Photography by Eddie Bovingdon
From eleven-year old skinhead to YES roadie to A&R man to youngest ever President of Polydor Records, Ferdy Unger-Hamilton is guided by a belief that when it’s a question of pop stardom you can’t manufacture or fake it – only the music matters.
“I was definitely a teenage skinhead”, says Ferdy Unger-Hamilton reflecting on his initiation into the world of music. “It started when I bought a Sex Pistols 7-inch, mainly because it had a lot of swearing in it, and from there I got into two tone and ska, and I think my musical education sort of coalesced out of these influences.”
At age 41, Unger-Hamilton isn’t your average record label executive. He is friendly, informal, open, funny and surprisingly self-effacing. Dressed casually in jeans and a pastel t-shirt with an equally informal conversational manner, he is easy to talk to, like a mate down the pub, rather than an intimidating suited and booted boss behind a big glass desk. His affability may well be the secret to his success. Artists feel they can trust him. With a reputation for discovering stars, his army of artists has included Keane, Ellie Goulding, Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Marling, Lana Del Rey, and more recently the three young Californian sisters who make up Heim, who he insists will “set the world on fire”. He relishes the “huge variation” of artists at Polydor, from Lady Gaga to Frank Turner to Andrew Lloyd-Webber. “The idea is to work with an artist along their creative path and to best facilitate their vision.” His passion for his acts is infectious, as is his hunger to find new talent. He still personally solicits demos and links from unsigned bands, drops into gigs and follows up leads from trusted friends, rather than relying on a team to filter submissions or following YouTube stats to read the zeitgeist. “Great music is always the exception to the rule”, he says emphatically.
Cracking into the notoriously difficult music industry was, he insists, a matter of luck. “I didn’t grow up around the kind of people who were going to work in music. But the moment I realised this was a career I could have, I knew it was what I wanted.” His first break was the age-old story of boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-girl’s-father. The father in this case happened to be the manager of 70s prog behemoths Yes, and the young Ferdy was drawn into the glamorous life of a roadie. “I was with them for most of a year, and it was the best experience of my life… But thank God it didn’t go on any longer.”
For the next generation of music industry wannabes, his advice is simple: “Find someone connected with it in any way possible and harang them until you literally get arrested. Jam your foot in that door. It’s the only way to do it.”
His rise from the road crew to the board room has been meteoric, but makes sense when you hear the names of two of his early signings as an A&R – Gabrielle, with whom he penned the number 1 hit Rise (“That was a real trip for me”) and Portishead, who he went to see because “their name sounded like a weird pub”.
“I went to Bristol and they played me a song, and when they’d finished I just asked them to play it again immediately. Thing is I had this terrible hangover and I was thinking: this is either the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, or I’ve gone completely mad.”
So what makes a star? He is emphatic. “In that regard I don’t think anything has changed, ever. It’s about a great tune, and great words. Words that feel real. That’s it. Looks and image don’t matter. All that matters is that you really believe in what they’re singing. That’s what people connect with.”
In an age of TV singing contests, Unger-Hamilton is interested only in the long-term nurturing of talent. “Shows like the X-Factor are a bit like Bullseye. It was good for the first ten years, but it’s ready for UK Gold. Unless you’re in North Korea and you can force people to watch those shows all day every day, they can’t really get any bigger.” His desert island discs, including artists and bands with real longevity, not the five-minute ephemeral fame promised by reality TV, would include Bob Dylan – “probably Like A Rolling Stone so I don’t look like a show-off”, Too Much Too Young by The Specials “because it imprinted on me as a kid” and The Velvet Underground’s Who Loves The Sun, “because I feel alternative music is part of my existence.”
For Unger-Hamilton, music is about a back to basics philosophy. “If the artists are great, and they’re making great music, and people love that music, everything will work out.” It’s refreshing to hear from a man who ought by rights to be wearing a tie and listening to presentations by accounts. Instead he’s on the lookout for the next big thing. When he finds it, chances are you’ll hear about it.
Bianca Brigitte Bonomi