The people who control the music you hear, like and buy

So you think you decide what goes into your music collection? Wrong. Alexis Petridis speaks to the people who control what you hear, like and buy

Michael Parkinson
Presenter: Parkinson

"If the music industry has decided I'm influential, then that's their business," snorts Michael Parkinson. He is every bit as gruffly avuncular in the flesh as he is on the television. "They tell me that's the case, but I think it would ruin an innocent mind if I were aware of that."

But Michael Parkinson is indeed a powerful man in the world of music. His name has become synonymous with the kind of light jazz-pop plied to platinum-selling effect by Jamie Cullum, Katie Melua and Michael Bublé: he promotes it at his Berkshire pub, the Royal Oak, plays it on his Radio Two show and has the artists perform on his Saturday night ITV talk show.

The latter can have a dramatic effect on sales, as indie band Razorlight discovered when singer Johnny Borrell performed on the show: sales of their album Up All Night quadrupled after his appearance. Parkinson's hand seems firmly in control of which artists appear on the show - he spotted Razorlight on TV coverage of Glastonbury. "I've always had a say in what goes on the programme. I don't have a policy beyond 'do I like it?' Fortunately, I think I've got rather popular taste - a lot of people like what I like and they're not being properly serviced by TV or radio."

Who's going to be big next year? "The two best albums I've heard for a long time are by Madeleine Peyroux and Lizz Wright. I think Lizz Wright has some voice, she could be a huge star."

Conor McNicholas
Editor: NME

Conor McNicholas is an oddly controversial figure. He is wont to say things like: "The first time I heard the Killers' demo, I thought, these three-and-a-half minute pop songs are going to be massive in radio." It is a gimlet-eyed approach to the music industry that some people feel sits awkwardly with the paper's history as a hotbed of underground, anti-establishment subversion. Nevertheless, he has reversed NME's post-Britpop decline, and cemented its reputation as the most influential UK magazine for breaking new guitar bands - via its pages and the annual NME Brats package tour - Razorlight, Kasabian, the Kaiser Chiefs and the Killers among them. "It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy," McNicholas says, "we're really great at picking bands that go on to be big, but if we didn't pick them in the first place, they wouldn't go on to be big."

While he has a clear idea of who his ideal reader is - "There's a big sofa supermarket by Doncaster train station. I always look at it and think someone's got a Saturday job there, they're 17, they're stuck in Doncaster and they fucking hate it - that's the person we're publishing for." He claims the paper operates no policy. "I just go by word of mouth, that, and what keeps going back on the office stereo.

Who's going to be big next year? "The Arctic Monkey are going to be the biggest band this country's seen since Oasis. We Are Scientists are going to make a splash. The Mystery Jets, and Carl Barat from the Libertines' new band."

Mardi Caught
Director of talent and artist relations: MTV Networks

A former record company employee, Mardi Caught heads the playlist committee for all MTV channels. In terms of musical influence, however, the most important may be MTV Base, the remit of which includes "everything from Dizzee Rascal to Shaggy".

Video has proved vastly more important than radio in the urban market: an A Listing on MTV Base means that your video will be shown a staggering 50 to 60 times a week, "but you're looking at a medium where people dip in and out, so they're not going to see it anywhere near that much".

Caught relies on a team of "genre specialists", "who know what's going on in clubs, what's going on in the streets and what's going on in America". "If you're starting an urban campaign in the UK, one of the things labels want to get in place is exposure on MTV Base. We were the first people to play R Kelly's Ignition, we've been playing Damian Marley's Welcome to Jamrock since April. Last year, a track by Fabolous got into the Top 15 and the only place it was getting exposure was MTV Base."

Who's going to be big next year? "Sway and Lethal Bizzle. Paul Wall is a rapper who debuted on the Billboard charts recently and sold 136,000 copies in a week. There's a track by Syleena Johnson and R Kelly called Hypnotic. It hasn't got a release date yet, but it's going to be huge."

Alison Howe
Co-producer: Later with Jools Holland

Strikingly, the musical content of the only unsponsored terrestrial TV series dedicated to rock and pop is less influenced by its host than either of the chat shows featured here: "Sometimes I will see something I try to get on," says Holland, "but the producers do a perfectly good job, so I leave it to them." This leaves Alison Howe, a former John Peel producer and - perhaps inevitably, given her previous occupation - Fall fan, one of the most powerful figures in music TV. She says the show is aimed at "people who don't go to many gigs. We try to bring a cross-section of acts to them in their own home, so they can make a decision whether they want to pursue them". She claims the BBC put "no constraints" on the content: "My love is new music, I tend to go and see a lot of bands, while [co-producer] Mark Cooper spends his time reading the press. It's often the new acts that strike a chord, because they aren't seen on other shows."

Later with Jools Holland's impact on sales is well-documented. KT Tunstall was, by her own admission, "playing to about six people a night", until she was booked at the last minute when rapper Nas pulled out. After performing Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, her debut album was re-issued with the track included and went platinum.

Who's going to be big next year? "I know everyone is saying the same thing, but I was bowled over by the Arctic Monkeys. I like the Rakes, the Cribs. I think the Joseph Arthur record is good."

Tammy Hoyle
Producer: CD:UK

In recent years, ITV's Saturday morning pop show has succeeded in doing what was once unthinkable: decimating the impact of Top of the Pops. According to former Smash Hits writer Hoyle, an appearance on CD:UK can be crucial to an artist's chart success: "Saturday afternoon is the last chance for people to buy a single and have their sales included in the chart, which comes out on Sunday." Hoyle says artists are selected for more than just their popularity. "With pop it's easier to tell which songs are going to break through to a mass audience. With the slightly more alternative stuff, it's about determining whether the buzz is justified, and finding those acts who can bring something visually to the show. The team are out at gigs every night."

Boyband McFly were launched on CD:UK, but so were Goldie Lookin' Chain. "The majority of our viewers are 16 to 24. People think CD:UK is a young show, that it's quite poptastic, but it's not really. We'd never have a show that's just McFly, Girls Aloud and Sugababes. We've had Morrissey dressed as a priest singing I Have Forgiven Jesus at 11.30 on a Saturday morning."

Who's going to be big next year? "Arctic Monkeys have an obsessive fanbase and a brilliant frontman. I haven't seen Infadels live yet, but someone on our team is raving about them. And Son of Dork (James from Busted's new band) are attracting attention on our website forum at the moment."

Jonathan Ross
Presenter: Friday Night with Jonathan Ross
Suzi Aplin
Producer: Friday Night with Jonathan Ross

The International Television festival's TV personality of the year began his career as a band booker on long-forgotten Channel 4 show Loose Talk. Today, an appearance on Jonathan Ross's Friday night talk show can transform an artist's sales, as producer Suzi Aplin notes: "When Damien Rice came on the show, his album was at 109. Next week it was 26." Ross's own input to the musical content is considerable: "The BBC trust us - despite my incredible youthful looks, I've been broadcasting almost solidly for 19 years - and I've got a list in my head of people I want. The Magic Numbers are coming on. I love their album, and I want to make up for the scars inflicted on them by Richard Bacon." The prime-time slot precludes certain artists though: "We were offered a special with Eminem, but the BBC said he's not a big enough BBC1 name to justify it. We have a very broad catchment in terms of age: I'd watch an Eminem show, but my mum and dad, who are in their 60s, wouldn't. I like a lot of rap, but Mark Lamarr said something interesting: there's no point going to see rappers live because it's just two blokes shouting at each other. Quite a lot of people switch off when music comes on, which I never do. Actually," he chuckles, "I turn off a lot during Jools Holland, as we all do, normally when the world music comes on."

Who's going to be big next year? Aplin: "Louis XIV - glam rock, filthy lyrics, really entertaining - and Kubb."

Colin Martin
Head of music: Radio 2

The former drummer of 1960s R&B band the Artwoods and psychedelicists Blossom Toes, Colin Martin led the musical revamp in 2000 that made Radio 2 the most listened-to station in Britain. His makeover was founded in a belief that Radio Two had become too "cosy", and what sounds like a pathological loathing of dance music. "During the late 90s, dance music had virtually strangled all creativity. There were no artists. I spoke to heads of record companies and said I think it would be worth your while to look at artist development. If you bring me the artists, I will play them if they are good enough. There was a focus change."

His lecture certainly seems to have had a dramatic effect. The album charts are currently packed with 'Radio 2' artists. "James Blunt, Scissor Sisters, Maroon 5, KT Tunstall, Stephen Fretwell - these were all broken through Radio 2, as far as radio play is concerned." He says he relies on "gut feeling" to determine the station's playlist - "I stopped track testing, which is what every other radio station does - sending out music to companies who play it and grade it" - and that DJs "all have a certain amount of music they can choose themselves. Jeremy Vine loves British Sea Power. Fine. He can play that."

Who's going to be big next year? "The Upper Room, a really good band. A band called the Feeling and a new singer-songwriter called Joseph Arthur, I really think he's going to do it."

Sarita Jagpal
Acting head of music policy: Radio 1

Contrary to the complaints of certain aged rockers, Sarita Jagpal denies Radio 1 has any music policy beyond its public service remit "to bring the best new music to the widest possible young audience. We've made an agreement with the powers that be that 45% of our music will be new, 40% will be British, to be honest we do way more than that without trying."

The playlist - decided by a weekly meeting involving the station's "music team", mainstream producers and "representatives from our specialist shows" - is enforced during daylight hours, with only Jo Wiley allowed to deviate: "her show is a stepping stone from the specialists to daytime, she's the voice of new music. She was playing the Kaiser Chiefs a year ago."

Jagpal claims that no artist is big enough to guarantee their single a place on the A List - 25 plays a week to an audience of almost 10 million. "Robbie Williams' new single went straight on the B-list. When Coldplay or Eminem come around, you know our audience are gagging to hear them, but it's never a given."

Who's going to be big next year? "Arctic Monkeys, they've got the most exciting sound. I'd love to think Pendulum would do something, but I doubt it. It would be interesting to see if Morning Runner do anything, and Bedouin Soundclash."

Steve Owen
Dance and urban manager: HMV
Mel Armstrong
Rock and pop manager: HMV

Owen and Armstrong are responsible for deciding what is stocked - and whereabouts - in the UK's "leading music specialist" shops: HMV accounts for 25% of all music sales in the UK, while their new digital download service is the strongest challenge yet to Apple's iTunes store.

They inhabit a impossibly complex world of end-on displays, plan-o-grams, development racking and "radio tagging". The prosaic fact is that, as a spokesman euphemistically puts it, "labels contribute to the cost of merchandising their albums in-store", but Owen claims: "If a record's really bad, we don't think it's going to sell, we won't buy it."

Instead, he and Armstrong "keep an eye on the Radio 1 playlist, The Box chart, national and independent radio airplay charts and Shazam [the mobile phone company that helps you find the name of a tune]. HMV's support can yield results for the most surprising artists: a promotion on independent UK hip-hop - hardly the most commercially successful genre in the world - sold 13,000 units in a month, while the inclusion of drum'n' bass act Pendulum on the store's free Playlist CD meant "it sold close to 1,000 on its first day of release - unheard of for a drum'n'bass album".

Who's going to be big next year? Owen: "Sway. He's got a sense of humour, and he can really connect with the crowd." Armstrong: "Arctic Monkeys. The pre-orders on our website are scary. White Rose Movement I think are going to be big, Boy Kill Boy, Kubb, the Modern, Louis XIV. On the metal front, Trivium and Bullet For My Valentine."

Helen Marquis
Music buyer:

The UK's best-known online retailer is surprisingly blunt about why artists make their website's front page: "The labels pay for them to be there," says Helen Marquis. "We charge for key site placements in the same way that a record store would charge for racking. But we do base those selections as well on titles that are pre-ordering well with our customers. A label can say to us, 'Oh, this album is going to be huge," and we can say 'not according to our pre-orders'."

If the personal taste of buyers has little place in Amazon's scheme of things, the website can still help along an artist's career: Marquis claims that Amazon had a hand in launching the careers of KT Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand and Katie Melua, by directly targeting customers. "With Katie Melua, we emailed everyone who bought Eva Cassidy and Norah Jones and said, 'This is an artist you might not have heard of yet, come to the site, listen to clips, there's a video up there you can watch.' Because our marketing campaign is so strong, people just pre-ordered it on our say-so. Even if they don't like it, the name will be registered in their heads."

Who's going to be big next year? "Arctic Monkeys. We have a report each week called unresolved search results, which tells you what things people have typed in on site and not been able to find anything by and they were massive on it. Others are the Test Icicles, Lady Sovereign, Morning Runner and Be Your Own Pet."


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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