Sunday, 21 July 2013

UB40’s new album might just be a stroke of commercial genius. But they won't see a penny.

Lots of questions to ask about UB40. Where are they after years of turmoil? What's the real story? Brian Travers gets this a lot. He gives some of the answers.

Brian Travers bearing up under the strain
Seems like the only time the papers write up UB40 these days is to report bad news. They’ve had their fair share: bankruptcies, Ali leaving with harsh words about their financial management, the old Dep studios on Fazeley Street now a car park, and dark stories aplenty circulating round town. 

Recently, The Sun newspaper had a lovely time painting Brian Travers as so hard up that he’s had to play with UB40 cover bands. That little ploy backfired, leading to favourable coverage on 5 Live and WM, and even scoring a mention on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. 

Beautifully timed, though. Next month sees the release of Getting Over The Storm, UB40’s new album, their first in years. If you thought the title might refer to the band’s troubles, you could be right. And the content? Well, it’s Country. I think it works. 

Brian Travers: This is how the album came about. Fifteen years ago maybe, Robert Palmer was a friend of ours. We had the same manager then – David Harper, who still looks after us – and Robert came up to Dep with the idea of writing some stuff. When you start working with another musician, a great way to start is to find a song you’ve got in common. So we picked I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, the Bob Dylan tune. We recorded that – a couple of hours – and it went on to be a hit. 
In the same session we did another song, called On The Other Hand by Randy Travis. 

Let me stop you there – you did that at UB40 Play The Blues at Birmingham City’s ground in ’89. I loved it when Palmer came out and did that song with you. I was on the phone to your record company the next day. That song screamed out for a release. 
We only got a demo on Robert’s voice on that session. We kept saying, come on, let’s finish the song. And then he passed away, so we never got to finish it. 
But now you’ve brought that song back? I’ve always wanted to see that. 
No, unfortunately. His estate is worth millions. But we’ve been told that if we release a tune with Robert’s voice on, we’ll be sued to death. We’d cut the master, with Robert’s voice on it, and it’s beautiful. But we can’t put it out. So Duncan’s re-sung the lyric… and it’s a little different to how Robert did it. But it works. 
A couple of years back, we were thinking about Country. So I went off and wrote some country tunes – country tunings, country time signatures – and brought them back to the band, who turned them into UB40 tunes. 
Does that mean you drove the album?
I wrote all the originals. But we share the publishing. 
Old-style Country and Western – stuff like Jim Reeves - always went down a storm in Jamaica back in the day. Is that part of the thinking?
Not just Jamaica - Ireland too. And I'm Brummy Irish. It’s folk music you can dance to. That’s where fiddles come in, the tunings and the beautiful long figures.
Can we look at the economics of albums? A couple of years ago, you questioned even releasing an album, when it goes on the web for free the moment you release it. You’ve spent a huge sum to do the album – where’s the payback for you? Record sales are down, especially albums. So how do web streaming services like Spotify work out?
Ha. We’ve had like a million plays on Spotify. And we’ve had maybe a hundred quid back. I get how it works, but it’s heavily weighted against the artist. Although I don’t know how it can pay, if you’re paying a tenner a month and listening to thousands of tracks each month. I’d rather be on it than not. I’d like to be at the party than not. It would be nice to think that Spotify could send a guy to Birmingham, and Manchester, and work up the local scene a bit. I‘ll do it! 
So – no money from the album?
These days, you do the album to promote the tour, not the other way around. It’s not that bad, but it’s not as good as it used to be. If you’re in an eight-piece band, you’re not buying Ferraris. Virgin EMI were very supportive when we started recording. They value what we’ve done. Virgin are now owned by Universal, and they want it. It’s a reggae album, heavily influenced by country. 
Can we touch on the band’s troubles, subject always to a word from m’learned friends…? Are you telling me that after thirty five years, you’re still scuffling? UB40 have to be one of the country’s top earning bands – maybe fourth or fifth, considering the length of time they’ve been operating, the albums sold….
And by the way, that figure of 70 million album sales I keep reading – it’s got to be more like 120 million. 
You’ve been an established band with a studio, a record label, staff…
Yeah, we got conned out of that, but that’s another story…
So I have to ask – what the hell happened here? 120 million albums – you ought to be set up for life.
There’s a lot of us, we’ve always toured, when we toured to sell the record rather than the other way around. Everyone was on wages. We looked after everybody. It sounds like a great deal of money. 120 million albums. We earned 20 percent of that. But there’s eight of us. Management. Agents. If you think of that over thirty five years, it’s not all that. We lived well, we had homes round the world. Then there’s your taxes – and accountants. There’s a lot I can’t talk about. But we, I, have been royally shafted. 
Is this the old old story of kids being screwed by the biz? What kind of deal did you get from David Virr of Graduate records for your first album?
Not that much, but that’s not why we left him. We split with David because he released Signing Off in South Africa, and took all the political tracks off – like Burden of Shame. We found out and it was over. He tried to sue us, we had to get legal aid while we had a top ten album! So we got out of the deal in the end. We got a deal with CBS. The ANC got behind us.
What’s the current state of play with the bankruptcies?
We’re all still bankrupt. Can’t get out of it.. 
This is long, and complicated, and probably quite grubby in places. Is there an end to this?
Don’t know. We’re still touring, but all the money earned is going to the administrators. Six weeks ago, we played to 30,000 people in Romania. Smashed it. Then 12,000 in Lisbon, 25,000 in Porto. Last week, ten thousand in Nice, and ten thousand at Wimbledon Rugby club. None of that comes back to us. That’s my problem. And the album has been handed over to the administrator.
What about your back catalogue?
We had to sell that. And our publishing as well. So in a way I’m starting again. 
Everyone I talk to says their royalties have dried up – and that’s especially why we’re seeing all these eighties bands back on the road. So it’s a bit ironic – you sold off stuff that wasn’t increasing in value anyway. Let’s come up to date… the new album that you’re not going to make any money out of?
Named after the George Jones song. Getting Over the Storm. It resonates with us. 
Country needs fiddles and pedal steel - who’s your pedal steel player?
We got this kid called Melvin Duffy, he lives in Brighton. One of the top pedal steel players in the world. 
And the repertoire?
First track is Midnight Rider, the Gregg Allman song. Then we’ve got Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, the Willie Nelson song.
       ... and here's the first official video from the new album. UB40 in Samoa.
We met him in 1982 – he walks into our tour bus at 4 in the morning. We were parked up, and he could smell us from across the park. Half the band didn’t know who he was. Me and Robin did. He knew from the bus we were a band. 
There’s a Vince Gill song, a Jim Reeves song, He’ll Have To Go, which Robin sings. The Randy Travis tune, and Ray Charles’ Crying Time. And How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live – we knew it from Ry Cooder. Duncan has rewritten the lyrics to bring them up to date. 
That’s all the covers, then there’s my original songs. Five made the album: Blue Billet Doux, I Did What I Did, Just What’s Killing Me, I Didn’t Know That I, and How Will I Get Through This One
And we’ve got a small tour in September. Coventry, Peterborough, Isle of Wight, Cardiff.
In the meantime, you're doing other bits and pieces, and playing in bands around town?
There’s the Peaky Blinders – jazz, rock steady, blues, for the love of the songs. The Major Toms who do Bowie and Roxy – a pleasure to do. Great musicians. The Atlantic Players – I play baritone with them. I’ve played with Friendly Fire a lot. There’s a few more, but that’ll do.
 And what about that story in the Sun?
Out there, there’s something like 23, 24 UB40 tribute bands. A lot of them are one guy who sounds a bit like Ali, with backing tracks. I get asked constantly to guest with them. And I say yes. My thing is, why would I be ashamed of playing songs I’ve written and worked on, horn figures, brass charts I’ve written? So if I can, I will. So, some months ago I get asked by UB42 – fine musicians – will I come and play a gig? I play the gig, have a great time.
Then I get a phone call from the Sun: ‘Is that right – that you can only get a gig with a cover band? I’m going to write it up anyway’
So my reply was, yes, it’s my ambition to play with every single UB40 tribute band, to say thanks for promoting our music. 
So they write it up: "Bankrupt UB40 star joins UB40 tribute act'’… And the amount of press I’ve got from that, and TV and Radio, has been massive. Thank you, Stephen whatever at the Sun. You twat. 
So that’s the UB40 gamble. Without their back catalogue or their publishing, and facing continuing debt and personal bankruptcies, money has to come from somewhere to plug the deficit. Getting Over The Storm is an album that won’t make them money: all the revenue will go to pay off debts . But I have a hunch that it will extend their working life, not just in this country, but especially abroad, in a big way, setting them up for lucrative tours. 
It’s a strange state of affairs for one of the country’s historically biggest and most durable bands to be in. But others have been there too: consider Leonard Cohen, whose financial woes forced him back on the road in his 70s - and, interestingly, sparked a creative renaissance and introduced him to new audiences. Their stories are not quite the same - but they're not all that different either.

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neil hillman said...

Great article, refreshingly frank and very informative.
Brian - the thing that administrators can never take from you is your talent. 'Non illegitimi carborundum'. All the best,
Neil Hillman.

RobertCarvalho [] said...

Just read this. I hope all musicians read this. As you're aware the amount lack of business knowledge is lacking. There's something in all musicians re: trust we do it too easily for success. I have personally spoke to Brian and he has given some tips basically look after yourself in terms of business. Great article

Sarah Birks said...

This is a very sad state of affairs...but what I would say to UB40 what you love for the love of it...because that's what will get you through every day of your life. Money isn't everything..its nice if it comes from doing something you love...but that is very rare. And hey..most people become famous after they're dead...people love your music...have a great tour!