Going a Round With Miles Copeland
Stand for a while in any of the West Hollywood bars where the record business in-crowd gathers and, sooner or later, you’re bound to hear Miles Copeland III’s name mentioned--pro or con.
Everybody, it seems, has an opinion about Copeland, the outspoken chairman-founder of I.R.S. Records and the manager of Sting, the Bangles and Squeeze--at least privately.
Sample comments on a random day:
A young, angry record executive, who certainly didn’t want to be identified, declared: “Miles is a killer. He’s unscrupulous. He’d steamroll his own mother to make a deal if she was on the other side of the bargaining table. He’s a damn shark.”
His older, calmer companion countered, “He’s a fair, decent guy. He’s hard-nosed, but he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Some people do go on the record--at least those with positive things to say.
Jerry Moss, chairman of the board of A&M; Records, has been involved in several projects with Copeland. Praising Copeland, he said: “He’s very diligent, works hard, has a great deal of stamina, which is important in this business. I’ve always had the greatest respect for him.”
Irving Azoff, chairman of the MCA Entertainment Group which distributes Copeland’s I.R.S. label, added: “You hear a lot of bad things about Miles--that he’s difficult and nasty--but don’t believe all that. He’s a good manager, he’s a good businessman and he’s great at spotting talent.”
Because of Copeland’s clout, the enemies stay away from tape recorders and notepads. But Copeland knows they’re lurking about. In fact, he seems to relish being the center of controversy.
“No one has ever said I’m boring,” Copeland quipped one chilly, gray afternoon, on the patio of his secluded Hollywood Hills estate. “I’m happy about that. I like it when they’re saying something about me.”
Copeland is intelligent and clever, always giving you the sense that he’s two steps ahead. But the first thing you notice about the white-haired 41-year-old is his incredible intensity. You sense that it’s the tip of the iceberg--that there’s this caldron of emotion seething underneath, ready to boil over. When you’re talking to him, you’re nervously waiting for that explosion.
The public witnessed this tendency in some unflattering scenes in Sting’s 1985 concert movie, “Bring on the Night.” In one scene, he scolded a costume designer for showing up with the wrong suits.
“People think that’s how I am--hard-nosed, tough and unfeeling,” he said. “They had other footage of me that showed me in a better light, but didn’t use it. But hell . . . I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
If other record companies signed acts using Copeland’s I.R.S. guidelines, they’d probably go broke. The roster is dominated by off-beat, commercially risky acts like the Alarm, Timbuk 3 and Fine Young Cannibals.
“I don’t sign acts because I think they’re commercial,” he explained, sitting on a patio which offered a gorgeous view of the city.
“First of all, I have to like the artists I sign as people or I don’t sign them. This isn’t a big label--just 35 acts. I don’t want to be in business just to make money. Life is too short to work with people you don’t like and music you don’t like.”
What Copeland covets is provocative, unconventional artists who can record on relatively tiny budgets. His business is based on making a profit with small-scale records.
“An artist can sell 5,000 records and make a profit by keeping the costs low,” he pointed out. “Most labels wouldn’t touch this kind of artist. But what these artists have to say may be interesting, different and experimental. They deserve an outlet too. I give the acts all the artistic freedom they want as long as they come through for me--which means balancing their art with financial responsibility.”
Sometimes, however, these “interesting” acts turn out to be major sellers--notably R.E.M., which just left I.R.S. after seven albums to accept a multimillion contract from Warner Bros., and the Go-Go’s, who chalked up two best-selling albums before calling it quits in 1985. Copeland’s empire, of course, was built on his success as manager of another longshot act that became huge: the Police.
Copeland’s newest venture is the No Speak series--low-cost rock instrumental albums by veterans like Peter Haycock, formerly of the Climax Blues Band, Wishbone Ash, William Orbit and Copeland’s brother Stewart, who was the Police’s drummer.
Copeland also pointed out that I.R.S. is branching out into film, through a company called I.R.S. World Media, which has four low-budget films on its agenda. The first is director Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: the Metal Years.”
Long known as a bastion of offbeat pop and rock, I.R.S. is also branching out into heavy-metal, signing bands like Seduce, Nuclear Assault and Chrome Molly.
“There’s a whole new underground metal scene out there,” Copeland said. “In some ways it’s like the punk scene in the old days--with a lot of good bands that can’t get signed with the big labels. So we’ll sign some of them--the good ones, the ones that seem adventurous.”
Copeland still doesn’t quite know what ever possessed him to get into the music business. Son of one of the CIA’s founders, he had one of those globe-trotting boyhoods. But Copeland, an American citizen, eventually settled in London--where he still lives part of the year.
Fresh out of American University in Beirut, he was headed for a career in international politics when disillusionment set in. In England, while considering a new career, he ran across a pop group he knew from Beirut that needed a manager. The group turned out to be Wishbone Ash. “They offered me the job,” he said. “It was a zany idea. Why not get into the music business?”
Wishbone Ash did well enough to allow him to expand his roster to include the Climax Blues Band, Renaissance, Al Stewart and Joan Armatrading. But in 1975 he lost his money by backing a disastrous tour.
It was during this down period that he tuned into the Police, then an obscure band featuring Sting and Copeland’s brother, Stewart, on drums.
“I didn’t have a dime and I was deeply in debt,” Copeland said. “I spent my last 100 pounds on the Police to make this record. When I heard it, I said: ‘My God, this is it!’ The song was ‘Roxanne.’ I heard that song and a light bulb went off in my head--reggae, punk and pop all mixed into one. What a great idea!
“If I had to zero in on a moment that changed my life--and theirs--it was that moment in the studio when I first heard ‘Roxanne.’ That started the ball rolling.”
Later, the Police turned out to be Copeland’s ticket to fame. More than anything
else, managing that band, which split up a few years ago, made him a power in the music business. Now a solo performer, ex-Police star Sting is the bread-and-butter artist on Copeland’s managerial roster.
The mid ‘70s was a momentous time for Copeland for another reason. He happened to be in England when the punk movement exploded. It was also important, he observed, that he happened to be broke at the time. “If I had been making a lot of money and business had been great, I might not have gotten into the punk scene. I might have missed the whole thing.”
But he turned out to be one of the entrepreneurs of the movement, thriving as an agent and a manager. As an agent, he worked with such key acts as Billy Idol, Blondie, Patti Smith and the notorious Sex Pistols. In this country in the early ‘80s he used his knowledge of the punk scene to propel his new record company, I.R.S., into prominence.
Formed in 1979, I.R.S. Records quickly established a reputation for being an outlet for punk acts like the Cramps and the Dead Kennedys. It was also a haven for bizarre artists--like Wazmo Nariz, Skafish, Klaus Nomi and Henry Badowski-- too uncommercial to interest major labels.
I.R.S. splashed into the mainstream in the early ‘80s with the Go-Go’s and R.E.M., later recording Belinda Carlisle, formerly of the Go-Go’s. But R.E.M. and Carlisle eventually left the label, and now Concrete Blonde, a critically acclaimed I.R.S. band, has been trying to jump to another label.
Do these exits mean I.R.S. is wrong for commercially oriented acts?
“All this means is that this company doesn’t have the money or resources to match the deals the big companies can offer,” Copeland replied. “That’s all it means.”
It does not mean, he insisted, that his label is cheap--its reputation in some circles.
“We spend what we need to spend,” he said. “We don’t throw money around.”
R.E.M.'s exit was “friendly,” Copeland said, but Carlisle’s apparently wasn’t: “She left (after one hit album) for more money. We felt we were cheated out of the fruits of our success. I feel angry about it. I don’t feel any warmth toward Belinda or Danny Goldberg (her co-manager).”
The chill is apparently mutual. In a separate interview, Goldberg snapped, “He’s said nasty things about Belinda and me that I thought were totally uncalled for. (She left I.R.S.) because she got offered a much better deal by MCA--more advance money, a better royalty. Miles says she was happy at I.R.S., but there were disputes that really strained her relations with Miles.”
But Copeland will undoubtedly find another money-making act to replace her. Even Copeland-haters acknowledge his knack for spotting new talent. There’s a considerable thrill, he insisted, when one of these new acts clicks:
“I love the satisfaction when a challenging situation works out,” he said. “So I create all these challenges. I find these unknowns that other people think are weird. And these acts mature and become profitable. I get off on these challenges. What else is there. . . ?”