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Steve Lewis on building a successful publishing catalog

Posted September 16, 2015

by A. Bloom

We chat to Steve Lewis about his incredible time in the music business, and his advice for successfully building and monetising a publishing catalog.

Hi Steve, how did you first get involved in the music industry?

I was 16 years-old and I had just taken what were then called GCE O levels. I wanted a job for the summer holidays so I answered an ad in The Times which said, “Record company/magazine needs young people. Easy work, good money.” That was about the best outcome I could hope for so I phoned the telephone number. I was told to turn up at an address just off Bayswater Road and I was greeted by Richard Branson’s partner, Nik Powell, and they actually didn’t have a record company at all. They had a magazine called Student Magazine. 

Nik wanted me to go sell the magazine in Hyde Park. I was going to be allowed to keep half of the cover price and had to return the unsold magazines and 50% of the proceeds to them at the end of the day. I told him I had come for the record company job and he said, “You’ll have to talk to my partner about that and he's not here. Why don't you just go and sell these magazines?” I said, “I don't really want to do that.” So I waited, I met Richard, I talked my way into it and the record company wasn't actually a record company at all. It was a mail order retail business. 

They advertised in their own publication, Student Magazine, and in a couple of other places, and sold albums at discounted prices. You can't really understand today how revolutionary that was at the time. People didn't sell records for discounted prices in those days. The manufacturers set the price and retailers all sold records for the same amount. There was no competition in the market at all. So I began working for Richard age 16, for the fledgling Virgin which was really me, Nik, and maybe half a dozen other people. I did everything I could to make myself indispensable, and at the end of the summer holidays they allowed me to carry on working after school. I would get paid £1 for 4 hours work and I had to take my train fare out of that which was 30p. 

After school I decided to go to university. Richard said, “Oh you don't need to go to university. That's silly. I didn’t go and I'm doing fine. Come and work with us, it’s going to be more fun”. I said, “No, Richard, I want to do this”, so I went to university in London but I was able to continue working at Virgin during my studies. I wasn't a very enthusiastic student and by 1974 I knew that I was very disenchanted with my studies; I knew it wasn't going to be vocational. During that time Virgin had become a proper business. In 1973 we had actually released our first record, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. And Richard and Nik asked me if I would run Virgin’s artist management company.

Read the rest of the article on our blog www.synchblog.com.

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