With a career in music spanning almost forty years, Alan McGee hasn’t lost any of the passion for discovering and breaking new artists that cemented his reputation as a music mogul icon in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
To describe him simply as ‘the man who discovered Oasis’ would be a disservice as Creation Records, which McGee founded in 1983, released many of the most influential records of the last century.
Creation Records took mighty risks on these artists and was pushed almost to the point of collapse on several occasions – a fate which engulfed Tony Wilson’s equally chaotic Factory Records.
McGee’s ability to take the helm and navigate Creation through the storms it endured was put to good use in his managerial work, looking after artists like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pete Doherty and The House of Love.
In addition to releasing records and managing bands, Alan McGee’s influence was felt even within mainstream British politics. As part of the Music Industry Task Force, he was instrumental in New Labour’s New Deal for Musicians; a scheme which allowed musicians four years of financial support to help hone their craft and supplement their career, without having to sign on the dole. Is this something we may see again in our lifetimes? Perhaps not, as it happens, according to Alan McGee: ‘It seems like another world – the government being kind to musicians.’
Alan McGee’s candid, highly entertaining autobiography Creation Stories: Riots Raves and Running a Label is due for its screen adaptation release, written by Irvine Welsh and starring Ewan Bremner. If the biopic is anything like the book, audiences will be treated to a remarkably honest depiction of the eccentricities and excesses of Creation Records in the '80s and '90s, both chemically and musically.
By his own account, Alan McGee is a little calmer these days. Now the hell-raising days are over, what’s left is what’s always been at the centre of McGee’s world. Music.
His latest venture, Creation 23, is celebrating its two-year anniversary with monthly single releases from the likes of The Clockworks, Shambolics, Belowsky, Charlie Clark, Sister Psychosis and Cat SFX.
Founded on the principle of pushing new, exciting artists, the simplicity of the label harks back to the days of Alan McGee’s youth: ‘I still ultimately relate to being the kid that came to London to find his fucking fortune, you know?’
M Magazine caught up with Alan McGee to discuss Creation 23, the joy of vinyl, the modern crop of guitar bands, how the industry has changed in recent years and the role of politics in shaping the contemporary musical landscape, as well as the story of how the New Deal for Musicians came to be.
'I was desperate to be successful when I was a young man and now I’m happy enjoying it. That’s not to say I’m not ambitious with the label, because I am, but I’m a little bit calmer about it all now because I’ve had a lot of success at different points in my life.'
Hi Alan. Congratulations on the second anniversary of Creation 23. How’s it been going?
I’m really enjoying it, so I suppose that’s success. I’m older now, do you know what I mean? I was desperate to be successful when I was a young man and now I’m happy enjoying it. That’s not to say I’m not ambitious with the label, because I am, but I’m a little bit calmer about it all now because I’ve had a lot of success at different points in my life. I’m doing the label because I want to do it. It’s a hobby label. Having said that, like with everything I do, I’m ultimately trying to break some bands.
Your passion for exposing great new music to people seems to be as intense as ever. Why do you think that is? How do you sustain that energy?
I’m just me. Obviously, you can’t measure yourself, at all. I’m friends with Julien Cope (The Teardrop Explodes) and I saw him about six months ago. I hadn’t seen him for years and he said to me at the end of the night: ‘I can’t believe you’re not jaded. He goes: ‘I thought when I first saw you it was all an act, but after sitting with you for three or four hours, I know it’s not. It’s kind of incredible that you’re not fucking jaded. Respect.’ Coming from Julien Cope I thought that was pretty fucking cool. I could be facetious and put it down to me being fucking mad. I’m still a fan, man, you know what I mean? I still act like a fan in my head and I still ultimately relate to being the kid that came to London to find his fucking fortune, you know. I just wanted to be involved in punk and that’s why I came to London in the first place in 1980. I was a little bit late, but all my heroes were the punks and the punk bands.
After such a successful career, being involved with some of the most iconic bands and albums of the 20th century, do you still feel a pressure to succeed and do you still have something to prove?
Yeah, I do. Do I feel under pressure? Probably not. I manage a few people – Happy Mondays, Glasvegas, Black Grape, Cast – I’ve got to make these bands money and I do. With the label, I’m not playing by anybody else’s rules. My rule is that I’m enjoying it. More importantly, am I proud of the music that I’m putting out? I am. So, you’ve got to take it that that’s quite successful. In a world of fucking gratuitous bullshit, doing something because you like it, maybe that’s an act of rebellion, you know? It’s definitely a mark of success that you’re putting out things you love.
What inspired the decision to release a run of monthly digital singles? How do you think people’s attitudes to physical releases have changed in recent years?
I have been doing physical releases, but all the pressing plants are shutting down. I wasn’t going to put records out during lockdown because I suspected people’s attention wasn’t really there at that point anyway, you know? Clockworks, this Irish band - fucking amazing band - they got Annie Mac to start playing them on Radio 1, so I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just put it out digitally.’
I’ve got this girl who’s an amazing punk character called Cat SFX. I put her single out, Doom Generation. The other week I put out another Clockworks single, Can I Speak To A Manager, and then I’ve got another three or four coming out at the back end of the year, so yeah, I think the label’s good. Whether the music business is ever going to agree with that or anybody else, I don’t know. But I think it’s pretty good.
There are the infamous stories of the early creation days and how you signed bands like Oasis. How do you go about finding new bands now? Looking through the bands on the label, they aren’t necessarily people that have built up a reputation already.
People just contact me. I signed Clockworks through a direct message on Instagram, of all things, but people just find me, mate. Cat SFX was one of my pals. You know of people, vaguely. I didn’t really know her, I’d just met her once or twice through some bloke that manages bands that I’m friends with. I liked it and I put the records out. There’s all kinds of stories like that. When I was doing In Conversation With Alan McGee – I did about fifty of them last year – I found a few bands through that. I found Shambolics through that and I found Marquis Drive. Then a singer-songwriter that I’m putting out, Christian Pattemore, he saw me in Hay-On-Wye and started playing me his tunes in a shop, so there you go. It is what it is. If they see you, they give you music or start playing you tunes, you know.
You seem to have embraced social media as a tool to build connections and fanbases…
I don’t know if I have. I’m only on Instagram. I’ve got about fifty thousand people following me on Instagram, so I look as if I know what I’m doing, but I don’t think I fucking do. I just put pictures up, mate. It’s a blaggers world. If I get a picture that relates vaguely to what I do, I put it up.
I ask that because, for people coming from the days of booming record sales in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they might feel a bit put out by the shift in culture – social media, streaming platforms and so on, but you don’t seem to have pushed it away.
I haven’t pushed it away, but I don’t know if it’s for the best. Spotify, as an idea, the fact that you can go onto it and you can stream anything. It’s fucking great. But I do object to the pitiful amount of money Spotify pay out. They’re the biggest game in town now and they pay people fucking peanuts. I think people will be really down on the streaming services in years to come. I don’t think you can just not pay the people that are making the music. But, as a consumer, I think it’s fucking great. If you’re talking about me as a manager, the boss of Creation 23, I think Spotify are pitiful and others are worse. They’re all just not paying the artists. If you’re not paying the artists, you’re not paying the managers, you’re not paying the producers and you’re not paying the record company.
'In a world of fucking gratuitous bullshit, doing something because you like it, maybe that’s an act of rebellion, you know? It’s definitely a mark of success that you’re putting out things you love.'
Have you seen an increased appetite for physical releases?
I think it’s niche market, do you know what I mean? My run of records is 250 and we sell most of them out. Bands love a bit of vinyl and we do it. Unfortunately, now the vinyl plants are going bust during Covid.
The relationship that you had with an album was very different. It was a tangible, physical thing. You would buy, in the early ‘70s, and you might spill your tea on it, but you had a relationship with that piece of vinyl all through your life. You held on to all your vinyl. I was never that much of a fan of CDs. I don’t want to be a hypocrite because I fucking sold 23 million (What’s The Story) Morning Glory CDs. It was a more impersonal thing, but it was still ritualistic that you would put on the CD in your living room and you’d sit and listen to the album. I did this recently when I went back to Wales. First time I’d sat and listened to a CD in ages. I listened to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). Me and my missus were sat having food and we listened to that album and it was fucking genius. It was ritualistic. Now you’ve got your relationship with music, but it’s easier to put on. It’s not the same ritualistic experience. I suspect we’ve lost something. It’s a different experience.
How do the challenges of running a label today compare with those of running a label in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
It’s different. I’m fighting people’s expectation now that I’m an old guy. People don’t say anything to me, but I suspect that’s probably in play. It’s harder for the actual bands, taking Creation out of it. The whole experience of new music. People don’t seem to be wanting indie, punky bands at this point. Maybe they one day will again, but that’s the kind of music I like. I like punk rock, I like post-punk, I like some indie stuff. It’s not all that. I’ve got other things on the label, but I’m being honest, that stuff’s probably out of fashion.
What are your thoughts on the rise of bands like Fontaines DC, Shame, IDLES? Are they heralding in a new wave of guitar music?
I love them. These bands are great, great bands. I’m really liking that Fontaines DC second album. I’m loving that. There’s hope for everybody with these three bands getting big, you know. I love Sleaford Mods too. I don’t just like guitar music. I like that Billy Nomates as well. There’s good stuff around, you know what I mean? I think the quality that I’m putting out, man, is brilliant. The bands are great. Clockworks are great, Cat SFX could be a fucking really big star, Shambolics, they’re all good bands, man.
You’ve touched on the challenges of being in a band, and you were heavily involved in Labour’s New Deal For Musicians. Could you ever see a scheme like that happening again? What’s the impact of there not being anything similar in place?
I think it’s bigger than music. The government doesn’t want to pay anybody that’s on benefits. They want them to be in suspension so they can make their unemployment figures look better. That’s been the real problem for the last five, ten years. They made it really difficult for people without a job to even claim benefits. When Labour brought that in, that was such a great time. I could never imagine someone like me having any say in government ever again. I proposed the scheme and they didn’t fight me off. We ended up sitting in a boardroom with some people who were great friends of mine and they all voted against it.
Me and John Glover, head of the managers side, we proposed it and it got beaten 8-2 in the meeting with the government committee. Then Chris Smith, the culture secretary, stood up and said, ‘Okay, that’s passed’. It was mad. It’d lost the vote in the room, but Labour were passing it anyway. That’s why I’ve got a lot of time for Labour. Particularly New Labour. It seems like another world, the government being kind to musicians.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a record label today?
Only work with things you love, man. It’s too difficult to be double guessing anything. Work with things you love and then you’ll be okay.