bataclan. They sounded like Beastie Boys meets Rage Against The Machine, and I loved their music immediately. I took them to Studio du Manoir with my favorite producer, Clive Martin, and we spent a week recording four tracks, after which I pitched them to different labels. The only person who got excited was Michael Wijnen, the boss at EastWest. We got on really well and agreed on a label deal, which is how Murrayfield was born.
Dolly was the second act on the label, who I signed after seeing them live in a bar in Nantes. Their song “Je N’Veux Pas Rester Sage” became the power-pop anthem of the 90s in France, and the lyrics were written by David Salsedo, the front-man of Silmarils.
– You also own a mastering studio called La Source Mastering. How did you and Jean-Pierre Chalbos set that up?
When Off The Track was at its peak, I booked The Mint Juleps and 3 Mustaphas 3 to perform at the Les Rencontres Trans Musicales in Rennes. I’d also booked Scottish supergroup Runrig to play a gig, so I needed limos to pick all the artists up from the airport. I called one of my contacts and he said, “Sure, I can get you some limos. And if you need a driver, I can ask my son to handle that “. His son turned out to be Jean-Pierre, who was eighteen, and we got along great. I later gave him a job overseeing our mastering and vinyl pressings, and we eventually set up our own mastering facility after meeting well-known audio engineer called David Manley. The three of us became partners and rented a space in the 8th district. David designed the acoustics, JP became the mastering engineer, and I handled the business. David sadly passed away in 2012, so JP and I are the remaining partners.
– But your current offices aren’t in the 8th district, so how did you end up where you are now?
We foresaw the vinyl explosion of the early 2010s, and decided to buy one of the main vinyl cutting studios called Top Master in 2008. The cutting engineer, André Pérriat, stayed on and we had good times with him, but his partner, Gilles Cabana, ended up being a total nut-case. He’s a guy in sunglasses and a flowery shirt who thinks he’s cool when he’s not. My financial advisor at the time said to me, “I haven’t seen guys like that in a while. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? “. But I took the risk and we later realized how big of a difficulty he was. So when we found some cool studios near Pont de Levallois, we dumped everything and moved here in 2012.
– As someone who’s worked with mastering engineers both in the UK and France, can you compare what it’s like?
Overall, I think mastering is more understood in the UK than France, but I found the approaches to be very different. Generally, UK engineers will make proposals after taking time to listen to the music, and they can be quite conservative in bringing any real change to the tracks. Part of the reason is that the UK has many famous producers and mixers that are known for a certain sound, so the mastering engineers prefer to respect that by not altering the record too much. But in France, some engineers try squeezing in as much work as possible and you hear it in the final result. Everyone knows that some albums have the same sound from start to finish, whilst others have varying dynamics from track to track. So you can’t listen to the first track and use the same mastering settings for the rest of the album, which many French engineers were doing in the 90s and some still do today.
– Can you give any examples of how Jean-Pierre’s mastering is different from what you just described?
Sure. Here’s a story: I had a 9am session at one of the biggest studios in London, and the mastering engineer walked in and said, “Come back at 2pm and I’ll A-B some different directions we can choose from “. I remember thinking, ”You don’t need five hours to find a direction. These things usually take an hour “. When I told Jean-Pierre about it, he thought it sounded ridiculous and didn’t believe me, so I brought him to the next session to see it for himself. Again, the mastering engineer told us to come back in the afternoon, and when we arrived, there was hardly any difference between the versions (laughs). But when Clive Martin asked us to master Silmarils’ “Cours Vite“, I played Rage Against The Machine and told Jean-Pierre that it needed to sound like that. So he used a fair amount of digital compression on that session, which mastering engineers never did back then, but it helped set him apart from his peers.
– Apparently there’s a story behind how La Source was chosen to master one of Simple Minds’ albums. Can you share that?
Sure. That album came to us through a friend of mine called Andy Wright. He started off as a programmer for Massive Attack and went on to work with other acts like Luciano Pavarotti and Simply Red. I asked him, “Why don’t you master your artists in France? Send some things to us and we’ll master them for you “. He liked the results, so when it came time to master Simple Minds’ “Big Music“, he added our name to the list of potential studios and sent the album to each one. It went to LA, New York, London and to us in Paris. Everyone laughed when a French studio was included, but Andy was like, “I’ve worked with these guys and it’s worth a shot “. When the masters came back, they played all the versions in a blind test for Andy, Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill, and the engineer, Gavin Goldberg. Everyone unanimously chose the Paris version. But some people were skeptical, so Andy said they’d do a second blind test in the evening. Paris won again, and that’s how La Source ended up as the final choice. It was the same with Jamiroquai’s last album, “Automaton“. We won the blind test for that, up against the biggest names in the US and UK.
– Did you ever work with Suprême NTM?
We did master some things for them, but it led to a bad experience at our previous studios when they blew our B&W speakers. Instead of choosing a recording studio that could offer higher volume, their label booked a listening session with us. So when one of the guys leaned forward and cranked the volume, our speakers blew (laughs).
– I’ve heard you were involved in the creation of a music tech company called Grandlink. Tell me about that.
In the late 90s, a friend of mine called Jorge Verissimo was trying to raise capital to set up a company that would use satellites to transfer HD photos. I thought it was an odd idea since you could already transfer HD photos over the Internet in 1999, although bandwidth was low. But it got me thinking, and I came up with the idea for Grandlink Media. It always amazed me how much money labels spent on sending their new releases to the media. They’d assemble packages filled with biographies, VHS tapes and CDs, and post it by physical mail, which seemed like a needless hassle. So I came up with an idea to use satellite multicast technology to digitize all that material, store it on servers, and make the files available in broadcast quality for TV and radio. Mangrove Capital in Luxembourg loved the idea and confirmed a first round of financing with me as shareholder and CEO. They organized a presentation at the Banque Générale de Luxembourg and we raised a further few million, which enabled me to assemble a team and build the platform. We developed the project over a four-year period and raised €6 million in total for it.
It was a fantastic tool that delivered all new releases directly to radios & TV, as well as being visible to all the marketing teams at the labels. The files were uplinked from Astra, the biggest satellite provider in Europe, and within twenty minutes we could deliver them to every label, radio or TV station in the world. The record sleeves were in PDF format and both the video and audio was broadcast quality in MP4 and MP2 format.
We beta tested for about four years with all the major labels except Sony, and had 108 users at Universal alone. We also had cooperation from all the big indies, national radio networks and over 30 regional stations. In fact, the media trusted us so much that our servers were behind their firewalls in the broadcast rooms.
– So why didn’t it work out?
The French record industry is represented by an entity called SNEP. Things were fine until they got involved and decided to negotiate a blanket deal for all their members. Also, Sony were a pain in the ass. During a board meeting, I remember one of their top executives saying, “You don’t need a Rolls Royce to deliver records to radio ”. These were guys who didn’t know the difference between WAV and MP3. We explained that the original files were encrypted and that a mirrored version existed for the public, which people could use to buy songs online. So it was basically iTunes before iTunes, but they still didn’t get it. When my CTO and I met in New York with Sony’s Head of Digital Acquisitions, the guy didn’t even know that some radio stations in the US were playing files from a computer instead of using CDs. Meanwhile, Universal, EMI and Warner were on our side, and Warner wanted Grandlink up and running as soon as possible in New York and LA.
When SNEP got involved, we also ran into issues with a company called Yacast, who’s business model was based on reporting to the major labels what songs played on the radio. Afterwards, they’d sell those statistics to other record companies. So they told the labels, “If you give this technology to us, we’ll even tell you when the radio stations download the music and listen to it “. You can imagine how radio guys protested that. Anyway, we had to make our presentation at the SNEP Board Meeting, with Yacast hiding in a room nearby. There was another company present called Tite Live who didn’t even have a demo to show, but was allowed in for some reason. When the final decision was announced, it caused an uproar – they’d voted for Tite Live. A fly on the wall told me it was mayhem in the room; the Warner guys were screaming for Grandlink and Sony was screaming for Yacast. It was Pascal Nègre who jumped in and said that if no-one could agree, then SNEP should just let Tite Live have it. I guess he was buying us time, as it gave us a few months to put together a petition that was signed by all the national radio networks and major local stations, which is unprecedented. But unfortunately, we ran out of money during the process, so I had no choice but to wind down the French office and cut our losses by selling the parent company.
A few years ago I bumped into Pascal and he told me, “You guys were ten years ahead of everyone else with that technology ”, and I laughed and said, “No, everyone else was just ten years behind ”.
– You said Grandlink was iTunes before iTunes. Do you think Apple took any inspiration from that?
Not at all. Apple must have been developing iTunes at the same time we were developing Grandlink. It’s actually reassuring that they had the same problems as us (laughs). I read an interview where Steve Jobs spoke about the difficulty in convincing the major labels to let him beta test with their catalog. He said the label executives were trying to lecture him about tech when he already had hundreds of guys with white coats and PhDs on his team that knew how it worked. It took him eighteen months to convince Warner to finally let him run a beta test with their catalog – that’s exactly what happened to me. But to be honest, the labels made a big mistake by allowing someone else to become the unique distributor of their digital catalog without setting a price upfront. Steve Jobs wasn’t concerned with making money from selling music – he was focused on selling iPods and iPhones. So the labels had no choice but to comply once the price was set, and they made the same mistake with Spotify.
– When you have such a big music endeavor like Grandlink that doesn’t work out, does your reputation take a hit?
It depends on who’s judging, especially if some people don’t know the truth about what happened. If you’re a venture capitalist who’s looking for a fast return on investment, then yes, you’d call Grandlink a failure. But then again, the VC success rate is like that of a label A&R. If only one of your ten signings is a hit, you’re good. Also, not a single person found any fault with Grandlink Media, and even fifteen years later, no-one has managed to replicate it. Today’s record labels are still sending physical promos to radio stations and TV, which is a joke.
If I’d set up the company in the UK, we’d have been in business within a year, so my mistake was running it from France.
(Below: Billboard article from March 2004 about SNEP’s decision. Can also be read here)
– You were also involved in the funding of Skype. Can you tell me about that?
Sure. Mark Tluszcz is the co-founder and CEO of Mangrove Capital, the major investor in Grandlink. He would often send me business plans to get a second opinion on them, and he sent me the one for Skype in 2003. But it was so technical that my CTO had to read it as well. Once he was done, I asked him, “Did anything stick out on page five? “, and he said, “So you saw it too? “, and I was like, “Yeah, they’ve invented free calls over the Internet “. So I told Mark that he had to jump on it, and he said, “You’re right, but it seems the creators are hesitant about taking money from venture capitalists. Would you mind talking to one of them? “. So he set up a phone call with Niklas Zennström, and I explained to him how Mangrove do business. I said, “Yes, a VC wants a return on their investment, but Mangrove is there to help if you stumble, not push you into making rash decisions. When Grandlink needed money, they set up a meeting with a major bank in Luxembourg and we walked away with $3 million. So they won’t be telling you how to run your company “. So Skype accepted an investment from Mangrove and Mark was instrumental in brokering the biggest deal in European VC history when Skype was sold to eBay for $2.6 billion. So although Mangrove lost with Grandlink, I helped them win with Skype, and I was well looked after for it.
– A lot of people complain about the level of talent being signed to major labels these days. As someone who’s worked at record labels, what are your thoughts on shows like The Voice? How come the majors don’t sign the promising singers on such shows, rather than give deals to underwhelming artists?
Well, the winner does get signed to Universal, but I can share a story about that since I manage a Lebanese artist called Hiba Tawaji, who’s a superstar in the Middle East. She participated in the French version of The Voice, and all four judges turned around when she sang “Les Moulins De Mon Coeur “. Since one of the judges, Mika, is Franco-Lebanese, he recognized her and couldn’t believe that she’d auditioned as an unknown contestant. But here’s the thing: I was there during her later rounds, and there were A&Rs from every major label sitting on the couch, taking notes during all the performances. The idea that a singer might find success after The Voice without signing to a major label was so frightening that they sent all their A&Rs to monitor the show.
– Last few questions. In your opinion, what’s the best business move to make if you’re a musician today?
Wherever possible, retain ownership of your songs and your masters. I manage an electronic artist, and I negotiated a deal where he owns 100% of his first recordings and licensed them to a niche label, with a 50/50 co-production deal for his upcoming album. All costs are recouped, and between his 20% artist agreement and the 50/50 on production, he receives 60% of the money his music makes. In 18 months, he’s already received more than €35,000 in royalties, and has neither hit records, airplay nor big gigs to his name. If he was signed with a major, he wouldn’t even have received €50 in royalties. So the business has changed.
– You told me before our interview how you’ve never offered your artists a business contract longer than six pages. Why is that?
I understand the American view of having 100-page contracts that arrange any disputes in the favor of the label, but contracts in France used to be about twelve pages in the 90s, and even now they’re around thirty pages. So I decided pretty early that trust was more important that a contract. But someone might say, “Well, that didn’t help you with the Les Negresses Vertes lawsuit “, but it actually did. When their lawyer accused me of dishonesties like owning a castle in Scotland and having a Swiss bank account, I asked the judge to audit our accounts and compare the band’s contract with those of other labels. The result showed that we didn’t owe any money, and that our contract was by far the most favorable to the artist, and was also the shortest. But I could only do short contracts with Off The Track’s artists. Nord Sud was owned by Barclay, and Murrayfield was initially attached to EastWest and Warner, so those contracts had to agree with the major label’s legal policy.
It might sound naïve to offer contracts no longer than six pages, but I’ve been screwed over by both labels and artists no matter the length of the contract. Also, long contracts are structured to earn money for lawyers. So having the right contract isn’t as important as having the right people around you. Legend has it that Daniel Miller still doesn’t have a recording contract with Depeche Mode, so if trust is there, the contract just becomes a pile of paper for the sake of your accountant.
– Thanks for talking to me Peter. This has been a great interview. So what’s next for you in 2020?
I’ve been working and building a new concept for the past three years. It’s based around unsigned artists and creating a new revenue model. But I can’t say anything about it just yet. And learning from my mistakes, I’ll be launching out of the UK, probably Scotland.
– Has your business been affected by the coronavirus crisis?
Yes, La Source Mastering has been affected because some of our clients wanted to be present at the mastering session, which hasn’t been possible. So those sessions were delayed. We also had some important 80s and 90s albums to remaster but first we needed the original tapes, and we couldn’t get to them until now. Murrayfield Music was also affected because Hiba Tawaji had a North American tour planned, and it’s been pushed back a year. I also had to reschedule the Silmarils 25th Anniversary gig at the Bataclan, and lots of album releases have been pushed to 2021. But hey, if things get really bad I can always go back to singing in the metro (laughs).
(Below: Peter Murray with Silmarils and their live agent, Dominique Revert, in 2020)