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Going a Round With Miles Copeland

June 05, 1988|DENNIS HUNT

"There's a whole new underground metal scene out there," Copeland said. "In some ways it's like the punk scene in the old days--with a lot of good bands that can't get signed with the big labels. So we'll sign some of them--the good ones, the ones that seem adventurous."

Copeland still doesn't quite know what ever possessed him to get into the music business. Son of one of the CIA's founders, he had one of those globe-trotting boyhoods. But Copeland, an American citizen, eventually settled in London--where he still lives part of the year.

Fresh out of American University in Beirut, he was headed for a career in international politics when disillusionment set in. In England, while considering a new career, he ran across a pop group he knew from Beirut that needed a manager. The group turned out to be Wishbone Ash. "They offered me the job," he said. "It was a zany idea. Why not get into the music business?"

Wishbone Ash did well enough to allow him to expand his roster to include the Climax Blues Band, Renaissance, Al Stewart and Joan Armatrading. But in 1975 he lost his money by backing a disastrous tour.

It was during this down period that he tuned into the Police, then an obscure band featuring Sting and Copeland's brother, Stewart, on drums.

"I didn't have a dime and I was deeply in debt," Copeland said. "I spent my last 100 pounds on the Police to make this record. When I heard it, I said: 'My God, this is it!' The song was 'Roxanne.' I heard that song and a light bulb went off in my head--reggae, punk and pop all mixed into one. What a great idea!

"If I had to zero in on a moment that changed my life--and theirs--it was that moment in the studio when I first heard 'Roxanne.' That started the ball rolling."

Later, the Police turned out to be Copeland's ticket to fame. More than anything

else, managing that band, which split up a few years ago, made him a power in the music business. Now a solo performer, ex-Police star Sting is the bread-and-butter artist on Copeland's managerial roster.

The mid '70s was a momentous time for Copeland for another reason. He happened to be in England when the punk movement exploded. It was also important, he observed, that he happened to be broke at the time. "If I had been making a lot of money and business had been great, I might not have gotten into the punk scene. I might have missed the whole thing."

But he turned out to be one of the entrepreneurs of the movement, thriving as an agent and a manager. As an agent, he worked with such key acts as Billy Idol, Blondie, Patti Smith and the notorious Sex Pistols. In this country in the early '80s he used his knowledge of the punk scene to propel his new record company, I.R.S., into prominence.

Formed in 1979, I.R.S. Records quickly established a reputation for being an outlet for punk acts like the Cramps and the Dead Kennedys. It was also a haven for bizarre artists--like Wazmo Nariz, Skafish, Klaus Nomi and Henry Badowski-- too uncommercial to interest major labels.

I.R.S. splashed into the mainstream in the early '80s with the Go-Go's and R.E.M., later recording Belinda Carlisle, formerly of the Go-Go's. But R.E.M. and Carlisle eventually left the label, and now Concrete Blonde, a critically acclaimed I.R.S. band, has been trying to jump to another label.

Do these exits mean I.R.S. is wrong for commercially oriented acts?

"All this means is that this company doesn't have the money or resources to match the deals the big companies can offer," Copeland replied. "That's all it means."

It does not mean, he insisted, that his label is cheap--its reputation in some circles.

"We spend what we need to spend," he said. "We don't throw money around."

R.E.M.'s exit was "friendly," Copeland said, but Carlisle's apparently wasn't: "She left (after one hit album) for more money. We felt we were cheated out of the fruits of our success. I feel angry about it. I don't feel any warmth toward Belinda or Danny Goldberg (her co-manager)."

The chill is apparently mutual. In a separate interview, Goldberg snapped, "He's said nasty things about Belinda and me that I thought were totally uncalled for. (She left I.R.S.) because she got offered a much better deal by MCA--more advance money, a better royalty. Miles says she was happy at I.R.S., but there were disputes that really strained her relations with Miles."

But Copeland will undoubtedly find another money-making act to replace her. Even Copeland-haters acknowledge his knack for spotting new talent. There's a considerable thrill, he insisted, when one of these new acts clicks:

"I love the satisfaction when a challenging situation works out," he said. "So I create all these challenges. I find these unknowns that other people think are weird. And these acts mature and become profitable. I get off on these challenges. What else is there. . . ?"

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