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Gerry Bron interview

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2007-04-03

Gerry Bron

Gerry Bron

The name Gerry Bron might not be familiar, but he's the man responsible for launching some of the biggest rock acts of the 70s and 80s through his record label Bronze Records.

Over the years, he's worked with the likes of heavy metallers Motorhead and Uriah Heep, rockers Manfred Mann and punk band The Damned.

After folding in the mid 80s, the label returned a few years ago with a new roster of artists, including up and coming musician Paddy Milner and James Bond theme writer Monty Norman.

And Bron is still going strong, running the label between helping his wife with her own estate agency business. Here Bron (who comes from a showbiz family – his sister is actress Eleanor Bron) talks exclusively to Caroline Westbrook about Bronze Records, Spinal Tap and his Jewish background…

The Bron name is synonymous with showbiz. How did you get into showbiz?

Well, my father was a well-known music publisher, Sidney Bron, and he became a publisher through quite a long, circuitous route. He worked for Francis Day and Hunters in the 20s, which was one of the big publishers, and he worked in the stockroom, and the story goes that he was frequently late, which knowing my father in later years was surprising – and he used to jump over chairs in the trade department and they got fed up with him and fired him. He then decided he would sell music off a barrow in one of the markets, and that gave him the love of selling music and so on. And then he had the idea of selling music to orchestras and dance bands – in those days there were a lot of them – and he really was the main supplier of printed music to the dance bands throughout the country. That was called Bron's Orchestral Service. But he always wanted to go into publishing – he wasn't a publisher, he just sold their music. It was very successful. He eventually got into publishing with a partner. I left school when I was 16 and joined the family business, which then became a supplier of music and a small publishing company which grew, and we made connections with American publishers and their artists, one of whom was Gene Pitney. And I got very friendly with him – at the time he was unknown – and I just drove him round and we did television and so on, and I effectively became his manager. Then I started making records with him. So my father was really the founder of the dynasty if you like. And my sister Eleanor is a well-known actress, which is coincidental really. My brother is a professor of medicine though, so we're not totally media orientated.

Where does the Bron family name come from and what's your Jewish background?

That's something we've never quite worked out. I think it's more Poland than Russia, there is a family tree of the Lichinskis which goes back to my father's side. My grandmother, I'm really not sure. I think it's a Polish background. It's amazing how we can trace our own ancestries back to the early 1800s, but only on my father's side. Bron is a contraction of Bronstein – when my father started Bron's Orchestral Service he rightly thought that Bronstein's Orchestral Service was a bit of a mouthful, so he changed his name by deed poll to Bron. So our name is quite unique really because it's a made-up name really. But even Bronstein is not our real name – the family name on my mother's side is Scietta, which is spelt all sorts of different ways. And again we've had a reunion and a family tree going back to 1800. But I think most people in this country have names that are contractions. My wife's maiden name was Kay, but the family name was Kruschinsky, so everyone seems to have shortened their name.

Tell us more about Bronze Records and how you've relaunched it.

Well what happened in 1972-73 was that I was producing records for Philips, who I had a deal with, where I signed artists, produced records and they released them on the Philips label. And it went terribly sour, they had distribution problems, and I suddenly realised we had a number of successful artists who had nowhere to go. So I approached Island Records, who were in a similar situation to ours but much much bigger, and said would you like to form a label with us. And they said yes because they knew who we were and what we were doing, and we had a problem thinking of a name for the label. And someone said, 'well, it's a metal label, why don't you call it Bronze?' And we thought it was absolutely brilliant. So that's where we started, and although we became known as a sort of heavy metal label we actually had lots of success outside that genre. But the metal guitar name sort of stuck really. The label started around 72 and ran until 1986, when I sold the catalogue and decided to do other things, but in recent years I've gotten so fed up with Pop Idol and the rubbish that's been turned out. So I thought I'd bring it back and see what I could find.

How much harder is it to make money out of music these days, compared to the 70s and 80s?

I think ultimately it's probably easier but getting it going needs a lot more capital now. But you know the biggest success I had was in 1971 with Uriah Heep and that went on for four or five years. And before they made it I reckoned as a manager – I was their producer, manager, agent, publisher, everything – I reckon I probably sunk about 50 or £60,000 into them. So today I reckon it's even worse, but the returns are high. In the early days, the cost of pressing the record and making the sleeve was not that much less than the price you sold the record for. Today you can press a CD for 60p and you can sell it for £10, so there's a big margin now. It's never been an easy game.

Do you think there's a need for record labels these days now that the Internet plays such a huge part in getting new music heard?

Well, you see I think the importance of the Internet has been exaggerated. I don't think that the Internet represents at the moment more than 10 per cent of the sale. I'm interested in selling CDs, and having artists that go out on the road and earn money on the road, and merchandising and so on. The Internet's going to change that and it's going to get bigger and bigger, it's like when it started they said it would be the paperless age, no-one would buy books, but people still do. I think the Internet has opened up opportunities and the stories you read about are the one or two freak successes – Arctic Monkeys were a surprise hit, but it's not like that's happening all the time and the record companies aren't doing anything at all, far from it. You still need a person to coalesce an artist and bring together all the factors that make an artist successful, either a manager or a record label or something. Many years ago people would buy a record because it was on the Bronze label, and I'm trying to recreate that.

Your label is famous for rock and heavy metal in the 70s and 80s – does that reflect your personal tastes?

Well people often ring up looking for a deal and they ask what sort of music I'm interested in and I say 'good music'. It's a bit like Richard Wilson being characterised as a certain type of actor, I think Bronze became that sort of label. It wasn't like that at all – for example we had Sally Oldfield, who wasn't anything to do with metal or rock or anything like that. I do like that type of music but it's not the only type of music I like. I just got caught up in it really – you can't avoid it, once you have success with a type of music everybody doing it will approach you and ask if you'll sign them. And Manfred Mann were successful – they were guitar orientated but they weren't really metal.

What do you think of the analogy between Uriah Heep and Spinal Tap?

Well, we're convinced it's total. I'm still in touch with the guys who were the road crew for Uriah Heep in the 70s and we occasionally go and watch the movie together. I'd love to know how some of the dialogue was written because it was so true to the stupidities that went on. I mean, I could add to that with Uriah Heep, but it's very accurate. We've always thought that it's probably Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath – one of those two or those two amalgamated, but obviously it wasn't dead accurate or there'd be a libel suit running around.
Who do you consider to have been your best signing?

Well there's no question that Uriah Heep were our biggest seller by far – we sold all around the world. Manfred Mann would have come a very close second, but our deal with Manfred Mann and the longevity of it were quite different, we didn't have Manfred Mann's rights in America, whereas we did with Uriah Heep, and they sold huge numbers of records in America. So business wise Uriah Heep was much much bigger. And they started in 1969, and I personally made 14 records with them, so it's a much bigger span. No contest as far as I'm concerned.
Is there anyone you regret not signing when you had the chance?

Well I've had lots of people that I nearly signed, but I think the one that I do regret because I really saw them coming was Metallica. When I first heard them they were issued on a small label here and I was astonished to find that the label wasn't bothered whether it signed the next record with them or not. I got very very near to signing them and we were pipped at the post by Elektra who are a bigger label and we couldn't compete. They were one I really did want to sign. There are loads of things I was offered that I turned down in the early stages, but I think if you haven't turned down someone who's made it you haven't been really trying.

Aside from the record label, what other business interests do you have?

I managed other people's recording studios for a while, and also my wife and I own three flats so there's a bit of property investment, and my wife has just bought the franchise of Winkworth in Hendon. So I'm still going in terms of business. I like it, I like organising things.

What have been your best and worst business decisions?

I can think of two big things that I did – I saw the use of computers for generating images and making films, and I actually started on that in the late 70s. Penny and I met at the beginning of 1981, and she always said to me it would never catch on. And of course whenever we go and see Shrek or anything like that I say well there you are. I think actually I didn't have the nerve to spend enough money to really make a go of it, and it was in those days very expensive. But we started writing some programs and we produced graphics for people like TV-am when they started off. So I had the right idea, I think what I should have done was raised capital somewhere and gone for it. Also, I was very into aviation, so I ran an air taxi service unit for many many years. It became a very big operation and I think probably I should have done it because it never made any money. I loved doing it but it wasn't a good business.

Tell us about the next generation of Bron's – how are they carrying on the family legacy?

There isn't one – my younger son is in Australia and works for ABC, which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC, and my other son works for a software company that specialises in media security, so I don't see there being a successor. But you never know, having reformed Bronze I might sell it to somebody and it might carry on.

When did you last set foot in a synagogue?

I knew you were going to ask that question! I rarely go, I will go round about Rosh Hashanah. We go to the liberal synagogue in Belsize Park. I'm not Orthodox or even vaguely religious but I love the Jewish religion and I'm proud to be Jewish.

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