Interview with Rob Partridge, chairman of Coalition PR and one half of Witness' management team.

Interviewer: Dylan Harris, September 2000


How did you get started off in the music business?

I was a music journalist, writing for a trade paper called Music Week before joining the Melody Maker in the mid-Seventies (yes, I am of a certain age). I then became the Media Director at Island Records, working at the company until 1990 when I quit to start my own PR agency, Coalition.


Which bands have you worked with in the past prior to

Bob Marley & the Wailers, U2, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Tom Waits, Run DMC, NWA, John Martyn, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Stereo MCs, Marianne Faithfull, The Verve, Placebo, Gomez, Super Furry Animals, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Burning Spear, Willie Nelson, Propaganda, Julian Cope, Electronic, Embrace, Grace Jones, Space, The The, Chaka Demus & Pliers, Gabrielle, Aswad, The Waterboys, Steve Winwood, Eric B & Rakim, The Christians, Robert Palmer, B-52s, Tom Tom Club, Talvin Singh, Beautiful South, etc. etc. ... all these, however, were PR accounts. Witness was the first band I managed.


That's a pretty impressive c.v! Did you get to meet the man himself, Bob

I worked with Bob from 1977 until his death in 1981. After that I represented the Bob Marley Estate up until 1997.


How did you become involved with Witness?

We met following The Verve's show supporting Oasis at Earl's Court in 1997. My management partner, Tim Vigon, was talking backstage to Nick McCabe, who was with a friend from Wigan. That person just happened to be Ray Chan, who hade been at college with McCabe. Ray, of course, said he was also a guitarist and would we be interested in listening to his band's tape? Tim came back to the office the following Monday, suggesting that I should have a listen to the tunes. I think we both felt there was something very interesting coming off the tape - the singer sounded magnificent, the songs had a peculiar intensity about them and, perhaps most of all, we didn't think they sounded like anyone else we'd ever heard. A couple of days later, Dylan, Gerard and Ray turned up on our doorstep and we agreed to do something I'd sworn never to do - manage a band. Tim and I targeted four record companies, getting an immediate response from Dave Bedford at Island. We signed to the company some six or seven weeks after Tim and I first met the band. At that stage they didn't have a name or a drummer - indeed, the band had barely played a gig. I believe their record contract simply calls them 'Wigan band'.

Do you think Witness would be where they are today without the initial
Nick McCabe connection, or do you think this just got them
noticed quicker?

There's the obvious point that we - that's Tim Vigon, my partner, and I - wouldn't have met Witness if our company didn't also handle  PR for The Verve. In the very early days, before Witness had a name, the NME called them Nick McCabe's Mates Band, which was well wide of the mark - only Ray Chan was a mate of Nick's. When we embarked on the initial media campaign, therefore, we were resigned to the inevitable fact that journalists would make a connection between The Verve and Witness - not only because of Nick and Ray but also because both bands came from Wigan. Long before the first album was released, however, The Verve angle had run its course, getting just cursory mentions in features about Witness.


How do you get on with the band? Is it purely "business" as they say?

I hope it's more than simply a business relationship. I have absolute respect for the band and I'm honoured to be working with them. It's been a great three years.

What was your initial "plan of action" for the band once they were

We have always believed that Witness are not some niche indie band. We needed a record company that believed as much in the band's talents as we did, allowing Witness to develop over the course of three albums. If you take a look at most of the bands who have sustained their careers over the years you'll find the same pattern - it took Radiohead, for instance and The Verve three albums to properly find their own voices. Having heard the initial tunes Witness have recorded for their second album, however, it could well be that we revise our plans - the band have made a staggering leap forward.


Did the immediate success surprise you at all?

No, I think Witness's debut album was a huge achievement, better than many debut releases. I'm only gratified that many critics shared our opinion.


Was there ever a slight worry that the band would find it hard to
follow up such an amazing album...that expectation would be too high?

No. Even at the time the first album was released, the band were already writing new songs that sounded awesome. We knew Witness had a real momentum that would result in a stunner of a second album. The likeliest release date is February or March next year - watch out for a song called 'You Are All My Own Invention' which, in my own humble opinion, is one of the finest tracks by any band over the past five years.

Why was there no headlining tour planned to coincide with the success of
the album?

We did tour around the album but you must remember that Witness were signed before they'd played a gig (OK, I know High Mountain Jag played in Manchester, but the band were comparative virgins when it came to live work). This meant, of course, that they hadn't really built a live following, something which we'll be working on in plenty of time for the release of Witness's second album. 


Through the messageboard on the official website, Witness seem to have
built up a pretty solid worldwide fanbase. Do you consider the website and
the internet to be a major factor in promoting the band?

Yes, of course. And we also welcome other sites - such as yours - dedicated to the band. In the next six months, leading up to the release of Witness's second album, we'll be completely refurbishing the official website, including lots of interactivity with the band.


Questions about peoples opinion on the whole Napster/MP3 debate seem to
be obligatory in interviews nowadays, so how about yourself? Do you take the
"stealing artists work" stance or the "try before you buy/allowing more
people to gain access to the music" point of view?

You can't uninvent the internet. While I acknowledge the "stealing artists work" argument I feel it's incumbent on the music industry to find ways of living with the internet. One recent survey in America, incidentally, indicated that the people most inclined to download via Napster are also the heaviest purchasers of records, so there is certainly a case that MP3 is also a potent promotional tool. In the immediate future, however, this debate is slightly unreal, with pundits suggesting the immediate demise of record shops. The most recent figures suggest that 98 per cent of music is still bought through traditional record stores. Online sales thus account for just two per cent of the market - and the overwhelming majority of that is essentially mail-order (a la Direct downloads, therefore, still have some way to go before they register on the radar.


 What was the main aim of the recent promotional tour of America and how
successful was it?

The main aim was simply to dip our toes into the American market, essentially introducing ourselves to our record company. We realise that, in order to crack the USA, the band is going to have to dedicate vast periods of time in touring, something that will happen in the next phase of our campaign.

How well did the US release of Before the Calm go?

It's in the record stores. That might seem like a limited ambition, but there are plenty of UK bands who never get that far. One problem, of course, is that 'Before the Calm' doesn't include a really 'radio-friendly' single, so the promotional opportunities are quite limited. Witness, however, have made many fans in America, providing a very useful platform for the second album and subsequent tours.


How do you aim to promote the next album tour-wise? Will you be
concentrating on the UK market or venturing into the rest of Europe and the

Mega-plans. Yes, we  believe that a band like Witness must build fan loyalty through live work. The UK and Irish markets will obviously be our priorities but the rest of Europe and the US will be important to the long term success of the band. Much depends, of course, on the performance of the second album - & I have absolute believe that it's going to be one of the greatest records of 2001. Order your copy now!


When can we expect them to hit the road?

First priority is to work on the new album - that'll take the band through most of autumn. At the same time, however, we'll be scheduling live dates to start probably at the beginning of next year. Witness, as you know, have played only one gig this year & we need to get them back on the road as a prelude to the album release.


Any chance of a Haigh Hall-esque homecoming gig, a la the Verve?!

I wish. We'll certainly be looking for festival appearances next summer.

Aside from Witness, what other work do you do with

There are two Coalition companies. Coalition PR handles such artists as Richard Ashcroft, Tom Waits, Gomez, Embrace, The Charlatans, etc., while Coalition Management is responsible for Witness, together with the Bristol band sticks&stones, new Leeds band called Insense and a London-based artist called Adam Masterson. I am the chairman of Coalition PR while I work in partnership with Tim Vigon in Coalition Management


Two of those bands - Charlatans and Embrace, Witness have toured with.
Any plans to support Richard Ashcroft on his forthcoming or future tours?

I have only one immediate ambition for the band - to lock 'em away in a studio until they've finished the next album. Remember, it's been over 15 months since the release of 'Before the Calm'. I'm sure Richard will be able to cope without Witness supporting him this autumn.

How has band management/promotion changed over the the past 20 or so

A very large question. The biggest recent change is the corporate nature of the music business - all the pioneering indie labels, such as Island, Factory, Stiff, A&M, etc., have been absorbed by the major corporations. And now, of course, the major corporations are beginning to merge (Warner/AOL/EMI, for instance, Vivendi/Universal). So we're dealing with a different kind of music business landscape. In football terms, the corporations are rapidly becoming Chelsea FC, buying up ready-made hits while neglecting their youth policies. All of which means that there will soon be a new generation of independent labels coming through - remember, virtually all the innovations in popular music over the past five decades have been initiated by independents.

Is it a good business to be in - i.e. big pay packet / plenty of
freebies etc?!

We make a living. There are no huge rewards in management unless your clients become big stars. But that is, of course, the constant motivation. As for freebies, well, the odd t-shirt comes our way.


What's the best way for a up and coming band to get themselves noticed?
Do record companies actually listen properly to demo tapes/CD's that are
sent in? Also, on the live front, is London the only place to have a
realistic chance of being noticed?

I'm not too sure that simply sending record companies your tapes is guaranteed to attract the right attention. A strong local reputation often works - right now there's a considerable buzz for a band called Haven from Manchester - and undoubtedly having the right management will at least get you through the door. Think smart. One of our clients, for instance, got his deal by pure cunning. Pretending to be the manager of George Michael, he called the head of A&R at a major record company and said that he'd heard this incredible band & would the A&R man mind if the artist called him? Ten minutes later, he called again, this time as the artist. A month or so later, he had a record deal.

London isn't a place I'd recommend if you want to get noticed. Too many bands and too big a city. Far better to get an incredible local reputation.

The press have been writing off the guitar-based music scene for years
now. Do you think a time will come when it can't go any further and people
finally get bored of it?

No. Everything goes in cycles, of course, but there's a new generation of guitar-based bands already coming through. If you live in the Leeds area, for instance, check out Insense, all of whom are just 17 year old.

Thanks to Rob for taking the time out to do this interview.

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© Dylan Harris 2000