Miles Copeland III
April 26, 2016
One of the most colorful music business executives ever, the London-born Miles Copeland III had a fascinating upbringing, moving around the Middle East with his father, a CIA officer, and mother, who worked in British intelligence, largely in Beirut, alongside his two brothers, Stewart, who ended up playing drums in The Police, and Ian, the late head of the booking agency, F.B.I. After starting a management company, Copeland cycled through a series of indie punk labels like Deptford Fun City, Step Forward and Illegal Records, before agreeing to manage his brother's band, The Police, and then starting I.R.S. Records, home of R.E.M., The Go-Go's, General Public, Concrete Blonde, The Cramps and Wall of Voodoo.
Copeland has just returned from a wedding in Dubai, where he brought his Bellydance Superstars troupe, a project he began in 2002 shortly after being let go as manager by Sting.
These days his interest is in breaking brands, not bands; promoting overarching concepts like Generation Axe, a guitar tour featuring Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen and Nuno Bettencourt; managing the Anderson-Ponty Project, a joint venture between Yes' Jon Anderson and Jean-Luc Ponty; and putting on his songwriting retreat at his French castle. Now mellowed with age, Copeland denies he's semi-retired. "I can't believe I'm not 25 anymore," he says.
How do you look at the challenges faced by today's content businesses?
One of the big challenges today is figuring out, in this age of new technology, the different ways there are to reach the public. You have to adapt to this new world. You can promote more effectively, but you can't sell in the same way. The music business is healthy, but all the money is in live performances. You used to promote album sales by touring; now you give away the music to sell concert tickets. It's tough out there if you're not a successful performing artist. But I'm fascinated in these new ways of bringing something to the marketplace, like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. It's sad the traditional ways have disappeared.
What is your take on streaming services like Spotify?
I know the record companies are very disappointed. The reality is it's a false dream that people will pay for subscriptions. From a consumer's standpoint, they provide a great service. From the music creator's standpoint - and the labels - $10 a month just don't add up. That's why we're losing jobs overseas. Everyone wants cheaper prices, but you can't have it both ways.
What are you up to these days?
My modus operandi is to do things for fun. What I'm really interested in is branded concepts, much like Bellydance Superstars, where, as with Riverdance or the Blue Man Group, you're selling the show, with the individual parts being interchangeable.
At the end of the day, the superstar calls the shots in entertainment. When Sting decided he didn't want to be in The Police, there was no Police. To be at the beck and call of an artist is not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My new project is Generation Axe where the overall concept sells the show, like Coachella. I've also started working with some former members of the Gipsy Kings, which we're calling Gipsy Royale. The goal is to eventually break them in America. I'm not ruling out finding something new. If I saw something amazing that inspired me, I might get involved. But I'm not doing it for the money at this point.
What ended up happening with you, Sting and The Police?
He's a very interesting character. I always had this theory. He would scale, say Mount Everest, but the moment he got there, he'd lose interest. The idea of basking in the accomplishment or soaking up the atmosphere isn't where his head is. When he left The Police, I managed him up until his last successful album, "Brand New Day," in 1999. That was when I hooked him up with the Jaguar ad for "Desert Rose." At that point, he was almost as big a solo artist as he was with The Police. And then his idea was to do it really on his own - without a manager. Unfortunately for him, it didn't work out that way. He's never really done a rock record since then. I still toy around with the idea of calling him up, because I could make a great rock record with him. I'm the only one who can tell him the truth. Everyone else just tells him what he wants to hear. The ingredients are there, but nobody will tell him what to do with them. But I haven't seen nor talked to him in years. I sent a letter to his new manager, Martin Kierszenbaum, if there was anything I could do because I always liked him.
And that forced him to do The Police tour in 2007-2008?
He wasn't watching the store. Remember, his accountant stole $10 million from him without anyone knowing because he never looked at the bank statements. His lawyer and manager at the time didn't want me around at that point. They saw me as a threat. Sting always preached loyalty, but when it came down to it, he turned his back on everyone, including the promoters. The other dynamic is Trudi [Styler, his wife], who was always paranoid Sting would leave her, so she took control of the financial situation. It's a self-protective mechanism, and you can't blame her. I believe, in the end, it was Trudi who got rid of me because she couldn't control me. I was always Sting's guy. But Mike Ovitz promised her a film career if they let me go, and had him become part of his new management company.
Did it hurt to be let go as Sting's manager?
In a way, but in another way, I'm a realist. Do you want to be attached to something forever? At the time, Sting made the comment, "I've set Miles free." And it's true. You're not tethered to something. And I've still got my royalties. I've never had that bad a feeling about it. If Sting had gone on to become more successful, but as it is, he never did, so I feel validated. Best of luck to him. He needs to get back to songwriting basics, writing with hooks and choruses, structured so the song pays off. I remember a songwriter once telling me at one of my sessions something his daddy told him: "Don't make the chorus a secret. Make sure it comes in like a garlic milkshake!" He needs to refocus on the essence of what made it work in the first place.
Are you still estranged from your brother Stewart at this point?
Unfortunately, they were so paranoid about me getting involved they told Stewart, if I was involved, there would be no tour. And Stewart needed the tour. Which caused a rift between us. It was not handled very well on their side. To pretend I didn't exist wasn't right. Even though the tour was the highest-grossing of the year, I believe it tarnished The Police brand, and that I resent. An essential ingredient of the team wasn't there, and I think it hurt them. Sting was pressured into doing that tour; he didn't really want to. That deal was not an equal three-way split. I think he believes The Police infringes on his personal space, his self-worth.
Do you regret selling I.R.S. Records to EMI?
Thank God I did. The more we waited, the lower the sales price. The guys who bought EMI ended up selling it for half of what they paid for it. I actually have no regrets about anything. I have a legacy that works for me, and I'm happy with that.
Your idea of viral was putting three guys in a van and sending them around the world.
It's all about finding your audience, and building a loyalty with them. These days, artists -- even veteran established ones -- have to interact with their fan base on social media every single day for at least a few hours. You need to have a certain number social media followers to get signed to a record label. The game today is to build yourself to the point where you're visible. You have to do that groundwork, and then, when you don't really need the record company, they'll come to you. You have to be wired to market yourself these days. An act that is just talented is not enough anymore. Things don't happen from ground zero.
What was it you saw in R.E.M.?
My brother Ian, who booked them, turned me onto the band. They were not the result of a lightbulb moment. They were a gradual build; it took six albums to get there. The guys wouldn't even be in their own videos. The problem with the punk era was that some of the bands were their own worst enemies. They wanted to be rebels, but once they were accepted, they couldn't be rebels.
How is the songwriting retreat going?
We're in our fifth year now. We do a session with ASCAP and another with Greg Wells. We've had four #1s and it's made a lot of careers. What's really fascinating is how songs are made today, as opposed to 20 years ago. A producer brings his computer, which is basically his studio. They write a song a day, and they're unbelievable. These producer-writers are like one-man bands; they do it all themselves. And it's amazing how big a business DJs have developed.