Did you manage to get your tasks out of the way before I
No. Itís all to do with digital. And everybody says how
wonderful digital is but itís a pain in the proverbial.
We have a big digital business and have been doing it
pretty much since day one so weíre ahead of the game.
But ití still difficult to keep up with the technology.
Itís all moving so fast, John. I watch Click on BBC 24
and sometimes I struggle to understand what they are
talking about and I come from an IT background. In those
days they always moaned about how we were using jargon
that Joe Public couldnít understand but nowadays
thereís so much technology and jargon around that people
are expected to understand. I sort of understand what
theyíre talking about but itís just moving so fast.
The problem with this is not so much what we
understand or donít, itís their ability to cope with
what weíre throwing at it in terms of mastering and
getting things down a line. And actually, when it gets down
to it itís actually going through relatively small lines
and taking a long time and it never does what it says
itís going to do.
Do you think the way the music industry has dealt with
digital is similar to the way that the big movie studios
treated the advent of TV in the fifties Ė when they
refused to accept that it was here to stay and wouldnít
let their actors appear on the new medium?
No, I think actually the music industry, although it
messed it up to start with, and royally so, it has actually
got itself back on track I think. That side of itís okay
and our understanding as old timers is probably ahead of
the game. But we still struggle when it comes to Facebook
and Twitter and Twatter (Digger laughs) and whatever else
it is that youíre supposed to do. And my eleven year old
son can do it better than I can.
Thatís the problem, isnít it? I think itís because
theyíve not got any preconceptions and so they just dive
in and absorb all the new stuff. Whereas we worry about
what will happen if we do that or donít do this.
Yes. I think from our point of view it just unfortunately
comes with the territory and so we have to get on with it.
And because we keep our overheads down there being just a
few of us I keep on doing that and Amazon which are both
Can your please tell us about your background and the
background to the business?
My background is that I started in a record shop in the
sixties in Hampstead which was, in fact, the offices of an
independent record company called Transatlantic Records.
So I joined Transatlantic as a salesman in the sixties. At
the beginning when they had three or four albums, I think.
Who was on their roster?
They ended-up with acts like Bert Jansch , John Renbourn,
Pentangle, Billy Connolly and it ended up as equal to
Island as the largest independent.
We have an interview with Shel Talmy who produced
Yes, Shel did a load of stuff for us together with Hugh
Murphy and Gus Dudgeon and various other people. So at the
time it was a pretty hot label. I left there to go to EMI
where I was for a good while and left there to go to
Motown where I was MD of Motown outside of America. Then
MD of Arista UK and Iíve been on my own ever since for
the last thirty years.
Have you written a book yet?
People keep saying that but I find it really boring so I
I donít think other people would Ė it sounds like a
Well, thereís been some interesting things and continue
to be interesting but not when Iím sitting in front of a
screen hoping to nut it! At my age, I would have hoped to
have had someone doing it but it doesnít work like that.
Yes, remember the days when we had typing pools and
secretaries and helpers?
Yes, not only could we not afford it but thereís very
little point because Iím quite capable of writing my own
letters and sending emails. In fact, I prefer to do it. In
my last incarnation I had a PA, but she did other things
and didnít really do my typing for me.
Digger: I could use somebody to help me with the back
office so that I could focus on what Iím best at.
Yes, the trouble is not only do you have to pay them but
you have to manage them. We have really stretched it here
so weíre actually looking at bringing on apprentices in
the old-fashioned sense of the word. And we do management
training but you do end up spending a lot of time on that
sort of thing. The business has changed anyway and,
ironically, and people donít believe you when you tell
them, that digital is a longer and more labour-intensive
process to get things up than ordinary CDs. We can do
ordinary CDs without even flinching. Also, whilst I like
digital in the sense of it being a distribution method, I
still think people will want to swing back to CDs.
Like there was a backlash to vinyl wasnít there?
Suddenly after everyone has been encouraged to ditch their
vinyl and go for CDs they were being told vinyl was a
purer format and a better medium.
I donít subscribe to that. I think vinyl was crap but on
the other hand it was better than tape and that was really
Itís funny how we have to re-build our collections every
The problem is, of course, and what has hurt the record
industry in particular, is that people havenít had to do
that for a number of years. Because the great boom in the
record industry was people replacing their vinyl with CD.
Of course that has now gone and you donít really replace
your CD with digital Ė you either duplicate it yourself
or you buy things downloaded. My opinion is that singles
will be the medium that digital will go ahead on and
collecting music will remain on CD. I know this from my
young children who buy CDS, they donít download.
I was always moaning about the demise of vinyl where you
had great sleeve notes and album artwork and something
tangible and big. But now I would prefer to have a CD
rather than a rather intangible download.
Yes, exactly and all of my children like CDs Ė itís
what they enjoy.
Is it not more likely though that in a few years rather
than have anything stored in our houses in whatever format
weíll just go onto some machine and stream items down
when we want to listen to them or look at them?
Yes, you can do that but I think people are collectors -
we donít sit on uncomfortable sofas and generally we
collect and get something for a long time. I think in the
end if youíre paying £10 you want something in your
hand, donít you? Saying that, Iím an advocate of Kindle,
so again I use that for my ordinary reading, not for
Thatís in addition to wanting to have the tangible books
as well isnít it?
Yes, I would want them but the problem I found was that I couldnít
do anything with the books afterwards. I certainly
wouldnít go back to a novel and re-read it. Itís not
like an album that you will live with forever. I canít
imagine ever going back to a book. I was bringing them in
here and they may have got used here but not very often.
Iíve got a huge collection of books but youíre right,
unless theyíre reference books I very rarely go back to
them. I just like having them.
I didnít mind having them but I couldnít store them so
there had to be a choice somewhere along the line. Of
course, it is impossible to do reference books on it and
itís not a good medium for that. What it is a good
medium for, though, is reading a novel. Thatís the
equivalent of a single, I suppose.
Youíve got a very large and broad catalogue there. How
has that evolved?
Well Iíve been around 100 years as have the rest of the
team here but Acrobat was launched about seven years ago
now. Iíd previously had a company which was funded by
a City operation Ė weíd bought Pickwick, amongst other
things, and it wasnít going very far or going in
the right direction. I parted company with that
and set up Acrobat. With the aim of being specialists. So
we have, over the years, built this up. Up until last year
we had a double-size catalogue, but when the crash came our
funders fell away and took away the part of the catalogue
that theyíd bought and we kept ours. So itís evolved
over the seven years, just simply doing things that we
think are good Ė sometimes weíre right and sometimes
weíre wrong. Iím
looking at a stock list that says Iím wrong at some
titles but generally we like to try and be a bit different
if we can.
It never was an exact science, was it, choosing hits and
best sellers? So youíre doing
pretty well if youíre getting more yeses than nos.
Yes. What we have to understand in our business, and in the
specialist areas, is that you no longer are likely to sell
10,000 CDs of a fairly obscure album Ė a Glenn Miller
album for example, because it doesnít work like that
anymore. You have to be in there for the long run and hold
your breath while it trickles through. And you have to look
for new media to get it out there and you have to accept
that Amazon is part of your daily trading. We do not like
the loss of record shops at all, so much so that we are
considering opening record shops.
Oh really? Thatís a major thing. Where would they be, in
all the key towns?
Yes, we own the name Selectadisc. We looked at it but
unfortunately it was too hard to raise the money during a
recession. And so we have shelved it for now but I do
believe that people like to collect and will go out of
their way to collect.
They like to rummage.
There are fewer record shops than there were, by far, but
on the other hand thatís how it is Ė Amazon and Play.com
fill the gap.
Now when I want to sample something I go to Spotify or
Youtube or iTunes Ė in the old days it would be a proper
high street experience going into the booths.
That's right. So whatís your background?
I grew up in the sixties and seventies and for most of
that time was in Essex. I stumbled into IT by accident.
that was my career until there was another middle
management cull at my employer and I decided to make a
living out of my passion for sixties, seventies and retro.
And Retrosellers was born.
Itís nice to be able to do what you like doing and make
a modest living as well.
Yes, chance would be a fine thing!
(Laughs) What sort of customer feedback are you getting?
The feedback we get is very good and itís very positive.
Part of the history here is that four years ago I raised a
lot of money in The City to expand. Then, just over two
years ago, and it actually coincided exactly with the big
fall in everything, the fund dried up. Unfortunately,
theyíd not bought our core label so we moved it away but
then we had eighteen months of legal action to get
ourselves back in order. So we have only been effectively
up and running as we are now for the last six months or
so. And having got our catalogue back and back into gear
since then. I have to say, with the exception of a strange email we
got this morning which was a bit critical, it's all
positive. In that email today they then
asked if they could make some product for us which isnít
the best way of going about it after criticising! But generally weíre
getting really good reviews on things and weíre getting
really good feedback. Weíre not getting any
particular criticism but then again weíre not achieving
huge sales because itís a long haul.
I suppose you get big surges when thereís a resurgence
in a genre or artist? You mentioned Glenn Miller and I
can remember him coming back in the seventies and everyone
going mad for his material.
Yes, we do, and weíve slightly changed direction and are
doing more contemporary things now than we used to,
although weíre mixing it along the way. So weíre
unearthing bands form the sixties and seventies and
reviving careers. So we have a slightly different slant
on it which will help down the line. Although our real
core product, and the flagship product, is actually our
British Hit Parade series.
Thatís a phrase from the past isnít it?
Each year, for the past seven years, weíve actually at
the beginning of the year launched a British Hit Parade
box set and this year it will be four albums of every
single record that was in any chart during that year.
Itís during 1960 this year. Weíve gone right back to the very first
chart, in fact.
That was 1952.
Yes, that's right.
And each year you move forward a year?
Yes, we run along with public domain on that.
Oh, I see. Thatís very clever. And the latest is a four-box set?
Yes, we have three sets of four albums out next week.
What are the best aspects of running Acrobat for you and
what are you personal musical passions?
I have no particular passions Ė Iím a generalist and
have been in the industry all my life. I like new things
that come along, alongside my children, but I also like
deep jazz and blues so I donít have any particular
tastes at all. I happen to like classical music as well as
it happens. I like what I like.
You 'sport' an MP3 player, do you?
Yes, I do and I have all the things that you need. I have
one with very nice Bose headphones on it.
We look at digital as an extra medium and an extra
distribution source for us. Whether I moan about it being
difficult to manage or not is quite separate. The fact is
that itís a good business for us.
Itís weird when you listen to some music on digital Ė
I mean, I interviewed Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and
the Papas last year, which was a bit of a coup for me, and
I pointed out to her that you can hear all sorts of studio
noises and errors on the original recordings which
wouldnít have been picked up in the vinyl days.
Thereís even Barry McGuireís voice at the start of
California Dreaminí which is left over on the master
tape from a previous demo take Ė Barry, of course, was
not supposed to be on the final version.
donít think digital is a brilliant sound, to be honest
and thereís a long way to go before it gets to be
anywhere near CD. But itís what kids are growing up with
and theyíre listening to bad sound, basically.
Itís a shame. They also have this expectation that
everything is accessible immediately which wouldnít have
been possible in Ďthe old daysí.
Yes, but I think thatís a fact of life now and I am the
same Ė if I want something, I want it now.
I wonít ask what impact The Internet has on your
business because clearly you wouldnít be able to
function without it.
Amazon is a very big customer of ours, although I have to
say that HMV arenít a big customer of ours because their
music offering is paltry now and they certainly donít
offer deep catalogue. But we do okay with the independent
sector and we bespoke for people and we battle away.
Obviously digital and Internet sales are very important to
us Ė of course they are.
Whatís your take on the big record companies? I went in
to one major player with some ideas for using their sound
and image archives and allowing people to create their own
compilation CDS online and they raved about the idea but
nothing ever came of it.
We operate in a different area to them and they get on
with theirs so I donít have a particular take on what
they do. But there is a reality that theyíre so big that
actually itís not their core business to sell
back-catalogue and their core is to break new artists. So
thatís probably no different to when I worked there
thirty years ago. The reality is that they have a
different business model and in America itís even worse
Ė thereís hardly any catalogue available at all. Do I
think they should be doing more with it? Of course they
should. They should be giving it to me to do and not
messing around with it themselves.
What about your plans for the future?
The plans here are to continue to grow and to find marketplaces for it.
We would love to be
dealing through the traditional areas of the business but
theyíre diminishing. Hopefully it has settled down now.
Keeping your finger on the pulse as far as the latest
trends are concerned?
Well, we have to, but weíre never going to be
trendsetters because our product's too old for that. What
we need to be is to be available and I think thatís the
most important thing that we can do. To make sure the
product is appropriate and available and is readily
accessible to the general consumer. We do that by
supplying Amazon, of course. Apart from the fact that
there are a great many independent sites up there where
people can get our product, a lot of people eBay trade, of
course. In fact, every once in a while when we lose
something we buy it back off eBay. We are about to launch
our own commercial site and I hope to have that up and
running by the end of the first quarter of 2011. We still
do mail order and a lot of our customer base are still not
computer literate so we still do get people writing in.
literacy an age thing?
No, I donít think so at all, to be honest. I think
people are either in it or out of it. I know people who
wouldnít go near a computer at thirty five. I think a
lot of older people, once they start doing it, they enjoy
Thanks John. It's been very interesting finding out more
about your side of the music industry.