Friday, August 03, 2012

Virgin Rebirth

Sometimes publicity stunts go right. And sometimes they go, well, spectacularly awry.

On Wednesday the media was gifted the mother of all sniggerfests when the hapless Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, found himself dangling by his political credentials when a zip-wire caper went hilariously wrong.

It was the sort of PR disaster that would form the master gag of an episode of The Thick Of It or Spin City. But, no, this was a very real stunt featuring the very real-life chief executive of the very real British capital and current host of the Olympic Games.

In the hands of another publicity-hungry blond, Sir Richard Branson, it would have been seen as one more wacky caper featuring the billionaire regarded in the UK as the "acceptable" face of entrepreneurism, owing to his peroxide locks, gleaming white teeth, life-long aversion to wearing ties and propensity for doing daft things for the cameras.

Strangely, Virgin is one of the few prominent global brands absent from London 2012. Indeed beyond the possibility that some athletes might train in one of Branson’s gyms, the only trace of Virgin DNA so far was a week ago today, with the appearance of Mike Oldfield in the opening ceremony.

Oldfield’s now almost 40-year-old opus Tubular Bells – part of which he performed in Danny Boyle’s expansive history of the National Health Service – holds an indelible mark on Branson’s career.  It was one of the first four albums to be released on the fledgling Virgin Records label in 1973. It had been recorded by the then-19 year-old Oldfield at Branson’s rural Oxfordshire studio, The Manor, bought itself by the 21-year-old Branson on a hunch that providing musicians a place in the country to get their heads together might prove creatively fruitful.

It’s the sort of apparently impulsive (but very well thought through) business punt that has been Branson’s hallmark. Over four decades he has spread the Virgin brand across a bottomless stream of commercial puns (e.g. Virgin Brides, fnrrr, fnrrrr...) built upon the Virgin brand ethic of fun.

To support them, there has been conspicuous self-promotion, relentless japery and no shortage of photo opportunities involving air hostesses and buckets of water.

"Oddly, the British find this perfectly charming," wrote Fast Company magazine once, adding: "Americans would probably sue him".

For a billionaire - and Britain's fourth richest person – Branson’s public popularity (or, perhaps, public tolerance of his self-publicity) has rarely waned, and he is frequently named as one of the people Britons would happily vote for as prime minister.

Over 42 years he has built an empire that has had, at certain moments, anywhere between 200 and 400 businesses within its fold, ranging from ranging from airlines to bridal wear, Caribbean islands, manicure services, banking services, mobile phones, wines and soft drinks.

"If you can run one successful company," he has said, "you can pretty much run any company”. And if the distinctive red and white Virgin logo hasn’t been prominent enough, Branson has ensured the brand is one of the world’s most recognizable through dare-devil trans-Atlantic capers by balloon, speedboat and anything else that can bear the company colours.

Beneath the business, however, still lurks the hippyish public schoolboy who left Stowe at the age of 16, having struggled through academia with dyslexia, to launch The Student magazine, later using it as an advertising platform for selling discounted records by mail order.

"There was tremendous excitement about music," Branson himself wrote in his autobiography, Losing My Virginity. "It was political; it was anarchic; it summed up the young generation’s dream of changing the world. And I also noticed that people would never dream of spending as much as 40 shillings on a meal wouldn't hesitate to spend 40 shillings buying the latest Bob Dylan album."

Eventually a full-on mail order service was launched, named Virgin Mail Order Records (named after a female acquaintance suggested the name on the basis that "We’re complete virgins at business."), only to be soon thwarted by a postal strike. Branson, never one to shirk a challenge - or an angle - moved Virgin Records to a former shoe shop at 24 Oxford Street in London. And an empire was born.

Having opened the Oxford Street shop with Nik Powell (later to become one of the godfathers of modern British film-making), Branson saw the next opportunity was to open a recording studio, presumably to create a supply chain for the store. Looking through Country Life magazine, he came across the 17th century pile The Manor and took out a £20,000 mortgage on it. "I imagined that the best environment for making records would be a big comfortable house in the country where a band could come and stay for weeks at a time and record whenever they felt like it."

The logical next step was to launch a record label on which to publish The Manor’s output. Even if record companies were normally set up by people pure music at their heart - the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic, for example, public schoolboys barely out of their teens. Tubular Bells, with its nods towards both classical music, prog rock and the first footings of ambient music, cast Virgin as a label you couldn't pin down.

Branson's nose for a stunt - and an opportunity - reared again in 1977 when the Sex Pistols were fired from EMI. Cashing in on the Queen's Silver Jubilee, Virgin released the Pistols' single God Save The Queen, and subsequent album Never Mind The Bollocks.

From prog to punk? No more varied than airlines and soft drinks, and when you consider Virgin's later roster - Culture Club, Phil Collins, Heaven 17, XTC, Simple Minds, Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones and, er, the Spice Girls - a Virgin label ethos started to emerge: if it made money, sign it.

Risk was still a factor - signing the Pistols was, another opportunistic publicity stunt - and Culture Club's Boy George guaranteed much the same level of mainstream media in the early 1980s. In some respects Phil Collins - posssibly Virgin's biggest money-spinner - was another risk, given that he was, in 1981, merely the drummer of a moderately successful prog rock band who'd turned some bedroom demos into a melancholy album about his divorce. But then Face Value changed things considerably, for both artist and record label.

Branson clearly loves challenges. Whether launching Virgin Galactic, the world's first passenger space service, or a shop to get around industrial action, there's not much he won't have a go at, perhaps to prove himself right, perhaps to prove others wrong.

Which explains why he is considering going back into the record industry, two decades after he sold off the Virgin music industry to save his airline business at a time of heated pressure from both British Airways and post-Gulf War fuel prices.

Having sold, in 1991, Virgin to Thorn-EMI for £510 million in cash, he now wants back in, regarding Virgin as a "sleeping beauty" of an asset and one that could be an "innovative and leading label once again with the right management and investment", claiming that it has been mismanaged.

With EMI in the process of being acquired by Universal Music - part of the controversial £1.2 billion bailout plan revealed last November – Universal’s owners Vivendi may be forced by competition regulators in Brussels to shed some of its assets, including one or more of the record labels it would inherit with the EMI takeover.

Branson has seen this as his opportunity to get back into the music game, and has discussed the reacquisition of Virgin with French independent record label owner Patrick Zelnik (with whom Branson launched Virgin Records France in 1980).

His approach to create an independent label by merging Zelnik's Naive Records with Virgin, suggests that the blond tycoon isn't frightened of taking on new challenges any time yet - even in the current economy, when traditional notions of the music industry Branson joined in 1970 have been eroded by technology and the demise of physical recorded media.

Speaking about the talks with both Universal CEO Lucian Grainge and Zelnik, Branson has said. "I have known Lucian and Patrick for both 30 years. They are great record men and Patrick has committed to revitalise Virgin Records – which has been mismanaged in the last 10 years."

That said, even today, Virgin's roster includes the likes of Katy Perry, Gorillaz, Laura Marling, Professor Green and French star David Guetta - not a bad commercial foundation to pick up. If successful, however, Branson and Zelnik will restore Virgin to a global independent label.

But with the recording industry in decline, the viability of the plan remains to be seen. Industry insiders do, at least, concede that a new Virgin would have two very significant things going for it: a strong brand and the stewardship of a blond who, even at the age of 62, isn't suffering from diminished ambition.

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