Hit Quarters 2008-04-21 – Interview with Safta Jaffery

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An interview with Safta Jaffery, apparent Muse manager.

Interview with Safta Jaffery, A&R/manager/publisher for Muse - Apr 21, 2008

"The truly smart artists these days can pretty much do most of the first and second level work by themselves."

Safta Jeffery entered the British music industry just as punk exploded and challenged it, and this spirit of independence and emphasis on artistic integrity and a genuine love of music is what led him throughout his career.

He talks to HitQuarters.com about Muse's grassroots fan base ensuring their success on top of playing live, and about the potential of originality and honesty to break through, today more than ever.

[...]

Is that why you set up Taste Media, to separate those artist-based projects?

That came much later, in 1996. What happened there was that during the early to mid-1990’s a lot of the producers I was working with were becoming frustrated because they weren’t being allowed to make the sort of records they wanted to make.

The industry was telling them they wanted a certain type of record or a certain type of sound produced in a certain way. I was also getting a bit restless myself. I’d run the producer business for around 10 years by then, very successfully. We’d produced The Stone Roses and the Radiohead album, ‘The Bends’.

We’d worked with the greatest artists of that era. At that time I had close ties with The Sawmill, a studio down in Cornwall, and its owner, Dennis Smith, was looking to do something more than just run a studio.

I had the producers and the contacts, and he had the studio, so we decided to pair up and establish a production company. The original thinking behind it was to find new artists that we both passionately loved and then utilise our resources to make the kinds of records that we wanted to make, rather than ones which the record companies wanted to make.

So we set out to sign a few artists, and Muse came along quite early on. They were from Teignmouth in Devon, where Dennis was based. He knew their parents and had seen the three boys grow up. He sent me early demos, and it was clear that there was something going on – they sounded very different, articulate and intelligent.

There was no real commercialism in those days, but it was exciting. They were very young, only 17. He arranged a showcase for me at the Cavern Club and I encouraged him to give them free studio time. Each demo got better and better until we thought, ‘Ok, it’s time to do something more formal here’.

Were other labels vying for the band’s attention by the time you signed them?

No, they still weren’t on anybody else’s radar. We signed them for a couple of EPs which we put out through Dennis’s label, Dangerous Records. Then we did some showcases; In The City and some industry events in London. But nobody in the UK was interested, nobody understood it, and everybody passed.

It was disheartening for the band and it reminded me of doing A&R back in the old days, when every time I found a new artist nobody else seemed to understand it. You start questioning your own ability, looking at yourself and thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m wrong…’ It’s very frustrating. But that always seems to be the journey with me.

We believed in the band, and in the end we had to take them to America to get noticed. We did CMJ in New York where a couple of scouts from Columbia liked the act. They invited us to showcase in Los Angeles for Rick Rubens, and that’s when things started to happen.

Maddona's Maverick Records were quickest off the draw, and we decided to do a deal with them in America. That really gave us the starting point to build up the career of the band the way that we did.

At what point did you get John Leckie involved?

John’s always been a partner of mine, so he was aware I was working with Muse. He’d come to a few shows with me and he already had a relationship with the band. One of the things I said to Maverick going into that deal was that we wanted John to produce the album.

Fortunately Guy Oseary, their head of A&R in those days, was a huge fan. So he was delighted, and John was allowed to make the record the way he wanted to make it. It was really our vision of the band, the way John made that record.

The only downside was that the Americans felt there wasn’t a huge song for them to take to radio. The track they believed in didn’t quite connect in the end. But it worked for us everywhere else, because having done that one deal we decided to go everywhere else and sign to friends in places all around the world.

We did all these great territorial deals, where we had complete creative control. The UK was the last place to get it – Korda Marshall at Warner/Mushroom had already passed on the band twice before we did a deal with him.

What was the plan behind the territorial deals?

To be honest, with hindsight I think that had I signed Muse to one label for the whole world, they would never have made it as a band. They were never radio friendly in those days. The music was too challenging. I’d decided early on that the only way we were going to break them was through touring, so all our deals were organised to be tour-specific.

I made sure there were huge tour budgets built into the record deals. For each territorial deal we did, I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to take a big advance here, what I want you guys to do is to promise me a huge tour budget’. That’s how we arranged it.

So, knowing that I had tour funds available, every time an exciting tour was going out I was able to secure it. The first two we did in America were the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Foo Fighters – the two hottest tours on the road that year.

I remember Bruce Floor coming up to me backstage at one of the Foo Fighters dates and saying, ‘I don’t know how the fuck you got this tour! Hats off to you, dude, because even I couldn’t get one of my bands on, so I don’t know how you did it’.

We managed to pull off a few stunts in that way, and that’s how we built it up, by touring on an international basis. The first year we did 54 international festivals. And this was them in their infancy.

We decided early on that they were an exciting live band, knowing they would only get better. It was important from the get go, because I knew we wouldn’t make it from radio. It’s the only method I know, to be honest – from back when I worked at Dick James and Magnet, that’s how bands used to break.

If you had radio on your side, that was a bonus, but you never waited for it or relied on it. And it’s why Muse have such a solid fanbase today all around the world, because those fans were there at the beginning. They’re genuine and real.

Were you looking after publishing for Muse too?

Yes. The deal we did was that, although we were looking after the management, we never commissioned it. It was something we did for free, while we took the recording and the publishing rights. I didn’t want to manage a band on an official basis, so I did it unofficially.

The band were happy about it because it didn’t cost anything. For the first three albums they didn’t have to pay any management commission, so it was a great deal for them.

It seems like you were quite remarkably ahead of your time with that…

That’s right – everybody’s doing it these days! Actually the only reason why we gave up the management was because of lawyers around the time of the third album, which reached No. 1 here in the UK.

They started saying, ‘You know, people are going to start questioning whether you’re doing the right deals for the band, because you’re not commissioning them’. I should have stuck with my instincts, but I didn’t, I let the management go, and that’s when everything changed.

It was the usual thing; a new manager came on board, and of course he had his own approach. He was a little jealous about the relationship we had with the band, and wanted to make his own mark. He started questioning some of the options we were bringing to the table.

I just said to Dennis, ‘You know what, this is probably the time to exit right now’. The band were successful, and I felt we’d done our job. We had another three albums on the contract, because we’d signed a six album deal with them, but I just felt that we’d achieved everything that we had ever dreamt of achieving. That third album was No. 1 in 15 territories.

Apart from publishing, my involvement with Muse ended in 2005 when we sold the recording rights over to Warners. That was actually another factor in the reasoning. I’m quite good friends with Serge Tankian from System Of A Down, and he was setting up his own label at the time, Surgical Strike.

He was coming to all the shows and was a huge fan of the band, and I thought his label would have been a great home in the US for the band. But it wasn’t to be.

How do you go about A&R after having experienced that kind of success? Does it change the way you evaluate new artists?

Totally. It’s unfortunate, but of course everything post-Muse sounded terrible to me. The bar had been raised so high. It took a while to get back down to reality and realise that I wasn’t going to find another act that good coming round the corner.

I needed to do something completely different, so it was great when AIM came along and offered me a place on the board. It was a chance to get out of my whole environment into new territories, into working with different types of music and new types of artists.

[...]

So-called ‘difficult’ artists always appeal to me. I’ve always leant towards them because of the challenge they offer. I can’t do what I do unless I feel inspired. If I’m not excited by an artist myself, then I can’t go out there and work on it. That’s why I could never work for a record company, though I’ve been offered several positions over the years.

Do you still receive and listen to demos from bands?

Yes, all the time. There’s a sack that’s been staring at me for the last two weeks, which I feel a little guilty about. I have two assistants, and we’ll sit down, have some drinks together and go through them all, and hopefully we’ll find something. There will always be something that might be worth following up. You never know.

See also


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