Of behind every great popular performing artist there is a great management team, then, for the scale and longevity of his success, Robbie Williams owes more than a little to the men who not only helped him make it happen but stopped him from screwing up his chances in the first place.
The Bird and Fortune of creative management, Tim Clark and David Enthoven - now in their sixties - go back to the time the British music industry grew exponentially in the wake of Beatlemania. Then, misfits of all sorts could find a job as long as they loved music. In the years since, though, corporate culture has reined in some of that adventurousness, and for a while Clark and Enthoven were out in the cold. But they are now back on top, thanks to their application of good old-fashioned music management techniques to a new kind of media star. The partners preside over their management organisation - called ie:music ltd - like a pair of unbuttoned clubmen for whom work is as enjoyable as play.
The last member of the trinity responsible for the biggest British-based pop phenomenon of the past decade is not present in the flesh. But, like the Holy Ghost, his presence is everywhere in this split-level office in a leafy corner of London's multicultural Shepherd's Bush. Sometimes moody, sometimes cheeky, Robbie Williams stares down iconically from wall posters onto this hive of laptop activity to remind us why we're all here.
His eighth album, Intensive Care, has now topped the charts in 18 countries and sold some 6 million copies. On tour this year, Williams will play to more than 2.6 million people worldwide, culminating in five nights at a big London venue yet to be fixed (it won't be Wembley). To translate those figures into pounds and pence, in the cycle that began with the album's release last October and will end as the world tour winds up 14 months later in December, Williams' record, ticket and merchandising sales will generate a gross turnover of £80 million. And that's a figure that 'could well be exceeded', says Clark.
Under the confidential terms of the across-the-board deal with EMI (see panel opposite), Clark cannot reveal how much of that will flow to the artist himself. But put it another way: on a standard commission of 20% of the artists' earnings, his management company turned over about £3.5 million last year, when he wasn't on tour. If it were all to stop now, the trio can reflect on nine years of phenomenal success achieved as a team.
'ie:music is the best-kept secret in the music industry,' the star testified by video at the Music Managers Forum Awards 18 months ago. 'God put me in the hands of two of the most capable men in the industry today. I definitely wouldn't be as healthy as I am today if it wasn't for you... You've got me for life.'
Yet in 1996, all three were staring at an uncertain future. The two managers were salvaging careers that had swan-dived from herbally assisted heights in the music industry's booming '70s to splitting the rent on a small office 'above a man who made false teeth', laughs Clark. 'We were bumping along the bottom.'
Williams himself was just 23. He'd been the class clown in the early '90s boy band Take That. His undignified exit and subsequent makeover as a lovable buffoon attaching himself to the more drug-addled end of the British 'indie' rock community hardly suggested a talent worth cultivating.
The rudderless Robbie had just dispensed with his third management in little over a year when, at the suggestion of his accountant, he visited Enthoven and Clark in their unprepossessing premises. Hopes on either side cannot have been high.
'He was in a bit of a state - hung over and sweating; he'd been partying,' Enthoven says. 'We had an old dentist's chair in the office that nobody ever sat in because it would make you the centre of attention. He went straight for it and took command of the meeting. That intrigued us.'
Adds Clark: 'He reminded me of Chris Blackwell,' his former boss at Island Records. 'When Blackwell walked into a room, people turned. Rob has that charisma in spades, some sort of energy field. We were very taken by that but still concerned about whether we could really help manage his career and take him forward.
'The second meeting, we went to his flat, which had the characteristic smell of a lot of partying, and he was even worse for wear,' Clark continues.
'We had almost run out of things to say, when suddenly Rob said: "Would you like to hear some of my poetry?" We thought: hmm, OK, we'd better.
And he started reciting his poem Hello Sir and a couple of others. As one we turned to him and said: "If you can write poetry like that, you can write songs." That was the point that both of us realised that this guy had real creative talent.'
That moment of connection has led to 50 million CD and DVD sales, record-breaking tours, which include three dates at Knebworth that attracted 375,000 fans, a groundbreaking contractual relationship with his record company and plenty of media coverage - not all of it welcome. And all this without America, a territory unconquered after his US record company mishandled the initial push. Williams has since found his lack of Stateside fame a blessed relief: he can walk the streets of his Los Angeles home without being molested by fans.
'We have to be led by Robbie,' says Clark. 'If he is feeling ambivalent and doesn't want to do it, there's no way in the world we can force him.
He works incredibly hard as it is, and adding America might prove too much. He won't do everything for the sake of fame. He's much more likely to want to keep on recording albums and putting them out, and if people like them, great, and if not, so what? He's concerned about what he's doing musically.'
Compared to their protege - a proud son of Tunstall in the Potteries - Enthoven and Clark are almost Establishment. Enthoven, an Old Harrovian and the son of a stockbroker, had managed a hippie band called Tyrannosaurus Rex. He'd shortened the name to T Rex (he couldn't spell it) and it became the glam-rock sensation of the early '70s. With partner Mark Gaydon, Enthoven also managed progressive rock bands King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the hybrid Roxy Music.
'Gentlemen at play' is how Roxy's leader Bryan Ferry characterises his former co-managers. 'They had Harley Davidsons and were like public schoolboy Hell's Angels with their leather jackets and cowboy boots.' The unlikely duo found Roxy Music a berth at Island Records in 1972, where Clark was head of publicity.
Brought up in Kenya the son of missionaries, Clark arrived in London in 1964, 'hoping to be the Graham Greene of my generation'. Instead, he found a job at the nascent Island Records, which mostly provided London's West Indian population with the ska sounds of home. When he and Enthoven reunited as ie:music in the '90s, it was as executive managers of Bristol's popular reggae/rock band Massive Attack. 'Massive Attack opened doors for us. Till then we'd go into record companies and be looked upon as a pair of old fogeys. The transformation was almost instant. From being a couple of old farts we were looked on as wise old gurus.'
Before that recognition, Clark had tried various enterprises outside music, while Enthoven went on an 11-year bender. 'I lost everything: wife, family, houses, cars, motorbikes - every penny blown. I spent my last 10 grand going into rehab. Best 10 grand I ever spent.'
In trouble himself with drink and drug addiction, Williams found his mentor. 'He was in a very vulnerable state,' Enthoven remembers, 'and we knew that if we took this on, he would require a lot of emotional help.'
While Enthoven would take care of Robbie Williams, Clark would take care of business. 'I know about planning releases and marketing campaigns, because I did it for such a long time,' Clark explains. 'I've been doing contracts since the year dot, so I know where things get hidden too. There are great pressures on record companies to make money and there's always a temptation to try and finesse things, so they pay artists less.'
While Clark minds the shop - ie:music also manages several baby artists, including the singer Sia and Glasgow rock band The Casuals - Enthoven is on tour, at the beck and call of his capricious charge, rushing to stamp on a cockroach on Williams' hotel bathroom floor one day, discussing with him whether the singer should actually have sex on camera with the porn actresses hired for a video shoot the next. And before every show joining in a group embrace with all the musicians, crew and back- stage staff led by Williams in a prayer for serenity addressed to Elvis. It's not the usual state of play between management and workforce.
Explains Clark: 'You're putting someone on the road and they're away from home. It's not like most business relationships - it's much more complicated. We manage his career. We hope we bring a lot of experience and nous. But there's no doubt who calls the shots. We work for Robbie Williams. We have a fiduciary duty to him. All our artists call the shots.
We work for them. Any serious artist calls the shots. We manage the shop, but they're the bosses.'
'The combination of the two of us works well,' Enthoven laughs: 'the yin and the yang!'
Realising the songwriting potential they saw in Robbie was a first step.
When Williams was looking for an experienced tunesmith partner, they put him in a room with Guy Chambers, a musician recommended by connections that went back three decades.
'In their first working meeting they wrote four or five songs, including Let Me Entertain You and Angels,' Clark recalls. 'It all came together, an extraordinary working relationship.'
Angels was the song that made the difference between Williams being just another successful pop star and a national institution virtually overnight.
Admits Clark: 'We didn't realise just how huge a hit it would become - an anthem played at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. But we resisted all calls by EMI to release it earlier in the sequence of singles from the album Life Thru A Lens. We wanted to ensure that Rob didn't become a one-hit wonder.
'It happens so often, people putting out the first really big hit and having nothing to follow it. Robbie had some great tracks on this album and we wanted to establish the musicality of it all, that this guy was not just a refugee from a boy band. Robbie has never looked back.'
Though the growth graph has shown nary a blip since then, there has been no shortage of events threatening the business plan - which stretches ahead, says Clark, up to two years. 'But it's all reasonably flexible.
For example, we were on tour when he said: "I really want to do a swing album." The tour finished in July and he had the album (Swing When You're Winning) out in October, with all the things that went with it: getting all those great guys playing on it, recording it in America, performing and filming it at the Albert Hall, getting the DVD out, et cetera. That's incredibly fast, and it took a great deal of organisation.
'The results speak for themselves. That was not the plan we had; it was Robbie's decision and we had to react to it, and it worked.'
It was a blow when Williams' songwriting partner Chambers fell out with the trio over money. But his replacement, Stephen Duffy, gelled at once, maintaining Robbie's commercial success and artistic development without missing a beat, affording Clark and Enthoven profound satisfaction.
'Robbie is a creative genius,' says Clark, deadpan. 'His understanding of music is phenomenal. To go from what he was doing with the first three albums and then do Swing, and do it so exquisitely, and to pull off a show at the Albert Hall - that's incredibly brave, the mark of a true gambler. It was such a brilliant thing to have done, David and I were in tears.'
It was almost tears for a different reason when Robbie briefly squired Enthoven's step-daughter, TV presenter Tania Strecker. 'I had to stay out of it. I couldn't really counsel either of them, two people I love very much; I was dad to both,' says Enthoven. 'They've ended up very good friends. If they'd stayed together, that would have been very difficult. (When they ended their relationship) I heaved a sigh of relief.'
Tricky, too, was the issue of Williams' recent successful libel case against the Mirror Group and Northern & Shell, whose publications alleged he'd had sex with a man in a Manchester nightclub toilet. 'There was no basis of truth in the stories,' says Clark. 'We discussed all the ramifications, and with his lawyers: what might happen, what could go wrong. We put all of those in front of him, and he took the decision to take a stand. We all believe the tabloid press goes much too far. We spend a lot of time making sure Rob is protected from the excesses of these people, and it's tough for him.'
Chips in Enthoven: 'He has a good relationship with the gay community - we love Attitude.' He is mindful of how a similar legal victory amounted to a career own goal for Jason Donovan when the singer successfully sued The Face magazine for insinuating that he was gay.
DYNAMICS OF THE EMI DEAL
In October 2002, Robbie Williams re-signed to his record label EMI in a record-breaking and revolutionary multi-platform deal worth £80 million.
The terms of the contract covered not just records but also a share of profits in his tours, books and merchandise.
'It wasn't as much as £80 million, but we're not at liberty to say how much,' says Clark. 'Rob owns his masters personally, and they're licensed directly to EMI.'
At EMI, Robbie will be among the elite of artists who earn about 25% of the dealer price of an album, compared to 15% or so for less commercially successful artists. And he will split 50/50 with his collaborators, Guy Chambers and now Stephen Duffy, the additional 8% share that goes to songwriters.
'In this other pot, the In Good Company, are all the other activities, and EMI paid very handsomely for its share in that company,' adds Clark.
When Williams tours, his earnings from ticket and merchandising sales narrowly exceed record sales, even when these are boosted by back-catalogue sales.
'Though this is taken as a model for the future,' explains Clark, 'it works only for a handful of artists: those where we can put a value to the other pot - touring, sponsorship, merchandise and so on. We can quantify that and put those rights into a company whose value we pretty much know, and so we say: you can have a share and this is what it'll cost you - and it doesn't matter whether it's EMI or the City.
'The deal with EMI was a good one for both sides - it has worked. We know of instances where record companies have demanded this sort of set-up, but with no up-front payment. The record company will say they're investing in the artist by making the record - well, yes, they are. But they do typically take 85% of the income of a record deal, and if they want a share of all this other stuff, there clearly should be some sort of recognition of that.
'Record sales have dropped and there are lots more pressures on record companies to deliver profits and keep up the share price. Whose are the biggest pips they can squeeze? The artists'.
'Rob happens to turn over a huge amount of money, but he only works with half a dozen people in the studio, half a dozen closely on the road, and us - barely 20 people who are his close team. With a lot of artists, the team is even smaller and the turnover is less, and they're quite easy targets for record companies to pick off.'
Adds Enthoven: 'Our philosophy has always been to get the copyrights to reside with the artist. We actually believe that when everything's been recouped, the artists should have control.'