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Martin Mills: Beggars can be choosers

Adele’s phenomenal global success capped a terrific 2011 for UK music group Beggars. Now, MD Martin Mills is set for recognition of his own as he prepares to receive the 2012 MPG Outstanding Contribution to UK Music Award, writes David Davies.

“Adele is an amazing artist who made a brilliant record, and everyone involved did a fantastic job in marketing and promoting it. But none of that accounts for the size of the success. It’s like we really did manage to capture lightning in a bottle on this one.”

Beggars Group founder and chairman Martin Mills’ – who on Thursday 16 February will receive the 2012 MPG Outstanding Contribution to UK Music Award – is obviously very proud of what has been achieved here. Released on Beggars label XL in January 2011, Adele’s second album, 21, is now approaching the 20 million sales mark and continues to linger around the upper reaches of charts worldwide. Impeccably crafted by Adele and a team of collaborators including 2010 MPG Producer of the Year Paul Epworth, the album’s extended shelf-life has, in an era of brief careers and diminishing sales, offered welcome validation of a more traditional approach to artist development.

“What has caught people’s attention is that she is honest, true and very unmanufactured in a manufactured pop world,” suggests Mills. “The success is unprecedented for us, and for the industry generally in the last ten years.”

While Beggars might be riding high now, its early days carried few indications of future global greatness. From 1973, Mills and his initial business partner, Nick Austin, ran a chain of Beggars Banquet record shops, but it was the emergence of punk several years later that catapulted the operation towards increased prominence.

“It was a period of frenetic activity and total musical change,” recalls Mills, excitedly. “Music had become very complex and introverted, but punk brought back a free spirit, and for us it changed what we sold almost overnight.”

The ‘anyone can do it’ mentality – so fundamental to punk’s Year Zero ethos – led to an explosion of activity throughout the independent music world. It was, therefore, but a small jump for Beggars to start its own label, a process kick-started by an approach from The Lurkers to release a debut single and album. These sessions were Mills’ first taste of the studio world, and he still marvels at the inspirational contribution made by producer/engineer – and latterday Music Producers Guild (MPG) director – Mick Glossop: “The Lurkers were four punk kids from London, and by the time they came out of the studio they were a different group. It really made me aware of the impact that a producer can have on a new band.”

Mills readily admits that Beggars’ output in the late ‘70s was patchy, but fortunately goth was just around the corner. Bands including The Cult, Bauhaus and Gene Loves Jezebel ensured that the label became one of the UK’s leading independents. Emboldened by its success, Beggars was able to evolve into a broader music group, and is now an umbrella organisation that owns or distributes some of the world’s most influential independents, including 4AD (Pixies, Scott Walker), XL (The White Stripes, Dizzee Rascal), Rough Trade (Antony and the Johnsons, British Sea Power) and Matador (Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus).

The initially free-floating company has inevitably acquired greater structure over time, but Mills says that Beggars remains “very informal. We don’t run budgets or business plans, and I still sign every cheque.” He also insists that the group’s recent run of success – or, one might add, his own Outstanding Contribution to UK Music trophy at this month’s MPG Awards (“being honoured by them is a massive compliment”) – won’t affect its presiding philosophy.

“We are still who we are,” concludes Mills. “The fact that we sold X million records by Adele doesn’t mean we don’t care every bit as much about an artist who is only going to sell 10,000 copies. We work with who we work with because we love their music and think that they are fantastic.”