- Face to Face with Korda Marshall
- Article Post Date: Wednesday 03.10.2012
Few British record label execs can have had a career as varied as Korda Marshall – from working at a major record company in the 1980s, to running one of the country’s most successful indies in the 1990s, to heading up a major label in the noughties, to leading one of the most exciting independents of today. He’s worked with The Blow Monkeys, Eurythmics, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ash, Peter Andre, Garbage, Paul Oakenfold, Muse, The Darkness, James Blunt, Madonna, Gnarls Barkley, Green Day, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Temper Trap and current Mercury nominees Alt-J.
He’s worked for himself, for global entertainment conglomerates, for an inspirational Aussie music man, and at one point reported to a certain James Murdoch. And yet he remains as passionate as ever about discovering great bands and releasing great records. He launched the original Infectious Records in 1993, starting a journey that ultimately saw Marshall head up a UK division of Warner Music. Having parted company with the major, in 2009 he relaunched Infectious, and now works with The Temper Trap, Local Natives, Cloud Control, These New Puritans and surely the buzziest of new bands this year, Alt-J.
At City Showcase this year Korda will be in conversation with Record Of The Day’s Liz Stokes, and also take part in the CD Dump demos panel, both at the Gibson Guitar Studio on 12 Oct. Ahead of that, we spoke to Marshall about his career to date, the highs, the lows, and what makes version two of Infectious Music so special.
TW: Let’s start right at the beginning, how did you get your first break into the record industry?
KM: I played drums quite badly in a great band called Zerra 1. Along the way we supported Echo And The Bunnymen and The Cure, so I got to meet ‘industry people’ through that. I heard there was a job going as a talent scout at RCA Records and applied for it, and after three interviews lasting over nine hours I finally got the job… as a tape-copier-come-coffee-maker-come-talent-scout. It paid £50 a week, a night bus pass and company luncheon vouchers.
TW: What was it like working for a major record company in the 1980s?
KM: It was an amazing experience and great fun. Records sold enormous amounts in those days and it was the the full-on hedonistic eighties, so I’m a bit embarrassed about what went on, but it was all brilliant and a bit like riding a roller coaster. I got to work with some really experienced record industry executives, like Peter Robinson, David Betteridge and John Preston, and learnt all about how big record companies work, how to run a recording budget, how to project manage a release cycle, and how to motivate and co-ordinate a team. One of the artists I was involved with at this time was Eurythmics, and working closely with Dave Stewart and his Anxious Records label really helped me understand the role of the producer, and how to tread delicately with artists, and to help them deliver their vision through the company and out into the wider world.
TW: What motivated you to launch the original Infectious Records?
KM: Eventually I got fired by RCA, but my lawyer told me he could find me an A&R job within a week. Three months later the phone hadn’t rung once! So I thought, bugger that, I’ll start my own label. Luckily enough, RCA had let me go only three months into a new deal, so they had to pay me three full years salary to go away, and I used this money to start my own label. I was confident I knew what I was doing after ten successful years with my former employer, and thought, if no else believes in me then I’ll just crack on and do it for myself. I’d signed a band called Pop Will Eat Itself while at RCA, and they got dropped for bad behaviour shortly after I’d left the company, so I found myself able to re-sign them to Infectious, giving me a band with a strong fanbase and international sales from the start. This enabled me to raise money from distributors and overseas licences so I had a business with cashflow from day one.
TW: You quickly allied Infectious with Australia’s Mushroom Records, creating Mushroom UK, which later saw your label become part of the Murdoch empire. What was that like?
KM: Again, amazing fun and and a lot of hard work. Mushroom was like a Virgin Records in Australia, they were full of real music people led by a passionate music man in Michael Gudinski, and working with them was one of the best times of my whole career. I had a fantastic team of people around me and we had quick success with no less than three songs with the word ‘girl’ in their title! In one six month period we had a number one with Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’, top five with Garbage’s ‘Stupid Girl’ and top ten with Ash’s ‘Girl From Mars’. We grew that company from a start-up to a £23 million business over ten years. Then Michael Gudinski sold his shares to News Corp in 1998 and I suddenly had a young James Murdoch as my boss. This allowed me to finance real artist development, not having to worry about quarterly cash flow, and instead being able to build and invest for the future. Happy days!
TW: When Mushroom was bought by Warner Music in 2003 you found yourself back in the major label system, this time post-Napster. How did the major label of the 2000s compare with that of the 1980s?
KM: Warners in the noughties was very different to RCA in the eighties, it was a much bigger more successful international company at the time. Initially Roger Ames brought me in and he was a fantastic boss, but six months later Edgar Bronfman Jr bought the company from Time Warner and the whole management ethos changed. But we were initially very successful, with artists like The Darkness, James Blunt, Muse and Gnarls Barkley, so they left me and Max Lousada in the UK division alone. As long as the numbers were delivered we were OK. And it was an amazing experience working with some of Warner’s American artists like Madonna, Green Day and Red Hot Chilli Peppers on top of our UK-signed acts. For most of my eight years there I had a great time working with great people and fantastic talent.
TW: So, despite having one of the top jobs at one of the biggest music companies, what motivated you to step down and subsequently revive Infectious in 2009?
KM: As soon as the then Warner UK chairman Nick Phillips left and a few releases slipped, I knew they [Warner Music top guard in the US] had their sights on me, but by that time I’d been ground down a bit by Corporate America anyway. I philosophically disagreed with their protectionist digital strategies and the accountants appeared to be running the company and making the decisions. Plus I’d been there eight years by this point, and I was fifty years old, and felt it might be time to move aside for the youngsters.
I knew that my current contract would leave me comfortably off, so made a grand plan to step aside from the music business and go sailing. But after a month planning a round the world trip I got nervous, and then Gudinski rang me up and asked if I could check out his new band The Temper Trap, as there was a lot of interest in them in the UK and the States. I went and saw them and fell in love with them. By chance the next day my current business partner Michael Watt called to see what I was up to, and offered to finance a new label. So the day after that I met up with my old colleague Pat Carr, who agreed to work with me again, and not three years later here we still are, and still in business!
TW: How does Infectious v2 compare to the first incarnation of the label?
KM: They are totally different companies, but hopefully with the same artist-friendly creative aesthetic. First time around albums sold huge amounts and at full price, so there was a good margin to play with when it came to marketing and the release plans. This time around we are not empire building, rather we want to stay small, creative and focused. We only sign and work with artists that I absolutely love, and that have very strong songs with distinctive vocals and layers of melody and harmony. We are attempting to be all about online and digital growth, and keeping the distance between the creator and the consumer as small as possible.
TW: Tell us about the artists you are now working with.
KM: We have an amazing little roster of five artists. Obviously Temper Trap were the first and without their worldwide success we wouldn’t still be here. Their debut album ‘Conditions’ sold just under a million copies worldwide and the single ‘Sweet Disposition’ was a big hit. We also made sure that this was synced properly all around the world which really helped. We also have a great band from Silver Lake, Los Angeles, called Local Natives. They have just finished their second album for us, which is full of the most beautiful songs imaginable. Their first record ‘Gorilla Manor’ sold about 70,000 ex-USA, which was healthy, and the new one is being set up now and is out in January. They’re touring lots so check them out as they’re also great live.
The third is Alt J, and that story is still writing itself, but they are all geniuses and Tav the manager is one of the best in the business. Fourth is a band I’ve been trying to work with for a very long time called These New Puritans. They had two amazing albums out through Domino, which is a label I love, and I have huge respect for [co-founder] Laurence [Bell]. We managed to arrange a ‘free transfer’, with Domino keeping the publishing and we are making their third album now for next March release. From what I’ve seen it’s going to be brilliant: they’ve been breaking and recording a lot of different thickness glass, have focused on different size gong sounds and the purity of the note, and last week were trying to record the sound of birds flying over a still lake early in the morning! Last but not least is Cloud Control from Australia. We’re making their second album now and it’s exciting to be involved in the song-writing selection processes with them.
TW: What advice would you have for a new artist looking for a record deal in 2012?
KM: Firstly, just concentrate on the music. Do your best to sound original, perfect the art and craft of song-writing, believe in yourself and only work with nice people, don’t create a bidding war, and when you do do a deal, fight for a0s much control as possible. If the company signing you believes in you and trusts you, then they’ll give you the control. Don’t do what every one else always does; try and be unique in everything you do. And finally, work closely with your manager, a good lawyer and an accountant, so you understand the money trail.
TW: What advice would you have for an aspiring independent label owner?
KM: Firstly, come to my office and bring your new artists to me! If not, and you want to do it on your own, then believe a thousand per cent in what you’re doing, manage the numbers properly, surround yourself with great people and cross all your fingers and your toes.
TW: And, if you had to choose just three, what would you say are your proudest achievements from your three decades in music?
KM: Personally speaking, my three proudest achievements are my three kids: Summer is the eldest and is an agent at CAA, William’s at college doing a degree but is also working as a scout and worked with Live Nation through the summer, and Molly is still doing GCSEs and is fantastic with a camera. I trust their ears and they constantly play me new music and keep me up to date with things.
Professionally, it’s really difficult, as I’ve been proud more than a few times over thirty three years. My first hit ‘Digging Your Scene’ by The Blow Monkeys was a major gear change for my career and I learnt a lot about dealing with the musical recording process from Doctor Robert. Signing muse when they’re were seventeen and Ash when they were fifteen was quite an achievement looking back, but at the time was nerve racking. Gnarls Barkley ‘Crazy’ was the first download-only number one single and that was a huge record for me that year. Bit I’m more focused on the now, and I’m really proud of Pat and all the team at the office, and all their hard work on Temper Trap and Alt J this year. It’s really beginning to show results, due to great hardworking bands well managed with a small focused team that are all doing a great job. I’m definitely proud of that.