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Campbell Smith is back in the ring

Campbell Smith is back in the ring

Nov 29, 2013 Music

He’s the man promising to revitalise the Big Day Out, with or without Blur. From the December Metro, Russell Brown’s profile of music industry kingpin Campbell Smith.

Portrait by Alistair Guthrie.

The sun drew low over Mt Smart Stadium and Campbell Smith stood in the half-light near the south end of the ground with a goofy, incredulous look on his face. Hardly anyone in the throng recognised him. It was January 21, 2005: his first Big Day Out as the famous event’s promoter.

“I looked at all these people there, 40,000 people, and I had this weird mixture of enormous satisfaction and abject fear. It seemed anthropologically absurd to me that this many people were gathered in one place and it should all be all right. What if 20 people want to riot, or break a fence down?

“But gradually, through the day, it felt better and better — and when the show ended and all the crowds had gone and we were left there on our own, it was probably the most euphoric I’ve ever felt.”

Seven years later, there was no euphoria. The doomed 2012 Auckland Big Day Out was playing out. Smith’s promoter friends in the US and Europe retweeted pictures of something he only needed to look out the window to see — the laughable smattering of punters on the floor of the stadium that should have been heaving with bodies.

He had known even before tickets went on sale that he didn’t have a lineup he could sell. The Big Day Out’s Australian owners were in chaos. At the age of 45 and after 20 years in a business that does calamity well, here was his first abject failure. There wouldn’t be another chance.

“We were definitely done. Not a word of a lie. I was emotionally fucked, physically spent,” he says. “I thought perhaps that style and nature of event had reached its logical conclusion. So it was done. We definitely weren’t going to come back.”

On Friday, January 17, 2014, Campbell Smith is bringing the Big Day Out back to Auckland. Definitely.

 

Campbell Roy Smith’s remarkable career in the music industry began, as things at 95bFM often do, by accident. He’d completed his law degree at the University of Auckland, specialising in copyright, and taken a job at Russell McVeagh in 1992 before moving to commercial law firm Keegan Alexander. He was managing a mate’s band on the side, but nothing seemed likely to get him out of his suit and tie.

But a university friend, Marcus Lush, was pulling shifts as a waiter (“the worst waiter ever”) at one of Smith’s watering holes, the Veranda Bar & Grill. Late one night over drinks, they came up with the idea of a legal advice slot on Lush’s bFM Breakfast show. The following morning, a hungover Smith presented himself to the world as Roy the Lawyer, answering the anxious queries of listeners who’d been busted with a joint or done out of wages by a crooked boss.

He was two weeks in when station manager Harriet Crampton asked him to join the station’s board. He was delighted. But there was a more important spin-off of being Roy the Lawyer.

“Two things were critical in me trying to be a music lawyer,” says Smith. “One was that because I was on air, musicians knew I was a lawyer and they didn’t know any other lawyers. There was no real business infrastructure around music. No accounts, no one giving you advice in how to set yourself up in a business sense. So there was a bit of an open field, but you still had to set yourself up and, being on air, being Roy the Lawyer gave me that credibility with musicians.”

The other critical factor was the help of Malcolm Black, the former singer and guitarist in the Netherworld Dancing Toys (he wrote “For Today”), who was then the only dedicated music lawyer in the country.

Black says he was “immediately taken by Smith’s enthusiasm and intelligence”.

“Malcolm knew he couldn’t be on both sides of a negotiation, so he’d send me stuff,” says Smith. “He said, ‘You don’t seem to be stupid. If I’m acting for one side, I’ll send you the other.’ A lot of work came that way.”

For three or four years, if there was a music industry contract being negotiated, Black and Campbell were probably on either side of it. This in itself was novel, and a sign that the skills vacuum in the industry was beginning to resolve. Things were changing, Smith says.

“You had people like us starting to advise artists, going hand-in-hand with labels realising that they couldn’t just present someone with a document and say, ‘Sign it’.”

 

There is a tradition at the Apra Silver Scroll Awards that goes back so many years it might as well be forever. It is that the award for the most international airplay goes to Neil Finn for “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.

But at this year’s Silver Scrolls, something different happened. The award went to “Something in the Water” by Brooke Fraser, whom Smith has managed for a decade. He was gobsmacked, but accepted on her behalf with a witty speech in which he predicted that Lorde’s “Royals” would win the award next year and thereafter and “this year will be the Trivial Pursuit question”.

He admits he ought not have been surprised. “Something in the Water” was a Top 10 hit in five European countries and the third-most-played song on German radio in 2011. It’s an interesting illustration of the way an artist’s international success can have the perverse effect of making them invisible at home. Fraser, still only 29, lives in New York with her husband and, says Smith with a note of satisfaction, “she has a nice life”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSPK_5tkRN4

Smith’s first client, the Tufnels, never desired a career (although they did famously make the only album ever to be funded solely from the proceeds of phone trivia quizzes), but the next, Nathan Haines, did want a life in music. Then Smith picked up the Flying Nun band Garageland, whom he followed to London in 1997. But the artist who would keep him away longer was Bic Runga.

Smith and Runga spent two years touring the world promoting her records. They were both fresh. She was an international priority artist for Columbia/Sony and he dealt with labels, publishers, booking agents, promoters and the rest.

“With a group, their closest relationships are generally with each other. But Bic and I spent two years travelling the world together. It’s a constant relationship and not an altogether always comfortable one. You’re often all the other person has.”

Did he worry about screwing up?

“Yeah. But I’ve always had a healthy sense of self-belief. I never really thought I couldn’t do it. The trick is having people think you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. Maybe I was figuring it out as I went along, but I think I was only a split-second behind.

“When I think about what I know now that I didn’t know then, that makes me shudder.”

His only real mentor was a man he never met. For years, Smith relied on Los Angeles music lawyer Donald Passman’s book All You Need to Know About the Music Business.

“It was kind of a bible. I’ll own up to that now, although I never would have at the time.”

 

When he returned in 2000, Smith decided it was time to partner up. He brought in Teresa Patterson and former Mushroom/Flying Nun manager Paul McKessar, who remain with him today at CRS Music Management and as partners in a cluster of related companies.

Smith’s big artist is Fraser, McKessar handles the Naked and Famous and Patterson was named Manager of the Year by her peers last year for her work with Six60.

The rest of the current roster is a mix of the mainstream (Anika, Boh & Hollie), the indie (Opossom) and the yet-unknown (zesty Auckland rapper Randa, who is managed by Trieste Douglas). Smith’s key man on the Big Day Out is event co-ordinator Etienne “ET” Marais.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYw3zSKn4_M

They all work from the building in Morningside that Smith bought with concert promoter Brent Eccles with the intention of creating a music industry hub. The building’s other occupants include the publisher Mushroom Music and its associated label Liberation, Eccles’ own concert agencies, a music PR company, music manager Ashley Page and, of course, the Big Day Out operation. It’s also where Lorde’s Pure Heroine album and its global hit, “Royals”, was recorded.

Smith’s connection to the Lorde story is crucial, if not widely known. When he and McKessar set up a music-licensing business, Level Two Music, they brought in Lorde’s producer and co-writer Joel Little and made room for his Golden Age studio.

“That’s what Joel came in there to do,” says Smith. “The making-records thing was a bit on the side. I saw Ella [Lorde] coming in to the studio every day, loping like a teenager, and I could hear the bottom end coming through my walls as the music was made — the studio is right through the wall from my desk. But I never heard anything fully formed until Joel came out and played us ‘Royals’. He put it on and I was like, ‘Are you shitting me?’”

Smith and his companies have been riding high for a while. By the end of 2004, CRS’s roster included Bic Runga, Stellar* the band led by Boh Runga (whom Smith married in 2003), Scribe, Fraser, Blindspott and Dimmer. Smith also provided legal services to Hayley Westenra and Nesian Mystik. And he was poised to become Grand Poobah of Everything…

The 2004 Auckland Big Day Out, headlined by Metallica, the Strokes and Basement Jaxx, had been a success. But the festival’s Australian founders, Ken West and Vivian Lees, subsequently lost faith in their local agent, Bridget Darby, and Lees asked Smith to step in.

He staged his first Big Day Out in January 2005. Two months later, he became chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (Rianz), which represented the interests of record labels in this country. He remained an artist manager, but for the first and only time in his career, he was also batting for the other side.

“He’s never worked from the record company side,” says Black. “He’s always been on the artist’s side all the way through.”

Smith’s first change was telling. Performance royalties from Rianz’s rights-collection subsidiary, PPNZ, had been 100 per cent recoupable against the artists’ advances from their labels, meaning that the artists rarely saw a dollar. Smith was a strong supporter of a change that meant 50 per cent of the royalties went directly to artists.

“That was a really important motivator for me,” he says. “Because I thought, if every six months songwriters got a little bit of money from Apra and a little bit from PPNZ, you might get a situation where if you’re an artist, you don’t have to work in a bank or flip burgers to follow your muse.”

There was another motivation. “The Music Awards were shit. The last one I’d been to was at the St James. I had a ticket and couldn’t get in. And then you had to catch buses or walk up the hill in the rain to the Sheraton for the party. It was a dog’s breakfast. Just an embarrassment.

“I realised that the only way we were going to grow it was to let the punters in. A bunch of fucking retailers sitting around getting pissed was not that interesting.”

Deborah Pead, whose company Pead PR had picked up the Rianz account in 2004, also grimaces at the memory of the infamous St James event. Smith’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill-Joyce, and his board had already agreed it couldn’t happen again, she says. Justine McKay and Andy Dowding of J&A Productions had taken over event management of the awards in 2003 and begun work on a plan to get the awards back on track. With the arrival of Smith, the awards were completely reinvented.

It had been common for groups to be nominated — sometimes for multiple awards — and be told that only two or three members could attend. Before 2005, musicians were, basically, tolerated at the Music Awards. But that year, they arrived in limousines hired by Pead and walked into the Aotea Centre on a red carpet.

 

Elsewhere, the war had not yet begun. Under O’Neill-Joyce, the industry’s anti-piracy campaigning had looked clunky and amateurish. Under Smith, Rianz had the opportunity to press for action against what was seen as a gathering tide of digital piracy when the Labour government called for submissions on the 2006 Copyright Amendment Bill.

Smith went for the doctor. Member labels reached into their pockets to fund a submission drafted by a team led by Andrew Brown, Smith’s old boss at Russell McVeagh. It was a document as vile as it was ludicrous.

Rianz (and the independent labels under IMNZ, who unwisely joined in on the same submission) demanded that the government pass a law that would have vainly prohibited anyone from watching a programme more than once on your MySky. They wanted libraries prevented from digitising collections for archival purposes (from, in other words, being libraries). They said the Film Archive’s public facilities should be shut down as “unnecessary”.

From an industry not shy about its own appeals to the public good, it was unfathomable. Smith, who had several years before told an industry seminar he didn’t have much of a problem with file-sharing, which was “the only marketing we’ve got in most territories”, now told the select committee that file-sharing was destroying his artists’ careers.

His own artist, Bic Runga, caught some of the blowback and distanced herself from his statements.

When a public campaign spooked the new National government into delaying and then softening the copyright bill’s now-infamous Section 92(A), providing for forcible disconnection for illicit internet downloaders, it seemed Smith had led his industry to a terrible defeat in the PR war.

What wasn’t obvious at the time was that Smith himself wasn’t always comfortable with what he was fronting for. “It’s probably fair to say that I was a little … not intimidated, but browbeaten by [global industry body] IFPI,” Smith acknowledges. “A little bit naive, maybe. The first thing I had to do that I didn’t really believe in was to have to try to re-emphasise the law that you couldn’t format-shift music. To have to say to people, ‘Well, you’ve bought a CD but you’re not allowed to put it on your iPod because that breaks the law,’ seemed fuckin’ absurd.

“I’ve never really talked about this before, but going to international conferences when I first worked at Rianz was distressing as well as depressing — dinner at night with a bunch of old men in blazers eating shrimp cocktails. It was London — I wanted to go to some gigs, and it would be ‘You can’t, because there’s the dinner tonight.’ It was nothing to do with music at all. I was definitely in a minority being someone who actually listened to and liked music.”

He contrasts these “grasping, moribund” international executives with their more grounded local counterparts, especially Universal Music NZ boss Adam Holt, who Smith says is “probably the most savvy and progressive music industry executive I’ve ever worked with”.

His memories of the politicians he had to lobby about copyright legislation are no fonder. “It was a hideous experience — stupid and fruitless. I don’t think I spoke to any politician without there being some ulterior motive or consideration in their mind about how this might play into their ultimate end goal. The only politician I ever spoke to where I didn’t get that sense was Helen Clark. She had simple, straight answers to everything. I guess she was all-powerful so she didn’t have to consider how it might affect her.”

While Smith became the bad guy for the local internet community, the sheer power of his position — and its potential for conflict of interest — brought on the heat from his own industry. When all his businesses occupied the same swish Grey Lynn office as Rianz, people could be forgiven for thinking Rianz itself was just another Campbell Smith business interest.

There were mutterings about his artists’ good fortune at the Music Awards (actually, Smith was instrumental in making the judging system less prone to vested interest) and their billings at the Big Day Out, especially in the case of a seriously underdone Scribe’s main-stage slot in 2007.

Two music industry figures I spoke to, who declined to be named, were scathing about CRS’s arrogance, and Smith’s in particular, especially when it came to aggressively targeting acts he was interested in.

And when he went back to working from Los Angeles from March to September, some stakeholders wondered how seriously Smith was really taking his Rianz role.

Did he simply have too much power in a small industry?

“I certainly felt like other people thought I did,” Smith says. “I’d get to LA and decompress for a couple of weeks and I’d feel so blissfully happy for the time I was there, because I was a tiny, meaningless person in a vast country, and I had a really great sense of relief about being away from that.”

He eventually resigned the Rianz job in 2010, to be replaced by the more conciliatory Chris Caddick, whom Internet NZ and others on the opposite side of the copyright debate found far easier to deal with. (Caddick was recently succeeded by another relatively low-key personality, Damian Vaughan, as head of the new Recorded Music New Zealand, which merges Rianz and PPNZ.)

Smith says he’d done the job he set out to do. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t driven by the thought that people were coming at me.”

It’s fair to say Campbell Smith and his industry both needed a break from each other.

Even Smith’s recent quieter life doesn’t seem to be all sweetness and light. Last year, the local music blog The Corner named as its Tweet of the Year this from Unknown Mortal Orchestra founder and former CRS artist Ruban Nielson: “@UMO: So happy to not be working with campbell smith anymore. Greedy fucking dinosaur.”

 

Smith’s bright, spacious apartment on Surrey Crescent, purchased after an apparently amicable divorce from Boh Runga last year, looks west to the Waitakeres and directly over the greens of the Grey Lynn Bowling Club.

He can’t look down on the greens, he says, without thinking of “that terrible party” — the drowned-in-vodka CRS Christmas party at the club in 2004, when the rapper PNC, there with Scribe’s crew, brutally assaulted another guest. Although Scribe didn’t throw a punch, he also didn’t step in at the time or apologise later, and some in the industry never forgave him. Scribe, says Smith, “has his demons”. He’s long gone from the CRS roster, but Smith and I agree that his moving performance at this year’s Silver Scrolls might be a new beginning.

Four hundred metres beyond the greens lies Western Springs Stadium, the site of the 2014 Big Day Out. Smith drove to work past Western Springs every day from his former house, and when it became clear last year that a return of the event was on the cards, he knew it had to be there.

“I said to the guys in Australia, that’s the only way we should be doing it,” says Smith of the new venue. “If we have to go back to Mt Smart, we shouldn’t be doing it.”

The path to Western Springs has been notably smooth. The council was enthusiastic and, as long as it wasn’t more speedway, the local residents’ association was relaxed. The event now has a five-year resource consent.

It’s been much bumpier across the Tasman. Lees and West, an odd couple who had been working together since the early 1980s, divorced bitterly in the run-up to the 2012 debacle. Lees’ share in the business was picked up by the American company C3 Presents, which owns the Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits festivals. And then this year — with Lees providing a scathing commentary in the media on his old partner — West abruptly sold another stake to AJ Maddah, the notoriously fiery founder of Australia’s Soundwave heavy metal festival and the indie-oriented Harvest festival.

Smith is relaxed about it all, and can afford to be, because for the first time the Auckland Big Day Out won’t be a de facto sixth Australian Big Day Out.

“I don’t need Grinspoon at the Big Day Out any more, or any of those Australian bands I was forced to have, and all that shit that I was forced to bring over from Australia every year so it would look like the Big Day Out in Australia.”

Until now, the BDO’s Auckland promoters have been mere agents for the Australian company — an arrangement that Smith says tended to obscure the fact that the Auckland leg never really paid its way. Smith won’t discuss the details, but he now has a financial stake in the event.

Early this year, Smith’s Twitter followers were treated to happy dispatches and crappy photos from a series of fab-sounding music festivals in the US and Europe. He’s brought home fresh ideas. There will be better food and far more scope for non-music activities (including a “pop-up magazine” zone created by Metro and installations from Art in the Dark). He’s clearly relishing the new creative dimensions of a show that ran by the book for 20 years.

This story includes a correction to the print version, published in the December 2013 Metro, which suggested that Campbell Smith, with assistance from Pead PR, was wholly responsible for the reinvention of Vodafone NZ Music Awards in the mid-2000s.

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