What does it take to be an electronic music icon?

Martyn Ware of Heaven 17, and earlier of The Human League, kindly shared his time over lunch recently where we explored how he became an icon of electronic music.

Heaven 17, Martyn Ware on the right

Heaven 17, Martyn Ware on the right

I contacted him as one of my new side projects is managing a fantastic new band, The Vaulted Skies.  I have always been an avid music fan and attended hundreds of gigs, but until recently had little knowledge of the music business and certainly little contact with successful musicians.  So my simple request to Martyn was, what does it take to be a great musician?

I pulled together a huge list of questions which I attempted to squash into our meeting.  They were based on my simple thesis that success and contentment are driven by finding ways to be in flow. My peakflow model proposes four key areas and I wanted to test how Martyn’s life and experience fitted these.  The key areas I examined were: a. Clarity of target and purpose b. Skill development c. Support d. Commitment and drive.  All these are examined throughout my account of our conversation.

Martyn is proud of his working class roots having lived in Sheffield council housing until his music career took off.  His parents only had 4 books, but they were volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. They also had no musical instruments.  However, his two sisters, both of whom are much older, loved music and had huge and varied record collections. So, alongside Radio Luxembourg, these records were a constant source of learning for Martyn in the early years.  At school, he was again fortunate that his elderly music teacher just happened to be the best teacher in the school and the youngest at heart. He encouraged and supported Martyn’s love of music where he started on the recorder and sang in the choir.  

In his teenage years, he was introduced to a new arts-based youth club called Meat Whistle which just happened to be a melting pot of music talent.  Many bands formed and separated on a daily basis playing to audiences of twenty. This creative environment allowed the kids to experiment and start to develop their talent and give them confidence to perform.   It was the flash points for the formation of The Human League, as Martyn joined the club with best mate Phil Oakey and met Ian Craig Marsh and Glenn Gregory. The four shared a common passion for electronic music and a vision of the future heavily influenced by the futurism of the space age.  The arrival of punk had also given them hope that working class kids could make a living making music.

During this time, Martyn bought his first music instrument, an icon of the 70s, the Stylophone.  Within two years the team had left school and started work, giving them a small amount of disposable income.  Apart from the odd pint, the rest was invested in music, in terms of attending gigs, clubs and buying their first synthesisers on hire purchase, as they couldn’t afford them outright. They spent all their non-working hours with their new instruments and a tape deck.  Within a year they had enough material to host their first gig, ahead of which Martyn got himself arrested attempting to promote the gig with fly posters.

The band were influenced by Roxy Music and in particular Brian Eno, who in an NME article suggested rock and roll was dead, and all you needed to be in a band was a synth, a microphone and a Revox, an early tape recorder.  

At this point they had already written the song that would launch their career: Being Boiled.  A track so different it immediately stood out.  A friend sent a tape demo to Bob Last at Fast Product, a Scottish version of Factory Records.  Via Bob, John Peel picked up the single and loved it, inviting The Human League to play a session in August 78.  The cassette sold 5000 copies largely by word of mouth. From here record companies started fighting over them and they signed with Virgin Records and moved to London.  

They were a constant presence in the Virgin office in the early days and endeared themselves to the label showing just how passionate, reliable and resourceful they were. They also learned a huge amount.  They showed their commitment with how much time and money they invested in their future. Most of the advance went on building their own studio and Martyn took a 50% pay cut from his computer operator job to start his music career.  They were also hugely self-confident, their contract had given them sole control over the creative side of their music. Martyn’s description of their song creation process was pure art, they were doing it for their own pleasure, not driven by a desire for success or money. This is an excellent  definition of an autotelic process, a key indicator in Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.

Whilst the first two albums were critically acclaimed, neither was a major commercial success. They were trendy but lacked mass appeal.  They could not have guessed what was going on behind the scenes, but it would have a huge impact. The label plotted a separation of the group into what Martyn later called getting two bands for the price of one.  Martyn was summarily sacked by his best friend Phil Oakey.

This betrayal hurt Martyn enormously, he described it as one of the most challenging emotional times of his life. It was now a personal crusade against his best friend to prove him wrong. It was inconceivable for his new band, Heaven 17, to be inferior to The Human League.  Martyn wanted Heaven 17 to be more stylish, innovative and, unlike before, commercial chart success would be a key metric. This betrayal was the match that lit this Sheffield-born steel furnace and unlike his declining home city, he would burn brightly over the next few years.

This burning desire and a clear ability to pick new directions and innovative has led Martyn to become an icon of electronic music. These skills have allowed his career to take many different directions.  After the early success of Heaven 17, he was mentored by a prominent music lawyer allowing Martyn to become an expert on law in the industry. Armed with his new skill and his electronic music expertise, he became a successful producer. His first foray was with Terence Trent Derby and was a massive commercial success.  Production work poured in, but the constant battle for chart hits eventually caused him to change direction again. Martyn now has a portfolio career. He runs a company, Illustrious, with Vince Clarke (ex Depeche Mode and Yazoo) that creates innovative 3D soundscapes using leading edge speaker technology, he is an advisor to BASCA and is associated with a least three different academic institutions.  And he still keeps his hand in composing his own material in his spare time just for fun.

So, what do I think marks Martyn out, how has he had such a successful, respected and varied career?  Looking back at the four factors in the peakflow model:

  1. Clarity of target and purpose: Martyn never underestimated how difficult it would be to make a living in music but it is clear he put all his efforts and available resources into his passion.  His obvious enjoyment of creating songs just for the pleasure, is a clear sign of someone in flow. He is a generous, helpful person and spends time today mentoring youngsters at the start of their careers. It is quite clear music is his life.

  2. Support: Whilst he had no musicians or instruments in his family, his sisters had a huge record collection.  He was fortunate to have passionate music teacher at school. The appearance of Meat Whistle was perfectly timed and he was surrounded by other ambitious musicians.  Virgin were a relatively young record label and gave their small stable of bands huge support. And when he founded Heaven 17, he was mentored by a leading music lawyer, training him on the contractual and commercial side of the music business.

  3. Skill development: Martyn was at the forefront of synthesizer development and once he had his first instrument, he spent all his timing learning their complexities putting him well ahead of the competition. He may not have been a music virtuoso, but he didn’t want to be one, his clear skill was being innovative, something he has demonstrated many times across his varied career.

  4. Commitment and drive.  His commitment is clear, the early investment in time and taking a 50% pay cut to start his music career are evidence.  Finally, the betrayal by his best friend and the split from The Human League was a major factor, which only pushed his obvious drive even further.