Music Week

Music Week, published weekly, is a trade paper for the UK record industry.

The 21.02.14 issue of Music Week includes a smashing 38 page special feature on George Michael. This feature includes a profile of George Michael's career to date; an interview with David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal UK; an interview with Richard Manners, UK Managing Director of George Michael's publisher Warner/Chappell; further partners, and publishers and colleagues pay tribute to George Michael. The special feature is also full of stunning photographs and concludes with George Michael and David Austin paying tribute to the legendary Grammy Award-winning producer Phil Ramone. 

Read an extract from the interview with David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal UK.

'Symphonica' will be George Michael’s first album since signing to Universal Music and UK boss David Joseph believes it heralds the start of what will be a very special relationship.

Skipping forward a bit and heading towards Symphonica, can you explain George’s route to the Universal Group? "Well, everyone had always known each other and stayed in touch, through previous management – Andy Stephens was a friend of the company. The first interaction was around the time of two singles, which were Freeek! and Shoot The Dog (2002) when Lucian and I were at Polydor together. And they were quite big creative steps for him. I remember very well being invited down to Sarm Studios and when he played us Shoot The Dog, he gave us a lyric sheet and he was talking about what was going to happen with an impending war. As it turned out he was quite prophetic, but we know the media aren’t necessarily interested in certain artists in certain genres talking about such things.

The relationship was good, the experience was good, but it didn’t end up with us getting the album [Patience], that went to Sony. Everyone stayed in contact though and we got re-introduced around the time that George had written December Song [2010, Island] and what I kept saying, to the team around him, was that there is this need and desire for an album, so when he would like to do that, please put me and Universal at the front of the queue. And that lead to us doing a deal for a new studio record, purely off trust, we didn’t hear anything and we didn’t need to hear anything. But then the conversation started about doing something around the Symphonica tour and that’s where the relationship’s taken us at the moment".

What did both sides say they wanted and expected from each other in those initial discussions? "I don’t know, to be honest I just wanted to put a George Michael record out. If our only choice was to be in the George Michael singles business, that was fine, but I really wanted to be in the George Michael albums business. So the deal was done, it was very simple and uncomplicated deal, it was done very quickly. Then it was a question of where he was creatively and what he wanted to release".

And he’s ended up on Virgin – having previously put out Older and Songs from the Last Century on the label..."Yep, Virgin. He started at Island with us, but Ted [Cockle, formerly of Island, now head of Virgin EMI] has a great relationship with George’s team, so it made sense".

Symphonica isn’t a studio collection of new material, but it isn’t a Greatest Hits, it isn’t a covers record… How would you describe its place in his ongoing discography? And is there any disappointment that the first release isn’t the studio album of original material... "No, and the first thing to say is that George is a perfectionist, and he’s right to be a perfectionist. He hasn’t released a bad album. Some people are fixated by release dates and schedules, but one thing I’ve worked out is that there’s no right or wrong answer to this. Also, no one can tell you the exact date that Thriller came out, or Back to Black came out, or The Joshua Tree came out, they just know they were great albums that mean a lot to them. So when we did the deal there was nothing in it saying this type of product has to come by this date or whatever. He’d announced the Symphonica tour and the ticket sales were incredible and it turned into something magical. I saw it in small, beautiful opera houses, and I’d also seen it in Earls Court. And in every setting you could hear a pin drop, just rapt attention, people were hanging on every word. It was something special. He was this ability to mesmerize people, because of the voice and the presence. And all that lead to talk of, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this’. He was working on the studio album at the same time, but we were very relaxed about what happened first, and what happened was that we came to an agreement to put out the Symphonica record. It felt like it’s the right time, to put it out and let it breathe, start of the year, no normal promotion, let’s hold back.

“George is incredibly intelligent.
He’s very astute. He knows what’s going on. 
You’re never going to have a dull meeting”
David Joseph, Universal

So now we have the songs, there’s a documentary, which is effectively the Paris Opera House show. We’ve got Let Her Down Easy as a first single and we’ll see about doing some more, I’m a big fan of The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face, but we’ll see. He’s watching and is incredibly involved in it, but all my intel is telling me that right now his absolute complete attention and focus is now on that next studio record. I’ve heard bits and pieces, and it’s very difficult to say this without sounding like the archetypal head of a record company or whatever, but it is stunning. It is brilliant. There is one song in particular that I’ve heard that is beyond exceptional. The lyrics are incredible, the way it’s structured, just beautiful. So yes, he’s working on the new studio album and I think the global anticipation for a totally new collection is going to be enormous. Whether that’s 10, 11 or 12 years after the last one, I don’t really mind, because I know he won’t even entertain the thought of release until it’s perfect".

Do you think there’s a chance it will be this year? "I honestly can’t say, but my instinct is that it won’t. He A&Rs himself, you’re nicely invited to hear stuff, and he listens to comments, but he’s in his own lane, we’ll play a part in the process, but it’s his album and it’ll be his decision. He’ll know when it’s ready. And all I can say, as someone who knows all his material very well, the stuff I’ve heard is beyond exciting and it will be worth the wait".

“Symphonica is a hard record to put in a box.
The only thing I can say is when people hear it
 they are blown away by his voice and the breadth of material”
David Joseph, Universal

Back to Symphonica for a second, you’ve mentioned a minimalist approach, but can you talk about any plans for marketing and promotion? "Like I say, we want the record to breathe, we’ve had a great reaction to Let Her Down Easy. People listen to it and they’re reminded of the quality of his voice and how he can own a track. I hope radio embrace it around the world. I take nothing for granted, but I’d like us to do well with it. It’s a hard record to stick in a box, the only thing I can say is when people hear it they are blown away by his voice and by the breadth of material. People like the balance between the known songs and the slightly less obvious songs that he redefines".

So he won’t be appearing on the usual prime time shows over the coming few weeks? "At the moment there are no plans for any promotion whatsoever, and that’s largely based around continuing to work on the new studio record. David Austin [Longtime creative collaborator] has put together the documentary I mentioned, including some lovely, intimate backstage footage and we’ll look to place that around the world for broadcast, but not necessarily at the front end of where this record falls. It won’t be the typical documentary Sunday/album out Monday. I think it will be quite a few weeks after release. But hey, things can change, I’m open to phone calls.

George is also very comfortable in his skin. He wants his music to be heard by a wide audience, but he’s confident enough to not feel the need to play the normal promotion game. Some artists need to be No.1: “I have to be No.1, what do I have to do to get there? Give me your 20 things to do and I’ll do them.” We do not have those conversations with George. At the same time, he’s an absolutely world class artist. He has delivered us an exceptional album and it’s our duty to get this to a large audience. I’m of the opinion that he’s done the work we needed him to do, he did it on stage every night during the tour that created this record".

Can you compare the public image of George, which people get through the prism of the press, to what he’s actually like to know and deal with? "He’s incredibly intelligent. You’re never going to have a dull meeting. He’s very astute, he listens to a lot of music, he knows what’s going on and gets every reference. On the occasions where anyone, not just George, looks to fight the media, it doesn’t really work, people don’t seem to like to hear about that. But, I can talk about my dealings and my experience. I enjoy his company, and the company of his team, I enjoy the discussions and the debate, it’s healthy. Also, as a fan of his music, I don’t really know how many people care about that stuff. Does it matter? Does the media stuff matter? What matters is his body of work and that he’s continuing to make great music. I think, and what I’m hoping, is that what I said about Listen Without Prejudice before, about what it meant to me, and where it stands, the next album could even eclipse that".

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