From ents manager to agent extraordinaire, it’s hard to believe that the youthful-looking Steve Zapp has been in the business for quarter of a century…
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As one of the industry's most influential agents turns the big 5-0, IQ speaks to friends, colleagues and the man himself about his remarkable career so far
By Gordon Masson on 17 May 2018
A party on 13 April to celebrate Steve Strange’s 50th birthday marked the reopening of London’s Subterania, which long-time friend Vince Power has resurrected after a 15-year hiatus. Picking a grassroots club as the destination for his landmark birthday party sums up a man who has dedicated more than half his life to the live music business – and who can be found more often than not in small venues scouting for new talent, or introducing promoters to another of the up-and-coming acts on his roster.
For the purposes of this cloak-and-dagger operation, we relied on some of the historic articles that we’ve written in the past about Strange. However, we were able to corner him for an interview for a non-existent profile piece, where he gave us a fascinating insight into how he sees the business developing in the future.
But more on that later. First, here’s a potted history of the birthday boy’s life and career to date…
Born in Lisburn near Belfast on 17 April 1968, Strange was raised in Carrickfergus in nearby County Antrim during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the age of 11, after his cousin took him to see UFO at Ulster Hall in Belfast, Strange’s love of hard rock was born, which saw him devote his youth to the likes of Rush, AC/DC, Kiss, and Def Leppard.
The allure of music also encouraged Strange to become a musician himself and having been introduced to drumming in the Boys’ Brigade youth group, he was able to hone his skills when his father bought him a drum kit at the age of 12, leading to jam sessions with friends at school.
“I was intrigued by it – how tours were routed, why some bands played clubs not halls, etc. It was very exciting.”
His first band, Slack Alice, didn’t reach the heights its members had hoped for, so Strange found himself sitting behind the drums for a couple of cover bands before becoming part of the line-up for popular Belfast outfit No Hot Ashes in 1986. A record deal with GWR, thanks in no small part to Strange’s powers of persuasion, saw the band move to London a year later to record a debut album that, unfortunately, failed to hit the shops after the label’s distribution arm, Pie Records, went bust.
In need of income, Strange accepted an offer from Jon Vyner to join the Bron Agency and book some gigs. “I used to do [that] anyway – it was always left to the drummer to chase support tours and gigs,” Strange told IQ in 2009. Tapping up GWR’s Doug Smith to secure his acts occasional support slots with the likes of Motörhead and Girlschool, Strange worked tirelessly, making himself known around London’s gig circuit, making friends with bands and offering to book shows. “I did a lot of analysing about how the business worked, and it was a steep learning curve. I was intrigued by it – how tours were routed, why some bands played clubs not halls, etc. It was very exciting.”
A strange business
Strange’s initial steps into the business side of live music involved him hopping from agency to agency. From Bron he joined Adam Parsons’ Big Rock Inc., and from there he switched to Prestige Artists, working with Clive Underhill- Smith and Rob Hallett. Disenchanted with the acts he was asked to book, Strange made the decision to move back to Northern Ireland, where, in 1992, he found a job at The Limelight and spent a year on the other side of the fence promoting shows with Eamonn McCann.
That move led to one of Strange’s biggest breaks, when a trio of school kids in a band called Ash started relentlessly hassling him for support slots in the venue. The band’s bass player, Mark Hamilton, recalls that Strange’s office in the Limelight doubled as the cloakroom at the weekend: “You had to push past the rails where the coats were to get to Steve’s desk at the back.” The teenagers’ tenacity impressed Strange enough to give the band slots supporting the likes of Elastica, Babes in Toyland, and Ride, and as the fan-base began to grow, he accepted an offer from Ash manager Stephen Taverner to become the band’s agent, and soon found himself working with Rob Challice at Forward Artist Booking.
Adding acts to his roster, Strange soon got itchy feet again and felt the need to move to a bigger agency: John Giddings’ Solo.
Strange’s office in the Limelight doubled as the cloakroom at the weekend: “You had to push past the rails where the coats were to get to Steve’s desk at the back”
The next rung of the ladder saw Strange move to Fair Warning/Wasted Talent where Ian Huffam and Jeff Craft took him under their wings. “It just felt like the right place to go,” says Strange. “It was much more a demographically suited agency for me.” Other colleagues at that company, which would later morph into Helter Skelter, were Ian Flukes, John Jackson, Pete Nash, Paul Bolton, Jim Morewood, Emma Banks, Mike Greek, Ian Sales, Paul Franklin and Nigel Hassler.
That career move coincided with Strange’s move into the big time. Within months of settling into his new environment, he was invited by Interscope Records’ label head Martin Kierszenbaum and A&R chief Don Robinson to take a look at some of the acts they were developing.
“I’ve always listened to American music, and a lot of the bands I liked when I was younger were from the United States,” says Strange. “So I started to sign bands from the US or who were America-based, and I spent a lot of time building relationships with people who work in the American business. My relationship with Interscope, for instance, on the back of representing Smash Mouth, led to Martin and Don putting Eminem on my radar before there was even a record released. I remember hearing ‘My Name Is’ before it had even gone to radio and just being blown away. So I’ve been very fortunate to work with Eminem for a long time now.”
While that introduction to Eminem may have been a piece of good fortune, the circumstances owe everything to Steve Strange’s philosophy when it comes to making a mark in the North American music sector.
Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 77, or subscribe to the magazine here