The Man with a Plan
Interview with Nick Cody, Green Eyed Records
By Sylvie Simmons
“I come from a business background”, says Nick Cody, “and my old boss used to say back in the 80s, ‘Show me what you can do, don’t tell me what you think you can do.
We’re on the phone – Cody in England, me in California – and he’s talking about a new business project he’s been working on for years. A gloriously idealistic, maybe impossible, but hopefully viable plan to turn the old model of the music business on its head and replace it with a less brutal, more musically diverse and more collaborative system.
“I’ve been a mad music lover for years and years and when we started to play live I’d got no idea about the economics of it all. When I started talking to musicians who I was playing with who were very talented, and they were telling me about how it was in the music business, my business brain would go, ‘This sounds mad to me; I can’t see this working in any other area of life’. And that prompted me to start thinking in a problem-solving way about things, because my other work is about problem-solving”.
Nick has an alter-ego who travels the world doing just that, and who also foots the bill for his musical indulgences.” For better or worse I’ve got a brain that’s a bit like a safe cracker”, he says, “clickety-clickety-click, until I can find a resolution.”
Nick and I first crossed paths on social media when he set up a Facebook page for ukulele-playing singer-songwriters. I’m a ukulele-playing songwriter myself. In my other life I’m a music journalist and author, and have been for the last 40-odd years. I usually write about rockstars and I already have a record label, but it was interesting following Nick’s advances into the music business, through his ukulele page, then his Music for the Head and Heart website, and now Green Eyed Records. Which led to this interview to try and find out who this guy is, and how he thinks he can change the music business.
Let’s start with some personal questions. Who is Nick Cody? Where were you born and raised?
I was born within the sound of the Bow bells in London , so strictly-speaking I’m a Cockney though I have no Cockney accent. I’ve been living in Leeds since the early 80s. That’s my music persona. The other character who pays for all of Nick Cody’s excesses is another Nick who travels the world and teaches psychotherapists and the public about behavioural issues and problem solving.
What music did you grow up on as a kid and what did it mean to you?
I grew up in possibly one of the best periods of music, which was in the early ’70s. I used to live in Cobham, Surrey where there was Threshold Records, which was owned by the Moody Blues and had a recording studio and a little store downstairs. I would wander in there and see all the psychedelic albums that existed at the time – bands like Magma and Gong, classic bands like Yes, all the Moody Blues Catalogue, Jimi Hendrix on Track Records – the classic albums of the 70s – then bands like the Clash. I’ve always been a mad music collector. A music nut.
Did you make music yourself at that time?
I used to, in a hobbyist way, play some guitar, but I never launched myself into doing any music. That came a lot later. I was always interested in guitar and I had private individual sessions with the likes of Martin Simpson for many years, but I never really got into playing anything – until five or six years ago, completely by accident, when I first started getting interested in ukuleles. That came from being in New York, where I picked up my first ukulele, which was made by Collings, the famous guitar makers. From there I started to have lessons in the UK, and I discovered that the uke was a brilliant writing machine. Since 2014 I’ve released three albums and EPs. During lockdown I wrote and recorded another 47 tracks across three different musical genres. But I could never remotely imagine myself earning a living as a musician. It would be like trying to be the next JK Rowling – a lofty idea but particularly realistic.
(Uke-haters, of which there are quite a few, might want to ignore this paragragraph and jump to the next) I can certainly relate, as someone who also played guitar in my youth, came across a ukulele many years later completely by accident, found it excellent for songwriting and was offered a record deal.
If somebody had said, ‘You’re going to fall in love with playing ukulele I’d be ‘Yeah, and maybe a kazoo as well. Seriously?’ But I when I started playing and writing original material, I started looking around to see if there were other artists doing original stuff, because I though I don’t think I can listen to another version of Wagon Wheel or somebody slaughtering a classic David Bowie. So I thought:, if I set up a site for original ukulele music I might get half a dozen people interested. So I set up the Facebook group and OriginalUkuleleSongs.com. That’s been up about three and a half years. But I recognised that it was incredibly niche as a particular market. So that made me set up something else called Music For The Head and Heart, which was more diverse, and a way to showcase the love of music without it becoming “what category are you in.”
What was Music For The Head and Heart all about?
I thought I ‘d take two of my favourite mediums, which was the Tiny Desk Concert idea and Elvis Costello’s fantastic Canadian TV show Spectacle. I talked to Martin Simpson, who was gracious enough to be interviewed for it, and played a rousing version of Dylan’s Times They Are A’ Changing – before he released it on his album – which was just stunning. We also had singer-songwriter Jon Gomm; and Pete Brown, who co-wrote Sunshine of your Love; and Charlie Dore who is big on the folk scene; and of course, yourself. We started to run evenings of very different artists – maybe three artists per show – as a way to extend and showcase great music. And we were doing great – two sell-out shows in the UK. We were all ready to do the third show and then Covid hit and that was it. But it inspired me to think more and more.
And these thoughts are what led you to forming Green Eyed Records?
When I was doing the interviews for Music For The Head and Heart, I was thinking: how are people going to fund the time to make all this music? Because I know you can have all the creative skills in the world, but if you want to record, mix and master an album properly, or do any kind of promotion, that requires income. Because I have a problem-solving type brain in my other life, it got me thinking how do people fund, create and promote music.
Okay, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of this new model you’ve come up with – and I’ll warn you in advance that some of these questions are going to be pretty cynical.
I like cynical. Cynical grounds us in reality, because you just go yeah, yeah, nice theory but how does the thing actually work?
The digital revolution turned the whole music business upside-down that you and I grew up with. Every since Napster and sharing music files for free, a lot of people just don’t want to pay for music if they can help it. The desire to own physical copies of albums has also greatly diminished. When record labels could no longer make money from record sales, they developed 360 deals, owning a part of just about everything an artist does. And when that wasn’t enough to keep the labels alive, they signed fewer artists in safer, more limited genres. A whole lot of new musicians these days use the begging bowl system – gofundme, Patreon, etc. So what’s Green Eyed Records’ model?
I totally admit that of all the things I’ve ever done – and I’ve worked in substantial companies before and built things up from scratch – this could be the most delusional, but here’s my thinking. The artists are the ones who create the entertainment. Without the artist there is no entertainment. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve got streaming platforms, Spotify, or any of these other things, they’ve got nothing to play unless you’ve got artists creating new material. And that requires funding. Some people might have some patreon funding them, but most people don’t. And unless you can close the gap between the people that provide the entertainment and the people consuming the entertainment, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that the amount of music and the quality of music is going to be massively diminished. And if you present the perception of a thing as being devalued, when people don’t think it’s worth anything they won’t invest in it.
I’m a problem-solving guy. I spent two or three years just really going round and round and round, thinking about this. And this year I said right, I’m going to talk to some people who are reasonably authoritative and pay for their time by the hour and some questions. But everything they told me about the old model and how things are, I said, I don’t see that’s sustainable. When somebody told me that the best advice they could give an artist to increase their income revenue was to get as many of their friends to get laptops and run playlists on Spotify of this artist’s tracks I thought: if that’s the level we are at, what it shows me is that it’s not good.
What’s the idea for Green Eyed Records?
The idea for Green Eyed Records was a little bit influenced by Robert Fripp’s original idea in ’92 when he talked about is to reduce the distance between the people who are creating the music and the people who are consuming it. That was already starting to happen with things like Patreon and Kickstarter. Fripp wonderfully described it as “a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fuelled by greed.” Don’t hold back, Fripp, just say what you mean!
So my thinking is: In the old days one of the main limitations on things was the ability to get to the wider public. The internet helps with that – YouTube and Social Media – so there are mechanisms to get to more people. The last information I had is that every day 60,000 tracks are uploaded to Spotify and the renumeration for that per play is absolutely miniscule, which is great for the tech companies and other people, but not for the people actually creating the product. It has to be funded in some way. And the only way I can think of this actually working is if people work together in some collaborative way so that we can, remove as many of the intermediary people as possible between the audience and the providers of the entertainment. That throws up a whole bunch of challenges of course, but I don’t see another way of doing it. Because unless you’re extremely established and you’ve been around for a very long time and you’re riding the momentum of what you’ve done before, the current model’s not going to work.
“Creativity through Collaboration” is Green Eyed Records’ motto. It’s a great line, but what came to my cynical British mind was, is this some kind of hippie dream? Like those kibbutzes in the 60s where you’ve got a guy who knows how to saw the wood and a girl who knows how to make curtains, and when evening falls they all sit around the campfire singing Kumbaya. Is this what you have in mind?
Hopefully there’ll be no Kumbaya singing! But herein lies the challenge.
Can you give me a clearer idea of what kind of collaborating you have in mind and who these collaborators will be. New artists? Established musicians whose profiles can help raise the record label’s profile and income? What do you see as the makeup of your roster?
Well, the first thing is to actually float the idea to see what interest there might be. The challenge always is that you have professional musicians and you have hobbyists, two totally different categories – and when people are often struggling to just maintain their own existence, in an understandably selfish way they’re really looking to look after their own ends. So the challenge – and we did this with those live shows – is to say look, if a few of us get together and we all promote to our own separate audiences, we triple the number of people who are going to come, so that’s one simple way to cross-pollinate audiences. Another way could simply be in sharing good information. On a practical basis, I’ve recommended my music producer to other people, and there’s musicians I play with who recommended other people – so, it’s a pool of people. You’ve seen things like the Manchester scene. Or the Leeds scene, where promoters like John Keenan – who I interviewed for Music for the Head and Heart – simply took the initiative and started to bring in other bands, bucking the trend from what would normally happen. That interview highlights how one person could be a gamechanger. Just look at all the artists he brought to Leeds with his vision of what could be possible
I totally admit this might be the most naive expectation of all, but I do believe heartily that there are people out there who see there’s a benefit in people that overrides everybody working individually. The challenge with musicians is a lot of them are not very organised and some of them are completely dysfunctional but creatively brilliant. So it’s how you make that work in a practical way. But the starting point is basically to question things and say: is there not a better way of doing things? But if I look at other models of business where things have worked best, and in any area of life, collaboration and discussion and people working together in a practical sense works very very well.
What you said makes me think of those great labels like Stiff Records, where they would have the Stiff tour with only Stiff artists playing. It seemed like its own little club. People would buy a record by a someone on Stiff, simply because they trusted the label.
Definitely. I grew up with with labels like 4AD. Factory Records. The challenge now tends to be that people have delusional expectations, fostered by things like the TV talent shows.: “All I need to do is sing on X show and I will be catapulted to stardom” – and then people look back and go, “I don’t know who any of those winners are”, even though they had millions of people watching, So I think the way to make this work is to find people who realise that, no matter how many people they have that are interested in them and their music in their circle, hooking up to other individuals creates more momentum. And you’re doing it so that the people who are actually providing the entertainment and creative material are getting the benefit, not than the middlemen who are taking X, Y and Z percentage, which dilutes any kind of income. And things like Bandcamp and are kind of indications that that’s not only what people want but how things are going to have to be. Because the old way is not going to work.
One thing that the old model of the record business had going for it was it acted as a filter. They’d sign an artist or band they thought were special, or at least would sell records, and give them the financial support they need to make recordings, go on tour, do promotion, make videos etc. Well, loan it to them, really, because they’d have a big debt to pay off and percentages to pay. The labels had A&R departments to scout for and deal with the artists and their need – and this was before everyone and their dog is making an album on their computer at home. What kind of filter will Green Eyed Records have? How will you chose artists? Will you do it alone?
It will be more than one person, because the other Nick will be doing the job that pays for all this. But there has to be a quality filter. You have to have some kind of quality control and standard of musicianship. One of the producers I’m working with is a guy called Choque Hosein, who was best known in the 80s for an electronic outfit called Black Star Liner, referenced in Bob Harris’ autobiography. Choque would always say, “Nick, it’s all about entertainment”. If you are able to entertain an audience then you can command a fee for the quality of what you can produce. I’m not one of those people who thinks everyone’s fantastic – because somebody’s enthusiastic doesn’t mean they’re able to entertain or engage with an audience.
With the original Ukulele Songs thing, I’d let anybody put something on the Facebook page, providing it was original, ie they wrote it. I would get all sorts submitting to be on the main site, but I would select and filter from that, otherwise it makes the whole thing completely meaningless.
In terms of the practicality of how does it actually work, the challenge is that as soon as you mention a record label people think they’re signing to X and getting this and that, and what a lot of what they don’t realise is that the record company is like any other company where it’s about who gives what and who gets what. ‘We’re going to invest X amount in this band and we want a return of Y based upon this and this. That’s not unreasonable.
But even when we did these small shows – we’re talking about under a hundred people – and we brought in artists that were not particularly well-known, that was funded from working in this collaborative way. Similarly, the musicians I’ve had working on some of my projects has all been funded by working in a collaborative way. But you must have some business sense. You have to figure out how this actually works. So, when I rehearse with my band, they all get paid for rehearsal time. The reason is that I am valuing his time it. Because as soon as you remove the value of a trade between two parties, then the whole thing gets devalued and ultimately it all dissipates.
Let’s say a talented, unsigned musician comes to you and says, “Nick, I’ve got these great songs, I’ve got no money, I want to record them. If you think they’re any good, what do I have to do to be on Green Eyed Records, and what are you going to give me if I do?” What would you say to them, assuming you too think they’re good?
I’d say: What do you want from what you’re doing? Then one of the things I’d look at any ongoing plans that we have in pushing out their material and not charging them for it. Where do they need maybe input and help in some respects. In some cases I’d look at funding it, depending on what’s involved and what they’re looking at, and they’ve got to be realistic about that. Sometimes it’s advice on things, because a lot of my other work professionally is looking at how people market things, copyright things, how people run adverts. So it’s like hooking people up with a resource: “Here’s somebody who’s good at this, here’s somebody that’s good at radio promotion or digital distribution.” So you’ve got a network of people who are proven entitites who all know each other and work in that particular way. Those kinds of connections and networks I think is the best way to work.
And that’s why I say “collaboration through creativity”. Because if we think about it, what is the opposite of that? No collaboration and people all working in isolation. If you’ve got a limitless amount of money that might help, but you’ve still got to have the strategy. It’s finding people who have specific niche skills and can help in particular ways.
The conversations I had with Martin Simpson and Jon Gomm when I set up Music For The Head and Heart were a really great reality-check that reconfirmed a lot of what I thought about things. A few years ago Tim Booth came home from the States, and if I was ever enthusiastic about being a music professional, that was dissuaded in the space of about two hours when I realised just how much work it was – and that working for a music company was like working for any other corporate identity, it was just the medium was music.
So there is no magic wand and hey presto, G.E.R has taken over the planet. But the starting point is getting people to start to think ‘Is there a better way of doing this?’, and even if there is a small group of people who want to get together, then that is going to have more momentum than people working in isolation. And of course a lot of original record labels work in that way, because that’s usually the way to dramatically improve stuff. You see that in songwriting partnerships, you see that in business transactions, you see that in marketing where people go ‘Yeah but not good enough as it is.’ Don’t tell me this is the only way it is ever going to be because unless you do something different, nothing will change.
I want to go back to something you said earlier: that when people sign with a record company, they have expectations. I’m curious about how you’ll deal with that.
One of the challenges in my other work and one of the things I’ve learned is you have to set and define expectations. If someone sees me privately as a coach for anxiety-related issues, phobias or anything like that, the first thing is to define the expectations. And being realistic with people is also part of the educational process. From talking to people who’ve been in the music business and earning their money pretty much from it, it’s such a different world from the perception of people who are on the periphery, looking it. And one of the things I want to do with G.E.R is to do a series of little clips on what are the three great myths about music production, music distribution, buying an instrument, playing an instrument, being in a band, touring. Because the reality of people’s experiences in real life is often completely disconnected from what people actually expect. So a big part of the G.E.R thing is a reality check and an educational facility so that people have more realistic expectations.
So to start with, my idea is to have a central site and a social media presence – which we’ve got on Facebook- to get people talking and discussing things. Then, filtering through from that, if people want to be involved they can be involved simply on a social interaction on social media and there’s no requirement to do anything. If somebody — for example, somebody who runs a radio station for unsigned artists ,who saw a post on Facebook said, “I really like the ethos of this, send some tracks and I’ll play them on my show”. So, I said,’”Send me 500-800 words on what you do and then I’ll put that on a blog article on the site.” There’s an example of pooling resources – and there are lots of ways that can happen.
But I always quote a famous Japanese proverb which is: No one of us is smarter than all of us. And I think the tide is turning where, whether we like it or not, that is the only way it is realistically going to go. So this is getting the conversation going. And it’s not the old model where Nick is going to fund a whole tour of South America for an artist because that’s not realistic. But musicians have a huge background of knowledge and experience and often through collaboration you can create something quite excellent. We’ve got more in common than we have differences.
I’m saving the tough question for last. The money question, How will you get paid? You won’t “own” the artists like the old model labels owned their artists, so how will they pay you for your time and expertise?
If I want to earn a lot of money, this is not how I’m going to do it! I think the benefit comes firstly in creating a dynamic. Firstly, you’ve got to get income from somewhere. In the first instance, to a degree I can subsidise things and I’m happy to do that. There’s a point at which you start to run particular shows, or you do merchandise or you get a website to a certain level, then people can look at options for things like advertising and other aspects. But the idea is that it’s always a fair deal between the artist and whoever’s providing the information. I am always wary when people say you can get something for free because that’s naive. The funding to be able to do things, the income streams can be like — if you take the example of Bandcamp, where once a month people get 100% of what they would normally earn, if you compare that to a streaming platform, the Spofity model, it’s thousands of times more effective. So the income streams is something to still figure out.
All I do know is if you dilute things down to “You can get it all for nothing’”, then you might make an album and it’ll cost you £6-8,000, if you’re lucky, then you go, “Now we want to promote it”, so how are you going to do that? Because just putting a post on my Facebook page is not going to do it. If a whole bunch of artists woke up tomorrow morning and thought, “This isn’t really working. We have to all work together and bypass some of these mechanisms and use our collective audiences”, that would have a different effect to all those people working individually. The question of course is, do people have the mindset and vision to be able to think that way? That’s the $100,000,000 question. But there’s a big audience that love music and want something more than American Idol and The X Factor and having access to that and intelligent discussion and interaction. I’m convinced there’s a big appetite for that.
In one of my back and forth email conversations with Nick about G.E.R before this interview, he summed the idea up in just two points: 1: The future is better served through artist collaboration, and 2: There’s a need for a new platform for this. No argument there. And he closed another email with this. ” IMO artists need to wake up and appreciate that unless they work in collaboration as the old Joni song states: “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.“
For more details and those articles Nick mentioned, go to https://www.greeneyedrecords.co.uk
Special thanks to Michael Ross from Guitar Moderne for editing this article