Mark King, Level 42
“Time to pack your bag and leave,” said dad.
“You can come home when you’ve got a job”.
Looking back, I'm not surprised.
I'd been totally into music since before he bought my first drum kit when I was nine years old. I was so absorbed, I'd let my schoolwork slide. Maybe he'd been expecting me to fail my exams?
It was the best thing that could have happened.
My choice of 'career' needed no decision: music was my whole life.
The question was: how? What could I do to make it happen? No-one else could do it for me – action was key.
I worked for a few weeks on a factory production line. It was awful, no music, no future. Then I had a milk-round, and all the time I was playing gigs around the Island.
One day I took off to London in the milk van (max 30 mph) – bought from a very understanding employer. I ended up working in a music shop by day, and jamming with friends by night.
So Level 42 started from there.
Strangely though, it was coming back to Ryde’s ‘La Babalu’ for the showcase gig that led us to a contract with Polydor Records.
Britain dominates global music charts.
Commentary by Dave Simon
One in six albums sold around the world is by a British artist or band.
We are Music Island. We have many festivals, orchestras, choirs, pop-up operas, lots of soloists and even more bands of all sorts. We have many musicians here, most working part-time to support their performing.
We have Platform One teaching music to degree level, with 40% of students coming over from the mainland. A small, vibrant team enthuses youngsters on business and music subjects. A demoralised youngster perked up on going there, rating it “9 out of 10!”.
We have good venues despite pubs closing nationally at an average rate of 29 a week.
And musical instruments are still in demand, according to Gold Tone Music in Newport – a healthy sign.
With a reputation for music at every turn, we attract many music-loving tourists of all types.
Recordings, now digital products, are an almost invisible export, bringing cash back to the Island.
Music peps up brain-power more than language does. And like business, it relies on teamwork.
How about sponsoring live music days at work, or recordings on your website? “Negotiate Strategic Alliances To Boost Your Effectiveness” with local partners.
Pop stars have to be entrepreneurs
So now I've been a musician for 38 years. Apart from that, I've only really had the milkman job. Music has given me the opportunity to make the most of a talent I had, and to make that work for me financially.
I know the music industry. In some ways, music is different to other businesses. There aren't so many fixed job and career paths – bands have got to build their own. There is no set of promotion steps to follow, job at a time.
But a band is a business. If it can't pay its way, it has to go home. Band members have to build this business. There are other people who will promote you and publish you, but they won't create the band in the first place. Pop stars have to be entrepreneurs.
This takes ambition, courage and hard work – all things you can't borrow from anyone else.
I'm Island born and bred. I went to Cowes High School and I wanted to be a musician from a very early age. In those days, I wanted to be a drummer in any band, playing any drums. I got my first drum kit at nine years old, joined my first band at 11, and went gigging around Gurnard soon after. Then we travelled as far as Binfield – with my mum as the roadie!
I was convinced I would make a career in music – and I was probably quite boring, maybe even a bit arrogant! But when you have that enormous self-belief, backed up by knowledgable people agreeing that you have ability, your whole life centres around it.
In those days, the Island was a major tourist centre and there were lots of holiday camps, and bars for live music along every seafront. There was a thriving community of musicians – young and old. In a way, being a musician was a more popular way to earn money then – so many people were employed in the industry.
It took some courage to go to London. While there was a lot of live music on the Island, the big opportunities were in London. I didn't know anyone there, but I knew I had to get there. It was cold that February when I went, so I was very motivated to find a job – sleeping in the back of the van was not fun! Some weeks I only ate cereals with water because I couldn't afford the milk!
Level 42 came together by joining forces with some Island friends and some new London mates. Jamming together, you quickly find out what people like and it's natural to stick to those who like the same groups and style as you. Jazz and funk joined with pop and energised us into a band.
We had a number of exciting 'stepping stones' that pushed us all on. For me, they confirmed my abilities and therefore my ambitions. The first record deal with a small company. The first record release. The first TV play on Top of the Pops. The first airplay on Radio Caroline (the only real independent at the time). The first record deal with a national company. The first serious tour... These all produced such amazing feelings I would have gone on playing without pay!
As encouraging as that was, we still had to do the hard work. I had a great lesson in commitment from Sting and The Police. We were touring around Europe as their support act at the time. And as we came to the end of the tour, we were talking about what next? They told me about their plans to play their way across America. They were fairly unknown over there at the time, and they'd decided to take the minimum equipment and play as many small venues as possible to start to introduce themselves.
You could say it was a step down from their sell-out European venues. But it suited their profile and they put a lot of energy into that tour. They stuck to it through thick and thin, moving from town to town, playing four and five nights a week. And within 18 months they were playing 100,000 people in Shea Stadium – a huge venue originally made famous by the Beatles.
Others have tried to transport their European tour machine straight into America, and failed. The big test of success is whether you sell out when you go back for a second visit...
We wanted to be even better!
There were many more important decisions that followed on – about songs, records, contracts, tours, surviving changes of line-up in the band and many more.
One major decision that changed our career as a band was the decision to write a hit record. It might sound strange – surely all our records were aimed at being hits? But one of the features of the industry is that record deals usually last three years with a two year option the record company can take up if things are going well.
You can go from contract to contract quite easily all the time you are making money. But if you want opportunities for big changes, you have to create a gap in that pattern. You have to do something to break the cycle – and then use the opportunity to jump to the next level!
We were getting to the end of a contract and thinking about what came next. We'd been selling around sixty thousand records and that was fine. But to get bigger, find more fans, sell more records, we needed to be famous. In the music business that means having a chart-topping hit single.
We decided we needed to write a hit single. It had to be different to our usual songs, and maybe different in production too. So the five of us sat together and worked on it as never before. The result was “Something About You”. It worked – our second top 10 hit in the UK, reaching number six, and did well around the world. Sales leapt upwards to ten times bigger.
Digital music has revolutionised the industry. I work in what is now a global environment. I still write songs, make records, and go on tour with the band.
I also sell music directly to fans through my website. You could call me an exporter: that is how the modern music industry is, with digital downloads so easy. Interestingly, I found that the profit margin for retailing music was much bigger than for recording records – but the volume of sales is very different.
Returning to the Island
These days, I live on the Island. I love it here.
I do think it's important to inspire the youngsters of today. I was able to create an image of myself as wanting to be the best drummer on the Island because I'd seen so many other drummers playing. That image focussed my ambitions and energised my workrate.
The Island is different now. There are fewer venues to play, less live music all round, much less energy in it. The interaction between the young and old, between different styles, between muso's and audience, are all vital. But I worry about the opportunities in music that kids can find – they are shrinking.
I had three years of apprenticeship, in effect. The first record deal we had gave us the security and the people to learn from. We already knew a lot about making music. We also knew a lot about touring. But making records focusses you on another side of the business – and one that has to make money for everyone involved.
Inspire The Island's Young
I would encourage everyone to find new ways to inspire the young. Things have changed and what inspired us in the past will probably not inspire today's budding entrepreneurs.
Inspiration boosts aspiration, courage and tenacity. We all need support and encouragement. For me, Steve Jobs was a model of tenacity – he stuck with it to make his vision of the iplayer and iphone come true. And Richard Branson shows us self-belief – he saw the power of the brand that has allowed him to diversify into hundreds of different markets.
The Island needs inspired youngsters to create tomorrow's economy. Let's show our optimism for the future through active support.