Dave Trott: Different is worth more

Chris Blackwell was born in Jamaica and went to school in England.

When he went home to Jamaica he tried various jobs, but didn’t like any of them.

The only thing he loved was Jamaican music.

So in 1958, at age 21, he decided to start recording it.

He formed his own record label called Island.

But he couldn’t sign the big Jamaican names because they wouldn’t sign to a small label.

Blackwell knew he had to offer something different.

He knew in England there were lots of Jamaican immigrants who couldn’t buy the music they loved from home.

So Blackwell asked the Jamaican stars if they’d let him distribute their records on his label in London.

They had nothing to lose, so they agreed.

Blackwell came back to London and drove his Mini round the record shops where the Jamaican immigrants lived.

He began selling Ska records to the shops from the boot of his car.

Which helped make something else happen.

At that time the fashion was Mods, who thought West Indians were cool so their music must be, they began buying it too.

And Blackwell helped Ska cross over into white English culture.

But he wanted to start recording his own artists.

One singer he’d heard had a strange high-pitched voice, a fifteen-year-old girl called Millie Small, she was different.

Blackwell signed her, and got her to record My Boy Lollipop.

It sold six million copies worldwide.

Then Blackwell heard about a band above a pub in Birmingham, he said "The lead singer sounded like Ray Charles on helium".

They were so different Blackwell signed them.

The singer was Steve Winwood, and Blackwell got him to record a rock version of a Ska song "Keep On Running".

Their record pushed the Beatles out of the number one spot.

Then Blackwell heard a group called the Wailers playing reggae.

They wanted to move towards the current American black sound: slick and smooth like disco.

But Blackwell wanted them to go the other way: be different.

He pushed them towards rough and raw: a black rock band.

Rock music had guitar solos, reggae didn’t.

So Blackwell had Bob Marley add guitar solos and make the lyrics harder, more political.

Bob Marley’s album Exodus stayed in the charts for 56 weeks.

Blackwell found another group that couldn’t find a label.

He signed them simply because they were different and had "spirit and force".

Their first albums failed and they thought it was all over.

But Blackwell thought they were different enough to be worth sticking with.

Their fourth album, Joshua Tree, went to number one around the entire world.

That group was U2.

Amongst the artists on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records were:

Amy Winehouse, Tom Waits, Roxy Music, the Cranberries, Cat Stevens, The B 52s, Pulp, Paul Weller, Nirvana, Ultravox, Tricky, Keane, Grace Jones, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Traffic, Free, King Crimson, John Cale, Jim Capaldi, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Toots & The Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, Robert Palmer, The Pogues, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Florence & The Machine, George Michael, Robbie Williams, Georgie Fame, Malcolm McLaren, Bon Jovi, Jamie Cullum, Elkie Brooks, The Slits, and Derek & Clive.

Over 300 artists, and all they had in common was they were different.

Chris Blackwell built Island Records into "The most diverse independent record label in history".

In 1989, he sold it for £200 million, around £1 billion today.

Because of something we could all learn: different is worth more than the same.

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