While at college in Edinburgh during the early 80s, Murray Chalmers was told by the head of his comms studies course he would never get a job. At the time, Chalmers was heavily into the rebellious punk rock scene, complete with dyed black spiky hair, Sex Pistols T-shirts and even a Bodymap dress.
But a few weeks ago, if the lecturer had tuned into one of the many national TV and radio stations that broadcast the press conference announcing the reunion of The Stone Roses, he would no doubt have been surprised to hear a familiar voice chairing proceedings.
Chalmers is now one of the key players in the music PR scene. He has run his own agency for the past three years after a 20-year stint at EMI, the iconic record company broken up and sold to Universal and Sony earlier this month.
In the past few weeks alone, he has launched albums for Kate Bush, Noel Gallagher and Coldplay, and handled media for the high profile reunion of The Stone Roses. Last year, he was involved in the return of client Robbie Williams to Take That.
Chalmers is a very different character from the stereotypical, extroverted PRO. He seems uncomfortable at the start of the interview, emitting a busy, nervous tension. But throughout he is disarmingly open and, despite a gentle manner, he knows his own mind and one could imagine him being fiercely protective of his clients.
It is also clear that Chalmers retains his youthful passion for music: ‘I like the whole artistic process. I’m definitely not one of those people who looks at what an artist does and thinks "oh, why do they have to make things difficult". I actually like it when they do things that are quite contrary. I like mischievous things and people doing things a different way.’
He could easily be talking about himself. He grew up in Dundee, leaving school at 16 because of the ‘distractions’ of music and fashion. He wanted to be a journalist at publisher DC Thomson, but it would only offer him a job writing the speech bubbles in comics. Instead, he worked in a variety of jobs including packing surgeons’ gloves in a factory and as an invoice clerk, as well as going to college.
During the early 80s, he regularly spent time in London at gigs, living in a YMCA in Stockwell and buying clothes that made him look like the drummer of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
‘I used to parade in all this stuff in Dundee, which was a very violent place at that time. But I knew a girl who knew the gang members, so that protected me from being beaten up,’ he says.
After a few years, Chalmers moved to London permanently. ‘I ended up living in a squat in Clapham run by people who knew the Blitz Kids. At the end of a really nice road was a crumbling building full of mad artists. We used to take the doors off the hinges and use them as dinner tables. There were nine dogs and ten very highly strung people,’ he says.
But one day, while he was playing vinyl, moaning about having no money, one of his housemates told him he should do music PR and put him in touch with Alan Edwards – now The Outside Organisation’s CEO – who took him on as an intern.
‘Alan was really good at throwing you in at the deep end. In my first week he made me call Mick Jagger and try to persuade him to do a TV show,’ he says. EMI’s head of press offered him a job a few months later.
But Chalmers’ rebellious and independent streak was piqued again when private equity company Terra Firma bought EMI in 2007 and he soon realised he did not relate to the new owners.
So he left to set up his own agency and is committed to running it according to his values: ‘It’s very artist-driven and artist-friendly. I love it when they come in and have a bottle of wine at 9pm.’
That all of his clients, including the Pet Shop Boys, Coldplay, Radiohead, Lily Allen (now Cooper) and Kylie Minogue, followed him when he left EMI is the best indication that his approach works. A striking image on his office wall of New York’s Central Park taken from an apartment window turns out to be a moving-in present from client Yoko Ono.
MBC PR’s co-founder Barbara Charone says that Chalmers’ agency, alongside hers and DawBell, are examples of a new breed of music PR agencies. ‘We are more artist-friendly and involved in career building,’ she says. Of Chalmers, she adds: ‘He is funny, loves music and has passion. Like me, he’s a newspaperaholic. If I couldn’t do my own press, I’d get Murray to do it.’
Three years on from launch, Chalmers says he has learnt how to make the company work and has become passionate about its success. ‘I was never ambitious, but I am slightly ambitious now at the age of 52 because I realise we’re in a nice position. I don’t want to make it a huge firm, but keep it going in a quiet way,’ he says.
‘I really think about it, worry about it and spend a lot of time analysing everything – what an artist is saying, what the photos look like. I suppose I am a bit of a control freak,’ he adds with a smile.
While his weekdays are spent working intensely, his weekends are often spent in an old mill he has recently bought in the south of France with his partner.
‘Everyone works really hard in London and there is a lot of pressure. I’m not wrapped up in that. I have a life. If I ever start worrying about getting a table at The Ivy, then I’m closing up,’ he says.
One suspects there is little chance of that happening any time soon.
2008 Founder, Murray Chalmers PR
1985 Press officer, rising to PR director, EMI Records
1984 Intern, Modern Publicity (co-founded by Alan Edwards)
1980 Student, Napier College
1978 Invoice clerk, S Eker and Co
1976 Factory worker, LRC Products
Tips from the top
What was your biggest career break?
I was taken on as an intern by Roland Hyams, who worked with Alan Edwards at that time. It was great experience and we looked after some brilliant artists. Also, getting the job at EMI.
Have you had a notable mentor?
I don’t believe in that kind of thing because I’ve always been very independent and I don’t like being part of a gang. But my boss at EMI Tony Wadsworth was inspiring and other publicists such as MBC’s Moira Bellas were helpful when I set up.
What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?
Take any job you can. I disapprove of people working for free, but it was something that led to me getting my job at EMI.
What qualities do you prize in new recruits?
They have to be hard working, cool under pressure and pay attention to every small detail.