Contains some strong language
No one was more shocked than singer-songwriter Amanda Ghost when she was asked to run Epic Records. She talks about what peeking behind the music-industry curtain taught her
"I have this dual personality where I get up every morning and I breathe music – but I also like the hustle and bustle of the business," Amanda Ghost says. "It's dramatically changed from when I started, but what hasn't changed is the culture of 'No'; the culture of, 'We're fucked. In the good old days we made some money, now it's all fuckin' over.' As an artist, I was very fascinated by the business, but my advice to artists now is: don't be fascinated by the business, concentrate on the music."
Cynicism, snark and small-mindedness have swirled around Amanda Ghost for years. Her career path has been jarring and unexpected: a singer and songwriter from London whose biggest hit peaked at No 63 in 2000, yet became president of a major label eight years later. Along the way, she wrote some of the decade's most ubiquitous singles, but the co-author of James Blunt's You're Beautiful also made leftfield solo records that melded classic songwriting with avant-garde electronica.
Her 18 months during 2009 and 2010 as the head of the Sony imprint Epic, based in New York, have been derided as a failure. Yet Epic almost doubled its market share during her tenure, even as the record industry's economics continued to crumble. Those who view her as a failed artist turned failed executive may be surprised by the people keen to work with her. Liam Howlett had her guest on the last Prodigy album and encouraged her to take the Epic job, and she will be writing this year with Florence Welch (she of the Machine) and the xx. Similarly, her views on the ailing industry will confound those who have assumed her appointment to the Epic presidency was little more than a sinecure for a corporate stooge.
'You've got to have perseverance' … Amanda Ghost.
"I do not believe the way corporations run the music business today is a recipe for success," she says. "And it's nothing to do personally with anybody, it's really to do with the fact that these corporations run music labels the same way they run electronics, the same way they run coffee machines and toasters. And that's not the way: you can't put in £100,000 and see a return in a year.
"I mean, James Blunt: we wrote You're Beautiful five years before it went to No 1. He'd already had a record deal, and got dropped, and then resigned again. You hear these stories all the time. Destiny's Child were dropped, Alicia Keys was dropped, the Jonas Brothers were dropped. Lady Gaga was dropped twice. You've got to have perseverance to keep going. And it shouldn't be that difficult."
While her appointment was unexpected and somewhat controversial, her departure from Epic late last year was marked by aggressively negative coverage. One piece in particular, in the Hollywood Reporter, painted a picture of her as an erratic, intransigent, unstable character who advocated smoking pot during meetings and seemed primarily interested in pushing her own songs on her long-suffering artists. She rebuffs the accusations entirely, though is more amused than defensive.
"It was full of unattributed malicious gossip, but the most hurtful thing they wrote is that my husband is an events planner," she says. "He's a very successful TV producer, which kind of shows how laughable that article was, because they couldn't even get that right. But it was very sad to me that it was written by a woman, because it was so gender-biased. None of those things would have been said about me if I were a man."
Sony remains confident enough in her business acumen and knack for spotting talent to enter a joint venture with her new label, Outsiders, allowing Ghost to take Oh Land, a new-school Madonna by way of Björk and Lady Gaga, with her. The Dane was Ghost's first signing at Epic, but her single, Wolf and I, will become Outsiders's first release next month, funded by Sony. Ghost continues to work with Sony-signed artists including Beyoncé, Shakira and John Legend – her co-write with the latter, Getting Nowhere, is the current single for another Sony artist, Magnetic Man, and she says it was one of only three songs she wrote during her time at Epic.
Nevertheless, she admits: "My talents aren't necessarily best suited to a corporate environment. My talent is to be able to write, produce, create music and identify talent. What I'm not good at doing – and I can say this honestly, hand on heart – I'm not good at chasing the next big thing. And I have no interest in chasing the next big thing, because in my experience the next big thing is always the one that everybody passes on and nobody sees coming."
Of Epic, specifically, she says: "I just couldn't manage that system. I couldn't make it work. I was climbing a mountain that was too big for me to climb. I don't know what qualities you need to be able to turn around a label that has basically been dying for the last 15 to 20 years – it's beyond anyone, I think. I admire everybody there, because they work their arses off, and they really, really try. The only thing I hope is that the artists and the staff are looked after, and that in the next year we'll be talking about them breaking some of the incredible acts I've been involved in."
It's easy to see why her appointment was risky, but also why it could have been inspired. Who better to perform triage on the major-label patient than someone who had been chewed up and spat out by the record industry already? "Before Epic, I'd never done an A&R job," she says, "but I'd been doing A&R my whole life."
By the time she was signed to Warner Brothers as an artist in the late 1990s, Ghost – real name Amanda Gosein – had spent years learning the ropes and paying her dues. While studying journalism in London, she got a job working the door at a nightclub. Immediately likable, garrulous without being pushy, quick to laugh – particularly at herself – she found networking easy and forged several key relationships. At the time, Ian Dench was a member of the dance-pop band EMF; their friendship turned into a Grammy-nominated, three-times Ivor Novello award-winning songwriting partnership. Boy George offered help and advice to the budding singer and songwriter.
While living in Los Angeles, working on a second album for Warners that was destined never to be released, a mutual friend introduced Ghost to a soldier with designs on becoming a singer. She invited James Blunt over to LA, and they wrote together. "When I came back to London with him, I put on some gigs and took him to a few record labels," she recalls. "I wasn't making any money out of it, it was just because I wanted to help him out."
She credits her have-a-go streak to her father, an Indian who immigrated to Britain from Trinidad. "He taught me it didn't matter what you've done before, you can just go ahead and say: 'Today I'm a carpenter! Tomorrow I'm a driving instructor! Next week I'm gonna be a lawyer!' I think you need that in the music business. There's a certain bluster about it."
Even after You're Beautiful's globe-straddling success, and that of Beautiful Liar – which she and Dench wrote overnight "in the backs of cabs, in hotel lobbies", and which then sold 6m copies when performed by Beyoncé and Shakira – the offer to run Epic was a surprise.
"I thought, you know what? My whole life I've been Dorothy from Kansas believing in the Wizard of Oz: now I want to pull back the curtain and see what's behind it. So I did, and it was magical, and fun, and depressing, and unhappy – a multitude of emotions. But ultimately it has helped me as a songwriter and a producer and a record-label boss, because I can see what happens to the product once it's completed – how it's treated, how it's marketed, how it's sold. And it makes me believe even more in the power of content, and how important it is to get that content as air-tightly brilliant as possible before you throw it to the wolves."
Despite – indeed, because of – all her experiences, she remains optimistic about the music industry, so long as those inside it realise many of the old business ways are unsustainable. The future, she believes, is small companies, taking their time to produce quality music, unafraid of the possibilities created by new technology.
"It's very important we realise why the music business is failing," she says, "and I do not believe it's because of the internet. We need to focus on the quality of the music and allow artists time to develop. All creativity should be made, I believe, outside of corporations, and be nurtured with the incredible tools we have. With publicity and television and viral and online and social media, there is no reason why you can't get that music out there – and if it's good, people will respond."
Oh Land's debut album is released on 15 March.