Only in exceptional cases do the names of band managers, club owners, or producers go down in history. Tony Wilson is that exception three times over. “I used to say some people make money and some make history,” Tony Wilson said along with, “I'm the one person in this industry who famously has never made any money.” This industry being the music industry and Wilson’s impact on it is palpable still. Indeed, after Tony Wilson passed away in 2007, his will revealed an estate valued at less than £484,747 after tax – and that included his city center apartment. But Tony Wilson ran business like he ran his life: chasing potential instead of chasing pounds. And there’s no question that he changed music history, especially for Manchester, England.
Tony Wilson was born in Salford, Lancashire. He was a sharp kid, perhaps bordering on his now legendary pretentiousness even then. Wilson had wanted to become a nuclear physicist, but when he saw Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon he fell in love with language and literature. So he went on to pursue an English degree at Jesus College, Cambridge. After graduation he got a job at Granada Television and moved to Manchester, where he hosted Granada’s music and culture program So It Goes along with his very own What’s On. It was this start at a regional station culture events program that Tony Wilson got involved in the UK post-punk scene. The sharp kid became Mr. Manchester, the man with a sharp ear for the next big thing. Before long, Wilson was a co-founder of the legendary Factory Records (Joy Division’s label), a manager to what was once called the most famous nightclub in the world, and journalist, band manager, radio presenter, TV show host, and a journalist.
Wilson used his television programs to play music no one else was playing at the time. In 1976 he was one of 42 people in the audience at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester who came to The Sex Pistols. It was a galvanizing experience for everyone in the audience and an experience Wilson called “nothing short of an epiphany.” The concert spurred a huge outpouring of music from audience members who’d go on to form their own bands. Members from the Buzzcocks, the Smiths, Joy Division, Magazine, Fall, and Simply Red were all in attendance. Other viewers jumped into the music business as writers or managers. It seems no one standing before The Sex Pistols last night left unaffected. Everyone saw it for what is was – the start of a music revolution and took up arms to join the fight. Wilson’s reaction was to immediately book The Sex Pistols for a performance on So It Goes. As a journalist, Wilson was documenting this music revolution from its earliest start, as a new strand of British punk raged through England. Many people saw artists like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello, and Joy Division for the first time on So It Goes.
Arguably, Wilson’s television platform alone helped the fire of British post-punk to spread, but Tony Wilson was far more involved in the music scene than just that. He opened the famous Haçienda nightclub, once called the most famous club in the world by Newsweek. Bands like The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen and Divine all played at the Haçienda in its prime. On top of being a place for drugs, punk, and wild parties that explored the meaning of post-punk, Haçienda (like Wilson’s televion shows) gave underplayed and misunderstood bands at the time an outlet. It’s one of many projects Wilson started that, as they say, “put Manchester on the map.”
Wilson was also co-founder and manager of the independent record label Factory Records. The label began in 1978 and had held artists Joy Division (and later, New Order), The Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, Northside, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark under its moniker. As a label and as a business, Factory Records was unique in many ways. Everything even remotely associated with the label was given a catalogue number (in the form of FAC or FACT, followed by a number) - every album, every single, and everything after and in between. The catalogue numbers reflected every significant part of the Factory Record years, including the famous Haçienda night club (FAC 51), the club cat (FAC 191), a hairdressing salon (FAC 98), a bet between Wilson and Joy Division manager Rob Gretton (FAC 253), and even the coffin of the late Tony Wilson himself (FAC 501).
But perhaps the most striking aspect of Factory Records is how wonderfully terrible the business was run. Wilson and his team made it a priority throughout their careers to be first and foremost in the business of making and promoting great music and second, in the business of making money. The label famously avoided having legitimate contracts and preferred gentleman’s agreements or loose terms that favored the musicians’ needs signed in blood. Wilson himself later stated, “As Peter Saville once said, in the entire fourteen years of Factory not one decision was ever taken, EVER with an eye to profit. And that was entirely true actually! ... There was a contract and the contract said we own nothing, the musicians own everything.” Indeed, Factory Records did own nothing of their bands works. Bands paid 50% of publishing costs and received 50% of the profit. In fact, one of their most successful albums, New Order’s Blue Monday, became the top selling 12” single in British history, but the band and label ended up losing thousands (Lynskey) (Who The Hell Does Anthony H Wilson Think He Is?)because the stunning album design was so expensive.
Ultimately these kind of business decisions drove Factory Records and Haçienda into the ground, because unfortunately, businesses take more than ideals to survive. The legacy that all of Wilson’s projects left behind is proof that great music is inevitably more powerful than the financial returns it yields. Both music and money pass hands. We exchange them, trade them, and accumulate them. At times, they sustain us. But only one makes history.
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Johnson, Craig. "Tony Wilson: F4 Records: Fourth Time Lucky." Spike Magazine 1 May 2005.
"Legendary Hacienda Club Comes to a Close." CNN 8 January 2001.
Lynskey, Dorian. "A Fitting Headstone for Tony Wilson's Grave." The Guardian 26 October 2010.
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"Obituary: Tony Wilson." BBC 10 August 2007.
O'Hagan, Sean. "It Was the Best Party... Ever." The Guardian 3 March 2002.
Osuh, Chris. "Tony Wilson's Will Revealed." Manchester Evening News 24 March 2008.
Taylor, Paul. "Wilson Put City on the Map." Manchester Evening News 10 August 2007.
"Who The Hell Does Anthony H Wilson Think He Is?" Q Magazine February 1992.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.