The Beatles were arguably the most influential rock group in history, but what can we learn from Brian Epstein’s short and tragic life as their peerless manager? By Gerard McManus.
When Brian Epstein took a lunchtime three-minute walk from his Liverpool record emporium and descended 18 steps into a basement rock ‘n’ roll club to listen to a Liverpool band he had been hearing about, it was to set off a chain reaction that reverberated around the world to the present day.
The 50th anniversary of that performance, during which Epstein paid a shilling to watch a “scruffy lot” play a five-song set, while smoking and drinking Coca-Cola on stage, passed last November 9.
Epstein said the band sent a “tingle” through him and he left The Cavern wondering if he might switch careers from being a furniture and record sales manager, to managing The Beatles.
The success of one of the world’s greatest musical groups can be attributed to many factors: the songwriting genius of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; the fertile cultural ground for original music in the early 1960s; the group’s extraordinary creative energy, raw talent and originality; the recording mastery of George Martin; and the chemistry between the four members.
However, the contribution of Epstein was immense and, in so many ways, integral to the group’s worldwide success.
Epstein’s improbable story – his unlikely match with The Beatles, his unique way of doing things, his attention to detail and devotion to his creation – contain valuable lessons, as do his many mistakes, deep flaws as a businessman, and his ultimately tragic end.
Epstein’s management career can be divided into two eras – the first where he had total control of the group and the second where he lost control as the phenomenon simply overran him.
Expelled from two schools, a failed actor and discharged from the British Army while completing his national service obligations, Epstein had been destined to run his family’s sedate furniture business. However, a creative streak, exemplified by a teenage ambition to become a dress designer, drew him to show business. He was given responsibility for expanding the family furniture business into records at an early age. The record store was the vehicle that enabled him to identify The Beatles from the 280-odd “beat groups” in Liverpool at the time.
Throughout his short life, Epstein lived the tortured existence of a closet homosexual, unable to come to terms with his sexuality or succeed in any long-term relationship. He was also a hedonist who enjoyed style and comfort. He experimented with illicit drugs and became addicted to prescription medication to help him sleep and maintain his punishing schedule. The drugs were to prove his downfall.
But Epstein was also a visionary who “knew” the potential for The Beatles from the beginning. He ran every aspect of their image from tips on how to remove nicotine stains on their fingers through to supervising the design of their collarless mohair suits that eventually underwent an improbable 500 variations.
In so many ways, Epstein was a manager without equal. He masterminded The Beatles’ strategy, undertook all their bookings and appearances, was in charge of their promotion and public relations, and oversaw their dress and image.
Today, teams of people undertake these different jobs in the music business. In hindsight, it seems almost absurd one person overseeing such a huge business and cultural phenomenon. An implosion was inevitable. Epstein died at home in Belgravia of an accidental overdose of the sedative Carbrital on August 27, 1967, a month shy of his 33rd birthday.
Extracting anecdotes from Epstein’s autobiography and Ray Coleman’s authoritative 1989 biography, a number of characteristics – good and bad – define the style of management Epstein brought to The Beatles.
Connection and complementarity
The ability to manage successfully is undoubtedly enhanced by a willingness to be managed. Epstein would not have been able to do what he did without the enthusiastic co-operation of The Beatles, who themselves were ambitious from the beginning. McCartney told Epstein he would be a star regardless of the success of the group, but also later described him as “the fifth Beatle”.
Previous fly-by-night managers had already burnt The Beatles. At 27, Epstein was mature compared with the members of the group; he was well dressed, and had a wealthy and sophisticated appearance. Observing Epstein’s stylish appearance and demeanour, Lennon was anxious to sign a contract immediately. The group knew he was a well-off record shop owner who knew about the “business side of things”, and they knew they lacked discipline.
He was Jewish, he attended the Liverpool Philharmonic weekly and was an avid theatregoer. Epstein was in many ways everything the Beatles were not.
Leadership and product care
Epstein believed in his product, was utterly devoted to the care of his charges, and assumed responsibility to produce results. From the start, Epstein shielded the group from difficult decisions and bad news. One of the most brutal decisions was the early expulsion of the “good looking” Beatle, drummer Pete Best, on the advice of Martin, who said he could not keep time. The other Beatles had sought to enlist Ringo Starr, but Epstein took it upon himself to tell Best. The sacking sparked protests from fans and placards outside venues: “Pete Forever, Ringo Never”, but it was the correct decision.
In the early days, Epstein also spent time reassuring the parents and guardians of The Beatles, who were aged between 18 and 21, visiting their homes and buying Lennon’s aunt chocolates and pot plants. He agonised over the original five-year contract, worrying he was charging The Beatles too much (10 per cent up to £1500 annual earnings, and another 15 per cent above that).
Epstein ultimately did not sign the five-year contract he drew up with The Beatles. Asked by witness and colleague Alistair Taylor why, he said: “Well, if they ever want to tear it up, they can hold me, but I can’t hold them.”
Ethics and standards
Epstein was meticulous in his business dealings, particularly in the early years. As a record store owner, Epstein was pernickety to the point of being obsessive; as a band manager he was practically a control freak. In his store he also had an elaborate pre-computer stock system, monitoring sales and flagging records that were almost sold out for restocking. This system enabled Epstein to observe the interest in My Bonnie, a song recorded in Hamburg with The Beatles as the back-up band.
Epstein was insistent on punctuality, a trait that never left him. Three Beatles were late for their very first business contract meeting and McCartney was late again to sign the contract – a mistake that nearly ended the relationship before it began. Epstein later sacked musicians if they were late for shows or did not turn up to press interviews. As the band manager he honoured deals, sometimes to great cost. Initially, he did not even charge expenses. After signing The Beatles, he paid £200 owing to a hire purchase company for its instruments.
In July 1963 (four days before the release of She Loves You, the song that sparked the global demand for The Beatles) Australian promoter Ken Brodziak was in London to make a deal with Epstein for the group’s tour Down Under the following June.
The original verbal agreement was for £1500; when the contract was signed in December it was changed to £2500 for the 16-day tour. By that time Beatlemania had taken hold worldwide and, according to Brodziak, the asking price could have been 100 times that amount, yet Epstein did not back away.
Later, when the explosion of The Beatles did occur, Epstein’s dealings were questioned and criticised, especially for his failure to extract the best deals for the group. Later, again, he was swamped by lawsuits after poor decisions on record deals, music rights and merchandising, resulting in The Beatles missing out on untold millions of pounds in revenue.
Inexperience and fatal flaws
Epstein’s mistakes were largely hidden by The Beatles’ success, which transcended traditional notions of business.
A great mythology has been built on the record deal Epstein eventually clinched with EMI (through Martin) and the earlier infamous rejection from Dick Rowe of Decca Records (“Not to mince words, Mr Epstein, we don’t like your boys’ sound. Groups are out. Four-piece groups with guitars are finished.”) It has been since elevated to the greatest mistake of judgment in recording music history. In fact, Epstein bumbled around for six months imploring half a dozen recording companies for a record deal, including a mostly forgotten initial rejection from EMI.
Epstein’s selling tool was a poor quality reel-to-reel tape of The Beatles playing as a back-up band to another singer. In fact, it was no wonder Decca was underwhelmed. Had Epstein spent money on a decent recording he might have succeeded in a deal much earlier.
Epstein’s name is synonymous with the stellar success of The Beatles, but he also “discovered” many notable failures.
Believing he had the golden touch, he signed at least 40 other individuals and groups. There were some successes, including Cilla Black and Gerry and the Pacemakers, but the vast majority did not make it. Epstein also predicted The Beatles would move away from music and become successful actors.
While still trying to manage The Beatles at their frenetic peak, Epstein bought a London theatre, which proved to be a serious money pit.
During mega events – battlefields, natural disasters and waves of popular hysteria, managing is subsumed by the need to control what needs to be controlled at the time. History regards Epstein as a genius manager and he was. However, he had difficulties with delegation and once the dam burst he was swept along with everyone else.