After a lifetime in the music industry, Jon Brewer is affectionately known as “Mr Rock and Roll”. Manager, video and DVD industry pioneer, award-winning publisher – he recently won yet more plaudits as director of the highly-acclaimed feature documentary film BB King: ‘The Life of Riley’, about the life and musical history of the blues legend. Brewer heads movie production company Emperor Media, while wife Laura is sales director of sister company Cardinal Releasing, responsible for sales and media deals. Here he takes time out from a busy schedule to talk with Alison Dewar about his career. Brewer was already rubbing shoulders with rock’s elite in clubs like the Marquee Club and Speakeasy, watching legendary artists such as Jimi Hendrix by the time he was 16-years-old. By the late 1980s he was a Hollywood movie producer, living the “lifestyle of the rich and famous” in the hills above Beverly Hills. He later returned to England, where a love for the game of polo finally attracted him away from the bright city lights of London to the beauty of the English countryside. Today home is a 15th Century bolt-hole in the Cotswolds , where he lives with Laura and their five-year-old twins. The production offices and editing suites are run from a neighbouring structure on the river front property.
Tell us how you began your career in the music industry
I originally worked in the family business as an insurance broker and started Frizzells Aviation insurance department, but I was passionate about what was happening in the music industry. Every night, I’d swap a three-piece suit for the hip and trendy gear, and was out until 4am with this crowd. Eventually I broke away to become a rock and roll manager. I tried to get investors on board but it was impossible, so I created my own management company, and that was my introduction to people like David Bowie and (members of) the Rolling Stones.
How did you “crack” America?
I was already known to the American record companies as we had some very successful acts. It was a time when stadiums and arenas were taking over from more traditional theatres for gigs and I used my industry knowledge to link up the new arenas with agents and record companies and make it work.
You owned recording and publishing companies and then moved into video, tell us more about that.
I formed my own record label in 1980 and also set up my own publishing company. You couldn’t also be a band manager because there was a conflict of interest, so I wasn’t able to manage the bands as well. I did own the recordings though, including Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’, which won the Ivor Novello Award for “Best Publisher” and another for “Best Song”.
Around the same time, the video industry took off, every greengrocer suddenly became a video store. I decided to move into the video and distribution business, creating Avatar Film Company, which became the fourth largest independent in the UK.
What was the secret of your success?
I talked to all my old friends from the music industry, bought the films, worked out how much advertising and distribution was needed to get the videos out to the stores and the rental libraries, then I did deals with people like CBS/FOX, EMI and Universal/CIC. At the time, the videos would cost about £70 to sell to the public, but the secret was getting the rental side right, which took turnover up to about £12 million a year. When I got my first cheque from video sales I was going to send it back because I thought there had been a mistake, it was for over £100,000.
Was there one big movie for you?
It would have to be ‘Screwballs’, it was my biggest success right at the beginning. We brought Hollywood to Scunthorpe by bringing one of the starlets over and taking her around the country in a Daimler to promote the video. We made over £1m with ‘Screwballs’ and it started the whole ball rolling. I went to Cannes Film Festival and the US and was buying films for the UK, Netherlands and Australia markets and I also took video tape to Japan, which was the last country to move to video.
How did you end up in Hollywood?
It had got to the stage where, if I offered £100,000 for video rights to a film, the studios would offer £1m, so I decided one day that the only way to beat them was to join them, so I went out to Hollywood and became a producer. I had the big cigar, the lilo and the big mobile phone – it was 1987/88 and we fully lived the Hollywood Hills lifestyle!
What did you make of the arrival of the DVD?
DVD was what we had been waiting for, for a long time. I remember running around to all my music friends saying “the day has come”. We had finally arrived in the digital era and brought music into home cinema, which was big business. I ran towards it as fast as I could.
What was your approach?
My wife and I saw a Bowie documentary on TV one evening and it was appalling, both factually and artistically. I then went to the BBC to discuss making factual music documentaries, using my contacts and experience in the industry; someone had to chronicle this music and events correctly and ensure this programming would also lend itself naturally and successfully to DVD.
It was clearly the right move. In 2000, Brewer brought The Fuji Rock Festival to the BBC, a 69-camera shoot, shot at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, with artists including Oasis, Eminem, Alanis Morissette and others. That was followed by an authorised documentary on Michael Hutchence of INXS and a documentary marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain.
Having set up Cardinal Releasing, a distribution/sales company for the productions for their other companies, Brewer went on to direct and produce “The Classic Artists Series”, described as “rockumentaries” featuring many of the legends of rock music, including Cream, The Moody Blues, Yes and Jethro Tull in series one. His vast range of contacts and reputation ensured that he was given “access all areas” to the bands, their music and their archive material. Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Jim Morrison are among the featured artists who appear in series two of the collection, while his powerful 2012 film on the legendary BB King was launched in cinemas last October and then on DVD. Two years in the making, the theatrical film BB King: ‘The Life of Riley’, tells the life story of the blues superstar, from his early days working as an orphan in the cotton fields through to worldwide recognition and sales of over 40 million records. Brewer also directed a 14-camera shoot at The Royal Albert Hall of BB King’s 2011 performance and was responsible for bringing Slash and Ronnie Wood and Mick Hucknall to the stage.
How did the BB King film come about?
I met him in 2005, when I was making the Cream documentary. He gave me an interview backstage and I had never experienced anything like it in my life. I was very impressed and when I spent time with him, he made me feel a little more devout and divine than I really am. In the US, he is an icon and his manager had already been approached by so many people to do a film, but we just connected and within 24 hours we had the contract in place and I was off and running.
The only way to do it was to get to know the man himself; he was coming on tour to the Royal Albert Hall and Glastonbury so we were able to film him there; what was going to be a small documentary became a major feature theatrical release carrying with it the weight of some of entertainment’s biggest names and a live concert multi-platform release accompanied by a ‘Life of Riley’ soundtrack CD release.
After such a “showbiz” lifestyle, how did you end up in the English countryside?
I had lived in Farnham for over 20 years, later moving in to London and homes in US, but I always loved this part of the world. I also loved playing polo.
We were driving the back roads of the Cotswolds one day, stopped at a country inn for dinner and ended up staying for almost three months. While still living in London, I saw a photo of the woods but nothing of the actual house. When we came to see the place it was a thatched haven, perfect for a family and room to grow the business. It’s a wonderful place to call home.
Details: Jon Brewer – Cardinal Releasing