New Order's Rob Gretton: What makes a good band manager?

By Chris Long
BBC News

image copyrightkevin cummins
image captionGretton (second from right) managed Joy Division and New Order until his death in 1999

Behind successful bands, there often lies a great manager. The Sex Pistols had Malcolm McLaren, The Beatles had Brian Epstein and Joy Division and New Order had Rob Gretton. Now a scholarship is being launched in his name to help those following in his footsteps. But what made Gretton a good manager?

Gretton was New Order's "designated grown-up, smarter older brother and mate whose opinion you respected", according to the band's drummer Stephen Morris.

He had a "unique" style of management, adds Rebecca Boulton, his assistant who took over the job following his untimely death in 1999.

"His approach was to be a part of the band and take care of everything that wasn't the making music part, although even then he had a very good ear and was involved with how a record should sound.

"He was very devoted to his bands, a champion of their music and his belief in them outweighed everything else."

For his elder brother John, Rob had the sort of qualities that any successful music manager would need.

"He had an element of luck, great determination, didn't mind hard work and had a cool vision.

"He always made friends easily and was slightly obsessive about his causes."

His widow Lesley Gilbert agrees and says Gretton showed something as a novice manager with Joy Division that is necessary for any band supremo.

"He was vitally important to the success of Joy Division [as] he met them at a time they were a bit directionless and struggling for recognition.

"He had a very clear vision of how things should be and how this could be achieved."

Band manager, club owner, label boss

image copyrightKevin Cummins
image captionGretton began by DJing and promoting bands in and around Wythenshawe
  • Rob Gretton was born on 15 January 1953 and grew up in Wythenshawe as both a music and Manchester City fan
  • He DJed at Rafters in the late 1970s while working as a baggage handler at Manchester Airport, where he first met the members of Joy Division
  • He went on to manage the band - and subsequently New Order - for 21 years and helped set up Factory Records. He also had the idea for the Hacienda nightclub
  • After the demise of Factory, he set up his own labels, Rob's Records and Pleasure Records, which saw him work with Sub Sub, Mr Scruff and more
  • He died on 15 May 1999. More than 1,000 mourners attended his Requiem Mass

Gretton's successes were not confined to the two bands he managed. As well as being a partner in Manchester's legendary Factory Records, he also went on to run record labels of his own and had the initial idea for the famous Hacienda nightclub.

For Morris, the reason behind Gretton's success is one that should be in the forefront of any new manager's mind.

"The idea of making as much money as possible was not his prime motivation. Being cool and staying credible were much higher on his agenda.

"Of course making a profit was a necessity to achieve that goal [but] Rob... viewed success on much broader terms than that."

Dave Rofe, who manages Doves, Jimi Goodwin and Cherry Ghost, shared an office with Gretton for seven years and agrees that point is an important one.

"He always approached things from a strong moral standpoint and not primarily a fiscal one.

"There's a lot of people who still work in and around the business who apply his ethics to what they do today."

Gretton's former assistant, Boulton, agrees.

"He was very good at recognising talent and trusting individuals," she said. "One thing that has never changed in the music industry is the need and ability to build good relationships and work with people, and that was something Rob was an expert in."

Joy Division and New Order

  • Formed as Warsaw in 1976 by Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, Joy Division released two albums on Factory Records
  • The second album Closer was released after Curtis took his own life in 1980
  • Sumner, Morris and Hook continued as New Order with the addition of Gillian Gilbert and released eight albums before splitting in 2007
  • The band famously recorded the England World Cup song World In Motion in 1990
  • New Order reformed in 2011 without the involvement of Hook and have since released a further album

One of Factory Records' co-founders, Peter Saville, admits he was "not easy" to work with but remembers Gretton's "remarkable understanding, patience and resilience in making [our relationship] work".

For him, Gretton's great talent was an ability to "steer things discreetly".

"His management approach seemed to be one of letting things resolve by natural selection [and using] inevitability as a strategy.

"But he was a catalyst for progress, deftly handling the transition from Joy Division to New Order and creatively influencing the convergence of rock and dance."

While the income streams for artists have diversified since Gretton's day, much of the day-to-day job has not really changed.

"[I still deal with] translating the band's aspirations into reality, talking to the label or publishers, assembling a decent crew to help things run smoothly," says Rofe.

image copyrightkevin cummins
image captionStephen Morris says Gretton usually had an opinion on their songs

For Morris, that was what made Gretton both Joy Division and New Order's "fifth member", as he was not only handling the financial side of things but also helping in the creative process.

He says Gretton also had an interesting idea about how his acts could achieve longevity.

"One of his ideas was that the band should 'never peak'. I took that to mean that things should keep growing as opposed to cashing in while the going was good.

"Apart from the fact he didn't play an instrument, I didn't think of him as being any different to the rest of us. Rob was one of us, the designated grown up, the smarter older brother, a strong personality [and] a mate whose opinion you respected.

"Rob was very good at spotting a band's potential - us, The Smiths, The Mondays, Doves... he knew they were going to be big.

But he also had a steely determination and belief that success did not have to mean concession - or moving south.

"He believed that you shouldn't have to go to London to achieve success and you should do things on your own terms without compromising."

The inaugural Rob Gretton Music Business Scholarship course will begin in January at Manchester Midi School.

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