LONDON – It can only be right that a band as unlikely as Radiohead is repped by management as improbable as Courtyard Music.
Chris Hufford, Bryce Edge and Brian Message handle what is arguably the hottest rock act going. But like their charges, they are ambivalent when it comes to the necessary evil that is the music industry. By his own admission, says Hufford, managers are “tossers” — Britspeak for jerks.
Courtyard comes by its contrariness naturally.
The outfit — also a music publisher and nascent record label — is based far from the media hubbub of London in the village of Sutton Courtenay outside of Oxford, home to both Radiohead and Supergrass, Courtyard’s other major act.
The trio take their 20% — the standard cut in the U.K. — but slick isn’t in the vocabulary.
Call the office and a partner might answer before Courtyard’s five staffers. And business cards, band bios, etc. are still on the drawing boards –despite more than a decade of operations.
So what exactly is Courtyard good at?
“I think they understand artists,” says Tony Wadsworth, prexy and chief exec of EMI Records U.K. “They’re realistic — they don’t try to bullshit you. But having said that, they’re always 100% behind their artists. They may seem unconventional, but probably some people are too conventional.”
Experience in the creative side of the music biz seems to have left Courtyard wary of things corporate.
As Edge puts it, “We come from failure as a background.”
Hufford, 46, and Edge, 44, are failed musicians (members of the new romantic group Aerial FX in the early ’80s), who became failed recording studio owners, who finally lucked out when an assistant connected them to Radiohead.
They didn’t think much of the group’s first demo, but by the time the next tape came along in 1991, the duo reckoned that management was the future. Four albums and more than 13 million units later, that faith has been vindicated.
But getting there did mean taking success seriously.
In 1993, Radiohead scored its only hit single with “Creep.”
“It saved our bacon,” says Hufford. “No matter what anyone tells you, EMI (was) about to negotiate our deal downwards.”
It was time to bring in someone to take on the nuts and bolts. Message, 35 and Courtyard’s designated suit, came over from the accounting department of EMI. Not surprisingly, he spends much of his time in London.
And now Radiohead is in the rock firmament, with both “The Bends” and “OK Computer” appearing regularly in top 10 lists of critics and fans alike.
While some would capitalize on that status with an overtly commercial follow-up, Radiohead next delivered “Kid A,” on which the group delves ever deeper into the oblique, deconstructed song structures that are its signature.
Nevertheless, the album entered the U.S. and U.K. charts at No. 1 and has already sold 2.5 million units. Time will tell if it has legs, but it seems unlikely to catch up with “OK Computer,” which moved 4.5 million.
Another album, containing more accessible material taken from the same three years of studio sessions, is a mere six months away. It may be fair to say that “Kid A” is a respected effort but not necessarily a satisfying one. A less difficult record could go through the roof.
Courtyard, however, denies that either the band or themselves are that clever — they’re just following a unique vision.
“If people say album two has all the commercial tunes,” Edge says, “it wasn’t by design.”