There’s not a whole lot of difference, Tony Michaelides believes, between juggling the demands of business, and juggling the demands – and desires – of creative artists. “There are great lessons to be learned from rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “And I have a story to tell.”
As one of the most successful record promotion men in the United Kingdom, Michaelides – a walking, talking encyclopedia of music – fostered and nurtured some of England’s top artists in their salad days. His job, essentially, was to get them played on the radio, get them interviewed, and to get the world at large talking.
Says U2’s longtime manager Paul McGuinnes: “Tony has long been one of the UK’s foremost record promoters, and undoubtedly one of the best U2 has had the pleasure of working with. It was in those crucial formative years that we were grateful of the passionate belief Tony showed in the band and for the personal and professional relationship that was built.”
First and foremost, always, was a 100 percent belief in his product. “Every record that I ever got on the radio was as much about me as it was about the artist,” Michaelides says.
Born in Manchester, Michaelides left England when he turned 50 – 14 years ago, if you’re counting – to eventually become a United States citizen (his fast-tracked green card ID’d him as an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability for Services to Music and Arts”).
His book, Insights From the Engine Room: Lessons Learned From Rock and Roll, chronicles his journey and the people he met, from street scrubs to billionaires, along the way.
In his talks, he discusses managing creativity, crisis management, the power of positive thinking, business law, contracts and more, things that can and do apply to all manner of business. “I want to go out and take my story to the streets, but I don’t want to just take it to people who know me,” grins the gregarious Brit. “Hello, Mr. Corporate CO, let me tell you about Bruce Springsteen, and why they call him the Boss. He’s had the same staff for 40 years. The only two that left him died.”
He studied business in school, vaguely intending to become a lawyer. “I went to a college that was like 70 percent women and 30 percent guys,” he says. “It wasn’t hard to get a date with that percentage.” He was “social secretary,” booking bands for the campus pub.
Music, already, was his all-consuming passion. He was a huge David Bowie fan out of the gate, which made it full circle when he worked closely with his idol in the 1990s.
Michaelides’ first real job was selling jazz and folk records, out of the back of a van, around Manchester, “for 25 pounds a week. That was my entry point.”
Independent Island Records offered him first promo gig in the ‘70s. “I loved Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention …,” he says. “All of a sudden I’m going to get all these records for free? And you’re gonna pay me? That was kind of a dream come true.”
A natural raconteur, a charmer and a born salesman, Michaelides took to promotion like a duck to water. “I came from a generation of people who made it up as we went along,” he says. “Being into music is not a qualification for getting a job at a record company, promoting records.” But it sure didn’t hurt. Those were the days when enthusiasm counted for something.
Always, he believed in the product. And it produced dividends.
For example. “For most people alive today, U2 have always been famous. But they can’t relate to seeing them in front of 11 people, and having to explain what it was about that singer, who could have been playing in front of a crowd of 50,000.
“I went to see them with a friend of mine, the local DJ, on a Saturday night. They were third on the bill. The next day, we were talking – ‘they were kind of raw, but there’s something about them …’ I thought they’d do well, but I never thought they’d become a national monument.”
Through his association with Island Records, Michaelides was U2’s regional promotion man through all their early smashes like “New Year’s Day,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
He got Bono and company their very first radio interviews, and their very first TV performances.
After the band’s multi-million selling album The Joshua Tree, he left. “Then it was like, my work here is done. There’s nothing to mailing out a record that everybody’s going to play. And they’re not available for interviews because they’re huge international stars.”
His clients in the ‘80s also included Genesis and Peter Gabriel. He was integral to the success in Britain of Joy Division, New Order, Massive Attack and the Stone Roses.
As an independent, running his own promotion company, Michaelides forged a strong relationship with giant BMG, which owned RCA and Arista Records. He worked acts including Whitney Houston and Annie Lennox.
Simon Cowell, the future creator of American Idol, was a BMG executive at the time. “When I first met Simon Cowell, he was 30, he’d been bankrupt twice and he was living with his parents,” Michaelides chuckles. “That’s kind of an ‘Oh my God’ moment for anybody who thinks they’re having a hard time.”
Michaelides bristled when Cowell green-lit a single by a pair of non-singing TV actors, Robson and Jerome. “Record companies tend to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks,” he says. “I was working records by bus conductors from Coventry, which would be the equivalent of a Dunedin rapper, and thinking you’re gonna do really well with it.”
At Cowell’s insistence, the duo recorded the old Righteous Brothers song “Unchained Melody.” At a staff meeting, Michaelides remembers, “we were all talking about the record, and when it came my turn I said ‘What am I supposed to do with this? Radio’s not gonna play it.’
“Simon said ‘It’s going to be huge, Tony.’ And he was right, and I was right. It didn’t get on the radio and it was a huge hit. Because it was bought and sold through TV. He was very sharp and savvy like that.”
In a way, the incident was a turning point for Tony Michaelides. Radio had become increasingly corporate and blanched; the record industry was giving in to a new business model, with more direct lines to television exposure and the Internet.
Promo men – even the great ones – were becoming anachronisms.
Cowell’s next “product” was a record called “Slam Jam” by the World Wrestling Foundation, as the American sports fad was enjoying a brief run as England’s latest craze.
“It’s a much–used cliché, you gotta love what you do,” says Michaelides. “Apart from a lousy job for about a year, I spent most days loving what I did. And I put up with the inanities that record company people would sometimes come out with.”
In 2004, Michaelides immigrated to Orlando, and a few years later landed in the Tampa Bay area.
Engaging, insightful and extremely funny, he’s given a Tedx talk and has spoken at numerous corporate functions. In the works: A European radio series, a second book and a couple of projects he’s not willing or able to talk about yet.
The future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear shades.
“Although this sounds like I’m a pretentious old tart, I’m not,” he laughs. “I didn’t want to pick up what was left. So I did a Ziggy Stardust – I re-invented myself.”
Visit Tony’s website here