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Respect: Tony Wilson the Pied Piper

December 1, 2007
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Remix gives respect to music-industry icon, Tony Wilson

When Tony Wilson passed away on August 10, 2007, it marked the end of an era. Wilson wasn't just the man who first presented some of contemporary music's most influential acts, but he was also one of the most charismatic, unorthodox and visionary personas in the music industry. From his beginnings as a news reporter in Manchester, England, to his final project — the “In the City” music conference — Wilson spent his life pushing undiscovered bands and igniting new global trends. It's not a bold statement to say that without his influence, the acid-house genre and bands such as New Order, Happy Mondays and the Chemical Brothers might never have existed.

Although most associated with the music industry, Wilson started his career in 1973 as a newscaster for Granada television. While he did present news pieces of varying topics, his most notable role was host of the music program So It Goes from 1976-1977. The show was famous for featuring the budding punk-rock scene and live performances from the likes of The Clash, The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols' first live television appearance.

Already involved in BREAKing new bands through his television show, Wilson teamed with partners Alan Erasmus, graphic designer Peter Saville and producer Martin Hannett to launch Factory Records in January 1978. The label was named after a Factory club night that launched earlier in 1977 and featured frequent performances from the likes of the Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division. Run out of Erasmus' home, Factory Records' initial release came in 1979 and was an EP of music from acts who played at the club.

After several single releases, the label's first LP, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, was released in June 1979. After the tragic death of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980, the band's track “Love Will Tear Us Apart” became the first Factory Records track to reach the UK Top 20. With guidance from Wilson and the Factory Records team, New Order arose from Joy Division and — in addition to producing several hit records and the all-time best-selling 12-inch, “Blue Monday” — they went on to bankroll a brand-new Manchester club called The Haçienda. The club opened in May 1982, and in short time became the launching pad for the indie-rock, techno and acid-house genres affectionately known as the “Madchester” scene. With The Haçienda's help, artists including the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, 808 State, the Charlatans UK and A Guy Called Gerald, as well as acid-house DJs Mike Pickering and Jon Da Silva took to the limelight.

But one of the drawbacks of helping to launch the acid-house scene was the influx of ecstasy that came with it. Despite holding status as one of the most important shrines for discovering new music, the club would lose enormous amounts of money due to clubbers' preferences for drugs over alcohol at the bar, and it eventually closed in 1997. Yet the club's influence can still be felt with many of today's top performers, including the Chemical Brothers, who told Remix that they attended Manchester University specifically so they could visit The Haçienda every weekend.

One of the most unique aspects about Wilson and Factory Records is that in the battle between money and art, he always made sure that the art won out. The talents of Peter Saville and Martin Hannett were utilized to give each Factory artist and release a particular image, even if the costs far-outweighed reasonable sales expectations. As a result, Wilson never made a great deal of money from Factory or The Haçienda, despite their popularity and cultural significance.

One example of a business decision gone bad was Factory's early practice of not requiring their artists to sign contracts. This famously killed an acquisition deal between Factory and London Records when it was discovered that New Order owned their own catalog and not the label. Factory officially declared bankruptcy in 1992, and many of its acts eventually signed with London. In 2002, Michael Winterbottom's film, 24 Hour Party People, was released as a dramatization of the entire Manchester scene, with Wilson as the main character.

Despite the demise of Factory Records, Wilson never gave up on his passion to BREAK new and exciting acts. Founded in 1992 by Yvette Livesey and Tony Wilson, “In the City” has become Manchester, England's version of CMJ Music Marathon and SXSW. Earlier in 2007, “In the City” expanded to New York City for its first conference and showcase on North American shores.

Right up until his death, Wilson was pushing what he thought to be next best thing: this time, young UK-based post-hardcore band Enter Shikari. “Tony loved the band and was about to play Enter Shikari's new music video on his cable show,” says Enter Shikari's manager, Ian Johnson. “When he introduced it, he started by saying, ‘I've had the pleasure of sitting in front of you and saying, “Ladies and gentleman, here's the Sex Pistols,” or, “Ladies and gentleman, here's Joy Division.” Now I'd like to say to you, “Ladies and gentleman, here's Enter Shikari.”’ For me, that's like the biggest compliment you can be paid by someone who was there and played such a massive part in some of the most amazing bands ever.”

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