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Legendary music producer explains how he signed Bob Marley and U2

·3 min read

On a recent episode of Influencers with Yahoo Finance’s Editor-in-Chief, Andy Serwer, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records explained how he signed some of the world’s most successful stars.

“You have an instinct really, of how you feel basically what they are like, and you get a feel for them,” Blackwell told Yahoo Finance.

Blackwell, who recently released a memoir called “The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond,” grew up in Jamaica, where he developed a lifelong affinity for Rastafari culture. In 1958, Blackwell started Island Records, the multinational record label now owned by Universal Music Group.

Around a decade later, a mutual friend introduced him to Bob Marley. The two connected instantly, according to reporting by The New York Post, marking the beginning of a fruitful partnership.

Blackwell says he often signed artists with whom he felt a strong personal connection.

“I sort of operate on my instinct; you know. That means you're sort of really getting a feel for what you feel that artist is interested in and what they're about,” Blackwell remarked. “If you feel you're on the same track or you’re on different odds — and it's all those elements, which are important that you need to get a feel, is that something that you're going to be able to work with and get along with and have pretty much the same direction.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 23: Founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell speak onstage at Island Records 60th Anniversary at the GRAMMY Museum on November 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 23: Founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell speak onstage at Island Records 60th Anniversary at the GRAMMY Museum on November 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Blackwell went on to produce Marley's record “Catch a Fire," in addition to eight more studio albums. When The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later inducted Blackwell in 2001, they called him “the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music.”

In 1980, Blackwell met and signed the band U2, despite being initially underwhelmed by their music. He believed in the group’s potential and was impressed with their manager, Paul McGuiness.

“They had a great manager,” Blackwell remembered. “It's really important that you that you have a manager who really you're in sync with.”

Blackwell’s intuition proved spot on.

U2 reached international stardom with their album Joshua Tree in 1987. McGuiness later augmented the band's critical success with successful business strategies, including branded iPods and sponsorships from BlackBerry. Blackwell says talented managers often played a pivotal role in his decision to sign a musician or group.

(EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE, PREMIUM PRICING APPLIES) U2 band members Larry Mullen Jr., The Edge, Bono, band manager Paul McGuinness, Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell, and Adam Clayton ***Exclusive*** (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)
U2 band members Larry Mullen Jr., The Edge, Bono, band manager Paul McGuinness, Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell, and Adam Clayton ***Exclusive*** (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

“If they had somebody who was a really good manager, that was always a key and important thing, because my role was to work with them to pick the music in a way to, in some cases, be involved a bit with the music,” he asserted. “But the manager was somebody who really needed to be responsible for the artists life in a way in business.”

Blackwell resigned from Island Records in 1997. Today, he runs Island Outpost, a collection of Jamaica luxury hotels and villas including Goldeneye, the former home of Ian Fleming and birthplace of James Bond.

Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.

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