Hot Seat: Daniel Miller – Founder of Mute
Daniel Miller’s initial plan was simple. Release a single. That was back in 1978. The single was Warm Leatherette, the act was The Normal, and the vocals were his. Nothing unusual there. What followed, however, was remarkable. From that initial burst of creativity came the spark to create a recording label, Mute. In the years that followed, Mute earned the reputation as one of the most important brands in the music biz. With Miller at the wheel, Mute went on to sign and deliver the likes of Depeche Mode, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Plastikman, Erasure and Moby.
Miller’s status as a giant of the indie world was recognised with the Pioneer Award at the 2012 Association of Independent Music Awards (AIM) in London. The past decade of Mute’s activities has been the most dramatic in its evolution. In 2002, EMI bought Mute for £23 million ($33 million at May 2002 exchange rates) in a deal that kept Miller at the helm and his company operating as a standalone business. EMI went through some dramatic changes of its own and, in 2010, Miller relaunched Mute as an indie. The new incarnation of Miller’s U.K.-based group has a roster which includes Goldfrapp, Erasure, Liars, Can, Laibach and Cabaret Voltaire, and it’s active in music publishing, management, and of course, recordings. With the recent appointment of Shirin Foroutan as global Managing Director of the Mute group and Dick O’Dell as Head of Artist Management and a busy release schedule in the coming months, Miller is confident the company is set for growth.
What makes for a signing to Mute?
A fairly substantial proportion of it is a gut feeling. There’s no question about that. That’s music. I can’t explain music. I only know what it feels like. On top of that, I’m looking for people who are unique in their field who obviously have something to bring to music. It might be great lyrics, great voice, great songs or a great sonic palate. Hopefully it’s a combination of those things. Whatever it is, something that’s original, something that moves me. I also have to be able to feel that I’m able to have a working relationship with that artist. We work very closely with our artists and it’s very important for me and my team to feel we can work closely with our artists both on a creative and also on an overall career perspective. That’s not to say we want to interfere with what they’re doing. We want to support their goals and their creative vision. And that’s very different for each artist. Obviously we have to think the music is great. We’re not looking for a quick fix – a hit single. We’re looking at artists we think will have long-term careers. That’s in our DNA, that’s what we do best and that’s what we look for.
One of those acts who carry the DNA of your company is Richie Hawtin. You told me some years ago that Richie could play a gig and possible earn as much as he’d make in a year from recordings.
It’s true. It wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek comment at all.
So, for an indie to survive do you have to be involved in multi-rights deals?
I don’t know if you have to. For us, it makes a lot of sense. For us, what makes us a bit different is our track record for long-term artist development. In order to really build on that and encompass it more, it’s great to be able to have the expertise in management as well. And obviously in publishing, where we’ve had a long history. What’s important, even if an artist isn’t signed to all our different groups — say they’re only signed to management — they still have access to the brain of the whole company, which encompasses publishing and records. We’re all in the one building. We’re not that big. We all talk to each other all the time. If Dick O’Dell has a question about a marketing plan or sync which some other label has put together for one of his artists, we can critique it. We’re three distinct companies within the group, but we still link into the same intelligence network. We can bring a lot to artists. We have a solid foundation. Andrew King, who runs our publishing company, is a hugely experienced publisher and can bring an awful lot to the party. Between all those parts, we really have a lot to offer our artists even if they’re not signed to all three companies. We still have that intelligence network, which can help. In the end it’s all about artist development and that’s what we do.
Depeche Mode have gone on to release through Sony. There’s been a giant buzz for them in America. And Nick Cave has had No. 1s around the world through Kobalt. How does it feel for them to move on?
They’re slightly different situations. With Depeche, I’m still working with them on an A&R basis. I was still working on that record as I’ve worked on previous records – and also single choices and remixes. Both were there for over 30 years. I’m very pleased for them that they were in a position where they could do whatever they wanted. The work that we all did together was really positive and it gave them a platform to try other things. They’re both inquisitive artists. When you’ve been with a label for that long and you’ve had that much success, they’ve just said, ‘let’s try something else, let’s see what it feels like’. And I can see that. I can understand that. I’ve done that in my life too. Of course I miss working with them. And particularly with Nick, where I don’t have that much involvement anymore. We still publish him. But on a day to day basis, I miss the guys a bit. There’s no question about that. They’re people who I’ve grown-up with. It’s like kids leaving home. You’re proud of what they’ve achieved and you’re proud of what they will achieve in the future.
Are you still DJing and producing music?
Actually my DJing career has grown somewhat in the last 18 months. I’ve been doing it a lot more and I’m enjoying it a lot. As far as producing is concerned, I’ve not really produced in 20 years. It’s not something I particularly enjoy. I was part of the Depeche Mode recording team for their first five albums. And a number of other Mute artists and a number of other non-Mute things as well. Really, it’s not my thing producing. You have to have a lot of patience. What I like doing is going in, making comments, having a chat with various bands. It depends on the artist. I tend to get involved at the very beginning of a project when it comes to the songs and what the songs are going to be and how the direction is going to go. I monitor what’s going on, but I don’t really get involved again until mixing time. That’s more as an A&R role, for want of a better word. As far as production is concerned, no not really. I do occasional remixes. But it’s all about time, really. It’s difficult to have the time and the mental space to do all those things.
Your single Warm Leatherette appeared on a Nick Rhodes and John Taylor compilation, Only After Dark. How did that feel?
Yeah, I’m just surprised really. I feel flattered and surprised. That track still gets played in some clubs. It’s great to hear it out but it’s a bit eerie hearing my voice as a 20-something year old. It’s nice to know something I created people are still interested in. Judging by the photos, you’re pretty fit at the moment. I’m just trying to stay healthy, eating healthily and going to the gym. As you get older, I don’t want to ease up on what I’m doing. You can’t pretend that age doesn’t have an impact on that. It’s important to stay as healthy as possible. I’m enjoying it too much. That’s important to me.