As either a band manager or record company executive (Copeland co-founded I.R.S. Records in 1979), he had a hand in guiding the early careers of artists including R.E.M., the Go-Go’s, the Bangles, Squeeze, Wall of Voodoo, Wishbone Ash, the Cramps, Fine Young Cannibals, the English Beat, and Oingo Boingo.
Along the way, he had to invent his job and think on his feet, even if it meant going maverick or rubbing people the wrong way. Copeland recounts his career, dishing more than a Luby’s Cafeteria buffet, in his memoir Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: My Life in the Music Business (336 pp., $22.95, Jawbone Press).
Calling from California, Copeland says that he originally planned on writing a story-filled motivational/marketing book. But so many people had been on him “for years” to write a memoir, he switched the order. The forced downtime during the pandemic sped the process along a bit.
As a music fan, Copeland definitely had “ears.” In fact, there are two big hits that may not have ever been released had he not basically insisted: The Police’s “Roxanne” and the Bangles “Walk Like An Egyptian.” Copeland pushed for both to be released as singles, against the wishes of other executives and even some band members themselves.
“The Police were all into the whole punk thing and that’s how they were selling themselves. But then they recorded the album, it didn’t really feel like that,” Copeland says. “When it came to ‘Roxanne,’ it was a ballad and they didn’t want to play [the recording] for me. It was a love song that wasn’t angry. And the minute I heard it, I knew it was special, so I got A&M to put it out.” “Roxanne” became the band’s first single, and it broke them in the United States.
As for “Walk Like an Egyptian,” Copeland was even more flabbergasted at resistance to it. “I still scratch my head wondering how the record company could dismiss what seemed to be such an obvious hit single. But the word that came back was that it was ‘too quirky,’” he recalls. “To me, that’s what made it work! I had to cajole them into releasing it, and it just took off like a rocket.” The single’s success was also buoyed by its iconic video, played in heavy rotation on MTV.
Back in the day, the punk/new-wave/iconoclastic-friendly I.R.S. Records was almost second hand code for being cool. Like Stax or Def Jam or Subpop, some people bought records based on the label almost as much as the individual acts.
“A lot of the things we were doing, nobody else was, so that was filling a vacuum. I didn't sit back and plot to make it an iconic label that represents a type of music,” he says. “I just saw bands that I liked and were interesting that people were neglecting and gave them a chance to put out records. And what I like can’t be that crazy—there must be other people like me out there!”
But not all of I.R.S.’s records were critical successes. One anecdote Copeland tells involves the English group Alternative TV. When the band turned in their record Vibin’ Up the Senile Man (Part One), Copeland heard nothing but odd ambient noises, snippets of conversation, and the occasional musical instrument. He assumed a tape machine had just been left on accidentally.
No, leader Mark Perry told him, that was the record (you can judge for yourself here). Some have compared it to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, a disc comprising mostly of shrieking guitar feedback that Reed purportedly turned in just to fulfill a contract and as a final “fuck you” to his record company.
“Unlike that one, Vibin’ was supposed to be a real record from a real artist, and we sold it as such. However, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. I think it now stands as the worst record ever recorded. And I had the luxury of putting it out!” Copeland says. “My sons didn’t believe me until they looked it up. I think they probably lasted three minutes!”
I.R.S. artist Timbuk 3, the Austin, Texas duo consisting of married couple Pat and Barbara MacDonald, scored a Top 20 hit in 1986 with “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Copeland said he fielded offers totaling $3 million (or about $6.7 million today) from several companies including Ray-Ban, Ford, and Clairol who wanted to use the song in their TV commercials. The band turned them all down, citing artistic integrity.
Ironically, Copeland was responsible for somewhat shifting band (and public opinion) on that very topic in 1999 with the video for Sting’s “Desert Rose.” It featured the artist wandering the Mojave Desert in a Jaguar S-Type car. Looking at marketing synergy, Copeland negotiated a deal with Jaguar, giving them the video for free to use in the car company’s massive commercial campaign. It gave the song huge exposure and made it a hit. Copeland says he also pushed for Algerian raï singer Cheb Mami to appear with the memorable, exotic backing vocals.
“Prior to that, it was a no-no for an act to place a song in a commercial, particularly a new one. Levi’s had bought old songs for a few, but this was unprecedented until Sting and I did it,” Copeland says. “And when that was a huge success, people woke up and you saw the Rolling Stones and other big artists do it.”
Copeland says he lined up a second, $10 million commercial deal for the next single, “After the Rain.” But Sting balked, hoping to have a hit without the additional exposure. He was wrong. Nevertheless, Sting still fired Copeland in 1999.
Copeland says he’s very happy that the Go-Go’s are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was interviewed for the recent documentary which many people believe upped the band’s profile and helped lead to the nod. Copeland points out that they are still the only all-female band to have a No. 1 record (debut Beauty and the Beat) on which they wrote and performed every song.
Today, Copeland owns booking and multi-media agency Copeland International Arts (CIA…get it?). But rather than rock and roll, most of the acts he’s involved with are of the world music variety like Celtic Crossroads, Otros Aires, Zohar, and the Bellydance Superstars. In a way, he’s come full circle with both the agency’s name and the music he grew up around during his youth in Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon, where his father was stationed.
“There’s all sorts of interesting music all around the world, and in the back of my brain, I had an appreciation for the instrumentation. And when you mix that hardcore Arabic music with Western bass and drums, you see it in a refreshing way,” he says. “Look at the Police, combining punk and pop. You wouldn’t normally put those two together, but sometimes it can really work.”
As for the band with whom he had his biggest success, Copeland had no part in the band’s massively successful 2007/08 reunion tour, and not by his choice. When asked about relations with members Sting, Andy Summers, and his brother Stewart today, Copeland demurs.
“I think the reality is you’ve kind of been there done that. Sting is one of these people that you get to the top of the mountain, and then he’s looking at the next mountain. He’s not one to look back,” Copeland says. “And Andy and Stewart are doing what they’re doing, and I’m sure they’re happy about that. I’m doing what I am, and I’m happy. I’m into the present and what’s going to happen next. I mostly watch politics now and what’s going on in this crazy world!”