Music king who made Blondie but turned down Bowie

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What will Chris Wright do second time around with Chrysalis, the music house he co-founded in 1968? Back catalogues could be fun . . .

Never work with animals or children is a maxim long established in show business. To that list, Chris Wright might add peroxide-blond singers with a penchant for cocaine, Quaaludes and other class A drugs.

In the late 1980s, the music mogul was relying on one such wastrel to shore up his American business.

Wright’s Chrysalis Music — the independent label behind Jethro Tull and Blondie — had made a big push across the Atlantic. With an 80-strong workforce at its New York office and chart-topping acts such as Huey Lewis and the News on its roster, it needed a smash record to cover the bills. There was a problem, though. Its most bankable artist, Billy Idol, was fast spiralling down a vortex of chemical oblivion.

“Billy had a serious drug issue at that time,” says the 72-year–old. “It took 4½ years for him to make a record, and when he did, he had a motorbike accident and couldn’t promote it.”

Wright gives a phlegmatic shrug of his shoulders; after nearly half a century in the music business, you sense there is no form of rock star excess he has not witnessed.

Idol’s self destruction — and the ensuing “financial difficulties” — helped to force Wright’s hand. In 1991, he sold the record label to EMI, but hung on to the lucrative music publishing division, which collects royalties on behalf of songwriters. That became the kernel for a media empire that encompassed radio, TV production and book publishing.

These days Wright — former owner of Queens Park Rangers and Wasps rugby club — is back where it all began. Last year he was installed as chairman of Chrysalis, which he co-founded with producer Terry Ellis in a student basement flat in 1968.

Warner Music sold Chrysalis to Blue Raincoat, a music venture created by Sade producer Robin Millar and former Chrysalis head Jeremy Lascelles. Wright has a stake of about 16%. He and Lascelles, two veterans of the record business, seem keen to prove they still know how to turn a profit in an industry upended by digital downloads and internet streaming.

Wright’s office — above a posh burger bar in Kensington — looks like a throwback to the days when vinyl reigned supreme. The walls are adorned with framed touring posters from some of his biggest acts, Procol Harum among them. There’s a photo on the mantelpiece of Wright and his wife with Bill Clinton. His large pine desk is covered in piles of paperwork. “It’s not as chaotic as it looks,” he chuckles.

When we meet, Wright is wearing a baggy V-neck jumper and suede desert boots . His demeanour is less ageing rock-and-roll libertine, and more retired history teacher. His obsession, though, remains the here and now.

Wright waxes lyrical about Ed Sheeran, the English singer- songwriter whose third record, Divide, is the UK’s fastest-selling album by a male artist. And, inconceivable as it may seem, Sheeran has managed to occupy 16 out of the top 20 places in the UK singles chart.

“People talk about fragmentation [of the audience] but when you make an exceptional record, as Ed Sheeran has done, an awful lot of people will want to buy and listen to it. The album will be a very big worldwide hit, like Adele’s 21,” he says.

The artists on the Chrysalis roster have a much more retro feel, from The Specials and Sinead O’Connor to Ultravox and Debbie Harry. Wright says his first goal is to “reinvigorate the catalogue and polish things up a bit”. He’s adamant, though, that he isn’t about to “rush out with a blank cheque to sign people we see in pubs and clubs” — a practice he and Ellis turned into a fine art in the 1960s and 70s.

“To do that again now would be tough,” he says. “You need to be completely in tune with what’s going on, musically, and on the street.” Turning an unpolished band into a commercial act is also a proposition fraught with risk — and absolutely no guarantee of success. “You can lose your ass easily. You can be a million or two million into an artist before you can blink. If they don’t make it, you’re in trouble.”

Instead, Wright will look to buy the back catalogues of more established stars after recently bringing albums by Suzi Quatro, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and Athlete into the Chrysalis fold. Such acts, Wright argues, have had their fortunes transformed by internet streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. “For back catalogues, streaming has been a real boon, it has made it more valuable than it was before,” he argues. A label no longer has to make or distribute vinyl or CDs, and is no longer reliant on record stores holding enough stock of their artists. With a swipe of their finger, Spotify subscribers can get instant access to almost every piece of music ever recorded.

That is not to say that the loss-making service is the saviour of the music industry. Although the online jukebox has signed up more than 50m subscribers worldwide, it pays most artists a “pittance”, according to Wright. For every Ed Sheeran, there are hundreds of artists whose quarterly royalty cheques would barely cover a cup of coffee.

Yet he warns that the music business will become even more beholden to Apple if Spotify is allowed to wither away. “What the record industry gets out of Spotify is peanuts, and record companies wish it could be more. But what would happen if Spotify wasn’t there? Apple Music would take its place. The record business needs Spotify, and they need more than just Spotify.”

Wright was born in rural Lincolnshire, into a farming clan of generations standing, and it was assumed he would one day work the family’s land. He had other ideas.

After winning a place at the prestigious King Edward VI Grammar School, in nearby Louth, whose alumni include Alfred Lord Tennyson, he then studied history and politics at Manchester University.

It was there, in the early 1960s, that he first caught the music bug. The Who, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds were among the bands he booked to play at the student union.

In 1967, he moved to London and opened a talent agency with Ellis. Soon after arriving in the capital, they put up the cash for Jethro Tull’s first album, and set up Chrysalis — an elision of Chris and Ellis. Wright, who has an estimated £70m fortune, does not consider that he has done a day’s work in his life. “I’ve never had a job. I didn’t get into the music business thinking I was going to make a lot of money out of it.”

The late 1960s, he says, was a “really exciting period” to run a record label; politics at that time was a tinderbox that ended up igniting a creative explosion. “There was so much happening musically and we were working with two of the biggest acts in the world”, he says, in reference to Tull and Procol Harum.

The fledgling label’s biggest miss came in 1971, when it spurned the chance to sign David Bowie. Chrysalis’s publishing wing had added Bowie to the list of songwriters it represented, but the company didn’t want to take the risk of producing and selling his records. “At that time he was seen as a bit of a one-hit wonder after Space Oddity,” Wright says.

Chrysalis also missed out on signing Dire Straits: “Very good, but very boring”, was the verdict of Chrysalis’s chief talent scout, according to Wright.

However, Chrysalis struck gold in the late 1970s, when it prised Blondie away from US label Private Stock. Wright spent $500,000 to buy out their contract— a “huge amount of money at the time”. The band had been considered “too edgy” for the US, but under the wing of Chrysalis they became chart toppers in the UK.

After recording Parallel Lines, Blondie “exploded in the US,” he says. The band’s success was all the more surprising given that lead singer Debbie Harry was already in her early thirties when the band found fame. “She still looked good,” says Wright, with a chuckle. “There weren’t too many twenty-year-old kids who would have thought she was too old.

“We have got used to female superstars, but when Debbie came along she wasn’t copying anyone else. She was Madonna before Madonna,” he adds.

In 1985, Wright bought out Ellis and listed Chrysalis on the stock market. After selling the record label to EMI in 1990, Chrysalis generated much of its profit from music publishing — managing rights to more than 70,000 songs by artists such as Michael Jackson. It branched out into television, producing long-running detective drama Midsomer Murders. Chrysalis also built up a stable of radio stations, including Heart and LBC.

“Chris is genuinely a talent magnet,” says Roger Parry, a veteran media executive who has invested alongside Wright in a TV production venture. “People really like working with him; it has been easy for us to start conversations with high-quality writers and producers.”

Back when Wright was running Chrysalis as a listed company, City investors came to dislike its structure. In 2003, he sold the TV arm for £45m — only to see it change hands two years later for more than £320m.

Wright says he opposed the deal. “It was a lot worse than not signing David Bowie”. He says he appreciated the “value of rights”, but the “institutions just didn’t love TV”.

Four years after jettisoning Midsomer Murders, he sold the radio business to Global for £170m. The rump of Chrysalis was then snapped up by music publishing giant BMG for £107.4m in 2010. Activist investor Christopher Mills, who had built up a large stake in Chrysalis, was instrumental in forcing through the sale, according to Wright.

A childhood Grimsby Town fan, Wright bought QPR for £10m after it was relegated from the Premiership in 1996. At the same time, he bought Wasps, merged the two clubs and listed them on the stock market. His aim was to cut costs by sharing the football club’s Loftus Road ground.

But the venture did not pan out as planned. Instead of regaining its place in the top flight, QPR was relegated to the third tier of English football in 2001, when Wright put the football club into administration. In total, he says he lost about £20m on the club. He has watched some of their away games since, but the club “wasn’t particularly welcoming” when he asked about attending some home matches.

“Maybe they thought it was like the ex-wife turning up seven years after the divorce and asking for some of the furniture back,” he says.

He may not hold out much hope of returning to Loftus Road, but he’s confident that Chrysalis, and other independents, can hold their own against giants such Universal and Sony. “For as long as I’ve been in the business, a really large percentage of the talent has come through the independents. It has always been like that, and always will be.”

The life and times of Chris Wright

Vital statistics

Movie pick: Forrest Gump

Born: September 7, 1944
Status: married, five children
School: King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth, Lincolnshire
University: Manchester (politics/modern history); failed master’s at Manchester Business School
First job: roadie for Dr Crock and his Crackpots
Salary: not disclosed
Car: silver Bentley
Homes: Holland Park in west London, the Cotswolds, Aspen and Antigua
Favourite book: Graham Greene’s The Comedians
Film: Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks
Music: Paul Simon
Gadget: iPad
Last holiday: skiing in Aspen
Charity: Nordoff Robbins, which provides music therapy for vulnerable and isolated people

Working day
Chris Wright gets up at 7am and reads the newspapers. A couple of times a week, he plays tennis and arrives at his office in Kensington, west London, by 10am. Otherwise, he reaches work at 8am. He spends the day in talks about his many business ventures, including the Chrysalis TV production business, which counts the entrepreneur and Sunday Times columnist Luke Johnson and Sky among its investors. “These days I meet lots of people with no real agenda. I’ll give them free advice and if something comes of it, that’s great,” he says.

Downtime
Apart from tennis, Wright’s main interests are current affairs, wine and horse racing. His horses have won the Irish 1,000 Guineas and its French equivalent, and the Breeders’ Cup. He occasionally watches Wasps rugby union matches and travels to the Etihad stadium to see Manchester City play.