Britpop phenomenon Williams was a lost soul in 1996, when he was signed up by an indie duo with a colourful past of their own. Mat Snow reports.
Of behind every great popular performing artist there is a great management team, then, for the scale and longevity of his success, Robbie Williams owes more than a little to the men who not only helped him make it happen but stopped him from screwing up his chances in the first place.
The Bird and Fortune of creative management, Tim Clark and David Enthoven - now in their sixties - go back to the time the British music industry grew exponentially in the wake of Beatlemania. Then, misfits of all sorts could find a job as long as they loved music. In the years since, though, corporate culture has reined in some of that adventurousness, and for a while Clark and Enthoven were out in the cold. But they are now back on top, thanks to their application of good old-fashioned music management techniques to a new kind of media star. The partners preside over their management organisation - called ie:music ltd - like a pair of unbuttoned clubmen for whom work is as enjoyable as play.
The last member of the trinity responsible for the biggest British-based pop phenomenon of the past decade is not present in the flesh. But, like the Holy Ghost, his presence is everywhere in this split-level office in a leafy corner of London's multicultural Shepherd's Bush. Sometimes moody, sometimes cheeky, Robbie Williams stares down iconically from wall posters onto this hive of laptop activity to remind us why we're all here.
His eighth album, Intensive Care, has now topped the charts in 18 countries and sold some 6 million copies. On tour this year, Williams will play to more than 2.6 million people worldwide, culminating in five nights at a big London venue yet to be fixed (it won't be Wembley). To translate those figures into pounds and pence, in the cycle that began with the album's release last October and will end as the world tour winds up 14 months later in December, Williams' record, ticket and merchandising sales will generate a gross turnover of pounds 80 million. And that's a figure that 'could well be exceeded', says Clark.
Under the confidential terms of the across-the-board deal with EMI (see panel opposite), Clark cannot reveal how much of that will flow to the artist himself. But put it another way: on a standard commission of 20% of the artists' earnings, his management company turned over about pounds 3.5 million last year, when he wasn't on tour. If it were all to stop now, the trio can reflect on nine years of phenomenal success achieved as a team.
'ie:music is the best-kept secret in the music industry,' the star testified by video at the Music Managers Forum Awards 18 months ago. 'God put me in the hands of two of the most capable men in the industry today. I definitely wouldn't be as healthy as I am today if it wasn't for you... You've got me for life.'
Yet in 1996, all three were staring at an uncertain future. The two managers were salvaging careers that had swan-dived from herbally assisted heights in the music industry's booming '70s to splitting the rent on a small office 'above a man who made false teeth', laughs Clark. 'We were bumping along the bottom.'
Williams himself was just 23. He'd been the class clown in the early '90s boy band Take That. His undignified exit and subsequent makeover as a lovable buffoon attaching himself to the more drug-addled end of the British 'indie' rock community hardly suggested a talent worth cultivating.
The rudderless Robbie had just dispensed with his third management in little over a year when, at the suggestion of his accountant, he visited Enthoven and Clark in their unprepossessing premises. Hopes on either side cannot have been high.
'He was in a bit of a state - hung over and sweating; he'd been partying,' Enthoven says. 'We had an old dentist's chair in the office that nobody ever sat in because it would make you the centre of attention. …