Tony Wilson & Me
He’s been gone for 13 years but I don’t think anyone has had the impression on me that Tony Wilson did.
He first called in 2001. He invited me to speak at his In the City conference on a “keynote” panel. I had no idea what this meant but months later found myself in front of hundreds of people, sitting alongside legendary a&r Seymour Stein, the editor of Music Week, and one of the co-founders of Mute. Tony chaired a discussion about “the young turks”, and how the industry needed to never lose the passion and curiosity when you’re wide-eyed and first enter the business. *looks to camera*
I’ve no idea whether I had anything smart to say that night but it was clear Tony heard something ticking in me that I hadn’t clocked in myself. He’d call me asking my opinion on things ranging from grime (years before the media was covering it and led to me booking Kano for a Drowned in Sound night) to post-hardcore (we both adored a band called Cat on Form) to whether people would ever watch gigs through a computer or if download codes should come with t-shirts (something I spent far too long trying to do). It was at this intersection of music and technology where Tony and I would lose hours down rabbit holes as he held court in hotel bars. These conversations and big questions about the internet would be full of ancient history and scientific endeavours and he loved to recite quotes from philosophers and pop stars who thought they were philosophers.
I’m not sure I’d call it a friendship but I definitely felt taken under his wing as a sort of mentor. His advice was usually along the lines of “people aren’t going to like you, but don’t let that stop you.” I remember him saying something like this when I started calling CDs “data carcasses”. When I sent him the Kaiser Chiefs debut single in the build up to its release on my label, we discussed how it was the antithesis of what was cool but that was half the charm.
I remember his incredulity when our podcast began to take off in 2006 and that there was no industry model for paying for tracks. During one of our calls, I came up with the idea of making track 2 on every album “podsafe” and “blogsafe” for mp3 blogs, and he let me chair a discussion panel about it. It would allow a free tier of the internet for people to share one song from every album ever made… it made sense at the time.
We both saw technology as a liberator of fans and of creativity, and he would invite me to the planning meetings for In the City to inject this into the annual industry conference. These meetings were fascinating and I wish they had been recorded as there were so many amazing ideas and so much disquiet. Tony would often deflect and ask my opinion on something the head of Sony just said, knowing I lacked the good graces to be polite. He’d let me take over afternoons of the conference and fly in the founders of SoundCloud, HypeMachine, Holy Moly and Pitchfork to talk with me (why I didn’t turn these into podcasts shows my total lack of foresight).
No matter how many coffee cups filled it, no idea was ever off the table. I somehow once ended up on stage with Geoff Travis who started Rough Trade discussing what he would do if he was a musician now and how he’d develop his career from demo to deal to debut album. Tony even agreed to doing a panel idea I suggested about what the music industry can learn from the porn biz’s various price points, which managed to make something racey a useful thought experiment – and I’m still stunned we’ve been stuck at the 99p a track or £9.99 for everything model.
Tony’s luminous shadow still lights up corners of my head from time to time. Every few months, I find myself thinking about finally starting a “record” label that releases digital files and art but not records. It’s these ideas that leave me feeling like I can’t seem to close chapters of my life because I can’t quite figure out what comes next.
What I miss most is the possibility that he’ll call out of the blue to dream bigger than big and knowing that in the grains of dust we kick around my entire life could change. It’s those calls I’ll always cherish and I know I’m not the only one he’d ring like this, planting seeds, lighting fires, and slowly making history happen.