POP STAR: What I learned from one of the most powerful men in pop music: be a geek

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A few years ago I did the PR for the most famous man in Walsall you’ver never heard of.

Sure, the borough is not over-stocked with famous people. Three Men in a Boat author Jerome K. Jerome came from the place and so did Noddy Holder, swimmer Ellie Simmonds and drum and bass pioneer Goldie. All good within their own field, sure.

So, in that list most people wouldn’t add Steve Jenkins.

Steve who?

You will have bought, listen to or hummed any of the more than 150 top 40 hits he was connected with. Think Billy Ocean, Steps, The Stone Roses, Backstreet Boys, N*Sync, Steps, Kylie Minogue. They wouldn’t be where they are without Steve Jenkin’s role in the machinery behind them.

Steve started his career in the music industry in the 1970s with The Beatles’ management company before moving through the industry to become MD of Jive Records. He did the promo for Stock Aiken and Waterman. He was part of a team who signed an unknown Britney Spears. In the industry he was one of the most powerful men for a very long time.

How did I get to know him?

He’s proud of Walsall so we staged an exhibition of his gold discs, fan memorabelia and the social history of pop music. It was great. He brought Pete Waterman along and a load of others.

So what?

I was reminded of him by this YouTube interview he gave where he talked about the slightly dark art of targeting record shops that featured in the chart returns. His team would go from store-to-store, offer free records for display and then quietly move them to the front of the rack. So, people browsing through ‘K’ would be met with Kylie Minogue straight away, for example. As Steve says, this was all above board and would only have a marginal impact. But if persued energetically it maybe the difference between a new chart entry at 29 and 35.

Here he is talking about it:

So why is that on a comms blog?

Simple. During the months of working on the exhibition one thing above all struck me. He was a geek. In the best sense of the word. He was a geek about the pop charts in the 70s, 80s, and 90s especially. He knew everything about it. How it worked. How it didn’t work. Because he knew it backwards he knew where the difference could be made. So, he knew when to release a record and which Woolworth stores to promote it in. Him and Pete Waterman would plan the promo campaign for bands while on the way to Walsall games.

He was a joy to do press with. Five journalists would spend 20 minutes with him one after another and all leave with a brilliant different anecdote, He has an autobiography you may like.

If only the social web was around when we ran the exhibition. We could have by-passed everyone and gone straight to the fan sites.

Take this lesson from him… know your stuff backwards. Kick the tyres. Learn. See what others do. See where you can get better. Experiment. Be bold.

Above all, pick a subject. Love it. Be a geek on it.  Know it backwards.

Picture  credit: Marco Verch / Flickr


3 Comments on “POP STAR: What I learned from one of the most powerful men in pop music: be a geek”

  1. I do like the way he describes the effort that went in to help a record enter the charts at number 29 rather than number 35. I reckon you could trace a line from this idea of increasing chart position by these small tweaks to the system of Marginal Gains that has lead to GB cycling’s world dominance.

    ;0)

  2. Lee Jordan says:

    Was it really 10 years ago? I got some pictures from opening night and had chance to meet Steve too. https://flic.kr/s/aHsiDfDeEL .

    Somehow being able to get hold of any song at any moment without leaving the house, never anticipating a single release, having an album release go unnoticed selling a few hundred copies, having the artist only receive 0.000006p per stream … Has technology taken away that experience of music? The experience of going to Woolworths or HMV returning home and locking yourself away to repeat play a series of tracks.

    Yet there are still people keeping alive that magic of charts and buying a physical product. Nashville has the largest Vinyl pressing factory in the states and Jack White is a big poster child here for the way things used to be and knows it backwards, heck he’ll even record straight to Vinyl for you. Then there are different kinds of people who also know it backwards in different ways, Imogen Heap with the blockchain and social media engagement. Ben Folds fighting as a local geek from Franklin trying to save Music Row. Is music in trouble, are we facing a threat from other kinds of geeks in California? It’s all still evolving, it’s all changing, it’s all backwards, upside-down. Is the golden age of the experience of music behind us, in our youth, recording off the radio and buying stuff? Or is the experience of music returning to where it should have been all along … Just a bunch of geeks performing, other geeks recording and producing it and listeners connecting in very geek like ways over a story of notes and shared emotion?


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