For a musician with a hangover, Jamie N Commons sure talks a lot about destiny. He’s up early to chat to Music Week, fuzzy-headed in his Los Angeles bedroom after a late night at a major label party.
That’s how ...
It still boggles the mind that Chris Rea – one of the finest British guitarists of his generation – didn’t start playing the instrument until his early 20s.
But then, the Middlesbrough-born 66-year-old’s career has always been on the unorthodox side. His debut LP, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, was released in 1978, but it was another decade before he achieved his first Top 10 single, courtesy of 1989’s The Road To Hell.
“I never had a big ego and I never had that thing about wanting to be a rock star,” Rea tells Music Week. “I’d always loved music and I knew I was musical, but it never occurred to me to perform.
“It was hearing blues records that got me going. When I heard the Delta Bluesmen, it awoke something inside of me. [Guitar music] is pure; it’s organic; it’s true - and you can’t fake it.”
A prolific songwriter, Rea has released 23 studio albums, 11 compilation albums and 72 singles, selling more than 30 million records worldwide. And despite suffering serious health problems in the 2000s, he still pens a song a day.
Rea attended the Music Week Awards in 2016 to present the prestigious Strat Award to Max Hole, with whom he became close friends during his time at Warner.
“Max Hole is a long-time pal. He always impressed me,” explains Rea. “I was brought into Warner when Michael Levy sold Magnet Records and Max took the trouble to come to my house.
He went through every record I’ve ever made, asked me the ideas behind them and what I’d expected from them.
“By the end of that week, we felt like we knew each other forever and we’re still good pals now.”
Now signed to BMG, Rea scored his highest charting studio album in almost 20 years earlier this month with Road Songs For Lovers, which sold 6,865 copies in its first week of sale to chart at No.11.
It was Rea’s best chart position for a studio set since The Blue Cafe reached No.10 in 1998.
“I didn’t know there was a company doing what [BMG] is doing,” admits Rea. “They like music and they like the actual life of albums, vinyl, double albums… That’s the vibe you get when you go there.
“The old music business was a way of life and I think BMG has got that pretty well.”
Korda Marshall, BMG’s EVP, new recordings, praises Rea as a “gentleman beyond all gentlemen”. “It’s been amazing to work with him, we’re ambitious and it feels good,” says Marshall.
“The key thing is that there aren’t many English singers with his vocal dexterity, warmth and texture. His voice is absolutely brilliant and his vocals are amazing on this record.
“I don’t necessarily think he gets the credit for what he’s achieved. I wish we could get more TV [appearances] and I certainly think the TV producers don’t necessarily understand the depth of his repertoire and achievements through his career.
He’s had an amazing career and we’re honoured and proud to be representing him.”
With The Road To Hell and Driving Home For Christmas among his best-known hits, Rea continues his obsession with travel on the new record.
Song titles include The Road Ahead, Happy On The Road and the title track Road Songs For Lovers.
“People go on about the road thing, but it just happens to be that we’re all in cars so often and one of [those drivers] happens to be a serial songwriter,” explains Rea.
“So a lot of the songs take that theme, if that’s where I am when I start writing, but it’s more about different emotions and situations than it is about roads.”
Rea has announced an extensive UK tour to support Road Songs... release, beginning at Newcastle City Hall on November 20. He plays Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo on November 26.
“What I’ve found over the last 15 years is that I’m still doing successful tours because I’ve brought along a lot of younger people with me,” he observes.
“When I was young and BB King was old - to a young man anyway - what crossed over was the guitar. That’s me now - I’m the old guy with the guitar.”
Market SharesIf there’s been an unusual degree of volatility in the market shares in recent quarters, things reverted to type in Q3, at least for two of the three majors.
David Hawkes is never truly happy unless Universal’s share is over 35%, so Universal’s 35.2% share of All Albums AES hit the benchmark, even if it was slightly down on 2016 (35.7%).
Artist Albums AES dipped just under that figure to 34.2%, although Hawkes is more concerned with a squeeze on its market share for track streams (35.3%, down from 37.1% last year) and sales (34.4% vs 37.1%).
“It’s our performance within the singles market that currently has let us down a little bit, where some of our competitors have performed better,” he says.
“But we’re feeling more positive: we’ve had the No.1 for the last four weeks and it’s extremely exciting that Post Malone has a record [Rockstar] flying across the world.
We’ve been under-represented in the singles chart, but we’re feeling pretty good right now. Hopefully that is a sign, given what we’ve got coming up, that we can maintain that level of performance.
“There is some competition, particularly coming from Sony, looking at the Q3 and year-to-date share growth,” he adds.
“But we are the clear market leader by some distance still and we aim to maintain and potentially grow that lead through Q4. We’re fully expecting to end the year in a better position than we are in at the end of Q3.”
Many think Universal’s Q4 slate looks the strongest of the three majors, but – as Hawkes points out – it’s Sony that’s showing the real year-on-year growth in Q3.
Sony’s share of its preferred All Albums AES metric was up to 24.7% in Q3, from 23.5% this time last year, while Artist Albums AES rose to 22.8% from 21.1%.
“It’s great news to be up in all of those sectors against last year and Q3 is our best quarter of the year so far,” says Leggatt.
“It shows good growth as we go into the end of the year but we wouldn’t take anything for granted. We’re not going to just sit here and assume we can continue to grow, but obviously we will strive to do as much as we can to deliver another very pleasing set of numbers.”
One area where Universal has successfully re-asserted its dominance is Compilation Albums Sales, where – having temporarily lost the crown to a post-Ministry acquisition Sony earlier in the year – it had a healthy lead of over four percentage points in Q3.
“The comps market is extremely challenging for everyone,” says Hawkes. “What Universal have responded to very well in the last 12 months is to ensure we have releases across the spectrum.
So we are now active in the mid-price market, where we were less active this time last year. We are extremely active in the frontline, TV-driven space through UMOD, and we’re active in the soundtrack space with the likes of Moana and La La Land.
And yes, we’ve seen off the threat year-to-date but I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal. I’m sure Sony will come back fighting.”
Warner had a steady quarter, with a flat share of its preferred Artist Albums AES metric (18.1% vs 18.2%). It also leads Sony on year-to-date Artist Album Sales, with 22.1% to Sony’s 20.7%, setting up a potential battle royale for Q4.
“I hope we can stay ahead!” says Allen. “It is something we’ve focused on just because it’s important, particularly in Q4, when it comes into its own.”
Sheeran has driven much of that share of course, with Atlantic leading Artist Album Sales for the year-to-date, and Allen hailed the label’s work under Ben Cook.
“They’re almost like a machine,” he said. “They’re forensic in the detail of how they plan and approach everything. It works for them and delivers amazing results.”
Back in Q3, meanwhile, Ted Cockle’s Virgin EMI again triumphed on both AES measures (10.9% for All Albums, 10.6% for Artist Albums).
Sony’s RCA, led by David Dollimore, was No.2 on both, while Polydor continued its revival under Tom March and Ben Mortimer, taking both No.3 slots, with a share up by a full percentage point in both lists.
So don’t let anyone ever tell you that Q3 is boring, ever again.