Had it not been for Miles Copeland III, the musical landscape in America might have not changed for the better in the late 1970s. As a manager, Copeland guided the career of a then-relatively unknown British-based rock trio called the Police, who went on to spectacular success. Then in 1979 he co-founded the indie label I.R.S. Records, which became the home of cutting-edge alternative rock acts during the ‘80s—among them the Go-Go’s, R.E.M., Oingo Boingo, Wall of Voodoo, Timbuk 3, Concrete Blonde, and Fine Young Cannibals; he also served as the manager for Squeeze, the Bangles and Sting. Because of those things, Copeland played a huge part in further elevating New Wave in America at a time when most U.S. radio stations were resistant to playing new music by post-punk bands.
Copeland’s 50 years in the music business are documented in his new memoir Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (published by Jawbone Press). Among the book’s many highlights include Copeland’s unconventional upbringing in the Middle East as the son of a co-founder of the C.I.A.; his early forays in music management; his introduction to the British punk rock scene and the Police that included his brother Stewart; the successes as well as the trials and tribulations of running I.R.S. Records; and his projects following the label’s demise in the 1990s, such as hosting songwriters’ retreats and founding the Bellydance Superstars, a traveling belly dancing troupe.
Copeland, who now runs Copeland International Arts (C.I.A., get it?), says the book originally began as a how-to in the music industry. “I never liked the idea of a memoir because it always seemed sort of egotistical in a way,” he says. “It’s like, Here’s what I did, aren’t I great, and you might be interested in what I did. Whereas I was much more interested in actually people learning from the same mistakes I made and for the same successes, and they could apply it to any sort of business. That was sort of my idea. People kept saying, ‘Well, you should really write a memoir, people wanna know about the early days and all the other stuff.’ So when the lockdown happened, I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.’ I just started writing it and before I knew it, I had written a book.”
In this interview, which was edited for length and clarity, Copeland talks about his start in the music business, some of the major artists he’s worked with either as a manager or label head, and his involvement in an upcoming documentary about I.R.S. Records titled We Were Once Rebels.
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It is interesting you titled the book Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, because despite all of your successes in the music business, you certainly had your share of setbacks, too.
I think most successful people would say the same: that nobody is smart enough to always do the right thing and get it right every single time. You’re gonna make mistakes, but that shouldn’t put you off and you can keep moving forward. So I thought it was important to let people know the mistakes just as much as it was to let them know the successes because they all added up to make the story. And I think in a lot of ways, I learn more from mistakes than I did from successes.”
As described in the early part of the book, you talk about your upbringing as the son of one of the founders of the C.I.A. and growing up in the Middle East. Did you know early on in your life that you wanted to pursue music or was it mostly in business or economics?
I really had no idea about what I was going to do. I kind of just followed the line of least resistance. My father said, “Well, you should go to college in Birmingham [in Alabama], there’s a good school there. And then after that, I went to Beirut thinking, “Well, I kind of know the Middle East and maybe I’ll do something in the Middle East in some sort of business.” I thought about going into the CIA, but my father talked me out of [it]. And then some group came in suggesting I’d be their manager. It was like, “Well, what the hell? Why not? I have nothing else to do.” So that’s kind of how that happened. I like music, but I had never imagined myself as being in the music business.
You’ve always been associated with New Wave and punk, but your music career began in the early 1970s managing and working with progressive English rock and blues groups like Wishbone Ash, Renaissance and Climax Blues Band, while also spearheading the Startruckin’ 75 music festival that ended in financial disaster. What did you take out of those experiences?
I really learned what goes up can go down. Luckily, the punks were happening right after that and nobody would pay attention to them. I figured, “Well, nobody’s paying attention to me either because I don’t have any money anymore, and I’ll pay attention to the punks.” I saw it as a generation who wanted their own heroes. They had their own idea, and it really was a generational change. That was what was exciting about it. It was like you didn’t have to have all the education and history, you could just decide “We’re gonna be a rock and roll band and go do it.” There was a certain excitement about that, and I think that probably caught my attention.
The most notable band you managed from the punk period were the Police. They certainly rode on the punk bandwagon, but they were really accomplished musicians rather than amateurs.
They were sort of in the punk movement, but they were not punks. Let’s face it: Sting was a jazz guy from Last Exit, Andy Summers had been in Soft Machine, Stewart [Copeland] was in Curved Air. So they were anything but punks. It wasn’t really until I heard “Roxanne” that I realized that what they were doing was really the bridge between what the punks were doing and what the music business was doing. The Police could take the ethic of punk and do it their own way, and we could basically be punks but be musical and make it music that works.
So the Police became the transition between the old and the new, and they succeeded wildly. Squeeze was almost the same thing. Those are the two groups that came through and had a lot of radio hits because they could play their instruments. Yet they did have the punk ethic and wanted to forge their own way and not be following the footsteps of Led Zeppelin and all the other bands from the past.
How you managed the Police early on was very groundbreaking. You offered A&M Records their first album, 1978’s Outlandos D’Amour, for free instead of an advance in exchange for a higher royalty rate. And then you had the band do DIY bare-bones touring in America in a van. Where did this guerilla marketing come from?
Well, partly there were not a lot of options, because if I had gone into A&M Records and asked for money, they would have thrown me out of the building. I had nothing really to sell the group on. There was no press, there was no tour, there was no fan base. I couldn’t walk in with the front page of Melody Maker saying this group’s happening. All I could do is say, “Listen to this music. And by the way, I’m gonna eliminate any risk by giving it to you for free. You’ve got it. It’s done. I hope you like the music.” And of course, the guy liked the music, and then he said, “Well, how bad could it be?”
I called my brother Ian, who was a booking agent down in Macon, Georgia, and I said, “Can you book us a tour?” And since there were only three guys in the band and one roadie, and there were some cheap flights on Laker Airways going to New York, we could get to America for peanuts.
And so I said to Ian, “I don’t care what crap holes you book us into, just get us to America.” And he said, “Well, they’re gonna be really dumps.” I said, “Well, I don’t care. If that’s all there is, let’s do it.” So we played the Rat Club in Boston, CBGB in New York, and a lot of places that most people would like to forget. But it opened the door. So I always say it’s from small beginnings that big things can happen.
Stewart once credited you and Ian for opening the door of New Wave to America. How do you feel about that?
We refused to support any band that was one the old guard. The Sex Pistols used to call them old farts. So we would always headline. We wanted to make a statement that we were new. We were not following in the footsteps of others, and that was the point, A&M in America were still in the mode of, “You gotta do it the old way, because that’s the way it is.” We said, “No, it’s not.” And we found our own way. Of course, then people realized, “You know what? There are other ways,” and they began to follow, too.
And so Ian booked all the New Wave bands. We talked some promoter into booking a punk rock night. He was saying, “Well, okay, what’s next?” And so we had to start bringing bands over, and one thing led to another. But the Police were sort of the vanguard because I think people can understand them. Then I.R.S. came and took people like the Go-Go’s—who every record company had rejected because they were all women—the Buzzcocks, the Cramps, Wall of Voodoo, Oingo Boingo.
When it came to I.R.S. Records, you had this sort of ability to find really talented modern rock acts and invest in them, but without incurring too much financial risk.
There was another factor. Number one is very few companies were competing for these acts, so [the unsigned artists] didn’t have a lot of choice. If the Go-Go’s went in and said, “Okay, Miles, we’d be happy to sign to I.R.S., but we want a million dollars,” I would say, “Sorry, I can’t sign you.” The fact is, they went to every label, and the only label in the business that would find them was I.R.S., so they had to make a reasonable deal and they had to do something that fit my budget, which was not particularly large. Of course, they had the goods. And I think a lot of the acts came to I.R.S. because the word got out that we were interested in unique, different acts. If you were different, strange and getting rejected, maybe I.R.S. was the place to go. As Charlotte Caffey [of the Go-Go’s] said, “We ended up with all the homeless rejects.” (laughs) If you were homeless and a reject, go to I.R.S. because they’ll sign you.
When you signed the Go-Go’s, was there an initial concern that people might perceive them as a novelty act because they were all female punk musicians who can both play instruments and write songs?
They were considered a novelty act. But to me, the whole point of success is to have novelty. Elvis Presley was a novelty act. The Beatles were a novelty act. The first thing I heard about the Beatles was they were long-haired guys from Liverpool, and Elvis Presley was known for shaking his legs on TV, and he had these long sideburns. Novelty was always part of the mix. So five girls from L.A. who were punks, yeah it was a novelty. It’s a selling factor, it’s marketing. You take a picture of them, they look different than all the other groups. Immediately, you’ve got an identity. What I saw as being positive, all the other labels saw it as, “There are no other acts like them, so they must not be the right thing. Let’s not sign them.” They were signing copy bands, basically all the bands in spandex trousers. I could never understand that. I was saying the whole point of rock and roll is to be different, to stand out.
R.E.M. were another success for I.R.S., and championed by your brother Ian and your I.R.S. Records colleague Jay Boberg. The band once opened for the Police for some dates on the latter’s Synchronicity tour in 1983. What was your relationship with the R.E.M. at the time?
Ian knew them from Georgia. So he had been pestering me, “You gotta sign R.E.M.” I said, “Okay, I’m gonna sign them. As long as they’re inexpensive, I’ll do it.” And then Jay Boberg got interested. He went to see them and he came back and said, “Well, I really like those guys.” And we signed them. The reality was I found them kind of boring, as did the Police, when they played Shea Stadium [in 1983]. I don’t think they really belonged on the big stage yet, and they didn’t even wanna appear in their own videos. I was thinking of marketing and how you’re supposed to get attention. They seemed to want to be obscure. I was signing acts like the Cramps and they were not obscure, let’s be honest. So R.E.M. was kind of like an outlier. They do sell records, people seem to like them. It wasn’t until later on that I began to realize that they were actually a really good group, but they never caused a problem. I was never dragged in and had to deal with things, whereas Wall of Voodoo, Lords of the New Church, or Johnette Napolitano with Concrete Blonde—there was always some issue coming up.
You’ll have some band come in and go, “It’s about the music.” And I would say, “Well guys, actually it’s not about the music, because the first thing is you gotta get noticed.” Once you’re noticed, then it’s about the music. Because if you’re not noticed, nobody knows who you are. I don’t care how good your music is, it’s never gonna be heard. So the first job is getting noticed.
Another I.R.S. band you talked in the book about is Timbuk 3, who had a huge hit in 1986 with “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” One anecdote is how the group’s co-founder Pat MacDonald refused to have that song appear in commercials, which would’ve been lucrative.
Funnily enough, he was always one of my favorite artists because he had a sense of humor, except when it came to letting his songs be licensed. I really did turn down millions of dollars. I said in the book he was the most frustrating artist, because he was so talented, and we turned down so much money. Three days ago, I got an email from Pat and he said, “Miles, I just wanted to tell you I bought the Audible book, it was great. I really thank you for what you said. By the way, even the negative stuff I probably deserved.” Like I say in the book, he was always one of my favorite artists and I really liked him, but he did turn down all this money. I just kept thinking, “God, If I could just go back and do it all over again, he would have a few million, and so would I.”
You also talk about the group Wall of Voodoo, who had a popular hit with “Mexican Radio” in 1983. And then as the group was on the brink of success, their singer Stan Ridgway decided it was time to break it up.
I never did figure it out. And that’s one of the things that happens. People will shoot themselves in the foot and you wonder why they did it, and you sit there scratching your head. “Mexican Radio” was climbing the charts, we were all excited, we thought we’d had another Go-Go’s on our hands. So Stan calls a meeting and wants to inform us that he was breaking the group up. Stan’s lawyer and I go to lunch with Stan and, of course, the minute the lawyer heard that Stan was gonna break the group up, he was horrified. He agreed with me immediately and said, “Stan, don’t be crazy. It’s really big. If you have to break the group up, then do it when you’re on a high.”
We thought we convinced him. Days later, he goes off on tour with Voodoo and gets three shows in, and then announces to the group that it’s all over. We had another 30 dates in front. I had to call my brother up and said “Sorry, the tour is over. Stan broke the group up.” And of course, radio dropped “Mexican Radio.” There’ve been a lot of bands over history that they make it or seem to be making it, then do something stupid and they’re not making it or they break up at their height.
The book comes amid an upcoming documentary about I.R.S., We Were Once Rebels, directed by Lawrence Porter, is in production. What is your involvement with that?
I think the story of I.R.S.really is that we started off [in 1979] as rebels breaking the rules. Ten years later, we’ve got rent to pay, we’ve got staff to pay, we’ve got bonuses to worry about. We ended up as sort of the arm of a corporation. So I think that is an interesting arc, that we started off as sort of like rebels doing it their own way and didn’t have anything to lose in a way. Ten years later, we have a lot to lose. And so we got forced into signing a few acts that maybe we shouldn’t have, because we needed the volume, we needed the records, So things change, and that was part of what I wanted the documentary to show is that you can start one way. The danger is you might end up being exactly what you objected to in the beginning.
I wanted that as part of the story. That’s my own view of I.R.S., because in the end it kind of wound down, and it really was not the same. The first five years were great. It was very revolutionary. Then the world kind of woke up. We would go to sign the next Go-Go’s or R.E.M., and there’d be [already] 10 A&R people there. And often, we would find that because I.R.S. was interested in an act, other labels now became interested in them. We were finding our pocketbook wasn’t as big as Warner Bros. R.E.M. would have been happy to [re-sign] to I.R.S., but the reality was Warner Bros. said, “Whatever Miles is paying you, we’ll double it.” How do I compete with that?
Are record labels still relevant? Does the power dynamic today favors the artist because of the Internet and advanced recording software that allows them to do it themselves?
I think they’re relevant in that they have money, and the job is always how to get noticed. If a record company is gonna help you get noticed, then they’re relevant. I think that the opportunities today are as great, if not greater, than they ever were. But the job is still: how do I get noticed? And some groups and artists just don’t have the wherewithal to do that, and they need a label to help them do it.
Once an act is successful, do you really need the record label? Well, no, because you’re not gonna be selling CDs like you used to. You’re gonna be selling T-shirts and selling out concerts and tickets. And now everything’s digital, so Spotify will pay you, but they pay a little bit per song. There’s now billions of people who’ve got Spotify, so those little bits add up. I think that in a lot of ways, it’s the same. If the artist has the gumption to get off his butt and do it himself, today is a great day. And if they don’t, then they still need a label.
Given your experience, what advice would you give to someone who aspires to work in the music industry either as a manager or as a label head?
Social media became a really important aspect. When I do these songwriters retreats, a lot of the songwriters will say if they don’t spend two or three hours on social media every day, their audience will forget them. So I would say learn how to use the internet and social media and all these avenues that are there. And if you can do that, the opportunity is there for the taking. The problem is it’s work. You literally have to sit down and spend hours at it and do it. Anybody entering the business today, social media is the game, and you really need to understand and know how to work that.